Cuando siento el sol lejano
Y el viento baila en la hierba,
Entonces te escucho reír.
Cuando las olas tocan la orilla,
Y veo estrellas imposibles,
Entonces te escucho reír.
(When I feel the distant sun
And the wind dances in the grass,
Then I hear you laughing.
When the waves touch the shore
And I see impossible stars
Then I hear you laughing.)
Héctor awoke with music in his head.
There was a time in his life when that had been unremarkable. There always seemed to be some tune jangling around in his skull, and often the hardest part of coming out of a dream was trying to figure out if he'd heard the song before, or if it was just one of those pretty little gifts that sometimes came out of the ether. If it turned out to be the latter, he'd rush to his desk and try to catch the melody before it disappeared. Then the work would start -- measuring out the counts, getting the right notation to share it, and expanding beyond the melody into a full song. It was a strange, but well-used part of his brain -- half inspiration, half mathematics.
He'd been able to improvise as well. Working on the street, improvisation had often been a more lucrative skill than songwriting, and it was always fun. But he'd found, once he'd learned how to read and write music, that his improvisations had also gotten better, because he'd understood what he was doing.
He had loved everything about music back then, from discovering the sound of some new instrument to writing directions on how exactly each song sounded inside his head. It had seemed almost magical to bring songs out of the air and make them tangible. He had always been a doodler as well; most of his early lyric drafts were surrounded by dancing figures that at least vaguely resembled whoever he was drawing (usually Imelda, until Coco was born). The idea that thoughts and images could form from ink on paper had been wonderful. He'd never understood the disdain that some musicians had for the written line. The guitar had been his best instrument, and his voice had been his first… but his pen had been an instrument, too, and it sang to him as clearly as any other.
When he'd first found himself in the land of the dead, the music had still been playing for him. Coco's song most of all, but also new things… sad songs, mostly, about Imelda and Coco and Santa Cecilia. He'd never particularly enjoyed city life, and mainly considered it an unavoidable nuisance even now. Still, he hadn't ever thought of himself as especially a creature of his home town until he left it, and even then, it was simply an idea he had of where he happened to live with his family. But when he'd first arrived here, and realized he would never see his home again, suddenly every brick of Santa Cecilia had been dear to him, and he could remember the details of the cracked stucco on the back of the theater and the exact shade of the sky at sunset. It had haunted him, made him weak every time the memories rolled over him. These weren't like gentle waves washing through his mind. They were more like unstoppable lava, crushing and burning him at the same time.
He could smell the bakery near the house, and hear the sound of shoes tapping out rhythms on the cobblestones. He could hear the church bell and feel the warm evening breeze. Most of all, he could feel everything about his home -- the old shoemaker's shack that he and Imelda had turned into a proper house, the way the sun came through the windows, the way their voices rang against the ceiling. He remembered the cracks in the paint and the spider web that always seemed to form over the cupboards in the workshop. He remembered Coco's room, and the way all of the little potions Imelda used to keep her clean smelled. He remembered the exact texture of Imelda's skin (in point of fact, he still did, though that skin had not existed for decades), and the sound of Coco's laughter when he clowned for her.
It was all one thing… his wife, his daughter, his home. And he'd written incessantly about it at first. He hadn't shared the songs with anyone. He'd had a keen sense, always, of the division between public and private. But the songs had kept coming and he'd written all of them down. He didn't know where they were now, unless Ernesto had found some way to steal them. As the hovels he'd lived in became smaller and smaller, as Coco and Imelda thought of him less, the things he'd once had seemed to scatter into nothing. Maybe they would come back now, as he gained strength. Or maybe they were lost forever. He just didn't know.
He'd played in the square with Gustavo for a few years, and it had been there he'd first discovered that Ernesto had taken his songs. He'd been noodling "Only A Song," sitting around Marigold Grand Central Station after Mexico had joined the second world war, watching the daily new arrivals for anyone he knew. And someone had said, "Hey, they greet us with de la Cruz songs here!"
Héctor hadn't corrected the people coming over. They were disoriented enough without questioning someone who'd become a hero. But he got the story, bit by bit. That was when the melodies started to go away. It had been a slow process, and he hadn't noticed at first. Ernesto himself had arrived only a few months after Héctor had started putting the pieces together, and Héctor had thought, at first, that he would offer some easy explanation, and correct people himself, but it never happened. He never even responded to Héctor's overtures of friendship. Somewhere inside of him, a little ember of anger started to burn. When he'd realized with disgust that the bombastic tune everyone seemed to associate with de la Cruz was Coco's lullaby -- a song he'd explicitly refused to let Ernesto use, despite much pleading after he'd heard it in one hotel room after another -- the ember had flared up into real spark, and it had started eating away at the music. He'd stopped writing by the mid-fifties. It had been slowing down for so long that he hadn't noticed, not really, until… well, really, until Miguel had come, and he realized he had nothing new to share.
Time had a way of getting away here.
He hadn't abandoned music entirely, not then. He didn't know where his guitar had come from. Maybe Coco remembered him well enough that he was still able to create the thing he needed. Certainly, it had never been on an ofrenda. He had never failed to show up at the bridge on Día de Muertos, and it had never been open for him. But it was there, and he'd played it for years. He played for himself on long, lonely days. And he played with Gustavo, and sometimes Chicharron. He avoided the plaza that Ernesto was building, at least until there was nothing left for him except giving tours, but there were other plazas, and people loved to hear a familiar song.
Then he had looked up one day, in the middle of a ribald tune about a girl named Verónica and the many ways she played her harmónica, and he'd seen Imelda. There had been no moment of wondering if it was really her. He'd gotten very good at reading skeletal faces and seeing them for who they had been, and even if he hadn't, it was Imelda.
For a moment, they had looked at each other. She was only a few feet away. She was dressed in the nightgown she'd died in that day. She hadn't found her things yet. She had a white streak her hair, but it did nothing to detract from her beauty. If anything, it enhanced it. The markings on her bones were in shades of purple, matching the ribbon that someone, most likely Coco, had tied lovingly into her hair.
"Imelda," he'd said, and he'd reached out to her.
She'd pulled her arm out of his reach with a look of pure loathing. "I should have known I'd find you with an audience, playing your stupid songs. I see you're still laughing."
And she had disappeared.
He'd handed his guitar to Cheech. It wasn't the same one he'd had later. By then, neither of them could have thought an instrument into being. All of his things were taken from other people's unneeded offerings at the end. He didn't know what happened to that guitar, any more than he knew where it had come from in the first place. Maybe it had disappeared in a flurry of golden dust, like everything else.
He'd never gone looking for it. He'd understood everything in the instant he saw Imelda. In all the years he'd been here, all the years he'd missed her, it had never crossed his mind that she didn't even know he was dead. But the look on her face when she'd seen him was unmistakable. She thought he'd just left her for his career, and never bothered coming back. He hadn't been angry when she turned him away. He'd been too heartbroken and humiliated to be angry. He had left, after all, and was she really wrong that it had been an abandonment, an abdication of his responsibilities? Hadn't he hurt her, and left her alone just to go chasing after Ernesto's dreams? He understood the world as she'd seen it for her entire life, and he was ashamed.
That was when he'd sworn off music. It had been an attempt to prove himself to her. It had never worked.
And now he was with her again, and with Coco. And the music was back as well. He wasn't sure if he should tell her or not.
She decided the question when he arrived at the workshop by saying, without fanfare, "So, what's the song?"
He frowned. "I… I'm not sure."
"You were humming in your sleep. I forgot you did that."
"And you're… okay with it?"
She smiled. "It sounded pretty."
"I'm not sure it's mine," he said.
She nodded without comment. She knew the process. "Why not go write what you can? I'll see you at lunch."
He didn't say Te quiero and neither did she, but it was still there. He touched her face and she smiled, then he went to the room on the second floor that had started to generate instruments here and there, and had a simple desk. When he checked the desk drawers, he wasn't surprised to find a pen and some staff paper. All he knew for sure was that it started with a single high, soft note. Flute? Probably. A high, lonely flute. Then the guitar, soft in the background.
And the voice. The voice was…
"Miguel," he whispered, recognizing it even as it began to sing in his mind. He smiled broadly. "This is you, isn't it, chamaco?"
He looked up. Coco was in the doorway, in her slippers and nightgown. Imelda was making her a new dress, but she seemed largely uninterested in it. She'd been in slippers and a nightgown for a very long time.
"Good morning," he said, and got up to hug her. He hadn't gotten tired of it yet. He didn't think he'd get tired of hugging and kissing his daughter for a very long time, and she didn't seem tired of receiving hugs and kisses.
"Mamá said you were in here," she said. "Are you writing something new? She said you were humming."
"I don't think so," Héctor told her. "I think it's Miguel. I think he's started composing."
"Is it normal to know that?"
"How can we know what's normal? What happened to him has never happened before."
"No one else was ever cursed?"
"Not that way." Héctor listened for more of the song, but it didn't come. Miguel hadn't gotten very far. "Thinking of that, I should find out how to make sure the guitar is mine, and I can hand it down to Miguel. As much as I'd like to see him again, it's probably better if he doesn’t get himself cursed by deciding to get some practice in on Día de Muertos."
"I think they're working on that back in Santa Cecilia." Coco sat down, very carefully. "I didn't know much of what was going on at the end. But I did hear Enrique on the phone, arguing with someone about the guitar. He kept saying his grandmother was dying and he was not going to give her father's guitar back when it was helping her, and… well, it was a bit of a fight. Hopefully, they'll get that settled." She smiled. "Hopefully, no one will find out that he and I had been breaking into the mausoleum for years to keep the thing in tune. I don't think that would go over well."
Héctor looked at her, surprised. "When did you learn to tune a guitar?"
"I taught myself. I found an old pitch pipe that Mamá missed in the general purge, at least until I could do it by ear. The rest is physics." She shrugged. "I hated seeing your guitar rotting on the wall of a tomb. It needed to sing."
"Even if I was dead?" He took her hand. "Did you know?"
"I knew. I always knew. You would have come home otherwise."
"I'd have thought that Ernesto would have come back and told you how he heroically tried to save me, but just couldn't do it."
"He didn't come back until I wrote to him and he thought I was about to blow his cover. Then he threatened to sue us if we ever breathed a word about where the songs came from. Well, he threatened that the studio would sue us. He, of course, had no choice in the matter." She crossed her arms and looked out the window at the soaring heights of the city beyond. A tram passed the window across the street. "I should have put your photo up," she said. "I didn't believe. In this." She pointed vaguely at the things around her. "I didn't believe anything would happen. I thought you were already gone."
"No, don't make me stop. All right? I need to say it, Papá. I didn't believe, and I hurt you. I didn't mean to, but I did. I should have made them listen to your stories a long time before I did. I shouldn't have let things go so far."
Héctor wanted to ask how things had gotten so out of hand, why Elena had carried on Imelda's rule with even more passion than Imelda had… but he didn't. Maybe he could ask Victoria. She didn't seem to have any need to apologize to him over and over. Instead, he just squeezed Coco's hand and said, "It's all right, mija. It ended up right." He let go and held up his hand. "When Miguel came here, I was falling apart so much that my hands could walk around on their own. Now? It takes quite a hit to break me apart. When you remembered, I… I knit back together. I don't rattle anymore. I just… it's like being whole again. You fixed it, Coco. You saved me."
"Miguel did. I'd almost let go."
"You both did. Okay?"
She looked like she might go on, but in the end, she just smiled and nodded. "All right, Papá." She looked at the staff paper, where all Héctor had managed to transcribe before realizing that this wasn't his song was whole note with a crescendo. "So what is Miguelito writing?"
"I only got one line in my head." Héctor pulled out his guitar and played the opening as well as he could remember, then sang, "Dirás que es raro que lo me pasó." He shrugged. "That's all I heard. I think it's about what happened here. I mean, it's pretty raro, isn't it?"
"That it is." Coco looked at the empty staff paper. "Do you think you could send a line back in his dreams?"
"Maybe. I don't how, but I feel like it could be done. But I won't. Miguel is doing fine on his own. And this will be his."
"That's fair." She sat down across from him. "But in all truth, Papá… if we can find a way to let him know you're all right, I think it would set his mind at ease."
"Well, I can tell you that it doesn't work to try and sneak across the bridge."
"Is the bridge even there?"
"The big one, only on Día de Muertos. But every time someone passes, there's a little one. You remember."
"It disappeared very quickly."
"All I really remember is that one minute, I was having trouble breathing. Elena kept saying, 'It's all right, Mamá.' And Miguel was playing, and Gloria was holding my pictures against my hand." She gestured at the photos that she'd tacked up to the wall, showing all of the living family. Miguel grinned out from the center one, sitting on her lap when he was small. "And then I was here, and everyone was waiting. I was actually surprised, no matter what Miguel told me."
"I'd never given it any thought at all. At the time I died, I still thought I'd live forever."
"I never believed that. Especially not after I lost Victoria." She shook her head. "That must have been a busy day here. The earthquake got more than five thousand souls. But I could only care about one. She shouldn't even have been in the capital. It was just a stupid errand."
Héctor reached over and took her hand again. "She's back with you now," he said.
"Just like Elena always said she would be." Coco gave a little shudder, like she was shaking cobwebs off her bones. "So what are you going to write?"
"I don't know." Héctor picked up the non-descript guitar that had shown up in the broom closet not long after he'd gotten here, and picked out a light melody on the upper strings. "You think I should write Mamá a song? You think she'd like that?"
"I think she's hoping for it, but she'll never admit it."
"That's my Imelda."
"She always was. Just for the record."
"I know." He played a little more, then said, "I don't know what I want to write."
"You could try forgiving her."
Héctor put his hands in the air and shook them playfully. "I'm not angry! Why do the two of you not believe me?"
Coco caught one of his hands. She was smiling, but serious. "Papá, maybe it's not about what you feel about what happened. Maybe it's about what she feels."
"And what you feel?"
Feeling a bit slow, Héctor took a breath and said, "I forgive you for not putting up my photo, if you think you need it."
"I do need it."
"And… do you forgive me?"
"Yes. I forgive you for leaving." She smiled. "That was easy. See?"
It wasn't, of course. Héctor had no desire to think about Coco holding his picture in a drawer for a hundred years, forty of them after Imelda was no longer there to be hurt by it. He had no desire to think of Imelda shaming him over and over. He was too thankful to have them back. And it was real gratitude, not anything he was faking. He was the one who'd walked away. They'd owed him nothing.
Coco stood up, then leaned over and kissed Héctor's head, just as she had when she'd been small. "Get back to work, then. Write Mamá a forgiving song."
Héctor stared at the staff paper with some trepidation. "You're not going to ask me to write one for Tío Nesto next, are you?"
"Not unless he really begs your forgiveness, and even then, that one's up to you. I wouldn't do it, personally. And I wouldn't tell Mamá if you do." She smiled and left.
Héctor stared for a long time at the paper, not even sure where to start. He could think of a million songs asking for forgiveness, but he couldn't remember a single one about giving it. Especially when the person offering forgiveness had no right to be angry in the first place.
He looked at the photos on the wall, a tiny ofrenda for the living. Miguel looked at him blindly from the paper. Héctor remembered him weeping, just before they'd sent him back, because he'd lost the damned picture when Ernesto had thrown him from the building. All sorts of people, begging forgiveness for things that weren't their fault. Héctor had nearly gotten him killed, and the more he thought about it, the more he thought that picture might not even have been able to make the crossing. There had been a real picture, of course. He'd nearly forgotten it when he packed up, and he thought Coco would like it. It didn't fit in his pocket, so he'd tucked it inside his shirt. It was against his skin when he died. But what came over… it was as much a ghost as he was. Could Miguel even have carried it out?
That had been a dangerous and nasty mistake, putting Miguel in the reach of a man who'd already tried to kill him once, and for what?
"I'm sorry, chamaco," he said. "Maybe you can help me out with a forgiveness song."
But nothing came to him.
He tried to change topics, but now the idea was haunting him, and he couldn't let go of it. Forgiving. Being forgiven.
No other ideas came.
He sat in the music room without playing or writing for an hour, maybe a bit more, then put his things away and went out into the house. Victoria was taking out a load of shoes for an order, and he asked if he could join her on the trip. She said she'd be glad of the company.