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The Road Home (Coco): Chapter Six - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
The Road Home (Coco): Chapter Six
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five


Chapter Six


No te amo por tu perfección.
No te amo por tu actitud.
No te amo por tu belleza.
Te amo porque eres tú.

I don't love you because you are perfect
I don't love you for things that you do
I don't love you for grace or for beauty
I love you because you are you


The Heirloom Division of the Department of Family Reunions was in one of the top levels of the building, and the window gave a wide, high view of the endless city. (Well, maybe it wasn't endless; there was an ocean one side, but on land, a century of wandering hadn't led Héctor to anything resembling a suburb, let alone a countryside.) He'd never had any reason to be here before, since no one recognized anything as belonging to him. Everything that had been in the house had been in Imelda's possession, and everything that had been with him on the road, as far as he'd known for most of his death, was lost.

"I never had anything contested," Imelda told him, leaning over nervously. "I don't know what we'll need to do."

Victoria rolled her eyes. "Given that de la Cruz all but admitted to murder in front of thousands of witnesses, I don't think we'll have trouble proving theft."

"Victoria took care of our legal business," Imelda said, with great pride.

"You were a lawyer?" Héctor asked. "I didn't know that."

"I took some public law classes at Benito Juarez. Not quite the same, but I did learn how lawyers think."

A door opened behind the reception desk, and a neat looking woman with gleaming white bones came out. "Héctor Rivera Esposito?" she called.

Héctor stood up, feeling a little shabby in comparison to both his family and this woman. "That's me. This is my wife and my granddaughter. If they're welcome to join us?"

"Yes, of course," the woman said impatiently. "I am Paloma Aguillar Montes. You have an issue with a guitar as I understand it." She turned and led the way into the office without looking back to see that they were following, and was talking before she turned around sat down at her desk. "It's quite the scandal, of course. I wasn't at the Spectacular, but I've heard many people talking about it. So de la Cruz tried to murder your… grandson, was it?"

"Great-great-grandson," Héctor corrected, though he and Imelda, as often as not, just called Miguel a nieto, a grandson. This just seemed like a place to be more… specific.

"He succeeded in murdering my husband," Imelda pointed out. "And stealing the guitar in question, which rightfully belongs to our family."

Beyond the window, Héctor saw two flying alebrijes circle each other playfully in the air. Pepita and Dante. It was reassuring. He hadn't seen them for a while, and wasn't sure where they'd gotten off to. Wherever it was, they were clearly working on Dante's flying skills. He still looked unbalanced and clumsy, but Héctor no longer thought he was about to tumble to the ground.

"There's nothing we can do about crimes in the land of the living," Paloma said brusquely. "If he was not convicted of your murder there, he can't be held guilty of it here. Those are the rules."

"What kind of crazy rule is that?" Imelda stood up and went to the window, and for a moment, Héctor had the idea that she was going to whistle for Pepita to come in here and cause some damage. But she didn't. "Are you saying that there will never be justice for Héctor?"

"I am saying," Paloma went on, unconcerned, "that it is up to the living to extract such justice, because the crime was committed against him when he was living, and when he was in that world. The attack on your descendant here in the land of the dead, though… that, I believe, is going to be prosecuted. And the attempt on your afterlife at the cenote. But it isn't my department."

"The guitar," Héctor prompted. "I just want to make sure it belongs to our family. I want Miguel to have it."

"You can't control who your living family gives it to."

"They will give it to Miguel," Imelda said. "But we need to make sure it doesn't curse him again."

Paloma opened her file. "All right. So de la Cruz told two stories about his ownership of the guitar. The first was that it was found in rubbish heap after having been discarded."

"What?" Héctor asked. "No, of course it wasn't, unless he threw it there after he killed me. Or if he dumped me in a rubbish heap and then robbed me."

"Don't joke about that," Imelda said.

"Who's joking?"

Paloma seemed disinterested in this topic. "The other story, which appeared in a single, unauthorized biography, was that he bought it from a fellow musician who had to leave the country."

Imelda snorted. "That's what he told me became of the songbook."

"What did he tell you about the guitar?" Héctor asked.

"Lies about why you needed money."

"What lies?"

"Lies." She saw him gearing up to press. "You don't need them in your head."

"Imelda, I'm not a child."

She looked away, chastened. "Fine. I don't want them in my head." She turned to Paloma. "Does it make a difference what the lie was if he never told it to anyone else?"

"No. It's a story no one remembers as true, so it has no effect on the ownership of the guitar."

"And the other two stories?" Victoria asked. "They're both false."

Paloma closed her file, and sighed deeply. "You know as well as I do that the rules of this world are the rules of living memory. All but the most gullible seem to have discarded belief that it was found. You see here, how faded this notion is?" She opened a second file folder. This showed the guitar, but it was almost invisible, like a photograph left out in the sun. Beneath it was another picture. "But the idea that he just bought a desirable instrument and made up a story about it? From the looks of this" -- she pulled out a second, very clear image of the guitar -- "people consider this quite properly cynical, and don't question it much."

"So what do we do?"

"Well, if the living can prove that there was no legal sale…"

"How would they do that after so many years?" Imelda asked.

"By proving the murder," Victoria said. "That's it, isn't it? Because he never played that guitar while Papá Héctor was alive, did he?"

"Of course not," Héctor said. "He asked for it once. He said that, as the lead, he should play the finer instrument, but I put my foot down on it, just like I did about the songs." He looked at Imelda apologetically. "I used to sing Coco's song in hotel rooms or backstage, every night at eight-thirty. Ernesto heard it many times. He kept saying how we should spice it up for shows. Maybe if I'd agreed…"

"Oh, no," she said. "Don't start that. It belonged to you and Coco to do what you wanted with. He stole it."

"The point," Victoria said, "was that if the living can prove that he killed you before he showed up with your guitar, then that will change the ownership." She looked at Paloma. "Is that right?"

"Mostly. There will still be people who disagree, but as de la Cruz has no known heirs, no one would have grounds to protest it." She reconsidered. "Maybe the historians. Historians control many artifacts."

"So that's what they could do in the land of the living," Victoria said. "But here…there's something here, isn't there."

"There always is. It's usually what this office does."

"What are we talking about?" Héctor asked.

"De la Cruz can willingly relinquish it."

"What?" Imelda put her hands on her hips and began to pace. "You expect us to beg my husband's murderer to graciously give us what he stole?"

"Can it be compelled?" Victoria asked.

"What he stole in the middle of murder?" Imelda went on. "How is that right?"

For the first time, Paloma looked at least a little alarmed. "I --"

"You tell the people that it is not his to relinquish. He has no right to it in the first place! I won't ask that snake for anything! He has nothing to relinquish. He -- "

Héctor took her hand. "Te amo. But let's talk about this. Let the lady tell us what we need to do."

"Uh… yes." Paloma looked cautiously at Imelda then shuffled her papers pointlessly. "Well, we can set up a hearing. The evidence from the Spectacular can be used as a confession of wrongdoing."

"Maybe we can set him to talking," Victoria suggested. "Didn't you say he wrote a whole movie about murdering you, Papá Héctor?" Héctor nodded. "Well, he apparently likes to brag. Maybe we can set him bragging."

"Y-yes," Paloma stumbled. "Yes, I'll set a date for it. You prepare what you can. Learn what you need to. And…" She looked at Imelda. "Señora, may I suggest that you not lose your temper? The judges don't take kindly to shouting."

Imelda made a frustrated noise, but agreed. They were almost at the main exit when she said, "This is ridiculous. How can he have any claim on it at all?"

"Memories, Mamá Imelda," Victoria said patiently.

"Héctor, I'm so sorry." Imelda pushed the rotating door open and led them out into the strange, weak sunlight of the land of the dead. "I never should have let him intimidate me. Lawsuit! Why did I care about a lawsuit? He had no right to the guitar, or the songs, and if I'd pushed it, maybe…"

"Imelda," Héctor said, "I forgive you for that. Please forgive yourself for it."

She stopped and blinked a few times, then just said, "Thank you. But I can't. I don't have the right, not until I've fixed it." Then she started storming toward the main street below. Héctor and Victoria had to speed up to catch her.

"Where are you going?" he asked her when reached her.

"I don't know."

Victoria ran up. "Let the office handle a hearing," she said.

"I want to do more than that," Imelda said. "I want to do something… anything." She slashed her hand through the air. "I don't want other people to handle it."

"If you do something, you could get in trouble," Victoria said. "I'm just saying. Remember Lorenzo Tiborcia? You lost your temper at him about--"

"--about that shipment of rotted leather he sent, I remember."

"And instead of taking it to the courts, you took it to him, and you ended up having to pay damages."

"You talked me out of most of them, mija."

"By the skin of my teeth. I don't have skin anymore."

Imelda clenched her jaw and stared blindly down an alley.

Héctor put a hand on her shoulder, then looked at Victoria. "Would you mind, mija? I want to talk to your grandmother."

Victoria obviously wanted to continue making a convincing argument, but she'd been raised to respect her elders, even the ones who looked two decades younger than she did. "All right, then. But talk sense to her, Papá Héctor."

She gave Imelda a quick kiss on the cheek, then headed out to the street and got lost in a crowd of people walking toward Ahuitzotl Plaza. Héctor watched until he was sure she wasn't about to double back, then led Imelda into an alley, where she sat down miserably on an old crate. He sat down beside her and smiled. "This is like old times," he said. "Remember that alley behind the theater? Remigio Mireles used to run a dice game back there."

"Those dice were loaded."

"How else was he going to make a living at it?" He took her hand and held it in both of his. "What do you need, Imelda?"

"A hundred years back. Or just one minute. One minute to run after you in the rain and hold you and tell you that I loved you, instead of throwing… whatever it was I threw."

"You threw something at me?"

"It might have been my shoe. Or a handful of mud. You didn't notice?"

"I was trying to be brave and not look over my shoulder. I want a minute to look over my shoulder. I don't think I'd have been able to go if I had." He pulled her hand up and kissed it. "But we can't have that minute, either of us. We have to keep going forward."

She took her hand away and slipped her arms around him. "I can't even love you properly here. Do you know how much I want -- "

"Yes." He smiled. "We could take a few days to ourselves. See if some honeymoon train shows up. I wonder how far we could get. We could… I don't know. Find new ways to love each other."

"I've never heard of anyone taking a vacation here. Where would we even go?"

"I don't know. If houses show up when we need them, then why not a tropical island with coconuts and flower crowns?" A tune crossed his mind, and he sang, "Te llevaré al mar, mi amor, donde puedes ser mi amor…"

She kissed him. "I don't know if it works like that," she said. "But let's try. After we take care of this guitar business."

"It sounds like most of it is up to Miguel."

"Everyone else had best be helping him." Imelda sighed. "Elena's pretty formidable when she decides to be. Hopefully, she'll get to work intimidating whoever needs it."

"Why was she so strict about your rule?" Héctor asked.

"She gave up her first love for it. Or at least the boy she thought she loved. I thought he was an idiot. Franco was a much better choice. That first boy was a performer."

"Like me?"

"More like Ernesto. Probably not a murderer. But he loved his audiences. When Elena told him our rules, he told her it didn't matter, because she'd be leaving us anyway. She'd never have to deal with her crazy abuelita again."

"What?"

She nodded. "He said it right in front of me. And not quite so nicely. I believe he said, 'You'll be out of the madhouse, and this crazy old bruja will be out of your life for good.'"

"Is he dead? If he is, I'll deal with that…"

"Elena already punched him in the face. Then she shoved him out into the street and slammed the door. She never talked about him again. I think after that, it was just her test of whether or not anyone was worthy."

"And the one she did end up marrying?"

"Franco Rivera. That's how we got the name back. He fell in love with her for her cowboy boots, and was always an entirely sensible human being. I approve of him." She smiled. "You'll see him on Día de los Muertos. You can't miss him. He's tiny. I think he liked her cowboy boots because they had big heels. But he's a good sort."

"Coco likes him, too. Elena loves him?"

"Oh, yes, very much. Not everyone is lucky enough to have their first love be their best one. Franco is a better fit. Questions of music and my relative sanity aside, Elena would not have been happy with a man who thought he could order her around."

"And Victoria… did she have anyone?"

"Oh, there were boys. She came of age in the 1960s. It was different world from ours. Not long before I died, I read about a play in New York where young people took off their clothes on stage and sang about… things we would not have admitted knowing about in public. It did not present me with a good argument in favor of the art." She smiled slyly. "But the tunes were catchy."

Héctor grinned and nudged her a little. "Someone was listening to them, was she? Breaking the sacred ban?"

"Well, they were playing in many places. Hard to avoid. The children all had radios -- do you know radios?"

"I've seen them here."

"Well, everyone had one, unless they lived in my house. They were always blasting songs out the windows. It was hard to go shopping without hearing their music. Rock-and-roll, they called it."

"I've heard it in the plaza. Stronger stuff, too."

"Do you like it?"

"Not my style, but some of it's not half-bad."

She nodded, though Héctor wasn't sure whether it was an agreement, or just her general expectation that he'd give whatever kind of music he heard a chance. "Anyway," she said, "Victoria had her boyfriends, but that was all. Elena was the one who carried on the family."

"Who are Riveras again."

"Yes." Imelda shrugged. "Any orphan they couldn't find a name for got named after Father Rivera, just like we did. So the town's full of Riveras to marry. Maybe Gloria will find one, too."

There was a pleasant lull after this, and Héctor leaned against the wall, letting Imelda rest against him. He took a deep breath, then asked, "Imelda… what did Ernesto tell you about the guitar? I know you didn't believe him, but… I need to know what he said. What hurt you."

She closed her eyes, and he thought she might refuse to answer, but she finally did. "He said there was a woman."

"Of course he did. There wasn't."

"I know. He also said that the woman… was in trouble. And you sold him the guitar to pay for someone to… well, to make sure you weren't trapped by another baby. I did not, I never believed this. Please believe me about that."

"I do believe you," Héctor said automatically, trying to process the magnitude of the lie. Of course Imelda hadn't believed it, and Ernesto would have known she wouldn't. It was the audience she'd been jealous of, not other women. So why tell something like that?

Oh, but that was easy. Tell a huge, glaring lie first, and then when you back off, the victim thinks you're "finally" telling the truth. And in Imelda's case, he'd probably had a string of lies to tell before he got to the one he meant for her to really believe.

Héctor had never been averse to telling small lies when it was useful, but he'd drawn the line at hurtful ones, or personal ones at all. Ernesto had thrived on the personal ones, especially to women, who he generally held in contempt. But this one, to Imelda… about him, about a baby, about how he'd felt trapped…

"I never felt trapped," he said. "Not with you and Coco. I felt trapped in the damned tour. Home was where I was free. Where I was a man, not just Ernesto's boy sidekick."

Imelda nodded. "I know. I do. But you were so young, and you were so talented, and I did try to keep you from your music, and…"

"And that's the part you believed? That I left you because I felt trapped… because you… Oh, Imelda."

"I don't know. He said so many things. He said I was too mannish, and I tried to be head of your house, and you told him the truth in private, because men were more honest with each other and…" She sighed. "I knew it was crazy talk. Even angry at you, I knew it. But it got inside my head. That you would have stayed with me if I hadn't been a bad wife."

"Look at me," Héctor said, putting his finger on her jaw and turning her face to his. "Look at me and believe me. You were my life. You and Coco. I squandered it by walking away that morning, but I never thought of our life together as anything but… but what I was meant for. Do you believe me?"

For a long time, she looked at him, and he could see in her eyes that she thought he was just trying to charm her, so he said nothing. She always believed him more when he didn't talk. Finally she nodded, and he pulled her to him, holding her as well as he could.

After a long time, he let go. "I want to know what he really wanted you to believe. In the end. What was the bottom lie, to cover up for killing me? Where did he say I'd gone?"

"North," she said. "He said you crossed the border to make a living in New York. That you were going to change your name to something Anglo to fit in. He said the last time he saw you was in Tijuana, and he was putting you on a train going north and… Héctor?"

Héctor sat up straight, then put his head in his hands, thinking as hard as he could. "A train going north," he repeated.

"Yes…"

"It was the train station," he said. "Not in Tijuana, of course, we never made it that far, but it was another train station where I died. I had a ticket to go south, but there were lots of trains there. Freight trains. What if he told the truth? What if the last he saw of me, he put me on a train going north? I wouldn't have been found anywhere I was supposed to be! No one would have known who I was!"

"Héctor, that's terrible…"

"And that means that if Miguel… if the living are trying to prove what happened, if that's what they have to do to get the guitar back, then they're looking in the wrong place."

"We need to get word to them!"

"Imelda, I tried for years…"

"There has to be something. The alebrijes! They can cross! Pepita watched for Coco, she told us when it was time to come to the bridge. And Dante, Miguel will know Dante came from us…"

"They can't talk, though."

She held up her hand, then got up and started pacing in the alley. "Stop being negative. We can do this. You heard Miguel's song. We can make him hear us."

"I don't know how specific that can be." Héctor thought about it. "Maybe Dante could carry a letter?"

"I don't think so. Everything here is a ghost like us. It might disappear when he crossed." They looked at each other, the idea of the ghost picture they'd risked Miguel's life to send probably going through both of their minds now. But Imelda didn't get sidetracked. "Maybe we can do something with Dante himself. Call him."

"Me?"

"He's your alebrije."

"I thought he was Miguel's."

"Maybe he will be someday, but right now, you're the one who needs an alebrije. He's Miguel's dog."

Héctor went to the end of the alley and looked up. Pepita and Dante were still flying nearby, Pepita with giant, graceful swoops of her huge body, Dante with ungainly little somersaults in the air.

"Dante!" Héctor called. "Come on, boy!"

With a delighted yip that Héctor could hear even this far away, Dante rolled and plummeted toward the ground. Pepita glided behind him, landing with a majestic clang and putting out one wing to soften Dante's landing. Of course, she was too big for the alley, so she just curled up at the end while Dante bounded in and jumped on Héctor -- a move that would have disconnected his bones a few months ago, but now just rattled him a little. He licked Héctor's face avidly and gave out more joyful yips.

Héctor scratched behind his ears. "Hey, boy, good to see you. You've been off practicing haven't you?"

This got a wide dog-smile and a kind of nod that made Héctor wonder exactly how much Dante understood.

"Would you like to see Miguel?" Imelda asked him.

This idea was so welcome that it caused Dante to jump up and down, finally doing a midair flip, his little wings beating wildly at the air.

"Great," Héctor said. "But… what do we mean to send him with?"

Imelda frowned in concentration, then, with a dawning light in her eyes, she said, "I have an idea!"
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Comments
From: (Anonymous) Date: July 2nd, 2018 04:42 am (UTC) (Link)
I wonder if there's a defined center to the city.
Going by the concept that the development started with Aztec bases (which does make me wonder if those in Chiapas and the Yucatan Peninsula have a neighboring Maya-based Land of the Dead or the same one) that are built upon, it does bear wondering if there is horizontal expansion at the ground level.

Ah, so that rule addresses the hypothetical of how the infamous are handled.
Granted, I assume many of the tyrants, cartel lords, and related monsters are probably self-correcting and imprisoned as they would be so megalomaniacal that they couldn't resist taking power in the Land of the Dead.

Yeah, if Elena was extremely firm about the "no music" rule due to lack of context from Imelda or Coco, I could see how that date gone wrong would have put the final nail there.

So you went with "Rivera" being common to patch that headscratcher. It works, and I'm highly amused at Hector's bafflement.

-- FFR
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 2nd, 2018 06:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, the questions about how the afterworld works in the Coco-verse could keep me occupied for a long time. The city in the movie is specifically Mexican (and Oaxacan). Does it change as it moves throughout, going into, as you mentioned, the Mayan world? And what about non-Mexican underworlds? Someone at AO3 said he half expected a Mozart skeleton, but would an Austrian be in the same kind of place at all? Or something more like a traditional European understanding of limbo, paradise, etc? Also, all the jobs everyone has, a kind of daily mundanity to the afterworld, is kind of Mormon-flavored, yet it's clearly Mexican Catholic in terms of culture (exclamations of "Madre de Dios," etc). Would it be a more culturally in tune version up in Yankee country? The taken-for-granted idea that my grandmother always had was that the dead, while doing things they liked, spent quite a lot of their time "looking over" her. I can see a giant complex full of ancestors taking turns at monitoring stations in the New England(-influenced) parts of the world, sending out mangled messages when they need to. But what happens when you go from one to another, if you can? For instance, would Hector and Imelda remain skeletons if they took a vacation to a world where the dead are envisioned as angels in white robes with wings, or would their actual physical appearance change as they crossed borders? And would Mozart become a skeleton if he traveled to Mictlan?

Or did Oaxaca just happen to believe the actual truth about what happens, and everyone else is in for a big surprise? ;p

But I don't think I'll get into that in the story. It's just a place my head goes.

Edited at 2018-07-02 06:09 pm (UTC)
sonetka From: sonetka Date: July 2nd, 2018 05:05 am (UTC) (Link)
Oooh, I love that backstory for Elena -- first-hand "evidence" that musicians are family-stranding jerks would definitely ramp up her enforcement of the family rule when her time came. I like the bit about Victoria studying law -- somehow it seems like her, plus it would be extremely handy when you're helping to run a business and are bound to run into a legal situation sooner or later -- even if she couldn't handle it herself, she'd at least know where to look for a solution and not make things worse.

I really like the way Hector and Imelda talk to each other -- they really sound like they did in life, but they've learned to consider their own words a lot better (which after a century isn't surprising). Imelda trying to protect him from what Ernesto said feels so natural; it probably feels to her like piling on, considering everything he went through, but of course he doesn't want to be protected either. Telling her he isn't a child is funny but he was REALLY young when he died and that's got to be a little weird for both of them to adjust to. But I'm glad she does finally give in and tell him what Ernesto said, because she does need to hear from him that it was a lie -- that barb about being "mannish" plainly hit her hard. It's one thing to know that sort of thing intellectually but emotionally she's better for having heard it directly from him. I also like that you don't shy away from what they lost -- yes, they're together again and it's all been straightened out, but they missed out on a lot of their physical life together in the world, and they're not getting that back.

I'm looking forward to seeing what the plan is for Dante and getting messages to the living!

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 2nd, 2018 06:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
The thing about Elena's boyfriend would be that he probably thought of himself as some big rescuer coming in to free her of this nastiness, like she was living in a Disney movie with her wicked... Oh, wait. Well, he probably thought of himself more like Prince Charming in Cinderella, getting the hard-working hidden princess away from her wicked stepmother. Meanwhile, he was actually Gaston, trying to smash up a weird, but functional and loving, family.

It would definitely take some getting used to -- a seventy year old and her twenty-year-old husband. But they've both actually "lived" the same amount of time, so it's really just a question of appearance.

And yeah, the "mannish" thing got to her.

A commenter at AO3 mentioned that there's a book where they use the alebrijes to just randomly send letters. I'm going to make it a little harder, but honestly, if the photo could worked, it's perfectly plausible that they could just set up an Alebrije Express.
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