March 10, 2018
Dear Mamá Coco,
I know it hasn't been very long since the last letter, but I wanted you to know that we got your message, and I tried to send one back, but I watched Dante until he disappeared, and when he did, the jacket just fell down. The sleeves were still tied and everything. It's like Dante stopped being solid or something. So, I guess I'll just keep writing this way. Thank you SO MUCH for letting me know that Papá Héctor is all right. I guess I won't be able to see for myself until I die, and I hope that's a really long time from now. I hope you're all still there, though. I'm going to make sure to tell lots and lots of stories.
Papá decided to tell the detective -- we have a detective; his name is Calles, and he's looking really hard for Papá Héctor -- that the more he read your letters, the more he thought Papá Héctor was planning to come home right away, and maybe had a train ticket. We think that your arrow meant north, and the fake letters were from the north. So Calles knows the train part, and he's pretty smart. He already guessed that meant that he could have ended up on a train going anywhere, so now he's looking for things about trains. He tried to find film of the audition from the studio, but they only found de la Cruz's clips. I think I see Papá Héctor in the very back of one of them, playing his guitar (which is really good for the hearing at the end of the month), but I didn't get to see him pretending to ride a horse and rescue a princess, like he said in his letter.
That was my birthday present from Calles. Today was my birthday. I'm thirteen now. Mamá and Papá made me a real mariachi uniform. It's red and gold. I was really surprised I had no idea they were working on it. Mamá made the suit and Papá made the hat. I didn't go to the plaza -- I'm going tomorrow -- but I did put it on and sing for everyone at home. Papá and Tío Berto are going to turn the old well into a little stage. My friends from school thought it was stupid at first, but I think they kind of liked it in the end. Rosa gave me books she likes. She says I have to start doing something other than music or everyone's going to think I'm weird. So now I'm reading about a girl who has to play this stupid game where she kills people a lot. I'm sure that helps with the weird thing, right? Abel used his computer to put together a picture of me playing with Papá Héctor at the competition. He didn't quite get the skull marks right, but it's pretty neat. I'll put a copy in with the letter for him, if he wants it. Mine is on the wall of your room, so I can see it when I practice.
Papá Isidro was here for my party. Do you remember him? Mamá's father? He's taking me up to his village in the hills next month, so I can see my other family. I haven't been there since I was four. Papá Isidro says there's nothing to see, but I'm going to try and remember everything.
PS: Trying to remember everything, I forgot: Hello from Socorro, too! I guess you can see she was sucking on the envelope while I was writing. We made a nice little bed for her in a basket, so whoever is looking after her can carry her around, and that's always me when I'm writing your letters.
After the party, the family gathered in the workshop, which was where they always gathered. Miguel had finished his letter for the day and carried Socorro back in, and now Gloria was fussing over her. He was still wearing the charro suit, and seemed very pleased with the present. Enrique, who'd seen him as a musician but not really a performer until now, felt suddenly quite old, like he was seeing his son as the adult he would be someday -- not just an adult (which was distressingly close, only five years now), but one settled comfortably into a well-matched career. He'd sung earlier, several old mariachi songs and a few popular ones he'd been learning for Carlos. He played part of the song he'd written, but not all of it, because he had friends over from school. They'd all seemed a little nonplused by it. Mostly, it was boys from the track team, but also a few members of the school's band. Three of them were girls. Miguel was paying a bit more attention to one of them than Enrique liked. He thought there might be a few talks waiting in the wings.
But all of the guests were gone now, unless you counted Papá Isidro as a guest, which no one did. Aside from being Miguel's grandfather, he had been there when the message came.
And this was the first chance to talk about it, really.
Mamá brought the hoodie out in the wooden box they'd found for it. It was stashed in a cubby behind the ofrenda. No one knew what to do with it.
She opened the box, took it out with shaking hands, and spread it out on the work table.
Everyone looked at it, standing back a bit, like it might burn them.
The single word, "Trén," stood out, almost glowing in the light from above. Beside it, the arrow. Beneath the arrow, "Estoy bien, mijo."
Miguel took his hat off as a gesture of respect, then walked up to it slowly and touched the smaller words, tension passing out of him, even as the rest of the family stood in frightened awe.
"We should take it to the priests," Papá said.
"They'll keep it," Gloria said. "They'll think it's a miracle, or they'll think it's ghosts."
"It is a miracle. It is ghosts."
"It's just family," Miguel said. "It's just a note from them."
"From the dead," Rosa pointed out. "It's not exactly a Post-It, Miguel."
"I know." He ran his finger over the words Estoy bien. "But it's not magic. It's just part of the world. And it's just trying to tell us something. The train. North. And Papá Héctor's all right."
"You sure that's not from Mamá Coco?" Berto asked.
"Why wouldn't she be all right? She just got there, and everyone remembers her." He shook his head. "We knew everyone else was all right. That's how everything works there. If you're remembered, you're all right."
"What do we do with it?" Carmen asked.
"I've sent a message to Calles." Enrique took a seat on his usual work stool. "I told him that Héctor may have had a train ticket. Maybe he can find something if he just starts there."
"It was at the train station," Miguel said. "De la Cruz walked him to the train station, and that's where he got sick."
"Which we can't prove," Berto prodded gently.
"I don't mean what do we do about the message," Carmen said. "I mean the thing itself. We can't just leave it in a box under the counter! It's… it's a letter from beyond!"
Papá Isidro scanned the hoodie carefully. "Where would be better than your ofrenda?"
"Papá Franco has a point about the priests," Luisa said.
"What are they going to do about it?" Papá Isidro said. "No one there is a saint, and it's a message from your grandparents, not from God. Unless any of your people are priests?"
"I have a cousin," Carmen said hesitantly.
"Leandro!" Berto agreed. "We could ask him… theoretically…"
"It's Miguel's jacket," Papá Isidro said. "And it's a letter to Miguel. I think he gets to decide what happens to it." He looked around in a challenging way, but no one argued against his right to speak on the subject.
"I want to keep it at the ofrenda," Miguel said, not quite looking at anyone. "If… if it's okay. If it's mine. I want to keep it there. And if I go… I mean, when I go to school, I'm coming back…"
"Miguel, worry about that later," Enrique said automatically.
"I want to keep it," Miguel said again, then looked apologetically at Carmen. "But if you want to ask your primo, Tía Carmen, maybe he could bless it or something…"
The conversation trailed off for a minute, no one quite knowing what to say.
"Why do they think north?" Abel finally asked. "Why would we be looking north?"
"No one would know him," Mamá said. "And of course… trains cross the border. If I wanted to make something disappear and didn't have a handy ocean..." She rocked her hand back and forth. "We could lose the trail completely."
"And it's not exactly the friendliest border to work across right now," Berto muttered.
No one said anything. Enrique was vaguely aware of some kind of insanity at the northern border, but there always seemed to have been some story of craziness there. He took a deep breath. "Let's not worry about snafus with international jurisdiction until we know it's going to be a problem. There's a lot of north between the capital and the border."
Miguel picked up the hoodie, folded it carefully, and held it against his chest, his brow furrowed. "I doubt they know any more about where it ended up than we do. I think this is a guess."
"Why do you say that, mijo?" Mamá asked.
"He was dead. How would he know where his…" Suddenly, Miguel pressed the jacket against his face. "He's dead, no matter what. All that would be on a train is a body."
Enrique reached over and patted his back.
He took a deep breath. "Sorry. I just forgot for a second."
Mamá came over and put her arms around him. He leaned into her embrace.
The conversation didn't really go anywhere. Everyone just wanted to look at the note, so Miguel laid it flat again. Enrique noticed that he was starting to drift off, and he put his own arm across his son's shoulder, pulling him away from his abuelita. "Miguel? I think you're ready for bed."
He nodded and slid down from his stool to give Socorro a kiss, then to give one to Luisa. At thirteen, he'd apparently decided he was officially too old to give kisses to everyone in the room.
Enrique thought of him at the age of four, merrily running from adult to adult (and Abel, who he seemed to think of as an adult at the time). He missed the four-year-old Miguel, but in a way, the very missing made him love the thirteen year old version more.
The other children made their excuses over the next fifteen minutes, and Luisa went to put Socorro to bed. Carmen and Berto went back to have a drink in the kitchen, and Mamá and Papá said something about being ready for church in the morning.
Enrique was alone with Papá Isidro, who was still looking at the jacket, appraising it like a curator in a museum.
"Looks like they may have tried to write more," he said, pointing at a frayed area. "The threads are pulled in lines. They could have tried a pen. Ghost ink didn't carry."
"I think Miguel really wanted to write back."
"They're his friends, Enrique. I think you worry too much about this. He had a powerful experience, but the most powerful part may have been making a true friend. I don't think he's had many. Your Papá Héctor may have been the first. Those children tonight? They didn't even understand his music. He invited them to stop you from being concerned. Except maybe that very cute girl." Papá Isidro grinned, then grew serious again. "I see the children come out of school every day. Miguel says hello to people, and there's nothing wrong with him, but he's almost always alone or with Rosa by the time he gets to me."
Enrique sighed. "I want him to have friends in this world. In this town, and his own age. I don't want him getting so lost in his music -- or his dead family -- that he forgets to be alive and in the world."
"It's a valid worry. But I don't think it's about this." Papá Isidro gestured at the jacket. "Miguel didn't have a lot of friends before Día de Muertos, did he? Because no one understood him. That's not going to change. Children with gifts sometimes have a hard time. They look for someone who understands what's important to them, and they don't find anyone. At least not among their peers."
"Or they find the wrong person," Enrique said. "They find someone who uses them. Who --"
"Ah. So Miguel is not the only one obsessing over your bisabuelo's story. You're worried that he will find a de la Cruz instead of an Imelda."
"Honestly, I’m kind of worried about an Imelda, too. He's just four years younger than Papá Héctor was when Mamá Coco was born."
Papá Isidro laughed. "That's an entirely different worry, and one every parent has."
Neither of them mentioned that Luisa had been barely twenty when Miguel was born, but the subject, as usual, hung between them.
"I worry about the musicians, too. Crazy parties. Drugs."
"Every child needs to learn to navigate around the pitfalls. You've been a good father. Trust that."
They talked for a little longer, then Enrique walked Papá Isidro out to his truck, an ancient, cobbled-together thing that made the shop's truck look like a limousine.
"Is this thing going to make the trip to the mountains?" Enrique asked.
"She always has before," Papá Isidro said, climbing up into the cab and patting the dash fondly. "But I'll give her a once-over before we head up. Are you coming along?"
"Sure, why not? I haven't been up to the mountains for a while."
"Good." He started the truck, which coughed to life with an alarming belch of exhaust. The radio crackled and some loud band from the 1980s started singing a power ballad.
"Now that we'll let you have your music," Enrique said, "you should think about moving in. There's room."
"Eh, Dulcie might not stay as long when she visits on Día de Muertos if I were in a houseful of people."
"Or she might stay longer, if she could visit you and Luisa at the same time."
"Hmm. A good point. Worth thinking about." He stepped on the gas and drove away.
Enrique turned around. He wasn't entirely surprised to see Miguel's light still on, and he knocked softly on the door. He thought it was possible that Miguel had just left his light on and wouldn't hear the knock, but he heard a soft, "Come in."
He opened the door. "Hey. Was it a good birthday?"
Miguel smiled. He looked exhausted. "I hung up my suit, but I can't stop looking at it. Thank you. Again."
"You're welcome. Mamá and I are looking forward to seeing you in the plaza tomorrow."
"You knew I was going to do that? I was going to surprise you."
"You might want to work on that secret-keeping skill." Enrique grinned and sat down on the corner of Miguel's bed. "Miguel, those boys here tonight, the girls… are they your friends? Papá Isidro thinks you just invited them to humor me."
"They're all right. We're on the team together, or in band. I like them all right." He shrugged. "I know you want me to have friends at regular school."
"I want you to have friends you want." Enrique looked down at his hands, which were clasped between his knees. "I'm sometimes afraid that you want to see your Papá Héctor and Mamá Coco so much that you…"
Miguel's eyes opened in almost comical surprise. "No, Papá! No, I wouldn't… I don't… I miss them, and I wish I could see them, but I don't want to go back there for a really long time. I mean, unless it's another temporary visit, but that doesn't seem very likely."
"You just seem unhappy sometimes. I never want you to be unhappy again."
"I'm not. I mean, I'm sad about losing Mamá Coco, and I miss her. And I miss Papá Héctor, and Mamá Imelda and everyone else. I like them. But it's just a regular kind of sad. Mostly I'm happy. I have my lessons and everyone knows about my music and everyone likes it. No one's trying to stop me. Everyone's helping. You and Mamá made…" He pointed at the suit hanging in his open closet. "And I'm happy that we're fixing as much as we can. I just, earlier, I remembered that we can't fix everything. I know, it's kind of stupid to forget."
"Yeah, kind of." He shrugged. "It just made me think about a lot. When did I ever think about 1921 before? But it was there. And 2121 will be there, too."
"Barring catastrophes, yes."
"I heard someplace that every person is connected to about two hundred years, from the oldest person they knew when they were little to the youngest person they know when they're old." He smiled. "Before Día de los Muertos, I was thinking of about two hours in the future and a little less in the past. I feel like all the rest of the time got added at once, and I'm still trying to figure out how to carry it around. Is this what it's like to be a grown-up?"
"It's what it's like to be a thoughtful one. But I'll tell you a secret: We don't always carry two centuries around. Sometimes, we just live two hours in the future and even less in the past. And that's okay. Sometimes, you can take all those extra years and put them in a box and stow it out of sight."
"But I kind of like them. I like when I'm school and I hear something about the Cristeros or the Revolution, and I think, 'Oh, right, Mamá Imelda would have read about that in the paper.' Or about the Olympics in 1968, and how Mamá Coco and Papá Julio drove up there, but couldn't get to the opening ceremonies. I bet the traffic was really bad." He shrugged. "I guess I just noticed that it was all real stuff. It makes it more interesting."
"Well, if it brings your history grades up, then by all means, carry the years to school. And if the future years help you think about what kind of person you want to be remembered as, then keep them handy. But you don't always need to lug them around. This moment counts, too." Enrique decided to lighten the mood. "Which brings me back to our guests tonight. Particularly a girl with a pretty red bow in her hair?"
Miguel blushed and laughed. "Abril. She plays the trumpet. I didn't think she'd actually come. Everyone likes her. But she said she was hoping I'd ask." He put his hands over his face to hide the deepening blush, then yawned hugely into them.
"Why are you so tired?" Enrique asked.
"I…" He smiled sheepishly. "I was up really late working on my song last night. I thought I had it almost finished, but it's not right. It doesn't finish. It wants to go someplace else. I don't know where. But there's a key change. Listen." He grabbed his guitar, and sang, "Amor verdadero nos une por siempre, en el latido do mi corazón…" Then he did something with the guitar, and the sound became different, fuller. Miguel smiled and sang, "See, it just wants to be bigger right here…" He shrugged, and went back to speaking. "I just don't know what I want to say."
"You'll figure it out," Enrique said. "Meanwhile, you need sleep. Even thirteen-year-olds need sleep. Shall I tuck you in?"
He'd asked it as a joke, but Miguel actually nodded. He got into his bed and slipped between the covers. Enrique gave them a ceremonial sort of tug, then leaned down and kissed Miguel's forehead. "I love you," he said. "Whatever your life is, whatever you do, I love you."
"I love you, too. Papá. And I'll be okay. Don't worry so much."
Enrique pushed Miguel's bangs off his forehead. "That's in the job description. I hope that someday you'll know that for yourself -- a day very far away from this one, very very far away. Many, many years away… Maybe a couple of decades… A century or so…"
"Maybe not quite a century…"
"You don't think so?"
"No more than ninety-nine years."
"All right, then. As long as you're not rushing it." Enrique stood up and turned the light off. "Get some sleep, Miguel. The song will still be there in the morning."
He didn't know how long it really took Miguel to fall asleep, but the light didn't come back on, and there was no soft picking of guitar strings. He went back to his own room, where Luisa had tucked Socorro in for the night, and was now sitting up in bed in a circle of warm light from her reading lamp. She put her book away, and held out her arms to him.
The next morning, about half the family went to church. Mamá and Papá almost always did now that Mamá didn't feel honor bound to grimace at the choir. (In fact, she was saving up to donate a collection of hand bells to them, as an act of contrition for her pridefulness, or so she said. Enrique thought she just liked bells and wasn't quite ready to admit it yet.) Luisa liked to go and gossip with her old school friends. Berto and his children didn't go, but Carmen almost always did, usually pulling Gloria along with the thought of trying to find her a nice Catholic husband.
Enrique and Miguel sometimes went and sometimes didn't. This time, Miguel opted to get in a little more practice. He and Rosa were in Mamá Coco's room, picking out songs for his Plaza debut.
"Is it really okay?" Berto asked, sitting down on the green bench beside Enrique. "I mean… can anyone just go up there and start playing a guitar?"
"Not when there's something scheduled," Enrique said. "But Sunday afternoons, this is what they do. People who want to give it a try, give it a try. It's supposed to be honoring de la Cruz's famous act."
Berto spat onto the ground, not giving any more commentary than that on the subject of Ernesto de la Cruz. "And you're all right with the business of him jumping around in front of everyone?"
"You think it's safe?"
"Rosa wants to know if she can join him when she gets good enough." Berto stared at the door to the practice room. "I figured we'd never have to worry about kids wanting to be famous singers."
"I don't think Miguel cares about being famous."
Miguel ran through a few verses of an old ballad, then stopped and switched to a different tune. Rosa was saying something, but Enrique couldn't tell what it was.
"I'm worried about the business," Berto said. "Is that wrong? We've had it for four generations. What if none of the children want to make shoes? Will we lose it? Will it just die?" He looked up sheepishly. "I know it's not supposed to mean anything, and we're all supposed to cheer for new interests, but… I'm proud of this business. I always wanted to pass it down to my children, like Mamá and Papá passed it to us, and Mamá Coco passed it to them, and Mamá Imelda to her. And now, they may not want it."
"I hadn't thought about it. Maybe Socorro will be passionate about shoes. And Abel doesn't seem to mind them. Maybe the twins will love them."
"Or maybe it will skip a generation," Berto suggested. "I can keep working until there are grown grandchildren. Maybe one of them will grow up with all of these musicians and start secretly making shoes in the attic of the old house."
Enrique laughed. "Miguel wants the old house," he said. "Do you know if Abel or Rosa wants it?"
"Abel wants to get his own apartment across town." Berto shook his head. "What a world." He raised an eyebrow. "And you know Miguel's not going to be a musician in Santa Cecilia. He'll have to be somewhere bigger."
"I know. I think he knows. But I enjoy that his daydream includes staying at the hacienda. Do you think anyone would mind if he started fixing it up? Not to live in yet, just…"
"Just to make it livable? It's about time someone did. The family's not getting any smaller. Maybe we can connect it up better." He pointed at the wall that separated the main courtyard behind the shop -- where the ofrenda room and the kitchen were -- from the courtyard around the houses they lived in. "We could build that out into a proper hallway, maybe even put some rooms along it. That could connect to the old house. What do you think? I was talking to Abel about it, and he can help with the construction. Maybe it'll even convince him to stay. He was talking about making a fountain."
"I think it's a good idea. About time we started making our mark around here."
The conversation ended, because the children came out. Miguel was resplendent in his new suit, even if he was still carrying the generic, store-bought guitar. (Enrique decided, on the spur of the moment, to at least get this one decorated. He'd learn how to do it and try to sneak it in during some hours when Miguel didn't have the instrument at his side.) Rosa was chattering on about who was coming to the plaza to hear him -- apparently, she'd invited her entire extended social circle -- and Miguel looked a little bit anxious.
Enrique put a hand on his shoulder, and the four of them made their way to mariachi square.
A few of the regular mariachis greeted Miguel by name. Apparently, he'd been haunting the place more openly after school. They wished him well. The family was winding its way over from the church. Miguel gave them all a nervous smile.
Mamá stepped forward and led him out as soon as the frightened looking young woman who'd been on the bandstand finished her song. "This is my grandson!" she announced to all and sundry. "He's a musician!"
Miguel smiled broadly and mounted the steps to the bandstand.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then let out a joyous grito.
The crowd didn't let him down until he'd done several songs, and even then, they spent all afternoon clapping him on the back and asking him when he'd be singing again.
And he was, at least for now, completely in the moment.