No te amo por hacerme reir
No te amo por nuestra juventud
No te amo por tu dulzura
Te amo porque eres tú.
I don't love you for bringing me laughter
I don't love you for memories of youth
I don't love you because you are gentle
I love you because you are you.
Héctor sat at his table in the music room, looking at the scraps of songs that had been coming to him. A verse here, a tune there… Most of them wanted to be full songs, but it had been so long since he'd written one that he was almost afraid of making them come together. It might not be as good as he remembered being, or worse, as good as other people remembered. He had a ballad loosely about Ernesto (of all things… but he'd woken up the morning after visiting him with a dark phrase rattling around in his skull: "He was only eighteen when he sold his soul"). There were songs to Imelda, and one for Coco. And he still had Miguel's song running through him from time to time. There was a key change now. Miguel was thinking of larger things than his visit with his old family. But he didn't know how to say them. Héctor couldn't help. It was becoming clear that nothing was going to make the trip between worlds again.
Dante had returned, nipping at his shoulder, where the hoodie had clearly been tied moments before. He'd given an apologetic look, as if he hadn't already managed the small miracle of taking the thing back in the first place. Now he and Pepita were back to their flying lessons, though they were sticking closer to home, and Héctor now saw them almost every day.
He picked up his guitar and ran a playful little instrumental melody that sounded like the two of them tumbling around in the air. He'd never tried writing about pets before, never having had one. Maybe it would be interesting.
He picked up his pen hopefully, but nothing came to him.
Instead, he put the pen down and picked up the newspaper, Más Allá, which he'd often found funny. Why would there be a daily paper in the land of the dead where, for the most part, people's afterlives unspooled uneventfully? But reporters were apparently passionate about their jobs in life, so the land of the dead provided them with a chance to keep doing them. They only day they didn't publish was Día de Muertos, which was when they went back to the land of the living and collected up as much news of the past year as they could find, which they doled out bit by bit to keep the pages full. Most days, it was filled with breathless articles about the inner workings of the Department of Family Reunions, or the terrible state of garbage disappearance after festivals. They often managed two editions a day, and when something actually happened, it warranted an extra edition. There had been one the day after the Spectacular, mostly covering Miguel's visit and Ernesto's public shaming. It had been an interesting collection of articles, from the factual ("Living Boy Accidentally Arrives… Curse Determined") to the ridiculous ("Are the Living Planning an Invasion?"). As to Ernesto, there'd been a recap of his career, with a list of his movies, all of the articles now calling into question just how much had been stolen.
The reporters who'd been at the Spectacular had rushed up to the family almost immediately after Miguel had disappeared, and Héctor had a vague memory of them leaning around Imelda and trying to ask him questions. By then, it had been all he could do to keep his bones together, and he could feel the pressure of the golden light trying to shatter him apart. He hadn't been able to say anything to anyone. Dante had stood by his head, growling at the strangers, and Imelda had beckoned Pepita at some point to keep them back. This had put them off asking for any more interviews, even after Héctor had returned from the brink.
Instead, they'd talked to people he knew -- Gustavo, who told the chorizo story and seemed surprised it wasn't true; a few of his friends from Olvidados, who were gone now, but had been kind; and of course, Frida, who had told a dramatic version of the quest for the photograph. She was also doing a series of paintings that depicted the family as roots of a tree which became Miguel. In the sketch she'd made and given to the paper a few days later, she herself, apparently as a personification of Mexico, was the ground they were growing from, and also the sun from which Miguel's eyes needed to be shaded. She was also the one shading his eyes. Her ribcage and arm bones became the guitar he was playing (which was reflected in Héctor's own position as his major root, mirroring him upside down). The title of the series was, "It could use some music," and she was trying to convince her husband, Diego, to contribute a mural on the wall of the former Plaza de la Cruz.
As the story had died down after a month or so, Héctor had read the paper a little less avidly, and mostly for the news of 2017 that they'd managed to gather and that mostly because the family enjoyed reading the newspaper together. Before coming over, he hadn't bothered to keep up at all. Of course, Coco's arrival was met with another recap of the events of Día de Muertos, but the family had been more concerned with welcoming her at the time.
Now, everyone had a favorite topic. This was apparently a holdover from their life in the living world, because Coco had joined in on the festivities as soon as the first paper had arrived. She'd wanted to hear about the other newcomers (the obituary pages were something like society news here), and Victoria was morbidly obsessed with earthquakes (of which two had killed more than 300 people over the year). Imelda liked to hear about business, which Héctor quickly caught on was habitually met with rolled eyes and fake yawns. He didn't join in (though he genuinely found it dull), but he loved how much she obviously adored the predictable reactions. She was particularly interested in a story Héctor didn't understand about someone doing damage control after a public relations disaster. The twins wanted to know about space flight, which as a concept Héctor hadn't given any thought to at all. Rosita liked the gossip news about various actresses from the telenovelas, and Julio wanted sports news. Héctor hadn't offered a special interest, so they tried him on different music stories (including disturbing one about a concert bombing in England), then on international politics for some reason, then on animals. He liked the last, but mostly, he was fond of the occasional human interest stories about any kind of person who caught people's attention. ("Good news, then," Imelda decided. "I'd forgotten that was what you always wanted to know. I've missed it. Let's read Héctor's news last, so we end the day with good news.")
Of course, now they'd almost exhausted the news from newly dead reporters and what they'd gathered five months ago. The reporting on the news from the living world had descended to trends in eyebrow grooming. (Frida, of course, had been asked her opinion on decorative eyebrows, and her response had been much shorter: "Eurgh. Of course not.")
They'd all avoided talking about anything from this world. The main story had vanished, but there were still little blurbs, and since talking to Ernesto's guards two weeks ago, Héctor had been scouring the paper for them, trying to understand what everyone else was thinking.
"FORMER PLAZA DE LA CRUZ TO BE CALLED PLAZA MÚSICA:
Rivera Family Not Reached for Response
Reporters were still met with the growls of an aggressive alebrije near the Rivera shoe workshop…"
"RIVERA VISITS DE LA CRUZ:
What did they talk about?
Rivera and daughter Socorro (see photo) made the climb up to de la Cruz's tower home…"
"I KNEW DE LA CRUZ WAS A MURDERER:
Inside story from Mexico City hotel worker
Bellboy claims to have seen human bones in de la Cruz's LIVING quarters in 1939… on his dinner plate!"
Héctor was skeptical of this last somehow. Ernesto had killed him for money and fame, not sustenance, at least as far as he knew. If the living found out otherwise, he really hoped to never find out about it. The thought of his body passing through Ernesto's digestive system was officially one step further than he could handle.
In fact, the thought of his body at all was becoming a source of anxiety. Ever since he'd realized how his arm had fractured, nightmarish visions of how his body had been handled had been creeping in on him. It didn't matter, he'd left his body after nothing worse than the fracture, but what had become of it? The train was his great hope -- that he'd just been put into a car and buried in a common pit somewhere in the north. That was the best case. But what if Ernesto had burned him beyond recognition? What if he'd stuffed him into a trunk, taken him to the ocean, and thrown him in for the sharks to eat, like those workers in Rio Blanco? What if he'd given him to the multitude of stray dogs in the area? For the first time in years, he tried to remember any sensations he'd had after fainting. The pain in his stomach was all that came to him, even though he must have been twisted and stretched out to get the change of clothes. And that must have taken a while. Ernesto hadn't been carrying a spare mariachi uniform when they left the hotel.
Maybe there'd been a shipment of clothes on the train. That would make sense. Ernesto had carried him to a train car where he'd found crates of clothes, maybe even costumes, heading toward the border, to be sold to tourists along with cheap sombreros and maracas. And as Héctor had lain unconscious and dying, Ernesto had started pawing through the crates, finding something that would disguise his old friend.
Then he'd stripped him down to his shirt and his underwear (Héctor assumed that there was no reason to change either), and forced him into the new clothes. And… and then Héctor had been dead, and nothing else he did to the body mattered, because Héctor was far away from it, beyond any further indignities, so why did he keep coming up with awful things that might have happened after his soul had left his flesh?
Of course, the only person who really knew was Ernesto, and it would be a very long time before Héctor talked to him again. And how many lies would he tell, anyway? How many --
With an irritated flick of his wrist, he flung the newspaper across the room and stared at the scraps of paper again.
"Your body again?" Imelda asked from the doorway.
"No, I… yes."
She nodded and came in, pulling up a chair to sit beside him. "I like this one about not loving me because I'm perfect."
"You are, of course, perfect. It's just not what I love about you."
She smiled. "Of course."
Héctor fished that fragment out of the pile and played the tune he'd made. It was more a crooning song than a dancing one. "Does it need more pep?" he asked.
"It needs more verses." She read it over. "Why don't you take it to the Plaza Música tonight and sing it?"
"What? It's not done, it's…"
"I've seen you write a song in the afternoon for the evening's show. I think you need to finish one."
"But I don't need to perform…"
She reached over and took his hand. "Yes, you do. You know they recorded you and Miguel singing 'Poco Loco.'" She laughed. "I can't believe I walked right by the two of you and didn't notice. I trained myself a little too well to not hear your songs. Anyway, I've seen the recording. You were happy."
"I don't want to be a performing monkey -- "
"I'm sorry I ever said that. You never were a performing monkey, unless I was, too."
Héctor stroked her finger bones for a moment, then said, "I'll tell you what. I will finish this song this afternoon if you come to the Plaza and sing it with me tonight."
She grinned widely. "I thought you'd never ask."
"So, why don't you love me?"
It took her a minute to figure out what he was asking, then she said, "Well, I definitely don't love you for making me laugh, or because you're a wonderful father, or because I feel like I'm sixteen when you touch me."
"Really. And it's not because of your voice or your guitar. And definitely not because of the way you dance around when you're happy, and certainly not because you still look at me like I'm a queen."
"I don't love you for pushing me into this. Or for fishing me out of that cenote, or because you have the wildest alebrije in the land of the dead."
They looked into each other's eyes for a long time, then Imelda sighed and said, "If you don't get to work right now, I'm going to distract you too much to finish before evening. And I think we should have time to rehearse it a few times."
"Did you get the melody when I played it, or do you need it again?"
"I got it. I'm hum it while I work."
"How would you feel about bringing your own guitar?"
She sighed. "I burned my guitar," she said. "I've never found another, and I think that might be part of my punishment. But I did find a tambourine. How would that be?"
She leaned over and gave him a quick kiss, and all thoughts of what might have happened to his body all those years ago disappeared. He imagined her on stage, dancing around him wildly as she once had, a tambourine in her hand, her hair catching the lights. Then he imagined the way she'd flung herself into his arms afterward, and he shook himself out of the memory before it distracted him again.
He opened a fresh notebook and wrote "No Te Amo" in large letters across the top of the page. What he had already was a bit of a chorus, but now, imagining singing with Imelda, the whole song started to spin out for him. It started out with Imelda's long-standing fear that he didn't love her (why she had ever listened to those voices, he didn't know). They say I don't love you, and maybe it's true, I can't think of one thing that makes me love you. But all of my life, and even beyond, you're always the only true sound of my song…
It might not be his best song. It might not even be an especially good one, but it was new, and it was coming together, and he would sing it with Imelda tonight in the plaza.
He lost himself in the process for the next few hours, as the world spun out around him. He scribbled things out, rearranged lyrics, and tried different backing chords until he found the ones he liked best. He ran notes over staves, and watched the music in his head become solid. It was as magical as it had ever been.
On a whim, he mimicked Miguel's key change on the final verse and let it go beyond a love song with Imelda, bringing it to the whole family, living and dead, about what their love for each other had created in the world. I don't love you for today, or love you for tomorrow, I love you forever and more.
He closed the last measure with a double line, then looked down at it. It was done. It wasn't perfect, but it was done.
He arranged the other fragments to work on later, wondering if he could get any work done on another one. "I Hear You Laughing" seemed to want attention…
But Imelda appeared at the door, wearing a fine dress, with a pretty sort of comb in her hair. She was carrying tap shoes, and she shrugged. "I thought it might be fun to add some percussion," she said. "If it fits?"
"It'll be perfect."
"Do the others know we're going to do this?"
Imelda nodded. "Coco is very excited. She says that when she gets used to her body here, she wants to dance with us." She pointed at the music. "May I?"
"Probably a good idea."
She sat down, setting her tap shoes on the table with a resonant sound, and read the song. Héctor watched her face anxiously, hoping he hadn't put anything into her mouth that she wouldn't want to sing. But she just smiled and started humming the new parts of the melody. She smiled widely when she finished. "I can't wait to sing this. Let's rehearse."
While they practiced the song and blocked out some rudimentary choreography, the rest of the family appeared from the shop. Oscar and Felipe were the only ones who'd ever seen them really perform together (though their act had sometimes been what they'd done at the Spectacular, with Imelda performing and Héctor just providing the backing for her), and they seemed delighted to see their big sister perform again. Coco, leaning comfortably into Julio's arms, was whispering what seemed to be stories of her early childhood, at least when Héctor was able to catch a bit of what she was saying. Rosita just watched with great fondness, and Victoria joined in, stomping a kind of counter-rhythm to Imelda's dance. Partway through, Imelda pulled her into it, and the pair of them spun around one another, Victoria laughing self-consciously.
"What do you say?" Héctor asked as he finished. "You can join the act."
"The best Carpas are run by families!" Coco said, her eyes lighting up. "You said that once, Papá. I remember! I saw your show and you said we should all go together."
"I'd forgotten that."
"You were drunk on the crowd that day, mi amor," Imelda said. "Dancing with dogs as I recall." Her words might have been cutting, but her face, her tone… it was a fond memory for her now. "You clowned for Coco and you wanted me to smear up your makeup. It was a good show."
"Of course it was," he said. "My favorite audience was there." He looked at Victoria. "So what do you say, mija? You want to come up with the abuelos?"
"Not without a little more practice," she said. "I haven't tap danced since -- "
"Oho," Imelda said. "So you were dancing?"
"We all danced," Coco said. "You knew that."
"I didn't know you knew it," Victoria said. "I danced when I went to classes at Benito Juarez. There were musicians and other wild people. I loved them. And I thought I wasn't likely to be seen." She grinned in an embarrassed way. "I only learned a little bit. I don't know enough now."
Imelda, who was still holding her hand from the dance, raised their arms and spun Victoria around. "I'll start teaching you tomorrow." She let go, then leaned over and hugged Héctor from behind. "Tonight, I plan to be drunk on the crowd loving my husband's new song."
Héctor didn't have any spare clothes to change into, even as costumes. (He had never been sure how the costumes worked. They weren't like real clothes. Ceci started making them as soon as she heard of an oncoming show, and they lasted perfectly well throughout the show, but tended to disappear as soon as the show was over. They also had a kind of flexibility and fluidity that wasn't, in Héctor's memory, typical of real outfits.) Julio lent him a better hat than his usual straw one, and Coco got his tie sorted out.
For his part, he brightened up the markings on Imelda's face and his own, and offered again to invite the others in, but there were no takers.
Coco packed a supper, and the family left together for the Plaza Música. Héctor had led so many tours through here that he almost called it the Plaza de la Cruz by habit, despite everything.
It was quieter now, of course, than it had been in November. There was no major event, no holiday. The vendors had their little stalls with memorabilia, much of it at the moment featuring Miguel, though there were also bobbleheads of Los Chachalacos and tee shirts of other famous visitors. There were people gathered around on the cobblestones, sitting on the benches and talking comfortably. On stage, a pair of marimba players seemed to be having some kind of duel, with the object being to see who could hit more wrong notes, in a more distressing clash with the other.
The woman who had served as emcee of the talent show -- Héctor thought her name was Clara, but he wasn't sure; she was a relatively recent arrival -- was now in her regular job, staffing the office where people signed in if they wanted to play. It had always been the tradition here. (Héctor had rolled his eyes heartily at this when it started, as it supposedly honored Ernesto's humble beginnings just getting up to sing in the plaza by himself.) She was wearing her every day outfit, and Héctor guessed her costume and wig had disappeared. For now, she was in a simple red skirt and white blouse, and her black hair, streaked with the aqua color, was up in a bun that was only a little bit higher than a normal one. "Look who's here!" she said when the family came in. "Did you want to sing? You don't have to do it like a civilian, you know -- you're a professional, and we could give you a real show."
"Let's try one song first," Héctor said. "I have a new one. Do you think we could get in tonight?"
"Oh, yes. It's a slow night." She scanned a list on her desk. "I've only got two acts signed up, and one of them is going to get stage fright and run away. She signs up every Tuesday, and every Tuesday, she disappears before her stage time comes up. She's supposed to be a magician. Maybe disappearing is a really meta trick." Clara (if that was her name) gave a philosophical shrug. "If it is, it's one that doesn't take up stage time. I can put you on right after the marimba war that's going on up there, if you want. Actually, it would be great if you signed up for that time. I could tell them that it's a shame, but someone signed up for the next slot, so they'll need to" -- she winced as, on stage, one of the players dropped a mallet and came up, slamming it against the resonators on the bottom of the instrument -- "wrap it up."
Héctor laughed, and signed up for the next spot.
"All right," Imelda said. "Anyone not coming up, I think you can find a spot right up front at the moment."
Coco gave them an excited hug, then ran out to the benches beneath the stage. The others followed.
Héctor took Imelda's hand and she leaned against his shoulder, smiling broadly.
A moment later, the marimba players, looking put out, rolled their instruments offstage.
Clara went out on stage, and adopted her emcee persona without hesitation. "Damas y caballeros!" she called. "I have a special treat tonight. I don't think, after Día de los Muertos that they need an introduction… La Llorona! Poco Loco!" Héctor glanced out at the audience, where he could see people looking up with interest. Clara went on. "And they came here tonight with a brand new song for us. Give us a big welcome for Héctor and Imelda Rivera!"
Imelda nearly ran onto the stage, as she had when they were young and wild in Santa Cecilia.
The audience loved the new song. And they loved the other six songs that Héctor and Imelda managed to scrape out of their memories from the old act before finally having to say, "That's all we've got!"
By then, the stars were out, and night was soft and cool, and the family had edged right up the stage. Héctor reached down and pulled Coco up with them, and then Victoria and Julio and the twins and Rosita were there as well, and the world was a forest of bones and they laughed and hugged each other.
The only thing that would have made it more perfect would be having Miguel there, but Héctor didn't wish to have that for a very long time.
Meanwhile, he was surrounded by everything that mattered. His family, his music, and even that strange triumph that came from the smiles of strangers.
Whatever had happened a hundred years ago was far away now, and nothing in this world or any other mattered less.