Te cantaré de un alma errante y perdida,
una historia de amor y valentía --
Una chica y un paseo para su despedida
un una noche en que quería bailar.
I'll sing you a song of a wandering soul,
a story of pluck and romance --
A tale of a girl and a long midnight stroll
On a night that she wanted to dance.
"What would happen if we built a ship?" Héctor asked, sitting on the low sea wall and staring out across the water. He reconsidered. "Well, if you did. Given that I can't even keep shoes from leaking, I would probably not be useful for that."
Julio shrugged, not bothering with the kind corrections that Imelda and Coco tended to make when Héctor pointed out that he had no talent whatsoever at shoemaking, and did not seem to be developing one through practice. "I don't know. We're looking east, though, and if this is like the old world, then we pretty much have a shallow bay for an hour or so, then we dock in Chiapas. We'd probably never lose sight of the land."
"And if we turned around and sailed west?"
"A whole lot of ocean." Julio beckoned to the twins, who were currently experimenting with a flying machine that involved bicycle pedals, flapping wings, and a pair of duck-like alebrijes. "Tío Felipe! What's across the ocean?"
Felipe let go of the machine, which promptly dragged Oscar across the cobblestones, his bones rattling an uneven rhythm until he caught himself. "Don't know." He came over, thinking. "You might pass a lot of the little islands. I think you'd eventually hit… the Philippines, maybe? If it's like the maps I remember."
"Would we get to China?" Héctor asked.
"We're south of China. I mean, we could turn north. Or just sail northwest in the first place. But if we didn't, I think we'd hit French Indochina."
"They reincarnate there," Oscar put in. He'd managed to subdue the flying machine and was pulling it behind him like a kite. The duck alebrijes jumped into the sea. "At least that's what they think at the library. Maybe if we made a ship, we could go there and get reborn instead!"
"And forget everything?" Julio asked. "No thank you. I'll stay here."
"Me, too," Héctor said. "I'll sing with my wife and eat with my family and wait for Miguel so we can sing together again. I don't want to forget."
"But… bodies!" Oscar said. "I'd have a nose to put my glasses on."
"But you might not have a twin," Julio pointed out.
"Why would that happen? We're twins. Of course we would be twins again." Oscar took a seat beside Héctor, and Felipe sat down on his other side, lounging comfortably. They might have been back in Santa Cecilia, looking out of over the fields below during the wild years of the war, wondering what the soldiers were doing, or if they were going to get this far. (They never had; many people had left Santa Cecilia to fight, but the fighting itself hadn't come there.) The boys had followed Héctor everywhere when they were little. He'd forgotten that over the years, but it was starting to come back. While Imelda toiled at whatever sewing job she'd found to keep steady food on the table -- as opposed to the occasional extravagances Héctor sometimes provided with his music -- they would all tromp around the countryside together, and the twins would spin fabulous fables while Héctor ostensibly kept an eye on them, but really mostly played his guitar and wrote them little songs to go with their stories.
"Would we reincarnate?" Felipe asked. "I mean, the people who live there might, but it's not what the living would think of us doing, because our living don't believe that."
"What if the living stop believing anything?" Julio tossed a stone into the water. A fish alebrije leapt up at the splash, but seemed disappointed at the offering. "What if they remember us, but don't believe anything in particular about where we are?"
"I don't think you can remember without imagining," Héctor said. "And whatever you believe, the world you come from shapes your imagining. And their imagining shapes our world."
"Huh," Felipe said. "What if Oscar and I had married a pair of Swedish girls? Would they be in Valhalla, drinking ale and waiting for Ragnarok while we're here?"
Oscar nodded. "And what if Ragnarok happened in Sweden? Would the world end here, too?"
"You two make my head spin," Héctor said, and gave his skull a twirl. (It didn't move as easily as it once had, and he only got one good revolution before it locked back into place.)
"What are we talking about?" Victoria asked. She, Coco, and Imelda were headed over from the market square with baskets of food.
"The twins' theoretical Viking wives, and whether or not they'll cause the end of the world before we reincarnate in French Indochina," Julio said.
"That's called Vietnam now, Papá," Victoria said. "For a long time. Also Laos and Cambodia."
"Papá Héctor started it," Julio said.
"Felipe said it first," Héctor pointed out. He got up and went to the big picnic table that overlooked the sea from the point.
"I wanted to make sure you understood what I meant," Felipe said.
Imelda rolled her eyes. "Hypothetical Viking wives. This is why I never could find you real wives. This is really the subject?"
"We were wondering if our Viking wives would be here with us, or if they'd be stuck in Sweden."
"Maybe people can choose," Coco suggested. "One or the other. Or can we move around? Maybe they could go back and forth, just like they would have in life."
"Can we move around?" Victoria asked. "I never tried."
"I've never found a way out," Héctor said. "But then, no one would imagine a way for us, because we belong here with each other. Maybe if everyone thought of you with Inga and Astrid -- "
"They have names now?" Imelda asked, trying to hide a grin.
"Oh, yes," Héctor said. "Inga and Astrid. Identical twins, naturally. They are six feet tall, have yellow hair, and ski everywhere, even in town, with no snow. They bring snow with them. It falls around them in a little cloud."
"Of course it does."
"Anyway, if the living all thought of you as wanting to travel with Inga and Astrid, then maybe you'd find your way to an airport, or one of those ships with dragon heads would just show up now and then."
"Which brings us back to the interesting question of whether or not we'd have bodies if we went there," Oscar said.
"Of all things," Héctor said to Imelda, grinning wryly, "he misses his nose."
She rolled her eyes lavishly. "Inga will be very disappointed that you're wishing for your nose. Or is Astrid yours?"
"Oh, Astrid, certainly. Inga would never look at anyone but Felipe. Shame on you for thinking such things about your sister-in-law, Mamá Imelda."
Coco had set her basket on the stone table and started pulling out the food they'd gotten. It was the usual vague and generic food, more an idea of food than real food. Only on Día de Muertos did the good stuff appear again. But she presented it prettily, setting a full table for the family, because that was the point of it. "I hope they could travel," she said. "It would be very sad if people were trapped in different worlds forever. And there are a lot of people who marry across lines now. Has anyone met anyone here who isn't Mexican? Who's just married to someone who is?"
They all looked at Héctor, who'd been here longest. He shook his head. "I don't know. I do know that I never met anyone who wasn't a skeleton, so if they come here, they must become skeletons when they do."
"Which means we'd have bodies in Valhalla," Oscar said. "I mean, if they're here and they're like us."
"We should visit there," Imelda whispered, giving Héctor's shoulder a squeeze as she sat down beside him.
He managed not to laugh (nervously, as much as anything else), but it was a close thing. "We don't know they're here, though," he said, to cover up. "It could be that they go somewhere else."
"No, they must be," Coco said. "It would be too unkind if they couldn't be with the people they loved."
"Maybe there's a place for people who belong in two places, and everything is true there," Felipe suggested.
"But then they wouldn't have their families," Coco pointed out.
"And that might be the way it is." Julio sat down beside her. "Maybe that's the cost of moving away. Maybe you lose everything. We don't see a lot of our cousins from Spain here."
"Your cousins from Spain are nine or ten generations away, querido," Coco said. "You didn't know them in life, either."
"But that's the whole point. I might run into Mexican cousins that distant, but not Spanish ones. That tie is sundered."
"This is getting depressing," Victoria said, and reached for some bread. "The living world is getting smaller, not bigger. I'm sure that all of this" -- she pointed vaguely at several buildings -- "makes allowances for the world getting smaller. We just don't know them because they don't apply to us. Maybe Miguel will marry a Viking, and we'll find out."
"More likely, it will be Abel," Coco said. "He was becoming quite the ladies' man. He brought different girls around all the time. I could see him bringing home a Swedish girl."
This shifted the conversation, as it always did (and as Coco had undoubtedly intended). Since Miguel's visit, the family had been quite curious about the other living children, who usually were asleep before the long conversations the adults apparently had on Día de Muertos (to which the dead were, of course, invited) and Coco had spent many of her last years looking after them while the family worked. There wasn't much to say yet about the twins, Benny and Manny, who mainly liked to run wildly around the courtyard. Coco had sung to them as she'd sung to all of the others, but only Miguel had really responded. ("Though Rosa always listened carefully," she said.) Abel was an athlete and very popular in school. He was also a good artist, though he kept that quiet from his friends. Rosa loved her books.
"She read to me, toward the end," Coco said. "I always liked stories, but I couldn't see well enough to read. I couldn't say much to her about them, but she would sit with me after school and read things."
"What kind of stories did you like?" Héctor asked.
"Oh, I loved stories with dragons. She read The Hobbit to me twice when she was nine. She finished it, and I asked her to go right back to the beginning." She smiled mischievously. "The last couple of years, she found some romances. I liked those. But I had to promise not to tell Berto and Carmen that she had them. She read me one about a vampire, of all things, and a werewolf. It was quite silly, but we had fun with it. And there was a boy wizard, and one about a boy who goes hunting for a beast in South America. He has his grandmother with him, so we had fun with that one, too." She smiled sadly. "I wish I could have talked more. We could have imagined much better. But I kept forgetting my words."
Imelda reached across the table and held Coco's hand. "You remember them now, and someday, after a long while, you can tell Rosa how much you liked the stories."
"There will be a new baby by now," Coco said.
"There is? You didn't tell us that!"
"Yes, Luisa was almost ready when I left. Miguel will be someone's big brother these days." She sighed. "I wanted to stay and see what sort it would be, and maybe hum something -- maybe even where Elena could hear -- but I didn't quite make it."
"Well, she won't need secret humming," Imelda said. "Maybe Elena will sing to the baby herself these days. I hope so."
"Speaking of singing," Julio said, "are you two going to the plaza again tonight?"
Héctor shook his head. "No. Clara wants us to put together a whole concert, though. Frida thinks it should be in the stadium. She showed me some art ideas for it."
"No!" Imelda said, pretending to wince. "No more dancing Fridas."
"You wouldn't have to dress up like her this time."
She sighed. "I don't want to do a concert, Héctor. I'm happy being a shoemaker who loves to sing with her husband sometimes."
Héctor looked down. "I'm sorry."
"For asking? Don't be. And if you want to do a concert, I'll be in the front row this time. Sorry if Frida is already doing art…"
Héctor laughed. "Oh, she'd be doing it, anyway. It's what she loves. I told her the chances were pretty slim."
"But you could…"
"No. I think I'd rather it just be something that makes us happy. We'll sing in the workshop. Standing room only. Let the Fuentes kid have the big shows. He's good."
Imelda nodded, but gave Héctor a strange little smile. She let the subject drop. The family settled around the picnic, made up more stories about Astrid and Inga, and kept each other entertained as the sun set, sending golden bands across the bay. Coco told more stories of the children, and once things were calm and peaceful, Héctor asked for stories of the other adults, who had never seen. He'd know them on sight, he was sure, and he was assured that he would like everyone (even the stubborn Elena), but that wasn't the same as knowing the silly little details of their lives that made them seem real. He was still vague about Elena's husband Franco, and had only sketchy information about Berto and Gloria, and almost nothing about Berto's wife, Carmen. He even felt a little bit lost on Miguel's parents -- his own great-grandson Enrique, and his wife Luisa.
"She's such a pretty thing," Coco said. "I was about to give Enrique up like the tíos -- "
"How old was he?"
"Well, only thirty, but he hadn't shown any signs of even looking for a wife." She shook her head. "Then one morning, just before Día de los Muertos, he and I went to the tomb to tune the guitar, and the sexton's daughter was waiting at the door. She was eighteen, and such a picture. I think Enrique fell in love on the spot. Miguel looks like her, actually."
"I thought Miguel looked like me," Héctor said, pretending to be hurt.
"He has your hair, mi amor," Imelda told him, and gave him an exaggerated pat on the back.
"Anyway, Enrique was always sure he was robbing a cradle, but Luisa is a persistent girl. I liked her right away. I had a stroke before the next year, and she started letting him into the tomb alone to tune the guitar. I wasn't surprised when they announced their engagement. Enrique was so much happier after that."
"I don't remember him being unhappy," Victoria said. "He always had friends. He played basketball with them."
"Yes, and they all got married and had children and settled into that part of life. Enrique was still wandering around wondering where they'd all gotten off too." Coco poured herself some wine. "But after Luisa came along, he came back to himself. He was so happy when Miguel was born. You'd think no one else had ever been a father in the history of the world."
"We all feel that way, mija," Héctor said.
"And we're all right about it," Julio put in. "No one else has ever been the same father we will be. And we're a different father to each child, too. Victoria and Elena both needed different papas, so I got to be a new Julio for each of them."
"You were always the same Julio," Coco said. "You just always know what people need in the world."
As usual, this turned into a general conversation about what their lives had been like. This always made Héctor a little melancholy. Not sad, exactly, but it made him feel all the things that had been taken from him. What would he have been like as a father to a teenage daughter instead of a toddler? What kind of grandfather might he have been? It was hard to tell. He had over hundred years of memories and experiences, and they had made him grow, but in his mind, he was still the twenty-one year old boy who'd followed Ernesto off on the road. Imelda said that she mainly felt like the twenty-something young mother she'd once been, but he suspected that she was only saying that to make him feel better about never having a chance to be old.
He let them talk around him. Imelda's fingers wound through his eventually, and she leaned on his shoulder, and the brief grayness lifted. They'd lost time, but Miguel had given it back to them. They were remembered solidly, and would be for many years to come, and there was no reason that they wouldn't be spending the next century together.
After the meal, the sun was down and a pleasant breeze came in over the water, possibly blowing through from all of those islands and continents far away, where people were reincarnating or preparing for Ragnarok, or maybe just looking down from some fluffy cloud to keep track of their beloved descendants. The family got up together and headed home, walking together through the winding streets of the city. Héctor looked up at the sky, where little bridges briefly flashed into being and then disappeared as newcomers arrived at Marigold Grand Central. He had once haunted the plaza there, trying to rush at those fragile things, desperate to get home. He hadn't been the only one. Most people gave up after a while.
Imelda lifted his hand and put it over her shoulder, leaning against him and slipping her arm around his waist as they walked, her hand resting on his hip bone.
When they got back to the house, everyone disappeared up to their floors. He heard Coco turn on a record player, and knew she and Julio were dancing. Rosita and Victoria were most likely playing cards on their floor, and whatever the twins settled into seemed to involve loud explosions from time to time.
Imelda sat down at her work table and pulled out a set of pumps she'd been working on. Héctor got his guitar (found leaning against the wall, though he was fairly sure he'd left it in the practice room), and sat across from her, playing a quiet song.
She watched his fingers for a while, then shook her head and went back to the shoe. "Héctor, do you want to do the concert?"
He stopped playing. "What?"
"The concert that the girl -- Clara? -- was talking about."
"I thought we'd set that aside."
"No. I said I didn't want to do it, and you went along with it. There's a difference. What do you want?"
"The same thing I've wanted for the last century. To be with my family. To be your husband."
"I'm a shoemaker," Imelda said. "That doesn't make me not a mother and grandmother, and it certainly doesn't make me not your wife."
"Why? Because it's not a real vocation? Because you think it doesn't matter as much to me, so it can't be a rival?"
"Are you angry at me?"
"No." She stared at the shoe. "For what it's worth, I love shoes. I love making them exactly right. I love seeing people wearing my shoes out on the street. I get up in the middle of the night sometimes if I have an idea for a really nice pair. That's why this world provided a workshop for me."
She set the shoe down and came around the table, putting her hands over his on the guitar. "I love singing with you again. It's been fun, going out onto the plaza. And it means everything to me that you still want me up there with you."
"You're still amazing."
She smiled "I am, sort of. I'm very good actually. And I love it. But all I ever wanted was for it be part of me. To sing at the top of my lungs and to hear you play and to dance… for myself. For you. But I was right about one thing. You did want to play for the world. You once told me that you wanted to know if the world would think you were as good as I did."
"Well, I have my answer. Ernesto made himself very famous on my songs. They loved my songs. So I know the answer, I don't need -- "
"Héctor, please," Imelda said, leaning her forehead against his. "Please stop trying to be what you think I want. Please just be Héctor. I want him very much. And I saw him earlier, talking to the twins and Julio. I sing with him at the plaza sometimes. But I wanted you to come out to the plaza because I couldn't think how else to get you be you again! Full time, I mean. Not just when you forget that I'm looking."
Héctor carefully disentangled their hands and set the guitar down against the workbench. He took her hands again. "Imelda, I walked away. I can't think about all of those things -- concerts, fame, any of it -- without remembering where it led to: A poisoned drink and a grimy train station. I traded everything that mattered for that." He kissed her forehead. "Of course, it wouldn't have been worth the trade even if it hadn't ended where it did…"
"And you wouldn't have done it!" She turned away from him and went to the window. "Or weren't you really coming home?"
"Of course I was!"
"You didn't trade us. And if you'd come home and Ernesto had been a sane human being, he'd have bought your songs -- maybe not 'Remember Me,' but the others -- and you'd have been my husband and Coco's father and a musician. Maybe they would have even put you in movies, too, and it wouldn't have meant you'd have left us. I was the one who made it an ultimatum. You never wanted it to be a conflict." She crossed her arms. "I know some men thought you should stop me having a business. That was another thing de la Cruz harped on, how I shamed you by making more money. But you never even asked me to stop."
"Well, it never bothered me, Imelda. That makes it a little different. And I know you love your shoes. But you didn't have shoe fans lining up outside the door asking you for one little kiss along with a polish."
She gave him a sharp look, then smiled. "And here you told me that only happened to Ernesto."
"That was a lie," Héctor said. "But I told them I was married and turned them away, and that is the truth."
"I appreciate it."
"The lie or the truth?"
"Both." She took a deep breath. "And in the spirit of truth-telling, Héctor… real truth-telling: What do you want to do?"
Héctor thought about it. There was a part of him, and not a small part, that wanted to be up on that stage, hearing the applause, playing his songs. He didn't want to be there alone, though. And in the end, he wasn't sure it was the performance he wanted. The applause was nice, but what he enjoyed most -- and always had -- was the part that came before it. The writing. The rehearsing. Working on arrangements. He did enjoy setting up big shows, but that was the part of the work he enjoyed: creating the show, and working with other creative people. As for performing, he'd always enjoyed smaller venues. He loved being on stage and clowning and singing and talking to the audience, but that was almost impossible in a big stadium show, where the crowd was just a faceless mass. The plaza was fine. It was like the plaza in Santa Cecilia, or the theater there, where he could see people enjoying themselves. It was a little bigger than playing in a tavern -- which he also enjoyed -- but it wasn't an ocean of faces turned up at him, none with any particular meaning.
"I want to be a musician again," he finally said. "But I don't want a big concert. I want to write songs. I want to sing with you. But if the songs are going to be in a big stadium… as long as no one is pretending I didn't write them, I'm perfectly happy for someone else to perform them. Maybe I could even help put the shows together."
Imelda looked at him for a while, obviously trying to judge the truth of his statement, then finally nodded. "All right, then. In that case… why don't you go work on that during the day? Help Frida with a big show. Write the songs for it. Write an opera about Astrid and Inga doing ballet on their skis if you want to. But don't waste every day pretending you want to learn about shoes. I know you don't."
"I do want to be with you. I… ballet on skis?"
"Who says I can't have ideas?"
"Certainly not me." He went over and kissed her cheek. "You won't miss me if I'm gone during the day?"
"Every second, but you can make it up to me at night."
"Or maybe on a trip to Valhalla…"
"Now you're just teasing me."
They held onto each other for a long moment, then Imelda sighed and said, "I really do need to finish the shoes. They're for Frida. You can deliver them when you go tomorrow."
"In the meantime, will you play for me while I work?"
"That, mi amor, is a concert I always want to do."