Sueño con la tierra donde florecen los gemelos
Y el dulce perfume de la hierba y el trébol
Y cuando sueño, o cuán real parece ...
Justo más allá del vidrio
I dream of the land where the twinflowers bloom
And the sweet perfume of the clover and grass
And when I dream, oh how real it all seems...
Just beyond the window glass.
Héctor dreamed of himself as an old man.
This wasn’t a dream he’d ever had before. He’d wished to be old, but he’d never really imagined himself into the place of being old.
But now, he was. His body wanted to bend, but at the same time it felt like nothing would move. He could feel the sun beating down on him. At first, he wasn’t sure where he was, but then it was clear. He was in Santa Cecilia, in Imelda’s workshop. He was just sitting there, enjoying his family around him. His fingers were too stiff to play the guitar anymore, but someone else was playing. Miguel? No. Not Miguel. He never would have lived to see Miguel born. He couldn’t tell who it was. Beside him, a little boy with a thick shock of black hair was holding his hand and smiling at him. But he was also crying.
“Hey, niño,” he said, picking the child up and putting him on his lap. “What is it? Did the evil spirits steal your tongue?” He made a playful grab at the boy’s mouth, which earned him a giggle, then suddenly, the boy hugged him tightly, and Héctor could feel his own heartbeat and the child’s melding together, just as he’d felt when he held Coco tightly when she was a child, and now this wasn’t even her child, but her child’s child, this was…
“Be at peace, Papá Héctor,” the boy whispered.
Héctor opened his mouth to protest, to say that he was more at peace than he’d ever been, and how could he not be, with his family around him and the sun shining through the windows of Imelda’s shop?
But then he looked across, and the wall had become a mirror. He was bones again – young bones, with his own thatch of black hair. The child was a man, and he was holding Héctor’s hand, but he wasn’t smiling. He…
Héctor tried to squeeze the hand back, to let the man he now thought might be Miguel’s father know that he was all right, but his fingers went right through the warm hand.
He searched for the right name, and finally whispered “Enrique…” but then the dream fell apart and he was shaking himself awake in the semi-darkness of the city’s night. Imelda was sitting up beside him. She was wearing a light silk cover over her ribs. A purplish light from the square was playing through the window, casting dancing streaks through her hair, which she’d allowed him to take down earlier.
“Are you all right?” she asked. “Héctor?”
“I just… dreamed about Miguel’s father. Talking to me.” He told her as much as he could remember.
She nodded thoughtfully. “And that’s the first time you’ve had a dream like that?”
“The first time about someone I’ve never met…”
“Did you ever dream about Coco or me talking to you? Or de la Cruz, for that matter?”
“I didn’t really sleep much until I came here. At first, I did a little bit. I always dreamed about you and Coco.”
“Was I sometimes yelling at you?”
“And Coco was… what, rescuing you?”
She nodded again. “I think we all pick things up like that when the living are thinking hard about us. Not all the time, but sometimes, if they’re feeling connected to us. And we happen to be asleep at the time.”
“Well, then I wouldn’t have dreamed about Ernesto. I doubt he gave me a second thought after he killed me. And I definitely didn’t sleep for the first week or so. I was at the station all day, all night, waiting for people to arrive. Trying to follow their little bridges. Anything to get back.”
“You did that? I saw people doing that when I first came, and I didn’t think it would ever work. I’d seen the bridge disappearing behind me.”
“And everyone trying it knows that.” Héctor sighed. “But when it’s sudden, you just feel like there must have been a mistake, like somehow or other, there will be a way to get a do-over. Anyway, if Ernesto gave me any thought at all, it was probably right afterward, wondering if anyone would find my body and figure it out. By the time I finally gave up and moved into the city and started sleeping now and then, he’d probably moved on to some other interest.
“You’re probably right about that. But I spent a lot of time thinking about you very intensely.”
Héctor thought about it. “I did dream of you sometimes. Sometimes…. Well, as a man dreams of a wife he misses very much.”
“That very well could have come from me,” Imelda admitted. “I always felt like that was the last thing I should miss, but…” She shrugged. “I always enjoyed being your wife. There may have been more than one time over the years that I was thinking of it very intensely.”
“Were you?” Héctor reached across and ran his thumb over the inside of her lowest rib, a trick he’d found out weeks ago made her shiver.
She gave a very satisfying shiver, then shook it off and pushed his hand away playfully. “Of course, I was just as often yelling at you and lecturing you.”
“Once, I dreamed we were seeing a moving picture, and you were angry at me, but you wouldn’t listen to me. Only I wasn’t sure what we were talking about. You kept saying I broke the guitar.”
“I saw de la Cruz’s first movie. I saw the guitar. I… That was when I went to talk to him and he told me those lies. I was thinking about you a lot then.”
They didn’t talk. Imelda, with a guilty little smile, ran her finger up his vertebrae, making a sound like a primitive percussion instrument. It took his mind entirely off the dream for a moment, but she took her hand away and looked at him sternly. “Sorry. So you dreamed you were with Enrique and he told you to be at peace?”
“Yes. Why would Enrique be saying that?”
“I don’t know. But we know they’re working on your case. I heard from that woman in the heirloom division – they’ve canceled the hearing over the guitar because ownership has shifted. She assumes it has something to do with the living, and Coco said Enrique helped her keep the guitar in tune. Maybe he knows you’d have been worried about that.”
Enrique shook his head. “I wasn’t playing it. I heard it, and maybe it was Miguel. I thought it couldn’t be because I thought I was alive, but I wasn’t. It was….”
“I think symbols make the crossing much more easily than concrete things. They’re bridges in a way. At least that’s what I think.”
“Or maybe things just get jumbled on the trip.”
Héctor took a deep breath. “I don’t think it’s the guitar. I think it’s… I think maybe…”
“They found you?”
“Maybe. Do you think it’s possible?”
“It… could be.”
“Do you think Ernesto might have buried me somewhere decently after all? Maybe just not told?”
“No.” She sighed and stroked his hair. “I don’t think he’d have taken that kind of risk. If he’d meant to do that, he’d have told me a lie about a chorizo and let me bury you. I’m sorry, Héctor.”
“No, don’t be. It’s a ridiculous moment of hope. He murdered me and stole everything I had, but maybe he buried me decently, so he really was my friend. You know.” Héctor smiled nervously. “I didn’t even know I felt that until I said it out loud.”
“I knew. Somewhere, I knew you were feeling it. Losing your idol, losing your life…”
“He wasn’t my idol.”
“You could have fooled me.”
“You were my idol. I always wanted to be more like you.”
“No, you didn’t.” She lay down, pulling him down beside her. “You loved me. But the one always wanted to be was de la Cruz.”
“I didn’t, though.” Héctor curled up beside her, resting against the curve of her ribs. “Not the way he really was. I wanted to be charming and loved by everyone sometimes. I wanted to be who said he was. But I knew him. I knew most of it was an act. I knew how he was with girls. I hated that. I hated knowing it. So I mostly told myself that I was the one being a prude.”
“He wasn’t the only one. I knew so many men like that. I didn’t want to run around thinking, ‘Oh, I’m so much better.’ But I hated it, Imelda.”
She smiled down at him and stroked his hair fondly. “You would have liked some of the changes that have come along. Even in Santa Cecilia. I think you’ll like the world more now than you did then. At least in some ways.”
“And other ways?”
“We’ve lost a lot. The world gets smaller and everyone becomes more alike.”
“Fewer harmonies. More cacophonies and stage-hogging solos.”
“Is that what it’s like when everyone is equal?”
“It was never like that with us…”
Héctor winked. “Well, I never quite rose to being an equal of the empress…”
She didn’t smile, as he’d intended. “You once told me that you would never allow anyone to say I wasn’t a lady, not even me. I will never allow you to say that we were not equals. You were my partner. My friend. The only person I depended on as much as you depended on me. I will be your empress, but only if you see yourself as equal.”
Héctor opened his mouth to tell her that he loved her, but words didn’t come out. Instead, he just pulled her closer to him, and, entwined, they waited for the morning together.
He gave her a long kiss before they left the room at sunrise. She was the first into the workshop as usual. She had an idea for an interesting heel that she wanted to try. Héctor went to his practice room and worked on a number for a show Frida was sponsoring, based on the ridiculous Viking stories. It was almost an opera, which was a form he’d never even attempted. Usually, he made up a rough narrative to join songs on the stage. He’d never started with a libretto. Especially one of Frida’s. Of course, she had never written an opera before, either. (“Then again, I did not exactly make myself known for staging popular music shows in the living world,” she’d said, “but I find I enjoy it. Why should we not enjoy this new thing?”) There was a lot of incidental music to write, but Héctor had decided to start with the set pieces.
There would be a comedy number when Astrid and Arturo – the secondary couple – were arguing about the merits of Valhalla versus Mictlan. Astrid was very interested in matters of the body, while Arturo would do some bone separating tricks and extol the glories of flexibility. (The actor they had in mind for Arturo had learned to stack his bones, while singing, until he was about ten feet tall.)
The more serious A plot, about Inga and Timoteo, would need a ballad for each of them, and a duet. The duet was written. It took place across a barrier Frida had imagined, with snow and ice and bodies on one side, and sunlight and skeletons on the other, as they sang about losing each other to different worlds, and how they longed to reach through the barrier. Héctor had worked closely with Frida on this one, because she had a lot of ideas once the concept had occurred to her. She’d apparently taken many lovers who she hadn’t seen and thought she never would because they didn’t belong here.
Inga’s solo was this morning’s project. Through a series of events that finally brought her across (with her faithful sister, Astrid), she had been turned into a skeleton, and her flying stallion had become a multicolored alebrije – horselike, but with a bird’s beak and tailfeathers, and dragon’s claws. She’d started out enchanted by it, and thrilled to be with Timoteo, but she was homesick. Oscar had come up with the interesting trivia that one of Sweden’s national flowers was called the twinflower, and that was the basis of the song…. The twinning of Inga and Astrid, the pairing of Inga and Timoteo, and even the mutually reflective worlds of Mictlan and Valhalla. No flowers grew here, and Inga would walk along the shore and sing about twinflowers, and why the world couldn’t be like they were, with both blossoms on the same shared stem. Frida loved this idea. “The stem is humanity!” she had cried when Héctor had brought it up. “That’s right, isn’t it? The stem is humanity and the blossoms are what we make of ourselves?”
Héctor, who’d until then mostly thought of it as a pretty flower and an interesting coincidence, given the twin theme, had felt it snap into place when she said that, and he’d been hard at work on it for days. He’d never listen to Scandinavian music before, and it turned out to be hard to come by here. Oscar’s friends in the library had finally found some. It had a flavor that felt to Héctor like the seafaring adventures that they’d once had, lilting with the waves and soaring with the winds. He’d need to find someone who could play the pipes. Barring that, he thought he could find an oboe player who could get a reasonably good sound in a pinch. Gustavo had toyed with more than the violin over the years.
He closed his eyes to try and imagine the scene again. Inga, in a stable with the alebrije. She would have her hand on its mane at the start. The song began softly, as she remembered the fields where her horse had grazed. Green, so green, with daisies and clovers and most of all the twinflowers. It would start a capella, with the instrumentation coming in softly and gradually.
Be at peace, Papá Héctor.
The stable, flimsy and whimsical dream that it was, disappeared in his imagination, and he was in the workshop again, with his living family. Enrique, both child and man, was beside him. Miguel was… what was he doing?
He was playing the guitar. The real one. Héctor closed his eyes and saw everything with complete clarity. Miguel was sitting in a quiet room filled with photographs. One was the photo of Héctor and his family. He had been up all night. There were guttering candles around him, but he was still playing. His fingers were bleeding. (Héctor was not as concerned about this as he supposed most people would be; he’d played his own fingers bloody more than once, and that had certainly not been what had killed him.) But now he was exhausted, and he was drifting off to sleep.
And so was Héctor. He felt himself drowsing in the morning sun, his pen slipping from his hand as the dream? Vision? became clearer.
Beside him, Enrique became more solidly a man. He was pulling a suitcase that seemed to have wheels and a handle built into it, and he left it beside the door, out in a courtyard. He knelt beside Miguel and said, “Mijo, you need to sleep. Your mamá says you’ve been here all night.”
“Papá? You’re back already?”
“Yes. I’ve talked to them. Everyone is working to help him, Miguel. Everyone. We’re not alone in this. But you said you were ready for school.”
“I was. I did go.”
“And you left after lunch. You stopped in the middle of test. Your teachers were worried.”
“Don’t say you’re sorry, talk to me.”
Miguel shrugged helplessly. “I was trying to talk to Papá Héctor,” he said, pointing at the guitar. “But it didn’t work.”
“Yes it did, chamaco!” Héctor said, going forward. “Come on, mijo, listen to me. Talk to me.”
“How would you know?” Enrique asked. “Maybe he’s listening. What did you want to say?”
Miguel opened his mouth, then frown and gave a strange little laugh. “I don’t even know. I’ve been trying to talk to him all night and I don’t know what I want to say!”
“How about, we found you and we’re bringing you home?” Enrique suggested.
Héctor looked up. “You did?”
“Yeah,” Miguel said. “Yeah, that’s good. But what about the rest? The mummy? The… circus.”
“He doesn’t need to know.”
Héctor narrowed his eyes, not sure he wanted to know whatever they were talking about. But it didn’t matter. Whatever it was, it was just his body. What mattered was Miguel, who looked about eighty years old and ready to cross his own marigold bridge.
Enrique, obviously seeing the same thing, said, “Miguel, you need to get back here to this side of the bridge. Do you understand me? I want you to take steps away from it. You aren’t carrying this alone.”
“I don’t think you do.” He held out his hand. “Come on. You’re going to get some sleep. And when you wake up, we’re going to do something… else. Anything else. Think of something. Do you want to go to a movie? Or go hiking? Go for a drive? Whatever you want that isn’t about all of this.”
Miguel nodded and reached up to take Enrique’s hand. As he stood, he seemed to pass right through Héctor’s left arm. He looked over his shoulder, as if he’d heard something, then let Enrique lead him away.
Héctor followed. It wasn’t exactly a choice. It was more like being caught in a current. He imagined himself as a leaf being pulled along a stream.
Miguel fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow, and Enrique knelt beside him, carefully leaning the guitar against the wall. He stroked Miguel’s hair, then said, “Papá Héctor, if you did hear him, if you can, tell him it’s all right. Tell him to be a kid again. He’s too young for this, and he won’t listen to any of us.”
He left the room.
Héctor looked at Miguel, who seemed very small. He looked out the window, and was not surprised to see that there was nothing there.
He wasn’t a leaf. He was marigold petal on a tiny bridge, and it would disappear soon.
He touched Miguel’s head.
And was suddenly on the backstage in the plaza. Miguel was wearing his skeleton makeup, but it floated over translucent flesh. He was sitting on a crate, Chicharron’s guitar on his knee.
Héctor sat down across from him. “Hey, chamaco.”
He looked up, and a real smile came over his face. “Papá Héctor!”
“You’re a stubborn kid, you know.”
“I told you I was.” Héctor leaned forward. “You’re not, though. Miguel, you’re twelve.”
“Thirteen, yes, that makes all the difference.” Héctor rolled his eyes, making them do a complete backflip in his skull.
Miguel’s mouth twitched into something that was either a smile or a grimace of disgust. Either was fine with Héctor. “I miss you,” he said.
“Oh, I miss you, too. I think about you every day. We all talk about you. I can’t wait to see you on Día de Muertos. But I have other friends, too. I’m writing an opera with Frida Kahlo. About Vikings riding alebrijes.”
“What…?” Miguel gave him a confused look.
“It’s fun. Mamá Imelda got me started on it. She reminded me that I should be Héctor. She’s a smart woman.”
“Yes! I love Mamá Imelda. Does she know that? Because I was kind of rude to her.”
“She knows it, Miguel. But I’ll remind her. But I know what she’d say to you is that you need to be Miguel again, all right?”
“But your body… they found it, and it was a mummy and there was a circus and it was really disrespectful and –”
Héctor had a moment’s awful vision of what Miguel was saying. He wanted to scream. But it wasn’t important. The important thing was the boy. “It’s a body,” Héctor said. “I’m glad to have it come home, and I thank you for it. But whatever happened to it, I wasn’t there for it. I was here. And I’ve got a good afterlife now. You need to go and have a good life.”
“I’m going to sit with you when the bring you back.”
“All right. I’d like that. But when you wake up, you go someplace fun. Play something happy on the guitar. Dance. Laugh. Laugh at me, if you want. Make a mummy joke.”
Héctor considered this. “Fair enough. But it’s all right. It’s all right, Miguel. You’re all right.”
Miguel looked over Héctor’s shoulder, toward the stage. “Do you think we could sing together?”
Héctor smiled. “Teach me your new song. How about that? Teach it to me, and I’ll sing it with Mamá Imelda at the Plaza.”
And Miguel brightened. The dream became a lesson, and Héctor heard most of the new song. There was a bridge where Miguel was still not sure what he wanted to say, but the idea – Amor verdadero nos une por siempre – was there all along. Héctor listened and learned until the dream fell into wisps, and he knew no more until Coco shook his shoulder and said, “Papá? You sleep like the dead.”