Érase una vez, jugué
una canción de luz y amor--
Una canción de gracia gentil,
Y desde arriba, un susurro
pero la canción fue envenenada
Y todos nos enfermamos
La música marchita en la vid
y cayó en lágrimas y polvo
y rompió los corazones que sanó
con un choque todopoderoso
Dejó mi alma desgarrada,
mi corazón se avergonzó
Once upon a time, I played
a golden song of light and love--
A song of beauty and of grace
that whispered from above
but the song became a poison
when a push became a shove
The music withered on the vine
and fell to dust and ash
and broke the hearts it once had healed
with one almighty crash
and left my soul ashamed and torn,
my broken heart abashed
Héctor knew they’d found his songbook long before it appeared in Más Alla, and even before the dream.
It was early morning. He was working with the conductor (a man called Eduardo, who was also a composer and understood Héctor in a kind of happy shorthand) while the new cast did a cold reading, and suddenly something went through him, something like the explosion of fireworks, or the burst of foam from a champagne bottle. He hadn’t thought he was tired or slow, but suddenly, he was so fully awake and aware of things that he felt like he’d been in a coma for… years, really. Maybe he’d been starting to wake up over the last few months, but it had been the wakefulness of an invalid.
The thing that happened hit him so hard that he actually stumbled backward, clutching at his head. It seemed like he suddenly knew all of the places in his score that needed shoring up, and all of the right ways to do it. Songs played against each other in his head, point and counterpoint, melodies he knew and melodies that were yet to come.
It was like thousands of people had suddenly called his name.
Thousands of people suddenly knew his name. Everything in their lives that had been twined through with his music was suddenly attaching itself to Héctor Rivera.
Was this what Ernesto felt all the time? Was this what it was like to be known?
“Are you all right?” Eduardo asked.
“My head…” Héctor put his hands to his forehead, trying to make the music sort itself out. It was wonderful, but dizzying and a little bit frightening.
The songbook was the only thing that could have made it happen. He hadn’t felt this when they found his body. No one but the family really cared.
They knew. They knew everything.
It took almost an hour to get his head back in order. Frida, who also dealt with it on a regular basis, fed him glasses of cold water and told him that he needed to focus.
Finally, his mind was his own again, and he still had all the answers that had come to him. He made himself work on the play, but even as he did, new snatches of music were playing inside his head. He wanted to get Imelda and go to the plaza and play for hours.
He was still buzzing from whatever it was when he did get home in the evening. The family had all felt some degree of it, but Imelda had gotten the most of it. She was practically dancing at her work station.
“Memories,” Julio said. “It’s the memories.”
Héctor hadn’t been able to sleep for three days. Nothing appeared in Más Alla, and he didn’t go around asking the new arrivals. They had enough on their minds at the moment. But he needed to know.
And if Miguel had been able to call him, maybe he could call Miguel.
He picked up a guitar and began to play “Poco Loco.”
He played most of his repertoire, including “Remember Me,” but it was “Poco Loco” he kept coming back to, thinking as hard as he could of Miguel. If his fingers could still bleed, they would have been bleeding.
But he couldn’t drift off, and the connection couldn’t come any other way, not really.
So he set down the guitar, closed the door and turned off the light and tried to at least make himself drift… drift on the ocean, drift on the waters that ran through Olvidados. Drift like marigold petal falling into the abyss and…
…Miguel was up and in a frilly room, walking a squalling baby in the moonlight, humming to her. Héctor couldn’t get into what he was thinking because he wasn’t asleep. But he was here. He’d managed a connection, if a shoddy one, where he couldn’t see anything beyond the window, where even the walls of the room seemed fuzzy.
“What’s happening, mijo?” he asked.
Miguel’s song paused, and he stood up straighter. “Hello?” he called.
Héctor laughed at himself. He hadn’t really thought about much beyond making the connection, and now he had no idea how to use it.
Miguel went back to his song, a lullaby that he had obviously made just for her, “And pretty cousin Rosa plays the violin for you, and lovely Tía Gloria will play a game of peek-a-boo…”
It was actually soothing, and helped Héctor get his mind focused. Miguel’s voice was getting stronger.
“Mamá Coco watches you from somewhere far away, and Papá Julio guides you along to a place where you can stay…” This was followed by a few la-las and lu-lus. Then Miguel narrowed his eyes again, but kept singing. “And Papá Héctor’s somewhere close, so we can sing our songs…” He took a breath, then, keeping it in melody, but not trying for real lyrics. “I feel like it’s true, you know. I feel like you can hear me. We found it, Papá Héctor. It’s coming home very soon. You were on the front page of El Universal. Can you hear me? I wish I knew…”
Then he went back to humming, and the baby quieted down and then the room was disintegrating. The connection broke. It would just never be strong when Héctor couldn’t actually be across the bridge, but it did make him look forward to Día de Muertos (presuming the photo fragment Coco had saved would be enough). If he could make any connection at all without the bridge, then it should be a strong one when he did.
He opened his eyes.
So it wasn’t just found. It had been in the paper. On the front page. Héctor didn’t delude himself into thinking it was all about the music. The music was obviously important to people—he had felt how important it was to them over the last few days—but newspapers didn’t care about what songs people had danced to on their first dates.
Whatever got the story on the front page, it would have to be about Ernesto, really. About how they had found the book, and what it implied.
What had possessed Ernesto to actually keep the thing? Why hadn’t he just copied everything under his own name and burned it?
Oh, but that was easy enough. He’d kept it to gloat over.
There was a knock at the door, and Victoria’s voice called, “Papá Héctor?”
“Come in,” Héctor called. “It’s all right.”
She opened the door and came in. The house was in its state of urban semi-darkness. “Still not sleeping?”
“I managed a few minutes,” he said, following her out into the sitting room.
“Your bones are practically glowing, you know. Not the bad yellow way, either.” She sat down on the couch, and he sat across from her in a wing chair.
“Something’s going on.” He told her briefly about trying to contact Miguel. “Do you think it’s real?” he asked. “It feels real, but is it supposed to work that way? It never worked that way when I thought of Coco.”
“Mamá was never here. Do you want to know what I think?”
“You’ve said that you felt like you saw what happened in the workshop, like part of you went with Miguel.”
“I don’t think that’s metaphorical. I think he brought part of you back with him. I don’t know how long it will last. We’re meant to be whole and in one place. It will probably correct itself on Día de los Muertos when the rest of you is there. But I think that’s why you can sometimes make that connection. And yes, I think it’s real. It makes a lot of sense. People are remembering your songs, and learning who you are. All of those memories are part of you now.”
Héctor sat there for a few minutes, staring out the window at a flashing sign, then said. “It feels good.”
“But isn’t this fame? Isn’t it what Ernesto wanted?”
“It shouldn’t be good.” He looked at her. “Victoria, everything that’s coming into my head… the music went to good places. It was first dances. Weddings. Parties. All the great parts of people’s lives. How could he feel all of this and not… not…?”
“Not at least regret killing for it?” she guessed.
“I don’t know. But depending on what exactly they found, there may be some memory poisoning.”
Héctor winced. He’d seen cases of it. It wasn’t fatal in any final way, but he’d seen other people in the land of the dead sicken badly when some memory of them became tainted. “I wish it wouldn’t. I wish it didn’t hurt anyone.”
“You can’t control that.”
“It makes me feel guilty about feeling good.”
“Well, stop that right now.” She rolled her eyes hugely. “The memory poisoning doesn’t come from you. The memory poisoning is entirely on de la Cruz.”
“But it wouldn’t be happening to people if they still thought of him as—“
“Stop right now. I mean it. Memory poisoning clears up for anyone who’s not responsible for it. So they found out that their favorite song was sung by a murderer and written by his victim. In the end, they’ll realize that that doesn’t change their memories of dancing to it. Maybe it will make them think even more about the person they danced with!”
“But even if it doesn’t, that’s still not on you.”
Héctor didn’t argue. He knew she was right, logically. He also knew how he’d feel if he found out that something that had been an important part of his own memories had been built on a monstrous lie.
In fact, he did know. Hadn’t he had his memories poisoned as systematically as his body had been? Hadn’t the memories of the living been poisoned toward him, leaving him weak and shaky for years here?
“I wonder what’s happening Ernesto right now,” he said. “If this is happening to me…”
“If you go, will you please tell Mamá Imelda this time?”
But as it turned out, he didn’t need to go.
He tried over the next week to ignore the constant boosts of strength running through him. The story finally appeared in Más Alla on Thursday, when a music critic named Damian Mendoza passed over. The story had gotten a day of big play on the front page, but it was the music press that was following it now. “The newspapers aren’t showing everything,” he wrote. “But the rumor is that there was definitive proof that Ernesto de la Cruz murdered songwriter Héctor Rivera, found in a secret room beneath his vast estate, along with a collection of adult art which has not been shared with the press… if indeed, that’s all there was.”
The details of the find were fuzzy, because Mendoza had been one of Ernesto’s last defenders (“What can I say? The man ignited my life-long love of music, and I didn’t want to believe it”) and he was focused largely on how betrayed he felt, and how he wasn’t the only one feeling it. He implied melodramatically that he had died not of a sudden massive heart attack, but of a heart broken by such a deep cut.
Melodramatic, it might have been, but he was clearly distraught, and Héctor and Imelda went to visit him to try and give him some kind of comfort and get more information. He was still living in one of the hotels near Marigold Grand Central, where many people (Héctor included) stayed until they found their way somewhere else. The man was obviously still disoriented. He had frizzy white hair and wild eyes, and Héctor was willing to bet that the massive heart attack had been brought on not by heartbreak but by some kind of pharmaceutical overdose. The music business had always been full of that kind of thing, and probably always would be.
On the other hand, wasn’t that, in itself, a symptom of heartbreak? And what did it say about a business that ought to be about happiness that so many people found it necessary to wrap themselves up in every chemical known to man to keep from going crazy?
Once he stopped weeping and begging Héctor’s forgiveness for not believing immediately (Héctor just tried awkwardly to pat his shoulder during this, while Imelda straightened up the sparsely furnished room), he sat down on a padded chair and said, “Your family was there. I heard it from people. Lots of people. They didn’t go with the police, but they were there the day before, with the detective. A boy, especially, the one who was on television. The little mariachi singer. Manuel?”
“Miguel,” Imelda corrected, taking a seat at the little wooden table that mimicked the ones people were s supposed to send postcards or letters from. Héctor resisted the urge to open the little drawer to see if there was stationery. Imelda turned on the little lamp, because the sky was starting to get dark.
“Yes, Miguel, of course,” Mendoza said. “He’s a talented kid. I saw him play. Even I couldn’t think of anything nasty to say. I thought his tutor was using him to make a name, which I refused to give him by refusing to give him so much as a review. But the tutor was right.”
“What did they do?” Héctor asked.
“I don’t know. The rumor is that they went on the tour and told the detectives where to look. That they must have seen something. But they were definitely still in town when the news broke. It wasn’t the boy who was on television that time. I don’t remember the name. I was angry. I was sure it was a fake. It was an older man. The boy’s grandfather?”
“Could be.” Mendoza shrugged wildly. “The reporters were trying to get to the boy—he was in a truck and they were trying to drive away—and the man came out and said something like ‘You fame chasers have done enough! Leave the boy alone!’” He laughed wildly. “When was the press ever called fame chasers on behalf of a musician?”
“Did Miguel seem all right?” Héctor asked.
“I couldn’t tell. Why wouldn’t he be? He just proved his case, didn’t he?”
“He was a fan of Ernesto’s once.”
Mendoza nodded, as if this had been a profound statement. “Yes… yes, now that I think about it, he said that, back in his first interview.” He shook his head rapidly, like he was trying to shake water out of his ears. “Just before I died, there was a statement from the family. From…” He searched his mind. “I want to say… Elena? The older woman? They said she was the head of your family.”
“Our granddaughter,” Imelda said.
“Yes. She said that your family… what was it? She said they grieve with everyone else who was harmed by de la Cruz. I don’t remember all of it. I was already ill.”
Already high, Héctor corrected mentally, but didn’t say out loud.
He didn’t know anything else, really, but Héctor and Imelda stayed with him for the better part of three hours, listening to him ramble about the state of music world, and how it felt filthy to listen to any music now (Imelda muttered, “I sympathize” at one point), and generally letting him calm himself down. He asked them if they knew where he could find “a little something” for his nerves. Imelda told him that he no longer had nerves to do anything for. The only thing that seemed to calm him down was Héctor picking up his guitar and playing for a little while. He stopped jittering and started crying, but when the fit was done, he seemed to be all right. He thanked them.
“What a mess,” Imelda said as they stepped out into the street. “I don’t feel much like going to the plaza right now.”
“I feel like we should be happy at least.”
“Proving there was a murder and theft doesn’t make the murder and theft go away.” Héctor put his arm around her waist, and she leaned into him as they walked. “But I’m happy,” he said. “I mean, with everything other than this. Everything’s going to be all right.”
They kept walking aimlessly through the pleasant evening. After a while, Imelda said, “Do you think this will make a difference at the trial?”
“I don’t know. I think Ruiz would call this the magical part, not the legal one.”
“Do you think he’ll even still be here by the time we get to trial?”
“It’s in two weeks.”
“That’s not an answer. It’s—” Imelda stopped walking. “Héctor… look.”
They came around a corner. Héctor hadn’t realized where they were at all. Maybe the streets had just opened up to show them.
Ernesto’s mansion hadn’t re-grown to its original size, but it was now set apart, lit by sickly green lights, surrounded by a moat that looked like raw sewage, though no such thing could really exist here. The windows, which had always had a bit of a skull-like look to them (which, here, was more or less a friendly smile), had become ghoulish faces, grimacing down at the plaza below. If it had still been as high as it once had been, it would have been glowering over the whole city.
“Well,” a voice said from the shadows. “Look who’s come back.”
Héctor moved in front of Imelda before he even consciously recognized Ernesto’s voice. He put his hand on her wrist. He was protecting her, but not from Ernesto. She could protect herself from him. He was protecting her from her own temper, and he could tell by the way she was trying to pull away that it might be an uphill fight.
“Let go,” she said. “Just let me…”
“Imelda, remember what Ruiz said.”
“I don’t care!”
“Oh, let her,” Ernesto said, stepping out into the pale light cast by whatever was illuminating his house. “She always did fight your battles. A regular knight in shining armor for her damsel in distress.”
Imelda did pull away this time, and she pulled her shoe from her foot, slamming it into Ernesto’s face with one practiced swoop. The crack was thunderous in the quiet of the evening.
Ernesto laughed. “Go ahead. Keep going. Do you think it matters to me?”
Imelda obliged this, hitting him twice more in quick succession before Héctor could get himself between them again. He put his hands on Imelda’s shoulders and said, “Don’t let him bait you. I don’t want him to end up separating us for another hundred years because Ruiz wants to make an example of you.”
“It’s not Ruiz’s business.”
For a minute, she looked mutinous, then she bent down and put her shoe back on. When she stood up, she crossed her arms defiantly, glaring at Ernesto.
“What happened?” Héctor asked. “Here.” He gestured at the house.
“My spirit guides… guided me.” He looked across the moat, and Héctor saw three pairs of bright red eyes glowing in the twilight. Each was on a separate head, but heads shared a single body now, a body much bigger than all three of Ernesto’s Chihuahua dogs should have been together. They growled—a low, threatening sound. I left my ofrenda room, chasing them, and the door slammed shut, and then they… well, you can see, they went through a bit of a change. They came after me, and when I stopped running, I was over the threshold, and now, I can’t get back. Are you here to gloat?”
“I didn’t even realize I was in the neighborhood.”
“Of course not. Just following your… wife… as usual.” His eyes moved over Imelda. If he’d still had a nose, it would certainly have been wrinkled.
“Neither of us cared enough about you to hunt you down,” Imelda told him. “You’re nothing anymore. You never were anything.”
“Not true at all. I am Ernesto de la Cruz, and no matter what the living are saying now, it was Héctor who rode my coattails. All he ever did was scribble songs. I was the one who built our career.”
“You built your career on Héctor’s body,” Imelda fumed.
He laughed. “That’s very funny, when you look at it. Héctor never made much use of his body to begin with.”
“Will you both stop it?” Héctor asked. He looked at Ernesto. “Do you know what you did? Do you even have any idea?”
“What? Killing you?”
“No. Not me. We just came from a musician… people are hurt. Why did you poison everything? Even if you had to kill me—”
“Which he didn’t,” Imelda said. “He could have just hired you, like a normal human being…”
“—I still don’t understand why you had to keep going. You knew what it was to be a good man. You had it put into your scripts. Why didn’t you just follow them?”
“You still can’t tell the difference between movies and reality.” He shook his head and sat down on a wooden crate. “You never knew how life worked in the real world. You always thought, ‘Oh, it’s all about being talented!’ I had plenty of talent. You had plenty of talent. But you know how it worked? By people with power who wanted something from us, and I was the one who was willing to give it to them. Because that’s how the world moves on in its little trips around the sun. So while you waxed poetic, I found the people who could make things happen. Rich blancas who wanted a taste of salsa, and I gave it to them. Queridas and cariñas and mi almas until they couldn’t take it anymore, and then I just kept giving it to them until they begged to give us whatever I asked for… if for no other reason than to keep me from telling their fat cat husbands what they really liked. And the one time I asked you to carry your weight, you got high and mighty about it. So don’t tell me whose body built my career.”
Imelda snorted. “I’m sure my heart would be bursting with pity if I didn’t know that you treated those women the same as any of the girls you ruined in Santa Cecilia. And don’t even try to tell me those little starlets in the papers with you had favors to give.”
Ernesto shrugged, unconcerned. “Eventually, I was the one with the favors. That’s what success means. It means you stop needing to make trades. You’re the one people want to please, and you decide how they should please you.”
“You actually believe that, don’t you?” Héctor asked.
“It’s the great truth of the wild and the world. You never would have had any success at all because you never understood that.”
“Then I’d have rather failed.”
“Good job. You got your wish.” Ernesto grinned broadly, and Héctor braced himself for something vile, so he wasn’t shocked when Ernesto said, “The kid, though… he’s hungry, isn’t he? I wonder what he’ll do out there in the real world, once he realizes that a nice voice a little talent aren’t enough.”
Héctor was not surprised that Imelda answered, but it did surprise him that her voice was cool and calm. “Miguel has met you,” she said. “I think that is enough of an object lesson for anyone to make sure he’s never ever like you.”
“Then I hope he enjoys shoe business more than show business.” When neither Héctor nor Imelda answered this, Ernesto made a grand gesture toward the heavens. “They still don’t understand! Héctor… no one even noticed when you went missing. You were that much of a cipher to them. Moreno just kept sending money. He never came to a show again. They didn’t even question it when I said I bought the songs. The only people who ever asked after you were your wife and daughter.” He thought about it. “And Annie Wittington, that Yanqui who gave us the seed money for the tour. She thought it was cute to see a man who acted like his brat’s mother, while the mother handled the family business. She thought it was very modern. But who’d listen to her? Once she’d put up money for me, she smoked the rest.”
“Did you kill her, too?”
“No. That was just a lucky break. Or an inevitable one. She nodded off in some opium den in California and never came back up.”
“And you forged her name as a witness on those documents,” Imelda said. “Classy.”
“Where will you go now?” Héctor asked.
“I’m taking a step away from here. I don’t have any interest in finding out where the streets will take me.”
Before the conversation could go any further, a trolley rolled up and three police officers jumped off the side.
“We had reports of an altercation,” the woman in charge said.
“No altercation,” Ernesto told her, then a sly look came over his face. “I tried to rob them. You’d better put me in custody until my trial.”
He held out his hand, and the suspicious-looking officers cuffed him, leading him off down the street. As he went, the poisonous glow over his house faded, leaving it dark and deserted. The alebrije leapt over the moat and ran off to the south.
“What was that about?” Héctor asked.
“Free food and lodging and making sure he doesn’t end up getting pushed into Odiados,” Imelda said, giving Héctor a frustrated look because he hadn’t picked that up. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go home. I want to figure out how to throw that trial so his alebrije can chase him into the open arms of Cortes and Fierro.”