FROM NO APOLOGIES: AN AUTOMORTOGRAPHY
by Ernesto de la Cruz
Shall I tell you more? Where shall I even start? Our shared childhood in Santa Cecilia?
I was the oldest of the three of us—three years older than Imelda, four years older than Héctor. I had some experience of the world. But Imelda felt she would make the world over according to her whims, and God help anyone who got in her way. She plays the doña now, but she grew up fighting in the streets like a common guttersnipe, and the guttersnipe never really went away. She lied and cheated to get the things she wanted, and when she had them, she held them in a vise…
form Más Alla, October 2027
Those fortunate enough to have made a connection with a spirit guide are reminded that they are responsible for the behavior of that guide. Despite some voices arguing for their status as free creatures, alebrijes live among us, and we are responsible for seeing to it that they do not create a hostile environment. All those responsible for these creatures are expected to keep them from engaging in aggressive, threatening behavior.
If possible, you should also clean up after your alebrije. The waste has been cited as a public nuisance…
RIVERA SHOE WORKSHOP STILL IN BUSINESS
from Mictlána Economía, October 2027
While some have reported difficulty in reaching the famous workshop, we are glad to report that it is still conducting business as usual. “It’s the usual,” a tour guide reports. “Buildings move as they’re forgotten, streets shift as people have new needs. But I have a need to point out Rivera Shoes, several times a day, and it’s always there, and I can see them working through the window.” Reached for comment in the Arts District, composer Héctor Rivera concurs. Artist Frida Kahlo, a family friend, says, “Any trouble is caused by you press lunatics. Try leaving them alone, and no one will have trouble getting to their shoes!”
Héctor had taken Dante out for a walk.
The alebrije had been perkier than he’d been for a while, and Imelda thought his colors might be coming back. But he’d been pawing at the door again when Héctor got home from the studio (where he was learning about film composition from a man called Cortázar), and had nearly leaped out into the street when the door opened. Héctor was so delighted to see the energy that he immediately grabbed a toy he’d made—dog toys were about the extent of his leather working skills—and took him out, only stopping long enough to drop off his guitar in the music room, and leave the day’s songs for her to look at there.
Imelda finished her day’s work, then read the new songs (well, revisions on songs he’d already been working on), but the guitar kept catching her eye. She picked it up curiously. She’d held this spirit version of the guitar—the real one was still in the real world, with the family—on a few occasions, but she hadn’t played it since she’d made the physical one, holed up in the old orphanage and trying to keep the valuable parts she’d bought hidden under a floorboard.
She ran her fingers over the mother-of-pearl inlays. Those had cost her two embroidery jobs and a lot of mending. The wood had been an alteration on an heirloom wedding dress. The gold leaf… that had been difficult. Tatting lace for a rich girl’s quinceañera dress, with tiny beads worked into it. She’d needed to buy decent carving knives too, to make the first tuning pins (she’d later replaced them with metal ones, but Héctor had carried the old ones in his pocked for good luck). Those had been two whole dresses, and they’d been made for de la Cruz’s mother, of all people. Sewing all day at her regular job, plus the extra money for the guitar. Then staying up late in the night, sitting under the window at the orphanage so the moonlight would help balance the shadowy lamplight, carving and polishing and stringing it, all for Héctor, always for Héctor. And he had understood when he saw it, how much of her soul was in it, and he had loved it, loved her for it.
When she’d seen it in de la Cruz’s hands…
She shuddered and forced the memory away. It was back where it belonged now, and her aim was to entirely forget that the beast’s filthy hands had ever touched it.
She had her own guitar now. Miguel had made it for her when he was seventeen, after his tutor (a young man who reminded Imelda irresistibly of Héctor, if of a somewhat less dreamy vintage) had arranged for him to apprentice to a guitar maker over the summer. He’d brought it into the ofrenda room late at night, when everyone else had gone to bed. “I’ve been playing a guitar you made,” he said. “I thought you might like to have one I made. This is the one I’ll take to school with me, and it’s an offering to you, because… well, I’m pretty good at making them, and I guess I get that from you. So when I’m away, we’ll have the same guitar, and I’ll remember that Mamá Imelda expects me to come home.”
He’d held it up to her, but she hadn’t taken her copy of it until he started playing. He seemed to feel it, because he smiled at her.
She took it with some wonder, and not a little bit of fear. She’d never been a particularly strong player, certainly not in Héctor’s league, or even Ernesto’s, and she’d burned her own guitar like a torch in the night when she’d thrown her final apocalyptic tantrum. She was afraid that it would be part of her punishment that she’d never play again, that the gift would dissolve the second she tried to strum it. It hadn’t, and Héctor was trying to teach her again.
It had really been built for Miguel to play, so it was a bit larger than was comfortable for her, but she loved it, and loved that he really had made it in her memory. It was bone colored like Héctor’s, and he’d inlaid the rosette around the sound hole with purple markings like the ones over her eyes, interspersed with stylized marigold petals. He’d decorated the base of the body and the headstock with mirrored “R”s in the style of the shop’s sign, surrounded by a lacing motif, which he’d also embossed onto the leather of the strap. It had a clear, lovely sound.
She reached out and touched it, and reminded herself that Miguel was all right, that he loved her, that the family loved her, and if they forgave her foolishness, it was no one else’s business, no matter how many so-called experts had been writing about her abusive home.
She started to put the strap over her shoulders, meaning to get some practice in so she could at least keep up with the family, but the evening was broken by the sound of claws hitting the roof.
Pepita was back.
Not bothering to put the guitar down, she ran for the stairs, taking them two at a time as she had when she was a girl. She flung the roof door open just as Pepita raised a giant paw to scratch at, and barely ducked the sharp claw.
Pepita looked at her, embarrassed.
“It’s all right,” she said. “Mamá is fine. Is everything all right at home?”
Pepita tilted her head in frustration, as she always did when someone asked her a question that needed words to answer it. She raised a paw and breathed onto it. A handprint was illuminated there—three long fingers that must have just stroked her foot before she changed size.
“You… got cuddles?” Imelda asked.
Pepita stomped her paws, turned in a circle, then crouched down with her nose to the roof and exhaled over the tiles. Nothing showed up, but Imelda recognized the gesture—it was how she had hunted for Miguel the night he was here. Which would mean…
“Miguel is back?” she guessed.
Pepita let out a small sound, like the beginning of a roar. Imelda took it as a yes, and though she was on reasonably good grounds. She’d been with Pepita in this world longer than anyone else (she’d been waiting in an alley within days of Imelda’s own arrival, begging for a treat as she always had when she’d been a tiny kitten in the alley behind the shop), and she understood most of the alebrije’s non-verbal communication.
“Oh, that’s wonderful! Maybe that will help Dante, if he can go over.” She frowned, wondering just how the fragile alebrije would make the trip. “Maybe you could help him, if he can’t fly. We should go find him. He’s out walking with Papá.”
Pepita gave an almost human sigh of resignation.
“Oh. I’m sorry. You’re tired. The crossing tires you. You get rest. I’ll find them on my own. They haven’t gone far, I’m sure.” She turned to go.
Something yanked her back.
She looked over her shoulder. Pepita had stepped on the hem of her dress.
“Pepita, really. They aren’t far.”
Pepita gave a low growl.
“All right. You get sleep.” Imelda rolled her eyes. “I’ll go about my business.”
“Pepita, I’m fine.”
Pepita gave her a dubious look, but went to the nest Imelda had built for her long ago and curled up. To reassure her, Imelda went over and stroked her head until she drifted off.
She did give a moment’s thought to the growl, to the claw on her skirt.
But Pepita was over-zealous in her duties sometimes. Héctor and Dante were undoubtedly down the street in the little park past the jeweler’s place, tossing the toy around and having fun. Miguel would know him. Miguel would be able to help him. Maybe all he needed was a veterinarian in the land of the living.
And besides, she was not about to be a prisoner in her own home. She refused.
She put the guitar over her shoulder and went back downstairs.
Julio and Coco were dancing in the living room, and she snuck around them so she wouldn’t disturb them. Victoria and the twins were still in the workshop.
Imelda went out the front door and turned right, toward the jeweler’s. The sun caught on the sparkling gem on his sign, and she covered her eyes, darting a bit further to her right as she walked. She tripped over a cobblestone and found herself facing an alley.
The jeweler’s shop seemed further away than it had been.
She backed away quickly, back into the craftsmen’s plaza.
Carefully, she re-oriented herself to the shop, and to the park beyond, where she could see the roof of the bandstand. She could hear Héctor laughing. She followed the sound.
The park opened up in front of her. Héctor and Dante were playing catch. He raised an arm to wave to her.
She ran ahead. “Pepita’s back,” she said.
He frowned. “And you came without her?”
“Oh, please, Héctor! It’s a block away.”
She rolled her eyes. “All right, I almost took a wrong turn, but I didn’t. I know what to do. I can… I don’t need a niñera, Héctor. I know the rules. Don’t wander off and get lost.”
“I’m not sure you can always back off.”
“But I did.”
He sighed, then seemed to accept the fact that she was who she was, and smiled. He looked at the bandstand. “And you brought your guitar. Shall we sing?”
“Only if you play it. I’m not quite there yet.”
He was diplomatic enough not to agree with her, but he didn’t argue either—either because he knew she wasn’t good enough for a public performance, or because he knew it was tempting fate to put her in front of a crowd these days. “Let’s let it be. We’ll play with Dante and skip stones in the fountain. We’ll make a date of it.”
“I thought… well, I wondered if it would help Dante to go over to the land of the living.”
“Miguel is back.”
“And here I was looking forward to another walk to Europe.” Héctor grinned. “You think that would help Dante, though?”
“I do. He’s… well, he’s your alebrije, but I think he’s… I don’t know how to say it.”
“On loan from Miguel?”
“It’s crossed my mind.” She shrugged and crouched to scratch behind Dante’s ears. “Miguel had to make special arrangements for you to visit him last year. Maybe Dante can’t make it.” She kissed his snout. “Do you just miss your Miguelito? Do you? Who’s a good alebrije?”
“Well, he’s not alone. I can’t wait to see.”
“You got to see him last year. He brought you to his piano test.”
“Yes, but he couldn’t get back to sleep at noon, so we couldn’t share a dream.” He put a hand melodramatically to his chest. “It’s tragedy, I tell you.”
“Oh, please. The rest of us don’t get to have little dream chats. At least not where the other person is waiting for us and knows what’s going on.”
“But it can be done otherwise?”
“Yes. Little nudges. Hoping they remember something. A sense of what you want to say. It’s not easy, and it’s not clear, and it’s not a conversation. I never knew what Elena was dreaming when nudged her. But yes, it can be done.”
Héctor sat down on a little gilded bench and scratched behind Dante’s other ear (Dante, for his part, started thumping his back leg in complete ecstasy at the dual attention). “Miguel will be older than I am now. Twenty-two. He’ll have turned twenty-two in March. Almost eight months at an age I never saw. And next year, he’ll be twenty-three.”
“And twenty-four the year after. That’s usually how it works, God willing.”
“I wonder if someday, I’ll just be some kid he remembers knowing once upon a time.”
Imelda took his hand. “I don’t think so. I think he’ll bring you with him. You’ll know what it is to be twenty-two. And twenty-three. And fifty, and a hundred and five.” She squeezed his fingers. “You don’t just share a memory. You share a spirit. Or at least a spirit guide.” She gave Dante a brisk scratch.
Héctor didn’t say anything.
Imelda looked up. He was looking thoughtfully at Dante. “What is it?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. But alebrijes… you’ve gotten used to Pepita as a companion. A ride. A pet. But they’re not. You remember Ernesto’s alebrije.”
“It was a pet—four pets, really, before they all merged—but in the end… it was his spirit guide. It took him where he had to be, against his will. Dante guided me out of there, because I wasn’t meant to be there. But he guided Miguel first. Miguel was chasing him when he found me. Dante kept bringing us together, because Miguel needed me and I needed him, so Dante could serve both needs at once. But now… he’s just part of the family. Just…”
“What is it, Héctor?”
“I was wondering, mi alma… what if it’s not just that he misses Miguel? What if Miguel needs him, and he hasn’t been able to cross because Miguel hasn’t been at home? What if that’s what’s making him sick?”
“You think Miguel’s in trouble?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t dreamed of him for a while now. Or he hasn’t dreamed of me. I don’t know which way that works. Or if it always will. But maybe Dante knows. Maybe that’s what woke him up that night.”
Imelda thought about the articles she’d read—articles about how Miguel wasn’t coming home, about how it was whispered that there was a rift in the family. Here, it had focused on her, and on her foolishness. But could something be happening in the living world?
“It’s a thought. If he can’t fly, maybe Pepita can help him get back. We could make a sling or something.”
“A sling on a flying alebrije,” Héctor mused. “I never tried that. I thought about it, but I never quite got there.” He shrugged. “Of course, until Dante and Pepita, I never knew an alebrije well enough to ask. At least not a big one.”
“You never had one?”
“No.” He touched her nose arch and grinned. “Not everyone has earned a personal dragon, you know.”
“Oh, I think the bigness is her spirit, not mine.” Imelda leaned into Héctor’s arm. Dante crouched down and took a few shuffling steps under the bench. “When she was just a cat—a little cat—she jumped on a man who was being rude to me. Big man. She clawed at him until he threw her off. She fractured her foot, but she came limping back to keep in the fight.” She smiled. “Coco scooped her up and nursed her back to health.”
“What happened to her in the end?”
“She wandered into the shadows one night when she was old, a few months after Coco’s wedding. She disappeared. I looked for her for weeks.” Imelda shrugged. “Apparently, whatever decides who gets to be a spirit guide chose her. I missed my cat, though. I knew her as soon as I saw her here. She looked like she always wanted to look. So… you know. It’s her dragon-ness.”
“I think you’re kindred spirits.”
Héctor frowned. “What is it, boy?”
Imelda looked across the park. There was a group of people in the bandstand, and they were pointing at her. Whispering.
Dante let out a volley of sharp barks. His lolling tongue and permanent grin—not to mention his silly, mismatched eyes—made it a bit less threatening that it otherwise might have been.
A patrolling police officer wandered over. “Señor Rivera, would you mind controlling the alebrije?”
“He’s fine,” Héctor said.
“Do you have a leash?”
“He doesn’t have a collar to put it on,” Imelda said. “He’s an alebrije. They’re not pets.”
The officer looked at her sourly. “Señora, I’m aware of your opinions on how free alebrijes should be.”
“What do you mean by that?” Héctor asked.
“We all saw what happened at the Spectacular.” He looked down at Dante. “I’m just saying, your wife is… well…”
Héctor stood up. “Do you have something to say about my wife?” he asked, his voice low.
Imelda tugged on his arm. “Héctor, don’t.”
“Well, at least you keep your husband leashed.”
She let go of Héctor, grabbed her boot from her foot, and swung it at the officer’s head before she had a single thought about the consequences.
His skull went flying across the plaza.
“Hey!” someone shouted. “You can’t do that!”
Someone else—she couldn’t tell who—said, “It’s that Rivera bitch.”
“We’d best vacate,” Héctor said. “Come on, Dante.” He bent and put his hand on Dante’s wing joint to guide him, and reached back with the other for Imelda.
It was too late.
The crowd descended on them, most taking pictures, but many yelling various epithets at Imelda. A girl came out and pawed the air in Héctor’s direction, saying, “I can help you get away! You don’t need to suffer any more!”
Héctor kept his head down, pulling Imelda along with him. But the people were pressing in now as they approached the edge of the park.
Imelda felt herself pulled away.
“IMELDA!” Héctor yelled frantically, but he and Dante were being washed aside in a sea of people. Imelda was pushed back. “IMELDA!”
But she was turned around now, pressed against a weaver’s stall. She slipped along its edge.
Into an alley.
“Héctor?” she called.
From frighteningly far away, she heard him call, ”imelda…”
The people blocked the alleyway, none of them looking at her now, though they seemed to be looking for her.
She turned to look for another way out.
When she turned back, the park was gone. The people were gone.
She was alone, and she had no idea where she was.