FROM NO APOLOGIES: AN AUTOMORTOGRAPHY
by Ernesto de la Cruz
There’s always a danger in dwelling on the past. I spent my life resisting it. I never allowed Santa Cecilia or the dusty carpas to drag me back into the morass that was my childhood. Childhood is a trap like no other. I had to move forward. I refused to be that boy again. Maybe that was what Héctor always represented to me, maybe that was why I was so misguided when it came to him. I had to leave that world behind if I was to become who I needed to be.
BORN IN JOY
Gloria Rivera Hernandez
Oil on canvas.
The Rivera Institute, founded in memory of Héctor and Imelda Rivera, is a museum of the history of Mexican music, and a voice for exploited and endangered artists everywhere. After the murder of Héctor Rivera and the theft of his compositions, his widow, Imelda, was left to support herself and their family. At the Rivera Institute, we both honor the art and the industry by creating a safe and secure environment for musicians to develop artistically and intellectually, while creating a strong support system to keep their families and their dreams in reach.
Here pictured in the early, happy days of their courtship and musical partnership, Héctor and Imelda perform together in Mariachi Plaza in Santa Cecilia Momaquixtia, Oaxaca…
“We don’t go through at Marigold Grand Central?” Héctor asked. “I didn’t know there were places… I never tried another place.”
“You would have had no more luck,” Teresa told him, joining the quiet queue inside the old church. “The rules are the rules.”
“Ah, Sister Teresa,” an old priest said. “I hope you’ll visit friends this year. You need to refresh your own soul as well as others.”
“I don’t have many old friends left,” she said.
“But she has our family,” Imelda said. “And I certainly hope she’ll come to the hacienda.”
“You should,” the priest agreed. “She visits with the lost ones in the world,” he told Héctor and Imelda. “The lonely ones.”
“Does it help them?” Héctor asked.
Imelda frowned. “But if you’re not on their ofrendas…”
“It doesn’t have to be the right ofrenda,” Héctor said. “That’s why I thought Miguel could get me across even though I thought he was a stranger.”
“Exactly,” Teresa said. “If I cross to somewhere near them, I can just walk.
“But if you don’t know them, then how do you get to them?”
“This place,” Teresa said, pointing around the church. “The bridge here takes us to people who need us. Well, to a place where people need comfort.” She apparently saw alarm on Héctor’s face, because she quickly backtracked. “Don’t worry. Wherever we come out, you can travel to an ofrenda you’re on. You’ll see. I once came out in California and took three steps to end up back in Santa Cecilia when I’d finished my duty. You’ll be able to get home. It’s easy.”
“Because you can get to your own…
Teresa nodded. “I’m usually on the ofrenda at the convent in Santa Cecilia, and with the Madres in Mexico City. I stayed with them when I…” She stopped. “Well, I stayed with them once.”
Imelda frowned, guessing that whatever Teresa had been in the capital for, it had to do with why de la Cruz was on her penitent’s altar back at the apartment. Something she had done had caused harm to Ernesto de la Cruz… Imelda wanted to know what it was so she could cheer it on.
The queue moved on with very little of the jostling—or excitement—that there would be right now at Marigold Grand Central. There was one of the machines that recognized photos, but only one, and it seemed to be running slowly. There was also a line for artifacts, mostly populated by those who had lived before photography was cheap and plentiful.
Of course the picture on the family ofrenda in Santa Cecilia was also before photography had been cheap and plentiful. Coco had seen a photographer in town and desperately wanted to know what it felt like to have one’s picture taken, so Héctor had done three shows in the plaza alone (Ernesto had been off hustling carpas to come do a show) just to pay for it. In the end, Coco had been frightened of the smell of the chemicals and the flash of the powder, and Héctor had needed to clown for her to keep her from crying. Imelda had thought the whole thing was a ridiculous waste of money.
And yet, when she’d held that photo of her family, seen them all together and looking back at her, frozen in time forever, she had loved them, and loved the thing that bound them together.
She’d nearly torn the whole thing to shreds.
Coco had stopped her.
And of course, it had been Coco who’d chosen it for the ofrenda, ignoring decades worth of candid pictures and studio stills and even newspaper pictures that she might have used. Imelda had never questioned this, though late that first night after she’d made the crossing, when everyone else was in bed, Coco had come to the ofrenda, touched it softly and said, “Oh, Mamá, I hope this was the right one. It’s the only one I ever saw… the only one I remember mattering to you. I miss you so much. I wish I believed…” And then she’d started to weep, and Imelda had tried to comfort her, but she had never been able to feel it.
“Imelda?” Héctor said.
“I’m all right.”
“I’m sure.” She could see doubt in his eyes, so she took his hand. “I’ve been having… flashbacks, I suppose you’d say. I see the past so clearly that everything else goes away. But unless I disappeared, I think they’re harmless.”
“You didn’t disappear.”
“But you did change, Imelda. For a minute… I don’t know. I can’t explain it. You looked different.”
The line moved ahead as a whole group of people was passed to the artifact gate, and the next few minutes, they were occupied with the logistics of the crossing. They reached the scanner, and all three of them were recognized easily. Imelda straightened her guitar across her back, and braced herself, in case something went wrong. Nothing did.
A high, arched wooden door opened behind the scanner, and it led not to a bridge—not at first—but to a hallway glowing with soft marigold candle light. It changed, almost imperceptibly, as they walked, and by the time the church fell out of sight behind them, it was obviously a bridge, spanning the chasm between realms. It was smaller than the one at Marigold Grand Central, and there weren’t many people on it, even in comparison to the number who had gone through the church. Teresa chattered nervously about what new fashions would have come into season, and whether or not they’d all hear Miguel’s songs—“I’ve heard a few when I’ve crossed before!”—and whatever else came into her mind.
The bridge sloped down, not into the cheerfully candle-lit cemetery in Santa Cecilia, but toward a bus station. The neighborhood was wildly decorated for Día de Muertos, and people were wandering around in skull make up. They all seemed to be drunk, and were partying wildly. Imelda could hear them shouting in several different language. They were shooting video of each other and snapping pictures. She couldn’t see any other spirits, even the few who she’d thought were just ahead of them on the bridge.
“Charming,” she said.
“Yes,” Teresa said, serious now, casting her gaze around until she spotted a dirty-faced teenaged girl sitting on a tattered suitcase. She was looking at a group of men, who kept calling at her, waving money. Teresa sighed. “Okay. That’s where I’ll be. Between her and them.”
“And you can do something?” Héctor asked.
She nodded, then went to the girl and sat down beside her on the suitcase, reaching out to touch her shoulder. The girl suddenly leaned forward and started to weep.
Imelda hurried over. “Teresa! She…”
“She’s doing what she needs to,” Teresa said, all traces of the flighty girl gone for the moment. “You two go ahead.”
“Are you sure you don’t need us…”
“Imelda, go see your family. I think my friend here will be all right as soon as she thinks to call for her… cousin? Brother? I can’t tell. I’ll be along.”
Teresa pointed with her chin. “Look for the petals. They’ll take you to your ofrenda.”
“You’re sure?” Héctor said.
“I’m sure. You’ve missed too many hours with your family, Héctor. Get home now.”
Héctor took Imelda’s hand, but she could tell he had misgivings. So did she. The girl had no business out in the night, and she couldn’t imagine what Teresa meant to do. Of course, she couldn’t think what she and Héctor would be able to do, either.
She spotted the first marigold petals glowing on the street. There were drifts and drifts of the things, and she supposed that everyone saw different paths lit here in the city. They led into various houses and apartment. She could now see a few spirits in the old buildings, ignoring the party outside to be with their loved ones, but it seemed strange to use a stranger’s private ofrenda for this. Finally, she spotted an outdoor shrine near a church, and sure enough, there were spirits there.
“Hey, let me through!” one said. “I have five more ofrendas to visit tonight if I’m going to see all my grandchildren!”
“Well, I have seven!”
“Wait, wait!” Héctor called. “You don’t need to fight. The whole thing is lit up. You can both—”
“Aren’t you Héctor Rivera?” one of the ghosts asked. “Hey, it’s Héctor Rivera! What are you doing up here? Don’t you belong in the south?”
“Yeah!” another stranger called. “They’re Oaxacans!”
“Hey, can I get an autograph?”
“I don’t have a pen,” Héctor said. “Ask me back on the other side. But we can all get through here. See?” He took Imelda’s hand. “We’ll just go at the same time. No rush.”
But they kept pelting him with questions, and finally, Imelda had to step in and say “Enough! We have family to see as well. If you could just let us…”
And the wall of spirits opened, as if she’d given a command from a throne. The glowing altar beckoned them.
Héctor tugged her hand, and they went into the soft orange light.
There were small paths here, five or six, and Imelda couldn’t tell one from the other.
Héctor looked at her. “What’s this?”
“No idea. I suppose we pick one?”
“There are about a hundred!”
“What? I only see six.” She put her hand on her forehead. “Ofrendas. I never looked for one other than ours. I guess you’re on a lot of them now. And apparently, six people saw fit to include me as well.”
“Which do we take?”
Imelda willed one of them to burn brighter than the others, but none did. She shrugged. “Guess?”
She took the rightmost path, for no reason at all, and Héctor followed along willingly enough. They landed in a small, brightly lit bedroom that Imelda had never seen before. A girl of about thirteen, her face painted white with large pink flowers, was singing into a toy microphone (along with a female singer who Imelda took to be the pretty girl on the computer screen, who was wandering through a Mayan ruin while butterflies danced around her) while two other girls, similarly painted, danced around in their pajamas. The walls were covered with pictures of Miguel (and a few others that Imelda didn’t recognize). The picture on the little ofrenda had obviously been culled from a magazine article, and it sat with many other old pictures of people growling into microphones.
Héctor looked around, bemused. “What…?”
“Si solo el mundo fuera amable,” the girl with the microphone belted, in an untutored but not half-bad soprano. “Si solo fuera pequeño…”
“It’s Miguel’s,” Imelda said. “But why would Miguel’s fans put our picture up?”
“He’s still alive,” a young spirit said. Imelda turned to find her in a corner. She wore her hair in a cascade of dark brown curls, and had a red leather jacket. “He can’t visit. But you can.”
“And you do?”
“I visit fans sometimes.” She pointed at a picture. “That was me. I never got any older than that.”
“Sympathies,” Héctor said. “But I’d really like to get to our family.”
“Yeah. I’m going to visit mine later, after they’re done with the parties. Just step back in.” She pointed to the ofrenda.
Imelda looked at the girls for a moment—the joy and the exuberance they had in their singing and dancing to Miguel’s song. Again, in a moment of perfect recall, she was spinning on the hillside, under the stars, purple flowers blooming in the tall grass while she and Teresa grasped each other’s hands and spun each other until they were dizzy, singing a silly childhood song while the twins looked on and…
She looked up and shook her head. Héctor was giving her a very strange look, and he grasped her hand tightly. They waved to the young spirit (who was now humming along with the tune and obviously trying to pick up the lyrics), and Héctor pulled her back into the void beyond the ofrenda. “I’m getting this,” he said. “It’s like when I visited Miguel in Austria. This is… this no place. But it’s everywhere.”
“But which path do we follow? Were there others then?”
“No. That was leading from family to family. This is finding our way with strangers. Let’s try…” He looked around, at paths Imelda could say and many more she couldn’t. “Can you see that one? It’s pretty wide.”
She saw it, and they stepped onto it together.
It didn’t lead to the hacienda.
Instead, she found herself in a grand ballroom, filled with tourists taking pictures. The ofrenda was a vast affair, with pictures and offerings for a hundred people, maybe more. Other spirits lounged easily, and Imelda picked up a dozen conversations about music. It was too crowded to see much of anyone clearly. She couldn’t see a photo of herself until she stepped back and almost lost cohesion from surprise.
There wasn’t a photograph. The huge, crowded ofrenda was built around a large oil painting, apparently a permanent fixture of the room. There was an informational plaque beside it, but it was currently behind a photo of Pedro Infante, The portrait showed Héctor on a stool, playing the guitar, while she stood beside him, young and wild, a tambourine in her hand. She could feel the warm breeze in her hair, and smell the sweet and greasy tang of street food and…
She shook herself out, and found herself back at the portrait.
“Is that them?” a tourist in skull makeup asked a friend.
“Gotta love the spin. Just dancing away with the tambourine. Like she didn’t end up abusing four generations of her family.”
“I think it’s someone from the family that painted it.”
Imelda ground her teeth. Héctor was giving them a furious glare, but there was nothing he could do here.
“Ignore them,” she said. “I heard it a million times when I was alive.”
“And ignored it?” he asked skeptically.
She smiled. “Of course. You know me. I am always in control of myself, perfectly saintly, absolutely invulnerable…”
“I took a shoe to the occasional gossip. That’s not going to work here.”
Héctor looked mutinous for a minute, like he might try taking off his own shoes and going after the gossips, but he apparently realized that it wouldn’t exactly make a difference. He looked at the ofrenda and pointed to a large book beneath the painting. “So this is where that appears from every year.”
It was a glowing offering: the annual report of the Rivera fund, which Enrique had set up to help musicians with legal troubles. It would show up in the workshop tomorrow. The other offerings—food, instruments, any number of oddities, mostly for Héctor—would show up in an ofrenda room that Héctor left open for anyone to take from. He’d survived on such charity for many years.
She considered taking the book, but she didn’t really have a free hand. Instead, she looked around at the scattered pictures. She wanted to get to Santa Cecilia, but, on the other hand, it had been a very long time since she’d seen any other place in the world. It was interesting, and she felt young again, and curious, and adventurous. When she’d been a girl—before she was a mother, before the obligations—she’d loved looking up roads and wondering what she would find if she’d traveled them, and she was standing there, on the dirt road beside the orphanage, staring up into the mountains and imagining—
She blinked and found herself back in the great hall. “Sorry.”
“I don’t know. I just keep remembering.”
He nodded and looked around the room. Suddenly, his eyes went wide. “We need to leave,” he said.
“This is Ernesto’s house.”
“The museum. I just realized. It’s the same. And I remembered. They made it into a museum, but there’ll be a picture of him here, and I’m not interested in that conversation.”
Imelda was tempted to look around—the thought of belting de la Cruz across the face again was tempting—but there was a press for time.
The next path took them to a university—apparently in the States, since everyone was speaking English and having a heated discussion about the cultural history of the holiday (her English had always been mediocre in life—good enough for shoe orders, not real conversations—but on this side of the bridge, for some reason, languages were easier.) After that, they landed in a small house in the Capital where a little girl was playing a toy guitar, but it wasn’t a fan’s home—when her papá came to get her, Imelda recognized him as Miguel’s old tutor, Carlos. There were other pictures here, but the spirits hadn’t arrived yet. Their offerings were still glowing in front of their pictures.
“Can I say kaddish for Papá Aron?” the little girl asked. “Would he like that? Mamá got me to learn all the words.”
“I think remembering those traditions would be a good gift,” Carlos said. “Though I wonder sometimes how they feel about their descendants celebrating Aztec holidays. But Mamá’s rabbi says it’s all right, so…”
The girl ignored this. “Can I sing it?”
“If you want to. I don’t know all the words myself…”
“Can I give him the books I found in the attic? Or are they still his?”
“I… I don’t know. Maybe we should call the Riveras. Miguel will know.” Carlos pulled one of those new style phones from his pocket, and suddenly, the light on the ofrenda changed.
Héctor sighed with relief.
“Family to family,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Imelda turned. There was now a wide and easy path from the Navarros’ ofrenda.
“Hey!” Carlos said. “Miguel… are you still home or are you off causing more drama? You sound a little out of it…”
Imelda and Héctor looked at each other, and, without a word, stepped through the ofrenda.
It didn’t take them directly to the hacienda. Instead, they emerged into a room Imelda didn’t recognize for a moment—a room a mural on the wall showing the entire town, with a lyric from “Remember Me” scrolled over the top. There was a set of shelves styled as an alebrije and beyond the great glass doors, the cemetery…
“Oh!” she stomped her foot. “De la Cruz’s tomb.”
“He’s not here anymore,” Héctor said. “It’s a community ofrenda now, remember? I guess… maybe Carlos is more community than family.” He squeezed her hand. “It’s okay. We can walk from here.”
“I’m never leaving from anywhere other than Marigold Grand Central again.”
“Hopefully, we’ll never have to.”
They made their way through the crowded cemetery, waving to spirits who recognized them, checking on their graves as they always did. Imelda recognized that a patch beside her name had been scrubbed extra hard lately. It took her a moment to realize that the two teenage boys in skull makeup who were leaning on the stone and glaring at tourists were Manny and Benny.
“Wonderful. They’ve set up a guard,” she said.
“I’m surprised Elena let them out of the house over the holiday.”
It was true—the Rivera family did not habitually haunt the cemetery, unlike most of Santa Cecilia. Their years of isolation had created different traditions.
The town was aglow as always, and everything looked the same. There was a large banner over the square announcing the upcoming music festival, to take place over Posadas. There was also a large billboard featuring a picture of Miguel, looking absurdly handsome. It was an ad for an album of songs from La Niñera (“Y más!” a blurb promised with great excitement), and he was standing in the sunset. The whole thing was framed with giant, sunset-tinted hibiscus flowers. Miguel was sitting on a rock, Héctor’s guitar planted between his feet, while he leaned his head dramatically against the neck. For some reason, he wasn’t wearing a shirt, and his overly long hair fell ridiculously around his shoulders, catching the beams of the setting sun.
Show business. Imelda rolled her eyes.
“I hope he left us the album,” Héctor said. “And a recording of the show. I love stories about you.”
“I wish there had been fewer this year,” Imelda grumbled.
Héctor put his arm around her and kissed her head.
Imelda looked down. Pepita, in her mortal cat form, stalked out of an alley and gave her a very cross look.
“I’m sorry!” she said. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”
Pepita sat down and curled her tail around her hindquarters, continuing to glare.
“I got a little lost getting here, but here I am. I could use a guide.”
The cat gave an almost human sigh, then got up and padded toward the hacienda.
The gate was closed and locked, and for good reason. Tourists were all over the street, leaning out of windows, trying to take pictures over the walls.
Pepita pawed under the gate, then pulled herself through.
Héctor and Imelda just passed through it. It was a strange sensation, and not one that Imelda had ever expected. Elena had always just thrown the gate open before.
Once they were inside, Coco ran over to them. She’d apparently already been to the ofrenda, because she was wearing a new shawl—someone had apparently restored the one she’d made back in the sixties, with its intricate weaving and tiny pearls. “Mamá! Papá! Where have you been?”
“Later,” Héctor said. “It’s been a bit crazy. I want to enjoy the family now.”
Coco nodded. “Okay. They’ve been talking for about half an hour. Miguel is home—obviously. He’s going to stay. He’s talking about making guitars. And I guess he had a fancy apartment in Austria. The family needs more apprentices because business is good. And that handsome boy is Rosa’s fiancé.” She pointed to a young man with solid muscles and leather-stained hands that Imelda approved of. “He’s an apprentice here now. He has two little cousins, and the three of them had quite an adventure coming up to Mexico. The twins…”
“We saw them. What did Miguel do that caused drama?”
“How did you know that?”
“It’s been a winding journey,” Héctor said.
“Apparently, he just left Europe in the middle of the night and some ex-girlfriend decided he’d jumped in a river. The family isn’t fond of her. Miguel keeps saying that she’s not that bad.”
They settled in for the rest of the talk. The family was lounging comfortably at the table, or sitting on the ground. Miguel was sitting by Rosa on the well housing. Both Héctor’s guitar and his own were out; Imelda was interested to note that the one he was actually holding was not Héctor’s, but his own, the twin of the one she carried on her own back.
Abel and his wife had a new baby. Miguel was talking about giving the old house to Rosa and Alejo. Serafina’s new line of purses was selling quite well, and Berto was working on a new criss-cross strap design that would let airy sandals feel as secure as sturdy shoes. Gloria had been spending more time painting than working in the shop—“I was never better than average at leatherwork, anyway; I always did the decorative things”—and she was teaching little Coco to paint with oils, too.
“She has a knack for art,” Miguel added. “I’d think the things she draws were made by someone much older than nine. And it’s too bad Teto’s already asleep. You should hear his stories.”
Rosa punched his arm affectionately. “You like them because you’re a superhero and your guitar has magic powers.” She nodded at Héctor’s guitar.
“That guitar does have magic powers. Tetito doesn’t know the half of it.”
It was mainly calm, comfortable talk. No one mentioned the locked gates or the fans outside, or the silly billboard in the square, though Miguel did mention that he’d left the new album, reviews of the show, and a recording of the dress rehearsal on the ofrenda.
When everyone went off to bed (except for Miguel), the dead went to the ofrenda room. For a split second, crossing the threshold, Imelda felt another memory tug at her, a meaningless moment of crossing into this room when it had just been her quiet space, a place to sketch out new designs and work on the books. It was here that she’d tried in vain to write letters to her vanished husband, here that she’d closed the door and allowed herself fear and grief. For that brief moment, she crossed the room, sat down at her work table, and covered her eyes with one hand, trying to imagine how her life would go forward. Then she was back, and it was the ofrenda room again, and the family mulled around, enjoying their offerings, really waiting, as they always did, for Miguel. The odd seconds of being almost physically in the past fell away, and Imelda shook off the strange feeling.
When Miguel appeared, he didn’t talk for long. Up close, Imelda could see that he had dark circles under his eyes, that a weight appeared to be on his shoulders. He knew something was wrong. He announced that he was just going to try and get to sleep as fast as possible so he could check in with Héctor.
Unfortunately, he seemed to be having trouble drifting off.
“Come with me,” Héctor said.
“When he goes to sleep. I want to try to bring you with me. He knows something’s wrong. Maybe… I think we should try…”
“I’ve never been able to cross into his dreams.”
“I think if I bring you, we can do it.”
“I don’t want him to worry, Héctor. Look at him. He’s already stressed. Just have your normal talk.”
“I don’t think he’d let me pretend everything’s all right. I think the stress is… all part of this.”
Miguel finally drifted off.
Héctor took Imelda’s hand tightly, then crouched beside Miguel and touched his head.
Usually when this happened, Héctor just relaxed, and seemed to be sleeping himself. Not this time. Apparently, trying to hold onto both worlds took an effort.
The room wavered, and Imelda thought for a moment that she was going to go into another of those vivid memories, but it righted itself. She could see Miguel sleeping on the floor… but also sitting up and blinking around, confused.
Then he looked at her, squinting, and raised a hand in greeting.
She raised her own.
He looked at Héctor, who said, “Miguel, we need to talk.”
Miguel nodded. “What is… I can see… almost see…”
“Can you hear me?” Imelda asked.
“Yes… just barely, but yes.”
“I’ll talk,” Héctor said. “Miguel, there’s trouble with the memories.”
“I know! I never meant…”
“It’s okay,” Imelda said. “Not your fault.”
“But you can help,” Héctor said.
And he told Miguel what had been happening.
Miguel sat back, horror-struck, and looked at Imelda. He didn’t seem to be seeing her clearly, because he was looking at the top of her head, but he was aware of her. “Oh, Mamá Imelda, I never meant for this to happen. I… I didn’t… I’m so… forgive me.”
“There’s no forgiveness needed,” she said, then tried to smile. “Except maybe for that absurd billboard in the square. Put your shirt on for pictures, Miguelito.”
He was surprised into a laugh. “I… yes, Mamá Imelda. I’ll remember that.”
“And get a haircut.”
“I like it long.”
“Grooming tips aside,” Héctor said, “this isn’t easy to keep up. Miguel… can you help?”
“I’ll do everything I can. I’ll… I don’t know if people will listen. They want to believe this. But I’ll… I’ll tell stories. I’ll tell everything if I have to. Anything.”
“I don’t think telling everything will help,” Imelda said. “If you mean talking about your visit.”
“But it means I know you.”
“Héctor knows me, too, and no one listens to him in the Land of the Dead.”
“Then what can I do?”
“I don’t know. You don’t have to do anything. You—”
“I’m going to help you,” he said with a great deal of finality. “No arguments.”
Héctor grinned. “No arguments with Mamá Imelda? Good luck with that.”
Imelda gave him a stern look. “Miguel, all I’m saying is that this isn’t your responsibility. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Except the billboard?”
“Yes, well, there is that.”
“And I let people call me a churro.”
“Which you would have stopped how, exactly?”
“And there were girls I shouldn’t have…”
“That’s on you,” Héctor said, “but it has nothing to do with this. And I don’t know how long I can hold this together. Miguel, whatever you can do, please… I know I ask things of you that I shouldn’t ask—that business with the photo was already too much”—Miguel gave him an honestly puzzled look at this—“and I know this isn’t an easy one. But you may be the only one who can help.”
“I will. I’ll find something, some way to…”
Miguel’s voice faded, and then he was just sleeping on the floor, Héctor crouched beside him.
“I lost hold,” Héctor said.
“It’s all right.”
He smiled. “Yes, the important things are covered. Life, death… the length of his hair.”
“Well, it’s a little silly.” She ruffled Héctor’s own hair. “Go on and have your usual talk then.”
He nodded dubiously, but settled in for his more usual kind of shared dream.
Imelda wandered the hacienda, as she usually did on Día de los Muertos. The workshop had expanded, and the order list was very long. They weren’t kidding about needing new apprentices. The children’s music room—which had been Coco’s, was filling up with new instruments. Berto and Carmen had apparently not been able to sleep, and were having ice cream in the indoor kitchen. Rosa had snuck into the guest room that had been given to Alejo and his little cousins, but they were just cuddling and talking about the upcoming wedding, and the possibility of moving into the old house, which had been empty since Imelda herself had crossed over. It was mostly being used for storage now, and she drifted into it. The memories here tried to pull her in, and succeeded twice, once bringing her to the day she’d destroyed the photo, when Coco had thrown herself onto the broken glass and pleaded to be allowed to keep the last scrap of Héctor’s life. Later, for no reason at all, she’d found herself chopping onions for a mole, but that hadn’t lasted long.
It was nearly sunrise when she finished her inspection, and she rejoined Héctor, who’d left Miguel’s dream at last. The family left together, winding through the streets of Santa Cecilia with the other lingering spirits, heading for the bridge.
“I think we’ll be all right,” Victoria said. “Everyone stay around Mamá Imelda. We’ll go back to the workshop, and Abuelita, I swear, I will take to my chancla if you wander off again.”
“Don’t talk to your grandmother that way,” Coco said. “You know better.”
“I don’t want her lost again.”
Imelda listened to this, leaning against Héctor’s arm, and then she was walking this same street, but it was sunny and Héctor’s arm was warm, and his pulse threaded under her fingers. His skin was still hot, and so was hers, and he was sure everyone was looking at her, but she didn’t care, because Héctor was hers, and would always be hers. Let the rest of the town sneer at her. What did she care?
In the distance, she could hear the mariachis playing in the square, and why were they walking toward the cemetery? That wasn’t right. She tugged at his hand. “Let’s go to the theater,” she said.
“What? Imelda, we need to go home.”
“We can sing. We should be singing.”
“Imelda, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I just want to sing. Everything in me wants to sing.”
She turned and tugged at his hand, but he didn’t move. She let go and ran, laughing. The sun was warm on her shoulders, and her hair fell loose and free around her face. There was a breeze and…
She opened her eyes, though she’d thought they were open already, and it was night, and the world was full of ghosts. She looked at her hands. The skin was gone. And Héctor was… and…
He was standing on a bridge, a golden orange bridge, and…
And she was old. She was older than old. There had been a whole life, and there were Coco and Victoria and Julio and the twins and they were all a bit ahead of her, and she had run backwards, away from the bridge. Away from home.
“Imelda, come here,” Héctor said frantically. “Come now, before sunrise.”
But sunrise was here. The petals of the bridge were glowing with it.
But it was the middle of the day and she was sixteen and she was with the boy she loved more than anything and she wanted to run toward the hills, to follow the road to wherever it led and…
It was sunrise.
And the bridge collapsed.
Héctor was on the far side of it. He screamed, “IMELDA!”
And she was alone.