LETTER FROM SISTER TERESA LA PERDIDA TO DELMAR ESSARÁ, 1944
Collected in The Shattered Bell: A New Study of Ernesto de la Cruz, by Jésus Varela, 2027
…And, no, dear friend, I don’t feel anything has changed. I urge you, as always, to come here to Santa Cecilia and share what you believe. I promised you I would be bound as if by the rules of the confessional to not share what you spoke of. But I think what you say might bring peace. And pain. You’re not wrong about that. But sometimes, the pain has to be suffered, if it’s going to end.
I won’t pretend that the conversation would be easy. She can be prickly and her temper is notoriously short. She may scream. She may call you vile names. She may pretend not to believe you, or demand proof of what you cannot prove. Her tempers are violent storms, but they are short ones to weather…
LETTER FROM DELMAR ESSARÁ TO SISTER TERESA LA PERDIDA, 1944
Collected in The Shattered Bell: A New Study of Ernesto de la Cruz, by Jésus Varela, 2027
Dearest sister, I wish I shared your faith. I will be in Santa Cecilia, of course, when they move the body, and we can speak again then. I am the closest thing Ernesto had to family. I won’t speak—the fans tend to throw things at me and call for my head—but I will arrange the spectacle. God knows, Ernesto would not have permitted being removed to Santa Cecilia if there were not a spectacle to justify it. I think the mausoleum is nearly ostentatious enough to make him happy. But as I will be putting the guitar there—the guitar which you say has caused such trouble—I doubt that Doña Rivera will have a great deal of interest in talking to me. I know, I know. You believe I should come clean. You believe I should tell her that I think it was stolen property, and return it. But to what end? I can’t disprove Ernesto’s story. For all I know, it’s true, and the dark imaginings of my mind are just fever dreams. There were some rare occasions on which he told the truth, after all. The costume was left behind because it was stained. The wedding ring was in the pocket because the man who wore it didn’t want to feel guilt about his abandonment. Or he sold it to Ernesto for cash, which was what he told me when I confronted him about it. How would any of these things bring peace to the Rivera family? If anything, it will cause those hordes of fans to take their anger out on someone they believe is trying to steal his legacy…
cordially invite you to celebrate the
of Victoria Hernandez Rivera
Saturday, April 20
at the Rivera Hacienda
April 19, 1957
Imelda bent over the machine, wanting to finish the order for Mother Superior before the final preparations for Victoria’s quinceañera began. She was nervous enough—how would she have a proper party if there was no dancing?—and Imelda wanted to make sure everything else was perfect.
She frowned. Why was there no dancing? She should be dancing with Julio. Héctor could play. He would love to play for his granddaughter. Why…?
Her foot let up on the treadle. She thought she heard someone in the distance saying, “What?” but she wasn’t sure.
From the shadows, her cat, Pepita rushed over and pawed at her skirts.
“Hush, little one,” she said, petting her. “What’s the trouble?”
Pepita looked at her desperately, then ran back into the shadows, yowling.
She looked up at the sound of Héctor’s voice. He was in the courtyard, maybe.
No. That wasn’t right.
Of course it was. Héctor was in the courtyard for some reason, and he was calling her. She’d go out and they would practice to sing at Toya’s party while she danced with her favorite chambelan. She leaned over. There was so much to finish before the party. She started sewing again.
“Mamá Imelda? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she called. “I just wanted to get these pumps finished up before we get started for the day. Mother Superior will be by and…”
“It’s Miguel,” Héctor said. “Mamá Imelda, it’s Miguel.”
Her shoulders went tight. She looked up. The shop shimmered around her, and she saw a shadow, a man’s shadow, Héctor’s shadow, but no. No, that wasn’t right. Héctor was gone. Héctor had never come back. She was…
She stood up, looking around anxiously. The world glittered, and she saw something at her station, some strange… like a television, but it was flat and all it showed was brightly colored ribbons, and the window was gone, and there was a little door that led nowhere, except a long, thin room that was full of framed lyrics—the letters, Coco’s letters—and Héctor’s guitar and…
She turned. There was a tiny mirror on the wall, and she saw herself in it, not as she was, but as the young and frightened girl she was never entirely able to leave behind… and… something else… some shadow of a skull beneath her face…
The shadow reached out an arm, and she thought, It’s Miguel. Miguel has come to help.
“Help me,” she whispered.
Then the shimmering stopped, and she shook her head. She didn’t know any Miguel, except for a teenage boy who helped the groundskeeper at the church.
She sat down again, and something thumped against the wall.
Her guitar. She didn’t know why she was carrying the silly thing around. She took it off and leaned it against the wall, where the light hit it queerly, making it look like someone had taped a picture from a magazine into the corner for some reason.
The girls ran in.
Elena had her hair in trenzas, and looked exactly as Coco had when she was eleven—in other words, exactly like Héctor, if he’d had long hair and worn a dress. Maybe a bit stockier, from Julio’s side, but still, the face.
You look just like abuelito, she said.
Except what came out of her mouth was, “You girls are up early.”
“I want to finish my shoes,” Victoria said, running to her station. “I only have a little bit left.” She held up the fanciful pumps she and Coco had been working on for the party. They were a deep red to match her ball gown.
Victoria looked like Imelda remembered looking at that fifteen, if a bit better fed. Imelda knew that the chambelanes were lining up to come to the party, despite the fact that there would be no dancing. (why is there no dancing?) She was the age Imelda remembered herself at best, though of course, no one had thrown a grand party for her. She had been in the orphanage still, and Héctor had played for her while she added heels to the flat shoes from the charity bin. They’d danced together in the square and he’d told people she was fifteen now and they’d congratulated her, and he’d kissed her again and again, and they had both decided that he wouldn’t come back to the orphanage with her that night. Instead, he’d clowned around and finally made a show of dunking his head into a barrel of cold water, and just for a moment, she was on the road with him, and he was shaking the water from his hair and she wanted to run to him and kiss him again, one last time, or two more, or three, but she had to…
She blinked, and the world shimmered again, and Pepita jumped onto her shoulder, digging into her flesh.
Then Pepita wasn’t there, and Victoria was working on her shoes again.
Elena sat down. “Toya danced at Pilar’s party,” she said.
“Of course she did,” Imelda said, refusing to fall for the bait. The girls liked to tease her sometimes. “It was Pilar’s party.”
“I thought,” Victoria said, “that maybe… just one dance…”
Don’t be silly! Imelda said. Why would you only have one dance? Dance with your chambelan, dance until dawn, dance until…
“You know the rules of the house, Toya,” she said aloud. Her eyes drifted to the guitar. Why had the girls not teased her about the guitar?
There was no guitar. The guitar was wrong. It didn’t belong here. She was…
…fifteen. She was fifteen, and it was nineteen-fourteen. The Rurales had been disbanded, and Huerta was going to resign, and she didn’t care about any of it, because she had spent all day with Héctor. He talked all the time as if he planned to marry her, and she believed it. She would say yes if he asked, even though they were both madly young, but they had no one else looking after them, so they might as well look after each other.
But not tonight. Tonight, she’d left him in the square, where he would sleep on a bench instead of in the very close quarters at the orphanage.
She was walking up the street, past the abandoned hut that used to belong to the shoemaker, before he went off to war. The summer air was sweet, and the hot, green smell of the hills beckoned her forward. It was a perfect night. She had no idea if it was even close to her real birthday—the records marked the day she had been left at the orphanage, and she had no idea when her actual birth might be celebrated—but she had always liked this day. It was the perfect day to have a birthday, not impinged upon by other holidays, with nice weather soft skies above. And who knew? Maybe she had been brought in on her fifth birthday. The sisters had told her only that her niñera had said she was “about five,” and that the boys were “nearly one.” She remembered the niñera, almost—the soft, dark skin of her arms, holding the twins while Imelda clung to her rough skirts. Once, there had been a crisp uniform, but the children had hidden in her house in the country for… how long? Three months? Four? Had it been cold when they’d left… left…
But that memory was nearly gone now. The twins had no memory of any life before Santa Cecilia. Imelda remembered a grand house surrounded by flowers, and she remembered a fire, and the hot smell of gunpowder, and the impossibly loud sound as another woman had fallen to the ground before her niñera emerged from the smoke and said, “Come. Quickly. Be as still as you can, querida, and help me with the babies.” Then there had been a fiery hell and a man hanging and a woman screaming.
Of the flight to the up-country, she remembered nothing, and there were only snatches of life there among the niñera’s family.
But I could go there now. I could simply step into that world and see everything. I could see Mamá and Papá if I really tried hard enough. I could go all the way back, and I could play this guitar I’m carrying while Mamá plays the piano and sings and her voice is the voice of a boozy angel and…
She reached over her shoulder. Sure enough, there was a guitar there. She pulled it over her shoulder and looked at it. She was making a guitar for herself, and she planned to make a much better one for Héctor after she’d gotten the practice, but she didn’t have one yet. If she did, it wouldn’t be one that was this fine. It was bone white, with a black rosette inlaid with orange and purple petals, with a design of shoe lacing and stitching. A pair of mirrored “R”s was set into the headstock.
Like the sign on the workshop. And on the inside of the sound box, where no one would see them, were carefully painted nomeolvides.
She knew about them because he’d told her.
Miguel. Miguel had told her about the guitar when he gave it to her. It was his, and the flowers on it, the laces… they were to bind her spirit to his.
But… who was Miguel?
“Well, well. Look who’s out until midnight.”
She looked up, and the guitar wasn’t in her hands anymore. She could feel it strapped to her back. She registered this and knew it, but it somehow didn’t matter. “Teresa.”
Teresa stepped out of the shadows of the train depot. She was wearing a barely-there red dress and wobbling around on cheap heels. “You better watch out. What will it do to your precious reputation if you’re out to all hours with a boy?” She laughed. “I can introduce you to more of them, you know.”
Teresa, I’m sorry, Imelda tried to say. I should have watched out for you better. I should have helped you instead of yelling at you. Come back to the orphanage, and we can get your life back on track, you’re a smart girl, and you can do better…
But what came out of her mouth was, “I bet you could introduce me to a hundred. Or is that too low an estimate these days?”
“At least I get something for it.”
I didn’t mean that. I meant that I should have told you why I didn’t trust Ernesto. I should have gone with you that night and if he tried anything, I should have left him a soprano. I knew what he was like. I sang in the tavern and I watched him work. But I just told you no and didn’t tell you why and
“Oh, please, Teresa, all you get is social diseases.”
She started to walk, and Teresa fell in beside her. She wanted to take the other girl’s hand and run back into town, or back into the train station. She’d give a her a new dress and train ticket to somewhere that she’d be allowed to be normal again and…
“You know, I don’t even know if Héctor likes girls. Ernesto offered him a few the other day, when they were singing at the inn. You’d think he was smelling rotten meat.” She snorted. “Of course, you don’t have to worry. You’re half a man, anyway.”
This stung, as Teresa had known it would, and the desire to say anything conciliatory went away. She didn’t know where it had come from, anyway. “Half a man is better than less than half a lady.”
“You think you’re so much better. Doña Imelda, lady of the house. Maybe you would have been. But you’re nothing more than the rest of us now.”
“I never said I was any different—”
“You don’t have to. You just stick that pretty little nose in the air and—”
And the world swam again, and she was small, and she had a new dress, frilly and pink, for the twins’ baptism. She’d spent twenty minutes running along the rows of hibiscus flowers, and Mamá was frowning at her impressively. Ladies did not run. Ladies were meant to be quiet and still. Mamá was standing between Imelda’s niñera and the new one that they’d brought in for the twins. Each of the nurses held one of the twins. Mamá didn’t hold them often, and didn’t like it when Imelda wanted to. That was a job for a hireling. But Imelda liked to sing to Oscar and Felipe, and hold them and rock them. She would sing at the baptism today. Mamá said it was all right to sing in church. It was only when Imelda had gone down to the fields and started singing to the workers and clowning and making them laugh that she had been upset and said that singing for other people wasn’t ladylike. Ladies could sing in church. She had been practicing, and she had her guitar…
She was too small for a guitar.
She couldn’t play one.
But it was there. It was on her shoulders even as Papá grabbed her by the upper arm and said, “Your mother told you to stop running, Imelda. You’ve half-spoiled your dress as it is.”
She looked up. He was impossibly big, dressed in a sharp suit, with a gun slung across his hips even though he was going to mass. He didn’t slow down as he marched her through the edge of the hibiscus field and up onto the steps of the tiny church. He rushed her through a small crowd of the workers who were usually in the fields, and she looked up at them and saw that they hated her. They hated her Papá. She wanted to say, “Papá, you must stop this, you must be kinder,” but all she could do was cry until she was deposited in front of Mamá, who was wearing dark green silk and carrying a parasol. She crouched down and wiped Imelda’s face with a lace kerchief and said, “Ladies do not carry on like this, mija.”
And then it was night and the world was on fire, and she was running through the hibiscus fields again, carrying Oscar while the niñera carried Felipe. She was too small to run with the baby, but she told herself, I can do this. I won’t drop my brother, and she didn’t drop him. He was crying, but no one could hear him, because behind them, the fire was roaring, and Mamá was screaming, and something horrible was hanging from a wooden frame, and the men were building another frame, and she could still hear their hammers ringing in the night… thud… thud…
She closed her eyes, and when she opened them, she was in the old shoemaker’s shack, and Héctor was trying to get the cabinets to hang right, but he had no knack for it. She couldn’t very well climb ladders at this particularly wobbly stage of her pregnancy, though, so the repairs were up to him if she wanted them made, and she did, because they would make a perfect home out of this rickety old building that he’d gotten for a song, and all of the children would grow up here, and their daughter would dance with him on her fifteenth birthday, with the brand new heels she had made—
—and the roof was leaking in the orphanage again, and no one else ever bothered to help. While Coco played a mindless fortune telling game with one of the little girls, Imelda climbed the ladder and started nailing cured leather over the hole. She would find lumber tomorrow, when the rain stopped.
“Imelda, thank you,” Sister Teresa said. “I only meant to ask for a tarp, not to have you run all the way up here.”
It’s all right. It was something like home once, hermana.
“Of course not. You couldn’t think of anyone else to beg. Maybe you want me to throw in some old umbrella of Héctor’s, too.”
“I’m sorry about that. I shouldn’t have asked.”
No, you were right. I should have listened. You were right and he’s gone and it’s not his fault, and…
“Not that that ever stopped you.”
“It’s true. My mouth runs faster than my brain. I’m sorry. You weren’t ready—”
“Oh, so it’s my fault. I just need to grow up and start handing out my husband’s things. I should have. I should have done it the minute I realized what the son of a bitch had done. I should have thrown it into the street whether the poor wanted it or not.”
“But you didn’t. Why didn’t you?”
“I’m not giving you my confession, Teresa.”
“This business about throwing away all the instruments, and the music… Imelda, you shouldn’t. You loved music.”
“Hand me three more nails.”
“And how will it be for Coco? She always had Héctor’s ear. She loves dancing. And she writes adorable little rhymes. She sings them to herself when she thinks no one is listening. She made up a whole little corrido about a dragon and a prince and a little country girl who has to go fight him.”
“The prince or the dragon?”
“Was she fighting the prince or the dragon?”
“The dragon, Imelda. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Well, I’ll have to remind her that writing poems isn’t going to keep a roof over her head any more than it ever kept a roof over Héctor’s.”
“Not poems. Songs. She writes songs.”
“She’s seven years old. Even if you want to call the poems lyrics, they’re still not songs.” Imelda pounded three more nails into the leather, and it stopped the worst of the leak, though it was already seeping in along the edges. “And I’ll thank you to not interfere with my daughter.”
“Maybe I can go find Ernesto and ask him. He’s doing movies now, with Antonio Duras. I saw one just before…”
“Oh, I see that ending well.”
“Just stay away from it, Teresa. I don’t need your help.”
Teresa fell silent, and Imelda jumped down off the ladder. It wasn’t ladylike, and she knew that, if any of the orphans reported it, she’d be gossiped about again, but she was only twenty-five. She could make the occasional jump if it seemed convenient.
“Coco!” she called. “Coco, come now. We need to go home before it gets any later.”
“But we were telling the future!” Coco said, drawing away from her playmate. “We’re all going to get married and have babies and there will be a handsome prince, and I’ll become like Joan of Arc, and have swordfights and…”
“…and I’m going to have games,” Toya said, polishing her shoe in a bar of bright light, “and lots of food, and we don’t need dancing to have a good party! I told Pilar, we’re going to have a Rivera party, and maybe there’s no dancing, but that just means we’ll be more creative. We can play cards, and maybe… some kind of ball game… Or a foot race.”
“In a ball gown and heels?” Imelda asked.
“That’s what makes it fun, Abuelita.” She grinned. “You should play with us.”
Or you could dance, and Papá Héctor and I will play for you, like we’re supposed to.
“Oh, I don’t think so. I’m a bit old for that.”
Toya laughed. “We have some big high heels, don’t we? We could make the boys run in them. I bet all the girls would win the race.”
“I’d be hearing about it for a long time if the sons of our fine ladies and gentlemen were running around my house in ladies’ shoes.”
“But they’d like it!” Toya laughed and finished polishing her left shoe. She picked up the right. “Besides, it was Chago Valdez’s idea. He thinks he could run faster than I can in heels. Ha.”
Imelda grinned. “Well… it’s not like our reputation is spotless. They already think we’re crazy. Why not?”
The girls giggled, and Victoria got up and hugged her. “I love you, Abuelita.”
“You, too, mija. I’ll find the biggest shoes I can. Should I loosen the heels?”
“No. I can win fair.”
“What’s going on?” Héctor asked. Imelda looked over her shoulder, but she couldn’t see him.
“It’s just a little game,” she said. “Toya wants to have some fun for her quinceañera.”
“Mamá Imelda, where are you?”
“What do you mean? I’m right…”
But the shop shimmered, and the girls were gone. Again, she saw the glowing flat screen that might have been a television, if it had been showing something more interesting than ribbons. Pepita was sitting beside it, and she leapt down, latching her claws into Imelda’s skirt and tugging at her furiously.
Imelda frowned. It wasn’t her work skirt. It was the purple gown she’d gotten married in, and it was cinched so tightly, and her hands were…
Her finger bones seemed to glow, her wedding ring resting on one of them. Miguel had left them the rings the year after the police in Mexico City had released the evidence from de la Cruz’s mansion, two years after he’d… visited… in…
“Héctor?” she called. “Héctor?”
“Mamá Imelda,” a voice said, and she looked across the room. Miguel was standing in a patch of early dawn light, his guitar—the one he’d given her as an offering, the one that was on her back now—held loosely in one hand. His ridiculously long hair (it was actually past his shoulders) was gleaming reddish in the sunrise. He squinted blindly toward her.
“Mi… Miguel?” she said.
“Yes! Mamá Imelda, it’s me. I think I see… You shouldn’t be here. I’ll help you get home.”
“Miguel, I can’t… where… when…”
“I don’t know how. I need to find a way. Stay close to me. Stay close to Pepita and Dante.”
“I keep moving… Miguel… I can’t stay…”
The light changed. There was a soft mew from somewhere above, and she spotted the kitten, the tiny little black and white kitten that she’d seen earlier, in the square.
“Oh, it’s all right,” she said. “Mamá Imelda will give you something to eat, poor thing. And Coco will be very happy to have a little kitten…”
And she fell back into the past.