Death, as Ernestina learned, was more ironic and cruel than life ever was. In the Land of the Living, the bell had crushed her, swiftly ending her life. She woke up in the Land of the Dead only seconds later, completely free.
But her freedom only lasted for seventy-five years, as Miguel had to come and ruin everything. Now, she’d been crushed by the bell again - only this time, there would be no freedom. She was to spend the rest of her days, rotting underneath it.
She scolded herself for foolishly supposing she’d get away with poisoning her friend, stealing her songs – being a fraud, a con woman, a murderer; she should’ve seen it all coming a mile away, and yet she hadn’t. She never suspected that her downfall would ever come as she had gotten away with murder for so many years, without people suspecting a single thing as she hid it all beneath a smile and masked it with her delicate singing voice, charming the people to her every beck and call, yet karma came, surely enough. It came in the most painful form possible.
No longer did the people cry out her name in joy, saying that she was their hero. Instead, they now said her name with contempt and abhorrence in their tones. They would now come up to the bell and call her a bruja, moza, puta, zorra, diabla – every cruel word they had, they threw it at her. She was now considered a menace in the public eye – a predator, who was to be avoided at all costs.
She had lost everything – her childhood friend, her tower, the people’s respect; every single thing. Now, she only had her Chihuahua alebrijes, but even then they were outside, while she was trapped inside the bell.
Ernestina de la Cruz had nothing and no one now.
The scorned musician wrapped her arms around her knees, placing her head in her lap as she let out a sigh. Once she had lived in a fine mansion, spending her nights in a nice soft bed, but now she was stuck underneath a dark bell, with no chance of being let out.
Then again, perhaps that was for the best. After all, with the public’s disgust in her, who knew what could happen if she dared to step out into the streets? She would probably suffer much worse than the insults and slurs thrown at her whenever people would visit the bell tower, perhaps even a violent beating and some broken bones. All of the horrible possibilities were endless.
Speaking of visits – the woman looked up from her lap as she suddenly heard footsteps. She braced herself for the vulgar slurs that were sure to be flung her way, but instead she was met with something much different.
“You know, you’re much better off underneath the bell,” a young man’s voice spoke. “If you were outside, Mamá Imelda would be ready to grind you into dust with her new boots for what you did to her.”
Ernestina guessed that it was the young man in blue and yellow with glasses and a ponytail as all of the deceased Riveras had been there at the Sunrise Spectacular, and judging by the way the man referred to Imelda, she came to the conclusion that he was her grandson. After all, Coco had to have at least a few kids in order for Miguel to exist. “I suppose she’s out there with you then?” she asked, picturing the woman standing next to the man with a huge scowl on her face.
“No, she’s too busy with Papá Héctor at the moment to care about getting revenge,” the man replied, making her gag a little as she immediately caught onto what he was implying by that.
“Then you’re here to swear me your enemy, and spout vulgar words like all the others?” she guessed.
“You’re horrible at guessing,” the man replied simply. “I’m only here to ask you a simple question: why did you poison my abuelita?”
“Why do you want to know?” she questioned him, her brow furrowing as there a defensive tone in her voice.
“Everyone has a motivation. You don’t commit a huge crime such as murder for the kick of it. There has to be something behind it.”
“Fine,” Ernestina sighed in defeat. “I – I did it because she was going to leave, when we were so close to our dream,” he explained. “I needed her songs, and if she left I wouldn’t be able to have them… I would be all alone again, so I did what I had to.”
“You wouldn’t have been alone though. You had her as your friend, didn’t you?” he pointed out. “And if you needed her songs so badly, why didn’t you just ask her for them? You didn’t have to murder her in order to get them.”
Ernestina paused as she realized that he was right. She could have easily asked Imelda if she could buy her songs instead of just poisoning her, but of course, she hadn’t thought it out carefully as she had acted on impulse. “I was twenty-five at the time – a very young, very impulsive woman,” she said, not defending her actions but rather just stating the facts. “I thought things over a little too quickly.”
“I can see that,” the man said dryly.
The mariachi woman frowned for a moment, then wondered just who was this man exactly? “What’s your name, señor?”
“Víctor,” he answered.
“Well, Víctor,” Ernestina began, “why do you care about my motivations anyway? After all, I’m just the woman who murdered your grandmother and stole her songs.”
“I just wanted to know what would push a woman like you – someone who kept up a nice act for so many years – to commit such a heinous crime,” Víctor replied softly, his voice now low. “After all, you’re much different from all of the other criminals out there – all of the murderers, thieves and liars…”
She was a little confused by his words. What did he mean exactly by different from all of the other criminals? “I don’t know what you mean by that.”
“What I mean is from a first glance, you seem so pleasant, kind, delicate and divine,” Víctor explained, causing her markings to light up a bit at his words. “And the way you act – you made it sound so believable that you were a good person, but…”
“…but I’m really not a good person,” she finished, the glow in her markings fading as she frowned. “I know that.”
“However,” he continued, “you don’t seem entirely bad, unlike all the others. While you’ve done horrible things, there’s that part of you that’s still human, if that makes any sense.” There was a pause for a moment, then: “What I’m trying to say is that you still have some potential to be good.”
Ernestina was surprised to hear those words. “You really think so?”
“I do,” Víctor answered. “But in the end, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you’ll try to reach that potential.”
She heard him beginning to walk away, and she couldn’t help but call out after him: “Víctor, wait!”
He seemed to stop in his tracks as she heard him ask, “What?”
“I know I don’t deserve your company, but... could you come back tomorrow?” she asked him. A part of her reprimanded herself for daring to ask such a ridiculous question as he was the grandson of someone she had murdered, but she couldn’t help it. He intrigued her, with his way with words and attitude.
Her spirits soared at his answer, before she then heard the sound of footsteps leaving.
For the first time during her time underneath the bell, Ernestina de la Cruz smiled.
Perhaps, as she learned from this… interesting meeting, death wasn’t entirely cruel after all.