The discovery of the blown out candle and the toll it had on her body came together in seconds. When Osvaldo had vanished, she’d already dropped to the floor, candies spilling everywhere. She clutched her chest, and her heart came to a stop. Her body writhed in pain, nails digging into her dress, and hot tears flooding her eyes. She couldn’t breathe, so she could not speak or cry out. The pain in her body matched the pain in her heart – the dead would not be allowed to rest in peace, and those that deserved to be remembered would be lost forever. Humanity had the right to be happy, and now that chance was gone.
Memories were the most precious things in the world, more valuable than land and power. She didn’t want to forget the little girl who saved money for her brother’s birthday present, she didn’t want to forget the kind customers who flooded her shop, and most of all, she didn’t want to forget Osvaldo. His image stayed in her mind, his expression changing like a heartbeat. She’d already learned so much about him, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough.
As breathing became more difficult, she wondered if Osvaldo would truly be content living the life he had won. She hoped he was. The only peace that came to her was knowing she would see him again, if only for a moment, before she became ash and wind, as he had declared. Would anyone else remember him? Her fingers throbbed, aching to hold onto his memory, of their time together, and then it started to withdraw slowly, inch by inch. Her eyelids grew heavy, and she could not even say his name with her final breath.
The world was still, and light. So very light. As if she was bathing in it, basking in it, a glow she could feel. Was this the peaceful embrace of death? She welcomed it, allowing it to hold her. Her muscles could move once more, and her fingers drifted… a beard? Could it be Osvaldo? Were they together again? She dared to open her eyes, and gazed up at…
“Hey, babe!” … the Candlemaker. “Sup?”
Novia stared, the romantic idea crushed into dust. “What are you doing?!”
“Oh, uh, sorry. Here you go.” He placed her down gently, and she saw she was no longer in her candy-filled home. They were atop the highest cliff not found in the human realm, with fog the only thing they could see down below. “Lemme start… You died, you definitely died, no getting around that. But!” He held up a finger. “Xibalba… that’s Osvaldo’s new name now, kinda fits him if you ask me… Xibalba changed his mind about this whole wager. He forfeited his end of the deal, and wants you to be the winner.”
Novia was so taken aback that she staggered dangerously close to the edge of the cliff. “… So, there will be no Land of the Forgotten?”
“Nnnot exactly.” The Candlemaker stretched out, waving a hand. “See, I can’t destroy, I can only create. He still gets his kingdom… but you get yours too. If a soul is remembered, they stay in your land, and once they’re forgotten, they go to his. Now, all you’ve got to do…” He delicately took her arm, and had her sweep it across the fathoms before them. “… Is imagine it, and it will be so. Go for it!”
Novia blinked through fresh tears, these ones of joy. Humanity would live… Humanity would get the peace it deserved! There were second chances for everyone! And all she had to do was imagine it? This was not a difficult task – she had wished for such a place her entire life. She breathed softly, closing her eyes. A place where people would no longer suffer, no longer worry, where families could celebrate their bloodlines and all could share the stories of her life. A place like that should be… colorful.
When she opened her eyes, color was exactly what she got. Streets and buildings and balloons stretched out into the infinite, constantly moving and changing to the beat of life. Parade floats began to form on bright pathways, streamers and confetti danced in the air, and even the smell of the place brought up imagery of full bellies and delighted tongues. This was a paradise in every sense of the word – all it needed now was people.
She knew her duty – to give these souls whatever they needed to be happy, be it advice or finding their loved ones. She would guide them and watch over them like an eternal mother. As her lips parted in awe, she tasted sugar on her lips. She raised her hands, and saw her flesh had turned to hardened sugar, painted and decorated like the ones she gave to the villagers. Her dress was now ordained with flickering candles and blossoming flowers, and she couldn’t help but give a twirl, amazed by her own movements. “If I’m to help these people…” She spoke at last. “… then I can no longer be held by mortal conventions. I was once Novia… and now I shall be called… La Muerte.”
“Aw man, I like that, brings a tear to my eye.” The Candlemaker gave an overly enthusiastic sniffle.
She turned to the Candlemaker, and bowed in reverence. “I can’t thank you enough for this.”
“Hey, don’t thank me! It was his idea!” The Candlemaker then moved aside, revealing Xibalba, who was fiddling with a snake-like staff in his arms. Most likely he’d been waiting the entire time, and when he found out he was revealed, his newfound wings jerked in shock, before quickly trying to pretend he’d been waiting nonchalantly for a more dramatic reveal. “He came up the idea to have both worlds. Stormed right into my place, dude didn’t even knock. Not that I’ve got doors, but y’know, it’s the whole principle of the thing…” He rambled on, but La Muerte had long since stopped listening, only able to see Xibalba.
Xibalba dared to lift his eyes toward her, and La Muetre recognized him immediately. It was the slow, steady gaze he gave her, exactly like the way he’d looked after their first kiss. There was not a single doubt in her mind who this was man was. She sighed deeply, her last worry vanishing. She placed a hand on her chest, and she held out her left hand towards him. “… You did this?”
Xibalba took his time to walk to her, taking in her new appearance. Perhaps it was because they were gods that they could recognize each other so easily, or perhaps it was deeper than that. He chose to think the later. Xibalba was almost afraid to touch her, that his new skin would taint her, yet he held her hand, and kissed her knuckles. “Letting humanity be forgotten or remembered…” Her skin was sweet to his lips, and there was no stain to be found. It told him that in this life, they fit perfectly. “I don’t care anymore. But I… I never want there to be a day where I forget you.”
“Nor I you.” La Muerte held his bony hand to her cheek, and for a moment they were back in the village, humans in the passion of first love while the world moved without them. “You didn’t have to do this.” They smiled at one another, as if that walk had never ended, and Xibalba stroked her cheek, bringing his lips closer to hers-
“Well sure he did!” The Candlemaker interrupted. “I mean, he is the one who cheated.”
The gods froze in place. There would be no kisses today, not by a long shot. La Muerte’s hand suddenly had a vice grip on Xibala’s fingers, and each word she spoke was filled with anger. “… You… did… WHAT?”
Xibalba no longer had to fear death. It turns out that the face and voice La Muerte could make when she was enraged was much more frightening. “… I don’t know what he’s talking about.” He lied instantly, speaking his words so quickly that they tumbled on top of each other.
“Dude, you just told me.” The Candlemaker went on, either oblivious or really enjoying what was to happen. “You came to my lair, told me you had the snake blow out her candle, so I should make the Land of the Remembered since you didn’t win fair and square. That’s pretty much the definition of cheating. ”
La Muerte’s new golden eyes slowly went from Xibalba to his snake-shaped staff. “Youuu…” She then lashed out, her new super-powered hands throttling his throat. “You had me MURDERED to win a BET?!”
“I didn’t know it would kill you!” Xibalba gagged, clawing for freedom.
“You took me on that walk just to get rid of me!”
“You only said those things to keep me distracted!”
“You lied to me!”
“T-Technically, I never said I wouldn’t cheat…”
“I hope you enjoy your new kingdom!” La Muerte hissed, giving Xibalba one final shake. “Because I can’t wait to forget all about you!” She then dropped him over the cliff like a bad sack of trash. She then slapped her hands together, and began to walk on the colorful streets of her new home. The Candlemaker glanced over the edge, and then decided it was best that from now on, he play the role of the audience, instead of participant.
Now that both places were created and had their leaders, the humans could die peacefully. It wasn’t long before the souls of the departed had their final words in the Book of Life, and so both kingdoms welcomed their newcomers.
However, Xibalba was stubborn, and the only thing worse than a stubborn person is a stubborn person in love. That only makes them more determined, and more desperate, to get their way. Now that he was immortal, he had an eternity to find a way to win La Muerte back.
His first attempt was while La Muerte was greeting her earliest arrivals. On that day, La Muerte personally oversaw the parade of a proud family lineage. An elderly woman who had lived past her prime approached La Muerte, bowing graciously to her. “My lady, this is truly a wonderful place. I am honored to be in your presence.”
La Muerte smile, and touched the grandmother’s chin, encouraging her to look up. “There’s no need to be so formal. You can call me by name.”
The old woman timidly moved her head up. “If you insist, LaaaAAAAAH!” She suddenly screamed, horrified by a sight, and then ran off, bowling over several partying dancers.
La Muerte blinked a bit, and then gradually glanced behind her – lo and behold, there was Xibalba. He placed his hands together, nonplussed by his terrible introduction. “… Now that we’ve had time to adjust to our new lives, why don’t we start these lives together?”
La Muerte gave her answer by shoving him off the street, so he fell right back into the abyss.
At another time he tried again, with bribery. “Wouldn’t you say this is the most beautiful medal you’ve ever seen? It belongs on such a beautiful woman, of-” and she shoved him off again.
He tried demanding. “We belong together, and you know it! You will be-” and she shoved him off again.
He tried begging. “Do you have any idea how boring life is without you-” and she shoved him off again.
As you can guess, this kept happening for every approach he attempted. For immortals, time passes quickly – it felt as if Xibalba was going after her for days, but humans would have seen it as decades, almost centuries. Seduction, promises, lies, offerings, none of it would appease her. Xibalba could not figure out what she wanted, but this was because one thing had never occurred to him. What he would have to do was something he’d never even done in his mortal life.
He at last discovered this when he was hidden in the Land of the Remembered. With god-hood can extraordinary powers, not the least among them was the ability to disguise one’s self. Many times he’d used this ability to blend in among the skeleton souls so he could watch over La Muerte without her reacting violently. Often times he’d watch her from afar as she talked with the souls, played with them, aided them, and while he enjoyed this he knew it was not enough. He wanted to talk with her, play with her, and the idea that she could be happy without him was more pain than he could bare.
At first this day seemed no different than any other. In his dead disguise, he had crept into La Muerte’s castle, which bizarrely looked humbler and yet grander than his own. Where Xibalba had used his empty space to brag, she had used hers to invite others in to fill it up. Many people were approaching La Muerte, asking questions and thanking her. Yet for all the joyous speeches, there was a lone sobbing sound. La Muerte picked up on this immediately, and rushed to the source, ignoring everyone else.
It was a young lady, dead before any of her hairs could be grayed. She had been trying to hold back her tears, but could do so no longer. As La Muerte approached her, fresh cries broke out, and she fell to her knees. “L-La Muerte!” She moaned. “Please… please, I beg of you, I must find my husband…”
La Muerte’s arms swept around the lady, trying to make her stand up. “Now now, there’s no need for this. I can find your husband easily, and you will be reunited, as lovers should.”
Xibalba quietly grunted, but the lady shook her head. “Y-You don’t understand… if I find him alone, he won’t want to see me… he won’t listen…” She swallowed hard, shaking as she began to explain. “Our family was poor… and one night, I… I was just so hungry… I got into an argument with him… I-I called him worthless, and I blamed him for our poverty… a-and the next day, he was gone… he went to try and go fishing, so we could eat better, but that day, it rained so hard, the stream flooded, and he…” Her knees buckled, and only La Muerte kept her from falling. “I-It’s my fault he died! I was so foolish!”
La Muerte nodded to those around her, and the others began to depart silently, none of them noticing the extra figure hiding in the shadows. They knew what to do, and who to look for. La Muerte ran her hand over the lady’s hair, speaking sympathetically. “I understand… You want to apologize to him. But when you do so… you must realize the weight and power of an apology.”
Xibalba smacked himself in the forehead. An apology! Why hadn’t he thought of that! … Because he’d never done it before, he told himself. Yet perhaps that hadn’t been the only reason. As he dared to look at the scene again, he questioned if La Muerte would even accept an apology from him. Now that the concept of apologizing had actually planted itself in his head, the full might of his consequences couldn’t be ignored. In the end, no matter what he did or did not know, what he had done was wrong.
His shoulders felt heavy. Yes, what he had done was wrong, and if he had the chance to do it over again, he would never have cheated. Yet if he admitted this, wouldn’t that give her a stronger resolve not to be with him? He wavered back and forth between the options, the words bouncing on his tongue. Could he say it?
La Muerte held the lady’s hands in both of hers. “A real apology doesn’t come from wanting salvation. It comes from fully acknowledging what you have done, and helping the other person ease their burdens. You have to want it not just for the sake of your guilt, but for the sake of what is right. If you truly mean it with all of your heart and all of your love, he will hear you.”
The lady nodded fervently, unable to speak - and the doors slammed open. “My love!” There stood a bony fisherman, the rod attached to his back.
The lady gasped, and then scrambled forward, arms outstretched. “D-Darrrling!” She fell into his arms, wracked with weeping. “I-I’m so sorry! I should have never have said those terrible things! You… you were always doing your best for us! I should have appreciated you more… not w-when it was too late…”
The man rested his chin atop her hair, sighing. “But it’s not too late.” He kissed the top of her head. “I forgive you, my wife… and I’ve been waiting for you ever since I first arrived.
The lady wiped her face, daring to look at her husband. “Y-you have? Even after I said something so horrible, a-and caused you to die…?”
“You did not flood the stream, my sweet. And I know you would never truly wish me ill.” He held her shoulders. “La Muerte helped me see that my love for you was more powerful than any grudge… and I would have been willing to wait centuries in that meant I could see you again. She told me that true love is patient… and it is always rewarded.”
The man then lifted his wife into his arms, carrying her outside the threshold. “Come! Our life begins anew!” He triumphantly carried her away, and the doors closed behind them.
Though the endless parties could be heard from outside the castle, the inside had a stale silence to it. La Muerte walked back to her throne and sat down. Once she was comfortable, she spoke aloud. “How long do you plan on hiding there?”
Xibalba almost bit his tongue. The disguise was shed, and he strayed into the light, arms behind his back. “… If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you orchestrated that little show.”
“I’ve never used people as pawns.” She replied thinly, arms crossed, and Xibalba felt a stab through the ribs. She waited a moment, and then eased back. “So, are you going to apologize honestly, or fake one just to be with me again?”
A staring contest was held between the gods, neither one moving, neither one changing their expression. Xibalba then started to laugh, throwing a hand in the air. “You know what? I could only ever be honest with you. That is one thing you love about me, isn’t it? My strange style of truth?” La Muerte said nothing, so he clamored on, moving towards her. “So here it is. I apologize for what I’ve done to you, and I am truly sorry. But if you ask me why I am sorry… yes, I feel guilty, yes, I wanted to be absolved, and yes, I want to be with you!”
He was upon her now, hands grabbing the armrests. “You think you can just walk away after bringing light into my miserable existence? You think I’ll give up on you if you won’t forgive me? I don’t care! I know I’ve made you happy! I know you’ve opened your heart to me! I have those memories, and they are staying with me forever! I am sorry for lying to you, but if you think for one moment I regret taking you out on our walk, then you are nothing but a fool!”
La Muerte had taken this rant in, not budging from her seat. She watched the beast in front of her, one of her fingers lightly tapping her arm. “So, you regret cheating, but you don’t regret what you said to me?”
“Of course not!” He barked, shoulders hitched and wings spread out, his body shaking with rage. “I refuse to apologize for what I told you! Every word I spoke to you was the truth! Every kiss, every touch, every word that passed between us was genuine! I will cherish every moment of that time, even the arguments! I will never apologize for that walk!” With that final defiant statement released, his body sagged, all of his anger used up. He inhaled deeply, and then with his exhale, his speech was smooth. “Now the only remaining question is… what do you plan to do about that, my love?”
Xibalba honestly did not know what would come next. Thus, exactly like the first time it happened, he was completely and utterly thrown off when La Muerte grabbed him by his beard, and yanked him into a sudden kiss. It was only later when his mind could function that he’d notice her kisses were literally sweeter than before, but contained the same amount of deepness and strength, mashing up against him like a powerful blow. By the time Xibalba had gotten a good hold of his sensed, he realized he’d somehow along the way fallen chin-first into her lap, while she stroked his head tenderly.
“It’s about time, Balby.” She purred, the tips of her fingers stroking his sticky skin. “And you’re still as honest and outspoken as ever.”
Xibalba blinked rapidly, and looked up at her. “… So… you forgive me?”
“Absolutely not.” She cupped his chin in her hands, lifting him up. “And I know in the future, you’ll probably lie again. For every truth you tell, I know there’s a lie somewhere waiting for me. You’re not perfect.”
Xibalba managed to find his footing, and began to stand up. “I’ve never said I was perfect.”
“I know. You still don’t care for humanity, and you still don’t care much for yourself.” She also began to stand up, and in that moment Xibalba thought perhaps she was taller than him – or maybe she only seemed so to his eyes. “A tiger can’t change his stripes. But…perhaps the tiger can be tamed.” She then started to walk around him, heading for the front doors.
Xibalba watched her. “… Where are you going?”
“I was thinking of taking a walk.” She glanced behind him, and held out her open hand. “I don’t like to do it alone.”
Xibalba looked at her hand. “But what about us?”
“What about us?” She asked right back, waiting in place before the doors. “We have eternity. If you thought a relationship between the know-it-all Novia and the lying Osvaldo was going to be a simple happily ever after, maybe you should have stayed up there with the humans.”
Xibalba was surprised again – and understood that for as long as he would know her, she would keep surprising him. She would keep trying to one-up him and change him, and he’d try to find ways to be victorious even if it meant being deceitful. They were in no ways perfect, and this relationship, if they dared to have it, would not always consist of smooth sailing. There would be good and bad memories strewed in together.
And Xibalba wanted to remember every single last one of them.
He was at her side in an instant, grasping her hand. “I suppose we’ll take this one walk at a time.”
Her fingers fit in with the spaces of his hands, like a specific key made for a specific lock. “I can give you the grand tour of the Land of the Remembered. Just try not to scare any of the elderly spirits.”
“You haven’t tamed this tiger just yet, my sweet.” Said the man once known as Osvaldo.
“Balby, the fun has only just begun.” Said the woman once known as Novia.
And there was no happily ever after, and there never was. Love is never perfect in its stream of time, and there were many times Xibalba’s cheating ways got him in trouble, and many times Novia’s headstrong attitude let her fall into a trick. But for every mistake the two of them made, they went over each hurdle loving each other all the more. A life of perfection is a boring one, and one that gets tiring quickly. They were glad to fight, and glad that things would never stay the same. After their fights were resolved and lessons were learned, they would take long walks together, and every memory they had was cherished deeply in their hearts.
To this day, Xibalba still tries to get the best of his lady, and sometimes Novia will stumble into his lies. They will still bicker and fight, and they will still make up and walk, and while they will not have their happily ever after, there is no denying that they are happy…
“… It’s not your typical ending.” The tour guide finished, clapping once. “But then, they aren’t your typical couple. What did you think?”
The student had taken her glasses off, trying to rub spots of tears from her face. “Th-that was a great story! It was everything I wanted… and everything I didn’t know I wanted! Thank you so, so, so, so, sooo much, miss!” She managed to put her glasses back on, although now they were crooked from excitement. “I’m going to tell everyone I know about it!”
“That’s all well and good.” The tour guide chuckled, coming up to the girl to turn her around. “But I don’t think you want a memory of the time your parents scolded you for being out so late… I think it’s time you went home.”
The girl agreed, starting to walk, but as an afterthought, she looked back at the guide. “… You know, I don’t think she should ever forgive him for that first cheat.”
“She won’t.” The tour guide’s lip curled.
The student giggled, and thanked her again profusely, even thanking the security guard who had started to roll his eyes. She thanked them three more times before finally making her way out, tripping over her own shoelaces after being lost in the memory of a good story.
Once they were alone, the guard clicked his tongue. “…My dear, perhaps next time you needn’t exaggerate so much?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea what you mean.” Her arms slid around his neck from behind, giving his bulbous nose a little kiss.
He couldn’t help but smirk. “You’re never going to forgive me for that, are you?”
“Never in a million years.”
“I expect nothing less, my love.”
She chuckled, skimming her hand down his arm until it met his palm. “It may be late for humans, but the night is young for us. Why don’t we take a walk out among them?”
He gave her hand a squeeze, ready to accompany her. “Maybe while we’re out, I can remind you of how the story really went. I seem to recall a beautiful candy maker who was dreamily watching the man building her house…”
They left the museum as he regaled his tale, and they walked under the full moon’s light. They did not live happily ever after. But for this night, they were happy.