The first day of building went well. Mirabel didn’t put in much of the physical work, she was too busy helping her father draw up the blueprints, but the others have managed to clear and sort the rubble, and now the foundations are marked out, and the paving stones are cut for the patío. It’s a solid start, although Mirabel knows that her family are a little frustrated that they can’t use their powers to move things along quicker.
Mirabel is still grieving for Casita, of course, but being able to use her knowledge of the house, its dimensions and quirks to be able to create a replica is helping. It feels like a fitting tribute to her oldest and most faithful friend.
Mariano and Félix knocked together a lean-to big enough for the family to sleep in, even if it is a bit cramped. They can’t rely on Pepa to keep the nights warm and balmy anymore, although they should be fine as long as the summer lingers. The villagers and in-laws offered to put them up, and maybe on a colder night they might take them up on it, but Abuela was reluctant to leave the building site behind, and of course when she hesitated the rest of the family fell into step behind her. Old habits die hard.
It could be worse, though. They’ve managed to salvage blankets and cushions, and with the fire burning low and all of them huddled together on piles of straw it’s positively cozy. Despite the pain of losing their home, the evening has been full of warmth and laughter, surprisingly free of tension.
Everyone took Bruno’s return remarkably well. It feels odd to be proud of a group of adults, but Mirabel is. She has never been more grateful for her mother’s calm energy, for Tío Félix’s amazing ability to smoothly navigate even the weirdest social situations, even for her father’s unaffected affability. And Pepa is almost unnervingly fine. Mirabel doesn’t think she’s ever seen her so happy and at peace, and she wonders if it’s because Bruno’s back, or because she does not have to keep a lid on her emotions for the first time in forever.
It’s funny, Mirabel never used to see her family’s gifts as burdens, but now it’s as if she’s putting on her glasses again for the first time. She can see the pressure, the pain, the fault lines as surely as she saw the cracks in Casita’s walls. For example, she never used to think of her mother as a triplet, but now she cannot unsee it. She sees her mother’s calm in Bruno’s sad, too-old eyes, sees Bruno’s nervous, kinetic movements in Pepa’s frantic mood swings, sees Pepa’s fire in her mother’s warmth. It feels so right seeing the three of them back together that she doesn’t know how it didn’t feel wrong before, how she didn’t notice that there was this gaping hole in the lives of the people she loves most.
As she hears her family’s breathing become slow and even, settling into snuffles and snores, she stares at the roof of the shack and wonders, not for the first time, if it’s her fault that casita broke down. If she had just seen the cracks sooner, if she had just understood Isabella and Luisa and Abuela better, if she had-
She hears a noise and glances over to see the blurry shape of Abuela stand slowly and shuffle outside, her shawl pulled around her shoulders. At first she thinks Abuela is just going to relieve herself, but after several minutes go by without her returning Mirabel decides to go and check on her. She finds her sitting on a large boulder at the edge of where the patio should be, looking up at where the candle once was.
‘Abuela?’ she asks, and the old woman does not start, does not turn around. She is immovable and ancient as the rock she sits on, carved in moonlight.
‘You should be asleep, mija.’
‘I thought maybe you wanted the company.’ Abuela doesn’t say anything, and Mirabel adds quickly ‘but I don’t want to get in your way, so if you don’t I’ll just-’
‘No, stay, mí corazón. Stay.’ Alma turns and holds her arm out. ‘It… has been a long day.’ Mirabel comes over and clambers onto the rock beside her.
‘I’m so sorry Abuela. I’ve been thinking and… it’s all my fault. I should have seen that things were wrong, I should have understood better, and seen how you were all hurting, I could have fixed it if I had just known why you were acting the way you were-’
‘No.’ Abuela gives her a hard look. It’s a look that Mirabel used to associate with being scolded, but now that she is holding the gaze it reveals something else. There is a young woman in there, one with determination and grit and fire in her. It’s a fierce, loving look, and it makes Mirabel’s lip wobble and her eyes fill up with tears. ‘You don’t owe any apologies.’
‘No. You haven’t done anything wrong.’
‘Then why did you act like I did?’ Mirabel blurts out, before she can stop herself. ‘Even back when…when the door turned to ash and-’
‘I was scared that the magic was fading. I was scared we’d failed a test.’
‘I was scared too. I didn’t know what it meant. I cried for days.’
‘I remember. I told you, didn’t I, the next day, that it was ok, that a gift was a privilege and we were not entitled to one.’
‘And you told me that I should stop crying, no one likes a tantrum. But...I wasn’t crying because of that.’ Mirabel says, and Alma looks surprised. ‘I was crying because…because in that moment all I wanted was for my abuela to hug me and tell me it was going to be ok and we would take care of it and it was just a mistake and…’ her voice wobbles, she swallows ‘and you just turned away. I thought I’d done something terrible and you didn’t love me anymore. That’s why I was crying. That was all I cared about.’ She looks away before she can see Abuela’s face. She feels a hand rest awkwardly on her shoulder.
‘I handled it badly. perdóname, mija.’ Alma says, and Mirabel knows she should leave it at that, knows the old woman has been hurting too, knows that they’ve been through all of this already, but she can’t help but let it all tumble out again.
‘And…and later when you said I did this- when you said I was trying to break Casita and hurt the family…how could you think that? How could you think I was that bitter and hateful? What did I do to make you think I was such a bad p-person-’
‘I was scared. I didn’t understand what was happening and all I could think was you were the one in the vision, the only one who might have a reason to-’
‘But I loved Casita! She was the only one in this family who didn’t care I didn’t have a gift!’ Mirabel sobs. ‘She was my best f-friend.’ Suddenly the grief hits her and she brings her feet up to the top of the boulder, tucks her head into her knees, making herself small, small enough to disappear.
‘Oh mija.’ Abuela says, shakily, but Mirabel doesn’t look up.
‘You’re my abuela.’ She chokes. ‘You’ve known me all my life. If you think I’m a bad person what does that say about m-me?’
‘It says nothing about you.' Abuela says fiercely. 'Nada. I was wrong. They were the words of a foolish, scared old woman who called herself head of the familia without even bothering to understand her own son, or her own grandchildren. No lo tome a pecho.’
‘Too late.’ Mirabel mumbles. She feels arms come to wrap around her, feels a kiss pressed into her hair, but she can’t quite bring herself to look up.
‘It is not your fault, Mija. You are a child. It should never have been your job to fix us. It should have been mine. And now…I let her down. She was there for me when I had no one else and I-I let her down.’
Mirabel looks up, dimly able through her fogged-up glasses to see tears running down the old woman’s nose. She realizes for the first time that this is what they have in common. What they have always had in common. The others are grieving for their gifts, for the magic. Alma and Mirabel are grieving for Casita.
‘I let her down too.’ Mirabel chokes. ‘I was just trying to fix her and I-I wasn’t quick enough or smart enough and she was asking me for help and I didn’t know what to do…’
‘She wouldn’t have needed to ask for help if I hadn’t broken things to begin with.’ Alma says. ‘This is not your fault. And I never should have even thought so, much less said it out loud.’ For a while Mirabel cries into Abuela’s shoulder, for Casita, for all the years they’ve lost by misunderstanding each other, but most of all because – apart from their conversation by the river- she can’t remember the last time Abuela held her like this, the last time she felt the thin, strong hands stroking her hair and murmuring comforting words. Has it really been ten years? Have they never embraced in all that time? Did their relationship really change so suddenly, or was it the work of years of misunderstandings, years of attrition which caused their foundations to crumble away?
After Mirabel’s sobs have subsided into sniffles, Abuela pulls away. ‘I realised something when you went missing.’ she says.
‘W-what was that?’ Mirabel asks, wiping her nose with her arm.
‘We all agreed we should search for you in your favourite places and I… had no idea where they were. Or what you liked. Or who your friends were.’
‘I guess it never came up.’ Mirabel says, with a shrug, taking off her glasses so she can clean them with the corner of her nightdress.
‘I would like to know you better. All of you. Even Isabela... I thought we had a good relationship, but I realise now that I don’t know her at all.’
‘To be fair, I’m not sure Isa let any of us see her for who she really was. I’m not sure she really knows yet. I think I’m gonna like her though.’ A flash of pain crosses Alma’s eyes, so Mirabel changes the subject. ‘Well…there’s a walk I like that goes through the forest- don’t worry, we can do the route that doesn’t go by the river - it’s not too intense, I know your knee plays up when you walk too far. You’ll probably wanna wear your leather boots- the old brown ones, I mean, not the black ones you wear for church-’ Mirabel rambles. Alma blinks at her.
‘How did you know…never mind. I would like that a lot.’
‘Great! The days are still long so we can go in the evening after everyone goes home. It’s really beautiful, I want you to see it.’ Mirabel stands up, wipes away her tears and holds a hand out to her abuela with as broad a smile as she can manage. The old woman looks at her with an expression of wonder, as if it’s the first time she has ever seen her before.
‘You…have your abuelo's eyebrows.’ She says. Mirabel raises them in surprise.
‘But…my eyes, I think.’
‘Uh…yeah. People tell me that a lot.’ Mirabel says, awkwardly. ‘Should we…’
‘Sorry…um… Let’s go.’ Abuela says, standing up awkwardly, gawkily, Mirabel thinks, with a wave of affection, and the two of them walk back to the shack arm-in-arm.
‘Do you think maybe when my door disappeared, that was the test?’ Mirabel muses. ‘Like…Casita wanted to test how we handled something like that as a family?’ Abuela frowns.
‘You might be right. Maybe…maybe that was how we were supposed to prove that we were worthy of the miracle. By loving each other as Pedro…’ she stops talking.
‘As Pedro loved us.’
‘He would be so ashamed of me.’ Abuela says.
‘Do you believe that?’ Mirabel asks. It doesn’t seem to match what she knows of her abuelo. Abuela considers it and shakes her head.
‘No. He would never have been ashamed of me. Just…sad that it went as far as it did.’ She admits. ‘And sorry he couldn’t do more.’ She looks up at the moon, and for a moment, again, Mirabel can see the young woman she once might have been. ‘Sometimes…it’s selfish but…I just wish he had shown his love by staying with me. I know we wouldn’t have survived but…maybe if we’d run, if we’d found a place to hide…we would have no miracle but maybe we would still…I still feel so angry with him sometimes.’
‘Like Tío Bruno.’ Mirabel suggests. Abuela frowns.
‘What do you mean?’
‘He left because of the vision he had of me. Because he was scared that if you found out…you would assume the worst and be afraid of me, I guess, or hate me. And blame him too.’ Abuela stares at her. ‘So he left before anyone could find out. To protect me. And I guess I’m grateful to him…he must have loved me so much to do that… but I can’t help but feel a little angry with him. Because I needed him. I needed someone who understood what it felt like to be the odd one out. The one everyone assumed the worst of. I don’t know if the vision would have come true if I’d just felt a little bit more like…somebody else had my back. Maybe the cracks wouldn’t have been so big.’
‘Maybe not. Or maybe it would have ended with the same crack, and me still on one side, and you and Bruno on the other.’ Abuela says, quietly. ‘I suppose we have no way of knowing.’
‘No. And… I don’t think it matters.’ Mirabel says firmly. ‘What matters is that we rebuild, and get better at seeing the cracks.’
‘With a room for everyone, this time around. Nadie se queda atrás.’ Abuela says. Mirabel smiles.
‘Nobody left behind.’ She agrees. ‘Although I’m kind of used to the nursery now. I was thinking maybe I could just be off to one side of it, with a dividing wall so I can still be there for any future kids, but…it would still be like having my own room.’
‘Mirabel Madrigal, you are a wonder.’ Abuela says, and Mirabel bites her lip to stop herself from crying again. They make it back to the shack, Abuela on one end of the row of sleeping Madrigals, Mirabel on the other. As Mirabel snuggles back under the blankets next to Luisa, Abuela goes over to Bruno. He is sleeping on his own, either out of habit or because he doesn’t want his rats to disturb anyone. The old woman strokes his hair, and Mirabel hears her mutter something that sounds like mi Brunito…mi chico valiente.
‘Nadie se queda atrás.’ Mirabel whispers, once Abuela has settled back down under the blankets.
‘Nunca más.’ Comes the whispered reply, and Mirabel does not need to look over to know that her Abuela is staring at the roof of the shack, jaw set, eyes ablaze with fierce tears.
They have the same eyes, after all.