The Original Celeste Marie

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

My grandfather named the Celestes, my mothers, for his aunt Celeste Marie Rowland, who was reputed to have had spiritual powers. Whether or not that was true, she was a remarkable person: Celeste Marie was a founding member of the Equal Franchise League of Catskill and also the Thebes chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, not a popular institution in this remote Catholic town that lay alongside the bootleggers’ route from Canada to New York. She was the first woman in Thebes to drive a car. She learned very late in life, and apparently she wasn’t a good driver, but she liked to go fast. On muddy spring days her Studebaker sedan could often be seen in local ditches, with Celeste Marie Rowland sitting beside it, a puzzled but nonetheless broad smile on her face. On her children’s birthdays she dressed up as a gypsy fortuneteller, and bewitched the local youth with visions of an egalitarian, teetotaling future peopled by tall, handsome strangers and fast cars. Maybe it was in this capacity that she first impressed my grandfather. Cross my palm with silver… Whatever. He resolved to name his first daughter after Celeste Marie, and when his first daughter turned out to be twins, my grandfather, in the true stubborn Rowland fashion, went ahead and gave both of them her name.

I don’t know if there’s any power in names, or any truth, but the fact is that the Celestes inherited something of their great-aunt’s spirit. They were unusually, almost unnaturally willful, as my grandparents learned when they tried to put their daughters in separate cribs, only to have Celeste (as they called the older one; the younger one became Celeste Marie, or just Marie) climb out of her own and, unable to get into her sister’s, fall asleep at its feet. Night after night.

When they could talk the first thing the Celestes said was that they wanted to be together; I wouldn’t be surprised if they spoke their first word at the same moment, or if that word was sister. They eschewed contact with other children. They had a secret doll city in the attic, and they played secret doll games; they were noisy when they thought they were alone, but fell silent when they heard anyone hearing them. They were, in short, a world unto themselves, much as Celeste Marie had been. And they liked to dress up! My grandfather showed me a picture of my mothers wearing eyepatches that they’d made themselves, from black velvet frocks my grandfather had bought them. That was the twins; they took whatever you gave them and turned it into something else. Cross my palm with silver… Secretly, I think, my grandfather hoped that his twin daughters would tell him the future. Or rather, not the future, but his future. Oliver wanted his daughters to see to the end of his story, and to report that it was happy. He wanted them to put a laurel crown on his head, and to make him the hero of their adoring memoirs. He couldn’t have chosen two girls worse suited for the job. The Celestes turned out pretty, smart, and talented, but they did not turn out generous, at least, not towards their father. The only future they talked about was their own.

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