AN INTRODUCTION BY TARA ISON
“My mother could be as great as I wanted her to be, sometimes. When she wanted it, too…”
Adrienne Celt’s debut novel, The Daughters, is a lyrical, multi-generational history of folklore and enchantment, selfless sacrifice and bitter, binding love. In this gorgeous excerpt, a mother and young daughter venture forth on a gold-bright afternoon. The destination: the Chicago Civic Opera House, to see an underground production of the legendary opera Lulu, whose amoral heroine juggles lovers and lives, seduces and destroys. The little girl — herself called Lulu, named for the character by her opera-loving mother — is intoxicated by the glittering day, by the spell her mother weaves of their own hidden beauty and power; “Let’s pretend we’re orphans,” she suggests. But not just regular orphans — magical, royal orphans: “This will be our first time out in the world in our new clothes, and no one will recognize us.” The train to the city is a royal carriage; the blind man singing to himself, the mother assures, is the royal madrigal, able to see their greatness through the sound of their voices; she joins him in triumphant harmony. Mother and daughter’s sweeping entrance to the theater is admission to a world of transcendent, fantastical secrets. They are given seats, given champagne; all is kisses and handholding, exquisite possibility, everyone performing their role to perfection. Child Lulu is in love with this bubbly new experience, with the illuminated red cloth heart the opera’s Lulu wears pinned to her dress, with her own loving, operatically glamorous mother. And we are in love with it all as well, thanks to Celt’s exquisite literary spell.
But as child Lulu is increasingly enthralled by her counterpart’s story and song (“My mother was magical, but this was more.”), her mother grows restless, derisive and cold, now throwing back whiskey, and her bitterness rises to the surface. A failed singer, she resents her role as spectator and not star; she pulls away when her daughter reaches for her hand, and young Lulu now realizes the bottle of whiskey “she’d waved toward me in the second intermission had solved the long mystery of my mother’s most peculiar perfume.” At the end, opera Lulu’s glowing red cloth heart has turned black, been torn in two, each half pinned to either side of the closing curtain.
The ride home is no longer a royal carriage. But the blind man is still there, on the train; Lulu hopes he may still be their madrigal — won’t he recognize them? Perhaps they should sing him a song? But, no, the spell has been broken, and her mother stalks off without a word. Lulu has no choice but to follow. All is now tarnished, turned cold and dim.
The roles we play, the costumes we wear, the tales we tell each other and ourselves… how else to reconcile our longing for fanciful escape with our desperate need for authentic, of-this-earth affection and love? What I so admire here is Celt’s masterful, insightful depiction of this paradox, her intimate knowledge of the human heart — the breakable beating heart we nevertheless, like young Lulu, keep on displaying, hopefully, to the world.
Author of Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies
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by Adrienne Celt, recommended by Tara Ison
Excerpted from The Daughters
Taking me to the opera was my mother’s last attempt to make me her own. Like everything she does, she went about it in a strange way: not many parents would choose to bring their daughters to witness a tragedy to which they are namesake. But whatever her insufficiencies, my mother understood my sense of pride. She knew that seeing the name Lulu on the tickets would thrill me more than the character’s death would undo me.
The show was a matinee on one of those magical Chicago days that are clear and bright, so the cold doesn’t seem so punishing. Walking outside reddened our noses, and my mother pinched mine with her gloved fingers — I could feel the faint pressure from her long manicured nails beneath the leather.
“Let’s pretend we’re orphans,” she said to me. “Only not really orphans. Children abandoned at birth who discover that they’re really royalty.”
“Yes.” She smiled. “And magic. This will be our first time out in the world in our new clothes, and no one will recognize us. They’ll all be impressed with how pretty and fancy we are, and even people” — her face darkened — “who’ve been terrible to us and shunned us because of our orphanhood will love us and sing our praises. And we’ll be kind to them.” The darkness lifted from her like a cloud in the wind.
We took the O’Hare line to the Loop, then transferred to get to Washington and Wells — it was a long ride, but to us each train was a royal carriage. My mother and I pointed out all the special touches that had been left inside for us: the clean blue pair of seats in a beam of sun, the advertisements for a local jeweler showing pictures of a diamond-studded necklace and bracelet. We might consider getting our tiaras refitted there, we said. If the store had sufficient dignity upon inspection. The other passengers received our scrutinizing attention as well: there was the café owner who’d refused to sell us hot chocolate because the gold coin we’d found to pay with was dirty. Beside her, the spoiled twin girls we always saw in the park whose dresses and hair ribbons threw us into fits of jealousy, which we quelled thanks to our superior breeding.
A blind man with a cane and a threadbare hat sat in the handicapped seats a few feet away from us, and he rocked with the rhythm of the train, singing softly to himself.
“That,” my mother whispered to me, taking off her gloves, “is the royal madrigal. He recognized us for what we were long before anyone else, but he couldn’t tell us for fear of retribution from the evil queen. She wanted to keep us poor and wretched. But she couldn’t fool the madrigal: he sensed our greatness through the sound of our voices. He can tell a prince from a hog farmer by hearing them speak a single word.”
We were quiet, listening to the madrigal sing. He changed tunes after a minute or so, and my mother tilted her head to the side so her long hair fell away from the ear that faced him.
“Well, of course he’d want to honor us with a song.” She raised her eyebrows at me gravely. “Shouldn’t we honor him back?” My mother could be as great as I wanted her to be, sometimes. When she wanted it too.
I nodded, and she put a finger to her lips. Hush. She walked over to where the man sat and placed herself beside him while I watched. Silently. Hushed. At first I couldn’t distinguish the sounds she was making from the man’s singing, so low were the notes and so well intertwined with the music that was already in the air. But as the man raised his voice my mother made hers more audible, and they began to play together: his legato with her crisp stutters, his baritone with her alto-soprano.
The song was sad, but somehow between them it sounded triumphant. Like they’d found one another after a long search. Ended a long loneliness. She bobbed her head as they tossed lines back and forth, trading phrases from “Body and Soul.” I leaned my chin against the cold metal headrest on the back of my seat and watched. The grinding of the train against the tracks rumbled against my jaw as my mother and the man spun the air into an earthy, rasping exultation. They were harmonizing now, and my mother put her clean, beautiful hand on the man’s, which was thick with calluses. I loved her then.
Together, they sang about the spirit and the flesh. Together, until they ran out of words.
As the train pulled up to Washington and Wells, they hummed a few last bars together until the conductor made a scratchy announcement, breaking the spell. I held my mother’s hand and we hopped off onto the wooden platform. The blind man stayed where he was and smiled.
I almost broke into a run towards the front entrance of the Civic Opera House, home of the Chicago Lyric Opera, but my mother snagged the back collar of my dress and pulled me around the building. We approached a side entrance where a man stood smoking in a tuxedo and tails. My mother nudged me.
“The gatekeeper,” she whispered. I had the tickets.
“Hello,” I said to the man. He peered at me through a cloud of smoke that he puffed in and out of his mouth without removing the cigarette. Then he turned to my mother.
“You Jimmy’s friend?”
She nodded and I silently offered up the tickets in my palm. They were delicate slips of paper with careful calligraphy, unlike any theater stubs I’d seen before. The smoking man picked them up and inspected them, smirking.
“This all seems to be in order,” he said. With the gesture of a ringmaster, he extended his arm towards the door, then opened it just slightly so we would have to slip inside. I looked hesitantly at the tickets.
“Are you just going to keep them?” I asked.
I wanted to pin them to the wall beside my bed and teach myself how to write my name in similar sweeps and flourishes. I’d expected an usher to glance at them and hand them back, maybe adding a minuscule tear. But the man in the tuxedo had other plans.
“How right you are,” he said, and removed a lighter from the inside pocket of his jacket. The paper was extremely thin; they were gone almost as soon as the flint in the lighter struck metal.
“Come on, Lulu.” My mother pulled me through the slender entrance by my elbow.
“Oh, Lulu.” The man stayed outside and laughed. “This is the famous little Lulu. Well, it is an honor.” If he said anything else it was lost to me behind the steely slam of the door.
Inside we wound down a series of dark hallways before emerging in the empty lobby. We wove through the columns, clattering against the marble floor, and my mother explained to me that it’s the gatekeeper’s job to make your passage more difficult, so I shouldn’t be offended.
“Nothing worth doing should be easy.” She scanned the room for a sign that would point us to our seats, though I realized that without the tickets I had no idea what to even look for. “And nowhere worth going should be easy to get to.”
“Why is everything weird?” I asked. “Where is everybody? Baba took me to the opera before.”
My mother saw someone lean out of a doorway and wave to us a level above our heads. She put her hand on my shoulder.
“Not like this,” she said.
We walked out onto the first balcony, and the same woman motioned us towards the front. She was wearing a black gown, waves of loose fabric hanging off her arms like wisps of smoke. When she saw me, she put her hands over her mouth and giggled.
“Oh.” She stifled the laughter but still seemed electric and intense. “She is a young one. You’re sure about this?”
I mustered all my royal pride and raised an eyebrow at her.
“Who are you?”
She drew herself up. Her eye makeup was also black, and with a shadow across her face it looked almost as if she had no eyes at all.
“I’m Lulu,” she said.
I sucked in a little surprised air, but kept myself together and held out my hand.
After making introductions, the adult Lulu led us to our seats: dead center, front row, so we could lean against the railing and see the entire stage below us. When I looked down I noticed that the ground floor was completely empty — after glancing around, it was clear that only a few other chairs in the audience were occupied, and no one was sitting near anyone else. Before I could ask Lulu about this, however, she disappeared out the door.
Sitting in the Civic theater is like sitting in a mouth full of gold teeth, red velvet tongues periodically unfurling into aisles. Though the theater was not bright, an occasional patch of warm light glimmered off the embellishments on the walls and hung around me like hot breath. I felt the theater’s mouth yawning out from the stage and leaned into it. I wanted to throw myself down the room’s golden throat.
Beside me my mother peeled off all her outer layers and laid them on the unoccupied velveteen chair next to her, tucking her gloves into the pockets of her coat. She smoothed out her dress: red, square at the neck so her collarbones emerged gracefully and created chasms whenever she swiveled her head. I had no idea what our “tickets” must have cost, the favors my mother would have had to call in to procure them — Jimmy’s friend, the man at the door called her. The house wasn’t full, but the audience, apparently, was selective. She scratched the back of my hand lightly, and I let her weave her fingers through mine. But I didn’t look up at her. The bells sounded and the remaining lights went down. Even in pitch-blackness my eyes didn’t leave the stage. My mother was magical, but this was more.
At the time, Lulu hadn’t been performed anywhere in the world in its entirety. Shows were gearing up in Paris and — oddly enough — New Mexico, rumors being murmured into the ears of the highest society. It was shocking, people said. Adultery and misused sexual power and love wielded like a whip. A woman so desirable she can only destroy herself. And the music is also a challenge: it plunges through discordancy into positive aggression; the orchestration calls for a vibraphone and requires an onstage jazz band in addition to a pit orchestra. The sound expresses a complex network of psychological wounds and perversions.
As most of the world chugged on blissfully unaware and most opera lovers waited in painful anticipation for the Paris premiere, a small subclass of aficionados surfaced and groped their way towards one another. These were people who couldn’t be satisfied by seeing the new opera — with its mysterious backstory and dead composer, in addition to its salacious libretto — performed on television in a foreign country. They wanted Lulu immediately, and they wanted to inhabit her.
Anything can be had for a price: at least, if the right person is willing to pay. Even a piece of music that is being held hostage for reasons of propriety, bereavement, and force of law. So musicians were assembled from Chicago’s jazz underground, singers invited through a series of secret handshakes and lucky misunderstandings. Costumes were borrowed from the mothballs of old shows — a dress here, a coat there. And though no one asked how she accomplished it, the soprano showed up at the very first rehearsal with copies of the complete score and libretto for every participant. They were to be kept secret on pain of death or humiliation.
Here is the thing you must understand: to know an opera you must be part of it. You must emerge into its world and lose yourself there with no hope of ever escaping completely. No matter where you go, the pitches and tones will follow you. The arias will pop up at inconvenient moments, and you’ll see the characters ducking into alleys years after you last met them onstage. Letting some other company have the world premiere of Lulu would’ve been, to the performers I saw in the darkened, near-empty Civic Opera House, like watching strangers parade around in their stolen skins. They didn’t care about having an audience; they cared about the thing itself.
My mother was not invited to be a part of the secret show. But she knew enough people to finagle two of the precious seats in the theater when almost no one was allowed in. She brought me there to show me what it meant to have real passion. What she didn’t anticipate was that perhaps I already knew.
In the first intermission the entire small audience crowded together in the hallway and passed around bottles of champagne: I was allowed two tastes myself and laughed to feel how strangely the bubbles sipped at my throat. Lulu’s second husband, The Painter, had committed suicide, and she had convinced Dr. Schön to throw off his fiancée and marry her instead. She looked dark and foreboding onstage, but throughout the first act had worn a red cloth heart pinned to the front of her dress, which was occasionally singled out in a lone slender spotlight.
My mother put her hands on my shoulders, leaned down, and gave me a quick kiss on each cheek. She was lightheaded from the champagne, like me. I could tell: she bobbed from foot to foot as though she was standing behind a microphone, and her expression was moony.
“What do you think?” she asked me.
I regarded her seriously.
“It feels real.”
“Yes.” My mother gave me a strange look. “It does.”
By the second intermission the champagne was all gone, but my mother procured a bottle of whiskey, which she shared out in nips amid the nervous laughter of the small crowd. Lulu had become heady with lovers in this act: lovers hiding in closets and spilling out from behind divans. Lovers accusing their own sons of treachery and emerging from under tables like ghosts rising from ill-dug graves. Dr. Schön, played by the tuxedoed gatekeeper who’d burned our tickets by the door, encouraged Lulu to shoot herself to atone for her perfidy, but she shot him instead. When Lulu was sentenced to life imprisonment, the jurors tore her red heart in half and left her with only the wound. She fell ill.
I had a new admiration for the gatekeeper after hearing him sing. In the hallway I tugged my mother’s arm to ask her who he really was, but she was busy laughing with a man whose face was completely hidden behind his beard. Without looking down, she offered me the bottle of whiskey, and I was so confused that I backed away and waited by the wall for the bells to direct us back to our seats.
At the end of the second act, Lulu escaped from prison by letting her lover, a beautiful countess, rot there in her place. She left for Paris with Dr. Schön’s son, Alwa, a strange and desperate look painting her face.
The third act was the real premiere: the composer had died before finishing it, leaving behind the sordid tale and a series of complex notes and ideas. His widow forbade anyone to complete the opera, then changed her mind, changed it back, and finally capitulated to a full production through the simple expedient of her death.
Sitting in the darkness waiting for the music to recommence, my mother mumbled that she was cold and started fumbling with her coat and scarf. One of the gloves fell out of her pocket and she swore, feeling past my feet for it and finally giving up.
“Shit,” she said. “Shit shit shit.” I bit back the urge to shush her.
The act opened with a scene of opulent destruction: the police continued to pursue Lulu as she and Alwa made toasts at a party. The smile on Lulu’s face was false and men tugged her from side to side, whispering items of blackmail into her ears until finally they pulled off the sleeves of her dress, leaving her shivering in the middle of the room. Everyone’s wealth was consumed by a stock market crash, and Lulu managed to escape only at the last moment by tricking the police into arresting a waiter instead.
My heart was beating so loudly in my ears that it nearly obscured the voices of the singers. With one exception: Lulu’s could always reach me. The notes she sang carved the room like a guillotine blade. I reached out and tried to hold my mother’s hand, but she’d thrust it into her pocket and refused to budge. She sniffed slightly, watching the jazz band onstage. The bassist was a man she sometimes worked with. She seemed to be sizing him up, her lip curled back with derision.
Finally, reduced to prostitution, Lulu took in a string of clients who eerily resembled each of her dead husbands. The loyal Countess Geschwitz reemerged with a portrait of the fallen beauty at the height of her glory, and Lulu and Alwa stared into it, hypnotized. There was a full round heart apparent on her painted breast.
But the spell didn’t hold. More clients tumbled forward: Lulu’s first husband, Dr. Goll, then The Painter, The Acrobat. Everyone she had abandoned or to whom she had done harm. She killed Alwa with a blow to the back of the head and then sat down in the dark, her hand to her chest. Again there came a single beam illuminating the broken red heart, with Lulu’s fingers trembling above it.
The doorbell rang. At first I was confused, thinking it was Dr. Schön, but my mother leaned down to me and whispered savagely: “Jack the Ripper.” Lulu didn’t seem to know the difference either, though, for she ran into his arms. The two left the stage together hand in hand, and her scream resounded from the darkness into the empty theater. Jack the Ripper returned, carefully wiping his fingers clean with a handkerchief, and casually stabbed the beautiful Countess as well. Then the red curtains fell, half of a giant black heart pinned to either side.
When the lights came up, I blinked in the sudden brilliance of the room. I’d focused so long and acutely on the stage that having a whole broad world to look at made me somewhat dizzy. I took a deep breath to clear my head and then sneezed. Turning, I saw my mother smoking a cigarette in her seat.
“I don’t think you can do that in here.” I rubbed my nose and looked at her accusingly, hoping nonetheless that her smoking would give me time to get my bearings.
“Oh, please,” she said. “You still don’t understand about being clandestine? It means you can do anything you want. Just like being a princess. So come off it.” She stubbed the cigarette out on the polished arm of her chair, leaving a black circle of singe and the poison odor of burning varnish.
“Come on.” My mother tugged on my hand, and I hurried to thrust my arms into the sleeves of my coat. Having outfitted herself for the chill winter air over an hour before, she didn’t seem to notice that I’d barely had time to stand up. I took a last look around the theater, which still seemed to throb with the opera’s final notes.
“Can we go see the orchestra?” I asked as I fumbled with my coat buttons. “Or say good-bye to the singers? I really want to see the singers.”
She rubbed her forehead, pinching the skin between her thumb and middle finger. Her wooziness had taken on new dimension during the show’s finale, and I could see her debating the wisdom of sitting back down and closing her eyes for a moment while I ran around and had my fun. Today was the first day I’d been able to identify her tang of maple syrup and wood smoke as whiskey: the bottle she’d waved towards me in the second intermission had solved the long mystery of my mother’s most peculiar perfume.
Lulu — her real name, I learned later, was Rosalind DeLaney — sashayed onto the balcony and, spotting me, threw her arms open wide. They were bare now that the sleeves had been torn off them, but five or six new cloth hearts had been pinned haphazardly all over her remaining strips of dress. I ran over and tucked myself into the crook of her neck and shoulder, smelling the tacky sweet makeup caked on her face, cut with the salt of her sweat.
“My understudy!” She picked me up and twirled me around in the air and I laughed, making the sound purposefully melodic so she would hug me tighter. Then she set me down. “You have some pipe organs in those lungs, I hear?”
I nodded and beamed.
“Well, you take care of them.” She put a hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle. “And someday you’ll be here too, singing secret shows for no money.”
“Do you think so?”
I had no reason to trust her encouragement and, having never heard me sing, she had no reason to give it. But still the moment glowed between us: she, shimmering with the light of her success, and me, burning brightly from the heart out.
We both looked up at the sharp sound, but it was clear that my mother was talking only to me. She had another cigarette between her fingers — this time, thankfully, unlit.
“Let’s go,” she said. “I have to get out of here.”
I gave Rosalind one more squeeze around the neck and then ran after my mother, who’d disappeared into the hallway. If Rosalind was confused about my mother’s behavior — ignoring her, absconding before the party I now know must have followed — she didn’t show it. There were other guests to greet and preen to.
We pushed out the back door into the alley and my mother immediately began flicking her lighter at the cigarette. She was talking to herself quietly — should’ve known, pretentious assholes — and couldn’t get a flame, so she threw the lighter against the side of the building opposite.
“Whoa, sunshine.” The gatekeeper pushed himself up from the wall against which he’d been leaning, puffing smoke into the sky. “Let me get that for you.”
I frowned at him, though I also had the urge to reach out and touch him as he casually ignited my mother’s cigarette and gave an ironic bow. The front of his tuxedo bore a bright red flower that had been used to simulate Dr. Schön’s gunshot wound.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” I scolded, thinking of his voice.
My mother rolled her eyes and tugged my arm again, waving vaguely at the man.
“What do you care?” She moved quickly towards the subway platform. The sun had disappeared behind a new head of clouds while we were hidden in the theater, and the cold felt less pure now, more invasive and wet. “He’s nobody.”
“He’s the gatekeeper,” I said, no longer sure.
Back at Washington and Wells, we waited for the train on the creaking cold boards of the platform. A sheet of newspaper blew around, never quite kicking off onto the tracks or down onto the street but tumbling up and back, shushing against the advertisements and occasionally tickling someone’s legs. Waiting for the train, I knew we wouldn’t be calling it a chariot or a royal carriage. But I couldn’t help feeling a shiver of hope, of electricity, as we retraced our footsteps.
The train slowed down, stopped, and lurched slightly forward again before the doors opened. My heart hiccupped into my throat and I hopped on board, accidentally pushing into a teenage boy, who told me to watch it. There was an old man sitting in the handicapped seats by the door clutching a cane with both hands. The madrigal, I thought; he would recognize us. The madrigal would wake my mother back up into the woman she had been that morning, putting a smudge of lipstick on my mouth before we left the apartment and entrusting me with the tickets, tucking them into the secret inner pocket of my coat.
I sat down in the pair of seats closest to the man, and my mother set herself beside me with a sigh.
“Shouldn’t we sing him a song?” I nudged her and indicated towards the man with the cane.
“What?” My mother followed my gaze and then looked up at the ceiling for a long moment. She said something that I couldn’t quite hear, using mostly the back of her throat.
“What?” I parroted. She closed her eyes.
“I said, can you give it a goddamn rest.”
She slept until we had to change trains, and I watched the blind man, studying him. He couldn’t possibly be the royal madrigal, I decided. His hat was different. He was no longer humming along with the train but just letting it throw him gently back and forth as it turned around the Loop. Anyway, I assured myself, it was too much of a coincidence.
When we reached our stop, I shook my mother gently by the shoulder and she blinked at me, then stood up and walked off without saying a word. I hesitated in front of the blind man.
“Good-bye,” I said.
He tilted his chin in my direction, and a mask of something approaching recognition came over his face. He sensed our greatness through the sound of our voices, my mother had said. The madrigal knew the orphans to be more than they appeared.
A metallic ding sounded and I ran through the doors of the train before they closed and locked me in. But when I looked through the window, I thought I saw the madrigal wink at me — wink, that is, at the ground on which I’d been standing before I ran after my mother into the world.
For more, read Electric Literature’s interview with Adrienne Celt.