An eleven-year-old’s world is upended by political turmoil in this searing novel from an award-winning poet, based on true events in Chile.
Celeste Marconi is a dreamer. She lives peacefully among friends and neighbors and family in the idyllic town of Valparaiso, Chile—until the time comes when even Celeste, with her head in the clouds, can’t deny the political unrest that is sweeping through the country. Warships are spotted in the harbor and schoolmates disappear from class without a word. Celeste doesn’t quite know what is happening, but one thing is clear: no one is safe, not anymore.
The country has been taken over by a government that declares artists, protestors, and anyone who helps the needy to be considered “subversive” and dangerous to Chile’s future. So Celeste’s parents—her educated, generous, kind parents—must go into hiding before they, too, “disappear.” To protect their daughter, they send her to America.
As Celeste adapts to her new life in Maine, she never stops dreaming of Chile. But even after democracy is restored to her home country, questions remain: Will her parents reemerge from hiding? Will she ever be truly safe again?
Accented with interior artwork, steeped in the history of Pinochet’s catastrophic takeover of Chile, and based on many true events, this multicultural ode to the power of revolution, words, and love is both indelibly brave and heartwrenchingly graceful.
Celeste Like the Sky The blue cloud finally opens—just when the bell rings to let the Juana Ross School out for the weekend. I’d been watching the sky from the classroom windows all day, wondering just when the rain would pour down. I run down the hall and through the front doors with Lucila, Marisol, and Gloria at my heels. “Quick, girls, get under my umbrella!” Marisol shouts, and her cousin Lucila and I huddle close, one on each side of her.
“Valparaíso will be a swamp for the third weekend in a row.” Gloria groans as she opens her own umbrella. Cristóbal Williams catches up to us, grinning hello, but his smile quickly turns into a yawn. “Here, Señor Sleepyhead. I’ll share if you hold it.” Gloria shoves her pink umbrella into Cristóbal’s hand—the one not holding the magic pendulum he almost always carries with him.
“I’m starving,” he says. “Let’s go eat something.” That’s Cristóbal. Always sleepy and always hungry.
“Café Iris? Sopaipillas?” I suggest.
“Where else?” exclaims Lucila, who loves Café Iris just as much as I do. The others nod their agreement and start walking up the narrow sidewalk crowded with people rushing to escape the rain, all trying not to fall into the gutter. A crowd of people swarms the cable car stop at the bottom of Barón Hill. From the weary expressions on their faces, I can tell this cable car is probably running slow—or not at all. On days when the rain is heavy, the mud flowing down the hills leaves all sorts of obstacles—tires, trash barrels, tricycles, and many lost umbrellas—on the wooden tracks.
We look at one another and roll our eyes. “Not again,” Gloria groans. Cristóbal yawns and throws his hands up like a question mark. We are all used to waiting for, and wondering about, the cable cars. Valparaíso is a city of hills—forty-two of them—that rise in the shape of a crescent moon overlooking the harbor. The cable cars are painted in beautiful crimsons, sapphires, greens, and golds that from a distance conceal their age—some were built a hundred years ago. And they still manage—on most days, that is—to carry people to and from their homes on the steep hills. No matter how many times I have ridden the Barón Hill cable car, it’s always exciting. The track is so steep and the car so shaky that sometimes I fear it will topple down into the harbor far, far below. So that’s when I look out the other window, up toward the hills. They look like they’re on a canvas where a painter has made one brushstroke with each of the colors on his palette, side by side in rows and columns atop one another. Such are the houses on the hills of my city, all knit tightly together like a quilt my Nana Delfina hangs out on the clothesline to dry, blowing in the wind—up, up, up—into the sky.
“Wait. I hear one coming,” Marisol says. We all look up toward the low humming noise that reminds me of Abuela Frida’s voice when she has a scratchy throat.
“There, I see one coming,” I say.
“But the line is so long,” Lucila reminds us. “We’ll be waiting here for at least two more to come before it’s our turn.”
“Let’s walk!” Gloria calls to us over the din. Marisol, who can be a bit lazy sometimes, groans under her breath.
“Come on. It’s good for you,” urges Lucila.
“Easy for you to say, Lucila Long Legs,” Marisol retorts.
By the time we reach Café Iris at the top of Cerro Barón, one of the highest and most famous of Valparaíso’s hills—the one sailors look for to spot our city from their boats at sea—we are breathless, soaked, and shivering. It always feels like I can see the entire Pacific Ocean stretch out beneath me from this spot. I look out today on the harbor, covered with a gray mist. Then I blink my eyes a few times. I’ve been looking down at the harbor all my life, but today something seems different. Wrong, almost.
“Does the harbor look strange to you?” I ask my friends. They look at me as if to say, Not another one of your stories. We’re too big to play pretend anymore. “No, really, look!” I protest. “This isn’t my imagination. Just look and tell me what you see.”
“Water?” suggests Lucila. “Fog, boats . . .”
“Boats! That’s it!” I exclaim.
“What’s it?” Gloria asks.
“The boats,” I say. “They’re bigger than usual, really more like ships than boats. And there are a lot of them. I just think it’s strange, that’s all.”
“That’s not the only thing that’s strange,” Marisol teases me, and turns me in the direction of Café Iris.
“Don’t be mean, Marisol!” Lucila scolds her.
We go inside and shake off the rain. Cristóbal finds us a toasty booth in the corner, and we order a plate of steaming sopaipillas to share. With my mouth full of delicious fried pumpkin bread, I mumble, “I think we’re lucky the winds are always bringing in rain this time of year.”
“Not me,” proclaims Marisol.
“Me neither,” says Gloria.
“Why’s that, Celeste?” Lucila asks.
“Sopaipillas!” I say, my mouth full now with my second bite. “Just when I almost forget their taste, another storm blows in and I get to try them all over again.” In Chile it is a tradition to eat sopaipillas—round and warm like smiles—only on rainy days.
Gloria rolls her eyes, and the other girls giggle. But Cristóbal says, “Me too. I agree with Celeste.”
“Ahh! A wise choice, young man, to agree with the lovely Señorita Marconi. For I have known Celeste since she was just a little bean—more wee, if you can imagine, than she is now—and she is a wise old girl, wise beyond her years.” I laugh at the Café Iris magician. He’s always teasing me but also always encouraging me to trust what he calls my intuition. El mago winks, reaches for my hand, and gives it a kiss. Like always, he wears a green silk shirt and bright orange suspenders, his frame as tall and narrow as if someone had pasted patent leather shoes to the bottom of the map of Chile.
Cristóbal loves visiting el mago, probably because Cristóbal does a kind of magic too. He uses his pendulum to draw maps in the sand—to find lost items and predict the future. Last week the pendulum showed him just where the sun would come out and paint a rainbow over Butterfly Hill.
Cristóbal’s mother made his pendulum when he was four years old, after his father died. The only thing that made him smile was to visit el mago and watch him read the crystal ball and pull doves from his cape. One day el mago told Cristóbal’s mother to give her son a pendulum—that it would become an inner compass that would stay with him all his life, a firm hand to guide him the way his father might have. His mother, not having much money, made the pendulum herself. She polished a piece of crystal-blue sea glass until it was smooth and round like an egg. Then she hung it from the silver chain that had once carried her husband’s pocket watch. And because el mago told her the pendulum must end in a point, Cristóbal’s mother melted a hairpin and fastened it to the bottom of the sea glass. Ever since, whenever we’ve had a question, serious or silly, we’ve begged Cristóbal to ask his pendulum for the answer.
Today, over our second steaming plate of sopaipillas, Marisol asks with a wicked smile, “So, just who at this table is in love with Juan Carlos, the new boy in eighth grade?”
We all know the answer, but wait with bated breath for the pendulum to prove us right.
Cristóbal dangles the pendulum in the air so that its hairpin point just grazes the flat surface of the table. Then he closes his eyes. Quick as a flash the pendulum moves in Gloria’s direction. We burst out laughing. Everyone, that is, but Gloria.
“I knew it! I could have told you that a week ago!” Marisol gloats triumphantly.
Gloria tosses her blond curls and rolls her eyes. “Of course I’m not in love with him! I just think he’s handsome, that’s all.” But the pendulum, with a life of its own, stretches the chain farther across the table, straining to reach Gloria. Lucila, Marisol, and I squeal and giggle some more!
Cristóbal, seeing how flustered Gloria has become, pulls the pendulum from the table and tucks it into his pocket. But Marisol isn’t done teasing. “We can always get a second opinion and ask el mago about your love life, Gloria. What do you think he’ll say?”
Gloria blushes as pink as her umbrella. “No! Never mind! Don’t call el mago over here. . . . Fine, I admit it, I like him. I said like, not love. Are you satisfied?”
“¡Sí!” the rest of us shout in unison.
We all laugh, Gloria included, until we clutch our full bellies. Then I start to hiccup, and the laughter starts again, until all our cheeks turn as rosy and warm as Gloria’s.
When we leave Café Iris, we step into torrents of muddy water pouring down the steep street. The wind blows hard from the west, over the harbor and up the hills, making the raindrops fly sideways, stinging my cheeks. When it rains in Valparaíso, not only the skies open. My eyes, the sea, the streets, even the ships—everything fills with water and overflows. Ships. Suddenly remembering them, I shield my eyes and peer toward the harbor. But it’s hard to see anything except blankets of gray.
Winds from the south, then the north, meet and swirl around us like a windmill—blowing newspapers and flowerpots and lost umbrellas all over the place—making it hard to see one another. “Celeste, stay close to us!” I hear Cristóbal shout.
“Ah!” Something strikes me in the head. I look down to see a doll—a body without a head—rolling at my feet. I shiver, the hair on my arms standing straight up.
“Lucila! Where are you? Grab my hand!” I hear Marisol call to her cousin. I look in the direction of her voice, mesmerized by what I see. Swiftly, silently, slyly the fog swallows Lucila’s head, then her hands, her feet, most of her torso. The only thing I can make out is the place where her heart is. My own heart starts beating fast.
“Lucila!” I cry out, panicked. “Are you all right?”
“Celeste, I’m here. I’m fine.”
I let out my breath when I hear her voice. Then Marisol’s—“Don’t worry. I got her.” I breathe even easier when the fog begins to lift like a veil from their faces. Why did that scare me so much? I’m used to the tricks the weather plays. Why am I so nervous today?
“Celeste, earth to Celeste.” Gloria tugs at my sleeve. “It’s late. You better get moving or your nana is going to be cross and waiting for you at the door.”
“Gracias, Gloria. I’ll hurry.” I give my friends each a kiss on the cheek. “Bye, everyone! See you Monday!”
As I climb the winding paths up Butterfly Hill to where my house sits—rather slanted—at the very top, I pause every so often to look around. I look at my feet, remembering the doll, and then out toward the harbor, remembering the ships. And I shudder when I recall how eerie it was to see Lucila disappear bit by bit.
I feel better when I pass our neighbor Señora Atkinson’s tall pink house. On days like this she always stands in the window with a china teacup in one hand, tilting her head like a swan. She says the rains remind her of her youth in London, and there is never a more perfect time than a wet Valparaíso afternoon to drink tea and look out the window.
I wave to her, and she opens the window. “Cheers, Celeste!” She calls to me in English that sounds like the trilling of the yellow canary she keeps in her parlor.
I wonder if she’s noticed anything different about the ships today.
Delfina has been waiting, as Gloria predicted. She opens the door and wraps a warm towel around my shoulders. “At night everyone returns to their proper place, including mischievous girls who always lose track of the time.” She puts on her sternest face. “Now go upstairs and change, and then come down to the kitchen. I want you to help me chop herbs for dinner.”
“Sí, Delfina.” I climb the drafty, winding stairs to my blue bedroom that’s so high, at night I imagine I am sleeping on a cloud in the sky. Which makes sense to me, since that is what my name, Celeste, means—like the sky. Like any sky, I suppose, sometimes I am bright and clear, and other times I can be quite a raincloud. I like to think more often than not that I’m a sunny day, with just a few easy clouds that blow in and out with the breeze.
Marjorie Agosín is the Pura Belpré Award-winning author of I Lived on Butterfly Hill. She was raised in Chile by Jewish parents. Her family moved to the United States to escape the horrors of the Pinochet takeover of their country. Coming from a South American country and being Jewish, Agosín’s writings demonstrate a unique blending of these cultures. She has received the Letras de Oro Prize for her poetry, and her writings about, and humanitarian work for, women in Chile have been the focus of feature articles in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Ms. Magazine. She has also won the Latino Literature Prize for her poetry. She is a Spanish professor at Wellesley College.