Authors: Alice Hoffman
What is meant to be is bound to happen, whether or not you approve. One June morning, their lives were forever changed. It was 1960, and all at once there was a sense that anything might occur, suddenly and without warning. It had been a great relief when the end of the school year arrived, but life at home was stifling. New York City was a cauldron of pollution and humidity. Just as the temperature climbed into the nineties and the siblings were already bored out of their minds, a letter arrived in the mail. The envelope seemed to pulse, as if it had a beating heart. There was no stamp, yet the U.S. Post Office had seen fit to slip it through the mail slot in their front door.
Susanna took one look and said, “It's from my aunt Isabelle.”
“We have an aunt?” Franny asked.
“Good God, not her,” Dr. Burke-Owens remarked. “Don't open that letter.”
But Susanna had already slid her nail under the flap of the envelope. She had a strange expression, as if she were opening a door long closed. “It's an invitation for Franny. Everyone gets one when they've turned seventeen. It's a tradition.”
“Then I should go,” Franny was quick to say. Anything to get away from her mother's rules.
“If you do, nothing will ever be the same,” her mother warned.
“Unlikely,” Franny said, retrieving the envelope. Above all she was brave, and when no one dared to step in, she always would. And the letter
addressed to her, not their mother.
“Massachusetts must be avoided at all costs,” their father interjected. “Contact with any of the family will inflame characteristics which are currently dormant.”
Franny ignored her father, intent on the old-fashioned handwriting that resembled the tracks of a bird.
You may leave home this afternoon and arrive by dinnertime.
“Did you go when you were seventeen?” Franny now asked her mother.
Susanna blinked her wide gray eyes. Caught in Franny's gaze, she couldn't tell a lie. “I did,” she admitted. “Then I left for Paris and that was the end of that. But you.” She shook her head. “I don't know about letting you go alone. You're so rebellious as it is.”
“I am not!” Franny said with her customary defiance.
Vincent stepped on Franny's foot to silence her. He was desperate to have an adventure. “We'll go with her,” he said.
“We can watch over her,” Jet added.
Their minds were made up. They would escape for the summer. While their parents argued, Franny and Vincent and Jet went off to pack, shouting to each other not to forget swimsuits and sandals, excited to at last discover where they'd come from.
When they brought suitcases and backpacks and Vincent's guitar into the kitchen, their mother was sitting alone at the table, her eyes rimmed red. They gazed at her, confused. Was she ally or enemy?
a formal invitation,” Susanna said. “I've explained to your father that it wouldn't do to be rude to my aunt, but I'm not certain he understands.” She turned to Vincent and Jet. “You will watch over Franny?”
They assured her they would.
“Isabelle will surprise you,” Susanna told them. “There will be tests when you least expect them. You'll think no one is watching over you, but she'll be aware of everything you do.
And you must promise that you'll come back to me,” she said tearfully. She was rarely so emotional, and her children took note of her despair. It made going to Massachusetts seem all the more worthwhile.
“Of course we'll come back,” Franny said. “We're New Yorkers.”
“It's only for the summer,” Jet reassured their mother.
Everyone had to leave home eventually, didn't they? They had to set out on their own and find out who they were and what their futures might bring. But for now all Vincent wanted was a bus ticket, and when he looked at his sisters he could tell they agreed. No going back, no retreat, no settling for the ordinary lives they had been made to live every day.
They arrived on Midsummer's Eve, the summer solstice, when the day is so long it seems for once there is all the time in the world. The roses were in bloom and a green blur of pollen drifted through the darkening air. As they walked through the small town, neighbors came to stand at their windows and gawk. It was common knowledge that any strangers dressed in black would likely be heading to Magnolia Street. Most people avoided the Owens family, believing that any entanglement with them could taint not only your present, but your future as well. It was said that some members of the family could place a single horse hair into a pan of water and turn it into a snake. If they threw dust in a circle, you had best not cross over, not even when the dust disappeared, for you might fall into a hole of desire or regret and never arise again.
“Not very welcoming,” Jet said in a worried tone as the neighbors glared at them.
“To hell with them,” Fanny remarked. Had her sister learned nothing at the Starling School? Other people's judgments were meaningless unless you allowed them to mean something.
At fourteen, Vincent was already too handsome for his own good. He was six four and imposing despite how skinny he was. Now he shook his fist in the air and jeered at the local spectators. In an instant, there was the clicking of locks up and down the street.
“Excellent,” Vincent said. “We won't have any trouble with them.”
He stood out wherever he went, but especially here, in a small town where boys his age were playing baseball in a dusty field, wearing baggy jeans, stopping their game to observe the outsiders walking through town. Vincent wore his black hair slicked back and had his guitar slung over one shoulder despite his father's declaration that a guitar, like a sports car, was an extension of a damaged male ego. “So I'm damaged.” Vincent had shrugged. “Who isn't?”
When they reached the end of Magnolia Street they stopped, daunted for the moment. The house was huge, with tilted chimneys and scores of windows fashioned out of green glass. The entire property was encircled by the wrought-iron fence, but there wasn't a gate in sight.
“Do you feel something here?” Vincent asked his sisters.
“Mosquitoes?” Franny guessed. She surveyed the muck-laden puddles in the huge vegetable garden. “Probably a good chance of dysentery.”
Vincent made a face and said, “No pain, no gain,” then went
to investigate. The garden was so lush and green it made one dizzy. There was a henhouse, where some brown and white clucking chickens pecked at seed tossed on the ground; a potting shed surrounded by plumy weeds that were taller than Vincent; and a padlocked greenhouse, which looked extremely promising as a potential hideaway.
“Over here,” Vincent called after clearing away some of the thorny shrubbery. He had managed to discover a rusted gate that led to a bluestone pathway. His sisters followed to the porch, charging up the steps. Franny was about to knock on the door when it opened of its own accord. All three took a step back.
“It's just an old door,” Franny said in a measured voice. “That's all. It's a hot day and the wood frame expanded.”
“You think so?” Vincent drew himself up to his full height and peered through the shadows. He could feel the current in the air. “There's a lot more here. Hundreds of years of it.”
Isabelle Owens was in the kitchen, her back to them as she puttered about. She was a formidable woman; her frame might be small, but her attitude was commanding. Her white hair was pinned up haphazardly, and yet despite her age, her complexion was perfect. She had worn black every day of her life and she did so today. Franny stared until their aunt suddenly turned in her direction, then Franny impulsively ducked down behind a potted plant, her heart pounding against her chest. Vincent and Jet followed suit, sinking down beside their sister, holding their hands over their mouths so as not to explode with laughter. They'd never seen Franny so flustered.
“Hush,” she hissed at them.
“I thought you'd all show up, so what's stopping you from
coming inside? Are you rabbits or brave souls?” their aunt called. “A rabbit darts away, thinking it will be safe, and then is picked up by a hawk. A brave soul comes to have dinner with me.”
They did as they were told, even though they had the sense that once they did they would be entering into a different life.
Franny went first, which was only right, as she was the firstborn and the protector. Plus she
curious. The kitchen was enormous, with an ancient pine table long enough to seat a dozen and a huge black stove, the sort that hadn't been sold for decades. Isabelle had made a vegetable stew and a plum pudding, along with freshly baked rosemary bread. Willowware platters and bowls had been set on the table along with old pewter silverware in need of a shine. The house had no clocks, and there seemed the promise that time would go at a different pace entirely once they stepped over the threshold.
“Thank you for inviting us,” Franny said politely.
One had to say something when one didn't really know the person with whom one was about to spend an entire summer vacation, especially when she appeared to possess some sort of power it was clearly best to respect.
Isabelle gazed at her. “If you really want to thank me, do something about what's in the dining room.”
The siblings exchanged a look. Surely, this was one of those tests their mother had warned about.
“All right.” Franny rose to the challenge without even asking what it was. “I will.”
Her brother and sister trailed after her, curious. The house was enormous, with three floors. All the rooms had heavy draperies to keep out the sun, and, despite the dust motes in the air, all contained gleaming woodwork. Fifteen varieties of wood had
been used to craft the mantels and the paneling on the walls, including golden oak, silver ash, cherrywood, and some varieties of trees that were now extinct. There were two staircases, one a chilly back stairs that twisted around like a puzzle, the other an elegant stairway, fashioned of mahogany. They stopped to gaze up the carved staircase to where there was a window seat on the landing. Above it was a portrait of a beautiful dark-haired woman wearing blue.
“That's your ancestor Maria Owens,” their aunt told them as she led them to the dining room.
“She's staring at us,” Jet whispered to her brother.
Vincent snorted. “Bullshit. Pull yourself together, Jet.”
The dining room was dim, the damask curtains drawn. As it turned out, there was no spirit to dispel, only a small brown bird that had managed to slip in through a half-opened window. Every year on Midsummer's Eve a sparrow found its way in and had to be chased out with a broom, for any bad luck would follow it when it flew away. Isabelle was about to hand over a broom that would help with the job, but there was no need to do so. The bird came to Franny of its own accord, as the birds in Central Park always did, flitting over to perch on her shoulder, feathers fluffed out.
“That's a first,” Isabelle said, doing her best not to seem impressed. “No bird has ever done that before.”
Franny took the sparrow into her cupped hands. “Hello,” she said softly. The bird peered at her with its bright eyes, consoled by the sound of her voice. Franny went to the window and let it into the open air. Jet and Vincent came to watch as it disappeared into the branches of a very old tree, one of the few elms in the commonwealth that had survived the blight. Franny
turned to their aunt. Something passed between them, an unspoken wave of approval.
“Welcome home,” Isabelle said.
Once they'd settled in they couldn't imagine why they hadn't spent every summer on Magnolia Street. Aunt Isabelle was surprisingly agreeable. Much to their delight it turned out she couldn't care less about bad behavior. Diet and sleeping habits meant nothing to her. Candy for breakfast, if that's what they desired. Soda pop all through the day. They could stay up until dawn if they wished and sleep until noon. They weren't forced to tidy their rooms or pick up after themselves.