Read The Rules of Magic Online

Authors: Alice Hoffman

The Rules of Magic (4 page)

“Do as you please,” she told the siblings. “As long as you harm no one.”

If Vincent wanted to smoke cigarettes there was no need for him to hide behind the potting shed, although Isabelle let him know she disapproved. Smoking fell under the category of harm, even if the person Vincent was harming was himself.

“Bad for the lungs,” Isabelle scolded. “But then you like to tempt fate, don't you? Don't worry, it will all work out.”

Their aunt seemed aware of parts of Vincent's psyche even his sisters weren't privy to. Vincent had never let on that he often experienced a rush of alarm when he passed a mirror. Who, in fact, was he? A missing person? A body without a soul? He was hiding something from himself, and perhaps it was best if he listened to some advice. He stubbed out his cigarette in a potted geranium, but remained unconvinced that he should care about his health or his habits.

“We're all killed by something,” he said.

“But we don't have to rush it, do we?” Isabelle removed the cigarette butt to ensure that the nicotine wouldn't poison the plant. “You're a good boy, Vincent, no matter what people might say.”

The only light in town turned on after midnight was on the back porch of the Owens house. It had been lit for hundreds of years, first by oil, then by gas, now by electricity. Moths fluttered through the ivy. This was the hour when women came to visit, looking for cures for hives or heartbreak or fever. Local people might not like the Owens family, they might cross to the other side of the street when they saw Isabelle on her way to the market with a black umbrella held overhead to ward off the sun, but as soon as they were in need, they battled the thornbushes and vines to reach the porch and ring the bell, knowing they were welcome when the porch light was turned on. They were invited into the kitchen, where they sat at the old pine table. Then they told their stories, some in too great detail.

“Be brief,” Isabelle always said, and because of her stern expression they always were. The price for a cure might be as low as half a dozen eggs or as high as a diamond ring, depending on the circumstances. A token payment was fine in exchange for horseradish and cayenne for coughs, dill seeds to disperse hiccoughs, Fever Tea to nip flu in the bud, or Frustration Tea to soothe sleepless nights for the mother of a wayward son. But there were often demands for remedies that were far pricier, cures that might cost whatever a person held most precious. To
snatch a man who belonged to another, to weave a web that disguised wrongdoings, to set a criminal on the right path, to reach someone who was standing on the precipice of despair and pull them back to life, such cures were expensive. Franny had stumbled upon some of the more disquieting ingredients in the pantry: the bloody heart of a dove, small frogs, a glass vial containing teeth, strands of hair to boil or burn depending on whether you wanted to call someone to you or send them away.

Franny had taken to sitting on the back staircase to eavesdrop. She'd bought a blue notebook in the pharmacy to write down her aunt's remedies. Star tulip to understand dreams, bee balm for a restful sleep, black mustard seed to repel nightmares, remedies that used essential oils of almond or apricot or myrrh from thorn trees in the desert. Two eggs, which must never be eaten, set under a bed to clean a tainted atmosphere. Vinegar as a cleansing bath. Garlic, salt, and rosemary, the ancient spell to cast away evil.

For women who wanted a child, mistletoe was to be strung over their beds. If that had no effect, they must tie nine knots in a strong rope, then burn the rope and eat the ashes and soon enough they would conceive. Blue must be worn for protection. Moonstones were useful in connecting with the living, topaz to contact the dead. Copper, sacred to Venus, will call a man to you, and black tourmaline will eliminate jealousy. When it came to love, you must always be careful. If you dropped something belonging to the man you loved into a candle flame, then added pine needles and marigold flowers, he would arrive on your doorstep by morning, so you would do well to be certain you wanted him there. The most basic and reliable love potion was made from anise, rosemary, honey, and cloves boiled for
nine hours on the back burner of the old stove. It had always cost $9.99 and was therefore called Love Potion Number Nine, which worked best on the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month.

After listening in, Franny had decided that magic was not so very far from science. Both endeavors searched for meaning where there was none, light in the darkness, answers to questions too difficult for mortals to comprehend. Aunt Isabelle knew her niece was there on the stairs taking notes, but said nothing. She had a special fondness for Franny. They were alike in more ways than Franny would care to know.

Fortunately, Isabelle was up late with her customers, and could be depended upon to nap in the afternoons. Francis and Jet and Vincent therefore had the gift of long languid days when they were left to their own devices. They trooped into town, past an old cemetery where the only name on the headstones was Owens. They stopped at the rusty fence and stood in silence, a bit overwhelmed by all those mossy stones. When Jet wanted to explore, the others refused.

“It's summer and we're free. Let's live a little,” Franny said, grabbing hold of Jet's arm to pull her past the cemetery gates.

“Let's live a
lot,
” Vincent suggested. “Or at least as much as we can in this hick town.”

They ordered ice cream sodas at the linoleum counter of the old pharmacy, lingered on leafy lanes, and sprawled on the grass in the park to watch the territorial swans chase badly behaved children through the grass, which left them in gales of laughter.
Their favorite activity on especially hot days was a hike to Leech Lake, a spot most people avoided, for if a swimmer waded into the murky depths past the reeds, scores of leeches awaited. Franny kept a packet of salt in her backpack to disperse any of the leeches that attached themselves, but for some reason none even came close.

“Be gone,” she cried, and they were.

The Owens siblings spent hours sunbathing, then they dared each other to dive off the high rock ledges and take the plunge into the ice-cold, green water. No matter how deeply they dove, they immediately popped back up to the surface, shivering and sputtering, unable to sink or even keep their heads underwater.

“We're oddly buoyant,” Jet said cheerfully, floating on her back, splashing water into the air. Even in her old black bathing suit she was gorgeous, the sort of young woman in bloom who often incites jealousy or lust.

“You know who can't be drowned,” Vincent remarked from his perch on a flat rock. He had learned all about this in
The Magus,
with illustrations of women being tied to stools and sunk into ponds. He shoved his long hair back with one hand, knowing his father would pitch a fit when he arrived back in the city with this thick mop. When his sisters didn't respond and merely looked at him with confused expressions, he provided the answer. “Witches.”

“Everything can be explained with scientific evidence,” Franny said in her blunt, forthright manner. “I don't believe in fairy tales.”

“Franny,” Vincent said in a firm tone. “You know who we are.”

She didn't like her brother's implication. Were they subhuman beings, among those creatures to be feared and chased by mobs
through the streets? Was that why the neighbors avoided them, and why, on that odd day in the kitchen when they had tested themselves, the table had risen?

“I love fairy tales,” Jet said dreamily. She felt like a water nymph when she floated in the lake, a pure elemental spirit. She toweled off before placing a lace cloth over a table-shaped rock, where she set out a lunch of egg-salad sandwiches and celery sticks. She'd filled the thermos with Frustration Tea from a recipe she'd found in Aunt Isabelle's kitchen. Anyone partaking of this drink would be granted good humor and cheerfulness, attributes of which Jet believed Franny was sorely in need.

A grin spread across Vincent's face as they discussed their inability to sink. “I think what we are is pretty clear.” He raised his arms and the finches in the thickets took flight in a single swirling cloud. “See what I mean? We're not normal.”


Normal
is not a scientific term,” Franny said dismissively. “And anyone can frighten a finch. A cat could do that. Try calling them to you.” She held out one hand and several finches alit, chattering in her palm until she blew on them to shoo them away. She was quite proud of this particular ability.

“You're proving my point!” Vincent laughed. He jumped into the lake, and then all but bounced, as if repelled. “Check it out!” he cried cheerfully as he floated just above the water.

That night at supper, Vincent gave his sisters a look, then turned to their aunt and asked if the stories he'd heard about the Owens family were true.

“You know who you are,” Isabelle responded. “And I suggest you never deny it.”

She told them of an Owens cousin named Maggie, who had come to stay one summer, and tried her best to befriend the
locals, telling tales about her own family. How they danced naked in the garden, and took revenge on innocent people, and called to the heavens for hail and storms. She went so far as to write an opinion piece for the local newspaper, defaming the Owens name, suggesting they all be incarcerated.

The family locked the door and told Maggie to go back to Boston. The outside world being against them was one thing, but one of their own? That was another matter entirely.

Maggie Owens was so enraged when she was cast onto the sidewalk with her suitcase that she took up cursing, and with every curse she grew smaller and smaller. Some spells work against you, or perhaps the Owens cousins inside the house threw up a black reversing mirror. Each wicked word Maggie spoke was turned back upon her. She couldn't even unlatch the lock on the door. Whatever magic ran through her blood had evaporated. She'd denied who she was, and when that happens it's easy enough to become something else entirely, most likely the first creature you see, which in her case was a rabbit darting through the garden. Maggie went to sleep in the grass a woman, and awoke as a rabbit. Now she ate weeds and drank milk that was left to her in a saucer.

“Keep your eyes open,” Isabelle told the siblings. “You may see her in the yard. This is what happens when you repudiate who you are. Once you do that, life works against you, and your fate is no longer your own.”

Jet's favorite place to be was the garden. She adored the shady pools of greenery where azaleas and lily of the valley grew wild,
but ever since they'd been told their cousin's story, she was anxious when rabbits came to eat parsley and mint and the curly Boston lettuce that was planted in neat rows.

“We'll never be turned into rabbits, if that's what you're thinking,” Franny said. “We're not so foolish.”

“I'd rather be a fox,” Vincent announced. He was teaching himself a Ramblin' Jack Elliott song on the guitar. “Stealthy, sly, under the radar.”