Authors: Alice Hoffman
On this night he followed his aunt's instructions. He left the charm on a wicker chair on Mrs. Russell's porch and stood within a circle of dust until he felt her attraction to him evaporate. The electricity around him fizzed, and the air turned calm. There was the sound of crickets calling and a wind arose that
would end later the next day. Upstairs, in her bed, Mrs. Russell fell into a dreamless sleep and when she woke she had no aspirations other than to have a decent cup of coffee and a toasted English muffin. Her son came home from summer camp. Her husband returned from one of his many business trips.
When Vincent next ran into Mrs. Russell, in his aunt's kitchen, come for a bottle of vinegar from an old Owens recipe that used molasses and rainwater, he felt a chill. The vinegar was useful for impotent men, of which her husband was one. When Mrs. Russell raised her eyes to meet his, Vincent could tell she didn't recognize him. It was as if she had never seen him before, let alone taught him the intricacies of what a woman such as herself wanted in bed.
In the days that followed, Vincent tried his best to uncover his natural abilities. As he sat with his sisters on a wooden bench in the park, he decided to teach the two vicious swans in the pond a lesson. He studied them with absolute concentration, and soon enough they rose into the air, hanging above the water for a terrified instant before splashing back down. They were stunned for a moment, then took off on wing across the pond, squawking like chickens.
“That should teach them,” he said.
“All swans fly,” Franny insisted. “That's not magic.”
But between April's assertions and the swans' reactions, Franny was intrigued. She embarked on a quest to methodically test her siblings' abilities.
When she began her experiment, Vincent shook his head. “It's a waste of time. We have the sight, Franny. Just admit it.”
Still, Franny wanted evidence. She had her brother remain in the parlor and stationed Jet in the attic, with no possibility of communication as they scanned duplicate index cards. Each could guess the word that the other had seen one hundred percent of the time. Franny tried it with numbers as well.
“We may simply have ESP,” Franny said. “I'll need further documentation.”
Vincent laughed at that assessment. “Franny, we have more than that.”
Secretly, Franny had also been testing herself. Interested in the idea of levitation, she placed small items on the cherrywood desk in the parlor, then closed her eyes and willed them to move. When that didn't work she asked nicely and soon had the ability to cause a tape measure to jump off the desk. She practiced daily, but it was clearly Vincent who had the strongest power. He didn't even have to try. When he sauntered into the room books leapt from the library shelves. It was so effortless, like a bird lifting into a tree, the papers fluttering, the volumes crashing to the floor.
You have the gift,
Franny thought as he sprawled onto a velvet love seat. She hadn't before realized how much he resembled Maria Owens. She thought it likely that he had as much power, perhaps more.
Vincent laughed, as if she'd spoken aloud. “Yes, but I'll probably waste it,” he said. “And don't kid yourself, Franny,” he told his sister. “You have it, too.”
As it so happened, Franny soon found herself pulled into consciousness in the middle of the night, awaking with a gasp. It was as if someone had reached into her soul and grabbed her to pull her out of her sleep. Her name had been spoken, although how, and by whom, she had no idea. It was the green heart of the summer, and cicadas were calling as heat waves moved through the air. It was a perfect night for dreaming, but Franny felt she had no choice but to answer the call. She left the attic and slipped down the back stairs in her nightgown. She pushed through the screen door and went past the porch, where the wisteria was so twisted children in town swore the vine had been fashioned out of an old man's arms and legs.
It was pitch dark, and Franny crept forward carefully, doing her best not to trip over the holes the rabbits had dug. When she narrowed her eyes she noted that she wasn't the only one out in the yard. Aunt Isabelle was making lye by pouring water through wooden ashes while talking to herself in a low tone. Now that Franny's eyes had adjusted to the dark, she spied a mound of dried lavender on the ground, along with a basket of spices, and a pail of what looked like liquid midnight, but was in fact licorice-infused oil.
“The best soap is made in March in the dark of the moon. But since you're here now, we'll do it tonight. Soap must be made by someone in the family. That's why I called you. If you weren't the right person you would have gone on sleeping. But you woke, so the job is yours.”
Isabelle had interrupted a curious dream Franny had been having about a black bird eating from the palm of her hand as she sat on a bench in Central Park. The crow had told her his name, but now that she was awake she'd forgotten what it was.
She'd read that Maria Owens was thought to have the ability to turn herself into a crow in order to accomplish her witchery. This conclusion was based on the account of a farmer who had shot at such a bird in his cornfield. The very next day Maria was seen with her arm bandaged.
“I don't see why it has to be me.” Franny was barefoot and the earth felt damp. “Jet can do it.”
Isabelle gave her a hard look. Her expression sent a deep chill through Franny. It was to be her, that much was clear.
Franny noticed the book that was kept in the greenhouse had been brought outside. The fat, overstuffed tome reminded her of a black toad, for it was bound in a covering that resembled frog skin, cool to the touch. It was filled with deeply personal information, some too dangerous ever to repeat. If there were no family member to inherit it, it would be burned when the owner died, out of respect and according to tradition. Some called such a collection a Book of Shadows, others referred to it as a
. By any name it was a treasured text of magic, and was imbued with magical power. Writing itself was a magical act in which imagination altered reality and gave form to power. To this end, the book was the most powerful element of all. If it wasn't yours and you dared to touch it, your hand would likely burn for weeks; small raised lumps would appear, causing a rash that was often impossible to cure.
The journal in the library had been written during the last year of Maria's life, but this, her secret book of spells, had been hidden beneath the floorboards of the house. The
contained instructions on how to craft talismans, amulets, and healing charms. Some formulas were written in ink that was specially made from hazelnuts or madder; others were written
in the writer's blood. There were lists of herbs and useful plants; remedies for sorrow, illness, childbirth troubles, jealousy, headache, and rashes. Here was a repository of a woman's knowledge, collected and passed on.
“This is where the recipe for our soap came from. They may have the journal Maria wrote in her last year at the library, but we've kept the important book hidden. It may be the oldest
in this country. Most are burned when the owners pass on, to ensure that they don't get into the wrong hands. But this one never gets into the wrong hands. We make sure of it. From Maria onward, it has gone to the strongest among us.” The
was so crammed with papers that scattered pages fluttered to the ground as Isabelle handed it over. “When the time comes, you'll be next.”
The book opened in Franny's hands. On the first page were the rules of magic.
Do as you will, but harm no one.
What you give will be returned to you threefold.
Fall in love whenever you can.
The last rule stopped Franny cold. “How is this possible?” she asked. “We're cursed.”
“Anything whole can be broken,” Isabelle told her. “And anything broken can be put back together again. That is the meaning of Abracadabra.
I create what I speak.
“Are you saying the curse can be broken?” For a moment, Franny felt her heart lift.
“It hasn't been in several hundred years, but that doesn't mean it can't be.”
“I see,” Franny said moodily. Clearly, the odds weren't on their side.
Together, they lifted the old black cauldron to hang on a metal pole over the wood fire. Ashes floated up in a fiery mist. To the mix they added roses from the garden, lavender that had grown by the gate, herbs that would bring luck and protect against illness. Sparks flew and changed color as they rose, from yellow to blood red. Making this soap was hard work, and soon enough Franny was overheated. Sweat fell into her eyes and her skin turned slick with a sheen of salt. It seemed like a wonderful science experiment, for the ingredients must be carefully measured and added slowly so they didn't burn. She and her aunt took turns stirring the mixture, for it required a surprising amount of strength, then poured ladles of liquid soap into wooden molds that were kept on the shelves in the potting shed. The liquid soap in the molds hardened into bars. Inside each was a dash of shimmering color, as if each contained the essence of the roses they'd added. They wrapped the bars in crinkly cellophane. As they did, Isabelle appeared younger, almost as if she were still the girl she'd been before she'd come to Magnolia Street. Franny's own complexion was so rosy from the hours of handling the soap that drowsy bees were drawn to her, as if she were a flower they couldn't resist. She batted them away, unafraid of their sting.
By the time they were done the sky was filling with light. Franny felt invigorated, so fevered she slipped off her nightgown and stood there in her underwear. She could have kept at it for another twelve hours, for in truth the job had seemed more pleasure than work. She collapsed in the grass, observing the sky. A few pale clouds shone above them. Aunt Isabelle handed
her a thermos of rosemary lemonade, which Franny drank in thirsty gulps. “That was fun,” Franny said.
Isabelle was clearly pleased. She had packed up the
until it was next needed. “For us it was. It would be drudgery for most people.”
Franny pursed her lips. She had always been a practical girl, and was one still. “I know there's no such thing as what you say we are. It's a fairy tale, a compilation of people's groundless fears.”
“I thought that, too, when I first came here.” Isabelle sat in an old lawn chair.
“You didn't grow up here?” Franny asked, surprised to learn that her aunt had a history that predated Magnolia Street.
“Did you think I had no other life? That I was born in between the rows of lettuce and was an old woman from the day I could walk? Once upon a time I was young and beautiful. But that is the fairy tale, because it all passes in the blink of an eye. I lived in Boston, under lock and key, not unlike April. I didn't know who I was until I came here to visit my aunts and learned the rules.”
Franny felt herself flush. “What if I don't wish to be what I am?”
“Then you will face a life of unhappiness.”
“Did you accept it?” Franny asked.
She could see the regret in Isabelle's expression. There had definitely been a
in her life.
“Not fully. But I grew to enjoy it.”