Authors: Alice Hoffman
“I'd prefer to be a cat,” Jet said. Their aunt had six black cats. One, a kitten named Wren, had grown particularly attached to Jet and often followed her as she pulled weeds. Jet had a nagging suspicion that Isabelle had told the story of their wayward cousin directly to her, as a warning for all those times she'd wanted to be an ordinary girl.
A large, fearless rabbit was glaring at them. It had black whiskers and gray eyes. Jet felt her skin grow cold. “Maggie?” she said in a soft voice. There was no answer. “Shall we give her milk?” she asked Franny.
“Milk?” Franny was contemptuous. “She's only a rabbit, nothing more.” Franny tossed some tufts of grass in the rabbit's direction. “Shoo!” she commanded.
To their dismay the rabbit stayed exactly where it was, solemnly chewing dandelion greens.
“It's her,” Jet whispered, nudging her sister.
“Maggie?” Franny called. She didn't believe their aunt's story for a minute, yet there was definitely something odd about this creature. “Get out!” she told the thing.
Jet thought it might be better to ask than to command. “O rabbit, please leave us be,” she said respectfully and sweetly. “We're sorry you're no longer a woman, but that was your doing, not ours.”
The rabbit obeyed, hopping into the woody area where the beehive stood. While Jet piled up ragweed and brambles she decided she would faithfully set out a saucer of milk every morning. Franny watched the retreat of the rabbit and wondered if beneath her sister's gentle nature there wasn't more than she and Vincent had imagined. Perhaps they didn't know her as well as they believed.
By now Franny had her own suspicions about their heritage. She had taken to going off by herself on rainy afternoons. While the others were lazing about she'd spent time at the public library, paging through old, inky issues of the
She'd discovered a legacy of witchcraft associated with the Owens family. In the town ledger, kept in the rather shabby rare book room, there was a list of crimes members of their family had been charged with in an era when any woman accused of unnatural acts might be drowned in Leech Lake. Witches, however, couldn't be drowned unless they were properly weighed down with stones in their pockets or their boots or stuffed into their mouths, which were then sewn shut with black thread. The Owenses' wrongdoings included bewitchment, enchantment, theft of a cow, using herbs to relieve illness, children born out of wedlock, and enemies who had suffered bad fortune. The first accuser had been John Hathorne, the judge at the trials that had been responsible for the deaths of so many innocent people.
Franny had come upon a notation that suggested Maria Owens's journal was stored in the rare book room. The journal was stowed in a drawer that the librarian had to unlock with an iron key. The lock stuck, coming free only after much prodding. Inside the drawer was the thin book with a stained blue-gray cover, meticulously secured in plastic wrapping.
“Be careful with that,” the librarian warned. She was clearly afraid of the slim volume, which she herself refused to touch. She offered a pair of white gloves to Franny to slip on to ensure that she wouldn't damage the delicate paper. There was so much dust in the room Franny had a wicked sneezing fit.
“You have exactly twenty minutes,” the librarian said. “Otherwise trouble could ensue.”
“Trouble?” Franny was curious.
“You know what I mean. This is a book of spells Maria Owens wrote while in prison. It should have been set on fire, but the board of the library refused to do so. They thought destroying it would bring bad luck to us, so we've kept it all this time, like it or not.”
Beware of love,
Maria Owens had written on the first page of her journal.
Know that for our family, love is a curse.
Franny worried over the mention of a curse. For all the time they'd been away she had been writing letters to Haylin. On Friday afternoons she brought them to the post office and picked up the ones he sent her via general delivery. In New York, Haylin was studying the ecosystem of the Loch, the meandering stream in a wooded area of Central Park called the Ravine. Fireflies that gathered there blinked on and off in sync. It was as if they had a single heartbeat, sending out the same message through the dark. Such incidents had been reported in the Great Smoky Mountains and in Allegheny National Forest, but Haylin seemed the first to have discovered the phenomenon in Manhattan.
That summer, Franny went to the rare book room every day to read the journal. The librarians grew to know her, becoming accustomed to the tall red-haired girl who came to examine spidery script so tiny she had to use a magnifying glass to make
out the words of the remedies and cures. Franny brightened up the place with her quest for information and history, and a few of the librarians allowed her a full hour with the text, though it was strictly against the rules. They believed all books should be read, for as long as the reader liked.
When Franny came to the last page of Maria's journal, she understood that a single broken heart had affected them all. Maria had been cast out by the father of her child, a man she never named.
Suffice it to say he should have been my enemy, instead I fell in love with him and I made the mistake of declaring my love.
She wanted to protect her daughter, and her granddaughter, and all of the Owens daughters to follow, ensuring that none among them would experience the sorrow she'd known or ruin the lives of those they might love. The curse was simple:
Ruination for any man who fell in love with them.
Reading this, Franny paled.
It's not the same here without you,
Haylin had written in one of his letters.
Then, clearly embarrassed that he'd overstepped certain boundaries, he'd crossed out that line and wrote
instead. But Franny had seen through the smear of black ink and knew the truth. It wasn't the same without him either.
Do not ask what the spell is, or how it was accomplished. I have been betrayed and abandoned. I do not wish this for any member of my family.
“Don't you think I look like her?” Jet asked one day when she found Franny sitting pensively on the window seat studying the portrait. One of Maria's remedies called for the beating heart of a dove to be taken from the bird while it was alive. Another
included collecting the hair and fingernail clippings of a disloyal man and burning them with cedar and sage.
“You don't want to look like her,” Franny was quick to respond. “She ended unhappily. Trust me, she was miserable. She was accused of witchery.”
Jet sat beside her sister. “I wonder if that would have happened to me if I was alive at that time. I can hear what people are thinking.”
“You cannot,” Franny said. And then, after a look at her sister, “Can you?”
“It's not that I want to,” Jet said. “It just happens.”
“Fine. What am I thinking right now?”
“Franny,” Jet demurred. “Thoughts should be private things. I do my best not to listen in.”
“Seriously. Tell me. What am I thinking right now?”
Jet paused. She gathered her long, black hair in one hand and pursed her lips. Since coming to Massachusetts she had grown more beautiful each day. “You're thinking we're not like other people.”
“Well, I've always thought
” Franny laughed, relieved that was all her sister had picked up. “That's nothing new.”
Later, when Jet went out into the garden, she stood beneath the lilacs with their dusky heart-shaped leaves. Everything smelled like mint and regret.
I wish we were like other people.
That was what Franny had been thinking.
Oh, how I wish we could fall in love.
One bright Sunday the sisters awoke to find a third girl in their room. Their cousin April Owens had come to visit. April had been raised in the rarefied world of Beacon Hill. With her platinum blond hair pulled into waist-length braids, and the palest of pale gray eyes, she looked like a painting from an earlier era, yet she was oddly modern in her demeanor. For one thing, she carried a pack of cigarettes and a silver lighter, and she wore black eyeliner. She was bitter and fierce and she didn't give a hoot about anyone's opinions other than her own. Strangest of all, she kept a pet ferret on a leash; it ambled beside her, instantly making her far more interesting than any other girl they'd met.
“Cat got your tongue?” she said as the sisters stared at her mutely.
“Most certainly not,” Franny said, snapping out of her reverie. “If anything I'd have the cat's tongue.”
“Well, meow,” April purred.
April had visited this house last summer when she'd turned seventeen, and now she'd run off from Beacon Hill and come back to the one place she'd been accepted. Her presence was an unexpected surprise and, in Franny's opinion, completely unnecessary. April dressed as if ready for Paris or London rather than a small New England town. She wore a short black skirt, a filmy blouse, and white leather boots. She had on pearly pink lipstick, and her long pale hair had a thick fringe that nearly covered her eyes. She'd begun to unpack: chic clothes, makeup, several candles, and a battered copy of
Lady Chatterley's Lover,
which had been banned and had only recently been published in America.
“I'd love to read that,” Jet said when she saw the racy novel everyone was talking about.
April tossed her cousin the book. “Don't get corrupted,” she said with a grin.
Their cousin was clearly far more sophisticated than they. She was a wild child, doing as she pleased, refusing to be constrained by the social mores of Beacon Hill. There was a blue star tattooed on her wrist that had caused her to be grounded for several months. She had another on her hip, but that one hadn't yet been detected by her prying, fretful parents. Ever since childhood she'd rarely been out of eyeshot of a nanny, a tutor, or Mary, the long-suffering housemaid, whose hair had turned gray as she dutifully did her best to keep up with her charge's shenanigans. According to Dr. Burke-Owens's theories, such ingrained behavior couldn't be stopped; it was like a tide, rising to flood-like proportions despite anything placed in its way.
April had been to several private schools and each time had been asked to leave. She didn't believe in authority and was a born radical. She told the girls that she could turn lights on and off at will and recite curses in four languages. She had been sent on trips to Europe and South America and had learned things from the men she met that would have made her parents woozy with anxiety had they known about her exploits. She seemed to have no fear of consequences, or perhaps it was only that Aunt Isabelle had allowed her to see her fate and she knew there was no way to avoid her future. She would fall in love once, and with the wrong man, and she wouldn't change it for the world.
“I hope you've had some fun while you've been here,” April said to the sisters. “Isabelle doesn't care what we do. You're entitled to enjoy yourself, you know, and you might as well do so now, because it will most likely end badly for all of us.”
April was such a know-it-all Franny couldn't stand her. “Speak for yourself,” she said with a scowl.
“We've had a grand time here,” Jet offered in an effort to change the subject. “We've been swimming at the lake almost every day.”
“Swimming!” April rolled her eyes. “No curses? No spells? Have you even
in the greenhouse?” When they stared at her, she was exasperated. “This is pathetic. You're wasting your time. There's so much you could learn from Isabelle and you're blowing it by being children.”
“We are not children.” Franny stood up. The lamp beside her bed rattled and came perilously close to the edge of the table. At six feet, with her blood-red hair curling with anger, she was enough of a presence so that even April took heed.
“No offense,” April backtracked. “I'm just telling it like it is.” She lit a fragrant sage candle and began tossing her belongings onto a chair in a jumble of socks and bras and teeny Mary Quant outfits she'd bought on a trip to London. Jet picked up one of the lovely shirts and examined it as if it were a treasure.
“I imagine you've heard about the Owens family curse,” April said. She sat on the bed and made herself comfortable, with the ferret immediately falling asleep in her lap.
“Curse? That sounds dreadful,” Jet said.
“Oh, Jet, you can't believe anything she says,” Franny warned. She'd kept Maria's writings to herself so as not to upset her sensitive sister.
“Well you should,” April responded. “We have to be careful or we can ruin ourselves and the other person. The other person will fare far worse. It's always been this way, so take my advice and don't bother falling in love.”