Read The Rules of Magic Online

Authors: Alice Hoffman

The Rules of Magic (10 page)

When Franny finished packing and went downstairs, Isabelle was waiting for her with two fresh pots of tea. Franny grinned. She knew this was a test. It was likely Vincent and Jet had already
been assessed in the same manner, but Franny had always excelled at such things. She wasn't afraid to make a choice.

“Let's see what you'll have,” their aunt said. “Courage or caution?”

“Courage, thank you.”

Isabelle poured a cup of an earthy fragrant mixture. “It contains all the herbs you've tended this summer.”

Franny finished one cup and asked for another. As it turned out, she was desperately thirsty. Her aunt poured from the second pot.

“Isn't that caution?” Franny asked.

“Oh, they're both the same. You were never going to choose caution. But take my advice. Don't try to hide who you are, Franny. Always keep that in mind.”

“Or I'll be turned into a rabbit?” Franny quipped.

Isabelle went to embrace her favorite niece. “Or you'll be very unhappy.”

As they headed toward the bus station, doors and windows along the street snapped shut.

Good riddance
was whispered.
Go back to where you belong.

Jet straggled behind. She had felt at home in the garden on Magnolia Street, and even more at home whenever she met up with Levi Willard, whose very existence she kept to herself, a secret she hadn't revealed to her brother and sister. They had the sight, but they hadn't even bothered to look into what Jet was doing when she went out in the evenings. She said she was going to pick herbs, and they let it go at that. Their dear Jet,
why would they even suspect her? Why would they guess she had learned something from Franny, and had thrown up a barrier inside her mind?

Franny walked on ahead with Vincent, taking his arm, discussing the test with brews of tea. “What did you choose? Courage or caution?”

“Is that even a question?” Vincent had his guitar slung over his shoulder. He'd had more girlfriends than he could count this summer, yet didn't feel the need to say good-bye to a single one. “Caution is for other people, Franny. Not for us.”

They sat in the back of the bus. People avoided them, and for good reason. The Owens siblings looked grumpy and sullen in their black clothes, with their overstuffed luggage taking up a good deal of the aisle. As they sped along the Mass Pike, Franny felt homesick for Manhattan. She had tired of the attitude of the neighbors, and the unnecessary tragedies they'd witnessed. She'd missed Haylin and had all of his letters bundled at the bottom of her suitcase. Not that she was sentimental; it was purely for archival purposes, in case she should want to refer to a comment he'd made.

In Massachusetts everything had a faint green aroma, a combination of cucumber, wisteria, dogwood, and peppermint. But the scent of the city changed every day. You never could predict what it might be. Sometimes it was a perfume of rain falling on cement, sometimes it was the crispy scent of bacon, or a sweet and sour loneliness, or curry, or coffee, and of course there were days in November that smelled of chestnuts, which meant a cold snap was sure to come.

When the bus neared Manhattan, Franny opened the window so she could breathe in the hot, dirty air. She was still having
that same dream about a black bird that spoke to her. If she hadn't thought psychotherapy was utterly ridiculous she might have asked her father what on earth her dream might mean. Was it flight she wanted, or freedom, or simply someone who spoke her language and could therefore understand her confusing emotions?

“Careful,” Vincent told her with a grin when he saw her moody expression. “I foresee complications of the heart.”

“Don't be ridiculous.” Franny sniffed. “I don't even have one.”

“O goddess of the rational mind,” Jet intoned. “Are you made of straw?”

Vincent took up the joke. “No. She's made of brambles and sticks. Touch her and be scratched.”

“I'm the Maid of Thorns,” Franny said gamely, even though she had already picked up the scent of Manhattan through the open bus window.

Tonight it smelled of love.

PART TWO

Alchemy

T
he most glorious hour
in Manhattan was when twilight fell in sheets across the Great Lawn. Bands of blue turned darker by the moment as the last of the pale light filtered through the boughs of cherry trees and black locusts. In October, the meadows turned gold; the vines were twists of yellow and red. But the park was more and more crime-ridden. The Owens siblings had ridden their bikes on the paths without adult supervision when they were five and six and seven; now children were forbidden to go past the gates after nightfall. There were muggings and assaults; desperate men who had nowhere else to go slept on the green benches and under the yews.

Yet to Franny, Central Park continued to be a great and wondrous universe, a science lab that was right down the street from their house. There were secret places near Azalea Pond where so many caterpillars wound cocoons in the spring that entire locust groves came alive in a single night with clouds of newly hatched Mourning Cloak butterflies. In autumn, huge flocks of migrating birds passed over, alighting in the trees to rest overnight as they traveled to Mexico or South America. Most of all, Franny loved the muddy Ramble, the wildest, most remote section of the park.
In this overgrown jumble of woods and bogs there were white-tailed mice and owls. Birds stirred in the thickets, all of them drawn to her as she walked by. On a single day waves of thirty different sorts of warblers might drift above the park. Loons, cormorants, herons, blue jays, kestrels, vultures, swans, mallards, ducks, six varieties of woodpeckers, nighthawks, chimney swifts, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and hundreds more were either migrating flyovers or year-round residents. Once Franny had come upon a blue heron, nearly as tall as she. It walked right over to her, unafraid, while her own heart was pounding. She stayed still, trying her best to barely breathe as it came to rest its head against her cheek. She cried when it had flown away, like a beautiful blue kite. She, who prided herself on her tough exterior, could always be undone by the beauty of flight.

Near the Ramble was the Alchemy Tree, an ancient oak hidden in a glen few park goers ever glimpsed, a gigantic twisted specimen whose roots grew up from the ground in knotty bumps. The tree was said to be five hundred years old, there long before teams of workers turned what had been an empty marshland into the groomed playground imagined by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1858, giving the city a form of nature more natural than the very thing it imitated. It was here, one chilly night, that the sisters dared to unearth the abilities they had inherited. It was Samhain, the last night in October, All Hallows' Eve, the night when one season ended and another began.

Their parents were out at a costume party, having dressed as Sigmund Freud and Marilyn Monroe. It was a night of festivity, and troops of children were scattered along the city streets. Two out of three little girls were witches with tilted black hats and rustling capes. Halloween in New York City always smelled like
candy corn and bonfires. Jet and Franny cut across the park to meet Vincent after his guitar lesson. As they were early, there was time to sit on the damp grass. The summer had started them thinking: If they were not like everyone else, who, then, were they? Lately they'd been itching to know what they were capable of. They had never tried to combine whatever talents they might have.

“Just this once,” Jet said. “Let's see what happens. We can try something simple. A wish. One each. Let's see if we can make it be.”

Franny gave her sister a discouraging look. The last time she had said
Just this once,
two boys had been struck by lightning. Franny was definitely picking up something; Jet had an ulterior motive. There was something she desperately wanted. If there was ever a time to make a wish, it was now.

“We can find out what Mother has been hiding from us,” Jet suggested. “See what we're really able to do.”

If there was a way to get Franny involved, it was suggesting an attempt to prove their mother wrong. They joined hands and right away the air around them grew heavy and dense. Franny repeated a phrase she had overheard Aunt Isabelle recite when one of her clients had asked for a wish to be fulfilled.

We ask for this and nothing more. We ask once and will ask no more.

A soft fog rose from the ground and the birds in the thickets stopped singing. This was it. Something was beginning. They looked at each other and decided they would try.

“One wish apiece,” Franny whispered. “And nothing major. No world peace or the end of poverty. We wouldn't want to push it over the limit and have some sort of rebound that does the opposite of the wish.”

Jet nodded. She made her wish right away, eyes closed, breathing slowed. She was in a trance of desire and magic. Her face was flushed and hot. As for Franny, she wanted what she most often experienced in her dreams. To be among the birds. She preferred them to most human beings, their grace, their distance from the earth, their great beauty. Perhaps that was why they always came to her. In some way, she spoke their language.

After a few minutes, when it seemed nothing would happen and the air was still so heavy Franny's eyes had begun to close, Jet tugged on her sister's arm.

“Look up.”

There on a low branch of the tree sat a huge crow.

“Was that your wish?” Jet whispered, surprised.

“More or less,” Franny whispered back.

“Of all the things in the world, a bird?”

“I suppose so.”

“It is definitely studying you.”

Franny stood up, took a deep breath, then lifted her arms in the air. As she did a cold wind gusted. The crow swooped off its branch and came to her just as the sparrow had in their aunt Isabelle's house, as the heron had walked to her, as birds in the park were drawn to her from their nests in the thickets. This time, however, Franny was caught off guard by the sheer weight of the bird and by the way it looked at her, as if they knew each other. She could swear she could hear a voice echo from within its beating breast.
I will never leave unless you send me away.

She fainted right then and there in the grass.

Vincent had begun to go downtown on a regular basis, most often headed for a bar on Christopher Street that he knew served minors, a rough, ratty tavern called the Jester frequented by depressed NYU students who drank themselves into oblivion before staggering back to their dormitory rooms. Ever since coming home, he'd been running away from himself, and drink was one way to do that. There were pockets of magic in some of the tavern's booths, where plans had been hatched long ago. It was a good place to have a mug of ale and disappear.

Occasionally he saw a glimmer of himself in the mirror above the bar, and then he would slink down in the booth. He wasn't ready to see who he was. In
The Magus
there was a forgetting spell, which he cast upon himself. Still, he must have recited it incorrectly because he felt a spark of his true self when he was walking through the park at night. He heard his own heartbeat then and felt a quickening in his blood. He wondered what it might be like to open the door to a different life, one in which he did not hide in taverns or walk in the dark.

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