Read The Rules of Magic Online

Authors: Alice Hoffman

The Rules of Magic (2 page)

The Magus
was so hot to the touch she burned her fingers on its binding as she plucked it from its hiding place. It was not the sort of item a person picked up on a whim. You had to know what you were looking for, and you had to have the courage to handle it.

Franny flung the text on the kitchen table as Vincent was having his lunch. There went the potato salad and the coleslaw,
splattering across the tabletop. The spine of the book was black and gold, cracked with age. When it hit the table the book groaned.

“Where did this come from?” she asked.

Vincent stared at her and didn't flinch. “A used book kiosk outside the park.”

“That is not true,” Franny said firmly. “You've never been to a bookstall in your life!”

Vincent could flimflam other people, even Jet could be fooled by his charm, but Franny harbored an instinct for such things. Truth felt light and green, but a lie sunk to the floor, heavy as metal, a substance she always avoided for it made her feel as though she was trapped behind bars. Still, Vincent was the most appealing of liars and Franny felt a swell of love for her brother when he shrugged and told the truth.

“You're right. They couldn't sell it in a bookstall,” he confided. “It's still illegal.”

Any copies that had been unearthed at the turn of the century had been burned on a bonfire in Washington Square and there was a little-known law forbidding the book to be kept in libraries in New York City or sold in bookstores. Inside the book now splayed upon the table Franny spied images of witches led to a gallows hill. The date printed below the illustration was 1693. A chill of recognition ran through her. She'd recently written a report for history class on the Salem trials and therefore knew this to be the year when many of those set to be tried escaped from New England in search of a more tolerant place, which they found in Manhattan. While the antiwitchcraft mania raged in New England, spurred on by politics, greed, and religion, ignited by Cotton Mather and the infamous and cruel judge John
Hathorne, in New York only two witch trials had taken place, in 1658 and again in 1665, one in Queens, the other on Long Island, then called Yorkshire, in the town of Setauket, both involving residents who had ties to Boston. In New York, Franny had discovered, it was possible to be free.

“Why would you want this thing?” Franny's fingertips had turned sooty and she had a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach.

Of course it
would
be like Vincent to be interested in the occult, rather than something ordinary, like soccer or track and field. He was suspended from school on a regular basis for general mischief, pails of water tumbling down, cans of pepper spray going off. His ongoing behavior was a great embarrassment to their father, who had recently published a book titled
A Stranger in the House,
an analysis of troubled adolescents dedicated to the children, none of whom had any intention of reading it, though it was something of a bestseller.

Franny could guess where
The Magus
had come from. The place on their mother's list they were never to go. Downtown. It was rumored that what was outlawed in other parts of Manhattan could be found there. Hearts of beasts, blood of men, enchantments that could prove to be lethal. The chief reason their mother did not allow them to journey to Greenwich Village was that it was viewed as a society of bohemians, drug addicts, homosexuals, and practitioners of black magic. Yet Vincent had managed to find his way there.

“Trust me, it's nothing to worry about,” he muttered, quickly retrieving
The Magus.
“Really, Franny, it's just a lousy book.”

“Be careful,” Franny admonished him.

Perhaps she was also speaking to herself, for she was often
alarmed by her own abilities. It wasn't only that birds were drawn to her or that she'd discovered she could melt icicles with the touch of her hand. There was some scientific logic behind both of those reactions. She was calm and unafraid when birds flapped about, and her body temperature was above average, therefore it was logical for ice to melt. But one night, while standing on the fire escape outside her bedroom, she'd thought so hard about flying that for a moment her feet had lifted and she'd hung in the air. That, she knew, was empirically impossible.

“We don't really know what we're dealing with,” she murmured to her brother.

“But it's something, isn't it?” Vincent said. “Something inside of us. I know our mother wants us to pretend we're like everyone else, but you know that we're not.”

They both considered this. The girls had their talents, as did Vincent. He could, for instance, see shadowy bits of the future. He'd known that Franny would come across
The Magus
today and that they would have this conversation. In fact, he'd written it down on his skin with blue ink. He now held up his arm to show her.
Franny finds the book.

“Coincidence,” Franny was quick to say. There was no other justifiable cause.

“Are you sure? Who's to say it's not more?” Vincent lowered his voice. “We could try to find out.”

They sat together, side by side, pulling their kitchen chairs close, unsure of what bloomed inside them. As they concentrated, the table rose up, hovering an inch off the floor. Franny was so startled she hit the tabletop with the palms of her hands to stop the rising. Immediately it returned to the floor with a clatter.

“Let's wait,” she said, flushed with the heat of this strange moment.

“Why wait? The sooner we know what this is, the better. We want to control it, not have it control us.”

“There is no
it,
” Franny insisted, logical as always, well aware that her brother was referring to magic. “There's a rational explanation for every action and reaction.”

After the incident in the kitchen, the table was always tilted, with plates and glasses tending to slide off the top, as if to remind them that whoever they were, whatever their history might be, Vincent had been correct. They were not like anyone else.

None of this experimentation would have pleased Dr. and Mrs. Burke-Owens, had they known of such games. They were elegant, serious people who spent evenings out nursing a Tom Collins or whiskey sour at the Yale Club, for after receiving his B.A. at Harvard, the doctor had attended medical school in New Haven, a town their mother admitted she hoped never to visit again. They were both constantly on the lookout for signs of hereditary malfunctions in their offspring, and so far they were not especially hopeful. In his writings, Dr. Burke-Owens proposed a theory of personality that placed nature over nurture, stating there was no way to change a child's core personality. Not only was the brain hardwired, he proposed, but the soul was as well. There was no way to escape one's personal genetics, despite a healthy environment, and this did not bode well for Frances and Bridget and Vincent.

Luckily for them, their father was preoccupied with his patients,
who furtively made their way inside through a separate entrance before descending to a basement office in the Owenses' town house. While therapy was in progress, Vincent often sneaked down to the coat closet to search a patient's pockets for cash, mints, and Valium. Then all three children would lie on the kitchen floor, relaxed by the little yellow pills Vincent had found, sucking on Brach's Ice Blue mints as they listened in to the sobbing confessions that filtered up through the heating vent. Due to these eavesdropping sessions they knew about obsessions, depressions, manias, sexual appetites, and transference long before most people their age knew what a psychiatrist was.

Every year a box of lavender-scented black soap wrapped in crinkly cellophane would arrive from Massachusetts. Susanna refused to say who the sender was, yet she faithfully washed with it. Perhaps that was why she had such a creamy, radiant complexion. Franny discovered the potential of the soap after she nicked a bar one Christmas. When she and Jet sampled it, the soap caused their skin to shine, but it also made them so silly they couldn't stop laughing. They filled the sink with bubbles and splashed water at each other and were soon soaked to the skin. When their mother found them throwing the slippery bar of soap back and forth like a hot potato, she snatched it from their grasp.

“This is not for children,” she said, though Franny was nearly seventeen and Jet would turn sixteen next summer.

Surely their mother was hiding something from them under the clouds of mascara she wore. She never spoke of her family,
and the children had never met a single relation. As they grew older their suspicions grew as well. Susanna Owens spoke in riddles and never gave a straight answer.
Uncross your knives,
she'd insist if there was a quarrel at the table. Butter melting in a dish meant someone nearby was in love, and a bird in the house could take your bad luck out the window. She insisted that her children wear blue for protection and carry packets of lavender in their pockets, though Franny always threw the packets away the minute she was out of her mother's sight.

They began to wonder if their mother wasn't a spy. Russia was the enemy, and at Starling students were often made to crouch beneath their desks, hands over their heads, for bomb-safety drills. Spies had no family connections and dubious histories, just as their mother had, and they spoke in double-talk, as she did. They fudged their histories to protect their true backgrounds and intentions, and Susanna never mentioned attending college nor did she discuss where she grew up or reveal anything about her parents, other than claiming they had died young while on a cruise. The Owens children knew only the slimmest facts: Susanna had grown up in Boston and been a model in Paris before settling down with the children's father, who was an orphan with no family of his own. Their mother was terribly chic at all times, wearing black and gold sunglasses even on cloudy days, and lavish designer clothes from Paris, and she always wore Chanel No. 5 perfume, so that every room she was in was deliciously scented.

“And then you all came along,” Susanna would say cheerfully, when anyone could tell having children had been a trial for her. It was obvious she wasn't meant for domestic life. She was a terrible cook and seemed puzzled by all household duties.
The washing machine caused her endless grief and often overflowed. The stove was on the fritz more often than not, and every culinary dish she attempted came out half-baked. Even macaroni and cheese was an ordeal. A hired woman came in once a week to mop and vacuum, but she was fired after Susanna found her teaching the children to use a Ouija board, which was confiscated and burned in the fireplace.

“You know the rules!” she cried. “Do not call up darkness when you are unprepared for the consequences.” Susanna looked quite mad, stuffing the Ouija board into the flames with a poker.

Her penchant for the rules only made her children more curious. Why did their mother draw the curtains on May Day, leaving them in the dark? Why did she wear sunglasses on moonlit nights? Why did she panic when they ran out of salt and quickly rush down to buy some at the market? They looked for clues about their heritage, but there were few keepsakes, although one day Franny discovered an old photograph album wrapped in muslim on the top shelf of the hallway closet. There were faded pictures of women in a lush, overgrown garden, a troupe of girls in long skirts grinning at the camera, a black cat on a porch, their mother when she was young, standing in front of Notre-Dame. When Susanna found Franny curled up on the settee in the parlor studying the album, she immediately took it away. “It's for your own good,” she said tenderly. “All I want for you is a normal life.”

“Mother,” Franny sighed. “What makes you think that's what
I
want?”

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