Chapter I I.
Some stories begin at the beginning and others begin at the end, but all the best stories begin in a library. It was there that Jet Owens saw her fate in a mirror behind the reference desk. Even in her eighties, Jet was still beautiful. Each day she washed with the black soap the family prepared in March during the dark phase of the moon, with every bar then wrapped in crinkly cellophane. Jet had no aches or pains and had never been ill a day in her life, but fate is fate and it can often be what you least expect it to be. On this day, when the daffodils had begun to bloom, Jet saw that she had seven days to live.
The deathwatch beetle had begun to call from within the walls of the Owens Library, a sound that often went unnoticed until it was so loud it was all a person could hear. When your time came, the black beetle would withdraw from hiding and follow you everywhere, no matter where you went. Its presence meant that the past was over and the future no longer existed. This was the moment that revealed how you had walked through the world, with kindness or with fear, with your heart open or closed. It had taken this long for Jet to appreciate that every instant was a marvel. Now everything she saw was illuminated. The sun streaming through the library windows in fierce bands of orange light. A moth tapping at the glass. The sweep of the branches of one of the last elm trees in the commonwealth, which shadowed the library’s lawn. Some people unravel or run for shelter when their time has come, they curse their fate or hide under their beds, but Jet knew exactly what she wished to do in the last days she’d been granted. She didn’t have to think twice.
Long ago, the library had been a jail where Maria Owens, the first woman in their family to set foot in Massachusetts in 1680, had been confined until the judges announced she would be hanged. Those were the days when witchery was forbidden and women were harshly punished, judged to be dangerous creatures if they talked too much, or read books, or did their best to protect themselves from harm. People said Maria could turn herself into a crow, that she had the ability to enchant men without ever speaking to them directly and to compel other women to do as they pleased, so that they were willing to forsake their proper place in society and in their own families. The court set out to destroy Maria and nearly did, but she could not be drowned, and she did not back down. She blamed love for her undoing, for she’d chosen the wrong man, with dire consequences. Just before the rope that was meant to end her life snapped, and she was miraculously saved, Maria called out a curse upon love.
Beware of love, she had written on the first page of her journal, now exhibited in the library, a display mothers in town often brought their teenaged daughters to view before they started dating. Beware of love that was dishonest and disloyal, love that would lie to you and trick you, love that could break you and condemn you to sorrow, love that could never be trusted. If Maria Owens had been less rash, she might have realized that when you curse another, you curse yourself as well. Curses are like knots, the more you struggle to be free, the tighter they become, whether they’re made of rope or spite or desperation. Maria invoked an enchantment to protect the generations to follow, with her daughters’ and great-granddaughters’ best interests at heart. For their own safety, they must avoid love. Those who failed to abide by this rule would find that engagements would be tragic, and marriages would end with funerals. Over the years, many of those in the Owens family had found ways to outwit the curse, always an intricate and risky endeavor. All the same, a person could trick fate if she dared, she could change her name, never admit her love, skip a legal union, vanish from view, or, for those who were careless and wild, simply plunge in and hope for the best, knowing that sooner or later everyone had to face her own destiny.
Maria’s journal pages had been up on the wall of the library for more years than anyone could remember. Certainly, they had been there when Jet and her sister, Franny, were girls, and came here on muggy heat-laden summer days, waiting for their lives to begin, learning the truth about themselves from the town records and from their beloved aunt Isabelle. The family had a history of witchery, inherited in every generation, and had practiced the Nameless Art. They were bloodline witches, genetically predisposed to magic, with a lineage to ancestors who possessed the same sacred gifts. For those who tried to escape their heritage, it soon became clear that they couldn’t run away from who they were. A person could do her best to be ordinary and fit in, but the past could not be refuted, even when it was hidden from children thought to be too tender to know the truth. You didn’t choose magic, it chose you; it bloomed inside you, blood and bones. And a curse, once spoken, could not be denied. All the same, fate was what you made of it. You could make the best of it, or you could let it make the best of you. On this evening when she saw the truth in the library, Jet Owens decided she would do her best to change her family’s destiny.
It was dusk when Jet and her niece Sally walked home from the library, as they did nearly every evening. Sally and her husband and daughters had moved into the old family house when the aunts’ aging became noticeable, and she had been happy to settle into the place she couldn’t wait to escape from as a girl. Sally had two wonderful girls, Kylie and Antonia, but both were now off at school, and her sister, Gillian, lived in Cambridge quite near to the girls, where she worked in a lab at MIT, so it was only Sally, now a widow, who still resided with her aunts in that big tilted house with the black shutters on Magnolia Street, where a fierce iron fence circled an enormous parcel of land the gardeners in town all envied, for it was here that the first daffodils pushed through the earth and where herbs grew between patches of ice in March, a month before they appeared anywhere else. Already the bramble of blackberries along the gate was beginning to green, and the lilacs, which would bloom in shades of violet and deep purple and white, were filling in with their flat heart-shaped leaves.
Unfortunately, Sally Owens couldn’t hold on to love and everyone knew it. She’d been a victim of her family’s curse, not once but twice. She was quite young when she first married, a forbidden act that could only end badly. Her husband Michael, a school friend and the father of her girls, had been a local boy and the first to ask her out; he was cursed with an untimely death, a victim of bad luck and bad weather, struck by lightning. Sally didn’t speak for a year after his death, but she tried again with her second husband, Gary Hallet, a man she could depend on until he’d passed on a few years after their marriage. Gary had been afflicted with a childhood congenital heart disease that had finally caught up to him, but Sally was convinced his death had been activated by the family curse, for Gary had always seemed to be as healthy as he was strong. He had come from Arizona to work on the local police force, preferring a horse to a patrol car, and he and his tall good-natured bay, Jack, were known and beloved in town. Gary would rather give someone a second chance than arrest him, and the children in town begged to visit old Jack at the police stable on the far side of Endicott Street, bringing sugar cubes and carrots.
How was it possible for a man like Gary Hallet to kiss his wife good night, close his eyes, and never wake again? His horse had died of grief two nights later, lying down on the earthen floor of the stable. Sally was stunned and devastated, and some people said she had lost a piece of her heart. Certainly, she seemed transformed. When she did say hello to her neighbors, which was rare, she made it perfectly clear she preferred to be left in peace. Sally had returned to school for her degree in library science at Simmons University, and now, at the age of forty-four, she was the director of the Owens Library. The only other employee was Sarah Hardwick, who had worked at the library for over sixty years, and who still made it a point of leaving every day at five o’clock on the dot, which allowed her to stop by the Black Rabbit Inn and have a cocktail at her regular time. Often, she didn’t report back until ten in the morning, especially if she’d had more than one drink. Sally didn’t begrudge Miss Hardwick the need to come in late and leave early at her age, and she didn’t mind the hours she spent working alone in the library, late into the evenings. She did her best to be helpful when she checked out books, or assisted students from the local high school, but everyone knew Sally Owens was embittered, and even more standoffish than she’d been as a girl.
The curse had ruined Sally’s life, and she had decided not to reveal the Owens fate to her daughters. They knew bits, of course, and there was a scrim of magic over the house on Magnolia Street; the famous garden, the dangerous plants locked away in the greenhouse, the sparrow that arrived at midsummer. Still, the word witchery was never spoken out loud. Sally knew that her great-grandmother Susannah Owens had also kept the truth of their heritage from her children, setting out a series of rules to ensure they would avoid magic. Sally felt a kinship with Susannah, and when she found her great-grandmother’s rules jotted down in an old diary, she made use of them. No swimming, no books about magic, no candles, no sitting out on the roof and gazing at stars, no wearing black, no walking in the moonlight. In Sally’s opinion a life without magic was preferable, and she had done her best to ensure that her daughters wouldn’t live with the cloud of the curse above them, spying danger in every kiss. When the time came, if and when one of the girls teetered on the verge of falling in love, Sally would step in and put a stop to it, as she wished she had done when her sister, Gillian, had fallen for the man whose name was never said aloud for fear he’d be called back from the dead. Thankfully, neither Antonia nor Kylie seemed to have any romantic inclinations. Perhaps the curse would never be a problem for them and they’d be safe after all. Kylie spent all her time with her best friend, Gideon Barnes, and Antonia was clearly a workaholic, even now that she was pregnant. There was no partner in the picture and when asked who the father of her unborn child was, Antonia merely shrugged and said it was a long story, which in truth it was not. She had dated Scott Morrison in high school, but she had always preferred women and had several girlfriends, many of whose hearts were broken without Antonia even trying to accomplish that task. Antonia was a confident, calm young woman of twenty-three, a redhead who didn’t possess the same fierce temperament as Franny, the sort of person you would want beside you in an emergency, and no one was surprised when she announced that emergency medicine was the specialty she wished to pursue. Whenever she heard a siren on the street, she broke into a run, ready to offer help, for she was and always had been a natural healer; the more urgent the problem, the more focused she was on a cure.
Antonia didn’t understand why people thought she was a bit tone deaf in matters of the heart when she was simply more preoccupied by her studies. To be honest, she wasn’t even sure if she believed in love, but she definitely believed in children, as did Scott, who was two years ahead of her at med school, in a long-term relationship with another doctor, Joel McKenna. They agreed they would all make terrific parents, especially if they raised the child together.
As for Sally, she had worn black ever since her husband Gary’s death and had a closet filled with dark, austere dresses, cotton for spring and summer, wool for the colder seasons. With her silky black hair pinned up, and her black coat flaring out behind her, Sally looked like a ghost on evenings when she walked home from the Owens Library with her aunt, with heaps of new leaves falling from the trees as she passed by. She closed the shutters on sunshiny days and favored large dark glasses that made her expression impenetrable. When she lingered on the porch in the evenings, not wishing to go up to her lonely bedroom, she rocked back and forth in an old wicker chair as the dusk settled around her, not realizing that she was frightening the neighborhood children who came upon her in the falling dark. The children who glimpsed Sally Owens on cold, crisp evenings shared their opinion that she was a witch who could turn herself into whatever she wished to be—a cat or a crow or a she-wolf—and that they had best not talk too much or have too much fun when she had them in her sights. Most people in town considered Sally to be unpredictable and irritable and there were those who insisted it was best not to cross her or she would hex you in the blink of an eye. Sally paid no attention. Let the neighbors gossip, let them cross the street when they spied her, she couldn’t care less. The Owens women had a habit of doing as they pleased no matter what people might say, and she would continue to do so.
This week, as spring neared, Sally had decided to turn out the light on the porch, which had been kept on for three hundred years, assuring women in need of assistance that they were welcome to call. Enough was enough, in Sally’s estimation. Let the neighbors go elsewhere for cures. Soon after, the gate was latched, the front door bolted, and thorny vines clung to the skirts of anyone who tried to pass by on the bluestone path. If a remedy was needed, for health or love or revenge, the best clients could do was wait on the sidewalk outside the fence, hoping that Franny Owens, or more likely dear Jet, would venture out on the way to the market or the drugstore and stop long enough to listen to their woes. Perhaps, if they were lucky, one of the aunts would grant them an elixir, stored in the pantry or in the greenhouse, well out of Sally’s sight. Star tulip to decipher dreams, blue beads for protection, garlic, salt, and rosemary to dispel evil, or the most sought-after cure, Love Potion Number Nine, which consisted of anise, rosemary, honey, and cloves, all simmered for nine hours and always costing $9.99. Jet would never charge a penny more, and she made certain to remind the buyer that the spell worked best on the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month. On some nights, neighborhood women stood in the dark in front of the Owens house, their hands clutching the iron fence, with jewelry or cash in their purses, in need of assistance in matters of love or health or revenge. Often the aunts were already in bed, still the women stayed, ever hopeful, and there were times when Sally had to step over them on her way to work in the morning, for some truly desperate clients fell asleep on the sidewalk, dreaming of cures they would never receive.
Sally had become so closed off that she had recently lost the ability to see the color red, a side effect of severing one’s emotions. One morning she woke and that color was simply gone from the palette of her vision. Anything that had once been scarlet or crimson or cherry or coral had turned a splotchy gray. As far as Sally was concerned, good riddance. She didn’t mind the loss of red in her life one bit. Who needed a color as bright and disturbing as red? Red blossoms, red heart, red magic, red love. Even though spring had begun, for Sally the month of March was muted and blurry, a world of black and white. She didn’t care that she could no longer spy cardinals perched in the trees, or that the red tulips in the greenhouse forced into an early bloom were the color of dust. Sally felt quite sensible observing the world through a scrim of gloom.
Though Jet didn’t work in the library officially, she was a great favorite with the youngest patrons. She had the ability to know what people were thinking, and therefore understood that boys who were rude were usually fearful and that quiet girls often had a lot to say. She frequently stopped by to help young people choose books, guiding them to stories that contained magic of the best sort, practical magic that was folded into the everyday world, tales in which people stumbled into enchantments, often while walking down the street in their own hometown, or when they stepped into closets that contained other worlds, or waited for a train that would take them to a place they’d never before imagined.
“All you need is patience,” Jet told Sally when she threw up her hands each time she was faced with disruptive behavior from middle-school visitors who gathered in groups, lounging at the tables as if they were in their own homes.
Sally had been an excellent mother, but nowadays she was strict and rarely smiled anymore, and children are always put off by a rigid sensibility. Her own daughters had chafed under the household rules, but the rules were the rules, and Sally would not have them be broken. She’d taped up a laminated list at the reference desk in the library. No running, no shouting, no gathering in groups, no pets, no bare feet, no crying when you didn’t get the book you most wanted to read. She didn’t blame the children for avoiding her, preferring Jet or Miss Hardwick. She had turned away from the world and its sorrows and there were times when she walked past a mirror and could have sworn she saw the image of her aunt Franny rather than her own. Those cold gray eyes; that frown. Surely, she had inherited Frances Owens’s no-nonsense attitude; she was curt and didn’t easily suffer fools. She sometimes heard Franny’s voice inside her head, or worse, she heard herself speaking phrases Franny had long ago imparted to her, blunt advice that pulled no punches. Courage or caution? Why on earth would you want to be normal? What fun would that be?
When their parents had died, and Sally and Gillian had come to the house on Magnolia Street, they’d both been terrified of Franny, intimidated by her wild hair and her red boots and her freckled complexion and her clipped conversation, and they’d secretly called her the mean aunt. But when Sally wept in bed at night, it was Franny who came upstairs to sit beside her. She didn’t offer silly, meaningless words of comfort, but instead stroked Sally’s long, dark hair and told her that in the morning they would have chocolate cake for breakfast, and they always did.
Although Sally considered herself to be a logical woman, she knew there was more to this world than could be seen with the naked eye. Ever since childhood she’d been convinced that a dark brand of bad luck followed at her heels, a wicked spell she couldn’t diffuse, not with sage or garlic or salt. It was after her, there was no doubt about it. The Owens curse stalked her even though she was determined to avoid magic. Oh, she had tried, but no matter how ordinary her life might be, the curse hung on as if it were an obstinate dog that refused to loosen its bite even when she tried to shake it off. Now, as Sally and Jet walked through town, Sally realized that a little dog was, indeed, pursuing them, as though it had read her mind, validating her theory that a hex and a wild dog were equally difficult to be rid of. The one following them was a scraggly white thing with sharp black eyes. Sally soon recognized it as the stray that had been hanging around trash barrels behind the library for several days, one wily enough to escape every time animal control was called in.
“I can’t seem to catch that dog,” Sally said. Now that her girls were grown, with Kylie a sophomore and Antonia in her second year of medical school, both at Harvard, and with Antonia pregnant, nearly a mother herself, Sally often stayed at the library after hours. What was the point of leaving? She would have preferred to eat a sandwich at her desk and would likely have forgotten to come home entirely, choosing to work through the night, had Jet not come for her at the end of the day.
“I think it’s Daisy,” Jet said thoughtfully as she observed the dog.
Once you knew that death was walking alongside you, things came into focus, as they now did for Jet. With only seven days left she had best pay attention to every detail. She had already taken note that the lines on her right palm, showing the fate that she’d been given, and those on the left hand, the fate she had made for herself, were exactly the same; they had converged, as they always do at the end of a life. Jet’s gift of the sight had intensified. She could envision the dog’s heart beating under its tangled fur, just as she saw the slow unfolding of black leaves on the last surviving elm trees in Essex County. The Reverend Willard had owned a dog resembling this one before he’d been forced into residing at the retirement home on Endicott Street. The Willards and the Owenses were all descendants of a witch-finder and a witch, John Hathorne and Maria Owens on the Owens’ side, and a granddaughter of Hathorne and a relation of John Proctor, hanged as a witch when he tried to protect an innocent woman brought to trial, on the Willards’ side. Although there had been centuries of distrust, Jet had managed to change that after her beloved Levi Willard’s death when she knocked at the Reverend’s door, refusing to allow him to turn her away until they set the situation right. The Reverend had passed his hundredth birthday and could no longer care for himself, let alone a dog, and it was said that his little Maltese had run off and was now dodging around town, eating from garbage cans, sleeping on porches, begging for food from children exiting the school bus. Wary, the dog ducked beneath the thickets, but Jet stopped and waved cheerfully. “Come here, Daisy,” she called. “I think she belongs to the Reverend.”
“You don’t want a dog,” Sally reminded her aunt. “You’re a cat person.”
True enough. Jet had had a series of adored black cats when she was younger, all named for birds, including Magpie and Goose and Crow. Yet when Daisy, if indeed it was she, began to approach, Jet felt something prick her heart. She bent to pick up the dog and when she held it she could feel its jumpy heartbeat next to her own. She remembered being told that you didn’t choose a familiar, it chose you. In truth, Jet felt comforted by Daisy’s presence. Life of any sort was marvelous. She saw that now.
“Are you sure?” Jet murmured to the dog. She had only a few days left, after all, and couldn’t pledge to oversee Daisy’s future. All the same, the Reverend’s dog settled in against her, clearly pleased to be carried along, although it didn’t make eye contact. That was curious. A familiar saw inside you. It was then Jet realized she was only a temporary caretaker. Daisy was meant for someone else.
“Here we go.” Sally’s tone was gloomy. She had no patience for anything these days. Although she looked far younger than her age, likely due to the miraculous black soap the Owenses had concocted from a family recipe since the 1600s, when it had been useful in treating those infected with the plague in a time when simply washing one’s hands made a world of difference, with ingredients that were disinfectants, including rosemary, lavender, and mint. Sally distrusted the world, an attitude that aged a person beyond her years. Soap couldn’t fix that. “One thing will lead to another,” Sally told her aunt, “and the end result will likely be fleas.”
Jet patted the dog and didn’t argue. She had always loved the month of March, though it was wild and unpredictable, evoking hope as the wintry brown world began to flourish. Jet felt extremely grateful to experience it this one last time. Everything was greening and the hedges had a fresh, peppery scent. There was a chill in the blue air, yet daffodils were pushing up through the damp, black earth, and in the Owenses’ garden they had already bloomed. Oh, what a beautiful, unexpected world this was.
“Be prepared. Franny will have a fit if you bring a dog home,” Sally continued to warn her aunt as they walked along past the Black Rabbit Inn. Tonight the special was chicken pot pie, but most of the regulars were concentrating on whiskey. A fiddler was playing enthusiastically in the bar. It was the kind of rousing, rowdy song Gary would have liked. Once he’d moved to Massachusetts, he’d missed the desert where he’d grown up, and the untamed country he’d known. He enjoyed standing outside with Sally before they went to bed to gaze at the stars and point out constellations, even in the dead of winter. Gary had never believed in curses or bad luck, and he’d considered fairy tales to be stories for children. Sally had loved his fearless attitude and the way he’d made her feel so safe, even though she knew that the world was, and always had been, a dangerous place. What was wicked grew with the ferocity of the bramble; cut it down, and it rose up again with even deeper roots.
Now, on the way home, Sally linked an arm through Jet’s. She always softened when in the presence of her aunt Jet, who was the most kindhearted among them. Gillian had voiced a hunch that there must be an irregularity in Jet’s DNA, and some unexpected genes had rendered her a huge heart, absent in most of their relations. Gillian should know; she worked in a lab at MIT researching genetics, a subject that had come to obsess her. She was convinced that somewhere in their past there had been an ancestor who had been as kind as their aunt, perhaps the same person from whom Jet had inherited her striking good looks.
Warmer weather was predicted for the rest of the week, and Jet’s seven days marked the start of a season that was always a delight in Massachusetts. All through the long winter people waited for a sign for the first surge of spring. The green bark of a lilac. The murmur of a dove in the yard. While there was still a scrim of ice on Leech Lake, people came down with spring fever that made them act as if they were young again; they took risks, they stayed out late, they fell in love unexpectedly. This was the month when teams began to play softball in the high school field and music flooded out from open windows as children practiced scales at pianos that had been ignored all winter long. There was an extra hour of daylight, so glorious and so needed after the many months of darkness.
Jet could hear the hum of the first of the season’s bees as they neared the house on Magnolia Street with its black shutters and tilted roof slates and dozens of windows made of old, wavering green glass. She came to a halt when they turned a corner, well aware that people had long believed that whenever bees swarmed outside a house, a resident was sure to die. Hundreds were now circling the porch in a buzzing whirlwind of yellow. There was Franny, out in the chilly dusk without a coat, a broom in her hands, doing her best to bat them away.
“You’re going to be stung!” Sally called to her tall, fearsome aunt who had always shone with a beauty all her own. Franny Owens was in her eighties but her hair had a red tone, and although people whispered she had it dyed in a salon in Boston or magicked away the gray with a mixture of blood and potent herbs, all it took to keep the color was a rinse of madder root every once in a while.
Jet set down the dog and went directly to her sister. “We need the bees,” Jet said in a no-nonsense voice. She pried the broom from Franny’s hands and let it drop to the ground. “Franny, that’s enough.”
The sisters gazed into one another’s eyes. They’d always been able to read each other but now Franny was baffled by what she saw. She glimpsed herself in the future, there in their garden alone, and then, with a quickening breath, she understood.
“No,” she said.
This is how it happened, on an ordinary night when Franny had planned to read a book after supper, she had Virginia Woolf’s The Waves on her night table, then go early to bed. She had assumed life would remain as it was, with nothing daring to change, but all at once it had become an anguished night of bees, of a mad swarm around them, of her sister already wrested away from her, gazing into the world to come that was written in the constellations spinning above them. There was the Winter Triangle, which would fade away by the end of the month, as it always did at this time of year. Franny understood this was how loss began. She had been here before, but then, like anyone else, she had forgotten this is what happened, that things ended when you least expected them to, that you could not protect those you loved from nature and fate.
Sally had come up beside her aunts. She would likely have to call the exterminator in the morning, for once bees got into a house they might just decide to stay there and then honey would be dripping through the ceiling and down the walls. In the garden, the sprouting herbs were already letting off clouds of scent: marjoram, lavender, rosemary. There was always plenty of Spanish garlic, traditional to harvest in great abundance. There was chickweed, and feverfew, and juniper with the last of its berries. The dog was sniffing around, making itself at home.
“Did you see what we picked up on the way home?” Sally asked Franny. When her aunt looked blank, Sally laughed. Franny did have a way of ignoring the townspeople, as did she, and she’d likely never noticed the dog before. “Daisy. The Reverend’s dog?”
“To hell with the Reverend’s dog,” Franny said, turning to stalk past the plumy weeds on her way into the rear of the garden where they kept a beehive. It was empty. When she tapped on the sides it rattled and then Franny knew. Their very own bees had announced the death to come. There was no denying what would happen. One of their family. One of their own.
“I told you she wouldn’t be happy about this.” Sally glared at the dog, but Jet was no longer beside her. She had gone after her sister, her dear Franny, who was as different from her as night was from day, but whom she had always loved beyond all reason.
On the first day of her last week on earth, Jet went to New York, taking the train from Boston’s South Station. Because it was a lovely afternoon when she arrived in Manhattan, she walked uptown to the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Ninth Street. She’d brought Daisy along, tucked into a shoulder bag on the train, now leashed and free to gleefully smell the scents that greeted her when they left Penn Station. Jet had made this trip once a month for the past sixty years, and the older employees who worked at the hotel always recognized her and were happy to greet her. When she’d first come here, the Oak Room had refused to serve women at lunch, but that all changed in 1969 when Betty Friedan and fifteen other members of National Organization for Women decided enough was enough and refused to leave. For years afterward, Jet would frequent the Oak Bar, lingering until it was time to go upstairs for the one night she waited for all month long.
When she walked in with the dog under her arm, no one behind the desk asked any questions. They never had. She was always without a suitcase, and simply packed a nightgown, some undergarments, and a change of clothes into her purse. This time she had brought along a tote bag containing dog food. She always paid cash.
More than six decades earlier, Jet had been a bewitching, dark-haired girl who had registered at this very hotel in order to do away with herself. She had lost her first love, Levi, the Reverend’s son, in a car accident that seemed triggered by the curse, a horrific collision that had claimed her parents’ lives as well. She’d seen no reason to go on and was certain that the world no longer was a place in which she wished to reside.
Her fate changed when a young bellman noticed she had checked into the Plaza without a suitcase. People without luggage most often had one of two things in mind: an affair or suicide, although occasionally there was a third possibility when a novelist arrived, desperate for inspiration, and always asking for the cheapest room. Rafael Correa was the bellman who had noticed Jet. He had stopped her, begging her to reconsider her plans and have room service with him instead. Jet told him from the start she would never belong to him; she mentioned a curse, but he was head over heels after their first encounter, and he didn’t argue. When you save someone’s life, they belong to you, no matter what they might say.
This time Jet had reserved the room for two nights. If she didn’t do as she pleased this week, when would she ever? The one good thing about her death to come was that the curse could no longer claim the man she loved. She had taken a suite, damn the expense, and for two nights and days they could pretend they lived together, or maybe it wasn’t pretense, maybe this was the realest time they had ever known.
Rafael had been a principal of a high school in Queens and since his retirement he had tutored ESL students in his neighborhood. He had a wide social circle, but he went home alone every night. Despite his friends’ concerns about the solitary life he led, Rafael never married. He’d wanted more, but it wasn’t possible, and in many ways they were more fortunate than most. They never quarreled and any disagreements were brief; they wanted to make the best of the time they had together and use it wisely. But when Rafael arrived at the Plaza, his instinct that there was bad news kicked in, left over from his years as a principal. For one thing, Jet had brought a stray dog along, a white scruffy pup who sat at Rafael’s feet when he took off his shoes, staring into his eyes as if he were a long-lost friend.
“She’ll cheer you up,” Jet said.
“All I need is you,” Rafael said mournfully, sensing that something wasn’t right.
Jet sat down beside him and took his hand. For all these years she had been protecting Rafael every time she claimed she didn’t love him, but now Jet told him the truth. She had loved him and only him.
“I know,” Rafael assured her.
“And that’s why Daisy is here. She’ll be a companion.”
That was when he’d known something terrible and unbreakable was about to befall them. They considered getting married that afternoon, since the curse could no longer do them any harm, but in the end they decided they didn’t need a witness to their love. Instead, they did things any couple might have done on an ordinary day. That was what Jet wanted most. To be just another couple on the streets of New York. Oh, she knew it wasn’t really possible, it never had been, but during this last time they spent together, she wanted them to be people who weren’t afraid of love, who believed that the future belonged to them.
The next morning they walked through Central Park to Belvedere Castle, with Daisy tugging at her leash. From the height of the castle’s craggy ledge they observed the greening canopy below. The sky turned lemon-colored, and they huddled in the castle during a quick blast of rain. Then they went arm in arm to the Boathouse for brunch, the dog hidden in Jet’s purse and fed bits of toast. Jet went so far as to kiss Rafael in public, curse be damned. After that, they took the subway to Queens so that Jet could see the high school in Forest Hills where Rafael had worked. He’d had a life without her, he’d made a world for himself as a teacher and as a man, but on the train back into Manhattan she could see how lonely he would be once she was gone.
In the evening, they left the dog at the hotel and took a taxi to Waverly Place, where they sat holding hands at the best Italian restaurant in the Village. When they could eat and drink no more, they did so anyway, and ordered the famous olive oil cake with gelato. There was a mackerel sky dotted with clouds as they walked down Greenwich Avenue to number 44, the small townhouse where Jet had lived with Franny and their much-loved brother Vincent when they were young and anything seemed possible. The literary agent who’d had an office there after they’d moved out was now sadly gone, but there were still scraggly lilacs in the tiny yard. Jet closed her eyes and remembered everything. Her room on the third floor where she read so many novels, including Wuthering Heights, which she devoured three times over, Franny sitting at the kitchen table sorting out how to pay the bills when she was all of nineteen, Vincent playing guitar in his room, his reedy voice echoing.
When Jet and Rafael looked at each other in bed, they saw one another as they had been when they were young and beautiful, both with dark hair and flushed olive skin. Perhaps this was why they were still burning for each other. Or perhaps it was that the last time is beautiful and somber when it’s finally understood every instant counts.
Whenever they were together, Jet thought of their first time, when she was certain that she’d lost everything and that life wasn’t worth living. Each time Jet encountered young women crying in the library, or on the porch of the house on Magnolia Street, convinced there was no point in going on, she always told them that you never knew who might walk through the door. Fate worked that way. Some of what was to come was fixed, true enough, as shown in the lines on your right hand. But the lines on your left hand changed, day by day, for that was the fate you made for yourself.
When it was time to leave, Jet couldn’t bring herself to wake Rafael. She wished she could stay all week, but if she remained with him for too long her heart would break; it was breaking already. She watched him sleep for a few moments, grateful to have known love despite the curse. She wasn’t normal, she never could be, but Rafael hadn’t seemed to mind. She left a note on the bedside table, a quote from her favorite poet. Rafael would understand. He always had. They would never be parted.
Unable are the Loved to die
For Love is Immortality.
On the train back to Boston, Daisy sat on Jet’s lap and gazed out the window as they passed through the pale green marshes in Connecticut. “Service dog,” Jet told the conductor, and who would argue with such a dear, old lady who appeared to be crying black tears, the tears that witches cry no matter that lore says they have no hearts and are incapable of love. There were osprey nests on the tallest utility poles and one huge bird with a wingspan of five feet swooped over the lowering tide in search of fish. Tall tawny grass was growing in the rivulets, and the clouds reflected in the water. Had there ever been a marsh as beautiful? Everything you did for the last time was a miracle, no matter how ordinary. Jet had been beside Rafael while he brushed his teeth, she had taken the subway with him to Queens, she had seen the way he looked at her, as if nothing else mattered. This is the way their real life might have been if she hadn’t been forced to keep vigil over the curse.
“You don’t have to worry about the curse anymore,” she’d reassured him as they’d walked along the landscape of their past, so that it almost seemed as if they were young again and had all the time in the world.
“I was never worried,” Rafael told her. “I’ve been lucky and I know it.”
Franny came in from the garden with a basket of fresh parsley and mint. She stopped when she saw that her sister had returned. She could see an ashy shadow around Jet, visible only if you knew what death looked like, if you dared to peer into a black mirror and see the future of those you loved most. It was the evening of the second day and by tomorrow the color of the shadow would be more ink than ash.
“Back at last,” Franny said crisply. Her heart was breaking, but what good would it do to let it show?
“Here I am,” Jet replied. “Yours for the next five days.”
Mine alone, Franny thought. Beautiful, darling, dear sister. “Then we should make supper,” she said. We should make the most of every minute we have.
They spent nearly every moment together during the next few days, linked in thought and deed, as sisters often are. Who can you trust if not your sister? Who knows your story better than she? If you saw one Owens sister at the grocery, the other would be right beside her. If one was working in the garden, making certain the rows of herbs were weeded, her sister would be there as well, carrying a basket to collect the dandelion greens. When Jet went to visit Reverend Willard at the retirement home, Franny tagged along, even though she was the least social creature in town and had certainly never visited anyone there before. Daisy was with them, and no one at the retirement home considered giving them any trouble concerning a canine visitor, knowing if they did they’d have Franny to deal with, who had already cast a domination spell in the entry hall to ensure that people on the premises would bend to her will.
The Reverend had performed the marriage ceremony for Franny and her beloved Haylin Walker soon after Haylin was diagnosed with cancer, and due to that kindness, Franny had made allowances for the way he’d treated Jet when she was a girl, which, in point of fact, had been all but unforgivable. But forgiveness was one thing, a social call was another, and Franny simply couldn’t fathom holding a cheerful conversation wedged in between emergency alerts going off for failing residents and Reverend Willard’s labored breathing, for spring always affected his asthma. Franny remained on the threshold while Jet went to sit at the Reverend’s bedside. That was as social as Franny got. She pursed her lips as she gazed at Reverend Willard. Things didn’t look good for the old man and he had been despondent for some time. Once you are over a hundred you stop counting days. Once you’ve lost your son you glimpse death everywhere. All the same the Reverend let out a whoop when Daisy jumped onto his bed.
“Here’s my girl.” He patted the dog, wholly absorbed, turning to Jet only when she politely coughed. “And my other girl!”
“She’s a grown woman.” Franny reminded the Reverend, still not venturing any farther than the doorway. “An old one at that.” One who was spending precious time with a man who had made her life miserable long ago, but that was clearly water under the bridge to everyone but Franny. The Reverend hadn’t wanted his son to have any dealings with an Owens girl because of her family, but he’d realized he’d been a bigot and over these many years he’d come to think of Jet as a daughter. Today she looked sadder than usual.
“Am I dying?” he asked her. They had loved the same person, that was their lasting bond.
“Not yet,” Jet told him. “It’s me this time.”
“So, you won’t be coming to visit anymore?” The Reverend was struck by emotion, his eyes and nose running.
“No.” Jet smiled at him with tenderness. “That will be Franny from now on.”
“What!” Franny said sharply. She’d only been half listening, but she’d paid attention when she heard her sister’s remark. “Not me. I’m not one for social calls.”
“Then one of my grand-nieces will come,” Jet reassured the Reverend. “Kylie or Antonia. Someone will always look in on you. And don’t worry about Daisy. I’ve found her the perfect home.”
As Jet was leaving, Reverend Willard seized her hand. “Make sure it’s not your sister.” He spoke in a low voice, eyeing the fearsome figure at the door who was gesturing for Jet to hurry. Jet ignored Franny rushing her and took her time. Why not? She had grown to love this old man who, if fate had taken a different route, would have been her father-in-law.
“It won’t be,” she promised.
“Whoever it is, she won’t be as good as you.”
Franny looped her arm through her sister’s as they were leaving. The world was still beautiful and they stood in the front yard of the retirement home while Daisy nosed around. There were old people sitting on wooden benches, gazing at the pink-tinged sky. “Did you ever imagine you’d forgive him?” Franny asked, remembering how the Reverend had made Jet’s and Levi’s lives intolerable when he flatly refused to allow his son to see her. He’d been a fool who judged Jet by her family’s history of witchery.
“I still can’t forgive myself.” Levi had loved her and she had brought the curse to him. “Forgiveness is the most difficult undertaking.”
“I forgave you for being the better sister,” Franny said bluntly.
“Nonsense,” Jet said, and because she didn’t have all the time in the world, she threw her arms around her sister even though Franny was always uncomfortable in an embrace. “Dear sister, that was always you.”
On the fourth day, Jet and Franny went out to the greenhouse to read through the Grimoire, the thick book that was the repository of the family’s magical knowledge. Their treasured Grimoire had been created in Essex, England, by Maria Owens’s adopted mother, Hannah, a birthday gift when Maria was ten, old enough to study magic. The cover was the cool green-black skin of some strange leather that was said to be toad skin, a material that was both delicate and strong. Maria’s original cures and spells could be found in these pages, learned in England and Curaçao, and it was here in this book that the original curse had been written down years after it had been set when Maria stood upon the gallows, having been judged to be a witch by the man she imagined she loved. There were also several pages written by Maria’s daughter, Faith, who had assisted her mother in opening the library and a well-respected girls’ school, thanks to the most loyal wealthy patron, Thomas Brattle, the treasurer of Harvard College who had helped to thwart the witchcraft trials, publicly refuting Cotton Mather’s unprovable beliefs in spectral evidence, calling the entire episode a delusion, a man who was also rumored to be the father of Faith’s two little girls, Avis and Violet.
The women in the following generations had added to the family’s knowledge, including their cherished aunt Isabelle, who had invited Franny and Jet to Magnolia Street when they had no idea who they were. They’d been kept in the dark by their mother, Susannah, who had abandoned the family and its history when she was little more than a girl. The most recent pages in the Grimoire had been written over a period of fifty years by Franny and Jet, and there were remedies and enchantments Gillian had added, even though Gillian had always had less talent for magic than the others and had been mortified by her lack of skill. She was frankly jealous that magic had come to Sally so naturally, when Sally clearly had no use for such things and only craved to be normal. Sally had never written a word in the Grimoire. “I’m not interested,” she always said when the topic of magic was broached. “I’ve got better things to do.”
Stored beside the book was the black mirror Jet and Franny had been shown during their first summer on Magnolia Street. It was possible to see the future in this mirror, if you dared. You’d know if you had the sight when the mirror was presented; you’d see your future in bits and pieces and begin to unravel the story of your life. But stories change, depending on who tells them, and stories are nothing if you don’t have someone to tell them to. Fortunately, they’d had each other. When they put the book away, they held hands and listened to the riotous birdsong in the trees. How lucky to have a sister.
They had a brother as well, one they loved dearly, the darling of their family, wild and talented, the sort of man who could do no harm and dared to fall in love when everything in their history told him he should not. That evening Jet wrote a letter to Vincent, who had disappeared after being called up to fight in Vietnam. He had managed to avoid the curse with a false death, tricking fate and setting off with his beloved William to a life that couldn’t be shared with his family. Jet kept a photograph of Vincent in her bedside table drawer, along with her treasured packet of letters from Rafael. She took out her best stationery and a pen with red ink that made the white paper flush the color of roses.
Darling boy, Jet began, we have missed you every day. Whenever you can come home, do.
She addressed the letter to Vincent’s great friend Agnes Durant, in Paris, then slipped the key to the house on Magnolia Street into the envelope. She and Franny walked through the gusty night to the post office, where the letter was sent off in the mailbox.
“Unlikely he’ll get the letter,” Franny chimed in. She had written to Vincent several times and had never heard a word in return, although every year she received a card from Agnes with a bright greeting—All is fine here in France—which she supposed meant Vincent was well.
“I don’t know about that,” Jet responded. “He could always find anything. He had that talent.”
“When he wanted to use it,” Franny sniffed. Her brother’s absence still pained her. “He never found us.”
“He couldn’t, darling,” Jet said. “There was the curse. He had William to think of.”
On the fifth day, after Sally had gone off to the library, Jet turned on the porch light and threw open the door. When the news got out that Jet was available to her neighbors, a line formed along the path and down the street. People wanted cures for rashes and indigestion, enchantments for runaway daughters and for sons who had made a wrong turn, tinctures for forgetfulness and for mean-spirited husbands, and, as always, they came for love. Jet was so busy that she enlisted Franny, who grumbled but set about gathering ingredients from the garden: leaves from their ginkgo tree, one of the oldest varieties on earth, for anxiety; turmeric as an anti-inflammatory; primrose, whose essence would be pressed into an oil that helped skin conditions and lifted the spirits; echinacea, best for the common cold; lavender, to bring wayward children home. In tall glass jars in the pantry there was mandrake, belladonna, mushrooms of all sorts, blue beads, black feathers, apple seeds, the hollow bones of birds, dove’s hearts. The rush lasted until five, and by the time it was through most of the daffodils had been trampled by people who wanted to make certain they got their turn bringing their problems to Jet. Before Sally arrived home to chastise them for practicing magic, Franny chased the last of the visitors from the path and once they were gone, she switched off the light. She agreed with Sally; let the porch light be turned down forevermore.
Jet sat at the table, exhausted, in need herself of a cup of Courage Tea.
“I hope you’re happy,” Franny said. “Half the neighborhood has been here today.”
Jet smiled and poured more tea. She was, indeed, happy, and because Franny couldn’t fight that, she had a cup of tea as well, for courage was what they both needed now.
On the sixth day, the aunts fell silent, in a haze of disbelief. The future was less than forty-eight hours away. Still, no one had ever called them lazy, and they made good use of their time, setting about cleaning the house, which, frankly, had not been seen to for some time, so that the woodwork and drapes were dusty and the carpets had to be taken out to the porch and beaten with a broom. It was traditional to do so after a death, to prepare for the mourners and clear out anything the deceased might wish to keep private, but knowing what they knew, they had the opportunity to complete the task together before the funeral. They covered the mirrors and opened the windows to let in fresh air. Sparrows were nesting in the shrubbery and buds had appeared on the magnolias that lined the street. The sisters packed up Jet’s clothing and her collection of novels, along with the batch of letters Levi had sent her when she was a girl, mostly concerning how they might manage to meet without the Reverend catching on. There was another correspondence that Jet treasured, letters tied up with blue ribbon. These were Rafael’s. She gazed at them, on the brink of tears.
“His?” Franny said. She’d never questioned Jet about her love life. Still, she’d been curious.
Jet nodded. She thought about what might have happened if Rafael hadn’t taken a part-time job as a bellman while he was going to college. “Life is luck.”
“That it is,” Franny agreed.
When they were through with the house, and the woodwork shone and the cobwebs were all swept away with a broom, they had a picnic lunch that included splurging on all of their favorite childhood foods which were too rich for them now: jam sandwiches, scones with lavender honey, cheese and chive biscuits, sliced apples with cream. Later, they walked to the cemetery where Jet wrote out a check, the final payment for the plot beside Levi Willard, whom she had loved when she was so young and hadn’t any idea of what love meant. Then they went out grocery shopping for the ingredients they needed. In the morning, when Sally came into the kitchen, ready to head to the library, her aunts were baking a Chocolate Tipsy Cake, a family tradition for birthdays, weddings, and funerals ever since Maria Owens’s time.
“Do you know how many calories are in that?” Sally said. All the same, she sat down at the table and ate the leftover batter with a spoon. “What are we celebrating?” she asked.
Sally looked exhausted, with dark bluish circles under her eyes. She worked too much and she hadn’t conditioned her hair for ages, but she was still beautiful and, in the aunts’ eyes, still their little girl.
“If you can’t eat chocolate cake for breakfast, what is the point of being alive?” Franny said.
On the morning of the seventh day, when the ashy circle around Jet closed so that she was surrounded by a black aura and time was running out, they did exactly that. For reasons Sally could never explain to herself, nor understand, she joined her aunts at the breakfast table, and instead of her usual yogurt and blueberries, she had the biggest slice of all.
Jet insisted they all have dinner in the taproom at the Black Rabbit Inn that evening. She’d already phoned Gillian, who would fetch Kylie and Antonia and drive them up from Cambridge. Jet had made reservations as well, the rear table, far away from the fiddler who played there after six, whose mother had often come to them for a success elixir for her son, though, due to the level of his talent, there was none to be had.
“Are you certain you want them all here on the seventh day?” Franny asked with concern.
“They’ll need to be here on the eighth day, won’t they? I don’t want you to have to handle everything alone.”
Franny had little choice but to agree. She couldn’t yet bring herself to think about the eighth day and a world without Jet. Perhaps just this one time, she might need help dealing with what was to come. Although the Black Rabbit certainly would not have been her choice for a last supper; she couldn’t stand the cheerful dining room, with its red-checked tablecloths and a menu of second-rate New England food: boiled potatoes, baked cod, macaroni and cheese, always burned on top, along with salads that included only shredded iceberg lettuce, and all manner of puddings for dessert, the specialty being something called cheesecake upside-down, which the kitchen had been serving to mixed reviews for more than a hundred years.
At the close of the afternoon, before the others arrived, Jet grabbed her spring coat and set out for the library.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Franny wanted to know. The truth was she didn’t wish to let her sister out of her sight. The deathwatch beetle had situated itself in the linen closet on the second floor and its clacking was louder all the time. Franny had used bug spray and set out traps laced with sugar with no success. When it came down to it, she knew this was one insect it was impossible to be rid of.
“What I want most is for this to be an ordinary day,” Jet explained. “On an ordinary day I’d go get Sally to be certain she left the library at a decent hour.”
“Fine. But be at the inn by five. I’ll bring the girls. Don’t leave me stranded there.”
Time was everything, and there was so little of it. Jet walked the long way around, stopping at the cemetery to visit Levi Willard, bringing a bunch of daffodils from the garden, yellow with orange centers dotted with inky black marks. She lay down in the grass next to his headstone and looked up at a sky clotted with clouds. She was beginning to say good-bye to the world, to all the things she loved, grass and sky, the lanes in town that were so shady and green, the library where she and Franny and Vincent would go on sultry days during their first summer in town. When she arrived, Sally was still working even though it was nearly five and they certainly didn’t want to keep Franny waiting at the inn.
“I need fifteen minutes to close up,” Sally called when Jet came through the door. Sally was in a hurry, as always, but something made her stop and gaze into Jet’s eyes. They seemed darker than usual, the pale gray flecked with black. Dear Jet, whose love and good heart were constant, appeared to be quite exhausted. “Are you all right?” Sally smoothed down her aunt’s hair. “Is that mud on your shoes?”
“I’ve been for a walk in the cemetery.” On Jet’s last night in the world she saw everything with clear eyes, including her beloved niece. How kindhearted Sally was. How vulnerable beneath all that bluster. Sally had been the one who had found the aunts listed in their mother’s phone book, and had called clear across the country to inform them that she and Gillian would be coming to stay. Their aunts had loved them beyond measure ever since.
Sally narrowed her eyes, wondering if Jet was trying to pull a fast one. She had always been wary, certain that Jet wasn’t exactly what she seemed to be. Once, in the year when she’d turned thirteen, Sally had gone so far as to follow Jet into Manhattan, breaking into a run to catch up with her outside Penn Station. Jet had surprised her by being furious.
“I want one day a month to myself,” Jet had said as they stood on Eighth Avenue, nearly deafened by the roar of the traffic. “If I want to go to a museum or take a walk in Central Park, it’s no one’s business but my own.”
Sally had been embarrassed and had quickly apologized. They’d gone to a coffee shop where Sally had been treated to an ice-cream soda, then she had taken the train home, leaving Jet to do as she pleased. But Sally had the sight, and she knew there was more to the story, then and now. She so rarely used her bloodline talents, that the sight came to her in little sparks, almost as if she’d had a slight electric shock. She blinked and took a step closer to her aunt. There was the scent of smoke and the ceiling above them was shadowed with a black smudge. Could it be that the room needed to be repainted? Hadn’t they had the Merrill brothers do so only two years earlier?
“There’s something you’re not telling me,” Sally mused.
“Gillian and the girls are joining us for the evening,” Jet explained. “Isn’t that a lovely surprise?”
“Why didn’t you mention it this morning? I have nothing to serve for dinner other than canned soup!” Antonia was such a picky eater now that she was pregnant and Kylie was a vegetarian, and lately Sally and the aunts had mostly eaten pasta and tomato soup, quick easy meals that took no care or thought.
“We’re meeting Franny and having dinner at the inn.”
“Franny loathes the inn,” Sally said, even more suspicious.
“We want it to be a special night,” Jet explained. “We’ll all be together.”
“Well, then, the inn it is,” Sally agreed.
While Sally saw to her end of the day’s duties, Jet sat down and observed the room. She took in everything she usually would have ignored: the skittering sound of mice beneath the floorboards, the clock ticking off seconds, the wind hitting against the cloudy windows. There were fingerprints on the glass cases of the rare books, and the ceiling fan spun in a cockeyed circle. She noticed that the hems of the curtains that were original to the library were decorated with an intricate pattern of moons in every phase. Funny how she’d never seen that before; she’d never looked deeply enough. Jet gazed around the room, wondering what else she had never noticed, and there it was. The bricks directly beneath Maria’s framed journal page were not fitted properly. The mortar was a dark crimson. Jet crossed the room so she might place a hand on the wall. You can live a whole lifetime without knowing what was right in front of you. Seeing has little to do with opening your eyes; it’s what you feel inside that counts, it’s what you know without anyone telling you.
Behind the bricks there was a steady rhythm, the pulse of a book that had been hidden for more than three hundred years. Jet loosened one of the bricks by scraping a pen against mortar. She wriggled the brick back and forth until it gave way and could be pried loose. The space behind the wall was dank and icy cold. It appeared to be empty until Jet reached her hand inside. A shiver ran through her as she brought forth a small black book. The Book of the Raven.
Maria Owens might have rid the world of this slim volume, for it had nearly ruined her daughter Faith’s life, but to destroy a book seemed an unnatural act, especially one written by a woman of great talent and skill. Instead of burning it, Maria had come here to the library, then set to work hiding The Book of the Raven, a dark spell book that had brought her daughter to the left-handed side of magic long ago. She’d deposited this Grimoire behind the loose bricks, mixing in three drops of her blood to seal the mortar, well aware that some things should stay hidden until they were meant to be found, for the knowledge this book held was so dark it was intended for a reader who possessed the ability to handle its power. Maria had just had a child with the man she loved and was in no position to use The Book of the Raven. In time, however, an Owens woman would discover the book, and use it as it should be used, with love and courage.
This was that time. The seventh day. Jet’s last day on earth.
When she reached for the book, the binding scalded her fingertips. She could feel the darkness within the text. She knew left-handed magic when she saw it, black magic so perilous that every page was inflamed. She thought of the time her brother, Vincent, had discovered The Magus, a compilation of the history of magic first published in 1801. The Magus had shaken the bureau drawer whenever it was locked away, as if it had a life and a mind of its own. At the turn of the century it had been deemed so fearsome that copies had been burned on bonfires in Washington Square.
The Book of the Raven had been written by the first woman to publish a book in England, Amelia Bassano. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, her volume of poems, had been written from a woman’s point of view, defending Eve, thought to have caused sin in the mortal world. Bassano had gone largely unrecognized due to her gender, but that hadn’t stopped her from writing. Jet had now rediscovered this second book no one but its users knew about, Amelia Bassano’s private Grimoire, an ode to the Dark Art sometimes referred to as a Book of Shadows. It was a volume made up of equal parts love and revenge, meant to help a woman in need, a woman who’d been cursed, who was in love, who was desperate, who was at the end of her life and the end of her rope. On the very first page Un desiderio was written in pale blue ink. One wish. That was what the book promised to grant its reader.
Amelia Bassano was the daughter of a Jew from Venice, from a family of musicians who had lived on the outskirts of power, attached to the court of England, where she learned more than most educated men about politics and falconry and music and myth. At the age of thirteen she’d been a mistress to Lord Hunsdon, the Queen’s patron of the theater, said to be Anne Boleyn’s son, and she was said to have had an affair with Christopher Marlowe, who had taught her the art of writing for the theater. Language was everything. Trust was for fools. Love came and went. Words could be stolen. There were those who said she was the Dark Lady William Shakespeare wrote about and that it was she who taught him to write plays. There had always been rumors that he had loved her, but in this book she claimed even more. She had not only taught him how to write, she had written the plays.
The last chapter of The Book of the Raven was titled “How to End a Curse.”
I didn’t know that what you sent into the world came back to you threefold, and that I would be the one to suffer. To begin a curse is done with ease, to break it takes a great sacrifice.
Everything worthwhile is dangerous.
Jet could hear Sally returning books to the shelves in the travel section; fortunately she was too far away for her to observe Jet slip the slim volume into her coat pocket, then hastily replace the brick in the wall, her hands now stained with blood and mortar. Sally might have seen the abnormality in the wall had she been able to see the color red, but as it was, she was still disconnected from her emotions, and had walked past it daily without a glance. She’d never once noticed what was right in front of her.
Gillian and her nieces drove up from Cambridge, leaving before rush-hour traffic set in. The sky was bright and blue and the magnolias were so spectacular that people from all over the commonwealth came to gawk as soon as the buds began to bloom in creamy cups.
“Home sweet home,” Gillian said when she and Antonia and Kylie unfolded themselves from her black and white Mini, which, considering how huge Antonia was in the seventh month of her pregnancy, could not have fit anything more than the three women and a tray of heirloom tomato seedlings called Blue Zebra that Gillian had brought for her aunt Jet.
Jet had always been especially fond of Gillian, despite the fact that Gilly had been a wild girl who had looked for trouble in her youth, and had made certain to find it. Sally had pulled her back from the brink, and Gillian would always be grateful to her sister.
But that was long ago, and Gillian had learned her lesson. She blushed when recalling her mistakes and all those dreadful men she’d taken up with; she had long ago come to understand she was entitled to kindness and comfort. Gillian had thought she was through with love, until she’d met Ben Frye. He’d been her niece’s science teacher, the opposite of the men she’d gone for in the past, steady and earnest and kindhearted. She still laughed to think he’d been attracted to her because of her ability to work complex figures in her head. Halfway through her life, she’d been lucky in love. She’d avoided the curse by following the rules. Don’t live together, don’t declare your love, no wedding rings, no displays of affection in public. Ben had been puzzled and somewhat hurt by these strange traditions.
“Your aunt Franny didn’t hide the fact that she was married,” he reminded her.
Yes, but that was after her beloved Haylin had been diagnosed with stage four cancer, and once there was no cure the curse couldn’t touch them.
“And Sally!” Ben had said. “She was married twice.”
And look at her, twice a widow and brokenhearted. And look at me, without a daughter, what I want most in the world.
To do their best to trick the curse, Gillian and Ben had wed simply and quietly at the courthouse and Gillian refused to have their marriage officially recorded. Whether or not they were legally married was up for debate; certainly Gillian refused to wear a ring. They lived in a two-family house in Central Square, where Gillian resided on the ground floor, while Ben took the upstairs apartment. Whenever he asked why they must live separately—neither earned much of a salary—Ben was a science teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and MIT didn’t pay lab technicians a fortune and clearly it would have made more sense to live in one apartment and rent out the other—Gillian asserted that too much togetherness was certain to ruin a relationship, especially in the Owens family. In truth, they spent most nights together, and when they didn’t Ben would often spy Gillian out in their small garden, sleepless and shivering, scanning the heavens, as if she might find an answer there in the night sky above them as to how the curse had found her despite her deception.
When she saw Antonia blooming in the last trimester of her pregnancy, her red hair pinned up, her freckled skin rosy and flushed, Gillian felt her heart jolt. Her one wish was to have a daughter, but now that she was forty-three she’d begun to wonder if her inability to have a child was the work of the curse. She had been to infertility specialists at Mass General and when that didn’t work, she’d begged the aunts for a cure. Franny and Jet had done their best, attempting any number of traditional botanical remedies. Myrrh, juniper berries, licorice, skullcap, pennyroyal, hemlock, chamomile flowers, unicorn root taken in small doses, butterfly weed, a tea of stinging nettle to strengthen the uterus, motherwort to bolster Gillian’s immune system. She had tried red clover and evening primrose oil, and the oddly named chasteberry, along with black cohosh. She ate pomegranates and olive oil, honey and cinnamon, and had even tried the ancient ritual of bringing a toad to sleep in her bed, all to no avail. Now, to explain her brimming eyes as they stood in front of the old house, Gillian told her nieces she was affected by the spring pollen in the air. Antonia and Kylie exchanged a look, for both had read that the pollen count on this day was zero.
Franny was out on the porch waiting, which wasn’t at all like her. Usually, she was the last to be ready for anything. “Come in. Come in,” she called.
Antonia held on to Kylie’s arm so she wouldn’t trip on the bluestone path that led through the falling shadows. “Why do they keep turning off the porch light?” Antonia muttered.
“That’s your mother’s decision,” Gillian informed them. “No neighbors need come to call.”
“Call for what?” Kylie asked. The family had kept secrets from Kylie and Antonia, at Sally’s insistence. To them, magic was little more than a story in a book of fairy tales.
A small dog came out, yapping at them.
“What’s going on here?” Antonia wanted to know. “Who is this creature?”
It was explained that Jet was watching over Reverend Willard’s dog, and that she had gone to fetch Sally and would meet them at the inn. The tomato seedlings were left in the garden, and they all traipsed into the kitchen, where half a Chocolate Tipsy Cake sat on a platter on the marble counter.
“Why wait for dinner?” Gillian grinned, getting some cake plates from the cabinet. “We can have chocolate cake as an appetizer.”
“I can’t eat that,” Antonia scolded. “All that rum? It’s much too alcoholic.”
“Sorry.” Gillian felt like a fool. Of course, a pregnant woman couldn’t have rum, not the amount that was in this recipe. In many ways Antonia reminded her of Sally, so sure of herself, so logical and matter-of-fact, always wanting clear-cut evidence before she made a decision. “Of course you can’t,” Gillian apologized.
“I can,” Kylie said, looping one arm around Gillian’s waist. “I’ll have her slice, too.”
Dear Kylie, who had grown so tall so fast, reaching her full height by the time she was ten, coming to her aunt Gillian to ask in a small voice if she might be a giant. In fact, she was a true beauty, with long hair that glinted copper in certain slants of light, and gray-green eyes, but she had a nervous disposition and couldn’t sit still. She had been a runner in high school and it often seemed as if she might take off at a fast clip at any given moment. Men stopped on the street when they saw her, mouths open, but she never even noticed.
Kylie ate her cake with her fingers, as she had when she was five years old, in heaven from the very first bite. She still considered Chocolate Tipsy Cake to be the best dessert in the world. She wished that Gideon were here with her. He would have probably finished the rest of the cake with ease.
“What are you thinking about?” Franny asked her great-niece. “Your face is all lit up.”
“Nothing,” Kylie was quick to say. She was discreet about all things, taught to be so by living in a town where people tended to judge the Owenses and gossip was rampant. Her love life was her own business, not that she was making that sort of admission to anyone, not even to members of her own family. “No one,” she insisted even though Franny was giving her that stern look she always had when she didn’t believe a word you said.
They had the best table in the dining room, thanks to Jet having helped the host with his love life several years ago. When the fiddler started up they could barely hear him, which was all for the best. “Yoo-hoo,” Jet called when the family arrived. “We’ve already ordered the macaroni and cheese as a starter.”
There was a great deal of hugging, but Franny was out of sorts. “Seriously? The macaroni and cheese?”
“We never eat that,” Sally said, agreeing with her aunt. “It’s totally unhealthy.”
“Well, just tonight, as a lark,” Jet said. “Just this once.”
Jet was so apologetic and sweet, Franny felt guilty complaining about the food, which was known far and wide to be terrible, and she buried her head in the oversized menu, lest anyone see that her eyes were brimming with tears. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been to the inn, and most of the customers were nervous in her presence, convinced she could perceive their wrongdoings and transgressions and that they would be made to atone for thoughtless deeds by the use of witchery. One fool went so far as to send Franny a bottle of wine, hoping to win her favor, but she sent it right back, with a note scribbled on a napkin. Be faithful to your wife and you have nothing to fear.
Jet, on the other hand, was delighted to see her neighbors, many of whom had found their way to the Owenses’ front door over the years in search of tonics and remedies, receiving their fair share of green magic, horseradish and cayenne for coughs, Fever Tea for flu, black mustard seed for those plagued by nightmares. Several members of the waitstaff had waved, delighted to see her, for many had been clients as well.
“I wish someone had told me you were coming for dinner,” Sally murmured to Gillian.
“I thought you knew. Anyway, we’re here now and we’re staying the night.”
“I’m never included,” Sally said, stealing a glance at her daughters.
“You could be if you wanted to be,” Gillian said. “You’re always working.”
“Of course, I want to be.” It was true, Sally had been more and more distant, and she regretted it. She was grouchy and had become something of a loner, and that was not who she wanted to be. “Let’s kick the girls out of the attic and sleep up there.” Long ago, Sally and Gillian had shared the attic; they’d sat out on the roof on summer nights counting stars.
“Don’t you look wonderful,” Jet said to Antonia, who frankly was relieved that there was something to eat set out on the table. She didn’t understand how it was possible for her to be so hungry, but she was and she spooned up the macaroni and cheese.
“I’m uber-healthy,” Antonia told her aunt. “No sugar, no coffee, no alcohol.”
“You don’t wish there was someone to help you when the baby comes?” Jet wanted to know.
“Women have been having babies on their own since the beginning of time, Jetty. And besides, I have Scott and Joel. We’re in this together, and they’re constantly on my case. I don’t eat enough, apparently.” Antonia took note of the worry on Jet’s face. “I don’t need someone special, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m too busy to fall in love. Besides, I’m not even sure I believe in it.”
“You will,” Jet assured her. “It will make a mess of things and your life will never be the same, but it will happen. No one is immune.”
It was lovely to all be together, but as time wore on, Jet realized that the beetle had followed her and was now directly beneath her chair. She could hear it chirping, more softly now, as if it barely had any energy. The time had nearly come.
Jet would never know the end of Kylie’s story, her darling great-niece who had been such a charming, awkward child, who loved to work in the garden and get dirty, who borrowed Jet’s novels and sprawled out on the window seat below Maria Owens’s portrait to read Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre. She would never get to meet Antonia’s child, or spend summer afternoons with her beloved Gillian, canning tomatoes or making soap as they did every year in the old cauldron they set up at the rear of the garden. She wouldn’t get to see Sally fall in love, the sort of love that would take up her whole heart, so that she didn’t hold anything back the way she had even with that wonderful Gary, the kind of love Jet had found with Rafael, despite the fact that they were forced to hide from the curse. Life was like a book, Jet thought, but one you would never finish. You would never know how people would wind up; the good often suffered and the wicked prospered and there was no explanation for the way in which fate was meted out as there was in novels. Fiction made sense of the world, perhaps that was why Jet had been a fanatical reader as a girl. When Levi Willard died, so tragically and before his time, novels had saved her. Sometimes, when the world looked especially gloomy, Jet returned to the ones that had helped her through her darkest hours. Wuthering Heights, The Scarlet Letter, and Fahrenheit 451, her favorite, a love letter to books.
“I’m tired.” Jet explained as she called for the check. “We’ve had a long day.”
Franny paled when she heard this. It was the evening of the seventh day, the time she had dreaded ever since the bees appeared. They left through the bar and perhaps Jet couldn’t quite bear for their night to end. She stopped to order a whiskey. For what was to come, she needed strength.
“Good idea,” Gillian said, calling over the bartender, a fellow named Jed who swore they had dated in high school, though Gillian, for the life of her, couldn’t remember him.
“Seriously?” Sally said to Jet, disbelieving. “You don’t drink.”
“Now and then.” Jet shrugged. “It helps me sleep.” As a matter of fact, the whiskey was delightful, tasting of smoke and wood.
“Why not?” Franny, who had never once ordered anything at the bar of the Black Rabbit, relented and joined her sister in a toast. It was their last night after all. They might as well do as they pleased. “To us,” Franny said.
Jet nodded. “Always and forever.”
Antonia and Kylie stood at the bar, Antonia because her belly wouldn’t fit in the space allotted when perched on a barstool, and Kylie to keep her company.
“Something for you, ladies?” Jed the bartender asked, though he was still gazing at Gillian.
“I’m pregnant and she’s underage,” Antonia answered. “So, no.”
“Thanks,” Kylie said to her sister. “I was just about to get my first Black Rabbit martini.”
Gillian overheard and came over to order one, letting Kylie have a sip. “Happy now?” Gillian asked. The martinis at the Black Rabbit were especially dreadful.
Kylie made a face and pushed the glass away. “Why do people drink these?”
“To get drunk,” Gillian said. “There’s no other reason.”
“Do you get the feeling something isn’t right?” Antonia asked their aunt.
Gillian looked past Sally, who was paying for the drinks, to the end of the bar where the aunts were on their second round of whiskeys.
“It all ends,” she said for some reason. There was no point in getting moody, so she shook her head, snapped her fingers, and grinned. “Even a night at the Black Rabbit.”
By the time they turned onto Magnolia Street, the aunts were tipsy. The magnolias had bloomed early this year, the white and mauve cups of petals high above them in the dark on twisted black branches.
How lucky, Jet thought. How I wish I had all the time in the world.
Franny and Jet walked slowly, their arms linked, taking so long to reach their corner, Sally had a feeling of dread when she turned to look over her shoulder. Her beloved aunts were old. She’d thought they were old when she was a little girl, for back then anyone over forty had seemed ancient. Now she was nearly to the middle of her forties, likely the age the aunts had been when she and Gillian arrived, and Jet and Franny were in their eighties. Franny carried an umbrella these days for she’d be damned if she used a cane and her knee had been bothering her, despite applications of lavender oil. As for Jet, she seemed both exhausted and jittery, a worrisome combination.
“I’ll just have a little rest,” Jet said once they reached home.
“What is wrong with her?” Gillian asked Sally after Jet had retired to her room, the Reverend’s dog at her heels. It was barely seven.
“I don’t know,” Sally said. “I’m worried.” If she had allowed herself to call up the sight, she might have known exactly what was happening, but it had been many years since she’d accessed any magic, and like all things that aren’t used, her talent had begun to waste away.
Franny reached to stroke Sally’s hair, which was not at all like her. She was not the touchy-feely sort. Not one bit. “She just needs some peace and quiet.”
Jet was already behind her locked bedroom door, sitting at her desk, another woman’s spell book open before her, a rare occurrence, for such books were meant to be burned upon the death of the writer, unless there was a family member to inherit the text. Jet understood that the Owens family beginnings were in England, in a rural area they referred to as the first Essex County since they lived in the second, which had been named by the Pilgrims for the home across the sea they had left.
The Book of the Raven had escaped destruction since the time it had been hand-printed in London, in 1615. On the first page, in sloping script, was the name Faith Owens, for Faith had found the volume in a New York City market. It begins at the beginning, had been written on the very first page. Below that line there was a quote from William Shakespeare, who had written of his admiration and desire for Amelia Bassano.
Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.
How to exact revenge, how to break another’s heart, how to cause a rival to fall ill, how to escape from a cruel man, how to set fires without touching a candle, how to make figures of wax and cloth and blackthorn and scarlet thread that would cause grave results to an intended enemy, how to bring on a curse, and more important, how to end it. Near the end of the book, there was a warning. To end a curse, be prepared to give up everything. There was always a price to pay, one higher than anyone might have imagined. All the same, there would always be women in such dire situations they were willing to yield to the left side, those who had no choice, who had been trapped, chained, reviled, cast aside, cursed.
There were blisters on Jet’s fingers that had risen from touching the last page. A line of invisible writing revealed itself.
When you are ready and have nothing to lose. When you are unafraid. When you wish to save someone else more than you wish to save yourself.
It was only when Jet read the last line of the curse-breaker that she realized just how dangerous the book was. The price of using it was far too dear for most practitioners. In good faith, she could not leave this book in her room for Franny to find. She wished she could be the one to break the curse, but because it was her seventh day, only someone else could complete what she had begun. She did what she must with great haste, knowing that time would not wait. She took a pot of paste she used whenever she attached samples of herbs or plants to the Grimoire. It was strong stuff, made of bird bones and black stones and, once it had set, was impossible to remove unless you knew the secret to doing so. She glued the last two pages together, so that the dangerous remedy would be hidden, and set a privacy spell upon the last section of the book so that no one would accidentally stumble upon it. At last, she scrawled a note that she folded in between the pages of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, always kept on her night table. If Franny ever did use the curse-breaker, she would have to search for it, and perhaps it would be better if The Book of the Raven was never found again.
Jet left the dog behind and went downstairs, and while Sally was asking Franny what might have caused Jet to retire so early, with Gillian assuring her that it was likely the effects of the whiskey, and Franny keeping her knowledge of the future to herself, Jet lifted her coat from the peg in the hallway. She could hear the deathwatch beetle clacking at her feet as she swept up Sally’s set of keys to the library before stepping outside. Jet felt she had never been as wide awake nor as focused on her surroundings. The rustling of the gauzy leaves on the trees. The birds in the thickets, waking as she passed by. She hurried as fast as she could. The beautiful world was already slipping away.
Jet was gone less than an hour, the beetle following along on the dark, windy street, a shadow it was impossible to dodge. Franny was waiting at the gate when her sister returned. Daisy was beside her waiting as well, barking, comforted only when Jet lifted her up. Both Sally and Gillian had gone up to bed, sharing the attic room where they’d grown up, with Kylie and Antonia each taking spare bedrooms on the second floor that were usually considered too fancy for family, not that they ever had any other guests.
Franny had been out on the porch the entire time, pacing. “You weren’t in your bed,” she said accusingly. She didn’t usually fuss, but her deep worry showed now.
“One last look around town. Remember the day we first came here with Vincent? When everyone on the street stared at us?”
“We were worth staring at,” Franny said. “We were marvelous.”
They went into the garden. There were the old wicker chairs, near the herb garden. There was the beehive, empty now. Long ago their aunt Isabelle had raised brown and white chickens and they’d loved to collect the blue speckled eggs, warm in their hands. They’d had a dozen cats, every single one black, but all had grown old and died. The greenhouse was padlocked shut and the cloudy glass shone. Everything was white as parchment in the light of the moon. They held hands and scanned the sky as pale moths flitted up from the damp grass. Once upon a time there were two sisters, as different from each other as night and day. In their family a sister was everything, your heart and soul, and here they were together on the last evening of Jet’s life, grateful to be so. Oh, seven days. Oh, beautiful world. Oh, how lucky they were.