The Rules of Magic (Practical Magic #2)(9)

“We’ll never be turned into rabbits, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Franny said. “We’re not so foolish.”

“I’d rather be a fox,” Vincent announced. He was teaching himself a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott song on the guitar. “Stealthy, sly, under the radar.”

“I’d prefer to be a cat,” Jet said. Their aunt had six black cats. One, a kitten named Wren, had grown particularly attached to Jet and often followed her as she pulled weeds. Jet had a nagging suspicion that Isabelle had told the story of their wayward cousin directly to her, as a warning for all those times she’d wanted to be an ordinary girl.

A large, fearless rabbit was glaring at them. It had black whiskers and gray eyes. Jet felt her skin grow cold. “Maggie?” she said in a soft voice. There was no answer. “Shall we give her milk?” she asked Franny.

“Milk?” Franny was contemptuous. “She’s only a rabbit, nothing more.” Franny tossed some tufts of grass in the rabbit’s direction. “Shoo!” she commanded.

To their dismay the rabbit stayed exactly where it was, solemnly chewing dandelion greens.

“It’s her,” Jet whispered, nudging her sister.

“Maggie?” Franny called. She didn’t believe their aunt’s story for a minute, yet there was definitely something odd about this creature. “Get out!” she told the thing.

Jet thought it might be better to ask than to command. “O rabbit, please leave us be,” she said respectfully and sweetly. “We’re sorry you’re no longer a woman, but that was your doing, not ours.”

The rabbit obeyed, hopping into the woody area where the beehive stood. While Jet piled up ragweed and brambles she decided she would faithfully set out a saucer of milk every morning. Franny watched the retreat of the rabbit and wondered if beneath her sister’s gentle nature there wasn’t more than she and Vincent had imagined. Perhaps they didn’t know her as well as they believed.

By now Franny had her own suspicions about their heritage. She had taken to going off by herself on rainy afternoons. While the others were lazing about she’d spent time at the public library, paging through old, inky issues of the Salem Mercury and the Essex Gazette. She’d discovered a legacy of witchcraft associated with the Owens family. In the town ledger, kept in the rather shabby rare book room, there was a list of crimes members of their family had been charged with in an era when any woman accused of unnatural acts might be drowned in Leech Lake. Witches, however, couldn’t be drowned unless they were properly weighed down with stones in their pockets or their boots or stuffed into their mouths, which were then sewn shut with black thread. The Owenses’ wrongdoings included bewitchment, enchantment, theft of a cow, using herbs to relieve illness, children born out of wedlock, and enemies who had suffered bad fortune. The first accuser had been John Hathorne, the judge at the trials that had been responsible for the deaths of so many innocent people.

Franny had come upon a notation that suggested Maria Owens’s journal was stored in the rare book room. The journal was stowed in a drawer that the librarian had to unlock with an iron key. The lock stuck, coming free only after much prodding. Inside the drawer was the thin book with a stained blue-gray cover, meticulously secured in plastic wrapping.

“Be careful with that,” the librarian warned. She was clearly afraid of the slim volume, which she herself refused to touch. She offered a pair of white gloves to Franny to slip on to ensure that she wouldn’t damage the delicate paper. There was so much dust in the room Franny had a wicked sneezing fit.

“You have exactly twenty minutes,” the librarian said. “Otherwise trouble could ensue.”

“Trouble?” Franny was curious.

“You know what I mean. This is a book of spells Maria Owens wrote while in prison. It should have been set on fire, but the board of the library refused to do so. They thought destroying it would bring bad luck to us, so we’ve kept it all this time, like it or not.”

Beware of love, Maria Owens had written on the first page of her journal. Know that for our family, love is a curse.

Franny worried over the mention of a curse. For all the time they’d been away she had been writing letters to Haylin. On Friday afternoons she brought them to the post office and picked up the ones he sent her via general delivery. In New York, Haylin was studying the ecosystem of the Loch, the meandering stream in a wooded area of Central Park called the Ravine. Fireflies that gathered there blinked on and off in sync. It was as if they had a single heartbeat, sending out the same message through the dark. Such incidents had been reported in the Great Smoky Mountains and in Allegheny National Forest, but Haylin seemed the first to have discovered the phenomenon in Manhattan.

That summer, Franny went to the rare book room every day to read the journal. The librarians grew to know her, becoming accustomed to the tall red-haired girl who came to examine spidery script so tiny she had to use a magnifying glass to make out the words of the remedies and cures. Franny brightened up the place with her quest for information and history, and a few of the librarians allowed her a full hour with the text, though it was strictly against the rules. They believed all books should be read, for as long as the reader liked.

When Franny came to the last page of Maria’s journal, she understood that a single broken heart had affected them all. Maria had been cast out by the father of her child, a man she never named. Suffice it to say he should have been my enemy, instead I fell in love with him and I made the mistake of declaring my love. She wanted to protect her daughter, and her granddaughter, and all of the Owens daughters to follow, ensuring that none among them would experience the sorrow she’d known or ruin the lives of those they might love. The curse was simple: Ruination for any man who fell in love with them.

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