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 80s, 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 23, 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 pre-occupied 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.
Excerpted from The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman. Copyright © 2021 by Alice Hoffman. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.