The very first thing Frances and Jet Owen teach their nieces about magic is this: anything is possible. More importantly, they can do anything they want with their magic, but they should be ready to deal with the consequences.
It's a heady concept, but at the young ages of nine and eight, Sally and Gillian are far too thrilled by this new and exciting world of possibilities to give the matter much thought.
Sally is more gifted; Gilly has more imagination. They play make-believe shaping clouds and bending wild animals to their will, queens and fairy godmothers of their own private woodland realm. They play dress-up with glamour spells; their dolls' tea parties feature perilous and tantalizing potions of their own making, a mish-mash of the Aunts' teachings and old fairytales.
The Owens girls quickly grow out of the fairy tales Mother used to read to them. Fairy tales are full of morality and rules; the Aunts scoff at the former and reject the latter. They say that frightened men with no power invented those rules; that there's no point in having magic and not using it. It's perfectly all right—encouraged, even—to use magic in everyday situations. They find it adorable, for instance, when Gillian casts a minor telepathy spell to help her pick Sally's brain during school tests. They’re overjoyed to see the girls milling herbs from the garden to hex a troublesome classmate. Magic, as they often say, enjoys being used.
“In the stories, there’s always light and dark,” Aunt Jet says one night as they’re sitting in the garden, watching the starlight making shadows dance on the walls. “But whoever decided dark was evil did it out of fear. They never felt the beauty of a moonless sky, or heard the soft creaks of a well-known house surviving a cold winter night. There’s beauty in darkness, and love.”
The Aunts also teach the two that fairy tales are wicked distortions, written by cruel men to spread the fear of witches and the belief that little girls can only be helpless princesses locked in tall towers. Sally and Gillian think of everyone else in their town—even the people who aren’t lining up by their backyard to yell witch, witch, you're a bitch can never look them in the eye—and decide they're proud of being feared, like the Aunts.
It's better than the alternative, after all: helpless, like Mama, lost and afraid, lying in bed waiting for Daddy, who was never ever coming back. The girls don't like to remember those final weeks—all their failed attempts of Come, Mommy, look what a pretty butterfly I found, and See, wouldn't Daddy have liked you to eat this, it's just how he made it and Mommy, Gillian hurt herself, there's blood everywhere, please please help, and nothing but sobs coming from her bed. The racking coughs came later, and eventually there was only silence. Mommy had been gone from the moment Daddy died; it just took her a bit longer to disappear. The prospect of being alone was too much for her to bear. Sally and Gillian understand that fear; it’s what makes them cling to each other, promising never to let go.
(They don't ask, Why weren't we enough for her?, because of course they weren’t. Mommy loved Daddy more than anything.)
Fairy tales are for innocent children who don't know better. Sally and Gillian are witches, and they invent their own stories: They're queens of their little world, a land where magic flows freely, where all houses are old and full of secrets, and where everyone is family. There are no gossiping old people wagging fingers, whispering mean things; no violent little boys with rocks and sticks; no deathwatch beetles or centuries-old curses.
Aunt Jet insists there is no curse on men beloved by Owens women, but Aunt Frances, who lost her Ethan to Maria's curse, knows the truth. Sally can't help thinking love itself seems to be the curse: a force irresistible enough to steal Mommy away from her sisters and daughters cannot be good. No Owens woman in her right mind would allow herself to fall in love.
Gilly, of course, can't wait to know what it feels like. Sally is terrified of losing her sister to a stranger, and even more terrified of seeing Gillian broken, like Mommy.
“Promise me you’ll never fall completely,” she begs many times, to no avail. Gilly’s lips quirk in a smug grin, daring any silly old curse to stand in her way.
“You’ll always come first, Sal,” she says, and it’s empty, because of course Gilly will give her whole heart. She does nothing by halves. She’ll get drunk on love, like she does on praise and staying up late and summertime, and it will destroy her—and them.
(Sally’s tempted to bind her sister’s heart with a spell to protect her—but she knows Gillian would find out someday and not only reverse it, but also exact revenge with a spell to make Sally fall madly in love with someone horrible, like Tommy the butcher’s son.)
The Aunts say being in love means losing oneself unreservedly, and that it's the best feeling in the world. Aunt Frances speaks of Ethan with a special tenderness in her voice. Her tone is never regretful as she talks about his quirks and the house they'd shared, about his voice and the plans they’d been foolish to make.
“Why did you even bother planning?” Sally doesn’t ask, because Aunt Frances has a soft smile on her face. Gillian does, too, lost in a daydream Sally could never share.
“Love is well and good,” says Aunt Frances after a minute. “But it always ends, one way or the other. And then it hurts plenty—but it’s a good pain, the sort that makes you grow. The dull ache of regret, on the other hand, is suffocating and corrosive. It takes courage to let yourself get swept away knowing you’ll probably get burnt, but it’s always worth it.”
(Sometimes when Aunt Frances is sad, she drinks whisky and sings things like, And still, somehow, it’s love’s illusions I recall; I really don’t know love at all. Sally thinks maybe this is the truth of it, because love can’t possibly be worth it.)
“There’s more to love than that, though.” Aunt Jet comes from the kitchen with a plate of carrot cake—Gillian’s favourite—and hands it to the girls. “There’s this: us. The love we feel for each other is the only one that won’t end. We’re wound together as tight as Maria’s rope, all four of us, and every generation before us. No matter what, we’re always there for one another; Owens sisters always come in pairs or trios—”
“Well, Bridget, there was that one minor biological mix-up with Great-Aunt Charlie,” Aunt Frances points out with a grin.
Aunt Jet gives her a stern look. “Great-Aunt Charlie was every bit as much an Owens woman as the rest of us, and she looked far better in a dress than you, no matter what she had between her legs.” She rolls her eyes. “As I was saying, loyal sisterhood is as instinctive as magic to every member of this family.”
Gilly bites her lip and says, “Mommy left this place to marry Daddy. Left you.”
“And you came back in her stead,” Aunt Frances says. “And you’ll probably raise daughters of your own here. Maria’s Island calls to us.”
“Why can’t we just leave?” Gillian asks, not for the first time. “Everyone hates us here. It’s so horrible.”
“We didn’t make the rules, darling, you know that,” Aunt Jet replies with a sigh.
Gilly looks mutinous for a moment, then deflates. “I hate it here,” she breathes out.
Sally does, too. They’re trapped in an invisible cage; it's suffocating, and at times the only thing keeping the girls on Maria’s Island is the knowledge that the Aunts would bring them back if they ran.
(Days later, after one particularly unpleasant confrontation with the village children, Sally flees to the house in tears. She’s desperate to run, to fetch Gillian and find a spell that will carry them to the other side of the world.
Instead, she drafts an incantation in her school notebook, and takes: a handful of yard dirt; rosemary, for fidelity; lavender, for endurance; poppy, for slumber; hyacinth, for contentment; and grass, for hardiness. After casting the spell, she lies on the yard and enjoys the newfound peace washing over her. The only thing she wants now is a lifetime on Maria’s Island.)
“You’ll learn to love it in time,” says Aunt Jet, smiling kindly. “This has been our home for many generations. Even the villagers that turn their faces from us know to trust our family when they need magic.”
Sally scowled. “Why do you even help them?”
Aunt Jet gestures at the cake. “We need milk, don’t we? And groceries, and meat, and a great many things we depend on local businesses to get. Sure, we could summon a rain of fire to destroy everyone who’s ever called us names, but then we’d starve to death. We’d have no water, no electricity, and these lovely woods would probably be destroyed in the fire.” She shrugs. “Adult life is all about compromise. When you grow up you’ll learn that there is no such thing as true justice.”
“There can be if we do it,” Sally says, jaw clenched as she thinks of the many bruises on Gilly’s too-white skin, of the terrible things she’ll do to the other children once she’s powerful enough. “And we will,” she adds forcefully.
Aunt Frances nods. “You can try. But it’s never going to be enough, and you’ll have to learn to deal with the consequences. We had to grow up with the same hardships you’re facing now, you know. Trust me: it’s better to learn to live with it and make do as you can.”
“I never, ever will,” Gillian swears.
She reaches for Sally’s hand and squeezes hard. They exchange a look, making a silent promise to change their world no matter what.
This prospect is the subject of many of Sally’s daydreams. She tries countless times to invent spells to make all the villagers more docile and open-minded, or to make them all want to leave the island forever, but manipulating that many minds is tricky; she doesn’t have the skill yet.
She decides, instead, to make herself calmer, the way the Aunts say grown-ups should be. Preparing the ritual is difficult, and the ingredients are hard to gather from the woods in the chilly January weather, but she succeeds.
Sally grows less prone to retort or react with violence when the villagers attack them, and no longer has nightmares about the insults and stones hurled at Gilly and her. Realising the best way to protect her sister is to run home as quickly as possible, Sally learns not to stand her ground. The other children aren’t less cruel for it; but if the girls are lucky, they manage to get away before the confrontations escalate from jibes to physical harm.
She still feels the magic crackling under her fingertips, begging to be let loose, whenever they hurt Gilly—it’s instinctive, blood rushing in her ears and thoughts of no and how dare you and mine running circles in her mind.
Tommy the butcher’s son falls to the ground before Sally realises she’s cast a spell. His nose has been transformed into an elephant’s trunk, and as he wails in despair it rises with a honking sound. The other children are torn between terror and amusement; before they remember to return their attention to the two girls, Sally wraps her arm around her sister’s back and helps her wobble home.
“That was—a neat spell,” Gilly says with a watery smile once they arrive.
Her ankle’s lying at a weird angle relative to the rest of her leg; Sally reaches automatically for the ingredients for the Bone Mending Charm, and after casting it, rubs some healing salve on the scrapes.
“We’ll get out of here someday,” Gillian whispers fervently to herself.
Sally shakes her head. “Things will get better. They have to.”
They don’t—if anything, they get much worse.
His name is Matthew, and he’s a scrawny redhead with freckles who moved into town days before Gilly’s thirteenth birthday. His mother’s divorced, and the small town mentality is scandalised enough that a spark of kinship appears between him and Gillian. The other children taunt him for kissing a witch, but he’s too busy basking in the thrill of her affection to notice.
The Aunts are delighted; Sally has never been more miserable.
“I’m so in love I think I might die,” Gillian says with a dramatic sigh. “This feeling, oh, Sal, you have no idea how it feels. It’s like I’ve been thirsty for years and finally found ice-cold water—it’s like everything’s brighter and better—like I’m spinning round and round and round and never want to stop for breath!”
Sally, who has grown used to filtering out these declarations in the past few days, makes a random noise of agreement and doesn’t look up from the annotations she's making in the margins of the family’s Book.
“I wish I could make you feel this! It changes you so completely. I feel like a different person entirely!” Sally winces despite herself, but Gillian doesn’t see it. “I’m so warm and tingling all over.”
Only Aunt Jet notices Sally’s sadness. Taking pity, she enters the girl’s bedroom one afternoon and says, “Pay attention to what she’s saying, darling. Gilly’s in love with being in love, not with that clueless little boy. She’s always looking for exciting new experiences, and this is the biggest thrill she’s ever felt. He’ll seem to be the centre of her world for a while, but it’ll pass. It always does.” She kisses Sally’s forehead, something she hasn't done in years, and adds, “And when it does, you’ll be there for her, because that’s what Owens sisters do. We don’t really need anyone but each other to have a fantastic life, but sometimes they like to...feel everything for a bit.”
For a moment, Sally doesn’t understand who Aunt Jet means when she says ‘they,’ but suddenly she realises that, for all the Aunts' talk of the joy of falling in love, Aunt Jet has never once referred to a man as the love of her life. Their house, their family and the craft have always seemed more important.
“And that’s perfectly all right,” she continues, as if reading Sally’s mind. “I’ve never needed some unreliable stranger by my side for anything more than to keep me warm for a night or two. Gillian needs to go through this now, and you have to let her go. You can’t keep her here forever, not yet; she has to see the world first, and then she’ll understand through and through what you and I have known all along.”
Sally nods stiffly. Aunt Jet drops another kiss on her forehead before leaving the room.
Over the next few days, Sally drafts a spell to help her let Gillian go. First, she reviews the incantation thousands of times: exact wording is very important. She doesn’t want to fully sever the connection with her sister, after all—she only wants it to hurt a bit less not to have her.
She sets aside the ingredients: knotweed, for binding; hellebore and dill, for protection; pistachio, for temperance; elder, for healing; and sage, for wisdom. She mills them all in an amber resin pot—for stability—and is about to light the candles to start the ritual when Gillian barges into the room.
“What are you doing?” she asks, sitting cross-legged at her customary place on the other half of the summoning circle.
“I—nothing important,” Sally stammers.
Lying to Gilly feels so wrong it nearly causes her physical pain, and for a moment she wonders if her sister has cast a spell forcing her to always tell the truth. She dismisses the notion at once; Gillian has no cause to expect Sally to be less than truthful.
The lie causes Gillian to sit upright at once, tense. “Please tell me,” she begs, eyes wide with clear apprehension.
“I just,” she starts, hesitates. “I’m having trouble letting go.”
“Of me.” It’s not a question. “And you thought it would be a good idea to use magic to break us up.”
Gillian is on the verge of tears; she tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, her hand shaking. Sally hates herself for making her sad, for tapping into her primal fear of being left alone; but it’s for the best, even Aunt Jet thinks so.
“You don’t think this is worth—he’s just some boy, Sal, I can’t—I may love him right now but it doesn’t—he’ll never be you. Don’t you know that?”
Sally stares at the floor and clenches her jaw, forcing herself to go through with this. “You need to...feel things, Aunt Jet says. I should wait for you to see the world, but I need to leave you alone for some time. And I can’t,” and here her voice breaks; she doesn't know how to apologise for needing the center of her universe, but she continues, “I can’t do this on my own, Gilly-Bean, I’m so, so sorry.” It’s the endearment Mother used; Sally doesn’t say it lightly.
Gillian presses her forehead against her sister’s.
“You will always come first,” she swears fiercely. “No matter what I say or how you think I feel, I will never not put you first. I don’t even know how. I couldn’t put anyone before you even if I wanted to—not even myself. It’s you and me against the world, it always will be, and no one can say differently—not the Aunts, not anyone in this pathetic little town, not any boy I could ever meet, not the two or three daughters one of us will end up having to have instead of travelling the globe and being magnificent together because fate sucks.”
A wave of relief overwhelms Sally so thoroughly that she feels her eyes well up.
“But you want to see the world, don’t you?” she asks, her eyes pleading for more reassurance.
“I do, sure, and I want to travel on an airplane and eat Turkish Delight and go surfing and ride an elephant and visit Salem and all sorts of wonderful things. I don’t ever want to settle down. But I’m absolutely, positively, one hundred percent sure you’ll make me do just that someday.” She pokes Sally in the side with a grin. “And I’ll never even consider settling down with anyone else, but I’ll let you do it, because it’s you. We can keep each other company until we’re old and toothless, arguing time and again about who left the porch light on before going to bed.”
Sally chuckles, wiping a stray tear. “Don’t be silly,” she chides. “We’re witches. We’ll never lose our teeth!”
Smiling, Gillian reaches for the ceremonial athame lying outside the circle and makes a long shallow cut along her right palm’s life line. Sally’s eyes widen: blood magic is both powerful and dangerous, and they have never dared to dabble in it before.
Blood is sacred, like Maria's rope and the moon and the woods and early mornings after the Aunts overindulge in margaritas. Sally mirrors Gilly’s gesture, hissing at the pain.
The candles aligned around the circle flicker on of their own accord.
“My blood,” says Gilly, offering her hand.
“My blood,” Sally echoes.
“Our blood,” they enunciate together, fingers entwined.
They watch, mesmerised, as droplets of their mingled blood fall on the flame of a candle. It's simple, primal magic of the deepest kind; they'll never be alone now, and will always feel each other's presence at the back of their minds. Their bond will be even stronger—it's been made unbreakable by the strongest type of magic witches in their family possess.
The Owens sisters could not be more different—but they are one and the same, and always will be.