For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town. If a damp spring arrived, if cows in the pasture gave milk that was runny with blood, if a colt died of colic or a baby was born with a red birthmark stamped onto his cheek, everyone believed that fate must have been twisted, at least a little, by those women over on Magnolia Street. It didn’t matter what the problem was — lightning, or locusts, or a death by drowning. It didn’t matter if the situation could be explained by logic, or science, or plain bad luck. As soon as there was a hint of trouble or the slightest misfortune, people began pointing their fingers and placing blame. Before long they’d convinced themselves that it wasn’t safe to walk past the Owens house after dark, and only the most foolish neighbors would dare to peer over the black wrought-iron fence that circled the yard like a snake.
Inside the house there were no clocks and no mirrors and three locks on each and every door. Mice lived under the floorboards and in the walls and often could be found in the dresser drawers, where they ate the embroidered tablecloths, as well as the lacy edges of the linen placemats. Fifteen different sorts of wood had been used for the window seats and the mantels, including golden oak, silver ash, and a peculiarly fragrant cherrywood that gave off the scent of ripe fruit even in the dead of winter, when every tree outside was nothing more than a leafless black stick. No matter how dusty the rest of the house might be, none of the woodwork ever needed polishing. If you squinted, you could see your reflection right there in the wainscoting in the dining room or the banister you held on to as you ran up the stairs. It was dark in every room, even at noon, and cool all through the heat of July. Anyone who dared to stand on the porch, where the ivy grew wild, could try for hours to look through the windows and never see a thing. It was the same looking out; the green-tinted window glass was so old and so thick that everything on the other side seemed like a dream, including the sky and the trees.
The little girls who lived up in the attic were sisters, only thirteen months apart in age. They were never told to go to bed before midnight or reminded to brush their teeth. No one cared if their clothes were wrinkled or if they spit on the street. All the while these little girls were growing up, they were allowed to sleep with their shoes on and draw funny faces on their bedroom walls with black crayons. They could drink cold Dr. Peppers for breakfast, if that was what they craved, or eat marshmallow pies for dinner. They could climb onto the roof and sit perched on the slate peak, leaning back as far as possible, in order to spy the first star. There they would stay on windy March nights or humid August evenings, whispering, arguing over whether it was feasible for even the smallest wish to ever come true.
The girls were being raised by their aunts, who, as much as they might have wanted to, simply couldn’t turn their nieces away. The children, after all, were orphans whose careless parents were so much in love they failed to notice smoke emanating from the walls of the bungalow where they’d gone to enjoy a second honeymoon, after leaving the girls home with a baby-sitter. No wonder the sisters always shared a bed during storms; they were both terrified of thunder and could never speak above a whisper once the sky began to rumble. When they did finally doze off, their arms wrapped around each other, they often had the exact same dreams. There were times when they could complete each other’s sentences; certainly each could close her eyes and guess what the other most desired for dessert on any given day.
But in spite of their closeness, the two sisters were entirely different in appearance and temperament. Aside from the beautiful gray eyes the Owens women were known for, no one would have had reason to guess the sisters were related. Gillian was fair and blond, while Sally’s hair was as black as the pelts of the ill-mannered cats the aunts allowed to skulk through the garden and claw at the draperies in the parlor. Gillian was lazy and liked to sleep past noon. She saved up her allowance money, then paid Sally to do her math homework and iron her party dresses. She drank bottles of YooHoo and ate goopy Hershey’s bars while sprawled out on the cool basement floor, content to watch as Sally dusted the metal shelves where the aunts kept pickles and preserves. Gillian’s favorite thing in the world to do was to lie on the velvet-cushioned window seat, up on the landing, where the drapes were made of damask and a portrait of Maria Owens, who had built the house so long ago, collected dust in a comer. That’s where she could be found on summer afternoons, so relaxed and languid that moths would land on her, mistaking her for a cushion, and proceed to make tiny holes in her T-shirts and jeans.
Sally, three hundred ninety-seven days older than her sister, was as conscientious as Gillian was idle. She never believed in anything that could not be proven with facts and figures. When Gillian pointed to a shooting star, it was Sally who reminded her that what was falling to earth was only an old rock, heated by its descent through the atmosphere. Sally was a take-charge sort of person from the start; she didn’t like confusion and mess, both of which filled the aunts’ old house on Magnolia Street from attic to cellar.
From the time she was in third grade, and Gillian in second, Sally was the one who cooked healthy dinners of meat loaf and fresh green beans and barley soup, using recipes from a copy of Joy of Cooking she’d managed to smuggle into the house. She fixed their lunchboxes each morning, packing up turkey-and-tomato sandwiches on whole-wheat bread, adding carrot sticks and iced oatmeal cookies, all of which Gillian tossed in the trash the instant after Sally had deposited her in her classroom, since she preferred the sloppy joes and brownies sold in the school cafeteria, and she often had swiped enough quarters and dimes from the aunts’ coat pockets to buy herself whatever she liked
Night and Day, the aunts called them, and although neither girl laughed at this little joke or found it amusing in the least, they recognized the truth in it, and were able to understand, earlier than most sisters, that the moon is always jealous of the heat of the day, just as the sun always longs for something dark and deep. They kept each other’s secrets well; they crossed their hearts and hoped to die if they should ever slip and tell, even if the secret was only a cat’s tail pulled or some foxglove stolen from the aunts’ garden.
The sisters might have sniped at each other because of their differences, they might have grown nasty, then grown apart, if they’d been able to have any friends, but the other children in town avoided them. No one would dare to play with the sisters, and most girls and boys crossed their fingers when Sally and Gillian drew near, as if that sort of thing was any protection. The bravest and wildest boys followed the sisters to school, at just the right distance behind, which allowed them to turn and run if need be. These boys liked to pitch winter apples or stones at the girls, but even the best athletes, the ones who were the stars of their Little League teams, could never get a hit when they took aim at the Owens girls. Every stone, each apple, always landed at the sisters’ feet.
For Sally and Gillian the days were filled with little mortifications: No child would use a pencil or a crayon directly after it had been touched by an Owens girl. No one would sit next to them in the cafeteria or during assemblies, and some girls actually shrieked when they wandered into the girls’ room, to pee or gossip or brush their hair, and found they’d stumbled upon one of the sisters. Sally and Gillian were never chosen for teams during sports, even though Gillian was the fastest runner in town and could hit a baseball over the roof of the school, onto Endicott Street. They were never invited to parties or Girl Scout meetings, or asked to join in and play hopscotch or climb a tree.
“Fuck them all,” Gillian would say, her beautiful little nose in the air as the boys made spooky goblin noises when the sisters passed them in the hallways at school, on the way to music or art. “Let them eat dirt. You wait and see. One day they’ll beg us to invite them home, and we’ll laugh in their faces.”
Sometimes, when she was feeling particularly nasty, Gillian would suddenly turn and shout “Boo,” and some boy always pissed in his pants and was far more humiliated than Gillian had ever been. But Sally didn’t have the heart to fight back. She wore dark clothes and tried not to be noticed. She pretended she wasn’t smart and never raised her hand in class. She disguised her own nature so well that after a while she grew uncertain of her own abilities. By then, she was as quiet as a mouse. When she opened her mouth in the classroom she could only squeak out wrong answers; in time she made sure to sit in the back of the room, and to keep her mouth firmly shut.
Still they would not let her be. Someone put an open ant farm in her locker when Sally was in fourth grade, so that for weeks she found squashed ants between the pages of her books. In fifth grade a gang of boys left a dead mouse in her desk. One of the cruelest children had glued a nametag to the mouse’s back. Sali had been scrawled in crude letters, but Sally took not the slightest pleasure in the misspelling of her name. She had cried over the little curled-up body, with its tiny whiskers and perfect paws, but when her teacher had asked what was wrong, she’d only shrugged, as though she had lost the power of speech.
One beautiful April day, when Sally was in sixth grade, all of the aunts’ cats followed her to school. After that, even the teachers would not pass her in an empty hallway and would find an excuse to head in the other direction. As they scurried away, the teachers smiled at her oddly, and perhaps they were afraid not to. Black cats can do that to some people; they make them go all shivery and scared and remind them of dark, wicked nights. The aunts’ cats, however, were not particularly frightening. They were spoiled and liked to sleep on the couches and they were all named for birds: There was Cardinal and Crow and Raven and Goose. There was a gawky kitten named Dove, and an ill-tempered tom called Magpie, who hissed at the others and kept them at bay. It would be difficult to believe that such a mangy bunch of creatures had come up with a plan to shame Sally, but that is what seemed to have happened, although they may have followed her on that day simply because she’d fixed a tunafish sandwich for lunch, just for herself, as Gillian was pretending to have strep throat and was home in bed, where she was sure to stay for the best part of a week, reading magazines and eating candy bars with no cares when it came to getting chocolate on the sheets, since Sally was the one who took responsibility for the laundry.
On this morning, Sally didn’t even know the cats were behind her, until she sat down at her desk. Some of her classmates were laughing, but three girls had jumped up onto the radiator and were shrieking. Anyone would have thought a gang of demons had entered the room, but it was only those flea-bitten creatures that had followed Sally to school. They paraded past chairs and desks, black as night and howling like banshees. Sally shooed them away, but the cats just came closer. They paced back and forth in front of her, their tails in the air, meowing with voices so horrible the sound could have curdled milk in the cup.
“Scat,” Sally whispered when Magpie jumped into her lap and began kneading his claws into her nicest blue dress. “Go away,” she begged him.
But even when Miss Mullins came in and smacked her desk with a ruler and used her sternest voice to suggest that Sally had better rid the room of the cats—tout de suite—or risk detention, the revolting beasts refused to go. A panic had spread and the more highstrung of Sally’s classmates were already whispering witchery. A witch, after all, was often accompanied by a familiar, an animal to do her most evil bidding. The more familiars there were, the nastier the bidding, and here was an entire troop of disgusting creatures. Several children had fainted; some would be phobic about cats for the rest of their lives. The gym teacher was sent for, and he waved a broom around, but still the cats would not leave.
A boy in the rear of the room, who had stolen a pack of matches from his father just that morning, now made use of the chaos in the classroom and took the opportunity to set Magpie’s tail on fire. The scent of burning fur quickly filled the room, even before Magpie began to scream. Sally ran to the cat; without stopping to think, she knelt and smothered the flames with her favorite blue dress.
“I hope something awful happens to you,” she called to the boy who’d set Magpie afire. Sally stood up, the cat cradled in her arms like a baby, her face and dress dirty with soot. “You’ll see what it’s like then,” she said to the boy. “You’ll know how it feels.”
Just then the children in the classroom directly overhead began to stomp their feet—out of joy, since it had been revealed their spelling tests had been eaten by their teacher’s English bulldog— and an acoustic tile fell onto the horrid boy’s head. He collapsed to the floor in a heap, his face ashen in spite of his freckled complexion.
“She did it!” some of the children cried, and the ones who did not speak aloud had their mouths wide open and their eyes even wider.
Sally ran from the room with Magpie in her arms and the other cats following. The cats zigzagged under and around her feet all the way home, down Endicott and Peabody streets, through the front door and up the stairs, and all afternoon they clawed at Sally’s bedroom door, even after she’d locked herself inside.
Sally cried for two hours straight. She loved the cats, that was the thing. She sneaked them saucers of milk and carried them to the vet on Endicott Street in a knitting bag when they fought and tore at each other and their scars became infected. She adored those horrible cats, especially Magpie, and yet sitting in her classroom, embarrassed beyond belief, she would have gladly watched each one be drowned in a bucket of icy water or shot with a BB gun. Even though she went out to care for Magpie as soon as she’d collected herself, cleaning his tail and wrapping it in cotton gauze, she knew she’d betrayed him in her heart. From that day on, Sally thought less of herself. She did not ask the aunts for special favors, or even request those small rewards she deserved. Sally could not have had a more intractable and uncompromising judge; she had found herself lacking, in compassion and fortitude, and the punishment was self-denial, from that moment on.