Sarah didn't tel him about the voices, about my habit of picking up the phone a good minute before it rang, or that she had to enchant the doors and windows when there was a ful moon to keep me from wandering into the woods in my sleep. Nor did she mention that when I was angry the chairs in the house rearranged themselves into a precarious pyramid before crashing to the floor once my mood lifted.
When I turned thirteen, my aunt decided it was time for me to channel some of my power into learning the basics of witchcraft. Lighting candles with a few whispered words or hiding pimples with a time-tested potion-these were a teenage witch's habitual first steps. But I was unable to master even the simplest spel , burned every potion my aunt taught me, and stubbornly refused to submit to her tests to see if I'd inherited my mother's uncannily accurate second sight.
The voices, the fires, and other unexpected eruptions lessened as my hormones quieted, but my unwil ingness to learn the family business remained. It made my aunt anxious to have an untrained witch in the house, and it was with some relief that Sarah sent me off to a col ege in Maine. Except for the magic, it was a typical coming-of-age story.
What got me away from Madison was my intel ect. It had always been precocious, leading me to talk and read before other children my age. Aided by a prodigious, photographic memory-which made it easy for me to recal the layouts of textbooks and spit out the required information on tests-my schoolwork was soon established as a place where my family's magical legacy was irrelevant. I'd skipped my final years of high school and started col ege at sixteen.
There I'd first tried to carve out a place for myself in the theater department, my imagination drawn to the spectacle and the costumes-and my mind fascinated by how completely a playwright's words could conjure up other places and times. My first few performances were heralded by my professors as extraordinary examples of the way good acting could transform an ordinary col ege student into someone else. The first indication that these metamorphoses might not have been the result of theatrical talent came while I was playing Ophelia in Hamlet. As soon as I was cast in the role, my hair started growing at an unnatural rate, tumbling down from shoulders to waist. I sat for hours beside the col ege's lake, irresistibly drawn to its shining surface, with my new hair streaming al around me.
The boy playing Hamlet became caught up in the il usion, and we had a passionate though dangerously volatile affair.
Slowly I was dissolving into Ophelia's madness, taking the rest of the cast with me.
The result might have been a riveting performance, but each new role brought fresh chal enges. In my sophomore year, the situation became impossible when I was cast as Annabel a in John Ford's ' Tis Pity She's a Whore. Like the character, I attracted a string of devoted suitors-not al of them human-who fol owed me around campus. When they refused to leave me alone after the final curtain fel , it was clear that whatever had been unleashed couldn't be control ed. I wasn't sure how magic had crept into my acting, and I didn't want to find out. I cut my hair short. I stopped wearing flowing skirts and layered tops in favor of the black turtlenecks, khaki trousers, and loafers that the solid, ambitious prelaw students were wearing. My excess energy went into athletics.
After leaving the theater department, I attempted several more majors, looking for a field so rational that it would never yield a square inch to magic. I lacked the precision and patience for mathematics, and my efforts at biology were a disaster of failed quizzes and unfinished laboratory experiments.
At the end of my sophomore year, the registrar demanded I choose a major or face a fifth year in col ege.
A summer study program in England offered me the opportunity to get even farther from al things Bishop. I fel in love with Oxford, the quiet glow of its morning streets. My history courses covered the exploits of kings and queens, and the only voices in my head were those that whispered from books penned in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This was entirely attributable to great literature.
Best of al , no one in this university town knew me, and if there were witches in the city that summer, they stayed wel away. I returned home, declared a major in history, took al the required courses in record time, and graduated with honors before I turned twenty.
When I decided to pursue my doctorate, Oxford was my first choice among the possible programs. My specialty was the history of science, and my research focused on the period when science supplanted magic-the age when astrology and witch-hunts yielded to Newton and universal laws. The search for a rational order in nature, rather than a supernatural one, mirrored my own efforts to stay away from what was hidden. The lines I'd already drawn between what went on in my mind and what I carried in my blood grew more distinct.
My Aunt Sarah had snorted when she heard of my decision to specialize in seventeenth-century chemistry.
Her bright red hair was an outward sign of her quick temper and sharp tongue. She was a plain-speaking, no-nonsense witch who commanded a room as soon as she entered it. A pil ar of the Madison community, Sarah was often cal ed in to manage things when there was a crisis, large or smal , in town. We were on much better terms now that I wasn't subjected to a daily dose of her keen observations on human frailty and inconsistency.
Though we were separated by hundreds of miles, Sarah thought my latest attempts to avoid magic were laughable -and told me so. "We used to cal that alchemy," she said.
"There's a lot of magic in it."
"No, there's not," I protested hotly. The whole point of my work was to show how scientific this pursuit real y was.
"Alchemy tel s us about the growth of experimentation, not the search for a magical elixir that turns lead into gold and makes people immortal."
"If you say so," Sarah said doubtful y. "But it's a pretty strange subject to choose if you're trying to pass as human."
After earning my degree, I fought fiercely for a spot on the faculty at Yale, the only place that was more English than England. Col eagues warned that I had little chance of being granted tenure. I churned out two books, won a handful of prizes, and col ected some research grants.
Then I received tenure and proved everyone wrong.
More important, my life was now my own. No one in my department, not even the historians of early America, connected my last name with that of the first Salem woman executed for witchcraft in 1692. To preserve my hard-won autonomy, I continued to keep any hint of magic or witchcraft out of my life. Of course there were exceptions, like the time I'd drawn on one of Sarah's spel s when the washing machine wouldn't stop fil ing with water and threatened to flood my smal apartment on Wooster Square. Nobody's perfect.
Now, taking note of this current lapse, I held my breath, grasped the manuscript with both hands, and placed it in one of the wedge-shaped cradles the library provided to protect its rare books. I had made my decision: to behave as a serious scholar and treat Ashmole 782 like an ordinary manuscript. I'd ignore my burning fingertips, the book's strange smel , and simply describe its contents.
Then I'd decide-with professional detachment-whether it was promising enough for a longer look. My fingers trembled when I loosened the smal brass clasps nevertheless.
The manuscript let out a soft sigh.
A quick glance over my shoulder assured me that the room was stil empty. The only other sound was the loud ticking of the reading room's clock.
Deciding not to record "Book sighed," I turned to my laptop and opened up a new file. This familiar task-one that I'd done hundreds if not thousands of times before- was as comforting as my list's neat checkmarks. I typed the manuscript name and number and copied the title from the catalog description. I eyed its size and binding, describing both in detail.
The only thing left to do was open the manuscript.
It was difficult to lift the cover, despite the loosened clasps, as if it were stuck to the pages below. I swore under my breath and rested my hand flat on the leather for a moment, hoping that Ashmole 782 simply needed a chance to know me. It wasn't magic, exactly, to put your hand on top of a book. My palm tingled, much as my skin tingled when a witch looked at me, and the tension left the manuscript.
After that, it was easy to lift the cover.
The first page was rough paper. On the second sheet, which was parchment, were the words "Anthropologia, or a treatis containing a short description of Man," in Ashmole's handwriting. The neat, round curves were almost as familiar to me as my own cursive script. The second part of the title-"in two parts: the first Anatomical, the second Psychological" -was written in a later hand, in pencil. It was familiar, too, but I couldn't place it. Touching the writing might give me some clue, but it was against the library's rules and it would be impossible to document the information that my fingers might gather. Instead I made notes in the computer file regarding the use of ink and pencil, the two different hands, and the possible dates of the inscriptions.
As I turned the first page, the parchment felt abnormal y heavy and revealed itself as the source of the manuscript's strange smel . It wasn't simply ancient. It was something more-a combination of must and musk that had no name.
And I noticed immediately that three leaves had been cut neatly out of the binding.
Here, at last, was something easy to describe. My fingers flew over the keys: "At least three folios removed, by straightedge or razor." I peered into the val ey of the manuscript's spine but couldn't tel whether any other pages were missing. The closer the parchment to my nose, the more the manuscript's power and odd smel distracted me.
I turned my attention to the il ustration that faced the gap where the missing pages should be. It showed a tiny baby girl floating in a clear glass vessel. The baby held a silver rose in one hand, a golden rose in the other. On its feet were tiny wings, and drops of red liquid showered down on the baby's long black hair. Underneath the image was a label written in thick black ink indicating that it was a depiction of the philosophical child-an al egorical representation of a crucial step in creating the philosopher's stone, the chemical substance that promised to make its owner healthy, wealthy, and wise.
The colors were luminous and strikingly wel preserved.
Artists had once mixed crushed stone and gems into their paints to produce such powerful colors. And the image itself had been drawn by someone with real artistic skil . I had to sit on my hands to keep them from trying to learn more from a touch here and there.
But the il uminator, for al his obvious talent, had the details al wrong. The glass vessel was supposed to point up, not down. The baby was supposed to be half black and half white, to show that it was a hermaphrodite. It should have had male genitalia and female breasts-or two heads, at the very least.
Alchemical imagery was al egorical, and notoriously tricky. That's why I was studying it, searching for patterns that would reveal a systematic, logical approach to chemical transformation in the days before the periodic table of the elements. Images of the moon were almost always representations of silver, for example, while images of the sun referred to gold. When the two were combined chemical y, the process was represented as a wedding. In time the pictures had been replaced by words. Those words, in turn, became the grammar of chemistry.
But this manuscript put my belief in the alchemists' logic to the test. Each il ustration had at least one fundamental flaw, and there was no accompanying text to help make sense of it.
I searched for something-anything-that would agree with my knowledge of alchemy. In the softening light, faint traces of handwriting appeared on one of the pages. I slanted the desk lamp so that it shone more brightly.
There was nothing there.
Slowly I turned the page as if it were a fragile leaf.
Words shimmered and moved across its surface- hundreds of words-invisible unless the angle of light and the viewer's perspective were just right.
I stifled a cry of surprise.
Ashmole 782 was a palimpsest-a manuscript within a manuscript. When parchment was scarce, scribes careful y washed the ink from old books and then wrote new text on the blank sheets. Over time the former writing often reappeared underneath as a textual ghost, discernible with the help of ultraviolet light, which could see under ink stains and bring faded text back to life.
There was no ultraviolet light strong enough to reveal these traces, though. This was not an ordinary palimpsest.
The writing hadn't been washed away-it had been hidden with some sort of spel . But why would anyone go to the trouble of bewitching the text in an alchemical book? Even experts had trouble puzzling out the obscure language and fanciful imagery the authors used.
Dragging my attention from the faint letters that were moving too quickly for me to read, I focused instead on writing a synopsis of the manuscript's contents. "Puzzling," I typed. "Textual captions from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, images mainly fifteenth century. Image sources possibly older? Mixture of paper and vellum. Colored and black inks, the former of unusually high quality.
Illustrations are well executed, but details are incorrect, missing. Depicts the creation of the philosopher's stone, alchemical birth/creation, death, resurrection, and transformation. A confused copy of an earlier manuscript?
A strange book, full of anomalies."
My fingers hesitated above the keys.
Scholars do one of two things when they discover information that doesn't fit what they already know. Either they sweep it aside so it doesn't bring their cherished theories into question or they focus on it with laserlike intensity and try to get to the bottom of the mystery. If this book hadn't been under a spel , I might have been tempted to do the latter. Because it was bewitched, I was strongly inclined toward the former.
And when in doubt, scholars usual y postpone a decision.
I typed an ambivalent final line: "Needs more time?
Possibly recall later?"
Holding my breath, I fastened the cover with a gentle tug.
Currents of magic stil thrummed through the manuscript, especial y fierce around the clasps.
Relieved that it was closed, I stared at Ashmole 782 for a few more moments. My fingers wanted to stray back and touch the brown leather. But this time I resisted, just as I had resisted touching the inscriptions and il ustrations to learn more than a human historian could legitimately claim to know.
Aunt Sarah had always told me that magic was a gift. If it was, it had strings attached that bound me to al the Bishop witches who had come before me. There was a price to be paid for using this inherited magical power and for working the spel s and charms that made up the witches' careful y guarded craft. By opening Ashmole 782, I'd breached the wal that divided my magic from my scholarship. But back on the right side of it again, I was more determined than ever to remain there.
I packed up my computer and notes and picked up the stack of manuscripts, careful y putting Ashmole 782 on the bottom. Merciful y, Gil ian wasn't at her desk, though her papers were stil strewn around. She must be planning on working late and was off for a cup of coffee.
"Finished?" Sean asked when I reached the cal desk.
"Not quite. I'd like to reserve the top three for Monday."
"And the fourth?"
"I'm done with it," I blurted, pushing the manuscripts toward him. "You can send it back to the stacks."
Sean put it on top of a pile of returns he had already gathered. He walked with me as far as the staircase, said good-bye, and disappeared behind a swinging door. The conveyor belt that would whisk Ashmole 782 back into the bowels of the library clanged into action.
I almost turned and stopped him but let it go.
My hand was raised to push open the door on the ground floor when the air around me constricted, as if the library were squeezing me tight. The air shimmered for a split second, just as the pages of the manuscript had shimmered on Sean's desk, causing me to shiver involuntarily and raising the tiny hairs on my arms.
Something had just happened. Something magical.
My face turned back toward Duke Humfrey's, and my feet threatened to fol ow.
It's nothing, I thought, resolutely walking out of the library.
Are you sure? whispered a long-ignored voice.