“I don’t see spells in words but in shapes and colors.” The underside of my thumb and pinkie were still slightly discolored. “Red ink helped my fire spell. So did arranging the words on the page so that they made a kind of picture.”
“Show me,” Sarah said, pushing a piece of scrap paper and a charred stick in my direction. “Witch hazel,” she explained when I held it up for clarification. “I use it as a pencil when I’m trying to copy a spell for the first time. If something goes wrong, the aftereffects are less . . . er, permanent than with ink.” She colored slightly. One of her unruly spells had caused a cyclone in the bathroom. For weeks we found spatters of suntan lotion and shampoo in the oddest places.
I wrote out the spell I’d devised to set things alight, careful not to say the words to myself and thereby work the magic. When I was through, the index finger of my right hand was glowing red.
“This was my first attempt at gramarye,” I said, looking at it critically before handing it to Sarah.
“A third-grader probably would have done a better job.”
[des: have styled the spell as poetry; author had this centered on the
page.She intends for them to form a triangle.]
“It’s not that bad,” Sarah said. When I looked crestfallen, she hastily added, “I’ve seen worse.
Spelling out fire with the first letter of every line was clever. But why a triangle?”
“That’s the structure of the spell. It’s pretty simple, really—just a thrice-crossed knot.” It was my turn to study my work. “Funny thing is, the triangle was a symbol many alchemists used for fire.”
“A thrice-crossed knot?” Sarah looked over the frames of her glasses. “You’re having one of your Yoda moments.” This was her way of letting the air out of my vocabulary.
“I’m making it as plain as I can, Sarah. It would be easier to show you what I mean if my cords weren’t inside my hands.” I held them up and waggled my fingers at her.
Sarah murmured something, and the ball of twine rolled across the table. “Will ordinary string do, Yoda?”
I stopped the ball by saying my own spell to arrest its motion. It was heavy with the power of earth and had a thicket of thrice-crossed knots surrounding it. Sarah twitched in surprise.
“Of course,” I said, pleased by my aunt’s reaction. After giving the twine a whack with her knife, I picked up a length of string approximately nine inches long. “Every knot has a different number of crossings. You use two of them in your craft—the slipknot and the double slipknot. Those are the two weaver’s knots that all witches know. It’s when we come to the third knot that things get complicated.”
I wasn’t sure if kitchen twine was up to showing what I meant, though. Knots made with my weaver’s cords were three-dimensional, but given that I was working with ordinary string, I decided to work on the flat. Holding one end of the length in my left hand, I made a loop to the right, pulled the string loosely under one side of the loop and over the other, and joined the ends together. The result was a trefoil-shaped knot that resembled a triangle.
“See, three crossings,” I said. “You try.”
When I took my hands off the string, it sprang up into a familiar pyramid with the ends properly fused together into an unbreakable knot. Sarah gasped.
“Cool,” I said. “Plain old string works just fine.”
“You sound just like your father.” Sarah poked at the knot with her finger. “There’s one of those hidden in every spell?”
“At least one. Really complicated spells might have two or three knots, each one tying into the threads you saw last night in the keeping room—the ones that bind the world.” I smiled. “I guess gramarye is a disguising spell of sorts—one that hides magic’s inner workings.”
“And when you say the words, it reveals them,” Sarah said thoughtfully. “Let’s give yours a go.”
Before I could warn her, Sarah read the words of my spell aloud. The paper burst into flame in her hands. She dropped it on the table, and I doused it with a shower of conjured water.
“I thought that was a spell for lighting a candle—not setting a house on fire!” she exclaimed, looking at the charred mess.
“Sorry. The spell is still pretty new. It will settle down eventually. Gramarye can’t hold a spell together forever, so its magic weakens over time. It’s why spells stop working,” I explained.
“Really? Then you should be able to figure out the relative ages of spells.” Sarah’s eyes gleamed.
She was a great believer in tradition, and the older a piece of magic was, the more she liked it.
“Maybe,” I said doubtfully, “but there are other reasons that spells fail. Weavers have different abilities, for one thing. And if words were left out or changed when later witches copied them, that will compromise the magic, too.”
But Sarah was already in front of her spell book, leafing through the pages.
“Here, look at this one.” She beckoned me toward her. “I always suspected this was the oldest spell in the Bishop grimoire.”
“‘An exceeding great charm for drawing clean air into any place,’” I read aloud, “‘one handed down from old Maude Bishop and proven by me, Charity Bishop in the year 1705.’” In the margins were notes made by other witches, including my grandmother, who had later mastered the spell. A caustic annotation by Sarah proclaimed, “utterly worthless.”
“Well?” Sarah demanded.
“It’s dated 1705,” I pointed out.
“Yes, but its genealogy goes back beyond that. Em never could find out who Maude Bishop was—a relative of Bridget’s from England, perhaps?” This unfinished genealogical research project provided Sarah her first opportunity to mention Em’s name without sorrow. Vivian was right. Sarah needed me in her stillroom just as much as I needed to be there.
“Perhaps,” I said again, trying not to raise unrealistic hopes.
“Do that thing you did with the jars. Read with your fingers,” Sarah said, pushing the pulpit toward me.
I ran my fingertips lightly over the words of the spell. My skin tingled in recognition as they encountered the ingredients woven into it: the air blowing around my ring finger, the sensation of liquid coursing under the nail of my middle finger, and the explosion of scents that clung to my little finger.
“Hyssop, marjoram, and lots of salt,” I said thoughtfully. These were common ingredients found in every witch’s house and garden.
“So why won’t it work?” Sarah was staring at my upraised right hand as though it were an oracle.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “And you know I could repeat it a thousand times and it will never work for me.” Sarah and her friends in the coven were going to have to figure out what was wrong with Maude Bishop’s spell themselves. That, or buy a can of air freshener.
“Maybe you can stitch it back together, or weave a patch, or whatever it is that witches like you do.”
Witches like you. Sarah didn’t mean to do it, but her words left me feeling uneasy and isolated.
Staring down at the page from the grimoire, I wondered if an inability to perform magic on command was one reason that weavers had been targeted by their communities.
“It doesn’t work that way.” I folded my hands atop the open book and pressed my lips together, withdrawing like a crab into its shell.
“You said weaving started with a question. Ask the spell what’s wrong,” Sarah suggested.
I wished I’d never seen Maude Bishop’s cleansing spell. Even more, I wished Sarah had never seen it.
“What are you doing?” Sarah pointed to the Bishop grimoire in horror.
Underneath my hands the writing was unspooling from its neat curlicues. Leftover splatters of ink marred the otherwise blank page. Within moments there was no trace of Maude Bishop’s spell except for a small, tight blue-and-yellow knot. I stared at it in fascination and had the sudden urge to—
“Don’t touch it!” Sarah cried, waking Corra from her slumber. I jumped away from the book, and Sarah swooped down on it, trapping the knot under a mason jar.
We both peered at the UMO—unfamiliar magical object.
“Now what do we do?” I always thought of spells as living, breathing creations. It seemed unkind to keep it contained.
“I’m not sure there’s much we can do.” Sarah took my left hand and flipped it over, revealing a black-stained thumb.
“I got ink on it,” I said.
Sarah shook her head. “That’s not ink. That’s the color of death. You killed the spell.”
“What do you mean, killed it?” I snatched my hand away, holding it behind me like a child caught raiding the cookie jar.
“Don’t panic,” Sarah said. “Rebecca learned to control it. You can, too.”
“My mother?” I thought of the long look that Sarah and Vivian had exchanged last night. “You knew something like this might happen.”
“Only after I saw your left hand. It bears all the colors of the higher magics, like exorcism and auguries, just as your right hand shows the colors of the craft.” Sarah paused. “It bears the colors of the darker magics, too.”
“Good thing I’m right-handed.” It was an attempt at humor, but the tremor in my voice gave me away.
“You’re not right-handed. You’re ambidextrous. You only favor your right hand because that horrible first-grade teacher said left-handed children were demonic.” Sarah had seen to it that the woman was formally censured. After experiencing her first Halloween in Madison, Miss Somerton had resigned her position.
I wanted to say I wasn’t interested in the higher magics either, but nothing came out.
Sarah looked at me sadly. “You can’t lie to another witch, Diana. Especially not a whopper like that.”
“No dark magic.” Emily had died trying to summon and bind a spirit—probably my mother. Peter Knox was interested in the darker aspects of the craft, too. And dark magic was bound up in Ashmole 782 as well—not to mention more than one thumb’s worth of death.
“Dark doesn’t have to mean evil,” Sarah said. “Is the new moon evil?”
I shook my head. “The dark of the moon is a time for new beginnings.”
“Owls? Spiders? Bats? Dragons?” Sarah was using her teacher voice.
“No,” I admitted.
“No. They are not. Humans made up those stories about the moon and nocturnal creatures because they represent the unknown. It’s no coincidence that they also symbolize wisdom. There is nothing more powerful than knowledge. That’s why we’re so careful when we teach someone dark magic.” Sarah took my hand. “Black is the color of the goddess as crone, plus the color of concealment, bad omens, and death.”
“And these?” I wiggled the three other fingers.
“Here we have the color of the goddess as maiden and huntress,” she said, folding in my silver middle finger. Now I knew why the goddess’s voice sounded as it did. “And here is the color of worldly power.” She folded in my golden ring finger. “As for your pinkie, white is the color of divination and prophecy. It’s also used to break curses and banish unwanted spirits.”
“Except for the death, that doesn’t sound so terrible.”
“Like I said, dark doesn’t necessarily mean evil,” Sarah said. “Think about worldly power. In beneficent hands it’s a force for good. But if someone abuses it for personal gain or to harm others, it can be terribly destructive. The darkness depends on the witch.”
“You said Emily wasn’t very good at the higher magics. What about Mom?”
“Rebecca excelled at them. She went straight from bell, book, and candle to calling down the moon,” Sarah said wistfully.
Some of what I’d witnessed my mother do when I was a child made sense now, like the night she’d conjured wraiths out of a bowl of water. So, too, did Peter Knox’s preoccupation with her.
“Rebecca seemed to lose interest in higher magics once she met your father, though. The only subjects that appealed to her then were anthropology and Stephen. And you, of course,” Sarah said. “I don’t think she worked much higher magic after you were born.”
Not where anybody but Dad or I could see, I thought. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I said aloud.
“You didn’t want anything to do with magic, remember?” Sarah’s hazel gaze held mine. “I saved some of Rebecca’s things, just in case you ever showed any ability. The house took the rest.”
Sarah murmured a spell—an opening spell, based on the threads that suddenly illuminated the room with shades of red, yellow, and green. A cabinet and drawers appeared to the left of the old fireplace, built into the ancient masonry. The room filled with the scent of lily of the valley and something heavy and exotic that stirred sharp, uncomfortable feelings within me: emptiness and yearning, familiarity and dread. Sarah opened a drawer and took out a chunk of something red and resinous.
“Dragon’s blood. I can’t smell it without thinking of Rebecca.” Sarah sniffed it. “The stuff you can get now isn’t as good as this, and it costs an absolute fortune. I wanted to sell this and use the proceeds to fix the roof when it collapsed in the blizzard of ’93, but Em wouldn’t let me.”
“What did Mom use it for?” I said around the lump in my throat.