By Alice Hoffman
Illustration by Charles Vess
The most glorious hour in Manhattan was when twilight fell in sheets across the Great Lawn. Bands of blue turned darker by the moment as the last of the pale light filtered through the boughs of cherry trees and black locusts. In October, the meadows turned gold; the vines were twists of yellow and red. But the park was more and more crime-ridden. The Owens siblings had ridden their bikes on the paths without adult supervision when they were five and six and seven; now children were forbidden to go past the gates after nightfall. There were muggings and assaults; desperate men who had nowhere else to go slept on the green benches and under the yews.
Yet to Franny, Central Park continued to be a great and wondrous universe, a science lab that was right down the street from their house. There were secret places near Azalea Pond where so many caterpillars wound cocoons in the spring that entire locust groves came alive in a single night with clouds of newly hatched Mourning Cloak butterflies. In autumn, huge flocks of migrating birds passed over, alighting in the trees to rest overnight as they traveled to Mexico or South America. Most of all, Franny loved the muddy Ramble, the wildest, most remote section of the park.
In this overgrown jumble of woods and bogs there were white-tailed mice and owls. Birds stirred in the thickets, all of them drawn to her as she walked by. On a single day waves of thirty different sorts of warblers might drift above the park. Loons, cormorants, herons, blue jays, kestrels, vultures, swans, mallards, ducks, six varieties of woodpeckers, nighthawks, chimney swifts, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and hundreds more were either migrating flyovers or year-round residents. Once Franny had come upon a blue heron, nearly as tall as she. It walked right over to her, unafraid, while her own heart was pounding. She stayed still, trying her best to barely breathe as it came to rest its head against her cheek. She cried when it had flown away, like a beautiful blue kite. She, who prided herself on her tough exterior, could always be undone by the beauty of flight.
Near the Ramble was the Alchemy Tree, an ancient oak hidden in a glen few park goers ever glimpsed, a gigantic twisted specimen whose roots grew up from the ground in knotty bumps. The tree was said to be 500 years old, there long before teams of workers turned what had been an empty marshland into the groomed playground imagined by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1858, giving the city a form of nature more natural than the very thing it imitated. It was here, one chilly night, that the sisters dared to unearth the abilities they had inherited. It was Samhain, the last night in October, All Hallows’ Eve, the night when one season ended and another began.
Their parents were out at a costume party, having dressed as Sigmund Freud and Marilyn Monroe. It was a night of festivity, and troops of children were scattered along the city streets. Two out of three little girls were witches with tilted black hats and rustling capes. Halloween in New York City always smelled like candy corn and bonfires. Jet and Franny cut across the park to meet Vincent after his guitar lesson. As they were early, there was time to sit on the damp grass. The summer had started them thinking: If they were not like everyone else, who, then, were they? Lately they’d been itching to know what they were capable of. They had never tried to combine whatever talents they might have.
“Just this once,” Jet said. “Let’s see what happens. We can try something simple. A wish. One each. Let’s see if we can make it be.”
Franny gave her sister a discouraging look. The last time she had said Just this once, two boys had been struck by lightning. Franny was definitely picking up something; Jet had an ulterior motive. There was something she desperately wanted. If there was ever a time to make a wish, it was now.
“We can find out what Mother has been hiding from us,” Jet suggested. “See what we’re really able to do.”
If there was a way to get Franny involved, it was suggesting an attempt to prove their mother wrong. They joined hands and right away the air around them grew heavy and dense. Franny repeated a phrase she had overheard Aunt Isabelle recite when one of her clients had asked for a wish to be fulfilled.
We ask for this and nothing more. We ask once and will ask no more.
A soft fog rose from the ground and the birds in the thickets stopped singing. This was it. Something was beginning. They looked at each other and decided they would try.
“One wish apiece,” Franny whispered. “And nothing major. No world peace or the end of poverty. We wouldn’t want to push it over the limit and have some sort of rebound that does the opposite of the wish.”
Jet nodded. She made her wish right away, eyes closed, breathing slowed. She was in a trance of desire and magic. Her face was flushed and hot. As for Franny, she wanted what she most often experienced in her dreams. To be among the birds. She preferred them to most human beings, their grace, their distance from the earth, their great beauty. Perhaps that was why they always came to her. In some way, she spoke their language.
After a few minutes, when it seemed nothing would happen and the air was still so heavy Franny’s eyes had begun to close, Jet tugged on her sister’s arm. “Look up.” There on a low branch of the tree sat a huge crow.
“Was that your wish?” Jet whispered, surprised.
“More or less,” Franny whispered back.
“Of all the things in the world, a bird?”
“I suppose so. More or less.”
“It is definitely studying you.”
Franny stood up, took a deep breath, then lifted her arms in the air. As she did a cold wind gusted. The crow swooped off its branch and came to her just as the sparrow had in their aunt Isabelle’s house, as the heron had walked to her, as birds in the park were drawn to her from their nests in the thickets. This time, however, Franny was caught off guard by the sheer weight of the bird and by the way it looked at her, as if they knew each other. She could swear she could hear a voice echo from within its beating breast. I will never leave unless you send me away.
She fainted right then and there in the grass.