Magic Lessons (Practical Magic) - Alice Hoffman Page 0,1

of bark and they will reach their intended.

Pine tree sap is a salve for pox and spotted fever.

The leaves of the larch tree boiled as an ointment for wounds and cuts.

Hemlock will cure swellings and sores.

It was indeed good fortune that the child had been found by Hannah and not by another, for there were many in Essex County who would have disposed of an unwanted baby as easily as they’d have drowned a cat. Hannah was a kind and generous soul, and she didn’t think twice before giving the baby a home and, as it turned out, a great deal more. She stitched a blue dress for the child, for good fortune and protection, and tied a strand of blue wool around her ankle.

Residents of nearby villages and towns believed that among the good and decent folk there were hidden servants of evil who caused children to die of pox and fevers and could curse the land so that it lay fallow. What people believed often came to be, and blame was placed where it was imagined. This was the year when two comets streaked across the sky for mysterious causes and a volcano that had begun to erupt at Mount Etna in Italy would soon spread ash as far as their own village, so that it seemed to snow in March. Within a year, two poor souls in London were infected with the plague, with more and more falling ill each day. People wore masks and locked themselves in their houses, yet the illness still found them, sliding under doors, it was believed, or flowing through windows, but in truth the disease had been brought from house to house by doctors who didn’t know well enough to wash their hands. By 1665 the city would lose sixty-eight thousand inhabitants.

When Maria turned two, the great fire of London destroyed seventy thousand homes in a city of eighty thousand, and smoke filled the air for the entire month of September. Birds fell from the sky and children coughed up black phlegm, a sign they would not see their next birthday. The world was a dangerous place where people were punished for their sins and most believed that good fortune depended upon a measure of faith and superstition. These were years when cruel and unexplained things happened, and kindness was a rare and valued gift, one that Hannah Owens happened to possess.

* * *

There were those in the county known to practice the Nameless Art, spells and rituals handed down through the generations by cunning folk who knew more than most. These women understood the mysterious nature of medicine and love and did their best to pierce the veil that separated men and women from knowledge that might save them from ill fortune and disaster. They could mend a broken heart as easily as they could cure a fever, but they did so discreetly, for women were blamed for much of the world’s troubles, and there were known to be witches in this county.

More than twenty years earlier, Matthew Hopkins, a young man from the village of Manningtree on the banks of the River Stour in Essex County, had begun his wicked hunt for witches. Aided by the Earls of Warwick and Manchester, he became the witch-finder general, and was paid a lordly amount for sending women to their deaths. What made for a witch was in his hands, as if he alone could see through the spectral curtain and pluck out the evidence of evil. A mark on a woman’s hand or cheek, a bird at her window, a dog or cat or some other creature that would not leave her side, a book of magic found in a cupboard or discovered beneath a straw mattress, an embittered neighbor with a grudge and a story to tell. Such was the manner of proof, especially when it came to poor women without a family or a champion.

In the time of the witch-finder, it was believed a witch could be ensnared by nailing her steps to the ground so that she could not flee, and iron traps made to catch fox were set out, for it was well known that a witch’s powers decreased when she was near metal. Some witch-hunters actually nailed women’s feet to the ground and left them to try to escape. If they were able to evade their captors, they then needed to dab rosemary oil on the spot where the nail had entered them while invoking a