Home > Magic Lessons (Practical Magic)

Magic Lessons (Practical Magic)
Author: Alice Hoffman








She was found on a January day in a field where the junipers grew, wound in a blue blanket with her name carefully stitched along the border with silk thread. There was a foot of snow on the ground, but the sun was strong and whoever had named the child Maria had most assuredly loved her, for the wool of the blanket was of a very fine grade, certain to keep her warm, and she’d been well cared for, not lacking for comfort or food. She was a quiet baby, but as the day passed she began to fuss and then to cry, doing so unfailingly and with great effort, until at last a crow came to perch on her basket, peering at her with its quick black eyes.

That was how the old woman discovered the abandoned child, staring at a bird nearly as large as herself, fearless and wide-eyed from the start. Maria was a beautiful baby, with pitch-black hair and pale gray eyes, a silvery shade so unusual the old woman wondered if she wasn’t a changeling, for this was a place where strange things happened and fate could be a friend or a foe. Changeling or not, Hannah Owens carried the baby back into the woods, singing as they went, the first human words the baby would remember.

The water is wide, I cannot get oe’r it

And neither have I wings to fly

Give me a boat that will carry two

And I shall row, my Love and I.

O down in the meadows the other day

Agathering flowers, both fine and gay

Agathering flowers, both red and blue

I little thought of what love could do.


In the child’s first days at Hannah’s cottage, the insistent bird beat his wings against the cloudy, pitted glass window, doing his best to be let in. He could not be chased off with pails of vinegar and water nor with shouts and threats. One could hardly toss stones at such a loyal creature. The crow had been allowed to stay and was called Cadin, a name derived from Maria’s baby talk name of Cawcaw. Whenever the weather turned foul, he settled onto the wooden perch kept beside the sooty fire. There he cleaned his gleaming feathers and kept a sharp eye on Maria.

“I suppose he’s yours,” Hannah had said to the baby in her basket when seven days had passed and the crow had not left his post on the fence surrounding the garden, not even to eat or drink. “Or perhaps you’re his.”

Hannah knew full well that you do not choose a familiar, it chooses you, bonding with you in a way no other creature can. Hannah, herself, had long ago made a pet of a she-cat that had followed her everywhere, a pretty marmalade-colored tabby with lovely markings, a beloved familiar that was in tune with her thoughts and desires. On the day Hannah was let out of prison, she found the cat nailed to the door of her house in the village. That’s what her neighbors had done while she’d been imprisoned, as well as robbing her of the few belongings she’d had, a feather mattress, some pots and pans, a quill pen. Hannah carried the cat with her into the woods, and buried it in the green hollow where she had camped before her cottage was built, a glade she called Devotion Field where bluebells grew in the spring and celandine shone through the last of the winter frost in a carpet of white and yellow stars. The beauty of that meadow reminded Hannah of the reasons to live in the world, and the reasons to mistrust those who saw wickedness in others, but never in themselves. The natural world was at the heart of her craft; what grew in the woods could harm or heal, and it was her obligation to know the difference. It was part of old Norse tradition, Seidhr, that had been brought to England in the ancient times. This was green magic, visionary in nature, blending the soul of the individual with the soul of the earth.

Tree Magic

Holly should be burned to announce the end of winter.

Rowan, sacred to witches for protection for making spindles and spinning wheels.

Hazel will lead to water.

Willow is sacred magic, transporting the soul.

Yew signifies life, death, and rebirth, used for bows. Beware: the seeds are poisonous.

Ash is sacred and healing, the leaves make a tonic for horses.

Apple is the key to magic and is used for medicine, love spells.

Birch, write spells on strips 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.

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