Sally, three hundred ninety-seven days older than her sister, was as conscientious as Gillian was idle. She never believed in anything that could not be proven with facts and figures. When Gillian pointed to a shooting star, it was Sally who reminded her that what was falling to earth was only an old rock, heated by its descent through the atmosphere. Sally was a take-charge sort of person from the start; she didn’t like confusion and mess, both of which filled the aunts’ old house on Magnolia Street from attic to cellar.
From the time she was in third grade, and Gillian in second, Sally was the one who cooked healthy dinners of meat loaf and fresh green beans and barley soup, using recipes from a copy of Joy of Cooking she’d managed to smuggle into the house. She fixed their lunchboxes each morning, packing up turkey-and-tomato sandwiches on whole-wheat bread, adding carrot sticks and iced oatmeal cookies, all of which Gillian tossed in the trash the instant after Sally had deposited her in her classroom, since she preferred the sloppy joes and brownies sold in the school cafeteria, and she often had swiped enough quarters and dimes from the aunts’ coat pockets to buy herself whatever she liked.
Night and Day, the aunts called them, and although neither girl laughed at this little joke or found it amusing in the least, they recognized the truth in it, and were able to understand, earlier than most sisters, that the moon is always jealous of the heat of the day, just as the sun always longs for something dark and deep. They kept each other’s secrets well; they crossed their hearts and hoped to die if they should ever slip and tell, even if the secret was only a cat’s tail pulled or some foxglove stolen from the aunts’ garden.
The sisters might have sniped at each other because of their differences, they might have grown nasty, then grown apart, if they’d been able to have any friends, but the other children in town avoided them. No one would dare to play with the sisters, and most girls and boys crossed their fingers when Sally and Gillian drew near, as if that sort of thing was any protection. The bravest and wildest boys followed the sisters to school, at just the right distance behind, which allowed them to turn and run if need be. These boys liked to pitch winter apples or stones at the girls, but even the best athletes, the ones who were the stars of their Little League teams, could never get a hit when they took aim at the Owens girls. Every stone, each apple, always landed at the sisters’ feet.
For Sally and Gillian the days were filled with little mortifications: No child would use a pencil or a crayon directly after it had been touched by an Owens girl. No one would sit next to them in the cafeteria or during assemblies, and some girls actually shrieked when they wandered into the girls’ room, to pee or gossip or brush their hair, and found they’d stumbled upon one of the sisters. Sally and Gillian were never chosen for teams during sports, even though Gillian was the fastest runner in town and could hit a baseball over the roof of the school, onto Endicott Street. They were never invited to parties or Girl Scout meetings, or asked to join in and play hopscotch or climb a tree.
“Fuck them all,” Gillian would say, her beautiful little nose in the air as the boys made spooky goblin noises when the sisters passed them in the hallways at school, on the way to music or art. “Let them eat dirt. You wait and see. One day they’ll beg us to invite them home, and we’ll laugh in their faces.”
Sometimes, when she was feeling particularly nasty, Gillian would suddenly turn and shout “Boo,” and some boy always pissed in his pants and was far more humiliated than Gillian had ever been. But Sally didn’t have the heart to fight back. She wore dark clothes and tried not to be noticed. She pretended she wasn’t smart and never raised her hand in class. She disguised her own nature so well that after a while she grew uncertain of her own abilities. By then, she was as quiet as a mouse. When she opened her mouth in the classroom she could only squeak out wrong answers; in time she made sure to sit in the back of the room, and to keep her mouth firmly shut.
Still they would not let her be. Someone put an open ant farm in her locker when Sally was in fourth grade, so that for weeks she found squashed ants between the pages of her books. In fifth grade a gang of boys left a dead mouse in her desk. One of the cruelest children had glued a nametag to the mouse’s back. Sali had been scrawled in crude letters, but Sally took not the slightest pleasure in the misspelling of her name. She had cried over the little curled-up body, with its tiny whiskers and perfect paws, but when her teacher had asked what. was wrong, she’d only shrugged, as though she had lost the power of speech.
One beautiful April day, when Sally was in sixth grade, all of the aunts’ cats followed her to school. After that, even the teachers would not pass her in an empty hallway and would find an excuse to head in the other direction. As they scurried away, the teachers smiled at her oddly, and perhaps they were afraid not to. Black cats can do that to some people; they make them go all shivery and scared and remind them of dark, wicked nights. The aunts’ cats, however, were not particularly frightening. They were spoiled and liked to sleep on the couches and they were all named for birds: There was Cardinal and Crow and Raven and Goose. There was a gawky kitten named Dove, and an ill-tempered tom called Magpie, who hissed at the others and kept them at bay. It would be difficult to believe that such a mangy bunch of creatures had come up with a plan to shame Sally, but that is what seemed to have happened, although they may have followed her on that day simply because she’d fixed a tunafish sandwich for lunch, just for herself, as Gillian was pretending to have strep throat and was home in bed, where she was sure to stay for the best part of a week, reading magazines and eating candy bars with no cares when it came to getting chocolate on the sheets, since Sally was the one who took responsibility for the laundry.