On this morning, Sally didn’t even know the cats were behind her, until she sat down at her desk. Some of her classmates were laughing, but three girls had jumped up onto the radiator and were shrieking. Anyone would have thought a gang of demons had entered the room, but it was only those flea-bitten creatures that had followed Sally to school. They paraded past chairs and desks, black as night and howling like banshees. Sally shooed them away, but the cats just came closer. They paced back and forth in front of her, their tails in the air, meowing with voices so horrible the sound could have curdled milk in the cup.
“Scat,” Sally whispered when Magpie jumped into her lap and began kneading his claws into her nicest blue dress. “Go away,” she begged him.
But even when Miss Mullins came in and smacked her desk with a ruler and used her sternest voice to suggest that Sally had better rid the room of the cats—tout de suite—or risk detention, the revolting beasts refused to go. A panic had spread and the more high-strung of Sally’s classmates were already whispering witchery. A witch, after all, was often accompanied by a familiar, an animal to do her most evil bidding. The more familiars there were, the nastier the bidding, and here was an entire troop of disgusting creatures. Several children had fainted; some would be phobic about cats for the rest of their lives. The gym teacher was sent for, and he waved a broom around, but still the cats would not leave.
A boy in the rear of the room, who had stolen a pack of matches from his father just that morning, now made use of the chaos in the classroom and took the opportunity to set Magpie’s tail on fire. The scent of burning fur quickly filled the room, even before Magpie began to scream. Sally ran to the cat; without stopping to think, she knelt and smothered the flames with her favorite blue dress.
“I hope something awful happens to you,” she called to the boy who’d set Magpie afire. Sally stood up, the cat cradled in her arms like a baby, her face and dress dirty with soot. “You’ll see what it’s like then,” she said to the boy. “You’ll know how it feels.”
Just then the children in the classroom directly overhead began to stomp their feet—out of joy, since it had been revealed their spelling tests had been eaten by their teacher’s English bulldog—and an acoustic tile fell onto the horrid boy’s head. He collapsed to the floor in a heap, his face ashen in spite of his freckled complexion.
“She did it!” some of the children cried, and the ones who did not speak aloud had their mouths wide open and their eyes even wider.
Sally ran from the room with Magpie in her arms and the other cats following. The cats zigzagged under and around her feet all the way home, down Endicott and Peabody streets, through the front door and up the stairs, and all afternoon they clawed at Sally’s bedroom door, even after she’d locked herself inside.
Sally cried for two hours straight. She loved the cats, that was the thing. She sneaked them saucers of milk and carried them to the vet on Endicott Street in a knitting bag when they fought and tore at each other and their scars became infected. She adored those horrible cats, especially Magpie, and yet sitting in her classroom, embarrassed beyond belief, she would have gladly watched each one be drowned in a bucket of icy water or shot with a BB gun. Even though she went out to care for Magpie as soon as she’d collected herself, cleaning his tail and wrapping it in cotton gauze, she knew she’d betrayed him in her heart. From that day on, Sally thought less of herself. She did not ask the aunts for special favors, or even request those small rewards she deserved. Sally could not have had a more intractable and uncompromising judge; she had found herself lacking, in compassion and fortitude, and the punishment was self-denial, from that moment on.
After the cat incident, Sally and Gillian became more feared than ignored. The other girls in school no longer teased; instead, they quickly walked away when the Owens sisters passed by, and they all kept their eyes cast down. Rumors of witchcraft spread in notes passed from desk to desk; accusations were whispered in hallways and bathrooms. Those children who had black cats of their own begged their parents for a different pet, a collie or a guinea pig or even a goldfish. When the football team lost, when a kiln in the art room exploded, everyone looked toward the Owens girls. Even the rowdiest boys did not dare to hit them with dodge balls at recess, or aim spitballs in their direction; not a single one threw apples or stones. At slumber parties and Girl Scout meetings there were those who swore that Sally and Gillian could induce a hypnotic trance that would make you bark like a dog or jump right off a cliff, if they so desired. They could put a spell on you with a single word or a nod of their heads. And if either of the sisters was truly angry, all she needed to do was recite the nine times table backward, and that would be the end of you. The eyes in your head would melt. Flesh and bones would turn into pudding. They’d serve you in the school cafeteria the very next day, and no one would be the wiser.