A shadow of doubt crossed her face. But what if she was not prepared enough? The first wave of nausea contorted her stomach, and her face grew paler. Every year, it happened to someone. For years she had heard the whispers about students who had cracked, run sobbing from the examination room, their academic careers over before they had even begun. There were really only two ways that this could go. Her performance today could, in theory, raise her significantly in departmental regard. Today, if she handled herself correctly, she would be one step closer to becoming a professor.
Or she would look in the shelves in her mind and find them empty. All the history books would be gone, replaced only with a lone binder full of the plots of late seventies television programs and Pearl Jam lyrics. She would open her mouth, and nothing would come out. And then she would pack her bags to go home. Now, four hours after her lunch with Thomas, she sat on one side of a polished mahogany conference table in a dark, intimate corner of the Harvard University history building, having already endured three solid hours of questioning from a panel of four professors. She was tired, but with the heightened awareness of adrenaline. Connie recalled feeling the same strange blending of exhaustion and intellectual intensity when she pulled an all-nighter to polish off the last chapter of her senior thesis in college. All her sensations felt ratcheted up, intrusive and distracting - the scratch of the masking tape with which she had provisionally hemmed her wool skirt, the gummy taste in her mouth of sugared coffee. Her attention took in all of these details, and then set them aside. Only the fear remained, unwilling to be put away. She settled her eyes on Chilton, waiting.
The modest room in which she sat featured little more than the pitted conference table and chairs facing a blackboard stained pale gray with the ghostly scrawls of decades of chalk. Behind her hung a forgotten portrait of a white-whiskered old man, blackened by time and inattention. At the end of the room a grimy window stood shuttered against the late afternoon sunlight. Motes of dust hung almost motionless in the lone sunbeam that lighted the room, illuminating the committee's faces from nose to chin. Outside she heard young voices, undergraduates, hail each other and disappear, laughing.
"Miss Goodwin," Chilton said, "we have one final question for you this afternoon." Her advisor leaned into the empty center of the table, sunlight moving over his silver hair, stirring the dust into a glittering corona around his head. On the table before him, his fingers sat knotted as carefully as the club tie at his throat. "Would you please provide the committee with a succinct and considered history of witchcraft in North America?"
The historian of American colonial life, as Connie was, must be able to illustrate long-dead social, religious, and economic systems down to the slightest detail. In preparation for this exam, she had memorized, among other things, methods for preparing salt pork, the fertilizer uses of bat guano, and the trade relationship between molasses and rum. Her roommate, Liz Dowers, a tall, bespectacled student of Medieval Latin, blond and slender, one evening had come upon her studying the Bible verses that commonly appeared in eighteenth-century needlepoint samplers. We have finally specialized beyond our ability to understand each other, Liz had remarked, shaking her head.
For a last question, Connie knew Chilton had really given her a gift. Some of the earlier ones were considerably more arcane, even beyond what she had been led to expect. Describe the production, if she would, of the different major exports of the British colonies in the 1840s, from the Caribbean to Ireland. Did she think that history was more a story of great men acting in extraordinary circumstances, or of large populations of people constrained by economic systems? What role, would she say, did codfish play in the growth of New England trade and society? As her gaze roamed around the conference table to each professor's face in turn, she saw mirrored in their watching eyes the special area of expertise in which each had made his or her name.
From The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. Copyright 2009 Katherine Howe. To be published in June 2009. Available wherever books are sold. All rights reserved.
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