Chilton leaned forward. "Have you not considered the distinct possibility that the accused were simply guilty of witchcraft?" he asked. He arched his eyebrows at her, fingers pointed in a small temple on the tabletop.
She watched him for a moment. A rush of irritation, even anger, sped through her. What a preposterous question! Certainly, the participants in colonial witch trials believed that witches were real. But no contemporary scholars had ever entertained that possibility. Connie could not understand why Chilton would tease her like this. Was this just his way of reinforcing how lowly she ranked in the hierarchy of academia? No matter how ludicrous it was, she had to answer because it was Chilton doing the asking. Clearly he was too far away from his own graduate student experience to remember how dreadful this exam is. If he could remember, he would never joke with her today.
She cleared her throat, tamping down her aggravation. Connie did not yet rank high enough in the scholarly universe to be permitted to voice her exasperation. She read sympathy and commiseration in Janine's narrowed eyes, but also registered her almost imperceptible nod that Connie should continue. Jump through the hoop, the nod said. You and I both know that's what it is, but you have to do it anyway.
"Well, Professor Chilton," she began. "None of the recent secondary source literature that I have read considered that to be a real possibility. The only exception that I can think of is Cotton Mather. In 1705 he wrote a famous defense of the judgments and executions at Salem, firmly believing that the courts had acted rightly to rid the town of actual, practicing witches. This was about the time that one of the judges, Samuel Sewall, published a public apology for his part in the trials. Of course, Cotton Mather, a renowned theologian, had himself officiated at the trials. Against the wishes of his equally famous theologian father, Increase Mather, I might add, who publicly condemned the Salem trials as being based on unreliable evidence. So Cotton Mather may have argued that the witchcraft at Salem was real, and that the killing of nineteen people was completely justified, but he had rather a lot invested in not being wrong. Sir."
As Connie concluded her treatise she observed Chilton grinning mischievously at her across the table. In that moment she knew that the exam was over. Through the hoop she had gone, and now it was behind her. Of course she would have to go outside to await their official verdict. But at least she had come up with an answer. Now there was nothing more that she could do. She felt helpless, exhausted. What little color remained in her face ebbed, her lips fading to white.
The four professors exchanged looks in a rapid volley around their side of the table before turning their attention back to Connie.
"Very well," said Professor Chilton. "If you would just step outside for a moment, please, Miss Goodwin, we will discuss your performance. Don't go far."
Withdrawing from the examination room, Connie moved through the history building shadows, her footfalls echoing off the marble floor. She settled onto an institutional lavender sofa in the central reception area, enjoying the blissful sound of quiet. She let herself sink into the cushions, twiddling the tail end of her braid under her nose like a mustache.
From inside the conference room several doors away, she heard murmured comments, too muffled for her to distinguish who was saying what. She clicked her thumbnails together, waiting.
The early evening sun slanted across the floor, splashing warmth onto her lap. Across the room she glimpsed a flash of movement as a tiny mouse disappeared into the darkness behind a drowsy potted plant. Connie smiled wanly, thinking about the unseen generations of warm life living somewhere in the history department walls, worried about nothing more momentous than leftover water crackers and careless feet. She could almost envy a life that simple and straightforward. Silence descended over the waiting area, and Connie heard only her shallow breath.
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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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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