"I have to say that this was an incredible performance, even for you," began Chilton. As always Connie was momentarily distracted by Chilton's clipped Brahmin accent, in which the "r" wanders in and out of words unpredictably. Pehfohmance. It was an accent that one barely heard anymore, almost unrelated to the Boston accent that caricatured on TV. Bahston versus Behstun. Chilton himself often struck her as a sort of relic, a scarab beetle preserved in amber, not knowing that it is frozen and that time has left it behind.
"Thank you, Professor Chilton," she said.
"I knew when we admitted you to this program that you would excel. Your undergraduate work at Mount Holyoke was exemplary of course. Your coursework and teaching have both been well remarked upon." Rehmahked thought Connie, then immediately chastised herself. Pay attention! This is important!
He paused, gazing at her, index fingers pressed over his lips. "I wonder if you have started putting any thought to your dissertation topic," he said. She hesitated, caught off guard. Of course she had expected to bring him a proposal shortly after her exam, assuming she passed, but she had counted on having weeks ahead of her to think things over. However, his attention signaled to Connie that her performance had guaranteed her new status within the department. Connie's ears buzzed, like antennae that have picked up a vital piece of information written in a code that has been only half-transcribed.
Academia, in many respects, forms the last bastion of medieval apprenticeship. She and Liz had discussed this idea before. The master takes the student in, educates her in his craft, shares with her the esoteric secrets of his field. The apprentice is a kind of initiate, admitted by gradual degrees into ever higher levels of mysticism. Not that most academic subjects were very mystical anymore, of course. But, by extension, the apprentice's skill reflects on the master's own ability. Connie realized that Chilton now viewed her as a particular asset to him, and that this new level of regard came with heavier responsibility. Chilton had plans for her.
"I have a few ideas percolating of course," she began, "but nothing set in stone. Did you have something in mind?"
He regarded her for a moment, and she could see something indistinct, almost serpentine, glimmering behind his careful, veiled eyes. Then just as suddenly the glimmer disappeared, replaced with the bemused detachment which he habitually wore in place of an expression. He sat back in his chair, propping the top of a bony knee on the edge of the table, and waved one wrinkled hand dismissively. "Nothing as such. Only I urge you to look vigorously for new source bases. We need to think strategically about your career, my girl, and we can't do that if you are just revisiting the same old archives. A really marvelous, newly uncovered primary source can make you in this field, Connie," he said, looking sharply at her. "New. New shall be your watchword." <
Watchwuhd, thought Connie. If I don't get out of here this instant I am going to say something that will truly embarrass myself. Though why he would bother to tell her to look for new source bases she could not fully understand. Perhaps later he would tell her what exactly he had in mind. "I understand, Professor Chilton. I will give this some serious thought. Thank you."
Connie stood, easing her arms into her pea coat, pulling the scarf over her nose, and tucking her braid up under a knitted pompom hat. Chilton nodded appreciatively. "So you're off to celebrate then," he said, and Connie fixed him with a thin smile.
"Abner's," she confirmed, silently begging him not to come along.
"You deserve it. Enjoy yourself," he said. "We shall continue this discussion more concretely at our next meeting." He made no move to rise and follow her, instead watching as she assembled herself to re-enter the crisp spring world outside. As the door closed behind her, the last narrow stripe of sunlight vanished from the window, and the conference room went dark.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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