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And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.
Ruth 1:16 King James Bible
The Devil has made us like a Troubled Sea; and the Mire and Mud, begins now also to heave up apace.
Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World, 1693
Easthorpe Essex, England Candlemas, 1661
The first clod hit Livvy Hasseltine’s face—a starburst of cold mud exploding hard on her jaw. Livvy spat dirt, dropped her basket, and turned to run. The taste of dirt and sheep soil in her mouth.
“Get out of here!” one of the boys screamed. The others bayed like hounds. Another clod sailed by her ear. Livvy hunched her shoulders, trying to make herself small. Cloak flapping behind her like sparrow wings.
Split-wood fences and stacked stone paddocks walled both sides of the road. Cold late winter mist lay so thick that Livvy couldn’t see much farther into the fields behind the fences than a rod or two, but she could hear the soft lowing of shaggy-backed cows, their jaws working the cud as she fled by. One of the fields had the bull in it. She didn’t know which one.
Livvy grasped up her skirts around her knees, her boot heels landing hard in puddles touched with ice. Veering left, she slithered through a gap in the fence, hoping she had guessed right, dashing past a knot of sheep settled together in a wooly row against the chill, soft ears flapping. She slid down a rolling hillock of damp turf and her coif flew off, a pale dove lifted away by fingers of fog. Brown fringe of hair falling into her eyes. She glanced behind her, through the cloud rolling heavy between the cottages of Easthorpe, this mean little village where they never used to live. How many boys? Three, their shadows moving after her down the lane. She could hear their breath. Their syncopated feet.
“You! Satan spawn! Longtooth demon beast! Best you run!”
“Which way she go?”
“I got her.”
Another clod came sailing through the fog and fell with a splat six feet behind her. Livvy picked up speed. Woolen stockings bagging at her knees.
Livvy’s breath came high and tight in her chest, her cheeks flushing scarlet. She wasn’t a runner. She didn’t like to go outside the cottage, most days. She preferred it near the hearth, teasing the flames with a poker, helping their landlady by sweeping up ashes or shelling peas. It was a mistake, to go out. To be seen. Livvy was a watery girl, prone to fevers. Her skin clammy and hot. Livvy craved quiet, and warm things, and she loved her straw pallet in the attic and holding the turnspit dog to her chest, feeling him warm asleep and his heart beating under her hand. Livvy wished she’d stayed in their rented corner of the cottage loft. Invisible. Unknown.
The mud clinging to her eyelashes made her eye start to water. Sure, the water was from mud. Not from crying.
“We’re coming for you, little girl!” Laughter, shouts. Sheep bleating in alarm.
Sweat soaked through her shift and darkened the wool of her dress, painting circles under her arms and a vee down her back. Sweat plastered her ragged fringe to her forehead. Through the mist Livvy could only see rolling green-brown turf dotted with sheep, some goats, round-bellied and rubbing their horns together.
The mists parted before her as she ran, and knitted behind her, as though she were running in a dream, her feet not touching the ground, wet clods falling farther behind. Mist thickening. Gasping, Livvy spied half a dozen sheep trotting apart like the ripples in a pond full of stones. The boys were still coming.
Ahead, a shape—another cottage maybe, behind a line of trees. Livvy dug into the mist with her elbows, breath exploding out of her chest, pushing herself faster. The trees were thick and old, she didn’t know what kind, her mother would scold her for not knowing. No, she knew this one—an ash. Good. Livvy skidded behind the ash’s trunk, old with gnarled elbows, some branches hanging low. She flattened herself against the trunk. Hidden. Chest heaving. Hearing herself breathing, trying to force herself quiet, she swallowed her breath away, nostrils flaring.
“Where’d she get off to?”
How close? Livvy’s pulse throbbed at her throat. The ash bark wet and crumbling under her fingers.
“She be running thataway.”
Murmuring behind hands, shuffling feet. They talked about her with oaths in their mouths.
Sounds of sleeves wiping noses and grumbling and the three boys—she didn’t know their names—jogged down the slope, leaping first one, then the next and the next, over the shallow, rocky creek that wound its way across the bottom of the field. Livvy held still.
The three voices called out for her, after her, they thought, stopping to pick up clods of mud and rock and hurl them into the mist where they thought she had fled. They drew away, down past the creek.
Livvy caught her skirts in her hands and dashed on the balls of her feet to the looming shape before her, stone walls, leaded windows, peaked slate roof. When she drew into its shadow she saw that it wasn’t a cottager’s house after all, but the church. A sedate little steeple at one end. Gothic points over narrow, dark windows.
St. Mary the Virgin.
Her mother warned her away from popishness.
“Naw, she didn’t go this way,” a distant male voice called.
“Let’s go back,” another suggested.
Livvy crept to the church door. Heavy, solid, oak, with iron latch and hinges. Livvy pushed on it with her shoulder and it creaked open, and she slipped inside and the door whumped closed behind and she was safe.
Dark. Damp. Cool. Almost cold. Livvy folded her arms across her narrow chest and peered into the dimness within. Rows of pews. A few candles on an iron stand in the chancel, flickering under an effigy of the Virgin with a naked baby standing on her lap. The cloying smell of melted wax and pine garlands left hanging since Christmas. The cold saints’ eyes stared down at her. Following as she moved.
Idolatry. It was a very great sin.
Livvy edged around the stone walls, hunting for a place to conceal herself. Splinters of color moved over her face, cast from feeble sun through the stained-glass windows. Christ at the Resurrection.
She’d have to go back for the basket—they only had two. And the other had a ragged hole in the bottom, chewed by mice. She’d been carrying scrap greens, dandelions gleaned from the edge of a field. They’d be scattered and eaten by a goat by now. Livvy hated Easthorpe.
The alcove leading to the south door beckoned her, pointed roof and cool stone, shaded in darkness. Livvy crept around the corner, pressed her back to the stone wall, and slid to the floor. Outside, the boys called one to another. Close by. What would happen if they caught her? Perhaps they didn’t know themselves.
Brick quoins framed the pointed door. The church was sturdy. Ancient. She didn’t have a guess how old. She huddled on a rectangular stone slab fixed in the floor, the kind that hides a narrow stairwell leading down to tunnels stacked three deep with long-moldering corpses. The church walls draped with the clinging skeins of marriages and sacraments and deaths, centuries of private stories unspooling under the watchful eyes of the saints.
The voices outside faded. Livvy hugged her knees, staring into the late-afternoon darkness of the alcove. She watched the door. It was a boon being hidden away. Hiding in these few moments of quiet. In the cottage there was no hiding. She slept at her parents’ feet, with their landlady—a distant cousin of her mother’s—and her husband and her bevy of children snoring in the hall below. Eleven of them altogether. The attic air got heavy and wet from so much breathing.
Livvy’s eye tripped over a carved human shape at the topmost point in the quoin over the south-facing door. Something out of sorts about that shape. Odd, and like it was watching her. Only not like the dead-eyed Virgin.
Livvy got to her feet, touching her fingertips to the wall, and pushed her fringe away from her eyes, straining for a better look.
The keystone over the doorway was a different color and texture from the other stones. The church was multicolored rock cobbles, a rainbow of grays, and smooth stone—granite?—framing the doorways and the stained-glass windows. The keystone was different. Wrong. Sticking out of the shadows like a stubbed toe.
It was black chalkstone. Oblong, oddly shaped. Livvy crept nearer.
The carved shapes on the keystone were rough, untutored, unchurchlike. The kind of work a family would do for a headstone when they couldn’t afford to pay someone. Lines and curves, nonsense-shaped. Livvy stared harder, getting used to the darkness, and presently the scorings in the chalkstone resolved into the figure of a woman.
The woman was naked, save for a coif that covered her hair and ears. A tiny smile on her face, and round, staring eyes. Eyebrows drawn up, as though asking a question. Her ribs showed, breasts hanging, and she was squatting, the attitude of her hands insisting that the beholder stare upon her most secret parts. Her nakedness was bawdy. Unashamed. Carved alongside her, lightly, Livvy could just make out letters: E L U I.
Livvy smiled. She imagined that the chalk effigy smiled back.
“You there!” The voice shattered the peace of the alcove, and Livvy started.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Livvy turned to find the young and disapproving face of the vicar. Black robes and a tight collar. His hair was thinning, and he had no cap on. In his hands hung pine garlands, drying and brown. Taking them down for Candlemas.
“I was just—” The silence in the church rang heavy in her ears.
“Who are you?” The vicar stepped nearer, squinting down at her.
“I’m…” Livvy had a horror of talking to strangers. They’d only been in Easthorpe some weeks. Enough to arouse suspicion, but not enough to have made friends.
“You’re one of Goody Redferne’s boarders.” He kept moving nearer. He had pox scars on his cheeks, making him look raw and burned.
“Aye,” Livvy managed. She took a step backward without meaning to and hit her heel on the wall. Pain flared up the tendons in her foot.
“From Lancashire,” he said, and when he said it his mouth twisted, and something changed in his eyes. “Just arrived.”
Above the southern door, the crouching carved woman seemed to be giving birth to all manners of escape.
“Aye,” Livvy said at length. “Pendle Hill.”
The pine garlands sighed softly to the vicar’s feet.
“And who be your mother, little girl from Pendle Hill?” He stepped nearer, his slipper crushing the desiccated needles. Livvy’s nose twitched at the sharp scent of the pine oil.
“Anna be her Christian name. Anna Hasseltine.”
“No,” the vicar said slowly. “I asked you, who be your mother?”
Confused, Livvy crept with her toes nearer the door.
“She—She’s—” Livvy stammered. “I’m—”
“What do you want here?” He was so close, only an arm’s length away.
“I was only—”
“You were only what?”
Livvy’s eyes traveled up to the squatting black chalk woman. Her hands on her knees. Her smile saying, Yes. Look at me. I know you. I knew you before you knew yourself.
“You be an abomination,” the vicar said, softly and so friendly-like that at first Livvy thought she must have misheard him.
“What?” Livvy said.
“You best be getting on,” the vicar said, dropping his voice to a sinister whisper. “Wee Cromwellian. Little spawn of the Pretender. I’m just back from London, you know.” He stepped near enough that she could feel his wet breath on her cheek.
Livvy’s wrists ached. In the pillory, back in Pendle, she’d been left so long the bones in her wrists grated together like dry pebbles.
“Oh, aye.” The vicar’s poxed eye gleamed. “I saw it all. Cromwell’s body dragged through the streets on a sledge. Hanged for a day, then his head hacked off. Driven on a pike twenty foot high. Mounted above Westminster Hall. Can you conceive it? The Lord Protector himself, slack-jawed, pecked by crows?”
Livvy’s feet inched her along the wall, away from the vicar, nearer the door. Three feet. Then two. Almost near enough to grasp the handle.
“Go on. Get out of here,” the vicar snarled. “There’s no call for the likes of you in God’s house.”
Her hand fell on the door. Pushed it open. The evening mist drifted in, carrying the smells of sheep and darkness.
“This were never God’s house,” Livvy said, too loudly, and stepped into the coming night.
Cambridge, Massachusetts Early February 2000
“It would appear that we are nearly out of time,” Janine Silva said, eying her vintage Spiro Agnew wristwatch, and Connie Goodwin’s vision blurred with a surreal sense of déjà vu.
For six years, every major event of her graduate student life had taken place in this room. The new student welcome reception was held here—Connie had worn flip-flops, of course, which was appalling, but true. Her reading seminars were taught here. Her oral exams—the longest four hours of her life, so stressful that she had basically blocked them out the moment they were over. That was here too. Her practice job talk, before a panel of fellow doctoral candidates each wanting to ask a question more probing and picayune than the next, also here. And the dreadful, stultifying holiday parties, year after year, which she’d attended mainly so that she and her roommate Liz Dowers—Liz of the half-dimple smile and ability to actually lecture in medieval Latin—could make off with the cheese platter at the end. Years and years she had spent trapped in this room, like Theseus in the Labyrinth, an endless vista of sameness around this one conference table. And then, all at once, never again. Not since her final defense. In, what? 1995. Five years. A long time. And not a long time at all.
The room itself was essentially the same as she remembered. Pitted conference table, with a few fresh pairs of initials here and there, tattooed into the wood with ballpoint pen. The same stained blackboard, now hidden behind a freestanding whiteboard with an announcement for an undergrad study break next week—free pizza!—in blue dry-erase marker. The same white-whiskered portrait of an anonymous old man, gazing boringly out at his own receding importance. The same grimy window, with the same shutters, now pinned open to catch what remained of the thin winter light. Four in the afternoon, and already almost dark. February was the cruelest month in New England.
Janine Silva, chair of the newly renamed Committee on Degrees in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, folded her hands in front of her and smiled at the faces assembled around the table.
“I believe we have time for one more question,” Professor Silva said. “Who would like to do the honors?”
Janine looked expectantly into each face in turn. To Janine’s left, Marcus Hayden, specialist in African American history, newly lured from Dartmouth with tenure and, it was rumored, a house in Belmont for him and his wife and four (four!) children. Marcus was a superstar. He’d gotten the Bancroft history prize with his first book (first!), and he appeared regularly as a commentator on cable news networks. He was the kind of guy Connie found herself thinking about in parenthetical interjections (a Bancroft!). If he had any shortcoming at all, it was that Marcus knew he was a superstar. He’d barely acknowledged Connie when she came into the room. He was cordial to Janine, but in an aloof, superstarish way. He had no notes in front of him, and was also looking at his watch—an expensive one. Well-cut sport coat and no tie. Too handsome for a tie. He had already moved on from this otherwise unmemorable afternoon. No way would the last question come from him.
To Janine’s right, Professor Harold Beaumont leaned back in his library chair, eyelids heavy, fingers knitted over his sweatered belly. Professor Beaumont had published a thousand-page Civil War monograph twenty-one years ago, with a university press that listed it for sale in hardcover at a cost of eighty-nine dollars (all but guaranteeing it would never be adopted for any course), and then he’d settled into tenure with comfortable indifference. Connie doubted he remembered having been on her own orals committee. Or if he did, he didn’t much care. He passed his days teaching one seminar a year, generally consisting of no more than four students at a time (they all had to buy his book), writing a regular column for the National Review, and going on cable news shows, though not the same channels as Professor Hayden. He had notes between his hands, the selfsame typewritten ones that he took to every examination like this one, but Connie was reasonably certain that he was about to fall asleep.
On the opposite side of the table, eyes wide, buttoned into an ill-fitting navy blue blazer that had the look of being borrowed from a friend, radiating the vibrating crackles of panic that perhaps Connie alone around the table could remember having felt, sat the reason for this gathering—a young, curly-headed graduate student named Esperanza Molina. Zazi, to her friends. Enduring the longest four hours of her entire life up to this point. Five pounds skinnier from months of studying. Light-headed, desperate for escape. Hands tightly folded, thumbs crossed as if in prayer. Her eyes met Connie’s and begged, Please let this be over.
“I’ll do it,” Connie said.
Janine beamed. “Professor Goodwin? By all means. Go ahead.”
“Miss Molina.” Connie leaned her elbows on the table and looked pointedly at the young woman—girl, really. Grad students looked younger to Connie every year. “Would you kindly provide the committee with a concise but complete history of witchcraft in North America?”
The second hand ticked on Connie’s watch. And kept ticking. It ticked long enough that Connie noticed it ticking. Her question was meant to be a lob. An easy tossup that Zazi could smash into the corner of the court—Connie had never actually played tennis, but same difference—and go out of her oral qualifying exam with a bang. This was a gimme question. Zazi’s eyes were open so wide that Connie could almost see the whites around her irises. What was happening in there? Was Zazi hunting through all her mental index cards—she probably didn’t use index cards, none of the grad students did anymore—shuffling through drawer after drawer, looking for the answer and finding them empty? What would Connie do if Zazi couldn’t answer? She would have to throw her a life preserver. Give her a hint or something.
Connie glanced at the other professors around the table, weighing how a life-preserver hint would go down, and what it might mean for Zazi passing the exam. Janine would probably let it slide. Maybe. Depending on how she felt about Zazi’s writing. Harold? Oh, he wouldn’t care, would he? Unless he felt like causing a problem just because he could. Connie wouldn’t put it past him. Plenty of professors—more than she’d like to acknowledge—took more pleasure from exercising their power over their students than they did in seeing their students succeed. She glared at him as she thought this, but he didn’t notice. And what about Marcus? His lips pressed together, flattening his mouth. Dammit. No way would he give Zazi a pass. No freaking way.
Zazi straightened in her chair, drawing her shoulders back and lifting her chin. She looked from one professor’s face to another, settling at last on Connie.
“Northeast, South, or Southwest?” Zazi said.
* * *
The Harvard graduate student of American history, as Zazi was, and as Connie had been, must demonstrate mastery of a dizzying array of facts, details, arguments, and agencies of staggering obscurity before being advanced to candidacy for the doctorate. This demonstration took place before a panel of professors, each chosen by the graduate student to form a committee carefully balanced between the competing interests of mentorship, influence, power, and ego. From Connie’s perspective, Zazi had chosen well. Two senior people, of differing politics and spheres of influence. A young superstar. And a young not-exactly superstar. Also of differing politics. And certainly different spheres of influence. Connie had never been invited on any cable news programs. Not a lot of call for commentary on early American colonial religious history on cable news. Thank God.
The questions Zazi had gotten that afternoon had been par for the course, and as wretched as any oral exam Connie had ever presided over. Discuss, if Zazi would, the major themes and publication details of some of the most widely disseminated escaped-slave narratives circulated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In what ways, would Zazi say, did the Antinomian Crisis find expression in the political and religious organization of the European colonies? Would Zazi please describe the first Wedgwood ceramic pattern put into mass production, and its importance in the history of American class signification and practices of consumption?
Awful. Just awful. Though Connie thought she was doing okay so far. Maybe not awesome, but totally fine. Connie glanced at Marcus again under her eyelashes.
Maybe not fine. Hmmm.
Zazi needed Connie, and not just for the lob. Zazi had come to Harvard straight out of the Plan II honors program at the University of Texas, and she intended to study American colonial history. She also had a secondary interest in syncretic and folk religions of the South and Southwest, specifically Hoodoo, Vodun, and Santería. Connie was doing her best to steer Zazi away from a dissertation on that, though. Hard to get a job with that topic. No university teaching positions listed “occult expertise a plus” after “Ph.D. required.”
As Connie knew well.
Zazi had arrived in Cambridge owning zero sweaters, breezed through her coursework, had frozen her first winter, bought two sweaters, and had been all set to sit for her oral exams on time when her plans had collapsed into wreckage around her. Steven Hapsburg, assistant professor of early colonial American history and Zazi’s advisor, had been denied tenure and would be leaving Harvard at the end of the semester. Rumor had it he was leaving academia altogether and moving to Puerto Rico to live on a boat. (Smart move.)
Hapsburg had come to Harvard in 1994, replacing Connie’s own advisor, Manning Chilton, when Chilton suffered an abrupt, appalling, career-ending distemper. Hapsburg was young, and earnest, and straight out of the University of Delaware with a studious dissertation on Connecticut shield-back chairs. He loaded up with courses and advisees and tutorials and got involved in residential life and published three articles (one in American Quarterly, even. American Quarterly!), got his book under contract with a decent university press, and then—kablooey.
Hapsburg’s ignominious departure should have come as a surprise to exactly nobody. Harvard’s history department hadn’t tenured a junior faculty member since the 1950s. They preferred to hire superstars from peer institutions, to be guaranteed they were getting the best. (Marcus Hayden, Exhibit A.) But no one had bothered to tell Zazi that.
One night the previous November Connie had been sitting her in office at Northeastern, a pile of one hundred and fifty blue-book midterm exams on her desk, already two weeks past when she’d promised her United States Survey 1580–1860 undergrads she’d have the exams back, starting her fourth mug of coffee for the day and drumming on her head with a pencil, when her office phone rang.
It was Janine Silva.
“She’s very upset,” Janine said, in a mild tone that reminded Connie that Janine had stepped in when she, Connie, lost her own advisor to a devastating illness just as she was beginning dissertation research. In the background, a nose blew, and weeping continued audibly.
“He can’t stay on to see her through the exam?” Connie said. Outside a breeze kicked up, rattling dry maple leaves against her office window like loosened teeth.
“He’s moving onto a boat.”
“There’s no one else on faculty who can do it? What about someone in religious studies?” Connie’s hand found her forehead and pinched an eyebrow.
“I’m not asking you to be her advisor,” Janine pointed out. The radiator under Connie’s office window rumbled to life. Like I did for you, Janine didn’t say. “Third reader. Second, at most.”
“Isn’t Thomas a lecturer now? Can’t he do it?”
Thomas Rutherford had been Connie’s undergrad thesis student when Connie was in grad school. He was now a lanky postdoc, half a foot taller (who knew boys still grew in college?), and as pale and studious as ever. Connie still met him for lunch, on occasion.
“You know that won’t do her any good when she goes on the job market,” Janine said. “She’ll need a professor. For her letters.”
“But—” Connie picked up the pencil from her desk and pressed her thumbnail into it, digging a crescent into the wood.
What she couldn’t say to Janine was that this was the year Connie was up for tenure herself. She had grad students of her own. She had nearly twice as much committee work as her colleague who came in the same year (a guy, of course). She had a book to finish. And, in theory, she had a life (ha ha). She couldn’t take on some wayward grad student at another institution. It wouldn’t help her tenure case at all. It would just eat up her time.
On the other end of the line, in the background, the nose blew louder, and Janine said “Here, dear,” with her hand over the receiver. Probably passing over the box of tissues. One of the first lessons of being junior faculty: keep a big box of tissues. They’ll be needed for the coming wave of dead grandmothers, career-ending B pluses, and dead-to-rights plagiarists feeling abrupt remorse.
Connie rested her forehead on her desk, staring into her plaid-skirted lap. There was a tiny moth hole over her knee.
“Okay,” she said.
“Wonderful,” Janine said. “I’ll let her know. And that you’ll be her respondent at the graduate student history conference in the spring.”
Connie replaced the telephone receiver without lifting her head.
“I want to go live on a boat,” she said to her empty office.
* * *
“… was one of the reasons Catholicism was so adept at absorbing the rituals and folk practices of so many cultures,” Zazi was saying.
Connie pinched herself on her arm to force herself to pay attention. It had been a long day. A long week, if she was honest. What was this, Friday? Friday already. At least she could take the whole weekend to write. Unless they had plans. Did they have plans?
“Can you give a concrete example to support your argument, Miss Molina, rather than sweeping generalizations?” Marcus sounded unimpressed.
Zazi’s smile wavered. She looked at Connie. Her dark eyes were worried. Connie gave her a subtle head nod. Zazi folded her thumbs in the opposite way.
“Well,” she said. “In Louisiana voodoo, for example, oftentimes the figures of worship or spiritual significance were mapped onto Catholic saints. Instead of seeing them in opposition to each other, as might be expected, practitioners held the saints to be embodiments of the same spiritual properties and ideas. The figure of Papa Legba, for instance, is a voodoo loa—a saint, basically—who stands at the crossroads. He intercedes on behalf of humanity, so he is prayed to, but he is also served. We can see how that role, the role of intercession, maps onto the figure of Saint Peter, one of the Apostles. Peter was the rock on which Christ said he would build his church. Peter stands at the crossroads between the divine—Jesus—and man. It’s basically like all the same thing.”
“And what does that tell us about witchcraft?” Connie prodded, in part so that Marcus wouldn’t have time to press Zazi any further. Superstars can be impatient with garden-variety brilliant people.
“Well,” Zazi said, “I guess I see witchcraft as kind of a catch-all term. That encompasses many different forms of folk spiritual practice. It’s a way for people—often women and people of color—to claim power for themselves.”
A mildly wicked thought entered Connie’s head. Zazi’s was a good answer. Connie was satisfied. Zazi was definitely going to pass. In a few moments she would be welcomed as a colleague, rather than an apprentice, and her work would begin in earnest. Connie knew it, the other professors around the table knew it, and she suspected Zazi knew it too. She knew Zazi well enough to tease her. Just a little.
“One last question,” Connie said, walking her pen over her knuckles and smiling prettily at the grad student on the other side of the conference table. Zazi smiled back, but carefully. Connie could tell she was trying to keep it together. Only a few minutes more.
“Yes, Professor Goodwin?” Zazi asked. Polite. Happy. Almost over.
“Think any witches were real?” Connie asked, waiting for the thud of silence that had fallen when Manning Chilton asked her that exact question in this exact exam almost exactly a decade ago. Janine gasped aloud, Marcus muttered, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” and Harold was asleep. Connie sat back, folding her arms over her chest, smiling out of one side of her mouth.
“Nope,” Zazi replied without missing a beat. She was grinning.
“Well done,” Connie said.
Janine was laughing behind one jeweled hand. “Okay then,” she said, trying to swallow her laughter. “Marcus?” Professor Hayden nodded in the manner of a man ready to go home. “Harold?”
Professor Beaumont twitched and woke with a grunt. “Right, right, yes,” he said.
“If you’ll just give us a few minutes, Esperanza,” Janine said.
Zazi stood up, her face shining in triumph. Had Connie looked that way when she was sent out of the room to await the committee’s verdict? Maybe so. Regardless, Connie knew what she had to do. After quashing Marcus’s objections—he would object because he felt obligated to keep the proceedings from being a rubber stamp, not because he didn’t actually intend to pass her—Connie would take Zazi to Abner’s Pub for a drink to celebrate. Just as Janine had done for her. A warm glow washed up Connie’s cheeks. As much as she took pleasure in her own meager successes, she might be enjoying Zazi’s triumph even more.
Quarter past five, her watch read. Later than she thought. She had promised to be home.
Just one drink. It wouldn’t make her too late. She hoped.
“Dammit,” Connie muttered, bending over and feeling around on the stoop in the dark for where she had dropped her keys.
A chill wind kicked up and rolled down Massachusetts Avenue, stirring her plaid skirt and licking up her thighs. She reached a hand behind her to hold the skirt down so she wouldn’t flash the homeless guy bedded down in the doorway of the yoga studio across the street. Where had those keys gone? Her fingers were going numb. If she couldn’t find them she’d have to ring the bell.
Connie definitely didn’t want to ring the bell.
A group of three undergrad girls tripped by, catching their stiletto heels in the bricks, naked legs pale with cold under short shimmery dresses and insufficient coats. On their way home from a final club probably. Drunk and chattering, excited, happy. One teetered over to the side and ended up in a snowdrift, her friends hooting with laughter as they scrambled her back to her feet. Connie eyed them with mild envy. Even when she was an undergrad, at Mount Holyoke, Connie had never been naked-legs confident like that.
Her fingertips stumbled over the keys, grasping the largest—an antique iron one, hollow, with a long shank, that she’d found years ago. Hidden in a Bible, of all things. It didn’t go to anything. But she liked having it. A fob for the chain. Or a talisman, maybe. A reminder that secrets can sometimes be discovered when one looks closely at ordinary things.
She straightened and stirred the keys in her palm, stroking the antique one before picking out the one that fit the front door of the Green Monster.
The Green Monster was what Connie called the squat, peeling apartment building where she lived, just outside the busiest section of Harvard Square. The Monster had once been a grand Cantabridgian house of the Gilded Age, all dentil moldings and curving oak-railed staircases and marble fireplaces. When the Gilded Age curdled and yellowed into the twentieth century, whoever owned the house realized there was more to be gained from carving it into a warren of small apartments to rent to students and other wayfarers. Three or four apartments per floor, three floors, dusty stairs and the muffled mewling of cats across the hall. In the rear a punk girl lived on the largesse of her parents, occasionally modeling for tattoo magazines, but mainly smoking marijuana that Connie could smell in her kitchen. Upstairs a single father with a drinking problem lived in a studio on one side, and three MIT grad students who rarely made eye contact shared a one-bedroom on the other. What had once been a carriage house in the rear had been transformed by the 1920s into an auto repair shop. What had been a garden was now a parking lot. The house took its name from the particular shade of Fenway Park green that covered its peeling face, the same color as the line-drive-eating billboard of the same name.
Connie shared the parlor rooms on the first floor, lit by a bay window overlooking Massachusetts Avenue and one stubborn, determined, but nearly snuffed-out rosebush. Being on the parlor floor meant soaring ceilings and elegant mantels on the one hand, and street noise and mice on the other. Most mornings, Connie was awakened by the car mechanics talking under her cracked bedroom window. Or by the smell of coffee from the kitchen.
She fitted her key into the door to her apartment, trying to turn it silently so as not to awaken the sleeping occupants. The bolt slid, the door creaked open, and Connie slipped into the darkened living room, dropping her shoulder bag full of exam books at her feet and easing the door closed behind her. As it clicked shut two furry paws materialized at her ankles, and whiskers appeared snuffling her shins. That was one occupant she hadn’t fooled.
“Hey, Arlo,” she whispered. She bent down and collected the wiggling animal into her arms and hoisted him to her hip. Two terrier-like feet scrabbled at her throat, and a happy tongue tackled her cheek.
“Am I in trouble?” she asked the vaguely sized creature in her arms.
His tail brushed her thigh.
“Uh-oh,” Connie said.
She surveyed the dim outlines of the living room, lit in cool blues and oranges from the streetlights outside. A couple of beer bottles on the coffee table. An open laptop in sleep mode. A plaid shirt draped over the back of the couch. Signs of waiting, finally abandoned.
Connie tiptoed with Arlo under her arm down the hall of the apartment, past the door to the bedroom. It was cracked open. Dark inside. When Connie passed the door the ball of her foot pressed on a board that creaked in protest. She stopped.
Sounds of rustling sheets inside the bedroom—someone rolling over.
Then a soft snore drifted out from behind the bedroom door. Connie continued creeping to the galley kitchen at the rear of the apartment.
In the kitchen, Connie snapped on the light, set Arlo down, and went for the fridge. She and Zazi had shared nachos at Abner’s—the kind made with “nacho cheese,” which Zazi loudly derided, on the grounds that she was Texan and had things to say about nachos, but which they’d devoured anyway. Disgusting, yet oddly satisfying, and here, only a short time later—okay, maybe not a short time later—Connie was starving.
Her hand fell on the fridge door and her eye on the whiteboard mounted to the freezer. Below the running tally of household expenses kept to figure out who owed what to whom at the end of each month, Connie found a scrawled note. She pulled the end of her braid up under her nose in a kind of mustache as she read.
Grace called. Said call back ASAP. Late okay.
Below that, in block caps:
GRACE ALSO THINKS YOU SHOULD GET A CELL PHONE.
“Oh, man.” Connie looked around for Arlo, but he had disappeared.
Inside the refrigerator Connie found bread and mayonnaise and sliced deli ham that was probably still good and some mustard. She hunted up a cleanish plate from the sink and started assembling a sandwich.
Connie doubted that her mother had called for any real emergency. Once Grace Goodwin had called her daughter six times in a row at her office, leaving voicemails of increasing stridency, until Connie, panicked, with fifteen minutes between classes, called her back to discover that Grace was upset because one of her tomato plants had died.
“Mom,” Connie had said. “Oh, my God. It’s a tomato plant.”
“It was heirloom,” Grace said, as if that alone could explain the emergency.
After raising Connie on her own in a shabby farmhouse in Concord, which Grace had run as an anarcho-syndicalist collective (Connie was never able to establish whether Grace actually knew the definition of anarcho-syndicalism, but whatever), Grace had followed her bliss all the way out to Santa Fe, New Mexico. While there she had cleansed auras and raised succulents and wondered aloud why Connie didn’t know herself better. They’d passed several years this way, speaking haltingly on the phone—or rather, Connie spoke haltingly, and Grace spoke at length and on any number of arcane topics, most of which didn’t interest her bookish, rationalist daughter. Then when Connie was halfway through grad school, after the wretched summer when Manning Chilton ripped a neat hole in the center of Connie’s intellectual life, Grace had abruptly pulled up stakes to move back east. Grace now lived on the North Shore, in the house she had grown up in, about an hour away from Cambridge. Close, but far enough to pretend she wasn’t close.
Connie sank her butter knife into the bread, slicing the sandwich in two neat halves. She probably owed Grace a visit.
The wall separating the kitchen from the bedroom was old horsehair plaster, browned and bubbling from generations of neglect. Behind that wall, the other occupant of the apartment slept the sleep of the disappointed.
Maybe she should go see Grace tomorrow.
She stuffed some sandwich into her mouth, chewed, felt a wave of revulsion at the taste of the meat, opened her mouth and let the chewed glob fall into the sink. She ran the water and put her mouth under the faucet and drank. The water felt good. Cold, from being held in cold winter pipes. Was Grace remembering to leave the water trickling in the antique house where she lived? A house older than electricity. Older than plumbing. A house that treated plumbing as a person might treat a new third arm—uninvited, perplexing, potentially useful, but also a rank intrusion. Sometimes it seemed as though the house was trying to grow the plumbing back out of it, like a splinter.
Yes. It would be good to go up and see Grace. She’d go. This weekend.
Connie slid the remnants of her sandwich into the garbage and slunk out of the kitchen.
In the darkened, silent bedroom she slipped out of her blouse, unhooked her plaid skirt, and dropped it to the floor. She’d pick it up tomorrow. She was exhausted. Head buzzing with the exam, with the writing she had planned for the weekend, with Grace’s call.
“How’d it go?” a sleepy male voice asked as Connie slid under the covers.
“I thought you were asleep,” she said softly.
Sam Hartley was a steeplejack who had dropped—literally, on a belay line from the rafters of a mid-restoration meeting house—into Connie’s life halfway through her years in grad school. Connie’s life fell into two halves: before Sam, and after. Sam made up silly nicknames for her and told bad dad jokes and hogged the covers. Sam spent a lot of his time waiting: for the library to close and spit her out preoccupied and tired, for the end of her midterm grading, for her book to be done. Connie liked finding him there, waiting, whenever she was ready to step out of the past and back into the world where she nominally lived. In a way, Sam was the world. A whole universe of memory and feeling, contained in the form of a tired ex-punk in his mid-thirties who was waiting on a small-business loan from Salem Five Cents Bank to buy another truck and hire some scaffolders.
Her universe yawned and stretched his arms over his head. “I was,” he said. “Sort of. What time is it?”
“Late,” she said, inching closer to him. She could just make out the profile of his nose—beautiful, straight, yet broken once, long ago. His hair cut short and sticking up in sleep. Sometimes she missed it long.
“She pass?” he said, voice tired.
“With flying colors.” Connie found the swell of his lightly furred chest below his collarbone, the part that fit her cheek most perfectly, and rested her head there, sliding her arm around his waist. But when she did so, his chest was tight. His jaw too. A wave of tension vibrated along the length of his body.
“Sam?” she said softly. She couldn’t see his face.
Somewhere inside the plaster wall, a mouse rustled.
“You could’ve called,” he said at length.
Connie’s stomach turned over from a sour combination of bad sandwich, nachos, and guilt.
“I didn’t think it would—”
“You never do.” Two beer bottles in the living room. That meant he would have been waiting for her, alone, for at least three hours.
Connie sat up. Sam eased himself up in the pillows, leaning on the headboard.
“It was work,” she said, and while it was a good excuse when she spoke it inside her head, spoken aloud it sounded pathetic.
“I know.” His hands rested lightly on the duvet. She wanted to touch him.
“It took longer than I thought it would,” she said.
“It always does,” he pointed out. Not angry. Matter-of-fact.
“I couldn’t … There wasn’t a good opportunity to call. I didn’t go back to my office.”
“If you had a cell phone, this wouldn’t be a problem,” he said, in the tone of someone rehashing an exhausted argument.
Connie didn’t know what to say. Okay, sure, she could see why he might have worried. Three hours was a long time to wait. But her work had to come first. Why couldn’t he understand that a lot of her work didn’t look like “work”?
He waited. Looking at her. He’d taken his septum ring out a couple of years ago, and without it, with the shorter hair, he looked older. Steady, tired, with deepening smile lines around his hazel eyes. A man, instead of a boy. Even with the tribal tattoo around his upper arm.
A man disappointed in her.
“It’s not like we had plans or anything.” She knew as she said it that it was a feeble excuse.
“That’s not the point,” he countered. Head leaning on the headboard. Still not angry. Calm. Maddeningly calm.
“So what is the point?” Her voice rose more than she meant it to. “You know I can’t just leave those things whenever I want to. I have to make nice with senior people. I have to do them favors when they ask me to. Janine and Harold could be called on for letters for my tenure file. Everything I do is under review, all the time!” Her hands twisted the bedsheet.
Sam closed his eyes.
“I know, Cornell,” he said, voice ragged with exhaustion. It was his nickname for her. An old inside joke. He used it to tease her whenever she got too bookish and impossible. Which was most of the time these days. “I guess I just wish—”
From the floor came the sound of a creature stretching out short legs, readying for sleep.
“Wish what?” She was afraid of the answer.
He stared at her for what seemed like a very long time.
Then he pulled the covers up over his shoulder and settled in the bed on his side, facing away from her.
“Nothing,” he muttered.
What was she supposed to do? His work was cut-and-dried—when you’re up on the scaffolding scraping and re-gilding a steeple, you’re at work. When you’re at home, you’re at home. Connie was never not at work. Never not thinking about her writing, about her teaching, about the deadlines looming on the horizon or the journal articles she had on submission or her book, that awful book dangling over her head, grazing her scalp like the sword of Damocles.
“Sam?” Connie tried to keep fear out of her voice.
“I have to get up in five hours,” he said into his pillow.
She settled gingerly down next to him, fingers knitted over her belly, and stared up at the ceiling. Before long his breathing evened and slowed. Arlo, on the floor, breathed at a different rate. The darkness in the room deepened, then thinned, then grayed, unveiling the egg and dart molding along the ceiling one mesh at a time before Connie finally fell into a restless sleep, just before the dawn.
Copyright © 2019 by Katherine Howe