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A Bond with Death
Sally Good blamed the Internet for a lot of things.
She blamed it for the e-mail messages that flooded her mailbox at the Hughes Community College address. Most of the messages were worthless spam, and they made outrageous promises to increase her bust size by two or three cups, make her irresistible through the power of pheromones, allow her to lose twenty to thirty pounds in ten days, find her the perfect soulmate, make her rich by helping her set up a "simple home business," or provide her with a platinum credit card with $5,000 in unsecured credit. Among other things.
She blamed it for putting canned research papers on the screens of students who went looking for a plot summary and found a complete research paper that they could buy, teaching them that it was easier to pay to have someone do their work for them than to do it themselves.
But most of all she blamed it for having made it easy for someone to find out that she was related, by marriage, to a witch. And for making it so easy to send a distorted version of that information to practically everyone at the college and the entire community it served.
"It doesn't reflect well on the college at all," President Fieldstone said, "having one's ancestor hanged for witchcraft."
"Sarah Good wasn't my ancestor," Sally said. "She was my husband's ancestor, and my husband's been dead for eight years now. Besides, you surely don't believe she was actually a witch."
Fieldstone didn't say anything, so Sally continued.
"Even if she was, all that hysteria happened over three hundred years ago."
On July 19, 1692, to be exact, the same day that Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Wildes, Rebecca Nurse, and Susannah Martin had been hanged along with Sarah Good. Sally had seen Sarah's gravestone once upon a time, while on vacation with her late husband. And of course she'd read about how Sarah Good had gone defiantly to the gallows, never having admitted that she was a witch, and how she had called out to one of her accusers, "You are a liar. I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink," a curse that Nathaniel Hawthorne had appropriated without credit for use in The House of the Seven Gables, which Sally had read when she was a junior in high school.
The fact that Sarah Good's curse came true, Noyes later having died with internal hemorrhaging, bleeding profusely at the mouth like Judge Pyncheon in Hawthorne's novel, probably did a lot to convince people at the time that Sarah had been very much the witch she had denied being.
But while Sally was certain that none of that had much to do with her and the present, Fieldstone didn't seem convinced as he sat there behind his big, smooth, tidy desk, the top of which would have reflected his own image back at him had he glanced down at it. It was so clean and smooth, in fact, that Sally wondered if dust could even stick to it. The extreme cleanliness made Sally cringe when she thought of her own, which was covered with student papers, some of them, maybe most of them, ungraded; books, memos, letters, and maybe a Hershey wrapper or two. Just the kind of desk a witch would probably have.
Sally sat across from Fieldstone in an uncomfortable but expensive leather chair, wishing that she were somewhere else, maybe in a committee meeting of some kind. And she hated committee meetings.
"It doesn't matter how long ago it was," Fieldstone said, "or whether I believe in witchcraft. It doesn't even really matter who Sarah Good was related to."
Whom, Sally thought. Not who. But that was what came of ending a sentence with a preposition.
"What matters," Fieldstone continued, "is what people think. We live in a very conservative part of the state, and people here are touchy about things like that. There have been several attempts to get those Harry Potter books removed from the public library, as I'm sure you know."
Sally knew. She was one of the people who'd spoken out against the removal of the books.
"And," Fieldstone went on, "you undoubtedly remember the episode with the satanic painting right here at the college."
Sally remembered that little episode, and her involvement in it, all too well.
"It wasn't a satanic painting," she said. "It was just a picture of a goat. That's all it was."
"Possibly. But it caused quite an uproar. We can't have that kind of thing, especially now that we're trying to pass a bond."
Hughes Community College had a fairly prosperous district, but the district was small, and Hughes was hemmed in on all sides by other community colleges, all of which were in direct competition for students. Fieldstone believed that to attract more students, the college needed to update the buildings and equipment, build new classroom space, and improve the athletic facilities. That would take money, money the college didn't have. Hence the bond proposal.
"There are some people in the community who are already organizing against the college," Fieldstone said. "This witch business won't help."
The people of whom he spoke, Sally knew, included some former members of the college faculty who, for whatever reason, had decided to take a stand against the place where they'd made a reasonably good living for quite a number of years before they had elected to retire. Or, in some cases, before they had been more or less forced to retire. Some of them held grudges, especially those in the latter category. One of them even held a grudge against Sally.
"What am I supposed to do?" Sally asked. "Apologize for my husband's ancestor?"
"That might be a good first step. And while you're at it, you can repudiate witchcraft."
Sally thought he might be joking, but then she noticed the tight set of his mouth and the white knuckles of the hands clasped in front of him on the slick, dustless desktop.
"I can't believe we're having this conversation," she said.
Fieldstone's mouth tightened even further, until it was just a razor-thin line in his face.
"The college needs the bond issue to pass," he said. Even when he spoke, his lips were so thin that they could hardly be seen. "Everyone on the faculty has to work together to be sure that it does."
It sounded a lot like a threat to Sally, who didn't respond well to threats. She said, "I'll do all I can to help pass the bond. I'll make calls, I'll write letters, I'll talk to the civic clubs. But I won't apologize for something that happened more than three hundred years ago. I won't ‘repudiate witchcraft,' and I won't criticize Sarah Good, who was railroaded in the first place, like a lot of other women in 1692."
Fieldstone was a graduate of Texas A&M University. The school colors were maroon and white, and at that moment Fieldstone's face above his starched white shirt made him look very school-spirited indeed, Sally thought.
"I'm sure you'll do everything you can," Fieldstone said, his voice a little hoarse. "That will be all, for the moment."
Sally stood up, thought about saying one more thing, didn't, and got out of there.
She arrived at her American literature class a couple of minutes late, having had to go back to her office for her textbook and grade book. She found the text on the desk under a set of pop tests (graded, thank goodness), and the grade book was in the top drawer, the one that could be locked, probably should be locked, but never was. Sally worried that someday, someone might steal the grade book, but she couldn't bring herself to lock the drawer. Besides, she'd lost the key years ago.
Conversation was buzzing when she arrived at the classroom, but it stopped the instant she entered. It wasn't that the students were eager to discuss the assignment, which was Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" and "The Raven." They wanted to talk about something entirely different.
It was Wayne Compton who got the ball rolling, as usual. He was a short, stocky young man with red hair cut short and a red face to match. He sat in the front row and seldom read the assignment. Even when he did, he never remembered much about it. Nevertheless, he loved class discussion. It didn't seem to make much difference to him whether he was on the right track or not, just as long as he got to talk.
"Dr. Good," he said, as soon as Sally had finished marking the roll in her grade book, "is it true?"
"Is what true?" Sally asked, though she had a terrible feeling that she knew exactly what he was asking.
Wayne looked around the room. The other students had expectant looks on their faces, and Sally presumed the looks weren't the result of enthusiasm for what she might have to say about Poe's essay and poem.
"Well," Wayne said, "you remember that stuff we read at the beginning of the semester?"
"What ‘stuff' would that be, Wayne? Anne Bradstreet's poems? Winthrop's history?"
"No, that other stuff. About the witches."
"The excerpts from Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World."
"Yeah, that stuff. About the witches. You remember that."
Probably a lot better than you do, Sally thought. She said, "I remember, Wayne."
"Well, you didn't mention that you were related to them."
"Related to whom?"
"To the witches," Wayne said. "A bunch of us got an e-mail about it."
Wayne looked around again, and several of the other students nodded.
"So is it true?" Wayne wanted to know, turning back to her.
Sally explained that it wasn't true and that while her late husband had been distantly related to a woman named Sarah Good, who had indeed been executed for witchcraft, Sally herself wasn't related to her in any way except by marriage, which didn't count.
"So what did they do to her?" Wayne asked. "To Sarah Good, I mean.
"I'm sure you remember, Wayne. What was the preferred method for executing witches in the American colonies?"
"Hanging," Wayne said. "You told us they never burned anybody or anything."
"They hanged Sarah Good, too, Wayne, like they did the others."
"Except for that guy you told us about, the one they pressed to death."
"Yes," Sally said, surprised that Wayne remembered so much. "Giles Corey. Except for him, the witches were hanged."
"And you're saying that Sarah Good was innocent?"
"They were all innocent," Sally said. "Eventually they were all pardoned by the state, the last of them in 2001."
"They were pardoned after they'd been dead more than three hundred years?"
"Some of them."
"Didn't help 'em much, did it," Wayne said.
"Not at all. But my husband appreciated it, and I'm sure the other descendants did, too."
"But the e-mail was a hoax?" Wayne said.
"That's right," Sally told him. "Imagine that. An e-mail hoax. What will they think of next?"
A couple of the students grinned.
"Now," Sally said, "I think it's time we discussed today's assignment. But before we begin, does anyone have any questions?"
A hand shot into the air. Sally sighed.
"Yes, Wayne?" she said.
The day's discussion had gone better than Sally thought it would. Wayne had read at least part of the assignment, or maybe he just remembered "The Raven" from high school. Some of the other students had things to say about the points in "The Philosophy of Composition" as they related to the Poe stories the class had discussed earlier in the week.
So Sally was in a good mood when she went back to her office. She seldom closed her office door during the day, and Jack Neville was sitting by her desk in the uncomfortable chair that she had put there for visitors.
"Have you heard?" Jack asked before she could even get in the door.
Sally walked on into her office and put the books on top of the papers on her desk.
"Heard what?" she asked.
"The Garden Gnome died last night," Jack said.
A BOND WITH DEATH. Copyright © 2004 by Bill Crider. All rights reserved.