Since receiving her teaching certificate three years earlier, Annie Harrison had been looking for a full-time teaching position. Unfortunately, there were a great many men and women looking for teaching jobs, and the number of openings, due to decreasing school enrollments, was small. So, like most of her fellow educators, Annie tried to make ends meet by substitute teaching and tutoring.
Then one day, much to her surprise, Annie received a phone call from Mr. Giles, headmaster of a small private school located several miles north of Boston. Apparently, one of the school's third grade teachers had resigned her post for medical reasons, and the directors wished to hire Annie as a substitute for the remainder of the school year. If everything went satisfactorily, Mr. Giles assured her, she would be given a full-time position on the faculty the following September. Not only was the salary offered a generous one for someone with limited teaching experience, but also on-campus housing was available. Annie wouldn't have to go hunting for an apartment in the middle of winter.
Danvers Academy was a very old school, dating back to the early 1700's. It was originally built as a school for the sons of the area's more prosperous families, and although it had long since gone coed, it still catered to the more affluent members of Massachusetts society. Annie's class consisted of nineteen students: thirteen girls and six boys, many of whom were descendants of the Puritan families who first settled the area. That was probably why so many of them had old-fashioned names such as Martha, Elizabeth and Sarah. Apparently, the old Yankee families didn't go in for trendy names like Briana or Sydney.
Annie had done her student teaching and most of her substitute work in the public schools in and around her hometown of Springfield. There, like in most public schools, students were apt to become rowdy, and dispensing discipline was as much a part of a teacher's responsibility as was assigning homework and administering tests. Annie was therefore unprepared for the utter silence she encountered in her classroom. Perhaps the students were unnerved by getting a new teacher midway into the school year, or maybe private schools such as Danvers Academy did not tolerate the showoffs, class clowns, troublemakers and attention-seekers found in public schools.
Smiling nervously, Annie introduced herself to her nineteen somber and silent third graders. "Now that you know who I am, why don't you tell me something about yourselves?" she asked.
One by one they answered, giving only their first names: John. Bridget. Martha. George.
Annie found it quite difficult to break the ice, so she decided to just plunge into the first lesson. Hopefully, the children would soon feel more at ease. But as the day wore on, there was no change in her students' conduct. They still sat unsmiling, silent, responding only in monosyllabic answers when asked a direct question. There was no whispering of secrets, no sniggering at private jokes, no fidgeting in their seats or no raising of hands to ask questions or volunteer answers.
One week passed and then another. Still the students' behavior hadn't changed. Annie grew more concerned as time went on. Finally, she mentioned the situation to Mr. Giles. The headmaster gruffly explained to Annie that discipline had been instilled into the children from an early age, both at home and in church. They had been brought up in accordance with the time-honored axioms "don't speak until you're spoken to," "silence is golden" and "little children should be seen and not heard." Mr. Giles then suggested none too subtly that she should concern herself with improving the children's minds and not with impugning their discipline. Annie got the message loud and clear: if she hoped to be offered a full-time job in September, she'd better be seen teaching and not heard complaining.
Day after day she taught reading, writing and arithmetic to nineteen of the gravest eight year olds she'd ever encountered. If silence were indeed golden, then Annie's classroom was Fort Knox.
The students' taciturn behavior was no indication of their academic abilities, however. Although never unsolicited, their verbal answers-always brief and succinct-were invariably correct. On written assignments and tests, their responses-short though they were-were well written and accurate. It often seemed to Annie as though she were teaching a class of robots, all programmed with the right answers.
No matter how gifted the students in their class are, teachers usually harbor the belief that they know more than their pupils do. Annie was about to discover that there was one subject on which it was her students who were the experts and she the ignorant novice.
She had given a creative writing assignment. What the students chose to write about wasn't as important as the grammar, punctuation and sentence structure they exhibited in their essays. Little Margaret had chosen for her paper the subject "the Danvers witch hunt." The essay described the events surrounding the Salem witchcraft trials. Although she graded the paper an A, Annie couldn't help but point out to Margaret that the location of the events described had been Salem, not Danvers.
Had the class' pet hamster started reciting Hamlet's soliloquy, Annie wouldn't have been any more surprised than she was when Margaret stood and spoke up, "I'm not wrong, Miss Harrison. The witch hunt started in Salem Village, not in Salem Town. In 1752 Salem Village became independent of Salem Town and thereafter was known as Danvers."
Annie was shocked not so much by Margaret's answer but by the fact that one of her zombie-like pupils had actually spoken of her own accord. Now Annie knew how Dr. Frankenstein must have felt when that assembled collection of dead body parts took its first breath. How often Annie had wanted to scream to the elements, "Give my students life!"
From that point on, each of the students took every opportunity to bring up the subject of the persecution of the Salem witches, a subject on which they appeared to be eminent authorities. Much to Annie's dismay, this eagerness to express themselves did not extend to any other subjects. At first, Annie wondered if this preoccupation with such a morbid subject was healthy. But when she remembered her previous encounter with Mr. Giles, she thought it best to keep her doubts to herself.
Working and living on campus, Annie had had few opportunities to see much of Danvers or to meet any of its people. So when spring weather started to thaw winter's coldness, she decided to spend a few hours exploring the historic and picturesque Massachusetts town.
While eating lunch at the Danvers Inn, she had a conversation with a handsome young man at the next table. A native of Plymouth, Robert Forbes, like Annie, was new to the Danvers area. Coincidentally, Robert was also a teacher. He had been teaching computer science at the public high school since the beginning of the school year.
During the course of their conversation, Annie told Robert about her concern for her class. Having taught only in public high schools, where chaos reigned unless held at bay with the firm hand of discipline, Robert had no solution to Annie's dilemma, but he did have a likely explanation for the children's obsession with witches.
"They're probably so interested in this witchcraft madness because it happened here where they were born. I bet there are a lot of kids in Gettysburg or Fredericksburg who have a more than average interest in the Civil War."
"I guess you're right," Annie conceded.
"How much do you know about the witchcraft trials?" he asked.
"Only the main ideas, none of the supporting details," she admitted.
"Spoken like a true teacher!" Robert laughed. "If I might make a suggestion: why don't you do a little homework. I think you'll get through to these kids a lot quicker if you can find a way to relate to them. Not to change the subject, but are you doing anything next Saturday?"
"Nothing that I know of," Annie said with a smile.
"If you'd like, we can spend the day together. There's a lot to see in this part of the state."
It was Annie's first date since she'd left Springfield. As such, she was hoping for a romantic dinner, maybe some dancing or a movie. She was therefore surprised and somewhat disappointed when Robert suggested they visit the Salem Witch Museum. "How romantic!" she thought wryly.
The two young teachers entered the dark domain of the Salem Witch Museum and stood with the other visitors around a large, glowing, red circle on the floor. An audio program told the story of the Salem witch hunt, while around the room, high above the visitors' heads, three-dimensional tableaus were spotlighted depicting the events of 1692. When Annie heard the names of the unfortunate citizens of both Salem Village and Salem Town that had been accused of being witches, a chill traveled down her spine: Martha Corey, Rebecca Nurse, John Proctor and Bridget Bishop. They were the names not only of the tragic victims, but also of her students!
"Annie, are you okay?" Robert asked.
Lost in her own thoughts, Annie hadn't realized the program was over. The lights were on, and people were heading for the door. Annie suddenly hurried Robert through the gift shop and out the exit, and then practically dragged him across Washington Square onto the common. In a rush of words, she told him that several of the students in her class bore the names of the accused witches.
"Robert, how many people were executed during the trials?"
"Twenty if you count Giles Corey who was pressed to death when he refused to answer the charges against him. But nineteen were actually convicted of witchcraft and hanged."
"Nineteen? Is this some bizarre coincidence? I have nineteen students in my class. Look Robert, I've got to know all the victims' names."
"Wait here a minute. I'll be right back." Robert crossed the street and disappeared into the Witch Museum's gift shop, returning a few minutes later with a book on the Salem witchcraft trials.
Annie scanned the thin paperback until she found the information she sought. "All of them!" she exclaimed, closing the book. "Every student in my class was named after one of the victims. But why? And why are all nineteen the same age and in the same class at school?"
"I don't think this book will give us those answers," Robert answered. "But I know where we might look next." Annie looked at him questioningly. "I'm a computer science teacher, remember? I must confess I'm also something of an amateur hacker. Let's go back to my place, and I'll see if we can get into the Academy's files."
"I'm in!" Robert announced triumphantly. It had taken him little more than ten minutes to access Danvers Academy's computer files. He searched for the records of Annie's students, but when he typed in each name, he received the same message: there was no student by that name on file. Searching for Annie's own record also proved fruitless. There seemed to be no problem with the school's database, except for the absence of any mention of Annie and her students.
"What about the teacher you replaced?" Robert asked. "What was her name?"
"All I know is that she resigned for medical reasons. I never asked what her name was."
Robert brought up the records of the faculty members. "According to these records the last change in staff occurred four years ago when one of the sixth grade teachers retired."
Annie was about to suggest that maybe the school was just uncommonly slow in updating their files, when she saw on the computer screen the names of the administrative staff. As in all the records, the names were listed in reverse order, last names first. She pointed to the screen and said to Robert, "Look, Headmaster: Giles, Corey. The names are reversed; that's why I didn't make the connection before. The man who hired me is Corey Giles, and the man pressed to death in 1692 was Giles Corey. Just what the hell is going on at Danvers Academy?"
"I've got an idea," Robert announced, still trying to find her predecessor at Danvers. "I can try the state licensing board, the teacher's union and the state department of education. One of them must keep a record of who's teaching at what schools."
After what seemed an eternity of patient hacking, Robert was able to generate a list of all teachers who were currently teaching at Danvers Academy as well as those who had left within the last five years. "Some of these names don't coincide with the names in the Academy's files," he said.
Robert then printed out both lists, and he and Annie started to compare the names. "Here's one," Robert announced, "Bibber, Sarah. She was supposed to be at Danvers two years ago, but there's no record of her in their files."
"What grade did she teach?" Annie asked.
"Two years ago, my students were in the first grade. Who are the others, and what grades did they teach?"
"Booth, Elizabeth, grade two, and she supposedly started last year. Churchill, Sarah, a kindergarten teacher, three years ago."
"They all follow the same pattern. The grades these women taught at the time they were hired correspond with the grades my students were in at the time. Are there any more?"
"Hubbard, Elizabeth, also a kindergarten teacher, also three years ago. Lewis, Mercy.." Robert stopped; he and Annie stared at each other. They both recognized the name Mercy Lewis as belonging to one of the afflicted girls who had accused others of the crime of witchcraft back in 1692.
Annie grabbed the book that Robert had bought at the Witch Museum. "Here they are: Sarah Bibber, Elizabeth Booth, Sarah Churchill and Elizabeth Hubbard. Robert, see if any of these names are on either of the lists: Abigail Williams. Elizabeth Parris." Annie continued reciting the names of the accusers.
"Well?" she asked when Robert looked up from the printouts.
"With one exception, those names are like the others: the state records show their assignment to Danvers Academy, yet there's no record of them in the Academy's computer files."
"What's the exception?"
"Ann Putnam. There is no mention of her on either list."
"What about me? Am I on the state's list?" she asked.
"Yeah. Harrison, Ann, temporarily assigned to Danvers Academy, grade 3."
"So we have ten teachers all named after the accusers, nineteen students and the headmaster named after the victims and no mention of any of them in the Academy's records. Do you think we've uncovered some kind of weird religious cult here?"
Robert was baffled. "I have no idea. But I'd like to know what happened to those ten teachers."
He then checked the motor vehicle records, credit reports and various directories. They only confirmed his suspicions: there was no trace of any of the women after being hired by Danvers Academy.
"I'm getting hungry. How about you?" Annie asked.
"I think I have some frozen steaks I can defrost."
"What I'd really like is pizza-my treat. Pepperoni okay with you?"
"Sounds great. I'll get my coat."
"No, you stay here and keep plugging away. I'll be back in a little while." As Robert continued his search, Annie went to DeNapoli's and ordered a large pepperoni pizza. When she opened her purse, she discovered that she had only five dollars in her wallet. But Danvers Academy was just two miles up the road. She could drive there, get some more money and be back before the pizza was done.
She opened the door to her room, reached in and turned on the light. "Hello, Ann. We've been waiting for you."
Robert Forbes decided to run a complete computer check on Annie Harrison.
Annie looked at the nineteen children huddled around the elderly schoolmaster. "Mr. Corey. I have a few questions for you, sir. I found out about the ten missing teachers. I also know that these students are not listed in the school records."
Robert found Annie Harrison's records from college, high school and finally grammar school. It was slow work, but he'd find the connection between Annie Harrison from Springfield and the missing teachers at Danvers Academy.
"You've probably guessed that we're not ordinary students," said young John Proctor.
"We're the reincarnated spirits of the so-called Salem witches," continued little Becky Nurse.
"We waited three hundred years to come back," Martha Corey added. "Except for Giles who came back early to pave the way for the rest of us."
"They were all innocently hanged in 1692," Giles Corey explained, "and reborn in 1992. I was able to obtain the post here at Danvers Academy, get the children assigned to one class and locate all the right teachers."
"What about those teachers? Why are they all named after the accusers?" Annie asked.
"Because they were the accusers, reincarnated just as we were."
"You really must have been witches if you had the power to conquer death," said Annie, trying to make sense of the whole situation.
"No. We weren't witches. We never possessed any powers. Not then and not now. Tell me Ann; are you familiar with the concept of karma, the belief that a person's actions in one life determine his or her fate in the next? Well, my dear, it does exist. It was karma, not witchcraft, that brought us all together again in this little school to rectify the sins of the past."
Robert finally found the connection; it was a matter of public record. Annie's mother had remarried after the death of her first husband, and her second husband, David Harrison, had adopted her infant daughter and given her his name.
Mr. Giles brought out the rope. "You and your friends falsely accused us of witchcraft in our previous lives. Now in this life, it is your turn to be the victim." He attached one end of the rope to the rafters overhead and pulled it tight. Ann's nineteen students gathered closely around her, as Mr. Giles slipped the noose around her neck.
"You are the last one. When these current lives of ours come to an end, our souls can find peace at last. Now it is time for you to join your friends Mercy Lewis, Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams. May God have mercy on your soul, Ann Putnam."
Published by permission of the author.