A Discovery of Witches

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Authors: Deborah Harkness
doors of the library open and drank in the fresh air. It would take more than fresh air, though, to turn the day around.
    Fifteen minutes later I was in a pair of fitted, calf-length pants that stretched in six different directions, a faded New College Boat Club tank, and a fleece pullover. After tying on my sneakers I set off for the river at a run.
    When I reached it, some of my tension had already abated. “Adrenaline poisoning,” one of my doctors had called these surges of anxiety that had troubled me since childhood. The doctors explained that, for reasons they could not understand, my body seemed to think it was in a constant state of danger. One of the specialists my aunt consulted explained earnestly that it was a biochemical leftover from hunter-gatherer days. I’d be all right so long as I rid my bloodstream of the adrenaline load by running, just as a frightened ibex would run from a lion.
    Unfortunately for that doctor, I’d gone to the Serengeti with my parents as a child and had witnessed such a pursuit. The ibex lost. It had made quite an impression on me.
    Since then I’d tried medication and meditation, but nothing was better for keeping panic at bay than physical activity. In Oxford it was rowing each morning before the college crews turned the narrow river into a thorough-fare. But the university was not yet in session, and the river would be clear this afternoon.
    My feet crunched against the crushed gravel paths that led to the boathouses. I waved at Pete, the boatman who prowled around with wrenches and tubs of grease, trying to put right what the undergraduates mangled in the course of their training. I stopped at the seventh boathouse and bent over to ease the stitch in my side before retrieving the key from the top of the light outside the boathouse doors.
    Racks of white and yellow boats greeted me inside. There were big, eight-seated boats for the first men’s crew, slightly leaner boats for the women, and other boats of decreasing quality and size. A sign hung from the bow of one shiny new boat that hadn’t been rigged yet, instructing visitors that NO ONE MAY TAKE THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN OUT OF THIS HOUSE WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE NCBC PRESIDENT. The boat’s name was freshly stenciled on its side in a Victorian-style script, in homage to the New College graduate who had created the character.
    At the back of the boathouse, a whisper of a boat under twelve inches wide and more than twenty-five feet long rested in a set of slings positioned at hip level. God bless Pete, I thought. He’d taken to leaving the scull on the floor of the boathouse. A note resting on the seat read, “College training next Monday. Boat will be back in racks.”
    I kicked off my sneakers, picked two oars with curving blades from the stash near the doors, and carried them down to the dock. Then I went back for the boat.
    I plopped the scull gently into the water and put one foot on the seat to keep it from floating away while I threaded the oars into the oarlocks. Holding both oars in one hand like a pair of oversize chopsticks, I carefully stepped into the boat and pushed the dock with my left hand. The scull floated out onto the river.
    Rowing was a religion for me, composed of a set of rituals and movements repeated until they became a meditation. The rituals began the moment I touched the equipment, but its real magic came from the combination of precision, rhythm, and strength that rowing required. Since my undergraduate days, rowing had instilled a sense of tranquillity in me like nothing else.
    My oars dipped into the water and skimmed along the surface. I picked up the pace, powering through each stroke with my legs and feeling the water when my blade swept back and slipped under the waves. The wind was cold and sharp, cutting through my clothes with every stroke.
    As my movements flowed into a seamless cadence, it felt as though I were flying. During these blissful moments, I was suspended in

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