Spelldown

By Becky Mushko

Winner, 1999 Lonesome Pine Short Story Contest
Originally published in Blue Ridge Traditions
 

This story has been published in Becky Mushko's collection of stories for young readers, Where There's A Will (West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity Publishing, 2005). See more details at AppLit's bibliography Appalachian Fiction for Children and Young Adults and AppLit's Lesson Plans on "Spelldown."


Nobody had any use for the Collinses. They were Melungeons—a dark, mysterious clan who lived on top of Brushy Mountain and rarely showed themselves except for when deputies raided their still and arrested whatever Collins boys they could catch. Rumor had it a Collins’d shoot you soon as look at you. Folks said their children grew wild as weeds and scattered like seeds to the wind when they came of age. Most younger Collins children didn’t go to school, and if they did, it didn’t hold them long. The truant officer never bothered to bring them back.

“Just as easy to pretend they ain’t there in the first place,” he said. “Ain’t no use gittin’ shot tryin’ to force education on ones who don’t want it anyhow.”

It came as a surprise to all of us, then, one September at Blue Valley School when a dark-haired girl walked up to the teacher and announced in a voice so low we strained to hear, “I’ve come to school.”

The teacher, Mr. Robinson, asked her name.

“Daisy,” she whispered. “Daisy Collins.”

The name was heard by those up front and passed back. She was the first Collins—the first Melungeon—most of us had seen close up. Everybody noticed her bare feet and made-over dress. Teacher hushed us and wrote her name down in the roll book. He had her sit in the front row with the first graders where she towered above them. At recess the girls all ignored her. Us boys ignored the girls, so naturally we ignored Daisy Collins, too. Each following day, regardless of the weather, she returned, barefoot and wearing the same dress. She kept to herself as much as she could and spent each recess inside doing extra work. How she was as a scholar, no one but Teacher could be sure, for she rarely raised her hand and, when called on, answered in such a low voice none of us could tell if her answers were right or wrong. Nevertheless, she was moved back a row every few weeks until finally she sat at the end of the seventh grade row, where she hunkered down and tried to attract as little notice as possible.

Unlike her, I craved all the attention I could get. I was always first among the seventh graders to raise my hand and call out the right answer. I prided myself on being both a good scholar and a good ball-player. Competition ran keen both at school and at home, where my twin brother Billy Ray and I were natural rivals.

“Ain’t whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” Aunt Frances, who lived with us, usually said whenever I argued with Billy Ray over who was the best at what.

“That’s so,” allowed Uncle Hal, her husband and my daddy’s brother, “but winning never hurts, does it, Bobby?”

Before I could answer, Mama said, “Well, I’m proud of my boys no matter what they do, as long as they do what’s right.”

Daddy always nodded agreement. He was a man of few words, none of which he’d waste on an argument with his brother—yet he always hollered loudest whenever Billy Ray or I won a ball game, and he was known to slip us a quarter for each A we brought home.

One of the things I could always beat Billy Ray at was spelling. Long before the school spelling bee, I studied the dictionary and took care to learn the meaning as well as the spelling of each word. Last year and the year before, I’d been school champion, which won me twenty-five dollars and a trip to Richmond for the state contest. I hadn’t won there, but I’d done respectable both times and I had nice certificates to show for it.

Naturally, when Mr. Robinson announced the spelling bee, I was the first to sign up. A few other kids in the upper grades did, too. One of them was Daisy Collins.

The night of the spelling bee—“Used to, we called ’em spelldowns,” Uncle Hal told me—the little schoolhouse was packed with families and friends ready to cheer on the participants. Only the Collinses and Daisy were missing. We contestants took our places in the row of chairs that faced the front. Just as the teacher was about to begin, Daisy slipped in, alone, and took a seat at the end of our row. Her old dress was clean, and she wore shoes that were a couple of sizes too big for her. Nobody spoke a word to her. Few even looked her way.

Teacher started calling words, the easy ones first—like "butterfly" and "cattle," but still some kids—fifth graders mostly— went down to defeat and left to sit with their families. A few of us held out while the words got harder and harder—"knowledge" and "antique" and "mosquito" and "penitentiary." Daisy Collins’s face reddened when she got that word, but she spelled it correctly in her soft little voice.

Finally, all the sixth graders and most of the seventh having been weeded out; only Daisy and I remained. Teacher called a break so everybody could get a drink of water and stretch their legs. At the break Daisy spoke to me.

“They say the prize is twenty-five dollars,” she said. “You ever seen twenty-five whole dollars together at once?”

“Not only seen it, but won it twice before!” I bragged.

“Oh,” she said, “then I reckon you’ve been to Richmond, too. I ain’t been more’n five miles from the mountain my whole life. I got brothers been to Richmond, though. I always figured I’d like to see Richmond myself. I reckon you’ll win again though.”

I knew why her brothers were in Richmond—that was where the penitentiary was. Suddenly, I didn’t feel the need to brag anymore. Before I could say anything, Teacher called everybody back and prolonged the suspense of my impending victory by introducing Reverend Dade and his wife, who everybody already knew, as the chaperones who’d to take the winner to Richmond.

Then the words came fast and furious. I spelled "homonym," "judgment" (which was a tricky one, but I was prepared), "amelioration," and "chrysanthemum" in a loud, confident voice.

Daisy stumbled through "disfigurement," "embarrass," "solicitude," and "reverential." She knew now that she was up against a winner. With each word, her voice got shakier and lower. Teacher had to ask her to repeat the last word. I knew Daisy knew she was outclassed. It was only a matter of time until she slipped. For a moment, I allowed myself the luxury of gloating, the sin of pride.

Then it was my turn again.

“Decision,” the teacher said. I’d gotten an easy word.

I looked at Daisy Collins. She looked down, as if defeat had already settled itself on her shoulders, and she’d never be any better than her brothers.
“Decision,” the teacher repeated.

“D-E,” I answered. I could see the word on the dictionary page I studied so many times: “Decision: (noun) a position reached after consideration.”

“C.” My voice faltered a bit. I looked out at the audience. My whole family sat there, smiling, proud of me for my smartness.

“I.” I looked again at Daisy, who seemed to droop and grow smaller in her chair, as if she were a weed wilting in the summer sun. There was no one of her family there to notice, though. Her defeat would be private, her shame secret. Not like me.

I took a deep breath. I did what I hoped was right.

“C-I-O-N!” I finished in a loud voice. There was silence, then a little gasp from my family when they realized what happened. Billy Ray looked at me the way he did the time I struck out and our team lost the ball game. I saw his lips form the word stupid.

Mr. Robinson looked startled. “I’m afraid that isn’t quite right, Bobby,” he said. “Daisy, if you can spell the word correctly, you’ll be the champion. Decision.”

Daisy sat up a little straighter, kind of like she’d been freshly watered by a spring rain. She wiped the start of a tear from her face and cleared her throat.

“D-E-C-I-S-I-O-N!” she announced in a louder, clearer voice than I’d ever heard her use before. A few people clapped politely. Mama realized what I’d done, and she stood up and clapped. She was still proud of me, I could tell. Then Aunt Frances and Uncle Hal and Daddy were on their feet and clapping, too. A few at a time, others rose to their feet and clapped and cheered.

There, in front of people who’d barely noticed her all her whole life before, Daisy Collins bloomed. Seeing it up close like I did was better than twenty-five dollars, better even than a trip to Richmond.

(1,484 words)

 

See AppLit's Lesson Plans on "Spelldown" - by Tammy Wood

Also by Becky Mushko in this web site:

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