Maude Charity Booker was an extraordinary young woman, the church felt that in its bones. She didn't know yet, only had the barest inkling of what lay inside her. Maude had a normal upbringing. She was born on a normal day, to a normal mother who stayed at home, and a normal father who worked as the town moneylender. The church noticed Maude in her childhood like it noticed any child, her baptism was unremarkable, she attended church every Sunday, her clothing and mannerisms were just like everybody else's. Her bedroom was just like any other child's. She had one rag doll and three corn husk dolls that she never played with, because she didn't really play. She had a Sunday dress, which was white, and a weekday dress, which was off-white. She wanted for nothing, and she didn't have time to think about anything else.
The church first noticed Maude Charity Booker on Mayday. A huge pole, covered in brightly colored streamers stood in the middle of the village, and children wove a basket of giggles underneath. The little boys played greased pig, and the older ones played keepaway with a leather ball. Maude and the other teen girls sat under a weeping willow and practiced for the spelling bee.
"Do you think that Mrs. Dunwurth will give us any words that we do not know?" That was Lucy, Maude's best friend since they were in cradles. What Lucy lacked in the ability to think critically, she made up for in a beautiful face and slim figure. Though Maude would never admit it, her heart wilted a little every time she and Lucy went out, and she was passed by, as if a ghost.
"I would not be surprised if she did. I wish I could win this year, that pie looks especially good."
"I have heard that Constance has added cloves into the crust again, just like last year," Mary chimed in next to Lucy. "I felt as if I had eaten a slice of heaven that day, I did."
The most exciting part of Mayday was the dance, or the choir, or the feast afterwards. The spelling bee was just one of many things to pass by on one's way to the real celebration. Henry Addams had won the spelling bee for three years in a row, the smartest boy in the village. He was a year older than Maude, and aimed to head off to higher schooling. This was his last Mayday, and as such, quite a crowd had gathered to wish him off. Mr. Booker and Mrs. Booker sat on a pew far back in the church. Maude was a good girl, but this was not where good girls excelled, so they waited with no inkling of what was about to happen. The church could feel it brewing. As size seven leather boots approached the doors, something crackled in the timber of the walls. The church heard her footsteps drawing closer, loud as the devil's drums on judgment day, heavy as an iron collar around its steeple. It tried with all its might to block her out, to warn the reverend or the council leader or her father.
"These seats are awfully splintery today, would you not say, dear?" Mrs. Booker pulled shards out of her glove.
"I'll have the altar boy tend to it. Boy!" A shadow of a child scurried over, rubbed some oil into the pew, and then scurried away.
"Thank you, love."
"Of course." The church groaned in exasperation. No one ever listened.
"Mr. Addams, would you please spell the word insouciant?"
"Freedom from concern or care."
"Thank you, Mrs. Dunwurth." Henry flashed her a smile. The crowd tittered. Three rounds of the spelling bee had eliminated nearly every child, leave Henry, Charles, Augustine, and Maude.
"Insouciant. I-n-s-o-u-c-i-a-n-t." Gloved hands clapped politely. Charles was eliminated the next round on chiaroscurist, and Augustine two rounds after that, stumbling over celebratory. Really, it was a miracle he had gotten that far. All of a sudden, only Maude and Henry were left. What had started as a repast from the early summer heat now had become quite a spectacle. Nobody had ever bested Henry, much less a girl, an ignorable girl, an exceedingly average girl. The men in the crowd frowned. This was not the place for Maude Charity Booker.
"Mr. Addams, your word is reprehensible." Henry's face, normally a smug grin, had broken into a cold grimace, growing only colder each time he caught a glimpse of the wholly unremarkable girl standing next to him.
"Reprehensible." The church held its breath.
"R-e-p-r-e-h-e-n-s-a-b-l-e. Reprehensible." Mrs. Dunwurth peered at him over the lectern.
"Ms. Booker. Would you please spell reprehensible?" She said it so quickly, so quietly, that it wasn't caught by anybody until the letters were halfway out of Maude's unremarkable mouth.
"Reprehensible. R-e-p-r-e-h-e-n-s-i-b-l-e. Reprehensible." Mrs. Dunwurth squinted at her paper in the pin-drop silent church.
"That is correct. Congratulations, Ms. Booker." The church somehow went quieter, the walls absorbing even the sounds of breath.
"She cheated." Henry's voice broke the silence. His tone was nonchalant, careless as his tousled hair, but the church could feel heat radiating off his bones. Maude turned to him, eyebrows furrowed.
"Yes, you cheated." Eyes in the crowd darted back and forth, lips fluttering from one neighbor to another. Maude's name was passed around quicker than a spark in a brush fire.
"I promise, I did not." Mrs. Dunwurth nodded at her. Maude was a good girl, a nice girl, and she did not do things like cheat at spelling bees.
"She's lying." Henry was smiling sadly. He almost pitied her, this poor girl who wanted nothing more than to win her village's Mayday spelling bee. He should have let her win, he thought. It must have taken her hours to convince Mrs. Dunwurth to give her the answers, and then figure out the meanings, memorize the spellings, and drum up the nerve to stand on the stage in front of everyone. He understood now. How sad. This would be her greatest accomplishment in life. Girls like Maude didn't leave the village. They became seamstresses or midwives or teachers, married young and had lots of children, and then died. Henry didn't care much for what went between all that, he was destined for greater things. This spelling bee could have been Maude's only accomplishment in her inconsequential life, something to tell great-grandchildren about on her deathbed. Henry's head shook side to side. What a pity.
"There's only one way to settle this. A final round." Dr. Goodwin, the town physician, stood up from his place in the crowd.
"I appreciate the sentiment, doctor, but if Ms. Booker would like to call herself the winner, I shall respect it." Henry winked at Maude. He was such a good person.
"Nonsense. If you claim there has been cheating, we will have to examine the situation. I will call the final word." Dr. Goodwin nodded to Henry. He was such a good person.
"Your word is haematemesis. It is a vomiting of blood caused by stomach diseases, and I will award a penny to whomever can spell it correctly." Dr. Goodwin's pockets were light, no small circular imprints, and his wallet only held silver coins. No person in this small town would be able to spell what he had spent years studying at higher schooling. Nevertheless, if both Maude and Henry could not spell, it would only prove that the girl had cheated, and the boy was honest. And if Henry somehow on a stroke of luck guessed right, he would seem genius, and Dr. Goodwin would only be down one penny.
"Mr. Addams, you may begin." Henry's lips merged into a tight white line.
"Haematesmesis. H-e-m-a-t-e-s-e-m-e-s-y-s." He cringed as the last letter left his mouth.
"I am afraid that is incorrect." The crowd clapped appreciatively. Mr. Addams was so brave.
"Ms. Booker. Would you like to give this a go?" Maude Charity Booker took a deep breath.
"Haematemesis. H-a-e ..." She paused, nodding through letters in her head, a music only she could hear.
"I believe." Dr. Goodwin had been standing proudly, the judge of truth, and now he sat back down in his pew. "I believe Ms. Booker is correct."
"WITCH!" Henry's face was purple, his cheeks puffed.
"SHE'S A WITCH!" he screamed, spittle flying across Maude's face as she stood frozen. The church rolled its eyes back in ecstasy. Finally, someone heard it. It took Henry's words and threw them across the room, bouncing off rafters and zipping around altars.
"Mr. Addams, you will leave at once," Mrs. Dunwurth's voice was cold and sharp as it cut through the air.
"No! Not until she confesses!" Henry stalked closer to Maude, beady eyes darting back and forth, sweat running down his face.
"Come on, son, we are going home." The elder Mr. Addams had made his way to the base of the pulpit, and was now frowning at his son's show of insanity. The crowd had gone from whispering to full-out conversation, eager for dramatics.
"No! Can you not see! She is a witch! She has the devil in her! She is a witch!" Henry's voice pierced ears as he was hauled out of the church, burly hands around his shoulders. Finally, the door slammed shut behind him. All eyes turned back to Maude, more eyes than she had ever seen.
"This is done. Luncheon will be served in the yard in a few moments." Mrs. Dunwurth stood warily. No one moved.
"Go!" At Dr. Goodwin's insistence, the church emptied quickly. Maude Charity Booker took a deep breath, and fainted backwards.
The village Maude Charity Booker resided in didn't have an official name. It had a white church, with a tall white steeple that was repainted every five years, so the few villagers who had left called it Whitesteeple. They were literal people, pious people, good, God-fearing people. The history of the town was short and dry, for the same things had befallen them as befell any other village, famines and long winters and plagues and miscarriages and the occasional bear. The only thing memorable had happened nearly 100 years before, and that was the arrival, and removal, of six witches. The children of the village were told every year the story of the six witches, and every year all the elders prayed over the souls of every child, banishing evil from their hearts. The church knew the story by heart, and if during a retelling the fire roared a bit more than usual, or a chandelier creaked, it only cemented fear and God in the children's hearts. Everyone in the town knew that witches existed, they consorted with the devil and wreaked havoc among good, pious people, but they hadn't been seen in nearly a century, so the word held little power. The church would change that.
"I am not a witch." Maude groaned into the steaming porridge placed before her.
"Of course not, dear," chimed Mrs. Booker, a very sensible woman. "No one would think you were." Maude mumbled something back about Henry being quite sure that she was a witch, earning a response from her mother about self-pity and wallowing and the intelligence of young men.
"Well, we do not know what she is, dear. Perhaps our Maude is a witch." Mr. Booker managed to get through the first half of his statement before he had to duck to avoid the napkin thrown at him. The Booker parents laughed while their daughter slumped onto the table.
"I must ask, how did you know that word?" The Bookers knew their daughter was smart, but she was not a prodigy, nor did she have the tools to give herself a medical education.
"Remember that week I went over to Reverend Jones' house to tend to his wife when she was sick? Well Dr. Goodwin would come over to treat her and leave his medical notes lying about. I saw the word haematemesis maybe 30 times in seven days." Mr. and Mrs. Booker smiled, their curiosity sated. Maude was not some young prodigy, she was just a girl who had stumbled upon an answer by accident.
"I wish I had gotten it wrong." Maude's forehead was bunched up into a sea of worry lines. "Every time I go out, the whole village stares at me." Maude dropped her head onto the table.
"Magpie." That was Mr. Booker's name for his daughter. "You owe nothing to Henry Addams. You won honestly and truly, but if you wish for this to stop, you could try offering him a gift, or apologizing for the confusion." Maude nodded. She was a good girl, and did not let her pride get in the way of settling things down. Mrs. Booker had been ready for this, and snatched a bouquet of flowers out of the vase sitting on her table. She snipped off a piece of green ribbon from the sewing lying on the table, and expertly tied it in a bow around the stems. When Maude took the bouquet, her mother's hands met hers quickly, and sadly. They knew how to apologize.
As the village clock struck noon, a crowd gathered inside the church, whispering excitedly. The church itself was anything but excited. It could feel a storm brewing, so the bottom of its pews cracked in anticipation. Outside, mildew on the bottom of its clapboards grew sticky and slimy, oozed in a way that could only be called apprehensive. The church yelled, its voice high and frenzied, telling the crowd to leave, to save themselves, to step off of the brown floors before they ran red. No one listened. No one could hear.
Maude's hands grew clammy as she stood on the preacher's stage. Henry was about to arrive, his feet about to cross the threshold, his legs about to climb the steps to where she was standing. Maude was unsure of what she was afraid of. She knew Henry would not dare hurt her, and the worst he could do was call her a witch again, but still, something in her stomach knotted tight. She was considering calling the whole thing off, when the doors creaked open. The angelic figure of a boy full of promise stepped into the church.
Henry Addams wore his best shirt. He was not wholly sure what he had been called here for, but in these cases it seemed right to wear one's best shirt. After he had returned home from the spelling bee and been screamed at by his horribly embarrassed parents, he had come to his senses. Of course this girl was not a witch, she was just lucky. Still, he had come too far to retract the statement. Secretly, Henry was glad to have been invited here, for what he hoped was an apology and a truce. It would be good to clear everything up before he left. He strutted down the aisle and up the stairs, until he was standing in front of the unremarkable girl.
"Henry. I want to apologize for the confusion. I am sorry about the events of Mayday, and I want nothing more than to move forward and be acquaintances again." Maude's voice shook as she spoke out the last word. Everybody in the church held their breaths, awaiting Henry's verdict. He paused for a long, long time.
"Ms. Booker." His voice rang out, clear and strong, amplified by the power of the church.
"I forgive you." The crowd relaxed in their seats, and the ladies clapped politely. Maude smiled, relieved, and passed over the bunch of flowers. Henry smiled, relieved, and accepted the bunch of flowers, bringing them up to his nose for a sniff.
"Atchoo!" Henry sneezed quite loudly, but then grinned. Maude grinned back, but then frowned, as Henry's face contorted into a grimace.
"Atchoo! Atchoo! Atchoo!" He sneezed, again, even louder. The people of Whitesteeple looked up. "Atchoo! Atchoo! Atchoo! Atchoo! Atchoo! Atchoo! Atchoo! Atchoo!" Henry dropped the flowers and hunched over, hands on knees, as his body convulsed. Maude stepped away, eyes wide. Henry kept sneezing, his whole face red. His head flew back and forth, almost possessed, as he sneezed louder and louder, faster and faster. His parents slowly rose from their pew. "Atchoo! Atchoo! Atchoo! Atchoo! Atchoo!" He couldn't stop, the sneezes now propelling him forward and backwards. It would have been almost comical, if he had not looked so pained.
His eyes were wide as he now stumbled back and forth across the edge of the stage. They were watering too, fat tears running down tomato-red cheeks. The Addams were up out of their seats and walking hurriedly towards the front of the church. Henry sneezed again, and this time, blood sprayed from his nose. He sneezed again, and more blood came, staining his best shirt. He sneezed again, and it sprayed against Maude's Sunday dress. She gasped, and so did the people of Whitesteeple. Henry kept sneezing, his eyes were shut now, and he stumbled blindly, each expulsion whirling him around. He looked possessed. Maude knew this had to stop as he got closer and closer to the edge of the stage. The Addams had made it to the steps on the side of the stage. They hurried up. Right at that moment, Henry had a particularly violent sneeze. It propelled him forward, further and further, stumbling six steps ahead of him. But there was not room for six more steps where he stood, he was already quite close to the lip of the stage, and Maude lunged forward, horrified. She was too slow. On step four, Henry's foot met air. The momentum carried him forward. Henry Addams was in the air. Maude shut her eyes, but neglected to cover her ears, so she heard the wet crunch of the boy's skull meeting the church floor. Someone screamed. Someone vomited. The church's brown floors ran red.
Maude hadn't left her house in four days. Not for school, not for groceries, not even to use the restroom, she now used a chamber pot. Running home from the church, she had managed to avoid everybody. Two days later when she ventured out to buy apples, the vendor spat at her feet. An apple core came flying, and struck her in the head, then came a crust of bread, then a clod of dirt. As she fled, one of the women of the village had screamed "Leave, witch!" Maude sprinted all the way home. That had happened twice more, before the first people arrived in the meadow across from her home. She had headed out for a walk, alone, when a noise behind her rustled. A boy in the class below her at school was following behind her, in the meadow. Maude's heart stopped. Her feet stopped. The boy stopped. When she began walking again, so did the boy, keeping maybe twenty feet of distance between them, but not going away. Once Maude got to the edge of the forest beside her house, she broke into a sprint. The boy was faster, but she knew the woods like the feel of her kitchen table, and vaulted into a camouflaged ditch her father used for hunting before the pursuer dashed by. She sat there, frozen in fear, until the sun began to set and the boy headed back to the village, when she crept home the long way and shut herself inside. Mr. and Mrs. Booker looked up. They had been crying. Maude silently let them embrace her. The next morning, a whole group of boys stood in the meadow outside Maude's house. One of them had a sign that said "witch." In the morning, it was just boys, but by the afternoon, a few men and women had stopped by to jeer at the house. The next day, girls brought soup to the boys who had returned for lunchtime, and a group of women brought their darning outside and sat under a tree. Maude's father went out at dusk to buy bullets and locks. He spent the evening on a ladder, hammering boards over their windows, and then moved down to the ground where he nailed the locks into both of their doors. No one in Whitesteeple had needed locks for 100 years. Maude's mother wept in the kitchen, when she thought her daughter was asleep.