by Shelly Jones
ENORA REFUSED TO use metal buttons in her work. She preferred buttons of wood, buttons of bone or glass, shell buttons, even pieces of smooth stone that she could craft into a fastener. But never metal. Once, she used apple seeds as buttons for an infant’s baptismal gown and the town was in awe when they gathered to wish the baby good health and noticed that the seedlings had begun to sprout bright green shoots. The babe never cried when the dour priest poured cold water on her head, so enamored with the green curling up from her belly.
The older women in the village delighted at her traditional wares. “Just like my grandmother would make,” they’d say and finger the fine stitching with shaky hands. They did not mind the stories that came along with the stitches.
Some younger folks would scoff at Enora’s taste for, what they considered, impractical buttons. And if they ever bought clothes from her, the first thing they did behind the privacy of their closed door was cut the wooden or bone buttons off with a dull knife and sew on metal ones they had bought on a rare trip to the city. But the young ones did not want to hurt Enora’s feelings, or evoke a curse from her, for they were not all certain she wasn’t some kind of witch, living on the edge of the village the way she did. So they would slip the old buttons in her shop the next time they were there. They would drop them onto her work table when she was turned away, tuck them under a bolt of cloth, or even into the pocket of her coat as it hung drying by the fire.
And the seamstress was always bemused. Another button, another hook. To anyone in town they looked all the same.
But not to Enora.
She knew each and every button not just by its colors or its weight in her hand, but by something more. She knew its past. Each time she held a button, no matter if it was wood or shell, round or square, flat or shank, she would squinch her crooked toes, waiting for the memories to come. She could not touch a button without seeing—without being overwhelmed by a vision. Sometimes she would see a mother’s warm hands helping her son fasten his coat, a middle-aged man, fingernails caked in grime, working the toggle on his uniform. Enora could not remember the last time she buttoned her coat without feeling a twinge of hesitation. Each time she touched the cold bone she would wince and wait for the flood of memories, steadying herself on the wall or nearby chair.
As a child Enora would button her jacket and suddenly remember losing a baby tooth, a little bloody saliva trickling down her front; the dinner when she realized the meat on her plate had been her pet sheep; a neighbor trying to kiss her in a hayloft. It wasn’t until the button on her coat fell off and her aunt replaced it with one of her own that something changed. Enora stood by the fireplace, tugging on her wool coat, her hat and mittens warming on a rack nearby. Her mind suddenly flooded with images she didn’t recognize, a memory that was not hers. She took a step back, overwhelmed by the sensation and knocked her hat into the flames.
“Foolish girl,” her mother had scolded, slapping her out of the way. She went to reach for the iron tongs, but it was too late. The hat was gone. “What is the matter with you?” she asked, staring wildly at Enora. “You look as though a corpse grabbed your heart.”
Enora had begun to cry, a deep howling, but whether it was because of the strange vision, her lost hat, or her mother’s anger, she could not say then.
She had lived alone in the cottage on the outskirts of town since her aunt, Mirielle, had died fifty years earlier. There had been an outbreak, a fever. Probably nowadays they’d call it the pox, but in those days, no one dared call it by a name, afraid of giving it power. Enora’s parents had watched as her aunt withered and writhed under sweat-stained sheets, unable to sleep or eat. In the morning Enora woke with her eyes crusted shut, her arms and trunk flush with gooey hives. By the evening, she was burning up, panting heavily, barely able to breathe. With Enora and Mirielle in bed, her parents packed their bags and slipped out, leaving a bouquet of herbs nailed to the door to signal to others that the house was beset by the plague. The next day, Mirielle died.
Enora had gone into her aunt’s room with a cup of rosehip tea to ease the fever, but dropped the clay cup to the floor when she saw Mirielle’s body, stiff under the sheet. For a few hours she sat with her, wondering when her parents would be back. She assumed they had gone into town to bring the doctor to care for Mirielle. But when night fell and there was only stillness in the house, Enora stood up. She went to the kitchen and found a loaf of bread wrapped in cheesecloth on the table. She delicately ripped off a piece and ate it, listening to herself chewing in the silent house. She was alone, she realized. Despite the body in the next room. Attacking the loaf of bread, she brought it up to her mouth, bit off a hunk of yeasty rye and began to cry.
Later, the town rumors supposed that her parents had left town after causing the pox. As the years went on, the rumors grew, overtaking the town like wisteria - beautiful and fragrant, but dangerous as it choked out the truth. The old men in the town thought Enora’s parents were witches, and since Enora survived the plague, she too must be powerful. The old women in the town weren’t so sure. Mrs. Tollover had given Enora three old waist shirts to mend, and she had done so within a week, changing the tiny fiddly buttons to larger ones with expanded holes for Mrs. Tollover’s arthritic fingers to fasten with ease. Mrs. Granville had given Enora two tattered dresses that she expected the seamstress would use for patches or rags. Instead, she added a few pockets over a tear and reinforced the skirts with a thicker muslin, less likely to burn if a hot ember escaped the fire she worked over all day at the smithy. When Mrs. Barnes gave Enora extra buttons that had fallen off her husband’s shirt or ones she had found jammed in her son’s pockets, Enora repaid the kindness with a new feat of design: a little strap on her husband’s shirtsleeves to help keep them rolled up as he picked cabbages and potatoes in the fields.
“A fine seamstress,” they’d say as they left her shop. “A gentle soul indeed,” they would add, steadying their uneasiness.
There were some buttons Enora would not ever touch again. A maple four-holed fastener with a dark ring around the edge had made her weep so uncontrollably she had ruined the skirt she was sewing and had to start over again. She had touched an opalescent pearl button and watched a woman desperately resisting her husband’s unwanted advances. A square blue spruce button conjured a man sitting in dirt, sobbing at his mother’s grave. Enora had winced to touch a soot stained zebrawood toggle and her vision went black. She could feel an intense heat and rough walls enclosing around her. The air was thin, her lungs aching to breathe: the button of a little boy who worked in the mines, scrambling into tight tunnels to explore new veins.
Enora used a newspaper or a dingy rag to sweep these ills into a tin can and placed them on a high shelf behind green and blue glass vases in her kitchen. Metal studs did not communicate with her this way, and she distrusted their silence. Fashioning a shirt or cuff with cold metal made Enora itch, the fabric sterile and unremarkable. She liked being able to link memories to textiles, imbuing a cloth with a particular
emotion or image.
Over the years, Enora tried to find ways to avoid unintentional encounters, tidying stray buttons that she was too weary to touch herself. She hired a local boy with a clubfoot to sort her buttons. He would sit cross-legged on the rug in front of the fireplace and watch in amazement as she poured jar after jar of buttons onto the floor. She could not explain how best to sort them. He could not possibly know which would imbue her with a safe memory or a disturbing one. But he could sort them by material and color and shape and size. He put them into the narrow drawers of a chest she had bought at an auction when the local printer died. But soon, there were more buttons than space.
One day, while Enora was baking her weekly loaf of bread, she burned herself on the cast iron oven. With her hand in a bucket of water, she thought about the smith’s oversized leather gloves that seemed to devour her hand. She would need to have control over her needle, so her gloves needed to be thin and pliable. Enora remembered a pair of eggshell colored lace gloves her aunt used to wear to baptisms and weddings. Digging around in the old trunk, she found them on top of a small sketchbook that Enora had never noticed before.
Gently she lowered herself to the floor and rested her back against the trunk, her hip aching a bit. Lately being down on the floor to scrub or to cut an extra large pattern piece would cause her lower back to buckle and seize. She opened the book, its cover a tan canvas. On the pages were drawings all done in a light pencil, hues of grey stretching across the binding. Enora flipped through the pages carefully as multiple scenes unfolded before her: a man on the docks drinking from a metal cup, the sun rising before him. A washer woman sat next to her bucket and swept up an errant hair from her face. But as Enora flipped through the book, the images grew darker, the shading more dramatic, the pages ripped from the tension of the hand drawing them. On one page, she saw a woman in a bed weeping, a blanket bunched around her waist. On a little table, in a box, lay a small bundle. In the background she could see another older woman washing her hands in a basin.
She turned to the last page and saw a scribble of writing, almost illegible: Mirielle. Enora could make out the severe arches of the M followed by the hills and valleys of the double Ls. This was Mirielle’s book. Had she been like Enora and never told her?
Enora sat on the floor, hugging the book to her chest.
She tried to think back to her childhood, but everything was fuzzy and clouded in her mind. It was difficult sometimes to distinguish between her own lived experiences and those she felt. Sometimes she would putter around the house for days looking for something she thought she owned only to realize she saw it in a vision that wasn’t hers. She remembered Mirielle getting sick, her feverish body lying beneath twisted sheets. She remembered her mother sitting in the corner of the room watching. Enora had thought she was checking on her, watching her breathe, keeping her comfortable. But now she wasn’t sure. Did she suspect that Mirielle was different? Had her mother known about her own ability?
Enora pulled on her aunt’s gloves, her arthritic finger knobby and warped. How much longer would she be able to hold a needle or contort her fingers to grasp her embroidery hoop? As she tugged the gloves on, she noticed an unusual weight in the lace. She could feel small bits of metal, pounded thin, stitched into the fingertips. Enora marveled at the gloves. She looked back to the sketchbook and then back to her lace-covered fingers. Carefully, she pushed herself up from the floor, her legs struggling to stay stable beneath her. In the kitchen, she took down the tin can behind the blue glass jar. She tapped at it with a covered finger, the delicate sheet of metal clinking lightly on the tin. For a moment, Enora hesitated, wondering if she should test the gloves on a familiar button, or at least one that imbued her with a pleasant memory. But her mind wasn’t what it used to be, she knew. She feared that if she touched any of her own buttons, her mind might recreate a vision out of habit, the images ingrained in her. Pulling the metal lid off the can, Enora reached in and touched a single birch colored fastener. She squinched her eyes, anticipating the expected trauma, but felt nothing. Her eyes still shut, she fingered another button. No vision came.
Enora sighed, the tension easing from her shoulders. This, she thought, could change everything. Mirielle had had the same ability, Enora was sure of it, and she too had kept it a secret, hidden away. “Look what good it got her,” she scoffed aloud in the silent kitchen, smoothing out the tablecloth and wiping a few crumbs onto the floor. Mirielle, who had buried her sketchbook and all that she saw away in that trunk, was dead. But Enora had lived.
Enora puttered around the house, tidying swatches of fabric, scooping up stray pins. It was almost midnight, but her mind wasn’t tired now. Her legs were swollen, her ankles buckling, but her mind wouldn’t still. Mirielle had seen the visions, but kept quiet. Hadn’t she too kept quiet all these years? Enora leaned on the back of her thick upholstered chair, a thin wad of stuffing peeking out from the arm. She stretched her lower back and looked over at the squat tin of buttons on the high shelf in the kitchen. They could no longer hurt her, she thought. Not with Mirielle’s gloves. She thought about the buttons and the visions she’d sometimes see: people in love, people in pain, people living their everyday lives. What if I stitched them out for all to see? Enora thought. Like Mirielle did with her sketchbook, but bigger, larger. Something grand for everyone to witness. At the festival. It was nearly the solstice. She reeled at the plan formulating in her mind. She needed to do something, to use up these buttons, to use her ability to do more than add a pocket or two. She could not have helped Mirielle, but she could maybe help others.
Enora gazed at the buttons splayed out before her. She sat in the middle of the pool of colors, her hands in her lap. What would she do with all of them, with all these pockets of memories? If she touched them it would be like dipping a finger into a still lake, a large rippling ebbing out from her. She marveled at how such a tiny thing could bring her both joy and torment. As she looked out over the myriad buttons, wood and glass and shell all mixed together, Enora’s eyes began to see patterns, shapes forming from connecting the buttons. It reminded her of seeing figures in the clouds, or recognizing shapes made from stars. Her aunt had taught her to look for a ladle in the sky. Enora could see a face in the buttons, pale with a sneer. She shuddered and kicked her foot at the pile, sending buttons scattering across the floor. She sat back and rested against her aunt’s trunk. Why hadn’t she told Enora about her gift—their gift? Because it isn’t a gift, Enora thought to herself, kicking once more at a stray button, sending it careening toward the fire. She could burn them all, she thought, stuff the whole lot of them in the fire and watch them turn to ash. But people would only bring her more. There would always be an endless cycle.
Enora sighed, the pile of buttons spread out around her like a fine train of fabric on a gown. With her fingertips keenly protected by Mirielle’s gloves, Enora began to sift through the buttons, floating on a pool of other people’s memories. She slowly arranged the pieces, pushing two thin willow buttons one way, a delicate salmon colored shell button to her left, an ashen oval beside her, shifting and pulling the pieces, giving shape to a mosaic around her. Even on the expanse of floor it was difficult for Enora to visualize just exactly what she was making. She remembered her aunt would work in small pieces, panels that she would then stitch together. But her work was often abstract, geometric patterns that could be cobbled together and would make sense any way she fashioned them together. This would be different. This, Enora thought, would tell a story. Or many stories as it happened. But were they her stories to tell? she wondered, as she plucked a specific button, a rosewood shank, from the pile and placed it in the center panel. Enora had lived with these images, these memories, for years—just as if she had been the woman lying in that bed or the old man at the grave. She had felt their pain, shared in their experience. Now others would too.
In the morning, Enora sat at the little table, her neck stiff from being hunched over for so long. That would be something she wouldn’t miss. She held a cup of tea, fingers wrapped around the mug. She looked over at the floor where her work lay and nodded in satisfaction. It was a fine textile and she didn’t care if the judges or anyone else didn’t think so. She knew all that went into it. She felt a bit freer, her hair loose down her back, and she smiled.
On the day of the festival, tents and tables were organized in the Miller field as people wandered about, avoiding a few remaining pockets of dirty snow that lingered. The Miller’s hay barn was cleared to allow for the display of fine handcrafts, in case of a spring rain. But the sky was a bright blue as the citizens entered the high ceilinged space. There was a throng of people standing in a semi-circle around one festival entry in particular. A fine quilt was pinned on a clothesline which hung the length of the barn.
The quilt was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. The typical fabric patchwork nature of the design was replaced with hundreds of buttons, each speck of color contributing to the landscape of the
pattern. The tapestry was divided into several small panels with a thick border surrounding the outer edge. Each panel depicted a different scene, some touching, some disturbing: a woman’s contorted face as a man kissed her; a prisoner huddled in the corner of his cell as a guard stood over him with a club; a child, shirtless, exploring a mine shaft in the dark; a man in uniform smoking, his head bandaged, his eyes hollow; a mother fastening her child’s coat in a snug kitchen. Many women gasped, handkerchiefs to their faces as they whispered to one another. Several of the women pointed at this button or that, and whispered, “That was the button from my apron when we were first married,” or “this was on my ragdolly when I was a child,” or “that had been on my da’s uniform during the war.” Each of them recognized a small piece of the mosaic, their piece, and each nodded at the larger scenes that loomed above them on the quilt: the memories made by Enora’s buttons.
Shelly Jones, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at SUNY Delhi, where she teaches classes in mythology, fairy tales, literature, and writing. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from SUNY Binghamton. Outside of academia she is an active nerd who enjoys board games, Dungeons and Dragons, being outdoorsy, and knitting. Her speculative fiction has been published in Podcastle, Luna Station Quarterly, New Myths, and The Future Fire.
© 2020 Shelly Jones