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Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Button Girl

The Button Girl
by Sally Apokedak

Sorrow crouches quietly
at the heart's door,
awaiting the perfect moment to spring.
- Lawful Atwood III, in the first year of the captivity

Chapter 1

Repentance Atwater sat still as a rock, clenching her hands in her lap to keep them from trembling. Staring at herself in the reflecting wall before her, she attempted a happy expression, but only accomplished the terrified look of a rabbit caught in torchlight.

Her mother stood behind her, gently raking her fingers through Repentance's freshly washed hair. She hummed a lively buttoning tune, obviously unaware of the pain that would come with the night.

A weeping and a wailing.

There would come a weeping and a wailing. Repentance had been to plenty of failed button ceremonies. She knew what it felt like to stand helpless before the overlords as they loaded up the slave carts.

Mercy Atwater began to plait Repentance's hair. All the button girls wore braids to keep their hair from frizzing in the humid air.

Repentance closed her eyes, trying to focus on the tune her mother hummed, but she could not shut out the sound of the steady drip from the fog-drenched trees. Even sitting in the back of the cave, through thick stone walls and two leather curtains drawn down, she could hear the incessant drip, drip, drip.

A weeping and a wailing.

She didn't want to be the cause of it. But what could she do? Inside she'd been weeping and wailing all her life.

She could go along with the buttoning, that's what she could do. She could learn to be content like everyone else.

But she was not like everyone else. She tried to be. She wanted to be. She had practiced the precepts of Providence since she was no bigger than a swamp rat. To be discontent is to complain against Providence himself, to call him a liar, to say he has not provided as he ought.

And yet, Repentance Atwater was not content living in the breeder village. She was not content with the fog that clung like a burial shroud. She was not content with the oppressive heat which threatened to smother her. And, most assuredly, she was not content to be buttoned to Sober Marsh and to bear sons for the overlords to take as slaves.

"You're too quiet," her mother said, after she'd finished one braid and started on the second.

"What is there to say?" Her voice sounded high-pitched and desperate. Her mother seemed not to notice.

"I know you're worried," Mercy said, "but you'll grow to love Sober. Your father and I would never have agreed to the buttoning if we did not think it was so."

"You had no choice, Mother. Who else would have me?"

Mercy evaded the question. "You are a beautiful girl, Repentance Joyous Forgiveness Abounding Atwater. A beautiful girl."

Repentance cringed at her mother's use of all of her front names. No one in remembrance had four front names. The closest was Grace Renewed Springside, so named because a week before her birth her father had captured a second milk pig after her mother, in a fit of pregnancy fever, had gambled the first one away. Families rarely owned even one sow, and no had ever before gained a second after the first one was lost. Grace Renewed, indeed. It was a fitting name for the baby, two-parter or not.

"And you're a smart girl," her mother continued. "Sober will learn to appreciate that."

"A beautiful and smart girl that no one wants." Repentance said.

She knew she wasn't wanted. She was different from the others. It wasn't just her name. She looked different, too. Everyone else had black hair and dark brown eyes. Repentance had hair the color of dried marsh grass and eyes a shade lighter—almost golden—with green flecks that flared up when she was agitated.

"I don't care that they don't want me," she said, "I don't want any of them, either." She looked at herself in the reflecting wall and her eyes spit green sparks back at her.

Why would she want to be buttoned to boys who thought she was cursed?

She'd heard the whispers all her life. It was largely supposed that Providence cursed her for some sin committed by her mother before her birth. And, truly, it must have been a terrible sin. What else would have required that her mother give her such a lengthy name? Repentance Joyous Forgiveness Abounding—it must have been a great offense for her mother to gush so over the forgiveness.

The villagers didn't think the sin forgiven, though. They assumed Providence had exacted payment from the mother by cursing the child. Why else would Repentance have such odd coloring, they wondered in whispers that could be heard across the swamp.

When Repentance was little she'd often tried to discover what her mother's sin was. If she bore the curse, she had a right to know the cause, she figured. But never would her mother speak of the deed.

Mercy finished the last braid and bent to kiss the top of Repentance's head. "Sober wants you. He was desperate to have you. You are taking the biggest button price this year at five hundred beads."

"Of course, Mother." What was the use of arguing? Her mother would believe what she would. She had no problem with contentment. She put a good light on everything. That was how she coped with her harsh world. Repentance understood that, but it only made her all the more anxious to escape. Providence desires us to be honest, merciful, and joyous. Perfect! Except you couldn't be all three at once. Honesty sucked all the joy right out of a body.

"Don't be so glum, Repentance," Mercy said, resting her hands on her daughter's shoulders and giving them an encouraging squeeze. "I know you've heard people talking. Saying that Sober is stuck with you. He's failed at four buttonings and if he fails this one it's the slave cart for him, true enough. But look at how good Providence is. Sober needs you and you need him. It is Providence at work. It has to be. He's saving both of you from the overlords."

Repentance met her mother's gaze in the reflecting wall. Tired eyes made Mercy look older than her thirty-two years. All that faking of contentment wore a soul out, apparently. But those dark eyes held love, too.

Guilt flooded through Repentance. She wanted to tell her mother that she loved her. She wanted to tell her goodbye. But she couldn't steal the afternoon's joy from her. Night would come soon enough, bringing the sorrow with it. "Yes, Mother," she said softly, "it must be Providence at work."

Mercy smiled. "There's a good girl. The other boys are missing out. But the best buttonings are made from necessity. Look at your father and me. See how happy we've been?"

"Why did you two need each other so much?"

"It was his fifth year, too."

"But why did you need him? Did you not have other boys to choose from?"

"Of course other boys wanted me." Mercy blushed and absently tucked a strand of dull black hair back into the bun on her head. "I was young and beautiful once myself."

"I thought you meant you married Father out of necessity."

"He would have gone to the overlords. Isn't that necessity enough for one button match?"
Repentance twisted around on the bench. "And yet you gave your first two sons to the overlords without a word of protest. How could you?"

Tears washed into Mercy's eyes while guilt and pain and anger fought for control of her face, and Repentance cursed herself, wishing she could take back the harsh words. She didn't want to have hard feelings. Not on her last day.

"How dare you?" Mercy asked, her voice horror stricken. "We had no choice!"

And then, much more softly, "Besides, it's different with the babies. They're young. Just weanlings. They grow up with the overlords. They know nothing else."

She pulled back the curtain and left before Repentance could answer.

"They did too know, Mother," Repentance whispered to the empty room. "They knew they were being taken from us."

Repentance was six when the overlords took Tribulation. She could still remember his howling.
And her mother's weeping.

And Comfort, her little sister, clinging to her night after night while their mother sobbed, and their father shushed, and their world wobbled out of whack.

It fell completely off its axis the following year when the overlords came back for Devastation. That was when Mercy Atwater had started humming and Repentance, in her seventh year, became a miniature mother to Comfort who was in her fifth. She would dress her sister, and feed her—persimmons they picked and swamp bananas mostly—and keep her occupied while their father worked and their mother sat in a corner, rocking and humming.

Then Restoration arrived, crying at the top of his lungs and making the mother laugh, because she'd already given her two sons. Restoration was safe. Providence had restored a son to the family and Mercy came alive again.

Not much more than a year later, Fullness was born—another fat and happy little boy. Mercy's healing was complete. She walked and talked and worked again. The humming remained, though. Always she hummed. It comforted her somehow.

Repentance grimaced at her reflection and hoped her mother's humming would carry her through the pain that was coming with the night.


  1. Where can I read the rest of this story? I'm fascinated!
    Please send the answer to, because I'm not sure if I can find this blog again.

  2. Wow! What an honor. Thanks so much.

    And I love the illustrations.

  3. Very intriguing story. Great work, Sally!

  4. Like Goldie, I am wondering where I can read the rest of this amazing story! Well done Sally. Great story and fabulous imagery.

  5. Congratulations, Sally! Great story! Can't wait to buy your book one of these days!


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