A Box of Buttons
Second Place, Adult Fiction Category; 2010 Bethesda Magazine/Bethesda Urban Partnership Short Story and Essay Contest
The first time Maria saw the man she loved, he was holding a long, flat knife between his teeth. With his only hand, he slammed the soldier’s head against the wooden bench. The soldier had been on top of her. He had found her alone in the washroom and shoved her backward onto the table, thrusting his hand up her skirt and rubbing so hard her blood wet his fingers. That was at the refugee camp, after the war.
The second time she saw the man, he was leaning against an oak tree, pulling at the scarf around his neck. His coat sleeve dangled where his left hand used to be. He stared until she blushed. The harder she tried to stop the red from spreading, the hotter her face became. She didn’t know about his real girlfriend until months later, until after they left the camp and traveled together back to their country.
Without a blush, only shadowed shades remained on her face: a dark dash of freckles on her nose and a purplish tint on her cheekbones and eyelids. The war had stolen Maria’s other colors. The man’s real girlfriend was a woman with red and gold on her lips and lashes and in her waist-long hair. The man ran away from shadows; he wanted all the hues of autumn.
The man brought his real girlfriend to the house he’d lived in before the war. The home’s walls were sturdy, but the windows had been shattered. The man cut new glass for the panes. He slept with the real girlfriend on top of the big oven. On a night with a high moon, Maria peeked inside one of the new windows and saw a white heel hanging over the oven’s edge. By then, Maria’s belly was taut and round. She wore slippers because laces were too difficult to tie without help. She banged on the shiny, unmarred glass. The heel rose and disappeared under a blanket. No one answered. Maria banged until her knuckles were red. Then she smashed the pane with a stone she found by the well.
The evening the baby came, the moon was low in the sky. The baby’s hair was light and slick when the nun swaddled him and placed him into Maria’s arms. He was laughing. His skull could still be molded and shaped, and Maria was scared to hold his head. When the baby’s neck was strong and his soft spot almost fused closed, Maria packed two suitcases. She held her baby in the curve of her waist and did not wave good-bye.
She saw flying fish from the ship and was seasick for a week, the taste of bile sour in her mouth. Salt dried and crystallized on her woven scarf and patched wool coat. A little girl wandered the deck without shoes, and Maria made her a toy. She strung sewing thread through a two-holed button the size of a silver dollar. When she swung the string around like a jump rope, the thread twisting, her fingers looped in the ends, she pulled the string tight, and the button pulsed. The girl clapped and clutched the toy in a hand greasy with kerosene. Kissing the baby’s forehead, the girl giggled and ran back across the ship.
Maria rocked the baby to sleep with the motion of the waves. The sea lulled them both, and she sang in a whisper. She thought she could choose to forget. A man on the opposite side of the deck smoked a cigarette, balancing it between long thin fingers. He studied Maria and her baby without blinking. Maria kept singing and stared back until he tossed the white stub overboard.
On the other side of the ocean, Maria married a man who could lift her off the ground with one arm. He gave her sheepskin boots and liked to swing the baby through the air. He played the spoons on his knee but couldn’t whistle. He grinned at her through his beard and kissed her on the nose and said he still couldn’t believe she was his. She smiled with just her lips while the baby cooed and sucked on the man’s shirt collar.
When the war ended, Maria had ridden with other refugees in the back of a truck. They were traveling from one camp to another, and the driver stopped by the splintered beams of a destroyed railroad station. He didn’t notice the man flagging them down. The conductor saw the truck but couldn’t stop the train, and the engine crushed and killed one of the refugees. Muscled arms hoisted Maria from the truck. The other passengers jumped to the ground. The ivory combs in a woman’s hair fell out, and her long black tresses tumbled down. Everything smelled like diesel and metal and tasted of smoke.
When Maria closes her eyes, it is the train coming at her, always.
She tells her husband about this. About the train. Her shoulder spasms, and he pulls the goose-down blanket around them. He thinks he can make her safe. They are in the mountains, and the air is so thin it doesn’t hold heat. At night, Maria’s hands and feet are icy, even though her husband says the mountains will make her blood strong, will give her back her colors.
“And here, you are closer to the moon and the stars,” he tells her. He points out the Milky Way band from the porch. Their breath forms a fog between them, and Maria shivers. She has never seen so many stars, but the elevation tricks her. Her pale skin burns if she forgets to wear a hat, and her breath comes short when she climbs the path behind the house. She has to give the baby more water and wrap him in extra blankets when he sleeps. Her pancakes won’t cook right, and she never remembers if the batter needs more water or oil or flour to make them fluffy and thick instead of flat and mushy.
After they left the refugee camp, Maria and the man she loved lived in the basement of an abandoned restaurant. They traded tobacco for flour and milk, and the man stole eggs from a chicken coop so he could make crepes. With his one hand on the pan handle, he flipped the pancake. “It’s all in the wrist,” he said.
When Maria tried, the thin crepe folded over on itself and the halves cooked together, with uneven brown bubbles.
“You hesitated—you shouldn’t think so hard.” He shook his head. His hair was combed back in shiny lines. It was fine, not like her husband’s curls crowding his head and blending with his beard. The man Maria married is fuzzy and sometimes prickly; the man she loved was smooth, even in his voice; words slid from his tongue across her cheek.
The altitude also makes her drunk after just one glass of wine. Sometimes, when this happens, she laughs and lets her husband spin her around, and she slides across the wooden floor in her socks. Her eyes flicker and brighten in the bobbing firelight. The baby shrieks, and she gives him half a mushy pancake to eat in his playpen. He squishes it in his fat fingers and tries to stuff it into his mouth. Crumbs and spit stick to his pajamas.
Other times when the wine rocks in her head like the ocean waves, she tells her husband he’s given her bad grape juice. She clutches the baby against her and mumbles into his ear—mumbles about his father. The man she married can’t hear what she says, but she turns from him, so he walks away.
When the man Maria loved drank rum, he said he could feel his hand again. He stared at the stubbed arm and tried to grip the bottle. Maria took his arm and pressed it against her bare stomach, hiding her bellybutton. He yanked his arm away and shoved her down against the blanket folded for a pillow. She reached up and touched her pinky to a drop of liquor on his chin. He laughed without smiling, and she licked the rum off her finger.
Her husband wants to know more about her other life. The life she had before him, when she was someone else, when she wasn’t a mother. Maria tells him about before the war, about when she was small. Her father sometimes gave her a stick and sat her on an overturned bucket. He told her to protect the garden from the crows. She shouted and ran after the black birds if they came near. When her father went into the barn, she plucked a tomato from a vine. She bit into it and wiped its seeded juice from her chin with the back of her hand.
But her husband wants more from her. So she tells him again the lie about how the baby’s father was killed when he tripped over a forgotten landmine. Her husband says he doesn’t know what he would do if she were taken from him. He crushes Maria to him, presses her so hard she will have thumbprint-shaped bruises in the morning.
Hours before dawn, her husband gets up to hunt. Maria tries to pull him back to her. He tells her they’ll dry jerky for the winter. He kisses her cold nose, and she sinks under the blanket until the sun spreads yellow light into the cabin.
Maria cooks hot cereal for breakfast, and while the baby eats and bangs his spoon inside his bowl, she scrutinizes his face. His wispy blonde hair will be fine and soft like his father’s. He already has his metallic blue eyes. His laugh will be his, too. The baby will grow into a man, into his father. Maria stares at the goop of cereal on the baby’s bib. He is somehow not hers; the man she loved has taken even her child away.
The baby slaps his hands at the bowl and dumps his breakfast onto the floor. “Serves you right,” Maria says. The baby keeps banging, then throws his spoon. It clangs onto the table.
When Maria went into town to buy yarn for mittens and socks, the shop owner gave her a wooden box filled with buttons. She also gave Maria a turtle pincushion, with a red felt hat, metal snaps for eyes, and different-sized needles sticking out of its green shell. Like Maria, the shop owner is from the other side of the ocean. She told Maria that they are not so different, coming to a new place for a new family.
While Maria chose skeins of yarn, the woman sat behind the counter and ate deep-fried dough balls powdered with sugar. She leaned forward on her elbows and slid a finger along the white spattering her glossy pink lips. “It’s lucky your husband loves the baby,” she said. “What man wants a son that’s not his?” She patted Maria on her hand and offered her a sweet.
Turning her back on the baby, Maria lets him yell and hit the tray. She reaches into her mending basket and pulls out her husband’s flannel shirt. It is frayed and missing two buttons. She used to shorten shirt sleeves for the baby’s father, so they wouldn’t hang loose over his arm. He never asked for her help, and she never said anything; that he wore the shirts was enough.
The wooden box with the two drawers on the bottom is deep so when Maria reaches down the buttons swallow her hand and wrist. Hundreds of buttons brush cool against her skin: ones with four holes, others with two, some flat and shiny imitation mother of pearl, or neon green, or dark and translucent like sap on a tree. Others are fat cloth knobs with crisscross patterns, still smaller ones white satin drops that once lined the back of a wedding gown.
Maria rakes her fingers through the buttons, searching—she needs two red ones to match the flannel shirt. The shirt is something she can fix. But none of the buttons are right, aren’t even close.
“You could strangle me with one hand,” she once said to the baby’s father.
He had been rubbing his palm against her shoulder, and he stopped. “I’d have to; I only have one,” he said.
She pouted her lips and flipped over onto her side, toward the wall. “Not what I meant,” she said into the khaki sleeping bag.
Maria shoves the wooden box to the floor. The buttons spill and make a sound like stream water rushing over hundreds of pebbles. She tears at her eyebrows, and, lying on top of the buttons, curls into herself.
At dinner, Maria eats chicken with her hands, peeling off the greasy skin and ripping the meat from the bone with her teeth. Her hands are slick with chicken fat. She tells her husband that her voice is hoarse because of the dry air. Really, though, her voice is scratched, something wrong and hurt down in her vocal chords because of the untold keening.
She drinks two glasses of wine and squints across the table. Her husband sits the baby in his lap and gives him a crust of dark rye bread. Maria fills her glass again.
“Careful,” her husband says. She doesn’t answer.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
She shakes her head. As a child, she clapped to catch dust in the sun, opening her hands only to emptiness. The feeling is like that, and she cannot explain.
“You must miss your old home,” he says. He has given himself an answer, and she nods.
“You have us.” He grins and bounces the baby.
“Yes,” she says.
Together, they sit around the fire, the baby sleeping on her husband’s chest while her husband rocks in the rocking chair. Maria finishes mending the flannel shirt. Two black buttons will have to be good enough to replace the missing red ones. When she puts the baby in his crib, she tucks the blankets around him. Then she traces her fingers along his smooth cheeks.
In the middle of the night, Maria wakes up screaming. She doesn’t stop, not until her husband shakes her by the shoulders and makes her hiccup.
“A Box of Buttons” reads like a folk tale drawn from some once-upon-a-time that we choose not to remember. It is elegant and mysterious, with haunting imagery and a few crisp characters that nearly break our hearts. An accomplished story that holds great promise for future stories from this talented writer.
Christen Aragoni lives in Silver Spring and works as a copy editor at The American Prospect. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from American University, where she was awarded Thesis of the Year for fiction in 2007. She’s currently working on a novel and a short story collection.