Sorrow crouches at the heart’s door,
like a cat, waiting the perfect moment to spring.
~Lawful Atwood II, during the first year of the captivity
Repentance Atwater sat still as a rock, clenching her hands in her lap to keep them from trembling.
She glared at her reflection in the shiny, wet, black stone before her. She was acting like a child—not like a girl who had seen sixteen years. She was full grown, for the love of Providence. Old enough to button.
Or to refuse to button, if she so chose.
Old enough to choose her own fate.
Still, no matter how bravely she attempted to paste a happy expression on her face, she only managed to get the terrified look of a rabbit caught in torchlight.
Mother stood behind her, gently raking her fingers through Repentance’s freshly washed hair. She hummed a lively buttoning tune as she worked, oblivious to the pain that would come with the night.
A weeping and a wailing.
There would come a weeping and a wailing. Repentance had been through plenty of Grief Days and failed button ceremonies. She knew what it felt like to stand helpless before the overlords as they loaded up the slave carts.
Mother 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 muggy, 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,” 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.
Mother seemed not to notice. “I know you’re worried, 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. Who else would have me?”
Mother evaded the question. “You are a beautiful girl, Repentance Joyous Forgiveness Abounding Atwater. A beautiful girl.”
Repentance cringed at the 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 milking pig after her mother, in a fit of pregnancy fever, had gambled the first one away. It was rare for most families to own even one sow, let alone to gain a second after the first was lost. Grace Renewed, indeed. It was a fitting name for the baby, even if it was a two-parter.
“And you’re a smart girl,” 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 the 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 sin for her mother to gush so over the forgiveness of it.
The villagers didn’t think it forgiven, though. They assumed Providence had demanded payment from the mother by cursing the child. Why else, they wondered, would Repentance have such odd coloring?
When Repentance was little she often tried to discover what her mother’s sin was. If she bore the curse, she had right to know the cause, she figured. But never would her mother speak of the deed.
Mother 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.”
“You’re right, of course.” What was the use of arguing? Mother would believe what she wanted. She had no problem with contentment. She put a good light on everything. That was how she coped with her harsh world. Even Repentance understood that. And it was one reason she wanted out. 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,” Mother said, giving her shoulders 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 Mother look older than her thirty-two years. All that faking of contentment wore a soul out, apparently. But there was love in those dark eyes, 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,” she said softly. “It must be Providence at work.”
Mother smiled. “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.”
“I knew he needed you. I didn’t know you needed him. Didn’t any other scarf boys want you?”
“He would have gone to the overlords. That’s necessity enough for one button match.” Mother blushed and absently tucked a strand of dull black hair back into the bun on her head. “Of course other boys wanted me. I was young and beautiful once myself. Just like you are now.”
Repentance twisted around on the bench and hugged her. “You are still beautiful. And I love you.” And she hated to hurt her.
She closed her eyes, remembering Trib’s howling as the overlords took him away.
And her mother’s weeping.
And Comfort, her little sister, clinging to her night after night while Mother sobbed and 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.
But then the little boys had been born. And joy returned. Mother was happy. She’d given her two sons already. The overlords only ever took two. The little boys were safe.
But Mother was about to have her world tipped upside down again. At the button ceremony. “I have always loved you,” Repentance whispered, wanting to keep holding her forever.
Mother patted her back. “There’s a good girl. And don’t worry. You’ll love Sober, too. He’s a good man. It will all come out right in the end.”
Repentance nodded, though she knew Mother was wrong. Nothing was going to come out right. She’d known that from the day Trib disappeared into the fog. She’d known then that she would never button. Never breed. Never give her children to the overlords.
Repentance found Comfort sitting on the mossy bench in the main room of their cave with a parchment book on her lap. She held a char-stick in one hand, eyes closed as if she was trying to picture, in her mind’s eye, the image she wanted to capture. Repentance stared, determined to etch every line of her sister’s face into her brain permanently. She would think of Comfort forever in this peaceful pose—leaning back against the wall with the dim light washing over her features.
No one ever accused Comfort of being cursed. She was beautiful in every way. The blackest hair; the smoothest complexion, like cool brown tea; high cheekbones; and the darkest, deepest eyes, dancing with secret joys.
As if feeling Repentance’s gaze traveling over her, Comfort opened her eyes. “Pentance!” she said. “You scared me.”
“What are you drawing?”
Comfort tipped up the parchment to reveal a blank page. “Haven’t started yet. And you couldn’t see if I had. I’m thinking on your button present. I want it to be perfect.”
A tremor ran down Repentance’s spine. “Everything you draw is perfect.” She sat down next to Comfort. “I can’t believe I’m leaving tonight. I’ll miss you.”
“It’s not like we’ll never see each other again. I’ll walk to the marsh and visit you every day.”
Comfort twisted slightly to look at her. “If you want me, I mean. If you’re not too busy taking care of Sober. And then the babies. Pretty soon you’ll have babies and you’ll be too busy to miss any of us.”
“I’ll never stop missing you, Comfort, you’re my best friend.”
“And I’ll always be.” She smiled. “Even when Aggravation and I are buttoned.”
There had been no waiting until the last minute for Comfort’s buttoning particulars. The Mossybanks had paid over beads to purchase Comfort for their son years earlier. Both Comfort and Aggravation were well pleased with the arrangement. Repentance smiled thinking about the two as button mates. They were the handsomest couple in the village—their children would be adorable.
And Repentance would never see them.
“You’ll have Aggravation for a best friend, Comfort. I’m glad of that.”
Comfort set char-stick to parchment and began sketching. In moments Aggravation’s face took shape on the paper.
“Are you afraid?” Comfort asked without looking up from her work.
“A little,” she lied. She concentrated on the soft scratching of char-stick on paper and forced herself to relax.
“Because you don’t know Sober?”
“I know him.” Not well. He was older and he lived on the far side of the marsh. He’d left school five years earlier.
“I haven’t thought about Sober much. I’m not really afraid.”
Her little sister lifted her eyebrows in disbelief.
“Really,” Repentance said. “Now I’m going to leave you so you can get to work on my button present.” She tapped the picture Comfort was working on. “Don’t you dare give me a picture of Aggravation. He’s a handsome fellow, but I don’t want him hanging in my main room.”
Comfort laughed, her cheeks tinged with the rosy hue of embarrassment. “I didn’t even realize I was drawing him. I do it without thinking.”
Repentance squeezed her tighter. “I’m glad you have someone to love, Comfort. And who will love you back. He’ll take care of you.”
Comfort leaned against Repentance’s shoulder. “He’ll take care of me, and Sober will take care of you, and we’ll have lots of little girls and they’ll be best friends just like we are.”
Repentance kissed Comfort’s head. Sweet, happy Comfort. It was just like her to imagine that they’d only give birth to girls. If only there was a way to have such a guarantee. The mothers in the village would give their milking pigs and their weaving hands, too, for a promise of only girl babies.
Repentance shoved that little bit of hope down. She could not depend on Providence to give only girls.
It wouldn’t do any good even if he did. If he started giving only girl babies, the overlords would start taking girl babies instead of leaving them to breed.
No, the only way to keep the overlords from stealing her children was to not have any in the first place.
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