The girls are safely promised;
The boys have all found mates,
Slave carts shall stand empty;
Come drink and fill your plates.
Gather ’round; let joy abound;
We’ll drink and fill our plates.
~From an old buttoning song
Fire glowed in the village center, its smoke acting as a discouragement to the biting flies. Repentance wilted before it. If the fingers of flame had clawed a hole in the fog she would have embraced the heat, but the sticky mist clung as always, threatening to choke her.
She sat on the ground with her back to the blaze—she and five other girls all in their sixteenth year.
Repentance ignored the chatter from the others. She held a char-stick and hunched over her small parchment pad, trying to think of some way to explain to Comfort.
People began to fill up the village center. They sat on logs facing the girls.
She quickly wrote I love you, and I’m sorry, ripped the note off the pad, and tucked it under one leg. Later that night, or maybe in the morning, someone would find it and give it to Comfort.
And Comfort would cry her eyes out.
Repentance slipped her parchment pad and char-stick into the pocket of her blouse with a sigh. Nothing she could say would ease the pain.
She looked up to see Confusion Pondside taking a seat up front. Cursed lot! Repentance had been born three days before Buttoning Day and Confusion had been born three days after. So, though Repentance was only a week older than Confusion, she was to be buttoned this year and Confusion would wait until next. Of course, Mother would say that was a kindness granted by Providence. Next year there would be no desperate fifth-year boys willing to take Repentance as a mate.
Goodwoman Marsh would likely agree with her mother.
Repentance scanned the audience. She found Sober’s mother on the left, in front, leaning forward anxiously. Her features were fuzzy in the dim light, but Repentance could still make out a guarded look of longing directed toward her. If she would save Sober, she’d have Goodwoman Marsh’s undying devotion. She lifted her eyes from the crowd, saw the dark slave cart hunkered just outside the circle of villagers, and a wave of nausea swept over her.
She wouldn’t be condemning Sober alone, though. She would share his fate. Boys had five chances to find a button mate. Girls had only one—they were either buttoned in their sixteenth year or they were sent off on the slave cart, never to see their families again.
Often one or two were sent away. There were not enough boys one year and not enough girls the next. So button ceremonies were full of mixed emotions. The relief and joy felt by those who had found mates was tempered out of pity for those who had not.
This year was different. The crowd didn’t hold a single weepy face. All the boys and girls of age had been promised. Beads had changed hands and blouses and scarves had been sewn amidst a jolly feeling of wellbeing. The girls were especially happy. Buttonings made on years that took no slaves were said to enjoy special blessings from Providence.
The button girls wore blouses with different colored buttons. Repentance had gray buttons. A large heart-shaped one at her breast, a round one at her wrist, and a square one at her hip. To her right, Blamed Backwater had the same shapes in brown, and to her left, Sovereign Gumtree had green. It was supposed to be a surprise—the identity of the button mate—but that tradition had long passed out of practice. Each girl knew which boy would carry the scarf that matched her buttons. Some had known for years; others had only just found out. In the end, they were all promised and they were all happy.
All except Repentance.
Drums began to play and the crowd hushed. The buttoning ceremony was officially started. Repentance gave her sweaty forehead a swipe with the heel of her hand.
Angered Springside came out from behind the fire. He danced along the line of button girls swirling his tan scarf in and out around their heads. Up the line he went, weaving a tan trail in and out, in and out, while the drums beat and the trees dripped and the fire flared. And back down the line he went. Slowly, rhythmically, dancing, weaving, keeping beat with the flames and the drums and the dripping.
Time slowed down. The air felt heavier than ever.
Repentance thought she might throw up.
Couldn’t they hurry? She sent a quick prayer to Providence, begging him to keep her from fainting. If she lost consciousness, she would wake up to find herself buttoned to Sober Marsh. Destined to live in the clinging fog until she choked to death on it.
Of course, Providence probably wouldn’t listen to her prayer. She was a malcontent, after all. And lacking in mercy. What she planned to do to her family and to the Marsh family was by no means merciful. Why would Providence listen to any prayers she offered?
On Angered’s third trip down the line, Benefit Underfall, grinning flirtatiously, caught his scarf. She hung on while he pulled her into a standing position. Then she pushed the heart-shaped button on her blouse through the first hole on the scarf and began her vows. The round button at her wrist went through the second hole and the square button at her hip went through the third. She buttoned herself without looking—all the girls had practiced this maneuver for weeks and could easily do it by feel—so she could gaze into Angered’s eyes as she recited her vows:
With my heart, I’ll love you,
With my hands, I’ll serve you,
By your side, I’ll abide, forever and always.
Angered then buttoned the scarf onto the corresponding buttons on his shirt and, looking deeply into Benefit’s eyes, he answered:
With my heart, I’ll hold you,
With my arms, enfold you,
Beside you, I’ll guide you, for now and for always.
Using the scarf, Angered drew Benefit close and kissed her.
The crowd erupted into cheers. Repentance added hers, halfhearted as they were. One down, five to go. But maybe she wouldn’t have to wait until the end. Maybe Sober would come out next.
Angered and Benefit moved behind the fire.
The drums picked up the beat.
Repentance held her breath.
Consternation Mossybank came out trailing a green scarf. On her left side, Sovereign emitted a little squeal of excitement. Repentance sagged a little—torn between disappointment and relief.
Why did Providence make her wait? Was He giving her time to change her mind?
She closed her eyes, remembering Trib with his chubby arms outstretched. “Pentace, Pentace.”
And she couldn’t save him.
He called to her because she was the one he could see. His mother—their mother—had hidden in the cave.
A mother and father were supposed to protect their children.
If they couldn’t protect their children, they shouldn’t have any. No, she wasn’t going to change her mind. She’d never breed for the overlords.
When Consternation headed up the line for a second time, Repentance dug her elbow into Sovereign’s side. “For the love of Providence, don’t keep him in anticipation,” she whispered. She was feeling sicker by the minute and didn’t know how much longer she could hold on.
And then Sovereign was reciting her vows and Repentance, trying to calm down, studied the audience. Her father sat tall and proud with his family gathered around him—his first daughter about to be buttoned. Her mother wore her ever-present look of contentment. But they were no better at obeying Providence than Repentance was. They were not merciful or honest. It was not merciful to give your first two sons to the cruel, pale-eyed overlords without a fight. Nor was it honest to pretend to be content about it later.
Peace washed over her. She was making the only decision she could make. Surely Providence wouldn’t fault her for that.
Applause erupted for a second time and Sovereign and Consternation, beaming at one another, slipped behind the fire.
The drums picked up their volume; the crowd fell silent once more.
Sober Marsh came out, a gray flannel scarf in his hands.
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