Martha had just learned how to whistle when her mother abandoned her on the corner of Crestline and Bassett Avenue. That’s not entirely true. Janice dropped her with a promise that she would return before the sun dipped down toward home. Her standard promise, as yet to be upheld. Janice’s eyes were lined in black and shaded an awkward orange and pale seafoam green, the remnants of a bruise still visible despite the hours of makeup application earlier in the morning. Martha knew where the mark came from. Her mom blew a stream of smoke out of her mouth lined with mauve and colored in with red, which invaded Martha’s eyes. Martha whispered her charm, “White rabbit, white rabbit, white rabbit,” to clear the burning, but it didn’t help. She would have to talk to Granny about it later when there was time to explore why her magic wasn’t strong enough.
Granny had been teaching her to clean up messes without being noticed, and that’s precisely what she was planning to do. If there were a way to clean out the grout and the grooves of her parent’s relationship, maybe her mama wouldn’t have to leave so much, and possibly her dad would be out in the free world more often. Martha’s hand hesitated at the car door.
“Did you know a pearl gets formed from being under pressure for, like, thousands of years?” Martha’s latest bit of knowledge gleaned from her World Book encyclopedia set.
“What are you saying now?” Janice’s words were directed at Martha, but her eyes were on the rearview, gently tapping against the thick layer of makeup.
Martha considered explaining the magic of it all and then decided against it. The top end of a bottle, just barely visible in her mom’s purse, a buoy.
“Never mind,” Martha put one foot down and then the next, careful to avoid any cracks in the pavement. She turned around to say one last thing to her mama, but Janice already shifted the Colt into park and was ready to leave. Martha gave her a small wave that Janice didn’t return.
Granny told her that magic comes in all ways, and to her nine-year-old mind, that meant every single action had some significance. When she learned that whistling keeps evil spirits at bad, helps to offset their ability to root into lives, Martha set about learning how to whistle, how to achieve specific tones, how to keep the melodies light enough to keep the darkness from entering their lives.
It didn’t work.
* * *
Martha and Autumn wandered through the rooms of Autumns’ house all morning, picking things up and putting them back down in slightly askew spaces. Unimaginable, the treasures the cousins found there. Old stuff that was no longer purposeful or useful, still exquisite and gorgeous. Every surface of every wall was covered entirely in Aunt Elsie’s procured treasures from swap meets and flea markets, the kind of trinkets that just needed a bit of polish, and a lot of love to shine.
Autumn’s house, repurposed from Aunt Elsie’s aunt, Annie Jo, was old. Older than Granny and Ingram combined, Autumn told her. Older than their oldest uncles, too. The way Autumn said it gave Martha the chills; with age came history and repetition and ritual.
Wandering the rooms, Martha discovered an as-yet-unseen misshapen jar of buttons. Bone buttons, wooden ones, buttons tiny enough for her barbie’s clothes, galactically-large ones. The colors, textures, and satisfying shimmy between materials called out to Martha, a way to button up, hold fast, and keep secure. She dumped two jars onto the worn green carpet in the middle of the crowded living room, confident that there would be some inspiration as to what she might do with them, a brand new treasure. Right away, four called out to her in hues of the ocean, reminding her of pearls.
She rubbed four of them together in her palm, mumbling fake words that sounded a lot like the real words Granny said when she whispered yarbs over fires and while out collecting herbs. Then she whistled a melody that she imagined sounded like the call-out for spirits and creatures to come to visit. Martha squeezed her eyes shut tight enough to make an entire universe form behind her eyelids, all sparking stars and milky way luminous. She hoped the buttons would borrow the colors from the sky. Martha wished hard and fast for everything she needed to make herself whole. When she opened her eyes, Autumn was looking at her.
“You’re like Granny, aren’t you?” Autumn’s voice, little-girl awe with just enough of an edge to make Martha realize she was, in fact, different.
“I think so. That’s what Granny says, at least. I don’t know. I just like wishing,” Martha’s fists, still clenched against her buttons, two in each hand. She unravelled her fingers to reveal the shimmer opal luminescence of seafoam green and aquamarine blue.
“Wow,” Autumn reached for one of the buttons, but Martha closed her fist.
“No, first you have to make sure you’re ready for the magic. Think about what you want more than anything else in this world.”
“Like ice cream?” Autumn asked.Martha shook her head.
“Like not being scared at night, or something like that.”
Autumn’s grave nod past a shadow over Martha’s heart – her first premonition.
“Okay, I’m ready,” Autumn announced, reaching for the buttons.
“So you have to keep these with you forever, okay? Not just for a few weeks. But every single day forever. When we’re old like our parents, we need to still have these. Otherwise, the magic won’t work. That’s what Granny says. She calls it keeping an intention.”
“I’ll keep them with me always, promise.” Martha presented her fists.
“Choose whichever one you want.”
Autumn tapped Martha’s right wrist. It opened to reveal two midnight blue buttons, one matte, one covered in a sheen fabric.
“Blue is good. Magnificent, even,” Martha’s voice, too much like her Granny’s, dropped to a whisper. “It means you’re going to what you wished for.”
Autumn’s kilowatt smile, bright and open. She wrapped her hand around her magic buttons and then slipped them into the pocket of her shorts. She reached for Martha’s hand.
“I promise,” Autumn said, and Martha knew unlike so many other promises in her life, that Autumn really meant it.
* * *
Aunt Elsie collected anything that might end up being of value, someday when the world went to H, and there were needs to be met. Martha understood that to mean treasures like magic buttons and the gold-accented mirror peacock clock that hung in their front room, a piece Martha was sure had some magic in it if she could only get close enough.
At lunchtime, Aunt Elsie said the girls could have a treat and walked them down to Mr. T’s for one slice each of pepperoni pizza and a Pepsi to share. Christmas and birthdays paled as Martha ate. She stretched out the bites to be long like map routes, imagining each bit of pepperoni was pixie dust to be used for more wishes. Each mouthful of Pepsi fizzled and popped on her tongue before she relinquished it to her belly. When Martha pointed out the delectable nature of melted bread and toasted cheese, Autumn only shrugged. Martha wondered if her cousin had already forgotten about those deep-blue magic buttons in her pockets.
After lunch, Martha and Autumn curled into ampersands on the overly stuffed sofa to watch “one hour only” of Reading Rainbow. Aunt Elsie knitted colored knots into decorative patterns on a canvas, her own kind of ministry magic. Martha watched from the side of her eye as her aunt embroidered and cross-stitched her way to understanding and seeing. Martha considered telling Aunt Elsie about the pearls but decided against it.
All the while, Martha whistled. First along with LeVar’s melodious voice on the show. Then as answers to questions, watching the way her cousin and aunt exchanged looks about her whistling. Eventually, Uncle Hopkins shouted from the back room that there would be no whistling inside his house between the hours of four and seven when he was trying to check his lotto numbers and watch the GD news. Bereft, when she couldn’t whistle, silenced, and muzzled, Martha decided to make silent sounds with her lips. Aunt Elsie told her that she could whistle outside, or at her own house, ignoring the fact that Martha still didn’t know when she was going home.
At eight, after the shows and the wishes were spent and exhausted for the evening, Aunt Elsie told Martha to wait outside. The sky was in the process of shifting from promise-pink to sinister pewter. Martha looked back at her cousin’s house, wishing on her buttons that she could stay inside longer. She let out a low, long whistle. The sky glittered with soon to be pinholes of color, pollution from the mine. In the back of her throat, Martha could still taste the pizza from Mr. T’s, such a rare treat. Martha forces herself not to look back at Autumn’s house, where her family, hearty and hale, would be shelling peanuts and exploring the crevices of each other’s lives.
Along Crestline, old trees bend toward the sidewalk. Martha has been waiting for an hour for Janice to return. In the houses on the street, families gain their strength with evening rituals, even if there are more absent fathers than present ones. The dusk stretched, grew inches in its silence, and then wrapped Martha like a cloud. A constellation of scabs on her knee itched. Across the street in an ancient oak, a chickadee with magnetic eyes perched, waiting to understand when Martha will move. The world breathed out in anticipation.
Her mama’s car is a late-model Dodge Plymouth, black roof, and a rust-brown hood. Its rear quarter panels mismatched, rippled, dented. Inside, one tape stuck in the tape deck plays something mournful and sad from two decades past when the car was new, and someone in Nashville decided they wanted something better. Martha looks just like her mama, minus the healing black eye and the jawline of a cherub. Janice is about to marry a guy named Randy, a year and a half after she up and split from Harlan. At least, that’s the latest news that she delivered last week, breathless and shiny, new from her trip outside Tennessee, refreshed from the truth in knowing there’s a world outside of Oneida. Martha looked at Granny and then back and her mama and shrugged.
Janice’s absence grew like adding a pat of butter to a pile of mashed potatoes, slow to start, and the melting full on. Mr. T’s door bangs closed. Martha trilled the buttons between her fingers, wishing she had the same kind of defense mechanism as oysters, a way to coat the irritant of her absent mother. Nacre, layer upon layer, her loss began in this instant. She whistles what she imagines is a birdcall from the saddest bird in the world, the mourning dove.
This is what Martha told herself, sitting knock-kneed on the curb, waiting for her mother.
Look left, look right, then look left again.
The corner of Crestline and Rosecliff, street names too beautiful for West Oneida, where Janice told her she would come back. The concrete is still damp from last night’s rain. Janice missing, again. It would be smarter to walk to Granny’s, but Martha is unwilling to give up hope. She held her magic buttons closer to her heart. Scuffed at loose asphalt pebbles, wondered if those pieces of sediment would ever become pearls if she irritated them enough. Martha picked up a handful, its weight too light to feel like permanence. Briefly, she wondered what the word incarceration means, its multi-syllables too complicated for Austin to figure out, the dictionary lost since last summer.
She looked left, looked right, then looked left again. Remember the jar of magic buttons: flat, wide, mother of pearl shimmering its loving rainbow of colors. Martha can carry her pearly wishes in her pocket, just like she can carry her sorrow in her whistling.