You find the Button Witch in places where there are lots of different buttons. She haunts these places, looking for…
Well, no one actually knows what she’s looking for.
It’s said that if you find the Button Witch and ask just right, she’ll grant you a wish. Not any sort of wish, mind you. Only a button wish. If you can figure out just what a button wish might be, you’ll get what you ask for – and you’ll live with it, too, even if later you change your mind.
Penn had seen the Button Witch three times. The first time, she’d been eight – a skinny kid with curly copper-bright hair and a button-nose – searching through a Goodwill for the makings of a Halloween costume. She’d been called “Penny” then, and liked it.
The second time Penn saw the Button Witch, she was thirteen, prowling through a flea market, looking for treasures that probably existed only in her mind. She was getting curves by then, and was becoming self-conscious about her freckles. She’d also decided that she was too old to be called “Penny,” but felt that “Penelope” was too much of a mouthful.
Penn’s final glimpse of the Button Witch had been when she was nineteen, hunting for affordable secondhand furniture for her first-ever apartment. She’d decided she wanted to be called Penn, and she was – at least by everyone except family.
Each time Penn had seen her, the Button Witch had looked just the same: a bent old woman with a face so aged and withered that she could have been any race, except the very darkest. Her eyes were shoe button black and shoe button bright, her hair a steel wool halo that tumbled about head, neck, and shoulders – wispy fine, yet full all the same.
It was her clothing that made the Button Witch stand out, for every bit was covered in buttons. Her earrings were buttons, as was the wide necklace that covered her chest. Button bangles dangled from her wrists, and button rings decked her gnarled fingers. If she wore a hat, it was sewn all over with buttons. Her shoes, of course, were fastened with buttons.
She clattered gently when she walked: a sound like dry leaves, tossed dice, or rattling bones.
Penn never spoke to her but, maybe because of those encounters, she took to collecting buttons. At first Penn just tossed the buttons that popped off her shirts or she found on the streets into a little cedar box. Later, she purchased bottles or bags of odd buttons at thrift stores, enjoying the process of sorting and organizing.
Inevitably family members noticed Penn’s interest. They gave her their own pop-offs, sometimes even going to the trouble to clip the buttons from a shirt or dress otherwise destined for the trash. When she moved into a retirement community, Penn’s grandmother gave Penn her own button box. This contained some really interesting buttons, some of which Penn’s grandmother claimed had belonged to her own grandmother.
About the time Penn’s hoard was becoming unwieldy, she learned there were serious button collectors out there. Although she never lost her pleasure in even cheap plastic buttons, she traded some of these away to make room for rarer types. The buttons she couldn’t trade, she made into jewelry or sewed onto caps or gloves.
Buttons weren’t Penn’s only hobby. She loved music as well. Not just the playing of it, though she played many instruments – strings and winds and keyboards all. She made rattles by netting gourds with mesh inset with four-holed buttons, combining her passions. Everyone knew Penn was a performer, but few knew that in her heart of hearts, Penn desired to make her mark as a composer.
Over time, while buttons remained of great interest, Penn turned more and more of her attention to musical composition. It wasn’t enough to hum a piece or sing a few bits so that her fellow performers could follow along. She wanted to learn to compose – and in the proper, old-fashioned way, not using some computer shortcut.
Many of her classmates laughed at her desire to do things the slow, hard way, but Penn had long gotten over worrying about people laughing at her. Collecting buttons was something that made a lot of people look at you sideways. Start wearing button jewelry or a button-mosaic cap, and, well…
When Penn turned twenty, she started feeling the pressure to achieve rather than dream. There were plenty of competitions calling for original compositions – she’d even won a couple, though not since high school. The thing was, many of the contests were for younger or amateur composers.
Penn guessed she wasn’t considered young anymore because now, instead of people asking her what she was studying or majoring in, she was starting to hear, “So, what are you going to do when you finish school?”
Most assumed that she’d teach, but Penn didn’t want to teach. Anyhow, teaching jobs in music were getting harder and harder to find, what with schools cutting their electives. Penn figured that if she was going to make her way in music, she needed to set herself above the rest. And she’d better do it now, before she was too old to be considered a prodigy.
Penn spent hours online reviewing all the different contests, but that wasn’t much help. There were a lot of options. That was good. But if there were so many, that had to mean there was lots of competition. Penn’s confidence plunged. Was she special enough? Was her vision… (Do you still call it “vision” if it’s the music playing in your head?) …sufficiently unique?
Penn wished she knew. And when she thought of wishes, she knew what she had to do. She had to find the Button Witch and make a button wish.
Given that Penn had only seen the Button Witch three times, and that those times were scattered over eleven years, she didn’t have much of an idea where to start her search. She began at thrift shops, drifting up and down aisles where clothing pressed tightly together on metal racks. She concentrated on aisles where coats and higher end offerings were grouped, since these were more likely to have fancy buttons, but nowhere did she see an elderly woman covered all over with buttons.
Antique and collectible shops were Penn’s next target. She avoided the high-end places, focusing on those that were closer to being what her dad would have called “junk shops,” since their eclectic assortment of wares was more likely to include odd bottles filled with buttons or mixtures of otherwise unsaleable costume jewelry meant to tempt crafters or someone hoping to find treasures among the trash.
Penn’s search wasn’t completely fruitless, since she found a sheet of moonglow glass buttons, overlooked because they’d gotten smudged and dirty, as well as some low value but nicely made horn buttons. However, as far as the Button Witch went, Penn drew a blank.
Eventually, Penn figured she’d better go talk with the people who had told her about the Button Witch, about how she granted wishes and all that. The problem was, when she started to make a list, Penn realized she couldn’t remember a single name or face. That seemed incredible. Surely she would remember something as significant as that.
She stood on the sidewalk, buffeted by random spurts of air from cars and trucks racing by on the street, rocking a jar of buttons back and forth in her hands. The buttons made a soft muffled clatter, but Penn heard words in the sound.
But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch!
And hearing the sound, Penn realized who had told her about both the Button Witch and button wishes. It hadn’t been any person. It had been the buttons themselves, telling tales as Penn sorted and shifted, as her eyes took in color and shape, as her fingers moved in the intricate patterns of a dance choreographed by revelation.
But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch!
Penn backed away from the traffic’s flow, drifted into the lightly graveled lot that served as extra parking for the strip mall on weekends when the shops drew their greatest trade. The lot was empty now except for a scrawny elm and a battered panel van. Together they cast an uneven patch of shade that looked just like a little house with a tree growing alongside. On the doorstep of this shadow house sat the Button Witch, her motley finery crowned by a high-topped hat covered in buttons of brass that looked like gold, of tin that shone like silver, accented with gloriously gemmed buttons in vibrant hues of faceted glass.
The Button Witch looked up from stitching an elegant lacquered button onto a charm string. She gave Penn a smile that showed her teeth and made lines crinkle into lace around black-shoe-button eyes.
“So you’ve come looking and you’ve been finding. What brings you to my door?”
Penn forced herself to answer with a boldness she didn’t feel. “I’ve come to ask you to grant me a wish.”
The Button Witch laughed a laugh that was neither kind nor unkind, but hissed and chimed like plastic upon metal, like metal upon glass. “I only grant button wishes, and those only to folks who can tell me first what a button wish might be.”
Penn had expected this. “I can tell you what a button wish is, lady.”
“Can you now? Then speak. ‘Tis traditional to give three tries, but for this I give only one.”
“A button wish is like a button. It holds and frees, binds and looses, fastens and unfastens.”
The Button Witch laughed again, this time with pleasure. “That’s a fine answer. Correct, too. Very well. Tell me what you wish for, and I’ll tell you if I can grant it.”
Penn took a deep breath. “I wish to be able to hear the music of the spheres.”
“And how is that a button wish, my pet?”
“The old theories say that the music of the spheres is all around us, the universal music caused by the planets as they travel through their orbits. I figure that our minds must be closed against hearing it, the way we don’t hear the sound of our own breathing unless we listen for it.”
“And you wish to hear this?”
“I do! I want to make music that’s unique. Every other inspiration has been used and used again. This would be different…”
The Button Witch rubbed her wrinkled neck below her pointed chin, considering. “I can open your ears to these sounds, but I can’t give you the gift of making music. That’s not mine to give if it’s not in you already.”
“I can make music,” Penn replied confidently. “I’ve been studying that longer than I’ve been studying buttons. Assurance that I will stand out from the crowd is what I’m lacking.”
“Then consider your wish granted,” the Button Witch said, “although as with most wishes, I wonder if you’ll like it as much as you think.”
Penn was almost disappointed. “That’s it? There’s no quest? No payment?”
“Give me that bottle of buttons you hold, if you’d like,” the Button Witch said. She already looked a little bored and was eyeing the charm string she’d been making. “Then go your way. The binding on your hearing will come loose over the next few hours. Something so tightly fastened doesn’t come undone all at once.”
“Thank you!” Penn said ecstatically, never doubting for a moment that the Button Witch spoke the truth. “Thank you! Thank you!”
But the Button Witch paid Penn no heed. She was busy unscrewing the top from the bottle of buttons and spilling the contents onto the ground at her feet.
Penn was parking her car in front of her apartment building when she heard the first notes of the universal symphony. They were light and fleet, high-pitched, rapidly played on various sorts of flute. Without even needing to think, Penn knew this was the music Mercury made as it raced around the Sun.
She thought that Venus would come next, but it was Saturn, playing cymbals and triangles on its rings. Then came Mars, strident in brass. Venus was violin in its many moods: sometimes sweet and lovely, others aching with grief, still others merry fiddle strokes.
Jupiter was oboe backed by thundering timpani drums. Neptune surprised Penn by alternating harp and piano. Uranus had chosen steel drums and dulcimer. Pluto played saxophone and tambourine.
Earth played bass, both acoustic and electric, heartbeat backdrop to all the rest.
That was the first day. And the first night. And the second day. And the second night.
Penn struggled to transcribe, though her head ached. The universal music ebbed and flowed as the planetary orbits flung the sounds farther and nearer but, even when a planet was at its greatest distance, its contribution to the symphony never ceased.
On the third day, Penn began to hear the Sun, which astonished her by preferring electric guitar, playing both rhythm and lead. On the fifth day, she heard the rattle of the asteroid belt. On the seventh, she caught the descants of the various moons.
On the eighth, when she began to hear the closer stars, she realized she had to do something or else she’d go mad.
Finding the Button Witch the second time was much harder. The music of the spheres had grown so loud that, although Penn shook a bottle of buttons so close to her ear that it touched the lobe, she could barely hear the sound.
Worse, discordant and peculiar as the music could be, some of it was really good. Or at least really interesting. Periodically, Penn had no choice but to stop, lean against whatever was nearest, and scribble notes to herself. She wondered if they would make sense later, but she had to try and capture some of the odd combinations swirling around.
A couple times she nearly walked into traffic, mistaking the blaring warning horns for Mercury’s brass, failing to hear the hissing tires because they became instruments in the concert playing inside her skull. After being chased out of an antiques store for nearly blundering into a case of valuable purple glass, Penn flopped onto a bench and sat, shifting the bottle of buttons between her hands, concentrating on the faint whisper of its call.
But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch!
The bench shook when a figure clad in a pantsuit sewn all over with white pearl buttons, accented in pink and yellow Bakelite, plopped down next to Penn. Today the Button Witch wore a wide-brimmed cap that Penn could have sworn was Penn’s own handiwork, rows and rows of animal-shaped buttons marching around the circumference, descending from a Noah’s Ark perched in place of the more usual cap button.
Despite herself, Penn smiled.
“I don’t do take backs,” the Button Witch said.
“I didn’t think you did,” Penn replied, because she didn’t. “I don’t want a take back. I want to make a new wish.”
“Ah, now… that’s different!” The Button Witch grinned. “But I only do one wish for free or for gift. This time there’s a price.”
Penn nodded. “That’s fair. As you recall, even last time I didn’t think it was fair you grant a wish for nothing. What’s your price?”
“Give me a button that you have but which I do not. I’ll tell you this much. It’s a button you already have. And I’ll be generous. You’ll have three guesses as to which button I want.”
Mars played triumphant fanfare. Uranus chased it up and down the scales on steel drum. By the time Jupiter had finished sad commentary on oboe and timpani, the Button Witch had vanished. Head thundering, Penn staggered home to inspect her buttons and wonder just which one the Button Witch didn’t already have.
Maybe because they had an agreement, the next time Penn went to find the Button Witch, she found her easily enough. The Button Witch was sitting alone in the back room of a shoddy thrift shop, snipping buttons from clothes too decrepit for even this place to sell.
As Penn pulled up a metal folding chair, she wove the faint chink-chink of buttons falling into a glass jar into the moody piece currently playing in her head. Sitting down, she toyed with the small, cool disks she’d dropped into her pocket before setting out.
The Button Witch, dressed today in a skirt heavy with the magnificent brown into honey gold of tortoise shell – some of which might be real, not imitation – and a vest alive with a clattering sparkle of mixed metallic, gave a sly grin by way of greeting, but left it for Penn to speak first.
“I think I know what button I have which you don’t.”
“Are you sure? You only get three guesses.”
“I’m pretty sure. My only problem is that, if I’m right, I don’t know how to give it to you.”
The Button Witch’s dark face crinkled with delight. “I’m sure we can work something out. Take your guesses three, then.”
Penn recognized a ritual when she heard it and took a button from her pocket. It was one of the prizes from her grandmother’s button jar, an early nineteenth century button, in which a tiny painting was protected by a minute glass dome. “Is it an antique underglass?” she asked very formally.
The Button Witch opened her vest to show a necklace made all from the rare things.
Penn put the underglass button back into her pocket and took out her next offering. This was a more modern button, but a prize nonetheless. She’d clipped it from a ruined gown by a couturier known for commissioning unique buttons for his creations. “Is it a passementerie?”
The Button Witch lifted her skirt and showed that the sides of her voluminous knickers were fastened with a mismatched array of similar braid-covered buttons.
“Last guess, little collector.”
Penn dropped the formality and leaned close enough to whisper. “It’s a bellybutton, isn’t it? I’d keep the bargain, but I don’t know how to give you mine.”
She kept her tone light, though her mind overflowed with images right out of a horror film. Of bloody surgery performed right here on the thrift shop’s dirty floor. Of a long fingernail darting out and scooping the flesh from her middle in a twisted inversion of a Turkish legend she’d read long ago. But the music of the spheres was more than she could take, and she’d put up with whatever it took to get her wish granted.
But though Penn steeled herself against flinching, the Button Witch only grinned a mischievous, crinkled smile. “That’s the button I had in mind, chick. I’ll settle for your keeping it for me in exchange for a vow that you’ll tell no one what button I lack. That would ruin all the fun.”
Penn nearly collapsed in relief. She’d spent days puzzling – navel gazing, as her mom liked to say – until she’d come up with this solution to the Button Witches’ riddle, only to be terrified by what it implied.
“So I’ll get my wish?”
“If it’s within my power to grant, you do. But first you vow not to tell the answer to my riddle, on pain of having the wish revoked and worse besides.”
Penn nodded. “I do vow. Seriously, I won’t tell anyone.”
“So what do you wish?”
Penn tried to remember the exact wording she’d worked out. It was hard, what with Venus playing soaring melodies on her violin and Pluto providing improbable harmonies on saxophone.
“My new wish is a second part to my first. Then I wished to hear the music of the spheres. Now I wish to be able to control when I hear it – to be able to bind and loose for myself.”
The Button Witch laughed. “I understand. Yes, I can grant that. Too much of anything, even inspiration, can be too much. And, now, be done with wishing and get on with doing. You’ve shown you can be very persistent, even to believing in the impossible.”
Penn pressed the passementerie into the Button Witch’s wrinkled hand. “A present and a promise. I’m done with worrying so much about not being good enough that I stop even trying. Maybe I’ll make the cut, maybe I won’t. I see now that if I waste all my energy stressing about what the future will bring, I’ll waste the present. In the end, the present’s all we have, isn’t it?”
But the Button Witch only smiled as she tucked Penn’s gift away and said nothing more.
Penn didn’t ever see the Button Witch again, at least not to talk to, though she imagined she glimpsed her from time to time, going around a corner or darting into a stall at some crowded antique mall. However, whenever Penn hurried after, she failed to find that curious old woman, clad all over in buttons.
But Penn had no doubt that the Button Witch was still out there, collecting her buttons, making her charms, granting the occasional wish: fastening and unfastening, binding and loosing.