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The Button Maker's House by Sakae Manning

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Sakae Manning’s storytelling centers on both the historical and contemporary alliances, solidarity, and intersectionality amongst women of color. She is currently working on a novel, Kimono Blues.

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The wind howled through the San Gabriel Mountains and pushed right up into every crack and crevice of the chilly old mapmaker’s house. That’s what neighbors called it. A dowry home built by a cartographer for his only daughter in the early 1900s. A house intended for a large family. One with loud laughing children. Fort builders. Tree climbers. A family who loved doors and windows that could be slung open from all sides of the house. At the center of the front garden, a Deodar Cedar, taller than any tree for blocks around, broad-branched, and regal, planted for shade, a children’s swing, a place for family gatherings. The tree reminded Mari of the flat-topped cedars growing at the edge of her grandfather’s village in Japan. Bending to the ocean’s whims, shaped by monsoons and tsunamis, but never breaking. The four intertwined trunks created a perfect spot for marrying up to the big-nosed man Mari’s mother believed held so much potential. 

Mari rubbed her eyes, worrying about the bougainvillea, the roses, and even the Deodar in the early October windstorm. With every gust, thick planked doors rattled on old brass hinges. Undeterred, the wind moved upwards, through the big-boned attic, to the debris-strewn backyard. It left the season’s final persimmons, already shredded by wild parrots, in little festering heaps on the cold lawn. It wound its way up into the barn, causing the hanging lights above Mari’s work area to sway. Magnifying glasses trembled on long metal arms bolted to a work table made from a knotty old door. 

The wind growled before rushing on to the next street. Mari shivered, folded the hand-drawn patterns, wrapped the deer bone she was tooling into handbag fasteners, and put everything inside her jacket pockets. I should be used to this by now, she thought, clicking the flashlight on and off, It’s October, and this is Southern California. The land of wind and fire. 

She shined the light on her hand, considered the six intricately carved wooden buttons hanging framed on one wall. After a quick glance, she decided they’d be safe, wrapped a woolen scarf around her neck, hugged her sketchbooks close, and turned off the lights. The flashlight bounced, a lost yellow ball, as Mari ran to the house. Her breathing quickened to keep the wind from whipping through her own drafty insides. 

She burst through the back door and was greeted by the tall front windows shaking each time a fresh gust made its way across deserts, highways, gated communities, through valleys, dusting up deer trails. Mari felt the brewing wind, her neighbors’ worry, and knew this time was different. Not like two years ago when the wind blew out a transformer in the middle of her baking a Thanksgiving turkey. Not like five years ago when the wind scattered neighbors’ patio furniture, garden signs, and her own chimney cover onto cars and into neighbors’ yards. That year, her husband joked, they weren’t in Kansas anymore. Neighbors who never spoke beyond a polite nod, crossed expansive manicured lawns, stepped carefully over flattened shrubbery, stood gripping steaming coffee mugs in the street, and assessed the damage. Then, there was ten years ago when the Santa Anas blew so hard, their front awning, an aluminum-paneled add-on, painted in green and white stripes, was left hanging by a nail. Her husband ripped it down, declaring he never liked the awning anyway. It didn’t fit with the house. He left it twisted and jagged for Mari and Mr. Burris, their seventy-five-year-old lawn man, to clean up. 

It was Mr. Burris who had first warned Mari about the Santa Anas. “You’ll see how much suffering happens when the town gets caught with its pants around its ankles,” he said. He leaned his head towards Echo Mountain where the White Castle once stood. Molten iridescent glass fused to broken kitchen tile, and rusted hand-forged nails blanketed the resort’s rocky foundation. “I rest my case,” he’d said, snorting and twitching his nose with an exaggerated nod. Mari knew he was right. Twenty years living on the crooked street taught her the Santa Anas were as much a part of Altadena’s history, its seasons of destruction, as Christmas Tree Lane or brown bears swimming in chlorinated pools. 

This was the wind that dwelled in Death Valley’s Great Basin, whispering and toiling until it found purpose. At first, the storm was long and breathy. Autumn leaves and pine needles fluttered down the lane into piles readied for bagging. In late afternoon, Mari felt it simmering, heard it whistling sharply up in the mountains. By dusk, its gaze turned to the rows of homes creeping up into the foothills. Power and county trucks rumbled up and down the mountain. Generators were pulled out of garages. Planters and lawn chairs stowed away. Squirrels burrowed down in their nests. Hummingbirds disappeared; their voices muted by the dry air. Crows and hawks hunkered under ragged stone ledges to avoid being blown away from the only mountains they’d ever known. 

This was the wind that had burned down the town’s beloved White Castle in 1906. Mr. Burris said the wealthy guests could see all the way to the Pacific Ocean from the resort perched on the mountain top. Mari looked up towards the ruins, wondered out-loud if the mapmaker’s daughter planned to honeymoon on Echo Mountain. Mr. Burris followed Mari’s eyes, squinted, “Louise was her name,” twitched his nose, and chuckled, “now that’s what old folks call a what-coulda-shoulda-woulda story, since Louise’s betrothed died a few days before making it down from Frisco.” Mari looked surprised. Mr. Burris held his hand up, “But folks said she was content—lived alone in the dowry home until she died a spinster.” 

.  .  .

The electricity shut off and on, even flickered brown, for hours now. Mari told her husband it was good to have a flashlight and to keep Ollie close. She slipped a sweater onto Ollie while her husband watched. He picked up the flashlight Mari left on the nightstand, checked to make sure the batteries were good before tucking it in bed next to Ollie, who squeezed her chunky body between them, wagging a stubby tail. Mari pulled her hiking headlamp over a knitted cap. They wore sweats and t-shirts in case they had to run outside for a damage check; plus, the heat went out with the last power surge. 

It wasn’t long before her husband fell asleep, hand in his sweats, a laptop on his chest, wearing earbuds, porn pounding into his head. He’d always insisted it was music. Mari tried to see his side, but after twenty years dangling from a marriage with loose ends, she turned her head, shut her eyes, as women screaming “yes, give it to me hard, daddy,” throbbed from his ears. She lifted herself up on an elbow, staring at her husband’s sunburned nose. It was coated in aloe gel, pointed, not flat and wide like hers, had the curves and bumps found on marble busts in museums. Mari was surprised his eyes, cheeks, the area around his ears, were wrinkled, speckled in freckles and spots. Why hadn’t I noticed before? An unsettling feeling rose in her. The kind she got when he didn’t come home at night. 

Mari lay awake listening to him and to Ollie snore. The small bedside lamp cast a dim yellowish light, anchoring them to the room. She regretted leaving the framed wooden buttons, but it wasn’t safe to go out now. She had spent years carving a honey bee, a lavender sprig, cedar cone, a bird’s nest, rosebud, and a hummingbird onto the top of each round good-sized button. “They’re fine,” she assured herself, listening to the wind getting louder as it reached their house and moaned through the giant Deodar in the front yard. Her husband wanted the tree cut down. “It’s messy,” he’d said. Mari tried to humor him, “It sheds its coat like an animal sheds hair, and besides,” Mari explained reverently, “Mr. Burris says the Deodar Cedar is the tree of God.” Her husband had grunted and kicked at the brown needles collecting at the trunk’s base. 

She distracted herself from thinking about the buttons by imagining her husband walking around the big-roomed house with a white haze following him. Mari called it a chemical trail. It was bleach, which he used liberally when washing his underwear separately, not with towels, definitely not with her underwear. She shrugged, furrowed her brow, and imagined filling his plate with overcooked Americanized Chinese food he’d bring home, while he opened all the fortune cookies and read the tiny paper slips, bragging about his excellent luck. 

Mari pressed her words against her teeth, forming a tight smile. Her husband found things on the street or left in hotel rooms, lucky things—cufflinks encrusted with his birthstones, expensive cologne in his favorite scent. He won every raffle—flat-screen televisions, cell phones, a set of golf clubs. Lingering questions stuck more than a few times on her lips, but Mari wiped them away like crumbs from a stale cracker. She sat motionless through his outrageous stories and congratulated him on having good fortune. Luck is something you make for yourself, he told her, and pondered out-loud if Mari wasn’t trying hard enough. Being a button maker isn’t a very serious career, he’d observed. Maybe she should dye the gray in her hair, wear makeup, get a real job. Mari doubted her husband and his luck, but tied a scarf over her hair anyway. 

She studied his sleeping face. His eyelids flitting in some dream; probably resting on other women’s faces, their asses. Tonight, the normally confusing lies she told herself were blown clear by the Santa Ana winds. She spoke a truth. Her husband liked any woman but her. He had a particular leaning towards Asian women who looked sixteen, small-framed, smaller breasts. Mari knew this from the porn she’d caught glimpses of, ran her hand up and down her throat to keep from choking on an overfeeding of denials and knew she couldn’t change what should have been noticed all along. “Come on, Ollie,” Mari slapped her thigh, and the dog jumped up, following Mari to the kitchen. She couldn’t stop worrying about the buttons. Mari turned on the outside lights with no luck. “Maybe the fuse is blown,” she said, leaning her face into the oversized kitchen window, peering towards the barn. She could make out a birdbath lying on its side, but everything else fell away into blackness. An abyss stood between her and the six buttons.

.  .  .

Early on, they had decorated the Deodar together, wiring Christmas ornaments and lights to sturdy branches. Those were the years they tried to have children. She pictured the embryos struggling to set roots. After each loss, Mari carefully wrapped a few drops of the blood that came after in cheesecloth. She tooled and whittled a button, from a pattern traced around a tarnished Kennedy fifty-cent piece. The wood chopped and seasoned after Mr. Burris trimmed a thick lower branch from the tree. Mari carved a secret compartment in each cedar button where she used needle-nosed tweezers to pack and seal a tiny shred of bloodied cloth inside. 

Meanwhile, the Deodar grew taller, wider, stronger, shading the entire front yard. The camellia bushes withered; the morning glories stopped blooming. Mr. Burris had said living things needed light to thrive. It was a choice. The tree or the things that grew around it. Mari chose the tree. The place she believed her love was affirmed, her worth set and valued, by a marrying up husband under the tree of God. 

This past summer, Mr. Burris had said the drought was taking a toll on trees, weakening their roots. Mari relayed this news to her husband on a sweltering Sunday drive home from the hardware store, reminding him Mr. Burris was an expert, a retired botanist. She noted the disappearing oaks, pointed to the blocks left with sawdust-filled sockets where trees once formed shady archways. Her husband tilted his head, glanced out the car window where she motioned, and asked, “Who is Mr. Burris again?” Mari lowered the car temperature, turned the vents towards her, and stared out her own window. By the time they unloaded the car, he had forgotten about the Santa Anas. He was never concerned about the things that mattered, and Mari knew it would catch up with them one day. 

Mari returned to bed, letting Ollie jump up first. She chewed on her lip, cracked her knuckles, and was soon thinking about the deer bone clasps. She pulled out her sketchbook and looked down at her husband, snoring, air whistling in and out of his mouth, winding its way around the high ceiling. The wind churned, lifting the house in stops and starts. Mari heard it swimming in circles up into the walls and knew there would be a fine silt coating the window ledges inside her kitchen, the bath, her barn studio. She sketched in short quick strokes, thinking of her mother. She’d advised Mari marrying a light-haired man, a lawyer from Santa Monica, was going to improve her life; the life of her unborn children. Her mother, eyes weary from explaining, pursed her lips, “It’s called ‘marrying up,’” and shook her head sadly, “Everyone knows it’s important, Mariko.” She tapped her temple three times, looking into Mari’s eyes, “Everyone but you.” She’d told Mari these things in Japanese, so her father couldn’t understand. “I thought we would be forever,” Mari whispered, leaning close to her husband’s ear, her throat parched. Her husband shuddered in his sleep, a humping, huffing, shrieking earbud fell loose around his neck. She wound the earbuds around her fingers, shut the computer, and slid it under the bed. 

The house creaked, the walls closed in tighter, readying itself for the hardest winds yet to come. The neighbor’s trash cans stopped rolling in the driveway outside. Her husband’s snoring became the only noise in the house. She smoothed his hair back and noticed thinning towards the top. She rested her hand on Ollie’s belly; could feel her sleeping soundly. Big scary Ollie, a pitbull mix who found Mari up on Chaney Trail, bony, ticks peppering her underbelly, a bloated deer tick hanging from a swollen eyelid, a choke chain grown into her neck. A silver-coated dog that suddenly appeared from a grove of trees, as if she had been waiting for Mari. The vet postulated Ollie had found her way out of hell to the mountains. The mountains brought her to Mari, because dogs know who they want. He said they have good instincts, scratched Ollie’s ears while handing Mari Ollie’s leash. She kept Ollie even though her husband complained about the vet bills, an increase in homeowner’s insurance, and had questioned where the dog would sleep. “It has worms for God’s sake,” he’d groaned. “Mari,” his voice rising and deepening, eyes darkening, “Mariko, are you listening to me?” 

The electricity hummed. The power lines buzzed and snapped, leaving the mapmaker’s house in darkness.

.  .  .

Mr. Burris understood her love for the Cedar but it was choking the lemon trees; the storm gutters were filled with needles. He pushed his large-brimmed straw hat back to wipe his brow, drank the ice water she offered. They’d sat under the Deodar for the rest of that afternoon sharing Mr. Burris’s lunch, a Hershey’s bar from Webster’s, and her husband’s beer. Mr. Burris had helped start the local Black History Month parade. He’s proud it’s now a tradition. “Just like these Italian bambinos,” he patted the tree’s dense trunk. His voice boomed with pride, “Cedrus Deodara, the tree of God, from the Himalayas, to Italy, across the sea to America.” He told Mari how the seeds came in a horse-drawn wagon on dirt roads before being carefully planted and grown into saplings. “Laborers planted them,” he’d said, absentmindedly flicking dried grass from his shirt. “Chinese fellas,” he lifted his eyebrows, looked at Mari. “I’m Japanese,” she reminded him. “Yes, that’s right,” Mr. Burris laughed. He speculated on how a Deodar got into her yard when most of the old ones grew on Santa Rosa Avenue. “I’m of the belief,” he once said, “those Chinese fellas took a few of those saplings and planted them for folks on the side.” He had winked, made a boxer’s fist, and told her the trunks winding around and clinging to each other was a sign of determination. He had the smile of a kind man, a man who spoke truth, didn’t ask too many questions. 

Maybe, Mr. Burris speculated, Louise loved the tree in place of the family she never had. He offered Mari a wooden toothpick from his shirt pocket, scraping a thumbnail over the lemon clutched in his free hand. He asked Mari what she thought about that. She tapped the toothpick between her teeth, leaned her head back, imagined Louise on the bench where they were now sitting, and said, “It’s an easy tree to love.” Mr. Burris flicked his toothpick up and down on his bottom lip for some time. The silence set his words in Mari’s mind. The toothpick shifted to dangling from the corner of his mouth. 

.  .  .

The wind wrapped this memory up in a surge of air, swallowing the sky and pulled the 200-year-old Deodar harder. Rebellious and unrelenting, the wind wheezed and cleared its throat, spitting on the entire town. The Italian Deodar swatted the roofline, the side of the house. The Santa Anas roared and whipped, catching in the window screens, ripping picket fences apart, and billowing car covers. Mari heard the old tree crack, loud like thunder rolling through the wide-mouthed valley after a brilliant lightning burst. They hurriedly slipped on sneakers, made their way outside, pointing the flashlight into blackness. A massive shadow heaving, as high as a roiling ocean wave, breaking in the wind, was all they could make out. The flailing branches pulling away, while the wind stubbornly pushed them down. 

The tree didn’t know it had already lost. The ancient Santa Anas knew the land they traversed, and the tree, no matter if it was God’s tree, wasn’t of this place. The Deodar became its own forest, drowning the entire side of the house, enveloping their bedroom, the windows, the original oiled staircase. It rested on the mapmaker’s house, for it had not been this close to the ground for over a hundred years. They could hear the roof heaving. Its final attempt to resist under the weight of the Cedar overwhelmed by lunging tree branches. Glass shattered. Pipes burst. Ollie barked. Mari and her husband watched. Another crack, louder than the first, echoed, leaving Mari’s ears numb. The Deodar relented. The lemon trees and camellia bushes planted by the mapmaker’s daughter, even the wrought iron fence, were lost. 

As sudden as it left, the wind shifted back towards the mapmaker’s house. Mari’s husband stood there, legs wide, flashlight in one hand, lemons in the other, his sweats, a threadbare Bob Marley tee, and open jacket flapping against his paunch in the wind. He was wearing a ski hat. She was surprised. After twenty years of constantly warning him to protect his head from the cold, he finally listened. He was angry at the fallen tree and yelled at the wind. The words galloped away from Mari. She stared at her husband, trying to read his lips between the flickering flashlight and half-shadows. She leaned over to study the roots and soil pulled clean out of the ground and thought of the entrails from a cat she once saw gutted, left on a driveway by coyotes. The fresh scent of cedar torn, its damp insides not meant for such a violent end, filled Mari’s entire body, raised memories of her lost children, the wooden buttons, hanging in her studio. 

“Insurance,” he yelled. “Fucking,” his words stabbed at the wind. “Damn tree,” weaved over to her. 

Mari let the wind carry her, nearly on tiptoes, into the house. It was dark, smelled of the garden after a long day’s rain. The headlamp illuminated Mari’s search. She found her pack in the entry closet, a sleeping bag still attached from her last trip into the mountains, shook the water bladder. It was full. The dining room chandelier was hanging awkwardly by a wire, the china cabinet had fallen across the polished dining room table. The wind whistled through the open ceiling. She could see stars through parts of the attic. Debris—leaves, a bird’s nest, dirt—skittered, falling over the rooms. Water gurgled from ruptured pipes, flooding the upstairs bedrooms. Mari looked around, the headlamp shining on each broken part of the mapmaker’s house. Louise’s dowry home, Mari thought, trembling, and stepped carefully around the splintered table to dig through clean laundry on the back porch. She bundled underwear, socks, a pair of hiking pants hanging on the rack, and stuffed everything into the pack. She slipped on woolen socks found tucked into her hiking boots, laced them up, and called for Ollie. She filled a large plastic bag with kibble, called for Ollie again. “Scary little pitty,” Mari cooed out-loud, “Where are you?” Mari found Ollie cowering behind the coffee table, still wearing the sweater, soothed and leashed her. 

They maneuvered around water dripping from the ceiling to the kitchen door and stepped outside into the full force of the Santa Anas. The headlamp shined on the barn’s wide roofline, and marked their path to the studio’s side door. They ran, sidestepping, sometimes leaping, over fallen peppercorn tree branches and broken flower pots. She looked to the wall where the buttons hung, but they were gone. Mari’s heart skipped before she pointed her headlamp to the floor and saw the shattered frame. The buttons already covered in silt. She wiped each one on her sleeve before hastily dropping them into her pack and running back to the front lawn. 

She didn’t look at her husband, standing near the tree, yelling against the wind. He missed her folding a trail map, sliding it into her jacket pocket, walking up the street, turning right at the corner onto Lake Avenue, towards the trailhead. The sky was swelling, going from early morning graphite to a full rusty haze, as the sun came around Mt. Wilson. There must be a fire somewhere, she sniffed, focusing her gaze on the farthest point north. She wrinkled her brow, the way she did at the market when she couldn’t recall the final thing needed for a recipe. Her thumb tapped her ring finger. Her wedding band was on the nightstand, now crushed along with the bed, her books, and her husband’s laptop. She pulled the winter cap down closer, over her ears. The smoke was faint. She looked beyond the San Gabriels, trees rising and leaning in concert with the wind in a cloudless sky. 

Half a block uphill, a large oak had fallen across a Honda, and in its final descent, the tree branches became caught up in swinging power lines, pulling them down as easily as tearing a loose four-holed button from a pair of weathered trousers. The pole, weakened by woodpeckers and beetles, snapped, lay jagged and useless. Mari walked onto the porch, where a man in his eighties stood, rocking back and forth in a faded plaid robe and bare feet, suggested he get dressed and put on a hat. Shiny-headed with wispy hair above his ears, he reminded her of the final wildflower patches at summer’s end. She smelled old coffee, imagined milk already cooling on the kitchen counter, and by day’s end, it would sour from lack of refrigeration. Mari wondered if he had a flashlight or candles, someone to call for help. These questions ran through her head, but she asked nothing. Only nodded, touched his bony elbow, and smiled, “I’ve got to push on.” He patted Ollie on her hindquarters, asked where she lived, and Mari replied, “the mapmaker’s house.” She raised her chin slightly, “but you can call it the button maker’s house,” and laughed louder and deeper than she could ever remember doing. The wispy-haired man chuckled. Mari looked at Ollie and made a clicking sound in her cheek, causing the dog to wiggle and prance. 

They trudged against the wind, admiring the fierce Santa Anas. Palm fronds flitted down the road past her, a dotting of trash cans lay jammed against the curb and more along a chain link fence. She kept walking, past the next long block, the leaves dancing before falling at her feet, past the park baseball field, the parking lot littered with food wrappers, a couple of baseballs rolling around, the community building. She felt the wind inside her now, shifting and filling the drafty spaces in her heart, her lungs, beckoning her to the mountains. Ollie trotted alongside, ears up, eyes narrowed. Mari felt as if they were gliding towards the trailhead. Just ahead. Empty. A small funnel of debris spiraling up from the worn path, and licked her lips, anticipating all the meandering trails leading deep into the mountains. She stepped onto the trail. A wall of cacti and rock on her left; the canyon falling to her right, pausing. The wind tapped at her back. “Trust the Santa Anas, Ollie,” Mari said. “She’ll take us to where the wind lives.”