C. B. Auder
Once upon a time, there was a golden bowl filled thick with noodles.
It sat on a work table, steaming into the night.
A man entered, surging with hunger. He cupped the bowl with well-worn hands, brought it to his lips and drank at the rim, until the noodles and broth became part of him and he of them — until he was rubbing his belly as though it were a sleepy cat.
“No time for thoughts of cats,” the man grunted. “Too many buttons to mold.”
As the basket spoke, its wicker quivered. “Oh dear,” it said. “I will never be able to fit all of those buttons into my poor area that holds things.”
“You can do anything you put your mind to,” muttered the woman. “You’re the Handbasket that Can.”
“Can I really?” The basket crackled with astonishment as the woman carried it to the button table. “Goodness,” it said. “That sounds wonderful — ”
“It’s not our job to wonder about goodness.”
The basket pondered this. It didn’t seem very wise. “But — ”
“Can’t you see I have a billion things to sew?” The woman filled the basket’s mouth with buttons. “Not to mention a headache like you wouldn’t believe.”
The button felt ashamed. All night it had repeated a silent mantra: I will fling myself from this table and do something.
Instead, the button had watched a woman hunch and groan over her work. For hours and hours she had grabbed button after button and, with needle and thread, had poked them in all of their eyes.
Just as the button had decided to spring into action, the woman grabbed it with bony fingers and squeezed it tight.
The button squeaked and popped itself free.
As it sailed through the air, it grew worried. Would it be crushed beneath the wheel of a nearby cart? Would it disappear into that dark drain? Perhaps it would be gnawed to pieces by a starving rat.
No, the button lay beneath a table, dusty and neglected for nearly a week.
The man entered, hungrier than ever, but found his bowl only half-full.
He drank his soup, then studied the bowl in bewilderment. “Can this be the same bowl? The gold seems less shiny.” He thundered to the woman in the other room, “Have you been fiddling with my dinner?”
One night, the woman smacked the button around with a broom. The button gathered up all of its momentum, then flew and skidded out the door. It bounced off of a streetlamp and ended up in a grumbling garbage jostler.
Then it journeyed beneath the stars on a bed of torn fabric.
At dawn the button slid into an ocean of new shoe buckles and shiny party balloons and plastic chandeliers and polyester jock straps and bald tires and used condoms and cracked sauce jars and stained pillowcases and unused twist ties and unwanted silverware and limp vegetables and empty wart medications and cheap toilet seats and gobs of cat fur and soggy cigarette butts and a raft of crunching water bottles filled with sparkling emerald slime.
The button was overwhelmed. It wept from all four of its eyes.
So many new friends, it thought. So much sunshine!
The man entered, late. He hurried to the work table.
The bowl that awaited him was empty — and white as the mask of a ghost.
The man blinked in confusion. “Where is my golden bowl?”
“Right in front of you,” hollered the woman from the next room. “Where it always is.”
“This is not the same bowl,” the man huffed. “Surely this bowl has nothing whatsoever to do with me.”
But it was the same bowl. The gold had flaked off and been swept away. It had become a bowl of perfect bone.
The clock struck eleven. The man cursed. He wished he had time to find his old bowl. He had grown very hungry indeed. But there were always new buttons to make and new clothes to sew and sell.
The woman winced. Poked. Winced. Poked.
“I understand!” cried the basket suddenly.
“Judas Prawn!” The woman startled.
“I am just like you!” said the basket.
The woman sucked her bleeding finger. “I fail to see how.” She gave the basket a good thwack.
The man licked his cracked lips. He caressed the empty bone bowl as though rubbing an ivory lamp for answers.
The bowl tried to stay perfectly still, but in time it grew like magic to the man’s insistent touch. It grew faster and faster. It grew until it nearly reached the ceiling — until it was big and dry enough to anger a starving god.
The man felt strangely dizzy. He wiped his forehead. The bowl seemed to have grown very hot. He wrenched his clothes free, flung them to the four corners of the room.
He stood beneath the harsh work light, panting like an animal. He had always felt so strong, but now he seemed scrawny and pale. He saw that he was molded of soft, wrinkled skin held aloft by blades of bone.
The man scratched his head, puzzled. “I look like a huge, hairy lizard.”
The basket did not give up. It shook with revelation now. “I thought that I was me,” it cried, “but I am clearly defined by my actions!”
“Listen, bub.” The woman mashed a temple with a thimbled thumb. “I’ll make you a deal: if you can’t shut your trap, I’ll kick you right in the wicker.”
The man sat, out of breath. He had followed in his elders’ footsteps: he had made a lifetime’s worth of wares.
“I can hear you resting,” said the woman. “Hop to it. I’m almost out of buttons.”
But the man’s attention was on a broken window. Through the pane came the clumps and groans of creaky new bargains. The world was getting organized for another day of trade.
The man looked at his surroundings for the first time in ages. The room had always seemed mysterious when it was kept in the dark. He could see all four walls now. They weren’t nearly as far away as he had been led to believe.
He shook his head, perplexed. “Where is the great room I thought I’d been working in, all my life?”
Just then, dawn peeked through a rafter window and lit the giant bowl.
The man sagged with awe. The bowl looked like a brittle ivory lantern. Or a glowing bone blowfish. He was too tired to decide anything anymore.
“Of course.” He smacked his forehead. “The answers must be within.”
Sunshine hit the button’s face. The button opened three drowsy eyes.
Seagulls squawked and rummaged on the horizon. A cat approached, dinner wriggling in the clamp of its jaw. The button sighed. It was good to feel safe at home.
As the cat padded past, the plastic piles shifted and the button tipped forward in casual greeting. The cat leaped into a broken handbasket and disappeared.
The button leaned back. It dozed to the rhythmic crunch of a tiny skull.
The man heaved himself up. The table quaked and groaned as though to collapse. The inside of his bowl was empty and smooth and hard as an apology.
The man touched his forehead and palms to its cool surface, felt it quiver in response. His world had grown concave. It had turned entirely to cool bone. The man shivered.
A knock echoed around him, like the thud of heaven’s broom handle on a castle door.
His mind fluttered with fatigue, fizzled with the sparks of wisdom that always arrive too late.
“I know you’re in there,” said the woman. “I need a new basket.”
“Tomorrow,” mumbled the man to himself alone. “Tomorrow….”
“Get a plastic one this time. I think I broke a toe.”
The man lay down. The bowl cradled him in its ivory curve.
The man curled around his memories for warmth. He rubbed his belly with care, spoke to its grumbles in dreamy tones. His words streamed out in an invisible whisper, as though he dared not wake a sleeping priest.
A million shining rains came and went.
The world was no longer a confusing place — the man and woman were long gone. But all of their toil had been transformed, into brightly colored oceans of plastic, scattered throughout the land.
The button and its many friends never had to work another day in their lives.
This story originally appeared in print in A cappella Zoo (January 2015).
To fulfill various Anthropocene initiation rites, C. B. AUDER once collected handbaskets, leg warmers, lotions, notions, unicorn pencils, Garfield posters, and decorative frog paraphernalia. Auder’s work has been published in Cleaver Magazine, Random Sample Review, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and Jersey Devil Press. Follow Aud on Twitter at @cb_auder.