I live on the busiest streets, selling matches for a copper a bundle like so many other kids like me. We don’t make much, but it’s something. I’ve been saving my something for a long, long time now.
Today I stray from my normal streets, crossing the city under the cloak of early shadows. The overly large shawl I wrap around my shoulders is the warmest thing I own, and the years it’s known have not been kind. Still, it holds together and protects me from the biting pale morning.
On the southern side of town, if you go under the cobblestone bridge and turn right at the leather shop, there’s a little forgotten street called Thimbleberry Way. Even in the cold of a barely started spring, the street is cheery with hints of color. Painted window boxes hang off their buildings with barren soil, ready for flowers to be planted inside. The street is made with flagstones of different earthen shades. Rich browns, clay reds, burnt yellows, pine greens.
Someday, this is where I will live.
On either side of the street, just starting to open up their wares, stand the Thimbleberry shop carts. Not one of them look like another. There’s one made of woven branches, selling chestnuts and pine nuts and hazelnuts in bunches. The best you’ll ever find. Some people say they were brought from the fey world, because ours can’t make nuts like that.
I pass by a cart built from red cherry wood, with a wildflower meadow carved into the side. It is full of silken flowers, each one so delicately beautiful and detailed, I could swear they were alive. Next, I pass an old rustic cart that smells like campfire, selling little iron hooks and pegs and fire pokers so pretty you’d never forget to stoke your fire.
Then there are two carts, one on either side of the street, and they are owned by two sisters. One is made of smooth mahogany, selling shiny daggers with jeweled handles, while the other is made of twisted oak, selling shoes that look like they belonged to forest folk.
I pass them all, though I look lovingly at their wares as I go. Someday, I will have a strange little cart, and I think I will sell brightly colored marbles.
Ahead there is a sleek little cart made of pine wood, hundreds of ribbons tied around the handle. The owner is a kindly old man whose hair is the color of fluffy white clouds. His eyes are dark, dark, dark; I think they once used to be brown. When they catch the light, I see them twinkle like a night sky.
His cart holds thousands and thousands of buttons.
Big buttons, silver buttons, and tiny, tiny square buttons, along with every kind of button above, beyond, and in between. Some have four holes, some have two, some have a tiny ring on the back.
I say good morning to the button man, and he pulls a little box from under his cart as I sit on the street beside him. He says, Mornin’ chickadee. Which is what he’s always called me.
I say, Morning, Mister Button. Which is what I’ve always called him.
I pull out my right arm from my shawl, showing him the rip on my sleeve that goes from my wrist to my elbow. He whistles as he opens his box and asks what the other guy looked like.
I smile and tell him, pointy and sharp and a lot like a nail.
The button man pulls out some silver thread and pokes it through the eye of a needle. I watch a few people wander down the street as he starts mending the tear. All my clothes have little X stitches in different colors, some of them holding patches in place.
The first time I wandered down Thimbleberry Way I’d had a terrible rip in my shawl, and the button man had asked if I would sit a minute so he could fix it. When he’d finished, he looked me in my eyes, straight to my soul, and said, it’s okay if it tears again, come to me and I will always sew it back.
He’s very quick with the needle, and only squints a little to see his stitching. Someday, I’ll buy him a pair of spectacles to wear. Good ones, with frames of twisted silver.
He double-knots the thread and snips it with a fine pair of iron scissors. I feel the thread with my fingertips and walk over to his cart as he puts his things away. Someone walks by holding a new pair of brown and green shoes, they look like they’re made of leaves. I plunge my hand into the buttons and reach as far down as I can, wondering how long the ones at the bottom have waited to be seen. My hand comes back up with a fistful, and I open it slowly.
There’s a coin with four holes drilled through, a button from a soldier’s uniform, a large circle of wood with floral designs burnt into it and two holes in the middle. There’s a button made from a seashell and a button made from stone, but I let them all fall from my hand as I pick up a button made from a pearl. It was a large pearl, carved to look like a lily, with a small hole poked sideways through the bottom for sewing it on.
I take it to the button man, and he smiles at my find. Add it to my tab, I tell him, and tell me where you found this one.
He pulls out a different box from under his cart, where he puts all of the buttons I pick out. Someday, I will buy them all.
But he sets it beside him and lets me hold the pearl button while he tells me about it. He has a story for all of them. Whether they’re true or not is anyone’s guess, but I believe they are. He’s old enough to have lived them all, and he’s got a very good memory. I bet he could tell the story behind every tear he has mended for me too.
The button is smooth in my hand. This one, he tells me, was from a chest full of pearl buttons I found in a dragon’s lair.
I glance up just in time to catch a twinkle in his eye. The chest was studded with sapphires, sitting in a pool of diamonds.
I wonder if I will ever find dragon treasure, and I ask, What did you do with all of the diamonds?
He smiles a little and looks up at the street. I paid them to someone to tell me how to find an elusive little place called Thimbleberry Way.
I’m glad you did, I tell him, and I hold out the button to be dropped into my box. I would pay a pool of diamonds to live here, if I had them. To live here, to have my own cart, and to buy a pair of good spectacles with twisted silver frames.
It’s time for me to go. I don’t have diamonds, but I don’t need them to find my way here. I have matches to sell, and a pile of coppers to make bigger.
The button man waves as I leave. See ya, Chickadee.
Thimbleberry Way fades behind me as I go back to the busy streets. It’s okay if it takes me forever. I’ll have more stories by then. Maybe someday a little matchgirl will find me; an old woman with cloudy white hair and a strange, colorful cart.
Maybe I’ll tell her about hoarded treasure made of copper pennies.