Legend Of Cornelius Button

Cornelius leaped about in the bushes. Birds flew up, not squawking in anger but beating their plumage in displeasure nonetheless.

Crickets!” This was foul language for Cornelius. He spent many a morning chasing the noisy, hungry things. Crickets were the island’s bugbears.

“Hello?!” a female voice called out.

Cornelius looked at the greenhouse, then the main mansion.

“Hello, kind sir?” the voice called again.

A young woman in wet, torn clothes was meandering toward him down one of the narrow paths that lead to the beach. He hadn’t much used it since the crabs and seagulls were scarce until summer. The poor girl looked half drowned and covered in mosquito bites and scratches from branches. This was the first human voice he had heard in months.

“Oh dear!” he cried out. “Over here.” He waved his white net.

She headed toward him, and almost stumbled on a root. She smiled, as if overjoyed to see him.

“Do I know you?” he asked.

“We shipwrecked,” she replied. Up close, she was young with aristocratic hands, and clearly strapping and confident of character.

He doffed his wide-brimmed hat as a courtesy.

“My lady,” he said. He smiled. “I’m but a lonely old man, here on this little island in the Jungle Sea.”

“You are salvation!” she replied. She plopped down on a rock. Her breasts heaved with the torment of exercise in heat and humidity.

“A drink?” he asked.

“I’ve had water for a lifetime, thank you.” She got up, suddenly agitated. “There are a dozen of us down on the beach. None injured. That storm was a demon.”

“Storm?” he asked, genuinely astonished. “It’s been fine spring weather for almost two years here.”

She looked confused. “Where am I?” she asked. “I’m sorry I don’t mean to be rude. It’s been an ordeal worthy of grandchildren.”

He gave a gentle, sympathetic laugh. “Well then, come on in, let’s get you dry, with a salve for those bites, and then we’ll let your friends know they have a warm and tidy place to stay. We’re about three days good sailing from Portsmouth on Ains Bay.

He showed her to the greenhouse, which was only a dozen steps away. There were blankets and fresh water inside.

“We were on our way to Portsmouth,” she said. “I lived there for a good ten years. Would never go back. You’d best not settle there either, lest you lose your heart and sanity.”

“Is there anyone else here?”

“My wife lives on the other side of the island,” he replied, as if such a living arrangement were normal.


“We meet for bunch or tea, and holidays.” He pulled out a fine bowl and filled it with fresh water. “The water is from the well,” he said, “no worries. I pulled it up this morning. As for my wife, I try to avoid her. But who can. She is Mrs. Button, after all. Her garden parties are insufferable.”

“Oh by the way, I’m Llydia,” the girl said, taking the water along with a towel to clean her face and arms.

“And I’m Cornelius Button.”

“Is there a town here?

“No.” Cornelius gave her a look, the kind one provides to delay explaining a complexity. “Let’s say,” he explained, “that the crickets and my children keep us too busy for civilization.”

“Children?” She liked them, though she had none herself yet.

“The garden, dear.” He directed her attention to the greenhouse in all its expansive lush wonder, a riot of chaos in half-broken pots. “I try not to force any of them to follow my will, as parents often subject onto children, or kings unto their subjects….”

“Or the ocean onto its travelers.”

“I stand back a little, provide them what they need, and let them be.” He indicated Llydia to follow him. He pointed to various plants, mundane and colorful, known and odd. “Some grow fruit.” He picked a pomegranate from a small tree as they passed it. “Others grow carnivorous.” He turned a corner, stopped, and indicated for silence with a finger over his lips.

The bush before them rustled, then opened its branches to reveal a greenish red maw nestled deep within. It yawned, nice and loud.

“I feed him, don’t worry.”

“Do you have any favorites?” she asked.

“Hmm. Oh yes, the singers. My sweet singers.”

“I would love to hear them,” she replied. If plants could yawn, then singing was not far-fetched.

“They hypnotize the unwary.” He smiled. She could not decipher it. She wondered, was his wife even real? Or was she a figment of his imagination, a half-potted plant somewhere?

They exited the greenhouse onto a veranda adjoining the main house. A parasol shaded two wide, comfortable chairs woven with colorful stripes. They sat lonely and unused.

“One day my wife invited her nieces from Portsmouth of all places for holiday. Too many midnight balls, I’d wager. All Hell broke loose, literally.”

“I can’t imagine,” Llydia said.

“Riding along in their luggage was a foreigner, an insect not native to our island. It ate whatever it liked. It sang at all the wrong hours and in broken chords. It spawned, somehow, a swarm of itself that leaped with gay abandon about the property. My wife almost had a heart attack. That’s when she took to the other side of the island.”

“How rude of the insect,” Llydia said.

“Indeed,” Cornelius agreed. “The balance of the island, its harmonies….” He sighed, as if harmony equated to youth, and he was now forever stuck as an old man.

They entered the mansion’s parlor. It was fine, though clearly in need of organizing, polishing and repairing. There was ticking but no clocks. A melange of odd contraptions stood watch from shelves and glass cabinets, mechanisms she had never seen in her days of adventure. Llydia saw in the lace serviettes and paisley patterns the clear touches of a woman’s hand. A portrait of a noble lady with gray locks and sharp green eyes smiled over the parlor.

“Does she visit?”

“It happens. She controls the lady bugs and such—although her nieces now rule the butterflies. Only the crickets are mine. Now, let’s get you that changes of clothes.” He wandered to the kitchen and disappeared, his voice trailing after him. “Oh, and I hold sway for no good reason over the roaches, those poisons to one’s heart.”

Llydia examined a nearby curio cabinet. Several specimens were caught in the reflection of her own face as the lazy afternoon sun beamed onto the glass through a nearby window. She turned her head to an angle to better see the curios. Most were butterflies. Each was unique, a patterns suggesting a mood or eon in the old man’s life.

“Did your wife catch these butterflies?” she asked loudly.

“Oh no,” he called from the pantry. “Although she does. I used to chase butterflies, once upon a time. But after I married Martean, they only flew for her.” He returned with a set of women’s summer garden knickers and a pink blouse. “Forgive me,” he said, “These are my wife’s but she won’t mind. You can change in the guest privy.”

She took the clothes into the privy. It was narrow and tall with one high window, plus an open window above the door.

“Did your nieces enjoy their trip?” she asked as she changed. “When we get to Portsmouth, if there is anything you would like me to take to them, by all means we will do so. You’ve been so kind.”

“Thank you,” he said. “We had a hedge maze then, and the girls, Mariath and Taydie, fell through a trapdoor into the root cellar below. They regaled us afterward with a story about entering the court of the King of the Butterflies. And in fact, they emerged with butterfly tattoos, having had fun with the cellar’s paints.”

Llydia examined herself in the privy’s mirror. She took water from the marble basin, where rose pedals languished, and redressed her hair as best she could. She opened the door.

“Ah, much better!” she exclaimed.

“You are lovely, if an old man like me might dare a compliment.”

She laughed with abandon, all thoughts of the shipwreck, her bickering comrades, her lost lover, gone for a moment.

“The world out there needs more people like you,” she said.

“Oh my!” He blushed red.

“I should return to the beach now, to gather the other survivors.”

“But I didn’t finish my story about the girls.”

She looked at him, about to brush him aside, about to treat him harshly, as a young person might treat a befuddled old man, or a gardener a buzzing insect. She stopped herself. What if she had landed alone on a deserted island? Or fallen prey to a kraken? Surely the world would continue five more minutes. She took a seat in one of the parlor’s overstuffed chairs.

He sat across from her. “Thank you,” he said. “The rest of the story is important.” He paused. “The girls didn’t just return from a cozy play. They returned knowing their power.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, curious.

“Because you have been kind,” he said, “Here is a gift for your journey.” He now held a small wooden box in his hands.

“Very sweet,” she said, touched. Years earlier, her great aunt Llydia, after whom she was named, gave her a jewelry box. She hadn’t understood why at the time, but her aunt died a few days later.

“No doubt you see the odd contraptions in this place,” he said, motioning around.

“I’ve been privileged to view wonders,” she said, looking around. “Your home is special. Where are you from, really?”

He just smiled with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

She scrutinized the room. Her eyes finished their journey on the old man’s arms, now covered with cricket tattoos. She hadn’t noticed them before. “Alchemy?” she asked.

“No,” he replied. A cricket popped out and hopped down from the man’s chair onto the floor and bounded out the door. It was the size of an ogre’s fist. “That’s Squiggly. My family,” he said, “was shipwrecked.”

“Not here,” she surmised.

“We beached on this world."

Llydia had heard tales of travelers who hailed from other times and places. Perhaps this island was the proverbial eye in a frightening and unfamiliar storm.

“The girls didn’t know,” he explained. “Their parents felt it best, to ensure they found their place comfortably. But I don’t believe in hiding much. Their father took them back all in a huff.”

“So it’s not alchemy where you come from, is it,” she said, “It’s imagination?” She spied the box, wondering what was inside.

He smiled. “Tell me a story about this little box, Llydia. Whatever you say, that is what you’ll find when you open it.”

Llydia returned to the beach later that afternoon. The other survivors had their grumbling way and soon returned to Portsmouth, but she stayed for several months, to think, to sing, to walk the beach, to play with odd contraptions, to hear of other worlds.

“You ready?” Cornelius finally asked her one afternoon over tea.

“Yes,” she said. “My story.”

“Splendid. I hope it’s a good one.”

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