[FICTION] The Butterfly Clasp
Dorothy’s free-standing closet, equipped with drawers on one side and thus technically a chifforobe, had begun to fall apart soon after Joki dove off a bridge not far from the old farmhouse where they had lived together for five decades. For a few weeks after Joki died, Dorothy had been so mad, she yanked the doors of the chifforobe open and shut, stubbornly dressing and undressing every day, unable to acknowledge that the door had become detached until one day when it landed on her bare foot. Furious, she kicked the hinge — a blackened butterfly clasp Joki’s great-grandfather had embedded into the wood a century before. The part clattered straight down the heating grate, lost.
With her toes bandaged, Dorothy trudged into the hardware store, where a man she usually tried to avoid sneered at her smartphone picture of the remaining clasp.
“That ain’t no American part,” he said, tugging at the straps on his overalls. “Probably Chinese or something.”
“It’s European, Dill.” Dorothy punched his name, wondering about its meaning — a habit she had developed while teaching English most of her life. Dill reminded her of the words “dull” and also “dilly-dally.” Joki meant “river” in Finnish, where she had grown up. Her death, against a rock hidden underwater, struck Dorothy as the saddest kind of homecoming. Joki could have fought the illness, but she had never put up a fuss about anything — not openly, anyway.
“All you need is a screw,” Dill said, scratching his hairy earlobe. “You interested in a good old American screw?”
Was he deliberately messing with her, or just being his usual idiotic self? “My friend died last month,” she said, feeling over-inflated by the prospect of shaming Dill, yet still careful to describe Joki as nothing more than a friend. “She had brain cancer. I’m trying to fix a chifforobe that’s been in her family a long time.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.” His booming voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. “Sorry, hon. Maybe try that Swedish place down the road?”
At the big-box store, kids shrieked inside a pit full of multi-colored balls. A nauseating, buttery smell blew by. Beyond the cafe, photos of cabinets and wardrobes dangled from endless shelves holding identical cardboard boxes. The chifforobes were incorrectly described as “chiffarobes.” Any semi-literate person should know how to spell a word combined from “wardrobe” and “chiffonier”— French for drawers. Certainly, Joki had known it, being a translator. Words mattered. She had wanted to be more than a “friend,” for instance, but Dorothy’s job, teaching kids in rural Georgia, had seemed incompatible with explicit descriptions. Dorothy had suggested “companion,” which sounded elegant. Joki had slammed the silverware drawer shut, and over time, she retreated to her office, with its towering piles of manuscripts in Swedish and Finnish.
Breathing hard, Dorothy stared at photos of bolts and screws and cabinet knobs, having at last found the hardware section. She didn’t like the word “clasp.” It reminded her of something fleeting, but with a hidden sting to it, like a wasp. Things hadn’t always been that way, with Joki holed up in her office. When they met, as college kids on a study-abroad trip, the Northern Lights had danced in her eyes, turning them from blue to green. They had shared a room in an old lodge — grasping hands and then each other, on the balcony as the sun set every night. “Lesbian” wasn’t even in Dorothy’s vocabulary then. They were what they were. They were pen-pals for a few years until Dorothy’s mother died and Joki finally moved to America, into the farmhouse.
Dorothy felt dizzy. Her bad hip hurt, too, but there was no place to sit. She grabbed onto a shelf, leaned against it, and closed her eyes.
“Are you okay, ma’am?”
Teeth smiled down. It was a woman of maybe thirty who had a blue streak in her brown hair. Her name tag said, “Nina — Assistant Manager.” Pinpricks of fluorescent light bounced around in her syrupy gaze, which seemed to contain equal parts of pity and amusement — a common recipe whenever Dorothy encountered young people. It infuriated her. “I’m perfectly fine,” she said, reaching for her phone. “I’m in search of this missing butterfly clasp.”
Nina looked at the image. “Hmm,” she said. “Did you buy the furniture here?”
“It’s from a very old chifforobe made in Finland, owned by a dear friend of mine who just died.” Dorothy urgently wanted to get home. Clearly, Nina didn’t have any answers. “My friend wouldn’t be caught dead here. She grew up in Finland. She was forced to learn Swedish, as a child. She wasn’t fond of the Swedes. I know that sounds awful, but it’s how things were back then.”
The syrup disappeared from Nina’s eyes. “I’m sorry about your friend. Did you know her a long time?”
“We lived together for fifty years.” Dorothy’s hands fluttered around. Her words felt pointless, without a perch. “She loved that chifforobe. It reminded her of childhood, made her feel safe, I suppose. I’d like to get it fixed.”
Nina handed a business card to Dorothy. “I’ve never seen a clasp like that, but my wife’s a carpenter. She could put your friend’s heirloom back together.”
The edges of the card kept shaking. Dorothy dropped it into her purse and pulled out her car keys. “Joki was my partner,” she said. “I’ve never called her that before. It made her sad, but I worked with kids. I couldn’t call her my wife, like you get to do.”
Nina nodded. “May I walk you to your car? Seems like you’ve had a stressful day.”
A poisonous heat drained from the spot where Nina had a grip on Dorothy’s arm. “If Joki were here, she’d say, ‘Minä rakustan sinua.’ That’s I love you in Finnish.”
“Ha,” Nina said. “Jag älksar dig.”
Right away, Dorothy recognized the Swedish translation for “I love you.”
Ginger Pinholster received her M.F.A. degree from the Queens University of Charlotte and has so far published a few pieces with Blackheart, Boomtown, Dying Dahlia Review, and The Northern Virginia Review. Her first novel was a finalist for a Santa Fe Writers Project literary award, and she’s now working on another novel called Seeing Gethin. Her day job involves science communications and she also teaches at a community college.