The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
Sweet butter smells from the past
Posted on Friday, April 29, 2011 at 12:47 PM
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Through the iron garden gate across the street you could see the crimson blooming fuchsia bushes around the spring well where a dreadful bogeyman lived.
If you went to the edge of the well he could reach up through the cold water, grab you by the ankle and drag you down into some dark place where he would devour every last bit of you, even the skull itself.
He even had a name. His name was Mumbles, and I never met him.
That would have been the intent of the gory story I was told away back then.
When I returned to the scene many years later the bushes were gone and the well where Mumbles lived looked very small and innocent. But he is probably still there. I did not stay on the brink for more than a minute even then!
There was a muslim cloth with a hole in the center tied around the neck of the big churn. A "dash" with a circular wooden head had already been inserted through that hole and down into the cream below by the time I saw it first.
My mother Mary was churning away with quick up and down motions when I came into the kitchen. There was a dull, sloshy sound coming from down below.
Mary was conversing with her maiden aunts Lizzie and Sarah about a death in the town of Lisbellaw of some young woman they all knew well. She died, said Sarah, from "a knot in the gut.”
She had been sickening for less than a month. She left two small children behind.
I wanted to know what a knot in the gut was. Could I get one too?
They did not answer me. I know now that it was the term the country people used for what we now call cancer.
The women were drinking tea from a big teapot on the hearth. Lizzie gave me a glass of milk, still warm from the cow's udder, and a Thick Arrowroot biscuit. I can still taste that biscuit as I'm writing this.
Lizzie took over the churning from my mother when I was eating. Her action was a bit slower than my mother's.
Lizzie and Sarah raised my mother after her father died young and left behind a houseful of girls and one son, John, heir to the farm. He sadly died in a bicycle fall years before this. He was only 16.
He had a spade tied to the crossbar of the bicycle when he fell and the sharp edge of the spade gashed his head so badly he died. His name was always in the trimmings of our family Rosary.
Mary visited the aunts regularly after she got married. There was a very close bond.
The aunts were very kind to children but, being maiden aunts, they did not properly know how to hug them. They crushed children hard against their corsets, ribbed with whalebone, and kissed them on the top of the head while patting their backs like they were dogs or lambs. It was not a nice sensation at all.
I begged Mary for permission to churn for a while. They laughed at me, but Lizzie eventually got a stool from the hearth.
She stood me up upon the stool and put the warm wooden handle of the dash in my hands. Churn away!
I churned and churned away with great pride and speed until my arms started to get tired and then slower. The sloshy noise from below changed all of a sudden, and it seemed that the dash was getting stuck.
Sarah came over and checked and she said I was a mighty man, it was me that had brought the butter from the cream.
There was a lot of work and water and washing after that, a great pottery dish filled with the golden butter, all three women working away as I watched. Sometime later it was Sarah who began shaping the butter into separate pounds with the aid of two wooden paddles like table tennis bats, only rectangular. She used a lot of salt too. The paddles had a stippled pattern on their faces and that pattern was imprinted on the pounds of butter.
There were little globules of clear spring water from Mumbles's well on them as well. Some time afterwards, maybe hours, I got some of that butter on a slice of "fadge" brown bread fresh out of the circular iron oven over the fire.
It melted down into the heart of the slice. It tasted even better than the Thick Arrowroot biscuit mainly because it was myself that had churned out the butter.
I figure I was five years old that afternoon. It was long forgotten, but I bought a pound of real salted churn butter at a farmers' market in Ennis today and suddenly there was all of it, the sounds and smells and all, inside my head and on my tongue...