That churn came out once a week, usually on a Friday. Big brown crocks of thickening cream stood there waiting for the fray. A great black kettle watched for its turn as it filibustered on the hot stove in the kitchen, while out in the drab dairy Minnie O'Brien fussed as she made ready to bring about a miracle.
The churn echoed in emptiness when she set it centre stage on the cold cement floor. A round-bellied barrel it was, its staves held together by four iron hoops. Eight days had passed since it was last used; its insides now waited their hot and cold baptism.
When Minnie felt that the churn was scrubbed enough, she set to next to sweeten its porous wood. At hand lay a bunch of freshly plucked hazel leaves, and those she thrust down inside it. Fetching then that big black kettle, she poured its boiling water in on top of the leaves. Scalded so, the leaves released their nutty sweet scent and the hot wood of the churn absorbed it into its druidic, dark drum.
Her hazel wand waved, Minnie disposed of the limp leaves before shocking the churn with, this time, icy cold water from the old spring well. Three white pails full it took to cool down the steaming hot wood, three whole pails full she used to freeze the churn in readiness for its sacramental rotations.
Nursing still their helium harvest the cataracted crocks waited, still playing their stoic games, but the moment they were lifted they yielded up their booty, listening in awe as their clotted cream dropped ploppingly down into the cold, damp coffin of dankness. There it lay fooling itself that it might yet escape, but then down slapped the lid, snap went the clamps, and up the churn was hoisted onto its stand. There in total darkness the cream lay while the churn hung where it swung, while Minnie geared herself up for the imponderables ahead.
Eventually, her state of play ready, her sleeves pushed up to her elbows, her feet planted firmly, her children somewhere within earshot, she gripped hold of that handle and sent the engine of the churn Sundaying into life.
Plumbing its cargo the churn end-over-ended, the billygoat of its sum slopping and slapping against either end. Twisting the handle to the rhythm of an old O'Brien chant the churn and churner gradually built up speed until the ginseng was singing:
'Going to Connecticut, Going to Connecticut, Going to Connecticut.'
There was, she knew, no great need for any member of the O'Brien family to emigrate, but with her hand still holding a loose grip of the handle, Ireland's long-ago potato famine but a memory, she activated the humbug until she had the rhythm reduced to:
'Conn-ect-i-cut, Conn-ect-i-cut, Conn-ect-i-cut.
A sense of lonesomeness equal to the evidence of an unkindness of ravens usually, and for no obvious reason, crept over her every time she churned, and it was then that she'd be glad to rope in her children, their complaining an antidote to her sense of foreboding. 'Here Brendan, you take a turn,' she'd say as she slid her hand away, and when properly humoured off he'd set on his drum-drum route to Connecticut. Sheila, when her turn came, always spat in her hand before she gripped the handle and, being a girl, and to prove her worth, she'd never ever give in till her mother shouted 'Whoa'.
By then the helium would be knocking for release, and it was the littlest of the three children who'd be chosen for the special thumb-task. Lifting him up, his mother would stand him on an old wooden box from where he could stretch in to place his thumb on the silver escape-valve. His strength was never sufficient to depress the button, so his mother would place her thumb securely on top of Frankie's and, strengths combined, the little boy'd cheer as gas whistled from the churn. Minnie loved her littlest so, and making much of his miracle she'd hug him before lifting him down to the floor.
No time to let up. It'd be her turn again to grip the handle and set the churn in motion. Her right hand would grow weary and then her left as her journey upturned and turned up. Relief, though, would dawn when on stopping to examine the lid's little porthole window she'd discover that the cream had cracked and, yes, there they'd be, the little crumbs of butter sticking precariously to the round glass.
That would set her to change her tempo, for now she had to become as midwife to the crock of gold within the churn. Her hand rocking the cradle, she'd heel the churn over and back, see-sawing it until the butter gathered together into an island plashing around on a lake of blue-white milk.
Sesame-like she'd remove the lid, her eye taking in her harvest. Then, her hands washed, she'd lift up nuggets of the butter and hit them slap against the upturned and slanted lid. Milk hidden inside the butter would steal lava-like away and spill back down to swell the milk in the churn. She'd never stop until her hoard of butter was ready to be dropped into a crock of fresh water. There it'd bob up and down as she kneaded and pummelled it, her children all the while keeping her supplied with ever more spring water. It was only when the water remained clear as nectar that her job was done, and even then she'd have to salt the butter to each one's taste.
The day's churning would be drawing near its climax, but Minnie would have yet to factotum the job. Cutting off a portion from that butter mound she, like a juggler, would toss her prize from one butter spade to another, slapping and slipping it, plopping and gripping it, until the golden butter was shaped to her mind's fancy and ready to be nudged onto a dark-green platter. There in its innocence it'd wait until, holding a spade pen-fashion, she'd inscribe her name upon it in a pattern of dots and dashes.
Fridays of yore worried, but seldom now. The dairy was the location of those far-flung human endeavours. It was still there, but now its whitewashed walls grew seas of black mildew. The big brown crocks which had once held cream no longer held butter's promise; now they were laden down with the years' rusted junk. Voices, the young voices which once complained of tired turning of the handle, were silent now, flown to the four winds. Panicking behind the dairy door the churn, the focal point of those distant Fridays, crouched yonder in its place. The hoops which held its varnished staves were still there, holding it intact. The plughole piece of wood, the spigot, starved of moisture and now dry as cork, slept senile-stressed sleep underneath the dairy table. The two handles which used to loiter waiting their part in the lifting of the churn hung down in idleness, no need now their hinting strength. Yes, the barrel still stood, but only just. Weary from the years' tomboy-thinking, it yet managed to hold its body together so that the round lid would have something to sit upon. Only the lid played God: there it sat upon its frame, a cobweb hiding its porthole window. Still waiting for the pressure of his thumb, its silver escape-valve damned well watched the door to see if the child might return to train his finger once again upon its button and allow it to whistle.
Minnie O'Brien, the star performer of those long-ago dairy miracles, was now but caretaker to this house and farm. Just like the air which stymied here, she too spent her waking hours in waiting. Nothing mattered but that the smoke would curl from her chimney during every daylight hour and that come nightfall a light would give off gumption in its beckoning from her kitchen window. Minding her minefield, she vexed her days. Hers was a hyphenated status, for her husband, Peter, slept now beneath the single yew up there in the village cemetery. His wait was indeed similar to hers, for never an hour passed by that he could unclench his teeth, for even in death he sensed the danger of allowing the yew's roots to steal into his mouth to water themselves from the trough where his tongue used to lie.
Weathering the years, the widow woman stood today leaning against the Snowcem-ed white wall. The relics of the old clematis still clung here to its fractured frame. Minnie played games as her mind set about remembering the morning when she asked her new husband to help her move the plant from its former site beside the turfshed to this hump of ground running alongside the new wall in front of the house. Peter had his doubts that it would take to its new bolthole. This morning her ears could hear again the ping of his spade in the early morning stillness. 'Here love, catch a holt of that,' his voice came back, and now touching the very leaves and tendrils of the plant her eyes undid time as they examined the blossom purpling there before her.
Pondering on her lean life now she left her place sideways to the wall and set off on her daily patrol of her land. She owned five fields in all, none of them special, none but the one in which the giant oaks clumped. The stumps of four of them, blackened by nature, stunted there still while to their right flourished four more, their branches strangling the skies with their canopy of conceit. Peter had been the surgeon who cut down the four oaks. He needed furniture for his new house, since the nest egg, the sovereigns willed to him by an old uncle, had been holed badly in the pursuit of his dream. But the oaks didn't figure in today's pilgrimage, neither did the sundry memories associated with the sour grass which grew around their roots. No, this sally was to find out at first hand if her gate had kept out the big foreign bullocks from loafing around her prize field.
Not able to stand the pressure any longer, Minnie had given in to her neighbour's offers and let four fields of grazing to the farmer on the other side of the mearing ditch. Jude Fortune, the widow of Michael J., had for ages had her designs on the old woman's place, but four fields were not what she was after: she wanted the run of the entire holding and then she could keep out that Protestant fellow, the man to whom Minnie each year sold her one field of meadow.
Swallowing up her neighbour's five fields into her own vast stretch of land was Jude Fortune's unspoken aim, but four years had now slipped by and her cattle had never once got a chance to graze in the field where words and wonders once twined together. Jude's resolve was durable and year after year she suggested the actual terms to her renewing the lease, but her pumice stone had minimal effect on the wodjous woman, Mrs Minnie O'Brien.
Today, then, was but another day at the battlements for Minnie. She had laid her groundwork the very day when, upon her instructions, her solicitor gave the go-ahead to Jude Fortune's leasing of four of the five fields. Down she went that May day to check out if the gate to the special field was closed, and not even satisfied with it being bolted she set about tying it. The bolt was already homed into its tunnel in the old railway sleeper but she tied it nonetheless. The thick strand of wire was hard to manoeuvre; her hands certainly felt the strain. She tried to imagine the cattle's strength as maybe rising on each other they might be forced against the gate, and so with that in mind she threaded the wire through the hole in the bolt, twanked it around the armiture, yellowed it around the plank before coaxing it back towards herself so that she could set about twisting the two ends together. 'Musha then, the Holy Spirit himself'd not get in nor get out through that gate,' she thought, and smiling to herself she stood there sizing up her handiwork.
Now Minnie could dream on. The four big oaks stood high and haughty; as for the grass growing around their feet, well, the tufts could be mowed just like the rest of the meadow and when mixed with the red poppies and white clover the coarse grass could then turn sweet -- only the baking sun was needed. Thus was her thinking that May day, and when it came to the question of what to do with the meadow she somehow felt in her gut that George Hamilton would, under the wasps' sting, come in and take it so that it wouldn't be left on her hands.
The sun which shone down on her as she leaned on the white wall was now higher in the heavens and hotter on her back. She pulled along though, for her gate held a note longer than did her lungs. Her breathing was coming faster by the time she neared the iron gate, but when she saw what was there inside it and gazing out through its bars her heart almost stone dropped. 'Musha will you look, after all my time and years of trouble,' she thought, and the big round solemn eyes of the cattle gazed on her in rapt attention. Her eyes swept about her, searching for the dog, but he was off the far side of the third field trying to raise rabbits for his own excitement. Minnie hadn't the puff with which to whistle, so, trumpeting her hands around her mouth, she called out the dog's name and waited until he came bounding through a batch of thistles.
Ranting and raving, she urged the dog to get behind the bullocks, but the untrained urchin was wacky enough to keep attacking from the front. The cattle galloped rebelliously, the dog circling before them, but they, the gung-ho foreigners, were but having high jinks. Five times, at least, they galloped past the gap in the hedge where that tree was tackled by the storm last November. A big ash tree cobbled with tons of ivy was brought down by the gale force winds, and the fencing which she herself had done the moment the tree was cut up had held the bearna baol unbreached till now. But strealing along, half trotting, her wish today was to force those cattle back out through the broken-down fence. With every last breath she shouted until one big fellow burst back to where he belonged, and his ten playmates then followed suit.
War had broken out between the bumsteers and the guardian of the field where the line of history had been conceived. Secondguessing now she, the Fenian woman, had to mend her fences. Soldiering on, she found branches and bushes and then like a crow she hit-or-missed until the gap was newly darned. By now, though, her old face was burning and her tired senses dithered from the cattle one moment to the whereabouts of Frankie the next.
'I'll go on as far as the river and then double back to see if they have forgotten the taste of my meadow,' she thought, but on reaching the rut between the fourth and fifth fields she found that last night's downpour had put a fillip of water struggling there. She stood for an age looking at the little trench and then, her breasts sagging, her legs slightly buckling, she gathered her skirt and made ready to jump. Pilate would have hopped it blindfolded, Peter would've stepped across as though it wasn't even there, in her heyday she'd have skipped across it, but that was then and this was now; now it took all her resolve. Her take-off was sudden when it came -- the feet thieved the air and down they landed. It was only a little jump, a mind-over-matter jump, but as she walked towards the river now she smiled the schooled smile of a woman.
Excerpted from The Banyan Tree © Copyright 2012 by Christopher Nolan. Reprinted with permission by Anchor Books. All rights reserved.
The Banyan Tree
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: Anchor
- ISBN-10: 0385720688
- ISBN-13: 9780385720687