On Saturdays, Mama set me down in front of the churn. In summer days, she set me on the porch to look out upon the woods, she said, to look for fairies and woodsprite, to keep the woodland green at bay, lest it overtake the house and we be lost. On winter days, I set inside not far from the stove but far enough that a witch’s spell that come down through the flue would frustrate my efforts. The spell would come on account of Ms. Maybre, Mama would say, the spinster, who casts spells such as that of the butter witch. On account of that happening, we gotta stick the poker from the fire in the butter and break the witch’s back and get the butter going again.
I always wondered if she meant Ms. Maybre would have a broken back. But Ms. Maybre did seem to be the type of lady to be a witch and because of that, the Dempsey kids loved to play some tricks, just to get her ire going. Which is probably why we got butter spells going on us. We pulled tricks like stringing up a can of water over her door, dressing her cats up in the rags mama kept for washing down the house, hanging ghosts up in her yard from torn sheets, tying a scarecrow around the broom she kept by the door like it was flying it like a witch.
Mama said the inside of her house smells like a musty smoke house from the solid pig fat she buns as candles. She had been there once to check on her, witch or no witch she told us, and Daddy, at the dinner table. She hadn’t seen Ms. Maybre for weeks. It was her Christian duty, and there was Ms. Maybre, half naked from the waist up, drinking from a mason jar in front of the fire. Mama says she was drinking the moonshine she made from the pressure cooker on the stove with the copper wire run through, she was drinking the devil’s drink.
“Ms. Maybre,” said Mama to the old witch, “I worried about you when I haven’t seen you none, at all, not even to see you get your mail at the end of the road.”
“I drank the potion and went up the chimney. I flew over Grandfather on my corn broom with my red cap.” (Grandfather was a mountain not far from where we lived.)
She talked like the devil, said Mama. She was frothy with spirits. Mama put a shawl around her and laid her out on a cot she kept beside her stove. She set beside her and put a cold cloth on her head but hours later, Mama had fallen asleep for when she woke, there was no Ms. Maybre, only a cat, black as midnight, staring at her with white eyes, white as the yarrow she kept in a jar on the table in summer.
What Mama had concluded was that the cat was Ms. Maybre. “I swanee, I never seen nothing like this cat. It knew me inside out, like a person would. I held my cross around my neck,” and at this time in the story, she would show us how she clutched at the cross pendant Daddy gave her, “and I backed out the house.”
One Saturday, I gave baby Emma the handle for the churn. We call her baby Emma because even though she is grown up a bit, and in grade school, she is still the baby. I say to baby Emma, “On St. Patty’s, an old witch sends a butter spell down the flue and breaks up the churning. You let me know if the fat won’t come together and we’ll break a witch’s back.”
I left because I wanted to meet my friends at Sliding Rock.
When I came home, Emma was setting in the rocker next to the fire. Her normally blond hair was black and her brown eyes were white and she looked old and blind. She cried and pointed at me because I had left her alone. Mama and Daddy had gone into town, she said, and everyone else had gone away. The butter wouldn’t churn and she didn’t know how to break the witch’s back.
My heart was racing, I stoked a fire in the dying wood stove. What had happened to Emma? I jammed a poker into the coals. I pulled the paddle out of the churn and thrust the poker inside. It hissed and a whippoorwill lapsed into its nighttime song, almost in relief. Emma’s hair returned back to its soft blond and her lovely eyes the deep brown of a pond in moonlight. I held her tight and asked her to forgive me. She just nodded, but said nothing. “I’ll make you honey toast. And milk,” I said. “Let’s not worry now,” which is something Mama often said although it never often worked. I was surprised to hear myself saying it.
By the time Mama and Daddy got back with goods from town, the butter was churned and dinner set out. My other brothers and sisters were there too, in response to the dinner bell I had rung for them, summoning them back from adventures in the woods.
That night, sleeping under the eaves in the room I shared with my sisters, something woke me. A crooked old woman stood in the door frame. Was that Ms. Maybre? She made no sound, but glided to the head of my bed. She reached a claw down to my mouth and put her other claw to her pursed lips, instructing me to be quiet and still. Her finger smelled like the burning embers from the fire. She lifted it then and swiped through the air. I felt a whoosh and closed my eyes. When I could open them again I saw the roof was no more and I gazed up at black sky full of stars. She put her finger back down on my lips to quiet me and gave the shushing sign with the other hand. She then pressed her charred fingers down on my eyelids until I knew nothing but black.
The next morning at the mail boxes down the road, Ms. Maybre gave me a knowing look. I couldn’t be sure that she wasn’t the same woman as the night before. I kept to myself like the good girl I had read about in a book as a child. I never knew that girl to be me but I certainly wasn’t a no-count either.
– for Valerie Willis