Jimmy Kerr

Rosie’s Rituals

The porcelain bowl, big, and deep, full of readied milk Rosie would carry into the milkhouse. A small windowless room that housed the tumble-barrel churn, chair, two meal boxes, layers mash for the hens, feed for the sheep. 

Into the churn, she would toss a handful of nettles, scald with boiling water, scrub, and rinse. Once disinfected, the real magic would begin. In she would pour the soured milk, and sprinkle a healthy handful of salt. On would go the lid, tight would go the fasteners. Taking her seat, she would grasp the churn handle in her right hand, and away the barrel would tumble. 

Regardless of the day, the door would be left open; churning doesn’t need darkness. Prayers would be recited as she would stare out across the fields and up the hills towards the sky, the sloshing of the churn for comfort, and always a cat, and sometimes a dog, for company. All but the churn and her right arm would be motionless. 

When the little glass porthole on the churn lid turned navy blue, it was time; the butter was ready, fasteners loosened, off would come the lid. One hand would scoop out great clots of butter into a large wooden bowl; slowly she’d tilt the churn and strain the remnants through a muslin cloth into the chipped enamel bucket. What the bucket missed the cat would savour, butter milk for the soda bread, to be taken to the scullery. The contents of the bowl she’d beat and slap with wooden paddles until she had two perfectly little ribbed bricks of white butter. 

Soda bread, measurement by hand and eye only: no need for a jug or a spoon. The recipe was Rosie’s, and it was always the same. Into the bowl with the willow pattern went flour, baking soda, and the buttermilk from the morning's churning. The mixture stirred till ready, dumped onto the baking board at the table by the window. Dough kneaded, sliced, and rolled on to the griddle on top of the ‘Modern Mistress’. The delicate aroma from the fields, slowly released into the kitchen; the earth, sun, and rain had played their role. The first batch turned four quarters of a circle, a cross separating each. Tapped, ready, hot, removed, stacked upright on the cooling rack. The griddle brushed clean with a goose wing, which had long since seen a Christmas past. The next batch on until the bowl was empty, the baker in her quiet, at ease. 

Soup from her kitchen stores inside, and out, barley from the fields, young nettles from the ditches behind the stone walls. There would be no stings, for she was taking what nature simply intended for her to have. A meaty hen, it would be one of her own; she never ran after them. ‘Walk don’t run’, once a convent girl.

For the chosen one, today was a different day. Today something had changed. Today Rosie wasn’t just feeding that hen, or collecting its precious egg. Today, all the attention was on her, this one hen that never had a name. The hen bouncing from one leg to the other, scratching stones as it ran across the yard not knowing where to run. The free range it never even knew it had was almost over. Tomorrow there would be soup. The nameless hen all but forgotten for the odd feather that would float, glide, somersault, and slide across the yard, still running away.

Held still the summer evenings when there wasn’t an air; a reek would rise straight up from the neighbour’s chimneys over by. The air heavily scented with the smell of slow, smouldering peat. The fading rose-tinted sunlight of the evening turning the landscape into a painting, and back again. Midges dancing erratically in the air, a curlew scratching the silence, as the quiet cow taking her time would dander into the byre to be milked. And Rosie, taking her bucket and stool, would compose herself, and then begin. 

Splosh, splish, splosh, splash into the tin bucket the precious rich liquid would swirl, and bubble. When done, the cow would get a pat, and a “Ta ta”, and the cat would get a drop in an old hubcap. The milk would be taken into the back scullery, and poured into two big porcelain bowls: one for the butter, and one for the house. And there they would sit in the cool stillness of the evening. Supper a feast of hot, sweet milky tea, fresh soda bread, smeared with recently battered butter: a mighty reward, for an honest day's work. The rituals complete, sin é for another day.

*sin é is Irish for “that’s it.”

Jimmy Kerr is a writer/performer. He has performed, produced work in the Origins 1st-Irish festival in NY on four separate occasions, and is the recipient of the Origin Award for Special Achievement. He was shortlisted for the Abbey Works 2019, and long-listed for Papatango 2020. Kerr is a graduate of the Professional Actor Training program at the William Esper Studio in NYC, and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh.