The Butter Thief


By Terrye Turpin
Featured in The Weekly Knob Nov 16 · 


Nanny Wilson spotted the devil as he stepped out of his car. The stranger took off his hat, a snap-brim fedora that must have set him back over two bits. Hair black and shiny as the licorice at the Five and Dime, the handsome stranger waved and called out a “Howdy-do!” before he strolled toward the farmhouse porch. A black cloud, like a swarm of gnats only Nanny could see, buzzed around his head.

“I spot you, Old Goat,” she muttered. Her hands, knotted and twisted with arthritis, wrapped around the wooden dasher of the butter churn. She paused in her work.

“Good afternoon, ma’am.” He grinned at her, a possum passing peach seeds.

The screen door creaked and slammed, and her daughter-in-law, Honey, stepped onto the porch. “You must be Reverend Parker. Reverend Tomes mentioned you might come around,” Honey said. She twisted her hands in the calico apron around her waist then held out a palm toward the stranger. “I’m Honey, and this is my mother-in-law, Miriam.” She placed one hand on Nanny’s shoulder, as though to hold her down.

“I’m right pleased.” The man nodded from Honey to Nanny as he stepped onto the porch and took Honey’s hand. “You can call me Jude,” he said. He held her hand a moment longer, then released the younger woman, and reached toward Nanny. The old woman gripped the dasher tight and plunged it up and down in the churn.

“Can’t let the cream sit,” she said. The stranger’s gaze faltered, and the smile froze on his face as he stuffed his hand into his pocket. His other hand beat the fedora against his thigh.

“The Good Lord loves an honest day’s work,” he said.

Nanny snorted. She gazed past the stranger, to the convertible coupe parked in their drive, engine ticking as the car cooled. An honest preacher would travel in a Model-T, the working man’s automobile, if he owned a car at all. In her day they relied on shank’s pony — visiting the congregation by foot, walking from house to house.

The scent of rose water drifted through the screen door. Glory, at fourteen the youngest of the Wilson clan, hovered, sheltered behind the wire mesh. The preacher straightened like a dog on point, staring at the girl.

“I hope to see you all at the revival Saturday,” he said. He twirled his hat before settling it back on his head. A tiny blue and gray feather stuck out from the hat band.

“Oh, we wouldn’t miss it!” Honey’s hands fluttered, touching her lips, brushing her hair, tugging at the hem of her skirt. The woman was useless in the presence of a good looking man, flighty as a bird.

“You been in your Mama’s cologne again?” Nanny asked her granddaughter.

“Maybe,” the girl muttered. Glory tapped the metal hook that locked the screen door, flipping it up to latch into the rusted eye and then lifting it to release. Her blond hair, parted on the side, fell in waves just past her chin, styled like the movie star Jean Harlow. She tilted her head and peered out from behind the curtain of her hair. “Mama said it was okay.”

“Well, that was for special occasions, Glory.” Honey twisted to look at her daughter then turned back to the preacher. “Won’t you come sit inside?”

“Thank you, but I’ll move on. I want to visit a few more folks before the sun sets.”

Nanny kept up the churning, long after the stranger’s car disappeared from view. She sang and chanted in rhythm with the beat of the plunger against the wooden churn. The sun was a red half circle on the horizon when she stopped and lifted the lid of the churn. A filmy white froth rose to the rim, and no butter. She fanned away the foul odor of curdled milk. “Taken!” she said.

That night the family gathered for dinner — Nanny, her son Ira, Honey, and Glory. Honey set a dish of butter on the table and as Ira passed a bowl heaped with mashed potatoes, Nanny spoke. “We’d have more butter today if that thief hadn’t visited.”

“What are you talking about, Ma?” Ira asked.

“That preacher, if that’s what he really is. He’s taken the butter.”

“What do you mean?” Honey set down the bowl of potatoes with a thump. “The preacher? Stole our butter?” Her brow furrowed, and she turned from Ira back to Nanny.

Ira sighed. “Enough of that superstition, Ma. Nobody took the butter, it didn’t set up, probably not enough fat to the milk.”

“You can buy butter in the store.” Glory reached across the table for the bowl of potatoes.

“Not my butter,” Nanny said. She sold her butter to their neighbors, not from necessity, they were lucky that the farm provided for most of their needs. So many were out of work and suffering in these dark times. Nanny’s prized butter was made from milk from her good Jersey cows. Her butter was golden yellow as the midday sun and pressed into a mold that left an indented rose on each block.

“These are modern times, there’s no such thing as the devil stealing your butter,” Ira said. He put down his fork.

“We might have electric lights and a radio, but…” Nanny began.

“I don’t want to hear any more talk of a butter devil at the dinner table,” Ira said.

That night, while the rest of the family slept in their beds, Nanny took a kitchen knife and heated it on the stove. It was the best she could do, without the blade from a plow. Ira worked his fields with a diesel powered tractor. As the steel flared red in the dark kitchen, she muttered his name, “Jude Parker.” They’d see, she thought, when the metal drew the devil into their home, the thief who’d cursed her butter would be revealed.

Saturday evening the family sat together in wooden folding chairs under the large canvas tent set up in the field behind the Pentecostal church. Women folk waved paper fans, stirring the warm summer air. Men were dressed in clean bib overalls, or like Ira, in pressed khaki pants and cotton shirts. The scent of fresh mowed grass mingled with the smell of cologne and the hot odor of perspiration from people pressed into a crowded space. In hopes of a breeze, the edges of the tent were drawn up. Lightning bugs flashed their yellow-green glow in the dusk beyond the tent, and moths flitted around the buzzing lanterns strung above the congregation.

The revivalist, Brother Jude Parker, preached a fiery sermon. His voice boomed and swelled, carrying over the moans and spirited call and response from the congregation. Nanny sat still and stiff as Honey swayed in the seat beside her. Her daughter-in-law raised her hands, waving and shouting. The preacher, that butter thief, rolled up his sleeves as though readying for some heavy chore. Sweat glistened on his brow and darkened the fabric of his shirt.

“Hallelujah!” The shrill note of female voices called out, while the bass notes of “Amen!” echoed from the men in the audience. Nanny had to admit, he preached a fine sermon, but even the devil can quote scripture for his own purpose.

At the end, as the sweet notes of the choir lifted in Amazing Grace, the preacher urged all lost souls come forward and be redeemed. Glory rose from her chair on the other side of Nanny. The girl wore her best cotton dress, starched and buttoned to her throat, but not quite hiding the curves the girl had grown into the past year. She’d rolled her hair into waves and pin curls, and Nanny swore the girl’s parted lips bore more than a hint of color from the lipstick snuck from her mother’s dressing table. Her eyes were wild and glazed, like a half-broke horse.

“Blessed be,” the revivalist greeted each sinner as they knelt at the altar. When Glory reached the front, he cupped her face in his hands and bent close to whisper in her ear. The girl sagged against him and he clasped her to his chest and rested his chin on the top of her head. His eyes searched the crowd until they met with Nanny’s glare. The corners of his mouth lifted in a smile and he released the girl. She dropped in a soft heap on the dirt and grass at his feet.

After the service the family rode home in silence, the wind whistled and rushed across them through the open windows of the Ford. Nanny slumped in the back seat next to Glory. The girl hummed under her breath, the noise like the buzz of a beehive. The old woman, tired from the drive, the night, the heat, dozed then shook herself awake.

Alone in her room on the first floor of the farmhouse, Nanny leaned against the windowsill to let the cooler air from outside blow across her. The clank of a cowbell sounded, and out in the moonlit pasture she could make out her favorite of the Jerseys, Miss Maisy. The animal raised her head and lowed, a mournful cry in the night.

Nanny stayed awake past midnight, perched in the rocking chair beside her bed. Her old eyes were dim, and her hearing dulled, but she thought she was sturdy enough to keep watch. The motion of the rocker, though, lulled her into sleep, her eyelids growing heavy and thick, until at last she closed her eyes. She never heard the soft creak of footsteps on the stairs.

It was a scandal, and at first, no one could believe the preacher would run off with a teenage girl. None but Nanny. Who else could it have been, when the man himself disappeared the same night? If only she’d gone outside in the early morning, when before dawn she roused from the chair to stumble into her bed. Awakened by a sound, like the shush of tires on gravel, but she’d ignored the noise. The next day Nanny had known right off the girl had gone with the butter thief, taken by charm. For there, like a curse dropped on the wooden boards of the porch, next to her churn, the thief had left a bit of whitish fat, a shivering glob of milk-fat butter.

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