Kathryn Kimball has a Ph.D. in English Literature. She taught writing and nineteenth-century British and American literature as an adjunct professor for many years before earning an MFA (2018) in Poetry and Poetry in Translation at Drew University. She crosses the Atlantic often for literary conferences and retreats in County Cork and in Cumbria, England. Kathryn and her husband live in New York City.

Butter Balm

The hag was spinning in her cot
when Father O’Brien came to knock.
“Just bringing ye a bit o’ chat,”
he said, taking off his hat.

The Chailleach could well believe
that he had something up his sleeve,
for Priest O’Brien was never known
to do a kindness on his own.

“Will ye have a cup of tea
and a soda scone with me?”
“Thank you, dear. Such kindly care!
I’ll sit and say the evening prayer.”

When she left the fire-lit room,
the Father looked around the gloom
to spot the thing he’d come to nick,
to-wit—her magic walking stick.

Am I not a fine detector?!
Up the chimney I’ll find her scepter!
He stood up for his errant stray
when she returned with a laden tray.

“Stretchin’ legs, are ye now?”
said the hag with a courteous bow.
“Not so easy, bringin’ light
and sayin’ prayers from morn til night.”

“Exactly right, old Chailleach.
Just stretching legs, and that’s a fact.”
He then sat down once again,
the picture of a holy man.

Putting his hands palm to palm,
he asked her for some butter balm.
“Perhaps, ye have some, if ye please,
for poor old Emmie’s creakin’ knees.”

“Yes, dear Fader, just sip your tea.
I’ll fetch some butter balm for ye.
Ye’ll always be thinking of the feeble,
won’t ye, Fader, and blessin’ people.”

“Especially old ‘uns, like yeself,”
O’Brien called to the wizened elf.
But wise old Chailleach—she knew
what was false and what was true.

Ah, said he, What a good trick!
Now I’ll be gettin’ the old hag’s stick.
He jumped up and ran to look
up the chimney, and there in a nook,

recessed in a corner and perched on a lean,
was the shiniest thing he’d ever seen.
He reached in to get it when a black load of soot
covered him over from his head to his foot

(though that was rather hard to tell
dressed as he was for the funeral bell.)
The whites of his eyes shone bright with false calm
when the Chailleach returned with the butter balm.

“Have ye been cleanin’ the chimney for me?
That’s mighty kind and thoughtful of ye!
Now here’s the salve for ol’ Emmie’s knees.
I make it with ginger and peppermint leaves.”

Defeated, the father sat down in his place,
took from his cassock a hankie of lace.
He tried and tried to wipe his hands clean,
when suddenly, behind him—a sharp crackling!

He swiveled around in a streak of light,
which lit up the room and gave him a fright.
The walking stick whizzed through the air like a blade.
The Father cried out, “I’m soon to be flayed!”

The stick then changed from black to green,
lost all its stiffness, now writhing and mean.
(He wasn’t an easy to scare man—
but was this a snake? And this Eire-land?)

“Holy Mother,” he cried.“My soul be shrived!
It’s the devil himself come to roast me alive!”
The snake coiled around, in less than a minute,
the stout wooden chair with the praying priest in it.

“Hee, hee” the hag crackled. “Ye give us a thrill,
all us old folks on County Cork hill.”
Then low, in his ear: “To stay the curse,
ye best remember who was here first,

who tends to the animals, and the grasses,
the streamin’ rivers, all the mountain passes,
who rests mother Earth—good Heaven’s wife—
then sparks the fire to begin new life,

who makes the fisherman’s catch a bounty
and strews the flowers o’er every county,
who cares for all the girls and boys,
dere broken hearts, dere weepin’ joys,

who brings the babies in the dead of night,
and releases dere souls in blazin’ light.”
The priest grew humble, hypnotized by the sheen
of the most piercing blue eyes he’d ever seen.

“Will ye kindly be takin’ my butter to Em,
for her poor aching joints, her old battered limb?”
The snake uncoiled like a magic trick,
glittered like gold, then became an old stick.

Father O’Brien let out a great sigh,
crossed himself once, then rose by and by.
He mumbled out loud, “I’ll see ye no more,”
grabbed his black hat as he rushed out the door.

Wait!” cried the Chailleach,“ye’ve forgotten your gift!”
But the priest couldn’t hear at the top of the cliff.
He was running in frenzy, from all that had happened,
through wild buttercups and Ireland’s green bracken.



For The Galway Review 7, (Printed Edition)