(from Home Economics—for Wendell Berry)
In those days all shops were called Ma This or Mister That.
One shop my mother used to send me to was called Ma Branch.
i’d go, playing with my shadow all the way,
trying to outrun it on the Methodist church wall,
dodging it away from other feet—or suddenly stopping it,
chanting my list meanwhile so i would not forget:
1/2 lb. saltfish, 1/4 bottle oil, 4p. keg butter, 1 blue soap, 2 cough drops
over and over till i reached the shop.
Of the two ladies selling, i liked the tall, dark, gleaming one
whose face i later recognised in Benin sculpture.
She would set the things down one by one:
gold, blue, lemon, dark-white speckled shapes, smells, rustlings of paper
until i had a heap of pirate’s treasure on the wooden counter.
Then she would slip the pencil from her hair,
tear off a piece of shop paper, make a rope ladder of figures
and i would watch the pencil climb, drop, climb, drop.
Ma Branch didn’t sell; she sat down, buxom and comfortable as a barrel
amidst a larger treasure heap of bags and boxes, packages, cans,
not missing a thing, collecting money, talking with customers.
Some women came with notebooks and no money — regulars:
“Ma Branch, on Friday when the man get pay....”
and sometimes a child, whose mother couldn’t write,
would speak up, too loudly: “Ma Branch, my mother say...”
Ma Branch had a miraculous set of balances in her head
in which she weighed each separate request
unhurriedly. No one ever took her for granted. Yet
i never saw her do otherwise eventually
than bob her head, to one side, to a shop lady
then nod, once, the other side, to an expectant customer.
By some commonly held scale of values, now so strange,
she gave all of them credit.
Fascinated, i’d hand over my money, wait for change
then race back past the church wall, followed by my shadow.
Years afterward, when seeking the darker shadow brought me home,
i heard that she had died.
There is a super-market on that spot now — it’s larger, well-arranged.
But it can’t fill the space she occupied.
From Birthright. Copyright © 1997 by Kendel Hippolyte. Used with the permission of Peepal Tree Press.