A Vegetable By Any Other Name

by Orville Green
(Toronto, Canada)

She could be heard every Sunday morning, rain or shine. From all the way down at Thompson Street, when she was barely audible, her call grew increasingly louder as she approached our home on Myers Street, gradually fading as she made her way toward Price Street and beyond, toward Manning Street.

Her cry seldom varied, week in, week out, long before the bell would ring in the Jones Town Baptist Church steeple, while most people were having breakfast and others were still sleeping off the effects of their Saturday night revelry. “Buy yuh callaloo! Buy yuh waata crishis! Buy yuh callaloo! Buy yuh waata crishis!” she chanted intermittently as she walked barefooted on the still-cool asphalt.

Long pauses signalled that she had stopped to make a sale or, at least, to answer a query regarding the price, freshness, or general quality of her goods.

Her nasal tones betrayed her East Indian heritage long before she came into view. When she was clearly visible, her brown complexion and sharp features punctuated by the floral-design nose ring, dissolved any lingering doubts as to her ancestry. Her emaciated body was overshadowed by a wide, dilapidated basket, which she balanced adroitly on her head and steadied occasionally with a bony hand. The action of raising or lowering the arm set off the clanging of cheap gold bangles that all but obscured the area from wrist to mid-forearm.

“Buy yuh callaloo! Buy yuh waata crishis!” I had no idea of how long my father had been irritated by that chant, but I became aware that whenever he heard it he would knit his brow, shake his head slowly from side to side and mutter something under his breath.
Then, one Sunday morning, as soon as the chant could be heard, the words exploded from his lips: “Foolishness! Water crishis? Foolishness!” I was taken aback by the outburst, as Daddy was usually an even-tempered man. I was more astonished, however, in that I could not discern a reason for his outburst. I mused, “What could be foolish about water crishis?”

The vendor’s voice grew louder as she drew nearer. I could hear the bangles clanging. Then the chant and the clanging stopped, so I conjectured that a transaction was in progress in front of our next-door neighbour’s house.

My father looked up from the Sunday Gleaner, rose slowly from the slatted verandah chair and laid the newspaper in it. From the other chair, I watched over the top of the comics section as he walked toward the gate and looked over the fence in the direction of Thompson Street.
Soon, the chant resumed, much closer now and at its piercing zenith: “Callaloo! Waata crishis! Buy yuh callaloo! Buy yuh waata crishis!”

The vendor was now almost in line with the spot where Daddy stood, an unmistakable scowl dominating his visage. “Just a minute,” he said, and the vendor stopped immediately, bangles clanging as she grabbed the crocus bag-covered basket and set it on the asphalt in one deft movement.

The wet crocus bag protected a heaping load of greens, and the vendor leaned over to snatch away the cover and display her goods when Daddy, with all the control he could muster, informed her calmly, “The word is cress. It is water cress, not water crishis.”

A blank expression spread slowly over the vendor’s face. She straightened up just as slowly and looked around as if searching for someone to tell her there was something wrong with her hearing. There were a few people in the street, but no one was within earshot but me -- and I was no good to her at that moment.
The woman looked my father straight in the eye, then reached down for the basket without diverting her gaze and swung it to her head again, to the cacophonous accompaniment of the bangles, which failed to drown out the sound of her hissing teeth. Without a word, she set off toward Price Street, while Daddy returned to the comfort of his verandah chair and the relative civility of the Sunday Gleaner newspaper.

Moments later, from the distance beyond Price Street came the familiar chant: “Callaloo an’ waata crishis! Buy yuh callaloo! Buy yuh waata crishis!” If he heard it, my father gave no indication that he had.

The following Sunday, as usual, the chant was heard again faintly in the distance, in the vicinity of Thompson Street. I could hear it coming closer, and closer, until it was about two doors away. Then, silence. I waited for it to resume, eager to find out what effect the previous Sunday’s instruction would produce.

The next time I heard the vendor’s voice, she was about two doors past our house, moving towards Price Street. Sounds of the intact, familiar chant faded gradually as she trudged up the grade past Mr. Saunders’ leather shop and on towards Manning Street. She had disdainfully subjected our house to the silent treatment, a routine she maintained.

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