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St. John USVI Culture: Donkey Foot Woman
By Gerald Singer

I first met Mervin when I lived in St. Thomas in the late sixties. I had just purchased a small fishing boat from a Frenchtown fisherman and was in the process of making a few minor improvements, when I chanced to look out toward the mouth of the Charlotte Amalie Harbor. There, coming in under full sail, was a black-hulled wooden schooner which seemed to personify the romance and adventure of the Caribbean. I watched as the crew made the necessary preparations and brought the vessel into the harbor, tying up alongside the seawall not far from where I was working. On deck were Mervin, a native of the island of Dominica, and two transplanted Britishers.

They carried a cargo of tropical fruits and vegetables; mangos of all sizes and colors, bananas with names like, fig, apple and horse; limes the size of melons, ugli fruit, sweet green oranges and grapefruit, small ripe pineapples, green coconuts called jelly nuts, breadfruit, papaya, the star-shaped carambola, sugar apples and soursop; colorful sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and root vegetables like yam, sweet potato, tanya and boniato. It was truly a sight to behold; especially to a newcomer to the islands, more familiar with life in the large cities of northeastern America.

Mervin and his partners, along with the other merchants and traders along the waterfront, spent the day selling their wares to the shoppers and passers by on the bustling bay side walkway. In an effort to sell out faster, with less competition and at higher prices, the young entrepreneurs decided to expand the scope of their marketplace. They offered me a portion of the profits in exchange for my time and the use of my boat. I accepted, delighted by the opportunity to be part of this Virgin Island experience.

That very afternoon, when business began to slow at the waterfront, we loaded up my boat and went door to door, so to speak, stopping alongside the yachts anchored in the harbor or tied up at the dock at the then prestigious Yacht Haven Marina. It was an easy sell. The fruits and vegetables were just too delicious-looking to pass up.

Mervin and I established a friendship and we used to get together when the fruit boat was in port. Later when I moved to St. John Mervin stayed at my apartment in Coral Bay and helped me get started in my new endeavor, pot fishing.

On the first day of Mervin’s stay he chased away the evil spirits that apparently were lurking around the old West Indian style house. He smoked them out; carrying a coal pot full of smoldering branches, leaves and medicinal herbs into each and every room and closet, all the while reciting an eerie incantation.

In the mornings we went into the bush to cut birch sticks for the fish pot braces, and after lunch we spent long and tedious hours in the front yard tying up the chicken wire traps. In the evenings Mervin would captivate me with stories about the wonders of Dominica; rich jungles where every kind of tropical fruit imaginable grew in abundance, haunted mountains that rose above the clouds and where the Devil himself was known to walk, spectacular waterfalls possessed with spiritual powers and hot springs whose waters could cure illnesses and restore lost youth. He told us of trained monkeys that would climb the tall coconut trees and throw coconuts down to the gatherers below; about his maternal grandmother who was a full blooded Carib and a princess among her people; about magic and jumbies and ghosts and zombies who roamed about on full moon nights in a nether world hovering between life and death.

One story that particularly impressed me was the story of the Donkey Foot Woman which I will now attempt to retell:

One evening there was a festival in Mervin’s village. Housewives prepared plates of fish and meats and vegetables. Others brought rum and beer. A huge bonfire lit up the clear Caribbean night and the sound of music and laughter echoed throughout the village.

At one point a crowd drew around to observe a group of young men and women who were dancing to an ancient African rhythm expertly played on a variety of homemade percussion instruments. One of the dancers was not from the village. She was a beautiful white woman wearing a large straw hat. No one knew who she was or where she came from.

A little boy stood next to his mother in the crowd. He stared at the strange woman; fascinated by the spectacle and the hypnotic beat of the music. Suddenly he turned to his mother and said “Mommy, “Look de woman. She have a donkey foot!”

The little boy’s mother answered, “Me son, I see no woman with donkey foot.” “Momma, momma, yes, look!” the boy cried, then loud enough for all to hear he yelled, “Watch de donkey foot!”

An instant later the little boy fell to the ground dead, his skull mashed in by a mysterious and powerful blow.

Many years have passed since I last saw Mervin, but I will always remember and treasure those days when our world was so young.