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
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
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
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
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.