From Tales of St. John & the Caribbean
I first met Mervin when I lived in St. Thomas in the late 1960s. I had only been living in the Virgin Islands for about a month and the Caribbean experience was new and exciting. I had just purchased a 17-foot fishing boat from a Frenchtown fisherman. It was tied up to the seawall on the waterfront at Charlotte Amalie and I was standing there, looking out over the harbor, lost in daydreams about all the new adventures that awaited me. It was a feeling similar to the one I had when I bought my first automobile: a sense of freedom, of being able to get up and go wherever and whenever I wanted.
My attention was drawn to the entrance of Charlotte Amalie Harbor where a black-hulled, gaff-rigged, wooden schooner was coming in with all sails flying. I watched as the crew took down the sails and motored over to the seawall, tying up right behind my new boat. I could see three young men standing on deck, one black and two white. They scurried about the vessel, neatly arranging the lines and sails and making everything shipshape.
The schooner carried a cargo of colorful and delicious-looking tropical fruits and vegetables from Dominica, which the crew began to organize so that they could sell them to the shoppers and passers-by on the bustling St. Thomas waterfront.
It was truly a sight to behold, especially to an American recently arrived in the Caribbean. There were 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, star-shaped carambolas, sugar apples and soursop, colorful sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, eggplant; and root vegetables like yam, sweet potato, tanya, yucca and boniato.
While the three young men were getting ready for the day’s activities, I struck up a conversation with them, asking all kinds of questions like: What are your names? Where are you all from? What are those fruits over there? and Can I see the inside of the boat?
The two white men were British expatriates who had recently bought the old schooner for a song, but had spent a good deal of time and money in restoration and refitting. This was their first voyage of a commercial nature and all had gone well so far.
The black man was Mervin, a native of the island of Dominica. Mervin was the invaluable crewman. In addition to being a great sailor, Mervin could also be a navigator, carpenter, plumber, electrician, rigger and cook.
The schooner from Dominica was not the only boat to have brought tropical fruits and vegetables to St. Thomas. There were other boats tied up to the seawall with produce for sale from Santo Domingo, from Puerto Rico and from the British Virgin Islands. In addition, there were kiosks on the walkway that were supplied daily with fruit and vegetables brought in by air from San Juan.
Notwithstanding, the tropical produce grown in the lush volcanic soil of the Dominican mountain valleys was bigger and better and less expensive.
Although sales were brisk and steady, the young entrepreneurs decided to expand the scope of their market and came up with a more direct sales approach; one that they hoped would enable them to sell out faster, with less competition, and at higher prices. Their idea was to sell door-to-door, so to speak, stopping alongside the yachts that were anchored in the harbor or tied up at the dock at the then-prestigious Yacht Haven Marina.
To put the plan into effect, they needed a boat about the size of mine. Their schooner was too big and not maneuverable enough for such an activity, and their dinghy was too small to carry an appreciable amount of goods.
The captain made me an offer: a portion of the profits in exchange for my time and for the use of my boat. I readily accepted their proposal, delighted by the opportunity to be part of this Virgin Island adventure.
That very afternoon, when business began to slow down at the waterfront, we loaded up my boat and motored around the harbor, stopping alongside the anchored yachts to show the people our fruits and vegetables. It was an easy sell. Everything looked just too delicious to pass up.
After that day, we all stayed in touch and whenever the fruit boat was in port, we would get together socially for a drink or a night on the town.
One day after I had moved to St. John, I received a call from Mervin, who had decided to leave the fruit boat and seek his fortune in the Virgin Islands. He needed a place to stay while he was waiting to receive some documents regarding his immigration status, and I told him that he could use my apartment in Coral Bay.
As usual, Mervin proved to be helpful and multitalented. He helped me build fish traps and, in a flamboyant spectacle of religion and theater, he fortified the house against evil spirits. Carrying a coal pot full of smoldering branches, leaves and herbs into every nook and cranny of the house, he chased away any “jumbies” that might have been lurking about.
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 me 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 netherworld hovering between life and death, and about the poor farmer who shared his meager plate of food with a stray mongrel dog and awoke the next morning to find a $100 bill in the gourd where he had placed the dog’s food.
One story that particularly impressed me was the tale of the Donkey Foot Woman, which Mervin told me by candlelight one night when we were temporarily without electricity:
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 now passed and much has changed since I last saw Mervin, but I still carry fond memories of him and of those wonderful and exciting days of my initiation into the island experience.