Maman and I crossed the street to check on our neighbour, Mr. Fontaine. Maman wore her market hat, and I clutched my cloth handbag tight. Melted tar stuck to our shoe heels as we stepped over the gutter. At Mr. Fontaine’s door, Maman knocked for good manners. His niece was in New York, visiting her mother on her annual holiday, leaving carnival, the heat of early August, and the start of the rainy season behind on Île Marie-Joséphine. Brap-brap-brap! Maman tapped her loose-fingered, morse code, church lady knock again. This knock meant, don’t trouble yourself; I goin’ let myself in just now. No one came to the door.

“Claudine, hold this, gimme,” said Maman, passing the pyrex dish of food to me, the contents warming the glass. Maman’s right hand with her gold-ringed fourth finger, knobby like ginger root, rested on a white paint fragment, on the splintered wood. She crossed herself, her lips moving in silent prayer, and then she pushed the door open.

We followed the narrow hallway, crowded with boxes and barrels, out to the back, where we reached the sewing room, on the covered porch. Out here, protected from mosquitoes by the gauze screen, Mr. Fontaine cut and stitched clothes, for his customers. Is he made the handbag that I was carrying, even dyeing the cotton to match my yellow eyelet hole dress. A kerosene lamp and a rigged naked electric light bulb burned most days and some nights while the radio played tunes and news, local and BBC. Right now, Mr. Fontaine sat drinking, his fenced yard a deep glass lake of dark amber empties. It was nighttime in the midafternoon. The big mango tree canopy blocked the sun except for a few lit patches of callaloo, their weedlike growth persistent.

Maman handed Mr. Fontaine the pyrex dish of food wrapped in her embroidered tea towel to keep it warm. Today’s lunch was foofoo and saltfish with eggplant, spinach, and okra.

“Just leave the dish inside the door, as usual, and we will pick it up on the way home from town,” her voice was hard, sweet, and brittle like old sugar cake.

Mr. Fontaine nodded, “Thank you,” without looking up, before taking another sip, swilling the rum in his mouth like mouthwash, his narrow cheeks puffing.

If it wasn’t for Maman’s food when his niece was away, all Mr. Fontaine would have to eat when he remembered to do so would be years old wormy hardtack.

Now, here we are, Maman and I, standing on the deck of Mr. Fontaine’s shipwrecked house, in Port William, with mango guts splattered like scummy surf on the discarded bottles. Behind us Mr. Fontaine’s ancient Singer sewing machine sat on its table in a covered part of the back gallery. Scraps of fabric left over from sewing jobs were stored in carefully labeled boxes and bags inside the house. Customers’ patterns made by Mr. Fontaine himself from thin, brown paper were carefully folded, each with their names written neatly in his even hand. He had a reputation for producing perfectly fitted garments for people of all shapes and sizes.

Mr. Fontaine continued drinking, his thin, stooped shoulders rounded from years of bending over his sewing machine, making and mending people clothes.

His human foot was stretched out in a polished brown leather shoe, while his donkey foot, a shade lighter than the rest of his dark brown skin, rested on the step below, its long, matching leather lace-up boot kicked to the side. He was airing it out.

Yes, Mr. Fontaine had a donkey foot on the left side as his mother Miss Rosette was a lajabless. People say “foot” but really it was the whole leg and it end in a hoof. People said Miss Rosette had one human foot and one cloven cow foot, but seeing as how Sweet Man, Mr. Fontaine daddy, was definitely a dyam jackass, I suppose that is how he come to be born wid a donkey foot.

His human foot was stretched out in a polished brown leather shoe, while his donkey foot, a shade lighter than the rest of his dark brown skin, rested on the step below, its long, matching leather lace-up boot kicked to the side. He was airing it out.

You see, Sweet Man used to work his provision ground in the countryside. Even though Sweet Man had a wife and chil’ren here in town, in Port William, he had a taste for “strangeness,” meaning people other than he wife in intimate ways. He would say, “Yes, boy, I lookin’ a strangeness tonight,” to the fellas in the rum shop. Not for me to judge, eh. I doan really mind people business. I ain’ saying anything wrong wid Sweet Man taste for variety, but he wife not included in the conversation, and he does threaten she wid licks if she even dare to ask him anything.

One full moon night, Sweet Man was making his way from di rum shop near the bridge, by the old fort, near Providence Estate, to the chattel house by his provision ground. He would sleep there overnight and return to town in the morning. Clara, the donkey, clippety-clopped on the dusty country road, which was more like a footpath, with the heavy bush to one side. In fact, it was Clara who noticed the shimmering in the bush near the roadside. She suddenly brayed, her hee-haw snapping Sweet Man to alertness, as he sat up in the cart. Something like a large bird moved quickly through the bush rustling the leaves. The air was scented with sweet rose and hyacinth as the flashes of pink, blue and yellow swept by followed by a dungy odour as if a flowering bush produced its own manure. No bird big like this bird, thought Sweet Man. Not even frigate bird. Sweet Man had to see what it was for himself. And so, he jump off di cart, and told Clara to carry on to the little house, just down the road. He ran as fast as he could chasing a glimpse of brightly coloured feathers as they peeked through the thicket, tantalized by the flowery, pungent scent.

Winded, Sweet Man stopped to catch his breath, taking out a cigarette. He fished his pockets for the matches and went to light the cigarette.  It was then that the colours became more pronounced from flashes to solid as if some large, hidden peacock was about to step out and show its full array.  There, in the little clearing ahead, to his surprise, he saw a woman. Her back was turned to him. The bright, full moon lit her curvaceous body hugged by a second skin of a long, white, silky dress which flashed iridescent blue, pink and yellow, emphasizing her subtle and sensuous movements. The dress ended in a swirling, shimmering train which completely covered her feet. A large white hat brim shadowed her face showing only her full lips curving. Cinnamon coloured plaits cascaded down her bare back. Her skin was a deep, smooth brown.

She turned slightly and fluted, “Bonsoir, chéri,” in her musical voice.

Eh-eh, she talkin’ sweet and in French creole, Sweet Man thought. Intrigued, he put his unlit cigarette and matches away.

Sweet Man started pelting words at the woman in his best high-class accent, imitating his schoolteacher, and the people who had been to England, and come back home, “Wait a minute, miss. Can I escort you to where you are going, this evening? What is your name? People call me Sweet Man, but my mother christened me Covington Agammemnon Beaulieu.”

Still gliding along at a quick pace, the woman turned her head and laughed, the tinkly bell sounds becoming long notes as they trickled effortlessly from her mouth. It was a round, full-woman laugh filled with promise of excitement. Sweetman Beaulieu loved big-voiced women who threw their heads back with deep kya-kya-kya belly sounds rising.

Winded, Sweetman called out, “Well, is like you training for di Olympics or what? Slow down a little bit, nah?”

The woman just laughed and kept walking fast as she tossed words over her shoulder, carelessly without aim, like you would feed hungry chickens, “Vite, vite!”

And then just as Sweet Man was about to drop from exhaustion, or give up the chase entirely, she called out, “Could you follow me up that hill there, Monsieur Sweet Man Beaulieu?”

The woman paused, pointing her long finger in its white silk glove, to the wooded area further up the slope shrouded by large trees blocking the moonlight.

Nodding, Sweet Man left the path and huffed up the dark bushy bluff behind her, spurred on by the sight of the woman’s thick thighs and generous bottom rolling in her sensuous walk.

“I didn’t catch your name, sweetheart,” he gasped his chest heaving, thinking to himself that he had to stop smoking those cigarettes. He enjoyed a smoke with a drink of rum, but full breath was needed for a woman like this.

She still didn’t answer him as she walked along, only laughing. The woman let him catch up to her as she stood still, her body gently pulsing and the train of her dress wrapping itself around her feet as if it had a life of its own. Wiping his sweaty brow while blowing into his hands to check the freshness of his breath, Sweet Man looked admiringly at her impossibly smooth skin and inviting smile.

“Viens-ici la, monsieur,” she cooed beckoning with long, elegant fingers.

Suddenly, Sweet Man made his move, the chase now over and his prey cornered.

“You trying to make a fool of me, eh?” he shouted, lunging at her, his sweetness turning to bitter gall as they both tumbled to the ground.

Photo: Lee Jaffe

Now, people say that Sweet Man fell on top of di beautiful woman, and his excitement was such, that the one fall was all that was needed for the deed to be done. He was shocked to hear di woman’s voice descend from a coo to a scathing tone like town women getting set to deal out a tongue lashin’, “Yuh wretch you!” Then, Sweet Man plunged over the steep drop hidden in darkness, at the top of the path, his body broken long before it came to its final rest in the forested valley below.

The lajabless, for that indeed is what she was, picked herself up off the ground, and made her way down to the dirt road where she hitched a ride on a milk man’s donkey cart to town at dawn, her cow foot hidden in her long, plain, white skirts, now cotton, and which no longer shone or shimmered without the moonlight.

In Port William, the lajabless was Miss Rosette Fontaine, a dress maker. She was a sensible middle-aged woman in pleated blouses and long, voluminous madras skirts which covered her large wedge heel boots made specially for her by the shoemaker. People say she does take sea baths in a skirt with those boots on. Her big brownish-red hair bun now streaked with silver was covered by a headtie.

I found out her secret. One morning, after I collected eggs from the coop in the yard, for Maman, before I left for work at the post office, I saw Miss Rosette when she changed from lajabless. Peeking over the fence, I saw a full body woman, in a big hat get out the milk man cart at the side of Miss Rosette’s yard. With each step, as she approached the gate, her brown skin wrinkled, grey streaked her hair, her bosom shrank, and her hips and backside returned to the lean, bony slimness of Miss Rosette. It was all I could do to hold on to the egg basket as I walked from the backyard to the kitchen door. I wondered whether Miss Rosette saw me until she turned and looked me in the eyes and nodded quietly as she entered her neatly kept yard. I went inside and told Maman everything as we drank our tea and ate our oats porridge. Sometimes you does have to see and don’t see, was all Maman said, crossing herself.

You know, Miss Rosette didn’t mean for Sweetman Beaulieu to meet his end in that way at all. She thought he would take a tumble, and think twice about advantaging women, and treating his wife and children so badly. The whole street could hear him promising a beating if his wife question him about his whereabouts and the money spent at the rumshop. But in the balance of things, a life was taken, and a life was given.

Miss Rosette had already gone through change-of-life and town opinion was divided as to whether she was blessed, or cursed, by the baby she was making. The coincidence of Sweet Man Beaulieu’s plunge nine months before the child’s birth did not go unnoticed by the mauvais lang neighbours, their venomous tongues dipped in honey.

The stinging words swarmed the baby even as he lay quietly in his mother’s womb listening all the while. Town people said things like: “Di chile conceived in sin, oui. Nutten good a’ go come of they life,” and “Di chile won’t be happy because they especially know her wickedness because that is what mek them.” Country people whispered their versions of that fateful night, too, their words less poisonous but bony and sharp all the same. No one had much to say about Sweet Man except that “Dat was his nature,” and as for his wife, “Now Mrs. Beaulieu go have to feed all dem chil’ren still at home.”

The baby was born on a Saturday morning and baptized two weeks later as Charlemagne William Fontaine, a kingly name to help him through what his mother knew would be a hard life. Maman stood as his godmother and Mr. Pelletier, the shoemaker, his godfather. Miss Rosette refused the midwife’s assistance, and birthed him herself, determined to give the tiny baby privacy, to enter the world, without prying eyes. People said his mother milk must be sour, turned by the sight of his hoof. I heard she used sewing scissors to cut the navel string, burying it in the yard where the biggest mango tree grew, the same one whose roots were now covered by Mr. Fontaine’s empty bottles.

In Port William, the lajabless was Miss Rosette Fontaine, a dress maker. She was a sensible middle-aged woman in pleated blouses and long, voluminous madras skirts which covered her large wedge heel boots made specially for her by the shoemaker. People say she does take sea baths in a skirt with those boots on.

New mothers check and count toes and fingers, but I am sure that Miss Rosette felt for the hoof. And there it would have been, a teeny ball of flesh like his human foot, except there were no toes and a tiny dent. Over time, that ball would harden into a donkey foot. His little left knee poked out backwards, the small thigh flesh meeting a soft clump of muscle that would become the other half of his bottom. Miss Rosette listened for the sound of his human foot and the clop of his hoof on the wooden floors of the house when he started to walk. His godfather and shoemaker, Mr. Pelletier, the same one who made Miss Rosette’s boots, was sympathetic and he made Mr. Fontaine’s shoes, and boots, from the time he was a baby. He was still making Mr. Fontaine’s shoes, including the special long boot for his donkey foot.

At first, no one saw Charlemagne’s foot, although they tried. As an infant, Miss Rosette could smooth out Charlemagne’s donkey foot just as she was able to change her appearance as lajabless. As he grew up and was weaned, he became his own person and Miss Rosette could no longer change his appearance. He would have to do that on his own when he was ready. She made sure that the baby’s feet were carefully covered in handmade, embroidered layettes and miniature trousers.

But in time, as he grew, Charlemagne Fontaine donkey foot was glimpsed in the way that close neighbours would see the innocent nakedness of each other’s children. As he made his way to the house, from taking his bath with a bucket in his yard, his whole leg was exposed. In time, Miss Rosette added an indoor bathroom with a toilet and shower. Charlemagne’s trousers with the extra allowance for the backwards knee joint above the donkey foot, became more and more noticeable.

We were all in form one in school, when a princess from England was on her West Indies tour because, people say, of a man she love. Plenty people could identify with her. Everyone went to greet her at her parade, even Charlie who had skipped a year in school. Donkey Foot Charlie, stood at the back on Charlotte Street, in his long pants, with the left knee pushing back, waving his hand at the princess, as she drove by in the fancy car, with the top down, her brown hair nearly the same shade as Miss Rosette’s and Charlie’s, shining in the hot tropical sun. He kept a cut out picture of the princess from a magazine for inspiration. In time, plenty of us wore dresses made by Charlie model after the princess own wardrobe.

Charlie was bright, though. He was top of our class, yet he ‘fraid to leave the island when young people were shipping out to England, sake of di donkey foot. Instead, he stayed in his mother’s house and helped her with dressmaking by cutting patterns and finishing garments.  He sewed hems, facing, lining and hook and eye by hand. His buttonholes were neat and precise. Yet those wanting to cause commess, or get a reduced price for their clothes, would remark that is only “donkey-eye” he could make, seeing large, eyelash stitched buttonholes where there were none.

As the years passed and Miss Rosette’s eyesight dimmed, Charlie took on more of the dressmaking for customers. The dresses were always presented as made by Miss Rosette, even though people know is Donkey Foot Charlie make them. He even make wedding dress an’ all, producing the long trains, bridal veils, satin bows and handmade lace himself. He saved bits and trimmings from the wedding dresses.

Like his mother, Charlie made all his own clothes, a simple uniform of khaki pants and a white long-sleeved shirt. He had a single black suit, also self-made, for the occasional funeral or church attendance.

Mr. Fontaine still made school uniforms for children. Some paid him what they could on an extended payment plan over several children’s schooling in the same family. Others paid him in food, sending over a few sugar apples and an escovitch fish and fried dumpling for Mr. Fontaine’s lunch. These feedings were gratefully received as Maman only fed him in August when his niece was away. The clothes payment food was always left at the front door with a shouted name like “Miss Doucette,” followed by a sharp tap-tap knock which meant: I ain’ going inside. Enjoy di fish, fried dumpling and sugar apples. Keep di tin foil. Leave meh clothes early in the morning on meh doorstep.


When Charlie’s niece was visiting her aunt in New York, he drank, tossing the bottles into the clinking glass inland sea just outside his backdoor. Other people made glass trees with bottles on the branches, but Charlie’s empties were slowly burying the mango tree, as they inched up the trunk.

His mother, Miss Rosette, was gone ten years now. Even lajabless pass on eventually. She was 95 when she died, and Charlie was 30. Miss Rosette had taught him her trade, and left him the house and her bank account, accumulated from long years of careful saving. He accepted his inheritance except for one crucial piece which he rejected: the lajabless part. Charlie knew that lajabless walked on moonlit nights, and so he was determined that moonlight would never shine where he lived. He stopped tending the garden and yard the day his mother died. The fruit tree canopy became a permanent cloud, a thick curtain drawn across the patch of sky over the Fontaine yard even in the bright sun of August.


Charlie set down Sweet Man Beaulieu’s widow’s empty pyrex dish by the front door.


Back in the yard, he stood on his human leg, his foot covered in a gold-painted leather brogue shoe with detailed floral designs etched on the toe cap. As he balanced himself in an accustomed posture like a human-tree, he pushed his donkey foot down into the long, gold-painted boot, careful to lace up the side in the zig zag lacing that he found most comfortable. His donkey foot looked like the legs of the elegant old-time gold lacquered tables and chairs in governor house with feet. He plowed through the glass bottle lake like a staggering Moses, reaching the tiny oasis of sunlight by the callaloo. There he began to dance, tapping the toe of his human foot.

Charlie bent down picking up one of the empty dark-coloured bottles. Taking his small scissors from his trousers side pocket, the same pair his mother had used to cut his navel string, he hit the blades against the bottle in time to the syncopated pam-pa-lay-lay rhythm of the iron band. Charlamagne Fontaine gold donkey foot struck the muddy earth in time.


Who say is only woman could be lajabless? Soon, it goin’ be me out there on di road wid me donkey foot. Jouvert mornin’ is comin’ and I, Charlemagne Fontaine, go be on di road in town, country and all about. Ah goin’ wear a panama hat on me head with a broad brim. Ah goin’ wear a white silk suit trim with satin at the hemline and lace at the cuffs and neck. I finishin’ off with a white satin cape and gold on meh feet. I go play mas’ and I go walk di street in town this carnival. And when I step out, they go see me.

Anchor image: Lee Jaffe

Carol B. Duncan is a creative writer and academic of Antiguan and Guyanese heritage. She spent childhood in Antigua with maternal grandparents from Dominica and Antigua before moving to Toronto, Canada. Caribbean folklore and storytelling are important sources in her writing.