Thursday, December 02, 2010

Mermaids of the Caribbean

jamaica-gleaner - Yipe! I nearly slid into the river while trying to cross on some protruding rocks. Now it was by no means a roaring river, but I readily admit I'm no river-crossing expert.

It was my first time in Heywood Hall, St Mary, and after spending the first 20 minutes desperately trying to strike up a conversation with a woman who offered little more than a blank stare and an intermittent shake of the head, I decided to go exploring on foot.

It seemed it had rained earlier that day, so the roads in the community, which, over time, have degenerated to nothing more than glorified foot paths, were all muddy and slippery.

It was while crossing a small bridge near a community bar that I met Ornell. Now Ornell is not big on conversation, but he did offer to tell me a secret about the river that runs through the community, if I would be willing to treat him to a drink at the nearby bar.

"Mi brain nuh really wake up yet yuh know. After a drink, mi start function. Mi could tell yuh something bout di river, but not a word until mi get a drink," he said.

Before I could respond, Ornell continued.

"Me live bout di place from longer time yuh know. Heywood quiet but di river yah have whole heap a mermaid," he said, looking pleased with himself.

I paused a moment.

"Was that the secret?" I asked.

"Yeah, man," he said, quite casually. I paused again. I pointed out to Ornell that he had given the secret away before getting the drink.

The man's face went blank.

"But mi ... ahm," he stuttered. I felt bad for him, so I interjected, telling him it was fine and offered to treat him to a drink at the bar anyway.

"Tenk yuh, man. Tenk yuh," said Ornell, looking relieved.

After a short walk, we were at the bar. It really was just a shed with a fridge, overlooking the river, but it had a nice atmosphere. Ornell signalled to a girl sitting on a stool near the fridge and she handed him a bottle of beer. I walked closer to the river.

"Di river run right cross di road further down. Ah nice river fi bathe inna. Mi bathe inna it bout three time fi di day. Mi just throw off mi clothes and jump in," he said.

Eager to avoid a more detailed description of Ornell's bathing rituals, I asked him about the mermaids he mentioned earlier.

"Yeah man, nuff mermaid. When mi was likkle, mi used to see whole heap ah dem," said Ornell.

"Yuh tink ah likkle man mermaid pull inna di river wid dem? Dem mermaid deh nuh easy," he added, shaking his head.

Now, if I'm to be honest, I had very little confidence in Ornell's story. I was surprised though, when the woman behind the counter at the bar suddenly spoke up.

"Is true yuh know," she said, adjusting the zipper of the sweater she was wearing.

"My father tell me about it from mi was likkle. Dem say is one mermaid was there and she dead now, but first time yuh used to see har all di while," she said.

I had a puzzled look on my face. "True true," the woman said.

"Dem say is di same mermaid what used to deh ah Flat Bridge swim come here because it more quieter. Mi never used to believe it, but den mi seh, so much people couldn't just meck up di story so," she said.

I looked across at Ornell, who was nodding in agreement. "As granny seh, wah nuh go so, nearly go so," he said.

**********

The mermaids, also known as merfolk and sometimes referred to as Scaly Tails, are human-fish hybrids. Many are said to serve as agents of the Sirens, dragging sailors down to a watery grave.

The mermaids are amphibious beings, a hybrid of human and fish. The average mermaid has the appearance of a beautiful girl with long, flowing hair the colors of the sea, and pearly-white skin flecked with scales. From the waist down, however, a mermaid is comprised of a long, shimmering scaly tail. Further undermining their conventional beauty, mermaids hide sharp, fang-like teeth in their mouths.

It is possible that this beautiful appearance is not the true form of the mermaids; if viewed peripherally, they lost their outward beauty and seemed to transform into creatures with clawed tentacles, fangs, and barnacles and boils covering their scales. They often speak in harmony, singing a melody commonly attributed to the Sirens

The Mermaid and the Comb

Many Jamaicans grew up hearing stories about the River Mumma or Mermaid. There are many legends surrounding these beautiful sirens. The most commonly known River Mumma involves the Rio Cobre River. Legend has it that on moonlit nights one may be lucky to catch sight of her as she sits on a boulder and combs her hair with a golden comb. In other areas of the island, it is said that for one night every year the mermaid leaves her underwater home to visit the surface. If frightened while combing her hair, she would dive into the water leaving her comb behind. It is believed that anyone who finds it will become rich.

Wanting the comb to be returned, the mermaid would approach the finder in a dream and direct them to treasure underwater. This treasure, according to folklore is said to be gold left by pirates who had forgotten the hiding place.

The following anecdote has been told for several years.

In an old district in western St. Mary, a very strange thing happened. 15-year-old Elvis Smith's mother had taken ill. It was her kidneys, the doctor said. There was no money for dialysis, and a kidney transplant was out of the question - there was just no money. It was when Elvis saw his mother getting weaker that he thought that the pirate's treasure could save her life. So he determined in his mind that if there were a mermaid he would find her, and if there were a comb he would take it, and if there were pirates' treasure he would find it, for his mother's sake.

Despite his mother's protestations, Elvis built a hut of plywood and zinc just below his house, at the riverside, overlooking a rock. He had picked out that rock because he calculated that if the mermaid surfaced that was where she would sit. There the river was a silent, expansive pool. Further up, the water was fast-moving. It cut into the rocks and cascaded down and down, until it came to a narrow section from where it seemed to just trickle into the pool and become silent. Boys dived under rocks there to catch shrimps, big black shiny ones and small, almost transparent ones. Further down, the river narrowed again and became fast-moving once more. Standing over that section of the river was a massive white concrete bridge, the bridge they said separated St. Mary from St Ann.

So, while everybody in the district celebrated the coming of the New Year that night, Elvis climbed into the little hut he had made. He thought that if the mermaid were real then he would not leave there for a long time, and so he took up residence at night in the little hut. His 12-year-old sister he mandated to care for his mother at night.

Two weeks into his vigil, Pastor Lincoln came to convince him the mermaid and the comb were only folklore, brought from Africa by slaves and modified through the ages. But Elvis was not convinced. He said, 'If it is a myth, by New Year's Day next year I will know.'

Elvis' cousins and uncles and aunts came to him, telling him to stop the foolishness and go sleep in his bed, but he remained unmoved. When that still didn't work, they destroyed the hut, but he sat in the cool air outside that night, watching and waiting; and when the whole district combined couldn't get him to stop his vigil, they left him alone. Elvis rebuilt his hut and, night after night, waited for the mermaid. But she didn't come. February, March, June, July - no mermaid.

Elvis looked up at the moon and saw that it was almost in the centre of the sky. He thought it might have been up for four hours or so, and by that deduction he surmised that it was around 10 p.m.. It was a cool September night - the frogs were croaking and the crickets were scraping, and Elvis' relentless determination was still intact. He yawned, and was about to go into the hut when he heard a swoosh, then a splash.

Then in the moonlight he saw her. She was seated on the massive stone. Her hair was dark and silky....he couldn't see her face, but her great tail she curled up and rested on the rock too. She was combing her hair.

Elvis thought of running to scream in the district that he had seen the mermaid, but that wouldn't save his mother's life. He thought, 'I will have to frighten her,' so he stole past the star apple tree and floated over the soft mud near the water's edge and shouted, 'River Mumma!'

The mermaid dived quickly into the water and was gone. And there it was, the comb, golden and lovely. The moonlight lent mystery and magic to it.

Elvis was hesitant. Should he take it up? But why not? He had slept in the cold for nine months; why then should he not take it up? And how then would his mother's life be saved? He quickly grabbed it, as if he thought it might disappear, but when he examined it he saw that it was old and ugly and he wondered if it was the right comb. He looked around. Perhaps the golden comb was near him somewhere. But he saw nothing. He went to his little hut, located the bag he had placed there in January for this very purpose, and put the comb in it. Then he climbed the hill to his house, rushed to his mother's room, shook her and said, 'Here it is, Mama; your life will be saved.'

But his mother was groggy and asked: 'What yu talking 'bout, Elvis?'

'Mama, a' find the mermaid's comb, here it is, mama.'

But she turned over onto her side, curling her feet so that knees and elbows almost touched. She clasp both hands and laid her head on them, and quietly said, 'Elvis, a' really feel tired.'

'So you don't believe, Mama?'

By this time his sister had awa- kened and come into the room. To her, Elvis said: 'Here it is, see, the mermaid's comb.' He brought it up to Nicole's eyes for her to see. 'You believe though, Nicole?' And he saw the look in her eyes.

He shook his head with disappoint and said, 'So you don't' believe me either, Nicole.' Finally she asked, 'Where did you get that old comb, Elvis?' She embraced him and said, 'Let us agree that you really tried Elvis. Goodnight.'

His feet felt weak, and his gut had a strange tingle to it. They didn't believe. They just didn't believe. But when he found the treasure they would have to believe!

He went to his bed with great anticipation that night. He fell asleep with a smile on his face, for he had reasoned that that night he would have the dream revealing the place of the buried treasure and his mother and sister would believe.

But that night no dream came. He got out of his bed and dragged himself out to the road and wondered what was happening. He told his cousin about the night's events, and by noon seven or eight boys were at his house demanding to see the mermaid's comb. 'Show wi the comb!'

'Nobody going to see it,' Elvis said

And the boys said, 'Him no have no comb, a' lie him a' tell.'

Elvis thought of rushing to the hiding place to show them he had the comb but one boy said, 'Unno come yaw, a' lie him a' tell.'

That night Elvis went to bed with hope and believed that he would have his dream.

In his dream, he saw the mermaid, her face ugly and scared and angry; he was standing by the river and she was threatening him, telling him that if he didn't return the comb she would wash their house down into the river. And he saw when she dived into the water and lashed her mighty tail against it and the water rose and almost swallowed up the house, and he woke up frightened. In the morning, he rushed down to the river and saw that some of the land had actually washed away.

For a week he had the dream every night. Every morning he would rush down to the river and see that a piece of the land had been washed away. It was then that the people started to wonder: 'Wonder if Elvis really have the mermaid comb fi true?' By the start of the next week they had come to believe, and they started to exhort him to return the comb to the mermaid, and Pastor Lincoln came again to convince him to give back the comb and to save his mother's house. 'Yu father dead lef' that house fi yu mother and it going to be yours when she gone and yu using yu own hands to mash it up, boy? Now, where yu hide the comb?'

Elvis' mother and sister, too, begged him to throw the comb back into the river. But he had one thing to say to them all - that the mermaid had not kept her part of the bargain, and that he was going to keep the comb until she did because his mother's life must be saved.

It was a Sunday afternoon when it happened. The whole district had come to see, 'how the little boy mek mermaid mash up him father dead lef' house.' The men had helped to take the furniture out of the house and Elvis' mother and sister were out there too, watching the last of their house come down. But Elvis was nowhere to be found.

Then the people saw him coming up from somewhere in the bushes. And they said, 'See the fool deh.' Elvis came with the old rusty comb in his hand. And the people said, 'Then is really the comb that?'

Elvis came and stood on the bridge. He held the comb in his hand for a while, then threw it into the river. And the people said: 'It too late fi that.'

And then, with a mighty sound, the house came crumbling down. The debris fell down at the riverside and some of it was washed away.

Then, from close beside Elvis, one little boy shouted, 'Is what that?'

And a man asked, 'What, what?'

'Seet there,' the little boy said, pointing. 'Something like a trunk.'

They saw it and hurried down to the river. It was not one but three chests, and when they finally got an axe to break the chain and opened one chest they held their collective breath - for it was like a dream. In the chest were glorious things, great jewelry and gold and things they didn't know. And the man who had asked the little boy 'what' said, 'The treasure was buried under the house. The mermaid has given us the pirate's treasure.' The people looked at him strangely and he rephrased his statement: 'The mermaid has given Elvis the pirate's treasure.'

Then the people held Elvis aloft and sang 'For he's a jolly good fellow,' and Elvis went to his mother and said: 'Now you can get yu treatment properly, Mama.'

**********

Manatees: The REAL Mermaids

To the sailors of earlier Caribbean exploration, imagine the excitement of not only discovering the New World, but that it also had mermaids. Surely, this was a blessed place. What a great sailor’s tale this would make on the tall ships and in the seaports of 16th century Europe.

So what if they were a bit ugly, in fact so ugly that only a mother could love them. But they were gentle and they didn’t talk back, or shoot arrows like the native people either.

Today manatees are an endangered species in the United States and they are a protected species in all of the Caribbean as well. These gentle mammals, a mature adult can weigh up to ¾ of a ton, live and breed in warm protected bays and lagoons. With their soft whiskery muzzle they browse on sea grasses, water hyacinths, and other aquatic vegetation as they cruise along just beneath the surface.

Descended from land mammals that returned to the sea during the Tertiary Period, manatees have gradually evolved during the last 20 million years and are unique to the New World. Females give birth to a single calf after a 12-month gestation period. Individual manatees are solitary animals, but are sometimes seen in small groups. Their skin is gray, leathery, and hairless. They have 3 to 4 fingernails on the tips of their pectoral flippers, a reminder of their ancient ancestry. They have no dorsal or anal fins and their round paddle shaped tail is horizontal.

Manatees are difficult to see because they swim slowly beneath the surface stopping only occasionally to expose their nostrils when breathing. This is usually accompanied by a short burst of air. To see them you need to get lucky. Hang around in the bays and shallows early in the morning when the sea is perfectly calm. You just might catch a glimpse of one of these gentle creatures.

Today, the biggest threat to manatees is man and his machines. Collisions with boats and boat propellers are the single biggest cause of manatee fatalities each year. Please be careful and watch out for the mermaids. Their future is in our hands.

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