I met Ruby Bute because I went to St. Maarten/St. Martin and started pressing locals for information on the island’s spooky side. I wanted to dig my claws into the island’s history and, as with any place, sometimes I feel this is better done by examining that which you’re not shown on the surface when visiting a new place. What is dark is usually buried deep in a culture’s history, with the exception of cities like New Orleans, of course. Some people asked some people who I think asked some people and the final conclusion was that I should make my way over to the French side of St. Martin and meet Ruby Bute, an island legend.
Here’s what I knew about Ruby going into this: she is an island resident who is well known for her exceptional art, poetry, and story telling. I conjured up an image in my mind of what this woman might look like, feel like, smell like. I was relieved to find out when I finally pulled up in her drive way that I wasn’t far off.
We’d commissioned a friendly island taxi driver, Gilbert, to drive us to Ruby’s art gallery, which sits beside her home. As we neared her grounds, the neighborhoods became increasingly farther spread apart from each other and quieter by the mile. By the time we’d pulled into Ruby’s gallery, first having to get the gate opened, the land was far more wild than any I’d yet seen on the island; uninhabited by the urban constructions of downtown Phillipsburg. Cows roamed around freely and the landscape was growing unbarred.
Ruby slowly made her way out of her yellow one-story home. Step by step she hollered a “Hello” out to us and we greeted her eagerly, excitedly, absolutely unsure of what to expect. It took her a while to remember that we were the ‘writers from New York’ who’d requested a visit with her. She unlocked her art gallery and left us in there to inspect each piece of art carefully while she went back to her house to eat her lunch. By the time she came back to join us at the gallery, we’d already fallen in love with her. Each piece of artwork was colorful and expressive, haunting and hopeful simultaneously. When we flipped through her poetry book, we found wise and beautiful words printed on the pages that reminded me of Maya Angelou. We bought what we could afford and I had almost forgotten that I’d come to her home to hear about the island’s darker side. And with all of the flawless art around me, I was kind of embarrassed that I had.
When Ruby finally decided to grace us with the ghost stories we had come for, she leaned into me with an undeniable spook and intensity glossing over her eyes and said, in a strong Caribbean accent, “Who want the stories of the ghosts?”. She knew it was me, but did us the formality of asking, anyhow. I explained, casually so I thought, that ghost stories are an interesting way to dig into a culture and she waved us outside to her porch where her stories would be told. Before she locked her gallery door behind her, she grabbed a fist full of assorted hard candies, glued to their wrappers from the island heat, and handed them to me. I passed them out to Meghan, Michelle, and Gilbert.
We scooted our chairs in to the table and waited for Ruby to take her seat. She took her seat slowly and began.
“Every nation has a story” she said while interrupting herself to ask Gilbert to get a stick so that she might keep her black excited dog under better control. “It is a part of man to create the imagination”. The mosquitos were biting but we were already enthralled, just by her introductory lines. “It is the other side of God: Fearing. The unknown becomes mysterious. Those of us who are gifted to feel and see will feel and see.” She floats into her thoughts on St. Martin, specifically. “There are houses that the living cannot LIVE in.” She dives into the spirits that exist on the island thanks to the island’s history. “They derive from the days of piracy, conquerers, slaves, the middle passage, the suffering of the people brought over.”
The back yard of Ruby’s gallery is wild land. Overgrown with brush and inhabited by iguanas the size of an average adult, purple flowers blossom throughout the harsh landscape and there is no visible path to the ocean, although I could descry it over the branches that pertrude on the horizon. The land has been in Ruby’s family for generations upon generations. But there is a reason, she says, that her plot of land in Frier’s Bay has yet to be cultivated the way much of the rest of St. Martin has been. “This is virgin land. Buried treasures on this spot, slaves were here, working the fields, lashed and killed. The edge of our property is where slaves were brought in and this energy exists. Treasures were buried here. Pirates always had a slave who had to do the work. So the pirate has the slave’s head cut off so the head can stay with the treasure so he can watch over the treasure.”
Ruby’s grandfather was beckoned by a vision to dig up this treasure once. Ruby told us about the story she was given, that he was awakened by a vision telling him the exact day and time that he was to seek out the treasure. He told his family members but, alas, when he went to the spot he’d been instructed to go to, there was no treasure. Ruby explains to us that she won’t be doing any digging. She hopes the treasure is never found if it exists at all.
She goes on to tell us other spooky stories from the island and when Meghan, Michelle, and Gilbert are back in the van, she pulls me aside. “Why you so interested. Why you come here asking about the ghosts. You have got to focus on the positive, the negative will follow you when you start looking for it.”
And believe me, Ruby, I know, was all I could think.
By: Elizabeth Seward