Early in Toni Morrison’s new, brief, ninth novel, A Mercy, a woman tells a story:
One day…an eagle laid her eggs in a nest far above and far beyond the snakes and paws that hunted them. Her eyes are midnight black and shiny as she watches over them. At the tremble of a leaf, the scent of any other life, her frown deepens, her head jerks and her feathers quietly lift. Her talons are sharpened on rock; her beak is like the scythe of a war god. She is fierce, protecting her borning young. But one thing she cannot defend against: the evil thoughts of man. One day a traveler climbs a mountain nearby. He stands at its summit admiring all he sees below him. The turquoise lake, the eternal hemlocks, the starlings sailing into clouds cut by rainbow. The traveler laughs at the beauty saying, “This is perfect. This is mine.” And the word swells, booming like thunder into valleys, over acres of primrose and mallow. Creatures come out of caves wondering what it means. Mine. Mine. Mine. The shells of the eagle’s eggs quiver and one even cracks. The eagle swivels her head to find the source of the strange, meaningless thunder, the incomprehensible sound. Spotting the traveler, she swoops down to claw away his laugh and his unnatural sound. But the traveler, under attack, raises his stick and strikes her wing with all his strength. Screaming she falls and falls. Over the turquoise lake, beyond the eternal hemlocks, down through the clouds cut by rainbow. Screaming, screaming she is carried away by wind instead of wing.
The story’s teller is Native American. During her childhood late in the seventeenth century, she watched her family and tribe destroyed by smallpox. Her contagious village razed to ash by French soldiers, she was taken to live “among kindly Presbyterians” who named her Messalina after the Roman emperor Claudius’s licentious wife. For a while, they called her Lina “to signal a sliver of hope” that she would evade the heathendom of her birth, but when a lover beat her bloody, the Presbyterians asked no questions and sold the fourteen-year-old into slavery.
Now an adult, Lina tells the story about the eagle to an African-American girl named Florens. As her name suggests, she is in the blossom of youth, sixteen. Florens owes her earthly existence to her mother’s great misfortunes: taken from Africa in chains, shipped to the cane fields of Barbados, the mother was sold to a plantation in Maryland. There, in the dark of a curing shed, she was “broken in” by a group of men with faces she never saw, one of them Florens’s sire.
Florens and Lina become property of the same master. On his farm, Lina, who “had fallen in love with [Florens] right away…the child assuag[ing] the tiny yet eternal yearning for the home …