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 Lina once knew,” attempts to entertain the girl with stories, and the one about the “fierce” eagle, about the “unnatural sound” of those who would claim ownership of the world, becomes a favorite. Upon its conclusion, Florens would ask where the eagle is now:
“Still falling,” Lina would answer, “she is falling forever.”
Florens barely breathes. “And the eggs?” she asks.
“They hatch alone,” says Lina.
“Do they live?” Florens’ whispering is urgent.
“We have,” says Lina.
Florens would sigh then, her head on Lina’s shoulder and when sleep came the little girl’s smile lingered.
A bedtime story, then. A fable designed to soothe, however briefly, however illusorily, the slave child hearing it as much as the enslaved woman telling it. The soporific moral: though the black-eyed eagle cannot defend herself against “the evil thoughts of man,” and though that fierce protector of “borning young” will be undone by man’s “meaningless thunder,” her eggs will survive. Alone, the children of the eagle hatch, live, endure.
Such a fable, of course, can be read quite differently: as a sketch of the strange, cruel, despairing story of America itself. Call it a creation myth. The eagle, our emblematic bird, symbol of liberty and freedom, sits far above turquoise lakes, above hemlocks (which Emerson said “almost gleam like iron on the excited eye”) and primrose (which Milton wrote “forsaken dies”), a world so jammed with beauty, then, as to delight any poet’s eye. Alas, the traveler is no poet. Rather, and all too clearly, he is a consumer, a childish one. Prone to tantrum (“Mine. Mine. Mine”), his “evil thoughts” betray a drive to possess.
Naturally, the story of a country has many more meanings than a fable can reasonably contain. Morrison’s A Mercy seeks that vaster quarry. Like Faulkner in As I Lay Dying, Morrison employs a range of reporters to cover a focal event from multiple viewpoints. Any one of these reports tells much of the story, but only in concert is a full understanding of events and implications attained. As in Faulkner, the event is a journey, but where his delivers a dying woman to her grave, Morrison’s would keep a dying woman from reaching hers.
The year is 1690. Rebekka Vaark, mistress of 120 acres in a northern territory of precolonial America, has fallen ill. Her husband Jacob has preceded her to the grave, leaving her alone on their farm with only the three slaves Jacob in his lifetime acquired: Lina, the Native American; Florens, Lina’s young African-American charge; and a third African-American called Sorrow. Sorrow was saved from the pox now afflicting Rebekka by a blacksmith in Jacob’s employ. Thus Florens is sent on foot, a two-day journey, to find the blacksmith—with whom she is in love—and bid him return to cure her mistress. Though she will complete her mission, and though her mistress will survive, Florens will squander the blacksmith’s affection in the process.
If Florens’s journey to the blacksmith is the clear axis of the novel’s complex story, its gravitational center is dead Jacob Vaark. His road to the Mundus Novus was as curious as any. After his mother died giving birth to him in England, his father, “who hailed from Amsterdam,” named him and promptly abandoned him. Growing up in the “children’s quarter of the poorhouse,” forsaken young Vaark meets with unexpected luck when an uncle bequeaths him “one hundred and twenty acres of a dormant patroonship”—Dutch-held land in New Amsterdam. He decided to seek his fortune there:
Breathing the air of a world so new, almost alarming in rawness and temptation, never failed to invigorate him…. Now here he was, a ratty orphan become landowner, making a place out of no place, a temperate living from raw life.
Vaark’s invigoration, the pleasure he enjoys through “temperate living,” make him an unusually enlightened inhabitant of the New World. Vaark objects to laws that divide the races:
By eliminating manumission, gatherings, travel and bearing arms for black people only; by granting license to any white to kill any black for any reason; by compensating owners for a slave’s maiming or death, they separated and protected all whites from all others forever…. In Jacob Vaark’s view, these were lawless laws encouraging cruelty in exchange for common cause, if not common virtue.
A modest farmer but an ambitious trader, Vaark exhibits similarly uncommon virtues as he travels. He crosses the fledgling land with unusual conscientiousness,
negotiat[ing] native trails on horseback, mindful of their fields of maize, careful through their hunting grounds, politely asking permission to enter a small village here, a larger one there.
As respectful to the natives and their land as he is kindly to the creatures forested there, when riding one day he dismounts
to free the bloody hindleg of a young raccoon stuck in a tree break… He tried to be as gentle as possible…. Once he succeeded, the raccoon limped off, perhaps to the mother forced to abandon it or more likely into other claws.
An apparently decent man, then, one whose descent into indecency is meant to be charted in A Mercy.
An episode in 1682 proves central. A “client/debtor” of Vaark’s, a Portuguese named D’Ortega, invites the trader to his Maryland tobacco plantation. Vaark is disgusted by the excess:
It was abundantly clear why D’Ortega was in serious debt. Turning profit into useless baubles, unembarrassed by sumptuary, silk stockings and an overdressed wife, wasting candles in midday.
To settle the debt, D’Ortega, plantation rich but penny poor, offers Vaark slaves. “Jacob winced. Flesh was not his commodity.” Still, D’Ortega arranges a display thereof, “identifying talents, weaknesses and possibilities, but silent about the scars, the wounds like misplaced veins tracing their skin”:
One even had the facial brand required by local law when a slave assaulted a white man a second time. The women’s eyes looked shockproof, gazing beyond place and time as though they were not actually there. The men looked at the ground. Except every now and then, when possible, when they thought they were not being evaluated, Jacob could see their quick glances, sideways, wary but, most of all, judging the men who judged them.
Suddenly Jacob felt his stomach seize.
Vaark, we are to understand, doesn’t have the stomach for this new world’s old barbarities. And yet, he does take a slave in settlement of D’Ortega debt. The circumstances that lead to the exchange are curious. One of the slaves, a mother, begs Vaark to take her daughter—Florens, the girl who, years later, will hear Lina tell the story of the eagle—away with him. “Struck by the terror in her eyes,” Vaark consents, hoping that “the acquisition…could be seen as rescue.”
All of this is restrained, brutal, and well staged. Morrison suggests how a seemingly moral man could find himself in not merely an immoral position but an untenable one. And yet, the portrait of Jacob Vaark isn’t complete, and its amplification is where Morrison’s enterprise begins to teeter.
At the plantation, not all the finery and excess offends him:
The house, honey-colored stone, was in truth more like a place where one held court…. Two wide windows, at least two dozen panes in each, flanked the door. Five more windows on a broad second story held sunlight glittering above the mist. He had never seen a house like it.
And, he decides, he’ll have it. One day, he thinks, “not too far away,” he’ll “build a house that size on his own property.” And so Vaark rides off, a slave’s new papers now written in his name, “wav[ing] at the couple and once again, in spite of himself, env[ying] the house, the gate, the fence.” Much will be made to depend upon that “in spite of himself,” for as Vaark departs, he thinks of D’Ortega’s access to “a fleet of free labor” and, unambiguously, “sneered at wealth dependent on a captured workforce that required more force to maintain.”
On the brink of the pub where he hopes to have “one, perhaps two, drafts of ale, its bitter, clear taste critical to eliminating the sweetish rot of vice,” Vaark is subjected to another show of force, “a man beating a horse to its knees”: