Toni Morrison’s fleet-footed and lyrical new novella, Home, opens with a scene of disabling fear and fascination. During the 1950s two young African-American children, Frank Money and his little sister, exotically named Ycidra, or Cee, venture into the outskirts of the wretchedly poor farming hamlet of Lotus, Georgia. They watch, transfixed, as two stallions fight for the right to protect a herd of mares and foals. “Just kids we were,” Frank remembers.
The grass was shoulder high for her and waist high for me so, looking out for snakes, we crawled through it on our bellies. The reward was worth the harm grass juice and clouds of gnats did to our eyes, because there right in front of us, about fifty yards off, they stood like men. Their raised hooves crashing and striking, their manes tossing back from wild white eyes. They bit each other like dogs but when they stood, reared up on their hind legs, their forelegs around the withers of the other, we held our breath in wonder.
Everything here is fixated on the eyes: the balancing of “harm” and “reward” to the children’s eyes, the wild white eyes of the horses, and the breathtaking visual wonder of the majestic scene. The whole performance is permeated by the mysterious analogy, particularly potent for an older brother protecting his sister, of horses standing tall like full-grown men. “They rose up like men,” the brother recalls. “We saw them. Like men they stood.”
On their return, stealthily avoiding a line of parked trucks, the children lose their way, as children do in fairy tales, and witness shadowy men pulling a body from a wheelbarrow and carelessly burying it, with one foot jutting out of the soil, still quivering. The foot, the horrified children notice, is black with a “creamy pink and mud-streaked sole being whacked into the grave.” “We shouldn’t have been anywhere near that place,” the brother, now grown up, ruefully confesses, though not to us but rather to a stand-in, real or imagined, for the novelist:
Since you’re set on telling my story, whatever you think and whatever you write down, know this: I really forgot about the burial. I only remembered the horses. They were so beautiful. So brutal. And they stood like men.
Of course, Frank Money hasn’t forgotten the burial at all; he has repressed it—half buried it, still quivering, in his own wounded psyche. It will be the task of the storyteller, and of the grown-up brother and sister, to dig up the corpse, both literally and figuratively, and to give it, at the end of the book, proper burial. Morrison, who studied classics in college, is alert to the full cultural weight of this theme of proper burial, in the brother-sister theme of Antigone, in the Iliad, and in the nameless graves of generations of American slaves, including the buried child identified on her gravestone, in Morrison’s best-known novel, as Beloved. In Home, the journey …