Saturday, January 10, 2009

A MERCY


A mother begs at the feet of a man she has seen moments ago.
I knelt before him. Hoping for a miracle. He said yes.

Four women are paid for by a man. The first, Lina, a Native American, serves his land.
Together they minded the fowl and starter stock; planted corn and vegetables. But it was she who taught him how to dry the fish they caught; to anticipate spawning and how to dry the fish they caught.

The second, Rebekka; he paid for her voyage to her father. So that he may get a wife in this godforsaken land.
From the moment he saw his bride-to-be struggling down the gangplank with bedding, two boxes and a heavy satchel, he knew his good fortune.
Following him, feeling the disabling resilience of land after weeks at sea, she tripped…..He did not turn around. He would offer her no pampering. She would not accept it if he did. A perfect equation for the work that lay ahead.


The acquisition of two more girls follow. One in exchange for lumber, and another as repayment of bad debts.
From the moment Rebekka and Lina set eyes on one another, there was an immediate hostility. But on a land that is harsh and demanding there was no place for enmity or jealousy. As they work together planting seedlings and raising animals, and keeping the foxes away, Rebekka gives birth only to bury the infants in the next season.They soon become friends. Not only because somebody had to pull the wasp sting from the other’s arm. Not only because it took two to push the cow away from the fence. Not only because one had to hold the head while the other one tied the trotters. Mostly because neither knew precisely what they were doing and how.

These vignettes of life in seventeenth-century America through the kaleidoscope of Toni Morrison's A Mercy reveal a new land with "forests untouched since Noah, shorelines beautiful enough to bring tears, wild food for the taking." Law and society were still fluid, as were claims on land. Black men, most of them free, worked side by side with the newly arrived whites, and Native Americans escaping fire and disease and war joined them.

It is 1682, and Anglo-Dutch trader Jacob Vaark is settling down in a small landholding in Virginia. He is persuaded to take a small slave girl as partial payment for a debt that an older plantation owner owes him. Although unwilling to take such a young child, Jacob agrees when the girl’s mother, also a slave, falls at his feet. So does little Florens come to live in his farm.

As Florens is raised on the farm, loved by Lina and others, Jacob starts living the life of a trader. His absences become longer and his fortune bigger, propelling him to build a huge mansion; midway, smallpox strikes the farm. As they struggle and against death and disease, Florens sets off to find the young blacksmith she loves; he can get medicine to cure her mistress, Rebekka, from smallpox.

The manner in which Morrison structures the narrative can leave readers perplexed, lost and disoriented. The story is told from the points of view of six different characters, and events are often non-chronologic. This feeling, too, will pass as the plot gradually unfolds. Morrison’s portrayal of this vast, limitless world of sweat, grime and hard work, disease, death and destruction, and all the people jostling and struggling to live and be heard is so real and palpable that I wished for this to be a magnum opus instead of a short novel.

I’ll refrain from disclosing any more of the plot, but Morrison’s grand finale brings us back into the pivotal act of the story: that of a woman giving her daughter away as an act of mercy, a great monologue in the mother's voice of an act that can tear and explode the human soul:

It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human. I stayed on my knees. In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you: to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.

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