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Cover image for A mercy
Title:
A mercy
ISBN:
9780307264237
Edition:
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
Physical Description:
167 p. ; 25 cm.
Summary:
In exchange for a bad debt, an Anglo-Dutch trader takes on Florens, a young slave girl, who feels abandoned by her slave mother and who searches for love--first from an older servant woman at her master's new home, and then from a handsome free blacksmith.
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Summary

Summary

A powerful tragedy distilled into a jewel of a masterpiece by the Nobel Prize-winning author of Beloved and, almost like a prelude to that story, set two centuries earlier.

In the 1680s the slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class divisions, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing the fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were planted and took root.

Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in "flesh," he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, "with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady." Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master's house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved.

There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who's spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Florens' mother. These are all men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness.

A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and of a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment.

Acts of mercy may have unforeseen consequences.


Author Notes

Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio on February 18, 1931. She received a B.A. in English from Howard University in 1953 and a master's degree in English from Cornell University in 1955 with her thesis on the theme of suicide in modern literature. She taught at several universities including Texas Southern University, Howard University, and Princeton University.

Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. Her other works include Sula, Tar Baby, Jazz, Paradise, Love, A Mercy, Home, and God Help the Child. She has won several awards including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon in 1977, the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988, the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, the Edward MacDowell Medal for her outstanding contribution to American culture in 2016, and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction in 2016. She also co-wrote children's books with her son, Slade Morrison, including The Big Box, The Book of Mean People, and Peeny Butter Fudge.

Toni Morrison passed away on August 5, 2019 at the age of 88, after a short illness.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

Some authors make mediocre readers, but Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison is certainly not among them. Her husky voice, lyrical rhythms and precise timing--especially of pauses within sentences or even phrases--give clarity and poignancy to her vivid metaphors and elegant prose. Set in the 1680s, this story tells of multiple forms of love and of slavery. Florens is a slave girl whose mother urges her sale to Jacob, a decent man, to save her from a rapist master. Florens feels abandoned and is finally betrayed by the lover she worships. Morrison holds the listener completely in thrall through her narrative, her characters, her language and her own fine reading. An enlightening interview with the author appears at the end. A Knopf hardcover (Reviews, Sept. 15). (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Booklist Review

*Starred Review* In its first pages, Morrison's latest novel seems to be a retread of the author's old themes, settings, and narrative voice; however, it quickly achieves its own brilliant identity. The time is the late 1600s, when what will become the U.S. remains a chain of colonies along the Atlantic coast. Not only does slavery still exist, it is a thriving industry that translates into plenty of business for lots of people. These factors coalesce to provide the atmosphere and plot points for Morrison's riveting, even poetic, new novel. She has shown a partiality for the chorus method of storytelling, wherein a group of indivuals who are involved in a single event or incident tell their versions of what happened, the individual voices maintaining their distinctiveness while their personal tales overlap each other with a layering effect that gives Morrison's prose its resonance and deep sheen of enameling. Here the voices belong to the women associated with Virginia planter Jacob Vaark, who has quickly risen from ratty orphan to a man of means; these women include the long-suffering Rebekka, his wife; Lina and Sorrow, slave women with unique perspectives on the events taking place on Vaark's plantation; and Florens, a slave girl whom Vaark accepts as partial payment on a debt and whose separation from her mother is the pivotal event around which Morrison weaves her short but deeply involving story. A fitting companion to her highly regarded Beloved.--Hooper, Brad Copyright 2008 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

The Greeks might have invented the pastoral, the genre in which the rustic life is idealized by writers who don't have to live it, but it's found its truest home in America. To Europeans of the so-called Age of Discovery, the whole North American continent seemed a sort of Edenic rod and gun club, and their descendants here still haven't gotten over their obsession with the pure primal landscapes they despoil with their own presence. A straight line - if only spiritually - runs from Fenimore Cooper's wild Adirondacks and Hawthorne's sinister Massachusetts forests to Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River" to Cheevers domesticated locus amoenus of Shady Hill to the theme park in George Saunders's pointedly titled "Pastoralia" - where slaughtered goats are delivered to employees in Neolithic costume through a slot in the wall of their cave, much as Big Macs appear at a drive-through window. The line even leads to "Naked Lunch," which pronounces America "old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians" - simply a calculated blasphemy. Apply enough ironic backspin, and almost any American novel this side of "Bright Lights, Big City" could be called "American Pastoral." Or for that matter, "Paradise Lost." Toni Morrison has already used the title "Paradise" for the 1998 novel that I think is her weakest. But it would have been a good fit for her new book, "A Mercy," which reveals her, once more, as a conscious inheritor of America's pastoral tradition, even as she implicitly criticizes it. Her two greatest novels, "Song of Solomon" and "Beloved" render the rural countryside so evocatively that you can smell the earth; even in the urban novel "Jazz," the most memorable images are of the South its characters have left behind. But Morrison, of course, is African-American, and hers is a distinctly postcolonial pastoral: a career-long refutation of Robert Frost's embarrassing line "The land was ours before we were the land's." The plantation called Sweet Home, in "Beloved," is neither sweet to its slaves nor home to anyone, except the native Miamis, of whom nothing is left but their burial mounds. In "A Mercy," a 17th-century American farmer - who lives near a town wink-and-nudgingly called Milton - enriches himself by dabbling in the rum trade and builds an ostentatious, oversize new house, for which he orders up a fancy wrought-iron gate, ornamented with twin copper serpents: when the gate is closed, their heads meet to form a blossom. The farmer, Jacob Vaark, thinks he's creating an earthly paradise, but Lina, his Native American slave, whose forced exposure to Presbyterianism has conveniently provided her with a Judeo-Christian metaphor, feels as if she's "entering the world of the damned." In this American Eden, you get two original sins for the price of one - the near extermination of the native population and the importation of slaves from Africa - and it's not hard to spot the real serpents: those creatures Lina calls "Europes," men whose "whitened" skins make them appear on first sight to be "ill or dead," and whose great gifts to the heathens seem to be smallpox and a harsh version of Christianity with "a dull, unimaginative god." Jacob is as close as we get to a benevolent European. Although three bondswomen (one Native American, one African and one "a bit mongrelized") help run his farm, he refuses to traffic in slaves; the mother of the African girl, in fact, has forced her daughter on him because the girl is in danger of falling into worse hands and he seems "human." Yet Jacob's money is no less tainted than if he'd wielded a whip himself: it simply comes from slaves he doesn't have to see in person, working sugar plantations in the Caribbean. And the preposterous house he builds with this money comes to no good. It costs the lives of 50 trees (cut down, as Lina notes, "without asking their permission"), his own daughter dies in an accident during the construction, and he never lives to finish it. True, some of the white settlers are escapees from hell: Jacob's wife, Rebekka, whom he imported sight unseen from London, retains too-vivid memories of public hangings and drawings-and-quarterings. "The pile of frisky, still living entrails held before the felon's eyes then thrown into a bucket and tossed into the Thames; fingers trembling for a lost torso; the hair of a woman guilty of mayhem bright with flame." America, she figures, can hardly be worse. But even the relatively kindly Rebekka (kindly, that is, until she nearly dies of smallpox herself and gets religion) and the relatively human Jacob have that European brimstone clinging to them, and it's stinking up the place. One native sachem diagnoses their unique pathology: "Cut loose from the earth's soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples." This sounds like P.C. cant, and even Lina doubts that all Europes are Eurotrash. But the sachem's got a point. Does anybody own the earth we all inhabit as brothers and sisters? From that perspective, property really is theft, and if you don't think Europeans did the thieving, I've got $24 worth of beads I'd like to sell you. OR if Europeans aren't the only serpents in the garden - after all, "A Mercy" also implicates Africans in the slave trade - this theory, advanced by an African woman captured by rival tribesmen and shipped to Barbados, gets to the heart of the problem: "I think men thrive on insults over cattle, women, water, crops. Everything heats up and finally the men of their families burn we houses and collect those they cannot kill or find for trade." Men! You can't live with 'em and (since women "did not fell 60-foot trees, build pens, repair saddles, slaughter or butcher beef, shoe a horse or hunt") you can't live without 'em. Not to mention that old-as-Eden matter of sexual attraction. Florens, the black girl whose mother entrusted her to Jacob, and whose feeling of abandonment rules the rest of her life, falls uncontrollably in lust with a free black man, the smith who builds Jacob's gate. "The shine of water runs down your spine and I have shock at myself for wanting to lick there. I run away into the cowshed to stop this thing from happening inside me. Nothing stops it." In their last scene together, the blacksmith rejects her for being a slave - not to Jacob, but to her own desire. "You alone own me," she tells him. "Own yourself, woman," he answers. "You are nothing but wilderness. No constraint. No mind." If you've ever read a Toni Morrison novel, you can already predict that Florens does end up owning herself and that it's a bitter blessing. Her only compensation for the loss of her mother and her lover is that she comes to write her own story, carving the letters with a nail into the walls of her dead master's unfinished and abandoned house. "A Mercy" has neither the terrible passion of "Beloved" - how many times can we ask a writer to go to such a place? - nor the spirited ingenuity of "Love," the most satisfying of Morrison's subsequent novels. But it's her deepest excavation into America's history, to a time when the South had just passed laws that "separated and protected all whites from all others forever," and the North had begun persecuting people accused of witchcraft. (The book's most anxious moment comes when a little white girl goes hysterical at the sight of Florens and hides behind her witch-hunting elders.) Postcolonialists and feminists, perhaps even Greens and Marxists, may latch onto "A Mercy," but they should latch with care, lest Morrison prove too many-minded for them. This novel isn't a polemic - does anybody really need to be persuaded that exploitation is evil? - but a tragedy in which "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." EXCEPT for a slimy Portuguese slave trader, no character in the novel is wholly evil, and even he's more weak and contemptible than mustache-twirlingly villainous. Nor are the characters we root for particularly saintly. While Lina laments the nonconsensual deaths of trees, she deftly drowns a newborn baby, not, as in "Beloved," to save it from a life of slavery, but simply because she thinks the child's mother (the "mongrelized" girl who goes by the Morrisonian name of Sorrow) has already brought enough bum luck to Jacob's farmstead. Everyone in "A Mercy" is damaged; a few, once in a while, find strength to act out of love, or at least out of mercy - that is, when those who have the power to do harm decide not to exercise it. A negative virtue, but perhaps more lasting than love. This oddly assorted household slaves, indentured servants and a wife shipped to her husband in exchange for payment to her family - exhibits varying degrees of freedom and dominion, and it holds together, for a while, thanks to a range of conflicting motivations. "They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they had become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone's guess. One thing was certain, courage alone would not be enough." The landscape of "A Mercy" is full of both beauties and terrors: snow "sugars" eyelashes, yet icicles hang like "knives"; a stag is a benign and auspicious apparition, yet at night "the glittering eyes of an elk could easily be a demon." But whatever the glories and the rigors of nature may signify to the civilized, for these characters, living in the midst of it, nature doesn't signify. It's simply to be embraced or dreaded - like the people with whom they have to live. In Morrison's latest version of pastoral, it's only mercy or the lack of it that makes the American landscape heaven or hell, and the gates of Eden open both ways at once. A farmer thinks he's creating an earthly paradise, but his slave feels as if she's 'entering the world of the damned.' David Gates's most recent book is "The Wonders of the Invisible World," a collection of stories.


Guardian Review

When Florens, the central figure of Toni Morrison's new novel, asks on the first page "Can you read?", she is not inquiring about any simple kind of literacy. She means, can you read the nature of the world? Do you understand omens? Ordinary notions of cause and effect are stripped away from the characters of A Mercy . Their world is all accident, contingency. Events are beyond mortal control, and there is scant evidence that any immortal guide is at work. Hope, where it exists, is deferred. Florens believes "We are baptised and can have happiness when this life is done." We are in America around 1690. Slave labour of different varieties sustains farming and trade. The rudimentary social system is predicated on deep inequalities of class and gender. Religion is sectarian and bitter, a force for division rather than coherence. We are looking at the preconditions for the world of Morrison's most powerful novel, Beloved , in which a black mother kills her daughter rather than let her grow up a slave. A trader surveys a line of a dozen slaves "whose silence made him imagine an avalanche seen from a great distance. No sound, just the knowledge of a roar he could not hear." Florens is a girl of 16. With her mother and infant brother, she is a slave on the domain of a Portuguese planter. The planter has a debt, which he cannot discharge, to an Anglo-Dutch farmer and trader called Jacob. Jacob is persuaded to take a slave in exchange; when his eye falls on Florens's mother, she kneels down and begs him to take Florens rather than part her from the small son she is still breastfeeding. So Florens suffers her first "expel" and is at the mercy of a new master. In the very last passage of the book we will find out why her mother acted as she did, but Florens will never know or guess. Skilfully and swiftly Morrison creates the sour atmosphere of the D'Ortega plantation, where Florens has grown up. A neat passage of dialogue packs in a damning lesson about colonialist delusion and its attempts to reshape geography. D'Ortega's wife tells Jacob that "in Portugal" slaves never get away with trickery. Jacob asks: "They come from Portugal?" ". . . well, the Angola part of Portugal." [. . .] "We are there for four years," added Mistress D'Ortega. "Portugal?" "Angola. But, mind you, our children are not born there." "Portugal, then?" "No, Maryland." "Ah, England." Jacob is vivid in his history and prejudices and ambitions, a resourceful man who is emotionally battered but not morally destroyed. Having created him carefully, Morrison sweeps him out of the story. When he dies of smallpox his loss pulls all security away from the lives of his wife and servants. The narrative also loses the firm, directed feel of the early pages. The other characters who emerge never manifest as much more than bundles of grievances, each with his or her own skew of disadvantage. They have names, but may as well have numbers, so that they can shout out their complaint; when two downtrodden white bondsmen turn out to be gay, the reader feels an unwelcome giggle coming on. In particular, the black man with whom Florens falls desperately in love is lightly sketched; a blacksmith, a skilled worker, he is an anomaly, his proud individuality a challenge to a system that likes to categorise and keep people in their places. But we have to take this individuality on trust, because Morrison leaves him as a mere outline. Perhaps she is telling us that he is a phantom, his arms a home-from-home built from Florens's unhoused desires; when he falls victim to her jealous, unruly, deprived passion, it is as if an illusion is lost, rather than a person. The America that Morrison depicts is not a land hungry for freedom, but a land that is jittery and repressive, fixated on profit and punitive by instinct. Fate and economics bring the characters together, and hold them together only for as long as it takes to recognise common victimhood. The orphans and waifs of Jacob's farm are a community that threatens to disintegrate as soon as he is dead. Any affective bonds they have formed are frail compared to the imperatives of finding a new way to survive. In making this clear, Morrison avoids sentimentality. But she doesn't always avoid the portentous; at its worst, this is a book of ritualised postures and cut-rate epiphanies. The character called "Sorrow", who is dazed by the blows life has dealt her, rebaptises herself "Complete" when she gives birth to a daughter, though it is hard to see what reason she has for optimism; should we salute her wisdom, or pity her delusion? The saintly Lina, an American Indian whose community has been wiped out by smallpox, remembers "the company of other children, industrious mothers in beautiful jewellery, the majestic plan of life: when to vacate, to harvest, to burn, to hunt; ceremonies of death, birth and worship". By contrast, the Englishwoman Rebekka remembers little of London except public executions: her prospects, had she not taken ship, were "reeking streets, spat on by lords and prostitutes". One comes from Eden, one from a necropolis; it's too pat to convince. Some readers will object that Morrison has been over this territory before; that with these insubstantial characters and this wisp of a narrative she is evoking the spirit of Beloved , rather than creating something new. It is certain that her powerful, elemental material bears reworking and revisiting. The issues she explores as a novelist go to the root of what humanity is, what society is for. They could not be more important or fundamental. What she emphasises here is a sort of grim equality based on suffering; slaves are white as well as black, women of all races are at the mercy of men. In this barren universe you do not reap what you sow, but rather what some stranger has sown, unthinkingly. Good actions trail bad consequences. Terrifying randomness is shot through with intimations of nature's beauty, and some fragmentary, piecemeal trace - like a race memory - of pity and grace operating in human affairs. The language of the book, always supple, graceful and inventive, is enough reason to read and value it. But there are no changes of tone or pace to sustain the narrative, and a certain authorial weariness behind the whole enterprise. A Mercy is a shadow of the great novel it should be; its half-told tales leave cobweb trails in the mind, like the fragments of a nightmare. Wolf Hall , Hilary Mantel's novel about Thomas Cromwell, will be published next year. To order A Mercy for pounds 14.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875. Caption: article-mantelmorrison.1 The America that [Toni Morrison] depicts is not a land hungry for freedom, but a land that is jittery and repressive, fixated on profit and punitive by instinct. Fate and economics bring the characters together, and hold them together only for as long as it takes to recognise common victimhood. The orphans and waifs of [Jacob]'s farm are a community that threatens to disintegrate as soon as he is dead. Any affective bonds they have formed are frail compared to the imperatives of finding a new way to survive. In making this clear, Morrison avoids sentimentality. But she doesn't always avoid the portentous; at its worst, this is a book of ritualised postures and cut-rate epiphanies. The character called "Sorrow", who is dazed by the blows life has dealt her, rebaptises herself "Complete" when she gives birth to a daughter, though it is hard to see what reason she has for optimism; should we salute her wisdom, or pity her delusion? The saintly Lina, an American Indian whose community has been wiped out by smallpox, remembers "the company of other children, industrious mothers in beautiful jewellery, the majestic plan of life: when to vacate, to harvest, to burn, to hunt; ceremonies of death, birth and worship". By contrast, the Englishwoman Rebekka remembers little of London except public executions: her prospects, had she not taken ship, were "reeking streets, spat on by lords and prostitutes". One comes from Eden, one from a necropolis; it's too pat to convince. Florens is a girl of 16. With her mother and infant brother, she is a slave on the domain of a Portuguese planter. The planter has a debt, which he cannot discharge, to an Anglo-Dutch farmer and trader called Jacob. Jacob is persuaded to take a slave in exchange; when his eye falls on Florens's mother, she kneels down and begs him to take Florens rather than part her from the small son she is still breastfeeding. So Florens suffers her first "expel" and is at the mercy of a new master. In the very last passage of the book we will find out why her mother acted as she did, but Florens will never know or guess. - Hilary Mantel.


Kirkus Review

Abandonment, betrayal and loss are the somber themes of this latest exploration of America's morally compromised history from Morrison (Love, 2003, etc.). All the characters she sets down in the colonial landscape circa 1690 are bereft, none more evidently so than Florens, 16-year-old slave of Jacob Vaark and his wife Rebekka. Eight years earlier, Anglo-Dutch farmer and trader Jacob reluctantly took Florens in settlement of a debt from a Maryland landowner. Her own mother offered herso as not to be traded with Florens' infant brother, the girl thinks. (The searing final monologue reveals it was not so simple.) Florens joined a household of misfits somewhere in the North. Jacob was a poor orphan who came to America to make a new start; Rebekka's parents essentially sold her to him to spare themselves her upkeep. The couple has shared love, but also sadness; all four of their offspring died in childhood. They take in others similarly devastated. Lina, raped by a "Europe," has been cast out by her Native American tribe. Mixed-race Sorrow survived a shipwreck only to be made pregnant by her rescuer, who handed her over to Jacob. Willard and Scully are indentured servants, farmed out to labor for Jacob by their contract holders, who keep fraudulently extending their time. Only the free African blacksmith who helps Jacob construct his fancy new houseand who catches Florens' love-starved eyeseems whole and self-sufficient, though he eventually falls prey to Florens' raging fear of abandonment. Morrison's point, made in a variety of often-melodramatic plot developments, is that America was founded on the involuntary servitude of blacks and whites, that the colonies are rife with people who belong nowhere else and anxiously strive to find something to hold onto in the New World. Gorgeous language and powerful understanding of the darkest regions in the human heart compensate for the slightly schematic nature of the characters and the plot. Better seen as a lengthy prose poem than a novel, this allusive, elusive little gem adds its own shadowy luster to the Nobel laureate's shimmering body of work. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

In 1690, Anglo-Dutch trader Jacob Vaark sets off from New Amsterdam to collect a debt from a landowner in Maryland. Arriving at the plantation, Vaark discovers that the debtor cannot pay, and Vaark reluctantly decides to accept a young slave girl, Florens, as partial compensation. Taken from her baby brother and her mother, who thinks that giving up her daughter to a kinder slave owner is an act of mercy, Florens finds herself in the midst of a community of women striving to understand their burdens of sorrow and grief and to discover the mercies of love. Much as she did in Paradise, Morrison hauntingly weaves the stories of these women into a colorful tale of loss, despair, hope, and love. Knitted together with Florens's own tale of her search to be reunited with her mother are the wrenching stories of Sorrow, a young woman who spent most of her time at sea before coming to Vaark's home; Lina, a Native American healer and storyteller who looks after Florens as a mother would a daughter; and Rebekka, Vaark's wife and Florens's mistress, who endures her own persecution, loss, and sorrow. Magical, mystical, and memorable, Morrison's poignant parable of mercies hidden and revealed belongs in every library. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/08.]--Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Evanston, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark--weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more--but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle. Or when a corn-husk doll sitting on a shelf is soon splaying in the corner of a room and the wicked of how it got there is plain. Stranger things happen all the time everywhere. You know. I know you know. One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read? If a pea hen refuses to brood I read it quickly and, sure enough, that night I see a minha mãe standing hand in hand with her little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of her apron. Other signs need more time to understand. Often there are too many signs, or a bright omen clouds up too fast. I sort them and try to recall, yet I know I am missing much, like not reading the garden snake crawling up to the door saddle to die. Let me start with what I know for certain. The beginning begins with the shoes. When a child I am never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody's shoes, even on the hottest days. My mother, a minha mãe, is frowning, is angry at what she says are my prettify ways. Only bad women wear high heels. I am dangerous, she says, and wild but she relents and lets me wear the throwaway shoes from Senhora's house, pointy-toe, one raised heel broke, the other worn and a buckle on top. As a result, Lina says, my feet are useless, will always be too tender for life and never have the strong soles, tougher than leather, that life requires. Lina is correct. Florens, she says, it's 1690. Who else these days has the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady? So when I set out to find you, she and Mistress give me Sir's boots that fit a man not a girl. They stuff them with hay and oily corn husks and tell me to hide the letter inside my stocking--no matter the itch of the sealing wax. I am lettered but I do not read what Mistress writes and Lina and Sorrow cannot. But I know what it means to say to any who stop me. My head is light with the confusion of two things, hunger for you and scare if I am lost. Nothing frights me more than this errand and nothing is more temptation. From the day you disappear I dream and plot. To learn where you are and how to be there. I want to run across the trail through the beech and white pine but I am asking myself which way? Who will tell me? Who lives in the wilderness between this farm and you and will they help me or harm me? What about the boneless bears in the valley? Remember? How when they move their pelts sway as though there is nothing underneath? Their smell belying their beauty, their eyes knowing us from when we are beasts also. You telling me that is why it is fatal to look them in the eye. They will approach, run to us to love and play which we misread and give back fear and anger. Giant birds also are nesting out there bigger than cows, Lina says, and not all natives are like her, she says, so watch out. A praying savage, neighbors call her, because she is once churchgoing yet she bathes herself every day and Christians never do. Underneath she wears bright blue beads and dances in secret at first light when the moon is small. More than fear of loving bears or birds bigger than cows, I fear pathless night. How, I wonder, can I find you in the dark? Now at last there is a way. I have orders. It is arranged. I will see your mouth and trail my fingers down. You will rest your chin in my hair again while I breathe into your shoulder in and out, in and out. I am happy the world is breaking open for us, yet its newness trembles me. To get to you I must leave the only home, the only people I know. Lina says from the state of my teeth I am mayb Excerpted from A Mercy by Toni Morrison All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


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