Toni Morrison plunges us directly into A Mercy, her dark fable of America's genesis: "Don't be afraid," its first narrator begins.
Who is this speaker of lyrical but strange English, who promises she will "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"? To whom is she speaking, and what mad story does she tell?
Soon enough, we know that she is Florens, a teenage black slave in colonial America. The year is 1690, almost a century before the American Revolution, when the land was still a lovely, fertile but harsh wilderness.
A Mercy is a tightly wrought tale, closer to a novella than a novel, that traces the birth and death of a sort of family, hammered together by the orphaned and abandoned.
One of those orphans is Jacob Vaark, a farmer and trader who travels from Virginia to a Maryland plantation to collect a debt from its owner, a Portuguese planter and slave trader. Jacob is dazzled by the man's magnificent house but repelled by his decadent ways.
When the planter offers to satisfy his debt with a young slave woman to sell, Jacob is again disgusted: "Flesh was not his commodity" (although he already owns one slave, who helps his wife work their farm).
Then the woman, a little girl at her side and a baby boy on her hip, says softly, urgently to Jacob, "Please, Senhor. Not me. Take her. Take my daughter."
That daughter is Florens, and what her mother says and why she says it alters the girl's life and Jacob's forever. Soon Florens is living on their remote farm with Jacob and his wife, Rebekka, who mourns her four children, all dead before the age of 5.
The farm's other residents are Lina, a fiercely wise American Indian woman who as a child was one of only three people in her village to survive a smallpox epidemic, and Sorrow, a mysterious, young red-haired girl who washed ashore from a shipwreck, saved, she says, by mermaids, or maybe whales.
For a few years, this little tribe of different races lives in peace. Jacob, called Sir, is unquestionably the master, but he is a kind one. He travels often, and the women learn from one another and forge emotional bonds as they do the brutal work the farm requires.
But Jacob has never shaken the image of the planter's mansion. He decides to build one of his own, a grand folly that, among other laborers, requires him to hire a master blacksmith, a free black man who creates a fabulous gate laced with serpents whose heads form a flower.
The blacksmith also fires the longings of both Sorrow and Florens. He saves Sorrow's life when she contracts smallpox, and he has a passionate affair with Florens, then goes home. The bereft Florens can't pursue him — until smallpox strikes again, and she is sent on a perilous quest to bring him back.
For every character in A Mercy, owning or being owned by another person is an essential fact of life. Although we associate slavery in this country with black Africans, in those times it was an experience that cut across race lines. Lina is taken in by white settlers (or, as she calls them, "Europes") as an orphaned child, but sold when it's convenient.
White indentured servants often never worked their way clear of their bonds, which might not even be theirs — young Scully, an indentured white man whom Jacob often rents from his master to labor on the farm, is still working off the sentence of indenture he inherited from his dead mother. The white foundling Sorrow is handed off to Jacob by former protectors, just as Lina was.
Even among free whites, marriage was often a matter of buying and selling: London-born Rebekka, sent at age 16 across the Atlantic to marry a man she has never met, "knew her father would have shipped her off to anyone who would book her passage and relieve him of feeding her."
Morrison also writes with insight about the kind of enslavement we enter into most willingly, the abandonment of the self we so easily mistake for love. Florens, caught up in the first sensual rapture of her affair with the blacksmith, thinks, "I am just come from you aching with sin and looking forward to more."
Her utter devotion to him — and her belief that it is mutual — will lead her to a terrible downfall, one that closes the parenthesis of her mother's choice around her young life.
Morrison is in beautiful form in A Mercy, spinning a gleaming halo of gorgeous words around a heart of darkness.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.