A Mercy – Toni Morrison

What comes to mind when we think about a lover? Increased heartbeat, yearning for a reunion with the beloved, text messages and back in the day, “letters”. Many lovers in novels have written letters to or about their beloveds. Some novels are, in fact, letters. I am old enough to remember the letters that we wrote and never sent or never handed over; let alone all the text messages we spend time crafting and we never send. A Mercy, or a part of it, is a letter that cannot be sent; in fact, the addressee has to come by personally to the house which he himself helped build in order to read them; if he can read them!

However, the letters Florens writes are not the ones that catch a reader’s eyes at the beginning. The letter that the lover in the story bears is not a letter of love; it is a letter of identification, or shall I say dis-identification, since it confirms a human being’s subjugation, her bondage. Florens, on her way to Smithy’s house, thinks of freeing herself by never going back; however, she has to use that letter in order prove her bondage and push back against the claims that hold her as a demon. In being taken as a minion to the Devil, she uses the document of her dis-identification to identify herself; the license of her dehumanization is used to confirm that she is, in effect, a human.

The letter she bears is supposed to be held with utmost care. She holds it in her stocking, “no matter the itch of the sealing wax” and she knows that throughout the journey that letter is supposed to confirm her being a slave, a document of dehumanization. Alongside all the other forms of defamiliarization that are portrayed in Florens’s character and the way she contrasts with a common female slave, specially with her literacy or as the word that is continuously used through out the story as being “lettered”, the letter is used to confirm her as an actual human!

She loses the letter since the verification of its authenticity could cost her her life. As she leaves without it, she states: “Without it I am a weak calf abandon by the herd, a turtle without shell, a minion with no telltale sign but a darkness I am born with…” (Page 109)

This itself is part of the peculiarity of the so-called “peculiar institution”: the letter that confirms the subjugation of a person is their identity without which they are lost. However, having lost the letter does not unyoke them from being a subject; just as Florens could not avoid the humiliation incited upon her by the blacksmith.

As she returns, she engages in writing that other letter; the one that we read every other chapter. This one is carved in the walls and rooms of the house; the house which could not contain people, fails as well to contain her reflections: “There is no more room in this room.” She holds this letter to be a confession, which is a shot in the dark; given that Smithy is unlikely to ever come to that house and if he does, is he even “lettered?”

This is the letter where Florens somehow seeks to deal with her issues. We do not know whether in her conversations with Smithy, during the time he was hired by Sir, she opened the chest of her old days to him. We do not know about the extent of their conversations. Seemingly though, by calling it a confession early on, she is making the case for what she did, starting by saying “my telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done…”

Is Smithy going to read the letter? Or shall I say, can he do that? We do not know; I think he cannot. Does that matter? I believe it does not. Why do we write then, if the other person cannot or will not read that? We probably write in order to dig in and find the responses to some of the questions that haunt us; to go back and to find out more about whatever that does not hold water in what we have been through. Is that going to help us? It probably does but not entirely since, most of the times, there is a part of the story that did not take place within us or within our knowledge. Florens can go back a hundred times and never come to the understanding that the reason why she was “expelled” at the first place was not the curse of a child but an attempt of minha mãe to lay a different ground in front of her. Florens knows how worried minha mãe was for her gentle soles but she probably does not know how this translates in the light of what minha mãe went through and what “difference” she tried to create for her. Florens can write on every wall, on every floor of all the three houses that Jakob built but she may never figure out that minha mãe’s heart, when kneeling “in the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day” in front of Sir and Senhor, sought not a riddance but a mercy.

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