The Mercury Fountain: A Novel

The Mercury Fountain: A Novel

by Eliza Factor

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In an idealistic utopian community in the early twentieth-century West, a father and daughter engage in a battle of wills: “Transcendent.” —Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels
Set in a remote stretch of desert near the border of West Texas and Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century, this story follows the pursuits of Owen Scraperton as he struggles to establish Pristina, a utopian community based on mercury mining that aims to resolve the great questions of labor and race.
As age, love, and experience cause Owen to modify his original vision, his fiercely idealistic daughter Victoria remains true to Pristina’s founding principles—setting them up for a major conflict that captures the imagination of the entire town. The Mercury Fountain combines realistic modern writing with elements from American and Greco-Roman mythology, taking its cue from Mercury, the most slippery and mischievous of gods, who rules over science, commerce, eloquence, and thievery.
“Eliza Factor’s first novel, The Mercury Fountain, explores what happens when a life driven by ideology confronts implacable truths of science and human nature. It also shows how leaders can inflict damage by neglecting the real needs of real people. Though the action takes place between 1900 and 1923, the resonances feel alarmingly contemporary . . . Factor counters convention with a sharp sense of character, evocative subplots and the dangerous allure of mercury itself.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Factor develops her characters in entertaining ways while building a novel of social realism.” —Kirkus Reviews

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617751134
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 02/28/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Eliza Factor was born in 1968 in Boston, Massachusetts, and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. The Mercury Fountain is her debut novel.

Read an Excerpt



* * *

The scream must have come from Casa Grande. There were no other houses, no trees or huts, no jackals, only the bone-white road, the dusty scrub. Now all was quiet. The buzz of insects filled Ysidro's ears, and far away, a mining blast. Maybe he had misheard, maybe nothing was wrong. He was twelve years old, unarmed, and not allowed anywhere near Casa Grande on a school day.

It happened again, definitely a scream, definitely coming from the Scraperton house. Ysidro scrambled up the hill, up the forbidden steps of the veranda, to the front door, but its grandeur overcame him. Silence again, except for his own raggedy breath. He headed toward the back door, the planks of the porch creaking under his feet. The windows were all shuttered, until around the corner of the house he came to an open one. There she was. He gaped.

She didn't look a bit like the Mrs. Scraperton the men pretended not to look at. Her hair was clammed around her skull. Her skin was the color of a sick moon. A trickle of something that looked like blood ran down her chin. She doubled over and screamed again, the veins standing out in her temples. She rose back up — only then did Ysidro notice her belly. It was huge, monstrously round. He understood, and as he understood the floor of the porch seemed to move an inch or two. He felt as if he were standing on the banks of the Rio Bravo, right on the border of the quicksand. He had to put his hand onto the house to steady himself.

"Ysidro!" Aunt Alma pounded up the back stairs of the veranda. Her cheeks were red, her hair was flying out of her braid.

"I think Mrs. Scraperton needs the doctor," he managed to say.

"He's coming. He's on his way." Alma stood over him, panting unevenly, hands on hips. "What are you doing here? What's wrong with you? You look green."

"I'm fine."

Alma frowned.

"I am." He wasn't lying. The floorboards were getting solid again.

Alma kneaded her forehead, looking from him to Mrs. Scraperton and back again. "Are you all right to get Mr. Scraperton?"

The boy didn't move for a moment, stunned by this turn of events. Get Mr. Scraperton? He, Ysidro Herrida, would get to deliver this message? It was unbelievable, the kind of wonderful thing that he imagined for himself, those hours dawdling down by the fishing hole, but that he never expected to really happen.

"Go. Hurry. He needs to be here. The baby is coming."

* * *

A mile he raced, over burning sand, toward the mining workings, the scaffolding and towers brave and big and sharply visible against the desert flat. The sickening feeling that had overtaken him on the porch was all but forgotten. Get Mr. Scraperton! The order resounded with each slap of his huaraches. Get Mr. Scraperton! How would he announce it? Mrs. Scraperton is having a baby. No, not respectful enough. Sir, your wife is in labor. That was better, more manful. Maybe he'd get to shake his hand again. He'd only shook hands with him once but he'd remember it forever: like the energy of the whole planet had pulsed through him and he felt strong and warm and capable of doing all the amazing things that Mr. Scraperton wanted him to do.

At Independence Avenue, his lungs felt like they were going to crack open his chest. He swerved through the carts and horses and women bringing home food for supper. "Ysidro!" yelled Gwen, from the steps of Offitz & Carruthers. He pretended not to hear and plowed straight into a group of Anglo ladies. They jumped around, yelling angrily and calling for a patrol. He sped around a corner. Footsteps sounded behind him. He could not let himself get caught. The patrol would hassle him for hours. He shot around another corner, the footsteps close at his heels. He didn't understand. The patrols were wrecks, a cinch to outrun. He pushed himself as fast as he could, still the footsteps gained. And gained. They were right beside him.

It wasn't a patrol. It was Gwen. He should have known. She was the fastest girl in school. "Hi," she said, matching him stride for stride. "Don't worry about that patrol back there. It was just Poc. He didn't see who you were."

No way he could speak, he could barely breathe, and now a stitch pinched his ribs. They kept running, only one more block to Pristina HQ. "I wanted to thank you," Gwen said between breaths. "You know, yesterday, for helping me out when I had to do that recitation." She could run and smile at the same time. Her lips were pale, the color of the pink sand they had out by the quarry. And her hair was red, almost like Mrs. Scraperton's, when Mrs. Scraperton looked like Mrs. Scraperton, her hair all shiny and coppery, piled on top of her head with little ringlets dripping down.

He flew forward and skidded across the hard packed dirt. "You okay?" Gwen asked, fluttering around, touching his back and arm. He pushed himself back to his feet, but he was breathing too hard to stand up straight. She put a hand on his shoulder. "You might not be the best runner," she said, "but you sure are the best speaker. I swear, if they let anyone win the oration contest two years in a row, you would."

"I've got to go," he said between big gulps of air. "I've got to deliver an important message."

"Wait." She dug in her pocket. "Here." She handed him a caramel. "I'm sorry, it's a little mushed up."

He squeezed it, mushing it more. "Thanks, Gwen." She smiled, pale lips and a little freckle on her nose. He stumbled backward.

* * *

At Pristina HQ, Grierson looked at him skeptically. "Mr. Scraperton's not here. He's in Shaft 8, won't be back till six or seven."

This was the time to give the message to Grierson, who would give it to a mine messenger, who would deliver it to Shaft 8. But what of that handshake? What of that beautiful phrase — Sir, your wife is in labor — which he had said in his head until the words seemed to glow with import and beauty? Hadn't Alma said: Get Mr. Scraperton? She hadn't said: Get a messenger, tell Grierson. Shaft 8 was on the other side of town, past the school, the warehouses, the jaw crusher. It was the deepest shaft of all, the Glory Hole, the richest mercury load in the whole new world. In only a year he could work there, if all went well, but not until he was thirteen.

He got to the fence that encircled the mine and slipped through the hole. A group of men neared, slowly lugging equipment and grumbling about the lift. He hid behind a pile of tailings. When they were gone, he ran up the slope to the shaft building and scrambled inside. It was so dark and musty he couldn't see a thing. When his eyes adjusted, he made out gears bigger than wagon wheels. Shadowy men hovered about them, shining their lanterns and talking in low, hard voices.

Someone grabbed Ysidro from behind. "Where do you think you're going?" The boy could barely breathe, his collar was being pulled so tightly. "Speak, kid." A giant Anglo poked his chest. "Where do you think you're going?"

"Hey!" José María appeared out of the murk, mustached and handsome in his engineer's suit.

"Found him sneaking around," the Anglo muttered resentfully. "He won't tell me what he was doing."

Ysidro drew himself up as tall as he could. "I have a message for Mr. Scraperton."

"Yeah?" said José María. "And what is it?"

"I'm not supposed to tell," Ysidro answered. "It's personal and confidential." He'd seen the phrase on an envelope at Offitz & Carruthers.

The Anglo laughed, bits of spit spraying out. "Ha! Personal and confidential. Some kid, hey!" The man pounded him on the back, as if they were all of a sudden friends, but his pats were so strong that Ysidro bent over coughing.

José María regarded him steadily. "You can't go down there, son. As you well know." He nodded at the Anglo. "You, get back to work." A surge of pride shot through Ysidro. José María had proved himself so smart, he could boss around even the Anglos. When the man had left, José María patted Ysidro's shoulder. "Give me the message." His gaze had the effect of making Ysidro want to please him, but he couldn't give up, not so easily. José María smiled. "A messenger is no job for a boy with such skinny legs."

"My legs aren't skinny."

José María laughed.

"I can run fast."

"The lift is out. Did you know that?"

Ysidro shrugged. What was a lift? Shafts 2 and 5 didn't even have them; his cousins scaled up and down miles of ladders every day.

José María gave him directions. Ysidro understood them well enough; he knew the layout of the mine from the maps at school. And he had no trouble adjusting the headlamp — he'd had plenty of practice with his father's.

"Take a sip before you go," José María said, handing him the canteen. "It's hot down there."

"Thank you." Ysidro gulped down the tinny water. Then he grabbed onto the emergency shaft ladder and began his descent. The mine air wrapped around him, a rotten-egg smell of sulfur, made worse by the heat. He had smelled it before, on his father's clothes, on the winds that swept through town, but never so strong. After a while he could detect whiffs of sweetness mixed into the rottenness, bits of earth amidst the sulfur and piss and sweat and smoke. He got to a ledge where the first ladder ended and another began. The shaft grew darker. Hotter. His hands were greasy with sweat. Usually heat felt sharp, like a slap. You protected yourself from it with hats and white cotton, but this was different, slimy. He wiped his hands on his pants, spat at them, wiped them again. Down he went, rung after rung. Below, he could see nothing but an endless well of boiling black. But it wasn't endless. It was 428 feet — not that deep for a mine — and at the bottom he figured he would find Mr. Scraperton.

His foot hit solid ground. What was this? He couldn't be at the bottom, not yet. Where were the miners? He was all alone, on some sort of platform. His headlamp lit up tunnels filled with waste rock and numbers painted on the walls. He saw the beginning of another ladder and hurried toward it, then heard something. In front of him an old cardboard box marked Hercules Blasting Caps moved. He jumped back. A rat came out, a weird, slow-moving rat that rolled over and jerked its head sideways. He edged around it uneasily.

On the third ladder, the light from the top of the shaft completely disappeared. He couldn't hear anything. No men. None of the swearing or singing or drilling or hauling he'd learned about, no vigorous clamor of noble labor, none of that, only his own breath and the slip of his shoes on the iron rungs. How could this be Shaft 8? The Glory Hole? The walls narrowed. Maybe José María had tricked him, sent him down a dead hole as punishment for trying to sneak in. He shook his arms out, one at a time. The air seemed to resist him and seep into him at once. The smell was even worse now, sourer than it had been up at the top, and hotter. Like terrible breath. His abuela said there were brujas that lived in the mountains, witches that put spells on men and tried to lure them into their caves. He imagined that they'd have breath like this, hot and thick and black. They'd breathe on you and blind you.

He puffed out his cheeks and blew away the bad thought. It was wrong to think this way. Superstitions eroded your faculties.

The air got hotter and pressed in closer. He could barely breathe. You had to keep your faculties clear. Otherwise, you wouldn't be able to merge into the anatomy of the planet. But what did that mean, the anatomy of the planet? Merging into it? It was black. He couldn't see. He could have been lured. He was scaling down a bruja's throat. He had to stop. She might swallow.

A whistle blew, sharp and clear and no-nonsense. Then a blast, and the ladder quivered against the rock. Ysidro hung on, whooping and laughing. Afterward, catching his breath, he experienced a different kind of heat, a hot well of shame that bubbled inside him. He'd been acting like a peon, taking brujas seriously. He'd almost betrayed Nature. He scrambled as quickly as he could, ignoring the rubbery feeling in his legs. Finally, a light glowed beneath him. He went even faster, fully understanding why moths dive into lanterns. The walls of the shaft gave way, and he entered a giant cavern. Fires blazed at the base, men shouted, mules brayed. He jumped to the ground, rubbed the cramp out of his hands, and made his way to the West Tunnel.

The West Tunnel was supported by beams of cottonwood and strung with lamps, quieter than the big cavern until he neared a working area and the banging of metal and stone filled his ears. He turned a corner and found himself in a small cavern with blood-red walls and a fire at its center. Four or five men hurled picks and crowbars at the overhang. Their bodies were covered by a coat of red dust made redder still by the reflection of the flames. Their muscles glided under their skin like fishes caught inside their bodies. Ysidro shouted, but no one heard. He stepped closer, blinking each time the miners struck. The biggest man there turned around. Red dust had taken over every part of his face except for his eyes which glowed white and watery.

"Ysidro," the man said; it would have been a scary voice, save for the bit of friendliness tucked into it. Ysidro recognized his uncle, Jorge Rivera, and asked him if he was going the right way.

"As far as I know," said Jorge. "He was down there after lunch. You've got a ways to go. Better hurry."

He thanked his uncle and ran down a succession of crosscuts, trying to go as fast as a real messenger would. After a while, the tram tracks ended and the lanterns were replaced by candles stabbed onto stakes. A headlamp shone in the darkness ahead; it got brighter, and the tunnel filled with the sharp smell of a tanatero bent under his load. A moment later, another came, stooped low and running very fast. Then another. The tanateros were haulers who carried the ore in rawhide sacks strapped to their foreheads. Most were peons, and Ysidro gave them a wide berth. You didn't want to mess with peons. They polluted the mines with their virgins and altars and sullen attitudes. Ysidro kept an eye out for Javier, his cousin, who wasn't a peon, but a brave, strong tanatero who always placed in the ladder races. He didn't see him, but he saw many others. They looked straight ahead with their strange white eyes, and their breath came out gasping. One of them stopped to tell him that if he didn't watch out, he'd bump into Mr. Scraperton.

"I'm looking for Mr. Scraperton," he said.

The tanatero laughed. He shouted something that Ysidro didn't understand to the man in front of him. The other man laughed and their laughter echoed down the sweaty tunnel. Then it faded and the candles thinned. Ysidro was all alone. He hurried onward until he had to stop, his legs too jiggly to go on. He'd never realized how big the mine was. It was bigger than Pristina, bigger even than the distance from Pristina to Casa Grande, maybe even bigger than the distance between Pristina and his fishing spot. He came to a precipice. The only way down was a gallina ladder, which wasn't really a ladder, but a tree trunk, with the bark skinned off and shallow toeholds hacked in. He hugged it tight. He'd never been on a gallina ladder before. The first few notches were pretty shaky, but he quickly got used to it. That's when he noticed the smell. Wood. He buried his nose in a toehold. Yes, definitely. You could still smell the tree. He imagined the ladder before it was skinned and hacked, a shade-giving alamo down by the creek. He used to watch the sun coming through their leafy branches. It was a shame they'd cut them all down, but they'd had to. That's what his abuela didn't understand: they'd had to. You needed to cut down the alamos to let the mercury out.

He reached the bottom and continued along a narrow dark tunnel, wondering how much farther it could possibly be. Something appeared in front of him. A shaggy white face with a long nose and pointy ears. A burro. But a strange burro; it stood so quietly and its eyes were blue. It seemed like an apparition. Ysidro took a breath and forced himself to touch it. It snorted. A real burro snort.

A headlamp shone at the end of the tunnel. Ysidro squinted. The light came closer and a man pushed Ysidro aside and grabbed the reins. "Thought you could get away? Heh?" He glared at Ysidro, like the boy was responsible for the beast running off, then whacked the burro's rump and the two of them moved off. "You ain't never getting out of here, Sam, not until the meat slips off your bones."

They disappeared. All was silent and black. Ysidro felt like he had been in the mine forever. His legs hurt. His lungs hurt. He walked as fast as he could. After some time, his pace slowed even more. What if he had turned down the wrong tunnel? It didn't seem possible it would take this long. He tripped. He had to get up, but his body was too attached to the ground. He closed his eyes. His face seemed to be bleeding. He tasted his blood and thought about Mrs. Scraperton, not like she was today, but like she was supposed to be, riding on her horse, kicking up dust. She would be okay. She had to. He pushed himself up. She was Mrs. Scraperton, not his mother. He'd never met his mother, only heard from everyone how good she'd been. The sickness he'd felt when he saw Mrs. Scraperton's belly rose up in him. He was in the ground: inside the hard rocks of the ground. They were solid. But they weren't. They were flickering and curving and shaking, and hidden within them was a creaking moan. He wondered about his mother, he'd never really thought of her as real before, just a sweetness hanging over him. Move. Get up. He found Gwen's caramel and bit into it, too tired to even unwrap it. The rich buttery flavor filled his mouth. He spat out the wrapper and wobbled forward.


Excerpted from "The Mercury Fountain"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Eliza Factor.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Page,
E-book Extra: Excerpt from Love Maps,
About Eliza Factor,
About Akashic Books,

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