Dominion tells the story of the Merian family who, at the close of the seventeenth century, settle in the wilderness of the Carolinas. Jasper is the patriarch, freed from bondage, who manages against all odds to build a thriving estate with his new wife and two sons—one enslaved, the other free. For one hundred years, the Merian family struggles against the natural (and occasionally supernatural) world, colonial politics, the injustices of slavery, the Revolutionary War and questions of fidelity and the heart. Footed in both myth and modernity, Calvin Baker crafts a rich, intricate and moving novel, with meditations on God, responsibility, and familial legacies. While masterfully incorporating elements of the world's oldest and greatest stories, the end result is a bold contemplation of the origins of America.
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Read an Excerpt
By Calvin Baker
Grove Atlantic, Inc.
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
They ate the dead that first winter on the land, such was their possession by vile hunger,
mean desperation, and who can say what else, other than it was unnatural. Any decent
history will vouch for the truth of that. And, according to lore, the majority of the
graveless sacrificed were uneasy souls, who walked certain nights on top of the earth-haunting
not just the ground of their defilement but all the contiguous lands-until they
possessed the entire continent as surely as if they had been more fortunate in life.
Ould Lowe, one from that legion of unblessed, had prowled the wilderness since anyone
could remember. Each Sunday he could be seen standing atop the hill on the southern
side of the lake, ululating as any wild beast, or grief-stricken man, from the first moments
It was why the land was sold to him at all, because to put up a proper house there he
would have to begin construction on the very spot of the ghost's weekly sojourn.
Surveying east and west; north and south-to the edges of the horizon in each earthly
direction-Jasper Merian sought a better place, or some compromise that would give him
access to his lands without disturbing the unburied. He could see no other way, though,
so started digging where he was forced, out there on the very boundaryof civilization and
silent oblivion. He was not generally a man to go against common sense or community,
but this was all any would give him to purchase or settle when he finished his term of
Nights he went back to the outpost to sleep, until a half-proper roof had been put up out
in the forest, over the little shack he had managed. The villagers all stayed away from
him once they learned what he was doing out there, but he did not mind. Or rather he
learned to show no sign, having concluded in earliest youth certain things about the inner
levers and measures of assembled man. There was besides nothing else he might do about
it but continue his building.
As for the ghost, he had not yet seen him. Nor was he bothered in the way other men
might have presumed to be when he finally did catch sight of the fiend. For when his own
forebears arrived on the land, not many years after the first settlement, God had already
been brought in to tame the heathen new country-so that superstition and minor deities,
along with pestilence and death, dwelled only in shadow and certain corners too mean to
allow Him entrance. Over time, so say the writings, other gods would be imported as
well, and all stand atop the aboriginal like a totem with none except true God at its
sylvanite apex. This was He to whom Merian principally paid the respect of prayer when
he paid it to any at all. Owing in large part to this, he saw no need for fear. For another
thing he had borne the spirit no insult and looked on his presence not as divergent but an
extended part of the numinous world.
When the roof was sound enough from the elements he slept out there his first night, still
unafraid. It was Saturday and, if there was anything to lore and ancient saws, Ould Lowe
was said certain to be visible in his full horror and abomination that next day. Merian
stared out at the stars through his unfinished roof and despaired of other things, but
banished them from his waking mind lest he thwart his own enterprise before it was
properly begun. As for ghosts, he gave no more thought at all.
Morning was his first on the land, and he rose in the still darkness to make his way to the
ceaseless work of clearing away timber for fields and digging rocks from the soil to
increase its fertility. They were onerous tasks that on a proper farm would have been
distributed among many. He toiled in solitude and did not swear oaths or otherwise
In the small clearing he had already claimed, Merian raised ax to tree and listened to the
sound echoing around the forest. He smiled, knowing it was his own woods and, as far as
that sound could be heard, more than likely his own trees and property as well. Merian's
ground. After this ceremonial first blow, he rolled his sleeves and heaved the ax again,
relishing the sound of his effort each time as it rang through the woods, like a shot from a
musket, until the energy of his labor was so great that it deflated even this small
pridefulness. He was mute as the wood creaked against itself, before crashing to the
earthen floor of the forest, exhausted amid a thick storm of dead leaves and debris.
When the great oak finally gave way to his hand, Merian could not contain his vanity and
surveyed the increasing space he was creating in the woods, beaming broadly as he
imagined with preening care where each field would lie, and each barn, after the main
building was finished. None could stop him from dreaming then, as he looked upon his
lands and shone like a newborn constellation in the early evening sky. He was twenty-nine
years on earth and three months a free man.
It was as he walked over to the downed giant, to clear away its limbs and prepare it to be
made into rough boards, that he saw Ould Lowe the first time. Rather, it was then that he
heard Ould, for the fury and passion of the creature's wailing caused his heart to stop still
in his chest and his blood to run backward through him. When he had recovered enough
from his first shock, and gathered courage to raise his head and look upon the beast, it
was just as the writings claimed. The specter stood not five paces from the future
doorway of the settlement, and held in one hand a great polished walking stick that he
leaned upon, having otherwise but one leg to support his immense frame. From his face a
pair of deep-set and ill-matching eyes stared out from their withered sockets, each a color
and disposition of its frightening own. Merian faced him full, holding the ax still in his
hand, and the ghost in turn gazed on the man, holding the staff that supported him in his
wandering to and fro between this world and the one not fully known. Neither the living
nor the dead moved from the spot where he had staked himself, as Lowe stared the
interloper over in appraisal before letting his great bellow curdle the woods again, so that
all in town below who heard it knew exactly what strange new sound it was and swore
that the fool who bought those cursed acres had met his fitting and proper end out in the
"What do you want?" Merian asked, carefully leading the ghost, as he had been
instructed, toward a plate of offering he had set out the night before as providence against
the creature's coming. The fiend, when he heard Merian speak, began to laugh at his
ignorance, as the last to dare address him so boldly was well versed in the left-handed
arts, and what even he received for his courage was a fate worse than that of Ould Lowe
When Merian repeated his question, even at once with the ghoul's laughter, Lowe walked
to within inches of him, then leaned in closer still and began to swear a string of
obscenities that burned in the man's ear. Merian did not move from his spot as the
creature spoke but, when it had finished, motioned toward the offering he had set out
before. The ghost eyed what was on the plate, made his way toward it-as rapidly as his
condition would allow-then seized the platter and flung the thing away into the trees. As
it spun through the air he pronounced again his curse over the land and the things that
would befall whomsoever should settle there. Merian heard the curse and again
approached the creature with calmness, but when Lowe again made one of his violent
gestures it sent the man back on his heels in terror and cold blood. The ghost gave pursuit
with a quick arm, which Merian neatly dodged and countered with his own fist. The two
then locked in the most unsavory embrace and began a fearsome struggle that ended only
at the shores of the lake, where their embattled forms seemed as one violent mass. Both
were so disheveled, drenched, and unsteady from the effort of trying to master his foe
that none looking, had there been witnesses to that epic, would have been able to tell
flesh from spirit, body from soul, past from future, or Merian from Lowe, so tangled were
they limb against limb in a single coil of mortal and immortal.
When the fight finally reached the banks of the lake, Merian jumped into the water,
fleeing from the beast, and Ould came after him in quick dangerous pursuit. This, though,
was the man's wish, having heard that any spirit who finds himself in water will soon
become disoriented and lose his way there. He hoped it was true, as the Gospels claimed,
for themselves, as he dove under the surface of the lake.
Out upon the water Ould Lowe did lose track of his prey and fast found himself unable to
distinguish north from south or east from west. Neither could he tell confidently between
the natural world of his haunting and the unnatural world that was his proper abode. In
this confusion of watery enchantment Merian resurfaced to cast a stone attached to an old
chain he had brought with him, around the spirit's neck, and Ould Lowe sank to the
bottom of the lake bed. There his profane songs could long be heard, trapped between
Earth and the Palaces of Death, especially each spring when the thaw came, as he tried to
find his way to either one world or the other.
In this way did Merian rid his land of the spirit that had haunted it since the ill-starred
first settlement, in ages untold. When he arrived back at the shore, he took the ghoul's
stick and his own knife and began to carve a leg for the drowned ghost.
When he finished he was shivering and graycold, as he buried it under an outcropping
rock on the shore of the lake, hoping this was the reason of Ould Lowe's wandering and
that its cenotaphic restoration might bring him peace.
Years later, when his sons wanted to take a certain stone and put it to use as a boundary
marker, Jasper Merian would tell them it was no mere rock but a gravestone for the spirit
he had battled in order to win their place of home. They would look at each other then,
silently, and though both knew better than to say so out loud, in his heart each refused to
believe his father but that he was telling stories.
When he had finished his tasks on the side of the lake, Merian went back into the forest
and began readying the fallen timber, as if nothing strange or unearthly had happened on
his farm that morning. The forest brightened with birdsong, and he worked serenely to
hasten the day when he would no longer be forced to sleep half out-of-doors, under the
naked canopy of heaven, as he had done so many twilights since leaving Virginia.
Over the course of the summer Merian's house continued to rise from the floor of the
virgin woodlands, and he planted crops in the ground, both foodstuff and tobacco to trade
for cash. That summer in the clearing he was master of both masculine and feminine
tasks, as there was not yet a mistress of the place to give him comfort in his toil. It was
then, in those first days, a sad house even after the roof was completed.
In his private heart, however, he was not without companionship but thought often of the
saltwater woman he had left behind in Virginia. He dreamed of her often as he worked
outside in the hot months, and he dreamed of her when he lay down at night in the cold
first hours of winter. The force of these nostalgic passions took him unguarded, as he had
never before known the occult powers of memory so fully but only seen them in others,
seized and bound by its invisible teeth and shackles. He himself had never before been
separated from kin and home, or had any one thing or place to miss.
He was far away as the other shore of the ocean but swore to himself he would someday
He had left behind-more than just the woman, Ruth was her name-a small child as
well, whom he could not take with him, as he belonged properly to his mother and her
He knew it would be at least a year before he would see either of them again, if indeed he
ever did. He planned, though, in his brain and bosom to recross the trail that had brought
him out to this forest in time for next holiday season. It was a hard and solitary home in
those early days as the roof went up in the clearing, and Jasper Merian was alone in the
ancient forest with nary a beast for company.
Jealous neighbors swore that his success, when it came in time, grew from a compact he
had made with the same devil who once frightened travelers on the southern and western
roads. But he wrestled the wilderness as he did Ould Lowe and the rattling forces of fear,
those first days, trying to gain permanence and soundness for his roof and the empty
room beneath it. Over years and generations the path crossing westward grew broader,
and smaller paths cut back across it in every which direction, so that no place was ever
again uncharted or alone. However, Merian then lived pressed against the very boundary
of the known, and the two roads were barely new-blazed trails that took the nearby
settlement the last provisioning stop before the unknown.
Populations looking over that place in distant years would not know how fearful and wild
the woods were, or the bright beauty of light when it reached into the provinces that
darkness alone had known when beasts still fought and foraged the ground, before the
man claimed it for himself. These, the wind, the shadows, and the light, were his
companions as he pitted his wits against the forest to draw out partridge for dinner or else
outmaneuver the straggling bear who ventured sometimes uncomfortably close to his
When the woodlands went barren and his own provisions also failed, it was the same old
bear who supplied him with its sweet meat the last weeks of that first winter, without
which he would not have made the spring. The bear was felled with a single ball from the
musket, it being old and unwilling to cling too fervently to life, or surely it would have
claimed victory over the man in that contest, and lined its own hungry early-waking
stomach with human flesh.
After the first of his meals of bear meat, venturing over the property he had purchased,
Merian stopped to measure again what was his, arguing with himself the finer points of
possession and trying to fathom certain secrets from the webbed, foggy circle of his
experience. He asked himself whether that which was half divine on the place belonged
to him in equal measure as things like the partridge and cypress. He also counted his own
freedom and the depraved fiend Ould Lowe in that same lordly grouping of things and
saw how much all of them struggled and bargained against one another, so that his life or
another's, his freedom or his failure, were things that circled about-like-shaped and
taloned as eagle's claws-looking for a place to grab and rip at their natural or made
prey, as had always been and would always be on that place. His supremacy on his lands
increased something great that morning, and he knew he would not die of starvation or
ever allow himself to get so close to hunger out in the forest again. Other monstrosities he
knew not the names of, but was certain that they would come as inevitable as hardship.
However, having staked so much already to achieve the trove of freedom, he would do
anything to preserve and keep it with him. He muttered the name of the fiend to himself
and swore that, as he had vanished it, so would he everything else that stood in the way of
his well-being and prosperity.
Spring, he set his sights to improvements upon the bare hut and fields he sowed by hand.
In order to make the most of what was his, though, he knew two things were
indispensable: the first being a good mule, the other a woman. Nor would he let a
shortage of funds keep him from either.
To get the mule he saw no other way than to steal it, so woke early one morning and
made his way out to those stretches of the trail in the mountains where no law ruled but
only strong arms. When night came he made his way toward a camp and untied one of
only two pack animals that belonged to the party traveling away.
In the darkness he led the mule over the ridge of earth back to his lands. Morning found
the beast learning to bear the yoke instead of other burdens.
In this way he would clear twice as many acres that second spring as he had the first and
increase vastly that year his purchase over the wilderness-where he had gone, when
none other would go there, to make a home in the world where none existed before him
and all said none could be made, to exist and hold him.
For the woman he turned in other directions. At the settlement's center was a tavern
where one of three rooms could be rented by those with no other place to stay the night
or, if so happened, the month. This is the same outpost where he had spent the spring
before his own roof was yet ready to cover him. The proprietors of the inn were free-
thinking people and had been the only ones who did not shy from him when they learned
where he had bought and was building. They had even nodded on it as the scientific thing
for one in his position who wished to improve it. As he did not see a way to steal a
woman as you would a mule, he turned to these friends for advice as to where he might
find one who was eligible.
"I am looking for a woman. Do you know where I might find one?" he asked Content, the
The two looked at each other when he put this question out, and at first made no reply.
"Well, you might do as I did," said Content, "which is to search in the church."
"No," Merian answered his friend. "What do you mean no?"
"That I will not look there. I cannot go."
"Of course you can. If they are not set up for it, they are certain to make arrangements."
"That is not what I mean."
"What is it you do mean, Merian?"
"That I have no faith in that course."
"Still, you should go there if your aim is a wife."
Excerpted from Dominion
by Calvin Baker
Copyright © 2006 by Calvin Baker.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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