The History of Mercury

The history of mercury is the story of a jaguar.

She was large and dark and had mirrors for eyes. At night she crawled down a set of stone steps into a stone room and curled up in a bed of liquid mercury that beaded and flowed in a viscous pool of silvery reflection. She extended a paw and drew her things in with her: a pair of jade statues, a box of carved seashells, and a bowl of rubber balls.

These were her favorite objects, all of them gifts she had received from people bartering for their lives. She was a hungry jaguar and mirthless in company but privately craved amusement and was willing to forgo a meal for diversion’s sake. When she left her stone room to hunt by day and came across potential prey, she always gave it a choice: look into my mirrored eyes, see yourself, decide right now whether you’re worth saving, bring me something to trade in return, and I’ll consider it. Some of them looked and saw and decided and quietly closed their eyes. Others left to procure an offering and brought it back for her to decide whether the object substituted for a sacrifice. She had been offered many things in her many years, but to date she had only a full bloody belly and these: a pair of jade statues, a box of carved seashells, and a bowl of rubber balls.

Surrounded by this reliquary she fell asleep and the mercury closed over her. In her dreams she prowled the gazes of others, becoming the reflected image in a thousand mirrors of a thousand people. Looking at their silvered surfaces and expecting to see themselves, they would instead find her. Sometimes her haunches were carved in green statuary. Sometimes she drew her body out of a conch shell, paw by salty paw. Sometimes she simply sat and stared and batted rubber balls through the mirror and into the room of whomever watched her. Evenings would pass this way, and she remained unconcerned as people slowly went mad around her.

One night in her dreaming she found herself in the looking glass of another jaguar. When she tossed a ball at him he pitched it right back and broke the mirror, and she woke up with broken eyes. Her dreaming pool split apart into beads of mercury that flowed out of the stone room and up the stone steps and didn’t come back. She went prowling to gather it together again, but as she looked with her cracked eyes the landscape around her snapped into pieces and the beads of mercury fell through the crevices. She returned to her stone home but no matter how she tried she could not fall back to sleep and after many days and nights she grew very very tired.

And so she closed her eyes and left her room for the last time. She gave the jade back to the earth, and gave the seashells back to the sea, and gave the rubber back to the trees. And at night when she lay down the beads slowly came back from their travels to find her, wrapping her up in reflection and burying her in the moon and the stars and the dark night sky.