We’ve come to the end of Part 1 with this chapter.
I never knew what the title of this chapter meant, or referred to, so I Googled it, and it turns out that Aceldama is pretty fraught with meaning. It refers to a field near Jerusalem that’s associated with Judas. In one interpretation (as told in Acts of the Apostles), Judas himself bought the field with the 30 pieces of silver he received for betraying Jesus, and he “burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out,” leading to the name Aceldama, which means “Field of Blood.” In the Gospel of Matthew, the field is bought by the authorities of the Temple with that same 30 pieces of silver; in this telling, Judas returned the money to them, but, deeming it “blood money” and therefore unfit to be put into the treasury, it was used to purchase what became known as a field of blood.
I’m not sure whether Helprin is trying to refer to to either of those stories, or to the more general idea of a Field of blood, and a potter’s field. But let’s see if the chapter sheds any light on the question.
We open with Peter contemplating Beverly and her increasingly difficult-to-understand pronouncements:
“I’m just like you,” she had told him. “I come from another age. But there are many things we must take care of now.”
Partly, Peter goes along with her simply because he loves her, but he begins to see truth in her delirious words. He himself has had glimpse of similar things – hints of a larger plan, a process of justice underpinning the entire world. And then he remembers an incident back when he was with the Short Tails, when Pearly Soames had emptied two pistols into a dark window, claiming that he had seen behind it the White dog of Afghanistan, “come to get him from another time.”
It’s with all these jumbled thoughts that Peter arrives at the Penn mansion to take Beverly to the promised New Year’s Eve date at Mouquin’s. While they get ready, Beverly speaks of another vision – animals in the Heavens, bigger than stars – made up of stars – and Peter says he believes her. Beverly answers that he doesn’t have to believe, because it’s the truth. Finally, she says:
“They’re not just dreams. Not anymore. I dream more than I wake now, and, at times, I have crossed over. Can’t you see? I’ve been there.”
And with that, they’re off. When they arrive at the usually lively dance hall, Peter is surprised to find it strangely quiet – even more so than on December 31, 1899, when it had been “as quiet as a church on the Fourth of July.” This year is even more solemn (this is also the closest Helprin comes to pinning down a date for this portion of the story. He refers to it as an “odd-numbered frozen year,” and the two references to World War I later in this chapter mean that it must be either 1913 or, more likely, 1915).
Even the arrival of Pearly Soames and the Short Tails does not liven things up. In fact, Beverly’s mere presence paralyzes Pearly and his gang. While they’re frozen in place, Beverly demands that Peter do something to get the party going. He has no idea how to do so. When Beverly declares, “It’s my last damned New Year. I’d like to see some fire in it,’ though, things change. She turns towards the doors, and at her glance, they fly open. The cold air rushes in, stoking the fires. The hands of the clock begin to race, and midnight strikes. And then, as all the partygoers are overcome by the magic, the dancing begins, with Beverly at the center.
Afterwards, Beverly confesses to having been terrified, and Peter protests that he didn’t see any sign of it. “That’s because it was so deep,” she explains.
With New Year’s Eve, we come to the end of Beverly’s part in the story (maybe):
By spring, Beverly’s soul had ascended. She died on a windy gray day in March, when the sky was full of darting crows and the world lay prostrate and defeated after winter. Peter Lake was at her side, and it ruined him forever.
He’s a changed man, but note this:
And for the rest of his days he would be oppressed by the image of her whitened emaciated body eternally motionless in a dark root-pierced grace – or so he thought.
(the italics are in the book)
So here’s one reference to a field of blood, a place outside of the holy city where Gentiles are buried (she’s buried not in Manhattan but in the Lake of the Coheeries). Her father soon follows her in death, and the family is scattered: Willa and Jack up to the country and Harry to Harvard and then to fight in World War I (this is why I think we’re in 1915/1916; the war hadn’t yet begun in 1913, and 1917 is too late for him to spend even a year at college before going over to fight).
Peter is left behind, and disappears from society. He and Athansor manage to feed themselves thanks to Peter’s talent for robbery, which is not even exercised consciously:
his hands were more loyal to his stomach than to his head.
One day in September, Peter finds himself in front of a movie theater, and goes inside to see what it’s all about. He’s stunned by the bright light, and, really, by the whole process. After a couple of short features, Peter witnesses a film called “The City in the Third Millennium.” It’s a filmed portrait of the painting from the Penn house. And the final segment of this film is called “As the City of the Future Burns.” Definitely remember that!
Peter leaves the theater, somewhat in shock, and finds a bed for the night. He has an incredibly vivid dream, in which Beverly returns to him, glowing in white, silver and blue, holding a bridle made of stars, or possibly diamonds. In the dream, aware that he is dreaming, Peter goes to Beverly and grips the bridle. It cuts his hand, and then the dream fades.
Meanwhile, not far from Peter’s refuge for the night, Pearly Soames is busy. He’s got not only his Short Tails, but the remnants of just about every gang in the city, nearly 2,000 criminal soldiers, and he’s been organizing them for a major operation. The police are bribed to stay out of the way, and other preparations have been made. At dawn, the sun:
illuminated a massive army of squat criminal beings, who could not resist talking loudly to each other, because they hoped for blood.
Peter Lake awakens filled with energy, and Athansor seems to know that something is up: he’s nearly vibrating with energy. Peter takes the time to notice that his hands are badly cut, although he can’t remember how or why. He hears the sounds of Pearly’s army, mounts Athansor and emerges to see exactly what he’s facing.
Besides the 2,000 men, Pearly has equipped his army with pikes forty feet high, to prevent Athansor from jumping. Heavy nets are mounted between buildings for the same purpose. There’s only one way Peter and Athansor can go – onto the Brooklyn Bridge. But that, too, has been equipped with cables and nets to prevent flight.
Peter’s one hope is that, if Pearly’s army rushes him, an escape route may open up in the confusion. But Pearly has thought of even that. He sends his men in a hundred at a time, keeping the test back to stop any chance of Peter getting away.
Together, Peter and Athansor kill the first hundred, but at a heavy cost in wounds and injuries. And Peter sees that Pearly has another hundred, and yet another hundred after that, to continue the fight until its inevitable end.
This could not be borne.
He looked at the river below. It was very far, too far. But it was a lovely blue, and a much better way to die, if he had to, than upon the bloodstained boards of the Great Bridge. There was nothing to lose. They would jump.
And they do:
Athansor arched on visible waves of power. He compressed himself into something almost round. Then, with a roar, he unfolded in a long white silken movement, and flew into the air
Rather than falling, Athansor rises, speeding into the cloud wall. After a time, he finally breaks through the clouds, and they’re into the black:
What Peter saw was what Beverly had described, and he was awed beyond his capacity for awe.
But he cannot breathe, and he knows he will die if he remains atop Athansor. So he falls, plummeting back down, into the clouds, into the cloud wall:
And then, entirely forgotten, he vanished deep into its infinite fury.
And here ends part 1. Whew!
So: Beverly is dead, although not completely gone – Peter’s dream of her is not simply a dream; it leaves behind a physical souvenir. And remember that dreams are one way to cross worlds (if they’re not entirely separate and completely real worlds in themselves).
And Peter is gone, vanished, forgotten, but certainly not dead. Remember “or so he thought” ? That will be paid off later in the book.
And what of Aceldama? Going back to the beginning of this post, should we be thinking of Judas here? I’m not honestly sure. Yes, the innkeeper who sheltered Peter on his last night betrayed him to Pearly, but he’s a throwaway character, not even named, so I don’t think we can give him much importance. Is Pearly himself Judas? No – if anything, he was the one betrayed by Peter, not the other way around, And yet, we can’t fault Peter for saving the Baymen, or his friend Cecil Mature.
I’m back to thinking that it’s a reference merely to the place, and not meant to call Judas – or Jesus – to mind. But it’s an open question, and I’m curious what others think of it.
In our next chapter, we’ll be jumping forward eighty years or so, and meeting a whole new – but familiar nonetheless – cast of characters…