Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 2 – “The Ferry Burns in Morning Cold”

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 2 – “The Ferry Burns in Morning Cold”

Onwards to chapter 2!  This is another fairly short chapter (there are some beastly long ones later in the book; be warned!), in which we learn a little bit more about Peter Lake.  Primarily, we get a good view of his current situation, and a decent look at his personality.  We don’t get much of his backstory, but that will come soon enough.

We open where we left off, with Peter atop the white horse, opening up some distance between him and the Short Tails:

Leaving the Short tails behind would be easy, because not one of them (including Pearly, raised in the Five Points just like the rest) knew how to ride.  They were masters of the waterfront and could do anything with a small boat, but on land they walked, took the trolley, and jumped the gates of the subway or the El.

This is a big deal for Peter, because he’s been Public Enemy #1 to Pearly and the Short Tails for three years.  This is partly Peter’s own fault, because he’s incapable of leaving their domain of Manhattan for any length of time:

It was necessary for him to be in Manhattan because he was a burglar, and for a burglar to work anyplace else was a shattering admission of mediocrity.

Peter also can’t help but flirt with danger, even when it’s not necessary, as we’ll see shortly.  But for the moment, at least, he feels not merely safe but invulnerable on the horse.

But now, with a horse, it would be different.  Why hadn’t he thought of a horse before?  He could stretch his margin of safety almost immeasurably, and put not yards but miles between himself and Pearly Soames.

Exhilarated by this seemingly magical horse, Peter can’t help but show off and gallops down the thoroughfares of Manhattan, attracting police attention.  He eventually ends up stuck behind a traffic jam, and the horse leads him into a theater, where Peter (and the horse) end up sharing the stage with Caradelba, the Spanish Gypsy.  Ever gallant, Peter apologizes for disturbing her act by presenting her with a hat he grabbed off a policeman’s head.

Upon leaving the theater (which, although it’s not named, is called the Coheeries Theater, which comes up again in part 2 of the book), Peter comes up with a plan.  He would temporarily leave Manhattan, allowing the police and the Short Tails to fight it out:

Were both organizations to come up face to face in search of their vanished prey, the shock of collision might provide Peter Lake with three or four months of freedom.

Peter decides to remove himself to the Bayonne March, home of the Baymen, aboriginal clamdiggers, and the people who

had found Peter Lake and raised him (for a time) much int he style of benevolent wolves.

Therein hangs a tale, and we will get it in another chapter or two.  For now, it’s enough to note what Helprin tells us about the Marsh and the Baymen.

not only were they extraordinary fighters and impossible to find, but their realm was only hafl-real, and anyone entering it without their approval was likely to vanish forever into the roaring clouds which swept over the mirrorlike waters.

The Bayonne Marsh isn’t the only half-real place in this book; we’ll visit another such community later in part 1 when we travel to the Lake of the Coheeries.  For now, just take note that Peter was raised in such a place.  But before he can get there, his attention is captured by a burning ferry , which, apparently, is quite the tourist attraction in turn of the century Manhattan.

There were also vendors, anticipating the thousands who would arrive only after the ferry was a sulking trap of drifting charcoal, and then feed their curiosity on chestnuts, roasted corn, hot pretzels, and meat-on-the-spit.

Peter stays to watch, going so far as to ignore the presence of a Short Tail informant.  Instead, he watches, transfixed by the efforts of the firemen trying to board the ferry.  Why are they trying, when all the passengers are either dead, or already rescued?  Peter knows – and it’s something that drives him , too:

They took power from the fire.  The closer they fought it, the stronger they became.  The firemen knew that though it sometimes killed them, the fire gave them priceless gifts.

Just as the Short Tails do for Peter, even as they try their best to capture and kill him.  And, sure enough, they make their appearance in a pair of automobiles.  Again, however, the horse is far too swift for them, and he carries Peter away with

strides so powerful that he almost flew.

What have we learned so far?  Peter was raised by the Baymen, but can’t bear to leave Manhattan for any length of time.  He draws strength from the efforts of the Short Tails to kill him, even as he looks (but not too hard) for a way to get them off his trail permanently.

But why do they hate him so?  And how did Peter come to be raised by a group of clamdiggers in a half-real world across the river from Manhattan?  We’re about to find out…

 

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