Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 3, chapter 5 – “An Early Summer Dinner at Petipas”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 3, chapter 5 – “An Early Summer Dinner at Petipas”)

This is a short chapter, with only one scene, and yet it’s hugely important.  So without further ado, onwards!

We join a group of Sun employees, including the senior management, at one of their favorite restaurants for an early-evening dinner (unlike some of Helprin’s chapter titles, this one is about as direct and to the point as possible).  Harry Penn reflects on what he sees in the light and color of the setting sun:

He sensed in the darkness sheathed by brilliant light the compressive presence of the future and the past running together united, finally come alive.

He’s starting to see a little bit of what Beverly (and others) were able to see, way back in part one.

Praeger de Pinto arrives, with the two Marratta children in tow, bearing news: he reports to his fellows about Craig Binky’s sudden and mysterious flight.  The Sun staff speculates on what it might mean, and then converts the restaurant into a makeshift office, reaching out via telephone for any information on this strange development.

They are unsuccessful, and eventually return to their meal.  Harry Penn is philosophical about the matter.  He recalls other times that Craig Binky went off half-cocked, and concedes that, “Besides, there’s nothing more that we can do.”

They are interrupted again, by a face peering at them from the street, leaning up against the wrought-iron fence of the restaurant.  It’s Peter Lake, of course:

He looked at them without a blink, in the chilling fashion of a man who is trying to place familiar and haunting faces that he knows he cannot identify.

Unsurprisingly, he mainly fixates on Jessica Penn (who bears a resemblance to her long-dead aunt, Beverly).  Also unsurprisingly, she’ is quite uncomfortable at his attention.  He then turns his gaze to Harry Penn, who knows something is very off about all of this:

He felt as if he were being dragged back through time to a moment in childhood when he had had no learning or wisdom.

He doesn’t actually make the connection, though; he doesn’t know who this derelict is.  And while he and Peter stare at one another, three-year-old Abby Marratta slips through the bars of the fence, and goes to Peter:

Abby had crossed over, and was with Peter Lake.

It’s no accident that Helprin uses that particular phrase, which has a meaning far beyond a little girl squeezing through a fence.  Crossing over implies moving between worlds.  And note this:

In slow strides that lifted her from the ground ever so lightly and allowed her to sail towards him in slow motion, she skipped to Peter Lake as if she had known him for an eternity.  And then she seemed to fly through the air (though perhaps it was a trick of the light), her arms outspread, until she rose into his arms.

Again, the language here is very deliberate.  “Eternity” is not used lightly.  Nor is “she rose into his arms.”  Recall the discussion of St. Stephen back in part one (which we’ll revisit later in the book).  She doesn’t jump up, she’s not picked up.  She rises.  She’s crossed worlds, and she rises.  Remember that Beverly (and others) talked about already having “crossed over”.  Remember the quote that opens the book – “I have been to another world, and come back.  Listen to me.”  Remember the way Beverly’s death is described: “her soul ascended.”

Abby clearly has a destiny.  Or, maybe, a Destiny.  But before she can fulfill it, Hardesty goes to the fence and Peter hands Abby back over to him.  As the child is exchanged, Hardesty looks into Peter’s eyes, and sees nothing to be afraid of.  In fact, he sees something else entirely.  He can see that Peter is quite extraordinary, and he is gripped by:

a strong desire to see what Peter Lake had seen, to go where he had gone.  Hardesty Marratta, a prosperous family man, a man with all the proper joys and privileges, was nearly about to pledge himself to a lost derelict.

He doesn’t.  At least, not yet.  But we’ll come back to this in part four.

In the meantime, Peter vanishes, as though he had never been there, and after a long silence, Harry Penn tries to restore order.

“All right,” he said, as if reassuring not only them but himself as well, “things like that happen sometimes, and the world remains the same after all.”

but of course the world is not the same.  Just as the tension begins to fade away, Virginia sees something.  Everyone else, following her gaze, sees it a moment later.  Out on the river, heading into the harbor, is a ship.  A massive ship:

a wall that traveled sideways, a massive guillotine, the lid of the world, closing from south to north.

The ship keeps coming, in a description that reminds of nothing so much as the opening shot of the Star Destroyer in “Star Wars” – there’s just more and more ship, seemingly endlessly:

Then, at last, after several thousand feet of it had paraded before them, the superstructure and the hull ended abruptly, not in a flowing curve but in a steel cliff that dropped straight to the water.

This ship is unprecedented to the Sun staff, as it would be to us; the longest ship ever built in reality was 1,504 feet long (an oil tanker, decommissioned in 2009).  This ship is at least 3 or 4 times as big.  And it’s followed by three massive barges, each attached to the main ship by dozens of steel struts large enough to drive a truck over.

Harry Penn has an idea why this ship is here:

“There has never been a ship like this.  I think it may be bringing us a great gift.”

“Which is?”

“The future.”

He’s right, as we’ll see soon enough.

This ship is the catalyst for everything that happens the rest of the way in the story; it is indeed bringing the future, although that future is something no one, even Harry Penn with his increasingly keen eye, can imagine yet.


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