Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 4, chapter 3 – “White Horse and Dark Horse”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 4, chapter 3 – “White Horse and Dark Horse”)

We open right where we left off in the previous chapter, and we pay a visit to Athansor, still toiling away in his mill deep in the city of the poor.  He’s been at it for over a year and

he had lost his sense of time and come to believe that he was winding up an eternal spring, to which others from the starry meadows had been apprenticed long and often.

I suspect that’s exactly what he has been doing.  He circles endlessly, ignoring opportunities to escape, paying little notice to the faces that would peer down at him.  The monotony gets to him, and

He half wished that a head would pop up from behind the fence and give him something to worry about.

And one night, his half-wish is granted: Athansor feels the presence of someone watching him, and when he sees who it is, he stops for the first time in fourteen months.  He breaks the bonds tying him to the beam, and the beam itself, at the sight of Pearly Soames.

We knew he’d be back, and here he is, electric eyes and all.

“You don’t know how long I’ve been looking for you, horse.”

Athansor smashes through the walls of his prison and knocks Pearly aside, galloping off into the night.  Pearly is pleased:

“That’s right, you marble bastard.  You find him for me.  Take me right to him.”

So here’s a question: has Pearly lived through the whole of the 20th century, taking “the slow route” (as it’s sometimes put in “Doctor Who”) to catch up to Peter Lake?  Or was he, too, plucked from his proper time by the cloud wall and deposited in the New York of 1998?  I’m not sure, but the presence of his Short Tails at his back suggests the latter.  Pearly may well be a little bit more than merely human and able to live through a century without showing a bit of age, but I don’t think the rest of his gang is capable of that trick..

We leave him and focus on Praeger and his odd, improbable campaign for Mayor.  When an early snow blankets the city in October, Praeger celebrates it, talking about it in all his speeches and slowly rising in the polls.  That’s just a brief interlude (we’ll get back to the campaign shortly), before we rejoin Hardesty, who’s preparing with Virgnia to make the long-delayed trip up to Lake of the Coheeries.  He fetches a sleigh and horse, coaxes a reluctant Abby out of her hiding place in the linen closet, and the family sets off.

The trip is gorgeously described (a mirror of Virginia’s journey to Manhattan way back in part two).  It’s a serene trip, the Marrattas all getting lost in the night and the hypnotic rhythm of the horse’s gait.  But they hit a frozen river that isn’t quite frozen, and their horse begins to founder.  It seems that she won’t be able to pull the sleigh out of the water, until inspiration arrives, in the form of Athansor.  The great stallion impels Hardesty’s mare forward, and tremendous speed, and when they finally hit the outskirts of Lake of the Coheeries, the Marrattas are left wondering if the white horse was real at all, because

when he parted from the mare, he banked up and to the left in a blaze of white.

They’re back at Virginia’s home soon afterwards, greeted by a neighbor who informs them about Mrs. Gamely:

“She’s fine.  I hope you brought your dictionary.”

We leave the Lake of the Coheeries just as we arrive, and it’s back to New York City politics.  We go inside the de Pinto for Mayor campaign, which is running as unconventional a race as one can imagine.  No TV ads.  No campaign buttons.  Attacks on the very people who are funding his campaign (although, without advertising, and with a campaign headquarters with no furniture or even a phone, one wonders what exactly the money is going towards).  And, lastly, campaign rallies scheduled outdoors, in the dead of winter, to audiences composed primarily of the local fauna.  One such “mass rally” featured Praeger’s best-ever speech, and it’s attended by exactly one other human: Peter Lake.  Peter thinks he may have found a kindred spirit in Praeger, although he’s not sure what might connect them:

“Are you one of us?  I mean, are we the same?”

Praeger is equally confused, and wonders if Peter’s suggesting that he is a Freemason, or perhaps that they’re both gay (a big no to both).  Peter can’t quite express what he’s feeling, but he thinks it might have to do with not belonging in this time.  Peter wonders if Praeger was born “in this age”.

“Are you sure?  Because, you see, I think I wasn’t. And the way you talk about winters leads me to believe that you weren’t either, because what you describe as the future was once the past.  I know.  I’ve been there.”

Again, we come back to the past, present and future all being illusions – time is only a human construct, not necessary if only you can view things from the right perspective.  Praeger doesn’t get it, but Peter doesn’t mind.  He’ll still vote for Praeger.  He does mention one other thing, before he leaves the “rally” – he’s been hearing music, played by a piano.  He doesn’t know who’s playing it, or what piece it is, but:

“Whoever it is, though, she’s playin’ it real nice.”

No doubt.  Beverly Penn has been very busy, between appearing to Hardesty in the last chapter and calling out to Peter Lake back in New York.

Meanwhile, up in Lake of the Coheeries, there’s a tearful reunion between Mrs. Gamely and the Marrattas.  And then there’s skating and iceboating, and a bitterly cold night (sixty degrees below zero).  Hardesty is entranced watching what might be meteorites falling from the sky, and young Abby develops a sudden fever.  Hardesty is dispatched to find the town doctor, who is otherwise occupied, in a barn with nearly all the other men of the town.  They’re all pointing guns ad a collection of 50 or so very strange men.  They’re all ugly, they’re very threatening, and they’re dressed as though they came straight out of the early 20th century.  Clearly they are the “meteorites”, deposited here via the cloud wall, plucked from decades in the past to join their leader, who’s also in the barn.

Pearly does not act like a prisoner or a man under threat, and although Hardesty (barely) works up the nerve to challenge him, he doesn’t speak a word in answer.  There’s an interesting sentence:

But as far as Hardesty knew, this had nothing to do with Abby’s sickness, and he stole the doctor away from the Coheeries men

The way Helprin phrases it (and given the man’s skill with words, I think that when he deliberately puts it that way, it has to mean something), I read it to mean that Pearly’s presence has everything to do with Abby’s sickness.  Going all the way back to part one, I wonder if – although it’s never explicitly stated (or even really hinted at)  – Beverly’s sickness is also related to Pearly.  She was sick for a long time before Peter Lake met her.  I would not be at all surprised if the onset of her consumption matched up precisely with Peter Lake’s betrayal of Pearly during the abortive attack on the men of the Bayonne Marsh.  Now Pearly’s back, and another girl with a connection to Lake of the Coheeries and Peter Lake, has contracted consumption (no real spoiler here; you’ve probably guessed it already!).  And that links back even farther, to Peter’s encounter with the nameless child in the tenement the night after his arrival in Manhattan.

Let me go even further outside the text and speculate: in a symbolic sense, the child in the tenement, Beverly and Abby are the same person.  Not literally; I don’t believe Helprin is talking about reincarnation (although Jackson Mead’s example tells us that death is not automatically the end in Helprin’s world).  But one child with consumption stands in for all people who are condemned to death.  Saving one child might save everyone.  And remember Mrs. Gamely’s words to Virginia back in part two: “what we are trying to do is shatter time and bring back the dead.”

The next night, after receiving a diagnosis from the doctor (it’s unstated, but it’s clearly consumption) the Marrattas begin a return journey to Manhattan.  They’re attacked by the Short Tails, but Athansor descends from the sky slaughtering them and clearing a path for the Marrattas to escape.  He then heals the Marratta’s horse by licking her wounds, which then immediately disappear, and then he vanishes.

Back in New York, the Mayoral campaign is in full swing.  The big debate is held outdoors, in Central Park (because Praeger refuses to appear on television).  Wanting to see him, people flock to the Park, and the crowd swells to massive proportions, while Praeger rhapsodizes about the city:

“The city is no less an object of divine affection than life itself or the exact perfections of the light-paced universe.  It is alive, and with patience, one can see that despite the anarchy, the ugliness, and the fire, it is ultimately just and ultimately kind.  God, I love it.  I do love it.  Forgive me.”

The Ermine Mayor knows he’s done for:

He feared that the city was going to answer Praeger’s unusual appeal.  And indeed it did.  Not only were its citizens enthralled, but, when Praeger looked up, the city made itself very clear.  For it was all around him, and it was sparkling like a diamond.

Whew!  There was certainly a lot going on in this chapter, and a lot more to speculate on.

One note that I didn’t get to above is something I read in another review of this book: Peter Lake’s resemblance to the foretold Jewish messiah.  That’s a subject I know basically nothing about, but take a look at these notes from the “Judiasm 101” website concerning the messiah:

It has been said that in every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the mashiach. If the time is right for the messianic age within that person’s lifetime, then that person will be the mashiach. But if that person dies before he completes the mission of the mashiach, then that person is not the mashiach.

That fits nicely with the information we’re given in “A Very Brief History of the Clouds”, doesn’t it?  And also with Cecil’s confession to Virginia in the last chapter?  And with Peter’s lack of understanding about himself and what he’s capable of?

Just something to keep in mind as we head for the end – especially considering that Helprin himself is Jewish (and, having served in the Israeli armed forces, one can assume he’s quite serious about the history and the beliefs of his faith and his people).

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