Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sudden Fiction: The Ferry & Walt Whitman

He stood at the rear of the Staten Island Ferry, looking through the rain at the buildings of Manhattan. Hadn't Walt Whitman ridden the Ferry to Staten Island a hundred years earlier? What had Whitman seen? Somehow his words seemed to permeate the air around him --- each drop of rain measured itself to the irregular rhythms of his verse:

What is then between us?
What is the count of scores or hundreds of years between us?
What ever it is, it avails not --- distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too
walk'd the streets of Manhattan Island and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me...
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.


At last, he thought, I have found you. You ride these waters with me, as you always have. I was not silent before --- therefore I couldn't hear your songs in the air. When I looked at Manhattan, I strained to see myself, so I looked right through you. But you are here, Walt Whitman, your laughter and your tears comfort me. I feel you in the rain --- I hear you in the night.

The ferry swung around Governor's Island. The Statue of Liberty could be seen through the rain, and the rain had provided him privacy on the deck. He roamed from side to side as if he was afraid he would miss something important that he should see. But there was little to see. The night and the rain were like huge curtains draped around him. The Statue of Liberty could be discerned as through a haze and looked more painted than real. He wondered how it could seem so beautiful from the front. When he had seen it from the New Jersey Turnpike, it looked as if you could wade out to it from the New Jersey Shore. He remembered also that you looked at it over the roofs of dirty old buildings and several junk yards. He thought this must demonstrate how all things beautiful have their ugly side, but he felt this reasoning was more a word game than the truth. Soon the Ferry was past the Statue and was suddenly suspended in time it seemed --- gliding on air --- for some unexplained reason the engines had been turned off and the ferry slid silently and smoothly through the darkness. To the side of the Ferry a barge floated with smoking garbage loaded on its surface. The rain had evidently extinguished the flames.

The sound of a deep horn made him cast his glance on the other side of the Ferry. A large tanker moved by--- like a huge ghost ship --- ablaze with lights, the loading booms looked like ancient abandoned masts. The engines of the Ferry began to throb again abruptly, and the vibrations shook the frame of the ferry with a constant caress---as a mother gently shakes the cradle to coax her infant to sleep. He realized the engines must have been cut to permit the tanker to pass by the Ferry.

As the Ferry cut an arc in the water in preparation to land at Staten Island, he looked into the sky. He couldn't be sure whether there were tears in his eyes or whether it was just the rain, but he felt an ineffable sadness, for he knew he would miss this. He looked at everything for the last time, and he was aware that there was too much to be seen at a single glance. He was sorry he had failed to look at everything with eyes that understood---until now. This final moment only impressed upon him how much he had missed, and how much more he would miss after he was gone.

He stepped off the Ferry wondering if Walt Whitman had stopped, waiting for him somewhere up ahead.

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