Like an insect eluding a hungry lizard, the canoe slipped out from the mouth of the Gowanus Canal. The two girls aboard each wore a wide-brimmed hat to protect her skin from the rays of the late summer sun and gloves to keep her palms from blistering. Rusty water swirled around the boat in graceful ballet. The boat followed the shore of Red Hook, past the broken-down waterfront, the charred remains of a once-bustling seaport.
Apollonia, facing backwards at the bow of the boat, had to crane her neck to see ahead. As she did her long ringlets of apple blossom hair blew across her seasprayed face. Justine sat in the stern, her cinnamon eyes squinting in the sunlight. The two girls were often mistaken for sisters, a misconception they rarely hastened to correct.
Governor’s Island slid toward them on their left, with its long stretch of trees veiling rectangular colonial barracks. The Staten Island Ferry emerged from behind the edge of the island, like a great beast coming out of its lair for the hunt. It drew closer, violently churning up its path. Several children along the top deck stared at the tiny boat and pointed. A chorus of flashbulbs went off.
The canoe belonged to Justine’s father. She had his permission to take it down the canal. But the girls had not told him of their plans for today, for it was unlikely he would have approved. Their destination was not only a long journey upriver, but was also restricted from public access. Apollonia had read about North Brother Island, how it once contained a hospital where typhoid victims were quarantined, but had been abandoned decades ago and turned into a bird sanctuary.
The Brooklyn Bridge loomed ahead, like a weary old guard remaining loyally at his post despite his advancing years. Beyond this the silver spires of Manhattan threatened to puncture the heavens. Curious figures on the promenade took notice of them.
“We seem to be calling attention to ourselves,” said Justine.
“As if they’ve never seen two girls in a boat before.”
“As if they’ve never seen anyone in a boat before.”
They rowed under the stony sprawl of the bridge. Beyond it lay the Manhattan Bridge, like a younger sibling with its wide arcing frown. They passed the old Navy Yard and bore north, following the contour of the shoreline.
“Just think,” Apollonia sounded wistful, “long ago there would have been ferries crisscrossing this river.”
“And bodies floating on the surface.”
“You still get those from time to time.”
“I’ve never seen one.”
“My father found one washed up beneath the bridge once.”
“Who was it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe someone who had jumped off the bridge.”
“I know. Imagine keeping that much anguish walled up in your heart.”
Seagulls stood sentry on wooden posts. Lapping waves carried bits of black wire and cork, oily feathers, pieces of a broken crate, a frayed piece of rope, peelings from an orange, an empty bottle of rum. A tugboat crawled towards them pulling a long barge the color of charcoal. The smokestack stirred wisps of vapor into the sky. From the wheelhouse a portly captain with his hat pulled low offered them no more than a passing glance. Stranger sights had crossed the course of his boat over the years. Its wake sent waves that rocked their canoe with enough force that they clung to the gunwales, fearful they might capsize.
They rowed under the rosy beams of the Williamsburg Bridge, past the ghost of the old sugar refinery. Along the western bank rushing traffic mocked them with its diesel and fumes, the screeching honk of iron geese. Tudor City loomed like a baron’s castle.
“Is that a vulture watching us?” asked Justine.
“It’s gone now.”
The tip of Roosevelt Island drove a wedge in the river. They bore left, followed the length of the island, beneath the great iron stretch of the Queensborough Bridge, until they reached the lighthouse at the northern tip, a lonely relic of an earlier time. Tied to a pier near where the two channels rejoined was the wreck of a boat, left to rot by a captain too drunk to remember where he moored it. The dancing ghosts of river pirates taunted them from the shore. Gulls screeched as if warning them to turn back. The clouds seemed to darken with disapproval.
“Looks like a storm coming,” Justine remarked.
They skirted Randall’s Island, through the strait known as Hell Gate, where the General Slocum steamship once famously steered into tragedy. The strong tidal flow made staying on course a trial.
Apollonia consulted her map. North Brother Island lay just ahead. They circled around to the west side of the island where the shambles of a ferry dock reached over the water in a failed effort to escape. A towering gantry crane welcomed them to the island with a hint of menace. Here they moored the canoe and climbed ashore.
“What if we’re caught?”
Apollonia shrugged. “We’ll say we were lost.”
“We should’ve brought a lunch and had a picnic among the ruins.”
From low branches several night herons watched the intruders without fear. The girls crept along, careful not to cause a disturbance. The dry earth crackled underfoot. An overgrown road led them past a lamppost devoured by climbing vines to the abandoned hospital with its crumbling brick and boarded entranceway. They peered through an arched window, its stained glass long since knocked out, and marveled at the ruined interior. The floor blanketed in plaster where the ceiling had collapsed. A stained washbasin in the corner. An iron spiral stairway coated in dust. A faded mural along the farthest wall. A sheet metal door leaning on its hinges. Tiles on the walls had fallen away to reveal lead blocks underneath.
“It seems so familiar here,” Apollonia said in a voice barely above a whisper.
Justine nodded. “I know. As though we belong.”
They continued along the road, which brought them past the ruins of a coalhouse with its redbrick smokestack, a partially-collapsed chapel, a doctor’s cottage with empty dormer windows. All around them were the cries of unseen birds. They reached the eastern edge of the island and were forced to turn back. Though skyscrapers towered above the treeline and the distant cacophony of the city dimly reached their ears, there was an odd tranquility about the island, like being in the eye of a hurricane. From here they could glimpse the wracking machines of humanity through a one-way mirror, they felt, and not themselves be seen.
Several hours later a police launch spotted the canoe moored to the ferry dock and pulled alongside to investigate. After searching the island the police found no trace of trespassers. They concluded the intruders must have arrived in two boats and inexplicably abandoned one of them. The sky grew dark as the police cast off, towing the derelict canoe behind their launch. Perched atop a crumbling wall two night herons with strangely sentient eyes watched their retreat.
Rob Hill was born in Flint, Michigan, of all places, and currently lives in New York City. His work has appeared recently in Armchair/Shotgun, Akashic Books, Eunoia Review, Scrutiny, and Polychrome Ink. He occasionally posts rags and bones at hellospider.wordpress.com.