The Butterfly’s Wing (Part 2)

July 5, 2012 § 1 Comment

(For Part 1, go here)

Jessica’s neighbour had impossibly long legs folded under his tiny table and a pile of scores stacked on top of it. He was dressed with the studied carelessness of a student – a loose charcoal-grey woollen jumper over olive-green corduroy trousers – and at first glance she took him to be about her own age. The longer she watched him out of the corner of her eye, the more she began to question that first impression. The mop of unruly curls, a black so deep it verged on blue, gave him an air of youth, but his sharp cheekbones and the way his pale skin was drawn tight over his features were anything but boyish. There was something of the hawk about his profile. His eyes were half-closed in concentration and one hand was beating time with a pencil as he sang under his breath from a score propped open in front of him:

Und seine Zweige rauschten,
Als riefen sie mir zu:
Komm her zu mir, Geselle,
Hier find’st du deine Ruh’ !

Die kalten Winde bliesen
Mir grad’ ins Angesicht;
Der Hut flog mir vom Kopfe,
Ich wendete mich nicht.

Nun bin ich manche Stunde
Entfernt von jenem Ort,
Und immer hör’ ich’s rauschen:
Du fändest Ruhe dort !
*

She recognized the haunting melody of Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum.  The warmth and bustle of Demel in the afternoon seemed to dissolve under the bleak chill of the song of a poet lost in a winter landscape, all the more poignant for being almost whispered, the singer seemingly unconscious of his surroundings.

The last measure faded into silence to be replaced by the scratching of a pencil and the shuffling of scores. Jessica was about to turn away when she felt something lightly strike her foot – the pencil had fallen and rolled across to her. Without thinking, she picked it up and held it out to the singer, realising too late that this meant another awkward exchange.

‘Entschuldigen Sie, bitte – ’

‘Thank you.’ His speaking voice was cool and melodious, with the barest trace of an accent. ‘To whom have I the pleasure of owing the rescue of my errant pencil?’

His turn of phrase was so extravagant that Jessica thought he might be mocking her, but after a week without anything approaching a proper conversation (the pantomime-and-pidgin-German negotiations with hostile print room attendants didn’t count) her shyness and her inborn New Yorker’s wariness of strangers had far less of a hold over her. ‘Jessica,’ she replied, ‘Jessica Rosen.’

‘Enchanted.’ He held out a hand whose long fingers and knobbly knuckles could easily have been the branches of the linden tree he had been singing about. ‘Professor Karl-Franz Schmetterling.’

‘Professor of music?’

He arched one fine black eyebrow. His eyes, fully open, were a pale, piercing grey that, like his hair, leaned toward blue. ‘If you like.’ It was an odd remark, she thought, but she let it pass. ‘And yourself, miss? What brings you here from America?’

Busted, she groaned inwardly. It wasn’t as if her accent and her clumsy German didn’t already give her away, but one never liked to be taken for an ugly American. ‘I’m doing a PhD in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York,’ she explained. ‘I work on Schiele. I’m here on my first proper research trip.’

‘Ah.’ He fixed her with a thoroughly disconcerting stare. ‘And how are you finding our fair city?’

The way his gaze seemed to pierce right through her suggested that in this instance, honesty was the best, if not the only feasible policy. ‘Well, Herr Professor…’ she began, gathering her nerve, ‘it’s a beautiful city, really and truly.  The architecture, the museums, the cafés – I could hardly ask for better…’

Schmetterling snorted softly. ‘I sense a “but” there.’

Jessica’s shamefaced laugh died away as a sigh. ‘Yes, I suppose there is. I don’t want to offend you, but…’ and before she could stop herself, she launched into an impassioned account of the many ways Vienna had disappointed her. Part of her expected the professor to bridle at her criticism but his cool stare never wavered.

‘The worst thing about Vienna is how, well, dead it is now,’ she wound up. ‘It’s one thing to know that it was once the centre of the universe – well, one of them – and calmly appreciate what remains, but part of me can’t help wanting more than anything to have experienced it myself. I want to go to a real exhibition at the Secession, not some reconstruction. I want to sit at a table next to Schiele and Klimt. I want to hear Mahler conduct at the Opera, I want to walk in the gardens of the Belvedere and watch Freud and Jung debate the nature of the unconscious, I want…I want to see it all alive.’ Too late she realized how much her voice had risen and how preposterous her wish was, and she fell silent, blushing furiously.

Schmetterling rested his chin on his steepled fingers and fixed her with his steely eyes.

‘What if I told you that you could?’

 

*I heard the branches rustle

As if they spoke to me

Come to me my old friend

Find peace with me

 

Cruel winds were blowing

Coldly cutting my face

My hat was blown behind me

I quickly sped on my way

 

I’m now many miles distant

From that dear old Linden-tree

But I still hear it whisper

“Come – find peace with me.”

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