The Butterfly’s Wing (Part 4)

August 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

Schmetterlinghaus, Vienna

Schmetterlinghaus, Vienna

(For Part 3, go here)

Jessica turned the collar of her coat up against the early March chill and glanced at her watch. Just a few minutes past five – an awkward part of the day, too late to go to a library or museum, too early to go home and make dinner. In any case, her mind was in too much of a whirl to contemplate sitting still. She rounded the back of the Albertina and found herself heading into the Burggarten.

Despite the hour, the park was nearly empty, apart from a few scattered groups of student sitting on the grass and the odd businessman striding purposefully along the path toward the nearby tram stop. She took one of the paths and followed it unthinkingly, her pace both restless and distracted, until she drew level with one of the two great glasshouses. She’d eaten dinner in the Palm House the evening before, already tired of the monotony of bread, cheese and salad at the tiny kitchen table in her flat, and rather enjoyed watching the play of artificial light and shadow in the palm leaves as she sipped a glass of Grüner Veltliner, but she hadn’t noticed the neighbouring glasshouse – it had been dark when she arrived. Now she glanced up at the sign above the door, which read SCHMETTERLINGHAUS.

She shivered involuntarily as she looked closer. From the outside it looked identical to the Palm House but sure enough, there were butterflies flitting among the palms and vines.  It’s as if he’s following me, she thought. She leaned her forehead against the glass and stood watching the butterflies until standing still became too cold, trying to marshal her thoughts, weighing the pros and cons of accepting the offer of a stranger – who seemed to know far too much about her, and who she was fairly sure was a con artist, a madman or both – to let her see Vienna in its pre-war glory, given that her safe return was dependent upon her not breaking a rule he refused to tell her about.

If she was honest with herself – and now, alone in the cold Burggarten in front of a glasshouse full of butterflies, she had no other choice – she’d already made up her mind as soon as he uttered the words ‘What if I told you you could?’

She straightened and shook herself. If she was going to accept Schmetterling’s invitation, she would need to go home and pack.

Home, at least for the past week, was a studio flat in a side street off Mariahilferstrasse that Jessica was borrowing from a friend of a friend of a professor. She eyed the façade of the building with new interest – so this was once a hotel – as she fished for her keys.

Once inside she was confronted with a problem she had thus far never encountered. How does one pack for a trip to another time? She flung her bag and herself down on the sofa and considered the question. After a few minutes she was certain that at least she’d figured out the Professor’s one unbreakable rule.

It must be ‘no introducing anachronisms’, she decided. She slid her computer out of her bag. She could happily go a week without it, especially if that week involved meeting Schiele. She rifled through her wallet and pulled out every bit of plastic, replaced it in her bag and dumped out her rollerball pens with a sigh. Those she was going to miss.

Clothes presented something more of a challenge. Jeans were clearly out. Luckily, she had decidedly retro taste and a preference for black that would have earned her a reputation for eccentricity anywhere other than New York, but was in fact only a reaction against the prescription of blue-green as one of the few acceptable colours for redheads. She opened the wardrobe and started pulling things out at random. A long black dress. Another one that probably strained at the bounds of 1914 propriety in terms of length – it ended at mid-calf – but whose black-and-white pattern hovered somewhere between Art Nouveau and Wiener Werkstätte. A long black skirt, a white blouse, a plum-coloured wool cardigan. Her coat was black wool with a high round collar and silver braid, Napoleonic in style – she hoped wearing it in a city that he’d invaded in the relatively recent past didn’t constitute a major faux pas. She slipped out of her clothes and into the dress, pulling on her boots – high and black with louis heels and a row of buttons up the sides (they were purely ornamental, but she hoped no one would notice the zips.) She drew a sigh of relief as she carefully folded the rest and packed it in her bag. That hadn’t been so bad.

Jessica stood in front of the mirror in her new 1914 guise and realised she would have to do something about her hair, which at the moment hung down her back in a long curtain. She racked her brain for the fashion of the time in Viennese hairstyling and could only think of the massive puffy chignons worn by the sitters in Klimt’s portraits. A brief experiment on her own hair was not a success. Finally she settled for plaiting her hair and winding the plaits around her head – the sort of complicated style she loved but seldom had time for. She fastened the plaits in place with a handful of hairpins and tucked the box, still half-full, into her bag.

It was only half-past seven – more than four hours before her rendezvous, and in any case it wouldn’t take her more than fifteen minutes to reach the old Karlsplatz station. May as well check my email, she decided.

The only new message was from Declan, her boyfriend.

Dear Jess,

Thanks for the ‘break a leg’ for my gig tonight… I’ll miss seeing you in the audience. I promise not to debut the new song until you’re back!

I’m really sorry you’re finding the people at the Albertina so impossible. All I can say is don’t let the bastards grind you down… easier said than done I know.

Two more weeks and then you’re home. Look after yourself until then. I miss you.



Jessica pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed, guilt and anxiety struggling within her. How was she going to reply? Dear Dec, Had an interesting day. Met a strange and possibly crazy man at Demel who sounds like Alan Rickman and claims to be a time traveler. By the time you read this, I’ll be ninety-six years in the past. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be back tomorrow unless I somehow happen to break a rule he never told me about, in which case it was nice knowing you? She gazed at the screen, letting the characters swim before her eyes. At that moment she would have given anything to close her eyes and wake up in her own apartment in New York to Declan gazing at her worriedly from under his black fringe and telling her in his soft Cork accent that she’d just had a very strange dream.

Uttering a silent prayer that this wouldn’t be the last email she ever sent him, she opened a reply.

Dear Dec,

Thanks for trying to cheer me up – it does help. I had a particularly tough day at the Albertina, but I think my research is  about to take an interesting turn. I’ll be able to tell you more tomorrow.



There, at least I haven’t lied and I hope I haven’t made him worry, she thought, closing her computer.

She tried, with varying levels of success, to while away the remaining hours – reading (a lost cause), listening to music (her host’s taste inclined heavily to Schubert, although she was relieved to note that the Winterreise was nowhere to be found in the stack of CDs), restless pacing. At last, she glanced at the clock for the umpteenth time and saw that it read 11.40. She jumped up and slipped on her coat, standing before the mirror to button it. A pale, taut but resolved face surmounted by a crown of red plaits stared back at her.

Jessica squared her shoulders and looked herself in the eye. ‘Once more unto the breach,’ she whispered. Then she slung her bag over her shoulder, let herself out of the flat, and turned her steps in the direction of the Karlsplatz.


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