The Butterfly’s Wing (Part 7)

December 23, 2012 § 3 Comments

Egon Schiele's studio, 102 Hietzinger Hauptstrasse

Egon Schiele’s studio, 102 Hietzinger Hauptstrasse

(For part 6, go here.)

A few rays of early March morning filtered through the gap in the heavy curtains in Jessica’s hotel room. She blinked and stirred drowsily, body and mind still adrift in the no man’s land between sleep and waking.

As had happened every night apart from the first since she’d landed in 1914, she had been dreaming of Declan. Since they had met two years ago, this was the longest they had gone with no communication – or rather, the longest that Jessica had gone. Often, when she was alone, she found herself wondering about his location in time compared to hers – assuming, of course, that Schmetterling had been telling her the truth about the passage of time in the present as compared to that of her stay in Vienna, 1914. As her fifth day in the past dawned, what part of his evening was it? Was he still leaning against his kitchen sink with his guitar case propped next to him, downing a hasty mug of tea before heading out the door? Bantering with Frank, the bassist, as they set up the amps? In the middle of the band’s signature song, a new arrangement of ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ that took him into the highest reaches of his head voice? (Jessica had never forgotten her shock, the first time she heard him sing, at discovering that soft-spoken, unassuming Declan had a three-octave range that ran from a gritty growl at the lower end to an ethereal keening in the upper register.) Or was he slumping into bed, drained but contented? Unbidden the image of the ancient conception of the universe as a series of nested spheres came to her – she and Declan each on their own sphere, spinning past each other at different rates. Time is out of joint.

Jessica cracked one eye open a little further. Sitting on the corner of the wardrobe was a butterfly, slowly opening and closing its black-veined white wings in a beam of sunlight.

I must still be dreaming, she thought. How on earth could a butterfly get into my room, let alone at this time of year? She stumbled out of bed, ran icy water in the sink, splashed her face.

By the time she emerged from the bathroom, there was no sign of the butterfly.

***

Two hours later she was sitting across from Schiele at their usual table when he pinned her with his gaze and said, a propos of nothing, ‘I want to draw you.’

Jessica nearly choked on her coffee. ‘Excuse me?’ she spluttered, trying to swallow and settle the cup in its saucer without adding to her consternation by knocking it over.

‘You heard me.’

Jessica studied his face closely. By now she felt she knew him well enough to tell the difference between his serious and playful moods. She couldn’t find a hint of mockery in his expression.

‘Okay,’ she said slowly and carefully, ‘as long as I get to keep my clothes on.’ She instantly regretted her words when Schiele exploded into his wild, unhinged laugh.

‘Oh, the very idea,’ he snorted, wiping his eyes and gradually getting hold of himself.

Now it was Jessica’s turn to bristle. ‘What, do you find me that unattractive?’ It really wasn’t her day, she reflected ruefully, because that set him off again. Finally he stopped laughing long enough – and now she realised that it had been, on some level, nervous laughter – to look at her very seriously and say,

‘Miss Rosen, if you don’t mind my saying so, you are a very attractive woman. You are also not the sort of woman I would ever draw like one of my models.’ There it was again, she thought, not without a twinge of sadness, his compulsion to shock bound up with the unbreakable shackles of convention. At least the knowledge gave her back a measure of composure.

‘In that case, go ahead,’ she replied, assuming that he would take out the sketchbook he always kept in his jacket pocket and draw her on the spot.

‘Oh no, not here,’ he protested, sounding faintly horrified. ‘I haven’t got my watercolours. You’ll have to come to my studio.’ Jessica didn’t know which part of what he had said to be more stunned by – the fact that she would be seeing his studio, or that he wanted to use watercolour. Watercolour meant he didn’t consider the drawing a sketch, but a finished work. He pulled his watch from his pocket and pursed his lips, making a brief calculation. ‘Come at two, the light will be good then.’ He fished out his sketchbook, tore out a page and scribbled the address on it in his firm, slanting hand. ‘You’ll have to take the train. Oh, and… do you have anything to wear that isn’t black or white?’

Jessica did a quick mental inventory of her meagre time-travelling wardrobe. Of course, the plum-coloured cardigan – which for some reason she hadn’t worn since her arrival. ‘Yes, I do.’

‘Wear it.’ It wasn’t a request, it was a command. He gathered up his belongings and stood up. ‘See you at two.’ Before she could react, the door was swinging shut behind him.

She didn’t know whether to be amused or annoyed when she called the waiter over to settle the bill and found that Schiele had left her to pay for his coffee.

***

Jessica moved through the next few hours in a haze. A man said hello to her in the street as she left the café and only five minutes later did she realise that it had been Joseph Roth and she’d ignored him. She tried reading one of the newspapers on the racks at Sperl (feeling vaguely disloyal for going to a different café), which to her eyes appeared to be printed in English, without taking in a single word. Only when she was back in her room, buttoning her cardigan over her white blouse, did clarity return.

She caught the train from Karlsplatz. Almost hypnotized by the spectacle of Vienna speeding past, she nearly missed her stop. She was striding along Hietzinger Hauptstrasse in the thin, bright afternoon sunshine, pausing every so often to squint at the house numbers, when her eyes alighted on two girls walking toward her arm in arm, both fashionably dressed, obviously sisters. The taller of the two was a brunette with a slightly equine face; the smaller, and apparently younger, a blonde and more delicate version of the elder – Adele and Edith Harms, the two sisters Schiele had mentioned a few days earlier. They spoke to each other in undertones, as if sharing a secret, the blonde suddenly bursting into decorously muffled laughter as they passed. Jessica hoped neither of them noticed her staring after them.

When she next glanced up, she was standing in front of 102. She pressed the bell and held her breath for what seemed an interminable length of time before she heard a heavy tread on the stairs – not Schiele’s light, almost feline footsteps. The door opened a crack, then slowly, as if unwillingly, all the way, and Jessica found herself face to face with a work of art.

Wally Neuzil was glowering at her from the doorway. Jessica’s first thought, to her subsequent shame, was that Schiele must have loved her more than he let on because the Wally of his art was considerably more beautiful than the flesh-and-blood woman. Her generous mouth was instantly recognisable from the portraits but her features were coarse, her body, or so her shapeless clothes made it seem, graceless. Her eyes were such a pale blue as to be nearly colourless. Her expression, as she sized Jessica up, was mulish – there was no other word for it.

Jessica recoiled under Wally’s glare, but she quickly recovered and did the only thing that seemed proper in the circumstances: she held out her hand to shake and said calmly, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Neuzil.’

Wally’s eyebrows knitted angrily. ‘You’re making fun of me.’ It was so exactly like Schiele’s first response to her that Jessica almost laughed before a surge of compassion stopped her.

‘I promise you, I’m not,’ she assured her. ‘Herr Schiele has spoken very highly of you to me.’ She winced at the white lie but ploughed on. ‘It’s an honour to meet someone who has been such an inspiration to him and who has helped in some of his darkest moments.’ Now she really was being economical with the truth – Schiele hadn’t said a word to her about Wally’s unwavering support during his spell in jail – but it had the desired effect. The stubbornness melted from her face.

‘Beg pardon, miss,’ she mumbled, looking anywhere but at Jessica, ‘nobody who sits to him for a portrait pays me much mind. I thought…’ she trailed off.

‘It’s all right,’ Jessica smiled. ‘No offense taken.’ She took Wally’s hand and shook it firmly, then followed her inside and up the narrow staircase.

Schiele was dashing around in his shirtsleeves when they entered, his steps and his eyes full of purpose. ‘Ah, Miss Rosen,’ he greeted her briskly, as if they had only just met. ‘Do come in. Wally, take her coat.’ Jessica dutifully unbuttoned it and handed it to Wally with an apologetic glance as she bore it away. ‘Coffee?’

‘Yes please,’ she assented gratefully.

‘Studio’s in there,’ he added, jerking his head in the direction of the doorway. ‘Make yourself at home. Just don’t touch anything.’

Schiele’s studio was spartan and much tidier than Klimt’s. Two large canvases sat on easels. One, a painting of what appeared to be two men rising from their graves, looked nearly finished and she didn’t recognise it – was this one of the lost paintings? The other looked as if it had recently been begun – all she could see was the outline of a figure falling through space, knees bent and arms flung up over the head. She flipped through her mental catalogue of Schiele’s work and realised it must be his portrait of Friederike Maria Beer. A couple of portfolios filled with drawings lay on tables; a jar of brushes stood in the middle of a circle of tubes of oil paint and gouache and pans of watercolour. Everything was bathed in the cool afternoon light spilling through the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows.

Her reverie was interrupted by Schiele bursting in with a coffee pot and two cups, his steps abrupt, his mouth thinned to a line. Without a word he set the cups on a table, filled them with a thick, black, evil-looking brew, and handed her one. He stared at her over the rim of his cup, eyes unreadable. Finally he seemed to reach a sort of agreement with himself.

‘Sit down,’ he commanded, gesturing her to a chair that sat in a pool of light. From a drawer in the table he took a wooden box, rifled through it and handed her a string of heavy beads of milky green glass. ‘Put those on.’ She slipped them over her head, shivering as the cold glass settled around her neck. After rummaging for another minute, he pulled out a wide black ribbon and moved toward her with it in his hand. She flinched.

‘Relax, I don’t bite,’ he snapped with a short bark of laughter that was anything but reassuring. Jessica drew a deep breath and held it as he stood over her, carefully wrapping the ribbon around her head just above the circle of her plaits. He stepped back and considered his handiwork, pursed his lips thoughtfully, then leaned forward and slowly, delicately removed one hairpin so that one of the braids drooped, casting a shadow over her forehead. He stood back again and this time what he saw met with his approval.

‘Right. Lean forward a bit, fold your hands and rest your arms on your thighs. Just so.’ She did as she was told. ‘Perfect. Now for God’s sake, don’t move.’

Schiele dragged another chair over to face Jessica, clipped a sheet of paper to a drawing board, and considered her for another unnerving moment. Without warning he jumped up and dashed out of the studio. She heard the tap running in the kitchen and he returned with a jar of water, setting it on the table while he marshaled six tubes of gouache and prepared his palette, his face screwed up in concentration. For a few minutes the only sound in the studio was the slow drip of water into the pans of the palette and the almost inaudible swish of the brush as he diluted the colours to the right strength. Jessica would have given anything to be able to crane her neck and get a better view, but the tone of his last words had brooked no argument.

At last he pushed the palette away and arranged himself with the drawing board perched on his lap. He reached for a pencil, but when she expected him to start drawing he merely leaned forward and gazed at her.

When Jessica had told Schiele, that first evening at the café, that he wielded his pencil and his brush like a scalpel, she had never imagined that she would find herself on the receiving end. She felt like a butterfly pinned down in a shadow box, with the difference that such butterflies were mercifully unaware of their state.  Schiele was not so much undressing her with his eyes as he was flaying her. As she clung stubbornly to the pose, she could all but feel him peeling back her skin, exposing nerves, veins, bone. Her brain, her heart. The blood bloomed in her cheeks.

Her muscles were beginning to cramp and tremble, pins and needles invade her forearms and entwined fingers. Given how many of her waking hours were spent bent over a book or a drawing, the sheer effort it took to sit perfectly still shocked her. Every breath echoed inside her head like a roll of distant thunder, every pulse a tidal surge. She could feel tears pricking the corners of her eyes and clenched her jaw, fighting them down with every ounce of will. Her eyes found and fastened on Schiele’s. The uncanny sensation of watching herself be watched threatened to overwhelm her but before it overcame her she reminded herself that she was watching him just as much as he was, her. The knowledge didn’t lessen the physical agony at all but it made it bearable.

Schiele hesitated for the barest instance before making one decisive stroke on the sheet. A line activates a surface, forcing it to acknowledge its latent charge, Jessica remembered one of her professors saying; she had never fully – or at least, so viscerally –  understood the import of the words until now. Before she had time to meditate further on this, he added another line, then another. He worked quickly, with nervous, jerky twists of his wrist, but within the taut motion she could sense the ease and confidence of someone supremely in his element. She resisted the urge to try to lower her eyes to the sheet in an attempt to catch the progress of the image and kept her eyes pinned on his.

He had laid the pencil aside and drawn the palette toward him. His gaze darting between Jessica, the palette and the drawing, he took up a brush and began laying in colour, sometimes scrubbing it into the paper in broad swathes (her hair? her cardigan?), otherwise dotting it on in rapid flicks. The water in the jar turned red, then rust, then purple, then muddied as he dipped the brushes in it.

Almost without warning he cast the brushes aside, snatched up the pencil and scribbled something in the lower right corner of the sheet. Jessica didn’t need to see what he was writing to know that he was signing the drawing, the words ‘EGON SCHIELE 1914’ encased in a square like a Japanese seal. The transformation when he laid down the pencil nearly knocked the breath from her lungs. He slumped and seemed to dwindle. The demonic light in his eyes was snuffed out, the ferocious concentration evaporated. She was suddenly, painfully aware of how young he looked, how frail, and how loosely his clothes hung on his slight frame.

He seemed to remember only belatedly that she was still there. ‘You can move now,’ he said, and Jessica all but collapsed, her head falling on her knees and her aching arms dangling at her sides. His next words, once the prickling of pins and needles had finally subsided, startled her back to life: ‘Come and have a look.’

She stood at his elbow and gazed down at herself. Schiele had used the white of the paper for her skin, with a few green shadows under her eyes and cheekbones and in the hollows of her neck like reflections from the string of beads. He had rendered her blush with a wash so dilute that it bled across the paper much the same way as blood suffused her skin. Her mouth was a vivid red slash, a jarring contrast with her white skin and the deep purple of her cardigan. The convolutions of her plaits rhymed with those of her clenched fingers. He had made her face longer and more angular than it really was, but what made her heart stand still was the eyes. Her first impression was of timidity and vulnerability but the longer she looked, the fiercer and more penetrating they became. She found herself pinioned by her own gaze.

‘Is that really how you see me – so fierce?’ she wondered aloud.

Schiele stifled a cough that sounded suspiciously like a nervous laugh. ‘Truth be told, Miss Rosen, you’re the most frightening model I’ve ever had,’ he admitted. ‘I’ve never had anyone look at me like that.’ She knew him well enough now to realise how much it cost him to confess that. Suddenly his words came tumbling out in anxious haste. ‘I shouldn’t do this, but I’d like you to have it. I won’t charge you a single crown.’

Jessica was too stunned to reply. For one fatal moment she nearly said yes, and then the butterfly on her wardrobe that morning flashed before her mind’s eye.

‘Oh… no, I couldn’t possibly,’ she pleaded. ‘Please keep it. Put it in your next exhibition. It will do more good there.’ She sensed him on the verge of protesting and shook her head firmly. ‘I mean it.’

‘If you insist.’ She saw a flicker of hurt cross his face.

‘I’m sorry,’ she murmured, ‘but I promise you, it’s for the best.’ He nodded, clearly unconvinced, as she untied the ribbon and slipped the beads off and handed them back to him. ‘If it’s any consolation, sitting for you was –’ she searched for the right words – ‘an  extraordinary experience.’

‘Thank you, Miss Rosen.’ His voice had taken on a solemnity she had never heard before. ‘For me too.’ He impulsively clasped her hand. ‘For me too.’

Time seemed to hang suspended. Schiele broke the silence with a muffled oath, disengaging his hand and dashing from the studio. He returned with Jessica’s coat, which he helped her into with a courtliness she would never have associated with him otherwise.

‘Well – until next time,’ she said, trying to cover her awkwardness.

‘Until next time.’ He held the door open for her and she hurried down the stairs.

At the bottom of the steps, Jessica turned and saw, for an instant, Schiele framed in the doorway, wiry yet fragile, his messy shock of hair outlined by the light. When she opened the street door and looked over her shoulder again, he was gone.

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