The Butterfly’s Wing (Part 8)

December 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

Palais Lieben-Auspitz (former home of Bertha Zuckerkandl's salon)

Palais Lieben-Auspitz (former home of Bertha Zuckerkandl’s salon)

(For part 7, go here.)

The following evening Jessica had an invitation to a soirée at Bertha Zuckerkandl’s. Somewhere between her second and third glasses of champagne she found herself in conversation with a stranger, a tall, elegant blond Englishwoman who looked to be in her mid-thirties, named Julia Harrison-Freilich. They chatted pleasantly for several minutes, exchanging the agreeable trivialities of party small-talk, before Julia, with a soft complaint about the noise in the centre of the room making proper conversation impossible, guided her over to a sofa in an otherwise deserted corner of the salon.

‘Ah, much better,’ she smiled, unhooking two more flutes from a passing footman’s tray and handing one to Jessica. As soon as he was out of earshot, she put down her glass and said coolly, ‘You’re not from here.’

Jessica felt a muscle twitch in her cheek but assured herself that it was a perfectly innocent remark. ‘No, of course I’m not. I’m from New York.’

‘That isn’t what I meant.’ Julia’s cultured voice, her accent clear as cut glass, had fallen several notches. ‘You’re not from this time.’

Jessica froze. How had she been found out? The impulse to run warred with the impulse to try to talk her way out of trouble, or at least play dumb, and she sat in agonising silence for what felt like an age before asking, with a barely restrained tremor in her voice, ‘What gave me away?’

Julia gestured in the direction of her feet. ‘You have zips on your boots. They’re not going to be invented for another three years.’ Jessica followed the path of her gaze and groaned under her breath. Julia seemed to take pity on her distress then, laying a hand on hers and whispering, ‘It’s all right. I’m like you.’

Jessica raised her eyes. ‘When? How…?’

‘1995,’ Julia replied. She laughed briefly, bitterly, to herself. ‘I know Schmetterling’s victims when I see them. After all, I am one myself.’

‘I don’t like your choice of words,’ Jessica said sharply.

‘Then shall I elaborate?’ There was a dangerous glint in Julia’s eyes. Jessica wanted to do nothing more than flee, but instinct told her that she needed to hear more, and she nodded, mutely requesting the story.

‘I was a theatrical costume designer in London, in my own time,’ Julia began. ‘I came to Vienna to do research for a production of Salomé, and I bumped into our friend Schmetterling in a café. He got me chatting and when he found out that I secretly wished I could have been at the premiere, he said he could take me to see it. What a naïve little fool I was!’

Jessica flinched at the bitterness in her voice but steeled herself. ‘Go on.’

‘You know what comes next, I expect,’ Julia continued. ‘The midnight meeting, the business about the week’s allowance and the one rule I couldn’t break.’ She shook her head. ‘I broke the rule and found out the hard way.’ Jessica nodded again, prompting her. ‘There was a very good-looking répétiteur at the Opera who caught my eye, and, well… to make a long story short, by the end of the week I was pregnant. I turned up at the appointed time on the Karlsplatz and Schmetterling gave me that sanctimonious speech about how I’d broken his rule and he was very sorry, but there was nothing to be done. I wept and pleaded but he just wrapped himself in his cloak and walked away.’

Jessica found herself laughing, slightly manic, in sheer relief. ‘That’s his rule? “Don’t get pregnant”? Well, in that case I have nothing to worry about!’

Julia rolled her eyes and shook her head pityingly. ‘If it were really that easy very few people would break the rule,’ she conceded. ‘That isn’t it, though. The rule is that you can’t do anything while you’re in the past that might change the future. I did.’ She looked Jessica directly in the eye. ‘And so have you.’

Jessica gaped at her in shock. ‘I… what are you talking about?’ she asked, fighting her rising panic.

‘Schiele drew your portrait yesterday, didn’t he?’

Jessica nodded miserably. ‘Yes, but –‘

‘You, of all people, should understand what that means. You’ve altered the shape of his oeuvre, even if it’s just one drawing. You have no idea what sort of implications that could have for the future.’ Jessica was on the point of arguing but Julia ploughed on mercilessly. ‘Haven’t you ever wondered why our professor friend calls himself Schmetterling?’

Jessica shrugged impatiently. This hardly seemed the appropriate moment for a debate on the complexities of German surnames.

‘You’ve heard it said that the flap of a butterfly’s wing can set off a hurricane several weeks later?’

‘Yes.’

‘So you see how something as seemingly insignificant as adding a drawing to Schiele’s oeuvre or adding a new person to the world in 1905 could have God only knows what effect decades, even centuries from now?’ Julia asked. She didn’t wait for an answer. ‘It could cause utter chaos.’

Myriad questions swirled in Jessica’s head. Why, if the potential to unbalance the universe was so great, did Schmetterling ply his cross-chronological ferry service? Why did he refuse to spell out the dangers for his passengers? Why her? ‘Why?’ was all she managed to get out; her heart was pounding too painfully for her to say anything more.

‘Why indeed. Well, one thing I’ve had plenty of time to do in the last nine years is to find out what makes Schmetterling tick,’ Julia said. ‘And in a nutshell, it comes down to this: every time he snatches someone from the present and introduces them into the past, it creates a tiny tear in the fabric of time. Nearly invisible but terribly dangerous, and it takes a surprising amount of energy for it to mend seamlessly. It seems he lives on the energy released by each such tear.’ She smiled thinly. ‘To go on with my sewing metaphor, the fabric of the past, now altered, ever so slightly changes the pattern of the future to maintain equilibrium. The element that originally altered the past is erased from its own time – for good.’

Jessica’s head was swimming at Julia’s explanation, but its import had sunk in. ‘So that’s it? I’ve been erased from my own time? I’m stuck here for the rest of my life?’

‘Afraid so.’

‘But my parents – I’ll never see them again?’ Declan went unspoken.

Again, that brief, bitter laugh. ‘Who’s to say if they’ll even be born now? Much less meet each other? Even if by some miracle you managed to strong-arm Schmetterling into taking you back, you would have ceased to exist. You’d be a stranger.’

Fear and shock gave way to utter despair. ‘Fine, then!’ she cried recklessly, not caring who heard. ‘I’ll stay here. I prefer Vienna in 1914 to the way it was when I left it. I’ll stay here because I want to!’

Julia sighed. ‘I’d be careful what you wish for,’ she murmured. ‘I’ve been lucky, I suppose – my répétiteur did the decent thing and married me, and if I haven’t been able to continue as a costume designer I’ve at least gotten to do a bit of work for the Flöge sisters. And there was that ancient antiques dealer I met several ago who had asked to be taken back to the Biedermeier era who said he was actually far happier here than he’d been in his own time. But are you going to be singing the same tune in a few months before the war breaks out? After all, you and I both know it’s not going to be over by Christmas.’ Jessica shuddered. Julia went on, relentless, ‘Besides… Rosen… you’re Jewish, aren’t you? Do you really want to still be here twenty-four years from now when everyone lines the streets to greet Hitler as a hero?’

Jessica felt the blood turn to ice in her veins. ‘Oh God, no,’ she whispered. Desperate tears stung her eyes. Unconsciously, she had resumed a version of the pose she’d held for Schiele the day before – elbows digging into her thighs, her trembling mouth hidden behind clasped hands. She bit her lips and gazed imploringly at Julia. ‘Is there any way out?’

Julia was silent but seemed to be turning something over in her mind. ‘There might be,’ she mused. ‘As long as no one apart from you and Schiele has seen the drawing.’

Jessica felt a tiny thread of hope begin to unfurl. ‘I doubt anyone has. The gouache was so thick in places that he’d have had to allow a long time for it to dry. I don’t think he would have taken it out of his studio today.’

‘Then you’re still safe,’ Julia said, ‘but time is of the essence.’ She sighed. ‘No pun intended.’

‘What do I have to do?’ Jessica pressed her.

‘Destroy it.’

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