The Butterfly’s Wing (Part 10 + Epilogue)

July 7, 2013 § 1 Comment

Prater Hauptallee, Vienna, Austria

(For part 9, go here – and yes, in case anyone is still reading this, this is the end! Author’s notes coming in the next post.)

It was ten o’clock the next morning when Jessica finally dragged herself out of bed. She had cried herself to sleep, and a cold, dull ache pressed against the inside of her forehead, as if her skull was filled with lead. She splashed water on her face, flinching as it struck her eyelids. Her eyes were rimmed with broken blood vessels, livid purple against raw pink skin.

She dressed and packed mechanically, nibbled at breakfast with the shadow of an appetite. She settled her hotel bill and sat down to count her remaining funds. Her wild extravagance the night before had left her with a handful of change that added up to scarcely more than a crown and a few hellers. She cursed her foolish prodigality with the cab driver but counted the money she’d left in Schiele’s match safe as pitifully little compensation for the destruction of the drawing. Thirty crowns. In paper rather than silver, but that hardly mattered.

A day and half a night stood between her and her second rendezvous with Schmetterling. How to fill thirteen hours? The cafés were out of the question – even if she avoided the Museum she still risked meeting an acquaintance of Schiele’s. She briefly considered the Kunsthistorisches Museum but the thought of spending a day surrounded by art filled her mouth with the taste of ashes. After several minutes’ further indecision, she left the hotel and caught a tram from Karlsplatz toward the Prater.

The Prater swarmed with Saturday crowds and rang with shouts and laughter. The bright, noisy vulgarity of the place, which she would ordinarily have avoided like the plague, felt like a balm, or at least an anaesthetic. She re-counted her precious hellers and paid for a turn on the Ferris wheel, but the circular motion seemed to return her to the rhythm of the thoughts that had been wearing a miserable groove in her brain since the early hours of the morning. You betrayed him. You’ve no right to look at his work again. You’re unworthy to study it, to write about it.

Jessica stumbled off the Ferris wheel toward the nearest bench and sat down on it, shaking. Her more sensible self reminded her that she’d hardly eaten anything since yesterday and it would probably do her good to remedy that.

She pulled herself to her feet and headed for a small café, mercifully and miraculously quiet, near the gates of the park. She ordered a piece of poppyseed strudel and a small coffee, black. Even my meal wears mourning, she thought, stirring sugar into her cup. Out of an obscure need to torture herself further, she slipped the notebook in which she’d recorded her conversations with Schiele at the Café Museum and flicked through the pages. The words made little sense.

Cake and coffee finished, she counted out her coins and stood, feeling steadier in body if not in spirit. Spending any longer in the funfair was out of the question. Wrapping her coat a little tighter, she turned into the allée that bisected the park.

The chestnut trees on either side of the path were just beginning to leaf out, their branches dusted with a faint green haze. At the foot of one tree a winter aconite was unfurling its yellow petals. Jessica stopped and gazed at it until it blurred before her eyes.

The tenor of her thoughts shifted as the petals blurred. I can’t give up on Schiele, she realized. I owe it to him. I might spend the rest of my life trying to atone for destroying his drawing, but this is the only way I can. Her eyes prickled with unshed tears, but now they felt like tears of relief.

***

‘We’re closing, miss.’

Jessica sat up with a start. She’d been drowsing over a newspaper at Lurion’s, a café she’d decided was safe territory – with such hideous décor she doubted Schiele or any of his fellow artists would be caught dead there. Mumbling an apology, she paid the waiter for the coffee she’d finished several hours earlier and checked her watch. If she hurried, she’d make it to the Karslplatz just in time.

By the time she turned off the Kärntnerring her heart was hammering, only partly from exertion. What if Schmetterling hadn’t kept their appointment? Would her sacrifice have been for naught?

The pavement in front of the station was deserted. She halted, shutting her eyes in despair.

Just then, the bells of the Karlskirche began to chime midnight. She forced herself to open her eyes. Sure enough, a solitary black-clad figure was standing beneath a street lamp where she was sure there had been nobody a moment ago. She steeled herself and marched toward him.

Schmetterling greeted her approach with an unnervingly neutral expression ruffled only by one eloquently arched eyebrow. ‘Miss Rosen.’

‘Professor.’ She didn’t know why she bothered with the honorific that clearly wasn’t his, but politesse seemed the only way to rein in the hatred, anger and fear roiling in her head.

‘Clever girl,’ he continued in his silky voice. ‘I congratulate you. Although… perhaps I’m losing my touch. You are the second person to outsmart me.’

‘Is that so,’ Jessica replied, trying to sound arch but wanting nothing more than to collapse in sheer relief.

‘Indeed.’ Schmetterling gently shook his cloak back from his shoulders like a huge bird settling its wings. ‘We’d best not delay. Come.’ He held out a long, bony hand. This time Jessica took it without a moment’s hesitation, folding her fingers around his. Without being told, she closed her eyes.

Even though she now knew what to expect, the freezing cold, the sensation of falling, the rush of wings nearly knocked the breath from her lungs. At least this time when her feet hit solid ground, she was able to stay upright.

Schmetterling unfurled his cloak from around her, and she found herself blinking at the transition from total darkness to early morning light.

‘Well,’ he murmured, ‘here we are. As promised.’

Jessica’s throat tightened in anger. As promised? That was being economical with the truth, to put it lightly. On the point of firing off a retort to that effect, she glanced up at Schmetterling’s face. His profile was as hawklike as ever, but there was an air about it she didn’t recognise. She stared hard at him for a moment.

He looked tired.

Her rage guttered out. She could no more hate him than she could begrudge a big cat or a bird of prey its need to hunt. Even if she had so narrowly avoided becoming prey herself. He had been fair with her, she supposed, the only way he was capable of.

‘Thank you,’ she replied. As he settled his cloak around his shoulders and began to turn away, something impelled her to call him back. ‘Wait – before you go, tell me one thing. If I’m the second person to outsmart you – who was the first?’ She hoped against hope that it was Julia, that she’d somehow managed a way to return to her own time at some point after her path crossed Jessica’s.

A meditative frown winged over Schmetterling’s features. ‘An Irishman with a painter’s surname.’ Jessica felt the back of her neck prickle for an instant, but she was too close to the end of her rope to consider it further.

‘Well, Miss Rosen,’ he continued, ‘I wish you well. And now I must take my leave of you. We shall not meet again.’ He held out his hand and once again she felt the brief press of those lean fingers around hers. Then, wrapping his cloak around himself, he strode off without a backward glance.

Jessica watched until his dwindling figure turned down a side street and vanished, then let out a breath she hadn’t realised she was still holding. She gazed about her, grateful beyond measure for the sight of cars and asphalt and pedestrians clad in the fashion of 2010, until a thrill of fear seized her: what if Schmetterling hadn’t actually brought her back to the day, much less the year, he had promised?

She stopped the first passerby, a man of strikingly ordinary appearance carrying a briefcase. ‘Excuse me sir, can you tell me what day it is?’

His brow furrowed. ‘Können Sie bitte wiederholen?’

Okay, definitely back in the present since I’ve lost my German-speaking abilities, Jessica thought, more relieved than disappointed. She repeated herself in creaky German and then, not feeling up to carrying on, pleaded, ‘Auf Englisch, bitte?’

The man looked at her oddly and said slowly, in heavily accented but clear English, ‘It is the second of March.’

‘And the year?’ she pressed him. Now he was staring at her as if she was missing a few marbles, and for an instant she almost wanted to laugh as she saw herself as he doubtless did – a wild-eyed girl in a military coat with a crown of red plaits threatening to fall into her face who was apparently suffering from severe amnesia.

‘Two thousand ten,’ he enunciated very clearly, as if speaking to a small child or an idiot.

‘Thank you,’ Jessica replied fervently, ‘thank you so much.’ Before he had a chance to turn tail and run – she could see the desire to do so written all over his face – she took off in the direction of her flat, barely able to restrain herself from breaking into a run.

Everything in the flat was blessedly unchanged from when she had left it a week ago – no, last night, she had to remind herself. Her jeans and jumper were draped over the chair where she’d left them; suddenly desperate to shed every trace of her 1914 self, she flung off her coat and the long black dress and put them on, attempting only half-successfully to pull all the pins from her hair and undo the braids.

Her computer sat on the table where she’d left it, but she barely noticed it in the dash for her phone. Calling Declan was going to cost a fortune but at the moment she couldn’t find it in herself to care.

On the fourth ring, just before she thought it would go to voicemail, he picked up. For a moment there was a crackling that she at first thought was static but then realised was rustling bedclothes, and then his voice, sounding as if it was coming from somewhere under the Atlantic: ‘Jess? Are you all right?’

Jessica was torn between laughing and crying. ‘Declan. Declan. I’m so glad to hear your voice. I’m fine.’

‘You don’t sound fine,’ he countered, and now he sounded fully awake. ‘For starters, you never call me by my full name unless you’re upset, and for seconds, it’s two in the morning. What’s happened?’

‘Nothing, I swear,’ Jessica protested, because she hadn’t given any thought to how she could tell him what she’d just been through and if she did, she’d sound as if she’d taken leave of her senses. ‘I’m good. Honest.’

‘Hey,’ he soothed, ‘you can tell me. Truth is, I’ve been worried since I read your email last night. You didn’t sound like yourself.’

Jessica sat in silence, her grip on the phone white-knuckled. Finally she decided to bite the bullet. ‘Would you believe me,’ she began, nerves ratcheting her voice several notches above its normal pitch, ‘if I told you that yesterday I met a strange man who told me he could take me back to 1914, and he actually did, but he tried to trap me there and I only got back by the skin of my teeth?’

For several seconds she heard nothing but Declan’s breathing. And then the one word she least expected to hear.

Yes.’

‘Wait – seriously? This is where you’re supposed to say I dreamed it, or you decide that the second I get back to New York you’re taking me to a therapist…’ She was painfully aware of how manic she sounded, in the throes of ebbing adrenaline and too many emotions. ‘Why do you believe me?’

Declan’s voice came out softer and more hesitant than she’d ever heard it. ‘Because I’ve met him too.’

If Jessica hadn’t been sitting down already, her knees would have turned dangerously weak. Schmetterling’s answer to her question about the first person to evade him echoed in her mind. An Irishman with a painter’s surname. Of course.

Declan’s surname was Byrne-Jones. When Jessica had first met him she thought he was joking and he replied in mild confusion, ‘And why shouldn’t it be my name? My mum’s Welsh.’

‘What… when?’ she asked when she’d regained her voice.

‘Remember about a year ago when I had a research trip to Vienna to look at Schoenberg’s papers?’

‘Yes?’

‘Well one day, after I’d spent hours transcribing dusty letters, I went over to Demel for a coffee and there was a tall skinny rumpled chap at the table next to mine looking at a stack of scores. I assumed he was a fellow musician so we got chatting, and I foolishly said I wished I could just meet Schoenberg and ask him straight up how he came up with the twelve-tone system…’

‘…And he told you he could take you to meet Schoenberg himself?’

‘Yes, and explained all his conditions, but I told him I had a few conditions of my own. Namely, I didn’t want to go for a week, only for a day, and I wasn’t letting him out of my sight.’

‘You didn’t!’

‘I did so. And he took it with a very bad grace but that night I met him on the Karlsplatz as agreed, and went back to 1921.’

‘Did you meet him? Schoenberg, I mean.’ Jessica found herself caught up in the story in spite of herself.

Declan laughed ruefully. ‘No, I’d guessed wrong at the day. He was out of town. Schmetterling tried persuading me to hang about for a week and see if he’d turn up but I refused and forced him to take me back to the present.’

‘You were in such a strange mood when you got back from Vienna… why didn’t you tell me before?’ she asked, her voice rising.

‘You’d never have believed me,’ he said quietly. Jessica was on the point of protesting hotly that she hoped Declan credited her with more imagination than that, but in the next breath she admitted he was right. Who in their right mind would have?

‘Do you want to tell me about it? Only if you want,’ he prompted gently. His voice felt like a balm falling into her ears. So she told him everything, from the dreadful session at the Albertina that had sent her running to Demel for refuge to the party at Bertha Zuckerkandl’s and her meeting with Julia.

By the time she’d finished telling him about breaking into Schiele’s studio and burning her portrait, she was in tears. ‘I betrayed him, I’m a horrible person,’ she sobbed.

Declan hushed her with near-wordless murmurs until she had quieted, then spoke slowly, each word chosen with great care. ‘Jess… if it isn’t too bold of me to say so – do you really think Schmetterling would have let you come back if destroying the drawing changed things?’

‘No, I guess not,’ she mumbled.

‘Remember you once showed me photos of Schiele in his studio and there were drawings piled all over the place? Now you’re the expert, I know, but it looked to me like he didn’t treat them as particularly precious.’ He hesitated. ‘Do you think maybe the drawing meant more to you than it did to him?’

Jessica winced and flushed bright red, but at the same time she felt the weight of the last two days lifted off her. It was the first sensible thing she’d heard in a week. ‘Maybe,’ she admitted. ‘It’s easy to get a bit precious, hanging around with artists…’

‘Hey, I resemble that remark,’ Declan retorted, without any annoyance, and Jessica began to laugh, the tension that she thought had taken up permanent residence in her chest evaporating. ‘Speaking of which, what was he like? Schiele, I mean.’

‘Sarcastic, brilliant, impatient, polite, cynical, naïve, selfish, generous… a bundle of contradictions. In the end, a person. A real, flawed human being.’

‘That was worth finding out, wasn’t it?’ She nodded, then remembered he couldn’t see her, and said yes.

‘It’s another two weeks before you’re due home. Do you want me to come and stay with you? I will if you want.’

‘No, don’t. It’ll cost a fortune.’ Knowing Declan, he was probably already reaching for his computer to check flights. ‘Anyway – I think I’ll be okay.’

‘Well, if you change your mind, just say. Now get some rest – you sound as if you need it. And promise me you won’t go anywhere near a library today?’

‘Promise.’ After all, she’d done more than a week’s worth of research in the space of a single night. ‘I love you.’ Her heart contracted at the thought that she’d narrowly avoided never being able to tell him that again.

‘I love you too. Take care of yourself.’

After they’d wished each other good night and hung up, she curled up on the sofa and fell asleep. Nothing came to disturb her dreams.

***

Epilogue: March 2, 2013

‘Zwei Eintrittskarten, bitte.’

The queue at the Leopold Museum ticket desk had been bad enough for Jessica to question the wisdom of dragging Declan there on a Saturday, but he wouldn’t hear of giving up. In the end, they’d only had to wait twenty minutes.

Jessica had successfully defended her thesis two months ago. In September she would start a postdoctoral fellowship at the Met. Declan had quit his PhD when his band had landed a record contract in December, declaring that an MPhil was good enough for him and he was sure the world didn’t need another thesis on Schoenberg. The trip to Vienna was intended to celebrate both, even if it risked being something of a busman’s holiday. Still, as Jessica had pointed out, they’d somehow never managed to go there together, and it was time to put that right.

The remainder of that first research trip three years ago had drawn to a close without further incident, and the second and the third she undertook had been similarly uneventful. She’d made her uneasy peace with twenty-first century Vienna. Gradually, the memory of Schmetterling and her journey into the past had faded until it came to seem like a dream.

Both of her examiners had remarked on the ‘extraordinary sensitivity and imagination’ with which she’d written about Schiele’s portraits, to which she’d responded with a modest, slightly pained smile. And there was the time when she and Amelia (who had, thank goodness, gotten over her obsession with Louis Garrel) had gone to see A Dangerous Method and when Amelia had complained that she didn’t find Viggo Mortensen at all believable as Freud, Jessica had vehemently disagreed.

‘How can you say that? He captured Freud perfectly – the voice, the mannerisms, the walk…’

Amelia scoffed. ‘Next thing I know, you’re going to tell me you’ve actually met him.’

Jessica rolled her eyes, but for one crucial instant she’d felt like a deer caught in headlights. ‘I wish.’

The first gallery of the Schiele display was packed. Jessica and Declan somehow managed to move at their own pace, leaning into each other as he asked her about each painting and she explained.

In the middle of one wall was a painting on loan from the Belvedere: an exceptional loan while the galleries were being remodeled, the label explained. It was a portrait of Edith Schiele, perched on a chair, her body a spiral of unease and her fingers knitted into a complicated puzzle.

schiele_edith-schiele_400

She was wearing a purple cardigan.

Jessica’s own purple cardigan had lain carefully folded at the bottom of one of her drawers ever since she’d returned from that first trip. She couldn’t bear to give it away, but neither could she face wearing it again.

‘Dec, look – ’ she reached for his hand. She didn’t have to explain further. After she’d gotten back to New York, she’d described the lost portrait to him in detail.

‘I know,’ he murmured, rubbing his callused thumb over her knuckles in a comforting rhythm. ‘I know.’ They gazed at the painting in silence until Declan glanced sideways and his grip suddenly tightened. ‘Nine o’clock,’ he whispered in her ear.

Jessica carefully turned her head in the same direction. Standing on the opposite side of the gallery, surrounded by the crowd but, thanks to his height, above it, was Schmetterling. He looked just as he had when she’d first seen him in the café – the same soft, battered jumper and trousers, the pale, hawklike profile, neither young nor old, the tousled hair, so black it verged on blue.

Except that now, there were three silver streaks in it.

Jessica’s eyes met Declan’s. There was no need to say anything. They laced their fingers together, turned and walked out of the gallery.

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