I knew it inside out – the baroque castle Schönbrunn with its waving angels on the roof, and the castle gardens with their straight paths and sharply cut hedges. I knew the crunching sound made when the little pebbles rubbed against my shoes when I walked towards the main entrance gate. I knew in which season what kind of people passed their time in front of the Neptune or the Obelisk Fountain or near the orangery, and what the most frequented castle tour was. I knew around what time the lions would start roaring at the castle zoo, and where the newly enamored couples tended to give free rein to their flaming passions. I even knew which rose in the Rose Garden attracted the most bees. I had remembered most of the names of the deceased who each had a rose dedicated to them, including my parents.
As a child and young adult, I had never noticed the orderliness and predictability of this place, this strict symmetry my mind had inserted itself into. I unconcernedly had loved all of it at the time, a time of carefreeness and ease. A time where everything seemed to be set in stone and I could afford to dream along and not worry about my quirkiness or existential matters. A time when I did not want to acknowledge that pragmatic people sorted their acquaintances according to degrees of importance and opportunism and did not care what damage they could do interpersonally. As a woman in her early thirties who had lost her parents due to a drunken driver, was born a bookish loner, and an aspiring journalist still trying to find her own voice, I felt the whole complex now resembled a lady-in-waiting. A lady-in-waiting being forcefully squeezed into a corset, grinning and bearing it because she adhered to the belief that she had no other choice. I had taken so much of my privileged middle-class life for granted.
Yet, I was always drawn back there. You might wonder whether this monotone place is the only thing I was truly familiar with in life. You probably believe that I might as well have gone to another baroque palace garden to dispel my thoughts about society. In Vienna, the former capital of the Habsburg Monarchy, they were still plentiful. Although they were not as abundant as in other European cities I had visited, their calculated, inescapable beauty was both enchanting and stifling my soul, no matter where I would go. I sometimes felt I only had to take a few steps out of my flat, and voila, there I was again at court.
And yet, in front of that particular castle, for as long as I could recall, stood this one man whom I knew nothing about. His presence had never really made an impression on me. Standing on a small pedestal and always smiling as if nothing could shake his spirit, this man worked as a street performer and called himself the Golden Jester. He was dipped in golden color from head to foot, wore a flowing sash around his arm, and warbled songs merrily in the manner of a balladeer. He somehow reminded me of a living statue and of the tale The Happy Prince, my mom would read to me as a child. It was hard to tell if he was wearing a toupee, because the hair was braided into two pigtails. But it also flattered his face naturally. Due to the golden color, one could hardly guess his age. His singing voice revealed even less about his nature.
In front of the platform stood a basket into which bystanders occasionally threw money. In each of his hands the Golden Jester held a kind of fishing rod with which he cautiously pulled up the banknotes and coins. He would then make them disappear like a sleight of hand. Oddly enough, this would often lead to the applauding people tossing him even more money. (A microcosm of how everything in this world seems to work for some, I think now.)
How did that first encounter between the Golden Jester and me come about you ask? Back then, I probably would have said by chance. Today I know that there is no such thing, and that it has never existed in the first place. It was one day in late spring when I left work earlier than I had intended to. I should have prepared questions for an interview with the head of the Viennese Artists’ Association. She was a descendant of a Hungarian magnate family and mother of a talented ghost-writer. I had been given the prosaic and hackneyed topic “Money as the Object of Art, Money as Art” by my boss. But surprisingly, the interview did not materialize. My interviewee had resigned as director without cause and had refused to comment on it in any other way. (To this day, I joke that she was apparently bored with the topic herself, and that it must have given her the last jolt).
Since I enjoyed walking in the afternoon sun and one of the castle routes lay on my way home, I took it until I reached the gate, the same one I would also pass when entering. Standing in the gateway, I already witnessed the approaching disaster: Without feeling the slightest qualm, two drunk teenage boys, both with swastika tattoos on their arms, had been grabbing the banknotes from the Golden Jester’s box. As if they had not given free rein to their impudence already, they additionally plucked at his pockets and the sash, attempting to find more money there. Then they pulled out their cell phones and started making obscene gestures for a selfie.
“Obnoxious brutes”, I thought to myself. Despite my delicate facial features and my fair wavy bob, I was not as dainty as I might have looked to someone who was not acquainted with me. But I could not argue that physically they were much stronger. Perhaps they were even armed.
Although I did not want to play the hero by any means, I felt that if I did not act now and just walked along like the other bystanders, I would have crucified myself for my cowardice later. So, without further a due, I ran to the pedestal, while the two were still indulging in their deeds. Just as they were about to rush off with some bills in their palms, I instinctively fetched one of the Golden Jester’s rods. I tossed the string with the hook attached to it. I managed to grab one of the scoundrels by the collar until he fell to the ground, like a tin soldier. He dropped the money in his befuddlement. I took advantage of this element of surprise and did the same to his partner. With erratic movements I collected the banknotes. I happened to notice that a yellowish-white piece of paper had gotten stuck to my sweaty hand. Yet, I didn’t have time to take a closer look at it. So, I frantically put it in one of my jacket pockets without thinking twice.
The two boys had already risen to their feet. One was swearing at me, the other was just reaching out with his fleshy hand. I flinched and was about to take cover when suddenly a policewoman and her partner intervened. The supervisors of the castle must have called them in time. They constrained the two and made sure that the money was returned to the Golden Jester.
After they and the other bystanders had left, he turned to me and dropped a curtsey. “Thank you, my dear. It’s good to see that some young people still possess enough courage to stand up to bullies who are especially … (he paused for a second) … aiming for my kind. If you don’t mind my impudence, may I ask your name?” the Jester spoke with tears of joy and gratitude in his eyes.
It took me a while to respond. Not because I minded the question. But because I could have sworn that those tears that pearled down his golden shoes were liquified gold themselves. They were not just stained from heavy layers of make-up. Even his teeth were golden. You could have bet that he did not wear braces or have fillings. His pupils had an amber circle around them. Not only that, after the tears had reached the floor, they kept on rolling like pearls of mercury, intermixing with the grey pebbles. They then crawled under the pedestal, as if to stay hidden there and always be wary.
“Uhhhm …… Flora … Flora Hortense Forst, nice to meet you. And of course, don’t mention it,” I replied, still somewhat perplexed. I could not tell for sure whether the Golden Jester had taken notice of my reaction and chose to ‘ignore’ it. Especially after what I had just witnessed, I did really want to know his actual name, more about him as a person. I thought he would at least have given me that. Even now, standing in front of him, I could not determine whether he was as old as Methuselah or another Benjamin Button. It was as if his face didn’t want to decide whether it should look young or old.
Although I did not want to come across as indifferent or detached towards him, I was afraid to overstep a personal boundary. So, I refrained from following my compulsion of ‘nosy interrogation’. It was a habit I practically had to acquire due to my job. It did not always come in handy in interpersonal relationships, even if I meant well by it. (Especially in a city that not too long ago had been named the world’s most unfriendly one in terms of settling in according to a tourist survey.)
The Golden Jester seemed to sense this, and so he showed more interest in me. “Flora Forst! That does ring a bell, indeed. Are you not the one who wrote this magnificent article about looted art and forgotten partisan artists? I vaguely remember the content. But I believe it had something to do with a painting that was fought for in close combat at the Viennese Forest at the end of WWII,” he exclaimed. His face suddenly lit up which made his golden skin shine even more.
“Yes, that’s right. You have a good memory,” I responded. I was surprised that he had remembered this article, of all things. I had received harsh criticism for it. At the time, I was still an intern, and didn’t really know how to deal with it. Therefore I had put it out of my mind.
It was about an Austrian artist who tried to ‘steal back’ a portrait that he apparently had dedicated to someone with the initial ‘C’ that had been engraved on the picture frame. The painter, although not a soldier himself, had therefore been in a battle at the Viennese Forest to fight for what was his. The picture betrayed a youth like figure painted in the manner of Monet’s Impressionism with a touch of golden floral Nouveau Art elements, what Viennese Secessionists would have called Jugendstil.
Unfortunately, the Nazis had managed to nick it again, and to return it to the Reich Chamber of Culture. The artist himself was only known as Maestro. It was assumed that he had died at the forest in close combat, although the body was never found. The only reason mankind knows about his existence in the first place is due to a letter that had survived and is now archived at the Austrian National Library. One of the Nazi soldiers wrote it to the President of the Reich Chamber confirming the reappropriation of the painting.
After the war, the Austrian government managed to purchase it. But they had been unable to figure out if any family members or friends might come into question as rightful heirs. (Nor had they put any sincere effort in it.) The painting is now displayed at one of the Schönbrunn castle museums. That is because the castle zoo itself touches the edges of the Viennese Forest, which is where the mentioned dispute had taken place.
In my article, I had argued that the sitter of the portrait could have been the artist’s lover, and that the style it was painted in was not the only reason it was discarded as ‘degenerate art’. To back up my statement, I had referred to other artists who, living at that time, had experienced a similar fate.
Only a couple of hours later, the online comment section of the newspaper was riddled with insults. The commenters, most of them anonymous, claimed I should not tell stories but stay professional, stick to the facts. To top it off, people like me were the reason why ‘fake news’ were being spread. Yet, I had clearly not disguised my opinion as fact.
I could have lived with that. But what irked me was that my boss was more worried about his reputation. So, he had that one paragraph cut out on the same day just to please his audience.
There was no way I could know for sure that the Golden Jester had read the original version that had not been out there for long. However, I did not put it past him. “I am sure you will write more splendid articles of that sort in the future. Call me kind, but I believe you are quite gifted. As much as I would love to continue our conversation, my shift is almost over. I must get ready. You know, it takes quite some time to put on all this tedious make-up. I hope you forgive me, but I am sure we shall see each other again quite soon”, he responded.
Again, I was puzzled because he had said ‘put on’ instead of ‘take off’ make-up. But then I convinced myself that I should not overthink every action, especially not of someone with such a warm heart.
The Golden Jester suddenly winked at me before we departed. Even after I had already crossed the street and had walked past a couple of tram stops, as I turned around, I still saw him wave towards me. The other pedestrians were just gawking at me like some kind of mad person, not being able to discern whom I was waving back to.
In the evening of the same day, I made myself comfortable on my sofa and cruised through some TV channels. At some point I fell asleep and woke up again around midnight. I fetched the remote control, turned off the TV and quickly watered the sunflowers on the windowsill.
I was about to go to bed and lie back down when I suddenly stepped on a piece of paper. I reached for it and found that it was the same one that I had pocketed in my rush during my confrontation with the bullies. But for reasons I couldn’t explain, it could not have dropped out of my jacket, which I had put on the coat hook. I also did not have any intruders or unwanted pets who could have moved it. What’s more, I hadn’t opened or tilted the window once since I got home. So, there couldn’t have been a breeze either.
I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and unfolded the paper. At the same moment, a bleak gloominess added to the darkness of the night. I felt as if I were being sucked away in a morphine rush. Shortly afterwards, the sunflowers, suddenly withering, dropped their upright heads. Then there was a woody, musty smell. The ground beneath my feet morphed into a muddy mass on which I almost slipped. On the walls of my flat, foliage had spread, but not in the way one knows from ivy. It was as if nature had no regard for what was in front of it, as if it knew no boundaries between inside and outside, like a surrealist painting.
All this was followed by the barking of dogs, gunshots, and shouts. They sounded like orders, but I only perceived them in a muffled way. At closer examination, I learned that I had stepped into a bomb crater, possibly caused by an artillery shell. The paper resembled a kind of cartography that kept unfolding, like a hologram that had become real. I felt the sheet of paper that was still lying at my feet. Only after all these impressions did I realize that it had been addressed to someone.
Vienna, April 8th, 1945
If you are reading this letter delivered to you by the diligent carrier pigeon, then you must know that I have tried to fight for you with all my might. But as much as it pains me to admit this, I ultimately failed.
I have poured my soul into my last work, only to have it displayed to the world’s eyes of hate who were never meant to see or understand it. To see and understand you and who you are to me.
I can hear you complain “I warned you” and how foolish it was to risk my life for ‘some brushes of paint’. But to me, that painting had always been more than any of us could have fathomed.
I write these last lines to you from the Viennese Forest, the place where I have been left wounded to bleed out after you had been ripped from my arms. Although I initially managed to drag the painting away safely from Munich, the SS stooges are everywhere. When the train stopped in Alland, one station before Vienna, taking flight had become inevitable. For hours, the Nazis have been chasing me until they finally caught up with me so close to the finish, at the forest line near Schönbrunn.
I am leaning against a checker tree. Amongst all the oak trees, it is a true rarity in this forest. I was smashed against it during an attempt to save you. Having eaten from its fruit, I feel as if I am becoming one with it.
Promise me: Do never ever let go off your gift to smile and make others smile, your mischief that has always been pure and never been stained with falsehood or dishonesty. It is what I have always admired about you, and what has inspired me to create.
May the gold I have poured into it keep you and your smile alive.
Yours truly and eternally,
After I had finished reading the last lines, the whole scene evaporated. As fluidly as it had come and sucked me into its spell, it now ended abruptly. The transition was that stark. My room had taken on its usual dimensions again. Everything was unchanged, except for the sunflowers, of which only one had survived.
Pacing around, now fully awake, I wanted to grab my phone and call the Golden Jester, or Constantin, as I had now learned his name. But then – suddenly breaking out in laughter – I forgot I did not have his number. I was so anxious to talk to him about what I had just witnessed.
I couldn’t sleep a wink all night. My thoughts were racing, incessantly overlapping, and repeating themselves. What was happening?
The next day, it was Saturday afternoon, I waited for Constantin, hoping to intercept him. On weekends, his working hours always started a little later. But he did not come. Not that day. Nor the following day. Nor the day after. Nor the whole week after.
I was at unease. I doubted he had fallen ill. Did he fear I had stolen from him? Was he desperately looking for Erich’s letter? That must have been it, I tried to convince myself. Did he consider me a fraud after all? Did he now perhaps believe that I was with the two Neo-Nazis, and that the whole action had been staged? But then I reassured myself I was being paranoid. Had that been the case, he would have thought that I had been aware of the letter’s existence to begin with.
And yet, it occurred to me, I did not have it on me. I had safely locked it away. I came to grasp the inconsideration of my reaction. I had unconsciously treated the letter like a document that needed more research. While working, I had even used my breaks to find out more about the Golden Jester. I just had nothing else on my mind. I had studied the letter so many times. I had weighed every single word until I knew the content by heart. I had dissected it like a pathologist would take apart a corpse. It was as if my acquired detachment suddenly felt like the wrong approach to take.
On a personal level, I could imagine it must have felt like an insult. I had to see the situation and my own shortcomings for what they were: I wanted to have the letter to myself, but still keep the Golden Jester as a source for a potential story.
I now loathed myself for it. I had always used my distanced attitude towards people, most of whom I didn’t have much trust in, as a protective mechanism so as not to make myself vulnerable. That way I would always gain the upper hand as the lesser evil in contrast to the others, even if that may sound a little Darwinian now. It was a bit like learning to walk through the world with blinders on.
And yet, it was precisely people with that mindset who only made things for themselves and others worse. At that moment, I wished that the whole incident had not occurred, that I had been in the wrong place at the right time on that one Friday.
I decided to return the letter to Constantin the following weekend. But I did not want to let on that I had read it. At least I hoped I would see him again at my scheduled time. I was now convinced that I should not get involved in something that was really none of my business.
Although Constantin was again nowhere to be found, this time at least the small platform had been set up. Nevertheless, I doubted that he was taking a break or would appear later. Clutching the note tightly, as if I could get some encouragement or confirmation from it that I was doing the right thing, I strolled to the podium. I tried to avoid the persistent crowds and their camera flashes.
As I stood in front of it, the same golden tears that had crawled under the stone a fortnight ago rolled out. They moved up from under the stone and formed the following writing:
Tomorrow. After the thirtieth roar of the zoo lions. Under the treetop path. Don’t forget it this time.
This didn’t exactly come in handy, as the weather reporter had announced heavy rain for tomorrow. But after everything that had happened, I didn’t dare question Constantin’s motives. He must have had his reasons.
The next day I put on a waterproof coat, and counted every single roar of the zoo lions, that I could hear all the way home. Now at mating time, they were increasing rapidly. I had to be extra attentive which meant another sleepless night.
After the fifteenth roar I left my flat. By the time the twenty-fifth rang out, I had already started entering the edges of the Viennese Forest that were located under the castle complex’s tree top path, usually quite crowded by tourists.
It now occurred to me that Constantin had not mentioned a specific spot in his cryptic note. It could have been anywhere, as far as I was concerned.
A sudden thunder sound muffled the next lion’s roar, so I could not determine the number. I started pacing nervously again and was afraid I would not make it in time. “The checker tree! He has to be there!” I suddenly shouted out. I got in gear and fought my way through the dense undergrowth and bushes that scratched my face. Since oaks and checker trees look confusingly similar at first glance and rain kept dripping down my face, I had difficulty locating it.
When I heard the next lion’s cry, which now seemed as loud as if a lion were shouting behind me, I lost my balance. I tripped over a tree root and fell face first into the mud. As I absentmindedly looked up and cleaned my face, I gazed at Constantin, holding out his hand to me.
It seemed to me at first that he was in ‘civilian’ clothes because his hair was tied back in a ponytail. There was no sign of him working as a golden street artist. But then he took off his coat, jacket, and hat. The rain washed off the flesh-colored make-up, rouge, and mascara, revealing his skin that was shimmering like gold leaf.
It was precisely at that moment I learned that there was no point in feigning ignorance about the letter to Constantin, as I had intended. I had already learned so much. I could not just dismiss it, having one foot in and one foot out. This man, who had just given me the benefit of the doubt and literally shown me his true color, did not deserve any more suspicion or retention on my part. If anything, it should probably have been the other way around. I took his hand.
“I am sorry, Constantin. I did not mean to – “, I started, but he had lifted his other hand as if to signal me that no further explanation was needed. However, it was not a gesture of resentfulness.
“Erich died here exactly one month before the end of the war at the age of 40. In a little more than a month, on June 21st of this year, he would have been 118 years old. Can you imagine that? He was so close. Too bad he did not experience the end of the war,” Constantin sighed.
It didn’t escape me that Erich and I were born on the same day. But that seemed secondary at first compared to what Constantin added. “I come here every weekend. How am I still alive, you wonder. I can see the big question mark in your face. I noticed it too the other day. I myself can’t quite explain it. But if I had to take a guess, I would say that part of the gold from the painting flowed into my organ system. It appears that with his last words in his letter Erich wanted to keep me alive and preserve the day we first met. I was working as a stand-up comedian in a small Viennese cabaret. Erich was the only one who could detect the most subtle witticisms that even the strictest censorship could not muzzle. I don’t know whether I should hate or love him for what he did, if it was an act of selfishness or love on his part,” Constantin continued.
He gestured towards me. I followed him under the tree whose dense foliage surrounded us like a protective wall. Although the area had changed somewhat after all these years, it was still unmistakable.
I remembered the letter I now pulled out and handed to Constantin. He gratefully took it from me. From the way he withdrew it from my hand, I gathered that he had forgiven me. Then we both turned closer to the tree. At first sight, there was nothing outstanding about it. The rain had already subsided a little. After only a few minutes, a rainbow adorned the sky and a nightingale rustled past us.
It was precisely then when I turned back to the tree and noticed some furrows that seemed to form a face, as if a male, nymph-like creature, or perhaps rather a male wood sprite, was brazenly looking at me in all its vividness. Indeed! It was hard to miss now. Constantin must have seen it too. The legend that a soldier of Napoleon died in a tree during a battle in Schleißheim, Upper Austria, and that his skeleton was found in a hollow oak tree, was nothing compared to what presented itself to my eyes. Not only did the tree live. Erich lived in the tree!
Abruptly, I turned to Constantin. “What are you looking at? You look like you have seen a ghost,” he spoke with genuine concern.
Well, that was because I sort of had seen one. Did he really not notice it? “The tree … it ……. I think Erich is still alive!” The words poured out of my mouth like untamable waters breaking the dam of this uncomforting silence that had spread between us.
Constantin contorted his face as if he had just been punched in the pit of the stomach. “I don’t … see anything other than the tree. What are you getting at?”, he asked exasperated.
“You really can’t see Erich’s face in the tree? When I saw the content of the letter …. I was practically here when the fight happened … but I’m sure you must know what I am talking about”, I stuttered in disbelief, struggling for words.
“I sincerely do not have the faintest clue. Do explain!” Constantin urged.
For a moment, I became aware of that glimmer of hope that shone in his eyes once more. Then I told him what had happened to me when I read the letter. I was horrified to discover that Constantin had never experienced anything like this during all the years with the letter in his possession.
“So, you are a kind of medium between Erich and me. Do you have any idea why that might be? Is he talking to you right now?” Constantin pressed on.
“Could it be because Erich and I were both born on the same day? At least that might be one reason,” I speculated.
Then I put my hand on the face, which looked as if it had been carved into the wood. I slowly traced the furrows with my fingers. I was now permeated by such a powerful energy, as if someone foreign were taking control over my body. But this feeling lasted only temporarily. I could now tell that I was looking at Constantin through Erich’s eyes, had obtained his thoughts, carried myself like him and spoke his words, as if reading a telegram.
“Constantin … do not forsake us … all is not lost … save the portrait … trust Flora … take the sunflower … at the right time … the rest will come naturally,” Erich whispered through me.
Then this energy left me. It was as if Erich had to spare the rest of it for himself and could not afford to give away more. I almost had to pull myself away from the tree. It seemed to me as if it didn’t want to let me go, as if it was inviting me to take root with it.
Constantin did not budge. His facial expression betrayed a combination of fear and joy. Save the painting? How on earth are we supposed to arrange that? The sunflower part was the one I could least make sense of.
“It all happened so fast, I wish he had made his request clearer”, I sighed, facing Constantin again.
“Cut yourself some slack. You have done so much for me already, even if initially I didn’t take it that way. Reservation and false modesty have clouded both of our judgements. But now I am sure that we will get to the bottom of it all. It is only a matter of time”, Constantin reassured me.
At that moment, I knew that I had made a worthy friend.
And so, the next few weeks of May were relatively unspectacular. Constantin and I met every weekend under the checker tree. But ever since my last merge with Erich, the latter had not revealed himself to me once. It was as if he also wanted to put me and Constantin to the test. But in return, it brought the two of us closer together. Instinctively, I got the impression that Erich knew exactly what he was doing, and I do not mean that in a disparaging way by any means. Sometimes I wondered what would have happened if I had taken that one sunflower with me that Erich had only mentioned in passing. But I refrained from doing so, because again, I didn’t want to seem too opportunistic. I shared Constantin’s view that everything would eventually take its course.
And it sure did, although it was more of a derailment, if you will. After nothing earth-shattering had happened professionally in the first two weeks of June, what I now learned a week before the start of summer was like the announcement of another declaration of war, whose vicious circle simply would not end. I had been given another story to write about. About the upcoming auction of Erich’s painting at the Dorotheum, on June 21st at 1 p.m. The after-party would start at 11 p.m.
Some simpletons had given Erich’s painting the title “Burli”, the Austrian slang term for the diminutive of boy, which can also be used in a condescending manner. (It never ceased to amaze me how mankind desperately adhered to the strategies of belittlement and the minimization of ideas only to make them more tangible for their own convenience, thus even proudly flaunting their ignorance.)
The director of the Schönbrunn castle museums had argued that he had been toying with the idea of selling for a long time. Compared to all the other art, the “Burli” stepped out of line and had not had a single visitor in years.
Journalists were invited to the after-party, and that also included the newspaper I was working for. I was allowed to bring a companion. In fact, societies like these, for whom the presence of art connoisseurs was not necessarily a mandatory requirement, frowned upon unaccompanied guests. The kind that in their minds drew unwanted and undivided attention to themselves, especially if this kind was female.
I had considered avoiding the attendance of the auction as well as the party in protest, if not quitting my job completely. All my optimism, all the hope of reuniting Constantin and Erich that I had gained over the past month and a half was gone. I was on the verge of surrender and had started envisioning the worst-case scenarios again. That’s what Erich must have meant by “save the portrait”.
But what exactly did he expect Constantin and me to do? Literally commit a robbery before the painting could get in the clutches of some shady ‘man of private means’? Or some politician who would just place it next to other art ‘souvenirs’ in the Parliament building that had secretly been financed by taxpayers’ money?
Constantin was no less crestfallen when I told him about the terrible news that had not yet been revealed to the public. He too seemed at loss. But for some reason, inexplicable to me, he took the news better than I did.
“I know it looks hopeless for both of us right now. I don’t have a plan for what we could possibly do either to stop all of this. But so far, your instincts have never led you astray. It is a rare gift. Please do not dismiss it now, if not for my sake, then for yours,” Constantin besieged me.
While I still could not let go of the thought that we just blindly let ourselves fall into the depths of fate, he truly believed in me.
And so, it was decided. I had an appointment with Constantin. I had given him my address, and we had agreed that he would come to my place in the evening of June 21st, after the acquisition of Erich’s painting.
And yet one question remained. What kind of ‘combat gear’ should I wear? When Constantin rang the doorbell, I had just startled from my sleep. I had been completely out of it the whole afternoon. The exhaustion of the last few days had simply taken a toll on me. I had not used the time to doll myself up like I should have. Unshowered and unkempt, I could have been mistaken for Shockheaded Peter’s sister. When Constantin gazed at me, I couldn’t help but notice his glimpse of horror and disappointment.
At this point, I just wanted to throw in the towel. I was not prepared, we had to be at the Dorotheum in an hour. Even a cab would not be exactly on time. My apartment was located in a rather winding alley and could easily be overlooked, even with the best navigation system.
Exhausted, I buried my head in my hands and leaned against my windowsill where that one sunflower was still blossoming. My gaze lingered longingly on the forest edges that lined the castle building in the distance. Constantin looked at me with compassion. A tear wetted my cheek until it buried itself in the soil of the pot.
What happened next struck me as a modern (and, I dare say, better) version of that scene from Cinderella where Ella is taken under the wing of the Fairy Godmother. The sunflower, from which a radiant glow suddenly emanated, turned to me, and bathed me from head to toe in its light. Then my clothes fell away from my body like a cover. An emerald, silky fabric entwined itself between my fingers, toes, and legs, covering me up to the neckline, but leaving my neck and shoulders untouched. My face had taken on a bronze tan, which added a turquoise tint to the moss green of my eyes. My even wavier hair, which still reached my shoulders, resembled a sun-kissed fleece. The sunflower, however, could no longer be found in the pot.
Constantin dropped his jaw in astonishment and curtsied, just as he had done the other day. Around my neck the petals hung like a necklace, and around my eyebrows two flower-veil-like circles had formed, giving my appearance something incognito.
“Of course. Take the sunflower at the right moment. Those were Erich’s words”, Constantin and I suddenly warbled out in unison, smiling at each other.
We left the flat and took the tram to the Dorotheum. After entering the reception hall, we both tried as best as we could to avoid superficial gossip and other inconveniences. We did not enter our actual names in the guest book, but this went unnoticed.
The buffet was more than ample. On an adjacent table stood several bottles of Checker Schnaps, almost all of which were already emptied. This was touted as a true delicacy from the Schönbrunn checker tree. It was said to flatter the palette in a very special way.
The receptionist boredly blew a chewing gum bubble and directed us to the auction room where most of the invited guests had already been seated. Amongst them were some camera crews as well as the culture department of the newspaper I was working for. I gathered how they anxiously whispered my name. They had obviously not become aware of my presence yet and had been expecting me impatiently. The fact that no one had recognized me yet must have been due to my altered appearance, which was just fine by me.
Constantin took a seat next to me and squeezed my hand encouragingly as our gazes fell on the picture on the stage, now shrouded in wine red drapery. The painting had been acquired that afternoon by the owner of Austria’s most successful consumer goods company. It was rumored that he wanted to give his pregnant wife the “Burli” as a gift for her 27th birthday. At midnight, the painting was to be toasted to and unveiled. Then the interview I was meant to conduct, and a subsequent celebration were to take place.
A minute before midnight, the doors to the auction room were shut. Then one of the hosts, who was to moderate the introductory speech, approached the painting. Eagerly raising his hand, he was about to unveil it. Even before the clock hand approached twelve, I jumped up as if stung by a tarantula and shouted a loud “No!”, louder than I had intended. The presenter dropped his hand. All the visitors turned abruptly to me and Constantin. For a minute, it was utterly silent. No one moved, it had already struck midnight.
Then suddenly, the acquirer of the painting fell to his knees. It was not long before his wife, and all the others present, followed him like dominoes, as if they were possessed and did not know how to help themselves. One of them, as if in a delirious daze, bawled, “Behold, the Sun Woman, she has truly descended to us from heaven, as from the Revelation of John! Let us celebrate! Walking on Sunshine. Music on!”
The audience had completely lost its interest in the painting. I had attracted all the attention. Although now this ghastly song had broken the silence, no one felt prompted to dance and everyone continued to remain on the floor.
What was I waiting for? This was the only opportunity! Without thinking twice, Constantin and I left these goofballs to their own devices. We stormed towards the painting, removed the draperies and were about to take it back to its rightful owner. We were not able to refrain from a laugh or two since this whole scene could have come from a Chaplinesque slapstick movie. But we didn’t even get to grab the painting by the frame, as it catapulted us away from the Dorotheum in a split second, like an opening portal.
We arrived in front of the checker tree. The painting stood upright, fully facing the furrows that had yet again started to form Erich’s facial features, now discernible to both Constantin and me. The tree bent and twisted. Its leaves rustled wildly. Then the bark cracked, fell off, and a man of graceful stature and noble countenance flitted through the painting, directly in the arms of Constantin. The makeup and the gold underneath came off Constantin’s skin, revealing a handsome man with golden curls and of youthful disposition. However, nothing was left of the painting. It was as if it had now manifested completely and had burst the frame that had been holding it all this time.
I was now waiting for a retrograde alteration to occur in my appearance as well. The only thing that changed was the flowery veil-like rings that now fell away from my eyes.
Erich and Constantin rushed into my arms. “Thank you, Flora. I don’t know what Constantin and I would have done without your help. We are forever indebted to you”, Erich’s gentle voice resounded. And to this day, the same holds true on my part.
Over the next few weeks, amusing headlines graced the front pages of a wide variety of newspapers, such as “Mysterious Sun Woman Spotted at Dorotheum Auction Party. Apocalypse not to be ruled out?” or “‘Burli’ lost without a trace. No birthday present for 27-year-old trophy wife?”.
Fortunately, no one from work had pestered me about my ‘absence’ at the Dorotheum. I had given them little opportunity to do so. The excuse to which I stuck was that I had tested positive for Covid and had not been feeling well all afternoon.
I had decided to work at the newspaper until mid-July before handing in my resignation. By then, I should have enough savings to help Constantin and Erich find a place to live. Plus, I had also inherited a manageable sum bequeathed to me by my dear parents. For the time being, I had taken Constantin and Erich under my shelter. The reason I had given for my resignation was that I wanted to develop my professional and personal horizons. The usual empty phrases people resort to.
On my last day at work, as I was strolling home, I accidentally ran into a lady in front of Schönbrunn’s main gate, trying to catch the streetcar in time. When I picked myself back up, I realized it was the lady who had resigned as director of the Viennese Artists’ Association and was now self-employed. She bared her teeth and gave me a sincere and charming smile.
“Mrs. Forst! What a surprise! I was just about to come to your office and make you a job proposal. It has come to my attention that you are particularly interested in lost or thought-lost art and the inheritance issues involved. My son and I could use some bright minds ourselves right now for a research project. I would be honored if you, and possibly other trusted candidates, could assist me. You don’t have to worry about the financial issues, you will be more than generously compensated”, the lady suggested.
Without hesitation, I agreed. I knew immediately who should accompany me on this new and wonderful path of life.
Born in Vienna, Austria, Christina H. Janousek holds a bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature and is currently working on her master thesis at the University of Vienna. She has gained work experience at different cultural institutions (e. g. publishing houses, literary societies, and a small magazine). This did not only give her the opportunity to work together with journalists and write short adds, but also to look behind the scenes of the literary business.. In 2023, she will complete a newspaper internship. Christina is an admirer of the literary fairy tale, the Decadent Movement, Absurdism, and surrealism. Her previously published work “Der Spitzel in Viktor Pelevins Roman ‘T.’” can be found on the homepage of the Documentation Center for Central and Eastern European Literature. Her first short story, “The Mirror of First Gazes”, was published in “Impspired” (Issue 21). Christina is fluent in German and English, and has basic knowledge in Russian, Italian, and Latin.