Balthasar navigated the vélocipède around a hole in the road as he cycled past Miss Edith’s house. He concentrated hard on not looking at the curtained windows for a glimpse of her silhouette. The big wheel wobbled as he oversteered.
A prickle of fear rushed through his limbs as the bike crossed the railroad tracks. His body remembered only too well the sensation of falling, everything happening painfully slowly. His hands and brain hadn't been able to stop the fall towards the ground as the tracks snagged his back wheel. His shoulder had hit the cobbles first, his doubled-over arm drove into his stomach, his knees and finally his face scraped over the railbed. One leg had become entangled in the unwieldy vélocipède, imprisoned by the buckle of his plusfours. The train had slammed by, brakes screeching, spouting steam from all orifices. The noise had hurt more than the wheels. At first.
His new leg rang on the cobblestones outside and thumped too loudly on the thin runner in his landlady’s hallway. It hissed with an embarrassing burp of steam as the pneumatic pistons compressed, and squeaked when they expanded again. It was heavier than his old leg and his back ached all the time.
Even on the bicycle, his favorite means of escaping the city, he had still not learned to compensate for the greater strength of the steam limb. The oppressive smell of soot permeated the air, the roofs of the tall buildings glittered with engine parts and telegraph lines. His wheel tracks inscribed erratic sinuses on the road surface of Unter den Linden. Over the tops of the blooming, fragrant lindens lining the street, he glanced at the new iron roof of the Reichstag building. Sometimes it would be cranked open and emit enigmatic steam clouds, but today the spring air was as clean as it ever got in Berlin.
Beyond the city, past the cornfields blushing gaily from thousands of poppies, mixed deciduous and evergreen woods hid Prince Frederick’s hunting lodge from casual passers-by. His patron had obtained permission for Balthasar to hunt butterflies there. Butterflies like the thousands Miss Edith had collected, displayed on little white cardboard squares with pins through their fragile bodies, wings extended to their fullest. She had loved it when he brought her butterflies, even if they were ordinary ones like little whites, brimstones or admirals.
But after the accident, she had waited a decent six months and then broken off the engagement. She stood before him in her rustling skirts, fingers plucking at her kid gloves until the grey tips became quite wrinkled and soiled.
“It is truly not the disfigurement, Balthasar. I mean Herr Schmetterling, now. It is the debt. How would we live our married life with six thousand Reichsmarken to pay off? There would never be a house of our own, or servants.”
She had loomed over Balthasar, although she was not a tall girl, because he was imprisoned in his chair. He could not rise without the leg that rested under a discreet dishtowel on the table behind her. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. Her soft bosom heaved in her grey walking dress, a row of ornamental cloth buttons from throat to hem. Now he would never get to unbutton them, never see more of her skin than her throat and face and hands, and the glowing memory of her décolleté that one evening.
“Edith…” he stammered.
“You really must call me Fräulein Bollmann now,” she answered.
The memories shivered on the beat of his clattering teeth as he traversed the worsening roads to the lodge. The low oblong of the Glienicke lodge shone pristine against the glittering backdrop of the lake. He slowed the vélocipède. His hand gripped the middle of the handlebars firmly so he could doff his cap to the house, in case his patron or the Prinzessin were looking at the bicyclist flashing by.
When the going became nearly impossible for the vélocipède’s thin wheels, he stopped next to a large hornbeam. He leaned against the tree, grasping the trunk, transferred the new leg to a low branch and swung his other leg over. The vélocipède trembled and toppled, but a baby oak caught it halfway its downfall.
Balthasar climbed down. The butterfly nets were safe in their leather cover. He took off his tweed jacket, hung it over the handlebars so it wouldn’t crease, then took off his tie and starched collar. After rolling up his shirtsleeves, he carefully fastened them with his old clerk’s rubber bands. His landlady charged five pfennig for laundering and ironing a shirt.
He put out the jam jars with pierced lids for his catch and put the smallest one is his trouser pocket. He’d once seen a Lepidoptera professor from Leipzig wear a specially made leather belt with all kinds of buckles and clasp to hang one’s instruments on, but he hadn’t even dared speculate about the cost of such an item.
A reserve net like a bow across his back, the best muslin one in his hand, Balthasar stepped to the lake shore, where the trees became thin and all kinds of flowers lifted their faces to the sun. The morning was young, with a light veil of haze floating over the lake. Pocketsize meadows between the trees buzzed with bees and butterflies, most of ordinary kinds. A bright lemon butterfly, hovering over a purple cattail that quivered in the morning breeze, lifted his heart.
Only to thud down when his new leg, with its narrow iron point, sunk deep into a boggy patch. He stumbled, grasping futilely after reeds and sedges to hold him upright. His right knee got soaked and the good net as well, making it useless for hours.
At noon, the wet wool chafing Balthasar’s knee had almost dried and he felt he could afford to take a moment for his Mittagessen. He sat on a gnarled root and unpacked the handkerchief and newspaper bundle Frau Strepow had prepared for him. Sauerkraut, potatoes and even a small sausage. She must have been in a good mood. The food was cold, and the sauerkraut juices had made the potatoes soggy and the sausage limp, but with the sun on his neck and the Wannsee water cool in his mouth, Balthasar knew his life could still turn out all right. He would catch a special butterfly for Edith, even with his old net. His secret ambition was to find her a swallowtail, a butterfly rare in Italy, and only once seen north of the Alps. She would marry him and together they would overcome his debt.
A trout splashed in the water, a turquoise dragonfly hovered over the glittering water. The hum of insects intensified, and Balthasar was on the verge of drowsing off when the timbre of the insect noise changed. It whined like someone scratching a nail over a blackboard. He forced himself upright. The tree root had carved an illegible message in his back and he took a few moments to swing the kinks out of his spine.
The sunlight broke into a million shards as it hit the water, turning the lake surface into crinkled, steaming tin foil. From that gauzy layer rose a creature of rainbows and faceted jewels. Balthasar’s breath halted. The sheer beauty of the large winged creature with its emerald and ruby eyes released the grip of his fingers around his net, but he didn’t care. It was a joy just to stand there and witness her stately rise into the light. Balthasar prayed her wings were not attached with wax, for they wouldn't survive the ecstasy of the sun’s embrace.
Strangely enough, the irritating whine that had woken him came from the same direction as the divine butterfly. The whine broke into a stuttering clatter. The smooth path of the creature veered into a stumbling, staggering fall. As it came lower and closer, he noticed how her wings gleamed with the oily highlights of steel, how they whirred and clicked instead of beating up and down. Her eyes were glass and her body velvet around a helium-filled sack. The way the light around her refracted into a halo was because of the puffs of steam she emitted.
His butterfly was a miniature zeppelin.
She was a wondrous creature, but nevertheless she was a butterfly. Balthasar’s hands tightened around the worn wooden handle of his second-best net. The future lost its desperate edge and became bright and easy, with a servant or two, a carriage and apple-cheeked children. The creature might be a miracle or someone’s life work, but she was still a butterfly and he would catch her.
He raised his net to hook it over an antenna or leg, realized it would tear, and shrugged it off. He’d be a wealthy man if he could bring this beauty to a collector.
The butterfly’s course became even more erratic and impossible to predict as the racket of its wings stuttered. Balthasar teetered on the edge of the lake, one arm around a slim alder tree, one leg extended over the water for balance.
He slashed the net down, sure he had her. The net blinded him for a moment as the white muslin came between him and the butterfly. The muslin bulged out into its maximum conical shape, but it only grazed the mechanical butterfly’s nose. The net slapped onto the water hard, nearly toppling him from his slippery perch. He milled his arms and had to let go of his net to prevent himself from falling.
In the end he couldn’t stop his body’s downward motion and wound up knee-deep in the lake. His shoe. His new leg that couldn’t get wet. He clambered out so hastily that, for a moment, he lost sight of the butterfly.
When he had regained his balance and shaken off the water, which thankfully had not penetrated the pneumatic knee, he reached for the floating net.
His hand brushed against a hard yet flexible thing, which had so few flaws that it was almost invisible in the bright light scattering sequins over the water. The butterfly’s antenna. He followed its length to the inhuman stare of the big bulbous eyes. Its head was as big as his own. The great wings - not just two pairs like a true butterfly, but many wings made out of the thinnest foil - floated on the water like the sails of a capsized boat.
The flexible proboscis telescoped gently in and out to the tiny clank and hiss of the butterfly’s internal steam machine. It touched his face. The hollow tube sucked gently at his cheek and he felt a tiny sting of pain. What did it want?
Dozens of tiny reflections stared back at him. Centimeter by centimeter he crawled away from the lack of awareness in the eye. Its wingspan was twice the width of his arms, its tube-ribbed balloon body about man-size. It lay half in, half out of the water, its limbs and wings trembling, its eyes following him.
Why didn’t it climb out? Had it run out of coal? He recalled the irregular sound of its flight. It was broken in some way. He waded through the clear, shallow water, disregarding the dangers of rust, trying to see what part of it was damaged. The butterfly whirred as it shifted its body to follow him with its eyes.
Balthasar stayed away from the sack-like body. He knew nothing about the workings of zeppelins and the gases inside. He circled the drifting wings, the legs submerged by their greater weight, until he could see its other side. The butterfly’s right foreleg was only a stump. His thigh twinged in sympathy.
Well, nothing he could do about it. Would its mutilation affect its value? Life had taught him to expect that it would. A true collector only wanted pristine specimens on display. Only its utter rarity might get him a good price.
Balthasar clambered back on shore. His good net would be dry by now and although he could not use it to bag the butterfly, he thought he could hook it behind the wings to drag the creature on the shore. It was a worry. How would he carry the butterfly on the vélocipède without damaging it? The weight of all that iron would drag it down.
Its rapacious head turned to follow him. Down in the water, sodden, colorless like a moth, it didn’t have beauty or grace. The shape of its head and eyes reminded him that insects were only mindless predators. Would it dry out to be as beautiful as it had been, its quivering wings darting through the air? Perhaps he should return to the city and hire a horse and wagon or one of the new steam-cars to take the butterfly away. He hesitated. So much hung on how he handled this right now. The butterfly was valuable, even damaged. It would be worth the cost of hiring the cart if it could be preserved as it was now. Or even better, polished back up to its former glory.
The creature made another pitiful attempt to clamber on to the shore. Balthasar judged that it was unlikely to succeed, so he might safely assume it would be still here when he returned. But no! What if someone else found the thing? Or, not as bad but still undesirable, if lying in the water for so long caused its metal to corrode?
That decided matters. He knelt on the shore, careful to place his pneumatic knee on a dry spot, and put his arms around what in a man would be the shoulder joints. He heaved. It weighed more than a man, but the moment the zeppelin body became free of the water it felt lighter.
The creature clattered and clanked, spreading its razorblade wings like fans. Its whole foreleg scrabbled at his shirt and Balthasar let go in a moment of monetary panic. The butterfly sank back down at once. Did he imagine it or did it really look at him in reproof?
He repositioned himself and pulled again. His good leg trembled, his new leg hissed and farted as the joint engaged, and he managed to keep his hands from slipping. Heave, and step back. Heave, and step back. His back muscles screamed but he wouldn’t give up now. His boot caught in a tangle of bindweed and he fell backwards, the butterfly’s upper body over his, the proboscis pulsating inches from his upper chest. He wished he was wearing his coat.
Balthasar crawled out from under the knobby legs, careful so the wings wouldn’t cut his miserably soiled shirtsleeves. The butterfly’s legs pushed against the soggy ground for purchase. For a moment it managed to stand upright, but the missing foreleg made it list inexorably to the right and it fell over. A weedy dog rose caught its weight for a moment, much like the tree that supported his vélocipède, but the butterfly was so much heavier that it descended slowly into the springy underground, its head in a patch of flowering raspberry, its wings in the air. Balthasar suppressed the urge to stroke the ugly head and murmur encouragements. It wasn’t a dog.
The wings, silver now that the trees prevented the sun from turning them into wheeling rainbows, beat and flickered in a desperate attempt to rise again, but the face-down, behind-up position prevented it from succeeding. The contrast between the grandeur of its wings and the embarrassing position of its body wrenched in his chest. It was almost a pity to deny a creature this magnificent its freedom.
What would happen to her? The image welled up with disturbing clarity. She would be lying face down on a gigantic white wooden square, a spear through the back of her neck, nails holding down her wings, her legs ripped from their sockets to splay them properly.
Balthasar took out his handkerchief and mopped his forehead. He couldn’t understand the reluctance and agitation that possessed him now. Here was his chance for a future with Miss Edith. He would not have to stick to Fräulein Bollmann, he would call her Frau Schmetterling, even Edith.
He walked up and down between the hornbeam and his bicycle. Ta thump, his feet went. His shadow lurched over hillocks of grass and clutched at tree roots, asymmetrical, grotesque. A strange hiccup sprang from his midriff. He blew his nose in his sweat-sodden handkerchief. His mustache points had lost their stiffness and tickled his cheek. He felt very hot. It was as if a decision was asked of him, but he knew not for what.
It wasn’t fair. He hadn’t asked to come under a train, or to be fitted with a costly leg. He deserved to be happy and prosperous and loved. He chewed on his mustache and paced his tiny circuit. She had looked so beautiful in the air.
Then he knelt by the butterfly’s shiny head, which now rested defeated in the ruined vegetation. He took off the leather point protecting the tip of his new leg, removed the wool stocking that bulged oddly over joints and struts, unbuckled his plusfours and rolled them up over his thigh as far as he could. His pale hairy flesh was encased in straps and buckles, red and irritated where it met the steel of the prosthesis.
His fingers worked feverishly on the tiny leather buckles. When they were done, he pushed down on the leather cupping his stump. A sickly smell of tallow and sweat and rot rose from the ridged flesh. Leather and skin parted with a wet plop.
Balthasar’s right hand remembered how this worked and shot towards the ground to support him when his knee no longer could. He dragged the leg over to the butterfly’s other side. The proboscis’ pulsing had visibly slowed. She could not die now, he wouldn’t allow it, but he didn’t know how to feed it. What would a steam butterfly need? Would someone feed her tiny grains of coals to stoke her engine?
He matched the pneumatic leg to the butterfly’s stump. His steel leg, ludicrously narrow and shiny on him, was only a little larger and cruder than the butterfly’s other limbs.
The butterfly stump felt warm. Inside the broken-off end, gears turned and valves pumped, tinier ones than he’d ever seen. He gently fitted the sleeve around the butterfly’s upper limb. The miniature machinery inside whirred and clicked as they tried to mate.
The butterfly’s head lifted and her bulbous eyes turned towards him, almost black in the shade. The proboscis fluttered against his forearm. Balthasar gazed at the predator’s head, but was unable to project anything like feelings onto it. Still, he knew she sensed he was trying to help her. He wrapped the leather ties around the base of the butterfly’s leg and closed the buckles as best as he could.
Balthasar held his breath. The leather cup pulsed. A bit of oil dribbled out. In the corner of his eye, the sun danced on the lake, bees buzzed modestly in the background. After an immeasurable amount of time, which he endured unmoving, the butterfly's leg twitched.
He jerked his neck forward to see if it was really true. The wings slid open like iridescent fans, catching a stray beam of sunlight, and the hind legs stirred and flexed. Then the middle legs raised up the tail. After what seemed a long interval, both the front legs braced themselves against the ground cover and the butterfly stood under her own power.
She turned away from him and ambled towards the shore, where it sloped gently into the water. Her legs pumped up and down, emitting hisses and steam, and then with one powerful flex she lifted off and flew away.
Balthasar looked after his butterfly’s flight, wobbly at first, but quickly gaining confidence and strength. It disappeared into the low wash of sunlight hanging over the water. The sun hung low in the sky, indicating that it was nearing the end of the day. How had that happened?
So here he was, wet, muddy, tired, a one-legged man without a future and without a wife. Yet his heart wasn’t heavy when he selected a sapling to cut a walking stick from. He tossed away his butterfly nets, slung his jacket over his shoulder, his tie and wilted collar stuffed in a pocket.
He fought his way through the underbrush, without stopping for his bicycle, and found the hot dusty road to the city. It would be a long walk back.
A hum overhead made him look up. A few meters over his head the butterfly flew, its engine puttering along regularly. The reddish rays of the setting sun set its wings aflame. She was beautiful again.
First published in Ancient New, ed. James Tallett, Deepwood Publishing, 2013.