Palace of the Blue Butterfly


Two days after Christmas, Hellmann’s secretary called Lili at the gallery to say he was happy to report that the Licenciado had recovered and wondered if Lili could dine with him next afternoon at his home.

“Of course,” Lili said. “I’d be delighted.”

“So you’ve been summoned.” Gabi leaned back in the squeaky office chair. “Mejor acostumbrarte.” Get used to it.

Lili pushed her glasses up on her nose, ran the mouse along the pad and stared into the computer at a file labeled New Paintings #1.“Where were we?” she asked.

Gabi sighed.

For my benefit, Lili thought. Well, he can sulk all he wants, because I own this place now. She doubted Hellmann would even let her sell it to Gabi if she wanted, and that thought pricked her. What would Hellmann expect from her in the long run?

“Okay,” Gabi said, a sneer almost audible in his tone. “The first thing you have to try to understand is the gallery is not a shop. Vivienne and I didn’t worry about customers coming in off the street like a mall. Of course, things are bad now. The Japanese recession didn’t hurt us, because we didn’t rely on them the way some galleries did, getting big commissions for paintings from Mitsubishi. But now in the States, the gallery is losing some markets. You are going to have to offer something unique.” He pulled his chair closer to the computer, clicked the mouse, and zoomed in on the next thumbprint. “You are going to have to create some buzz about these new painters,” he paused. “Or you are going to have to pay me more to do it.”

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll pay you more.”

Gabi laughed. “Why do I think you’re lying?”

Was she that obvious, Lili wondered?

“Good idea not to lie to me,” he said, enlarging the colored square on the screen. “Describe this painting”.

“They are a bit like Carlito’s.”

“In what way?”

“No folkloric icons.”

“And this?” He clicked on the next painting.

“There are clearly elements of the fantastic, but not the magical, not the shamanistic or the Pre-Columbian, but fantastic like Kafka’s giant bug.”

“So where did you earn to talk like an art critic?” He clicked on the next one.

“Like all teachers, I’m a life-long learner,” Lili said, no need to say she edited Joel’s rambling pages, absorbing it all, passing it off to her students in the occasional extra credit sessions after school.

“And in this one,” she pointed to a red background punctured with white dots. It made Lili think of a flock of birds scattering after a gunshot. “Here the artist avoids the representational. The painting is all expressive emotion. It’s both old German expressionism and something new.”

“True, but it has to hit you here.” He punched his stomach. “That’s what I taught Vivienne. When you see it, you have to say ‘yes, I know this to be true’.”

“You taught Vivienne?”

“She wasn’t Mexican. No tuvo La Mexicanidad in su sangre. Mexican artists demand truth because we live in a land of masks and hypocrisy and corruption. All that bullshit sucks us in.” He stood up. “I’m going outside for a smoke.” He stopped at the door. “You’re not Mexican either, Lili. Nothing can teach you how to be.”

Two days later, all through the lunch with Hellmann, Gabi’s words still haunted her. Hypocrisy and lies suck you in. You’re not Mexican. She thought of Alejandro’s reverence for the plain, maple candlestand. She thought of Yarabi saying, “Who pays for everything here?” Sooner or later, the truth was going to have to come out. Lili ran her finger down the baroque-patterned silver knife handle and turned to Hellmann after the dishes were cleared. “I have to ask you something. “Did you pay Senor Perez-Luna to watch over on my sister?”

Hellmann dabbed the side of his mouth with the thick damask napkin. “I wanted him to protect her. The only people Vivienne had to depend on in that house were a demented old lady, a maid, an aging gringa and her gigolo. What good were they?”

“Alejandro wasn’t much better, was he?”

Hellmann rang a little bell by his chair, and two maids came scurrying. “Coffee, tea?”

Lili shook her head.

Nada, ahorita,” he said and turned to Lili. “ Now, there are some things I must tell you.”

Lili waited to hear about Vivienne, about the kind of relationship he had with her, about the arrangements, so to speak, but Hellmann surprised her. He turned suddenly business-like, cold.

“The art world is a viper pit. Long knives will be out for you as they were for Vivienne. You cannot trust anyone.”

“What about Carlito?” Lili asked.

“Useless. Men like him usually are.”

“Men like him?”

Men who think they are artists,” he sneered. He tapped the side of the chair with his thick nails. “She made him, you know. It was all what she called buzz. Don’t be timid. Your sister ruled her world. She was a goddess. You are that goddess now.” He stopped, looked down at his hands. “You are wondering what I want from you? That’s the reason for the question about Senor Perez, Isn’t it? He looked up. “I want you to bring her back to me. Her spirit if nothing else.”

Lili felt the hair on her neck stand up.

“I want you to be like her, and I’m telling you how. Maybe, you’re too weak.” He threw down the gauntlet.

“I was always the strong one.”

“You were strong up there,” he said, pointing to the ceiling. “ Up there with the gringos where it’s easy. Look what happened to your father when he got here. You have to be stronger than he was. Of course, you will have to make sacrifices— perhaps even sacrifice what you love most—, but only the noble can truly love. For everyone else it’s a matter of petty needs.”

Hellmann placed his napkin on the table and pushed himself up from his chair. “Let’s walk, shall we? Doctor’s orders.”

He took Lili’s arm, and they headed down the arched hallway, out a set of heavy doors, and across the broad sweep of grass, damp from buried irrigation systems.

“I had hoped,” he closed his eyes, reached into his breast pocket and pulled out dark glasses. “What does it matter now what I’d hoped?” He put his glasses on and looked over his domain— gardeners, peacocks, water hissing back and forth over the lawn in wide arcs, ruby-throated hummingbirds darting into the spray.

“They say hope is crueler than despair,” Hellmann continued. “Don’t believe anyone who tells you that. Despair is worse.” He aimed a gnarled finger at the almost bee-sized birds. “They are supposed to be good luck. A visit from the gods. Maybe it is Vivienne returning. Hope. You see? Better than despair.” He guided Lili down a lava stone walkway, leading to a tiny Mayan cottage. Blue and orange Bird of Paradise plants reached across the stone walk as if in flight. He said, “ This was Vivienne’s special place.” He lifted the latch on the wooden door. “Pasa.”

The room was shuttered and smelled of copal incense, resinous and burnt. Sprigs of sage tied with straw were bunched in the corners. Lili remembered learning about curanderos at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel. Sage bundles were an Aztec method for keeping away evil spirits.

Senor Hellmann sagged into chair next to the wall and looked at the bed, a stucco platform wrapped in white mosquito gauze. The maids had tucked the netting under the mattress tightly as a package. A single white rose sat in a silver vase by the bed, a ghostly flame pointing to the sky.

“Open that shutter, would you?” Hellmann asked.

Lili reached over a rough-hewn, wooden desk and unhooked the two panels. They creaked open an inch, and she pushed harder until early afternoon sunlight flooded the room, and the tops of the Bird of Paradise plants peeked over the low window ledge

“She loved it here,” he whispered.

“I’m sure she did,” Lili said, her voice limp, the air gone out of her lungs. She wondered if he knew about Carlito. How much could Vivienne really have loved it here?

“Here she could be a child again, free and pure. I feel her here. Don’t you?”

Lili tried to smile, to go along.

“Well,” Senor Hellmann said. “Now you see how I spend my afternoons. Sit, please.” He pointed to the desk chair.

Outside, the hummingbirds dove into the Bird of Paradise flowers. Lili listened to the frantic hum and click of their wings for a few seconds before she asked the next, almost more troublesome question. “Did Senor Perez-Luna tell you anything about my sister I should know?”

Hellmann pushed himself up, steadied himself and walked to the window where the hummingbirds still flew around the shocking, bright flowers. “Nothing. Nothing of any importance now.” He stared at Lili for a moment as if he were looking past her, then walked to the door. “Close the shutters, please. My hands, the arthritis …” his voice trailed. He looked around the room once more and stepped outside.

Lili latched the shutters. The room fell into gray shadows. So Vivienne got to be a goddess and Hellmann encouraged it—along with Jolet. All the while, she had shrugged off her sister’s behavior as decadent, impossible, but had never believed Vivienne would die.

Lili closed the door behind her, lowered the heavy metal latch. She watched Hellmann walk slowly down the dark volcanic stones out to the green lawn. What if she was weak, and Vivienne had been the strong one? What if being alive—just breathing, walking, working, talking—was all Lili had accomplished? She felt her knees give under her.

She caught up with Hellmann, who was standing by a wire aviary. He opened the door, and tiny birds flew out—finches, parakeets— in a startled flurry.

“I like to see if they’ll come back. It amuses me. They usually do. They really have no other safe place.”

She told him she had to leave, that she had an appointment, that she would wait for the driver in front.

“About your father,” he said, brushing her cheek with his own wrinkled one, his goodbye. “He would have said I was an elitist bastard.”

“I think he said that about everyone, especially the people who helped him,” Lili said.

“We all have our pride,” Hellmann said. “Him most of all.”

The car turned out of the narrow alleys of San Angel and onto Insurgentes. Lili leaned back on the soft leather and watched the brushy tops of palms pass over the shade-tinted glass, feeling yet-again disoriented, creepy, burdened with more images of Vivienne’s make-believe world. She had not expected the lecture on her sister’s strengths versus her own weaknesses, or her father’s, and she kicked herself for offering that last remark, for giving Hellmann another chance to show he knew the family secrets.

Lili looked out the window. On the broad sidewalks under the palms, she saw ice cream vendors, broom sellers, balloon hawkers. She saw campesinos in straw cowboy hats waiting at bus stops and barefoot Indians. Maybe Senor Hellmann was right about her. Maybe she couldn’t be the queen bee. Maybe she would always be one of the workers, droning away her whole life.

Her father would have said that was a good thing. Con los pobres de la tierra, he would sing Jose Marti’s poem when he was sloppy drunk. With the poor people of the world I want to share my fate.

The driver pulled up in front of the gallery and let her off. Lili walked down the steps to the front door and hesitated, looking at the blue walls, the horsetail reeds planted in a water trough by the entrance. “The great tragedy of the twentieth century,” her father used to say, his black moods overwhelming him, “is the failure of communism.” There is nothing left to believe in.” And there hadn’t been, not for him.

Her father’s dreams had destroyed him. And this place named after the rain god’s consort had been her sister’s dream — a place she could play the Aztec goddess to a warlord. Her dream had destroyed her, too.

Had Lili ever had dreams of her own? Yes— for safety, order, calm. How do you know you’re not going to end up in a ditch somewhere? Joel had yelled at her, but hadn’t her dreams run her off the road, too, into a safe, orderly, calm ditch? Her wish for order and calm wasn’t a dream at all, but wide-awake determination. Truth be told though, her secret dream had always been to be like Vivienne, to be Vivienne. That’s what all the fluttering over, worrying, fussing and caretaking had been about. And now she had a fairy godfather who had waved a wand and was telling her to do it. Strange the way the world worked, Lili thought, terrifying even. Is this what it feels like to have a dream come true?

Lili pulled out her keys and opened the door, pushing away the mail that had spilled onto the floor from the slot in the wall. She reached down, gathered up the envelopes and walked to the back doors. Pulling them open, she stepped into the courtyard. Afternoon heat radiated off the walls, and the air was still, comforting. She closed her eyes for a moment, then lifted the envelopes, began sorting. Bills and business letters she put in one pile, the others— small, hand-addressed, written on creamy stationary would be condolence cards. She opened one of them.

Estimado Familia Golden, they all began. Most were formal sympathy notes, some included announcements of donations made in Vivienne’s name, some were short anecdotes telling how her sister had touched someone’s life. In one, someone returned a book. The letter’s author, a rabbi, said he had always expected to be able to do this in person and how grieved he was by this tragedy.

Lili carried the letters into the office and shoved the condolence cards into a file cabinet. She would have some thank-you notes made up with the gallery’s logo and write back. She could even arrange to meet some of these people, find out more about her sister.

She pulled scissors out of a cup on the desk and walked around the patio, clipping brown, papery flowers. She fished out the dead gardenias from the baptismal font, pulled shriveled orchids from the fountain and dumped them in the garbage pail. Even if she found out more about her sister, connected all the dots, it wouldn’t change anything. Maybe she didn’t want it to.

She felt weak, sick with guilt. Survivor’s guilt. How many times had she resented the burden of taking care of Vivienne? Well, all survivors feel this way, she told herself. Everyone left behind asks, why not me? She shut her eyes, waiting until the black feeling passed.

When it did, she carried the scissors back to the desk, dropped them in the cup and sat down in front of the cluttered desk. She reached for the big black binder labeled ‘invoices’ on the shelf above the desk, pulled it down and opened it, her eyes blurring over the numbers.

Several of the invoices were for paintings shipped to a Carolyn at a Dallas gallery. Lili flipped the Xerox machine on, the motor hummed, light leaked through the plastic cover. She would start xeroxing all the invoices for taxes. She would call Carolyn tomorrow and explain. Maybe Vivienne and Carolyn had been friends.

Tired of xeroxing after a while, she returned to the desk, sat down, pushed the computer on button and waited for the chime, the screen to light up. She found the new paintings file and clicked where she’d left off. A canvas appeared made of bright blue shapes. It could be Caribbean seen from above. She pulled a piece of paper from the printer drawer and jotted notes. “No reference to idyllic, noble Pre-hispanic past,” she wrote, remembering Joel’s language, the art-crtic’s code. “Thoroughly modern, disjointed, fragmentized.” She scribbled faster, her mind racing. “We see this development in post-World War literature in Europe. This painting raises the question—- what has been the war in Mexico? That is the question D.F. painters pose.” She remembered Gabi’s voice lecturing her, acting like he was showing her the ropes. You have to find something new. It has to hit you, here. She zoomed in closer to the canvas. “Exuberance in style is pure Mexico,” she wrote.

She put the pencil down and ran her fingers over her shorthand words. She should have done this kind of work for Vivienne earlier, should have helped instead of judged her. She’d only patronized her sister with her offers to rescue.

Lili grabbed a black binder Gabi had left on his desk and opened the cover—there must have been a hundred plastic photo envelopes clipped into the rings and pages of artists’ bios stuck in the back. She remembered him saying, “These paintings were the ones Vivienne rejected.” He’d turned the plastic inserts over. “And these were the ones she liked. You need to understand why.” He’d aimed his fingers at his heart. “The heart. That’s what people want to buy.”

Lili opened the top drawer and got out a magnifying glass. The paintings were full of color–no tepid emotions here, no weak pleasures. She read some of the artists’ statements. One quoted Kandinsky. “Color can convey emotion regardless of content.”

Lili wondered how much her own emotions muted the colors around her. What really made her pull the roller blind down on the window of her life? What really made her want to live in the in the grey shade? She turned back to the binder. One artist wrote about a life of heat, of growing up in Veracruz, about the dark colors, how she examined the perverse, the erotic through them. Where passion becomes almost repellant, the artist wrote, it is closest to beauty. Such strong lives, such strong emotions. She wrote down the artist’s name and thumb tacked it to the bulletin board. Rosalia. No last name, just Rosalia.

Lili closed the binder and took off her glasses. Could she open herself to the brightness of life, the utter chaos, like this artist Rosalia? The ingredients were there — a rooftop terrace, where a furnace sun set each night, an old house full of history, the tiles worn thin by the weight of those lives. If she could face it, there was her own childhood, full of dark colors, full of repellant passions. Stop being so afraid, Hellmann had exhorted.

Lili got up and went into the hallway. Behind the glass doors, the garden was pitch black. How had it gotten so late? She pulled the doors shut and locked them.

“Gabi.” A fist pounded on the front door. “Pendejo. Abre la pinche puerta, hombre. “It’s me Carlito.”

Carlito swore again and rattled something like a box of castanets. Lili opened the door and Carlito stood there, a life-sized wooden skeleton in his arms, a bottle of tequila in his free hand.

“You’re here,” Carlito snarled. “That spoils my little plan.” He lifted the skeleton in his arms like a groom carrying a bride across the threshold and set the wooden bones on the banquette. “I need to dress my novia,” Carlito slurred. He pulled a garment from his leather satchel.

Lili recognized the gown. Vivienne’s kimono. Carlito lifted one of the skeleton’s arms and stuck it through the flowered silk.

“Where did you get that?” she demanded. The kimono had been hanging in her bathroom.

Carlito dangled his keys in front of her eyes. “ I was her lover. She gave them to me.” He shoved the keys back in his pocket and pulled the kimono tie out of the satchel.

“You went into my apartment?”

Carlito tied the kimono sash around the skeleton’s arms. “Her apartment. I went to her apartment. I used to tie her up like this,” he said, flashing an uneven, drunk grin.” She liked that. What about you? Do you like things a little diferente? Do you ever do anything interesting?”

His face was too close to Lili’s. She backed away, feeling sick.

“I guess not,” Carlito sneered. “Ven mi nina, me amor,” he crooned to the skeleton. He tied the sash around its waist. He pulled out a pair of gold Oaxacan earrings from his pocket and stuck them in the holes in the side of the skeleton’s head.

Lili imagined his big hands, their paint-stained nails rummaging through Vivienne’s jewelry, through God knows what else.

“I come here just to be around her things,” Carlito said, looking around. “For a while, you know, it still smelled like her.”

Lili closed up her notebooks, picked up her coat from the back of the chair. “I was about to close up.”

Andale,” he said. “Go on.” He made no effort to move.

“Carlito, don’t you think…”

“Shut up,” he hissed. “I can’t hear her voice if you’re talking.”

“Carlito, I want you to leave.”

Carlito sprung at her, a coiled rattlesnake. “Shut the fuck up, cabrona, bitch. Get out.” He spit out the words. “You think you own this place, but you’ll never own it. You’re not her, and you can’t own me either.” Carlito smashed the tequila bottle against the wall. Glass and tequila splintered everywhere. “You’re not going to make money off of me to support putos like Gabi or that bastard Hellmann, or whores like you, either.” Carlito waved half the broken glass in her face.

This could have been her father all over again. Her childhood memories were littered with broken china and glass, with the sound of the maids sweeping up the shards in the morning, their brooms scratching against the tile floors.

Carlito stumbled into the other room, the jagged glass raised above his head, ready to bring it down on one of his thirty thousand dollar canvases in a violent, slicing rip.

Watching Carlito swing the broken bottle around his head was like being the passenger during one of her father’s car accidents. Those slow motion seconds passed in front of her eyes again.

She walked up next to Carlito, quiet, calm as an animal trainer. She felt herself go into automatic, heard herself agree with him, heard herself say of course, absolutely, you’re right, in the same cooing voice she’d used to pacify her father. She reached up and pulled his hand down. No resistance, like pulling down the limb of a willow. She knew he would let her subdue him now. She knew how docile he would be, just like her father had been, just like any drunk after the venom is out. She felt the same numbness she’d learned to feel so she wouldn’t know the danger of her father’s speeding car, hear the menace of her mother’s hysterical laughter.

“Lili, I need you,” he said, his boozy breath hot on her neck “Don’t leave me alone. Come back with me tonight.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his car keys. “Ven conmigo,” he said.

She let the numb calm take over her. He was harmless now. He was worth too much to the gallery to lose him on the road. “Sure,” she said. “But give me the keys.”

He handed them to Lili and lifted the wooden Vivienne in his arms, her gold earrings flashing from her lifeless head. “Si,” he said. “Vamos.”


Previous Chapter