“Do you believe in the uncanny?” he asked out of the blue.
“If you mean an event that baffles because it transcends what’s normal, yes I do. Invariably, it becomes explainable when we apply the power of reason. We look back and realize we had missed something. Suddenly the pattern becomes clear. We isolate the cause preceding the effect and we have an ‘aha’ experience.”
“What about something that defies explanation?”
“You mean a mystery. That’s much harder to grasp. Religions appeal to it all the time, from the parting of the Red Sea to a cure at Lourdes. Scientists say we don’t know why now, but eventually we’ll unravel it. Just because an event can’t be rationalized doesn’t mean a supernatural cause is behind it. They insist that everything happens in a space-time continuum. It’s an inflexible law. I nearly said ‘written in heaven’ but caught myself.”
We had been dining at my favorite Italian restaurant in Chelsea. It was a week since returning from Rome, where I had lived with discreet elegance in a hotel near the Spanish Steps. For the pace of living so recently relinquished I was having an attack of nostalgia; it was prompted by the first course in front of me: polenta served with wild mushrooms, perfectly paired with Barbaresca. I was too engaged in savoring my food to be distracted by a rarefied discussion. Still, I respected my friend’s inquiry by sharing his bafflement.
“What an odd question to start dinner. Whatever brought that on?”
“Like you, I just returned from Europe.”
“From Berlin, as I recall. I was delighted to learn your dance audition at the institute went so well. Doubtless, when you return for the final round you’ll be accepted on the spot. They’re lucky to get you.”
“I nearly didn’t make the audition. I had arrived in Berlin with two Euros in my pocket. The grant money I’d counted on hadn’t been deposited in my checking account. The fee for the audition phase was fifteen Euros, and I needed bus fare to get to the other side of town. I was also hungry. In twenty-four hours I had eaten nothing.”
“Where was your Visa? You weren’t traveling without it?”
“I had only my debit card. I had counted on the grant money — it was more than enough to see me through the week — but it wasn’t accessible yet. Meanwhile, I knew no one in Berlin who could bail me out.”
“What did you do?”
“I crossed the street from my building to a small park where I sat on a bench. All I knew was that I desperately needed money. Otherwise the trip was wasted. Then it happened. I glanced down and thought I was hallucinating. I was staring at a twenty Euro bill. I couldn’t believe my eyes; it seemed to be waiting for me. I looked around to see if anyone was searching for it. I was completely alone. I picked it up and fingered it to assure myself it was real. It bought food and a bus ticket, and then paid my audition fee. How do you explain what happened?”
“You mean the exquisite timing?”
“Yes. Was it a coincidence or a fluke?”
“Both words offer a description, but not an explanation. Dingir tuku is the way ancient Sumerians would have explained it. It means a stroke of extraordinary luck; literally ‘to have acquired a god’. They appealed to the supernatural to account for the uncanny. In a less skeptical age we might have said Providence was on your side.”
Soon my entrée arrived. The menu listed bow tie pasta with fresh salmon and artichoke. My Italian served me better. It was farfalle: butterfly pasta. I stared at the bowl and felt the blood leave my face. My friend noticed my shock.
“What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“You asked me earlier if I believed in the uncanny and I answered yes. Thanks to this butterfly pasta, I can share with you why. What I’ll say may sound farfetched. But like your Euros from heaven, it happened.
“At the anniversary of my brother’s death in October, I went to Union Square Park to sit and read. I wanted to distract myself from the gloom weighing me down. I took with me a signed edition of Iris Murdoch’s The Bell. The book was still in its original dust jacket. I found a bench and sat next to Harry, a friend from the gym. He greeted me and then left me to read while he turned to speak with a fellow park devotee. I looked at the novel’s dusk jacket and found it odd considering the book’s title. Instead of a bell on the cover, a girl was pictured releasing a butterfly into the air. Her ecstatic face watched it take flight.
“While I studied the image, a monarch butterfly fluttering overhead landed on the book. It then crawled up my arm to my right shoulder. It remained there while its wings opened and closed. Harry looked over astonished as the butterfly came and went five times before it disappeared. The occurrence nonplussed us. I noted the time of the occurrence; it was shortly after seven. The butterfly ritual had taken five minutes.
“I don’t know what possessed me, but at seven the next evening I walked to the park. I was in luck. The same bench was vacant, so I sat down and waited. The monarch butterfly appeared. It came and went, fluttering overhead, and only once alighted on my hand. It then flew away. Was it the same airborne creature that had visited me the day before? I’m not a lepidopterist, and my entomological interests are nil. To my untutored vision, nothing distinguished it as unique. It may well have been the same butterfly. The effect was the same: I was bewildered. As I tried to grasp what happened, I hastened home to phone a friend who’s gifted at interpreting the uncanny.
“‘What were you feeling when you went to the park yesterday?’
“‘A sense of loss; I was missing my brother.’
“‘And after the butterfly came and went, how did you feel?’
“‘Perhaps you were being told your brother is fine. As the caterpillar leaves the cocoon and goes from an earthly to a heavenly creature, your brother has taken on a new existence. He used to flit in and out of your life. Now he’s letting you know he’s settled and well.’
“A week later I was in a Barnes & Noble bookstore. I picked up The Economist and was scanning the new releases. I saw a review of a book on butterflies. The opening paragraph grabbed my attention. According to the author, the archaic Greek word for butterfly was psuche, which later became the classical word for soul or vital spirit. Had my brother used a butterfly to scatter my gloom? If so, he was saying his spirit was with me.”
“By recounting two uncanny events, you and I may have the premise of a story.”
“Which is what?”
“How we both were blocked at a dead end. So we walked to a park and sat on a bench when suddenly the uncanny happened: mine at my feet, yours overhead. In each instance we were freed from a bind—call it poverty or grief—and at liberty to conduct our lives.”
“It just occurred to me. Isn’t this the week for Passover?”
“Yes. But why ask?”
“We both started early with an exodus of our own.”