EVENING MOOD AT SCHLACHTENSEE: AN ESSAY ON LOVE, DROWNING AND GERMAN LANDSCAPE PAINTING
KASIA VAN SCHAIK
We stand between two bodies of water: sky water and earth water. We are the third body.
We approach the lake from the east. The air thickens, loses shape. It’s raining on Neruda Boulevard, on the windows of our train.
I tell the man beside me, my companion, about Walter Leistikow, the German landscape artist, who used to walk beside this lake on spring nights. His paintings involve a lot of black and yellow.
He lived in Denmark for a while, but returned to the Grunewald forest for the last years of his life. From his room in the sanatorium, he painted several depictions of the lake. One of these hangs in the Stadtmuseum in Berlin.
Neither of us has visited the Stadtmuseum. It’s in a part of the city to which we seldom travel.
When we reach the beach he undresses first but doesn’t swim.
He tells me that the clearest lake is in New Zealand, glacial melt renewed every twenty-four hours.
This is what it feels like to be near him.
Waist-deep, I call to him. Coming in?
He promises, later.
Last year a woman was drowned here, at this lake, on a Sunday in July. The man who drowned her swam to a reeded area on the far shore. He was arrested three days later in the South of Germany.
Her body was recovered without much effort. It is not a deep lake. It reaches ten meters at the center, and she was far from the center.
I looked up the word drown. I learned it’s a quick and silent process, though it may be preceded by distress. The drowning person rarely calls for help.
The drowning person experiences a rush of memories, which feel distinctly like dreams but are not dreams. It is important not to confuse them with dreams.
When I eventually go to the Stadtmuseum I find the painting on a far wall beside other depictions of water. Trees cut across the view like bars. The sun, center-left, between two wooded banks, marks a path on the water for the viewer’s eye to travel. In the gift shop you can buy a coffee mug with the same reflection. A canvas bag. A pillow. You can surround yourself with Lake Schlachtensee at sunset, circa 1895.
The second-clearest lake is in Australia and bordered by white soil. Its waters are so pure that conditions are unsuitable for life.
He’s shown me photographs. It’s a place, we decide, we’ll never go to.
I swim. He doesn’t.
We visited Schlachtensee every weekend that summer, but we didn’t see her drown. We heard about it later on the train back to the city.
She was thirty-two.
Water enters my mouth, turns my veins green like the capillaries of a fish. I tilt my body towards the lake’s center, achieving the slow descent of divers and acrobats. Arms bent, one leg raised.
Tadpoles sweep past.
To drown is to fall helplessly into the circumference of another body.
This is a fact, he tells me. Undresses. Leaves his shoes beside the water.
Rain clouds gather.
Above drift the blue souls of icebergs. The hulls of ships moving telepathically across the water, radiating distance, renewing distance.
This is not a dream, though it may be preceded by distress.
At its center, the lake is completely still. A canyon of water insects. A buried plain.
I see a mountain range, kilometers below the surface. I see a woman whom I do not recognize at first, but whom later I recognize.
And there is our ground floor apartment in the city, with its coal burner and its windows that look out onto the street. And there’s the entrance to The Underground where one winter all the vendors sold heart-shaped bread. There’s the library garden in Warsaw that we visited, years ago. Unattended, filled with dandelions. And there’s the Vistula River, that long slow river, and the city beside it, clean and noiseless, each street stretched to its limit.
Why these memories? Why these rivers?
To drown is to undress.
To sleep beside someone who has not drowned.
When I resurface, he’s no longer on the beach. The air is filled with beads. He’s left his towel, still dry, hanging from a branch. The shore is black and yellow, like in Walter Leistikow’s painting. I cannot find a way out.
Walter Leistikow traveled through the Nordic countries, and upon his return, appreciated the lakes and forests of Brandenburg, the area surrounding Berlin, with renewed vigor. He abandoned the common practice of adding human or animal figures to his landscapes. Every twenty-four hours, he left the sanatorium, and went walking beside the lake. Having suffered from third-stage syphilis for years, it was here that he shot himself.
But I do not know this. How should I know.
These are the five stages of water:
I’ve managed to organize my day around them so I am never thirsty.
Loving and sleeping share the same verb.
We swim beside each other, or against each other. I swim beneath him. He pushes towards me.
I thought I could study the history of rivers and forget about other things.
How we influence each other in the dark. How we turn into water. Disappear and find each other, reassigned to the earth as rain.
But when is the dreamer ever in control?
A better question: Who in a nightmare can help himself?
To drown is to forget where you’ve left your clothes, and from then on to wear only water.
Conditions unsuitable, the swimmer persists: she crawls towards us. Calls out.
It’s not that we don’t hear her. We haven’t developed the technique for listening underwater. Or for listening to women. Or even to each other. We listen as one listens to water, without listening.
To drown is to exchange the sky for a heavier roof.
The last time I see him, I ask him to take off his clothes so I can memorize him. I use the method of a portrait artist, measuring the distance between eyes and mouth, navel, and throat. The bones of his hands, feet, big toe.
We come from nowhere and swim towards nowhere. We are weak swimmers. Below, a trellis of yellow weeds, a black floating lily. His face, like text written on water, is not easy to retain.
Do you know what it means, he says. The name of the lake.
To battle or slaughter. To hit the water running.
Like the swimmer, we have become casualties of water, disappearing beneath the surface of a crowded lake. This is something we won’t admit, even to ourselves.
Years from now, when he calls me, out of the blue, I’ll listen to his alien-voice on the line, and imagine him there, on the black sand, at the faraway water’s edge. The winter lake is spined with ice, its paths closed. Stones and trunks lie visible beneath its surface, like useless messages. Lakes are clearest, I’ve heard, on cold days, or days without swimmers.
We re-arrange ourselves like furniture in Walter Leistikow’s hospital room. Clear the view.
What are we looking at? A forest. Huddle of clouds. The sun, low in the sky, hawking a path towards us.