There nothing more intriguing than a mystery surrounding an old painting. This is the portrait of a dead child, a beautiful little boy, perhaps five years old; the face rested on a lace-decorated cushion, and the child held a white water lily in his small, pale hand. In one dark corner of the child’s portrait, four letters written in red ink: C.P.A.S. There is no mystery as to how the child died – he drowned – aquis submersus but what do the C and the P denote?
The secret is revealed with the discovery of an old manuscript written by the painter detailing his painful relationship with his patron’s daughter, Katherina. What starts off as innocent friendship becomes a poignant story of mutual yet impossible love. Class differences dictate that it can never be, yet Johannes persists in his hopes (delusions) until an unspeakable tragedy forces him to leave his love forever.
Storm’s skill as a lyric poet is demonstrated with his use of motifs and autumnal imagery to paint a mood – a Stimmung - of decay, menace and impending doom from the early days of Johannes’s and Katherina’s relationship.
“Come on, Johannes,” she said, “I’ll show you a bird’s nest in the hollow pear tree ….”
With that, she sprang forward; but before she came within twenty paces of the tree, I saw her suddenly stop. “The goblin, the goblin!” she cried, and tossed her hands in the air as though startled.
This goblin turns out to be an owl but it is a motif that recurs in subsequent episodes. Something malevolent is stalking these two. Once Katherina’s father and Johannes’s patron dies, that brooding malevolence becomes overt. Johannes experiences open hostility from Katherina’s brother, Wulf (it’s all in the name) and his sidekick Risch (who looks like a hawk). Ironically Wulf’s hounds chase Johannes into Katherina’s arms and there the seeds of the forthcoming tragedy are sown.
Only just escaping with his life, Johannes is forced to leave Katherina behind. When he returns, he discovers that she has been married off. A few years later, a chance commission enables him to rediscover her and her son. At the moment they are reunited, the boy is playing by a pond. The last thing the lovers hear before losing themselves in each other is his song,
Two angels cover me,
Two angels spread their wings,
And two more point the way
To heaven, to paradise.
I think this is the most precise and chilling foreshadowing I’ve ever read. You know the rest – aquis submersus – C.P? - culpa patris (through the guilt of his father).
Aquis Submersus is a powerful story of love that could not beat the odds, an innocent victim and of pain and guilt endured all for nothing!
Like smoke and dust to nothing gone,
So is every human son.
Human transience is a recurring theme in Storm’s work. When faced with unbearable sorrow that can be a comfort. Knowing that it will not last forever. Yet it’s tragic. So much pain, so little significance. While the child’s portrait endures, at the end of the story most of the painter’s oeuvre has been disposed of and has vanished without trace. Thank goodness, the same fate has not befallen Storm’s magnificent novellas.
Aquis Submersus is published in the NYRB edition of The Rider on The White Horse, an anthology of Storm’s short stories and novellas spanning his entire career. I read this novella primarily because it is one of his best (though everything he wrote is good), as part of my November Novella Challenge and as my contribution to NYRB Reading Week.