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Chronicals of Lake Narocz by Mieczyslaw Lisiewicz

This long out of print autobiographical work by this Polish author is reproduced here in full. I have transcribed the work and present it here for all to read. Copyright remains the property of the owners whoever and wherever they are. If anyone who is reading this has any historical facts, documents, maps or photographs about Narocz I would be very grateful if you would contact me, Alan at Landschaft I hope readers enjoy, as I have, the tales from this forgotten corner of the world.

Chapter III: On the Hatowiczean Shore


Mniszyn Krzyz, Huszczara, Lopatczy Most, Great Uzla, Danilowice, Kalinowce, Terazdwor, Kutrzeniec, Molodeczno, Krolewszczyzna, Glebokie, Holubicze, Komarowszczyzna, Lake Narocz, Lake Miastro, River Skiemia, Hatowicze, Miadziol, Kupa, Nieslucz


The chapter starts with a reflection on the primal forest and a speculative account of the early habitation of the Narocz environs by primitive man. The author uses this introduction to explain the contemporary superstitions of the local peasants who believe in "forest devils". He introduces the reader to the public hostel of the Society of Friends of Narocz and the meadow nearby which is a mass of old trenchworks from the 1916 Battle of Lake Narocz strewn with decaying metal: "On every side lies the forest, decimated by axes, broken by war..". Buut the landscape is renewing with pine saplings, returning to it's primal state. Lisiewicz wanders along the lake shore etched by war and sits with his wife silently reflecting upon the lake: "such was our first evening there".

Further reading

none rhetorical chapter

Chapter III: The Text

In days of yore, when the ice vanished and the earth in warmth began to bear fruit, the dark army of pines started to march from the lakes' shores into the far-distant country. They marched, their prickly caps of boughs set aslant, by way of what is known to-day as Mniszyn Krzyz ("The Monk's Cross"), Huszczara, Lopatczy Most ("The Bridge of Lopata") and Great Uzla. The forests' rear guards of guelder trees coming from Danilowice, joined other groups of their own kind near a place known to-day as Kalinowce ("The Guelder Bush"). Increased and strengthened by the wild growths of the wet grounds of Terazdwor, the forests reached the sites of Kutrzeniec, Molodeczno, Krolewszczyzna, Glebokie - till they formed the thick and echoing primeval forest of Holubicze. Other resin-scented armies went towards the sunset, wading th-rough the marshy bed of the almost dried-up lake, until they spread over the unfriendly bogs and became amalgamated with the forests of Komarowszczyzna. Inch by inch, acre by acre and mile after mile spread the green kingdom till the whole of the country was conquered. And so the forest was everywhere. A deep, virgin forest.

In those times, so remote from our days that there is not even an echo of a legend to tell us about them, the first man came to live near Lake Narocz. He came one day, from where, nobody knows. Attracted by the abundance of fish in the lake, a wandering tramp, he built his home on its shores. Thick forests have cut him from the fertile plains of the south, so he settled down on the lake and caught fish, whose forms to-day are extinct and forgotten. With a stone-pointed spear he hunted sometimes for beasts that came forth to drink water, but he never ventured into the heart of the forest. He was afraid. Perhaps he had heard from the babbling of the people of his own kind that death dwelt in the forest. Indeed, the forest must have been tor the first man as dreadful and awe-inspiring as the stars, the thunder and the mysteries of the deep sea. Human eyes,, used to wide, open spaces, could not penetrate the recesses of the forest. There, every tree would assume a shape which was half human and half ghostly, every knotch would stare, at you like someone's eye; branches would touch your back and your shoulders from everywhere, like grasping paws, trying to seize you and threaten you with strangulation. Worse still, there were thousands of mysterious voices. The woodpecker's tapping and the swift, fitful sound of a virulent viper gliding. A pine-cone would tumble down with a mournful sound. The torest was full of darkness, of lurking mysteries, of ambush and of stillness. A rare glimpse of light would come from high above, from among the entangled boughs of the trees' crowns.

Who but ghosts could possibly live in such a place? And how powerful they were! What strange forces must have fought inside the virgin forest, till even the sky over it was red with blood! Sometimes a gale would blow so strongly that it uprooted old oaks, and one could hear strange roars amid the wind. The Powers That Be were strong indeed. Did our forerunners not see with their own eyes how the omni-potent bear, driven by some unknown fear, would rush out from the thicket, run headlong and drown in the lake?

So the first men did not go into the forest. And then it happened once that an obstinate hunter threw his spear at an elk's hind which swam across the lake. The wounded elk reached the forest, dripping blood, and fled with the javelin's point in her body. The hunter was sorry to lose the precious point which had taken him years to grind and sharpen on a grinding stone. So he took a spare spear in his hand, and very courageously he followed the track of the wounded beast. But hardly had he passed the marshy ground covered with dwarf birch and pine trees, than he had to stop dumb-founded before the first approach to the thicket of the virgin forest. He looked at it and quickly turned back, throwing his spear over his shoulder to avert the evil spell, so dreadful had the jungle of overthrown and twisted trunks of giant trees appeared to him. But the forest did not let him go easily. His wolf-skin was torn from his shoulders by the sharp bones of dead tree trunks, cunning roots caught him by the heels, mischievous thorns slashed his face, prickly bushes dug into his calves, his feet bled from small knots hidden in the moss. He fled in mindless panic, however, till at last the trees thinned out, and the fugitive became encircled by the silence and serene brightness of the lake. Only then did he stop, and found to his amazement he was still alive.

Dancing around the camp-fire, he told his tribesmen on his return of his adventures, praising his own courage by gestures and mumblings. Soon among the trowd he found young men thirsting for adventure. Human nature is always attracted by the Unknown, tempted by the Menacing, enticed by the struggle to discover the Unrevealed.

Soon, therefore, one after another disappeared from the settlement by the lake and rushed into the forest. With luck some returned, others not, but this did not stop their pro-gress. Seeing that nothing terrible happened, that trees did not come to life, that bushes did not change into strange wonders, that only occasionally a wild animal appeared on the path, they extended their excursions ever more boldly. Their wide nostrils, still very much like those of the beasts, caught ever newer scents, promising more and more. So they ventured ever farther, ever .deeper, till one day the most daring of them reached as far as the shores of the "Pale" Lake. This was a long way.

There was no easy access to the "Pale" Lake. From the Lake Narocz to the "Pale" Lake ran a stream of water which was very difficult in passage. Where to-day is found the Hatowiczean shore there lay then water in which stretched a long chain of islands and islets. Between these islets lay stagnant strips of greasy, turbid and dark water on whose surface floated the remains of rotting weeds. Woe to the hunted beast who, lured by the appearance of a safe hiding place, would try to reach one of the islands? At the first step the slime and peat of the marshes would engulf it. The seeker for sanctuary disappeared before he had even time to utter the last despairing roar. All these islets were land only in appearance. Since time immemorial the long, slimy fibres ot various plants had mingled on the surface of the stagnant water. Some of them sent down roots to the mud below. All this grew, multiplied and spread out, in all directions, its stems covered with clinging parasites, washed in mud, slime and frogspawn. Pressed down by the ever-increasing weight of the new growth, the weeds sank beneath the surface of the water, died and rotted. Living and dead, united into a solid mass, they moved slowly in the water. Some of them became covered with meadow grass as the wind blew the seed from the land. As they were neither supported, nor attached to anything, they often turned over with any more violent move-ment of the water. Only when the layer ot vegetation grew so thick that its lower surface, bristling with roots, rested on the bottom, did this formation become a real island, a little bit of land in the midst of the waters. Even then only birds could nest on it.

Nothing can hinder the curiosity of a man. Leaping over fallen trees from tuft to tuft, sailing astraddle a mouldered alder trunk, rowing and supporting himself with his stone spear, bound with bast, some dare-devil crossed at last the evil, marshy bay. Flocks of frightened ducks, chattering in alarm, rose in clouds, the more daring gulls swooped into his hairy face, great, black leeches sucked at his legs. But he remained undaunted and sustained his course. After many hours he rested at last on the sandy beach, weary, covered with mud, bleeding from the bites of water-snakes, voracious swimming beetles and gnats. With his hands beneath his head, he lay on his back and started to listen intently to the murmur of the lake.

Soon the whole of Uzia had no secrets for him. His sight, trained in the wisdom of the forest, became as piercing as that of a hawk. It penetrated into the depths of the new world, to its real meaning, even to that written in the rings on the trunks of fallen trees. And when even his own heart began to beat with the same rhythm as the sound of the weevil beneath the furrowed bark of the pine trees, when he could tell the direction by the moss growing on the dark pines, all the magic ways of the forest stood open to him. Henceforth he never left the trees. He liked to sleep on sultry nights on a heap of pine-needles and gaze fearlessly into the fiery eyes of the eagle-owl. Filled with the lore of the trees, plants, reptiles and animals, he became a man of the forest instead of a man of the water.

As a dweller of the woods he learnt to know all the beasts of the forest, large and small. Often, in the months when the grass was grey, he saw in the woods the batdes of the broad-antlered elk, or the courtship of the heath-cock with his fan-shaped tail, while roaming across fords) through clearings, in the meadows and moors. He found the shed antlers of a stag in a dark fir grove and made the first conquest of the first wild bees' hive with its sweet honey. Following a wounded roe, he discovered the greatest treasure of the woods, a magic grass which cured all fevers, staunched flowing blood and cleansed wounds. By the forest's grace he became not only hunter, but doctor and magician as well. And all went well for him in the forest.

Thus it was till the forest began to subside. And to-day?

If you pass, dear reader, by the long, rather narrow dyke which separates the lakes of Narocz and Miastro, crossing the white-washed bridge over the river Skiemia, and then turn-ing your steps along the eastern shores of Lake Narocz, you will come upon a few huts hidden among the sand-dunes, some fishermen's boats on the narrow beach, nets spread out along the shore, and beyond the nets a small cemetery, full of small crosses and of very old and strangely twisted trees. The way up the hill is bounded by the few half-rotted posts of a fence. Behind it you will be sure to trip over barbed wire among the nettles, or stumble into a trench hidden beneath some bramble bushes, reminders of the war not long past. When at last you struggle out of this, you will find yourself in the midst of a circle of old graves covered with weeds, and a row of new mounds on which the grass has not yet sprung up. There will be few inscriptions on these crosses, and what there are 'in Cyrillic lettering. However, you will notice with amazement that on some graves, besides the great two-armed cross, stands another - small, made of unpeeled branches bound with a strip of dirty linen rag. Beside it will lie a basin with scraps of food, a tin fork, a knife eaten away by rust, and some unrecognizable objects. These are secret signs of cults reaching far back into the depths of the pagan past. -Do not try to explain them, nor seek in vain the solution of a mystery which, after all let us admit it openly do not concern you, and which you certainly will not be able to understand. -You came from afar for the sake of sunshine. Here it is in plenty. If you want morecontent yourself with the view of the lake, murmuring at the foot of the hill on which the cemetery standsbut after that leave quickly. It is not fitting to trouble the rest of the dead.

Remember! The many-coloured canoes, the white wings of the sailing boats, and the gay song of the summer visitors these last only a short while on the lake. Already in early autumn the lake disappears for a long three seasons of the year into its own country of animals, birds, fish and people. All this lives a life completely separate from that of the intruding summer visitors.

Just beyond the graveyard and Hatowicze the forest begins, and here everything else is lost. Even the country houses, hotels summer homes of the noisy invaders-are well hidden by a green silence which is disgusted with the din. The main track of the country road, yellow with quantities of sand, broad and inviting, after leaving the cemetery behind, runs between the forest and the lake. The local people, however, do not like the road. The peasants' track is set back among the pines, where it twists and turns like a wood snake under the berry bushes. Narrow, this footpath hugs the tree-trunks one by one; dividing in the thickets, it dives into the under-growth in search of summer ease. These paths press through marshes and thick growths of moss, suddenly they may leap a pace aside, or run through a copse of hazel or juniper so thick that it is hard to pass even on foot. Obedient to the law of some higher necessity, "tabu," or belief, they obstinately cut through a quagmire when nearby, halt a stone's throw distant, is high, even ground, dry as a hone.

If you ask a peasant why this is so, he will only shrug his shoulders and reply unwillingly: "That's the way it is, sir." And that's that! Along such tracks travel strings ot little carts of hewn wood, by such paths go the native inhabitants; pitchburners, foresters, dwellers in the settlements, colonies or hamlets, from all the district where the forest devils hold sway, such as Czeremszyce, Babia Woda, Hacie, Swatki and Uzla. They are all going to the fair at Miadziol, on Lake Miastro. There they will stand in the market-place holding a hank of badgers' bristles or laying out on a tarpaulin a basket of mushrooms. Sometimes there will be little cheeses, or rare herbs and roots "good against nine diseases, from any one of which may God defend you." In the evening the swaying throng of pines engulfs them again. The carts and foot-travellers spread out along the forest tracks and disappear it seemsinto the very earth.

And the carefree country road proceeds on its dignified way, though now it has not much farther to go. On the edge of the Uzla forest it comes to an end at a great eaved wooden gate, beyond which are the lakeside meadows. There stands the immense hostel of the Society of Friends of Narocz the only hostel on this shore where everyone may enter. Those of Kupa or Nieslucz are destined for other uses. The Hatowiczean shelter, built of pine logs, blends with the natural beauty around. Standing in the very heart of the forest, its squat form does not seem out of place among the green spires of the trees. On every side lies the forest, decimated by axes, broken by war, but still the same tangled forest, the same pine-tree jungle. To the very edges of the lake it sends out its vanguard, though the existence of the trees along the lake-side is daily more uncertain. The shores of the lake crumble and fall in, under the pressure of the moving ice as it breaks up in the spring. The pine trees, lapped by the water, rubbed by ice floes, seek in vain for a foothold for their last wounded, naked roots. Often storms pounce suddenly from behind the loftly headland of the peninsula, which hides them until the last moment. Then the forest soughs with a sound like the low notes of an organ, the hills behind the island smoke as though they were volcanoes. Before the oncoming clouds great black birds whirl in a stormy dance. In a moment a thick curtain of raindrops cuts off the lakeside pines from the rest ot the world. Amidst the roar and tumult no crash is heard, yet, when the sun shines out again, a tree lies prone. Bitter tears of melting hailstones flow from it. These trees, like wounded deer, die weeping.

The bare meadow near the hostel is covered with strange hollows and ditches of regular formation, as though fashioned by the hand of man. Indeed they are signs of his handicraft, for this is soldiers' work. Everything here, woods, tilled ground and forest, all are torn and furrowed by the marks of war. In pressing through the thick berry-bushes (surely some evil spirit has been at work here, hanging from their branches these black fruits, like bright birds' eyes torn from their sockets), one must take care not to tread with a thin-soled shoe on some piece of scrap-iron sticking out edgewise from between the roots.

Already above the lifeless trenches of forgotten batteries and the rotting remains of ruined holdings wave scores of twenty-year-old pine saplings, spreading their soft crowns, like downy new-hatched chicks, for the sun's caress. But not far off stands the grim wall of old trees, filtering all light through its level room of quivering needles. The odours of incense, resin, young life and greenery blend in the heat and saturate the still air. It is as if the pines were resting. They stand abundantly wrapped in moss, the dried jetsam. of many autumns. Their roots reach deep into the earth, and they have their foreheads to the wind, that it may shake down the ripe pine cones.

Treading hard ground once marshland, now woods (the greedy trees in time will eat up all the land), my wife and I emerged on to the "Pale" Lake. We came upon it at the height of its evening beauty. Silence lay upon its ripples, which mirrored the trees, breaking their reflections into zig-zags of silver and green.

The wind slept. Two motionless walls of forest disappeared into the depths of a horizon cut off from the heavens by the black belt of the farther wooded shore. Not far from where we stood, close by the islets which to-day as in old time are swallowing up the water by inches with their plants, fish were rising in the little bays. Every few moments something splashed on the surface of the ripples and the dimpling rings slowly widened, flattened and faded. Roach, bream, crucian and gudgeon were chasing after insects. Great clouds of transparent flies and pale shadowy moths and gaudy butter-flies wafted over the surface like a golden mist. Always behind them rose the watery fountains and black shapes rolled over in the spray. The drops whispered on the smooth face of the water like a rain of silver darts. The rushes and quak-ing reeds rustled from the water's movement. . . .

The sun went down behind the woods and soon the fish ceased to leap. A new smoothness flowed over the lake. Even the thrushes cut short their warbling in the reeds. This was the moment for which the great eagle, dozing motionless on the dead branch of a pine, had been waiting. He unfurled his pinions, glided low over the water, came into a rising column of warm air and soared up and up till he was lost from sight in the blue heights. Even then his piercing cries descended from the very roof of heaven.

Without a word we sat down on the sand, and our eyes wandered over the wide waters. Long and continuously we gazed, almost without drawing a breath or flickering an eye-lid. We watched covetously, desirous of capturing all that lived so splendidly, grew so abundantlyall that floated and splashed, murmured and rustled. We longed to take it all deep into our heartsthe sun setting in the western sky, the dignity of the forest and the unruffled calm of the evening.

A long time we gazed. At last the mists rising from the reeds and marshes began to veil the shores. Joining into one opaque mass of grey they filled the basin of the lake up to the very treetops.

Such was our first evening there.