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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 V: The Naroczan Tragedy


Uzla, Narocz, Wilno, Hatowicze


More fishy tales following on from Chapter IV, but this time the author rambles at length rather pompously about the movements and habits of the fish. He tells of his encounter with an ichthyologist from Wilno.

At the end of the chapter, we learn about the author: "My professor writes that my chances of a lecturership are increasing rapidly." If only he knew how his ambitions would be dashed by the war, still far away as this early chapter is written.

Further reading

None - rhetorical chapter.

Chapter V: The Text

FISH are queer creatures. We know little of them, andalthough in our mother's womb we still have gills, a mark of close relationship, they don't seem to interest people much, with the exception of a few madmen and the community of professional fishermen. Even these latter see only their daily bread in the waters, and for reasons of gain try to guess the habits of these creatures on which their living depends. For the rest of mankind, mention of salmon calls up a memory of something redolent of melted butter and hard-boiled eggs, something soft and insipid of a pinkish colour. Even a child knows that salmon flesh is pink.

Who, in the war-like name of that rapacious fish, hears the roar of a river just leaving the mountain country, as it splashes over sharp stones, falls into "rapids, twists, half-circles, and sudden dives"? Who faces the roar, foam, gravel-banks, and cascades of the narrow streams, and struggles with the salmon, in crimson festal dress, to fulfil his destiny? It is no easy way against the current. All nature lies in wait for the lovers; evil water, above the water, beasts and men, in the air, birds and the sun, and in the sun the worst threat-drought.

Spawning time! Great crowds gather on the oozy sea-bed by the river mouths and struggle up towards the hills. They slip and dive by the nets, leap the dams and traps, till at last they leave the full waters of the plains and reach the mountain streams. The cold, the sparkle of the clear water, and the stronger current mark the presence of water from the hills, and soothe the travel-weary body. Then farther, from stone to stone, pool to pool, cascade to cascade. With scales rubbed till they bleed, often a fin missing, with cut head, hungry and in utter weariness, on goes the procession of silver shadows. It ceases only when the water is thickened by milky ripples of milt and returns the body of the fish, feeble and fatigued, to the safe keeping of the autumn floods, which carry it back to the sea. Usually to death. . . .

How many rivers, mud-banks and lakes hide horrid tales. Born in the depths of the waters, there they remain for ever. Monstrous or wonderful, always in secrecy, out of reach of human eyes, they seethe in the gloom, silence and chill of the melting green water. Sometimes a corpse, torn in half, or the marks of teeth on the back of a fresh-caught fish, or a skeleton tangled in the deep-water net, will trace for us some partly legible cryptogram. Sometimes only a splash in the night.

So it seems well not only to catch fish, but to watch them too.

Near the Uzia hostel was a jetty running well out into the lake. Here are tied up the yachts and motorboats, here one dives head first in to swim. On the two platforms of this pier the rites of sunbathing are celebrated. Yet how often, instead of reposing on my back, clad in dark glasses, have I leant through the railings halfway to my knees, carefully watching the bed under the clear water.

At first the glare of the sun on the water, like burning sulphur, troubles the sight, but in a moment the eye becomes accustomed to the dazzle, and spies, just below the surface, according to species and kind, at different depths. On the very surface are all kinds of fry, long, thin, blue or greenish fish-swimming, playing and seeking food. They stay, silver little fish. Lower are the lazy roach. On the very bottom root and burrow the gudgeon, the bull-head and spotted prickly loach, who at the approach of danger puff themselves up. The bottom is dotted with the shells of various crustaceans. A deep curving passage in the sand is the mark of their wanderings.

What blessed rest and peace is there, especially on a fine day! The sun shines strongly, and, by God's grace, in the protection and caress of its living rays grow all young things, trom humans to birds and-fish. Both fully grown fish and try absorb the warmth greedily, not seeking the shade. Thehigher the "heavenly stove" soars the hotter it grows-the slower the fishes' movements. Some come right up to the surface, and leave their backs above it, diving only when scales become dry and muscles begin to stiffen. Others roll from side to side on the sandy bottom, or entrust their bodies to the current, letting it carry them half-dreaming in delight; yet others, especially roach, take up a pose head-downwards, with their tails toward the surface, and hang there, rocked in the warm blue depths. But evidently such ecstasy is not considered praiseworthy. Seeing the blessed helplessness of such a fish, others immediately swim up, and pinch him with their mouths or butt him with their heads, till the sun-drugged one rouses himself and swims away with his brothers and sisters to join the endless dance among the lazy monotonous undulations of the water.

Once, while watching this great exhibition, I failed at first to notice that someone stood beside me and, pointing to a small fish which was chasing its own tail, remarked :


I looked round. It was a newcomer, said to be an ichthyologist from Wilno. Immediately after his arrival he sat at our table at lunch-time, as there was no other place in the dining room. He seemed to me pleasant enough.

"Phoxinus? I've never heard of that species,-" I remarked.

I don't know many of their Latin names anyway, the local term is usually enough for me, so I asked him to explain. Then I heard from that ichthyologist the following strange story, which I repeat here on his responsibility:

"Some few years ago," he began, "I was obliged, ex officio one might say, to take an interest in Phoxinus. Really Phoxinus phoxinus, that is the correct designation, is nothing special, only a kind of minnow, but they are suspiciously susceptible to the extreme scales of the sun's spectrum. All this happened in the early summer, but it was already hot and oppressive. One day the barometer fell suddenly during the night and forenoon, so I gave up my plan of a trip to a certain small bay, surrounded on three sides by the woods. You surely know it-between the first and second headlands? A few trees, blown down by spring gales, have fallen into the water, breaking the monotony of the bottom, and forming excellent hiding-places for crayfish. The shallows of this bay are rich in plankton, and to-day most certainly still seethe with phoxinus. In one of the huts not far from the hostel, on the right, by the road to Hatowicze, I had a quite passable laboratory and handy aquarium.

"That same day I had found all my fish, belly up, in their bowls. In spite of fervent efforts I could not revive any one of them. That idiot Filemon, my man servant-cum-laboratory assistant (may God have pity on him), instead of changing the water had taken the evening off to go to a 'sobotka.'' There he had got tight, and rolled out of the hay only when I raised the alarm. So I was left with no material for my experiments -what was more important, all my two weeks' work had gone to the dogs. All I had to do therefore was to sit quietly by the harbour, splash my feet in the water and enjoy life. After all, a week more or less made no special difference to me. I was just considering the problem-to go into the water now, or wait a little longer-when my student-assistant suddenly said, 'There's going to be a storm.'

"Just then beneath our feet a large shoal of dace (rhoedus amarus) swam by toward the deep water. At the presentiment of a storm and high waves fish always move away from the shore.

" 'Look at that perch! ' he continued, 'why doesn't it attack the dace?'

"I looked where he was pointing. A good-sized perch lay just below the surface of the water, just by the steps which had been made for the convenience of bathers. Scarcely moving his fins, with head to the post, he remained motionless in the one position. Right under his nose passed the last silver dace. With the innocence common to all small fish, attracted by the shadow of his body, she swam up to the perch and for some moments tried to catch him by the tail. Then, maybe realizing her dangerous mistake, dived and hurriedly escaped.

" 'He didn't attack! Did you see?' whispered my companion triumphantly, 'He must be sick.'

"The perch did not move from' the spot. With the spikes of his dorsal fins bristling as if for battle, a sign of excitement, he hung in the depths, threatening, unreal and splendidly coloured. The black stripes stood out well on his golden body. The markings were clean and clear, so one could tell that he was not from this part of the lake, where the bottom is sandy, and the perch take on pale colours, but was come as a visitor from deep water or from the river. Below the perch, on the very bottom, moved a second group of fish-this time gudgeon -charming inhabitants of the fourth and fifth posts of the jetty counting from the shore (I knew them all personally) when again my companion whispered:

" 'Look! The world is turned topsyturvy. A rudd is attacking the perch.'

"And so it was. A handsome rudd, slipping out of the reedy jungle like an arrow of blood-red and silver," struck in a great arc at the perch. The perch turned a somersault. Rather not a somersault, but that movement made in another element by a crow when fighting a hawk, or a heron when attacked by a gull, that which human acrobats of the air would call a half-roll and loop. By this extremely complicated and probably extraordinarily suitable movement avoiding his assailant, the perch himself described an arc and-tried a riposte. The rudd replied with a belly-leap from the water and fell back almost on top of the perch. Then both turned round in circles till they came to rest face to face.

"But they're not fighting, they're playing!' shrieked my fellow-watcher.

"Truly! These two fish; one a cannibal whom even other cannibals are chary of meeting, and the other an honest cousin of the carp, contrary to all the traditions and customs of the deep, were playing together. If, at that moment a whole battalion of phoxinus were to have grouped themselves round the prism which splits up the sun's rays, and started to explain in human voices that they recognize perfectly the properties of ultra-violet rays, which they use to clean their teeth-violet rays, on the other hand, dissolve the pigments of the skin into four infra-red belts, changing the colours into gas-1 would have shown no reaction. The thing I had before me was more important. It contradicted all the accepted ideas about fish and the immutability of natural laws, all the observations on the severe caste laws of the various species. It contradicted the principle of mutual benefit in watery alliances. It was that something which causes the astronomer to seek some unknown planet, when the sacred movements of the stars submit to some new order of the dark spheres, causing them to drop from their circuits and weave new orbits, showing up mistakes in what seemed the perfectly calculated balance of the universe.

"The perch and rudd returned to the planks of the jetty. What strange fate brought them together? Surely the same which arrays the denizens of the deep in splendid colours, beside which even the Northern Lights seem pale. The same which causes the quivering elemental masses to breathe in time to the moon's phases. Surely the same which created the mysterious sirens-fish with human heads, and whose fantasy carved the crab's shell in the likeness of a 'samurai's' mask. The same which when supposedly at last fathomed, recognized and classified, suddenly produces from under the waves an ass's head on a flat neck-the form of an unknown serpent, and fills ships' logs with terrible stories of ociopii from the infinite oceans. Now, as great as she was unexpected, Fate chose for her stage a few square yards of sandy lake-bed, playing out, with actors no larger than two leadpencils, the story of this grotesque friendship of a creature of prey and his victim. Lavish in her effects, she hung the stage with draperies of sea-green and sapphire, spread underfoot sparkling red sand, set up decorations of bronze roots, all between the reeds and the shimmering reflections of the rotting piles; finally joined all this confusion into harmony and then permitted the eye of man to gaze on her work.

"I was still watching the fish when two small waves splashed against the steps. The fish darted away, like shining arrows disappearing into the green. The wind blew gustily. Immediately the surface of the lake wrinkled, like the face of an old negress splattered with soapsuds. The reedy orchestra took up the 'motif of the storm. The woods on the lakeside caught the same tones. Waves played a rhythmic accompaniment all along the shore; I went in to lunch.

"Nor did I go on the morrow fishing to my secluded bay-full of plankton and phoxinus. Lying on my stomach on the jetty, I passionately snatched from the jaws of fate the details of this extraordinary story, and built up from them its reality. The field of my observations lay within reach of the eye, ending where the bottom sloped down in ever-darkening layers of greenness. The right border was the growth of reeds and tangled clumps of hydrochrysis m.v. The piles of my jetty stuck up in the middle. Over the jetty the sun travelled in a world of clouds and birds : black fish-hawks, white gulls and high flying herons. The spectacle began every day in the apricot-marbled dawn, was consumed by the midday, went out with the western shadows, and with the rising moon surrendered to the myriad splashes of the night.

"Beneath the jetty was a complete fish-town. Different districts among the piles were inhabited by gentle minnows, prudent loach, passionate roach and multifarious, many coloured fry. There were no rudd. All these turned and twisted, preyed upon each other, fought with strength or cunning, as always in big towns. On the borders of this town, in the thickets of lilies, lived the perch and the rudd.

"I cannot see them at this moment, but watch carefully. I see, in the depths before me, appear three forms not yet clear and as yet unrecognizable. They move in a 'V like cranes or wild geese: In the first moment it seems only an illusion, a play of the sunbeams. But no illusion takes on the thickset striped form of these rapacious perch. With war-like passion they dart into the very centre of the dancing fish. I can almost hear the shouts of the crowd. The little thin bodies spread out in all directions, seeking safety on the surface. Some leap high, their glittering scales making sparks in the sunshine, only to be extinguished in damp splashes; others, burrowing violently on the bottom, throw up dusty clouds of sand; yet others, the quickest-witted, make arrowlike darts into the cover of the reeds. All this time the perch are murdering ardently, catching everything weaker or slower than its fellows. Thus works the great selection of species.

"At that moment, unnoticed in the uproar of the battle, appears a new fish, another perch. Rising to the surface, it attacks its predatory brothers. The attack was sudden and unexpected. Scared, with violent spurts they disappeared into the murky water where their striped bodies were hidden in the secret cloudy depths. On the empty bottom the victor remained, with a torn tail fin. Turning toward the lilyroots he rolled from side to side, showing the splendour of his battle colours. At once from between the roots slipped another fish, with scarlet fins and tail-the rudd.

"So these were my friends! The perch was obviously defending his hunting-grounds, and the rudd watched the battle from behind the bars of the underwater weeds, its safety assured in their thickness. Now it swam lazily to the sunniest place, arranged its body vertically, head to the surface, just as do small roach, and hung there motionless. The perch circled round his friend, nipping his sides in his mouth. The caresses began. No one can describe-there is no language subtle enough-what is a fish's caress. Every gesture-a graceful symbol-is sketched by scarcely visible, transparent curves of the tail or the whole body. There are immeasurably small ripples, songs in a three-dimensional element, imitable only by a female dancer. There is the slender expression of fleet leaps, where the frightened water seethes in blue foam; there are touches-oral poetry-lighter than the touch of a sunbeam, and the ardent summons of feathery fins or fanshaped tail. There are chases which excite the sandy bottom to volcanic eruptions troubling the water and rustling the long reeds, and finally there are sleepy movements, patient and soothing impulses stolen from the sun, moon and stars, till at last the gills, breathing monotonoualy, expel the used water drawn in by the mouth, and the motionless body seems to sleep amid silver, gold and purple.

"In the afternoon there was another storm, and I couldn't watch. Nevertheless I went on to the jetty. High waves had risen. The water in the middle of the lake raised revolution-ary fists of foam to the heavens, but after coming through the reeds and other growths more quietly overflowed the planks of the jetty beneath my feet with the heaving of its great breast. A white stripe ran along the beach-where the water furrowed the sand with a fleece of scum.

"Sometimes, when the unquiet life of some being has not satisfied the simple human laws, it is changed into a wave. After death, thrown up in a )et,. like a needle piercing the heavens trom the dark cliffs, it arrives in the sphere in which those blessed of God, surrounded by all the dogs who have died of longing on their masters' graves, sit in judgment on the ancient Greek tragedies. Over their heads twitter little parakeets, their wings marked with Nature's highest calligraphic art, and at their feet, in great pools, swim manycoloured fish-waiting for the Last Judgment.

"The next morning I saw my rudd at once. He was swimming lazily round two broken reed stems. Not far off was his inseparable companion-the perch. Taking advantage of a patch of shadow he slowly moved toward the right side of the jetty, where a shoal of transparent fry was feeding on the bottom. The perch fell on them. The crowd scattered, only to return, when their attacker swam off with his prey, to their carefree rooting in the sands, which set free from beneath them the bewitched bubbles of air. They chased each bubble up to the very surface. There it burst, and the fry, scared, returned to their fellows. This time the rudd spoilt their game. In the cunning way of a fish of prey he swam in the shade of the piles, and threw himself on his prey in a con-cave arc. I know every fish is piscivorous, I know the question of cannibalism among water-creatures is only a matter of size, but the fry were too large for the rudd's maw. What, then, caused the wise rudd to do something which we would call unnecessary? Only a stupid, ever-voracious pike choke themselves with their prey. But, as we could see, the rudd did not want to eat the fry, therefore, by attacking, was fulfilling an unnecessary act.

" 'Your rudd wants to be a perch, old man,' remarked my companion.

" 'Are you trying to imply,' I asked naively, 'that the rudd is under the bad influence of his fellow?'

" 'More or less.'

"Meanwhile the perch and the rudd had come nearer the jetty. Just then a bather, throwing off her cloak, went into the water. I was annoyed, for I thought the fish would escape. But it was not so. Attracted by the white body, they swam to her legs. Yet perch and rudd are among the timid fish.

" 'Unnatural,' said my friend, 'Too great confidence is a sign of a lack of healthy instincts.'

"The fish came to the reeds, and the rudd began to rub his back against a stem in the ancient way of tench, carp and other bony fish. The perch, following his example, immediately did the same. Yet hog-backed fish do it another way- just because they are hog-backed.

" 'Strange mixture of habits,' complained my companion.

"The next days' observation brought nothing interesting. Several times perch from the deep waters tried to win their way into the 'town' under the pier. Our perch drove them away in heroic battles. Several times I saw how the rudd attacked not only fry, but white fish larger than himself; minnows and dace. Every evening both fish disappeared. When the industrious Aurora Borealis decked heaven lavishly, so that it looked like a peasant's hut on Sunday, and the water was spread with a spangled grey cloth, the work of .some Ukrainian archangel, from among the broad leaves of the frogbit could be heard splashes and violent scuffles. It. was the time of the evening sport: hunting flies, pale moths and big-bellied beetles. From time to time, in that direction, there flashed through the gloaming something red-like the fins of a rudd. Once I noticed that the leaping fish was striped. But what would a carnivorous perch be doing among the flies? I cannot accept that possibility.

"As time was flying, however, I was obliged, with a heavy heart, to launch my boat, and take up, with my assistant, the hunt for phoxinus. I spent three days in the bay, filling up my home aquarium with fish. The evening of the third day, having finished work somewhat earlier, I went on to the jetty. It was a beautiful evening, after a broiling day. The setting sun took on nasturtium-like colours. Clouds were spreading over the sky, auguring nothing good for the morrow. The hills and dunes across the lake stood out sharply-black lace against the pale sea-green of the unclouded bay. Two gulls cried plaintively, time and again falling to the waves, and soaring up with shrieks. At last, tired, they settled on the water. Soon they were swallowed in the blinding red ot the sun.

"From near the jetty came splashes and murmurs-small fish fleeing in escape from a pike. Two shoals of fry camedashing from that direction, seeking the sheltered waters of the jetty. Following them with my eyes, I happened upon my rudd. He was alone. Taking no notice of the crowds of fish, he hung in his favourite fashion, head-downward. If it had not been for the regular opening of his mouth, I should have thought him dead. He had just moved his tail, to return to a normal position, when-it happened. Maybe just because he did move his tail-the colour red is especially conspicuous under water. But of what happened my eyes caught little, so swift was the course of events.

"From something strange and inimical, from something which looked like a lightning-like crossing of two shadows, 'there grew below the form of a sturdy pike, throwing himself about clumsily with the perch in his jaws. This sight appeared simultaneously with a splash; the rudd after a leap nearly a yard high fell back into the water. The pike twisted himself in all directions as though caught on a rod, turned circles and tried to escape, but evidently the sharp prickles of the perch had stuck in his throat. A streak of melting silver and scarlet surrounded his body-the rudd attacked unceasingly. The pike, shaking his head and opening his jaws, in which stuck the motionless fish, defended himself, though in double fear : impotence against his attacker and the painful hindrance of the Unknown, depriving him of elasticity and the strength for battle. The water still seethed when the sun went below the horizon. Immediately on the water appeared clouds of ephemeridae. Getting into my eyes and ears, and tickling unbearably round my collar, they forced me to give up.

"I found the pike the next morning. He lay motionless, belly-upward in the shallows not far from my bay, with the perch still between his teeth. The stupid piscivore still lived, for the beasts are tenacious of life. Two of the perch's spines had pierced right through his head, near the right eyeball. The perch had a torn tail-fin, so was most likely-my perch. His body was crushed and cut almost in half by the pike's teeth.

"Children picked up a dead rudd from below the jetty about two days later.

"What do I think of the whole story? Let no one ask, for I would not save for anything. I know my fellow-ichthyolocrists well! Besides I have had a very pleasant letter to-day. My professor writes that my chances of a lecturership are increasing rapidly.

"Anyway-my God! What do we know of fish?"