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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 VII: Terror by the Island


Uzla forest, Miastro, Lake Rudakowa, marshes of Kaczerga, Mikolec, Hatowicz, General Ragoza, Kupa, Kamionka Strumilowa, Buska, Milatyn, Naroczanka, Pale Lake, Ukraine, Taranrog of the hundred churches, Polesian Marshes, Milatyn


Mohammedan, Catholic, and Orthodox cemetries existed supporting the communities (no mention was made of Jewish). The author relates the old pagan spirits and gods fleeing from the cross transforming into imps of the forest lost among the trees, and the spirits of murder victims, suicides and those lost in battle wandering "from oak to oak, from pine to pine, finding no peace." Lisiewicz adopts the tones of Poe in this lyrical charter about the ghosts of the lake and forest. He tells of yachsmen hearing the groans of the drowned Russians who fell through the ice on the lake in the 1916 Battle of Lake Narocz. And how he and a companion were saved three days later by ghostly fishermen on the lake one late night returning from Kupa. "We were properly scared then, and that's the truth." He relates this to an earlier experience when he was riding by a crossraods and a spirit dog frightened his "horse foaming at the mouth, cowering and tugging wildly at the bit".

The local peasants say "the triple cross is best for peasants' ghosts, and the Latin for the others" and that graves are often embellished with both crosses as well as pagan offerings to keep the gods appeased.

Lisiewicz tells of "the naked Poludnitza in the glory of three lights, those three magic lamps of the kingdom of witches and sorcerers." And accepts the mysteries of the forest "which flourish like ferns by the lonely oaks". Closing the chapter with "The four winds will blow: one to Milatyn, the second to Kamionka Strumilowa, and the third to Busk, and on the fourth we will fly to the north, to the Gate of the Seven Rainbows, to the Land of the Unknown Cross.

Further reading

In Middle European folk lore: Poludnitza is a god who abducts and murders children and is the mortal enemy of Rozhanitza, the protector of children [also Polednice in Bohemia]. See: Mythology

In mythology of ancient Slavs, a man touched by the rainbow is drawn to heaven, and becomes a "Planetnik" - half-demonic creature - which is under the power of the thunder and lightning god Perun. See: Perun

Taganrog of the hundred churches which Lisiewicz refers to is located on the Sea of Azov, a northern part of the Black Sea. See: Taganrog

Chapter VII: The Text

WHEN the trees in the primeval Uzia forest were still growing just as they pleased, when mankind died in his fashion and animals in theirs, the peace of the woods reigned in all the country of the lakes.

It is true, nevertheless, that the gods who held sway over the country continually changed: first they were gods of stone, then of bronze, then of iron. But the same fire was lit in honour of all of them. Indeed the greatest and most mysterious power, the element of fire, though, it struck from heaven burning the forest and destroying trees, yet it gave mankind warmth and the strength to live through the winter. It was born of stone, helped in melting bronze and shaping the hard iron.- Fire was respected even by the devils of the woods, who kept at a safe distance from the hearths of men.

When, however, on a certain evening, from the shores of the Miastro the protracted call of a muezzin was heard, he was answered by the howling of wolves on Lake Rudakowa. The unknown echo caused the trees of the Bojar thickets to sway rhythmically. When, soon after, a bell began to call the few faithful to morning and evening prayer, mingling its brazen note with the throaty chants of the mullahs, the silence and order of the forest was lost. The forest devils were afraid both of the clang of bronze and of the melancholy plaints which came from the little tower adorned with the crescent moon. Hearing these sounds they took refuge in the marshes of Kaczerga, falling with splashes up to their ears in the thick mud and mire. Slowly the pagan world fell to pieces. On the shores of the lake, guarded by the faithful servants of the Eternal, Great and Only God were set out three cemeteries; Mohammedan, Catholic, and Orthodox.

But what of it all? When, stifled by the unbelievers, the holy fire died on the hill near Mikolec, when the eternal flame, the spark of good, the carefully tended hearth, was smothered in the ashes, when the oak Dewajtis tell, and the sacrificial altars split under the hammers, the priests of the old gods put a curse on the earth. Before they gashed one another's breasts with flint knives they cursed the ungrateful earth, that it did not swallow up the blashhemers, they cursed the air, that it did not rain down thunderbolts, and the water, that it did not send great waves to swallow up the godless land. From these curses grew winged creatures, aggressive and bloodthirsty. For a long time they flew over the lake in bat-like zigzags, till at last they took refuge, each where it could and where it belonged. Some slipped into the rifts in the clouds, where the whistling wind is born, others sank into the deep waters, into places so deep and dark that the bottom is not to be seen, yet others cowered on crossroads, in holes in trees, from which at night they could easily attack people.

The neglected gods, on the other hand, fleeing before the Cross, buried themselves in the woods. In the eternal twilight of the thickets they did not even notice that their flaxen hair turned dark, changed into the shaggy coat of a bear, that from beneath these shaggy locks sprung out small horns like those of a goat, and that their big toes turned into a goat's hooves. Thus the gods became ordinary imps of the forests, and Joined with the other People.of the Woods. To this kingdom of poor imps, devils and goblins came the ghosts of those murdered, of those who, lured by the siren's' songs, had drowned in the waters of the lakes, the spirits of lost children, the spectres of suicides and those fallen in battle. Born of the shadows they lived in the dark, waking only with the twilight, wandering at night, as must always be the fate of those whose spirits are lost in the nameless places, bound to this earth by the blood they have spilt; blood split to satisfy the malice of these devils of the woods. Sometimes these damned souls, not living and not yet dead and at rest, were so numerous that the swamps and mire were crowded, and from them became known as "Purgatory."

There is no more peace in the country of the forests. At twilight in the unpeopled places twinkle and shine mouldered wood phosphorescence and foxfire. Pale blue mists rise from forgotten graves, balls of fire roll over the swamps, and just above the surface of the ground move the scarcely visible shadows of human forms. They see nothing and want nothing in the bewilderment of their suffering. Worn out with anguish they wander from oak to oak, from pine to pine, finding no peace. On dark and stormy nights they sometimes gather on the edge of the woods, watching eagerly the woodman's hut, where behind the windowpanes shines a lamp, symbol of the tranquility of the living.

Sometimes the woods will rustle, though the wind sank with the coming of evening, and a moment later the echoes bring the baying of hounds and the wild shouts of the chase. At the time of the full moon, from the waves of the Mill Lake rises an accursed mill. Its wheel turns' busily, the dead eyes of its windows glow with a green light, and one can hear how someone weeps, complains and laments.

Weeps for what ? Better not to ask. The lake seethes and great bubbles burst on the smooth surface, rising from the bed, from the slime. The night is dark. No one can tell what walks on the bottom.

Once it happened that two yachtsmen from the Hatowiczean hostel, becalmed on the lake on one of the twilight summer nights, heard human groans around their boat. It was the other side of the "Seagull's" headland, not far from the Island, just where 20 years ago the ice broke under the feet of General Ragoza's troops. There where, according to the strange custom of the lake, someone must drown every year.

What it was about, this groan and what the yachtsmen saw, I don't know. Nobody knows. They both swore by all they held sacred, that they would never sail that way at night again, and they warned everyone else not to attempt it. But who would listen to such fairy stories?

Some time later we were returning from Kupa in a small sailing boat. It was a dark and windy night, the clouds blew across the face of the moon in thick, fleecy layers. It happened very stupidly, but it happened; we had not got a compass with us. The time passed more quickly than we realized in Kupa, and when we started for home it was well after 10 o'clock and there were no lights showing from the shores. The shores were in fact completely invisible, and the lake was quite empty. Then the clouds thickened so that the moon, disappearing behind them, did not reappear. We were surrounded by thick, damp, opaque darkness. The wind grew stronger and began, it seemed, to change its direction. It is hard to explain why we could not hold our course. Whatever we did with the rudder the boat would come head-up into the wind.

After hopeless efforts, and, at last, an attempt to trust to luck and run with the wind (after all the lake is not infinite and has shores) my companion and I were overcome by fatigue and resignation.

"It seems we have lost ourselves entirely!" he remarked.

Undoubtedly. There opened before us the not too pleasant prospect of spending the night on the lake in a squall, with the dangerous and quite likely possibility of running the deep keel of the boat on one of the hidden, stony reefs. The rigging and steel ropes upholding the mast began to hum with a note like that of an aeroplane lost in the clouds.

At times we heeled well over, and yet it seemed to us that we did not move from the one spot. All our efforts to go about either to port or to starboard, which we redoubled, had no effect. The end of every manoeuvre was that we came up head to wind, and the waves began to come in over our gunwale. We reefed sail and started to bail. The electric torch must have got wet, for it shone with only a dull, reddish light, though the battery was quite new. Nevertheless I tried to signal on all sides, counting on the somewhat doubtful possibility that one of the many sailing courses might have been having night exercises. My efforts were in vain. There wasa night-watchman on the high observation tower of the school hostel, but according to my calculations we were at least five miles from Kupa. If our light should be visible to a watcher there, it would appear only as a pinprick of light, the illusion of a tired eye and nothing more.

Suddenly my companion shouted:

"A light!"

Indeed something like a lighted match shone on our leeside. I immediately steered for it. but it vanished, to reappear a moment later, quite clearly, to windward. When, in going about, I fell away from the wind, it was lost without trace in the dark. I spied it again, well astern. I risked just one more jib, but the light wavered, grew smaller and vanished. Once again we were surrounded by impenetrable darkness, now twice as deep and twice as unpleasant.

Things were looking bad. We were splashed every few minutes, and already soaked to the skin, the torch had struck and completely refused to give any light at all. I was helpless.

"Shall, we drop our mainsail, draw up the keel, and trust to Providence?" suggested my companion.

I was inclined to take this advice, risky on a lake, though good on the sea with a strong sea anchor, when suddenly in the wind I heard human voices. My hair stood on end when I remembered the experience of my acquaintances on the lake. Suddenly, close to our yawl, almost gunwale to gunwale, passed a black shape. One felt its presence rather than saw it. Something like a fisherman's boat.

"Sir," asked a voice from out of the dark, "have you torn our nets?"

"I don't think so," I replied.

"That's all right. God cared for them!"

"Where are we?" I asked in my turn.

"The island ain't far away."

Indeed God cared for us. Around the island were rocks like millwheels, and there might easily have been an accident. In such water it would have had no happy ending.

"Were you led astray?" inquired another, bass voice.

"Led astray? How?"

"Ooh! Led astray. It happens here."

Again I remembered my acquaintances' adventures of three days ago. At the time I had laughed heartily at them. Moans in the night! Now I was more inclined to believe them, I had seen for myself what the island could do.

"Where are you from?" I asked. "From Mikolec. We're trawling for sielawa."

Even to-day I can see the whole scene clearly, nightmare dark in the clouds of mist, taken in by eyes-why should I hide it?-overwide with fright. The ill-defined mass of the rocking wherry, on board two fishermen like two hairy ghosts in the light of a smoky stable lantern. The greedy lapping of the water and the grind of one gunwale on the other. Our yawl heeled over, halt full of water, above her the reefed sail, lost in the darkness overhead, from which came down to us the flappings and crackings of the wind-blown canvas. The ghost of a jib-sail appearing and vanishing over- the bows. And the two of us with pale faces, plastered with tufts of hair like those of a drowned man, clad in dripping rags of what had been, some few hours ago in Kupa, elegant yachting dress. Now the poor rags simply cried out for Tanka's thrifty hand (it was she who pressed those white trousers, in the sweat of her brow, through the whole of a summer's morning). To all this was added the unceasing, long drawn-out hum of the rigging, imitating exactly the whistle of the wind in the fourth act of the "Tales of Hoffman" when the apparition of the dead mother appears.

We were properly scared then, and that's the truth. The special circumstances should excuse us. After all, in the course of one's wanderings one had been in many strange places, even in cemeteries at dead of night. Was it not to me that there twice appeared the black dog, terror of the neighbourhood, which during the hours of darkness crouched by the graves at the cross-roads which led to Kamionka Strumilowa, Busko, Milatyn, and the fourth, confound it, I don't remember where the fourth led!

That was a fine sight too, worthy of immortality. My horse foaming at the mouth, cowering and tugging wildly at the bit, not wanting to go one step further. And all around us, nothing-the pale landscape lit only by the moon, the furrowed trenches cut off from the rest of the world by a wall of forest. Nearby a cross leaning out over the road, and by the cross-a dog. The brute silently circled my horse, while my hairs stood on end under my cap, on which was the fatal number 13~ The dog hovered about us and the horse raved. At last, after many pirouettes, bucks, caracoles and rearings, the mare fell into a mad gallop, blindly straight before her. Over trackless ground at break-neck speed, anything to get away. Ugh! My flesh still creeps to-day when I think of it. And just think, that happened twice!

And during a storm, also at night, while the - lightning showed as if by a flashlight trees flattened or bowing to the storm, while' hail and rain beat on the roof of Duke Joseph's pavilion at Jablonna, did I not see with my own eyes the spirit of the Keeper of the Keys wandering in the lime avenue?

Nevertheless this was something different. This, without apparitions, without the background of lightning, was worse. There one at least saw-here one could see nothing. Only the night sucked us down little by little, irresistibly, as a puddle engulfs a fly or butterfly. One could see nothing, but one felt at one's throat a slimy hand, and someone's cold breath, damp, hastened, the breath of a lurking beast on the neck of its prey.

I would gladly have bugged the fishermen.

We stayed by them till daylight, as we were not eager to travel farther.

The wind fell and the witching hour passed. In the east a narrow belt of light began to show, and the stars twinkled harder. A little later they began to pale and go out. The lake, satisfied, rested and calmed, wrapped itself in thick mist. Now the old whiting, which spend the night in the shallows, nibbling the rushes and reeds, returned to their gravelly lairs. Above the mists the first herons hastened to the desolate peatbogs of the Naroczanka, or the red mud of the Pale Lake.

At last the sun rose. Every reed wore a fiery halo, and we, with chattering teeth, watched the drawing-in of the nets. The catch was poor; a few perch, two anaemic pike, several crayfish and much moss, of the kind in which live the white larvae of some worm, larva.- much in demand as bait for winter fishing.

Waiting for dawn and the drawing-in of the nets, huddled in the bows of the wherry, wrapped in coats borrowed from the fishermen, we puffed at cigarettes. Luckily the cigarettes were wrapped in waxed paper, which had saved them from the damp. We had something to offer our hosts.

One of the fishermen, Antym, in specially gossipy fashion complained that before the war there had not been so much bad luck on the lake as there was now. The spirits, if there were any, were kind and even friendly.

"Ye go across the bridge," he said, "ye look, and there is a white handkerchief waving, yer nag snorts and stops. Then it's clear there's a hole in the bridge."

Then he expatiated on other spirits. These were different, they belonged to the place. Sometimes a ne'er-do-weel drowned himself while drunk during the thaws. Then for shame he would not come out of the lake; but hid in the depths and frightened the fish, tugged at the nets, till a mass was said. for his soul. Sometimes it took as many as three masses before the lake brought the drowned man to the shore for Christian burial.

"And from the Christian Catholic cemetery, sir," he said, "who would want to go away? It's fine for him there. His family remembers him, brings him food. Only an atheist, a 'bolshevik'-for the other bodies would drive such a one out. So every night he escapes from the cemetery to the marshes and there from under the bushes his eyes shine like a young wolf's. But you needn't be afraid of him. He's afraid himself, of both living and dead."

"Against ghosts there's prayer and the sign of the cross!" affirmed my,-companion, a very practical fellow. For some time he had been pinching me unmercifully.

The cross is good, that's true, sir," agreed Antym gloomily, "but here, it's not clear which is the best. Our Orthodox, or, as some say, the Latin single one. Some say one thing and some another, and that's your worry. Besides there on Giryn lie Tartars too."

"So there's no way out?"

"There's always some way out. The old folk say that the triple cross is best for peasants' ghosts, and the Latin for the others. And when you don't know which to use, it's best to make first one and then the other."

I am slowly beginning to understand why there are so often two crosses on one grave: The great Orthodox one and the other small one tied with linen rags, simple, one-armed. It is still not sure which is the better. Beside them are the dishes with food, spoon, knife and fork. Ancient gods and new gods. And all around a life more buoyant and more directly connected with the breath of the woods and water, in the common world of the quick and the dead, between whom the final break has not yet come. Everywhere the matters of birth and death are hazy and somewhat unreal. The dead do not give -up mortal affairs, the living still know the roads which lead to the other side. Durations are mixed, ideas are mixed, the energy of Nature gives an extremely physical picture of Eternity.

However, the two crosses are two ways to some unimagined, cloudy heights, where the tangible reality is the devil at the cross-roads, or the drowned man in the lake and the ghosts walking in the woods.

Not believe in ghosts? Why not? I have known trustworthy people who saw and heard naiads dancing in water mixed with blood. I knew one man who saw, in bright daylight, at high noon, how there went from hill to hill, from forest to forest the naked Poludnitza in the glory of three lights, those three magic lamps of the kingdom of witches and sorcerers.

Why should I not believe? What right have I to trample upon and shatter the mysteries which are in the forest, which flourish like ferns by the lonely oaks, which gurgle quietly in the enchanted springs, and rustle in the hazel thickets in the twilight? Let no one try to deprive me of the grey branded ducats of some accursed treasure on the moon. Come back, my horse- lost in the Ukraine, at the gates of Taganrog of the hundred churches! Return with your secret step! To-day you live in fellowship with that black dog, so bring him with you! I will gird you with the saddle which was lost in the Polesian marshes, and fasten the dog with a leash which is left from my shot Alsatian. Let us go! We will go to the cross-roads, to the graves by the statue. There wait for us Planetnik, Pedziwiatr and Poludnitza, sitting by the fiery red devil. The four winds will blow: one to Milatyn, the second to Kamionka Strumilowa, and the third to Busk, and on the fourth we will fly to the north, to the Gate of the Seven Rainbows, to the Land of the Unknown Cross.