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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 XV: The Wicked Sportsman's Hell


Krakow, Narocz, Warsaw, Wilno, Lyntupy, Kobyinik, Ostrow, Polock, Hatowicze


Lisiewicz starts the chapter in Krakow, his home city, reflecting forlornly on Narocz - when an invitation to winter sports arrives. The author and his wife travel through Poland by train in the driving snow. They arrive and are surprised to learn they are driving over the frozen lake. A wonderfully evocative passage describing a failed attempt at ice-yachting on the lake follows, in a similar comic fashion to the adventure previously recounted about buying a decrepit motor boat.

Further reading

None - rhetorical chapter.

Chapter XV: The Text

WE are back in toen again. Through my window I can see the town gardens, in summer full ot children and greenery, now in their November desolation. On the left are the concrete cross-roads of two new streets and high blocks of flats. On the right and in front, not hidden by the leafless trees, spires tower into the sky: the spires of St. Mary's and the scaffolding and cupola of St. Anne's. By leaning out of the window I can see the whole of Wawel Hill.

Every evening I look at it swathed in mist, as the massive contours of the great cathedral grow sharp against the lighter sky. When the dusk deepens the contour sinks into the darkness. Only the lights in the windows remain, irregularly scattered in space, like a starry constellation of some new heaven. Usually four windows near the cathedral are first to light up, two on the upper and two on the lower storey. Farther over to the right come three more, one on the first floor, one on the second, and one at ground level. In this way growls an obtuse-angled triangle of lights. The seven twinkles suddenly group themselves in a faithful imitation of the Great Bear. Involuntarily I join the two. end stars with an imaginary line and produce it to five times its own length. I look for the most important star, the saviour of travellers and guardian of wandering sailors: the Pole Star, Alpha Ursae Minoris.

How beautifully it shone over the hostel roof at the end of summer! How I wish it would again lead me out of the town, out of the autumn fogs, away from the drab concrete streets!

Said my wife, "I keep feeling like a frightened animal shut in a cage!"

I agreed, for I too felt dreadful. I could not accustom myself to the town. I slept badly, and at night constantly dreamed of trees, water, and sails. Even in the day time, when I closed my eyes, images of the sun-baked waves passed before them, and under the waves, fish swimming.

My wife and I walked about the town and look longingly at the displays of sports goods, in which are still shown oars, rubber cushions, and even whole canoes. Soon they will dis-appear, to make room for skis. Winter is coming, coming! Yesterday the first snow fell, poor wet stuff mixed with rain. It had scarcely covered the roads when it melted and vanished in muddy puddles. The rest was swept away by the great mobile street cleaners of the town council.

On a visit to us came our host from the Naroczan hostel, Mr. Sutocki. It was a fine sunny day) so I took him on to the terrace on the sixth floor, and, with pride, showed him the whole of Krakow. The view from the terrace was wide, and included the landscape from Bronowice and Sowiniec in a great arc right round to Rakowice. Sutocki took a good look and then said : "What a lot of smoke!"

It was true. There was a lot of smoke. Thrown out from the many chimneys, it spread into fine, sooty dust and fell plentifully on the houses and streets, squeezing through cracks into homes, and offices, dirtying furniture and everything. A clean collar was filthy after .an hour or so. Mr. Sutocki liked Krakow very much, but preferred the Lithuanian, Naroczan, air.

"At home the air is like crystal!"

He was right. Before he left we decided that instead of going to the traditional Zakopane for the skiing, this time we would go to Narocz and sail iceboats. Just before Christmas came a short telegram: "Lake like glass, perfect conditions sailing, regards. Sutocki."

At home confusion reigned. The disorderly packing of sweaters, furs, gloves, trousers, skis, and rods for winter fishing began. Then the start of the journey, which has to be endured patiently, like lumbago. The landscapes changed suddenly: Krakow station, Warsaw station, Wilno station.

Our rough-haired dachshund accompanies us on this winter expedition. She is pleased and scared, everything is new to her, uncertain and suspicious. She is bad-tempered. At Warsaw station she behaves very badly, my wife is a little ashamed, but puts up with it, for there is nothing else to do. In the carriage of the Wilno train the dachshund throws herself on some man who begins to speak sweetly to her: "Doggie! doggie!" I am not surprised at her fury, but am obliged to intervene. I put the dog beside my wife. The dachshund slips slily to the floor, and taking advantage of a moment when I am reading and my wife dozing, cheekily eats up some other man's ham sandwich. How could anyone so carelessly and unhygienically leave a sandwich on the seat? However, my apologies are received coldly.

As far as Wilno we were accompanied by the mournful winter of Central Europe. Through the darkened patches of snow there showed fat furrows ready for the spring sowing, there were great puddles full of mud and the smoke of the engine mingled with the mist hanging in 'the wayside trees. Great flocks of rooks and jackdaws fluttered up from the fields and flew before the train. The roads were covered with mud, mud, mud. In Wilno at last blew a frosty wind, a dry, penetrating, north wind, but there was still no snow. From Wilno to Lyntupy the train pushed forward through a dense snowstorm, and had to plough through snowdrifts. A little peephole in the frosted window pane, melted by a coin warmed in the pocket, showed in the dusk the downy trees, capped houses, and drifted roads.

In Lyntupy we got out of the train into thick clouds of steam. From this steam emerged the ghost of a man, who collected our waiting things, to carry them to the narrow-gauge railway for Kobyinik. For a moment, arm-in-arm, my wife and I walked bli.ndly through the thick opaque cloud, tripping over steps and rails. But suddenly the vapour cleared away and we were surrounded by the silence and glory of the frost, the immaculate whiteness of the snow and its sparkling richness. In the bluish air rose sparkling crystals. The station, houses, stores, and trucks, covered with a foam of snow, looked like a great Spanish tart. Fiery pillars of breath moved before the people, and the heat from their bodies surrounded each figure with a faintly shining halo. And above the earth-the sky. What a sky!

It was black as the velvet of funeral trappings, deep as Hell, and sparkling with lights like a ballroom. He who does not know the northern skies has not seen a real sky: it is plastic, silent, and shut tight on its twinkling secrets. There poured from it a silence which not even the greatest noise on earth could trouble. Every shout, before it left one's lips, died in the cold, the noise did not spread or echo.

One went on from silence to silence.

"Surely only Death walks with such silent footsteps!" whispered rgy wife, leaning toward me.

The silence was full. Full of snow, breathing numbness, living in the threatening silence of the heavens.

In spite of the late hour and our weariness we could not sleep on the way to Kobyinik. My wife every few minutes warmed the windowpane with her glove and looked out into the dark, which was lightened by the stars. Over the meadows lay a greenish gleam, but there was not much one could see. Humped snowdrifts, yellow gleams, and shadows of lighted windows rushed past. In the black sky the stars still twinkled.

Sutocki was waiting for us in Kobyinik. Wrapped in great-coats, sweaters, caps, hoods, fur gloves, muffs, and sheep-skins, set like stiff dolls in the straw-strewn sleigh, we dived into the pale expanse of the snowy woods, and when we came out it seemed as if we were driving across the bottom of a glass full of throbbing, shining milk.

"Where's the lake?" I asked the driver, father of our Mikolay.

"The lake? Sir, we're driving over it, Yon's Ostrow and the island."

The road before, beneath and behind us was invisible. There was nothing but the green-grey, blue-grey, silver white-ness, closed over by the black sky. The sky had not changed; it was hard, stiffened in its very twinkling, sharp and merciless. Truly a heaven unattainable for the inhabitants of earth.

How hard it is in real life to find a genuine literary picture! I am thinking of one for which one would not need to go into stylization, one which would not need to pass through a series of technical -touching-ups or toning-downs, like an over or under-exposed photographic plate; a picture which could be faithfully reproduced, situation by situation, mood by mood. Alas! If I have ever had the luck to know such scenes, when I tried to put them on paper my pen failed me. One can find no words or suitable sentences, nor can one evoke by written phrases the true mood. The writer is impotent before the hard shape of reality. A few such images, jewels so beautifully polished that there are no suitable settings, lie in my memory. Strangely enough they are all connected with snowy winters. Can I describe the famous duel between Cielecki and Grobicki., somewhere near Busk, -in a buried village (was it called Czerlany?), in the courtyard on a moonlight night? The greenish beams of moonlight caught in the hanging icicles round the eaves mingled with the ruddy light of the four tarry torches held by lancers. The silence of the snow, the rasp of sabres and the vapour of breath surrounding the half-naked bodies in a cloud. And farther away a cottage under the snow and the gentle light streaming from the crooked peasant windows. The trampling of feet in the snow and the quiet neighing of horses in the nearby stables. And the fox, a real woodland fox, which squatted on the threshold of the barn and, tucking its tail neatly away, with a sneering expression watched the queer things men did.

Can one describe with a clumsy hand the stirrup-cup given us, mounted, by a squire in the neighbourhood of Polock? The steaming horses, tugging at the bits. Fragrant mead in tin mugs. And again the yellowish gleams from behind the shutters of the house, a warm mist rising from the threshold round the grouped figures of the lasses on the porch and after the quick gallop between the fences into the woods, the patrol, with moonlight twinkling vaguely on the bark of the leaning trees.

Such was our arrival in the dark night to the well-known and loved hostel. The building was decked in icicles and a feathery cap of snow. Behind the panes shone the light of candles and paraffin lamps. Shadows moved over the snowdrifts. The noisy and unceasing barking of a dog sounded from the shed. Then a black streak jumped high into the air-Nerus!

Indoors there was a fire, and in the faint glimmer of moonlight stood the frosty walls of the forest. Then we saw the red glow of the open doors and the hall was full of the scent of burning gorse. It is difficult to describe in words just how it all happened, subtly to catch the very act of the greeting of the house, in this winter silence, the house which takes in all comers-shelters them and entertains them.

Morning of the next day began its journey 'in a pink sunbeam. It was thrown through a small crack between the blanket and the window frame, and tickled my eyelids. Thus began the wintry leisure on the Uzia, cheerful and carefree, though in deep winter. The frosts attained their greatest depths, and the thermometer fell below 23 deg. centigrade. The forest stood in pyramids of frozen trees, the earth was covered with a dust of hoar frost, into which one sometimes fell up to the armpits. Running on short skis over the silence expanses of snow, we went deep into the forest, crossing tracks of animals and birds. It was full of such tracks, but the forest was silent and dead. Sometimes from the branches fluttered little birds with red throats, sometimes a squirrel knocked down armfuls of snow. It was a lifeless parade of snow and ice. Silence-the silence of winter, spouse of Death.

We waited for the students. They were to come from Wilno, set up the ice-yachts and start the season of this great, royal sport. Meanwhile my wife and I tried to rediscover the former forest tracks, and from time to time descended on the lake, our skis marking the virgin snow in circles, squares and other geometrical figures.

That unfortunate snow! It covered the lake in a thin but even layer, and when from time to time the wind blew, it settled into little ridges, not more than six inches high. Sutocki looked at them with a suspicious eye, coughing when ice-sailing was mentioned.

Now the lake was no longer smooth. Only here and there, among the stretches of drifts, showed the glassy ice.

"It's nonsense! The yacht must go through that under sail!" I said to my wife.

"Surely it will go through," she agreed hopefully.

At last the students arrived. Three lads and two girls. Their arrival was heralded by the sleigh bells, then the tramp of ski-boots, laughter, song, and running. They settled in next door to us in the great room numbered is. They arrived at night. The next morning we became-friends for life. With pleasure I accepted their invitation to share in the sailing course, after which we set to work greasing skis.

The preparatory outing began: on skis through the woods, or on the hills near Hatowicze. Then ski-joring to Miadziol. The frost never slackened, and the mercury in the thermometer outside the dining-room window fell from minus 25 to 26 and then to 27, 28, 30. Cloudless days and nights exhaled cold from the skies. Sparkling dust rose in the air and glittered in the sun, cutting one's face with its sharp transparent needles.

The wind, the sailor's hope, did not appear. The air turned solid in frosty immobility, the forest trees reared themselves up like Arctic gho'sts in the kingdom of icicles. Silence reigned on the lake in the soft silver snow. Only the dark dots of the fishermen grouped about the holes in the ice across the great expanse gave a semblance of reality to the scene. The leader of the course announced that though there was no wind, yet there certainly would be, and gave orders to prepare the yacht. Down from the attic and out from the sheds came the ropes and canvas; a great repairing of sails, mounting of masts, fitting of rigging began. Soon the yacht was ready, and stood by the humpbacked ]etty, which bent under its load of ice. The ice, under the influence of the frost, began to crack, with loud roars, breaking the former smoothness into great cracks and pushing the edges up the shore, where they built themselves into a thick wall as tall as a man.

There was still no wind. Only snow, monotony, frost ever sharper -and the forest stiffened into white flames. Late sunrises and early sunsets scattered among the drifts intangible pink shadows. In the evening the snow became violet and lily white, or simply dark blue like the sky above.

Our old companion Nerus made friends with our dach-shund, and they would go for walks together. In the same old way the Alsatian, Rex, tried to stop them, but could notdo much, as he still had to guard his capital-the rubbish heap-and chase away the dogs from the village of Hatowicze.

The poor dachshund was not happy at first. The snow was too deep for her short legs. Besides, during walks, her pads near the claws became painfully clotted with icy lumps of beaten snow, which licking and biting did not help. From tearing these away, the skin of her pads became chapped, and licking only made the lumps bigger. So m the first days the dachshund just rolled over on her -back and did not want to walk in the snow. In vain Nerus jumped round her, catching her little paws in his teeth.

"I shall have to carry the creature!" complained my wife.

"Don't you dare!" I told her.

I was right. She soon got used to it, and learned to walk in the woods, roll in the drifts, seek out hares' trails, run from tree to tree after woodpeckers and squirrels. Her figure, pot-. bellied from potatoes and town life, grew thinner and took on its virgin slenderness. Her hair began to curl, the locks divided into separate hairs, and her whole coat began to shine and gleam with the true sheen of a healthy animal's hide.

Soon after she began to adventure into foxes' earths with the courage and obstinacy of a true dachshund. However, she did this alone, as in spite of his obvious desire to do so, Nerus would not' leave his traditional area around the shelter. I was not too pleased to see this new amusement-really, foxes' earths are dangerous. One can never be sure if the dog will come out again, and it would be very hard, in such a frost, to dig out a wounded dog, maybe from a considerable depth. Anyway, I must admit that the hunting blood in her showed, and moved to the depths that artificial jester of the town, who used to beg for sugar at breakfast. Now she was muscular, alert, brave, in love with the frost and snow. However, she still did not turn up her nose at sugar.

The dachshund was terrified of the yacht. When it stood on the lake, for no reward on earth would she go near it. When it moved, pushed hv the students, she tucked in her tail and fled to the hostel.

We were still lying in bed one morning, when the dachshund, who had been let out a moment before, came back as fast as she could, whining and howling as if a wolf was after her.

I was soon to find out the reason for this panic. The wind was blowing outside. The dog, going out, was sniffing quietly on the lake not far from the yacht, when the students began to hoist the sail. The threatening mutter of the forty-five foot canvas terrified the poor dachshund, and she .fled. Anyway, she brought us'good news-wind!

The forest smoked. ' White clouds tumbled over the tops of the pines, and inside the forest the bursting of the falling snow and the high-rising pillars of flakes gave the impression that there raged some secret, silent battle among giants, firing from icy guns dumb shells of snow.

While eating breakfast, I noticed with satisfaction that the yacht was under sail, and around her circled all those on the course. I did not want to hinder them, nor put myself forward, so I decided to let the youngsters have first call, knowing that my turn would come. So I cleaned my gun, greased my skis and set of? with my wife into the wood. Passing between the hostel and the forest I saw that the yacht was being pushed fast over the lake, with its sail ballooning out. With a feeling of slight envy I entered the clearing by the marshes. We went as far as the Pale Lake, but couldn't stand upright there, it blew so hard. The wind simply blew one's head off, so we retreated into the thickets, where it was not much better. It's true that there the gale did not reach the ground, but one had to bear the bombardment of lumps of snow and ice which fell constantly on one's head. Heaps of snow fell down one's collar, penetrating the bestfastened windjacket.

We sounded the retreat, and wended our way home. Near the hostel I met Mikolay, who was looking for me on the directions of the leader of the course, with a request that my wife and I should come down to the lake.

"You go alone. I'm a hit tired," said my wife, so I set off alone.

The wind was even stronger, and swept across the lake like a broom.

"Well, they must have had a great day!" I thought enviously as I went down hill.

The yacht was standing against the jetty. The leader came to meet me and most politely requested me to take a run with him. I jumped at the chance, and with an inward cheer hurried my pace.

My fancy was already speeding through space at 80 miles an hour. I quickly recalled all the warnings and advice given me in the autumn by Colonel P-cki, a regular visitor to this place and owner of a beautiful ice yacht.

"First of all, don't be deceived by the distance," he said, "Begin to manoeuvre at least 2000 yards from the shore, or there won't be time."

I was most afraid I would miss the right moment, that I would carry out the manoeuvre, manoeuvre with a big M, badly. I heard the rasp of runners on the piled ice of the shore, the cracking of boards, the screech of twisted steel ropes, the roar of the breaking mast, all the hellish concert of a crash, which awaited inevitably-if one was too late - I swore I would take care.

"You, Captain, take the steering," I proposed to the leader of the course, as we neared the yacht. He was very red in the face and out of breath. The frost was sharp, at le~st 13 below zero. In such a frost one's face is likely to be red.

"Well, and how has it gone up to now?" I asked.

"Oh! Of course, you know," he answered a little uncertainly.

"Where are the others?"

"Lying over there, in the snow." He pointed out four figures which had disposed themselves comfortably on a snowdraft. I went over to them. They all had faces as red as that of their leader, and all looked very tired. Seeing me, one of the' women lifted her head with difficulty, and in answer to my greeting stuttered : "Can't move hand or foot."

The others didn't even raise their heads, just panted and lay like logs.

This surprised me somewhat, as I hadn't supposed that sail-ing an ice boat was so tiring. But if I was to believe my eyes they were very tired indeed. Disgusted by the lack of stamina of modern youth (so much is written and said about this) I turned on my heel and returned to the boat standing ready for sporting deeds. The leader was doing something to the sail, righting a block.

"Shall we go?" he said, "the wind is fair."

The wind was very good, it bent the mast and tugged at the cloth of the sail as if it wanted to tear it from its settings and hurl it over the forest, it thundered like big guns, and its frosty breath cut one's cheeks.

"It's cold!" I shrieked.

"When we go with the wind," roared the leader, "it will be all right!"

That's true, we will be going quicker than the wind, which has a speed of at most five miles an hour, while we should be doing about eight. We shall move rather in a seeming lull. A known phenomenon.

"Let's go! " shouted the leader.

I nod.

"Push a bit!"

I begin to push. The wooden brute shakes and shivers from the pressure of the wind, but won't move an inch. The runners are frozen into the ice. We tip, shake and tug, I try to move the steering runner, but nothing happens. Shouts of "One, two-heave! " don't help at all. The boat stands as if built there. I am surprised by the lack of activity shown by the others. They just lie on their snowdrift and never even dream of helping us. Not very nice of them!

The unexpected and successful intervention of Mikolay freed the boat from its icy fetters. The yacht moved. When half into the wind, the sail filled, and the slender boat, in one bound, like a racehorse, leapt off the mark. We scarcely managed to jump in. I to the stern, and my companion on the forward runner as counterweight. I grasped the rudder convulsively. The boat was getting up speed, already the wind seemed to slacken, the ice was rushing past under our Feet, when, with a violent shock, we stuck in the first drift. It was not a big one, scarcely above the level of the ice, but it was a most effective brake.

We were far from the shore. Quite three-quarters of a mile. The direction of the wind was such that we could expect to return the same way as we had come.

But "per molto variare la natura e bella"-so said the English Queen Elizabeth, seeking to divert Mary Stuart, her Scots cousin. Thus "per molto variare" our boat would not return. It was evidently tired of standing so long by the snow-covered jetty. We turned it about by brute force, but it dug in its toes and stood there. From time to time, with every new blast of the gusty wind, came convulsive shudders of the hull, and the runners began to move over the ice; how-ever, as soon as we jumped in the boat stopped. Then we tried another method : while one jumped in, the other pushed, but in accordance with the theory of the malice of inanimate objects, as soon as we stopped pushing, the boat stopped playing, and so on "da capo al fine," to continue in the beautiful Italian language.

She had a splendid silhouette. With filled sail, slender, squat, with long runners, she looked the image oi lightness and movement, but she denied her vocation, did violence to her nature, and refused to move. There was only one way to meet this obstinacy: push without stopping. So we pushed and pushed. I had long ago forgotten about the sharp frost and wind, I threw off my warm jacket, remaining in only a light sweater and skiing trousers. I pushed. Perspiring to my very bones, tired, despairing, I knew now what was meant by that dead-tiredness of the four unfortunate ones lying on the snow. And we were only two.

The boat grew to the size of some Apocalyptic beast, obstinate and malicious. It clung to the ice like a fly to the ceiling, sometimes, when our efforts were almost exhausted, its mast creaked lightly and it moved, only to halt again. Sometimes already moving, it leapt from out the wind, or turned in different directions like a dancer. We pushed without a pause. Tdl to-day, in nightmares, it seems to me that I am pushing the ice yacht over a snow-drifted lake. Now I know what the wicked sportsman's Hell will be like.

With difficulty we got the wooden beast to the shore. With difficulty we dragged ourselves to the snowdrift, where I fell like a log beside the others, who had not yet revived. Only the lender took a few deep breaths, stood for a moment, and went off towards my wife, who was Just coming down from the hostel to see the splendid deeds of the keen boat's crew.

The leader greeted her warmly, and suggested a trip. My wife eyed that nice young man suspiciously:

"Thank you," she said, "but I don't believe the yacht can do 70 miles an hour."

"I give you my word that if conditions are favourable it can do even more!" assured the youngster with a leader's enthusiasm.

"I still don't believe it! No one could push as fast as that," came her answer.

The truth of the matter is that my wife was right, as Sutocki had been in taking such a pessimistic view of the conditions on the lake. That season I didn't go out in the yacht again. After the students had gone it still stood by the jetty ready to go any moment, but even more snow fell on the lake, and conditions became even worse.

I had to give up the idea.