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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 XVI: Winter on the Lake


Narocz , Miadziol, Hatowicze hills, Wilno, Grodno, Warsaw,


Here we have Narocz, cloaked in snow, as Lisiewicz relates the peasant's life, the crushingly harsh winter on the ice, pole fishing and the less poverty stricken, trawling for their freshwater catch. And after the catch is landed, around the fire with a bottle, the men's talk of expeditions of legend from times past.

Further reading

None - rhetorical chapter

Chapter XVI: The Text

A SHINING white plain fading into the mists of the horizon or the wall of forest propped on the steep slopes-that is Narocz in winter. Silent and empty. On this infinite plain, out of the mists of the distance crawls a string of sleighs.

In the distance they look like a string of beads lost in the snow. The beads roll slowly along-some hours later they take on their proper shape. They are peasants from the distant villages, in summer cut off from the world by swamps and water, who have deserted their forest tracks and are crossing the lake to the market in Miadziol. The caravan moves in silence along the beaten trail, and vanishes behind the Hatowicze hills. Again silence falls, not broken even by the buzz of telephone wires near the hostel, for they are frozen too hard to hum.

Every morning we went off on skis, wandering from place to place, even into the most secret parts of the woods, where man had_ certainly not set foot since September, and would not come again before May. We delighted in the loneliness, silence, winter numbness, snow and drifts. The dachshund accompanied us faithfully, plodding in the ski-tracks.

Several times, too, we went fishing. That was hard work, for one was obliged to carry a heavy pick-axe to break the ice, a short rod, which was continually getting caught up in everything, and a box full of fish-eyes for bait. The dachshund was specially greedy for these eyes, and kept stealing them from my box whenever I put it down beside me on the ice. The frost and abominable refreezing of the holes in the ice made fishing difficult. The hole cut, in the sweat of one's brow, in the 15-inch thick ice of the lake, was frozen over with incredible speed. One was obliged to keep stirring the water with the pick, and even that didn't help much. The line after a few minutes more resembled a ship's hawser, and one's gloves became stalactites. Besides all this, one froze horribly. It was not at all a pleasant occupation.

Nevertheless, from early morning one could see on the lake little black spots, unevenly dotted about, like the marks on a fly-spotted piece of paper. These were the rod-and-line fisher-men. With a fir branch stuck into the ice at his back (to keep off the wind) crouched on a wooden box, a peasant would sit all day over his hole in the ice of the empty lake under the leaden sky. He would bend over his tar-black hole, continually being covered by an icy gruel, and fish and fish. These were the poorest people, who could not afford nets, nor even to belong to one of the common fishing groups. However, they were obliged to earn something, and bring back something to eat to their poor huts, so this was the way they fished.

In winter everything here lives on fish, from fish and for fish.

Every evening Sutocki vanished. He pulled on great boots above his knees, took a thick felt coat, and went off to the dragnets. He returned late at night, often in a snow storm, with the sleighs, in which, in baskets of plaited birch-bark, lay the fish. Next came the tiresome job of sorting, packing and sending off great 200 pound parcels to Wilno, Grodno, and Warsaw.

Only when I went for the first time with Sutocki to see the dragnets did I feel I really knew the true Narocz. Not the lake of fine July evenings, sunk in mists, silvered by streaks of moonlight and dreaming in the heat. The true Narocz is terrible, hard, unyielding. Clad in icy armour, in a visor of snow, in a girdle of shining forest which towers all round in silence, it gazes dumbly at the heavens with its thousand ice-holes. Only with the greatest difficulty can one tear from its bowels-a little nourishment. Roach, perch, pike. ablens, and "sielnwa" lie in dense crowds in the dark depths, but above them in the bluish dusk lies a thick plate of ice. Thirty three square miles of ice and snow.

A terrible country, tormented by the ice, sifted over with the emptiness of snow, stern, a country with a wolf-like nature. The wolf never pardons the hare because it is weaker. It kills, murders, tortures. The lake, too, kills the weak, smothers them in a whirlwind of snow, chases them across the icy plain, freezes them to the bone, to death.

Sometimes, looking at that ice and snow, I saw only frozen sweat and human tears.

It was already dusk when we came to the scene of the fishing. The cold pinched, and pale gleams began to wander across the lake, blotting out the distance. Far away on the shore the forest roared in a northern gale. From time to time icy dust rose from the drifts and blew about one's knees, beating in one's eyes and drawing copious tears from under one's lids. Thirty bearded and moustached men, in the vapour of their warm breaths, with aprons of ice, each changed into a living icicle, rocked evenly in two rows, hauling the lines of the net out of the ice hole.

"Heave! Heave! Heave!" they repeated in chorus, bowing in true eastern, orthodox fashion. The mass of people swept by gusts of wind and snow, sunk in the quivering moonlit mist, looked like drowned men dancing a hellish dance on the bottom of the lake.

"Heave! Heave! Heave!"

They had been on the lake since morning. Yesterday the experienced fishermen, after long councils, had pointed out the deep spot, one of 186: here they would fish. Why just here and nowhere else? Did they follow only their own fisherman's intuition, their own instinct full of the wisdom of these frozen waters? The wind said its part, the earth its part, the ice too, so they took the advice of wind, earth and ice, discussed it, talking over every detail. That was the prologue. The final decision lay in the hands of the leading fisherman, chief adviser, for whose prophetic words they paid well. According to his directions, before night fell, in the very middle of the appointed depths stood a broomstick driven into the ice, sign that the spot was occupied. In the morning the crack in the ice was surrounded by a circle of holes, of which two, facing each other, were the greatest, each the size of a large room. In the one farther from the shore the net was cast, and from the one nearer the shore the net was to be pulled out. After casting the net, the ends of the draglines were threaded through two 30-ft. poles, like two enormous needles. These needles were threaded through the ice from hole to hole, dragging the ropes. The ends of the ropes were attached to "grannies," great capstans mounted on sleighs, of which there were two, one for each wing of the net. About each "granny" eight men walked monotonously under the command of an overseer. The "granny" let the rope run off. its drum and disappear under the ice. It was to appear again in the farthest hole, where was to take place the last act of the affair, the drawing up of the trawl.

"Heave! Heave! Heave!" quicker and quicker went the chant of the haulers.

In spite of the frost and the quickly freezing water they did it with their bare hands. The greater were the coils of the rope piled on the ice, the quicker became their monotonous litany of shouts.

"Heave! Heave! Heave!" Now the former two-syllabic shoutiiig becomes monosyllabic.

"Heave!" Don't let go! Don't give up that which you have torn from the frost, from the bowels of the ice, torn by force from the depths of the lake! Heave! Pull up the fish, God's holy food! Thine, Lord, these watery, silver-shining, splashing crowds. Heave! Tear them from the jaws of the frost, from the teeth of those icy jaws, from the very bottom of those oozy depths, dark as a starless night. Take these contents of the gloomy silences of sand, moss, and waterworn stones. Heave! Heave! Hold fast!

They are hauling strongly. When the first mesh of the net shone in the lantern light, a clamour of hoarse voices rang hurriedly out. They wound it up, struggled, bending low to the ice, over which a thick sheet of black water from the holes had poured, which began to freeze about their feet, turning the snow into sharp-toothed crystals of ice. Hands were chapped in the frost, ice cut the skin, sticking its needles deep into the living flesh. Knots tore the skin of clutching fists, the line sawed across stiffened fingers, pricked by sharp fins; the water seethed with the fragments of new-forming floe, and rose ever higher about the frozen feet. But they went on hauling.

"Heave! Heave! Heave! Heave! Heave!"

Amid the vapour from the breath of men and horses black figures moved like devils in Hell. The chorus of shouts lessened and grew stronger in a confused prayer, and the rhythm filled one's breast, tormenting and exciting to the very limits, like the war song of some cannibal tribe from the Solomon Islands. In time to the "heave" everyone in hearing, drawn by the force of the chanted rhythm, felt obliged to run to the ropes and pull till he dropped.

"Heave! Heave! Heave! Ooooh!"

There appeared a dense crowd of fish in the net, rustling and quivering in gleams and glances. Great pike pokeeT out their dazed heads, roach leapt high. Heave! Heave! The crowd's excitement reaches its peak. There are fish! Fish! Heave! To the unceasing chorus, some haul, others draw out the silver bodies with shovels, and throw them into baskets of plaited birch-bark standing ready. In a moment the baskets are filled to the brim. They put others in place. Heave! Men slip on the ice and trample the fishy bodies, fall into icy water and snow. They hold on, haul, draw out, struggle. A little more, a moment longer! Only-heave!

Heave! Heave! Heave! Every day, without rest, without Sundays or holidays. While there's time. Where you don't catch fish to-day, tomorrow your neighbour will draw up a full net. The fish go from deep to deep, and the silent depths of the lake jealously hide the secret travels of the living food. A dragnet costs much money, and to buy one the village got over its ears in debt. So heave! Maybe there will be no profit and to-morrow you will have to start from the beginning again? One hundred and eighty-six deeps in the lake, so the chance is a 186 to one. If there are no fish, horses, cows, swine, cottages, and fields will come under the hammer. So heave! Sometimes the worth of the fish does not cover even the cost of the workmen, but that does not matter, to-merrow will be a better day, only heave!

Heave! Heave! The white desert of ice, frost, wind and darkness. The gusty snowstorms, springing unnoticed out of the darkness, sly and cunning! Mist falls, burying men, horses, sleighs, and it is night on the lake, a night spent in a whistling nothingness.

Heave! Heave! Heave! Do you hear? From the intolerable cold the ice is cracking with a snap and a roar. Great cracks run across the centre of the lake. The icy jaws move apart, only to snap to in a moment. An enormous slab of ice, measuring several square miles, has begun to travel. On shore the jumbled floes pile up. Under their pressure the jetty creaks and the planks of the landing stage, bent into a bow, split. Somewhere in the middle of the lake, above the depths the slabs of ice pile on one another, forming from below great pointed claws, which catch the net and tear it apart. Look out! Heave!

All winter it is nothing but : Heave! Heave!

In the cottages shine tallow lamps, and the women spin flax for their patterned cloths. Four monks in 'the Miadziol monastery have died of rheumatism and damp. Every day, in thaw, in frost, in blizzard, they must go out to the farthest parishes, to hold services, christen infants, preach sermons, tearing people from the depths of indifference to which they have been consigned by frost, poverty and Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy has suppressed all clear thinking, all hope, everything that is good, clear and warm. The bearded Orthodox priests in their black gowns are hovering round and watching. So heave! Heave!

At Chasiey's house in Old Miadziol snow lies in heaps up to the very threshold. At the foot of the hill, covered in mist in winter, lies the village. In the first room of the house stands a thin white horse. It has its neck bandaged-glanders. It coughs and snorts.

"Will he hold out? "I ask.

"Yesterday he lay down, and to-day he is standing again. Maybe he will hold out. He's been three months in the house, that's about 4 worth."

Kismet! Their faces are worried, for 4 is Chasiey's earnings for a whole year. If he only holds out! Heave!

I return to the hostel. On the way we find a flock of partridges huddled in the snow in the middle of the Miastro. Frozen hares lope about the osier beds or approach the cottages. In vain thin dogs dig in the snow. Anything they find is theirs. Heave! In the forest race elks, chased by poachers. You won't kill an elk-there'll be no meat, for the fish are not good this year. You won't get through, you won't "heave" out an elk, you'll fall into' the deep wet snow, which will not hold up a hoof. Heave! A fox steals by the village. Wolves howl at their miserable lot. Heave! Heave! Heave!

Narocz is terrible. It has features of frost, a dress of hoar and a heart of ice. A barren body guarded by thickets of trees, silver in their coats of ice, bent under the weight of the merciless decoration. Days sparkling with the fiery~lod, nights in hurricanes or silent as the grave. Fear, toil, empti-ness and anxiety.

Above all this is a sky black as pitch, deep, halved by the sword of the Milky Way, pricking with the cold flames of the stars, yawning, frosty and dumb. Unapproachable, distant, evil.

From the darkness on the lake come the hollow echoes of human shouts. Somewhere they are hauling a net. The wind brings the chanted shouting : Heave! Heave! Heave!

Every so often, if the nets had been hauled sooner than usual, or if the catch had been especially abundant, the farmerfishermen would sit down in the great hall of the hostel. Two paraffin la-mps, one at each end of the long table, threw their pale light on the frosted windows in the verandah wall. The vapour of breath bedewed the walls. Around the table from hand to hand went a bottle of "czysta." During the drinking they held discussions among themselves on the affairs of the lake, past, future or present. One or another would relate adventures of his life as fisherman.

"They went out in the boat," said Wasyl Lojko, "when the frost had already set in. Any minute the lake would freeze over. I told them then: 'Don't go out, Filemon, the ice will catch you.'"

"He was a fool!" remarked one of the circle of listeners.

"Of course!" added another.

"If you don't listen to your elders, the younger ones will beat you!" said a third, and took a pull at the bottle.

"That's right!" came assent.

Meanwhile the narrator reached for the bottle, and raising it to me, continued:

"Well, sir, and what happened? He went off, sailed away and away, to cast his nets. And the lake froze. The wind blew once and again from the forest, and there was the ice. Thin, so that they could neither sail nor walk. Too thick for the oars, and too thin for one's feet. Then Filemon and his boat stopped and waited. Two days he waited."

"Didn't he freeze?"

"Ho! How' would a man like that freeze? He shouted, and they heard him."


"He, he!" laughed the audience.

"They tried to get to him, but they couldn't-the ice broke. So the young men brought straw, planks and laid them before them, and on the evening of the second day they reached him."

"Filemon," one farmer teased another, "was your namesake."

"Go to the devil and leave me alone!"

"Your health!"

'"It was worse during the war!" broke in from the other end of the table a grey, moustached peasant.

"What was worse?" asked one of the younger men.

"Haven't you heard of the war? Isn't there enough wire in the water?"

"I've heard what I've heard.

"And didn't Grandpa Wojteczko tell any stories?"

"Oh, he was old, he didn't know what he was saying."

"You young fellows are all alike, wise as owls. Well, it's time we were going! It's getting late!"

The farmers began to leave, the bottles were empty. Some mounted their sleighs, others went trt sort, pack and dispatch the fish to Kobyinik.

I went out after those riding off, to cool off a bit. The night was so dark one couldn't see a hand's breadth. The world had shut itself into a pillow of black down. A murmur came from the invisible forest. The pines had thrown off their icy coverings and started to dance. The sounds flew over our heads in the sky. Here the forest sheltered us from the wind, but on the lake it must have been blowing hard. The telephone wires hummed, forecasting the coming thaw.- I went up to Lojko.

"Who was Wojteczko?" I asked.

"Wojteczko? An old man, he's dead, three years ago, it'll be. Good night, sir, I've a bad drive ahead." He went away.

I later found out some details about the old man, Wojteczko. During the Great War he was employed by the Russians as a guide for creeping through the front lines, here in the neighbourhood of the lakes. He acquitted himself of this duty well, and had some extraordinary adventures.