by K. A. Laity
He came with raven feathers. He came to woo our daughter. Had the wind whispered her secrets into his ear? For she would not have become the wife of any ordinary man, Kommi stubbornness made sure of that. Swanlike she was born, swanlike did she grow, with white hands and a graceful neck and eyes that looked unblinking at you. The servants, who all grumbled day and night about their work, would give her the best of the cream, the finest weaving, the sweetest olut brewed for her. Her brothers and sisters too, who should be jealous of the attention our little star received, instead protected her, coddled her. Her sisters did the mending rather than let her prick her fingers. Her brothers gathered kindling, which should be her job, carried hay to the cows in winter, rather than let her chap her hands. Swanlike they stayed, white.
Palakainen she was named, our little tidbit, our little treat.
The wind must have carried her sighs to the ears of Kojo's son. For all her gentle ways, for all her pampering, she dreamed as any child would — of growing up, of going away. None of the suitors would be good enough. Kommi, proud father, had sworn at her birth, when the white shock of hair made us all gasp, sworn that she would be protected, cosseted, loved. No fumbling farmboy would wed this child, no simple smithy get her hand. She was the sweet light of our hearth. And so it has always been, until now.
Kojonen did not send his son. Kojo's youngster came of his own accord, much to his father's surprise. He had already set out on his own, put up his own farmstead, brought his cows to pasture, brewed his own taari. His father would have gladly shared his home, passed the keys to his fine son, passed the wealth he had acquired. His son only smiled and declared that he needed his own household, required to see himself a man. And so alone, with only servants, his father kept a lonely home while his son toiled in new fields and ploughed up rough the earth, making his wealth even richer, making folks remark at market, "Kojo's son is his own man. Wealth has not made him afraid to work. Kojonen must be proud"
It seemed a good sign for us, when Kojo's son was the one who came calling, seemed a faint squeak of hope. But Kommi would not make it easy, though he knew there was no other, though he thought that Kojo's son might well make a man worthy of his swan. Our white-haired one was no more keen to his offer than she had been for those who came before, sat by the hearth and said not a word, though the slightest scarlet blush climbed her lanky soft white neck when Kojo's son came a-calling, came to plead his lover's suit. But the wind, it must have heard her, when she sighed with longing true for a man who could keep her, guard her love and shelter her downy head.
So he came to our window, calling out to Kommi loud, "Kommi, let me have your daughter! Swanlike, graceful — she's the one to brighten my poor homestead, to gently hold my tired head when the night is darkest and cold. Say you will give her to me!" There he was with hair as black and shiny as the raven's wing and eyes like hardened coal, and I felt a shiver go through me, like a piece of winter ice floating down the springtime river, come from the far north, from the distant lands of Pohjola. But I knew Kommi would not give her, not give up without a trial.
"I will give her, Kojo's son, only if you pass the trials, prove yourself worthy of our treasure, swanlike star of our own home." Kommi's eyes were glowing with pleasure, with pride — but also with hope that this young corbie, this wealthy son, might be the one to pass the tests, to win the hand, to deserve the child of our hearts.
"Try me, Kommi, test my mettle. I will prove to be worthy of your prize." A smile broke over his face, but did not reach his eyes. I should have known not to trust the raven-head, but I was blinded too, blinded by the wide white smile, by the thought of all that wealth, riches to shelter our little swan forever, to keep her hands so soft and fair.
Kommi leaned out from the window, rested his hands upon the sill. "I will let you have my daughter if you can accomplish much. No simple farmer will win her hand, no labourer will take her home."
"Challenge me, Kommi. For your beautiful swanlike daughter, much will I prove. Any feat will I undertake to have the swanlike beauty at my door."
"Here's a task, mighty simple, any lad in knee pants could fulfill it. You must shoot a star from heaven, any of the twinkling lights between the shifting clouds. On one foot must you complete this, with a single arrow at first try." Kommi smiled, ready to relish the sight, seen already a time or two: the crestfallen suitor with longing looks, cap in hand, heading home.
But this korppi did not falter, fixed his cap down on his head, slung his bow over his arm, and walked into the fields to await nightfall. One by one, the household folk gathered to watch, some pretending they had work, or that the late summer afternoon was perfect for small tasks of mending and sewing. The brothers, the sisters gathered, curiosity lighting their faces. Only she, our swan, our maiden, sat alone by the fire, spinning wool, for she could not bear to see what happened, could not stand to wait for night.
When at last the twilight gave way to evening's purple hue, all who could were gathered there to await the test of mettle, to try the lad of raven hair. Unconcerned, he gazed at the star lights, as if to find the perfect one. All the pinpoints sparkled overhead like white pebbles in a pool. All the folk joined together, looked upward to see the night sky. When at last the time was right, when the black-haired one had chosen, then he reared back on one leg, stretched his bow until it curved like an ox yoke, until the tension made his sinews strain, held it just one moment longer, then released the fiery flame from his bow.
Upward shot the arrow, onward flew the dart. It was decked with owl feathers, striped wings to aid its upward flight. The point he had carved with care, hardened in the crackling fire. Kojo's son watched the shot disappear, all there craned their necks to see. But only black night met our gazes, only darkness filled the sky. In time folks began to chatter, wondering loudly how far up the smallest star, how long must be the shot to reach that height. Kojo's son alone stood silent, black eyes ever on the hollow darkness, his gaze still patient, waiting. One by one the others gave up, went to seek their soft feather beds. Kojo's son silent stood, still on one foot, patient, waiting. Kommi and I stayed behind, looking up at Ukko's night. How long passed, it was hard to say. Kommi had just nodded off when I felt my breath catch. I was uncertain at first, but then the twinkle grew.
It was the star. The brightness gained in size as it gained in speed. Rousing Kommi, I sent him running, to the house to get the cooking pot, black as pitch. Stumbling, stumping along close behind him came our servants, sleepy eyed and rubbing faces, one foot still in a dream. All alone, by the doorway, waited our girl, the swan-necked one.
From the sky, like a snowball, came the bright enchanted star. In its center, we could soon see, was the arrow of Kojo's son, owl feathers fluttering fast. Kommi placed the fateful cauldron, found the most propitious spot. Like a downy goose it landed, splashed down in the blackened bowl. We gathered around it eagerly, our breaths held, our hands shaking.
The star glimmered, but we could see it was fading. The arrow had pierced its very center. The little star lit our curious faces as we gazed into the pot as into a prophetic pool. Something of its sky-born nature bathed our minds with hopes and dreams, dazzled our wits with thoughts most high. But it glowed a little less with each pulsating twinkle, and at long last, accompanied by our sighs, the light went out and we were once more in the dark. Nay, dawn; for the sun foretold its rising with a growing golden hue in the east. Kojo's son stood on two feet and asked once more, "Will you give me your daughter now, the swanlike one to be my bride, to set the kettle in my homestead, make the fire glow warm and bright?"
Kommi gave one last look upon the cauldron black. "You have accomplished a great deed, but I will only give my daughter if you can complete the next: walk one day upon knife points, walk another upon axe blades, both those days upon the sharp points — prove the love you have for her." The eyes of Kojo's son glittered darkly in the dawn light, but his white teeth flashed in the gloom. He said not a word, but nodded slowly, turned and bent his steps for home.
We all took up the great cauldron, slipped a pine length through its handle, carried it upon strong backs. We let it cool the day and night, and still the next morning the ember smoked. The arrow, blackened by the flames, still stood upright in its heart. Kommi at last gave a pull upon its darkened length, gingerly testing the temperature before grasping firmly. It turned to ashes in his hand, all but one singed owl feather, the rest just sooty charcoal dust. He took the heart of the dead star, wrapped it in a rough old cloth, gave it to his swanlike daughter sitting silent by the hearth. We all gaped at the dead star's center, at the lump of blackened coal. I will never know whether in its depths she saw the eyes of Kojo's dark-haired son.
People came from all the farmsteads, came to see the wonder dark. They gathered round in bright sunlight, or sought the hearth light in the shadows. None could say a greater wonder had been found in all this land than the star pierced by the arrow by the young man on one foot. Those who had seen the arched bow, seen the shot aimed for the sky, traded stories for good olut when abroad at market times. Silent in her accustomed corner, our daughter with her swanlike ways, brooded on the star before her, but never spoke a word on it.
Kojo's son, the strongest bowman, spent his days out in the woods, gathering stumps of widest girth, yoking his bull to the roots. Weeks went by and still he gathered, chopping up the gnarly wood. High outside his new-built cookhouse he piled the wood of ancient trees. When the crisp fall leaves were turning, he turned at last to build the forge. He rolled a rock down from the mountains to give his blows a base, called upon a wizened servant to be the hands upon the bellows. From the farmstead of his father, he gathered all the bits of metal, rusty blades and pitted kettles left in dust and in neglect. All the pieces, all the iron went into the smithy's pot. Then the two men stoked the fire, got the flames a crackling red, orange tongues shooting forth.
From the forge, such a sound came a-ringing across the valley, over the mountain and to our home, ringing for the new-born smithy who had his grueling work to do. Long he pounded, long the fires blew, long the heat and hammers waved under the cooling sky. Talk arose across the valleys about the frenzied work of him who sought the swanlike maiden. Every tongue was wagging, offering opinions and local wisdom. But swanlike rested our daughter at the hearth, quiet with her simple tasks. Never a word she spoke. Sometimes she gazed in silence at the charred heart of the star, but she never offered her assessment, never had a word to say.
At night in bed I would turn to Kommi, prod him to made some kind of comment. "What do you think he's doing there? Will he come for our little one?" Kommi always groaned and muttered, "What will be, will come to be." I could say later that I knew, that my heart held some tremulous whisper of what lay ahead, but all I had was a foreboding, dark as the raven's smoky wing that brushes the highest limbs of the forest when it glides in its hushed flight.
About the time of autumn harvest, when the nuts began to fall, when the last wheat had been threshed and stored, the hammer fell silent and every head turned. All the months of gathering wood, of seeking out iron where it rested fallow, all the weeks of pounding, pounding, until it seemed Ilmarinen himself, that great smith, had taken up residence — all that tumult ended at last on one clear and propitious day. And Kojo's son walked forth throughout the valley in the crisp autumn air, calling on his friends and neighbors, exhorting every one who was there to bring forth all their iron hatchets and every knife of every size. They gathered all their sharpest points, brought them to the fields of Kojo's son, to the furrows of the dark-haired one.
No crops grew upon his fields in the brittle autumn morn, only well-honed blades of iron pointing ever heavenward. All the folk had gathered too, brought their biting tips to pasture, stayed to see the feat of strength, the raven-haired boy would no doubt carry out that day. No one else would dare the tasks, no one else would even try to win the swanlike beauty's hand. None but he would walk the field, cross the cutting turf of iron. We too gathered there that first day, Kommi standing at my side. All the brothers, all the sisters, also left their chores behind. All alone the swanlike daughter sat in silence by the hearth. She would not leave our homestead, would not leave our warming fire.
The heavens shone down on Kojo's son who strode forth on his new shoes. Weeks he had been forging these shoes, hammering the iron to shape the toes. Now he stood before us all, white teeth gleaming in the sun. He called us all to witness, called on Kommi to repeat the challenge. One day to walk upon knife points, another upon the blades of hatchets. Why did no one call it madness? Why did none speak out that day? Why did no one call it folly to win a swanlike maiden that way?
Coal-black were the eyes of that one as he trod upon the knives. Gasps were drawn and mumbling doubts poured forth — would the shoes withstand the blades? Kojo's son with sprightly mien crossed the new-sown field of points, turned and wandered back and forth as if it were a daily task. Admiration poured forth from mouths once grudging, more accustomed to finding fault. No one there from any village had anything but good to say about the korppi, Kojo's son, and his well-hewn smithing skills. Kommi watched with admiration and I could not stop myself from wondering almost aloud at the strength of those iron shoes that day. If the swanlike daughter had watched this, would she still sit silently by? Would she cheer to see the young man triumph in this mighty feat?
All the day he wandered back and forth over the hastily plowed field of knives. Across the valley the clang of metal rang out, an echo of his weeks of smithing by the glowing fire of the forge. Only when the red sun had slipped behind the mountain that divided his valley from ours, did he cease from his labors and step down from the sharpened blades. Then glad hands welcomed him there, passed him plenty of mugs of taari to speed recovery from that day. Many beheld the remarkable shoes, forged from every scrap of iron over the long pounding weeks past. Many marveled at the surface, mottled now with bladepoints' ire, felt the rough pocked surface, found it a suitable reward for his daylong toil. It was a quick decision to build a fire, a taste of celebration, but no fire burned as bright as the light in the eyes of Kojo's son. Kojonen himself was there, propped on his young son's arm. The dark of the night and the long day's deed dared by his raven-haired son seemed to leach all his strength away.
All night we sat by the fire. All night the folk celebrated the great deed and spoke well of the morrow. I could only think of my white necked daughter, silent at home.
Came the morning and everyone stirred. All gathered to see the second day, the second task. Bleary-eyed they greeted the dawn, rubbing faces reddened by the bonfire's warmth. Sprightly came the raven-haired, eager for the new day's task. Once again his iron shoes were strapped on his feet, once again the local folk planted their sharp points, axes springing from the ground. Once again the field of iron stretched out across the valley and the clang of iron on iron rang out in the still autumn air. Back and forth across the blades, the dark son of Kojo strode. Hour after hour went by, accompanied only by the ringing echo and the furtive talk of neighbors.
It was a little past midday, when the sun had passed its zenith, that we heard the crack. We had become accustomed to the ringing rhythm of his steps, back and forth, crissing and crossing the field of axe blades in the weak autumn light. Crack — discordant across the valley, it grabbed our ears like an impatient mother, got our attention, brought us round. It was the weakness he could not hide, the flaw in his metal working.
He was no master smith after all. He had surely done well, as well as he might with determination and hard work. But skill — had he asked, would any have known? Would Ilmarinen himself been able to craft such shoes? Perhaps. The damage was done, the shoe was cracked, clanking as he stepped across the axe points, yet his stride slowed not one whit. All eyes were watchful, fixed upon the raven boy, as he continued on his journey. Grim-faced now he strode onward, eyes and shoes flashing bright, but a trail of red began to form in his retreating footsteps. As the sun began to fall, he limped yet across the blades. When at last the second crack rang out across the steel-plowed fields, even Kojo himself shook his head sadly, for surely the raven-haired one must yield.
Kojo's son paused but a moment, then regained his halting steps. Though his pace was hampered now by two rough shoes that clanked and rang, on he went with determination, on his way toward the sundown. In silence we waited, our breaths as one, watching the red steps across the land. And not until the sun had dipped behind the hills did he stop.
All the mothers gathered near, crowded round the motherless boy. Not a word did he speak, not a tear fell from his eyes. But the red path of the day dried dark on the axe point field. We could see the trail of rusty flecks leading back and forth across the meadow. His eyes glittered. The task had been accomplished, although a mighty price was paid. Gentle hands reached for linen, murmuring mothers spread their hands, ointments came from every corner, the cry went out across the lands. But Kojo's son would not allow them, let them seal and bind his wounds, until he had addressed my Kommi, asked for the hand of the white-necked one. He stood upon his painful wounds, looked my Kommi in his eyes. "Will you give me your daughter now, the swanlike one to be my bride, to set the kettle in my homestead, make the fire glow warm and bright?"
Kommi gave one last look upon the field, some axes sprouting shiny, others harvested and on their way home once more. "You have accomplished a great deed, but I will only give my daughter if you can complete the next: swim the stagnant pond of darkness, find the pike within its depths. Bring the gold-finned one to our home, gold scales for the mother of the bride. Only then will you have the snow bride, only then the swanlike one." Kojo's son nodded fiercely, gloomy under raven brows, turned his back and strode away. Collapsed then he upon a wood chair, gave in to his weary thoughts, surrendered to his wounded feet. Murmuring mothers soothed his bleeding, singing songs of iron's birth. Kommi took my hand in his, turned our steps toward home, while eager neighbors stoked the bonfire yet again. At our hearth, the swanlike one bowed her head upon our return, asked no questions, stirred the fire. Did she know what loomed ahead? Did she know the raven's heart?
The first soft dusting of winter's blanket fell the morn that he set out, Kojo's son for the darkened pool, silent now with furtive cold. Winter's calling card arrived and he set out to swim the depths, search the murky waters for the golden pike. There were those who traveled with him, those who bore the nets and carried the bucket of lard, ready for the task. Kommi dressed and had his gruel, set out for the banks with others, wore the elk fur round his ears. I could not bring myself to leave the side of my swanlike beauty young, part from her glowing ghostly hair. My heart leapt to see her at the hearth, a hand reaching to stir the kettle, the other with a needle poised. So I sank down on the bench, took my share of daily mending. Silently our needles bobbed in the failing daylight of the late year, under Ilmatar's frigid sighs, far from Näkki's cruel depths.
Try as I might to keep my mind as busy as my fingers, my eyes would stray repeatedly to the boiling surface of the kettle. In its tiny waves, I saw the lapping surface of the pool, saw our friends gathered on the bank as Kojo's son stripped himself. In the surface of the kettle, I saw the young man with raven hair smear his body with the lard, cover all the pale white flesh. On the banks the older men stamped their feet, passed the bottle to and fro, blew on hands chapped with redness, then thrust them back into furry pockets. The young man with hair as black as night shivered on the gloomy shore, but he only paused a moment before leaping forward to plunge into the shadowy waves.
All this I saw in the kettle's darkness, all this I saw in our own snug home, the swanlike beauty at my side, my fated daughter on the bench. Her needle never faltered, and she never lost a stitch. Did she know, had she guessed, how her luck was thrown that day?
In the waters of the deep pool, Kojo's son dove through murky waves, kicking like a summer frog, twisting like a weasel swiftly through the depths, to the bottom where the pike lie in winter's silent waiting. Did I really see him wrestle with the golden shining one? Did I see him push off from the muddy bottom, one hand thrust in the gasping gills, the other grasping wide-spread fins? Did I see the two rise, twisting, to the broken water's surface? Did I see the others, eager, gather up the fishing nets, spread the knotted fibers for the dark-haired son of Kojo? Did I see them wrap the wrestler in the rough wool blankets then?
Perhaps it was only in my mind's eye that I saw these wondrous things, but it was but a short time later that the young one came back here. Kommi did not meet my gaze when he came through the door with the raven one behind him, Kojo's son with heavy burden. On the table laid he the pike, the golden one still gasping his life out until at last he lay still. Not a word did they exchange, Kommi silent as the grave, Kojo's son with a grim smile. Kommi reached into the larder, brought forth a foaming mug to share. Sat beside the black-haired young one, looked his age and something more.
Bright as shiny, new-blown glass, Kojo's black eyes glittered darkly, knew that he had won the prize. "Will you give me your daughter now, the swanlike one to be my bride, to set the kettle in my homestead, make the fire glow warm and bright?" His eyes glittered darkly, his white teeth flashed between his lips.
Kommi sighed and looked toward me, where I sat yet by the fire. My swanlike daughter never paused in her labors, as the swift needle flew, but I had dropped my work in the basket even as the visions grew. I could not cry out, "No, never! Never will you take our gentle daughter, take her from our happy home," for Kommi was already nodding, hand out to the korppi's wing. "You have won my swanlike daughter for your own fireside. Keep her warm and keep your kettle ever full of healthful food."
The blush of blood grew on her cheek then, my rosy one so near the fire. Knew she would be going soon, amid the tears of family and friends, into the sleigh of the raven, into the arms of Kojo's son. How many days was it we were still with her? Hard to tell, so full of tasks — there was the bridal gift to manage, all the linens she would need. Salted meats, dried fruits, grain — all to make a larder full. Came the day, all too swiftly, when the sleigh pulled up outside, took away our swanlike beauty, took her from our family hearth. Tears were shed by me, by sisters; even servants cried that day. Empty was our home thereafter, as if the fire had been put out, as if the baking lost its savor, as if the birch twigs lost their scent.
I was in the sauna then, on the longest, darkest day when the visions came again, showed me the fate of the snow-white one. The löyly rose up, whispering softly, told a tale I would not hear: How my lovely swanlike maiden rode with the raven away from here. They had only crossed the river when the wandering eye of my daughter saw the footprints of a dog in the snow, running away from their trail. Kojo's son grinned sharply at her, nodded to the twisting track. "Better far if you were to follow little flop-ear's small footprints than to follow Kojo's son." My unequaled maiden said nothing back, only drew the furs close about her, sank but lower in the sleigh.
When at last they crossed through the far stand of birch trees, just upon the small hill's rise, there a wolf's loping prints crossed the white expanse of snow. The korppi stretched his lips across his snow-white teeth, "Better far if you were to follow the path of the lone wolf than to follow Kojo's son." His eyes were two dark coals, pitted in his snow-white face. My lovely daughter, swanlike beauty, said nothing back, but drew the furs more tightly around her, shed no tear, but sank into the sleigh's shadowed depths.
They had climbed the final ridge, the cottage of Kojo's son in view, when the ambling tracks of a bear met their runner's path. The raven-headed one showed his teeth again, his black brows drawn together.
"Better far if you were to follow Otso's way, tread behind the honey-paw, than to meet your death in the raven's haven, in the home of Kojo's son." My swan, my lovely one, shed a single trail of tears, but no sound did she make as the sleigh slipped ever faster down the ridge. The horse plunged along, his breath like smoke, as if he were on fire with some inexhaustible flame.
My own throat was less sanguine at this showing, those pictures forming in my mind. I moaned aloud in pain and sank to the wooden floor. No löyly now; the vision receded, but I knew what I would have to do. I could not save my swanlike beauty, I could not save that special one, but knew I must go at once, to find the truth, to find the vision realized. I threw on my clothes and called for my son Pekka — Kommi was away that day, in the woods, out a-hunting, or surely he would have shared the wild journey across the snow. Pekka swiftly harnessed our old mare, while I wrapped myself in furs and climbed up on the creaking sleigh. Forward we raced, as fast as our poor mare could go. The snow fell harder and faster, the swirling white blocked my sight until further visions arrived, enchanted my sorrowful eyes.
There was Kojo's son reaching for the ancient warder hung on the wall in bitter times, yet still shining, sharp to bite. Grandfather's sword he took from the high beam of the cottage, whispered to the war-time blade, "Do you hunger for soft flesh? Do you dream of blood for spilling?" We both could hear the sabre's answer, that it dreamed of red hot blood, that it hungered for warm flesh. I could not cry out, make a sound, as Kojo's blade began its journey, whistled through the winter air, and bit the gentle skin of my swanlike one. One part for the swampland, one part for the raven, another for the wolf, and one more for the river; a final part, the worst of all, was left behind for me. The tender breasts of my lovely white-haired child, who would never nurse a child as I had nursed my special one, would never cradle her lover's head, cruelly made a gift for the mother of the swanlike one. Kojo's son, with homely skills, gentle kneading, careful measure, made for me a golden pie. No fish in this pie, but sweeter meat, flesh of my broken heart.
Pekka urged on our true-born mare, and the cottage appeared too soon before us. I wanted to cry out, to stop the sleigh before we arrived, before the smoking chimney smiled, before the open door laughed. I could not wait until the sleigh came to a shuddering halt, but threw off my furs and leaped from the seat, could not stop my searching eyes. It was the wind that brought my tears, not the trail of vivid red. It was the smoke from the stone set hearth that made the stinging water fall. It was not the crimson table, it was not the steaming pie, it was not the cruel mind that left the fork and mug for me, to taste the final piece of my sweet one, burn my mouth on golden crust.
No, it was the single lock of white hair, streaming from the kettle's rest, caught unwary in the battle, left behind to cheer my eye, to break my heart, to bring me relief. I caught it in my grieving hand, wrapped it round a mother's fingers, caressed my dear one for the final time. The bloodied raven had flown far, would never return to his father, would skim the woods and darkened swamps alone. Three days, I knew, I would lie there crying, three days now until my death, three days to mourn the beauty of my gentle swanlike one. Never more would she return, never more to warm our hearth. Farewell to our swanlike beauty, lost forever, now a part of field and stream, bird and mother, but no more seen.
Kathryn A. Laity, Ph. D. Medieval Studies, is an author of short stories that have been published in The New World Finn, Delirium, Lovecraft's Weird Mysteries, The Willimantic Frogs, The Seeker Journal, Rictus 9, The Beltane Papers, and Dream Forge. Her first novel, Pelzmantle, was published by Spilled Candy Books in 2003. This story, based on an old murder ballad, originally appeared in New World Finn in 2007. It will be published in a forthcoming collection Unikirja (Aino Press) in early December 2008. Read more by K.A. Laity at her website www.kalaity.com
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