by K. A. Laity
[Images: "The Shaman Antero Vipunen" by Nils Hedlund"; "Väinämöinen" by Olga Bondar]
"Well, quite a way to meet!" the old man said warmly, as if for the first time, but I could only glare at him. How long had we been down here? How long had I been down here — he could have been here for centuries for all I knew. It felt like days but looking at my watch — if the time was still right — who knew with all these strange things going on; it appeared as if it were only half past four. But was that day or night? And why did that pool smell like something gangrenous had recently choked out its life in the black waters?
In the cavern my exhalation of disgust and annoyance echoed on for long after I had shut my mouth, the quiet susurrations crawling away from me like escaping mice. It was a very creepy moment. I looked over at the old man who seemed, at first, to have nodded off. I studied his clothes. They were not from this decade. To be charitable, they were not from this century, unless he was one of those re-enactor types or perhaps a folk-dancer. Well, that seemed more likely an explanation for the red skull cap, the wooly tunic and the cross-tied leggings. Was he actually wearing birch bark shoes?! Heavens! Well, that would have to be folk dancing. I don't think anyone's re-enacting the Kalevala, unless the folk movement here in Finland has taken a new and horrifying turn.
Presently I noticed his eyes were not entirely closed, and, in fact, there seemed to be a bit of twinkle in them. I had just got to the point where I was contemplating his beard, thinking to myself, "My gods, how many years has that thing grown? how many days of missed shaving?" as I rubbed my own clean-shaven chin. Formerly clean-shaven, I should add, for I was shocked to find that my whiskers had grown more than a day's length (and I am not heavily bearded, something to do with my fair hair, I suppose) and the realization of just how long I must have been down this hole suddenly came to mind. It must be that shabby growth which tickled the old man so.
"I was born with this beard," he said, patting it proudly as if it were some kind of treasure. "A few more years down here, you could have a splendid start on one...."
I squelched the sudden sense of panic and cleared my throat to show I was not afraid. "I have no intention of being down here that long, old man. I was just resting and ... disoriented." I stood up decisively and put my fists on my hips. "You may care to rot down here, old man, but I intend to do something about it!"
"I have a name, you know," he said mildly. "I'd be glad to tell you what it is, if you have any curiosity — not that I'm assuming!" He smiled with half his mouth.
I was not about to cave in this easily. "I notice you did not ask mine."
"Ah, but I know yours already."
I did not let him see that this upset me. Ever so casually, I turned and folded my arms as if I had very important things to do. Which I did, if I was going to get out of here. "Do you, then? Well, that's practically magical, old man." I'm sure he could feel the subtle emphasis I put on those last two words, but perhaps not — he might well be hard of hearing. "So, what's my name then?"
"Eino." He was clever. He didn't even look smug.
"Hmmph. Well, I suppose I am to be impressed by that." I was not about to believe that there was anything the least bit odd about this old man or this place or the seemingly elastic sense of time that was beginning to settle upon us.
He shrugged. "You need not be impressed."
I was silent. This old goat was not going to make me ask how he knew my name. I would travel to the ends of the earth before I would condescend to ask. Ends of the earth! Perhaps I was already there; this god-forsaken gap could well be the lowest point attainable from the upper crust of the planet. And it was all a bit vague how I had come here. I tenderly touched my forehead. Maybe this bump on my head would remind me in time.
"It's on your backpack," the old man said quietly. Perhaps he was afraid of my reaction. I could feel my cheeks burn crimson, but in the mottled darkness, he would be unlikely to see that. Still, it irritated me to know he was laughing inside at me.
"Eino Lahtinen," he said, pointing at the label written in indelible ink. Of course; I had not been surprised, not really. It was perfectly logical after all. "Well then; so, are you going to tell me your name?"
"Väinö." He smiled as if I had probably already guessed it myself. I'm sure he had meant to appear kindly, but how insufferably haughty he seemed right then. I bet his real name was just Matti or Hannu. Väinö, indeed! Perhaps I should ask him to chant a few rune songs.
"Well, then, I'm sure you can charm us out of here in no time, eh, old magician?" Let him have a taste of his own medicine. I'm not without a sense of humor myself.
He shook his head, though, and smiled. "Not until I get what I came for."
Impossible, this man! Obviously waiting for me to do the difficult work. Well, I am in pretty good shape, all this hiking on my weekends and summers. That's right! I was hiking when I fell through the entrance to this cavern! How could I forget that? It seemed clear all at once, although there was that odd sense of falling ever so slowly, as if time had begun to stretch even then. Well, that was no more than to be expected. Too much television, and films! We get used to seeing tragic events unfold in painful slow-motion and we impose such impressions upon our own experiences. Sad really, that our imaginations have been atrophied by the media. I should write a paper on that when I get back.
I turned back to the old man, rubbing my hands together industriously. "So, old Väinö, what were you doing, looking for some toadstools for your soup?" I asked cheerily. "Maybe some cave-dwelling marshmallow root? Well, let's find them and then be on our way. There seems to be enough brush and small bushes to grab hold of and help us make our way back up top. Pity we don't have a rope, but then I hadn't expected to be mountain climbing."
Old greybeard smiled but shook his head. "I don't expect that we will simply climb out of here. Vipunen won't allow such an easy climb. We shall have to be much more clever than that."
"Vipunen? Is that what this cave is called? Hmmm? I don't recall seeing it marked on my hiking guide. I came by way of Sword Point Ridge and had just passed over Battle Axe when I fell."
Väinö nodded. "And you started at Young Woman's Needle?" He chuckled, half to himself it seemed.
"Yes, actually that was the route I took. Fairly common, I suppose. I'm sure a lot of people follow that route. After all the rating is 'difficult' but the elevation isn't all that much. I figured it would be a good challenge for the weekend." And how many days had I been here now? If I were missing Huhtala's Business Ethics ...! I hope Anikka was taking notes for me. She couldn't be bothered to come along. Well, now I shouldn't think that — poor dear! What if she had been stuck down here too. I would certainly feel bad about that.
"It's a rather unusual route," the old one mused. "You need special shoes." He showed me his ridiculous shoes, taking them off and pointing to the steel inside the birch bark. I guess that would give support, although they looked wickedly uncomfortable. I had my Vasque Ibex which had been quite an investment, I can tell you. He looked them over and nodded, as if they too met his satisfaction. For one hundred and seventy euros I certainly hoped they measured up.
"I had charmed a boat of curly birch wood from my knife, but the water leads nowhere useful," he confided to me then, as if the shoes have given us some kind of bond. Great, not only old but delusional. Not that I would get in that water. It was the only thing you could smell down here, apart from the acrid dirt of the cavern's floor. The briny shine of its opaque surface would be enough to keep me out. Yet old Väinö said he not only sailed across it, but did so in a boat he conjured with his curly birch-handled knife. And I am the Crown Prince of New Zealand.
He patted his knife at his belt. Trusty old knife; now, there's something to worry about: crazy old man who's armed. Well, surely he cannot move all that fast. I would be more than a match for the likes of him, I could see that. After all, I keep to a regular schedule of workouts and hiking. I am quite fit, unlike some of my cohorts who never seem to make it outside the computer lab or the library. And besides, I do have my own Swiss Army knife. No disadvantage at all between us then.
"We should start a fire," he said. Sensible enough — it would give us a little more light to see by as well be warming in this drafty chamber. I'm not sure why we had still been just sitting in the gloomy darkness squinting at one another for endless hours, or ye gods, days. Must have been the bump on my head. Now, did I get that on the way down? Surely, as I fell I had bumped up against something, rocks, or what ever. Although the rest of the ground felt soft and rather moist, there were small bushes and rocks scattered around.
We set ourselves to the task of gathering wood. Most of it was very damp, rivulets seemed to trickle everywhere, but in ten minutes or so we had a reasonable pile of fuel. The old rune singer, as I amused myself to think of him now, drew together the smallest branches and began laboriously striking a flint. I stared impatiently at him for a time and finally sighed, grabbed my backpack, and zipped open the side pocket.
"Here," I tossed him my waterproof box of matches. He caught them nimbly but then stared dumbly at the box, as if he had trouble reading the instructions. "Let me," I said, thinking we could be here another hundred years otherwise. I pulled out a stick and struck it, holding the flame as close to the little pile as possible. I was ready to smack the old guy when he tried to blow on the flame, but fortunately it didn't go out but rather caught the kindling, which began to burn with a smoky belch. That was definitely more cheery.
Until I looked around us.
There was never a cave like this in my memory. The walls seeped, not so unusual in itself, but the smell was more foul than anything in my memory, and the gelatinous gleam they gave off was distinctly uncommon. Water could do odd things, given a century or several, yet this cave's sides looked like heavy folds of meat, fleshy and rotting. No pleasant oxide hues here, but a blend of veal-red ochre and ripe liver-brown. I shuddered. The flickering tongues of the fire gave a leaping light to the cavern, making it seem almost undulating with life.
"Well, now," I said, trying to maintain a look of confidence, "What shall we do now? Shall we make for the source of the light up there? We can make torches of the larger branches once they get going. They won't give much light, but some is better than ...."
"No, no, no. We wait." It was his turn to fold his arms.
But I could not hide my scorn. "Wait, for what, old man? For our rescuers? I have no plans to spend the rest of my days down here; which would be about how long it would take for anyone to find us." Now there was a thought I wish I had not articulated. I rambled on, my anger gathering steam. "I have things to do and places to be. You may not mind waiting for a rescue party that will never come, but I plan to get out of here alive." Well, that wasn't much better, but surely he would have to agree.
He paid me no mind, but kept feeding wood into the fire. "You want to climb out? Go ahead. I will wait."
I wanted to strangle him, but why bother. I would send a search crew if he still would not come when I got to the top. Shaking my head wearily, I turned, slung my backpack over my shoulders, and looked up toward the vague source of light which indicated the mouth of the cave. I quelled an unpleasant tingle in my belly and looked for a handhold in the right direction. I grasped a likely looking root and hoisted myself up the slope. My boot scraped the wall a bit until it found purchase, and I stretched my arm up for the next grip. The fire crackled behind me and I tried not to think that it sounded like cackling, although I could not stop myself from picturing the old man grinning at my back. I had just raised myself another metre higher when the walls of the cavern began to groan and shiver. I clamped harder onto the roots in my hands, but I had no confidence that I would be able to hold for long, not if this kept up. Perhaps it would pass. I clung tightly, counting under my breath, but there was no doubt, the rumbles were getting louder and the shakes stronger. I gasped when my left hand lost its grip and I could have sworn that I heard the old man chuckle, but it would have been impossible to hear it (I must be charitable) in that cacophony. I did at least realize — if not hear — my own strangled yelp of frustration as I fell back to the slick floor of the cavern and rolled neatly to the old man's feet.
He did not crow, "I told you so," but offered his hand to help me climb to my feet. I tried in vain to brush off the muck from the walls. It caked on my elbows and knees and covered me with its putrid stench.
"I told you to wait," old Väinö said, shaking his head at my youthful impetuousness. I was too angry to speak. But as the shaking continued, I decided to hold my breath. He would not hear my withering retort over the resounding tremors anyway.
All at once the whole cavern seemed to pitch. Reaching out for a handhold, I grabbed the old man's arm and together we turned asses up. He seemed to think it a jolly trick, but I was totally disgusted. The putrefaction from the walls covered us and the stink filled my nose, and ears, and eyes. I could have sworn it was everywhere.
The rumbling grew louder now, and the whole cave shook. Who would believe an earthquake here! If we are even still in the same country; perhaps I have fallen all the way to Russia. The horrible noise! I thought earthquakes were just shaking, but this terrible noise, almost like speech, if a cavern could bellow.
Of course the old trickster decided to jump on that thought train. "It's Vipunen's anger, he can't bear this fire in his belly," he said gleefully. Oh my God, it all came back to me at last from my childhood memories. Vipunen was a giant. This old man really thinks he is vaka vanha Väinämöinen! Of course, and how clever he has been to wake the sleeping giant. The fact that his "giant" is an unstable mountain crater doesn't bother him! If I were not so busy trying to keep my feet, I would certainly give him a piece of my mind, and not the kindly piece of it either.
He shook his fist at the walls then gave them a random kick. "That's right! Your belly's burning and there's nothing you can do about it!" He cackled wildly, heedless of the filth covering his tunic and the smell that filled up our nostrils. He grinned at me. "He is cursing me and all the creatures who walk the land. He will curse from now until midnight. But we will stoke the fire. We will give him no respite!"
True to his word he turned and fed the fire faster, thrusting wood into the flames with a manic glee. All the while the walls trembled and the cave rumbled louder. No doubt it would soon fall around our ears; an alarming thought. Would Anikka cry to hear that I had died so? Or would she dry her eyes oh so quickly on Matti's strong shoulders, with his ponytail and his smooth words of comfort? Suddenly I felt compelled to rise once more and take charge of the situation.
"Old man," I shouted, forgetting my politeness in my rage. "We've got to get out of here before we die!"
"Oh, we won't die," he said more calmly. "But I'm not going anywhere until I learn at least a hundred charms from Vipunen. You hear that, old man! I think I quite like it here. Your liver is going to make a fine repast. Your belly fat will make the best smoked bacon; and such a roast I will make from your thick knotted lungs." He turned and his eye lighted on some branches lying a little further away. "More fire, more— there's a feast to be made." He cackled maniacally and threw the wood on the fire, continuing to look about for further fuel. The cave trembled more wildly and I grabbed hold of the brush growing from the walls to try to keep my feet.
From a withered pack the steadfast old one took a hammer and began to beat it upon one of the stumps crying, "Here will be my forge! Here I'll strike my anvil until you bellow forth those charms that I have come for, the wily words of wisdom, the magic sayings only you know, the knowledge you have kept to yourself, hidden deep in these crevasses. Such understanding should not be kept a thousand leagues beneath the earth! Sing them to me!"
A thousand leagues? A thousand leagues! I began to feel faint. Something of the old man's madness was starting to take hold of my tired brain. A thousand leagues, indeed, but I could not work up a sufficient amount of rage. Damn his wild words, the mad pounding! It was beginning to take its toll. I would do anything, anything, to get him to stop that horrid noise — the terrible trembling of the cavern walls. I was only grateful there was nothing in my stomach to vomit forth, or it would have been sprayed across the walls of this hellhole. Only I must beg him, stop, stop, stop that infernal cacophony. With a valiant effort, I struggled to my feet if only to fall across his wiry body and halt that tireless hammering arm.
Then the cave gave a spasm and suddenly was still. I held my breath and all at once the abrupt silence, which seemed at once deafening, gave way to a new sound. Väinö dropped his hammer and craned his neck to listen, too.
It must have been the wind.
What else could it be? It whistled down the cavern's throat to meet us and carried a weave of sounds. Surely it was the madness, the time alone in the cave with the crazed old man, the ancient runesinger, but I could almost swear I heard ... singing?
It was really almost like a voice, a voice that cried through the bristly innards of the grotto, picking up the scratchings of a thousand branches, swiping the sweat from the dripping walls until it reached us and sounded, damned if it didn't, like words, like speech.
A rough voice, true; one that sighed a thousand years unheard, only to croak and wheeze now, slowly gathering strength. The echoes built around us, resonating louder now. In that blustering windy noise I heard the words of a thousand charms, as if arising from ancient depths; heard the cry from the very birth of time itself, heard the word that spoke beginning say "air," and it was so; voiced "water," and it sprang forth. All the earth giving life; Ilmatar descending from the air to shape the world, to birth the singer; every charm and every spell from the sun to the moon, from the earth to the sky, from Ukko to Rauni, from the belly of Vipunen to Väinämöinen's ear, all enchantments flowed.
I must have been mad.
But old Väinö smiled so broadly I thought the top of his head might just fall off. He knocked the fiery pyre into the waters and quenched its licking orange tongues. Rubbing his hands together joyfully, he turned once more to me. I know I must have looked a sight, rattled by the echoing winds and rocked by who-knows-what strange earthquakes. It was the darkness, the lack of food, the disorienting feeling of being underground that left me gasping for breath and, let's face it, delirious. Voices, indeed! And yet, the memory made me shiver even then as it does now. For a moment it was possible to believe that we were in the body of the giant Vipunen gathering charms for the venerable rune singer.
Bah! Simple hunger can cause delusions of a surprising nature, or so the ranger who found me later explained. I was caught up in the old man's delusions, my brain was weakened with low blood sugar and my pulse was racing without sufficient nutrients. And the old codger did not make things any easier, pretending to be talking to that deep-mouthed cave.
"Open up your jaws much wider, Antero Vipunen, if you wish to get this frisking food out of your belly today. Come now, don't make us wait or we'll have to start another fire to cook our dinner!" He had the audacity to wink at me, as if I shared his mad fantasy. His shouting caused the cavern to tremble once more. Such madness; were we to be hurled into a deeper shaft? It was truly more than I could bear. Good-bye Anikki, I hope Matti is good to you ....
Suddenly everything was tumult. Rocks crashed down and winds whistled and bushes flattened and the whole mountain groaned. This was it, I thought, we are going to die! But all at once silence erupted and like a mother's smile after a bad dream, a glimmer of sunshine misted down the giant's gullet, amidst the rubble and the dust, and hope rose in my breast.
"Come on, old man, now's our chance, before another cave-in!" I grabbed old Väinö's hand and jerked him along the rocky path upward. We scrabbled a hold on any thing in our path; and even if the cliff-dwelling shrubs too often revealed their shallow roots, there was always another just beyond it to hold our grip, to give us just enough leverage to claw our way toward the light. Closer and closer, how could we have not escaped before this, I thought uselessly. Why the way to the surface could not have been much more than a hundred meters, funny we could not see the light before. Unless the tremors had opened it wider; yes, surely that must be the answer. Nearly there; the old man puffing behind me; those ridiculous birch bark shoes! Thank goodness for my Ibex, they gripped the ground like sure-footed goats. I saw sky! We were free!
We had such momentum we both rolled out of the mouth of the cave, lithe as a pair of golden martens and collapsed, laughing with relief. Sun! Sky! Freedom! I did my best to slap the dust and slime out of my clothes, and the old one did the same. If my face was a grimy as his though, there was little to be done to salvage any dignity, so I laughed, good and loud, even though I knew I would never get all this goo out of my beautiful Ibexes. Ever companionable, steadfast old Väinö joined in the hilarity, though he could hardly know it was his own besmirched face that doubled my laughter. I got out my flask of water, no more need for rationing. I drank deeply, wiped my mouth, and offered it to my august companion, who likewise celebrated our hard-won freedom by relishing a long draught.
The ancient runesinger handed back my flask, a thoughtful look taking over his face. "Oh, no fear now, old man, we have escaped certain death in that unstable chamber. This is a time to celebrate." Heavens, don't let him have a heart attack now! These old ones can be rather fragile. He knitted his brow and patted the belt around his generous waist. "I think I left my hammer down there," he said musingly. Did he actually — no! — want to go back into that hellhole?! With that foul smell and that sharp descent — I felt my brow grow warm at the thought of returning to the cave, the belly of Vipunen. It must have been the lack of food that made my scalp feel so light and made the sky swim overhead, the low blood sugar ....
And that is how I got a second bump on my head.
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.
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