Sinikka Journeys North
by K.A. Laity
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, and Dream Forge. Her first novel, Pelzmantle, was published by Spilled Candy Books in 2003. This winter tale, based on pre-Christian Finnish mythology, was originally published in The Beltane Papers 25.
Sinikka paused at the edge of the clearing. A wind whispered through the birch trees that huddled protectively around the glade. At the center lay a rocky outcropping, flat enough for the pitcher of water the young woman had carried with her. She set the jug down carefully and seated herself before it. She lay her hands upon the soft earth, fingers spread. Sinikka wasn't sure this would work, but she was desperate.
"Oh Maaemo, hear me, your poor child. My people starve without your help. Some envious noita has cast a curse upon us-our crops die, the forest creatures have fled. Even the spring has slowed to a trickle. Mother beneath our feet, Mother of grass, trees, rocks and clay - hear me, heed me. Take pity on us and share your abundance!" Sinikka tried to feel the heart of the ground with her fingertips. Maaemo must answer. Please, please, please.
A sudden breeze lifted the hair from the young woman's forehead and she raised her eyes to see a sudden swirl of leaves rise from beyond the rocks. The wild motion did not dissipate, but rather grew stronger, faster, until Sinikka could see the vague outline of woman in the leaves. She felt a thrill of excitement - and fear. Now sticks and dust joined the leaves and the form became clearer, though the movement never ceased. It was hypnotic.
"What is your name, child?" The voice had the quiet resonance of an owl's, but the light touch of the cuckoo, too. It was both beautiful and fearsome.
"I am Sinikka, daughter of Laina, and I-"
"Why did you not send your tietaja?"
Sinikka bowed her head. "We no longer have a shaman. Old Matti and his boy were killed by a great mother bear. No one else had been brought up in the traditions. Forgive me, Mother, for being so bold, but my people are desperate."
Maaemo's form swirled more slowly now, rustling softly. "What is it you want, child?" she said at last. "Why do you beseech me?"
"Help us," Sinikka begged, willing the tears to remain in her eyes and not pour forth. "Onni works against us. Return his favor to us so we may share in your many blessings."
Maaemo's leafy shape seemed to laugh. "I do not control Fortune - Onni is free to travel as he wishes, as may all creatures who walk upon me. My bounty is free to all who wish to partake of it. I neither help nor harm anyone. I do not tell Tapio how to grow trees, nor Ahti how to wield the tides. I do not tell the rocks what they may do, nor the birds where they may fly, and I do not tell Onni whom to favor."
"But, Maaemo!" Sinikka caught herself. Not wise to use her true name before the goddess herself - especially when one is a foolish young woman with no experience in such things. Biting her lip, she began again. "Dear Mother of us all, I ask pity. Pity for my people, starving and hopeless. We have no one to guide us or to speak to our wise ancestors. No one to charm the swift elk, to sing the fish into our nets, or to enchant our corn crops. We will perish, Great Mother!" Sinikka could not halt her tears now. Bitter and swift they poured forth through her fingers and splashed in small drops on the rock before her.
Maaemo sighed. "What you need is a new tietaja. Onni comes and goes - one can never rely on Fortune." The goddess sighed again, and her ephemeral body twisted snake-like in the air, coiling and uncoiling, round and round.
It was mesmerizing, Sinikka realized, when at last she looked up. Wondrous, too, but now the emptiness of despair outweighed her awe. Without Onni her people would starve. This was her last hope. She did not want to leave the beautiful valley that had been her only home, but that was the plan her father and mother had argued with the elders. It would be an onerous journey to fight through the wilds, to risk crossing other people's hunting grounds. How far would they have to go? If Onni abandoned them, would any new homeland be any better? Sinikka could not rid herself of the image that had frightened her for weeks - herself, alone, dying in the frozen North, the icy blasts mocking her. She shivered.
But she had a final tribute to offer. Though it would not alter the goddess's words, Sinikka must honor their meeting. "I have brought water to cool your dry earth, Great Mother. Let me offer this sacrifice to you." She poured the water from the pitcher upon the rock and watched the precious liquid run over the surface and seep into the grass surrounding it. She tried not to think of the dry fields around the village, the dust curls that followed everyone's footsteps, the brown husks of vegetation. One jug of water would not do much anyway.
The whorl of leaves fell to the ground, and at once a rippling track, like a lemming's trail, arose on the earth and made a bee-line for the water. The goddess's immense power drove up the rock shelf, effortlessly lifting the boulders and juggling them one atop another. Sinikka's amazement, however, did not keep her from jumping back, away from the grinding stones. She did not want to end up like meal between them. Maaemo laughed at her fear, but her words were kindly.
"It is kind of you to offer something so precious to me, child. I remember kindnesses. I cannot help you to capture Onni, but I know someone who might be willing to undertake such an inadvisable pursuit. Seek Louhi, in the North, in Pohjola. She is crafty but wise. Be very careful—and be kind. She has suffered much at the hands of mortals."
Louhi! "They say she is an evil sorceress," Sinikka stuttered. "Why would she help me?"
"Why indeed? It is a question you must ask of her." Maaemo laughed. The stones wobbled, ready to fall.
Sinikka wailed. "But how will I find her? I have never been out of this valley."
"Keep your shadow to your left. At night follow the Great Bear. Do not stop until you reach her. Leave at once." The rocks tumbled to earth like giant hail, crashing and rumbling across the ground.
Sinikka stood there with her mouth open. Leave now? Find Louhi? Follow the Great Bear? Don't stop until you reach her - who? The Great Bear? Or Louhi? She trembled to think of meeting with either one. I could just go back to the village and say nothing, Sinikka told herself. And watch my mother starve, and my father burn with anger and disappointment - and feel my shame. She sighed. It would be so far, so cold. And only her pretty shawl covered the thin shift and three skirts - hardly enough to keep her warm. I will probably die before I have to worry about facing the powerful noitakka, Sinikka told herself glumly.
But she set off at once as Maaemo had instructed her. She kept her shadow always on her left and ate berries that she spied in the woods. When night fell Sinikka found where the Great Bear hung in the sky and kept her feet moving, though they had already grown more tired than she could ever remember them being, even last year dancing at Vappu to welcome the new green leaves. Then she had danced until the last embers died out and the next day paid the price as she carried out her chores. The village spring had seemed far indeed that day, and each step agony. At least then the spring still ran freely, bubbling up over the rocks. Remembering their despair as each day the trickle grew less, Sinikka lifted her tired feet more quickly, hurrying on to whatever lay ahead.
On the third day, toward sunset, she finally fell. Long before the ground had become hard and cold, and this morning Sinikka had been dismayed to find herself trudging through snow. She sought to ignore the protesting of her feet and the numbness that was creeping along her legs. Just keep on, she told herself, you must, you must. Every step was higher than the last, as the hill grew sharply steeper. When at last it happened, Sinikka was on the ground before she knew she had fallen. Well, here is my dream, dying alone in the frozen lands. My parents do not even know where I am, she thought dully. I cannot even cry, I am too tired, too thirsty. At least it is quicker than starving, Sinikka comforted herself. Let the snow come down and cover me. I am going to finally sleep.
But even as she resigned herself to her ill-luck, Sinikka heard a strange noise. Something was coming through the drifts, down the mountain, with a shambling gait and labored breath. An undeniable curiosity raised the young woman's eyes to see the approaching creature. Oh dear, thought Sinikka, my death is going to be even more horrible than I thought.
It was a bear.
It was an enormous she-bear who ambled slowly down the path, muttering to herself as if she had forgotten some important chore. Just kill me, Sinikka thought. One way or another I will end up in Tuonela. Let the black waters of Death close over my head now and bring me peace. She closed her eyes once more, laid her head down, and began trembling violently. It is only the cold, Sinikka assured her swiftly beating heart, even as the back of her neck grew hot.
After a time, when nothing happened, Sinikka opened her eyes again. She realized too that a strange sound filled her ears. With enormous effort, she lifted her head and turned it the other way. The bear had stopped to scratch herself on the rough outcropping of rock that hung over the path and was evidently enjoying the biting surface, as her whuffling grunts attested. When at last her wriggling stopped, the bear dropped back down to her four footed-stance and sniffed at Sinikka. Her breath was warm and meaty.
"You come ill-prepared for the cold, skinless creature," the bear said at last, rubbing her nose. "You will perish. Soon."
"I suppose so," Sinikka agreed. Her fear had evaporated with the last of her body's warmth. She had become indifferent to the bear's hunger. It was rather peaceful.
"I know what you are. Your kind work in packs. Steal my sisters' and brothers' skins. Never ask. If you stayed where it was warm, you would not need them." Sinikka could not even work up the energy to respond. She stared up at the bear and watched how the wind made patterns in her fur. The great bear stuck her nose right up to Sinikka’s face and sniffed noisily. "Why do you come here?"
Sinikka tried hard to remember. What did it matter anyway, her tired thoughts scolded, you are almost dead. I could not do it anyway, Maaemo was wrong. "Maaemo." The memories of the green forest, the warmth of it, flooded back. Sinikka smiled at the memory. My last visions will be warm.
"Maaemo sent you here?" The bear grumbled to herself for a few moments. "What for?"
Sinikka strained to recall the reason, the name. In Maaemo's voice, it came to her: "Louhi." And it all returned: the meeting in the woods, the appeal, the disappointment - the fate of her village. "Louhi, I need to find Louhi."
The she-bear grumbled further irritation. "I suppose Maaemo told you I would help you find her?"
With difficulty Sinikka answered, "She just told me to go north, not stop, until I find…her." Now maybe I can sleep, Sinikka thought warmly, closing her eyes again and laying her head back on the snow. Soon, soon, it will all be over. So she was quite unprepared for the sudden jerk at her neck, the choking sputtering of her throat rebelling as her body was dragged across the icy surface.
"What…?" But of course the bear's mouth was full and she could not respond to Sinikka's query. At last the cold cruel sensation stopped.
"Well, you’ll have to get up on your own."
Sinikka raised her head, fighting its urge to tremble with weakness. The bear was sitting upright, back against the rocks, paws on her hairy knees. Just like one of us, Sinikka thought.
"You'll die soon if I don’t keep you warm. If Maaemo sent you, I suppose I must show kindess to one of her kin. But you have to come to me." She opened her paws wide, like a welcoming mother - a mother with long black claws. "Come, child. Before I lose all patience."
Sinikka rolled onto her side, then pushed with one arm. She was not surprised to see that her fingers looked blue and pale. Her whole body shuddered as she tried to regain her feet, but somehow she stumbled - half walking, half falling - toward the great mother bear. At once Sinikka was enveloped in the earthy warmth, her head lolling with relief. She was asleep before the great head rested upon her own.
Sinikka awoke to the sensation of falling. She had no idea how long, how far, and feared that it would hurt a great deal when she hit the bottom at last. If she hit the bottom, Sinikka thought moments later when her fall seemed no closer to its end. Perhaps the bear has thrown me down a crevice between mountains, she wondered with very little fear. How did I get here? The question did not concern her greatly. But she was looking for something…someone? Louhi.
And as the word entered her head, Sinikka found she was no longer falling but standing in a dark cave, its roof arching high over her head and several torches whipping their light around its broad expanse. And just as suddenly a figure was there before her - Louhi.
She had no claws, no sparks flew from her eyes, her skin was not scaly and green, yet at the sight of this old woman Sinikka felt terror flash through her body like the cold of the first swim in spring. Old woman! Was she even that? Human?
"I was human," Louhi growled. "But humans showed me only hatred, crossed my magic, stole my daughter, my only treasure. Humans - and that damned rune singer." She turned away from Sinikka, fussing with some pots and grains as if the matter were already settled.
I must be wise, Sinikka, scolded herself. No time for anger. I need her help if I am to get back, get out, help my people. Again the urge to think about how she got here rose up, but Sinikka turned her jumbled thoughts to Louhi. She clasped her hands together (blue, blue hands, but no longer cold) and fell to her knees. "Wise woman of the North, on my knees I beg you, please help me to save my village!"
Louhi turned, knife in one hand, pot in the other. "And why should I do such a thing for some little wren like you? I have enough to keep me busy. Why should I take such a little bird under my wing?"
Sinikka thought hard. "Your knowledge is so great. What a waste not to share it - "
"Ha!" The old woman's eyes flashed in the murky light. "Always your people come, stealing my fire, stealing my gold, stealing my daughter. And what do I get in return? Hatred, tricks, lies!"
"I am but a poor young woman, great mother, trying to help my village keep from starving. I will offer you anything you want, if only you will share your great knowledge and teach me how to entice Onni. Our fate must change. Anything, anything I can give you."
Louhi squinted at Sinikka shivering in the flickering darkness. "Hmph. You come here in most unsuitable clothes - not a gold thread upon your hair, no silver strands upon your chest. No treasures, no staples even, no gifts. What do you have to give?"
Sinikka's head dropped. "I have nothing. I came here because I have nothing, my people have nothing, and we are desperate. I asked Maaemo for help but she refused to help me catch Onni. But she did send me north to seek you. She said if anyone can capture Onni, it is you. You are so clever and learned - "
"Bah! Learned! I am simply old. Living long has been my learning, keeping my eyes open. I am no foolish wizard or rune singer. I just know a thing or two." She smiled at that and seemed to lose herself in thought. Sinikka thought it best not to interrupt her reverie. In time she continued. "So you have nothing, and you come to me empty-handed, unskilled, unschooled, and unwanted. Ha! You are worse off than you know."
Sinikka felt the sting of her words and her cheeks grew red as berries. But a spark of inspiration glimmered in her thoughts. Would it work? Oh, may my foremothers preserve me and give me courage! She took a deep breath. "It is true I have nothing. I can offer only myself. You have lost a daughter. Let me be a daughter to you."
The old wisewoman's hands froze in mid-air. In the sudden silence, Sinkka realized just how much noise the two of them made. There was only the whispering sputter of one of the candles as it went out. Time hung in the quiet. Louhi turned at last to stare at Sinikka, her hands on her hips now. Though it made her tremble, Sinikka looked into the eyes of the old sorceress, eyes the blue of a glacial river - just as cold, just as fierce. I am the cold, I am the snow, I am the ice, Sinikka told herself. I can face her fury.
Just then the old woman threw her head back - and laughed. She roared and shook with it, until she had to hold her stomach in pain. At first Sinikka could only gape at her in surprise, astonished by this unexpected outburst, but gradually she blushed red once more and became angry herself. "You laugh at my offer. I know I am not much. I am not worthy. You might as well kill me now, before I become so angry I try to kill you!"
But her speech had only the effect of increasing Louhi's merriment. The old wisewoman finally sat down upon the floor and dried her tears with her apron, chuckling to herself all the while and rocking back and forth. "Come, sit down beside me, daughter!" She beckoned to Sinikka, who reluctantly got up from her knees and walked over to Louhi and, after peering carefully at her face, sat down. To her surprise, the old woman clasped Sinikka's hands in her own, forcing the girl to meet her eyes. But the blue that had been the color of stormy rivers now crinkled like waving cornflowers, and a smile lit the ancient face. "You made me laugh, now there's a thing. I can't remember the last time. Now, now. Don't feel embarrassed again. You cannot know what a terrible life you offered yourself up for - your simple gift. Your immense sacrifice." The smile had faded away, but her voice was gentle. "What is your name, girl?"
"Sinikka, you must be very, very careful to whom you offer the only thing you humans truly possess. Your spirit is not only the greatest gift, it is your only true value. All else fades."
"But I only wanted - "
"Yes, yes, I know. To help your village, to save your people. Your generosity is admirable - but misplaced. You cannot deliver the ones you love from harm by giving up the only thing that will protect them: You."
"Girl, your spirit is bold and fearless and will continue to grow. You are the source of power for your village. You need not look here for my aid. Trust your own strength. Trust your own thoughts. Don't wait for anyone to save you. You have the source within you."
"But I know nothing," Sinikka cried. "I have never been out of our village, I can’t ever weave cloth straight, and I've never even caught one fish that didn’t slip away. I drop things all the time too," she added, eyes downcast.
Louhi barked with quick laughter. "You have spoken with Maaemo, traveled alone to the frozen north, survived a bear and," she slapped her chest, "the terrifying Louhi. Have you ever thought that you were not meant to weave cloth and catch fish and sow barley in the fields?"
Sinikka let an awkward smile creep across her mouth until it became a grin. Louhi let go her hands and clasped her shoulders warmly. "Come! I have something to show you, a simple charm, but it will attract our friend Onni."
"You mean it?!"
"It may attract him," Louhi said, her face again stern, "But you will need to persuade him to stay. He is greedy and fickle, he must be wooed. Now help me up, dear, my bones ache so today."
Sinikka leaped up, pulled the old crone to her feet, and they turned to the table filled with pots and jars. The candles seemed to burn more brightly now, or perhaps her eyes had adjusted to the darkness. Sinikka watched carefully as the wisewoman concocted a pleasing variety of scents and textures: berries and herbs and nuts and roots and even some kinds of dried fruits. She sang a runo that told the origin of the charm, detailing the ingredients. "Remember them!" she admonished Sinikka with a wagging finger.
When Louhi was satisfied with the blend, she poured the contents into a small bag of soft leather. Tooled into the skin were ancient symbols which Louhi patiently explained one by one. "This for the sun, and this one for the moon. Here is Maaemo, here Tapio. And here, this you can see is Ahti's river, there Ukko's thunder. And here, under all of them, me. I lie at the depths. Our names summon power. Use them carefully." She handed the bag to Sinikka. It felt warm to her skin.
"Thank you, thank you so much, Louhi." Sinikka felt the tears ready and blinked them away. She knew this small bag held the salvation of her people.
But the old woman waved her gratitude away. "You should be going. You still have a long way back."
Another inspiration seized the young woman. "Come back with me. My people will sing your praises, we will honor you, we will celebrate your wisdom."
Louhi laughed. "They will run from me, they will cower in fear, they will curse my name. I am not fit to be seen by just anyone, girl. But you are kind. No, I will ask though, that you come back and see me from time to time, to share my dark world for a time. But now, you must go. Stand here, upon this rock, here. Arms crossed, there. Now, close your eyes. Take care. Good-bye!"
And before Sinikka could echo the farewell, she felt herself hurtling upward, faster and faster, as the world outside her closed eyes became brighter and brighter. The wind whistled in her ears like shrill winter until it seemed almost too much and suddenly she stopped. Sinikka opened her eyes and she was back in the snow by the rock, but this time she felt warm and awake and alive.
Sinikka sensed a weight upon her body and turning her head, she saw a great bear cloak wrapped around her shoulders. Her mouth flew open. She jumped to her feet and held the huge paws out. It was huge. For a time Sinikka could only marvel at the beauty of it. Then she wrapped herself once more in its warmth, threw back her head and cried out, "Thank you, Great Mother Bear! This gift I will honor for the rest of my life. I will remember how you protected me on my journey and kept me warm. Your kindness will be praised for ever." And Sinikka turned back the way she had come, her shadow on her right this time, and ran through the snow down the mountain side. The runo for the Onni charm came to her mind, and Sinikka sang the secret words aloud as she hopped from one frozen rock to the next.
Sinikka had nearly reached the valley again when a swirl of leaves rose up before her. The young woman was tired but still oddly joyful, and the sudden appearance of Maaemo was a welcome one. She knelt to touch the earth, calling out, "Greetings, Mother! All blessings upon you and your abundance."
"You look happy, child. I take it your journey has been fruitful - and that you found the Great Bear as well," Maaemo said, as the winds lifted an eddy of leaves, twigs and stones.
Sinikka smiled and patted the cloak slung over her shoulder. "Thank you for sending me forth. I have learned much and," she added, holding up the small leather bag, "Louhi has shared her knowledge with me. This will return fortune to my village, she has promised."
A chuckle swelled from within the debris. "Louhi's help often has costs. Be prepared. Still, I am glad you found what you were seeking."
"Louhi was frightening - at first. She is a difficult teacher, but a wise one. It is a beginning. But Louhi told me that we must woo Onni if he is to remain with us. I am not entirely sure how we will do so. My people still have no tietaja."
"Oh, yes. Yes, they do." The laughter this time was full and echoed all around the young woman where she knelt. When at last it died away, Sinikka stood, smiled, and walked back to her village, her spirits soaring higher with each swinging step.