Sampo - James Baldwin

The Unfinished Boat

Never were two pledged lovers more stanch and true than the ancient Minstrel and the youthful Smith, and their affection for each other grew stronger and stronger as the days went by. The brief summer waned, and the long winter came with its sleet and snow and furious storms; but through all the weather changes and the varying fortunes of the year, the mutual devotion of the two heroes remained steadfast. Ilmarinen toiled daily in his smithy, hammering out chains and hoes and axes, and shaping things of beauty and of use for his kinsfolk and neighbors in Wainola. And the Minstrel also toiled, composing new songs of love and conflict, retelling old tales of mystery and magic, and studying to discover the secrets of nature and of life.

"Come and live with me," said the younger hero to the older. "My cottage is roomy, my table is large, and my hearth is cozy and warm. My mother, Lokka, will welcome you; she will serve you and prepare toothsome victuals for your meals. Your sweet songs will enliven the hours of evening and we will converse often together concerning those things that are nearest to your heart and mine. Come! Come and be my eldest brother!"

"I thank you," answered the Minstrel. "We shall both be happy."

And so, without further persuasion, he took up his abode in the home of his friend; and Dame Lokka the Handsome, the best of all the matrons in Hero Land, kept house for them both.

"What have you wrought in your smithy to-day?" old Wainamoinen would ask as they met at the evening meal.

Then the master Smith, grimy with soot and gray with ashes, would begin to tell of a hoe he had beaten out, or a gold ring he had fashioned; but ere he had spoken a dozen words his mind would wander far away to a low-roofed dwelling in the Frozen Land, and the rest of his speech would be a burning discourse in praise of the Maid of Beauty.

"Now, sing us your newest song, sweetest of minstrels," the younger hero would say as they sat together beside the evening fire.

And the Minstrel would begin with a hymn of creation, or a tale of mighty strife and heroism; but at the end of the strain he would forget his subject and begin to chant a ballad of love or a ditty recounting the charms of the matchless maiden of Pohyola.

Thus, ere long, it came about that the two friends were constantly and forever recalling the sweetest memories of their lives—memories which, strange to say, were also mingled with thoughts of experiences that had been unpleasant, painful, humiliating. They talked daily of their strange adventures in Pohyola; and now in the halo of long absence, the Frozen Land was remembered only as a land of spring showers and summer sunshine, and their days of sadness and gloom were forgotten in contemplation of the blessedness which they had felt in the presence of the Maid of Beauty. And now her image seemed always before their eyes, and her voice seemed calling to them through the misty and frost-laden air of the desolate North Land.

Gradually, and by a process unknown to himself, Ilmarinen came to think of her as he thought of the sun and the stars and the wonderful sea, as something mysterious, sublime, incomprehensible, which he might worship from afar but never hope to possess or understand. She was his deity, his Jumala, as far superior to him as he, the prince of smiths and wizards, was superior to the beasts of the fields and woods.

But the Minstrel, old and steadfast, was more worldly-minded. He remembered how the maiden had laughed at him and twitted him as she sat on the rainbow plying her magic shuttles and weaving the web of the unmeasured sky; and as he thought of her words and her taunting manner, his feeling of reverence for her was tempered with a desire for some sort of revenge. Therefore he resolved that he would get even with her; verily he would show her that he, too, was one of the mighty—a magician unexcelled in power, a master of things seen and unseen. And having done this, what would be easier than to make her his own?

Long did he ponder, and many were the thoughts that came into his old, experienced mind. Day after day, week after week, he sat by Dame Lokka's fireside, thinking, thinking, thinking—yet keeping all his thoughts to himself.

"He is composing some new, sweet song," said the motherly matron; and she refrained from disturbing him.

At last, when the wild geese were again honking in the quiet fjords and the frogs were making the marshes musical, he perfected a secret plan by which he hoped to win the object of his desires, and at the same time add much to his already matchless fame. He told no one of his project, but he clenched his hands together and shut his teeth hard with determination.

"None but women say, 'I cannot'; none but cowards say 'I dare not,' " he repeated to himself again and again as though he would bolster up his courage.

Then, unknown to Ilmarinen—unknown to all his friends and neighbors—he set to work to build a boat, roomy and stanch and shaped for swiftest sailing.

It was his intention, when this boat was finished, to make a secret voyage to the Frozen Land and boldly make known his suit to the Maid of Beauty. If she would listen to him and accept the high place of honor which he had once before offered her—if she would consent to be the mistress of his kitchen, to bake his honey cakes and sing at his table, well and good; the fame of Wainamoinen, prince of minstrels, would be carried to the ends of the earth.

But what if she should scorn him as before? Was he not a magician? Through the power of magic he would subdue her; he would carry her aboard his vessel; he would bring her, willy nilly, to the Land of Heroes; she would have no choice but to be the queen of his dwelling in Wainola.

The boat itself was to be built by magic. By magic spells the beams were to be hewn and properly placed, the keel was to be laid, the hull was to be made stanch and shapely. No hammer was to be used in the work of building, but every nail and spike must be driven in the right place by a magic word that was known only to the prince of wizards, the first of all minstrels.

The place which Wainamoinen chose for the building of his boat was on the shore of a shady island well concealed behind a lofty headland. Trees grew along the shore, and there were thousands of them covering the hillside; but they were small trees, mere saplings, and would be of little use in boat-building. Where could the Minstrel find fit timber for his vessel? Who would cut it for him? Who would saw the boards, and who would carry them to the shore? The Minstrel could not do these things by magic alone. He must have help.

In a cave on the hillside there dwelt a brown dwarf, the last of the ancient of earth men. He was small of stature, wrinkled, and old—so old that he himself had lost all reckoning of his age. Men called him Sampsa, and they told many a tale of his wisdom and cunning, and how in former times he had guarded the treasures of kings. His days were spent in the forest and his nights in the unexplored chambers of his cavern home. He knew by name every tree and shrub that grew in the Land of Heroes, and he understood the language of birds and of beasts and of every living thing. Who better than he could be the Minstrel's helper?

With a golden axe upon his shoulder Sampsa sauntered, singing, through the forest. To each slender sapling and to every beast and bird he said, "Good-morning!" and every bird and beast and growing tree returned the salutation. Presently the little man paused beside an aspen, smooth of bark, and tall and graceful. The tree trembled and every leaf upon it quivered when he held before it his sharp-edged axe with golden poll and copper handle.

"O master! O man of earth," it whispered, "what do you wish of me?"

"I am seeking timber for a boat," answered Sampsa. "The Minstrel is building a magic vessel to cruise on northern seas, and he has sent me to find a tree from which to make the beams and keel. May I have your trunk, my friend?"

The aspen groaned, and every one of its thousand leaves seemed to have a tongue as it softly murmured: "Surely, I am not fit for boat timber. My branches are hollow; a grub has eaten my heart. My wood is soft and pithy; it would never float upon the water. I pray you, pass me by, O master!"

"You speak well," said the dwarf; "stay where you are and enjoy the soft breezes from the sea. Whisper your light songs to the birds, and let them nest among your branches. I will look elsewhere for boat timber."

He shouldered his golden axe and trudged onward, deeper and deeper into the forest. In a secluded valley between two mountains, he found a pine tree, green and slender and beautiful. He struck it lightly with his sharp axe-blade, and every needle on its branches shrieked as though in sudden terror.

"Why so rough, good Sampsa?" asked the tree, bowing its head and bending before the little master.

"Friend pine tree," he answered, "how will your trunk do for boat timber? The prince of minstrels, Wainamoinen, has sent me to find some for the magic vessel he is building."

"My trunk is not fit for such use," said the pine tree, speaking loudly. "My wood is knotty, gnarly, scraggy, hard to fashion in any manner. It is brittle, unsmooth, easily split and broken. It would make but a poor boat."

"It would make good beams and a fine mast," said Sampsa.

"But very unlucky, very unlucky," answered the pine. "Three times this summer a crow has sat on one of my branches, croaking misfortune and foretelling disaster."

"Then fare you well, my evergreen friend," said the dwarf, kindly; "I will look elsewhere for my boat timber;" and again he shouldered his axe and resumed his walk through the forest.

It was noon and the sun shone hot on land and sea when he came to a giant oak tree on the summit of a green hill. This oak tree had long been the monarch of the woods. Its branches reached out on every side nine fathoms from the trunk, and its topmost twigs seemed to brush the sky.

"Good-morning, friendly oak tree!" said Sampsa; and a tremor of joy ran through every leaf and branch as the noble tree answered, "Good-morning, master!"

"Our friend, the Minstrel, is building a boat," said the dwarf. "He wants good timber with which to make the beams and the keel and the boards for the hull. He would have it broad and high and very swift. He would have it beautiful and strong. But as yet he has found no wood that is fit."

Then from every leaf of the great tree there came a sound of music, a song of joy; and the acorn-bearer answered, "O master, I will gladly give him of my wood. It is tough and stout and free from knots and worm holes. The grain of it is straight, and no other wood can equal it for withstanding the weather and the salt sea-water."

"That is good," said the dwarf; "but what omens of good or evil are yours?"

"Omens of good fortune are written on my branches," said the oak. "Three times this summer a cuckoo has rested on my topmost bough. On every clear day, sunbeams have danced among my leaves. On every clear night, the silver moon has looked down and smiled upon me. And so I pray you to take me for the Minstrel's magic vessel. I long—oh, I long! to float on the blue-backed sea, to carry treasures from land to land, to fight with the storm and conquer the waves."

Forthwith, the earth man smote the oak with his magic axe, and the tree uttered a cry of joy as it fell prone upon the earth. Then with skill and great patience Sampsa hewed and cleaved and shaped it into beams and boards, more in number than he could reckon. He planed them, he sawed them, he fashioned them with infinite care until each was of the proper length and thickness. And when, at last, all were finished, he carried them out of the forest, one by one, and laid them on the beach where the Minstrel had directed.

"Behold, O singer of songs!" he said. "Here is the wood for your magic boat. These are for the beams, these are for the keel, and these are for the well-shaped hull. May the fairy ship float lightly upon the waves and bear you whithersoever you desire to go! May it be a joy to the sea, and a wonder to the world!"

The Minstrel thanked him and then began to chant the magic spells by which to put the beams and boards in their places. These, one after the other he sang, and he recited the runes whereby to shape the whole into a stanch and swift-sailing vessel. With one song the keel was fashioned; with a second the gunwales were laid; with a third the boat's ribs were fastened in their places; with a fourth the rudder was hung at the stern. No hammer was used, no axe nor mallet; but every nail and spoke and bolt was driven by a word of magic from the lips of the prince of minstrels.

At length every spell was recited, every rune was sung, every magic word was spoken, and the wonderful vessel was completed—all except the nailing down of the three long boards at the bottom of the hull. The Minstrel stood aghast—without three words more his boat could not be launched; it could not be made water-tight; it would never skim the foam-capped waves of the northern seas. He stroked his chin, he tapped his forehead with his forefinger; no word of magic, not even the shortest, could he call to memory.

"How unlucky I am!" he cried. "Misfortune follows me, and all my wisdom is in vain. Never can my task be finished unless I can find the three words of power that are lacking. My plans will fail utterly."

He sat down upon the white sand and pondered upon the troubles that confronted him. For five summer days he sat there—yes, for six long days he tarried by the shore not knowing what to do. And the little ripples on the beach laughed at him, and the sea birds flapped their wings in his face, and he felt himself to be helpless.

On the seventh day a white swan flew down as though inspecting his boat, a gray goose made its nest under the well-hung rudder, and a flock of swallows sat twittering upon the gunwales. "Ah! Perhaps the words that I need so badly have been stolen by some of these birds. Perhaps they are concealed in the head of a swan, in the brain of a goose, or under the tongue of a swallow. I will examine into this matter and see."

The next day, therefore, he took his bow and arrows and went hunting. He slew a whole flock of swans; he killed great numbers of geese; and hundreds of swallows fell, pierced by his unerring weapons. But in the brains of all these creatures he found not a single word, nor yet so much as the half of one; and under the tongues of the swallows, there was nothing uncommon.

The Minstrel was not wholly discouraged. "Perhaps the missing words are beneath the tongue of some four-footed animal," he said. "Perhaps a squirrel, perhaps a summer reindeer, or perhaps a gray and skulking wolf is hiding the precious secrets in its throat or between its jaws. I will search and find out if this be true."

So, for nine days—yes, for ten days of terror—he went stalking hither and thither through the woodlands and the meadows and the boggy thickets, shooting every timid creature that his eyes could see. He slew an army of squirrels; he killed a field full of reindeer; he slaughtered gray wolves without number. Cruelly, as one devoid of pity, he filled the forest with sorrow and death. He found strange words in plenty, groans and shrieks and cries of pain, but among them all there was not one syllable of magic.

At length he ceased his bloody work, he laid his weapons down, grief overcame him, and sorrow for the destruction he had wrought. All night long he sat on the sand beside his unfinished boat and bemoaned his evil fortune. All day he wept—but his mind was strong within him, and he would not give up his undertaking. On the second day, as the sun rose red above the hilltops, a raven flew croaking among the trees. "Caw! caw! caw!" cried the bird of ill-omen.

"Stop your cawing! Stop your crying!" shouted the Minstrel, full of anger. "Did Tuoni send you hither to taunt me? Begone! Return, I say, to your master, Tuoni!"

The bird flapped its wings, and Wainamoinen heard from far in the forest the echo of his words, "Tuoni! Tuoni!"

Then a strange thought came into his mind. He leaped to his feet, he clapped his hands, he shouted his oft-repeated maxim: "None but cowards say 'I dare not!' "

"You speak truly," said a voice beside him—it was the voice of Sampsa, the little man of the woods: "You speak truly; and since you are not a coward, what will you next dare to do?"

"Far away, on the world's edge," answered the Minstrel, "there is a land of silence and fear, the Land of Shades, the kingdom of Tuoni. Many men have travelled thither—heroes not a few, woodsmen, fishermen, even fair women and tender children—but never has any one returned to tell of that land. All things that are lost, all things that are forgotten, are stored away there; they lie in King Tuoni's treasure house waiting for the day when all things will be remembered. The three magic words that I desire are hidden there—the raven, Tuoni's bird, has reminded me of it by his croaking."

"And will you dare to go thither and get them?" asked the dwarf.

"I will dare," answered the Minstrel.