Sampo - James Baldwin

The Kantele

With eyes that never failed and arms that never tired the Minstrel stood by the helm and guided the vessel around the jutting headland and straight forward into the great white sea. On the benches the rowers sat, wielding their oars with strength and deftness and singing and shouting for gladness. On the deck the long-armed Ahti danced nimbly and joyously, forgetful of his fishing, forgetful of his hunger.

For one long day and through the moonlit night the ship sped onward across the open sea. On the next day it skirted the low, marshy shores of the Frozen Land. On the third day it sailed through narrow straits between small islands, approaching by stealth the longed-for haven of Pohyola. And now the rowers were silent, the maidens had ceased their singing, the young men refrained from shouting, even the nimble Ahti left off his dancing and sat quietly at the feet of Ilmarinen.

Suddenly, in a deep channel, the vessel's bottom grated upon something, and the ship shivered and stood still. It remained fast in its place and no effort of the rowers could move it. The nimble Ahti seized a long pole and thrust it into the water, trying with all his great strength to push the ship along. What was it that had thus so suddenly stopped the flight of the gallant vessel?

"O thou lively Ahti," then cried the Minstrel, "lean far over the gunwales and look below. See what it is that keeps us moveless. Is it some rock, or is it the snaggy trunk of some forest tree lying deep beneath the waves?"

The long-armed hero obeyed. Holding fast with one hand to the vessel's edge, he let himself down into the water. He looked under the ship's hull, he peered closely at her keel, and then he leaped quickly back among the rowers.

"It is not a rock," he shouted, "neither is it a tree! It is a fish, a mighty pike that has stopped the vessel. Never have I seen so large a fish. It lies in the water silent, motionless, asleep, like a senseless mountain. The ship is wedged against its back fin—a fin as large as the sail upon our mast. If the fish should sink, it will drag our vessel down into the depths; if it should rise, it will tumble us all headlong into the sea."

"Too much talk will never save us," said Wainamoinen. "Never yet was pike slain by idle words. Draw your sword and wield it valiantly with your long, ungainly arms. Sever in twain the fish on which we are grounded."

"Surely I will do so," answered Ahti. "I will carve him into a thousand pieces."

He drew his fish-knife from his belt, he reached downward with his long arms, he slashed furiously this way and that; but nothing did he cut save the yielding water.

Up leaped Ilmarinen from his seat among the rowers. He seized the boaster by the hair and thrust him back among the benches. "Easy it is to brag," he said, "but to do is quite another story."

Then with his sword of truest metal he reached down—deep down beneath the ship's round hull. With all his strength he struck at the fish, thinking to cleave it in twain. But the scales of the monster were like iron plates lapping one upon another. The sword was shivered in pieces, it fell from the hero's hand, and the pike still slept unharmed in the quiet water.

"This is no boy's work!" cried Wainamoinen. "A man is needed—a man's sense, a man's strength, a man's skill. Stand aside, and see what a real man can do."

Then, drawing the sword—the keen-edged sword, Faultless, which the Smith had forged for him—he leaped into the sea, he dived deep down to the fish's resting-place. With one tremendous stroke he severed the mighty pike in twain, with another he hewed off its head. The monstrous body sank to the bottom; but the Minstrel dragged the head up to the surface, and with Ahti's help he hoisted the mighty jaws into the vessel.

"Now, row! Row all together!" shouted Ilmarinen.

Instantly the hundred oars were dipped into the waves, all the rowers pulled together and the ship began again to move steadily, proudly through the water. Wainamoinen stood at the helm. With masterly skill he piloted the vessel through narrow ways, he guided it along deep, winding channels, and finally steered it to the mainland, where it rested in a safe, well-sheltered haven close by the village of Pohyola.

All leaped out upon the sands, glad that the long voyage was ended. A fire was built and the young men and maidens clustered round it. The head of the pike was brought, and all examined its huge scales, its staring eyes, its sharp-pointed teeth.

"It is long since we tasted food," said the Minstrel. "Let the fairest of the maidens cook this fish. Let them broil it for our breakfast. Never shall we enter Pohyola while hunger pinches us, while famine robs us of strength."

Forthwith the maidens began the cooking. Ten of the most beautiful were chosen to perform the work. The young men hastened to gather sticks on the shore to feed the fire, to make hot coals for the broiling. Wainamoinen drew his knife blade from its sheath and with skilful strokes divided the head into a hundred pieces—yes, into more than a hundred he cleaved it, that each of the crew might have abundance. The flames roared, the red coals glowed upon the sand, the juicy morsels sizzled loudly and gave forth savory odors very pleasant indeed to the nostrils.

Soon the breakfast was prepared and all sat down upon the sand to eat the delicious morsels which the maidens had cooked. Sharp were their appetites, and when they had finished, nothing was left of the mighty head save its bones and its dagger-like teeth which lay scattered on the beach.

"What a pity that these should be wasted!" said the Minstrel, picking up a fragment of the jawbone—a fragment with the teeth still fast within their sockets. "Surely, if Ilmarinen had them in his smithy he might shape them into something useful, beautiful, wonderful."

"Nay, nay!" answered Ilmarinen. "Nothing can be made from such useless things. The skilfulest smith can never fashion fish-bones into anything of value."

"It may be so," said Wainamoinen thoughtfully, "and yet, perhaps I, who am not a smith, may make something from them that will give joy to men and women."

Thereupon, with his sharp-edged knife he set to work to fashion from the fish-bones a thing to give forth music. Of a piece of cedar he made the framework; of the pike's jawbone he made the bridge; of the pike's sharp teeth he made the pegs to hold the harp strings. Then out into the fields he went, searching in the thickets and among the briars. Soon he found five horsehairs which the wild steeds of Pohyola had lost while pasturing there—five horse-hairs, long and strong and resonant. "These will serve right well for harp strings," he said.

He hung the horsehairs in their places, he stretched them tight, he gave to each its proper length and tension. "Ha! ha!" he laughed. "Who now will say that nothing can be made of fish-bones? Here is something that will breathe forth music sweeter than a minstrel's song. It will delight the young, the old, the rich, the poor—all sorts of people—with its rare and matchless melodies. Call it the kantele, call it the harp of the North, and let minstrels never fail to play upon it."

The news of his invention spread quickly. The youths, the maidens came crowding round him. From the fields and the fishermen's boats the men came running. From the huts and the washing pools the women came dancing. Half-grown boys and little girls pushed shyly forward—all curious to gaze on the wonderful kantele, all anxious to hear its sweet music. And Wainamoinen passed it from hand to hand, saying, "Look at it, let your fingers play upon it, let its melodies rejoice your hearts."

Wistfully the little girls, the maidens, the older women, all held the harp in their hands and with their tender fingers swept the harp strings. Boldly, confidently, the half-grown boys, the young men, the old fishermen, all grasped the wonderful instrument and tried to play upon it. But the tones which they drew from it were harsh, unpleasant, unmusical.

"It is not thus the kantele is played," said Wainamoinen. "Not one of you can draw cheerful music from it, and yet the melodies are there; they lie hidden in the strings of horsehair, in the jawbone of the pike."

"I can play it," said the nimble Ahti. "With my long arms I can call forth the melodies that now lie slumbering within it. Let me try what I can do."

Wainamoinen put the harp of fish-bone in his gnarly hands; he rested it upon his knees; very eagerly the little fellow swept the harp strings with the tips of his long fingers. But the sound which came forth was not music—it was a noise, discordant, grating, painful to the ears.

"It is always thus," said the Minstrel, growing impatient at last. "The poorest doers are the biggest boasters. The music of the kantele lies still beneath its bridge, beneath the jawbone of the pike. Not one of you has the skill to coax it forth from its lurking-place. Let us all go now to the village, to the roomy dwelling of Dame Louhi. Perhaps the Mistress of the land, the old, the grim, the gray, the Wise Woman of the North, will be able to touch the harp strings aright—perhaps she will know how to play the kantele and bring sweet melodies from its heart."

And all the young men shouted, "To Dame Louhi's dwelling! Let us see what the Wise Woman can do. Yes, lead us to Dame Louhi's dwelling."