Sampo - James Baldwin

The Land of Tuonela

Tuonela — the Land of Shades! Does any one know where that country lies? On what chart is its location shown? Where are its boundary lines, and what is its extent?

Many are they who have gone thither—some by land, some by sea—yet none have returned to tell others of what they have learned. They who once enter that mysterious land may not hope to depart therefrom, neither must they send word home to their kindred and friends. They are thenceforth the subjects of King Tuoni, and must abide forever with him.

Is the place very far? Is the road thither a long one? Is it difficult to find?

Oh, the distance is great, but all roads lead to that land. You may arrive there quickly, in a day, in an hour, perhaps even in the twinkling of an eye—and quite before you expect to do so. You need not inquire the way nor ask about the road—you cannot fail to find it; and sooner or later you must walk in it, whether you wish or not.

The Minstrel's journey was both long and hard, for he had undertaken it of his own free will. The road was exceeding rough, and perils beset him at every step. Dark were the forests through which he passed; broad and deep were the rivers which he crossed; high and rugged were the mountains which reared themselves before him. For six days—yes, for seven painful days he toiled through the thickets of thorns; for seven eventful days he cut his way through a magic wilderness of hazel; for seven other days he groped through dark hedges of juniper and tangled masses of wild briars; and then, for three times seven days he wandered through desert lands and wide wastes of snow where there was no shelter from the storm and no place to rest his weary feet.

Three score and ten days, three score and ten nights, were the measure of his journey; and at length he found himself on the shore of a mighty river, deep, dark, and sluggish. He looked, and on the farther side he saw a gray castle and a long white shore, and he knew that it was Tuoni's land—the land of silence and of mystery. He walked up and down the river bank, hoping to find some way to cross, but the water was everywhere deep, and the current, although sluggish, was everywhere strong. At length, however, he saw a sort of landing-place, where was a post for mooring a boat, and at the top of the post was a sign-board with words painted upon it:



Wainamoinen stood upon the sand and shouted with all his might:

"Ho! Keeper of the ferry! Bring thy boat quickly. Here is a traveller who desires to be carried over the water. Haste thee hither!"

The unwonted sound of a human voice rolled thunderously across the river, stirring the sluggish stream to its very depths; it awakened the echoes in the distant colorless hills of Tuonela, and with deafening roar broke the silence of ages.

The water-door of the castle opened, and a dwarfish maiden came forth, looking inquiringly across the river. Very small she was, but well-shaped and comely. Her eyes gleamed like lightning and her face was stern and pitiless. She was the daughter of Tuoni, and to her belonged the duty of keeping the ferry whereby the shades of mortals were carried to her father's kingdom. Sharply, and in shrill, cutting tones, she answered the call of the Minstrel:

"Who are you who calls so lustily? Why have you come to this river with body so strong and active? Tell me truly if you would be ferried to Tuonela."

The Minstrel was old and cunning, and because he feared to tell the maiden the truth, he answered her with guileful words: "I am a poor woodsman from the Land of Heroes. Yesterday, as I was felling a tree, your father, Tuoni, smote me. He smote me and made me his thrall; he made me his thrall and bade me come hither to his kingdom. This is why I stand on the shore and call to you so lustily."

"You speak falsely!" cried the dwarfish maiden, with anger in her tones. "If my father had made you his thrall, he would be with you now. His hat would be on your head and his gloves would be on your hands. His mark would be on your forehead and your voice would not resound like thunder upon the water. Tell me who you are, and tell me truly, or never will I ferry you to Tuonela."

But Wainamoinen still trusted in his cunning, and he made up another guileful story to deceive her, "Perhaps it was not Tuoni who sent me," he said. "Now that I think of it, it was Iron who smote me. Sharp Iron, pitiless Iron in shape of a sword pierced my heart, and I was forced unwillingly to seek the kingdom of Tuoni. So come, I pray you, and ferry me over the river."

The dwarfish maiden could scarce contain herself for anger. She smote the air with her fists and shouted, "Now I know that you are a liar! If Iron had smitten you I would see blood trickling from your wounds; your face would be scarlet; your hands would be crimson. But there you stand unscarred, unmarked, with the hue of health upon your cheeks. What do you hope to gain by trying to deceive me?"

"Far be it from me to deceive you," said the artful hero, foolishly, and without judgment. "O daughter of Tuoni, I will tell you the truth! Now that I think of it, I am quite sure that it was Water that sent me hither. I was a fisherman, and I sailed too far from the shore. The deep sea overcame me, and the raging waves seized me, and when my breath failed me and my strength was gone, Water commanded me to come quickly to Tuonela. So, hasten, I pray you, and row me over the river."

The sharp-eyed daughter of the king was furious. With savage looks and threatening gestures, she answered the cunning Minstrel: "O foolish fellow, why do you tell such falsehoods? Do you think that I will believe you? If the waves had overcome you, if Water had sent you, your coat would be wringing wet and your wan face would be overspread with moisture. How, then, do you stand so proudly, your hair dry, your cheeks glowing, and your clothing untouched by dampness? Tell me the truth, for you will gain nothing by falsehoods."

The foolish Minstrel listened, and his heart grew stubborn. Then he answered her with flattering words, deeming that thus she would be pleased and therefore easily deceived. "O lovely keeper of Tuoni's ferry, speak not so harshly to a lone, weary traveller! Never have I seen such beauty as yours; never have I heard a voice so sweet. And now I will tell you truly why I have come hither. I am the victim and the thrall of Fire. Three days ago I was seized by Fire, the elder brother of Iron. Very roughly did he handle me, and little mercy did he show. And this is why my clothing is dry and my hair untouched by dampness. So, sweet lady, hasten to be kind and carry me over the ferry."

Tuoni's daughter trembled now with rage and shame. Her patience was wellnigh gone, she no longer felt pity for the aged traveller. Yet she answered him once again and in tones decided and severe:

"O foolish, foolish fellow!" she said. "If Fire had seized you and sent you hither, your hair and beard would be singed, your eyebrows would be scorched, your feet would be blistered. Three falsehoods you have told me—yes, four barefaced lies you have shouted across the water. Now, beware that you tell me not another. Speak with clean lips and say truly why you have come hither with healthy body and with red heart beating lustily."

Then Wainamoinen saw it was vain to practice deceit with one so skilled in the ways of life and death. So he answered her truthfully and half-ashamed: "I pray you, pardon the slippings of my tongue, for my heart does not lend itself to falsehood. Months ago I began to build a magic vessel in which to sail the northern seas. With one song I laid the keel, with another I framed the gunwales, with a third I fastened the ribs in their places. All my tools, my hammer, my auger, my saw, my chisels, were words of magic. But when my work was almost finished, lo! my tools failed me. Three smooth holes still need boring, three strong bolts still needing driving, three broad planks still needed fastening—and I lacked the three mystic words with which to do these things. So I have come boldly to Tuonela to borrow the tools which I desire so greatly—the three lost words that shall make my boat seaworthy and safe. This, fair maiden, is the truth!"

"Stupid fellow!" cried Tuoni's daughter. "You have neither wit nor wisdom. Have you lived to be an old, old man and yet never learned that the liar is sure to be discovered? And now that you speak the truth, do you think that you deserve any favors from me?"

"I deserve nothing," answered the Minstrel, humbly, contritely, yet cunningly. "I only pray you to do me a great, although undeserved, favor. Come and ferry me over the water."

The dwarfish maiden hesitated, standing beside her boat. Then in half-sad tones, as though in pity, she said, "You do not know what you ask, foolish hero. Never has any one who came to my father's palefaced country returned to home or friends. This river being once crossed by you, you can never cross again. Turn back while you can, and think not to visit my father in his strong castle. Hasten away, and seek your own home and kindred ere it is too late."

The Minstrel heeded not her warning; for never had he abandoned a task once begun.

"I am old," he said, "and many are the perils I have faced and many the dangers I have escaped. I am not a woman that I should say, 'I cannot'; I am not a coward that I should say, 'I dare not!' So, come now, tiny daughter of Tuoni. Come, and quickly row me over your ferry."

The maiden said not another word. She leaped into her boat, she seized the oars, and with lightning speed she crossed the river. The broad, flat-bottomed vessel grated against the shore where the Minstrel was standing; he saw that it was roomy and large, and he stepped quickly aboard, not looking behind him. Then, instantly, and without sound, ten thousand shades who had been waiting unseen and intangible on the shore, glided also into the boat and stood beside him. The tiny maiden received each one silently, taking note of every mark or sign or other means of recognition. When all were safely aboard, she again seized the oars and with swift and sturdy strokes rowed her strong craft across the stream.

"Farewell, brave but foolhardy hero!" she said as the boat touched the farther shore and Wainamoinen leaped out upon the beach. "None but the prince of wizards could thus have come to Tuonela; and yet there is no magic strong enough to save you from your doom."

But the Minstrel was undaunted. He buckled his girdle about him, and with long strides hastened toward the great house which he knew must be King Tuoni's palace.

At the door the queen met him and softly welcomed him. "Come in, most honored of guests!" she said. "Never before has a living hero dared to cross this threshold."

She led him into the broad hall, she seated him on soft cushions, she threw a mantle of finest cloth over his shoulders. Then she brought him food and drink, and bade him refresh himself and be joyful. But when he lifted the covers of the enticing dishes, and when he looked into the foaming pitchers, what did he see? Vile things in plenty—the poison of serpents, the spawn of toads, shiny lizards, squirming worms,—a medley of horrors indescribable and foul.

"I thank you, mighty queen," the Minstrel said politely, "but my errand in Tuonela permits neither eating nor drinking. No morsel of food will I taste until I have made known the business that brings me hither."

Then in a few words wisely spoken he told her plainly, truly, the object of his visit.

The queen listened, and her ashy-pale face grew paler still and an unpitying smile overspread her joyous countenance. When he had finished she answered him briefly and sternly:

"Truly there are magic words in plenty stored up in Tuoni's treasure houses; but they are neither sold nor lent nor yet given away. The king imparts his knowledge to none; the secrets of his kingdom remain unknown forever. Rash man! You have come hither uninvited; you shall not soon depart."

Even while she was speaking she began her spells of enchantment. She waved her wand of slumber and chanted strange runes never heard on this side of the dark water. Softly, very softly, she began to sing a weird lullaby—a song of the silent land. And Wainamoinen neither spoke nor made resistance, but, wrapping his cloak about him, he laid himself down to sleep on the dread couch of King Tuoni.