Sampo - James Baldwin

The Great Pike

"Ah! Who is this?" cried the Wise Woman, rising quickly. Surprise leaped from her narrow eyes, disappointment sat in her loveless face. "Is this the young man who went out to plough our field?"

"The field is ploughed," humbly answered Ilmarinen. "I have performed my task and now I come to claim my own—the Maid of Beauty for whom I have waited and toiled."

"Who saw you plough the field of serpents? Who saw you perform the dreadful task? Am I to believe your word alone?" And wise Dame Louhi spoke harshly, gruffly, as one who has never been defeated or denied.

Then from the dark corner beyond the hearth-stones, suddenly a voice croaked like the voice of a sea-bird breasting the storm. And out of the gloom emerged the dwarfish form of old Sakko, the last and the wisest of all earth women.

"I will be the hero's witness," she croaked. "Unknown to him, I was hidden close beside the field of deadly serpents. I saw the young man perform his task, and he performed it well. Twelve broad furrows he made towards the east, towards the west; twelve other furrows he made towards the north, towards the south. The ground was heaped up, deep trenches were made. The serpents reared their heads, they ran out of their holes, hissing and dismayed; they were overwhelmed and destroyed; not one remains. Give the hero his prize. Give him the duckling for whom he has risked so much."

"No, no!" answered Dame Louhi, graver, grimmer than ever before. "Any man can kill snakes. Shall this poor Smith have my daughter for performing so paltry a task as that? No! no! But there is another task which perhaps he would like to try—an undertaking worthy of a hero, although I fear too difficult for this young man!" She spoke tauntingly, bitterly, unkindly.

Then Ilmarinen's boastfulness returned, and he answered proudly, fearlessly: "Never yet was there anything too difficult for me. Did I not hammer out the sky, and set the stars where they belong? Did I not find Iron in his hiding places and subdue him? Did I not forge the Sampo and shape its lid of rainbow colors? Harder things than these will I do if only you will surely give me your daughter."

"Listen then," said the cunning Mistress. "In the dark and sluggish river that surrounds the land of Tuonela there lives a monstrous fish, a pike so huge, so scaly, so fierce that all the fishes of the sea obey him. Hundreds of brave fishermen have sought to snare him, but not one has lived to tell his story. Go, now, and capture this king of fishes. Take him without using net or tackle and bring his head to me. Then I will surely give you my daughter; you shall have the blue-wing duckling; you shall wait no longer, toil no longer, but be at once rewarded with your prize."

The hero heard and deep dejection came upon him. He hung his head, he turned away and walked slowly, silently out into the darkening twilight. He sat down on the rocks by the shore and looked out over the cold and pitiless sea.

"Now, I may as well die," he said. "This last task is impossible. For how can any one, without net or tackle, catch and subdue the Great Pike? and how can I hope to drag him from the sluggish water and bring his head hither to the Mistress of Pohyola? Vainly have I lived, vain have been all my valiant deeds, vain indeed is life with all its empty victories; there is naught that is worth the doing."

Suddenly he heard light footsteps behind him, suddenly the darkness was dispelled and the smiling Maid of Beauty laid her hand upon his shoulder.

"O Ilmarinen, prince of wizards, smith of all smiths!" she said, "Why are you so despondent? The task is not so hard as you imagine."

"But I cannot perform it," said the hero. "I dare not attack the Great Pike in the dismal stream of Tuonela."

"Only women say, 'I cannot,' only cowards say, 'I dare not,' " laughed the maiden cheerily. "You see I learned a lesson from your elder brother, the prince of minstrels. Now I will tell you how to catch the Great Pike of Tuonela. Go at once to your magic smithy and forge a fiery eagle with flaming wings and iron talons. Then sally forth upon your errand; have no fear, but be wise and valiant."

Ilmarinen would have replied, but she had vanished. He buckled his armor about him and with right good courage hastened to his smithy. There for many days he toiled at his forge; for many days he watched the magic caldron in the midst of his glowing furnace; for many days he tried all his wizard arts, singing strange songs and reciting secret runes which only the wisest may ever know. At length one morning he drew the caldron from the fire and lifted the lid.

"Art thou there, my eagle?" he cried.

Quickly from the clouds of scalding vapor a wonderful bird leaped into being. Her wings were as large as the sails of a ship, her claws and beak were of the hardest iron, her eyes were like flaming fire.

"Here I am, my master, what will you have me do?"

"O, my eagle," answered the Smith, "carry me swiftly towards the land of Tuonela, fly with speed and pause not till the sluggish, silent river is beneath you. Then find for me the Great Pike, so huge, so scaly, the king of all the fishes. Help me take the slippery monster from its lair beneath the waters."

The wonder bird spread her wings and Ilmarinen leaped up between them and seated himself upon her back. The bird screamed and began her flight. Up, up, up into the high air she soared. Then, swifter than the wind, she sailed straight onward, towards the mystic island and the dark and dismal river. How far did she fly? No man can tell; for none can know whether Tuonela be in this place or in that, whether it is one day's journey distant or an hundred. From the graybeard it is only a step, a stone's throw, a short walk at most; from the babe upon the floor it may be a thousand weary leagues removed.

At length, however, the goal was reached and the flaming eagle stayed her flight. She swooped down and perched herself upon a rock which overhung the shore. Beneath it flowed the sluggish river, dark and dismal and deathlike; beyond lay the shores of the silent land where Tuoni reigns; above it was the ashy-gray sky where no bird flies and no star has ever twinkled. Upon this rock the eagle sat and watched for her prey, and Ilmarinen waited patiently beside her.

By and by from the black mud at the river's bottom a water sprite arose. It rose quickly, it leaped high into the air and with its long fingers clutched at Ilmarinen. Then, indeed, would the hero have met his death had not the eagle saved him. She seized the fearful sprite by the head; with her iron talons she twisted the creature's neck and forced it to hide again in the slimy, pitch-like ooze in the bed of the murky stream.

Suddenly from amid the darkness the Great Pike came swimming. No small fish was he, for his back was seven times longer than the longest boat, his teeth were like great spears set round the entrance to a cavern, and his eyes glowed like two flaming fires on the summit of a mountain. Fiercely he dashed through the water, high into the air he leaped, thinking to seize and swallow Ilmarinen.

But now the eagle rushed to the rescue. No small eagle was she, for her beak was six times longer than the longest boat oar, her talons were like the sharpened scythes of the mowers in the meadows of Hero Land, and her eyes glittered like two great suns glaring down from the top of the sky. Terrible indeed was the fight that followed. Dashing swiftly upward the fish sought to seize the eagle with his spear-like teeth; he caught the tip of her right wing, he drew it into the water and with might and main strove to pull the giant bird into the depths. But the eagle, with one foot gripping the rock, struck fiercely at her foe; with her iron beak she tore the scales from the fish's back, she forced him to retreat into the murky deep.

Not long, however, was the fight delayed, for soon the furious fish rose again and, swift as lightning, leaped upward to the combat. The bird of iron, her wings all glowing as with fire, was ready for him. She struck with her scythe-like talons; she seized him midway behind his gills; with a mighty effort she drew him from the water and bore him, struggling, helpless, dying, to the topmost branch of a wide-spreading oak. There she sat, screaming with joy and anon tearing her prey and feasting upon it. She ripped the scales from the Great Pike's glistening sides; she tore the fins away; she devoured the long breast and the jointed tail; she sundered the head from the mighty shoulders, cleaving the gills with her iron beak.

And under the tree stood Ilmarinen, helpless, imploring, angrily remonstrating, "O faithless bird! O wicked eagle! Why do you devour the fish that you were created to capture? What shall I say to the pitiless mother at Pohyola when I return empty-handed? What proof shall I offer that the Great Pike has indeed been taken?"

The eagle screamed until the sky seemed rent in twain by the shrill echoes of her voice. Then she threw the fish's head from her—it fell at Ilmarinen's feet. She flapped her fiery wings until the sun glowed hot above her; she leaped from her perch; she soared upward, higher and higher, above the treetops, above the desolate mountains. Into the land of clouds she soared. The thunder rolled; the lightning flashed; the rainbow-bridge, Jumala's bridge of many colors, was shivered and broken. Not for a moment did the bird of iron pause, nor did she rest in her flight until she reached the distant moon. There, folding her fiery pinions, she alighted, content to make her home on that changeable orb. And there, on clear summer nights, you may often see her pecking at the stars and scarring the sky with her scythe-like talons.

Ilmarinen, wondering at the might of his own invention, lifted the head of the Great Pike from the ground. With much labor he laid it across his shoulders and adjusted it upon his sturdy back. Then, with hope in his heart and courage in his feet, he turned his face once more towards distant Pohyola and the Frozen Land.