Pilgrim Reindeer in Pisa, 1348

a free multimedia novel by

Thomas A. DuBois, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Detail, Triumph of Death. Camposanto. Pisa

Sálle has waited all his life to be contacted by the spirits. Now that they've called, there's no turning back—not until the spirits say STOP.

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 2. Sállejávri [July 1, 1347]

 “Cast the net over the right side of the boat,and you will find something.”

So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.

The air was still and warm as they paddled toward their goal. The boat, once filled to near submersion from the rocks they had used to build the fish dam, now rode higher in the water, as father and son maneuvered it upstream to haul in the fish they had caught through their ploy. Run a series of wood and rock pilings across a river, with netting between, and fish will get caught, provided one’s fish luck is good. Sálle’s luck was excellent, so much so that his father often called him Sálash, meaning ‘catch of fish.’ One could always count on good fishing when Sálash was along: Siedi took care of that.

“Always a little fish oil, always a little, always prompt,” murmured the older man, seemingly to himself but really to his son.

The boy nodded. Just over twenty, Sálle looked like a younger version of his father: compact and sturdy, with broad shoulders but short legs. His nose was blunt, his eyebrows dark and furrowed over eyes of steely blue. His hair was shoulder length and quite unkempt, light brown in color but largely hidden under a rather squashed leather hat that sported four corners on its top. He wore a belt from which hung his most valuable tools: a long knife with a handle and sheath made of reindeer antler, a carven spoon on the same material, and a small purse made of badger skin in which he kept fishing hooks and line made of the sinew of reindeer legs. A long coil of rope hung from the belt as well, with a rounded circle of carved antler that was useful when making a lasso. Sálle had the start of a beard, but very little, and one could still easily see the cleft of his chin. His leather tunic was pulled over reindeer skin leggings that were light and easy for the summer months, and his shoes were the summer kind, made of supple reindeer legskin, the hair turned outward to repel the water better. The tips of his shoes curled smartly upwards in the way that Sámi shoes always did: to help hold the ski bindings in the winter, and in the summer, to help slog through the wet grass of lakesides where one spent a great deal of time.

“Even if the fishing is bad, Father?”

“What do you mean?”

“Even if the fishing is bad: do we give the fish oil even if the fishing is bad?”

“Yes, of course then, especially then—that is what it’s for! You don’t want to seem ungrateful, do you?”

“But Father, if the fishing is bad, what’s to be grateful about?”

“Son, I am fearful that you have been talking to a birkalash.” This was Father’s way of saying that the joke had come to an end, and Sálle knew it. If you start to sound like you have been talking to one of the strangers from the south, then, Sálle knew, you are little better than a nitwit. Fishing luck was not a thing to joke about although the birkalachat were of so little sense that they might well do so. To be a birkalash was to be everything that a Sámi detested: self-centered, dictatorial, lazy: like a crow stealing from a kingfisher, they seized what the Sámi managed to reap from the wilderness and transported it away to their world far away.

Sálle rowed hard against the current to reach the fish dam. It was difficult to keep the prow facing forward against the current, and with Father in the front, the boat was less mobile than usual. But it was a good boat, no denying: lithe and swift, made of flexible slats of spruce, firmly sewn together and covered in pine pitch to make it waterproof. Its prow bent gracefully upwards in the same manner as the bough of the spruce tree from which it was made. The slats were honed thinly enough to be flexible but remained sturdy and robust. They were sewn together on the outside of the boat’s spruce frame in the distinctively Sámi way, with diagonal stitches running through holes carefully bored through the slats and then filled with plugs of pine and resin. The twine used for the sewing was made of spruce roots which had been soaked for many days and then smoothed by running them through a small hole bored in an antler comb. A caulking of moss and hair mixed with pine resin filled the boat’s every seam, remaining flexible while preventing water from entering the hold. Sálle inspected the boat with pride: it was the first he had made entirely himself and it was clear that it was fit for even heavy waters. A boat like this one showed that he was a skilled man, someone fit to marry and start a family of his own.

Father and Sálle had laid the fish trap earlier that day and now, late in the evening, they were pulling in the catch. Ten large rávdu trout lay already in the hold, and Father was hauling in another. A knock on the head with his mallet and the fish lay still on the boat bottom with the rest. It was well past the time for evening meal, but with the sun still high in the sky and shining warmly, both men were happy to continue their work.

“Sieidi has been good to us, Sálle. We will eat some of these tonight and get the women to dry the rest. And you will take the fish fat to Sieidi.”

For at least the past five seasons, this had been Sálle’s job. None of this other brothers had such duties. And if his sisters had similar responsibilities toward the women beneath the hearth, they never let on to him. It was because of the name. Sálle knew he was named for his grandfather, a powerful healer and great worker of luck. He was the man for whom Sállevarri was named—a mountain in the region that was so full of power that women in the family were not even allowed to look in its direction. Sállejávri was named for him as well, where the family spent the summer season. And of course there was also Sállejohka, the river that led out of Sállejávri on its long course toward the great lake Ánar. Sálle glanced at Sállevárri off to the south, rising above the birch and pine forest like a great head. It was strange and sobering to think that he shared its name: clearly, great things were expected of him. Still, Sálle was different from his grandfather, or at least he thought he was. Father never elaborated. Doing the fish oil ceremony was simply his job, and it never seemed that Sálle could twitch or scratch his nose without one of his parents nodding significantly to the other, eyes half closed and murmuring “So.” Yes, yes, any time now the spirit gang that helped out Sálle the elder would start to do the same for him. Nothing more had to be said.

Such was not to say that Father was a reticent man—far from it. You could never stop Father from talking. Stories about this and stories about that—histories of how different hills came to be and where underground people kept their treasures, about the foibles of his wife’s brothers far off by Lake Ánar and about the ludicrous behaviors of the strangers. And when he wasn’t talking he was warbling a tune—now the woodduck, now the ptarmigan, now the spirit of Sálle’s sister Elle back home, growing ever more expert in the art of making thread from the sinews of reindeer. “Elle will cook this fish for us,” pronounced Father. Closing his eyes and cocking his head to one side, he sang:

“Good at sewing, good at cooking, Elle Maija’s handsome daughter, lo, lo, lo…”

Father was in good spirits. His voice gurgled up and down, like a brook in springtime, and his wrinkled forehead, browned like leather from four decades of rugged life, closed over his eyes. Through his father’s singing, Sálle could see his sister exactly as she was, squatting demurely on the women’s side of the fire, rubbing her cheek and pulling out a long, smooth thread of sinew. Elle would be ready for them when they got back and would cook the rávdu in no time.

The net was clear now, and it was time to head back to shore. Sálle always regretted this moment. Rowing against a current could be hard, but out here, in the middle of the Leammi river, with a cool breeze and wide water, the bugs were nowhere to be found. Sálle knew that when he faced the boat downstream and steered it to the shore the reprieve would be over: thousands upon thousands of swarming insects thronged in throbbing clouds all along the shore. There would be no escaping them till they got back to the camp, where a smudge fire would keep them somewhat at bay. It did not help that Sieidi lived on a skáidi, a little spit of land where the river Diivejohka joined with the river Sállejohka. It was a sandy, marshy place and always plagued with insects. Why couldn’t Sieidi live out under the river, like his twin?

“He lives there so that we can reach him,” was Father’s perennial reply. “We are lucky to have an ally like Sieidi.”

The men pulled the boat ashore and turned it upside down. It was light and easy to store, a craft that could be carried from river to river with ease, even over steep and rocky terrain. They stowed the boat beneath some low pine trees where it wouldn’t be seen by birkalachat, and began the trek back toward the family’s camp on the far side of Sállevarri, on the shore of Sállejávri. The men walked quietly, enjoying the peacefulness of the evening. Within an hour they had reached the camp, where their coming was announced by the happy barking of the family’s dogs.

The camp was a tight-knit collection of small huts, made of sturdy tree limbs bent into low, cozy mounds, covered in birch bark and layers of sod for insulation and strength Smoke drifted upwards from the smoke hole of one of the huts, telling the men that the women of the household were cooking inside. Other huts stood empty: to be used by other families of the locale when they were in the area. In summer, however, folk liked to spread out as far apart as possible, harvesting the fish and wildlife of the region on their own. Come winter, families would hunker down together in a single place, pooling their stores of food and waiting again for the blessings of springtime and the warmth of the summer sun.

Sálle’s mother and the other children of the family had been milking the reindeer, who stayed corralled near the hut under some pine trees, a smudge fire suppressing at least somewhat the hoards of stinging flies that buzzed around them. Elle was working in the hut beside the hearth along with her sisters Maija and Siri. All three girls looked like Sálle: compact and healthy, with wide, smiling faces and hair of light brown. Elle was only two years younger than Sálle, and she had grown into a very beautiful young woman. Her hair was pulled back and hidden beneath a cap made of red cloth that Father had obtained for the purpose through trading furs to south earlier that year. Mother had cut and sewn the cloth into the shape of a Sámi woman’s cap and embroidered it using fine stitches of reindeer sinew. Elle’s cap was the envy of many girls in the region, a sign of her family’s prosperity and the fact that she was now of marriageable age. At the moment, Elle was heating milk to produce the filmy curds which she would pour into a reindeer bladder to dry along with blades of juopmu, a tart and delicious plant that grew in hillside meadows in the warmth of summer. When the curds and juopmu had dried and cured for a time, they would be delightful to eat, staving off the hunger of the many months of winter to come.

Mother had mixed some fresh milk with golden berries and passed this to the men in wooden bowls. “Eat now, if you’d like,” she said. “Elle can cook the fish after a while.”

“Luopmánat!” gasped Sálle in delight, “the first of the season!”

“Yes,” said Mother smiling, “Aigin and Siri picked them this morning in the marshland near Tijvejuuhâ. I was not expecting any for another couple of weeks!”

Sálle smiled at his mother’s words. All these years as part of this family and she still used the words of her Ánar community from over near the great lake. Why did she insist on calling Diivejohka “Tijvejuuhâ”? Why couldn’t she speak in the normal way? It was as if she refused to give up her own words for those of her husband’s family as a means of resisting her fate. The Ánar people always thought of themselves as better than the people of these parts, after all: they were prosperous fishermen with bigger houses and lots of trade goods from their dealings on the coast and to the south. Perhaps Mother was a little ashamed of having married into one of the hunting and trapping families of the western forests, and this was her way of saying so. Or perhaps it was her way of countering Father’s constant jibes about her people and their pretentious ways.

“It is the fate of women to have to leave their childhood homes and travel far away in marriage,” she often told Sálle. “You men have it much easier.”

Sálle and Father took the bowls that Mother had dished out for them and gratefully slurped the milk. The berries were like small suns: golden and bulging with a sweetness that was unlike anything else, bright and nourishing, sweet yet tart. They were the glowing product of the perpetual sunshine of a long and peaceful summer, and they celebrated the good fortune of their lives by being beautiful and tasting good. Content beyond imagining, Sálle leaned back on the soft pine branches strewn about the ground beside the hearth and fell blissfully asleep.