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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 3. Sieidi and the Stranger [July 1-5]

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife,

and the two become one body.

"Wake up, Sálash," said Elle from the women's side of the hearth, "The fish is ready!" Sálle opened his eyes and breathed in the delicious scent of the freshly cooked fish. He took the bowl offered to him gratefully, eating in silence as his sister looked on. Father and the others had already eaten and were reclining in different parts of the hut. Aside from the hearth and various items hanging from the beams of the hut, there was little else in the hut to get in one's way. One slept where one wanted, the menfolk on the side near the door and the women on the side behind the central hearth. Sálle watched the smoke of the small fire drifting lazily upward toward the smoke hole: a blue haze that flavored the air and kept insects at bay.

"I have saved some fish fat here," said Elle.

"Thanks," said Sálle. He took the small bowl from his sister and rose to leave. Father rose as well and followed him, stooping to make it out the doorway. It was not far to the place where Sieidi lived: down to the end of the lake and then along the river a bit. Sieidi's skáidi was a peaceful spot, with thin tree cover over tufts of marshy grass and rounded flat stones. As they approached Sieidi's home, Father walked in front, bowing deeply, with Sálle following behind. Sieidi stood immobile, watching, his pointed face seeming to lean outward, as if to smell the fish fat and livers that Father was now placing before him. Sálle felt that he could see a glint in the mossy niches that were his eyes. He looked for only an instant though: Sieidi was not to be stared at, and any wrong move could insult him and destroy the family's fishing luck for the rest of the year. When Father was finished, he glanced over his shoulder at Sálle to start the chant:

"Oh you good Sieidi,

Take this fish liver and loads of fat,

We will grease your belly with it,

We will make you shine with fat.

We are grateful that you are our friend."

While Sálle chanted, Father kept rubbing the front of Sieidi with oil, bowing low to keep from looking straight on. When he was finished, he backed away, still bowing. Father and son, buckled over in the attitude of respect, slowly backed away until they were well into the forest. There was no turning your back on Sieidi, not till you were far out of his sight.

Back at the camp later that evening, Father brought up some momentous news.

"Brother tells me that Doarju's Aslat is looking to get married," he said to his wife. The two exchanged knowing glances and looked over at Elle. Elle pretended not to notice, but adjusted her cap somewhat and looked at her hands.

"Is he really?" said Mother. "Well, he's certainly in a good position to do so: good hunter, lots of excellent land and reindeer, fine family--"

"Word is, Mother, he's interested in looking for a bride down this way," said Father, cutting his eyes over to observe Elle once again.

"My goodness," said Mother, smoothing her dress and straightening up. "That is news."

"Yes," said Father eagerly. "A fine family. Not trading partners of ours, of course, but friendly just the same. And I certainly wouldn't mind having closer relations with Doarju and his crew in the coming years…" Elle continued her work without looking up. She knew that all eyes were on her and Mother noticed her blushing as she continued her sewing.

"Elle," said Mother gently, "what do you think of Aslat?"

Elle became very still, her eyes fixed on her sewing. After a pause she said quietly, "I have always enjoyed the times I’ve spent with him."

"He is a fine hunter, that one," said Father enthusiastically. "And they don’t live that far off. Not seven rivers away, of course…"

"Oh Father," said Mother sternly, "You're not harping on that old saying? 'Cross seven rivers to find a bride'—well, that's just old fashioned. No one goes that far to find a partner anymore, especially with the way the strangers have started to take up lands. I'd love to have Elle closer than that. Four days' walk is still a fair distance!"

"True, wife, true," said Father. "A family needs allies close by nowadays. Elle, am I to understand that you would not be against a marriage with Aslat should he come by?"

"I wouldn't be against it at all," said Elle, her eyes still downcast. "Aslat and I have talked of the possibility before."

"Oh have you?" laughed Father, slapping his knee. "Well, that's what I like to hear!"

"I think the two of you could make a good family," said Mother, frowning a little at her husband. "Still, I think Father should consult the drum to see if there are any impediments. Best to know such things before any visitor arrives wanting an answer," she said with a wise nod.

Later that night, Father carefully took out a small oblong drum and a bone drum stick. The drum head was covered in images of deities, local places and landscape. It had belonged to Father's father, the great noaide Sálle. In the days when he was alive, the elder Sálle had been able to see all sorts of important events before they happened. Father had inherited the drum from his father but no one in the family had yet taken Sálle's place. In the absence of a proper noaide, Father would have to conduct the divinatory ritual himself. He lay down with the drum on this chest. He placed a metal ring on top of the drum head and began to slowly beat the drum. The ring vibrated across the surface, crossing various pictures in the process. Father watched its progress carefully, then leaned back, closed his eyes and lay silent for a long while. After what seemed like a full first sleep, he opened his eyes and sat up. He shook his head and looked at Mother.

"Nothing," he said, glumly. "I saw nothing at all."

Mother shook her head. "If only the spirit gang would pick a new ally," she said, looking directly at Sálle.

"Time, Wife, time. These things can not be rushed," said Father. "It is the spirits who decide, not us."

"I know," said Mother somewhat petulantly, "but there are so many important things to know and to take care of, and we used to have such a powerful help in your father." Sálle got up and walked outside.

That night Mother had a dream herself. She recounted it anxiously the next morning.

"I was sitting by the hearth working as usual, when suddenly I became aware of the Old Women. They had come out from their places and were sitting beside me. Right here, to my right was Saráhkká, the hearth woman; Juksáhkká, the bow woman sat over there in the men's part of the hut, and Uksáhkká, the door woman, was crouched before the door, peering out. All at once she whispered 'Here he is!' and backed into a corner quickly. The door flap opened and a handsome man came in. He was tall and he had a full brown beard. His hair and eyes were dark, very dark. He did not look like Aslat at all and he was dressed in the manner of the strangers: in clothing of wool or linen rather than leather. Nonetheless, he addressed me in Sámi—in the Sámi of the Anaar people in fact —and said: 'I have come to take your child.' Then I woke up."

The family puzzled over the dream. It was clearly divinatory: old Sálle's spirit gang was giving them a message even though they had not yet established any conduit among the living generations. In the absence of a proper noaide, they had sent the message through Mother. But what did it mean? Why had a stranger come instead of Aslat, and how was the stranger able to speak in Sámi? None of the strangers ever knew normal speech. The idea of one coming to take their daughter was not unthinkable, however: the strangers had a tendency to take whatever they wanted from the Sámi.

"We must be careful," said Father, after much discussion. "Elle is not to go out without someone alongside her. I have heard of strangers stealing Sámi women and making them their wives."

"Or eating them alive!" said Mother with a shudder.

"Indeed," said Father. "One can never tell what the strangers are going to do, except that it is likely to be backward and unsavory."

"We’re not losing our Elle to some stranger," said Mother, drawing Elle into her arms--"not after everything we've gone through to keep her safe up to now! I hope Aslat comes soon and we can get her safely married!"

Almost a full week went by before anything more happened. Mother and Father had decided that Aslat was probably waiting for the fall to make his courting visit. There was simply too much work to be done in these late summer days to spend them talking and bargaining over a marriage deal. Mother remembered her dream, though, and the family was careful to keep an eye on Elle at all times. She was, after all, the family's greatest treasure, and they did want to lose her to a stranger.

The days would begin to shorten soon now, and the evenings would soon become dimmer, even dark at times. Such had not started yet, but it was only a matter of time, everyone knew. In a month the nights would already be lengthening daily. It was on one bright evening that the stranger arrived. The family had heard him trapsing in the woods for nearly an hour before the appeared and had carefully hidden Elle out of sight in a njalla, a storehouse built on top of a high pole somewhat removed from the house. She was to remain there until her mother came to fetch her and was to make no sound, no matter what she heard. After an exceedingly long and tense wait they finally caught sight of the man. He came blundering out of the forest, breaking branches, muttering and looking about wildly. His large round head was bald but for a little hair along the back and he had no beard to speak of, although he was a good ten years older than Sálle. He wore a tunic of linen that was white in color and covered with a cloak of black. His legs were naked, and instead of useful shoes, he wore planks of hide strapped to his feet by rough cords. Another cord circled his waist in place of a belt, and on it he carried no useful items like knives or salt casks, but instead, a string of brown beads that perhaps he used to keep track of his flock. Sálle knew the meaning of the man’s outfit: he must be a sacrifice leader for the strangers. He must have a spirit gang.

"Terve," said the man.

"Dearvist," answered Father. So far so good: these words were alike in their language and that of the strangers and nothing untoward had occurred as yet.

"Minun pitää kaupunkihin," started the man. Father stared in incomprehension.

"Kaupunkihin!" repeated the man, excitedly, making his fingers walk along his palm.

"Gávppot, Father!" blurted Sálle, excitedly: "The trading post. He wants to go to the gávppot near where Uncle lives." Father took a small step backward, shooting a glance toward his wife. Gielládárki. Yes, Sálle knew what he was thinking. Sálle was gielládárki, like his grandfather before him. He had the gift of languages so that he could understand anything a stranger said and could speak in such a way that the strangers understood everything he said. Sálle had known for a long time that he was gielládárki. Now it was time to let it show. By stepping backward, Father was acknowledging the fact that these dealings were Sálle's now and that he should continue the conversation. He was the future noaide for his family, and this was his role. Sálle spoke:

"You want to go to the trading post but you don't know the way?" He mimicked a man looking confused--a nitwit stranger lost on his way.The man smiled broadly and nodded rapidly. Clearly this was right."I know the way to the trading post," started Sálle, "for my uncle lives near by it. We can head there tomorrow if you'd like." The man looked blankly, as if expecting more. Perhaps he wanted to travel even further? "I can't take you any farther than that," protested Sálle: "There are fish that need catching and work to do before winter and anyway, I don't know the way beyond my uncle's lands!" The man nodded unsteadily and said again:


"Yes, kaupunki," smiled Sálle using the man's word. This stranger was a nitwit; he would get his point across sometime later.