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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 4. The First Steps [July 6, 1347]

 Raphael answered: “Yes I can go with him,

for I know all the routes. I have often traveled to Media

and crossed its plains and mountains;

so I know every road well.”

It didn’t take long for Sálle to ready himself for the walk. Father wanted the stranger away from the house as quickly as possible and he made the fact evident to Sálle if not to the guest. They offered the stranger a little food and water and politely smiled as he talked and gestured at them with great enthusiasm. They understood nothing he said. Sálle understood much, but he could not make sense of what he was hearing. This man described himself as a brother, but did not say whom he was brothers with. He was trying to get to a place very far away, a house in a place called Turku. He seemed to be confident that he would be meeting other strangers sometime soon that would help him find the way. He only needed help until these other strangers appeared.

Sálle packed a light pack with some of the items that he never left camp without: ropes, salt, some smoked fish and meat, some extra clothing. It was late summer now, and one could never be certain of good weather for an entire trip, even a small one like this. At the last minute, he slipped his grandfather’s drum in the pack as well. “I shall be back in a week!” he said loudly, standing under the raised storehouse. He wanted his sister to know he was going without calling attention to her whereabouts. The stranger looked up at the storehouse intently. He seemed delighted by its shape.

“To keep wolves and other beasts from getting at our stores,” said Sálle . He did not feel the need to explain that Sámi also called the strangers “wolves” at times. This storehouse was certainly hiding Elle from what could be a very dangerous encounter.

“Stay well!” Sálle called as he began to walk away. “Go well!” his family replied. Amid the voices of his brothers and sisters and parents, Sálle felt sure he heard the muffled voice of Elle as well.

Sálle thought about the best route of getting to the trading post. His father’s older brother lived near there with his family and he would certainly be able to help send this stranger onward without difficulty. Sálle wanted to reach his uncle’s place as quickly as possible, but to do so would bring the stranger into close proximity with Sieidi. Should he lead the stranger on a more circuitous route and risk him deciding that he wanted to return to the camp and see if there were any daughters to be stolen? Sálle decided that the best course of action was to take the direct route by the river but make certain that the stranger did not notice Sieidi’s place.

As they walked, the man chattered enthusiastically. His legs were red with insect bites and scratches from berry bushes and sticks. Sálle could not believe how unwisely the man had dressed for a trek in the forest and how little he carried on his back. How did these strangers ever survive? They didn’t seem to have the sense of a lemming as far as he could tell. As Sálle reflected on these impressions he suddenly became aware of the fact that they were headed directly toward Sieidi. It was as if the spirits were intent on effectuating the meeting: no matter how far to one side or another Sálle tried to steer the stranger, their path always seemed to swing back toward Sieidi after a time. Now they were practically to his clearing. In a moment they cleared the forest and entered the little clearing by the river. The man seemed led to the spot where Sieidi stood. He stooped down by the flat rock and began to scoop up water to drink. Sálle grabbed him by the sleeve. “You can’t do that here, fool! This is Sieidi’s water!” He said the word water in the stranger’s language, because he knew it.

“Sieidi’s water?” said the man straightening up. “Who is Sieidi?”

“Who is Sieidi?!” gasped his guide. “Sieidi is Sieidi! You are standing in his presence! There!”

The man turned around to follow the line of Sálle’s emphatic nod. It would have been impolite to point. “What, this wooden statue?”

“Wooden statue?!” spluttered Sálle. You are a nitwit. We must leave at once.” It was typical of Sieidi that he did not flinch through all this conversation, even though he heard. He was not one to strike an evil-doer down in his tracks, no. He would get even with this man some other way down the line, sapping away his luck, bringing him misfortune. Sálle had to make sure that Sieidi did not lump him in with this idiot as well: “We are leaving, great Sieidi,” he said aloud, addressing the latter with bowed head while grasping the stranger firmly by the sleeve. “Do not blame me for this stranger’s folly—he is no kin of mine!”

When they had walked a few paces back into the forest, the man broke free from Sálle and turned to address him. Shaking his head in disbelief, the stranger started to chuckle. “You don’t really believe that that shabby little statue is alive, do you?” he said. “You don’t think that thing is a god?!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘god,’” said Sálle, “I have never heard that word of yours before. But this Sieidi is our ally, and he has been our ally for generations and generations, all the way back to the time when our people came down from the sky.”

The man was shaking his head again, chuckling as if he found something hilarious. “Empty laughter,” thought Sálle, “empty head.”

Sálle made to resume the journey, pointing toward the path and nudging the man forward in the way one nudged a lagging gelding. The man turned again to face him though and thrust out his arms, waving his fingers. “Wait!” he said, “I have to explain.” With great reverence he pulled a wooden object of his own from beneath his tunic. Sálle recognized it immediately as a little wooden Sieidi, one with its arms spread out wide. “This,” said the man impressively is God!” Again he used that word, jumala. It seemed important.

“Jumala?” asked Sálle.“Yes, Jumala!” said the man pointing toward the sky. Sálle understood. He was gielládárki and he could always understand. This man’s Sieidi was from the sky. It was Sámi, like Sálle and his people, descendents of the sun!

“Jumala,” said Sálle, pointing to the sky.

“Jumala,” nodded the man in satisfaction.

“So ‘Jumala’ means the sun in the strangers’ language. Now I see. And this man has a little Sámi Sieidi that for some reason he carries with him everywhere he goes!” thought Sálle to himself. It occurred to Sálle that this was rather a clever thing to do: all these generations, his family had gone to see their various Sieidi allies where they lived: the fish Sieidi by the water, the reindeer Sieidi in the hills—always some secluded place, always somewhat difficult to reach. This man had his Sieidi with him and could talk to him whenever he wanted. “But still,” thought Sálle, “how did this stranger get a Sámi Sieidi? Did he steal it?” Sálle needed to know; this man might be more dangerous than he seemed.

“Jumala in the sky?” asked Sálle. “Where did you get the Sieidi?”

The man smiled excitedly, childishly. “This is Jumala’s son!” he said. Sálle could see now that he was not pointing at the wood itself but at a little human sculpture that he had affixed to its front: a funny, thin, naked man who seemed to be writhing like a snake. “This son must have given him the Sieidi,” reasoned Sálle, “and he is excited for me to know that he has Sámi friends.” “Who are his people,” Sálle said aloud. “What tribe?”

“Abraham’s” said the man in seeming elation.

“Ahparash?” repeated Sálle, a cold sweat breaking on his neck. This man was dangerous. Who would have the malevolent spirit of a dead child as his ally?! An Ahparash should always be avoided, everyone knew that. They were insatiable: always cold, always hungry, always bemoaning their infant deaths. Even talking to one for a little time could easily make you insane.

“Ahparash” repeated Sálle, backing away. The man’s eyes grew wide and he hesitated: clearly he could tell that the word was unwelcome to his guide.

“Abraham” he said again, enunciating clearly.

“Áhpespálfu?” asked Sálle, now incredulous. How could this man’s Sieidi be a stormy petrel? Sálle had only seen such birds when he traveled to the sea with his father for trading, and this man could not be from the coast. How could he have a sea bird for a guide? Maybe that was his bird guide, the one that helped him in spirit flights through the heavens? Sálle had heard that the sacrifice leaders of the strangers often had birds, or bird-like humans, as spirit helpers, and the áhpespálfu was a powerful bird: one that could practically walk on the water and often appeared just before storms.

“Abraham,” repeated the man. “He was from far to the southeast of here.”

“Abraham,” said Sálle. This was a man’s name, not a sea bird. Clearly the ally was from a family that lived very far away, because their name was thoroughly unfamiliar. It hardly sounded Sámi at all. Sálle made a mental note that he would have to ask his mother if she knew the people of Abraham, because her people came from the east. Father had always said that they got stranger and stranger, the farther east you go. But Sálle had always thought that that was just Father’s way of teasing his wife for her Ánar origins.

“This man came to teach us how to live a good life.” said the man.

“Ah,” thought Sálle. So that was it. This Abraham had come to live among the strangers and teach them Sámi ways. This man wanted Sálle to know that he was trying to learn and that he would appreciate Sálle’s help.

“Buore,” said Sálle. “It is good to learn the right ways to live.”

“Buore?” asked the man, confused by Sálle’s word.

“Buore,” replied Sálle, “what you call Hyvä—good.”

“Buore,” repeated the man. “You want to be this man’s buore ystävä—this man’s good friend?”

“Buore ustit,” said Sálle. “Good friend. Yes, you and I can be good friends for you are learning the Sámi ways.”