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a fish, a fowl, a witch

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Mistress of Pohjola Louhi
took the washing to the stream,
to a washing-stone well-used and heavy.

Underskirts she gathered firstly,
linen white and growing whiter,
then the wool for over-clothes;
shirts and stockings too she washed,
careful of the weavings.

She did no singing,
saving breath for work and washing,
but she listened.
From the water came a singing,
deep below the stone's wet edge.

"Come here then," she sang to it,
"fish self-cast from ship, from shore,
little chicken, maiden girl,
courted, lost, and kin-sold darling,
darling of your mother's heart."

The fish with shining scales came,
to the mistress of Pohjola's hands,
there she unsang all its singing,
sang it feet and legs and arms and hands,
sang upon its feet blue stockings,
silver girdle, shoes of gold.
Unsang all the song of mourning,
dreaming to keep braided hair;
sang it back again to girlhood,
but for flickers in the eyes:
fish no more, but yet still lingered
salt of seas and silt of rivers.

"Now," began Louhi matron,
taking up again her washing,
"tell me how you came so far,
far to northern Pohjola.
Stone of power by the sea,
south and cuckoo-covered still,
mother mourning day and night,
you here, fish in shape no more."

"I heard of all the suitors' trials,"
spoke the maiden truly then, "to
win the hands of each your daughters,
precious children of your house;
and the seas sing still your power,
matched in rune to Väinämöinen.
This, I thought, could unsing fins,
keep me free without a husband."

"So designed to use my kindness,
learn by threat or force my cantrips,
coming student to my home?"
asked the mistress of Pohjola then,
knowing well the truth, but yet:
she knew well Vipunen's pains
at the will of Väinämöinen,
seeking to learn spells aplenty.

To this the bare-head spat an insult,
raised up worms from under dirt.
"Taken from my mother's house
by my brother's arrogance,
all for testing stolen spells:
I would have mine freely given,
nothing held back, all by kindness.
Woman's life has force enough,
gift in kindness my own choice."

To this Louhi smiled then,
showing all her teeth yet whole.
"No small thing to give up feet,
feet and legs and arms and hands,
to evade a suitor so,"
said the singer of Pohjola.
"Show me then a spell you know,
one that you would not undo:
one that you would not regret."

Aino looked then all around her,
at the shore-stones, at the sand;
looked at bushes not too distant,
looked to sky devoid of birds.
Looked then down at Louhi's washing,
half-done still and sodden wet.

"This is nothing of great power,"
said the maiden humble-voiced,
"skill learned at my mother's knee,
mild, useful, nothing more."

"Let me judge that,"
said the mistress, casting down a
look, a gesture, stepping back.

Aino then sang to the linen,
naming flax-plant, spinner, weaver,
seamstress; to the wool,
well-shorn sheep all pastured fully.
Named the shearer,
broad of shoulder, strong of arm,
and the dyer,
clever with the woad and madder.

Named the dirt within the fabric,
made of sand and soil and soot.
Named the water, once her home,
bade it seek the dirt within,
leaving only cloth behind.

Aino brought the water bursting,
all along the washing-stone,
left behind it clean cloth dripping, color bright.

"You know well these items' making,
sing with wisdom and good strength.
Come into my home and study,"
offered Louhi kindly,
picking wet cloth up to carry.

 

Louhi's homestead rich with daughters
welcomed Aino openly.
All were singers of some skill,
many born of other mothers,
coming there to learn.
Second daughter, Louhi's blood,
was canny with her name:
Louhi's name was loom enough
to weave a witching,
for a daughter of such blood;
nameless still and stolen
she'd been sung to shape of bird.

Spiting an unwanted bridegroom
all she said, but
Aino swimming sea-kept heard
rumors of a mill,
deeply sunk beneath the waters,
patterns growing dim in darkness.
She'd heard tell of Sampo since,
lost to southern-dwellers' wrath.
Second-daughter's coming home
part of that, she thought, but
none had begged her speak of fish-life,
so she put no questions to the tongue.

 

Louhi's second-born asked her,
"Mother said you'd been a fish.
Did you find it pleasant, then?
Rumour says you chose that form,
spurning marriage suit unwanted."

"True in some ways, not in others,"
Aino told her.
"Partly chosen, partly given;
as a woman I'd have drowned.
Fish-shape seemed a fitting song,
to a girl then sinking fast."

"So it must have been."
A glance away, returned.
"Sea-birds are not fit for singing;
human shape is better far."

"That was why he took it from you,"
Aino counseled. "Reject them all;
their pride is swollen,
stealing shapes and songs and gifts.
I will stay a maiden always,
keep my spells and freedom too."

"Someday there will be a bride-gift,
made of silver, wrought of gold.
Finer than you can reject."

"Sing it tangled, tarnished, ugly;
sing the suitor far and gone.
Rust his iron, cloud the sea-ways,
rut the road: he will go without return."

"What for trading? What if taken?"
countered Louhi's second-born.

"Now that Väinämöinen's vanished,
sailed off across the sea,
who in Kaleva could best us,
we who learn all Louhi's spells?"

"You speak truly, now I hear."

"Also that we go together,
all us daughters of the North:
she who's stolen knows the rest will
come and free her from such suitors."

"So we will!" cried Louhi's daughter,
smiling sweetly, ready-tongued.
"We who will not marry willing,
should together spite such bridegrooms.
You will join me in my learning,
names and parents on our tongues?"

"I would gladly," Aino said,
took in hand her witch-friend's elbow,
with her, human, learned to sing.

 

Some time later –
not a short time, nor a long time,
just a middle, time enough –
Louhi's daughter took her name.
Aino knew the name first-given,
but the daughter held it close.
Louhi's power fully learned then,
sister-witches unwed still,
teaching magic for protection,
for the joy of singing too.

If then Aino was no maiden
name-known daughter shared her bed
then the house was safe from bridegrooms
daughters of their magic free
learning all the songs they wished –
at their watch no little chickens
turned to fish or fowl or stone,
girls alone, and women too
house of witches in the North.