A Song Born

I.

What do the ravenous settlers know of faith? Praying on their knees under wooden roofs, without the wind on their cheeks and the sky over their heads, away from the roar of the rivers and the whispers of the leaves? How much is their faith worth when they persecute and murder for a metal cross, in the name of someone who never joins them in song nor dance?

No. Water is not to be walked on, just as mountains are not to be swum in.

 

April 1695

Finnmark, Norway

Despite his mother’s orders, Kvive ran out onto the snow-covered lake. The warming weather of April had turned the snow on top of the ice to sludge, and the flat light from the overcast sky of clouds turned the world in front of him to a carpet of whitish-grey, where you couldn’t tell where the lake ended, and the sky began. 

Kvive had snowmelt to his shins as he ran, a spray of water in his wake.

“Eatni!” he yelled to his mother as he ran. “Look, it’s safe! Imagine the time we can sa—” His words turned to a shriek as he fell into a frozen crevice on the lake. The flat light removed all shadows, so he didn’t notice the drop before it was too late.  

He landed on his stomach. Stretched out like a starfish he gasped for breath on the thin and dark sheet of ice, and the right side of his face pounded with pain. Lines like broken glass shot in every direction from his body and the ice groaned beneath his weight, like old limbs stretching.

Web-like circles ruptured in the ice under the weight of his hands and knees as he tried to raise himself up, and with a crack his arms breached through the ice into the freezing water.

“Oh, biru!” he said.

And with another and louder crack, the entire sheet of ice burst and Kvive fell into the dark water.

He gasped for air as the cold weighed down on his chest. Every breath was a fight and he trashed and flailed as he gulped water until his thick clothes of reindeer fur and skin pulled him under.

Through the ice above, he saw dark silhouettes move when people gathered around the crevice. Some—stripped of their clothes—jumped into the water, but he had sunk too deep for anyone to reach him.  

His screams turned to fist-sized bubbles as the light of the crevice got smaller and smaller as he sank towards the bottom. Kvive held his breath, his lungs burning, even though he knew this was it. This was how he died. His body would never be recovered, and his mother would cry each year they moved their herd over the lake, and his body would still rest at the bottom, the flesh picked away from his bones by fish and other creatures.

He looked up towards the light one last time, before he prepared to take a deep breath, to let the lake fill him, and let the depths claim him.  

Then he heard a whisper, and a hum vibrated from the bottom; the faint and intimate sound of someone speaking close to his ear, and tiny bubbles floated past Kvive towards the surface.

Free your soul, the voice said.

The whisper and hum clung to his body even closer than his wet clothes.

Kvive did as the voice said, at least his best attempt at it. He closed his eyes and let his limbs fall loose; his arms and legs trailed behind him as he gave himself to the lake.

Eventually the tiny bubbles from the bottom pushed him from the deep and up towards the light. But whether it was the light the priests would preach about, or the crevice in the ice, Kvive couldn’t tell, and he didn’t care. Both were better than the bottom of the lake.

Free your soul, the voice whispered again, you’re still too heavy.

How? Kvive asked inside his mind.

Let go.

Kvive gave in to his instincts, and his lungs took the deep breath they had been craving. The dark and freezing lake filled his body, and his chest burned with pain as everything turned to black.

#

Kvive fell in and out of consciousness as his lungs emptied themselves of water. His chest burned, and he couldn’t see a thing, but he felt the warm and familiar comfort of being swaddled in thick reindeer furs.

Everything, and everyone around him, were quiet, only the trees rustled as the wind moved through the pine forest.

Then he heard his mother, “Oh, my little—” But a man interrupted her.  

Shh, or you’ll scare away the small sliver of life that remains in his body,” the man whispered.

“Can I at least remove the blindfold?” she whispered back.

“No, his soul is still on a knife-edge between this world and the other. We must warm up his body before we remove it. Get a reindeer, make an incision behind its shoulder blade and let the blood pour into a waterskin. Quickly!”

Kvive had no sense of time as he fell in and out of consciousness, and without the ability to see, he wasn’t sure where he was, or if he was dead or alive.

Eventually someone raised his head and pushed a waterskin against his lips, and a thick and warm liquid was poured into his mouth. Kvive choked on the blood, and the waterskin was taken away. This process happened several times until he must have emptied the waterskin.

Beside him his mother mumbled a prayer.

“Eatni,” Kvive said weakly, “am I alive?”

“Yes, my dumb and reckless little boy,” his mother answered. “He says you’re going to live. Thank God for that.”

“I . . . I just wanted to help . . . we’d save so much time crossing the lake.” Kvive fell asleep, but his chest didn’t burn, and he no longer felt cold.

#

The second thing a Sami learns was that the siida—a nomadic community of families—moves only as fast as its slowest member, and it is up to the stronger and healthier members to help the weaker ones keep up the pace. That said, it wasn’t unusual that the elders that were too old and fragile to keep up with the ráidu—the line of people and gelded reindeers and wooden sleds—were left behind to die alone in the snow.   

Because the first thing a Sami learns is that the reindeer herd always comes first—even though you almost drowned in a lake the day before.

Kvive had known thirteen of these migrations, six completely on foot and skis, and they didn’t get any less backbreaking as he grew, nor did the blisters on his feet and hands—or the frostnip on his cheeks—stop emerging, even as his skin got thicker. He was always wet and cold and tired.

One day had passed since his miraculous swim back to the surface, and Kvive already drudged in the deep snow on his skis. Above him, greenfinches teased him from the sky as they flew and sang. He wished he were one of them; their migration seemed so easy.

The siida rushed towards the snow-free calving grounds for their reindeer herd near the coast; they had to be there before the middle of May before the reindeer cows started giving birth.

But at least he had Sara to share the long and tiring way with.

“Don’t you sometimes wish you knew how to fly?” Kvive asked Sara.

She was a girl the same age as him, and they had lived together their entire lives.

“Fly?” Sara asked. “Where’s the fun in that? How would our parents torture us then if we could just fly away? Besides, a dumb boy like yourself would probably get himself killed against the trunk of a tree if given wings.”

“Now, hold on—” Kvive started.

“Running across a lake in the middle of April, without even a pole to test the ice with.” She shook her head.

“I just wanted to help. I am a man now, and I should be with the other men and the herd. Instead, I’m stuck here with the mossbacks and you women and those damned sleds.”

“What do you mean, you women?”

“Don’t twist my words like you always do.”

“I can tell you one thing,” she said and poked Kvive with her wooden ski pole. “No woman would ever run out on the ice like a bull in heat and almost drown herself.”

“Quit fooling around both of you,” Sara’s mother snapped, “go help your mother at the back. It’s getting dark and we still have a way to go.”

Due to Kvive’s attempt at crossing the ice, the siida had wasted a day beside the lake. The April air was getting warmer, but a thick carpet of white still covered the ground, only punctured by tall pine trees stretching to the sky. They raced the weather, and they moved from sunrise to sunset trying to outrace spring.

The past years they would have crossed the lake, but in the past years they would have arrived at the lake much earlier. The siida moved slower because the church had arrested every Sami they suspected of blasphemy. Every siida had lost people, but probably none more than Kvive’s. It didn’t make any sense of course. What other religions were there? It seemed more like another attempt to punish the Sami, for being Sami. 

“Eatni, can’t I ride in the sled, just for a little while?” Kvive asked his mother after he had helped her get one of the sleds free from the deep snow. He had after all almost drowned the day before.

“And tire the animal that’s pulling what we need to survive?” Around his mother’s neck, tucked into the gietkka—a hollowed-out cradle of wood, lined with moss and pelts—his little brother cried. “Just be glad you’re not behind with the herd, watching for wolves like your father.” She rocked the gietkka. “Or lying in your own piss like your brother.”

“I wish I was behind with the herd,” Kvive said.

“Hah, you think you do. You should thank God me and your father have not been blessed with more children, or you’d be there, and your younger sibling would be helping me here. You think this is hard work? Hah!”

“But do we have to hurry so much, the weather is getting warmer anyways . . . .”

His mother sighed. “What happens when the snow is warm, like it is now, and then the weather gets cold?”

“It gets hard.”

“Exactly, it turns to cuoŋu. The kind of snow that will cut your hand if you fall, the kind of snow that will hinder the reindeer from reaching the lichen they eat, the kind of snow that makes it easier for wolves and wolverines to stalk our herd.”

Kvive’s mother looked up at the darkening sky. “Not to mention how dark the nights are. Your father and the other men are already struggling to keep the herd safe without being able to see their own feet in front of them.”

Kvive didn’t respond; he always knew when a conversation with his mother was over.

A man snickered from behind.

“What are you laughing—” Kvive started. It was the old man that had been travelling with their siida. He had been with them since they started moving the herd from the permanent winter pasture inland, but Kvive had never talked with him; especially not after he had learned he was the one who poured fresh reindeer blood in his mouth and tied a blindfold around his eyes.

He had a dark-tanned and coarse face, from half a life inside the smoky lavvu, and the other half outside in the sun and snow, with deep furrows whipped forth by wind and hail and piss-freezing cold. A reindeer trotted beside the old man. It didn’t pull anything, and all it carried was an oval leather bag. It was the only animal he owned; an ungelded bull older than seven years, a nammaláhppu. His coat was white as snow, except for his brown beard and black hooves. They never used a nammaláhppu as a draft animal because they were impossible to tame, but the old man seemed to have complete control of the animal.

The old man laughed again.

“Lost your words, boy? It’s your voice that loses a language first, but I hope you still have it in your mind,” he said, tapping his temple.

Kvive ignored the old man and his reindeer, which seemed to be amused as well.

#

Three days later, the warning of Kvive’s mother came true. Winter had its last freezing breath of life before giving in to spring, and the soft snow turned to cuoŋu—the kind that will cut you if you fall.

It forced the siida to quicken its pace even more, and they moved long after the sun had set. And worst of all, it hindered Kvive from seeing Sara. She thought of him as just a boy, and he wanted to prove to her that he was a man, but that’s hard when you are stuck behind in the ráidu, taking care of your little brother and helping your mother.

Instead, walking behind Kvive was the old man, who must be dim-witted. Apart from his blindfold and blood nonsense, the old man had been whispering in his reindeer’s ear and laughing, frowning, or nodding, as if it answered, the entire day.

“Why are you talking with it for?” Kvive finally asked, unable to ignore the old man any longer. “They are too stupid to understand human language, you know.”

The old man smiled at Kvive, like he had been waiting for him to say something.

“First of all,” he said, “he’s not an ‘it’. His name is Gappas.” The reindeer nuzzled his hairy snout in the old man’s neck at the sound of his name.

“That’s forbidden, you know,” Kvive said, “using Sami names. And an unoriginal one as well, naming it after the colour of its coat.”

They were not allowed to take Sami names, not that there were any Sami names for humans.

“Oh,” the old man laughed. “I didn’t name him.”

Before Kvive could respond, the old man spoke again. “Do you know how the first reindeer came to this earth, Guivi?” Again, he didn’t wait for a response.

“Before Beaivi—the father of everything that lives and grows—shone on this earth, it was a world without light or living things. Just a barren rock enveloped in darkness, like a pebble inside your fist. And as he blessed us with his light, the lichen our herd are dependent on grew, the pine and birch trees that surround us reached for the skies, and the places we fish from filled up with water. But there was nothing there to graze on what he grew, nothing to take cover beneath the trees from the snow and rain, and nothing to drink from the waters and rivers. So, on his rays of sunshine, the first herd of reindeer migrated to this world.”

“But as the herd grew, all the lichen disappeared, so he sent down other animals to keep the balance. Wolves, bears, eagles, and wolverines. And when the scales tipped to the other side again, he sent us, the Sami. To control and protect the herds and thus, restoring the balance.”

If the old man wasn’t dim-witted, he at least was a lunatic. Kvive knew his religion as well as any other boy his age, and it was God, the father of Jesus, who had made everything, and made man—even the Sami—after his own image. Despite no paintings of Jesus looking like any Sami he knew. In fact, there’s no mention of any reindeer in the Bible to the best of his knowledge, but he knew all animals boarded Noah’s ark.

“Okay . . . old man,” Kvive said, “can you ask your sun-god to help us make the night less dark and the snow less cold?”  

The old man looked at Kvive with pity.

“Don’t be sad about the moonless nights, or the sharp snow, Guivi. They are all there to keep the balance. If you want to blame someone, blame the ravenous settlers. It is them who killed our gods by forcing us to forget, and it is them who forced a new god on us that doesn’t know our land or our people. And it is them who have stolen our best pastures and taxed us to beggars. Again, the scales are unbalanced, and I’m afraid there is little Beaivi, or any of our other gods can do. No, in the end, this will be our fight.”

Kvive couldn’t challenge the old man’s point about the settlers. Despite his young years, the frustration from his parents around the fire in the lavvu at night was unmistakable.

“Who are you?” Kvive asked. “Who are you really? They say you told everyone to shut up when I was unconscious, and then you talked about another world and poured blood in my mouth.”

The old man’s face fell.

“I have said too much. Run back to your mother now before she starts yelling at me as well,” he said.

Kvive started humming the song he had heard under the ice, under his breath, so only the old man could hear him.

The old man grasped his shoulders. “Are you trying to get us killed?” When the old man spoke, there was a shift in his voice; it resonated around him, like an echo bouncing off surrounding hills.

The sudden shift in manner made Kvive scamper back on his skis.

“Never do that again!” the old man said.

“But—” Kvive started.

“Never!”

#

Later that night there was a swift change in the weather. A warm wind from the south caught up with the siida, and in a day or two spring would be on its way proper, and the hard snow gone with it.  

But that’s not what woke Kvive up. A green light seeped through the smoke-hole of the lavvu, permeating the entire tent with its shine. Apart from the fading embers of the fire, it was the only light in the lavvu.

Kvive’s mother and little brother still slept, and his father would be sleeping with the herd and the other men. Kvive threw a couple of logs on the fire to keep it alive until the morning, then he cleaned the smoke of the lavvu from his eyes and sneaked outside.

The entire sky was awake. Large rivers of green and purple moved in the night sky like ribbons in the wind. You aren’t supposed to stare at the aurora—that’s how kids get lost—but Kvive couldn’t take his eyes off the spectacle.  

You could see as far as you could hear a dog bark. Every lavvu, even Sara’s at the other end, in the siida was visible; silver trails of smoke escaped towards the sky from the cone-like shelters dug into the snow.

The men watching the herd would have an easy time looking for predators and making sure parts of the herd wouldn’t get lost in the night.

Kvive had known the aurora for as long as he could remember, but never of this intensity in colour, extent in size, and animation in its movement.

Then he heard it. A rhythmic drumming, and the faint sound of a hum, like the one he heard under the ice. It came from the outskirts of the siida. From the old man’s lavvu.

Kvive walked towards the sounds.

Outside the lavvu—untethered—Gappas watched the sky, his normally black eyes now a vivid green.

“Hello?” Kvive whispered, but no one answered.

Kvive had to find out what was going on. The whisper and the hum he heard underneath the ice had never left his mind, and even though he didn’t remember how he got to the surface, the sounds he had heard felt as real to him as the ground beneath his feet.

He took a deep breath and pushed aside the flaps of canvas made from reindeer-skin and entered. On the inside it looked like any other lavvu, with its fire—now just embers—in the middle, with reindeer pelts circled around it.

The old man sat at the far end—where the father would sit if this were a family lavvu—cross-legged with a big and oval drum in his lap. The drum had red drawings of Samis fishing and hunting, reindeer grazing, and wolves, bears and wolverines. At the edges it had symbols depicting snow, rivers, mountains, and in the middle a big circle with rays around it, which had to be the sun.

The old man’s eyes were rolled back in his skull, and he gnashed his teeth as he moved his jaw back and forth. He hit his drum with a t-formed reindeer antler, and there was clanking from inside the drum. It sounded like pieces of metal.

Kvive turned to leave, hoping the old man hadn’t noticed him. This seemed like devilry, and a young and innocent soul like his was valuable to the devil.

“Stay,” the old man commanded. He stopped gnashing his teeth and his eyes rolled back to their normal brown, but he kept on drumming.

Then his hum transformed into singing. But not like any singing Kvive had ever heard; wordless sounds reverberated from the tip of his tongue, to the back of his mouth, and down to his chest.

Children of Beaivi, the old man sang.

Kvive looked up, and instead of the ceiling, the wide night sky stretched itself in every direction towards the horizon.

In the sky the aurora fluttered and danced to the sound of the old man’s voice and the beating of his drum. Kvive didn’t understand the sounds, but they grew in his chest, they danced inside his head, left a taste in his mouth, and they spoke in his ears.

Come,” a voice whispered. “Dance with us.” It wasn’t the same voice he had heard underneath the ice, but it felt the same, as if it came from both outside and within him.

“How?” Kvive asked.

Free your soul.

Kvive took a deep breath and closed his eyes, but nothing happened.

How? Kvive asked the voice.

Let go.

He took another deep breath, but he didn’t close his eyes this time. He arched backwards and his eyes rolled back like the old man’s as he gave in to his mind; which craved to leave, and like jumping in a lake, he left his body in the lavvu, and entered the sky.

From the sky the entire siida was visible, and its surrounding rivers, lakes, and mountains.

The old man wasn’t singing about the aurora—he sang the aurora itself. With his voice he made it dance and move, and he brought Kvive with him.

For the first time in weeks Kvive felt rested. He felt comfortable and safe, like sleeping in the gietkka tied to his mother’s shoulders and waist.  

The song grew in his chest, and it made him feel whole, like the song was a piece that had been missing; like filling your stomach when you are famished or drinking from a river when you are parched. Except, until now he had always had an aching hole in his chest, a drought in his throat, and a wanting in his soul.

Kvive’s body in the lavvu shook, and tears poured down his cheeks.

The old man stopped his drumming, and his song faded out. And like resurfacing from the lake, he was back to shivering in his own body, despite the warmth of the lavvu.

“What was that?” Kvive wept, his tears trailing in light streaks down his smoke-stained face.

“That was the aurora,” the old man answered. “They only show themselves in the night sky when the sun is strong. And today I asked Beaivi if he would be strong for your siida, and let his children dance for us. But I would have never imagined they’d let you dance with them . . . most peculiar.”

“Also,” the old man said and pointed a finger at Kvive, “you are incapable of doing what you’re told, aren’t you? But I suppose this was inevitable . . . .”

“What do you mean?” Kvive asked.

“You heard it once under the ice, and now your body and mind will never stop looking for it. That’s what brought only you here tonight, and no one else. Since you are bent on killing us, I suppose I have no other choice than to teach you before you do something really stupid.”  

Kvive nodded and brushed away his tears.

“What you heard was a joik. No Sami is whole without the joik in their life, just as no Sami is whole without the wind on their face, or their herd in front of them.”

“I want to learn,” Kvive said, “and how to use the drum.”

“The drum is a rune drum. But you are not ready to travel to the spirit world, nor talk with the gods. One does not call on the gods on a whim.”

Kvive’s face fell.

“But,” the old man said, holding up a finger. “I can teach you how to joik.”

Kvive nodded again, but his face wouldn’t smile even though he wanted to.

“But you must remember, Guivi,” the old man said, and his face darkened again, like it did the night before. “The joik is forbidden, and just being seen with a rune drum is punishable by death. Perhaps a few of the elders in your siida will have heard of the joik¸ but they will not speak of it. If the ravenous priests and settlers knew what happened here tonight, they’d burn the entire siida down, your parents and all.”

“Why do you call me Guivi?” Kvive asked. The old man had used that name many times now, and it had been nagging at him.

“Because Kvive is the bastardized and norwegianized version of your true name. Our true names are stolen, forbidden, and soon forgotten. And if the day comes when you reclaim your heritage and Sami soul, you will never want to go by the name given to you by your suppressors.”

“Are you sure you want this? Remember, not a word of this to anyone, about what we have talked about or what I have shown you. Not even to your mother or that girl you’re always chasing,” the old man said.  

“Yes,” Kvive answered, reaching out his hand. He could never go back to singing hymns under a wooden roof again.

“Then introductions are in order, Guivi,” the old man said, taking Kvive’s hand with both of his. “It is a pleasure to finally greet you, Guivi. I have seen how you act without thinking, I think we’ll become great friends. My name is Huika and I’m the last noaidi.”

II.

Before the ravenous settlers we had our paradise. A paradise we broke our backs for, blistered our hands for, tasted blood for.

It was the ravenous who invented sin in our life; in our joik, in our names, and now in our language. It was them who said paradise is preserved for the afterlife; an afterlife they would give us if we didn’t fight against their theft of our lands, our religion, and our song-filled souls.

We knew what blood tasted like, but it is them who showed us it was an iron cross. 

 

July 1695

Finnmark, Norway

The fickle weather of spring, with its bouts of rain, snow, and hail, had given way to summer, but life this far north was still rough, and getting caught in the harsh weather above the tree line could still mean your death. The days were never-ending, where the sun circled above your head, never setting. It was a trade the Sami did with the sun, because in the deep winter, the sun never rises for two moons.

The summer had been anything but prosperous for the herd. The weather had been unusually warm, and the insects thrived; they produced larvae in the reindeer’s nostrils, ate the fat in their eyes so they went blind, or dug into their backs which would result in their death when autumn came.

With insects like black clouds above them, the herd had fled higher up in the mountains where it was colder and windier, but where there is neither grass nor lichen for them to graze on. The frustration in the siida hung in the air like the smell of rotten meat. The settlers didn’t care how many animals they lost, they would demand the same amount of tax when winter came, nonetheless.

Kvive’s father and the other men were away for days trying to regain control of the herd. The herd, his father had explained him, is not something you can keep safe like a precious stone held in your fist. Herding a big flock is more like having a piece of ice in your palm; only with an open hand can you delay it from melting and pouring out over the sides. 

Huika had spent the summer near the coast showing Kvive how to do small rituals and sacrifices, and where to do them, and why you did them.

“See that?” Huika asked Kvive. They sat on a reindeer pelt laid on the ground, while Gappas grazed on the white lichen that surrounded them.

“Yes,” Kvive said. He watched Sara feed and talk with the gelded reindeers.

Huika sighed. “No, not Sara. Do we have to do this every day?”

Kvive would rather be watching Sara than listen to whatever Huika wanted to talk about today, probably another lecture about the god who lived beneath the fire. Kvive and Sara were like family, but then again not by blood. It wasn’t unusual that people in the same siida got together. That gave him hope.

“I’m talking about that!” Huika pointed to a couple of the elders in the siida who greeted the ground, as they exited the lavvu after waking up.

“Hello, mother ground and lands on which we live,” they said, pouring out the rest of their blood gruel, which they drank to wake up in the mornings.

Kvive nodded. This wasn’t new; it was something the elders did each year in the summer. Except they usually only did it at the beginning of summer, and not long into July. The herd was dependent on a successful summer, where the calves must eat and grow big enough in time for autumn.

“They have forgotten,” Huika said, after another cup of gruel was poured to the ground. “It is the gods they are pouring their blood out for. They are asking them to take care of the herd, to help the calves grow.”

“The gods? Like we’ve been doing?”

“Yes, but they don’t know why. The knowledge of why they do it died generations ago. But this custom survived. Besides, blood gruel won’t accomplish a task as big as helping an entire herd. That would require at least the sacrifice of a white calf at a sieidi.”

Before Kvive could ask, Huika explained. “An altar for offering. A place in nature that’s so beautiful they must have been shaped by the gods themselves. It can be anything. A forest, a boulder, even an entire mountain.”

Kvive knew about a place like that. He had taken Sara there a few times; a waterfall that always made a rainbow from its mist on sunny days.

“But we can help!” Kvive said. Even though they had arrived at summer pasture in time for the calves, he still felt bad for the incident at the lake. Besides, what was the point in learning these things if he couldn’t use it to help those he cared for?

“If only,” Huika answered, smiling sympathetically. “The things I have shown you are as far as I dare take it. Just the joik that we’re practicing is putting all our lives at risk. If the ravenous found out that this siida made an offer of anything, they’d be after our heads for paganism and blasphemy, and they wouldn’t stop chasing us until they executed the one responsible. You must know, Guivi. Me and you are to the best of my knowledge, the last who remember. And if we want to keep on remembering, we must be smart and stay alive, so that we can give away our knowledge, when the time is right.”

Kvive didn’t respond. All he wanted was to help his family and the siida. Autumn would be here soon, and then, the dark and deep winter.

#

Two days later, shouting in Norwegian roused the siida.

“Out from your tents!” a voice shouted. “Out, now!”

Kvive stirred on his reindeer pelt from the noise.

“Kvive!” His mother threw a lump of reindeer cheese at his head. “Kvive!”

“What—what is it?”

“Wash your eyes. I think a priest is here.” She threw a skin of water at him.

Kvive left the dark lavvu still rubbing smoke from his face.

The priest was the tallest man Kvive had ever seen. He wore a black cassock caked with mud, and a white collar. Dark and wavy hair reached him to the shoulders, and around his neck hung a silver cross. It wasn’t unusual that priests visited the siida’s—it was how the church kept the faith with the Sami as they moved their herds.

What was unusual was the armed soldiers behind him.

There were at least 20 of them, tall and pale men wearing black uniforms with silver buttons, with swords fastened to black leather belts. Except for one, who held an axe over his shoulder.

The priest spread his arms, the sleeves hanging like black wings, and he said, “I wish I were visiting you under better circumstances, my children. My name is Bishop Niels, but you might know me as Niels the Righteous.” He had a soft voice, and his words left his mouth with the monotony of a stream.

Everyone knew about Bishop Niels, and he was anything but righteous.

“We are here on an assignment for the church and our king. We are looking for a man, and we hope you will be able to assist us.”

Kvive’s mother spoke, “The men are away trying to gather the herd, higher up.”

“Ah, but the man we are looking for won’t be running after any herd.” The priest examined the crowd. “We are looking for a witch. A pagan. Someone who serves false gods.”

Kvive’s eyes widened, and he barely suppressed a gasp. But no one shouted or pointed fingers at Huika’s lavvu.

Kvive’s mother spoke again, “There are no men here left for you to arrest. That sounds like blasphemy, and we know the laws. Everyone in this siida are devout Christians and loyal subjects of the king. I promise you that.”

The priest smiled at her, his face looked like the grimace a child makes the first time it tastes reindeer marrow sucked from the bone.

Then he nodded at the soldiers. “Look for him and look for anything . . . blasphemous.”

Some of the soldiers worked their way through the siida, questioning the old men and turned every lavvu upside down. The rest inspected the surrounding area.

A scream from outside the siida stopped the search.

Shortly after the soldiers came back with a girl dragged behind them.

It was Sara, and she had blood all over her hands. “I’m sorry! I just checked if it was still alive! I just wanted to watch the rainbow, please!” She wailed and wept in the strong arms of the soldier.

Kvive looked down at his own shaking hands, they were still red from the night before. He had tried washing the blood off in the stream, but blood doesn’t remove easily; and there was blood on the cuffs of his shirt. He hid his hands inside his sleeves away from the scrutinizing eyes of the priest. Sara must have gone to the sieidi alone. Kvive’s mind was blank, and he had no idea what to do. What could he do?

“Sara!” Her mother ran towards the soldier dragging her daughter.

The priest ordered, “Bring the girl to me. And control that woman!”

A different soldier grabbed Sara’s mother. He clamped his arm in front of her face, muting her protests and wails.

The soldier threw Sara to the ground before the priest. The priest put his arm around her shoulder and whispered in her ear. Sara shook her head and nodded at his words, before she pointed to the place she was dragged from.

The priest said to two of his men, “That way, find a white calf with its throat slit near a waterfall. Bring it to me.”

A while later the soldiers came back with the dead calf in their hands. They laid it down before the priest.

The priest whispered one more question in Sara’s ear. She shook her head. Then he nodded at the soldier with the axe. Sara got picked up from the ground like she was a stick doll and forced down on a tree stub used for chopping wood by her neck.

Kvive had to do something. Anything. “Wait!” Kvive screamed. “It wasn’t her, she only checked if it was still alive. It was me!”

At the same time Sara’s mother broke free from the soldier holding her and ran towards her daughter, screaming, “Sara! Sara!”

The priest looked at Kvive with lazy eyes and nodded at the soldier with the axe again. The axe fell and cut Sara’s head off in one sweep.

Bewildered, and not knowing what to do, Sara’s mother kneeled in the blood of her daughter that pooled a dark red on the ground. She grabbed Sara’s shoulders and lined her body up with her severed head; she stroked her daughters back and heaved voiceless cries.

Some of the mothers started screaming and shouting, others picked up their babies from the ground or grasped the shoulders of their elder kids to turn them around. A few of the mothers and older men ran at Sara’s killer with their fists raised, but with little effort from the soldiers, the men and women were thrown, beaten, or kicked to the ground.

Kvive fell to his knees and hands. He tried to force out a why, but his voice failed him. His vision swam, and his body swayed, bile surged up in his throat and he felt like throwing up.

“Order!” the priest said. “There will be order!” Apart from the babies crying, the sobbing of the elder kids, and the people on the ground moaning in pain, it became quiet.

“You,” the priest said, pointing at Kvive who still shook on the ground on his hands and knees. “You said it wasn’t her.”

Kvive looked over at his mother. Around her neck his brother cried in the gietkka. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she shook her head. Kvive didn’t answer the priest.

“He wanted to save her!” his mother pleaded.

“We will continue taking lives,” the priest said, “until someone points us in the direction of the witch. The last siida we visited saw three of their own die. Please, be smarter than them. That white calf is all the proof I need to execute everyone here, with the support of the church and our king.”

“He doesn’t know anything, please, he’s just a boy!” Kvive’s mother said.

“Bring him to me,” the priest said.

Kvive’s mother—with his little brother still in the gietkka—moved in front of Kvive to shield him, but with the hilt of a sword she got knocked to the ground.

“Eatni!” Kvive said as his mother fell to the ground unconscious, and his little brother cried, still tied across her chest.

A soldier grabbed and dragged Kvive along the ground, just like they had done with Sara, only minutes ago.

The priest laid both of his hands on Kvive’s shoulders and stared into his eyes, as if looking for something in Kvive’s brown eyes with his unnatural bright blue ones.

Kvive’s bottom lip quivered, and tears streamed down his face. What had he done? Sara was dead because of him. And now he either gave up Huika, or he would die as well. Maybe the entire siida would be burned down, like Huika had warned.

“Have you seen that poor calf before?” The priest nodded towards the dead animal.

Kvive didn’t answer.

The priest made a show of looking at Kvive’s hands and shirt, and his eyes narrowed. “Do you know the punishment for paganism?”

“Death,” Kvive said, swallowing a cry.

“And what about the witch, do you know him?”

Kvive shook his head, fearing his words would fail him.

Again, the priest nodded at the soldier with the axe.

Kvive kicked and punched around himself in a frenzy when the soldier grabbed him and carried him to the tree stub. “I hope you burn in hell, you bastards! In hell! Eatni! Áhčči!” he yelled at the soldier, and after his parents.

An elbow to his face silenced him; Kvive gasped for breath as blood filled his mouth. The soldier tore off his shirt, exposing his neck. Then he forced Kvive down on the tree stub. Sara’s blood was warm and sticky against his throat, and the pungent smell of iron invaded his nose.

Why was no one running to his rescue? His mother was still on the ground unconscious, but everyone else just stood there, paralyzed. Some cried, others had their face turned away, and some watched with dead eyes; people Kvive had known his entire life.

“I’ll give you this last chance, boy, that’s more than I gave the girl,” the priest said. “What do you know about the—”

A lightning strike in the distance interrupted the priest, and the westward wind that had been blowing all day stopped. And for a few seconds, everyone, including the weather, got quiet.

As abruptly as it had stopped, a wind blew in from the east; it grew fast in strength, taking every pelt laid outside, and clothes that were hung to dry, with it. Following the wind, black clouds roiled in over the mountains against the siida, like smoke from a fire that has been extinguished with water. The sound from the thunder and the flashes from lightning caught up with each other fast as the storm charged at them.

The priest raised his hand at the executioner. He lowered his axe to the ground but kept his foot on Kvive’s back.

“Finally,” the priest said, “we found him.”

The wind roared in Kvive’s skull and the rain whipped his face. Echoing around him he heard a drum and the clanking of metal.

Riding with the storm Huika and Gappas descended the sloped mountainside that overlooked the siida. With wide sweeps of his arm Huika beat at his drum with his t-formed antler. Like a cacophony of different songs, there were several joiks in different tones at the same time from the sky.

Children of Ipmil and Beaivi, the voice in the storm roared.

The song clung to Kvive’s body with the wind and it roared in his head.

Unleash like a spring river, the voice continued in the sky.

The priest clutched his silver cross with both hands and said, “God will punish you!” He bent his head and mumbled a prayer, while making the cross on his chest. Raising his head again, he ordered the soldiers, “Seize him you cowards! Seize him!”

The soldiers exchanged looks, fear painted on their faces.

“Kill him! Kill the witch!” the priest ordered. “For your king and God!”

At that, every soldier ran towards Huika and Gappas, with their weapons raised, screaming like they were possessed.

Huika raised his arm and struck his drum with his antler.

Biegga! The sky roared. Gusts of wind slammed the soldiers to the ground.

Huika struck again.

Arvi! And the rain turned to fist-sized hail clobbering the soldiers huddling on the ground.

And again.

Álddagas! And a single bolt of lightning struck the executioner in the head. His head blazed like a fire, and fiery lines split in his face like cracked ice before he fell.

Gappas trotted towards the priest, not acknowledging the soldiers scattered before him and Huika.

A couple of meters away from the priest who still clutched his cross, Huika’s eyes rolled back and regained their colour, and the storm and the wind died down.

“Leave,” Huika said in Norwegian. “Leave now, and I will spare you the humiliation of reaching your afterlife because of what you call false gods. Leave now, and I will let your men live.”

That was a fake threat. Huika had talked with Kvive about balance. The gods would only help take a life responsible for the theft of another.

The priest didn’t respond. He turned on his heel and ran in the same direction they came from, his wavy hair and black clothes flailing in the remnants of the dying storm.

“I’m sorry,” Kvive sobbed. He ran to his mother and little brother and buried his face in her arms.

“I didn’t . . . I didn’t know, what . . . oh, Sara. It’s all my fault,” Kvive cried to Huika.

Huika didn’t respond, he just walked over to Kvive and stroked his back as he cried.

III.

The ravenous built prisons on our lands and called them churches. They filled them with our voiceless faces stripped of all colours of home and squelched the song in our souls. There, the rattan cane clapped over coarse hands, for not speaking their language.

We knew what it was like to hurt, but not the word for help.

 

September 1695

Finnmark, Norway

Cloudberries had coloured the ground orange, and the warm winds of summer had given way to the freezing wind of autumn. The gelded reindeers pulled the sleds on the bare ground over rocks and pouring rivers, as the siida moved inland towards the permanent winter pastures again.

Kvive had let the ráidu move ahead in advance. He sat on a boulder overlooking a river trying to joik Sara, as birds flew from tree to tree around him, and he drummed his fingers against his lap pretending it was a rune drum. Huika said that the best way to remember someone was through joik.

He waited for Huika to catch up with him. After the priest and the soldiers had run back to town, Huika had left the siida before he was chased away, but he still followed, knowing it was only a matter of time before the settlers came back for him. And the first place they would look was Kvive’s siida.

“You’re getting better, Guivi,” Huika said as he and Gappas approached Kvive. “But you are still joiking about Sara. Tell me about her, how does she talk?”

Kvive thought for a few seconds before answering. “She talked fast, as if her mind outran her mouth. She would end a sentence before it was over, just to start a new one, and she’d answer her own questions as if she found the answer as she asked them.”

“And how does she sound?” Huika asked.

“Beautiful. Carefree like the song of a bird.”

“And what does she want?”

“What, how should I—”

“Just answer, don’t think about it.”

“She always tries to help those she cares for, even if—”

“Great,” Huika interrupted. “Now, joik her.”

Kvive cleared his throat.

At first his voice was barely audible, like the pitter-patter of a bird on a branch. Then it grew; the sound of his voice leaped, it went high and low and back and forth like a bird in flight. The joik was fast, and just when you thought you could follow it, or thought you knew where it was going, it started in a new direction, with new sounds.

Huika joined Kvive with his drum.

Kvive grinned as he joiked Sara even louder in time with Huika’s drum, and in that moment, he was grateful for knowing her.  

Above, birds joined them, both in song and in flight. They flew like they were one being, in a cloud-like pattern, to the tune and in time with Kvive’s joik.

Kvive stopped when tears trailed down his cheeks. “Why are you teaching me this?” he asked. It was like a gift he had done nothing to deserve.

“Did you see her?”

“Yes.”

“Exactly, I did as well. We remembered her. Not only her face, or her ambitions, but her very soul.”

Kvive smiled at that and wiped his tears away.

“You see, Guivi, there was a time when the Sami were free as the birds above us, chasing the best pastures with our herds. Now we step with care on our own lands, like beggars trying to cross a river without getting wet for a piece of stale bread on the other side. I had given up my calling as a noaidi before you forced me to remember again, by trying to kill yourself under that ice. And then, that night under the aurora, you heard our song, and you joined me in the night sky. You have given me hope again, and I am teaching you so that someone will remember when I am gone.”

“You’re not that old,” Kvive said.

Huika smiled at that, the deep furrows of his face wrinkling around his eyes and mouth.

“I have seen the future,” Huika said after a long silence. “It will become much worse before it gets better. But it will get better. You, and those you help remember will start it. We have already lost our lands, our names, and our gods. All we have left is our language, and that we must fight to keep to the very end. What do you think the ravenous call the snow when it melts and then freezes? We call it cuoŋu, and they call it snow. Or snow that has turned to coarse pebbles? We call it seaŋáš, and they call it snow. They have never led a life where the difference might mean the loss of a livelihood. And if we lose our language, we will lose our understanding of the world that makes us Sami.”

Huika fell silent with a pained expression on his face, as if he weren’t sure if it was smart to tell Kvive what he told him next.

“I saw the future in you, Guivi, that night under the aurora. And when the time comes, you won’t be ready, but you will put your nose to the wind and do your best. And in the wake of your life, a new future for the Sami will start.”

There was another long silence, before Kvive said, “I have to leave. Mother has been watching me like a hawk since we lost Sara.”

“Just promise me you will remember what we talked about,” Huika said solemnly.

“I will.”

Kvive jumped from the boulder and ran after the tracks of the ráidu.

#

Kvive caught up with the ráidu faster than he had thought. Even though the ground was bare, this area was flat, and the sleds should have been moving faster.

In the distance there was shouting and movement.

The cause of the commotion were soldiers between the people in the siida. The same kind of soldiers that had visited them that summer, wearing black uniforms with silver buttons.

Nearly every man and woman in the siida had a blade to their throat. At the helm of the cluster, was the same priest from summer. Still as tall, and still as pale, clutching his silver cross as he talked with his soft voice. “Summon the witch, or we will cut every throat here and claim your herd as property of the church!”

The pleas of mercy, and the explanations that Huika had left them, were ignored.

“Summon the witch, or we will cut every throat here and claim your herd as property of the church!” he said like a chant, over and over again.

“Stop!” Kvive ran straight up to the priest, avoiding the hands of soldiers that grabbed at him. “The old man is gone. We haven’t seen him since summer. Leave us alone!”

“No!” Kvive’s parents protested, but with a fist to their stomach the soldiers silenced them. On the ground, in the gietkka, his little brother slept, oblivious to what was happening.

The priest smiled at Kvive, recognizing him. “Ah, but we got you. I think you will be of immense help.” The priest nodded at one of the soldiers.

A soldier put a blade against Kvive’s throat. The cold steel sent shivers down his back, but this time he didn’t cry.

“You will tell us where the witch is, or we will hurt you in ways you thought unimaginable,” the priest said.

“I don’t know, and that’s the truth. I swear it on the cross around your neck!”

“Your promises mean nothing to me, boy.” The priest pulled out a knife from his wide sleeve. “I think we will start with your fingers. One more chance boy, before you lose a thumb. Where is the witch?”

“There,” Kvive said, as surprised as the priest.

Moving at a slow trot, Huika rode Gappas through the mass of people towards the priest. He held out his arms wide while humming a song. None of the soldiers dared approach him.

“Careful, witch,” the priest said, “one wrong move and my men will start cutting throats.”

“I’m not here to fight,” Huika answered. “I’m here to let it end.”

“Oh, we can end it for you.”

“It’s only me you want. Release these people and I’ll be your prisoner. You don’t want to kill an entire siida. You might consider the Sami as beaten dogs, but hit hard enough, and often enough, and even a beaten dog might bite back. Or do you want repeats of the riots this land is bloodied with?”

Now the earlier conversation made sense. Huika knew this was the only way for this to end, and that was by turning himself in. But how could he do that? Kvive wasn’t ready, what about all he hadn’t learned yet? But knowing Huika, he probably had a plan.

Huika gave the priest a wide smile.

“Besides, I have the ears of many powerful beings, and if you break this agreement, you will know their wrath.”

The priests face twitched. “Fine,” he said. “Hand over your drum and we’ll take you with us.”

Huika dismounted Gappas and unclasped his leather bag. He handed it to the priest and turned his back to him, so they could bind his hands.

The priest whispered in Huika’s ear, “Do you repent your sins, with all of your heart and body?”

“No,” Huika said.

“Will you ask of me, on behalf of God, to forgive your sins?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“Then you leave me with no choice.”

With his knife still in his hand, the priest reached around Huika’s neck and slit it. Huika fell to his knees, blood spilling from his throat, before falling face first into the dirt. Seconds later, Gappas stopped breathing, and fell beside Huika.

“No!” Kvive screamed in Sami. “Someone, please help him!”

But none ran to Huika’s rescue, as if no one understood him.

Desperate to save Huika he roared, “Beaivi and Ipmil, take my sacrifice!”

Then he pushed his throat against the sharp blade and threw his neck along the edge of the sword.

Horrified, the soldier pulled away his sword from Kvive’s throat.

Kvive fell to his knees, with blood streaming down his chest.

#

Guivi sat on a reindeer pelt atop a boulder, overlooking the siida. The first snow of winter fell around him like the tiny white feathers of a grouse’s winter coat. He had regained most of his voice, and the wound across his throat had healed, even though it had been only a few days since he had tried to sacrifice himself for Huika.

The elders now called him imašgánda—miracle boy. First because of his miraculous survival in the lake, then his wound across his throat—a certain death—that had healed in a matter of hours. His sacrifice had done nothing, except scare away the priest and the soldiers, and hopefully they thought he was dead and wouldn’t return for him. But his sacrifice must have been refused by the gods, so they gave him his life back.

Guivi started humming, and he drummed on the rune drum the priest had left behind as he fled the siida.  

The sound of his voice resonated around him, like an echo bouncing off surrounding hills. It permeated the entire siida, and soon everyone, including his mother, father, and little brother, listened to him.

Then he joiked Huika.

It didn’t have many words, but it filled the soul of everyone there, like a piece that had been missing; it felt like filling your stomach when you are famished or drinking from a river when you are parched. Except, until now they had always had an aching hole in their chests, a drought in their throats, and a wanting in their souls.

And for the first time in centuries, his people felt whole.

mm

Author: Remi Skytterstad

Remi Skytterstad is from Norway where he studies educational science. He lives with his daughter who attends kindergarten. He has poetry and fiction published in both Norwegian and English. His story ‘A Song Born’ is based on the real struggles of the Sami population in Norway. Find him on twitter @Skytterstad.

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