Väinämöinen and the Singing Fish
by Marissa K. Lingen
Long ago in the Saamemaa, there lived a charmer named Joukahainen. Joukahainen’s charms were legendary throughout the district. He could charm the birds into singing a rousing dance tune. He could charm the apples into cider and the fire into a splendid picture show. His charm songs could make lovers fall in love and enemies reconcile. Throughout the district, the people praised his talents.
In the midst of all of his admirable activity, sometimes his two younger sisters, Aino and Noora, had to do his chores. They would herd the reindeer and milk the goats and charm the cow out of the mire. They would pack the household up and load the sledges when it was time to move on to a different pasture. But with all that Joukahainen could do, no one much minded that, except perhaps his sisters.
Whenever a foreigner came to the district, all of the neighbors would tell him how lucky he was to be in the home of the legendary Joukahainen, charmer for the ages. But the foreigners would squint and say, “Joukahainen? Never heard of him. Is he as good as Väinämöinen?” And Joukahainen would seethe.
Then he would do all of his best charms. The birds would sing an invocation to the spirits of the forest in such piercing beauty that any man would weep to hear it, and the fire would glow white and blue and paint pictures of splendor, and the flowers would all spontaneously bloom, even if it was in the middle of the long night and snow covered them all.
And then the foreigners would clap Joukahainen on the shoulder and say, “Keep at it, lad, and someday you’ll be as great as Väinämöinen!” Or, “When Väinämöinen’s not around, by the gods, you’ll do!” They meant to be kindly, but every time he heard the name Väinämöinen, Joukahainen’s blood boiled.
So one day Joukahainen went to his family at their dinner table and said, “I must go out to see the world. I must challenge this damnable Väinämöinen and prove once and for all that I am the greatest charmer, not just in the Saamemaa, but in all of the lands around.”
“Oh, dear,” said his mother. She exchanged looks with his father, who said nothing. It was Joukahanen’s father’s custom to say nothing.
Noora, the younger of his two sisters, clapped her hands. “How thrilling!” Then she stopped. “But Aino and I will have to cull the reindeer herd without you.”
“It is the price I must pay,” said Joukahainen.
“The price we must pay,” said practical Aino. “Well, we’re better at it than he is, anyway. But honestly, can’t you just let this Väinämöinen alone? I’ll bet our folk tell his folk that someday he might be as good as you. It’s all just local pride. Everything is the best at home.”
“Everything is the best out in the world!” said Joukahainen. “I must go to do great deeds.”
“Chief among them beating Väinämöinen in a silly sorcerer’s duel just when the herd needs culling.”
“Typical,” said Aino.
“You should stay at home, son,” said his mother. “Little Ronja has grown up this year, and she would love to see you come calling. Your father has been poorly with his leg and all. We can use all the hands we can get.”
Joukahainen’s father grunted noncommittally, but they all knew that his leg had never been the same since he had tangled with the elk in the winter pastures.
“I must claim my rightful title, world’s greatest charmer,” said Joukahainen stubbornly. “Ronja can wait. And you’ll manage.”
“Oh, let the idiot go,” said Aino. “He’ll be nothing but whines and trouble until we do. He never does his share of the work anyway.”
So Joukahainen set off with the two best horses and his fine wicker chariot. He looked back often at his sisters and his mother waving him cheerfully goodbye and his father staring stolidly at the horizon. He rode south and east, and soon he was in the district of Karelia, where all of the men were ruddy–cheeked, all the women were broad–shouldered, and all the poets were dangerous.
“Is Väinämöinen about?” he asked in the first town he came to.
” Väinämöinen about!” laughed the mayor. “Wouldn’t that be the day. No, lad, we’re not hiding Väinämöinen in this little backwater. Try a little further south.”
So Joukahainen rode on through Karelia until he came to a bigger town. He went to the inn. “Is Väinämöinen here?”
“Not much chance of that!” said the innkeeper. “He sometimes comes for our song festivals near midsummer, but this time of year, no. Try a little further south.”
So Joukahainen kept riding south until he got to the outskirts of the biggest town he’d ever seen. It just went on and on, with people swarming everywhere.
A middle–aged man with grizzled hair and broad shoulders pulled his chariot companionably near Joukahainen’s. “Where are you going, friend?”
“I’m looking for Väinämöinen,” said Joukahainen.
“Are you really?” said the stranger. “What will you do once you’ve found him?”
“I will challenge him to a duel!” cried Joukahainen. “I will prove once and for all who the greatest charm singer is!”
“And who is it?” asked the stranger.
The stranger laughed loudly –– too loudly for Joukahainen’s taste. “A young Lapp buck, out to test his horns? I am Väinämöinen, and I will gladly give you the duel you seek.”
Väinämöinen wheeled around so that his chariot was facing Joukahainen’s. At that moment, Joukahainen realized how broad his opponent’s shoulders were, how deep his chest. Despite the grey on his head, Väinämöinen had hands like hammers and thighs like anvils, huge and hard as rocks.
Joukahainen took a deep breath. “The first part of a contest between charmers is always the knowledge contest.”
Väinämöinen regarded him with a twisted smile. “I don’t know whether you’re a coward or a traditionalist, but –– well, I suppose it doesn’t matter. Start with your knowledge, boy.”
“I know the placement of a smoke hole for auspicious spirits,” said Joukahainen. “Further, I know in which seasons to catch a whitefish and in which a salmon. I know the names of the trees on Goblin’s Crag, and I have spoken with their spirits. I know the depths of the three great rapids, the Hällä Pool, the Karelian Loon Rapids, and the Vuoksi Rapids of Imatra, greatest of them all.”
In the past, this had been enough to silence or at least frighten all of the charmers Joukahainen faced, but Väinämöinen waited impassively, and after a moment, he said, “And?”
“And I know the age of water, the mountain–source of water and the source of fire in the heavens, the sources of copper and iron. I know the oldest wet island and the first tree, a willow.”
“Do you?” said Väinämöinen. His voice grew deeper. “Do you indeed? For I know, too, the first tree, a willow; I was there when it sprouted its first leaves. I, too, know the source of water in the mountains, for I was there when it filled the hollows of the sea. I watched the first lily pond form and the hills overturn, and I was plowing the sea and hoeing its depths when your mother’s grandmothers were not yet thought of, for you, youth, are a charmer, but I am Väinämöinen!”
Joukahainen’s hair was blown back by the great man’s roar, and he trembled at what was before him. Nonetheless he knew that Väinämöinen could provide demonstrations of all the knowledge he claimed, and more. Joukahainen would have to do better. He drew his blade, moving to the next part of the traditional contest.
“I may not have lived as long as Väinämöinen, but my arm swings twice as strongly!” he shouted.
“Twice as strongly?” laughed Väinämöinen. “That I should like to see.”
The two jumped from their chariots and ran at each other. Joukahainen swung fiercely, but he found Väinämöinen’s sword already there, blocking him with ease. Joukahainen cut and chopped; he sweat and parried; but every time he thought he had a decisive move, Väinämöinen had anticipated him.
In desperation, Joukahainen sang out a charm to turn Väinämöinen’s sword to wood. It splintered in the great man’s hand, and he roared. “So we’re finally having a contest of charms, are we? Is that what you want, boy?”
Joukahainen opened his mouth to sing a charm that would fell his opponent like a tree, but he found that no sound came out. He was unable to swing his sword arm to attack the older man, and then he noticed a great, deep drone filling the air around him, shaking the trees and the rocks.
Väinämöinen was singing up an earthquake.
He sang a long string of charms too complicated for Joukahainen, and only the land on which he stood remained still. The rest of the earth bucked and twisted, and Joukahainen flailed about for solid ground. He found it as it closed about him, trapping him up to the chest in muddy fen land.
He craned his head to see behind him as Väinämöinen’s singing ended. The reins to his chariot had become sprouting willow switches. The chariot itself was a mass of fallen trees, waterlogged, and the horse became a rock protruding from among them. Joukahainen watched helplessly as his crossbow arched up into the sky to become a rainbow and his arrows darted and wheeled around it as hawks. His cap floated from his head, spreading and growing softer until it was a gently ominous cloudbank.
Joukahainen struggled but could not manage to free himself from the muddy fen. “You are the greater charmer, I admit it!” he shouted.
Väinämöinen looked at him contemptuously. “Of course I am. If you were in my position, you would kill me without a moment’s thought, and write a song about it, too. Why should I treat you any differently?”
“I’ll give you my horse! A lovely creature with a blaze on her chestnut forehead.”
“I have horses,” said Väinämöinen. “What else do you have?”
“A swift sword and a far–reaching crossbow.” Even as he said it, he knew that it was not enough. “My chariot goes well with the horse and the weapons. It’s light and fast and delicately wrought –– if you removed the charm, you could see for yourself.”
“I have weapons enough to beat you, chariots enough to meet you,” said Väinämöinen. “What else?”
“Two boats, one to carry a huge cargo and the other to win every race on the water.”
Väinämöinen’s mouth quirked in a smile. “I have heard tales of your winnings before. I have no reason to believe these boat tales any more. What else?”
“Money, then, silver and gold. Enough to fill a high–peaked hat. My people would give it gladly. Or, if they had to, grazing rights where their herds go.”
“I rather doubt that they would be ready to give up their entire livelihood for you,” said Väinämöinen. “And in any case, I have my own farm here in the south. I have no desire to follow the reindeer with your people. You have nothing to offer me.”
He turned and took deliberate strides away from Joukahainen. Joukahainen felt himself sinking into the mud a tiny fraction at a time.
“Wait! Please! Spare my life!” shouted Joukahainen. He cast about for a charm, but he had not been paying attention when they had learned the charms for getting reindeer out of the bogs, so he couldn’t modify one of those. He struggled further and sank up to his chin. He wished Aino was there so that she could help him.
Aino. The inspiration struck. “If you let me free, you may have my sister’s hand in marriage!” he shouted at Väinämöinen.
Väinämöinen turned, and Joukahainen stopped sinking for a moment. “What is your sister like?”
“She is young and sweet, an unplucked raspberry, sweet as a golden cloudberry,” babbled Joukahainen. “Little Noora, apple of everyone’s eye. Good natured, romantic.”
“Bah,” said Väinämöinen, and Joukahainen started sinking again.
“I have another sister!”
Joukahainen stopped sinking. “What’s the other one like?”
“Learned and bad–tempered,” said Joukahainen. “Always pointing out what I’ve done wrong. And strong. She keeps the herds almost all by herself, as our parents have grown old.”
“Sturdy and dependable?” said Väinämöinen.
“The sturdiest,” Joukahainen assured him.
“Not given to vapors?”
“She wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Broad–shouldered and strong–handed?”
“She can fell a bull reindeer with one hand, if the mood strikes her.”
“Well, then.” Väinämöinen muttered a few words, and Joukahainen found himself sitting in his chariot, clean and dry, with no traces of the bog upon him. The sky above was cloudless, and his cap was on his head. “Take me to this paragon of a sister.”
As they drove along in the fine wicker chariot, Joukahainen mustered the courage to say, “Are you sure you don’t want Noora instead? She’s sweeter, more good–natured.”
“Yes, her heart stirs and she weeps at songs and poems.”
“The last thing I need is a stirring heart,” said Väinämöinen.
“But she is also a beautiful young woman,” said Joukahainen, “though I say so as I should not. You might find her…stirring in other ways.”
Väinämöinen looked at him contemptuously. Joukahainen suddenly remembered what it had been like to be chin–deep in the bog, and he subsided.
He found the family in their late–summer pastures, readying meat and souring milk for the winter. His sisters were out with the herd, so when he ushered Väinämöinen into the goattieh where they lived, only his parents sat by the fire. “I have ventured forth into the world,” said Joukahainen, “and look what I have found: a husband for our Aino, the greatest charmer of all to take her to wife.”
“Not Väinämöinen?” said Joukahainen’s mother, and then she clapped her hand over her mouth, for she knew how sensitive Joukahainen could be about Väinämöinen.
“I am indeed Väinämöinen, and I am honored to share your happy home,” said the great charmer. “Perhaps I could oblige you with a small trick or two? I have some small skill, as you may have heard.”
“Aino?” said Joukahainen’s father, looking suspiciously at Joukahainen.
“I’ll fetch her immediately,” said Joukahainen, even though he knew that was not what his father had meant. He stepped out of the goattieh and waited outside, listening.
“Oh, well,” his mother said, “I always did wonder if they had the same flowers in the south as we do here. We never went there, with the herd and all, and I just…wondered.”
Joukahainen thought his mother might be simpering, but he put that ridiculous notion out of his head immediately.
“The flowers of the south will be yours, honored lady,” said Väinämöinen. And he sang in the same booming bass voice that had so defeated Joukahainen, until the very walls of the goattieh bloomed white and purple.
Joukahainen smiled at the sound of his mother’s gasp and hurried out to find his sisters and bring them in.
“Oh,” said Aino. “You’ve returned. I suppose we’ll never stop hearing about how you’re the best charmer in the land.”
Joukahainen flinched. “Never mind about that. I’ve brought back Väinämöinen himself, and you’ll never guess what he wants?”
Noora’s eyes were wide. “What?”
“Our grazing rights, I suppose,” said Aino. “Which is what you sold him to spare your life. Am I right?”
“Of course not,” said Joukahainen haughtily. “He wants to be your husband.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Aino. She was so surprised that she had no hostility at all towards her brother, only sweet reason. “I’ve never met him. He’s never met me. And besides, Noora would make a much better wife.”
“It’s you he wants,” said Joukahainen. “It’s already been decided.”
Aino laughed. “No, it hasn’t. Until I decide it, it hasn’t been decided.”
Noora looked from her brother to her sister. ” Väinämöinen the great charmer wants to marry our Aino?”
Joukahainen caught her up in a grateful hug. “I know, isn’t it wonderful? I don’t mind telling you, I feel quite clever for having arranged it.”
Aino shook her head and strode back towards the reindeer herd. Noora bit her lip and looked up at Joukahainen.
“She’ll come in,” said Joukahainen. “She’ll have to. For dinner.”
But while Aino did return for dinner, she spoke to their illustrious guest with only the barest minimum of civility, and she retired to a far corner with her blankets early, ignoring the entire company and pretending to be asleep. When Joukahainen tried to speak to her too insistently, she sang a shimmering green tent of silence around her. Väinämöinen smiled admiringly.
“He will be staying in a goattieh all his own, of course,” said Joukahainen’s mother. “We couldn’t have him sleeping here with his bride–to–be.”
And Väinämöinen shuffled obediently off to his borrowed goattieh without another question. But the minute he was gone, Aino banished her tent of silence.
“What is wrong with you?” demanded their mother.
“Nothing at all,” said Aino. “But no one will marry me off against my will, and that’s the end of it.”
“I’m truly sorry, Aino!” wailed Joukahainen. “I didn’t know you would set yourself against it so. I had to save my life, and I thought you would be happy.”
“That’s half true, at least,” said Aino.
“Don’t be a fool,” said her mother. “If you marry the great Väinämöinen, all the finest things in the land will be yours. You will grow sleek on cream and pork in the south. You will be the mistress of his entire estate.”
Aino set her lips firmly. “I am too young to marry, and I will always be too young to marry unwillingly.”
Her mother snorted. “Do you think that the sun shines nowhere but here? You’ll still feast on summer berries in the south with Väinämöinen.”
“So it’s settled, then,” said Aino. She sung the green tent around her head again, and her mother shook her head and turned away.
In the morning, Aino arose early to get her chores done, as she always did. When she had seen to the reindeer, she went to cut whisks for the sauna. She cut one for each member of the family, considered cutting one for Väinämöinen, and discarded the notion. But as if her thought had called him up, Väinämöinen appeared in her path as she walked back towards her home goattieh.
“You look lovely this morning,” he said. “I will appreciate it if you do your hair like that again.”
“It’s kind of you to concern yourself with me, but you really needn’t bother,” she said, trying to step around him.
He side–stepped with her. “And I appreciate that you have worn such lovely jewelry for me –– the rings are nice, but the necklace is really superb. You should wear them again when we wed.”
She leveled her dirtiest look at him. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” she said, and dodged past too quickly for him to follow.
Ducking inside the goattieh, she screeched in rage.
“What is wrong with you now?” demanded her mother.
” Väinämöinen is treating me as though he can dictate my hair, my jewelry –– everything about me. He talks about our wedding!”
“I had hoped you would wake up in a more reasonable mood,” sighed her mother.
“He treated me like property!”
“He treated you like his bride,” said her mother. “Which is what you will be.”
“No, I will not.”
” Väinämöinen didn’t have to spare your brother’s life, you know!”
“No, and Joukahainen didn’t have to antagonize him in the first place, either!”
They glared at each other. Her mother looked away first. “Child, child. Let me show you something.” She dug into the bottom of a trunk, off in the darkest corner. Facing away from Aino, she shook out a garment and sighed. “Here it is. The most beautiful thing I’ve ever had.”
She turned. Aino gasped. It was the deepest, richest blue she’d ever seen, the color of early dusk woven into soft wool. Her mother smiled. “I got it from the spirits of the sun and the moon when I was your age.”
Aino reached out a tentative hand. “It’s beautiful.”
“I know. You can put it on, if you like.”
Aino stripped to her shift and then pulled the dress over her head. It fell to her ankles, hugging her body gently. “Oh, you look lovely,” her mother breathed. “Go and show Väina ––”
Aino whirled and ran away before she could hear the end of the name. Her mother called after her, and her sister and brother asked where she was going as she passed them, but she ran on and on until she reached the shores of the lake. She knew that whatever happened, she would not marry Väinämöinen; she knew that if she lived as a human girl, he would never leave her alone.
She took off the spirits’ blue dress first, folding it and setting it on a rock near the water. She folded her shift and her stockings, took of her rings, her bracelets, and unbraided her hair.
Aino took off her necklace last, coiling the chain neatly on top of the pile of clothing. She threw her head back and sang, a rippling, watery charm that started to work immediately. As she sang the last note, she gathered herself and jumped off the rock. The wind felt as though it was flattening her arms to her sides, and the air suddenly felt dry, drier than the depths of winter. With relief, she plunged into the cool water, and barely felt it around her.
She hovered under the surface, flicking her tail in relief. The charm had worked; she had become a fish. She was an odd fish, with a golden head where her blond hair had been and markings like fingers on her fins. She waited in the shallows to see what had happened.
In not too long, there was a great uproar on the shores of the lake, and the vibrations of many feet approached. Aino had hoped that they would take more time trying to figure out what she had done, but she realized that Väinämöinen would have immediately cast a charm to find her. Soon, the surface of the lake was covered with boats, darting about quickly and slowly. When she poked her head up out of the waters, her mother’s wailing so disturbed her that she left the shallows and dove a little deeper into the center of the lake.
Above her head, the light of the surface faded as she dove, and soon she was alone, buoyed up and surrounded by the green lake water. She gazed around her wonderingly. Where only the smallest ashes and motes of dust floated in the air she had breathed her whole life, in this underwater world everything floated in the currents. She took in the fronds of green water plants, the flash of another fish just out of sight, a ribbon dropped by some girl on the surface, days ago or weeks, she couldn’t tell.
Aino startled at a staring bit of drowned squirrel and swam back upwards a ways. And there, floating before her, was the tastiest, most tempting morsel that ever a fish beheld. In the lightless waters, it appeared to have its own light, wriggling just a bit, delicately. Though she had never eaten as a fish, she could almost taste it on her cool tongue.
She pulled back at the last minute, and the glint of metal showed her she was right not to take it, for it was bait indeed. Aino swam around it slowly. Väinämöinen had enchanted his hook to tantalize her –– she was sure of it. The amazing, delectable worm looked slightly different from different angles, not shifting quite correctly as she swam around it.
For the next several days, Aino lived on whatever she could find near the bottom of the lake, as long as it stayed the same when she swam around it. She had lost track of the time when Väinämöinen seemed to have given up and left. But she knew that she couldn’t trust him –– the minute she turned back into a girl, he would return.
In the meantime, Aino’s family was in a sad state. In his rage, Joukahainen swore revenge on Väinämöinen. He worked day and night on a charm while Noora cared for their parents and herded the reindeer. She worked from dawn to dusk and then sat by the fire trying to finish more of the day’s work by herself.
When Joukahainen was finished, the charm picked Väinämöinen up bodily and cast him far away to the north, to doors of the stronghold of the witch Louhi. But whether he escaped and what happened there is another tale entirely. When he turned away from his curse and back to his family, he found Noora thin and drawn, coughing and shuddering under a blanket. None of his charms dealt with such practical matters as a fever. He didn’t know where to turn.
Meanwhile, Aino was finding it more complicated to be a fish than she had imagined that it would be. She had finally found the other fish in the lake, and they were massed in a school before her.
The largest haddock twitched at her disapprovingly. “You can’t stay here.”
“Why not?” said Aino.
“You’re not a real fish.”
“I am so.”
“No, you’re a human.” The haddock looked almost apologetic. “We can tell.”
“I used to be a human,” said Aino. “Now I’m a fish.”
The haddock shook its head slowly. “You’re still part human. You have to want to be a fish.”
Aino wished that she had hips so that she could put her hands on them. She wished that she had hands, too. She had no idea how fish expressed exasperation, so she twitched her tail. “If I hadn’t wanted to be a fish, I wouldn’t have changed myself into one.”
“No,” said the haddock. “You wanted not to be a girl. That’s different than wanting to be a fish.”
“I could have changed myself into a wolf or a bird or anything else in the world. But I chose to be a fish. You were just born that way.”
There was a slight bubbling from the school. It sounded approving to Aino.
“Well, you can’t just stay like that,” said the haddock. “Part fish and part human.”
The haddock sputtered, which Aino had not realized one could do underwater. “It’s against nature.”
“I could help you,” said Aino. “I know many things.”
“All of which are gone with your hands,” said an elderly trout.
Aino let a bubble escape her fishy lips in despair. It was true. Most of her skills required her human body. One could not milk or cook or build or sew without hands. Then she remembered. “I can do charms. If I was a fish, could I do charms?”
The fish all shook their heads.
“Well, then. If I did charms for you, could I stay?”
“Yes,” said the elderly trout.
“Yes,” said a tiny croppie. And gradually, the school agreed, one by one, until the haddock finally said, “Well, all right. Show us your charms, and then you can stay.”
Aino opened her mouth to sing, but only little bubbling coughs came out.
“You can’t even charm,” said the haddock. “Not enough fish and not enough girl.”
“No, wait,” said Aino. She swam upwards, and several of the other fish followed her. They lurked below the surface, but she let her cold lips just barely break through the water. And she heard her brother’s voice.
“…don’t know what we’re going to do,” he was saying. “Please just come back and marry Väinämöinen. Please? Or have your own charm battle with him, or something. Or just ignore him. I sent him away. I did what I could.”
Aino rolled her eyes, though it felt different with them on the sides of her head. She knew, if he did not, that Väinämöinen was too great a charmer to be crossed lightly. And she could feel in her lips the spells Väinämöinen had set, just waiting for her to come out of the lake and resume her girl–life again.
“I don’t know how to manage,” Joukahainen said, and Aino agreed silently. “And Noora does her best, but she’s so young, and she can’t stop coughing. I –– I didn’t know you’d be so unhappy about marrying Väinämöinen.”
Aino sighed. Even as he pled with her to return, his voice sounded petulant and cross. Joukahainen still couldn’t see what he’d done wrong.
But that didn’t mean she’d let Noora suffer for it. She gathered breath and started to sing a charm for her sister. She knew that she must still have some humanity left, if she was able to draw air in to sing, but her voice sounded different through the surface of the lake, rounder and slicker, and also much higher. She sang a series of popping ripples that her human voice would never have done. Joukahainen said something, but she paid no attention to it, focused entirely on her magic.
Her spell strengthened Noora’s lungs and back, gave her reserves to draw on in her times of need. Aino gave Noora’s soft hands calluses and force; she gave her shoulders a bit more breadth and a lot more endurance.
When she was finished with her sister, her charm song shifted, and she sung a limited sort of benediction over the waters. When she dove below again, the fish sounded as though they wished they could applaud, but she was tired and swam away from them awhile, and wept salty tears into the fresh water for what was lost.
Then she joined the school again, and on moonlit nights, the people of the Saamemaa would gather silently at the banks of the lake to hear the singing fish.
But in all the rest of their living days, neither Joukahainen nor Väinämöinen ever caught a fish again. Whether they used nets or hooks or gleaming spears, the fish always managed to slip through their grasp.
Marissa K. Lingen has published over 50 short stories with magazines such as Analog, Baen’s Universe, Ideomancer, and Fortean Bureau.She lives in the Minneapolis area with two large men and one small dog. She is working on a fantasy novel whose main character is something like a female Richelieu.
Editorial © 2008 Marissa K. Lingen. All other content copyright © 2008 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish