Once upon a time, many years ago, on the farthest edge of the Northern Sea, there sat a rocky island named Stenhulme. In the language of the people, Stenhulme means ‘stone houses’, and truly, this is a very good description for the island, for all along the coast sat squat little buildings built of cold granite, covered with moss and insulated from the merciless wind by neatly-trimmed piles of peat.
The people of Stenhulme were a strong, resourceful folk. They were talented fishers and boat builders, and they tended small herds of ornery goats that ate the seaweed on the cobble beaches. The women tended modest gardens behind their houses, growing succulent turnips and hearty carrots, but the people of Stenhulme did not have large farms or pastures. The island was too rocky for wheat. The hills were too mountainous for grapes.
In one of the small western villages lived a young woman named Saalki. She was strong and beautiful. Her hair shone like polished amber, and folks whispered that she was born of a long line of shaman-singers. Saalki was renowned for her generosity and her enchanting voice. When she sang, salmon leaped into the boats and the turnip gardens flourished. She sang in the morning to rouse the sun from his bed and sang in the evening to welcome to gentle face of the moon.
Saalki lived with her elderly mother, Aiti, and the two of them kept a neat house and a well-keeled boat. They were happy and wanted for nothing. Their door opened to all that called to visit, and no guest was left hungry or cold.
Late one stormy night, when even the dogs were deep in slumber, a knock on the door woke Saalki from a dreamless sleep. She gathered her robes and hurried to her kitchen window, and threw wide the shutters to look into the snow-covered yard. There, on the doorstep, sat a tiny, shivering old man, bundled in a ragged blanket against the bitter chill. He had lost all of his hair and most of his teeth, and when he raised his eyes to her, she saw that one was milky with blindness.
“Good evening,” he bid, though with the snow and wind, this was a mere formality and not the truth. His few remaining teeth chattered as he spoke. “Your house looks warm, my dear, and I am half-frozen and half-famished. May I come in?”
“Of course,” Saalki said, and hurried to welcome him inside. She unlocked the door, unbolted the latch, and helped him sit in a chair by the fireside.
His bones creaked, his joints cracked. “Let me fetch you tea, and soup, and a slice of my mother’s bread,” she offered as she stoked the peat until the coals glowed. Without waiting for his reply, Saalki gathered food and drink for the wretched figure, along with a thick wool blanket to replace the threadbare scrap around his bony shoulders.
Like a winter-starved wolf, he fell upon the food. He seized the bread between his gums. He gulped his hot tea. He slurped down his soup. When the bowl was empty, he smiled toothlessly. “My dear, may I ask for more? My belly is so empty.”
Saalki was loath to let a guest go hungry. She refilled the bowl and set it down before the old man without a word of protest.
Once more he gobbled up every drop of soup and crumb of bread. And again, he said, “My girl, may I ask for more? My belly is so empty.”
Four more times this happened, and each time, Saalki filled the bowl and plate without question, although she silently marveled at his remarkable appetite. Before long, the cupboard was bare of bread, the soup pot empty, and the teapot cold.
The old man licked his lips and rubbed his knobby fingers together, and for the seventh time, asked, “My girl, may I ask for more? My belly is so empty.”
But this time, though it pained her to refuse him, Saalki held out her empty hands. “Wise elder,” she said, “I have given you all the food in my home. I would not refuse you any hospitality, but I have no more to share.”
When he smiled his toothless smile, the old man’s face crinkled into a thousand wrinkles. “Saalki Aitidotir, you have been generous indeed! Far and wide have stories of your generosity traveled. I see that they are not false.”
When he spoke her name, Saalki grew afraid, for she was a clever girl and knew that she had not offered it. “Wise elder,” she began, “What old man travels so far in the depths of winter, only to test the rumor of a woman’s hospitality?”
As easily as casting off the blanket, the man cast the years from his face. There before Saalki sat a tall man in the vigor of youth, with blue-black hair and eyes so dark that they gleamed like polished jet. No longer was his smile toothless and wrinkled; now, it was handsome and mischievous.
She shrank against the kitchen wall. Saalki knew that the old man she had welcomed into her house was a god, but she did not know which one, and she dared not offend him. Some gods, she knew, can be fickle and cruel. And so she said, “I have given you food and drink and hospitality – in return, I ask you to give me your name.”
But there is power in knowing a name, especially amongst the shaman-singers, and he laughed at her request. “Do not fear me, Saalki,” he said, “I heard songs sung of your grace and charm, and I see that they are not the lies of drunken bards, but true in all respects!” Then he stood and took her in his arms, and looked upon her face with such adoration that Saalki trembled. “With every tale I heard, I fell more in love with you,” he claimed, and kissed her fiercely. His touch was like a flame against her skin, and his lips tasted of fresh mint and spring sunshine.
Against her better judgment, Saalki fell into his embrace and under his spell. She kissed him in return, and she heard him say as if in a dream, “I am yours, Saalki, for I love you with all my heart, and have come far to ask you to be my wife.”
In the morning, Saalki woke to a cold kitchen. The fire in the hearth had died. The door lay open, and fine powdery snow spilled across the stone floor. She rose on shaking legs to grab the broom, and swept the snow outside before shutting the door. Then she gathered the flint and iron, struck sparks to light the peat, and breathed life into the delicate flames. As she was hunched over the fireplace, Aiti came into the kitchen.
“By all the fish in the sea!” the old woman exclaimed, throwing her arms in the air, “You’ve let the fire go out!”
Saalki tried to rub the warmth back into her fingers. “Yes, mother,” she said, layering a small slab of peat on the flickering fire.
“And there’s snow on the floor – did you leave the door open?”
“Yes, mother,” she said. She was consumed with thoughts of the night before, of the handsome stranger in the kitchen. Saalki wasn’t sure which thought frightened her more: that she had been visited by a god, or that he had been only a dream.
She heard Aiti open the cupboard doors. “And our food!” the old woman cried, “Goodness, our food!”
Saalki turned to explain to her mother why the shelves were empty.
And saw, to her astonishment, the cupboard was full with food of all shapes and varieties. The shelves bowed under the weight of bread, cheese, sausages, glass jars of pickled herring, and strange fruits that grow under the southern sun. Aiti retreated at the wonder of it all, then turned to Saalki and said, “Girl, what magic is this? We go to bed with only a loaf of bread and a pot of soup in our kitchen, and when I wake, I discover a chieftain’s haul!”
Saalki dropped her head into her hands and confessed all that had happened under the midnight moon.
Aiti curled her arm around her daughter’s shoulders to comfort her. “This is ill fortune! A god may foolishly love a mortal, but the mortal pays the price!”
“I lay with him,” Saaki wept, “And there may be a child.”
“Or course there will!” Aiti replied, “And the child that you carry – do you wish it?”
“Yes!” Saalki replied, affronted, “I’ll not allow the baby to suffer for her father’s folly.” Saalki drew her hands to her mouth. “But, Aiti, once he realizes his mistake, he’ll return to steal away the baby, and wipe the memory of her from my mind, and…and… and…” She grasped her mother’s hands. “What do I do?”
“I’ll never let that happen!” determined Aiti. “Tell me truly, daughter: do you love him?”
“I don’t even know his name!” she spat, “How can I possibly love him?”
“Then you must hide before he returns,” Aiti decided.
“Where can I hide that a god will not find me?” Saalki scoffed, “He knows my face. He’ll follow me to the end of the earth!”
Aiti took her daughter’s hands, and said, “Then we take your face away.”
The old woman went to her chamber and opened a cedar chest that sat at the foot of her bed. From within she gathered supplies: a tallow candle, a silver knife, a blanket woven from the hair of a thousand women, and a little polished cup carved from Stenhulme’s living stone. “Do not be afraid, my daughter,” she said, taking Saalki by the hand. “Your body will give this baby a warm and loving home for nine months, and if your god comes to the door, I’ll tell him you’ve gone traveling, and send him on a wild chase far away!”
Saalki was more afraid of the god’s return than of her mother’s magic. She followed Aiti into the back yard and watched as Aiti lit the candle and spread out the blanket over the crisp snow.
She bid Saalki to stand upon the blanket. With a deep breath, Aiti began to sing.
Like a cat under a gentle hand, the house and garden arched their backs to the notes of Aiti song. When it was finished, she held out her palms, and said to her daughter, “Done.”
Saalki opened her mouth to speak; out came a deep growl. She looked at hands and saw thick pale fur, stubby paws, and wicked claws.
“My love, do not fear,” said Aiti, cradling Saalki’s head in her palms. “The gods care nothing for brute animals, and your lover will not find you if you are hidden as a bear. Sleep through winter, my beautiful daughter, and return to me in spring. As a bear, you will keep both yourself and the baby safe.”
Saalki snuffled her nose over her mother’s face, licked her cheek in gratitude, and tried to give her a loving hug. Aiti laughed at the clumsy embrace, and bid Saalki farewell.
The white bear retreated into the woods and traveled for three days to the base of the mountains. There, amongst the rocky crags, Saalki found herself a warm cave. She lined the den with hair and leaves, and curled against the soft earth, and made the small space cozy with the heat of her breath. Saalki slept dreamlessly in her bear’s body, kept warm by her thick fur.
For nine long months she slumbered, and in the spring, the alder flowers burst from the buds and the first southern breezes warmed the mountain sides. Saalki awoke to a fluttering feeling, deep in her belly, that she knew to be her coming child. She stretched and yawned, then began to walk through the forests to her village by the sea.
But when she arrived, a horrible scene awaited her. Saalki stepped from the forest to discover that the village, her beloved village, was abandoned. Every house had crumbled into ruins, every garden was choked with weeds. The boats along the shore were covered with barnacles, their hulls rotten and useless. Saalki the bear roamed through mossy streets that, only a few short months ago, had been noisy with children playing, dogs barking and goats bleating.
She cried out to see the ruins of what had once been her home.
The roof was gone. Grass grew through the tiles of the kitchen floor. There was no hint of her mother. Saalki trembled with anguish and her eyes filled with tears.
As she frantically searched for a clue to what had happened, a raven perched upon the ruins. The little bird cocked its head to one side and affixed her with one beady eye. “Why do you weep, Mother Bear?” it squawked.
“My family is gone, my village is gone, and my human form is gone!” Saalki gasped. “I weep because I have lost the life that I knew!”
“Lost? How can they be lost?” said the raven. “If they were lost, then I wouldn’t know where they are, but I do!”
Saalki rushed towards the bird, and stood in the yard under the ruined eaves. “You know where they are? Tell me, bird!” she demanded, “For the love of the summer sun, tell me!”
The bird retreated out of the bear’s reach. “They’ve been taken, Mother Bear.”
“Taken?” Saalki asked.
The raven ruffled his feathers. “On the night of the winter solstice, a stranger came looking for his wife and child, but he could not find them, so he took the village instead.”
“The whole village? Every man, woman and child?”
The raven nodded. “If I lie, then take my tail feathers!” he proclaimed.
A great fury welled up within her. “What was his name?”
“He didn’t say,” said the raven, “But he said if I should ever see a mother crying in the ruins, I was to tell her three things.”
“Speak quickly then, raven-messenger,” she ordered.
The raven shifted his weight from foot to foot. “First, the stranger has no interest in harming a single soul that his wife might love, and promises that the village is safe in his keeping.”
“And I’m to trust his word?” she snarled, “Hah!”
The raven continued unabated. “Second, the stranger misses his beloved, and aches to meet his unborn child, and wishes nothing but happiness for them both.”
Saalki growled again, and said, “And?”
“Third,” said the raven, and now he looked a little shameful, and tried to hide his beak under his wing.
“Well, this is the awkward part—“ said the raven. He took a deep breath. “Third, he says if the village is ever to return to their happy ways, you must climb the World Tree -- the axis around which all the universe circles -- and bring him the only thing that he desires.”
Saalki stood waiting, but the bird did not continue.
“And what’s that?” she prompted.
The raven gave a shrug. “I hoped you’d know.”
Saalki sat down heavily. “How am I ever going to find the World Tree, never mind fetch what he desires?”
The raven hopped down from the stones. “Well, I can’t possibly tell you what he’s looking for, but I can tell you how to find the World Tree.” The raven puffed up his chest feathers, proud to be such a clever and helpful bird. “Long ago, there was a harp, carved out of a pike’s jaw bone, that was tossed into the ocean by Wodun, the king of the Gods. The harp sank to the bottom and was forgotten by both men and gods, but not by us birds – we have a very good memory, you know.”
“I wasn’t aware of that,” Saalki said dryly.
“Oh, it’s true! We remember!” said the raven, hopping closer. “To find the path that leads to the World Tree, all you need to do is play a few refrains on the harp.”
“Oh, that’s all?!?” she laughed. “Not exactly easy!”
The raven harrumphed. “I thought it would help,” he mumbled.
Saalki sat heavily on her massive bearish rump. The raven sat next to her.
“You are very helpful, little raven, and I thank you,” she said, “But how am I to fetch a harp from the bottom of the sea?” She began to weep great round pearly tears.
But the raven hopped onto her paw. “Saalki Aitidotir, shaman-singer, I’ve heard you coax salmon into the boats with your voice. Perhaps, with a song, the fish will help you?”
She sniffled and wiped her nose on one paw. “I could try, I suppose.”
With the raven’s encouragement, she walked to the shore and lifted her head to the sky. She parted her lips, and began to sing.
It was a growling sort of melody, but it was still a song. At the first few notes, the salmon jumped in the bay. They raced through the waves, leapt high in the sky, and flocked to the shores. Their silver spines flashed at they surged towards the village.
But, at the very last minute, Saalki paused in her refrain. Instead of singing them into the boats, she said, “Brothers and sisters, will you help me?”
The water frothed with fins and tails. “Why?” cried the chorus of salmon, “You sing us into your nets and eat us for your supper!”
Saalki laid her paw over her heart. “Never again will I eat your flesh if you do me this favor!” she promised, “Dive to the very depths of the ocean, and find there a harp made of a pike’s jaw bone. Bring it back to me, and I swear on all that is, and all that was, and all that is yet to be: I’ll never sing you into the boats again.”
Who could refuse such an offer? Thousands of salmon dove deep into the sea, down into the dark abyss, seeking the harp carved of bone. All day, the raven and the bear waited by the shore, and as the sun faded and sank into the west, Saalki spotted a silvery salmon break the surface of the water. Clasped in its mouth was a filthy, barnacle-encrusted object, green with slime and crawling with crabs. Full of gratitude, Saalki took it in one paw and wiped her rough fur across its surface. Under the green and grey, she saw a gleam of polished bone, inlaid with silver and gold. She set to cleaning the harp on her pale fur.
The harp was the most beautiful object Saalki had ever seen. Across its surface, a skilled craftsman had carved leaping stags, soaring eagles, and sleek sturgeon, swimming forever through frozen waves. Though they had lain at the bottom of the ocean for generations, the strings were perfectly tuned, and when Saalki ran her claw backwards across the surface, a pure series of notes rang out across the waters. The stars paused in their twinkling and listened with rapt delight at the call of the ancient lyre.
“This is full of magic,” she whispered to the raven, “The oldest kind of magic, wielded by those who made the gods.”
“Aye,” it replied, “The Old Wanderer made this harp to sing the gods to battle at the End of All Time.”
Saalki almost dropped it. “And if I play it?”
“It will show you the path to the World Tree,” said the raven.
Saalki plucked her claws over the indestructible strings. From the harp poured music as molten as honey: slow, mournful, longing.
At first, nothing happened, but then, barely visible in the fading dusk, the grass at her paws parted. The path unfurled itself over the landscape, curling away from the shore like the twisting smoke rising from a candle. It headed north until it reached the horizon, and she could no longer see its progress.
Saalki found a length of yarn in the ruins of her house, and strung the harp around her neck.
“Thank you, Raven, for all your help.”
He perched upon her back. “Don’t bid me farewell yet, Bear Mother. If it please you, I offer you companionship on the long journey ahead.”
Saalki smiled. “Nothing would please me more.”
They set out together, the bear and the raven, across the barren land. The shifting veils of spirit lights illuminated the sky while jagged stones gnawed at Saalki’s paws and the bitter wind bit at her eyes. Thick spring frost covered the ground, and when she exhaled, the crisp air turned the moisture of her breath into tiny beads of ice that dropped to the hard earth and tinkled like silver bells. Saalki was hungry and weary. She felt the babe in her belly move to the rhythm of her gait, and she knew that the time of birth was near; every step took her closer to the birth of her child.
At last, on the far horizon, she saw a pillar reaching up into the sky. Saalki sat down to rest and the raven flew to the crook of her arm.
“By my tail feathers,” said the raven, giving a low whistle. “The World Tree.” He fluttered his wings. “Its branches hold up the ceiling of the Hall of the Gods, and its roots reach down to the center of the earth. It is the axis of the world’s rotation, around which all living things – animal, human, and divine – must circle.”
Saalki gave a little groan. “This is what I’m meant to climb?”
“I’m afraid so.”
She rose to her feet, shook her shoulders, and bared her teeth. “Well, if I must, then I shall,” she replied. “I am a bear, and bears are very good at climbing.”
As they drew closer, the tree became impossibly large. At the base of it, the trunk proved to be so large that Saalki could hardly see the curve to her left or her right. She dug her claws into the trunk. With a hearty grunt, she began to pull herself up, one limb at a time.
“I want to help you, but what can I do?” asked the raven as he flew from branch to branch.
“Encourage me,” she replied, “And catch me if I fall.”
He laughed as he lifted into the air.
Paw over paw, she crawled up the rough bark, scratched by twigs and blinded by leaves. The harp bumped against her back. The sun set in the west, and rose in the east, and still she ascended, until the surface of the earth below was shrouded in clouds. The baby in her belly kept very still – holding on tightly, she chuckled to herself.
For a while, the raven vanished, but suddenly he landed upon a branch to her left. “You are almost to the top,” he said, “Only a little more, Mother Bear.”
The canopy of leaves opened like a flower, and Saalki dragged herself onto the top branches of the World Tree to lie on her side, panting. There, stretching out before her was a vast foyer, its ceiling supported by the Tree’s pinnacle and its floor adorned with plush rugs, tables and couches, the walls carved from the cerulean marble of the sky. The bear stumbled to her paws, and found herself standing in the Hall of the Gods.
At the farthest end of the hall, three women walked towards her.
Two were young maidens from the village, carrying folded blankets and platters of food, but with a gasp, Saalki saw that the middle woman was her mother, dressed in a long crimson robe and carrying a wooden bowl of water.
Saalki galloped towards her, the harp clanging around her throat, but Aiti held up her palm as she placed the bowl on a table. Saalki skidded to a stop on the polished floor, her eyes stinging with happy tears and her heart pounding in her chest.
The old woman laid her hands on the bear’s neck. She removed the harp and set it aside, and when Aiti began to sing, Saalki thought her heart would burst with joy.
Her happiness was instantly replaced with pain. As Saalki’s human shape returned, she cried and wailed in agony. Every bone warped and curved, every limb burned. Sweat streamed from her skin. Each breath became a feral scream. The pain consumed her and time lost all meaning, but when the pain ebbed, Saalki found herself on the ground, a woman once more, wrapped in her bear skin. In her arms, she held her infant daughter.
Aiti embraced her daughter and her granddaughter together, and kissed them both on the tops of their heads again and again. “Oh, my daughter,” she exclaimed between kisses, “You have come so far to find us!”
Saalki replied, crying, “When the raven told me you had been taken, I could not let you be held captive!”
“Captive!” Aiti exclaimed, “Oh, my girl, look around!” She laughed lightly, her face ruddy. “We are not captives, but guests in the Hall of the Gods!”
“But it said—“ Saalki began, and turned to look over her shoulder to the raven, now sitting on the arm of a couch.
He hopped down to the floor and, rustling his wings, threw off his bird’s body. There stood the handsome young man, the father of her child.
Anger flared in Saalki’s heart. “You!”
He laughed and said, “Would you have befriended me, if I was wearing my own face?”
She pointed to the harp. “I hope you’re pleased, for I’ve brought you what you desire,” she spat.
“That? You think that is what I desire?” At this he laughed. “Saalki Aitidotir, you have brought me all that I desire, but it certainly isn’t a filthy old harp!”
Saalki felt a blush creep across her own cheek and was humbled by his kind smile.
“I couldn’t find you, and your mother would not tell me where you’d gone, no matter how much I pleaded,” he said. “For months, she tested me, to insure my intentions where good. I have sworn a promise on all things – the earth, the sky, the roots of the World Tree – that I truly love you and want nothing but happiness for you.”
“Then why bring my mother here?” Saalki asked.
But it was Aiti who answered. “Because, my dear daughter, I knew you would stay away from the village if you caught whiff of him skulking about our house. You’ve always been a stubborn child,” the old woman laughed. “Besides, who am I to refuse a visit to the Hall of the Gods? For three months, we have enjoyed lavish meals, warm hearths, and music more beautiful than any made by human hands! Such hospitality!”
Saalki held her baby a little tighter as she stood, shakily, and faced him. “And you won’t take her from me? You won’t wipe her from my memory?”
He stood at Saalki’s side and ran his fingers over their daughter’s plump cheek. “I don’t regret our night together, or anything that could have sprung from such a happy union,” he replied. “My only regret was that I did not tell you my name when you asked. A name has power, shaman-singer, but if I love you, then I ought to trust you, too.”
And he leaned forward, and whispered his name in her ear.
Her eyes widened to know his identity. Quietly, so that only he could hear her, Saalki said, “Now that I know who you are, I know without question -- we can not be together.”
He replied in a whisper, “You’re right, for you are wise beyond your years, Saalki. I am foolish to hope we could live together in this place.” He looked at her sadly. “The gods care nothing for the friendship that springs between bears and ravens, but wearing our true faces--”
“The gods will certainly punish us if we persist,” she agreed sadly. Saalki’s heart sank. “What becomes of us, then?”
He kissed her forehead. “You must keep the baby, and think of me often, and know that I love you more than anything else on the face of the earth.” He ran his hand over her cheek. “And you must give the harp to the child as a gift from me, for she will keep it safe.”
He kissed her then with such passion that she knew his heart to be full of love for her, and when she opened her eyes, all was changed around her. Saalki found herself sitting on the doorstep of her home, restored as it had been before, with the spring sun warming her face and the beautiful baby in her arms. The harp rested on the step to her left, and the folded bear skin to her right. To look at the contented faces of the villagers in the street, Saalki realized that they remembered none of it: the Hall of the Gods, the ruins of their homes, the bear and the raven. Their memories had been wiped clean to keep them safe from meddlesome gods.
But when Saalki asked her mother if she remembered the Hall of the Gods, Aiti only held her finger to her lips and gave her daughter an impish wink. The three of them: Aiti, Saalki and the baby, lived happily and contentedly in their little stone house, on the shores of Stenhulme, for many years.