Curling tongues, firelight, last rites, reindeer, American commercials, gákti, milky clouds, shamans, noaidi blood, birch branches & the ancient nothing.
M ummo’s last breath sounded just the same as the breath she took every year when those first snows came in September. Delicate as tiny white feathers, they trailed between birch branches, landing silently on dark mosses and low blueberry bushes. Only then Mummo sighed: one long release from the back of her throat through barely parted lips—as though she were about to speak, but the words never came. It was a sound of relief. Relief that the snows came as they should, as they always have during Ruska.
Relief that all is still right in the cycles of our world. Her breath echoed same as it trailed: a thin line of fog in the cooling air. Looking up at the sky was an infinity of white.
Deep in the winter night, in the old days, the log houses would be lined with skis glinting in the moonlight. Darkness could be disorienting, and the muteness of the snowy landscape deafening. But through the thick windows firelight glowed, shining off the cheeks of those inside. Two figures, arms locked, rocking rhythmically—one-two, one-two—called deep, loud chants, each voice invoking every other word, back and forth, back and forth. The two voices, creaking as their feet did, rocking on the wide wood planks, beat like a twisting drum or the chest of a wood grouse.
And all the fiery eyes watched the hypnotic storytellers, transfixed, as they called out the Kalevala, in the old way, with the old words. It was a sound made by curling tongues and groaning throats—as though the story that came from the stones upon being revived crawled from the belly up into the throats of the shamans. The old rocks rumbled, vibrating, shaking in their necks and jaws, before liquifying and pouring out of their mouths in pools that swallowed the room, drenched the fires and the logs and streamed out the thick windows until all the world had succumbed once more to its original state. The great watery void. The ancient nothing, within which the body of the goddess, Eadni Eana, the motherland, floated before birthing all things.
Looking down from the tiny window in her kitchen, Mummo is disturbed when three red cars pass in a row.
“A bad omen,” she grumbles in Sámi, and squints at the sky, either for hope or for confirmation. I look up with her at the milky clouds and then at the bleak parking lot across the street. She absorbed such superstitions from her Mummo before her, back when it was three red foxes seen on the distant hem of the forest.
It was a sound made by curling tongues and groaning throats—as though the story that came from the stones upon being revived crawled from the belly up into the throats of the shamans.
The last red car doesn’t completely pass, but pulls to the curb. A young couple slides out of the back seat, both of them transfixed by their phones, nudging the door shut without looking. The red car pulls away and the couple walks into the fast-food chain on the corner. I glance at Mummo, who’s now looking over to the TV, visible through the kitchen doorway, blaring American commercials. Only old people watch commercials, I think.
Mummo laughs and nudges me, jutting her chin in the direction of the cartoon cat singing about its litter box. She loves the jingle and sings along to foreign words that might as well be gibberish to her. I think of the song she used to sing to me when I would run to her crying after falling out of bed at night. A song about a mischievous kitten named Heikii, who couldn’t help but get tangled in the wool basket.
In late spring, there comes a heavy sound: a thud of wet, dense snow falling from branches in a singular mass onto the melting layer of ice on the ground. The juniper are the last trees to let go. Their broad, evergreen branches arch dramatically as warm light softens into the brittle blue air. Bowing tireless under the old weight of winter, they carry their burden until one by one spring melts their binds and, with a dull thump of release, the juniper spring suddenly upright. Their bright-green branches reach again for the sky, stretching farther and taller than one year ago.
It is warm enough to keep the windows open and let the clean smell of mud come bracing into the stale rooms. I watch the curtains lift, dancing where the warm inside air collides with the fresh spring evening. I notice the same colors and almost the same pattern of the curtains on my skirts, and I smooth them reflexively. Blue, green and gray wool stripes, decorated with vivid red embroidered shapes that form a narrative of sorts. This string of shapes is for the family line. This one is a nod to all that sustains us: the land, the ice, the fish, the reindeer. The boldest pattern is my favorite: the symbol of sun, beaivi, and moon, mánnu, in their endless cycle, lovers forever reaching for each other, but never able to touch.
The two voices, creaking as their feet did, rocking on the wide wood planks, beat like a twisting drum or the chest of a wood grouse.
The gákti smell old and their rough wool is itchy, poking through the polyester slip I wear in an unsuccessful attempt to block its coarse touch. Making things worse, I am already starting to sweat. Layers of wool skirts and tightly laced, fur-lined leather boots keep every inch of my lower half covered. My top is a linen shirt and a felted black wool vest, though to be more traditional I should be wearing a lukkha leather vest, fur coat and hat. The old-style dress is hard to come by these days. Most of what is made is meant for selling to tourists who come up from the cities wanting to eat sheep butter and smoked reindeer inside a real lávvut tepee after trying their hands at reindeer herding or fortune telling. The expensive stuff is still hand stitched by some of the old nisu, but tourists tend to buy cheaper options, made in China but still looking the part enough to impress their cosmopolitan friends.
The skirts I am wearing were Mummo’s when she was young, and their thickness and elaborate embroidery signify the family’s importance in the village, our noaidi lineage. My mother thinks it’s strange I would want to get them out now, after all this time, and wear them to the funeral.
She absorbed such superstitions from her Mummo before her, back when it was three red foxes seen on the distant hem of the forest.
“The only one who’d really care you were wearing it is Mummo,” my mother says, “and it’s too late. She can’t see anything anymore.” Still savoring the loss, she lets her melodramatic observation hang in the air, adding it to the bitter drink she thinks of as her undeserved lot in life.
I don’t bother explaining my final tribute. Mummo lived through witnessing the village of her childhood shrivel in the shadows of shopping centers, and the roots of her culture dry up as highways and pipelines sucked the fertile mud to chalky dust. And as she looked into her future she saw her children turn away, forget, assimilate. Even now, for Mummo’s last rites, her daughter refuses to bury her in the old way: to speak the true language of her blood, invoke the ancestors embedded in the rocks and pour the juniper sap, hissing into the hot coals.
Yet the snow never turned away. The snow came to comfort Mummo, year after year. The snow that accepts all things without emotion or sentimentality, blanketing the land in a calming, quiet white. The garish scars, the deep rifts, would disappear into a more familiar landscape. And the wind would churn close along the surface of shimmering light, its low whistle calling to Mummo, in harmony with her sigh of relief.
Sitting alone, the light bleeding in from under the door suddenly becomes blinding. The kind of light that washes out your memory, bleaching away the details so that as much as you clamp your eyes down hard, all you see is the pulsing outline of nothing.
In the old days it was darkness that bled in, and the darkness was alive, brimming over. Outside, the sky was fully revealed: deeper than the cloudy oceans. The edges of infinity sizzled and shone. The coldest nights are the clearest, when the light from the silver moon shatters against the glistening ice. Early in Dálvvi, when the cold sun haunted night’s horizon before dropping like a stone into the abyss of winter, the shamans carved bones into the earth. Mixing their black, noaidi blood with the ashes of the smoking fires, they traced the sacred patterns of the reindeer and the hunter, blessed by the white-tailed goaskin who soars on the shoulders of dawn. Her proud, iridescent tail gleams through endless, falling muohta. The shamans rattle their trumbu and mimic her screeching eagle call, which echoes into the future, when the day will once again be longer than the night.
I fumble now. I can’t make the incantations materialize on my tongue, not even the taste of them. I used to roll them around behind my teeth, repeating them after Mummo as she planted her garden just as soon as the ground ice thawed enough to plunge a trowel into. I knew the sound of them before I knew their meaning.
The tiny juniper sapling droops in its bucket: here is where I will plant you in her name. Mummo always loved the tall trees. She would point straight up and smile like a little girl. Way up north, where she was born, trees never reached that kind of height. So I will plant the lowly juniper muorra for her. Its thickly sprawling branches will splay out laterally, twisting outward but never scaling into the sky like the pine trees of the city parks south of Sámpi.
Mixing their black, noaidi blood with the ashes of the smoking fires, they traced the sacred patterns of the reindeer and the hunter, blessed by the white-tailed goaskin who soars on the shoulders of dawn.
I hold pebbles in my cupped hands, hovering them over the small hole I’d managed to chop into the hard mud. I wait and will the words to come, but the warming winds slink by, deaf to my plea. The only language I can ask with is not the language of the wind or the trees. There is no source to return to and drink from.
As I drop the pebbles in one by one, I sing the song of Heikii, the kitten, and think of Mummo’s arms encircling me when I cried. The little tree barely sits upright, and I find myself wishing I could encircle it tightly with my arms. But I know it would feel fragile and frail in the way I never want to remember my grandmother. Instead I stand with the bucket, empty except for the trowel, brushing away any last bits of clinging earth before heading back to the house.
Only two decades ago they sang to the slow rhythm of fat iron needles punching through wool as I hid under the pine benches, pressing my tiny cheek against the draft that whistled in the sagging log walls.
The gákti’s stiff brocade rustles loudly, and I suddenly wish that I had listened more intently to the old voices. Only two decades ago they sang to the slow rhythm of fat iron needles punching through wool as I hid under the pine benches, pressing my tiny cheek against the draft that whistled in the sagging log walls. I close my eyes, pressing my forehead against a silent memory that won’t recall the guttural, rhythmic calling of the Kalevala. Now, if I want to let the stories come to me, I have to read the words translated into Finnish or English in a book that a scholar had the foresight to document, where my parents and I left it by the wayside.
I am glad Mummo is gone. I don’t want her to see how the snows are coming later and later each autumn, or how the great wilderness of her people, our veahka, has been cleaved in search of oil. I don’t want her to see that I took her ceremonial gákti and had them framed to hang on the wall in my living room. The rough wool and carefully embroidered patterns are pinned down preciously, now as dead as a prize reindeer antler. The sun and moon have dulled and grown still; they no longer reach for each other.
Ava Fedorov a visual artist and writer who is interested in the exploring the intricate overlays of internal and external landscapes, especially as they slip away due to climate change. Of Finnish-Russian decent, she now calls Hawaii home.
Lead image: Kristaps Grundšteins