(a Finnish tale)
By Lisa Landreth
Everyone knows of the myths and legends of old. Of Robin Hood and King Arthur, Hercules and Perseus, but few remember the tale of Niko and the Land of the Dead.
Niko lived in a fishing village near the sea. During his youth, he often accompanied his father on their boat in search of food for their family of six.
One day, their nets pulled two people from the waters, a man and a young girl. They didn’t have Niko’s fair skin or blond hair, which were typical in his village. Their skin was darker, the color of wood after a rain, and their hair black like the night sky. Although they looked different, neither Niko nor his father felt any fear. They invited the man and girl back home.
The other villagers received the strangers and allowed them to stay. It wasn’t long before they discovered the man’s knowledge of the sick and knew he was important. Many tides had passed since a healer lived among them.
They blessed the two with Finnish names and called the man Erkki, the village shaman. They gave the name of Johanna to his daughter.
As for Erkki, his reputation continued to grow. He often used a large orange stone worn around his neck to conduct his healing. He said it was a Sampo stone and it was so powerful that it could even help him bring back the dead.
Erkki cured the sick, mended broken limbs, but stealing the dead from King Tuoni was a task no one wanted. They feared angering King Tuoni, the ruler of Tuonela, land of the dead. It came to no one’s surprise when Erkki finally keeled over one day, his body devoid of life.
“King Tuoni is to blame,” Niko’s mother remarked with a shake of her head. “Never claim you can steal from a god for their wrath is vengeful indeed.”
The village mourned the loss of their great shaman, but none as much as his daughter. Johanna fell ill soon after her father’s passing. Niko’s family took her in, for she was unable to care for herself. Day after day, she lay on her straw pallet, each breath more painful sounding than the last.
It upset Niko to watch her suffer, for he truly loved her. Johanna had blossomed into a beautiful woman. Her full lips and wide eyes caught his attention long ago, and he did everything he could to show her his true affections.
“She will not see another sunrise,” Niko told his father as he eyed the figure by her bedside. The creature appeared only at night, slinking out from the darkness. With two wings made of shadows, it vanished only when candle or sunlight was near. At first, Niko took his dagger and attempted to stab the evil monster, but the blade slipped through its black body like smoke. He realized his attempt to kill one of King Tuoni’s death seekers was useless. He stayed at Johanna’s dying side that night, watching the dark creature as its glowing yellow eyes stared back.
However, the waiting became too much. Niko couldn’t stand the thought of a seeker lingering over his love. Johanna’s father had claimed he knew how to bring spirits back from the brink of death, all with the help of his Sampo. Perhaps he could figure out the spell if he found the stone. It was worth a try.
Erkki’s old hut sat just outside the village. He and his father had closed it off to keep the winds out. With a simple swipe of his knife through the rope, the door opened and Niko entered. He lit a candle to begin his search. Although it was customary to bring goods on the journey to Tuonela, he doubted the villagers had added the stone to the collection before setting Erkki’s pyre on fire.
Dried herbs and open jars covered the shaman’s workbench. Niko jerked back when he touched the body of a decaying bird, its gut filled with maggots. There were other oddities too—a glowing beetle, a fox skull, but not all were bad. His fingers glided across a set of colorful feathers and a red beaded bracelet. He slipped them into his pocket, planning to give them to Johanna in hopes of lifting her spirit.
Beneath several scraps of dried sheepskin sat the orange stone. He placed it around his neck, but he didn’t leave. The skins had his attention. He flipped through them, pausing on one with a detailed drawing of a skeleton. It had to be the spell he was looking for. Cupping his hand nervously around the stone, he struggled to read the runes. Nothing happened.
“’Tis foolish,” he said aloud, and pounded the skins with his fist. The image of Johanna flashed through his mind. Her dying body carried off by the dark spirit.
“No,” he exclaimed as he rubbed the stone between his fingers. An orange glow emanated from the Sampo as its outer shell became hot to the touch. Before Niko knew it, the glow changed into a blinding light folding him into layers of white brilliance.
He felt himself falling and opened his eyes. There was darkness. A soulless pitch surrounded him. The air turned cold. His hands, fingers, toes, felt like ice.
With a thud, he landed on the ground. His side hurt from hitting the hard packed soil. The stone around his neck cooled under his tunic.
Night still surrounded him, but there was a bluish light in the distance. He followed it over a neighboring hill, stopping at its peak.
There, stretched out before him, was a shining village surrounded by a lake of darkness. The bluish light emanated from the village’s slick walls and highlighted the jagged rooftops of each ghostly dwelling. In the center sat a larger home with three towers disappearing into a blanket of thick clouds. Lightning cracked and gave life to the foreboding pillars.
“Tuonela,” he said to himself. Niko grinned. There it was—the land of the dead—in all its blood-curdling glory. Somewhere within those walls was Erkki. He wouldn’t stop until he found him and saved Johanna, but first, he had to cross the lake.
A feeling of sadness pressed against him. He turned to see a spirit standing nearby dressed in a dark cloak with the hood drawn. The dead one didn’t pause but kept walking down the hillside toward the shore.
Niko’s brow creased as he watched other hooded spirits appear and then descend the hillside. Their silent bodies moved like whispers.
He reached out and grabbed one of their arms. The spirit stopped and turned revealing a cold face paler than the moon, his eyes hollow pits. Niko let go and it continued, joining other ones on the bank.
Not having a hood of his own, Niko lowered his head and followed one of the spirits toward the shore. As he got closer, he saw them climb onto a small boat with two oars. It was similar to the fishing vessels he and his father used for their daily hauls from the sea. He proceeded to step aboard, but something pulled him back.
“Ugh.” He struggled to get loose from the grip that had him. Turning around, he saw a red-cloaked ferryman with its hood drawn.
“There is no room for you,” it said in a low voice. Niko noticed the ferryman had skeleton hands. Bone-chilling cracks echoed against the still night as its long white fingers gripped the wooden staff it carried.
“I wish to cross.” Niko pulled out the colorful feathers from his pocket. “Will this be payment enough?”
One of its boney hands knocked the feathers out of Niko’s grasp. “I am only allowed to take the dead to Tuonela. You are not dead so you may not cross.”
“But can I not trade for safe passage?” Desperate, Niko showed the figure the beaded bracelet he planned to give Johanna. “Will this do? ‘Tis a gift for my love once I chase death from her bedside. But if it will buy me a place on your vessel, you may have it.”
Heading for the boat, the ferryman turned to face Niko. “You wish to cross for your beloved?”
“Aye. She is sick and near death. Her father resides in Tuonela and has the power to restore her life. If I can find him, perhaps I can save her.”
With a sigh, it lifted its head, revealing the face of a beautiful woman. Her golden ringlets and delicate features were a bitter contrast to the hands void of flesh and muscle. She was half-human, half-something else. “Who are you?” she asked.
“I am Niko, son of Jari the fisherman.”
“Well, I am Lowyatar, the daughter of King Tuoni. My charge is to guide the dead across the black waters to Tuonela, where they will sleep forever. My father forbids me to give passage to any living thing . . . but for love, a feeling that I long to experience, I will take you.”
With a nod, Niko climbed into the boat, finding a place at the back, near Lowyatar. Placing her staff inside the boat, she pushed off from the shore with a fisherman’s pole. The voyage was silent except for the rhythmic stroke of the pole gliding through the dark waters.
Curious, Niko leaned over the edge of the boat and stared at the black lake. Threads of stringy fingers stretched from the waters toward him. They inched up the side of the boat, long strands becoming thinner and thinner, struggling to reach Niko. He felt the cold hand of Lowyatar pull him back. “Do not look over the side.”
Heeding the warning, Niko didn’t move again. He was too nervous. When the wooden boat finally hit the shore, he breathed a sigh of relief.
Niko noticed the other spirits disappear into Tuonela. He tried to follow, but Lowyatar blocked him with her wooden staff. “Halt, Niko, son of Jari. Take heed. The land of the dead is not without its dangers.” Her blue eyes glittered with silver specks of light. “The dead sleep here because of my father’s magic. But whether they are good or evil, he has no control over them if they awake.”
“Do you know where I shall find Erkki, the shaman?” Niko asked.
“Spirits of the skilled are kept close to my father’s lair due to their importance in the world of the living.” She pointed to the three towers.
With a nod, he turned and followed the fading footsteps of the others. Up the sand, he stopped at the outskirts of Tuonela. The place was lifeless. A dream painted blue. With a sigh, he ventured up one of the winding paths. His birch bark shoes created soft pats against the stone blocks that formed the walkways. High walls of blue light lined each side until reaching, what Niko guessed, Tuonela’s center.
Abandoned fruit and bread carts lined each circular corner. Rotting, half-eaten foods spilled onto the ground while collapsed forms of the dead lay a few steps away. They slept with the help of King Tuoni’s magic. He put the spirits to rest.
The faces of the dead slumbered quietly as Niko stepped around their outstretched bodies. Some of their faces still looked human. Others had the flesh falling off. He wondered why the dead would need to eat. Perhaps a reflex left over from the world of the living, a last attempt to remember their former lives.
Moving past the heart of Tuonela, he strolled toward the king’s large home. Each door he passed, Niko made sure to try the handle. It wasn’t until the third attempt that one of them opened with an eerie squeak.
Shadows encompassed the spirit dwelling except for a few rays filtering through two side windows. From what he could see, a blue coat of dust covered every elegant piece of the home. Fine tables lined with dishes of uneaten foods, tapestries covered in sapphire-glistening cobwebs, this was not the home of a common man.
Niko placed his hand on his stomach trying to sooth his hunger pains. He hadn’t eaten since morning. Strolling toward the first table, he reached over and took a plum from a large bowl. Leary of the fruit, he slowly wiped the dust away with his thumb and opened his mouth to take a bite, but out of the shadows appeared a corpse-like face. Two sunken eyes with purple tinges met his own. It was Erkki.
The plum fell from his hands as he jumped back with dagger in hand. Erkki’s spirit stared at Niko with curiosity before picking the fruit from the ground and placing it back in the bowl. “The food is cursed here, my friend, unless you wish to sleep like the others.” Erkki still wore the heavy robes he’d died in and mittens still covered his hands, the same ones Johanna’d knitted for him. Yet, he was still not the same. His words were lifeless. There was sorrow to his nature, one Niko hadn’t noticed before.
“Do you not recognize me?” he asked. “I am Niko from the village.”
The fog of eternity slowly lifted from Erkki’s eyes, giving his dead stare temporary life. His brow became heavy. “Niko . . . is it really you?”
“Aye.” He reached to embrace Erkki, but the man stepped back.
“You are not dead. Why are you here?”
“I have come to beg you for the secret of life. Your daughter, Johanna, is dying if she has not already. You claimed to have the power to bring the dead back.” He reached over and grabbed Erkki’s cold arm. “Teach me your magic so that I may save her from this same fate.”
“Johanna is dying?”
“When I left her, a death seeker sat by her side. It was waiting to take her spirit to Tuonela.”
Erkki shook his head and stepped toward the two windows. “No, this cannot be.” His body looked weaker than before. Frail flesh sagged on his form. A frown of sadness etched across his lips.
“Tell me how to save her,” Niko implored. “Do not doom her to this dead world.”
“Of course.” Erkki turned from the windows. Instead of tears, dust sprinkled from his eyes. He pulled one of the mittens from his hands and lifted it up to his mouth. Closing his eyes, he whispered into it.
“Johanna’s heart is grieving. Take this.” He handed Niko the mitten. “Lay it over her heart. I have placed a spell inside. Let the magic mend the sorrow she carries.”
“I will tell her of our meeting and of how much you love her,” Niko said. He took the mitten and secured it behind his belt.
Erkki’s face lit up and he nodded. “Tell her I am happy and not to worry, for life is too precious.” He took a step forward. “As for you, I wish to not see you again for a very long while. Go, marry my daughter, and become an old man.”
“But how do I return to the land of the living?” Niko’s stomach churned with the fear of being trapped in Tuonela.
“That, I cannot tell you.”
“Why? I used a spell and your Sampo to come here, is there not some chant or verse of magic to send me back?”
“It was magic that brought you to Tuonela, but the magic is within you.” Erkki grinned. “Your desire, your will, is what allowed you to come and so you must find the will to go back. The dead have lost their inner light. They can never return.”
“When will this power come for I desire to leave now?”
Instead of answering Niko’s question, the shaman smiled again and stepped back, vanishing into the shadows.
“Erkki?” There was no answer. Niko was alone in the house of cobwebs and dust.
He was more than ready to leave Tuonela and he tugged at the Sampo stone, but nothing changed. His feet stayed planted to the ground. He wondered if he returned to the spot where he arrived, the magic that brought him there would be stronger.
Niko left the house, closing the door as softly as he could. Again, he headed to Tuonela’s center. Once he got to the shore, he hoped Lowyatar would take him back across the lake so he could find the passage home. Perhaps she could even help.
As he came to the many stalls and tables filled with foods, his stomach grumbled again. Niko stopped and stared at a large stack of loaves. The center, quiet behind him. An aroma of fresh bread filled the air. His mouth watered. He inched toward the pile of brown gold pondering where the food came from. It hadn’t been there when he first arrived.
Niko stretched his arm and pulled one of the loaves down from the top. It felt real enough. But no, he couldn’t betray Johanna for a mouth filled with bread. His stomach would have to wait.
With some effort, he placed the loaf back on top of the pile. Niko watched in shock as the bread wobbled in its place and then suddenly fell, taking the whole stack with it. Their round bodies made muffled thuds against the cold ground.
He closed his eyes. “Please stay sleeping, please stay sleeping,” he whispered. Heavy groans cut his words to pieces. With his heart pounding against his chest, Niko turned around. There they were, the sleeping dead, beginning to wake. Some lifted their heads without a word. The flesh hung by threads on their bodies. Others groaned with fierceness. A chill of fear rushed through Niko’s body. He couldn’t look away.
Those that groaned and muttered were stronger than the silent ones. They popped up from the ground twice as fast. Then it happened. The attack. Some of the stronger spirits began striking the quieter ones. With a maddening sickness, they snapped and pulled at the forms of the weak. A woman with missing eyes grabbed an older spirit. She chomped at its face, pulling the flesh off in chunks. A man, groaning in agony, took hold of another around the neck. He squeezed until the weak spirit fell to the ground. Even then, the evil one didn’t stop. He kicked and clawed until only a heap of dead flesh remained. There was something worse than being dead, having no existence in the afterlife. A true horror. With no spirit or form, one became nothing.
At any moment, the evil ones might notice him. Niko knew this to be true. He had to go. If he didn’t, it would be too late. He took a step, and froze. His heart leaped into his throat as he realized only the evil spirits now remained, and they stared right at him. For those who had mouths, they show their teeth, grinning with wicked delight. Their tongues, black like dirt.
Niko ran down the path to the shore. He could hear the dead chasing after him. Their limbs flailing, their chomping mouths, all within inches. He imagined their cold grasp. They would smother him, squeezing his life force until there was none.
His hope rested on Lowyatar. Without her to take him back, he was doomed. Niko raced down to the lapping black waters of the lake, but there was no boat waiting for him. There was no Lowyatar.
He turned around. The evil spirits still pursued. Their gray feet sunk deep as they hurrying across the white sands of Tuonela’s shore. Their bloodthirsty grunts grew louder and louder. Niko didn’t know what to do. He reached under his tunic and grabbed the Sampo. “Come on!” He rubbed his fingers furiously back and forth along its smooth body, but it remained cold.
A glowing light caught his attention and Niko froze. From the top of one of King Tuoni’s three towers was a red light. It burned like a raging fire. A deep groan filled the air, rattling the shore. Niko covered his ears. Even the evil ones stopped and stared in frightened wonder. The red glow shot out from the tower and hovered over the white sand. Faint smoke lined the air. Niko blinked. A face formed out of the redness. With two menacing black eyes and a jagged mouth, it stared down at him with a burning hatred that stabbed at his soul.
With another shattering roar, the face flew from the sky down to where he stood. Niko knew it was King Tuoni. If he were to die, he would face his death like the few warriors in his village. He stood tall, staring at the god with all his courage. One hand held up in a feeble attempt to brace against the impact. But his thoughts still lingered back to Johanna, and he was sad he would not be able to save her.
Suddenly, the Sampo grew warm and a light surrounded him. The last he saw between his fingers was the face of King Tuoni barreling down from the dark heavens. His shadow mouth opened. Ready to swallow him whole.
When Niko awoke, he found himself inside Erkki’s hut. He gasped, and laughed to himself. He was still alive thank the gods. But then he remembered Johanna, and wondered if she was still among the living. He leaped up and race home. As if the world stood waiting, there she was on the straw pallet just as before.
“Son.” Niko’s father grasped his arm, but he pulled away, not stopping until he reached her side. Taking the mitten from his belt, he laid it over her chest just as Erkki instructed, but Johanna didn’t stir.
He knelt by her side and began to weep. Tears flowed from his eyes. There were tears of exhaustion from his journey to Tuonela, and tears of hatred for the evil ones and King Tuoni, but most importantly, there were tears of sorrow for having not saved his beloved.
“Why do you weep?” Johanna’s angelic voice asked. He felt the touch of her hand on his head and he looked up. There she was, smiling ever so weakly. He grabbed her hand and pressed it against his cheek. She was alive and his heart sung.
So ends our story of Niko and his travels to the Land of the Dead. His one hand, touched by the god of the dead, turned black and useless. However, that didn’t stop our young hero. He still married his true love and they received the blessings of eight little ones.
Each year, Niko told his tale to the villagers, for they never grew tired of hearing it. They stared at him in awe as he described Tuonela. He himself, with hair turned stark white from his adventures, resembled a spirit from beyond, a spirit who had traveled to an unknown land all for the sake of love.