Cloud Walker

by Martha Hubbard

 

It takes a certain kind of crazy to love a land as harsh and unforgiving

as North Eastern Finland.

 

Tulli filled her lungs with knife-sharp air, “It’s so beautiful,” she shouted, letting her joy carry the sound over the rocks, lichen, tiny blue flowers, over baby snakes just emerging from their eggs, and any stray rabbits or foxes that hadn’t run away at her approach. “I love spring. Even if it only last two days.”

The East Finnish tundra, under a sky that hung as heavy and oppressive as granite, glowered back at her. Sullen pockets of just thawing snow dribbled like incontinent babies. In south facing rock cervices, tiny artic flora poked careful heads into air that whispered fanciful promises of sun and warmth to come.

Above her head, a spear of cobalt pierced the murk. Like her Grammy making pancakes, it swirled and pulled, incorporating the grey into itself as the sky cleared and the first sunshine for a month splashed across the bog, creating a field of glittering green and red. “I love it, love it, love it,” she sang, a Northern fairy, skittering across the rocks.

҉҉҉

Later, she would remember this day as her last moment of true happiness for a long time. A month short of her 15th birthday, her father announced a decision that would ruin her life.  The village shaman wanted her for his wife. Marrying this young was unusual but not unheard of up here. But she hadn’t been consulted. Too bad! The old man had just buried his third wife. He required a new one – quickly. With a brood of screaming brats to be cared for and the autumn mushroom gathering just over the horizon, Shaman Jokkonen was inclined to overlook the usual niceties. And, he liked young flesh.

Trying to be fair, Tulli acknowledged that the arrival of the mushrooms might be the key reason for pulling her from her father’s drunken embrace. While mushroom hunting and preparation was women’s work, not everyone had the skills to hear the voices of the magical fungi used in the smoke lodges. These shy, finicky creatures didn’t allow themselves to be seen by just anyone. From early childhood, Tulli had shown exceptional talent for finding the amanita muscaria – essential for achieving the most ecstatic trance states. It was not surprising that the Shaman wanted her under his control.

This day, she had been on the open tundra watching clouds and sun perform their summer pyrotechnics until well past supper time. As she neared their tepee, Isä was pacing in front. “Where have you been?” her father snarled.

“Where I usually am this time of year. What’s your problem?”

“Come inside. There’s something … something important I want to talk to you about.” He turned and stalked into the darkness, where he dropped his fat backside onto a bench. “Bring me a coffee, so we can talk,” he barked.

“So, what’s this about?” demanded Tulli, ignoring her father’s command and grabbing a strip of dried reindeer hanging from the pole beside the door.

“Tulervo,” he coughed, using her full name, always a bad sign. “You know it hasn’t been easy for us since your mother passed over. I have often wished I had taken another wife to help you grow into a proper woman.”

“As I have equally often told you, I’m glad you didn’t. What’s different now?”

“Lately, things… financial things and other…have become more difficult.”

“You old goat. You want to get married again.”

“No! I mean not yet. But…” Tulli’s father blushed, took a deep breath and jumped straight into the icy pond. “I had a visit from Shaman Jokkonen today. He wants you for his wife. I agreed.”

“You did what? Are you crazy? He’s old enough to be my great-grandfather. And he’s disgusting.”

Tulli was so angry she was pacing the perimeter of the tepee like a reindeer looking for an escape hole.  Everyone knows he skulks around in the sauna touching up the younger girls.”

“Do not speak disrespectfully of our senior councillor.”

“I don’t care if he’s Santa Claus himself, I won’t have that smelly old man touching me. Putting his rotting thing in … Argh! Isä, why have you done this to me?”

“Tulli, come sit down. Your pacing is making me dizzy.” He patted the bench beside him.

Tulli placed a tentative buttock on the ledge opposite her father, nearer the exit flap.

“Please understand. It’s not just for me, it’s for all of us. The community needs your skills in finding the mushrooms. We depend on them to see our correct path. It’s time you began to do your share.”

She took a deep breath and studied the roof hole in the top of their summer dwelling. Smoke drifted in lazy circles, as if reluctant to go out into the evening chill. “Father, I’ve always done my share of the mushroom ceremony, so why do I have to marry that foul-smelling, old child-molester to do it.”

“My dear child, he’s not that bad.  OK, it’s not the marriage I would have wished for you… but… Jokkonen’s wife died this spring….”

“Third wife and all three dead from child-birth and kidney failure. Is that the future you wish for me?”

“It’s not so simple. He needs someone to find and prepare the fungi and a wife. Everyone knows you are the best. The village and the shaman need your skills”

“We agree about the mushrooms, but why me? Why – wife – me?”    

Well, also… we … our family has … some problems … there have been promises made …”

“You’re selling me to that rutting, old buck to pay off your debts!”

“Tulli! It’s not like that,” her father stammered, his face, the colour of the embers in the hearth fire.

“Then tell me. Make me understand how you can sell your only daughter to a disgusting monster old enough to be her grandfather.”

“You are insolent,” he shouted. “Just like your mother was. She learned respect. You will as well under the tutelage of our shaman. As his wife, you will bring great honour to our family and our clan.”

Unable to tolerate any more of his porridge-mouthed, self-justifying bullshit, Tulli rose with as much dignity as she could muster and walked out of their tepee.

“Come back here. I’m talking to you.”

Outside in a sky transfused with darkening lilac, the midnight sun was nudging the western edge of the horizon, a ruby disk just disappearing below the crown of the earth even as it re-emerged vermillion and golden a few kilometres to the East. His sister moon, transparent, almost invisible in the white sky, tagged along behind her bigger brother. Only one star could be seen at this time of year. High above all the drama, blue Venus floated serene in her majestic dominion over the sky.

‘How many places in the world can you see the sun rise and set at the same time,’ Tulli wondered. As angry as she was, this magical occurrence never failed to astonish her.  Bowing her head to the triple gods of light, Tulli said a prayer for strength to do what she must, and to receive the wisdom to know what that might be. Then she ran like a rabbit before dogs to her grandmother’s lodge. Grammy was sitting before the fire, a cup of beer in her hand and another on the bench. She had been expecting her.

“I figured it out,” Tulli said without preamble, “Growing up means…”

“Growing old, as well…” the crone huddled by the fire interrupted.

“… relinquishing, one by one, the things you believed you couldn’t do without when you were younger.”

“Aye – and the longer you live the more of life’s pleasures you’ll learn to do without.”

҉҉҉

The following Saturday night, Jokkonen slithered over to sit beside her in the sauna.

“Good evening my little one. How nice it is to see you here.”

“I’m not your dear. Your arrival has just ruined my evening.”

“Don’t be that way, pigeon. When a couple are to be married they must speak sweetly to each other.”

“I don’t wish to marry you. You will never hear a sweet word from me.”

The dim fog of steam and sweat inside the sauna had developed a thousand ears. Everyone in the village of Snowhill knew that Tulli resented being sold off to the old man. Many agreed with her that he was a disgrace and that the village needed a new shaman. All were curious to know how this would play out.

“But I need your special talents, little bird, so we shall wed and you will make me the happiest of men.”

“What you mean is: the only thing that can raise the flaccid stump between your legs is the thought of young flesh beneath your stinking body. And take your bony hand off my thigh,” Tulli hissed, loud enough for people sitting nearby to stop pretending they weren’t paying attention.

“Your father is right,” he said, rising from the bench, his penis dangling limp and flabby. “You need to learn respect for your elders. You will meet your responsibilities to your clan. We will marry in the summer.”

With that he stormed out of the sauna lodge. ‘Me and my truth-telling tongue,’ she thought.

҉҉҉

After that disgusting night Tulli removed her possessions to her grandmother’s home. There wasn’t much; things were not really important to her: only her tempered steel flick-knife, the four-winds hat that had been her mother’s, a book of scientific plant names a Swedish botanist had given her for guiding him, and a reindeer-skin pouch that hung on a cord around her neck when she gathered mushrooms. All else, her father, to whom she was not speaking, could keep. Her clothes? He can sell them to pay his damn debts. 

At the end of July a very embarrassed Jussi Salo came to see her. “Ah Tullervo, are you busy… can you spare a moment?” he said poking his head around the flap in the opening that kept the mosquitos out.

“Yes, Jussi, what do you need?” He had been a friend of her mother’s and was a decent man. But he was also a colleague of Shaman Jokkonen.

“Well, you know, I think … hope … that your wedding is scheduled for two weeks hence – at the full of the moon.”

“Yes, I know,” she sighed. She was not going to pretend to be pleased. Unfortunately, the pull of duty dies hard. “What do you need?”

“Usually, for the wedding celebrations, the bride’s family provides some of the refreshments …”

“Yes…?” She knew what he meant. There was no way she going to make it easy for him.

“We… the men and I …  in the wedding party that is … were hoping that you, as the best mushroom gatherer in the village, could give us some mukhomor* for the after-party…” his voice trailed away and he hung his head, unable to meet her eyes.

“You know how miserable I am about this. Yet you want me to provide the mushroom mash for your party – to supply the instrument for my own defilement?”

“Tulli, we don’t like this anymore than you do, but it’s tradition.”

“Tradition! Sometimes I think we should pick tradition up by the neck and feed it to the bears.”

“You may be right, but not now – not yet.” He stopped talking. They sat together sipping Grammy’s wild roots’ beer while Tulli digested his request.

“Do you want dried or chewed mash? How are you planning to use it?”

“Dried would do. We’ll get our wives to do the chewing. Then we can collect their pee and mix it with spirits. Won’t need that much to make a good party.”

“I’ll bet… If I agree to this, will you do me a favour?”

“Sure Tulli, if I can.”

“Make sure the old goat gets plenty – more than his share.”

Understanding lit up Jussi’s face. He smiled, “That won’t work forever, you know.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’ll get through this one night at a time.”

*Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly amanita, is a basidiomycete mushroom, one of many in the genus Amanita. … The mushroom was used as an intoxicant and entheogen by the peoples of far Northern Europe, and has a religious significance in these cultures.

҉҉҉

The day before the wedding, Tulli gave Jussi a generous present from her own stock of dried, hallucinogenic mushrooms. Everyone, especially the wives, had been delighted with the chance to sample this rare drug. They masticated it thoroughly, very thoroughly, washing it down with home-brewed beer, giggling and laughing, collecting their urine in reindeer horn jugs to mix with vodka for their men.

“Once they’ve finished with that,” Tulli smiled to herself, watching them dance and whirl. “The old goat may find his wedding night doesn’t end quite as he planned.”

After the hand fasting ceremony, the village wives led her to the shaman’s lodge. There, they took away her maiden clothes, dressing her in the traditional bridal shift of soft reindeer skin. They had prepared the marriage couch with sweet smelling dried grasses on top of fragrant pine branches and watched as she crept under the coverlet woven with fertility symbols. Wishing her luck of her wedding night, they left.

Hours later, nearly dawn, Jokkonen stumbled into his lodge. As Jussi had promised, he was very drunk and sweating profusely from the effects of the mukhomor. “Wake up, my little dove, your stallion awaits,” he trilled, flopping onto the mound in the centre of the bed where he expected Tulli to be.

“Stupid old fart,” she whispered from her perch in the far corner as he slammed into the human shaped rock pile, she had fashioned there, his engorged penis banging into the stones.

“Bastard daughter of Otso,” he screeched. “You’ve broken my wand.” Collapsing into a ball on the floor, he clutched his member, moaning, tears running down his cheeks.

Tulli laughed. She laughed until her sides hurt from the effort. “Our Finnish granite too hard for you to mount, old man?”

“What have you done? You are a disgrace to our tribe.” He rocked from side to side, rubbing his groin.

“And you are an old fool who needs to keep his hands off the young women of our tribe.”

“I am your husband now. You must obey me,” he whimpered, tears still tracking his cheeks.

“No chance, old man. If you even think about trying to come near me, I’ll tell the whole village how you spent your wedding morning crying like a baby.”

As she bent to exit the lodge, Jokkonen jeered at her back, “You’ll pay for this, I promise. When the time of the smoke lodge comes, I will have you – my way. You will know then what it is to be possessed by a true man.” 

Outside, the eastern sky looked like it had been in a fight – several. Angry red gashes intercut with purple bruises scoured the horizon. ‘The Gods are angry,’ she thought, slipping quietly into her grandmother’s lodge. ‘At whom,’ I wonder. 

҉҉҉

In the weeks after the wedding, Tulli hid at her grandmother’s, escaping into the forest when her father or Jokkonen came sniffing after her. She refused to speak to either of them and Grammy had thrown her own son out of her home when he came to drag Tulli back to his.

One bright morning at the end of August, Tulli woke and sat up in her nest of branches and skins. Sniffing the air like lakkapoika, she caught the sharp scent of winter stealing in from the East.  That smell told her, as it did every bear child, it was time to go into the forest to pick berries and mushrooms for winter drying and salting. Grabbing her collecting tools, she swished out her mouth with a swallow of coffee that was always in a pot by the fire and scuttled out of the lodge. In her hurry to get away from the village, she forgot her usual caution. As she hastened toward the forest path, Jokkonen loomed up before her. He had smelled the change in the air too.

“Soon, my wild girl. Our time is almost upon us. Have a good look out there. The better your harvest, the better it will go for you when I come to claim what is mine.”

“Get out of my path. I will do my duty to my people. I will never submit to your foul touch.”

“We’ll see about that my little dove. I’ll make you my wife, and I’ll make your friend Jussi hold you down while I do it.”

She ran, wishing she could fly, stretching out the distance, carrying her away from Jokkonen’s old man stench, the sound and smell of him chasing her. At last, the susurrations of old, green pines, drove out his evil laugh. Slumping onto a fallen branch, she buried her head in her hands. “I will not cry, I will not cry…” over and over until her pounding heart slowed and she could think clearly again.

Opening her eyes to plead with the trees for help, she looked across the forest floor. A magic carpet of amanitas, glowed red and gold in front of her.

Like a privileged few of her people, Tulli was adept at predicting the weather by reading the signs from the forest. A heavy burden of berries on certain trees meant a long and difficult winter. Early appearance of certain mushrooms was a worse omen. 

“Dear Akka, no. Not so many, so early … Hard winter will come soon. My people need to know so they can prepare. I must help them.” As hateful as it was, Tulli could not ignore her duty to her village. “Jumalaita, God of the Sky,  you who control the winds and clouds, help your children. Give me strength to do what must be done.”

  Falling onto her knees, she collected the mushrooms reverently – they were a sacred gift – tears dripping as she laid them one by one in the basket.

As she finished, a beam of sunlight pierced the clouds, illuminating a cluster of speckled yellow fungi. The Cloud Walker (Psilocybe violettata) – the rarest and most powerful of the hallucinogenic mushrooms. This was the first time Tulli had ever seen more than one in the same place. 

The Gods had spoken to her. “Thank you. I will do what must be done.”

When she returned from the forest, Jokkonen was waiting for her. Without a word she handed him her collecting basket. As she turned to walk away, he grabbed her arm. “Is this everything?”

“Of course. What else would there be?”

“What’s in here then?” he sneered, snatching her leather pouch. “Ah, the Cloud Walkers. I knew you would find them. I’ll take care these until the first smoke lodge. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to them before that – would we?”

҉҉҉

That night, news of Tulli’s extraordinary harvest delighted the community. Even though Jokkonen said nothing of the dangers predicted by the great numbers of amanitas, it was immediately decided  to hold the first grand smoke lodge the following Friday. There was just enough time for Tulli and the shaman to make the traditional, three day fast, purifying their bodies to receive the prophesy-inducing fungi. On the night of the smoke lodge, Tulli would chew the fungi until they were tender and the worst of the poisonous elements had been purged. Then she would pass the now safe mash to the shaman who would continue to masticate it until visions appeared.

By Friday Tulli was weak and dizzy from lack of nourishment. Even Grammy would not defy tradition to sneak food to her granddaughter. As the sky deepened towards sunset, Tulli waited in the anti-room to the lodge. Strangely, not at all nervous, she felt certain that something momentous was about to be decided. A village elder – not Jussi – Tulli noted – carried in the basket of sacred mushrooms. Jokkonen had chopped and scattered the Cloud Walkers in with the amanitas.

‘“What a deadly little cocktail you’ve prepared,’ she thought.  Expecting something like this, Tulli carefully flicked the chunks of yellow to one side, preparing a mouthful of only amanitas. When these were ready, she sent them out to the waiting elders. Twice more she sent out a portion of mukhomor containing only amanitas. Soon Jokkonen would realise she was holding back the Cloud Walkers. It was time. Taking a deep breath, she shoved a handful of the yellow fragments into her mouth and chewed furiously.

Three days without food, and preparing the amanitas, had opened her completely to the effects of the potent Cloud Walkers. Inside she heard Jokkonen screaming – his visions terrifying and bleak. Continuing to chew, Tulli ran out of the lodge into the centre of the village, where she swallowed the mash. 

Burning, freezing, sweating, tears running down her cheeks, her ears were filled with…. with pine trees… singing. They are singing to me. “Hello my friends.” The entire forest was greeting her. The din of people screaming faded, now visions began to arrive.

She looked at the sky. ‘I want to go there,’ she thought. A staircase of clouds unrolled in front of her. Up, up into the sky she walked, to Lintukoto, the  Bird House, Home of the Gods. When her head poked above the edge of the cloud island, she saw Old Ukko, sitting by his fire, smoking a pipe, waiting for her.

Below, she could still hear Jokkonen screaming. “You stupid, stupid girl, what have you done?”

“Make him stop, please,” she asked politely. The anguished noises ceased. “Thank you.”

“No problem, my child. Welcome.”

“Thank you. Why am I here?”

“I think you know.”

“Maybe.”

“Try me.” Ukko took a long drag on his pipe.

“My people need a new shaman, one who will use his powers to protect us.” 

“That’s correct my child. Your old shaman has defiled his calling by trying to hold onto his position long after his powers have declined.”

“Perhaps if he stopped lusting after young girls he’d have more energy for his true work.”

“He is trying to recover his manhood from their flesh. Many men do this.”

She shuddered, remembering the touch of his fingers on her thigh.

Ukko recognised her motion and asked, “Do you believe he can be reclaimed?”

“Probably not,” she sighed, sinking onto a log near the fire.

“Up here, we don’t believe so either. Are you willing to have him removed?”

Tulli thought hard about her answer. This was probably the most important decision she had ever been asked to make, “For the good of the community, yes.”

As she gave her assent, a bolt of lightning crashed through the clouds.  Fire encircled the silently screaming Jokkonen, transforming him into a flaming pillar. It consumed the old man completely, then crumbled softly into a pile of ash.

“Oh, Ukko!”

“No regrets, my child. Never look back.”

“OK, but who will care for them now?”

“You will of course.”

“But we’ve never had a female shaman…”

“There’s a first time for everything, Tulli. The world outside your village is changing. There are dangers, terrible dangers, war and pestilence are rising from the East.”

“Yes, I saw that. I hoped it wasn’t so.”

“To survive, your people will need a shaman with wisdom, education and a wider view of life.” He smiled, “Come and sit closer. I will tell you something about your calling. Then, there are quite a few others up here who want to meet you.”

Tulli remained for seven days and seven nights in the clouds while the Old Ones instructed her in the ways of the shamans. When she returned to earth, she found her people asleep. They had been resting while she was preparing to lead them. As she walked through their circle, touching each known and beloved cheek, they woke. With cheers and rejoicing the people of Snowhill welcomed its first shamanka.    

 

Swans blaze like snowflakes,

on a freezing lake of glacial cobalt.

 

 

*Historical note: Twentieth century Finland would face devastating famine followed by two world wars in which armies from all sides fought in and over her territory. After WWII ended, Tulli’s village of Lumivara (Snowhill) would be formally annexed to Soviet Russia, where it remains to this day.

Otso – a bear, also Bear God

Lakkapoika – cloudberry child

Shamanka – female shaman

 

 

 

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