From The Loom Of The Dead
WHEN Urda Bjarnason tells a tale all
the men stop their talking to lis-
ten, for they know her to be wise
with the wisdom of the old people,
and that she has more learning than can be
got even from the great schools at Reykjavik.
She is especially prized by them here in this
new country where the Icelandmen are settled
-- this America, so new in letters, where the
people speak foolishly and write unthinking
books. So the men who know that it is given
to the mothers of earth to be very wise, stop
their six part singing, or their jangles about
the free-thinkers, and give attentive ear when
Urda Bjarnason lights her pipe and begins her
She is very old. Her daughters and sons
are all dead, but her granddaughter, who is
most respectable, and the cousin of a phy-
sician, says that Urda is twenty-four and a
hundred, and there are others who say that
she is older still. She watches all that the
Iceland people do in the new land; she knows
about the building of the five villages on the
North Dakota plain, and of the founding of
the churches and the schools, and the tilling
of the wheat farms. She notes with sus-
picion the actions of the women who bring
home webs of cloth from the store, instead of
spinning them as their mothers did before
them; and she shakes her head at the wives
who run to the village grocery store every
fortnight, imitating the wasteful American
women, who throw butter in the fire faster
than it can be turned from the churn.
She watches yet other things. All winter
long the white snows reach across the gently
rolling plains as far as the eye can behold.
In the morning she sees them tinted pink at
the east; at noon she notes golden lights
flashing across them; when the sky is gray --
which is not often -- she notes that they grow
as ashen as a face with the death shadow on it.
Sometimes they glitter with silver-like tips of
ocean waves. But at these things she looks
only casually. It is when the blue shadows
dance on the snow that she leaves her corner
behind the iron stove, and stands before the
window, resting her two hands on the stout
bar of her cane, and gazing out across the
waste with eyes which age has restored after
four decades of decrepitude.
The young Icelandmen say:
"Mother, it is the clouds hurrying across
the sky that make the dance of the shadows."
"There are no clouds," she replies, and
points to the jewel-like blue of the arching
"It is the drifting air," explains Fridrik
Halldersson, he who has been in the North-
ern seas. "As the wind buffets the air, it
looks blue against the white of the snow.
'Tis the air that makes the dancing shadows."
But Urda shakes her head, and points with
her dried finger, and those who stand beside
her see figures moving, and airy shapes, and
contortions of strange things, such as are seen
in a beryl stone.
"But Urda Bjarnason," says Ingeborg Chris-
tianson, the pert young wife with the blue-
eyed twins, "why is it we see these things
only when we stand beside you and you help
us to the sight?"
"Because," says the mother, with a steel-
blue flash of her old eyes, "having eyes ye
will not see!" Then the men laugh. They
like to hear Ingeborg worsted. For did she
not jilt two men from Gardar, and one from
Mountain, and another from Winnipeg?
Not even Ingeborg can deny that Mother
Urda tells true things.
"To-day," says Urda, standing by the little
window and watching the dance of the shadows,
"a child breathed thrice on a farm at the
West, and then it died."
The next week at the church gathering,
when all the sledges stopped at the house of
Urda's granddaughter, they said it was so --
that John Christianson's wife Margaret never
heard the voice of her son, but that he
breathed thrice in his nurse's arms and died.
"Three sledges run over the snow toward
Milton," says Urda; "all are laden with wheat,
and in one is a stranger. He has with him
a strange engine, but its purpose I do not
Six hours later the drivers of three empty
sledges stop at the house.
"We have been to Milton with wheat," they
say, "and Christian Johnson here, carried a
photographer from St. Paul."
Now it stands to reason that the farmers
like to amuse themselves through the silent
and white winters. And they prefer above all
things to talk or to listen, as has been the
fashion of their race for a thousand years.
Among all the story-tellers there is none like
Urda, for she is the daughter and the grand-
daughter and the great-granddaughter of story-
tellers. It is given to her to talk, as it is
given to John Thorlaksson to sing -- he who
sings so as his sledge flies over the snow at
night, that the people come out in the bitter
air from their doors to listen, and the dogs
put up their noses and howl, not liking music.
In the little cabin of Peter Christianson, the
husband of Urda's granddaughter, it some-
times happens that twenty men will gather
about the stove. They hang their bear-skin
coats on the wall, put their fur gauntlets
underneath the stove, where they will keep
warm, and then stretch their stout, felt-covered
legs to the wood fire. The room is fetid;
the coffee steams eternally on the stove; and
from her chair in the warmest corner Urda
speaks out to the listening men, who shake
their heads with joy as they hear the pure old
Icelandic flow in sweet rhythm from between
her lips. Among the many, many tales she
tells is that of the dead weaver, and she tells
it in the simplest language in all the world --
language so simple that even great scholars
could find no simpler, and the children
crawling on the floor can understand.
"Jon and Loa lived with their father and
mother far to the north of the Island of Fire,
and when the children looked from their win-
dows they saw only wild scaurs and jagged
lava rocks, and a distant, deep gleam of the
sea. They caught the shine of the sea through
an eye-shaped opening in the rocks, and all
the long night of winter it gleamed up at them,
like the eye of a dead witch. But when it
sparkled and began to laugh, the children
danced about the hut and sang, for they knew
the bright summer time was at hand. Then
their father fished, and their mother was gay.
But it is true that even in the winter and the
darkness they were happy, for they made fish-
ing nets and baskets and cloth together, --
Jon and Loa and their father and mother, --
and the children were taught to read in the
books, and were told the sagas, and given
instruction in the part singing.
"They did not know there was such a thing
as sorrow in the world, for no one had ever
mentioned it to them. But one day their
mother died. Then they had to learn how to
keep the fire on the hearth, and to smoke the
fish, and make the black coffee. And also
they had to learn how to live when there is
sorrow at the heart.
"They wept together at night for lack of
their mother's kisses, and in the morning they
were loath to rise because they could not see
her face. The dead cold eye of the sea
watching them from among the lava rocks
made them afraid, so they hung a shawl over
the window to keep it out. And the house,
try as they would, did not look clean and
cheerful as it had used to do when their
mother sang and worked about it.
"One day, when a mist rested over the eye
of the sea, like that which one beholds on
the eyes of the blind, a greater sorrow came
to them, for a stepmother crossed the thres-
hold. She looked at Jon and Loa, and made
complaint to their father that they were still
very small and not likely to be of much use.
After that they had to rise earlier than ever,
and to work as only those who have their
growth should work, till their hearts cracked
for weariness and shame. They had not
much to eat, for their stepmother said she
would trust to the gratitude of no other
woman's child, and that she believed in lay-
ing up against old age. So she put the few
coins that came to the house in a strong box,
and bought little food. Neither did she buy
the children clothes, though those which their
dear mother had made for them were so worn
that the warp stood apart from the woof, and
there were holes at the elbows and little
warmth to be found in them anywhere.
"Moreover, the quilts on their beds were
too short for their growing length, so that
at night either their purple feet or their
thin shoulders were uncovered, and they
wept for the cold, and in the morning, when
they crept into the larger room to build
the fire, they were so stiff they could not
stand straight, and there was pain at their
"The wife scolded all the time, and her
brow was like a storm sweeping down from
the Northwest. There was no peace to be
had in the house. The children might not
repeat to each other the sagas their mother
had taught them, nor try their part singing,
nor make little doll cradles of rushes. Always
they had to work, always they were scolded,
always their clothes grew thinner.
"'Stepmother,' cried Loa one day, -- she
whom her mother had called the little bird,
-- 'we are a-cold because of our rags. Our
mother would have woven blue cloth for us
and made it into garments.'
"'Your mother is where she will weave no
cloth!' said the stepmother, and she laughed
"All in the cold and still of that night, the
stepmother wakened, and she knew not why.
She sat up in her bed, and knew not why.
She knew not why, and she looked into the
room, and there, by the light of a burning
fish's tail -- 'twas such a light the folk used in
those days -- was a woman, weaving. She had
no loom, and shuttle she had none. All with
her hands she wove a wondrous cloth. Stoop-
ing and bending, rising and swaying with
motions beautiful as those the Northern
Lights make in a midwinter sky, she wove a
cloth. The warp was blue and mystical to
see, the woof was white, and shone with its
whiteness, so that of all the webs the step-
mother had ever seen, she had seen none like
"Yet the sight delighted her not, for beyond
the drifting web, and beyond the weaver she
saw the room and furniture -- aye, saw them
through the body of the weaver and the drift-
ing of the cloth. Then she knew -- as the
haunted are made to know -- that 'twas the
mother of the children come to show her she
could still weave cloth. The heart of the
stepmother was cold as ice, yet she could not
move to waken her husband at her side, for
her hands were as fixed as if they were
crossed on her dead breast. The voice in her
was silent, and her tongue stood to the roof
of her mouth.
"After a time the wraith of the dead
mother moved toward her -- the wraith of the
weaver moved her way -- and round and about
her body was wound the shining cloth.
Wherever it touched the body of the step-
mother, it was as hateful to her as the touch
of a monster out of sea-slime, so that her flesh
crept away from it, and her senses swooned.
"In the early morning she awoke to the
voices of the children, whispering in the
inner room as they dressed with half-frozen
fingers. Still about her was the hateful, beau-
tiful web, filling her soul with loathing and
with fear. She thought she saw the task set
for her, and when the children crept in to
light the fire -- very purple and thin were
their little bodies, and the rags hung from
them -- she arose and held out the shining
cloth, and cried:
"'Here is the web your mother wove for
you. I will make it into garments!' But
even as she spoke the cloth faded and fell
into nothingness, and the children cried:
"'Stepmother, you have the fever!'
"'Stepmother, what makes the strange light
in the room?'
"That day the stepmother was too weak to
rise from her bed, and the children thought
she must be going to die, for she did not
scold as they cleared the house and braided
their baskets, and she did not frown at them,
but looked at them with wistful eyes.
"By fall of night she was as weary as if she
had wept all the day, and so she slept. But
again she was awakened and knew not why.
And again she sat up in her bed and knew
not why. And again, not knowing why, she
looked and saw a woman weaving cloth. All
that had happened the night before happened
this night. Then, when the morning came,
and the children crept in shivering from their
beds, she arose and dressed herself, and from
her strong box she took coins, and bade her
husband go with her to the town.
"So that night a web of cloth, woven by
one of the best weavers in all Iceland, was in
the house; and on the beds of the children
were blankets of lamb's wool, soft to the touch
and fair to the eye. After that the children
slept warm and were at peace; for now, when
they told the sagas their mother had taught
them, or tried their part songs as they sat
together on their bench, the stepmother was
silent. For she feared to chide, lest she
should wake at night, not knowing why, and
see the mother's wraith."
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