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

many times.

"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

to this.

"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!'

"And then:

"'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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