A Morning in Ångermanland

The Bread


Next morning, when the eagle had flown some distance into Ångermanland, he remarked that today he was the one who was hungry, and must find something to eat! He set the boy down in an enormous pine on a high mountain ridge, and away he flew.

The boy found a comfortable seat in a cleft branch from which he could look down over Ångermanland. It was a glorious morning! The sunshine gilded the treetops; a soft breeze played in the pine needles; the sweetest fragrance was wafted through the forest; a beautiful landscape spread before him; and the boy himself was happy and carefree. He felt that no one could be better off.

He had a perfect outlook in every direction. The country west of him was all peaks and tableland, and the farther away they were, the higher and wilder they looked. To the east there were also many peaks, but these sank lower and lower toward the sea, where the land became perfectly flat. Everywhere he saw shining rivers and brooks which were having a troublesome journey with rapids and falls so long as they ran between mountains, but spread out clear and broad as they neared the shore of the coast. Bothnia Bay was dotted with islands and notched with points, but farther out was open, blue water, like a summer sky.

When the boy had had enough of the landscape he unloosed his knapsack, took out a morsel of fine white bread, and began to eat.

“I don’t think I’ve ever tasted such good bread,” said he. “And how much I have left! There’s enough to last me for a couple of days.” As he munched he thought of how he had come by the bread.

“It must be because I got it in such a nice way that it tastes so good to me,” he said.

The golden eagle had left Medelpad the evening before. He had hardly crossed the border into Ångermanland when the boy caught a glimpse of a fertile valley and a river, which surpassed anything of the kind he had seen before.

As the boy glanced down at the rich valley, he complained of feeling hungry. He had had no food for two whole days, he said, and now he was famished. Gorgo did not wish to have it said that the boy had fared worse in his company than when he travelled with the wild geese, so he slackened his speed.

“Why haven’t you spoken of this before?” he asked. “You shall have all the food you want. There’s no need of your starving when you have an eagle for a travelling companion.”

Just then the eagle sighted a farmer who was sowing a field near the river strand. The man carried the seeds in a basket suspended from his neck, and each time that it was emptied he refilled it from a seed sack which stood at the end of the furrow. The eagle reasoned it out that the sack must be filled with the best food that the boy could wish for, so he darted toward it. But before the bird could get there a terrible clamour arose about him. Sparrows, crows, and swallows came rushing up with wild shrieks, thinking that the eagle meant to swoop down upon some bird.

“Away, away, robber! Away, away, bird-killer!” they cried. They made such a racket that it attracted the farmer, who came running, so that Gorgo had to flee, and the boy got no seed.

The small birds behaved in the most extraordinary manner. Not only did they force the eagle to flee, they pursued him a long distance down the valley, and everywhere the people heard their cries. Women came out and clapped their hands so that it sounded like a volley of musketry, and the men rushed out with rifles.

The same thing was repeated every time the eagle swept toward the ground. The boy abandoned the hope that the eagle could procure any food for him. It had never occurred to him before that Gorgo was so much hated. He almost pitied him.

In a little while they came to a homestead where the housewife had just been baking. She had set a platter of sugared buns in the back yard to cool and was standing beside it, watching, so that the cat and dog should not steal the buns.

The eagle circled down to the yard, but dared not alight right under the eyes of the peasant woman. He flew up and down, irresolute; twice he came down as far as the chimney, then rose again.

The peasant woman noticed the eagle. She raised her head and followed him with her glance.

“How peculiarly he acts!” she remarked. “I believe he wants one of my buns.”

She was a beautiful woman, tall and fair, with a cheery, open countenance. Laughing heartily, she took a bun from the platter, and held it above her head.

“If you want it, come and take it!” she challenged.

While the eagle did not understand her language, he knew at once that she was offering him the bun. With lightning speed, he swooped to the bread, snatched it, and flew toward the heights.

When the boy saw the eagle snatch the bread he wept for joy⁠—not because he would escape suffering hunger for a few days, but because he was touched by the peasant woman’s sharing her bread with a savage bird of prey.

Where he now sat on the pine branch he could recall at will the tall, fair woman as she stood in the yard and held up the bread.

She must have known that the large bird was a golden eagle⁠—a plunderer, who was usually welcomed with loud shots; doubtless she had also seen the queer changeling he bore on his back. But she had not thought of what they were. As soon as she understood that they were hungry, she shared her good bread with them.

“If I ever become human again,” thought the boy, “I shall look up the pretty woman who lives near the great river, and thank her for her kindness to us.”

The Forest Fire

While the boy was still at his breakfast he smelled a faint odour of smoke coming from the north. He turned and saw a tiny spiral, white as a mist, rise from a forest ridge⁠—not from the one nearest him, but from the one beyond it. It looked strange to see smoke in the wild forest, but it might be that a mountain stock farm lay over yonder, and the women were boiling their morning coffee.

It was remarkable the way that smoke increased and spread! It could not come from a ranch, but perhaps there were charcoal kilns in the forest.

The smoke increased every moment. Now it curled over the whole mountain top. It was not possible that so much smoke could come from a charcoal kiln. There must be a conflagration of some sort, for many birds flew over to the nearest ridge. Hawks, grouse, and other birds, who were so small that it was impossible to recognize them at such a distance, fled from the fire.

The tiny white spiral of smoke grew to a thick white cloud which rolled over the edge of the ridge and sank toward the valley. Sparks and flakes of soot shot up from the clouds, and here and there one could see a red flame in the smoke. A big fire was raging over there, but what was burning? Surely there was no large farm hidden in the forest.

The source of such a fire must be more than a farm. Now the smoke came not only from the ridge, but from the valley below it, which the boy could not see, because the next ridge obstructed his view. Great clouds of smoke ascended; the forest itself was burning!

It was difficult for him to grasp the idea that the fresh, green pines could burn. If it really were the forest that was burning, perhaps the fire might spread all the way over to him. It seemed improbable; but he wished the eagle would soon return. It would be best to be away from this. The mere smell of the smoke which he drew in with every breath was a torture.

All at once he heard a terrible crackling and sputtering. It came from the ridge nearest him. There, on the highest point, stood a tall pine like the one in which he sat. A moment before it had been a gorgeous red in the morning light. Now all the needles flashed, and the pine caught fire. Never before had it looked so beautiful! But this was the last time it could exhibit any beauty, for the pine was the first tree on the ridge to burn. It was impossible to tell how the flames had reached it. Had the fire flown on red wings, or crawled along the ground like a snake? It was not easy to say, but there it was at all events. The great pine burned like a birch stem.

Ah, look! Now smoke curled up in many places on the ridge. The forest fire was both bird and snake. It could fly in the air over wide stretches, or steal along the ground. The whole ridge was ablaze!

There was a hasty flight of birds that circled up through the smoke like big flakes of soot. They flew across the valley and came to the ridge where the boy sat. A horned owl perched beside him, and on a branch just above him a hen hawk alighted. These would have been dangerous neighbours at any other time, but now they did not even glance in his direction⁠—only stared at the fire. Probably they could not make out what was wrong with the forest. A marten ran up the pine to the tip of a branch, and looked at the burning heights. Close beside the marten sat a squirrel, but they did not appear to notice each other.

Now the fire came rushing down the slope, hissing and roaring like a tornado. Through the smoke one could see the flames dart from tree to tree. Before a branch caught fire it was first enveloped in a thin veil of smoke, then all the needles grew red at one time, and it began to crackle and blaze.

In the glen below ran a little brook, bordered by elms and small birches. It appeared as if the flames would halt there. Leafy trees are not so ready to take fire as fir trees. The fire did pause as if before a gate that could stop it. It glowed and crackled and tried to leap across the brook to the pine woods on the other side, but could not reach them.

For a short time the fire was thus restrained, then it shot a long flame over to the large, dry pine that stood on the slope, and this was soon ablaze. The fire had crossed the brook! The heat was so intense that every tree on the mountain was ready to burn. With the roar and rush of the maddest storm and the wildest torrent the forest fire flew over to the ridge.

Then the hawk and the owl rose and the marten dashed down the tree. In a few seconds more the fire would reach the top of the pine, and the boy, too, would have to be moving. It was not easy to slide down the long, straight pine trunk. He took as firm a hold of it as he could, and slid in long stretches between the knotty branches; finally he tumbled headlong to the ground. He had no time to find out if he was hurt⁠—only to hurry away. The fire raced down the pine like a raging tempest; the ground under his feet was hot and smouldering. On either side of him ran a lynx and an adder, and right beside the snake fluttered a mother grouse who was hurrying along with her little downy chicks.

When the refugees descended the mountain to the glen they met people fighting the fire. They had been there for some time, but the boy had been gazing so intently in the direction of the fire that he had not noticed them before.

In this glen there was a brook, bordered by a row of leaf trees, and back of these trees the people worked. They felled the fir trees nearest the elms, dipped water from the brook and poured it over the ground, washing away heather and myrtle to prevent the fire from stealing up to the birch brush.

They, too, thought only of the fire which was now rushing toward them. The fleeing animals ran in and out among the men’s feet, without attracting attention. No one struck at the adder or tried to catch the mother grouse as she ran back and forth with her little peeping birdlings. They did not even bother about Thumbietot. In their hands they held great, charred pine branches which had dropped into the brook, and it appeared as if they intended to challenge the fire with these weapons. There were not many men, and it was strange to see them stand there, ready to fight, when all other living creatures were fleeing.

As the fire came roaring and rushing down the slope with its intolerable heat and suffocating smoke, ready to hurl itself over brook and leaf-tree wall in order to reach the opposite shore without having to pause, the people drew back at first as if unable to withstand it; but they did not flee far before they turned back.

The conflagration raged with savage force, sparks poured like a rain of fire over the leaf trees, and long tongues of flame shot hissingly out from the smoke, as if the forest on the other side were sucking them in.

But the leaf-tree wall was an obstruction behind which the men worked. When the ground began to smoulder they brought water in their vessels and dampened it. When a tree became wreathed in smoke they felled it at once, threw it down and put out the flames. Where the fire crept along the heather, they beat it with the wet pine branches and smothered it.

The smoke was so dense that it enveloped everything. One could not possibly see how the battle was going, but it was easy enough to understand that it was a hard fight, and that several times the fire came near penetrating farther.

But think! After a while the loud roar of the flames decreased, and the smoke cleared. By that time the leaf trees had lost all their foliage, the ground under them was charred, the faces of the men were blackened by smoke and dripping with sweat; but the forest fire was conquered. It had ceased to flame up. Soft white smoke crept along the ground, and from it peeped out a lot of black stumps. This was all there was left of the beautiful forest!

The boy scrambled up on a rock, so that he might see how the fire had been quenched. But now that the forest was saved, his peril began. The owl and the hawk simultaneously turned their eyes toward him. Just then he heard a familiar voice calling to him.

Gorgo, the golden eagle, came sweeping through the forest, and soon the boy was soaring among the clouds⁠—rescued from every peril.