The City That Floats on the Water


No one could be more gentle and kind than the little gray goose Dunfin. All the wild geese loved her, and the tame white goosey-gander would have died for her. When Dunfin asked for anything not even Akka could say no.

As soon as Dunfin came to Lake Mälar the landscape looked familiar to her. Just beyond the lake lay the sea, with many wooded islands, and there, on a little islet, lived her parents and her brothers and sisters. She begged the wild geese to fly to her home before travelling farther north, that she might let her family see that she was still alive. It would be such a joy to them.

Akka frankly declared that she thought Dunfin’s parents and brothers and sisters had shown no great love for her when they abandoned her at Öland, but Dunfin would not admit that Akka was in the right. “What else was there to do, when they saw that I could not fly?” she protested. “Surely they couldn’t remain at Öland on my account!”

Dunfin began telling the wild geese all about her home in the archipelago, to try to induce them to make the trip. Her family lived on a rock island. Seen from a distance, there appeared to be nothing but stone there; but when one came closer, there were to be found the choicest goose tidbits in clefts and hollows, and one might search long for better nesting places than those that were hidden in the mountain crevices or among the osier bushes. But the best of all was the old fisherman who lived there. Dunfin had heard that in his youth he had been a great shot and had always lain in the offing and hunted birds. But now, in his old age⁠—since his wife had died and the children had gone from home, so that he was alone in the hut⁠—he had begun to care for the birds on his island. He never fired a shot at them, nor would he permit others to do so. He walked around amongst the birds’ nests, and when the mother birds were sitting he brought them food. Not one was afraid of him. They all loved him.

Dunfin had been in his hut many times, and he had fed her with bread crumbs. Because he was kind to the birds, they flocked to his island in such great numbers that it was becoming overcrowded. If one happened to arrive a little late in the spring, all the nesting places were occupied. That was why Dunfin’s family had been obliged to leave her.

Dunfin begged so hard that she finally had her way, although the wild geese felt that they were losing time and really should be going straight north. But a little trip like this to the cliff island would not delay them more than a day.

So they started off one morning, after fortifying themselves with a good breakfast, and flew eastward over Lake Mälar. The boy did not know for certain where they were going; but he noticed that the farther east they flew, the livelier it was on the lake and the more built up were the shores.

Heavily freighted barges and sloops, boats and fishing smacks were on their way east, and these were met and passed by many pretty white steamers. Along the shores ran country roads and railway tracks⁠—all in the same direction. There was some place beyond in the east where all wished to go to in the morning.

On one of the islands the boy saw a big, white castle, and to the east of it the shores were dotted with villas. At the start these lay far apart, then they became closer and closer, and, presently, the whole shore was lined with them. They were of every variety⁠—here a castle, there a cottage; then a low manor house appeared, or a mansion, with many small towers. Some stood in gardens, but most of them were in the wild woods which bordered the shores. Despite their dissimilarity, they had one point of resemblance⁠—they were not plain and sombre-looking, like other buildings, but were gaudily painted in striking greens and blues, reds and white, like children’s playhouses.

As the boy sat on the goose’s back and glanced down at the curious shore mansions, Dunfin cried out with delight: “Now I know where I am! Over there lies the City that Floats on the Water.”

The boy looked ahead. At first he saw nothing but some light clouds and mists rolling forward over the water, but soon he caught sight of some tall spires, and then one and another house with many rows of windows. They appeared and disappeared⁠—rolling hither and thither⁠—but not a strip of shore did he see! Everything over there appeared to be resting on the water.

Nearer to the city he saw no more pretty playhouses along the shores⁠—only dingy factories. Great heaps of coal and wood were stacked behind tall planks, and alongside black, sooty docks lay bulky freight steamers; but over all was spread a shimmering, transparent mist, which made everything appear so big and strong and wonderful that it was almost beautiful.

The wild geese flew past factories and freight steamers and were nearing the cloud-enveloped spires. Suddenly all the mists sank to the water, save the thin, fleecy ones that circled above their heads, beautifully tinted in blues and pinks. The other clouds rolled over water and land. They entirely obscured the lower portions of the houses: only the upper stories and the roofs and gables were visible. Some of the buildings appeared to be as high as the Tower of Babel. The boy no doubt knew that they were built upon hills and mountains, but these he did not see⁠—only the houses that seemed to float among the white, drifting clouds. In reality the buildings were dark and dingy, for the sun in the east was not shining on them.

The boy knew that he was riding above a large city, for he saw spires and house roofs rising from the clouds in every direction. Sometimes an opening was made in the circling mists, and he looked down into a running, tortuous stream; but no land could he see. All this was beautiful to look upon, but he felt quite distraught⁠—as one does when happening upon something one cannot understand.

When he had gone beyond the city, he found that the ground was no longer hidden by clouds, but that shores, streams, and islands were again plainly visible. He turned to see the city better, but could not, for now it looked quite enchanted. The mists had taken on colour from the sunshine and were rolling forward in the most brilliant reds, blues, and yellows. The houses were white, as if built of light, and the windows and spires sparkled like fire. All things floated on the water as before.

The geese were travelling straight east. They flew over factories and workshops; then over mansions edging the shores. Steamboats and tugs swarmed on the water; but now they came from the east and were steaming westward toward the city.

The wild geese flew on, but instead of the narrow Mälar fjords and the little islands, broader waters and larger islands spread under them. At last the land was left behind and seen no more.

They flew still farther out, where they found no more large inhabited islands⁠—only numberless little rock islands were scattered on the water. Now the fjords were not crowded by the land. The sea lay before them, vast and limitless.

Here the wild geese alighted on a cliff island, and as soon as their feet touched the ground the boy turned to Dunfin.

“What city did we fly over just now?” he asked.

“I don’t know what human beings have named it,” said Dunfin. “We gray geese call it the ‘City that Floats on the Water.’ ”

The Sisters

Dunfin had two sisters, Prettywing and Goldeye. They were strong and intelligent birds, but they did not have such a soft and shiny feather dress as Dunfin, nor did they have her sweet and gentle disposition. From the time they had been little, yellow goslings, their parents and relatives and even the old fisherman had plainly shown them that they thought more of Dunfin than of them. Therefore the sisters had always hated her.

When the wild geese landed on the cliff island, Prettywing and Goldeye were feeding on a bit of grass close to the strand, and immediately caught sight of the strangers.

“See, Sister Goldeye, what fine-looking geese have come to our island!” exclaimed Prettywing, “I have rarely seen such graceful birds. Do you notice that they have a white goosey-gander among them? Did you ever set eyes on a handsomer bird? One could almost take him for a swan!”

Goldeye agreed with her sister that these were certainly very distinguished strangers that had come to the island, but suddenly she broke off and called: “Sister Prettywing! Oh, Sister Prettywing! Don’t you see whom they bring with them?”

Prettywing also caught sight of Dunfin and was so astounded that she stood for a long time with her bill wide open, and only hissed.

“It can’t be possible that it is she! How did she manage to get in with people of that class? Why, we left her at Öland to freeze and starve.”

“The worse of it is she will tattle to father and mother that we flew so close to her that we knocked her wing out of joint,” said Goldeye. “You’ll see that it will end in our being driven from the island!”

“We have nothing but trouble in store for us, now that that young one has come back!” snapped Prettywing. “Still I think it would be best for us to appear as pleased as possible over her return. She is so stupid that perhaps she didn’t even notice that we gave her a push on purpose.”

While Prettywing and Goldeye were talking in this strain, the wild geese had been standing on the strand, pluming their feathers after the flight. Now they marched in a long line up the rocky shore to the cleft where Dunfin’s parents usually stopped.

Dunfin’s parents were good folk. They had lived on the island longer than anyone else, and it was their habit to counsel and aid all newcomers. They too had seen the geese approach, but they had not recognized Dunfin in the flock.

“It is strange to see wild geese land on this island,” remarked the goose-master. “It is a fine flock⁠—that one can see by their flight.”

“But it won’t be easy to find pasturage for so many,” said the goose-wife, who was gentle and sweet-tempered, like Dunfin.

When Akka came marching with her company, Dunfin’s parents went out to meet her and welcome her to the island. Dunfin flew from her place at the end of the line and lit between her parents.

“Mother and father, I’m here at last!” she cried joyously. “Don’t you know Dunfin?”

At first the old goose-parents could not quite make out what they saw, but when they recognized Dunfin they were absurdly happy, of course.

While the wild geese and Morten Goosey-Gander and Dunfin were chattering excitedly, trying to tell how she had been rescued, Prettywing and Goldeye came running. They cried “welcome” and pretended to be so happy because Dunfin was at home that she was deeply moved.

The wild geese fared well on the island and decided not to travel farther until the following morning. After a while the sisters asked Dunfin if she would come with them and see the places where they intended to build their nests. She promptly accompanied them, and saw that they had picked out secluded and well protected nesting places.

“Now where will you settle down, Dunfin?” they asked.

“I? Why I don’t intend to remain on the island,” she said. “I’m going with the wild geese up to Lapland.”

“What a pity that you must leave us!” said the sisters.

“I should have been very glad to remain here with father and mother and you,” said Dunfin, “had I not promised the big, white⁠—”

“What!” shrieked Prettywing. “Are you to have the handsome goosey-gander? Then it is⁠—” But here Goldeye gave her a sharp nudge, and she stopped short.

The two cruel sisters had much to talk about all the afternoon. They were furious because Dunfin had a suitor like the white goosey-gander. They themselves had suitors, but theirs were only common gray geese, and, since they had seen Morten Goosey-Gander, they thought them so homely and lowbred that they did not wish even to look at them.

“This will grieve me to death!” whimpered Goldeye. “If at least it had been you, Sister Prettywing, who had captured him!”

“I would rather see him dead than to go about here the entire summer thinking of Dunfin’s capturing a white goosey-gander!” pouted Prettywing.

However, the sisters continued to appear very friendly toward Dunfin, and in the afternoon Goldeye took Dunfin with her, that she might see the one she thought of marrying.

“He’s not as attractive as the one you will have,” said Goldeye. “But to make up for it, one can be certain that he is what he is.”

“What do you mean, Goldeye?” questioned Dunfin. At first Goldeye would not explain what she had meant, but at last she came out with it.

“We have never seen a white goose travel with wild geese,” said the sister, “and we wonder if he can be bewitched.”

“You are very stupid,” retorted Dunfin indignantly. “He is a tame goose, of course.”

“He brings with him one who is bewitched,” said Goldeye, “and, under the circumstances, he too must be bewitched. Are you not afraid that he may be a black cormorant?” She was a good talker and succeeded in frightening Dunfin thoroughly.

“You don’t mean what you are saying,” pleaded the little gray goose. “You only wish to frighten me!”

“I wish what is for your good, Dunfin,” said Goldeye. “I can’t imagine anything worse than for you to fly away with a black cormorant! But now I shall tell you something⁠—try to persuade him to eat some of the roots I have gathered here. If he is bewitched, it will be apparent at once. If he is not, he will remain as he is.”

The boy was sitting amongst the wild geese, listening to Akka and the old goose-master, when Dunfin came flying up to him. “Thumbietot, Thumbietot!” she cried. “Morten Goosey-Gander is dying! I have killed him!”

“Let me get up on your back, Dunfin, and take me to him!” Away they flew, and Akka and the other wild geese followed them. When they got to the goosey-gander, he was lying prostrate on the ground. He could not utter a word⁠—only gasped for breath.

“Tickle him under the gorge and slap him on the back!” commanded Akka. The boy did so and presently the big, white gander coughed up a large, white root, which had stuck in his gorge. “Have you been eating of these?” asked Akka, pointing to some roots that lay on the ground.

“Yes,” groaned the goosey-gander.

“Then it was well they stuck in your throat,” said Akka, “for they are poisonous. Had you swallowed them, you certainly should have died.”

“Dunfin bade me eat them,” said the goosey-gander.

“My sister gave them to me,” protested Dunfin, and she told everything.

“You must beware of those sisters of yours, Dunfin!” warned Akka, “for they wish you no good, depend upon it!”

But Dunfin was so constituted that she could not think evil of anyone and, a moment later, when Prettywing asked her to come and meet her intended, she went with her immediately.

“Oh, he isn’t as handsome as yours,” said the sister, “but he’s much more courageous and daring!”

“How do you know he is?” challenged Dunfin.

“For some time past there has been weeping and wailing amongst the sea gulls and wild ducks on the island. Every morning at daybreak a strange bird of prey comes and carries off one of them.”

“What kind of a bird is it?” asked Dunfin.

“We don’t know,” replied the sister. “One of his kind has never before been seen on the island, and, strange to say, he has never attacked one of us geese. But now my intended has made up his mind to challenge him tomorrow morning, and drive him away.”

“Oh, I hope he’ll succeed!” said Dunfin.

“I hardly think he will,” returned the sister. “If my goosey-gander were as big and strong as yours, I should have hope.”

“Do you wish me to ask Morten Goosey-Gander to meet the strange bird?” asked Dunfin.

“Indeed, I do!” exclaimed Prettywing excitedly. “You couldn’t render me a greater service.”

The next morning the goosey-gander was up before the sun. He stationed himself on the highest point of the island and peered in all directions. Presently he saw a big, dark bird coming from the west. His wings were exceedingly large, and it was easy to tell that he was an eagle. The goosey-gander had not expected a more dangerous adversary than an owl, and how he understood that he could not escape this encounter with his life. But it did not occur to him to avoid a struggle with a bird who was many times stronger than himself.

The great bird swooped down on a sea gull and dug his talons into it. Before the eagle could spread his wings, Morten Goosey-Gander rushed up to him. “Drop that!” he shouted, “and don’t come here again or you’ll have me to deal with!”

“What kind of a lunatic are you?” said the eagle. “It’s lucky for you that I never fight with geese, or you would soon be done for!”

Morten Goosey-Gander thought the eagle considered himself too good to fight with him and flew at him, incensed, biting him on the throat and beating him with his wings. This, naturally, the eagle would not tolerate and he began to fight, but not with his full strength.

The boy lay sleeping in the quarters where Akka and the other wild geese slept, when Dunfin called: “Thumbietot, Thumbietot! Morten Goosey-Gander is being torn to pieces by an eagle.”

“Let me get up on your back, Dunfin, and take me to him!” said the boy.

When they arrived on the scene Morten Goosey-Gander was badly torn, and bleeding, but he was still fighting. The boy could not battle with the eagle; all that he could do was to seek more efficient help.

“Hurry, Dunfin, and call Akka and the wild geese!” he cried. The instant he said that, the eagle flew back and stopped fighting.

“Who’s speaking of Akka?” he asked. He saw Thumbietot and heard the wild geese honking, so he spread his wings.

“Tell Akka I never expected to run across her or any of her flock out here in the sea!” he said, and soared away in a rapid and graceful flight.

“That is the selfsame eagle who once brought me back to the wild geese,” the boy remarked, gazing after the bird in astonishment.

The geese had decided to leave the island at dawn, but first they wanted to feed awhile. As they walked about and nibbled, a mountain duck came up to Dunfin.

“I have a message for you from your sisters,” said the duck. “They dare not show themselves among the wild geese, but they asked me to remind you not to leave the island without calling on the old fisherman.”

“That’s so!” exclaimed Dunfin, but she was so frightened now that she would not go alone, and asked the goosey-gander and Thumbietot to accompany her to the hut.

The door was open, so Dunfin entered, but the others remained outside. After a moment they heard Akka give the signal to start, and called Dunfin. A gray goose came out and flew with the wild geese away from the island.

They had travelled quite a distance along the archipelago when the boy began to wonder at the goose who accompanied them. Dunfin always flew lightly and noiselessly, but this one laboured with heavy and noisy wing-strokes. “We are in the wrong company. It is Prettywing that follows us!”

The boy had barely spoken when the goose uttered such an ugly and angry shriek that all knew who she was. Akka and the others turned to her, but the gray goose did not fly away at once. Instead she bumped against the big goosey-gander, snatched Thumbietot, and flew off with him in her bill.

There was a wild chase over the archipelago. Prettywing flew fast, but the wild geese were close behind her, and there was no chance for her to escape.

Suddenly they saw a puff of smoke rise up from the sea, and heard an explosion. In their excitement they had not noticed that they were directly above a boat in which a lone fisherman was seated.

However, none of the geese was hurt; but just there, above the boat, Prettywing opened her bill and dropped Thumbietot into the sea.