Kullervo’s story

Issue 1/1989 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Paavo Haavikko wrote this manuscript for the television series Rauta-aika (‘Age of iron’), broadcast in 1982. lt also appeared as a book in 1982, complemented by Kullervon tarina (‘Kullervo’s story’ ) which had been omitted from the original. The text follows the stories of the Kalevala, but they are given a new interpretation: the characters are demythologised, they resign themselves to their fates – they are like ourselves. These extracts are the final scenes in which incest, revenge and death appear in a slightly different guise from Kalevala, or Kivi’s Kullervo.

– Mother, on the road I met your daughter, who is my sister, and took her into my sleigh. She had broken one of her skis. Spring came in one day, the clouds in front of the moon tore themselves to shreds so that two moons passed in one night. Winter went, Spring came, I brought the sleigh back, and I slept on top of the sacks so that not a single grain or seed would be lost. It’s all in the sacks now, saved. The clouds tore off their clothes and washed them in the rivers of rain, and naked, in the dark, they waited for their clothes to dry, those clouds. They even darkened the moon, they would have killed it if they could have reached that far, as it spied on the cloud women who were washing the clothes they had taken off in the waters of heaven, and two moons passed in one night, Kullervo says to his mother, piling up lies like a little boy. Many words.

– That’s a long story you told me. I would have understood a shorter one right away, but this one I had to listen to, from beginning to end, Kullervo’s mother says to him.

– Here’s your daughter. Here am I, Kullervo. I came back, I didn’t die, Kullervo says.

– I came back alive because no one killed me on the road or when I was sleeping at night, no one, and I didn’t have enough sense to do it myself, Kullervo says.

– Nor did you, back when. If you had had the least little bit of sense, you would have killed me right after I was born, Kullervo says.

– You would have cared for me enough to kill me instantly. You would have strangled, drowned, burned me, says Kullervo.

– You would have been kind enough to me to kill me right away, Kullervo says.

– But no one says anything about what they’re really talking about.


– Walking the same floors, under the same roof, under the same eyes, the mother says about her son, her daughter.


– They don’t walk toward each other in the room, nor at the door, on the path or in the yard. They avoid each other until they meet. I tell the boy that the world is ruled by the world’s law, and that law is valid as long as the world is valid, the mother says.


– I washed my hands green with grass, scrubbed them with sand, washed them white with ashes, dried them in front of the fire, Kullervo says.

– Come to bed, the girl says. His sister.

– Come, or go? Kullervo asks. – Strange words, strange language in this house.

– Come, I said, come to bed now. With me. I don’t ask a man to do that for any other purpose, the sister says.

– Are you saying that or am I hearing i t? Kullervo asks.

– I already said it, the girl says, – and you heard it.


– And Kullervo went through that door, by opening it and closing it, the mother says later.

– You did a wicked thing, Kullervo’s mother tells him.

– Don’t you start laying down the law to me. It’s a woman’s law, not a man’s. I’ll tell Father to lay it down to me, and then I’ll kill him. He’s not saying a thing. I am my own law unto myself, and this law is mightier than the world’s wickedness, but the justice allotted to me is weaker than the wickedness of this world. One or the other has to give. I judge and pronounce sentence on my right to be killed and hanged because of the wickedness of this world. I’ll take just that much wickedness with me, and justice, so it won’t bother the world any longer. This world’s wickedness can’t grant me justice. I judge and kill it, that justice. I would like to hang myself and my justice, I’d like to be the law, the court, the judge, the cause, the guilty one, sentenced and killed, and the executioner as well. But since I yearn for the gallows, I won’t hang myself. I won’t please myself, Kullervo says.

– Why don’t you wait? You may not have to. The girl brought the plague into the house, she has the plague. I boiled up a concoction of plants and herbs for her, and they’ll either kill the plague or revive it and make it strong. She’ll be gone soon. That was her life.

– …people begin to die before their time. I want a sword, Father’s sword, and his coat and his boots. I’ll take to the killing road, I’ll leave before they have time to die. If there are so many in a hurry to leave this world, I have to get there sooner. I have to kill them before they manage to die by themselves.


– Thus, home fell out of my eyes. I went through the woods. When night came, I made a fire. I put my hand in the fire, numb, the fire is cold. The fire is cold: It’s no match for hate, I so hate this world, and myself. Everything else is too numb to be hated. Someone will want to be killed. I’ll find them.

– But I won’t kill you because you’re a dog. You still remember me. I was a little boy, you were a young dog. They didn’t kick you, they didn’t make you into a Kullervo. You were left alone, to live your life as a dog. Look, I’ll light this torch, to warm you, Untamo’s old dog. Look, the torch is burning and the straw, the roof of the grange is on fire, the roof of the house, the house is burning well, the smell of smoke is good. I remember this smell of smoke, it’s as i f this had happened once before. Perhaps I’m burning what has already been burned, avenging the avenged. Welcome out into the smoky world, you men, you blind men, I’ll kill you one by one. My fury wears a beautiful cloak, a cloak of smoke, it is the great fury. If only the whole world were built out of timber, roofed with straw and shingles, I could burn it all.

– So, that’s done. I’m leaving. I won’t wipe the sword or the spear so as not to forget this. It was good.

– But it was too quick. They don’t even know they died, these dead ones, they don’t remember. Lucky. So lucky. Who would kill me?


– Nobody home here, an empty house. The stove is cold. The water barrel is empty, they drank it all in their thirst. Mother is dead. No one has been eating from Father’s bowl, he is dead. My sister is dead, with her clothes. Her clothes aren’t here. Who could have buried them? No one will bury me. A beautiful day, when it’s over. Beautiful yard, trees, up against the sky, there it is, an empty opening. Grasses, they live on summer. This world is so good and dear to me that I’ll kill myself. I don’t want to live here. If there were a wicked world, and war, I’d live, I’d go on, I’d kill. A good life, the best I’ve ever had. What a strange world, it doesn’t mind its manners. Gives bread , gives a woman, gives dreams, gives food. If one would improve it beyond this, it wouldn’t be a world. Myself, that’s who I found or met here, behind every door, at every gate. How did I get here?

– Grew up under the table, grew to table-top level, grew taller than the table; was always underfoot, in their teeth, in their eyes. I was a boy out of which they made Kullervo. And he became a good Kullervo, as Kullervos go, you have to admit that – hey, Kullervo’s Sword, don’t deny it. Help yourself.

Translated by Anselm Hollo

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