The Story of Kullervo

I have a good memory. I remember how I was born, not from a woman but from the fire. That was my birth. I wasn’t killed. I wasn’t given my right, not even the right to die the day I was born. I do remember how the Father woke up, Mother woke up, how they disappeared into the smoke […] and this master came and took me away. Do I remember this, I don’t remember, and I’ll never forget. But I don’t dwell on it. I don’t want it to
fade and grow distant in my mind.

Thus muses Kullervo, a youth on the threshold of manhood, kept as a slave in the house of his uncle. The uncle, Untamo, had spared the boy during the family feud years ago, carried the infant to safety from the fire he himself had set to the cabin of his brother, Kullervo’s father. Out of flames and smoke he had brought the boy home to his barren wife, who could summon no love for the child, always fearing the man he would grow into, fearing his memory, his revenge.

They took me here to raise me. To work. To be an extension of this axe handle. […] Grew up under the table. Grew up to table-top level. Grew taller than the table. I was always underfoot, under their eyes, in their teeth. […] I was called Kullervo. That was mine, my name. It was like a curse.

Untamo, unwilling to forego a pair of good strong hands, pays no heed to the forebodings of his wife. Kullervo is sent to the blacksmith’s to buy a tool of his own, a sturdy axe to put to good use in the master’s forest, far away from the house.
The blacksmith asks Kullervo to lend a hand in the forging and compliments him on his good work – the first and only praise the young man is ever awarded.

Eager to prove himself, Kullervo heads out into the woods. In no time, he cuts a vast clearing as ordered, chopping the felled trees into firewood. But after the axe has done its work, Untamo arrives, devastated. The birch thicket over yonder
should have been cleared, not these tall trees. Not his priceless spruce forest, prepared over decades to deliver the logs for a new house someday. Unable to bear the sight of the ruin, Untamo turns away, leaving Kullervo with the instruction to burn the trunks and to fence off the clearing. And so Kullervo does, burning piles of wood during the days and resting beside the glowing embers at night, hardly daring to sleep, always ready to wake up should fire break out unexpectedly –

Perkele. The god of fire. I woke up. It woke me. It woke me because I sleep with my hand held over a burned spot, at the edge of the burned ground. […] Good hand, it knows to wake me up when the fiery ground burns it. I know how to take the broom out of the water I’ve dammed, to put out the fire. It won’t surprise me in my dream. My dream wakes me up, instantly, and without a word. My hand is a trap for that fire. If it wakes up
or ignites, I drown it with water, kill it on the spot. It won’t have time to run far, it won’t get away from me…

Kullervo does not return to the farmhouse. He stays in his forest dwelling all summer, tends the fenced clearing and turns it into a field, sows the seeds Untamo has given to him, and watches the grain grow and ripen until the time comes to reap
the harvest. A good harvest it is, plenty of work for Kullervo, who is determined not to leave a single grain unthreshed, not to give his master any more reason for reproach. And he threshes all of it, pounding everything to chaff and powder, rendering it unusable. A great calamity, says Untamo, disbelieving and afraid, eager now to sell his unlucky slave and nephew before winter comes.

The new master, an old man, entrusts Kullervo to the care of his young wife. The mistress sends him to take the cattle to the pastures. Kullervo doesn’t understand why she would give him this task, fit for a child, not for a man. Neither does he understand when she later visits him, bringing him a freshly baked loaf of bread. A token of affection, or just a new
mockery? – This loaf is the way you think it is. It’s like you, or like me, the mistress says, encouragingly. But Kullervo does not dare to break the bread. – If it’s like me, there’s a stone inside. – Tomorrow, I’ll bring you another loaf, the mistress says. This one I made in my likeness. And she returns the following day, carrying with her another loaf. Kullervo refuses to try either one, and she knows her good intentions were to no avail. A loaf with a stone inside is what you’re looking for in this world. One like yourself, she comments, sadly.

You already have a woman here, one made of stone. You made her yourself, for yourself. You piled her up, made a stone face, stone eyes, stone fingers, arms of birchwood. […] It makes me sad to see that you’ve made yourself a woman out of rocks and wood, grasses and tree bark, to lie beside you. Poor you. There’s no room beside her for another woman, a live and breathing one. You’re hard. You’re afraid of softness, afraid of love.
Hate is what you love, the mistress says.

Kullervo gives no answer, thinking to himself, I made that stone woman for you to see and to say: “Don’t make a stone woman. I am here.” But the moment is gone, the chance has passed. The mistress leaves, taking the wrong way through the treacherous bog, takes a wrong step, and drowns in the bog. Too long Kullervo waits before following her, too late he comes to save her. He wanders across the bog until he reaches dry land, walks on without looking back. Passing Untamo’s
house along the way, he decides to set fire to it.

The smoke followed me, but I walked on and it didn’t reach me. […] I was headed home. A grove, yellow with flowers. I had a dream that when I get home, father and mother will say, “we’ve been expecting you.” The path I walked was monogrammed with kullero flowers, and it took me there. I walked into the yard, up the front step, opened the door.

The son, thought dead for many years, returns home to find his mother and father alive but burdened with age. The young man’s strength is welcome, and again he finds himself being ordered around. At his father’s bidding, Kullervo loads sacks of grain onto the sleigh and takes them to the mill, more than a day’s ride away. But he finds the driver’s seat to be a good place, and holding the reins an enjoyable task:

Now I know how to do things. No longer will I listen to any advice. Now I know, and it’s working. I won’t listen to others, I won’t ponder things. What if the others don’t feel anything? What if the others weren’t made the way I was made, so that everything hurts me?[…] I used to think that people were made the way I was made, but I was made by fire, born from fire. I don’t want to know anything about anybody: no family, no name,
let it all go! And it is going. Fate changed, life healed, like a wound. How does the kind of life heal that leaves a deep scar? I don’t know.

Returning from his errand, directing his horse through ice and snow on the long journey home, he spots a small figure ahead of him. From a small dot she grew to the size of a finger, out on the frozen lake she slowly grew, from a tiny thing, on this lake as I drove to meet her. He stops beside the girl and folds back his blanket, inviting her to join him in his sleigh.

I wish you hadn’t said that. When I saw you, I decided that if he doesn’t ask or invite or ask questions or ask for my name, then I’ll get into his sleigh, the girl says. – And you shouldn’t have folded that blanket back. I can do that myself. I dress and undress myself. I cover myself, I uncover myself.

She continues on her way, and Kullervo on his. But before nightfall he meets another girl, with a broken ski and worn shoes. Without hesitation, she gets into his sleigh. There is no need for many words, or questions. I’ll be good to her, Kullervo thinks, I won’t spoil this thing by talking, asking, I won’t ask her a thing. While he is building a camp for the night, she wonders why they both seem to know each other’s thoughts. Kullervo hushes her:

Don’t talk, sleep. It’s a greater skill in this world to sleep alive than to sleep with the dead, to sleep well and to wake up. I’ll never sleep alone again, never without you. Because whatever you say to me will be lies, but what you don’t say I already know, all of it, without having to hear it. Don’t talk. I won’t talk. What would I talk about, and even if I said something to you, you would take those words… or maybe you wouldn’t, but I would hang myself! There’s so much power or magic in words, don’t use them, when you can get by without. Sleep! I’m not ordering you to sleep, I’m making you sleep. You don’t know anything yet, about sleep, because sleep is a house built for lovers. You’ll be the mistress of that house of sleep, quite soon. You’ll be given the wide belt of a mistress, and the big key to the granary. When you come with me, you’ll inherit it from my mother.

As lovers they wake the following morning, a man and a woman. They continue their journey, first to the girl’s home, where Kullervo will ask for her hand. She takes the reins, and how familiar the horse seems to her, how strangely familiar the road to her parents’ house looks to Kullervo…

You are my sister, Kullervo says, gloomy now.
– Well, now that you know that, don’t say it, the girl says. – It didn’t hurt meany.
– That’s what my sister says, and during that day came Spring and Summer, the clouds tore through two full cycles of the moon in one night, and I didn’t say it. I wanted to say: “Whence did you fly here? Any other girl but you who were born by the same woman as I. But it was you I found, the same flesh and blood but a girl, a woman, yes, it was you I found, you I met and slept with, my sister, one just like myself. Myself, no one
else in this whole world.” But I won’t say it. […] A hard place, this world. Nowhere else does one make as
many mistakes as here, Kullervo says. – What’s done is done, done and gone, don’t worry and fret about it, says the girl, a wise woman.

Together they arrive home, indifferent the sister, the brother deeply troubled. She sees no reason to let their mother know, but he feels the urge to tell the truth, or anything, tries to speak, struggling for words:

– Mother, on the road I met your daughter, who is my sister, and I 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 tried to kill 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.

Under the same roof they live now, brother and sister, man and woman. Kullervo washes his hands with grass and sand, scrubbing himself clean. But at night his sister calls to him, come to bed now, and he follows. You did a wicked thing, the mother tells her son, reproachful but too weary to care, knowing her daughter’s days are numbered. The plague has befallen the girl and will soon claim her life – people begin to die before their time, Kullervo realizes, turning his mind to his unfinished revenge, setting his thoughts once again on Untamo. He leaves to complete his self-appointed task, to burn down and destroy the hated farmstead for good. Unharmed by the smoke, he watches the buildings burn, sword in hand, waits for Untamo’s kinsfolk to run from the flames. Kills them one by one, sparing none but the old dog. But he returns
to find an empty house. The disease that took his sister did not spare Kullervo’s mother and father, leaving him finally alone in the world, alone with his sword.

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 one 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. […] 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 a 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.

All passages in italics are excerpts from Kullervon tarina/Kullervo’s Story
by Paavo Haavikko, transl. Anselm Hollo. Art House, Helsinki 1989 (ISBN 951-884-002-4).

For a slightly different rendition of the tale by the same author see Paavo Haavikko, Rauta-aika. Otava, Helsinki 1982.
The traditional version of the Kullervo saga is found in the Kalevala, runes 31-36.