We present below three independent accounts proving the existence in Sweden of a certain imp named Pukke. Since all three stories were contributed by our long-time author Grzegorz Uzdański, we have no reason to suspect that any one of them is less true than the others.
Greta Seelendstadt (Swedish physicist)
When I was a little girl, old Pukke turned me into a table. Pukke is a Swedish imp. Hardly anyone remembers him, and those who remember think he’s a character from a fairy tale. But not in Skåne. The inhabitants of the local villages, sinewy and tanned from the midnight sun, know that he really exists. He walked beneath the grey skies before the days of the kings, before the first wooden churches were built, before the new God drove the old inhabitants further north. He was there when the brutal bearded Vikings returned with the spoils of their expeditions. He was there when the elves sang and the trolls rumbled gutturally in the moonlight. He was there when Odin, the one-eyed wanderer, flashed over the earth like a gale as Fenrir’s howl filled the woods with terror. He was there when Nanna danced under the stars, bringing nature to life.
Pukke is small but sturdy. He wears a green doublet or caftan and black boots. He’s a tireless walker. There is no household in Skåne that he has not visited. People don’t usually see him. But I saw him. I didn’t know the legends of Pukke – to me, he was just a funny bearded dwarf. I thought that if I caught him and sold him at the market, I’d be able to buy a string of beads and a new set square, for I was passionate about geometry. I tried to cover him with a saucepan, but suddenly realized that I couldn’t move. The little man looked at me sternly from under his bushy eyebrows.
“Do you know who you’re dealing with?” he asked. “I am Pukke.”
“Let me go, you hideous midget,” I shouted.
He looked even more stern and raised his hand.
“One more word, mortal, and you’ll regret it.”
Terrified, I fell silent. A few minutes passed. My back had gone stiff.
“I’m very sorry, Mr Pukke,” I stammered. “Could you please let me go?”
He stamped his foot, stirring up a cloud of dust.
“Apologies aren’t good enough,” he said. “As a punishment, I shall turn you into a table so that you understand what it’s like to be someone else.”
And suddenly, in the places where blood had been flowing, wooden rings began to form. My skin hardened, becoming bright, strong wood. I turned into a table and the table turned into me. My parents, however, weren’t concerned that I’d disappeared (Pukke left a note on me, explaining the transformation). Besides, those familiar with mythology knew that good old Pukke would remove the spell in time – I just had to wait. So I waited, and I experienced a completely different way of being. The voices of trees felled long ago murmured within me. My broad tabletop was the centre of the household, its warmth and strength. My feet stood firmly on the ground, where I greeted my fellow planks that made up the floor; from underneath came the rustling of the basement earth and the quiet bustle of mice. The sun’s rays heated my wooden body. When the time came, I bore steaming hot plates of dinner. I said nothing. I waited. After a few days, Pukke reappeared.
“I can see that you’re a good child and you’ve learnt your lesson,” he said. Then he turned me back into a girl. He was watching me closely, smoking a pipe with a carved stem in the shape of a dragon’s head. A smile flashed across his wrinkled, ruddy face, like a late lark over the grey strip of Småland’s fields. He gave me a friendly nod and disappeared.
“Goodbye, Mr Pukke!” I cried.
I never saw him again. But I think that’s why I got into physics – to get just that little bit closer to the mysterious, silent world of things from the other side.
Per Nyquist (Swedish essayist)
I love walking in the meadows and fields of Skåne. They are littered with red huts that look like tired farmers and promise cool relief on a hot day. The cows wander lazily through the pastures, shaking their bells, from one clump of juicy grass to the next. The children return home from school jumping with joy, just like their Bullerby predecessors. Wild geese glide overhead in a line, just like the ones Selma used to watch. Was that when she saw the little man sitting on the back of Martin the goose? Was that when she heard the distant gaggling of the old leader of the flock, Akka? The roots of the national epics are amazing, they run beneath the earth of our ancestors and reach all the way to my heart.
Old Svensson died yesterday. His daughter Sara told me he was 93 years old. I’m sad, but at the same time I feel a strange peace. Here in Skåne we don’t feel the cold severity of the fjords so much. Death does not emerge from behind the black rocks to barter over our souls, it comes slowly, amid the chirping of crickets and the smell of Swedish thyme, gently intertwining with birth. Sara said that when Svensson died, a calf was born in his red, 19th-century barn. If I had believed, like old Pythagoras, in the wandering of souls, I would be searching the eyes of this wobbly newborn calf for the playful flashes I saw in Svensson when, having eaten his portion of stockfish, he lit a long pipe filled with cherry tobacco.
I remembered Svensson walking along a forest path. (Oh, Heidegger, you exalted scribe! How well you knew it and how little you understood it! And yet it is with your words, with your Benedictine constructions that I battle every time I travel through forests and fields.) Suddenly, Pukke emerged from the lush ferns. I had heard of this ancient Swedish sprite but never met him – until that day.
“Per Nyquist,” said Pukke, “I want to show you something.”
We walked on through the forest, the Swedish forest, full of northern melancholy. Beautiful hazel growing here, slender pines shooting upwards over there. Greenery thirsty for rain and scant sun filtering through the clouds. Pukke finally stopped in a clearing with a grassy burial mound in the middle.
At first, it looked like a small bump under which only something the size of a rabbit could be buried.
“Who’s buried here? A rabbit?” I asked, swept up in a sudden oafish cheerfulness, like a mediaeval jester at mad Ingmar’s. Pukke sighed.
“Rabbits deserve respect too, maybe more than you humans. But look carefully, Per Nyquist.”
Suddenly my field of vision began to flicker and I saw not a burial mound, but a mighty wooded hill. I rubbed my eyes… and there was the mound in front of me again, but this time it was neither small nor large, but standard size.
“Whose burial mound is this?” I asked.
“Here, Per Nyquist,” said Pukke solemnly, “lies Ronja, the robber’s daughter.”
“What? The one from the book?”
“The very same. Every year, the forests used to hear her call of spring. But now she is sleeping under this mound until the world changes.”
We both looked at the grassy mound in silence for a moment.
“Why have you shown me this, wise Pukke?”
“Because Svensson has died, and it was he who tended the mound: he watered it, smoothed it, checked the wind and the wild boars hadn’t torn at the soil or grass. This is a task for humans, because Ronja has been serving you for years. That’s why you will replace him.”
“It’s a great honour. But why didn’t you choose Sara, Svensson’s daughter?”
“Because she lives in Stockholm,” replied Pukke matter-of-factly. He came closer, took a silver bell from the pocket of his doublet and rang it. A high-pitched sound ripped through the sky over Skåne.
“Will you take on this task, Per Nyquist?”
“Yes,” I replied in a trembling voice.
“So I chose wisely. Thank you. If you ever need me, call out: ‘Pukke, Pukke, little sprite, I bid you appear before my eyes!’”
He was gone before I could ask the one question that was bothering me: was Birk lying there with Ronja? Were they together for the rest of their lives? Or had they also been choked by the routine we know so well in our weary relationships? Did the surprised Grey Dwarves observe a tense silence in the Bear’s Cave, the type that grows between quarrelsome people who no longer want to be together? Or maybe Birk and Ronja overcame their crises and stayed together until the end? Loving each other? Hating each other? Liking? Tolerating? Does Birk also lie here?
I could have summoned Pukke with the rhyme, but I didn’t dare. I went closer to see if there was a plaque of some kind, but it was a mound, not a tombstone, and unfortunately there was no plaque to be found.
Joanna Wapińska (Polish imposter)
A few years ago I went to Skåne to sing Polish folk songs. I learnt them from the internet. I don’t really know anything about singing or folklore. My friend Aga, who knows a lot and has contacts, gave me false references, so I could travel under the guise of an expert. I performed in several community centres, singing the repertoire of Warsaw Village Band; when I was short of material, I added something from Golec uOrkiestra. My fee was relatively small for Sweden, but impressive for Poland. My singing was average, but the Scandinavians, who are extremely well-mannered, were ashamed to tell me so and put up a good front, as Aga had predicted.
One evening, I was due to sing at the community centre in Hogennsping. It was a large village, situated among the green pastures and forests of Skåne, with red, well-kept houses, a pleasantly modest Protestant church and a one-storey community centre built in the Swedish modernist style. I still had some free time before the performance, so I went out to get some fresh air. I was just wondering whether the villagers would give me cinnamon buns after the show when suddenly, Pastor Knutsson was there at the edge of the meadow flagging me down.
“Joanna, don’t be surprised if you meet someone unusual,” he said. “Pukke walks in the meadows at this hour.”
“Pukke? Who’s that?” I asked.
“You don’t know him?” said Knutsson, surprised. “I thought that since you’re a folklore expert…”
“Ah, Pukke! I misheard… Of course, of course.” I was lying through my teeth.
“Are you surprised that a pastor talks of a pagan imp?”
“No, no, I completely understand. These days, we must be open.”
The pastor took his leave, and I set off on my stroll. A pagan imp? What did he mean? Was it some kind of joke? Suddenly, a small man emerged from behind a tree. He was wearing a green doublet and boots. It took me a moment to realize how small he was – about 30 centimetres tall. I was looking at a dwarf.
“Hello, mortal from Poland,” he said. “I am Pukke.”
His voice was low and seemed to come from under the ground.
“Hello, Mr Pukke,” I spluttered.
“I see you have heard of me, as a folklore expert. Tell me, how are the Slavic imps doing?”
All I could do was keep lying.
“Terrific,” I replied. Pukke was clearly pleased.
“I thought so. And who is their leader?”
I was stumped. If my answer was too vague, he’d figure out I knew nothing. On the other hand, if I was too specific, I could easily say something incorrect, which he would pick up on immediately.
I tried to remember some of the bedtime stories and books that Miss Jela (her real name was Gabriela) had read us in nursery many years ago.
“Aha!” cried Pukke triumphantly. “I knew it! The evil ones always succeed! And what does he get up to?”
What can dwarves like that get up to?
“He wanders around the forest,” I stammered.
“He always was a wanderer.” Pukke laughed. “I have a request.”
He took out a bundle of banknotes from inside his doublet and handed it to me. I didn’t dare to count it in front of him, but it was an awful lot.
“A million kronas,” he said. “Take it to Hałabała. They’re doing well now, but no-one knows what fate will bring. And I’ve got plenty.”
“Oh, Mr Pukke, where did you get so much money?”
“From donations. I also sold a few souvenirs from the times of Eric the Victorious. Nowadays, it’s important to have financial reserves.”
So I took the money and said goodbye to Pukke. Now, of course, I have to give it to Hałabała. But where does he live – maybe Kampinos, or Białowieża? I’ll ask Aga.
Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster
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