Skip to content
Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the March 2019 issue

From “Aednan”

Linnéa Axelsson’s August Prize-winning epic traces Sami history in the twentieth century.
 

X

Vass Valley. Fall 1920
(Aslat the dead)

You left me 
on the Swede’s farm

alone and wrapped
in my large kolt

-

I didn’t stay there

-

One fall and one winter
we cried together

Then you joined
the herd and
left

As for me I spread
my kolt into wings
and flew away

blood drained 
from my body and
vanished

-

I couldn’t stay

Where I had fallen
never to rise
again

-

Did you feel me Father

blowing across the sea

Didn’t you hear me

Among the sea birds
when you arrived 
with your summer-fattened
reindeer

-

I was the lone
strand from the reindeer’s coat
gliding across the surface of the sea

in the bay by
the reindeer’s swimming spot

-

And the pretty hill
in the fall-summer sun

Where the herd 
had to find its own way
down the rocks

Until thick fog rolled in

And it was
impossible to see
the pitch of the slope

-

I was the forest 
thickening

around the great
forest way
hewn 
in olden times

-

Where your lead reindeer
cleaned its horns

Did you feel it Mother
in your hand

that long while you spent
milking the tame cow
who then disappeared
among the trees

-

To search for lichen
and mushrooms and lick
urine from the ground

-

I was the weight
in the stone you brought
back from the coast

to place on 
my grave

One stone each summer

you carry home
to the winterland
Nila and you

-

Mother you caress
that scar on my
brother’s forehead
as though it were a
whisper from me

-

Because I once
threw a wooden log 
at him

that hit right there

Nila when I fell

-

You continued
to treat me
the same

as though I
hadn’t changed

-

The same old
slow smile
while my head quietly
wanted to roll back
into place

deep between my shoulders

Nila did you feel that
I was the movement
under the boat

in the mountain lake where
Mother and you
spread the nets

-

Did you catch
my gaze
in the eye of the storm

-

I stood on a branch
my legs were like 
sticks
When the wind bent
back the yellowing
leaves

I saw strange mountains

with roaring rivers

-

And I flew over
the boat and called
to you:

There will be rain
there will be rain


XI

Dápmotjávri. Aslat’s grave. Karesuando Cemetery.
Fall–Winter 1920
(Ber-Joná)

That fall
the Lapp Bailiff came

-

The ruling language
ran over us

Swedish words
impossible to pronounce

-

They pushed in
through our clothes
coated our skin

-


-

The needling gaze

a rain through
all that one loves

-

Dirty were we
living with dogs

half-nomads who
followed after livestock

-

Bread so tough it 
made your teeth fall out
baked by our women

-

In the midst of the breeding grounds
he appeared
with the darkening sky

To hold forth
among our
cows in heat

-

He had a message
from the three 
countries’ men

Swedes Norwegians
and Finns
-

Far away from 
the reindeer’s world several
families had been selected

We had to start forcing
our herds to graze on
strange lands

We were to be driven
from the forests mountains
and lakes

Migration paths and songs
had to be stifled
stricken from memory

-

The herd’s memory

the reindeer calves’ legs
that always
led us home

-

Now they would be born 
on other lands

Now each step
homeward in autumn
was a departure from
our lives

-

My brother and the others

said farewell to the trails
and hillsides

-

Never again would
we sit on the island’s slope
where the ocean smoothed
the stones

where Aslat once
had learned to walk

With this my stomach 
tied itself in dark knots

-

While winter 
as ever
whitened on

from all the colors
around us

-

And we tried
to scare off wolves
we traveled fast through
frozen forests

-

Then I was again
at home in the winterland

Watching twilight
dwindle gray between
gray farms

-

In the birch forest
across the ice
was a group of cots

With pillars of smoke
rising beyond 
the graveyard
where you were waiting
Ristin

-

Beyond
the graveyard walls

by Aslat’s grave

I took your hand

you had an
infected wound above
your eyebrow

-

Silent you placed 
the last stone
from the coast

on his grave

-

Nila’s fingers
had to be held
like jerking
reins

And the familiar
waves spoke 
to me 

of a freedom
in the sea

-

I said that I 
hated the reindeer

but needed them
too

-

We have to leave 
Aslan again

For the sake of work
and the herd

Here he would 
remain
alone

While we were being driven
from our homes

-

Then you said:

What kind of home is it
where no one dares say
our son’s name

-

Aslat is forgotten

Only his fate 
is remembered

But you promised me

that his head was resting
safely in his grave

-

The dead
were not allowed to be 
exhumed

-

And the bells
tolled beyond
the forest

-

We were called 
to a church weekend

One last time
we would
meet our own

-

Because now it was full

It was full of
people in the village


XII

Karesuando church village. Winter 1920
(Ristin)


The Swede’s fingers 
all inside my mouth

clothing strewn
across the floor

-

Me thinking 
it was because of my
bad teeth

that the traveling doctor had come

-

With hard tools
he measured me

learned men
in every nook

With razor-sharp
scratching pens

they went
through me

-

I could tell that the
short one
was taking shape 
on their papers

Using royal ink
to draw
the racial animal

-

The shackles
of our obedience

unfastened
my home-sewn belt

-

My breasts hung
their distaste blazed

-

I saw how they
wrinkled their
slender noses

laughing
all the while

-

My friend beside me
was quick to help me
on with my kolt

Then she quietly translated
their questions
about what we did 
when menstruating

-

Over the doctor’s shoulder
the minister

-

And I heard him 
say in Finnish:

The way their men drink
makes God cry
and the Devil laugh

And the shame

took root in me

because of my dark hair
and my
dark eyes

-

Outside the barn
my friend’s daughters
shivering waiting 
for their treatment

-

And my poor Nila
was fished out

from where I don’t know

A camera was pointed
at his
upset face

until he just
sank through the floor

-

I watched them trample 
him
with heavy boots

Tall chairs
were dragged out and they
sat down on him

-

I noticed how big 
he’d gotten
not a child anymore

there he stood lost
and mute among their 
bare hands
touching him

-

He should come 
with us to the institution
said the doctor

and finally
my body obeyed

-

And I went up 
to the men
and pulled the weak one 
from the Swede’s grip
 

From Aednan. © Linnea Axelsson. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Saskia Vogel. All rights reserved.

Read more from the March 2019 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.