The Three Chests: The Story of the Wicked Old Man of the Sea
There was once an honest old farmer who had three daughters. His farm ran down to the shores of a deep lake. One day as he leaned over the water to take a drink, wicked old Wetehinen reached up from the bottom of the lake and clutched him by the beard.
“Ouch! Ouch!” the farmer cried. “Let me go!”
Wetehinen only held on more tightly. “Yes, I’ll let you go,” he said, “but only on this condition: that you give me one of your daughters for wife!”
“Give you one of my daughters? Never!”
“Very well, then I’ll never let go!” wicked old Wetehinen declared and with that he began jerking at the beard as if it were a bell rope.
“Wait! Wait!” the fanner spluttered. Now he didn’t want to give one of his daughters to wicked old Wetehinen — of course not! But at the same time he was in Wetehinen’s power and he realized that if he didn’t do what the old reprobate demanded he might lose his life and so leave all three of his daughters orphans. Perhaps for the good of all he had better sacrifice one of them.
“All right,” he said, “let me go and I’ll send you my oldest daughter. I promise.”
So Wetehinen let go his beard and the farmer scrambled to his feet and hurried home.
“My dear,” he said to his oldest daughter, “I left a bit of the harness down at the lake. Like a good girl will you run down and get it for me.”
The eldest daughter went at once and when she reached the water’s edge, old Wetehinen reached up and caught her about the waist and carried her down to the bottom of the lake where he lived in a big house.
At first he was kind to her. He made her mistress of the house and gave her the keys to all the rooms and closets. He went very carefully over the keys and pointing to one he said, “That key you must never use for it opens the door to a room which I forbid you to enter.”
The eldest daughter began keeping house for old Wetehinen and spent her time cooking and cleaning and spinning much as she used to at home with her father. The days went by and she grew familiar with the house and began to know what was in every room and every closet.
At first she felt no temptation to open the forbidden door. If old Wetehinen wanted to have a secret room, well and good. But why in the world had he given her the key if he really didn’t want her to open the door? The more she thought about it the more she wondered. Every time she passed the room she stopped a moment and stared at the door. It looked just exactly like the doors that led into all the other rooms.
“I wonder why he doesn’t want me to open just that door?” she kept asking herself.
Finally one day when old Wetehinen was away she thought, “I don’t believe it would matter if I opened that door just a little crack and peeped in once! No one would know the difference!”
For a few moments she hesitated, then mustered up courage enough to turn the key in the forbidden lock and throw open the door. The room was a storeroom with boxes and chests and old jars piled up around the wall. That was unexciting enough, but in the middle of the floor was something that made her start when she saw what it was. It was blood — that’s what it was, a pool of dark red blood! She was about to slam the door shut when she saw something else that made her pause. This was a lovely shining ring that lay in the midst of the pool.
“Oh!” she thought to herself, “what a beautiful ring! If I had it I’d wear it on my finger!”
The longer she looked at it, the more she wanted it. “If I’m very careful,” she said, “I know I could reach over and pick it up without touching the blood.”
She tiptoed cautiously into the room, wrapped her skirts tightly about her legs, knelt down on the floor, and stretched her arm over the pool. She picked up the ring very carefully but even so she got a few drops of blood on her fingers.
“No matter!” she thought. “I can wash that off! And see the lovely ring!”
But later, after she had the door again locked, when she tried to wash the blood off, she found she couldn’t. She tried soap, she tried sand, she tried everything she could think of, but without success.
“I don’t care!” she thought to herself. “If Wetehinen sees the blood, I’ll just tell him I cut my finger by accident.”
So when Wetehinen came home, she hid the ring and pretended nothing was the matter.
After supper Wetehinen put his head in her lap and said, “Now, my dear, scratch my head and make me drowsy for bed.”
She began scratching his head as she had many nights before but, at the first touch of her fingers, he cried out, “Stop! You’re burning my ear! There must be some blood on your fingers! Let me see!”
He reached up and caught her hand and, when he saw the blood stains, he flew into a towering rage. “I thought so! You’ve been in the forbidden room!” He jumped up and without allowing her time to say a word he just cut off her head then and there with no more concern than if she had been a mosquito! After that he took the body and the severed head and threw them into the forbidden room and locked the door.
“Now then,” he growled, “she won’t disobey me again!”
This was all very well but now he had no one to keep house for him and cook and scratch his head in the evening and soon he decided he’d have to get another wife. He remembered that the farmer had two more daughters, so he thought to himself that now he’d marry the second sister.
He waited his chance and one day when the farmer was out in his boat fishing, old Wetehinen came up from the bottom of the lake and clutched the boat. When the poor old farmer tried to row back to shore he couldn’t make the boat move an inch. He worked and worked at the oars and wicked old Wetehinen let him struggle until he was exhausted.
Then he put his head up out of the water and over the side of the boat and as though nothing were the matter he said, “Hullo!”
“Oh!” the farmer cried, wishing he were safe on shore, “it’s you, is it? I wondered what was holding my boat.”
“Yes,” wicked old Wetehinen said, “it’s me and I’m going to hold your boat right here on this spot until you promise to give me another of your daughters.”
What could the farmer do? He pleaded with Wetehinen but Wetehinen was firm and the upshot was that before the farmer again walked dry land he had promised Wetehinen his second daughter.
Well, when he got home, he pretended he had forgotten his ax in the boat and sent his second daughter down to the lake to get it. Wicked old Wetehinen caught her as he had caught her sister and carried her home with him to his house at the bottom of the lake.
Wetehinen treated the second sister just exactly as he had the first, making her mistress of the house and telling her she might use every key but one. Like her sister she, too, after a time gave way to the temptation of looking into the forbidden room and when she saw the shining ring lying in the pool of blood of course she wanted it and of course when she reached to get it she dabbled her fingers in the blood. So that was the end of her, too, for wicked old Wetehinen when he saw the blood stains just cut her head right off and threw her body and the severed head into the forbidden room beside the body and head of her sister and locked the door.
Time went by and the farmer was living happily with his youngest daughter when one day while he was out chopping wood he found a pair of fine birch bark brogues. He put them on and instantly found himself, walking away from the woods and down to the lake. He tried to stop but he couldn’t. He tried to walk in another direction but the brogues carried him straight down to the water’s edge and out into the lake until he was in waist deep.
Then he heard a gruff voice saying, “Hullo, there! What are you doing with my brogues?”
Of course it was wicked old Wetehinen who had played that trick to get the farmer into his power again.
“What do you want this time?” the poor farmer cried.
“I want your youngest daughter,” Wetehinen said.
“What! My youngest daughter!”
“I won’t give her up!” the farmer declared. “I don’t care what you do to me. I won’t give her up!”
“Oh, very well!” Wetehinen said, and immediately the brogues which had been standing still while they talked started walking again. They carried the farmer out into the lake farther and farther until the water was up to his chin.
“Wait — wait a minute!” he cried.
The brogues stopped walking and Wetehinen said, “Well, do you promise to give her to me?”
“No!” the farmer began. “She’s my last daughter and — ”
Before he could say more, the brogues walked on and the water rose to his nose.
In desperation he threw up his hands and shouted, “I promise! I promise!”
So when he got home that day he said to his youngest daughter whose name was Lisa, “Lisa, my dear, I forgot my brogues at the lake. Like a good girl won’t you run and get them for me?”
So Lisa went to the lake and Wetehinen of course caught her and carried her down to his house as he had her two sisters. Then the same old story was repeated. Wetehinen made Lisa mistress of the house and gave her keys to all the doors and closets with the same prohibition against opening the door of the forbidden room.
“If I am mistress of the house,” Lisa said to herself, “why should I not unlock every door?”
She waited until one day when Wetehinen was away from home, then went boldly to the forbidden room, fitted the key in the lock, and flung open the door.
There lay her two poor sisters with their heads cut off. There in the pool of blood sparkled the lovely ring, but Lisa paid no heed to it.
“Wicked old Wetehinen!” Lisa cried. “I suppose he thinks that ring will tempt me, but nothing will tempt me to touch that awful blood!”
Then she rummaged about, opening boxes and chests, and turning things over. In a dark corner she found two pitchers, one marked Water of Life, the other Water of Death.
“Ha! This is what I want!” she cried, taking the pitcher of the Water of Life. She set the severed heads of her sisters in place and then with the magic water brought them back to life. She used up all the Water of Life, so she filled the pitcher marked Water of Life with the water from the other pitcher, the Water of Death. She hid her sisters each in a big wooden chest, she shut and locked the door of the forbidden room, and Wetehinen when he came home found her working at her spinning wheel as though nothing unusual had happened.
After supper Wetehinen said, “Now scratch my head and make me drowsy for bed.”
So Lisa scratched his wicked old head and she did it so well that he grunted with satisfaction.
“Uh! Uh!” he said. “That’s good! Now just behind my right ear! That’s it! That’s it! You’re a good girl, you are! You’re not like some of them who do what they’re told not to do! Now behind the other ear! Oh, that’s fine! Yes, you’re a good girl, and if there’s anything you want me to do just tell me what it is.”
“I want to send a chest of things to my poor old father,” Lisa said. “Just a lot of little nothings — odds and ends that I’ve picked up about the house. I’d be ashamed to have you open the chest and see them. I do wish you’d carry the chest ashore tomorrow and leave it where my father will find it.”
“All right, I will,” Wetehinen promised. He was true to his word. The next morning he hoisted one of the chests on his shoulder, the one that had in it the eldest sister. He trudged off with it, and tossed it up on shore at a place where he was sure the farmer would find it.
Lisa then wheedled him into carrying up the second chest that had in it the second sister. This time Wetehinen wasn’t so good-natured.
“I don’t know what she can always be sending her father!” he grumbled. “If she sends another chest I’ll have to look inside and see.”
Now Lisa, when the second sister was safely delivered, began to plan her own escape. She pulled out another empty chest and then one evening after she had succeeded in making old Wetehinen comfortable and drowsy she begged him to carry this also to her father. He grumbled and protested but finally promised.
“And you won’t look inside, will you? Promise me you won’t!” Lisa begged.
Wetehinen said he wouldn’t, but he intended to just the same.
Well, the next morning as soon as Wetehinen went out, Lisa took the churn and dressed it up in some of her own clothes. She carried it to the top of the house and perched it on the ridge of the roof before a spinning wheel. Then she herself crept inside the third chest and waited.
When Wetehinen came home he looked up and saw what he thought was Lisa spinning on the roof.
“Hullo!” he shouted. “What are you doing up there?”
Lisa, in the chest, answered in a voice that sounded as if it came from the roof: “I’m spinning. And you, Wetehinen, my dear, don’t forget the chest that you promised to carry to my poor old father. It’s standing in the kitchen.”
Wetehinen grumbled but because of his promise he hoisted the chest on his shoulder and started off. When he had gone a little way he thought to put it down and take a peep inside.
Instantly Lisa’s voice, sounding as if it came from the roof, cried out, “No! No! You promised not to look inside!”
“I’m not looking inside!” Wetehinen called back. “I’m only resting a minute!”
Then he thought to himself, “I suppose she’s sitting up there so she can watch me!”
When he had gone some distance farther, he thought again to set down the chest and open the lid but instantly Lisa’s voice, as from a long way off, called out: “No! No! You promised not to look inside!”
“Who’s looking inside?” he called back, pretending again he was only resting.
Every time he thought it would be safe to put down the chest and open the lid, Lisa’s voice cried out: “No! No! You promised not to !”
“Mercy on us!” old Wetehinen fumed to himself, “who would have thought she could see so far!”
On the shore of the lake when he threw down the chest in disgust he tried one last time to raise the lid.
Instantly Lisa’s voice cried out: “No! No! You promised not to!”
“I’m not looking inside!” Wetehinen roared, and in a fury he left the chest and started back into the water.
All the way home He grumbled and growled, “A nice way to treat a man, always making him carry chests! I won’t carry another one no matter how much she begs me!”
When he came neat home he saw the spinning wheel still on the roof and the figure still seated before it.
“Why haven’t you got my dinner ready?” he called out angrily.
The figure at the spinning wheel made no answer.
“What’s the matter with you?” Wetehinen cried. “Why are you sitting there like a wooden image instead of cooking my dinner?”
Still the figure made no answer and in a rage Wetehinen began climbing up the roof. He reached out blindly and clutched at Lisa’s skirt and jerked it so hard that the churn came clattering down on his head. It knocked him off the roof and he fell all the way to the ground and cracked his wicked old head wide open.
“Ouch! Ouch!” he roared in pain. “Just wait till I get hold of that Lisa!”
He crawled to the forbidden room and poured over himself the water that was in the pitcher marked Water of Life. But it wasn’t the Water of Life at all, it was the Water of Death, and so it didn’t help his wicked old cracked head at all. In fact it just made it worse and worse and worse.
Lisa and her sisters were never again troubled by him nor was any one else that lived on the shores of that lake.
“Wonder what’s become of wicked old Wetehinen?” people began saying.
Lisa thought she knew but she didn’t tell.
* Source: Parker Fillmore, Mighty Mikko: A Book of Finnish Fairy Tales and Folk Tales (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1922), pp. 47-65.
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