When To Stop

“They were doing renovations to extend the basement cafeteria. A bunch of Turkish workers were digging. They got a little surprise.”

Excavation work had torn up part of the sidewalk. Arkady joined the onlookers on the precarious edge, where klieg lamps aimed an incandescent surpriselight at a power shovel in a hole two stories deep and about twenty meters square.

In the hole an organized crew of men in coveralls and hard hats worked on the ground and up on scaffolding with picks and trowels, plastic bags, surgical masks and latex gloves. One man dislodged what looked like a brown ball, which he placed in a canvas bucket that he lowered by rope to the ground. He returned to his trowel and painstakingly freed a rib cage with arms attached. As Arkady’s eyes adjusted he saw that one entire face of the excavation was layered with human remains outlined by the snow, a cross section of soil with skulls for stones and femurs for sticks. Some were clothed, some weren’t. The smell was of sweet compost.

The canvas bucket was passed fire brigade style across the pit and pulled by rope up to a tent where other shadowy bodies were laid out on tables. The colonel went from tent to tent and barked at the men sorting bones to work faster.

Sergeant Gleb said, “They want all the bodies out by morning. They don’t want people to see.”

“How many so far?”

“It’s a mass grave, who can say?”

“How old?”

“From the clothes, they say the forties or fifties. Holes in the back of the head. In the basement of the Supreme Court yet. March you right downstairs and boom! That’s how they used to do it. That was some court.”

Gleb asked, “What if the grave runs under the entire court?”

“That’s always the problem, isn’t it? Once you start digging, when to stop?”

—Martin Cruz Smith, Stalin’s Ghost

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6 Responses to “When To Stop”


  1. 1 Miep O'Brien March 14, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    Dwarf Tale

    I think of you, tonight
    Up there in your rafters
    Spinning the fleece into gold
    And speaking the secret names.

    I was told once
    I had an abnormal grasp
    Of Rumplestiltskin, another spinner.

    He did not get the child, either.
    But at least he got the last word,
    before falling through the trap-door
    poor punished weaver
    guilty only of loving children
    and secrecy.

    What a lightweight.

    And what of that tearing in two?
    That is sort of trap-door-like,
    such piecing of one’s self into parts.

    And never pretty. The afterimages are really pretty gross.
    No one wants to watch, and yet they do
    And yet they do.

    And what of the child?
    That is always the question, isn’t it?
    There he is, all squalling and prescient.
    That trap door stuff is pretty rough
    It’s kind of hard to keep secret
    There will be repercussions.

    The princess who faked her way in will have a lot of stories to tell,
    She will be kept quite busy with all this.

    The kid will grow up wondering just what all that was about
    The bit about the dwarf and the gold
    that he hears about from servants, rarely
    just before they grow old.

    It will never be clear, he’ll never quite get the straight story
    dig under floorboards though he may.
    That dwarf must be down here somewhere,
    he’ll think.

    He’ll  know he didn’t just make this all up.

    Sooner or later, he’ll get around to it
    He’ll look for a revelation of names
    Layered in strata,
    All the way to China.

    • 2 Miep O'Brien March 14, 2013 at 5:05 pm

      I’ve always been pleased with poem, though I know it can be seen as anti-feminist. The girl gets a raw deal, her father is patriarchal, she’s supposed to please this guy but she can’t, she doesn’t have the power. So this Magical Helper shows up, he saves the day but he wants something back. That’s kind of unusual with magical helpers in classic fairy tales. They may play tricks but they don’t usually make these kinds of deals and become outraged when the bargain doesn’t work out. It’s an oddly legalistic fairy tale, and the Magical Helper usually doesn’t take things so personally. Generally all the loose ends are all tidied up, and the main characters get to live happily ever after. Child custody battles don’t generally survive the ending – after all, it’s never made clear that the dwarf poses any harm to the child.

      Maybe I’m reading it wrong, maybe the dwarf is just the flip side of the father who lets his daughter get caught up into all of this. But there is no male savior in this story except the magical helper dwarf, who gets done in, in fact rips himself in two. So I guess where I’m coming from here is that there are no positive male characters in this story, which focuses around a boy child, and where does that leave him?

  2. 5 Miep O'Brien March 14, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    For then things you do endear you to me…


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When I Worked

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