“One by One” by Nina Kossman

One by One

One by one,
and then another one,
and another one,
we lay down
on the bottom of a pit
your laughter was the last thing we heard,
as you shot a bullet in us.
One by one,
and then by two,
and another two.

Thank you, local collaborators.
Thank you for German bullets.
(Remember the commander’s order:
“Bullets are expensive—don’t waste them!
One bullet for mother and kid!”)

how you made us dig the pit,
how you made us lie on the bottom,
sardine-style, as your commander
called his brilliant invention.
Digging the pit was hard work.
Lying in it was easy.

We watch you
from the bottom of our pit,
as you succumb to senility
and to all it entails
one by one
and then another one,
and another one,
as you lie
in your gilded coffins,
surrounded by a bevy of grandchildren.
We watch you
as you are lowered into the ground
where we still lie sardine-style,
just like we did on that day
when you machine-gunned us
into this yama*.

One by one by one
our bones come to meet you—
it’s an open house day,
we meet-and-greet new guests;
you don’t recognize us
but no matter,
we watch you
from the bottom of our pit,
as you lie awake
clumps of earth in your empty eye sockets;
how easy it was,
how much fun you had:
pif-paf, pif-paf!**

One by one,
and then another one,
and another one.

* yama (яма) – Russian for “pit”
**Pif-paf! Pif-paf! – onomatopoeia for the sound of a gun, in Russian (similar to “Bang! Bang!”)


Nina Kossman (2) this one 2Nina Kossman is a bilingual writer, poet, playwright, and translator of Russian poetry. Her short stories and poems in English have been published in journals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Among her published works are two books of poems in Russian and English, two volumes of translations of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems, two collections of short stories, and a novel. For Oxford University Press, she edited the anthology Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths. Her writing has been translated into Greek, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish, and she is the recipient of a UNESCO/PEN Short Story Award, an NEA translation fellowship, and grants from Foundation for Hellenic Culture, the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, and Fundacion Valparaiso. She lives in New York.