When Mr. Pendanski wakes everyone up the next morning, Stanley feels like he had only just fallen asleep. For breakfast he gets orange juice and bad-smelling cereal. It is still dark when he begins digging his first hole. The shovel feels heavy in his hands, and at first he thinks there is something wrong with it. He has trouble even cracking through the surface of the hard dirt.
Stanley’s shovel is five feet long from end to end. He is supposed to use it as a measuring tool for his hole, which needs to be five feet deep and five feet across in all directions. The whole lakebed appears to be full of holes. Before Stanley set out in the morning, Mr. Pendanski reminded him to tell a counselor if anything unusual turned up in his hole. He also said Stanley is not supposed to be looking for anything specific; he is just supposed to dig.
By the time Stanley has dug a small amount, he realizes that he is piling dirt within the area his hole is supposed to cover. He measures the ground with his shovel and moves his dirt out of the way. The digging is easier below the top crust of the earth, but by the time Stanley gets down that far, he already has a blister.
While digging, Stanley thinks of his great-great-grandfather, Elya Yelnats of Latvia. At fifteen, Elya fell in love with a fourteen-year-old girl named Myra Menke. Myra’s father decided Myra should marry Igor Barkov, a pig farmer who was willing to exchange a pig for the girl. Desperate, Elya went to see Madame Zeroni, an old Egyptian woman, who told him Myra was an empty-headed fool. She advised Elya to go to America and make his fortune, but Elya was too lovesick to take her advice.
After some deliberation, Madame Zeroni decided to help Elya. She gave him a runt pig and told him to carry it up the mountain every day and let it drink from a stream where the water ran uphill. While the pig drank, Elya was supposed to sing it a special song. Madame Zeroni promised that by Myra’s fifteenth birthday—the day she was supposed to be married—Elya’s pig would be fatter than Igor Barkov’s pig. Then Myra’s father would accept it as Myra’s dowry.
In exchange for her kindness, Madame Zeroni wanted only one favor. After Elya carried the pig up the mountain the final time, he was supposed to come back and carry Madame Zeroni to the stream and sing her the special song while she drank from it. Madame Zeroni warned Elya that if he failed to live up to his part of the bargain, he and his offspring would be cursed forever. Elya agreed.
When Stanley’s hole is three feet deep in the center, the sun comes up. His hands are covered in blisters, and his canteen is empty. Everyone else’s hole is bigger than his. When Mr. Sir comes to fill the boys’ canteens, he examines Stanley’s hole and tells him to dig faster or he will still be digging during the hottest part of the day.
Stanley goes back to digging and continues the story of his great-great-grandfather in his mind. After Madame Zeroni gave Elya the pig, he carried it up the mountain every day. As the pig grew bigger, Elya grew stronger. By the time Myra turned fifteen, the pig’s weight had reached fifty stones. Elya was supposed to carry the pig up the mountain on her birthday, but he did not want to smell like a pig when...
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he went to ask for her hand in marriage. He took his pig directly to Myra’s father instead. Myra’s father was impressed with the pig and with Elya’s physique, which had grown stronger from all the exercise of carrying the pig up and down the mountain. But when Elya’s father weighed the pig, it had the exact same weight as Igor’s.
Stanley keeps digging. His blisters rip open, and new blisters form on top of them. He has to remove his hat and use it as a pad between his hands and the shovel, but that just makes it harder to get a grip. His dirt piles up too close to the edges of his hole, so he has to climb out and move it farther away.
Myra’s father was unable to decide between the two pigs, so Elya convinced him to let Myra decide between the two men. Myra waffled back and forth between the two men for a while, then decided that each should pick a number between one and ten. She would marry the one whose number was closest to the one she was thinking. Elya was disgusted. He told her to marry Igor and keep his pig as a wedding present.
Stanley takes a break to eat when Mr. Sir arrives with lunches and more water. Stanley is exhausted. Magnet says, “Well, the first hole’s the hardest.” Stanley’s hole is much smaller than everyone else’s, and it is still getting hotter. He is so tired he can barely stand up. He begins to wonder what the adults will do to him if he just quits.
After leaving Myra, Elya wandered through town, heartbroken. He made his way to the pier and saw a sign advertising free passage to America in exchange for deckhand work. He signed up and set out for America. He was already on his way when he remembered his promise to carry Madame Zeroni up the mountain. He felt terrible, not because of the curse but because he liked Madame Zeroni and wanted to help her drink from the stream before she died. He did not believe in curses.
Zero, the smallest boy from D tent, is the first to finish his hole. Stanley watches Zero measure it, spit in it, and set out toward camp. One by one, the rest of Stanley’s tent-mates finish their holes, spit in them, and walk back to camp. Stanley’s hole is only as deep as his shoulder is high.
In America, Elya married a smart, strong woman. However, he constantly had bad luck. He looked for the son of Madame Zeroni, hoping he could somehow carry him up a mountain and undo the curse, but he could not find the boy. He taught his wife Madame Zeroni’s special song, and she made up new English words for it. Soon they had a son, whom they named Stanley.
When Stanley finally finishes his hole, his arms feel so weak he cannot pull himself out. He has to dig footholds to climb up. When he gets out, Mr. Pendanski is coming out in the water truck to check on him and make sure he has not fainted. Stanley is proud of his hole even though he knows it is nothing to be proud of. He refuses Mr. Pendanski’s offer of a ride back to camp. He spits in his hole and walks to D tent.