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A Girl’s Guide to Being Buried Alive

You can listen to an audio file of this story here.


You will think it’s a trick of the light, at first, or that your bedclothes obscure your vision. It is not; they do not. Scrub your face all you like—the dark will not fall away from your eyes, but you will dislodge the shroud you don’t yet know is a shroud. Reach now, if you must, for that bedside candle. Knock your knuckles against rough wood. Withdraw your hand and try again.

It is very important to breathe. Slowly.

You may remember, as I did not, your brief tangle with illness, the wilting of your pink cheeks, the drying-thinning of your hair, the sudden fragility of your bones. One day you were young and hale and the next you were a pale, gaunt thing, hushed and whispered over. The doctors and your parents and your love were all quite sure you would die. Prepared themselves for the final closing of your dimming eyes.

Yes, be angry. It will help. It will burn clear through the panic.

They thought you a small and delicate thing, briefly coloring their worlds, like the summer butterflies you admired in the rose garden. They wept over you, rest assured. Your mother still weeps. Your love languishes, bemoans that he never took a lock of your hair. In a day or two, he may come and stand at your tomb, over your grave. Throw his body on the cold earth or stone. Curse the uncaring heavens.

No, you cannot wait that long. And what if he does not come? What if he does not hear your muffled cries?

It may occur to him to dig you up, as my love did me. Not out of any faint hope that you are still alive, that there was some mistake, although there was. He doesn’t do it for you at all. It’s for him. Oh, he’ll say he just wants some small token—that lock of hair or a scrap from your dress. Or else he only wants to say goodbye, to look at your face once more before the rot and the maggots take it. Some want more than tokens, more than words, more than tearful looks.

If you are sick in here, you will have to live with it, as long as you live. Swallow down the bile. Save your strength.

They were hasty when they put you in the earth; they often are when it’s quick, unexpected. Someone young. Your grandfather’s monument was finished long before he gasped his last. You have only your best dress, your simple wooden box, your long white sheet. The earth over your coffin has not settled. The mausoleum is locked, but they designed it against grave robbers, not escapees.

I’m not saying it will be easy. I assure you, it will not be. But you have a chance.

Your first impulse will be to scratch, tear at the wood with your delicate nails and peel up curlicues of fiber piece by piece. This will take far too long. The wood is cheap, but it’s also almost green. If it were rotten, maybe. No, you’ll take advantage of the hasty craftsmanship. You’ll kick and punch and thrash. Beat at the boards, loosen the bindings. This is no time to be dainty—the gentility of your last life has no place here. You are a woman embattled. Recall every tiny step you had to take instead of running. That ridiculous demure whisper—eyelids lowered—you exhaled, breathy, instead of shouting. Un-bottle the girl you were before you heard the word “unladylike” for the first time all those years ago.

There is no one here to offend. No breaches of courtesy. No injury of your reputation. Just you: under the earth, behind stone.

If you are lucky, you are above ground and your struggles will have tipped your coffin onto the floor, where it’s broken. You crawl out from the splintered boards, disheveled and panting. Your heartbeat is thrumming in your ears and, although you are cold, you are alive, blood rushing through you. If the undertaker doesn’t hear your cries, you will have to smash your way out, attacking the gated door. If you are clever, you might take the pin from your hair and pick the lock. Or else you grin, heady with your fury, and begin the barrage with urn or statuary, whatever’s handy.

Maybe, though, you are unlucky, like I was. Maybe the earth begins to shower through the cracks in your prison. Maybe you are panicking. It’s hard, but keep breathing, shallow, through your nose. Cover your mouth with your shroud. You have only this moment before you will need to dig, to climb. Take a breath in each pocket of air you find—they are precious. Do not stop. This is not the moment to quit, to fall victim to the frailness they taught you was lovely. This, this is lovelier, this struggle for the surface, your filthy fingers breaking through the topmost layer, that first deep clear breath of fresh air, cold and pure in your aching lungs.

Entombed or buried, drink deep this taste of freedom. It is yours and yours alone.

You have a choice now, of course. Maybe the undertaker will find you, flopped on the wet grass like a caught fish, collapsed on the steps of your family’s crypt. If you wait, there will be voices and blankets and hot tea with a little brandy to help you sleep. Your mother will weep on your hands and even your stoic father will look at you with wet-eyed affection and your brothers and sisters will wait on you for days. And your love, your love will never leave your side again. You could wait and it will happen.

Or—

Or, you could struggle to your feet, pull a workman’s coat from a nearby headstone, shrug it over your thin shoulders. Hands in the pockets, head down, you could walk away from all of it, newly made. Reborn.

And never look back.


Julia Patt has never met an abandoned bookstore she didn’t like. Her fiction has appeared in such publications as Phantom Drift, The Fiction Desk, and PANK. She lives in Maryland with her family and two cats.