“A Shallow Grave” by Fred Skolnik

Fred Skolnik

Mildred decided that she wanted to be buried alive. The grave was shaped to her body, but just before getting in she had second thoughts and for one awful moment considered the possibility that she was making a big mistake. Nonetheless she lay down with her arms folded on her breast and closed her eyes, thinking she would hold her breath. Some dirt fell on her face, which she found annoying, so she brushed it away, though realizing that the earth would soon be coming down on her in great heaps. Stanley and Edgar stood above her, leaning on their shovels. “Are you ready?” Stanley said. “Go ahead,” Mildred replied. She was as ready as she was ever going to be.

Stanley threw in the first shovelful and it fell over her body quite lightly so she barely felt it. Then Edgar threw in a shovelful that landed on her leg with a kind of thud. Clearly they were staying away from her face and head, being somewhat squeamish, she imagined. They picked up the pace a little and soon the lower part of her body was covered. This wasn’t the effect she had wanted. She had imagined the earth in her mouth and her nostrils. As it was she didn’t even have to hold her breath.

“Are you sure about this?” Stanley said.

It was now or never. If she hesitated she wouldn’t be able to go through with it. She tried to spread the earth around a little so that it would come up at least to her neck and she would feel it burying her. “Go ahead,” she said again, and now she felt it flying into her face and it was the way she had imagined it, less and less of her face being exposed and then the point of her nose sticking out and then the total darkness as she held her breath and another shovelful coming down with another thud and she was under now, buried alive.

“Let’s get her out,” Edgar said.

“This is what she wants,” Stanley said.

“It’s crazy,” Edgar said.

They stood there staring down at the grave as though they had all the time in the world. Edgar thought he saw the earth move. “She’s trying to get out,” he said.

“How do you know?”

“The ground’s moving.”

“No it isn’t.”

Then Edgar had an idea. He stuck the handle of the shovel down into the burial mound, right about where her hands would be. “Let’s see what happens,” he said. But nothing happened. “You see,” Stanley said. “She knows what she’s doing.”

“We could get in trouble for this,” Edgar said.


“We killed her. That’s murder.”

“Not if she wanted it.”

“Are you sure?”

“That’s the law,” Stanley said.

“Do you think she’s dead already?”

“I don’t know.”

They stared at the grave for a while longer and still nothing moved. She was probably less than a foot down because they’d gotten tired of digging soon enough as when they buried a cat or dog and left the grave as shallow as they reasonably could, so Stanley thought there might be some air getting through, maybe into a little pocket above her head, and in that case she might stay alive for days, which he kind of hoped would be the case.

“Let’s check,” Edgar said.


“Let’s uncover her face a little.”

They kneeled down and started scooping out the earth in small, unhurried handfuls. Then they saw her as though she was sleeping peacefully, without a sign of life.

Edgar said, “Mildred! Mildred! Do you hear me?”

She did not reply. Edgar touched her face. It was neither warm nor cold. They scooped out some more earth and then Edgar put his ear to her chest and Stanley looked for her pulse. “I think she’s breathing,” Edgar said. He shook her once or twice but she didn’t move.

“She doesn’t have a pulse,” Stanley said.

“What are we supposed to do?” Edgar said.

“Let’s cover her up again.”

“Are you crazy?”

“We can’t just leave her like this.”

“What if she’s alive?”

“She isn’t.”

“We better tell someone.”

“Then we’ll really be in trouble.”

After they buried her again they went away. An hour passed, and then another. Mildred lay very still, not breathing, just waiting. She saw some pictures in her head and watched them for a while. Being dead wasn’t really what she’d thought it would be. She just had to lie there and wait as long as it took. Soon, she was sure, they’d come down to take her away.


Fred Skolnik is the editor in chief of the recently published 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal. He was born in New York and has lived in Israel since 1963, working mostly as an editor and translator.

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