Croatia / Satellite Review / Literature / Fiction

Buried Alive

A short story by Maša Kolanović

Illustration by Maša Kolanović

It was auntie’s last wish to be buried with her mobile phone. She asked us to ring her on the day after the funeral. Three times. Once in the morning, once at midday, and once in the evening. At least that’s what we gathered from her spidery handwriting when we went to pick up her things from the old peoples’ home. If there was one thing that scared her more than death itself it was the fear of being buried alive, an idea she became obsessed with during the last, immobile, year of her life. According to family legend, a distant relative of hers had been buried alive at Boninovo Cemetery a century ago, just after the former brothel had been turned into a graveyard. When it came to the next burial in the same family plot, the gravediggers found the unfortunate woman’s open coffin, together with torn clothes and broken bones. Clear proof, they thought, of an unsuccessful escape attempt. There was of course another explanation, that one of the gravediggers had tried to steal the deceased’s jewelry and totally messed everything up. The poor bloke was only trying to feed his family I suppose. Back in the Seventies one of our relatives wrote an article about the case. It was published in several installments in one of the national newspapers.

Vegetating in the old folks’ home day after day, auntie must have had plenty of time to dwell on the macabre. And me and my brother would have to spend an extra day in Dubrovnik just to carry this last wish out. It was too embarrassing to ask any of our relatives down here to do it. Even my brother tried to wriggle out of it. Auntie had never married and didn’t have any children, and the Dubrovnik side of the family was pretty stand-offish. They were the kind of people who remain at a polite distance even beyond the grave.

Our mum was too exhausted to come to her sister’s funeral. Viewed from Zagreb, Dubrovnik seemed an awfully long way away. Beyond the Tropic of Capricorn almost. Over the last few years me and my brother had been the only members of the family’s northern branch who had bothered to come down and visit. Once a year at most. A year was something that passed relatively quickly for Zagreb folk like us, whereas for auntie each year was a long, unbearably slow period of decline. Each time we visited her we saw enormous changes for the worse. From walking stick to wheelchair, from wheelchair to not even getting out of bed. These were the stages of her gradual capitulation; a broken knee to start with, then a stroke, and finally a fractured hip that anchored her permanently to the mattress. Right from that first setback, which now seems quite trivial in comparison to the ones that followed, it was as if she had accepted the terms of unconditional surrender, letting herself fall from one abyss into another before finally being able to fall no further. The last time we saw her alive, just under a year ago, she was lying motionless, haggard, rigid, and probably drugged up on whatever it is they pump into old folks to prevent them from complaining too much or calling for help.

She no longer wore her false teeth and her face looked like a dried fig. She was constantly losing weight. She ate like a mouse, consuming just enough to stay alive, partly because she was depressed, partly because she just didn’t have the energy, and partly because her medication extinguished any remaining spark of interest. Stretched out on the bed with atrophied muscles and flappy skin, her nappy-clad legs looked like a pair of chicken wings. We couldn’t understand what she was saying anymore, but then she never said anything that sounded as if it was supposed to make sense anyway. Only her eyes showed signs of life, emitting a gaze of unbearable sorrow that lost itself somewhere just above our heads. Sometimes on meeting that gaze I would burst uncontrollably into tears. Perhaps I wasn’t crying because of her. There was a lot of distance between us, what with us in the north, and her in the south. We had got used to living without each other a long time ago. I was crying because of what can happen to all of us, and what will happen to all of us, helpless and fragile as we are, with a sell-by date that only marginally exceeds the life span of an insect. At times like these she would desperately stretch her bony fingers with uncut fingernails towards me. These little movements of hers would always upset me, even scare me a little. It reminded me that inside our hard shells we are unbearably alone.

Back in the days when she was still on her feet, in her own apartment, in her own body and with her own recognizable spirit, she constantly complained about the state of the town. Or tahn, as she would say, with the long drawn-out vowels of the south. There aren’t any decent shops in tahn anymore. It’s impossible to get a watch repaired in tahn. The market in tahn is just one big souvenir shop nowadays. You can’t even find a decent sprig of parsley. Only that candied orange peel, and bits of jellied fruit wrapped up in ribbons, as if that’s all we bloomin’ well live off. We haven’t even got anywhere to buy flowers to take to the graveyard. There’s nowhere left in tahn where you can shorten a coat or take in a skirt. And if you want to buy cat-food you have to go all the way to Gruž!

And she fed a whole troop of cats. They would wait below her balcony, which looks out onto the Orthodox Church. That balcony was her little corner of paradise. Of course she complained about the racket under her window, a racket that started at five in the morning and never let up. And about the absolutely frightful crowds in summer. We never took this constant moaning all that seriously. To us it was part of her character, or that proverbial sense of privilege that residents of the Old Town always displayed, like eternally spoiled kids. But when we went for a walk down the Stradun together, when she was still mobile, she rarely met anyone she knew. It was as if the old Dubrovnik had slowly drifted away. If she did run into an acquaintance, they would stand and moan to each other about what had become of the tahn. And how it was high time to move out. Even the word tahn was heard less and less on the streets.

We buried her in the family grave in Boninovo. Only a few friends came, together with some people representing the places where she used to work, and a handful of relatives. The mobile phone was buried with her, just like she’d wanted. We’d topped it up with a voucher and recharged the battery beforehand. The sun was high in the sky. Like a great dazzling emptiness, it seemed to be gradually swallowing the open sea.

It was the morning after the ceremony. Me and my brother were sitting in auntie’s flat. We had just about survived a largely sleepless night, during which entire rivers of people had seemed to pass through our semi-dreaming brains. The flat itself had largely forgotten about auntie. She hadn’t lived there for a long time. Friends of friends would use it as a place to stay, and her possessions had been discreetly hidden away in drawers, boxes and bags. They’ll probably end up being given to charity. There was nothing but dried-up tea bags in the kitchen drawers. Dust had settled everywhere. Cobwebs had collected around the pictures of boats and galleys that she had framed so neatly when still in good health. Empty bookshelves threw out their arms in welcome. We’d only brought a few of her things back from the old peoples’ home. A handbag containing documents and papers, a pair of pyjamas, a dressing gown, some women’s magazines and an electric heater. We left them on the floor beside the couch. Strewn at random, they looked rather unsettling. It was no longer her flat anyway. Offered the chance to buy it from the state during the Nineties, she had handed the rights over to a rich relative who lived in South America. Somewhere down beyond the Tropic of Capricorn. She had practically given it away, and just at the time when property prices were about to go through the roof. Since then the flat’s value must have gone up by at least 1000%. The South American was sitting on a fortune. They had agreed that auntie could carry on living in the flat until she died. It wouldn’t be long now before her kitchen, bathroom, balcony and lounge were transformed into a desirable downtown holiday let. 

It was time to go to the cemetery and ring her up. The first of today’s three calls. My brother was a bit on edge because he had to finish off a programming job for some firm or other and send it urgently to some distant part of the globe. It was supposed to be finished yesterday. As far as he was concerned the thought of ringing up auntie had been absurd right from the start. He reckoned that we could easily set off for Zagreb and phone her from the motorway, if phoning her was all we were supposed to do. The thought that someone might be buried alive in the twenty-first century was downright ridiculous. But it’s what she wanted, I said. And in any case, even if by some bizarre twist of fate she really has been buried alive, she won’t be able to answer her phone because there won’t be enough room in the coffin to actually use it. She’ll be shouting, scratching or knocking in the hope that someone can hear, you know how weak she is, I said, trying to explain just what it was she had been so concerned about. My brother just rolled his eyes and set off in search of a reliable Wi-Fi connection. The responsibility for fulfilling auntie’s last wish was left to me. And there were moments when I found it totally ridiculous too. It was like something out of an Edgar Allan Poe story. But what if there really was a faint chance that she had been buried alive, just like that nineteenth-century relation who lies in the same family plot? I left the flat. The heat outside was still bearable. I sat in one of the nearby cafés on Gundulić Square. My phone lay in the shade, its black surface reflecting the heavens. A pigeon had just flown across its blank face. I watched as the bird flew diagonally across the screen, and then upwards into the sky. I picked up the phone, switched it on, and it immediately found a local Wi-Fi network. Pretty soon it was spewing out information about what I should be doing here. Visitors can take a walk along the city walls that surround the Old Town. The walk takes a couple of hours and offers stunning views of the Dalmatian coast, as well as a bird’s eye view of the city. Lovrijenac Fortress is one of the sights that can be seen from the walls. It is an impressive structure built on an outcrop of rock. It is located just outside the western gate of the Old Town and was even featured as a location in Game of Thrones!

I tore myself away from the phone and looked around me. A stooping elderly woman shuffled with a stick from one rubbish bin to another, looking for plastic bottles. The ground was covered in breadcrumbs and flakes of pastry. Pigeons moved from one building to another. The flutter of their wings mingled with the town’s early-morning murmour. Because of all those crumbs this part of town was a bit of a paradise for pigeons, which basically meant that their shit was everywhere. Quite a lot of it decorated the statue of Ivan Gundulić in the middle of the square. Rubbish containers were overflowing with plastic bottles from the night before. And in the market there really were less and less stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables. It really did seem to be all souvenirs. Waves of lavender wafted from the purple-decorated stall nearest to me. An elderly lady was gesturing at a tourist to explain how those small bottles of aromatic oil ought to be used. She demonstrated with hand movements how to massage your head to get rid of headaches. Auntie was right. It was time to get a move on and find out whether she was still alive. Even though it was only a theoretical possibility. Just like that story about the relation. I put a fifty kuna note on the table. I left the Old Town and slowly made my way along the narrow strip of roadside pavement towards Boninovo. The multitudes who will today enter the town have not yet woken up. I carry on climbing. I pass the old peoples’ home, where auntie’s obituary notice is still posted on the door. Cats cower beside a refuse container. To the west of me are rocks, the open sea, and a horizon broken only by the odd stalk of a flowering agave. Boninovo has been popular as a place for committing suicide ever since the early twentieth century. Suicide was popular even among the Dubrovnik aristocracy. By far the best-known case of suicide is that of the composer Luka Sorkočević, who decided to end his life with a jump from the third-floor window of his palace on September 11 1789. I enter the cemetery. Fine gravel makes a crunching sound beneath my feet.  I stop in front of the family plot and take the phone out of my bag. Auntie’s picture looks at me from the tombstone. The other portraits fell off a long time ago. She still looks so young in that picture. The phone has been issuing constant updates all the way up here and knows where I am. More or less. It asks me if I want to write a review of the Boninovo Guesthouse. I navigate my way through the mass of updates and adverts which have multiplied all over the screen and look up her number.  Auntie. I press “call”. I wait.  It’s ringing. I hear a ring tone on my own phone, while up from the ground comes the faint and almost inaudible sound of that Samsung classic Over the Horizon. Luckily, there’s no one around to see what I’m doing. At least no one living that is. The melody repeats itself a few times then falls silent.  The subscriber is unable to answer. I leave. The first part of auntie’s wish has been fulfilled. I can set off back to town. The infernal heat is readying itself to suck out all bodily fluids. I need to make it through the day, to make sure that everything gets done just like she wanted. I don’t want to end up with unpaid debts to the dead. There’s already a huge crowd in front of Pile Gate. Tourist flyers shower down on me like confetti. Game of Thrones tours, kayak tours, private tours, Konavle Valley tours, Sokol-Town tours, fish, drinks, folk music. A whole nest’s worth of ants all trying to get inside the same nutshell. Duuu-brrrrrovnik! Duuu-brrrrrovnik! People are taking photos, selfies, they’re filming ambitious tracking shots of sea and walls. The path across the Pile Gate bridge is divided by a rope. I enter the Old Town on the right-hand side. People exit on the left. In front of me is a flag bearing the logos of the OTP Bank and the Dubrovnik Summer Festival. We enter the town slowly like a great human river. In front of Onofrio’s Fountain, a traditional fiddler saws away at his instrument and wails about some tragic historical event. The town melts beneath the footsteps of the throng. Like an iceberg beneath penguins. 

It is nearly lunchtime. Hawkers on the Stradun are hustling for business. Everywhere there are cocktail lounges, Irish pubs, Viennese cafés, Italian coffee bars. Some guy takes me by the wrist and drags me towards a restaurant. I’m tired and confused and can’t resist. He grabs me with both hands and begins to dance a tango while whispering the menu in my ear in English. I tell him I am one of “ours”, and he invites me into the restaurant in an eastern Croatian accent, promising me a discount for being one of the locals. I sit down and read the menu. I watch him from my table as he hustles passers-by, soaked in sweat. Dark patches are forming under his armpits. There’s a whole line of restaurant pimps all along the street. Each of them tries to be more persuasive than the other, trumping their rival with a better offer. A plate of yellow pasta adorned with four mussels appears in front of me. I pay the bill, local discount duly subtracted, and go on my way. Stone slabs radiate light and warmth. Thousands of people are waiting at the entrance to the city walls. They are well prepared. They have hats, bottles of water and selfie-sticks. My brother isn’t answering the phone. He’s always like that. With him everything has to be ultra-rational. The mind of a programmer without even a hint of an Edgar Allan Poe. He’s probably angry with me for insisting that we do everything exactly as auntie wanted. I need to get out of the sun. I need to feel the breeze. I go in search of a gap in the walls on the seaward side of town. This is where the Buža Bar ought to be. I come across a narrow opening behind the cathedral where people are squeezing through one by one. They look as if they know where they are going so I follow them. They have guidebooks and smartphones. I have time for another coffee before the next trip to the cemetery. The waiter at Buža sweats his way between bodies clad in swimming costumes. There aren’t any free tables. I sit down on the concrete between the rocks, where it says “privat” in massive red letters. I’ll play dumb and carry on sitting here until someone tells me to move. I gaze out at the open sea. A determined group of kayakers is nearing the island of Lokrum as if preparing to lay siege. My phone vibrates with new updates. It always knows more than I do. Lokrum is a curious little island just a fifteen-minute boat ride from Dubrovnik’s Old Port. Gorgeous scenery and beaches! Tucked away in a quiet corner of the former monastery is the Iron Throne! You can sit on it and have your picture taken. There is a nice little Game of Thrones exhibition with info on the use of the island as a film location. There’s also a restaurant and a café. Highly recommended for a visit and the Iron Throne here is much better than the very poor replica you can sit on for a fee in a shop in Dubrovnik. The phone also offers me a review of the Buža Bar. Everything is terribly overpriced and the service is lackadaisical at best. I can write a review too if I want. Stunned by the heat and the pasta with four mussels, I can only sit motionless beneath the dry, sun-bleached palm leaves that provide rudimentary shade. My thoughts slosh around just like the water in the plastic bottle I’m drinking from. Bodies rubbed with aromatic oils dive into the sea. Phoning a dead auntie in the grave, how more ridiculous could it get? My brother was right. We could have set off for Zagreb already. I’ve had enough of this town. I call him. He doesn’t answer. I notice that my nose has suddenly started running. I push my way through the crowd.  Such a bad case of the sniffles and it’s not even winter. I look for somewhere to buy paper tissues.  I descend via side streets towards the Stradun. A trail of mucus is sliding slowly towards my upper lip. Three times I pass what looks like the same shop, a place done up to look like a pirate ship that is selling outlandish sweets. There are souvenir stores but they don’t sell paper tissues, only Game of Thrones key rings, T-shirts and figurines. My nose is still running. I bump into a costumed Romanian pirate who keeps several live macaws as a tourist attraction. The red-and-yellow one grins at me as it hops right-then-left on its perch, then slants its head as if to measure me up. As if it’s laughing at the salty stream of snot leaking slowly into my mouth. In the end I wipe it with my bare arm, and the hairs on my forearm briefly glisten with a golden splendour. Auntie was right. There wasn’t even anywhere in tahn to buy a hankie. Dubrovnik is roasting. I leave the Old Town in the right-hand lane and this time decide to take the bus to the graveyard. There’s a long queue to get on. The driver only opens one door at the front of the bus. Inside it’s packed. Sitting on one of the front seats is a middle-aged man in a baseball cap. He has a well-muscled body, although his face is as red as a lobster. He spreads his legs, pressing his torso against the seat in front. Wedged between the other passengers beside him is an older lady with a walking stick. She would quite like to sit down. Not only will he not give up his seat to her, he’s actually quite proud of the fact. I’m not going to get up for you, he says. He goes on loudly about how he paid for his ticket, unlike stupid old bags with their senior-citizen travel passes. The seat is his right as a taxpayer. That’s no way to talk to a lady, she says. As far as I’m concerned you don’t even qualify as a human being, comes the reply. I get off the bus. I go off towards my dead. When I enter the graveyard it looks like a funeral has just finished. People are slowly drifting away from a fresh grave covered with wreaths. The mourners look at ease with themselves, as if they’ve come to terms with their bereavement. I wait for them to recede into the distance. And then I take out my phone and ring my aunt. The subscriber is busy. I look at the phone in disbelief. Maybe I rang the wrong number by mistake. No, it was auntie’s number all right. Just at that moment my brother rings. And he too is completely freaked out by the fact that auntie’s number is busy. He just rang her. We had both rung her at the same time.  I tease him for not being quite as rational as he thinks. He hangs up on me. I repeat the procedure. Over the Horizon just carries on ringing.

I leave the graveyard and this time I call an Uber. I am picked up by a young woman from Osijek who says she comes to Dubrovnik every weekend. The trip more than pays for itself, and it’s pretty boring at home at this time of year anyway. Usually she works as an accountant but just one weekend of this earns her loads more money. And she usually gets a great night out into the bargain. I need to pick up my things and close up auntie’s flat. Once I’ve made the last phone call we’ll be on our way back to our working summer in dusty, deserted Zagreb. I manage to break through into the Old Town, which is by now simmering with heat and people. I go to the flat. I stand in front of the bookshelves. I take down Story of the City by Nada Skatolini and City in the Mirror by Mirko Kovač. The South American relation won’t even notice they’ve gone. What on earth would he do with them anyway? I’m practically rescuing them. I pick up my rucksack, leaving the things we brought from the old people’s home scattered around the room. Our South American can deal with that lot. Let’s leave him to give them to charity. Maybe he can share them out personally among the needy. Let’s leave him to brush the dust from the model boats, to do at least something that might earn the right to such easily-won assets. I leave the flat and force my way through alleys shaded by flapping sheets on washing lines. There are sheets, towels and bathing costumes hanging above all these alleys. Not one item of regular clothing. There’s not even a single potted plant on the windowsills. Just bed sheets being washed and dried because one group of guests is leaving and another one is just about to arrive. Renting out property is a great business. The profits just keep on growing. It’s the smart people who made all the money. The rest of us never imagined that a town damaged to its core would one day become a hit destination. Only the smart people. Duuu-brrrrovnik! A celebrity catwalk, a haven for cruise ships, a film set for Game of Thrones. Duuu-brrrrovnik! Yes! I look around in the hope that I might see one of auntie’s neighbours, so that I can say a last, proper goodbye to her town. I come across a postman who is delivering a parcel to the next-door flat. I ask him whether any of auntie’s old friends are still around. Jelica, Kate, Anica, Antun and Niko don’t live in tahn anymore. They all started breaking their hips one after another and were carried out of the Old Town on stretchers. We call ‘em the stick insects. Their legs snapped like twigs and they handed over their keys to the fancy-dress guards at Pile Gate. There ain’t a living soul left in tahn. It’s all them tourists who keep it going. They should ‘ave their names carved in stone somewhere on the Stradun. Cut nice and fine with a chisel just like on that Walk of Fame in Hollywood. They are our future now. Not the stick insects. They should be evacuated as soon as possible. It’s about time they stopped insisting on being treated as people. They should leave quietly without any fuss. It’s capital that’s king! It’s high time the stick insects hopped off into the grave. That’s the way forward!

Maybe auntie chose to die in July just to show us exactly what it was she had been going on about. What had happened to her tahn. And we had always thought that she was just having a moan for the sake of it, or to get us to pay a bit more attention to those who lived down south, beyond the Tropic of Capricorn. 

Looking around I realize how right she was. Maybe she still is.  Maybe she really is buried alive in Boninovo Cemetery. I have to hurry. Maybe she’s just regained consciousness, catching her breath, desperately writhing around in the coffin with her chicken-wing legs, breaking her nails on the chipboard. Maybe she’s screaming without her false teeth in and nobody can hear a thing. I call my brother in panic. I need to tell him that she was right all along. There is no answer. I haul my rucksack onto my back and run towards the cemetery. I push my way through the throng. People look at me as if I’m crazy. I run so fast that sweat is spraying off my hair. I pass the bus station. There’s a crowd of people trying to board the bus. I don’t have time to join the queue. My phone battery is almost flat, I can’t even call an Uber. What if she wakes up right now in a state of utter terror? I start pushing people out of my way in panic. I stagger forward like an over- loaded mule. I pass the old people’s home. The stick insects are sitting in their wheelchairs. They broke their limbs just in time to avoid one more summer in tahn. They look at me as if I am mad. I am running uphill, in the opposite direction to everyone else. The rucksack is pulling me down but I can’t give in, I have to keep on going. My water bottle has broken free, but I don’t have time to turn back for a piece of plastic. I can hear its bouncing gurgle getting further and further away. Someone will pick it up at the bottom of the hill. If they hand it in they’ll get the deposit back. I run. I run as fast as my legs can carry me.  To the west, the open sea stretches out as far as the eye can see. I run faster than I have ever run in my life. I am breathless when I reach the cemetery. My heart is in my throat. I throw my rucksack onto the ground. In panic I take out my phone, the battery indicator showing 4% . Suddenly it’s as if a symphony orchestra is playing Over the Horizon live in the graveyard. The whole cemetery is shaking to the sound of the music. The cypresses are swaying, startled swallows are flying around in circles. I look round to see where the noise is coming from. A female voice suddenly brings the concert to an end. “Hello? Well I’m at the graveyard. I brought some flowers for Kate because I couldn’t make it to the funeral yesterday. God’s truth I was almost buried alive by the crowds at Pile Gate.“

© Maša Kolanović

Translated by Jonathan Bousfield

MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ is a professor of Croatian language and literature at Zagreb University, and an award-winning writer of fiction. In 2020 she won both the European Union Prize For Literature and Croatia’s Vladimir Nazor Prize for her short-story collection Poštovani kukci i druge jezive priče (Dear Insects, and Other Spine-Tingling Tales). Following a range of characters as they grapple with the absurdities of hyper-capitalism, Kolanović’s stories mix savage humour with unsettling excursions into the grotesque. Her previous book Sloboština Barbie (2008) described a suburban childhood spent in turbulent times, disarmingly told from the child’s perspective.