THINK YOURSELF DEAD
By Stuart J Smith
"You see how easy it is to get distracted? You'd do anything not to do it. Now try again, start from the beginning, and try harder this time. Try to think yourself dead."
It was an unusual but compelling opening to a book. The vertical text on the spine was enough to draw him to the lower bookshelf and twist his head sideways to re-read what he thought the title had first stated. Confirmation made his brow furrow and his eyes roll up as he dwelled on the implications of its contents.
"Every single one of us will do it once, actually think about death; really, truly think about no longer existing. This fact, this “seed”, is shrouded in thousands of layers of distractions and we are all too readily willing to examine these layers for fear of actually finding the seed. But the seed is there, in every one of us, ever present. Even as you are reading these words of text you could cease to exist at any time, and in the milliseconds before that occurs, you will truly understand death without distraction. The purest of truths...”
He stopped reading and looked around the tiny bookshop as if to confirm with the shopkeeper permission to read such words. The secluded bookshop was empty. The friendly old gentleman behind the counter had disappeared, leaving his mug of tea quietly steaming beside the newspaper he'd been reading. Old floorboards creaked above him and he felt compelled to cough loudly to indicate to the trusting shopkeeper that he was still present and not making off with his dusty old stock. This was a village where trust was abundant.
It was a contrast from the bland, overpopulated and faceless city where he worked. Time there seemed to flash around him like a swarm of angry bees, and the people he worked with seemed as consumed with “getting on” as he was. Recreation was organized, planned, squeezed-to-fit and artificial. Life there was artificial. Simply passing this tiny village by way of avoiding traffic jams was a refreshing reminder that the world held treasures other than rush, hurry, learn and earn. Normally his Friday commute home was something to relish. To see his children again after five long days was reward enough for him to step on the accelerator pedal and try to shave minutes off his four-hour drive. This Friday was different. This Friday held no prize. His home would be empty this weekend.
“...It is a simple fact that if you wish to be successful at anything you do, you must learn to focus. Focus at its purest form will teach and enlighten. To think about nothing else but the subject in hand is a deceptive talent that only a few individuals in the whole world have mastered. There is no better practice than to be able to think purely about being dead.”
The floorboard above him squeaked some more. Then footsteps on a staircase creaked their way closer as the old shopkeeper returned from his storeroom with a pile of books and a sandwich. The two men made eye contact and the shopkeeper smiled.
“It’s time,” he said.
A little confused, he rolled his suit sleeve up and twisted his wrist around to view his titanium-faced watch.
“Ah, it’s just past four o’clock” he retorted, nervously.
The shopkeeper wrinkled his eyes in a kind of half-smile and took a large bite from his sandwich. Picking up the paper again he continued reading it from behind the counter leaving his customer expecting more of a response. There was an awkward silence.
He stared at the words on the page of the book he held. He was suddenly aware that he was simply unimportant. He began to daydream, there and then, in the middle of an old bookshop in a village whose name he could not remember. He thought of the time as a child when he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew older and he had said "An actor in a big movie". He thought of the time he first rode a motorcycle without a helmet. He thought of the day in Italy when he left the conference and met the woman he was later to marry. He thought of the time his father died and the aftermath of his will. He remembered the very interesting man at that bar, the shoe shop his grandmother used to own, and his first child’s accident on the jungle gym, with the subsequent plaster cast on his leg. He remembered the love letters to his wife that he found in the flap under her jewelry box; letters that he did not send. He remembered her last words to him on the phone yesterday. He remembered. He remembered.
“There is no better practice than to be able to think purely about being dead, but it is so apparent that you cannot.”
The words on the page of the book came back into focus, and there he still stood with it in his hand in the quiet corner bay of the bookshop. Was fate trying to tell him something? He wondered.
So he began.
He started by thinking of nothing. A good place to start, he thought. If you are to think of death you should probably start with nothing. He realized how he was thinking about thinking about thinking of nothing. He must try harder. Nothing.
He became aware of another distraction. The wooden floor panel he was standing on was making a tiny squeaking noise as he subconsciously rocked over it. He took a small step to the side and tried again. This time there was silence, silence and nothing. His heartbeat began to slow and his breathing grew shallow. The gray-red color of the inside of his eyelids began to get darker and blackness began to replace it. He paid it no conscious thought. Then, in a slow morbid moment, his chest was suddenly taut with fear as his breathing stopped.
Immediately his face turned from serene cadaver to wide-eyed startled animal. He took massive rasping breaths of air into his lungs and his heart exploded back into action again as he spun around on his heels and clawed at a bookshelf for stability. Three or four novels and a small spider carcass fell to the floor as the freestanding shelf banged against the wall.
The sales counter was once again empty. He could actually hear his own heart thudding under his suit and he could feel the blood in his face pulsing to the rhythm. He swallowed dry and his tongue slid like sandpaper against the roof of his mouth. Still holding the book in one hand, the pages quivered and turned themselves over. A pale bloodless thumb marked his place. He looked at the words on the page once more.
“...it is your nature to fight it. Like trying to inhale underwater, you will find that conscious willpower without knowledge and determination is not enough. Your subconscious will kick-in and deliberately bring you round. Your subconscious is your enemy in this matter. It is protecting you from the truth. Its control over your psyche is its sword, distraction its armor, and disassociation, as it always has been in life, is its shield, shielding you from truth. Realize this and your willpower can defeat this, and the purity of truth will be revealed to you...”
Yet another squeak from the floorboards above him made him look to the ceiling; wooden boards and cobwebs. Tiny streams of dust gracefully poured from within the gaps in the boards and settled on the gray bookshelves in miniature snowdrifts. He thought hard about the words in the book, his heartbeat still pounding hard in his chest. It was only a book though. They were only words printed in ink on a page. Amazing how these words affected him so physically. None of this is real though, he thought, and he examined the book's cover as he began to calm himself.
Upon inspection the book seemed to be handmade. Maybe this was part of the reason it stood out on the shelf as unusual, the only leather bound book on a shelf of dusty hardbound novels. The fading black leather cover was embossed, and the title had been repaired at some stage with new gold leaf, as the original letters were flaking behind them. An amateur repair, but at least someone cared for it. The book didn’t smell old though. The leather still had a tang of new shoes to it and the pages inside were bright white, not yellowed at all. No mention of the author either. He flipped the book over, his thumb still marking the place where he had last read. It had pretty rough stitching on the binding too. He wondered.
“...distraction its armor, and disassociation, as it always has been in life, is its shield, shielding you from truth.”
He physically shuddered where he stood, feeling like a small man in a big suit. He was certainly disassociating himself from his current reality, deliberately distracting himself, just as the book said he would. Willpower will defeat this, he thought. I will not be beaten. I have the knowledge to do this.
He closed his eyes and instantly became aware of his body still reacting from his recent panic. Before he could begin again he must calm these effects. A deep, deep breath, and a loud, long exhale through his nose began his calming process. Before long he stood motionless facing a bookshelf with his eyes closed and a slowed metabolism.
His physical self was easier to ignore now, so now he worked at switching off his thoughts. Again he began to think of nothing, stamping out distractions like little fires in his mind until a strange state began to wash over him. His heartbeat had once again slowed and his breathing became shallow and slow. This time, however, there was no sudden panic or distraction. Awareness of time had vanished and a pureness of being began to swell around him. Paradoxically, though, he was unaware. He was simply nowhere, nothing. A mild high-pitched ringing filtered through his ears, like the after-tones of someone flicking a wine glass. It started quite loudly, but began to fade and drop in pitch. What remained of his subconscious thought had begun to turn gelatinous, slow and torpid. It stagnated. It faded. It began to die.
Then, a glacial silk-black tide began to rise within him. It began at his feet and fingers and spread like slow frost on old glass. The ringing in his ears was now a low, quiet hum, and it seemed to muffle the sounds around and within him. It muffled the sound of last heartbeat, his breathing slowing to a stop, his head hitting the bookshelf in front of him, and the sound of a leather book dropping to the floor. The black frost had set, rock-solid, all around him, and he felt nothing from the neck down. The last physical awareness experienced by something even deeper than his subconscious was an object pushing his cheek slightly, causing his mouth to disfigure and saliva to trickle from the corners. Eventually, even this awareness faded to nothing and a strange realization solidified like concrete in the very last remnants of his being. A pure truth?
The old shopkeeper rushed down the stairs and seeing the businessman in a pile on the floor, he picked up the cordless phone and called for an ambulance. He spoke to a female professional telephone operator on the other line whose calming tones did not rub off on the frantic-sounding old man. They spoke for five minutes, and in that time the shopkeeper tended to his customer as instructed with the phone squeezed to his ear by his shoulder. She told him to loosen the man’s tie and collar, lift his head gently off the floorboards, wipe his mouth and check his airways. She told him to stay calm, be patient, not panic, and he seemed not to be able to do this. She certainly did not tell him to put more books around him, nor to put a "Do It Yourself" book in his hand, and at no point in the short conversation did she tell him to hide a book he once wrote.
A few weeks later the radio station called to cancel the interview for a little while longer. The current spate of terrorist attacks were hogging all the news headlines and tales of a back street book shop haunting would have to wait for a quieter news week. The researcher on the phone was very polite and even she admitted that two unusual deaths would normally make the local television news and more than one column in the rarely read back pages of the newspaper.
It was ironic that not only couldn't he speak of the masterpiece he had written, but this fantastic tale of a modern day bookshop poltergeist could not attain any interest at all either. Ironic also that his greatest creation would help him attain the fame as a writer he deserved only when the back street bookshop death toll rose to three, or four, or eight, or..? A silent grin crawled across his face as he thanked the woman from the radio station for her time, and he hung up. He finished off his morning mug of tea and went over to the drawer under the till where he hid his treasured book.
The woman who stood outside in the sunshine was the type to read romantic novels, and she obviously had some time to waste again. He recognized her from last week when she came in for a few minutes to escape the rain. There might be more attention paid if a woman thinks herself dead this time, he thought, as he slid the leather bound book just below eye level amongst the trashy romantic paperbacks. Then he went upstairs to make a sandwich and to peer through the crack in the floorboards from the storeroom floor.
“Oh dear. You really did not take in one single word did you? I could readily spin you any old yarn, and the fact that you’ve read this far proves you would rather absorb yourself in silly little horror stories than actually try to learn something. This tale was not intended as fiction. It is an instruction manual. Did you not read the first paragraph properly?”