Approaching Mystery: Playing Dead by Catherine Wiley

Approaching Mystery: Playing Dead by Catherine Wiley September 7, 2017

Lucian Freud's whippet is only sleeping.
Lucian Freud’s whippet is only sleeping.

I am about ten years old, and I am curious about death.


I am in the living room of our family house, the old farmhouse we bought when my father managed to alienate the family who lived down the street from the more ordinary suburban house we used to live in.


I’ve decided it must be possible to find out what death feels like, so I lie down on the faded earth-green rug covering almost all of the big wooden floor of the living room. The sunlight coming into the room is framed by the plants my mother has lined up on a low shelf spanning the width of three big windows looking out over the front field. It could be a beautiful room, with its windows and plants and the big stone fireplace, but the furniture is old and shabby, and the outlined wallpaper is faded and water-stained.


I am small, short, and my hair is short and curly and awkwardly growing out. I am in hand-me-down cotton summer clothes, and it’s very hot and humid. We don’t have air conditioning; we are grateful for breezes and for shade. We put big square fans in the bedroom windows at night to move the air around.


When you are dead, you are not breathing. This ought to be easy, I think. You just lie on the rug and feel its roughness on your sticky skin, and you close your eyes and stop breathing.


I close my eyes and hold my breath, but I have failed to account for my heartbeat, which I can now hear, a slow but steady beat played by a stubborn drummer in my chest who refuses to stop.


Also, breathing is a problem. It turns out, I realize, that it takes a conscious effort to stop breathing, and using conscious effort is not the act of a girl who is dead. So I try a new thing: I will stop holding my breath; instead, I will relax all of the muscles in my body and slow my breath down so much that it will be as if I have stopped. I will trick my breath into stopping, like a song’s gradual descent into stillness. I will stop time. I will not hold my breath; I will simply allow it to slow down enough so that my next breath never comes.


Even through my T-shirt, I can feel the rough texture of the rug all along the back of my body; I can feel the greediness of gravity pulling at my bones. More than that: my body is humming. If vibration is sound, there’s a kind of singing going on in the circulation of my blood, in the miniscule busy energy of cells. I feel my body doing its work of being alive as a busy train station; a city street; a schoolyard at recess. It has nothing to do with me; I can’t stop its anthill bustle.


So I lie there and listen to the humming, which is sort of like watching a beehive, but with my eyes closed and my ears worse than useless.


I am annoyed and frustrated, but at the same time, I am an audience member at a strange symphony – restless, a little bored, trying not to cough and wondering if I have to pee; but taking in music nonetheless. I am a failure at death.


Catherine Wiley struggles to balance her awareness of the ineffable with the need to get things done, and finds that life as a mother of two can be much more like being trapped in a pinball machine than she’d like. She teaches literature and writing; her own writing has been a lifelong, if frequently dormant, preoccupation. The threads of her life move around like some kind of underwater plant, but she keeps trying to weave them together anyway.

“Approaching Mystery” is a regular feature on Sick Pilgrim curated by Joanna Penn Cooper in which we post vignettes that dwell on the mystery of the everyday, that hang in an unresolved (and unresolvable) space of wonder and unknowability. Submit your vignette to this series at We post a new piece every Thursday. 


Browse Our Archives

Close Ad