In The Sky Above Rhodes

A short essay by Haruki Murakami, from the book Murakami Radio.

I have no way to prove this, but hasn’t everyone had an experience with death? I’m not talking about near death experiences. This is something unrelated, something with a different meaning. The sudden feeling that death is near.

We don’t think about death very much in our daily lives (and it would be exhausting if we did). But there are those moments when you feel the presence of death like it’s breathing on the back of your neck. “One afternoon you’re eating a yummy rice bowl, telling jokes, and having a good time, but with one little shift in the winds your flame can be extinguished. Life is fleeting.” Everything around you comes crashing down in an instant.

I experienced this feeling while flying in an old twin engine prop plane over Greece. It felt like being inside a flimsy sardine tin, but I was told that the simple design actual meant that these kinds of planes rarely crashed. I doubt that’s true. Both engines suddenly died as the plane approached the Rhodes airport. I have no idea why. But the flight attendants and other passengers didn’t panic, and I figured this must be something that happens all the time.

Everything went quiet when the engines cut out. I only heard the sound of the wind gently rushing by. It was like I could see the whole world on that cloudless fall afternoon. Jagged mountain ridgelines, big groups of pine trees, and scattered rows of white houses spread out before my eyes beyond the shining Aegean Sea. And I floated above it all. It possessed a supernatural beauty, and in the silence I felt so far away from it all. It was like everything which had once been tied together by a giant belt had come free and fallen down to Earth.

I felt like I could die happy in that moment. My world had come undone and what was to follow didn’t matter to me. I had become incorporeal, and only my five senses remained. All that was left was to wrap up some unfinished business. I felt wonderful.

The engines roared back to life and the silence was driven away. The airplane banked in a big circle and lined up with the runway. I returned to my body, landing in Rhodes as a lone traveler once again. Now that I had resumed life, I grabbed a bite to eat, drank some wine, and settled into my hotel bed. But that feeling of death remains with me vividly to this day. When I think about death I remember the view from that airplane. Part of me might have actually died that day. Quietly in the clear blue sky over Rhodes.