A Brief History of a Death

It could be said that I died on August 20th, 2012. Of course, overzealous readers with resolute gumshoe complexes will, upon consuming backlog editions of the Free Press to search for an obituary, an inquiry, even the briefest mention of such an incident, come up disappointingly empty-handed, for there was no such article. Nor did teary-eyed relatives gather around casserole dishes and sweetbreads to share fond memories, amusing anecdotes, poignant connections. No, the day was remarkable not for any particular event that transpired, but rather what did not. A missing element, an utterly normal evening that should have been anything but. But as I was graced, whether by God (capital G or no), fate, or happenstance, with a second birth, it seems fitting that I should have two deaths. It gives my life a sort of symmetry that I find immensely comforting.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of us when I was first reborn. It’s impossible to say for certain, as there was no census, no Wikipedia article detailing our diet, genus and species, preferred habitats (or rather, there was, but it was the work of a pimply teen with an overabundance of time and imagination, based not in fact but folklore). But upon that moment of rebirth—and oh! what a moment it was, with its rush of sensation like a brush in which every bristle had been warmed in a fire before caressing my entire body—yes, in that moment, I could feel their presence in my periphery, a blanket that cloaked me in the security of my knowledge that I was not alone.

And indeed, that feeling of comfort persisted throughout my adolescence (I had recently begun seeing the first pimples of puberty when my re-creation occurred), and into my adult life, a fuzzy, warm aura that encircled my mind like a halo. In the early days, when I was still attempting in vain to rationalize what was happening inside of me, there were dark periods, such as the time I went camping in the dark, dense forests of Vermont with Eric Lindholm, Nat Weinstein, and Asa Blunt, when it felt faint and distant, little more than a light tingle. There, in the woods, I fell into a deep melancholy, which my carefree friends mistook for homesickness, for it was the first time we had been allowed to camp without a watchful parental eye, or even more laughably, for being afraid of the forest at night. What could I say? That I was afraid I was losing forever the one thing that kept me from going insane, from being totally and completely alone in the world? That the forest held no hidden terrors for me, it was the world we had left behind that now felt alien and scary? No. Such things cannot be spoken aloud, only whispered to ones’ self in the quiet of night when no one else is around to hear. So I said nothing, and allowed them to tease me, and the next day as we were being driven back into Burlington, I felt it return and a smile broke through my formerly forlorn state, knowing as I now did that I would never again have to fear abandonment.

Other times, it would glow red-hot, so hot I feared I would break into a sweat even on the coldest day of winter. Though at first I thought it a warning, I soon understood it to be a beacon of sorts, a recognition of proximity, not unlike a submarine’s radar. It was at those times that I felt my head, my eyes, move of their own volition across the room or hallway or crowded city square, as if polarized, and lock with a stranger’s. Though I always felt an immediate kinship that made me want to rush into their arms, I was surprised and confused by the wide range of responses I would receive in turn. As with many things in life, with time and experience came understanding.

As I grew and my body and mind matured, so too my aura (for if we must classify it as anything, that is surely the most apt terminology, though it does not begin to do justice to the feeling itself) refined itself into something more subtle, more elegant. The calming feeling remained, but faded more into the background, a lover’s warm breath on the back of my neck on a frosty evening. And when another of my kind approached, I knew much in the same way one knows when they are being watched from a doorway, without having to turn around to see.  There were times when I would pivot to meet the eyes I knew to be searching for mine, but just as often I did not, for meeting those eyes can bring as much pain as it can joy, as much unease as relief.

And here we get to the paradox of our kind, the reason we can be so lonely and isolated while constantly aware of the multitude around us feeling the same aura, thinking the same thoughts. For in truth, though we’d love nothing more than to find acceptance of some form, we find it near impossible to grant that same acceptance to others like us. It should be noted that though we all undergo the same change at the same time, we approach the experience with vastly differing attitudes. Of course, this observation in itself is not remarkable, as the same statement could apply to any community, but nevertheless I mention it here in order to draw attention to the helplessness of our situation.

It is true that many of us anticipate the Change each month with great trepidation, glancing out of the corners of our eyes at desk or wall calendars as if to confirm that yes, the Day is fast approaching. We have the Day circled on our calendars well in advance, for we take great time and care researching lunar cycles so as to prepare accordingly. This much, Hollywood has gotten right, if slightly exaggerated. The silly schemes—chaining ones’ self to a radiator, locking all doors and windows, posting a guard outside our door—they are the works of fantasy; we each realized from our first Changing how futile such attempts would be. We are stronger, more agile, and in many ways smarter once the Change has occurred, and can easily outwit our former, panicked attempts at encasement. Instead, what we do is wait until the sun is nearly down, and with the air of a man heading to the gallows or a child to the principal’s office, walk naked into the woods.

But there are others—poor souls—that face an entirely more painful struggle. This faction is mostly, though not exclusively, comprised of the outcasts from your society: the eternally bullied, the allergic-to-everything’s, the physically or mentally impaired. The girl always so uncomfortable in her own skin, the chubby boy wanting nothing more than to be good enough to be picked first for recess kickball, who grew up to be a heavyset man still dreaming of rising up to dunk a basketball, these are the ones that get one night a month of bliss, of redemption, of freedom. But that night of unadulterated joy, with the wind rushing through thick fur, the feeling of the ground flying beneath soft pads, the awe-inspiring muscles that without having to stop and think propel lithe bodies through the air, yes, all of those wonders come at a great cost. Though their nights of jubilation are in many ways life-affirming and allow them to forget momentarily the troubles that plague their day-to-day existence, the debts, the extreme social awkwardness and loveless routines, they are cursed to find this relief but 12 times in a year.

Here the cynic pauses to interject a question: “How many truly happy days do any of us have in a year?” An interesting thought, but one that is best left confined among the philosophical ramblings of late-night conversations in dormrooms still hazy with smoke, rather than inserted into a practical discussion of the emotional frailty of actual people. For equating your society’s general malaise and world-weariness to our most long-suffering few is to note that a thunderstorm causing a temporary power outage and a category-five hurricane are both inconvenient weather patterns.

This sad few, whose annual moments of joy can be measured on fingers and toes, spend the rest of their year as if in a tormented sleep. They too conduct fastidious research and mark the Days on their calendars, if for different reasons. They pine, mourning their weakened and unremarkable state. They attempt to jump, to run, to growl fiercely, and look at the mirror’s reflection with contempt, for their most confining cages are themselves. They sniff the air and are greeted by nothing more complex than the last meal they ate. At home they cock their heads to side to take in the night, and hear only the television or arguments of their neighbors. But when they dream, they find release. They see themselves running through forests and fields, the unquestioned kings and queens of the night. And as if for the first time, they feel, not like some sort of strange butterfly, forever moving from one perch to the next without leaving behind any lasting imprint, but like they are finally being accepted into a group of peers. That they have a place they can call home. It is worth mentioning that the recognition previously documented presents itself just as readily whether we are covered in fur or wrapped tight in a business suit, although in our lupine form we tend to be much more generous and receptive to others, for as we are considerably smarter and therefore elevated above our unchanging counterparts, we are no longer threatened by outsiders.

It should also be noted that if our lonesome brothers and sisters had made enough of an impression on coworkers or neighbors to warrant any such lingering reflections, it would be said that once a month these between-the-cracks dwellers suddenly seem to emerge from the protective shells of introversion they hide behind their entire lives, becoming animated almost to the point of mania. But once again they become painfully aware of their self-imposed segregation, for though during these times they yearn for a welcome ear to absorb the torrent of thoughts threatening to erupt, they have so successfully fortified themselves from the rest of their world that they can find no outlet for their uncharacteristic desire to connect, to socialize in some small way. Still, it remains that the seldom few to whom they have not rendered themselves invisible, strangers walking by on the street or landlords collecting rent, will notice during these times a strange expression on their faces, as if muscles which have atrophied from prolonged neglect are attempting to remember how to smile.

I myself am one of the few who operate somewhere in between these two temperaments, as I have always considered myself mild of personality, trying never to confine myself to extremes. Comparatively, I have assimilated well into your society, with a steady if modest-paying job and a short but not altogether unrespectable romantic history. If asked, ex-girlfriends would note that I am a very dutiful son, as unfailingly, one night a month I would spend the night at my mother’s, though as an afterthought they might continue to say that at times, upon returning from such visits, I seemed withdrawn and perhaps even a little glum. This too, they might add, smiling at the memory, was not altogether uncommon for me, as there were often times when I would appear to be lost in my thoughts for hours, always to emerge with a warm smile and some endearing word or another. It is true that I have been accused (sometimes playfully, other times not so much) of having my head in the clouds by more than one girlfriend.

And with all this as a somewhat hairpin introduction, we approach the night of the twentieth. I had been single for several months, so there was little need for alibi, but still I anticipated the Change with more dread than was customary. For as my romantic life devolved and stress from yet another round of layoffs at my job weighed on me, I found my monthly sojourns growing increasingly violent. The previous two months, I had emerged from the woods as dawn exploded in pinks and purples over the Green Mountains covered in blood, some dried, some still tickling the hairs on my chest as it ran in little rivulets down my torso. This was uncommon for me, as my hunts usually ended well before dawn, and drawing upon my memory, I saw in disjointed pieces, as if trying to remember a dream, an amount of death previously unknown to me. I wasn’t killing for food, but with a vicious pleasure that I found troubling.

With my eye glued to the clock above Ted Humphrey’s desk, the twentieth passed at a glacial pace. The tension and anticipation grew to such levels that to keep myself from breaking down in the middle of my quiet office, I left the building and walked the streets for several hours, breathing in the stagnant city air, hearing children playing on swings by the waterfront, cherishing the rough shouldering aside from fellow pedestrians and the saccharine smells of Kettle Korn hawked by local venders—in short, taking in everything that reassured me that I was human, that I was, at least for the moment, still a part of this world. And when that most dreaded of hours arrived, I got into my car and drove to the forest without hesitation.

As I turned off I-85 into Colchester and drove my customary waterside route, the sun beginning its descent winked mockingly at me, yellow and fiery orange, from the surface of the water. Sailboats and jet skis drifted past my open passenger-side window while a group of pre-pubescent boys, their parents gathered together drinking wine coolers and roasting hot dogs, played two-hand touch football on the beach, feet digging into the sand as they prepared to burst into motion. Indeed by most all accounts, it was a sublime moment, the kind of Rockwellian evening that seems to have stepped out of a frame and replaced the world around it, and the sight of it filled me with a slight nausea. Perhaps it was a failure to reconcile the idyllic tableau to my right with the dark and foreboding mood within, or maybe simple jealousy at the carefree evening being enjoyed by so many while I carried the staggering weight of guilt on my drooping shoulders. Whatever the cause, I was filled with a deep fear and self-loathing as I pulled off into a trailhead that I knew from years’ experience to be all but forgotten, and with limbs heavy with preemptive sorrow, began undressing in my car.

The oranges and yellows had morphed into blushing pinks, hazy purples the shade of Merlot, and further along the skyline, deep, infinite blue as I left my car bare-skinned and miserable and shuffled into the trees. Inside the dense forest, the air was crisp and the evening noticeably darker. My legs knew the way by now—I no more had to guide them than I had to remind myself to breathe—and I soon arrived in a clearing with a single flat stone in the middle, my humble throne. Brushing off the ants and spiders that worked tirelessly in the jagged canyons of the rock, I sat down as I had so many times before, to wait.

Here I will pause to explain the standard chronology of such nights. Full moons typically rise quickly following sunset, and on my rock I wait, sometimes with great eagerness, but more often with a mixture of impatience and disquiet. As the sun sets, there is a wondrous moment when there is nothing in the sky but stars and darkness, and in this moment, the ever-present tingling begins to build, as if in anticipation, until hot feathers are tickling my entire being and all the hair on my body stands on end. Then there comes an instant of pain, and it is a pain so all-encompassing and complete that it becomes something beautiful, a place beyond pain. And it builds until there is a dazzling, divine flash of light, and then I am running, faster than I have ever run before. And while I am still present and for the most part aware of my surroundings, my brain can, for once, rest, taking a backseat to instincts finely honed by time and evolution and enjoy the proverbial and somewhat literal ride.

This is the experience I have come to know and expect. This is what I waited for, not entirely patiently, on the night of the twentieth. And yet, as I sat in the waning dusk, a different sensation began to emerge, a feeling of déjà vu that I at first couldn’t place. But as a familiar radiance began to grow, a heat that I recognized from years long since faded into photo albums and fragmented memories, I began to feel drops of sweat running like rain down my legs and sides, despite the cool evening breeze floating off the lake that just moments before had set my bare flesh to goosebumps. The heat grew in temperature and scope inside of me until sweat ran off my body and down the rock like a tiny waterfall and gnats and flies and sweatbees hummed around me expectantly. And then, sitting in my internal sauna, that familiar pain started and I cried out more in relief than discomfort as I thought foolishly that I was back to familiar territory. The heat did not diminish, but rather was overshadowed by the pain that started in my chest and spread in all directions, my very fibers shredding as a battle to rival that of the Olympians and Titans began inside of me. As my suffering grew, I waited for the rapturous feeling that had always washed over me like a breath from God himself. And yet even as in desperation I craved it, I knew no relief would come. Indeed, the pain continued to build but there was nothing holy about this torture, nothing divine. A thousand bloodthirsty beasts were tearing me apart from within, and falling to the ground, I convulsed in my agony, unable to scream, to see, to move! And then the empty blackness, which was all I could see though the night had been brightly lit by the moon, began to be pushed outward in all directions, replaced in the middle by an immaculate white like a radiant pupil that grew in luminosity and diameter until it swallowed all and I knew in that moment that I had come to the end.


I awoke covered in pine needles and dirt, tears and sweat caked in white streaks of salt along my body that tensed and cracked as I began to move. Weak and aching, I dragged myself to my car where very slowly I pulled on my shirt and underwear, which was the most I could manage. Arriving home, I drew a bath and with a great heaviness, lowered myself into the steaming water. I fell asleep—I don’t know, nor does it matter for how long—and I awoke to a tepid tub, a majority of the water replaced by dirt, salt, and urine, and once I had toweled myself off and cooked a quick fry-up, I sat down at the table to reflect. A great joy came over me, as I would no longer have to fear the frenzied kills of recent months, nor would I be forced to forever lie to those I loved. With a smile, I ate my breakfast ravenously.

But I stumbled when I got up to put the dishes away, my body still in many ways broken, and memories unsought came crashing through my mind like a derailed freight train—memories of running through the night, of prowling with my brothers and the immense freedom as I flew through glades whitewashed by moonlight, with the frost of a late-autumn night reflecting the glow like so many fireflies as I bound past, and I realized what it was that I had lost.

I don’t know if others that night faced the same experiences I did, and if they did, I don’t know what their reactions were. I am sure that many felt a profound relief, but it is also possible that, like me, some of them found cracks forming in that foundation of thankfulness, termites of regret eating away at load-bearing pillars of thought until they crashed down around them and they were left feeling lost, frightened, and utterly, utterly alone. I fear the most for those who were already lost, who had nothing but those nights to keep them from silently and unobtrusively, for they would never want to impose, walking into Lake Champlain and not looking back. In my optimistic moments, I like to think that maybe they were deemed worthy; maybe the howls I sometimes can hear tormenting me at night are the ones who made it to the other side. But I always stop there with a derisive laugh at myself for who knows better than I that there are no happy endings in this life, especially not for those like us?


Imagine a prisoner allowed but one hour to see the sun every day, to bask in its warmth and beauty, to marvel at the wonder of the world outside of his tiny cell. How glorious that celestial bonfire would appear to him! He would confront it directly before returning to his cage, so that when he closed his eyes, he could still see the burning orb now refracted on the inside of his eyelids, and perhaps he would even feel its warmth spreading indiscriminately across the cell.

Now imagine a free man, a man whose life contains everything he could possibly want and who is filled with joy and love for the people and things around him, and every night before he goes to sleep, he thanks God for allowing him such happiness. Imagine that every night after his mind settles and he finally falls asleep, he has horrible dreams, dreams in which those very things that he holds so dear are visible to him only through black steel bars for a single hour a day, the rest of his time being spent staring at his ash-gray walls, finding new patterns in the varicose cracks that spread across the walls like spiderwebs. Imagine that during one such dream, he is waiting desperately to wake up, to roll over and greet his lover with a kiss on the hollow crater at base of her neck, to hear the sound of city traffic outside his window, to be startled awake by a blaring alarm clock, but the harder he tries, the more everything around him crystalizes and becomes more and more palpable until he realizes with muted desolation that this is no dream. Imagine me, indeed, imagine all of us, as we trudge through our lives as if in a tormented sleep. But when we dream, yes, in those magical hours that once saw us the unquestioned kings and queens of the night, when we can forget, even for a moment, the world now so alien and scary, yes then, then we are free.