January 2010. Although this vignette is fiction, it stems from experience; I have encountered the wolf far too many times in my adult life.

The Hour of the Wolf

I wake to the dark. Twisting around to look at the clock on my nightstand, I slump back, knowing what the night holds in store, and just stare at the ceiling. A ceiling lit by the feeble green glow of the clock and the dim yellow street light that filters through the curtains and the cold Minnesota rain. A sickly, dreary light, entirely appropriate for the hour of the wolf.

I first learned about the wolf when I was seventeen. Tossing and turning in my sleeplessness, I noticed a light downstairs, and found my father sitting at the kitchen table, head in his hands. Asking why he was awake, he raised his head to look at me and I could see the pain in his eyes. He had a quaver in his voice as he answered, “I woke up thinking of your sister. We may have lost her a year ago, Morgan, but I still miss her, and my pain makes me easy prey for the wolf.”

“The wolf?” I asked.

He put his head back down. “The wolf. This is the hour of the wolf, the time between dark and light when the sleepless are haunted by regrets and demons. The time when the wolf waits outside your door, and will rip apart your heart and soul if you let him in.”

Now, more than three decades after that meeting with my father, I have wrestled my own wolf too many times, and I know what waits for me this night. And as I lay in bed and listen to the light rain falling outside — the droplets pattering on the roof and then against the window as the wind changes — I reflect on the coming storm.

Rain is a beautiful thing. The pitter-patter as it hits the ground is a soothing, even romantic, melody of life continued. The smell of dirt just after the rain starts is sure to bring back memories of home and the farm on which I grew up, of the green and growth so dependent on water from the sky. Now and then, I even go outside to stand in it — to take in the smell, and the sound, and the feel of falling water on my skin. And when I’ve had enough reverie, I go back inside. Warm and drying in front of a blazing fire, the cares of life are melted away by the music of rain hitting the roof and windows, and a cup of hot tea, or maybe chocolate, warming me from the inside.

But when the wolf is pacing outside, the rain becomes a dreary noise, a staccato hammering in my heart, a wet cloak that chills my spirit.

Still in bed, I realize I’m not going to wish this one away, so I turn back to my sleeping Jennifer. Ah, Jennifer, how I long to be in her arms, to drift back to sleep and dream. But the wolf won’t be kept waiting, and all I can do is to give her a kiss and get out of bed. She moans lightly but doesn’t open her eyes, oblivious in her dreaming. A slight smile plays on her lips; I hope she is having a pleasant dream.

Downstairs waits a cup of tea. I generally prefer Earl Grey, but tonight, a chamomile tea might help soothe the torment that is coming, and ease me back to sleep.

Shuffling to the kitchen, I put a kettle on the flame and select a bag. Then to the dining room to wait for the water to whistle, and I see the table is still filled with the detritus of the past week: junk mail, glanced at and discarded; a plastic bag with ink cartridges from a trip to an office supply store. There is even a bag of “hamster chow” for the object of my daughter’s current infatuation.

The flotsam isn’t much of a problem. The table is rarely used except for dinner parties or when friends are over. We usually eat at a table just off the kitchen, less formal and closer to the cooking. On occasion we will dine in the living room, eating sloppy chili burgers with home-made onion rings and beer (the kids get soda), and watching a movie. We usually watch a comedy when we eat dinner in front of the television, or maybe an adventure as long as it isn’t too violent — Jennifer insists on that.

But right now, the everyday wallpaper monotony of the kitchen nook is not what I need, so I clear some space on the dining room table, sit down, and try to forestall the inevitable by reflecting on the good things in my life: an eleven-year marriage to Jennifer and the three children she has given me, our home, our friends, my career. And it works for a while. I smile to myself and enjoy the rain. But then the kettle whistles. As I bring my tea back to the table to steep, I find it difficult to focus, and the demons begin to invade.

Now, I know my own faults as well as anyone, and I have many little regrets. There have been times when I’ve been callous, or cruel, or unthinking. I’ve made mistakes that have hurt my family or friends. And I’ve certainly embarrassed myself more than once. But all of these are minor issues and rare enough. After apologizing where I can, and maybe a day or two of feeling bad, they never really bother me again.

No, the real demons of my past are mercifully few and there are only two left that still affect me. Both are about death: the death of a close friend, and the death of my first marriage.

It was in college that I met Diana. The long auburn hair framing her round face first drew my attention, and when she spoke, her voice was a gentle tickle in my ears. When she looked into my eyes, it made my heart pound. I had known beautiful women before, and had loved one or two, but something was different about Diana. Even the slight imperfections in her aspect — the slightly bulbous end of her nose, the square smile — these just seemed to emphasize how beautiful she was. Perfection would have left her imperfect.

I was so enthralled that it was not until she was ready to leave when I finally got around to asking her out. It was a typical first date, tentative and unsure, but it was only the start. As we continued to see each other over the next few weeks we grew much closer. She was beautiful. She was funny. She was smart. We thought alike and we saw the world in much the same way. It was impossible for me not to fall in love with her; she was everything I had ever desired. And when she fell in love with me, she became even more.

We became all but inseparable, and did everything we could together: we took some classes together, and then took weekend trips to get away from classes. We tried to experience as much of the world together as our limited budget would allow. But always my eyes were for her alone, and I could envision myself with no one else. We married six months after graduation, and for the first year, our lives together seemed like a dream.

What made the relationship fail was something I never really understood and the years since have only made it foggier. Maybe I didn’t understand what she tried to tell me or maybe I was unable to provide what she needed. Maybe the fault was that I couldn’t tell her what I felt. Or, just maybe, it was the foolish ego of youth that made me start to wonder if I was really in love or had married too soon, and discovered the truth only after it was too late. But now the details don’t matter; by the end of the second year the marriage had fallen apart.

Losing the love of Diana was devastating. I felt my soul had been ripped into a million pieces, and my future was gone. How could anyone survive a divorce when they are still in love? How could I ever hope to live without her? What could life possibly hold for me any more? I even contemplated death — just let go of the steering wheel and close my eyes. The car will find the cliff on its own and the pain will be over.

It was only with the support of my friends that I survived. They gave me comfort and brought me back from the brink. And while many were important to my recovery, the most important was Tucker.

I had known Tucker for many years; we met in college, a year before I met Diana. He was an avid rock climber, but I had resisted his many attempts to persuade me to go climbing with him. However, he had finally enticed me into the sport as a means of moving on from my failed marriage. The thrill of cheating death pushed aside any thought of inviting it.

As I was a new climber, Tucker insisted that I work only on bouldering, a relatively safe introduction. But I was soon bored with that, and practiced diligently until I was comfortable with Tucker’s favored style, roped solo climbs — climbing by myself with only the temporary supports and ropes I carried with me.

The shared experience and adrenaline rush of these climbs cemented the bond between us. And one of its most profound affects was that I once again found great enjoyment in life. The episodes of depression over my marriage were reduced to only a few times a year, and even those would only last a few hours.

But our friendship was more than just a shared interest in climbing. Unlike any other friend since my boyhood, I found in Tucker a kindred soul. We had very different lives, but saw life in very similar ways. We could immediately understand the other’s non-sequiturs. We could joke about almost anything, and turn almost anything into a joke. I loved Tucker as a brother and our bond was nearly as strong as the one I had once shared with Diana.

Then, twelve years ago, I convinced Tucker to take a trip to climb some particularly challenging faces near Telluride. It was an exciting prospect, and we eagerly set to planning our trip.

After a night’s rest at a local motel, we arrived at the face early in the day and quickly set to our thrill. All was going well at the start, but then something went wrong. A lost grip, an unseen fracture in the rock, a misplaced anchor, and Tucker had fallen over 200 feet.

I was devastated and inconsolable for weeks. Those same feelings of despair I had felt around my divorce were back. I barely ate and didn’t sleep. But my depression was fueled by more than just the loss of a friend. Although I had no direct part in Tucker’s death, I still felt the guilt of having convinced him to go on the trip.

Once again I had to be saved from my melancholy by my friends. And again too, there was one friend who was the most important in my recovery, my Jennifer.

I had met Jennifer a couple of years before, and was slowly growing closer to her. Like Diana, she had long hair — not as much red, but still a beautiful brown. Her face was oval, with hazel eyes that would sparkle, just a little, when I made her laugh, and lips that spoke softly to me. I spent as much time with her as I could.

Jennifer was beautiful to me, and as we grew closer, I began to realize that I could finally love someone again. That maybe I could marry and raise the family I had wanted to have with Diana. The emotional nursing from Jennifer only deepened my affections for her, and within a year after the tragedy I had found it in myself to walk down the aisle once again.

For years, Tucker’s death was a painful memory and had given me many sleepless nights. But it had been very gradually losing its grip, and as time passed it also gave me some perspective. I could just as easily have been the one that fell. Would Tucker have all but given up on life? And how could I honor Tucker’s memory if I couldn’t focus on anything but the end of his life? I had to move past the death and remember the friendship that had meant so much to me.

The regret of losing Diana was different. I had never been able to move on from her. It was as if some part of my soul had been lost all those years ago, and I had never been able to recover or find it in another. Even during those years climbing with Tucker, even when I first knew I wanted Jennifer as my wife, even as Jennifer and I raised our children, memories of the absent Diana and my latent love for her could still drive me into depression, depressions that fed my wolf.

As I sip the last of my tea, the weather turns heavy. The sound of the rain has been gentle but depressing since I got up, a match for my mood. But now I could feel the wind lashing at the doors and windows, the rain becoming a solid mass of sound instead of a gentle patter. A living and toxic beast, trying to poison me with cold and dark and wet; cutting me off from my friends, cutting me off from my family, cutting me off even from myself. I feel utterly alone.

And now I can feel the wolf creeping up, drawing nearer to my throat, shaking off the cold of nothingness, ready to make a final leap into my heart, and there to feast. Images of Diana flood my thoughts. Memories of the good times we had are immediately broken with memories of the anger and hurt we caused each other. So much of it was my fault, making my ache all the more acute.

I understand so much of the personal flaws that were once mine and which I have struggled for years to correct. But the realizations came too late. The corrections were too late. So many things I wish I could have said, or wish I could have done. But the me that existed then was too stubborn, too closed, to have said or done any of them.

If only I could have a time machine to transport myself back, and fix what needed to be fixed. To have let Diana know what she meant to me. It might even mean that Tucker would still be alive. But I’m stuck with a past that can’t be changed, and the pain it has caused me for so many years.

So intent am I on listening to the rain and fighting back the wolf, I don’t notice Jennifer padding down the stairs. The gentle touch of her hand on my shoulder startles me, but her smile warms my soul, if only a little. Jennifer, the only woman who had even come close to easing all my pains and regrets, to remind me how to feel alive and loved and part of the world again. To help me beyond what I can do by myself.

We sit at the table for a while and talk about our lives together, about memories of our courtship and our shared time. We talk about our children. Anything other than Tucker or Diana. The conversation helps push back the wolf. I no longer feel his breath, I no longer sense him standing just behind me.

Finally, Jennifer turns off the light and whispers, “Come Morgan, it’s time we were back in bed.” The worst of my misery has gone for now, the wolf is drowned in the rain outside, and Jennifer’s warm embrace as we lie in bed melts away what little angst is left.

The hour of the wolf will hit me again far too soon. But for now I can be happy.