We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
—John F. Kennedy
My name is Alexandra Brockden, and I am proof that one is not born, but rather becomes, a werewolf. As I eased into the aches, pains and embarrassments of puberty, I inspected the palms of my hands each morning, but no telltale hairs ever appeared. There were seven millimetres between the tips of my index and middle fingers (six, on my left hand). Nor did my faint, ironic eyebrows ever rush to unite above the bridge of my nose. The signs were all wrong. Yet in the end, none of this mattered.
I had always thought of myself as a hunter, whether I was following Father into the woods with an air rifle or devouring everything the town library could offer me. I made my prey the hard books, the controversial books, the ones they were almost afraid to lend to women—mathematics, science, a little philosophy. One day, I hunted down the translation of a scandalous French book with “sex” in the title, and persuaded the timorous librarian to lend it to me. That giddy, glorious afternoon, all the forces that were working to shape and constrain me evaporated, and the narrow horizons of my life unfolded into a vista of infinite possibilities.
I was usually alone in the library. The only other visitor was the Blackwood girl, the sister of the one who had grown notorious in the village for poisoning her relatives but still escaping jail. She came in once a week, took three books out, and left, glorying in her unpopularity, never glancing at me or exchanging a word. I pitied her. You could see she wanted to be a wolf, but she was only a cat at heart, a witch’s familiar at best, too entwined with her own turf to seek out a broader hunting ground. I was the kind of monster who was going places.
I had lain awake long enough, listening to the howling in the night. On my eighteenth birthday, a week after the scholarship letter from Harvard University had arrived in the mailbox, I snuck out for a walk in the woods, under the full moon.
The bite itself was almost a formality. To be honest, I barely remember it. There is a phantom memory of yellow eyes burning into mine, wet fur against my skin, and pain. Then there’s nothing but my own pale face in the bathroom mirror, swabbing out the tooth marks with iodine before I tucked my sore shoulder back into my pyjama jacket and went to bed.
It was the birthday I got my first telescope. That, I remember.
Mother was stirring the oatmeal on the stove when I came downstairs. I had expected my birthday breakfast to be much like other mornings, and I was taken aback when she asked me, sharply, where I had been last night.
“I just went out walking,” I said. “For a breath of air.”
“Did you go near the Blackwood place?”
“No, never.” The Blackwood property was private, no trespassing, out of bounds. Father complained about it, demanded his ‘right of way’, but it never held much fascination for me. It was the wild unclaimed spaces that held my attention, not the parks of the rich old families.
“Good. There was a fire there last night.”
“Really? A good big blaze?” I was sorry I had missed it. A fire was almost as good as a present.
“Yes. It was very… destructive.” Mother might perhaps have said more, but then Father clumped into the kitchen, unshaven, bleary, smelling of woodsmoke.
“Happy Birthday, darling,” he said, tousling my hair. “My scholarship girl. Do you want to see your present?”
“I thought you said we didn’t have the money for a present this year?”
“Something turned up,” said Father, as he winked at Mother over my head.
“Rufus Brockden…” she began.
“Ah, save your breath to cool your oatmeal, woman!”
Mother sniffed. Father led me out onto the porch and there in the sunlight was a bright brass telescope on a gleaming steel tripod. I squealed and hugged Father, trying not to wince as he crushed my sore shoulder in his arms. I pretended not to notice the smudges of ash on the tripod, or the name Algernon Blackwood engraved around the eyepiece. After all, there is no property among wolves.
My telescope was my constant companion that summer, as I started to explore my new body, my new capabilities. Full moon was the only time I needed to be a wolf, when the urge to change was irresistible. New moon was the only night I was condemned to be wholly human, but for days afterward, all I could manage was to grow my hair and stick my teeth out, and that only for a few minutes at a time. As the moon waxed, the tension grew. At half moon, it was as easy to be a wolf as it was to be a woman, but if I hadn’t transformed at all before the moon reached its last quarter, I’d find myself snappish, irritable and easily distracted.
Of course, I could only stargaze during certain phases of the moon, but contrary to what you’d think, I wasn’t missing much. Looking at the full moon is like looking down at a desert at midday: stark, flat, dull. During the waxing and waning phases, the long slow sunrises and sunsets across the moon’s surface, you get to see the texture of the place, the rim of darkness at the crater’s lip and the jagged shadows of the mountains creeping through the dust plains.
I left town in 1962 with a scholarship to Harvard, where I would major in Astronomy. It was the year the President committed the United States to putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and the year the Blackwood girls shut themselves up in the charred ruins of their house, never to emerge again. The following year, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, and Lee Harvey Oswald shot the President in the head.
The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.
Like every good stargazer, I was keen to get involved in the Apollo program, but by the time I left college, NASA was adamant it already had all the astronauts it needed. (That they were all male and white was something I only thought to question later.) Kennedy’s moonshot, however, had left them desperately shorthanded in almost every other role, and they were hiring women by the hundreds. I never had a male boss in this period—I did my bachelor’s degree under Professor Cecelia Payne-Gapotschkin, Harvard’s first female head of department, and then worked as a junior technician in NASA’s Astronomy and Relativity programs, under Dr Nancy Roman. It meant a move out to the Langley Research Centre in Virginia, but I was happy to get out of Cambridge and out to somewhere where the open spaces were easier to come by.
Aside from the glorious weeks of Spring Break and Summer Vacation, when I’d gone back home to Vermont and run wild in the woods, I’d been pretty uptight with my wolf side while I was in Harvard. Once a month, when the situation was desperate, I went sneaking out to the fields and back. I’d hoped things would be easier in Langley, but NASA were demanding employers, and I was doing constant overtime trying to get our satellite up to spec. I was still saving for a car, but at least I had my own place now, which meant that in a pinch I could just go down into the basement and transform. It got the crucial night of the month out of the way, though it made my wolf-side wild with frustration at being cooped up, and it sure did make the basement untidy.
I didn’t have a whole lot of social life outside of work, so I bought a television set and got hooked on Star Trek. Of the main characters, my favorite was the snarky doctor, but I was always looking in the background for a glimpse of Lieutenant Uhura. I wished some alien would paralyze everyone else and give her her own episode.
One day in April 1968, I’d spent the morning puzzling over the biggest headache in the whole astronomy program—the task of getting our Orbital Astronomical Observatory satellites oriented in zero-g and pointed at a star with enough accuracy to make a traditional telescopic observation. It was an endlessly frustrating chore, trying to get the technology to the point where it could reliably do what we wanted it to do. It was also less than a week to the full moon, and for the last two months I’d been shut up in my basement. The wolf in me was howling and clawing at the walls.
After I’d spent three hours getting nowhere, I went for a walk around the compound. On my third loop I was waved down by a woman on a bench outside one of the new buildings.
“You keep walking like that, you’ll bust something,” she said. “Cigarette?”
I took one and bent to ignite it at her lighter. She was about my age, with a smart updo that stood out against the plain NASA dress code. I thought she looked a bit like Nichelle Nichols.
“What’s biting away at you that you’ve got to go pacing like a beast in a cage?”
I poured out all my frustrations with the OAO satellite and its inadequacies in what turned out to be a five-minute monologue, while my Trek-lookalike nodded and smiled occasionally. Then, embarrassed at my loquacity, I asked her name.
“Dana Davison. I’m a geologist out of Howard University.”
I couldn’t for the moment think why NASA would need a geologist. Dana explained.
“I’m part of a group advising the Apollo program on possible landing sites based on our best-guess understanding of lunar geology—which still isn’t a lot more sophisticated than ‘probably not made of cheese.’ It’s light work at the moment, so I’m helping set up the sample lab for when the astronauts come back with our first moon rocks. At that point, things are going to get a whole lot busier.”
We got to talking about the moon and the Apollo program. Dana hadn’t done any observational astronomy, which led to my inviting her to use my old Blackwood telescope, though I complained about the light pollution from the street lamps and the neighbors. She asked if I’d ever been out to the woods.
“I grew up in Vermont. I practically lived in the woods.”
“I’m heading out there this weekend. I’ve got a log cabin in the Dismal Swamp—far less dismal than it sounds, I promise you. Why don’t you come out with me? Bring your telescope. It’ll give us a chance to get acquainted. To let our hair down.”
I did my moon math—that would be the very day when it was at the full. I was about to turn her down politely when she raised her cigarette and I noticed the edge of an old scar slip out from under the sleeve of her dress.
“Sure, why not?” I said. “I never miss a chance to let my hair down.”
Dana’s cabin was at the end of a dirt road on the shore of the lake, about three miles from the last electric light or telegraph pole. It was the perfect place for two werewolves to get to know one another.
“Oh,” she said, ripping open my blouse to discover the old pale scar on my shoulder. “I guess it’s not your first time after all.”
I growled deep in my throat and nuzzled her neck, stroking her flank with the pads of my palms as our pelts rippled out and our muzzles lengthened and the panting turned to howling. Afterwards, we hunted a buck in the woods together, silently coordinating our stalk. At last, Dana drove the panicked deer in my direction and I leaped for the throat. Waking up the next morning curled up beside her with a belly full of fresh warm meat, I thought I had never been happier.
A rat done bit my sister Nell
With Whitey on the moon
Her face and arms began to swell
And Whitey's on the moon
We had politely declined all party invitations. The night of July 20th, 1969, was going to be just for us alone. We had dinner on trays in front of the television set, then cuddled up on the sofa to await developments, live from the moon.
“That’s one small step for man,” said the familiar Midwestern voice, “but a giant leap for mankind.”
“Oh, goddam it, Neil!” we both screamed, and pelted the television set with popcorn.
Dana put on a Russian accent. “Best and brightest of all America to choose from, and they pick man who can’t even use indefinite article.”
“Nerves,” I suggested playfully. “Performance anxiety.”
“And all this man, mankind, the fate of man stuff. Sexist bullshit is what it is.”
“Right on. At least it’ll be our turn soon. We’ve got the brains and the talent and they can’t keep us back forever.”
“You don’t really believe that, do you?”
“Sure I do. Have you seen the Apollo Applications Program? Neil and Buzz are just the beginning. In five years’ time, we’ll be doing two week stints on the moon, with permanent moonbases to follow. A whole fleet of lunar rovers. They’re going to need to have some women up there sooner or later.” I snuggled in. “What do you think, Dana? Werewolves on the moon. Up there, I bet we could be women or wolves whenever we liked. No more monthly cycle. No more sneaking out to the Dismal Swamp when the moon gets high.”
“Yeah, but they’d expect us to cook and clean and put out for the male astronauts. Same shit, different rock.”
“Aw, if they try getting uppity with us, all we’d have to do is let our hair down a little. Scare them so much they’ll be making the dinner and ironing the skirts for us in no time.”
Dana snorted. “You’ve been watching too much of that Star Trek again. I’m going to the moon in slacks or nothing. Seriously, though, Apollo Applications looks fancy enough, but it’s a pipe dream. None of that’s ever going to get past the budget committee.”
“Ugh, the bureaucrats. They’re killing me. They’re killing NASA. I’d like to get into the room and go wolf.” Dana pushed me away and gave me a look. “What?”
“They’ve got a point, Alexandra. The government threw mountains of cash at NASA because Kennedy made it a prestige thing, a way to get one over on the Soviets. The novelty’s going to wear off pretty damn soon, and there’s a hell of a lot more they can do with the money right down here on Earth.”
“Like closing the missile gap?”
“Like rats in Harlem apartments, dirt farmers with starving kids, everybody who got left behind while they were shooting men up into space on rockets.”
I got this kind of bullshit all the time outside of Langley. It irked me something fierce. Always did. It had been a long difficult month, and my muscles tensed as the wolf in me sniffed the air. “Sure, the preachers and the politicians get a kick out of those comparisons, but that’s all short term stuff. The Apollo program is about the long term. It’s about the future of humanity.”
“Sure it is. The part of it that’s white, protestant and All-American. But of course, that’s what humanity is, to a girl out of Vermont.”
“Oh, don’t give me that!” My teeth were sharp and large in my mouth. Fur horripilated up my arms. The wolf was coming out. “There’s money for nukes, and money for napalm, and money to kill kids in Indo-China, but no money for space? No money to inspire? No money for the future?”
“What did the Apollo program ever do for Civil Rights? Woman’s Lib? CND?” Dana snarled. “What did it ever do for anyone but the handful of square-jawed white boys who got to sit on the end of a rocket and go for a joyride?”
I snarled right back and kicked her off the settee. She slapped me with her claws out and leaped for me, and I knocked her sideways into the television set. There was a deep boom as the cathode ray tube imploded. Buzz, Neil and the Sea of Tranquility smashed into a thousand pieces. Gas billowed out from behind the screen. Dana flopped to the floor, broken glass all over her fur.
“Dana…” I said, aghast, shocked back into human form.
“Get out!” she growled. “Get the hell out of my house or I swear to God, I’ll kill you!”
The wolf snarled and snapped at my heels as I grabbed my things and hurried out into the night. I ran down the empty street in tears, with the TV light gleaming through the curtains of every lounge window and the crescent moon hanging in the sky like a taunting grin.
This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the Moon.
Dana had been right about the shape of things to come. It seemed like it wasn’t a week after we’d successfully put a man on the moon when Congress pared down their knives and came after the NASA budget with a glint in their eyes. I hung on grimly through round after round of Reductions in Force and Reductions in Grade. At least the Lunar Samples Laboratory had taken off, so Dana had job security, but things had been frozen between us since the night of the moon landing. I’d gone back to the life I’d lived before I met her, sneaking out of town or hiding in the basement, keeping the wolf penned in. If I couldn’t keep it from lashing out at the ones I loved, maybe I shouldn’t be allowed to let it out at all.
And then came the unkindest cut of all. I heard it from an engineer helping us with the satellite that would become OAO-B.
“Cancelled?” I said faintly.
“Yeah, the order’s just come through. Mission Accomplished, Over and Out. End of an era. Bye-bye Apollo, hello Earth orbit.”
“They’re never going to the moon again?”
“Nope.” Something about my expression finally got through to him. “I know it’s disappointing, but it’s not like they’ve shut us down completely. We’ve still got Skylab and the shuttle program. We’re focusing on satellites and space stations. More skills, fewer stunts.”
“Stunts?” I shook my head. “My God. You’re all a bunch of little boys. And now you’ve grown bored with your game, you’re going to smash up your toys rather than let anyone else play.”
“I don’t take your meaning, Miss Brockden.”
“We have three Saturn 5 rockets sitting on the tarmac, unused! We’ve been so busy sending jocks and flyboys to the moon, we’ve only sent a single scientist up there. Never mind, God forbid, a woman! And Congress and Nixon and the whole rotten gang of them want to scrap the program just so they can kill a few more Vietcong.”
He huffed. “You’re out of line, Miss Brockden.”
“Oh, just… just get out of my way!” I shouted, shoving him aside and hurrying out, as the treacherous tears itched at the edge of my eyelids. I wanted to transform. I wanted to send these complacent, pipe-smoking men scurrying in terror, to tear down every building in Langley. But it was two days after full moon, and I was just a woman, pinned into my skirt and heels. At least I had the satisfaction of kicking the shoes into the bushes.
I didn’t even know where I was headed until I found myself in front of the Lunar Samples Building. Even then, I was a little surprised at myself when I marched right through the change rooms and into the pristine sample lab.
“Miss?” someone called after me. “Miss, if you’re not dressed you don’t have authorization to be in here…”
I stuck my claws out, bared my teeth, and let my hair down a little. I’d never seen a man move so fast. When he was gone I turned to one of the sample cases. There, on the other side of the glass, was the dust and rock of the moon, the landscape I would never see with my own eyes, tread with my own feet.
“Alexandra?” Dana came through in her white coveralls and hairnet. “What are you doing here? Have you gone insane?”
“Dana.” Now I was in front of the moon rocks I felt calmer, almost dreamy. “How did you know I was here?”
“Some lab tech was hitting the panic alarms and gibbering about invasion by a fifth column of Communist wolf-women. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which idiot was kicking up the ruckus.”
“They cancelled Apollo, Dana. You were right about that much at least.” I laid my hand on the glass. “It’s all so sterile and scientific, penned up behind this glass. Don’t you ever wonder how it smells, Dana? How it feels between your fingers?”
“Alexandra, you need to get out of here. We’re early in the first quarter. We both know you can go half-wolf for a few minutes, but that’s not good for much. It’s not going to take a silver bullet to end you. One of them light-trigger-finger security men would do for you just fine. And it’s going to leave a lot of awkward questions.”
“I’m never going to the moon, Dana. They’ve killed Apollo. They’ve killed the dream, killed it for generations. I stole my telescope. I stole my way in here. It’s never going to be mine.”
“They’re coming, Alexandra. We don’t have time for this!”
“We have time.” And while Dana watched, I stuck my hand into one of the glass-fronted cabinets and put my claws through the examination glove. Nitrogen hissed between my fingers as the sterile atmosphere flowed out and the oxygen-rich air of Earth caressed the moon dust for the first time. I rubbed my fingers in the grey, fine powder of the lunar soil, then lifted my hand to my mouth and licked them clean. The taste of the moon was as sweet and as bitter as the essence of everything that is unattainable.
I kept licking and licking until my wolf-paw was clean.
Thomas Tyrrell has a PhD in English Literature from Cardiff University. He is a two-time winner of the Terry Hetherington poetry award, and his writing has appeared in Spectral Realms, Picaroon, Wales Arts Review, isacoustic, Lonesome October, The Road Less Travelled, Three Drops From A Cauldron and Words for the Wild.