A Natural History: Kevin McColley


A Natural History of His Violence

by Kevin McColley

He could see now that there is more to a life than its living. He could see now that a good life needs a good death; you need to finally be in the depth of your soul the person you would become. To shed the disguises you wear before the world, before yourself. To see, finally, the light.

It was the middle of the night, and the hospital room was very dark, very quiet.[1] The smell of disinfectant hung in the air. His eyes searched the darkness and found only darkness, and he knew that this was the final beat of his heart, this the final breath he would be drawing. This would be his last act of will and his dying. He struggled to muster the courage for it.

There had been a time in his life when he believed in God so fervently that he thought his belief to be knowledge. He gave his life to God, and it took him two years to realize that God wore his own face, thought his own thoughts, and the finger of God pointing down God’s road was his own finger pointing down his own. It took him two years to realize that he was throwing his own face up into the sky in order to see his own face smiling down. Knowledge will always shred belief, and he didn’t like this thing that he’d come to know.

There had been a time in his life when God died. He’d been in the Navy then. He’d been in the Middle East, in Central America. He saw young girls starving to death and he saw a young boy stabbed in the chest and he once saw a man eviscerated and left hanging in a tree, all for the love of God and the love of country. He saw a hundred twelve year old boys shot in the head and stacked five feet deep in a pile as long as a windrow. He saw the flies and he smelled the death and he knew in that moment that there are things that go far beyond any conception of God and banish him. There are things in this world so much larger than God that they can crush God beneath their heels like a bug. He would never again see the world as he had once seen it, the good and the bad, the home of the free and the brave. All of the colors that he believed in now all faded to black.[2]

There had then been a time in his life when he’d wandered. He returned to a country no longer his own, and the words that rang from the lips of the faithful were hollow. He wished that he could kill memory with drink but he could not. He thought that if he were violent then in some time and at some place that violence would turn upon and devour him; it seemed an easy enough way to die. His thoughts and his actions became violent; violence became a color he always wore before his eyes.[3] Cradled in its arms he did not feel pain, and under its tutelage he could only think pain, and his thoughts grew red and bright, and blood covered his knuckles both red and bright, and blood covered his face, and blood filled his eyes. More than once he was left bloody and senseless in a parking lot; more than once he left others bloody and senseless at his feet like something left to rot.

There had been a time in his life when the violence passed, though it did not pass quickly or lightly. He ran his fist through a wall, and when he stood looking at the blood flowing down he knew that the violence was turning upon and devouring him, and he no longer wanted to die. He vowed then to never again raise his hand in violence, but there are different forms of violence, and he did not know then that another form of violence was not done with him.

He moved to New Mexico with a woman. They moved to New York where they split up. He was very poor then, and New York is an expensive place while the woods of northern Minnesota are not. He lived in the woods in a one hundred year old farmhouse with no insulation and bad windows. That first winter he had trouble keeping the toilet water from freezing. He had terrible dreams at night. He dreamed of dead boys stacked in the jungle and he was stacked among them. He dreamed of hanging in a tree while birds picked away at his guts.[4]

There had been times in his life when he had been close to dying. He’d been shot once, stabbed once, beaten nearly to death a couple of times. He’d walked into the USO in Naples and walked out again five minutes before it exploded, killing three. He’d been on the second floor of a hotel in Toulon when terrorists had blown out the lobby, glass flying. He’d had a gun held to his head and a boy had pointed a rifle at him and that boy had been stabbed to death by Navy SEALs right in front of his eyes. Just before he turned forty, he collapsed on the floor in the one hundred year old farmhouse, blind and deaf and not breathing, with parasites eating his brain like candy. In the hospital in Fargo he awoke one night to find himself out in the jungle again, and he was wrapped in wet and muddy winding sheets, and all around him twelve year old boys were dead or dying. The psychiatrist said that they would lower his dose of morphine and then he’d be all right. But though he could see now, though he could hear now, though he was breathing again, he would never again be all right. Twelve year old boys had died and were dying and would always be dying, their screams in his ears for a lifetime. They were even dying now, even as he lay dying, even in this final moment of his life.[5]

There came a time in his life when he met his wife. He made more mistakes in that marriage than he could even begin to name; he found that his struggles against violence had only just now begun. Words can be violent and he spoke them. He wished he could run his mind through a wall and pull it out torn and swollen and bleeding, but he could not. She moved the last of her things out in late August.[6]

They say that wisdom comes with age, but he knew as he lay on that hospital bed sucking in his final breath that such a thing was only true if wisdom is the summation of the scars from the mistakes of a lifetime. As his heart relaxed from its final beat, he found the final courage to admit his life, the moments of weakness and the moments of strength and the moments that could have been one or the other but had turned out to be nothing at all. He lay there holding that final breath with the sudden and terrible and awesome silence that comes with the stopping of a heart, with the cessation of the rush of blood, that sound he had heard every second of his life and had failed to realize that he was hearing until this final second when it had stopped. The huge and echoing silence. He lay there embracing his fears. He lay there embracing the darkest of his memories, and the brightest. He finally released his final breath and he found that he was young again and he found that he had the courage now to live his life all over again if whatever it is that rules this world should require it. He found himself stepping into light.[7]

This is now the time in his life for his dying. This is now the time in his life when he can turn to the light and he can see his parents standing before him, a brother who has gone on, when he can hear a choir of twelve year old boys, as long as a windrow, singing in Spanish. This is now the time in his life when he has become as eternal as life itself, when he knows that he will turn and wait and stare out of the brilliant light and wait for the others to come.[8] When all of the years of his life have become a moment.

He turned now and he smiled, for he knew that it had been a good death that he had undergone. The darkness was gone now, and the light.[9] He turned now, spinning around, and in the morning with the new dawn, the nurse who first stepped in through the door found him at peace and smiling.

[1] See Figure 1.

[2] See Figure 1.

[3] See Figure 1.

[4] See Figure 1.

[5] See Figure 1.

[6] See Figure 1.

[7] See Figure 2.

[8] See Figure 2.

[9] See Figure 3.

Figure 1

Figure 2


Kevin McColley lives in northern Minnesota, where he enjoys howling at the moon and terrifying his neighbors. He can often be seen on Sunday mornings streaking naked through churches to the tune of “Just as I Am.”



“A Natural History of His Violence” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Kevin McColley is the author of six novels. Praying to a Laughing God was nominated for the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Dashiell Hammett Prize for the best crime novel published in North America. The Other Side was also nominated for the National Book Award. He lives in northern Minnesota, where he writes and runs a sled dog team.


One comment

  1. We had a brief talk at JAMMERS?

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