I belong to the night. If you've only seen me in the day, you've seen a ghost. Lit up, in sunlight or artificial classroom bulbs, I'm washed out and ordinary. But when the moon rises... I light up like a candle, like a witches' circle, like lightning.
I couldn't believe the kids in my third grade class. Nightmares? What's in the closet? What's under the bed? Give me a break. It's only a monster.
My parents belonged in a Protestant "Angelus" painting, though they wouldn't have understood the disparity that involved. A waitress. A construction worker. Cattle farmers, on the side. But they turned out to be more complex than I expected. They would root around in the barn and gather tackle boxes and poles. They would head down the little path behind the barn, down to the pond. Fishing. To my parents, perch don't have a life force independent of human convenience. The salmon isn’t sacred. The bass is only a bit of flesh that’s strayed from the plate. They left me reading in my room. I crept to the window and followed the bobbing flashlights until they stopped far from the house and reflected on the water. The wind raised the grass and gave the landscape undulating goose pimples.
I went to each room. I turned the lights off, one by one. I sat in the closet. Once your eyes adjust, you can see - but you can't be seen. You just breathe lightly. You go cold.
I knew my father. Far more than I would have liked. So I sat in the blackness and prayed to the monsters.
He catches me the next day just before sunset - nowhere to hide. The fish lay on the cutting board before me. I haven't touched them for the whole of the anxious afternoon. Sometimes they flinch, and then I flinch. I'm supposed to be "cleaning" them. It's a rather delicate word for this knife-work that's meant to help make me more a man in some strange way. In my experience, Southern Baptists of the fish-hating type will not stand for an aberration without a nice, wholesome-sounding name.
I have been taking each knife from my father's collection and setting it carefully next to its predecessor - forming a long chain. These weapons are cold to the touch, but catch light - the blades are bloodless.
I can hear my father's pick-up from a long way off. We live in the country. Dirt roads. Smell of hay. Neighbors whose houses you can just make out over the horizon. Sound carries a long way. Still, he'll be here before the sun sets. And mom is at work or in front of the tv or cleaning (always cleaning) - looking back, I can't remember which.
I want to run. I know what will happen when he sees the fish. I look up, wanting to find a hiding spot. The drone of the truck comes closer. A bottle transfixes my eye. The low-hanging beams of the sun gild it brightly. Peach Ne-Hi - a token of some lost afternoon when my parents took me to antique shops. All the world telescopes down to this bottle, catching the light and sending it back out. I am mystified, baffled by bright fear. The warm little image is broken as the bottle shatters - underneath truck tires.
He doesn't yell today and this is the worst news yet. He opens the door and steps slowly out. He stands over me and the squirming fish, both gaping in the sun. His work boots are caked with white mud or plaster. His hand twitches and his arm bends. Long coarse black hairs blow in the mild breeze. His eyes squint. His mouth is slack. Why doesn't he talk? I'd love to hear yelling. See him grind his teeth. No - there'll be none of that today.
He looks to the knives only briefly, laying in their regimented rows. His hand plucks me up and my shoulder snaps audibly into place. Still he makes no sound, but hauls me across the yard, across the road, into the barn. I can hear my own little grunts, my harsh breathing, as if they are someone else's noises.
I am lightly tossed against the wall. Sun blazes into the windows as he unbuckles his thick belt. Somehow he still has one of the bottle shards on his boot, a tiny gleaming speck. I watch the belt, concentrating.
I'm not paying attention closely enough. The belt weaves through the air - once, twice. His foot catches me under the ribs and knocks me down. I am blind for a moment. There is a swinging noise nearby. The sun, almost ready to set, intensifies its light for a moment. Then a surreal change - all the angles in the world are upset. Everything sprawls sideways, inside-out, blurred. Like looking through dirty water.
I am being silently kicked and whipped. My head reverberates against the wall. And now he carefully moves me. Following the innate rule of don't hurt your children's faces, but I didn't realize it at the time. I am saying something. Am I pleading? The buckle pops against my spine for the last, the hardest, time. With it there is a final reverberation - one that can be felt as well as heard. That noise and I go way back.
It's the sound of someone throwing a bucketful of fish bones against the surface of a frigid kettledrum.
Now that it's over, I am angry and afraid. I haul myself up and then stumble against the wall. I halt against the step and then I'm out into the yard, running.
Finally he makes a noise. It's something like, "Ah ha!" and it rattles me with relief and panic, mixed. He's talking, yes. But he's declaring that I've broken some silent rule, too. He is closing on me; his great strides contain about three of my third-grade ones. And then he has me by the back of the shirt. He's forcing me down, stamping at the back of my legs with his boots. His breathing is heavy. I fall across the broken shards. Long, bright slashes grow along my legs and ankles. Now that I've turned around, I see a path of bloody spots leading up to me - accusatory. Confused, I wonder where it came from. When I finally crawl out of the driveway and onto the grass, my father is in front of me, near the carving board. He has specks of tears in his eyes. His big hands are open and grasping.
"It hurts me a lot more than you, son." At eight years, I've already learned that grownups use clichés to hide the truth, but I only nod. Am I crying? "Now, clean these fish and we can be friends. I love you, Johnny." He bends down and kisses me - my lip is puffy and stings where his touches it. Not from him, not directly. I've bitten my lip. When he stands back up, some of my blood stays there by his mouth.
"Now clean the fish, son." He says it as he walks into the house, casually replacing his belt as the last of the sunlight disappears. He's forgotten me for now.
That night, I am careful that no one sees the little light. Every Southern Baptist family of a certain stamp keeps a "junk drawer" - a repository of careless materialism. I've stolen a lighter from ours and I don't want anyone to see the glow. I am in the barn. I have sneaked out of my room and crept through the moonless dark.
The bright flame quivers only a little. I watch it until the lighter's metal top is red with heat. I close my eyes. In complete silence, I jam it downward onto my arm. I can smell burning, but I hold it firmly. A little line of scars marches along my arm now, each one in the shape of the lighter-top. It stretches from my wrist nearly to my armpit. When I lay it next to the welts on my legs, my hips, my back, my shoulders, my chest, it fits perfectly. Like jigsaw pieces nestling snuggly together. I feel more complete. I am part of something larger than this farm, this pain, these people.
But something is wrong. My flesh won't hold the fire. I press the lighter to my skin again and again. The heat infuses me for a moment only, then spreads and trickles away like mist. I'm left with nothing but more marks to explain, marks I might like to explain if anyone could be trusted. I am cold as a forgotten dagger.
There is a little lantern on the table where a candle burns for Brighid.
"Daddy, carry me up and I will see the fish!" babbles my three-year-old son. I set him carefully upon my shoulder. Tropical fish dart about - traces of blue and green and yellow in the water. My son lifts a smooth arm and points a thin white finger at the tank.
"Fish!" And again, a few minutes later: "Fish!" He is content simply to name these playful monsters.
As he repositions himself slightly, the moon catches his blond hair. The light shines through it as if it were unblemished glass. An unbroken bottle. I smile reverently.
I could tell you all that happened in between these scenes, but I won't. It's enough just to be here. Transformed. Happy.
The fish tank burbles, a soft current of sound in the otherwise silent house. The night is comfortably warm.