Because the Night
from Skin Prayers
Doug Rice


"Because the Night" was written out of a struggle to understand my own uncertainties about gender and desire. For me, this battle has always been sexual as well as religious. Traditional forms of discourse-the memoir, realism, and so on-fail to engage in or express this indeterminacy. I, thus, had to discover a language and syntax that could express the confusion of the central character. I have never believed in my own sex (that of a biological male) nor have I felt that I am a woman "trapped" inside the body of a man. This queer space of my own "becoming" demands different structures of representation.

As a child I often awoke in the middle of the night startled by the noise of blood in my body. Found myself lost inside burning dreams of walking across the sands of the desert. Footprints dead in the wind. Fingers pressed hard into my temples. I refused to believe in any of this. This, my body. The stories told behind locked doors. Hungry to be yours. Bare legs streaked by the cold air of winter in Pittsburgh. This mistaken tongue began, without words, searching for the derangement of some other body. Unfaithful words spoken aloud from my mouth. Words, refused by gods and demons, thrown out against the dark into strange bodies reflected on the bedroom wall. In the corner I saw God standing in fire. There, I saw God. Silent. His awkward elbows and jaw. An open invitation to my own mortality. In the beginning before the flood of language my blunt fingers explored this body, mine, which I had been ordered to ignore. Curious about the torn skin at the precise moment when I came to know that God sees all and follows me. Into the attic. I climb wooden stairs. God leaves me forsaken, father places his hand on my shoulder but I only see a reflection in the mirror of some dear dead memory. Feel his cold body close behind me. His gray hand trembles against the beauty of the mirror. My belly warm and soft. When I try to move, the ropes tighten. Into me. My father cries. Spilling blood and skin onto the hardwood floor. I fall down on my back. The weight of God holds me to the earth. Paralyzed in time. In some countries this is the sign for the awakening of love. My thighs like the threat of open scissors. My lips tremble. Speak, why does he not speak? So much dust.

I was taught to fear monsters under my bed, bogeymen in the walls, and angry angels hanging upside down from the ceiling. "They will," Daddy told me, "bite off your toes and toss them into the Monongahela River." Mother flicking and flicking the light switch. Three times. Me begging her to turn off the lights. Be done with it. She stood in the shadows of the doorway chewed away at her nails. Between her teeth. Pulled them off her fingers. Spit them onto the floor. In the morning my feet bleed. "The monsters will carry you off to hell," mother warns me. "In hell, you can't ever be a girl." I keep my eyes open, wide-awake, deep through these godless nights into mornings riddled by junk madness. In stillness, not a breath, not a word of this to anyone. I wait never to speak for my father to come home from work. Every minute, every night, I wait for my father. He with his body uses his body. The one God had given him at birth. In the name of his body, he interrupts my isolation. He takes away my weariness. I never cry. Not once. I never shed a tear. He likes that about me. I have heard that others have died because of their tears.

Nine years old. 1966. The naked throat of a child. Cracked lips dry and peeling. Born choking.

These guilty lips, mine, opening, stuck inside prayers of becoming a girl. For my father. So that he need not use his fists so often. So that his anger is more quiet. More gentle. Touch and let me touch you. I offer him each desire of my body past before I became known as a boy. She calls me her infant. But that is a dream, or it is years later and we are in some parking lot in California. Her teeth are in my collarbone, but this is my father. Now I lay me down to sleep. Each night I lift my voice, whispering up at the plastic flesh of Jesus nailed to a wooden cross. Forsaken body of childhood. Grace of the Savior, my father. In his arms I want him to hurt me. To beat my disobedient body into sudden desires and thrash my soul into some unknown language. More. To want more. His knuckles in my blood. In the image of. Stained hands and cold knees. I hope to be left alone on some riverbank. Discarded. Abandoned beneath a bridge on the Southside given over to the circle of homeless drunks sitting around their fires. Their warm hands lighting my flesh. The burning prayer I can not say. His lips on my lips her lips I remember. My back pressed into the bark of a tree. Pray. This flesh, mine, my soul to keep, haunted day and night by stunted freaks and biblical plagues. Locusts near my eyes scratched their way into my dreams. The Lord. Never, Grandma warned me, again and again, never look directly into the open mouth of God. If I die in the eyes of God before I wake. Apologize. Say it. You must. Say this, the cutting of your body, into words. My sore mouth close to the feet of Jesus. A droplet of wounded blood, perfectly round. Forgive me, Son of my Father. Pray without cutting into your skin the Lord. No. I do not fear the boys in the neighborhood. The ones spitting on street corners. I only fear displeasing you. My soul this pain in here to take. Every single night small men with dusty skin sneak through my bedroom window, wake me from nightmares, from God's breath with their mad tales and pointy fingers. Seven screaming horses. Their voices, pain escaping from the shadows. Breathing their voices into my bones. I could not see myself dressed in these clothes. Drunken nights on a boat. I never did come to know their names, to understand how they had traveled from the old country through the forest. Just one more lonely night. Pinned and wriggling on the wall of a sawdust hotel. These men with their uncontrollable betrayals mixing memory and desire spoke in tongues of a world out past Babcock Boulevard. Carried rumors to me of a land that was somehow not Pittsburgh. Me, silent and still, in my barren bed all alone filled with waiting. Glow-in-the-dark familial lines of blood being worn away by the passing of each minute. My mother's alarm clock on the night stand breaks into my bones. One by one. This rib then that one. Ticking my body into a nightly ruin. My all alone, nearly dead eyes, squeezed shut. Desires of my body unable to forget those foreign fingers pressed into my neck. Those tiny men plucking my eyelashes. Each morning, my eyes inside a pain of not wanting to see. Cramped muscles. Hot and hard. Tendons torn out of joint. All night long. And I wanted to be entered. Dreamt of being entered the way any woman can be entered by any man. With the passion of Jesus wandering through the desert, I tried to push my eyes back into my soul. Push my eyes so deep down into the inside of me that I would make myself into becoming blind. Wordless. Invisible girl in this decayed bed. The bed that my grandmother escaped from sometime in the late 70s. She had fled, screaming uncertain names, into the forest. Words flung loose from between tight lips. White knuckles. I stared up at the disappearing white of the ceiling, watched as God turned against Satan, the teeth of Eve through the skin, believing that if I looked hard enough beyond original sin then I could lift my body right out of my bed through the ceiling straight into the sky. My hands balled up into tiny fists. Frail fingers and prayers. Shouts into the street at a disappointed God. Parasite girls in the far off and long ago tugged at my lips. Sheets held to my chin. This throat, my memory of speaking, raw and empty. Without a scream. His desire, mine. Her fingers close to the secrets of lonely eyes. Bodies in motion but never in flight. Perpetual motion. Once she had told me that bodies at rest are compelled to remain at rest until another force acts upon them. In them. Break me open. The other side her mouth. The making of her will. Her forehead cracked the light. Wanting desire. Quiet.

Every night forgetful neighbors prowl around the shrubbery in our backyard, try to steal glimpses of my body through the window. My mother wants me to say in words why these neighbors circle our house each night, fumbling around, kicking the dog, waiting their turn. She wants me to explain my mouth to her. The meaning of life: to take it in your mouth. Swallow. Close to dying. A death deeper than any darkness visible. My mouth the slum of your wretched desires. You break my teeth with your lies. Cut the corner of my mouth with a knife. You are that big. I lift the blinds, stare outside at these neighbors. The ones with all their eyes, trapped, looking in at me. Blinking through the blindness, I search their bodies for signs. The window locked shut. My mother seals the inside and the outside of my window with fresh caulking every day and night. She checks the nails she has hammered into the wooden frame of the window. Making certain that the window could never be opened. No air. Just to breathe. A breath. Outside, leaves moving. Concrete. The twigs of trees like the scratched bones of my soul. Soiled underwear. The mud of the river of my father. I keep my knees locked together and beg God to find my body unharmed. Forgive me my fingers. My belly warm beneath. Rising to his touch. Skin ripped through by the beginning, in the making of desires. I smell you on my body, Father. I say my word against your suffering. Try to make noises. I say your name. You refuse to hear my voice. Under your mouth. Say my name. You, then, enter me like a clumsy foreigner seeking a new home in unfamiliar streets. Your desire penetrates me here and there and here, again and again, until my own name becomes incomprehensible to me. Every night my father dreams. Sometimes his dreams make him speechless. Quiet mornings listening to the radio report the weather, traffic, sports, news. My mother moves from room to room turning on every light in the house. Even the flashlights. The nightlight in the hall.

My father sits at the kitchen table sweating. The dead of winter and still my father sweats. Nearly dies twice from heat exhaustion.

Day after day my sister stays alone in her bedroom. She is no longer one of us. She has abandoned hope and become an invisible memory. Divided by two. Tin soldiers and Nixon coming. In the summer of 1979 she burned all her books. Said she would become a vegetarian mathematician with an attitude. Would disprove every single idea that Einstein had ever conceived. E=mc2, my sweet ass, she said every single night at dinner. My father would slap her across the face with his hard bones and make her go to her room for the night. Running down the hall, she would scream that she, from this day forth, would only have sex with animals. Only consent to wild, senseless fucking. Sudden and random.

At night, this father's body became another anonymous encounter with my flesh.

The dried, flaking skin of my fingers. Rotten flesh. Have you ever touched me in the winter? The miracle of her fingers inside my mouth. But she looked away. Picked at the bark of an old tree. For a long time I have been frightened of the uncleanliness of my Father. I am impure. I say, "I am impure." My body, I longing for one warm night. One night of sleep. A way back inside where she forgets who I am. The dark room where there are no lights. Nails, inherited from ancient women driven mad against the moon and sons of fathers without speech, cut into my palms. I live inside this house of silence where no one breathes. Not a word of this to anyone. My voice joined those of the ventriloquists in the attic. But once there had been echoes. Noise from the streets of history. On the other side of windows and mirrors. Persistent memories locked inside some lonely cry to angels or deserted flesh against the walls in some back alley. Left in that alley without a crumb trail. Nothing to follow. No way back home. The policeman armed and ready looking into that alley at me. Watching. Waiting for me to make my next move. Hands and boots alert, waiting. Men in shirt sleeves leaning on windowsills with all sorts of things to say about the Promised Land. Sauerkraut and kielbassi. Rotten beer and cigars. My father gets me drunk again. Old men in the shadows stare out at me. Look into my eyes little boy. Come. I try to forget my name. Blisters. Cold sores. A mouth alive with pain. I can barely unzip his pants. The scar on his thigh terrifies me. He stands solid. Unmoving. Not even flinching. Smokes a cigarette. Thinks of anyone but me. I keep thinking that he will fall over on top of me. That he will die. Or that I will die. But he just closes his eyes. Dreams. And neither of us seem able to die. My knees hurt. Stone cold heart of gold. We go on living as if nothing is happening. His pants at his ankles. Young boys turn their pockets inside out and shrug their shoulders. Brilliant colors in the palms of their hands all on fire. Offerings from nearly dead street gods. I buy a stairway. Look left then right. Always look left first. Grandmother logic from the old country. Knock on the side door to the Piano Bar. These, my winter fingers, pick at the open diseases of my infant skin. Cook up some damaged dreams. Mad bubbles boil on a narrow, tight spoon. The needle takes on an eloquent life of its own. I tap a nearly invisible line. A shot in the skies. Another lost angel. My eyes burn white. Red scars. Infected memories. Rashes of my spirit. Blood and blood. Skin of skin. Twisted hands. I cried beneath my desire. I will not move from here until you have restored the inside of my throat. My fingers I dip into the Holy Water. Receive communion down into me with loving you. Small lips opened and waiting. Interrupted by kisses. Each night more desperate than the night before. "Just one more time," I hear him say. I cover my mouth with my hands. Try not to breathe so much. Afraid I will awaken God. If only for some water. If only some water beneath this red rock. My skin dried by the sun. Rocks. Rubbing. Toil. He pulls my hands away.

My only begotten mother, oddball woman, this mother lived the life of a stranger to my blood. A woman unknown to me. A deaf woman off in the distance. Always forever standing in the doorway but never once entering my room. Frozen eyes. Nothing better to do. Watching. Silenced lips cursed my birth. Dry mouth. Moving her feet against the carpet. Static electricity with no place to go. Her soul lost in the colors of some forgotten desert. Misshapen words. Crippled mouth knowing only the lies of alcohol burning her bed. Told me once-upon-a-time I would never be a girl, a real girl, the kind men die for.


I creep down the hall. A hallway so dark that each time I walk down it, I suffer the joy of amnesia. Forget my name. Connect nothing to nothing. My sister, not me, trying to say I. This is my body to follow the will of the Father. Once my father made me sleep in mud. Rain. God makes it rain and the earth turns into mud and me unlocking the door I enter the house. My body leaving marks on the kitchen floor. God's soil. Wet. Footprints. Toes in the carpet. In my sleep, I open the door of my parents' room. I always wanted to be a good girl. Steal my father with a whisper. Take him away from my mother's body into the shadows with promises of kisses. I drag him through the dark corridors and up onto my bed. Pull off his clothes. And he begins the punishing of me for having eyes too much like my mother's. My hands on his back. Fingers digging into his skin. To die with his red blood under my fingernails. To swallow him. His cum inside me. So my body will become a witness. I throw my head back. Tossed scraggly blonde hair. Dust. Blind ancestors. Holding tight his strong body. Desire in my hands. Gave me his love and my hatred. I rub my lips. I rub these lips. My lips. I rub my lips. Wild and free. Fear. Keep silent as before and before that. There are no stories of my silence. I catch my breath. Hold still. Wait. Skin. My eyes burn. Salt words, grandma called them. The desires of the body are tears. I shed these tears onto the hard floor wanting you. In some other life she told me there were rumors of maps. Told me that concrete was not impossible. My eyes drifting. Out of me. Follow the white lines. Across the mirror I breathe in the mad suffering mysteries of angels. Drag the angry burn into my blood. Teresa and I call it bone surge. Away from me. I look away from all that is happening to me. Searching for roads, paths that lead into the woods. Dull morphine desires. Wanting. Want. Something. I stare into my open hands, her blood, and try to remember desire. She had bleed onto my fingers. Flushed forehead in dead heat. Spit from my mouth, from someone, on her skin. Mixed with the red of her cut. I put my lips to the center of the palm of her hand and kiss her blood. My body feels dry. Or I feel my body is dry. Broken wrists. The back of my head against the wall. The knees I spread. I give into you. Naked hand on the thigh. The other holds the whip. You will listen to my voice today.

I remember my father could not talk in my bed. Night after night, my deaf and dumb father cracking open my forehead. Burning into my bones. His elbows in my flesh. Fists everywhere. Purple morning skin. My wrists, twisted behind my back, small in the traps of my father's hands. Burning Indian. Blemishes of a father's hurried love. Promises made, spoken in spit. Every inch of him on top of my skin and bones. Him. My father weighed 183 pounds. This, my body will never forget. Sometimes he weighed more. Sometimes less. His knees slightly above my knees. His chin down on the top of my forehead. For years I practiced breathing into his neck. His sweat on me. One day my father died. But that, his death, comes years later. Or maybe it was yesterday. I make marks on the wall. Counting something. Days. Nights. Both. Or desires.

Issue Two
Table of Contents