How to Gut (a Fish)
by Lora Rivera
Straight up like a pin. Head to ceiling, shoulders back, chin high, chest out, tummy in. Suck it in,
don’t slouch, stretch all those muscles, don’t be short. When you breathe, breathe in here, not
there, don’t be fat. Perfect. Now you are perfect.
After taekwondo, buffet pizza. Brothers fight over the last slice of buffalo.
Bed-bound, I’m sleepy in the backseat, brothers out.
You’re gripping the wheel. Your voice whisper-rasps, “You think... Is it okay to be gay?”
There’s this boy in school, black-haired... Can it be not okay to like someone?
Arms around my middle are a hug until they are not. But wriggle as I may, I cannot be free. What
do you want of me?
I don’t know how to ask this question. Toddler logic can only squirm,
until you’re done with whatever you are doing.
Be angry and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed and lie still. Offer sacrifices.
Put your trust in a cage. When you are betrayed, do not cry or be angry. Go to bed. Hush...
Lie so very still.
Offer your self sacrifice
and trust no one.
What about a little girl in a bathing suit inspires such fear?
She’s brown, well-muscled, soft. Frolicking in unflinching delight, dressed in sunlight,
sweat-clad, vibrating. Unmoved by disapproving frowns.
In shadow unnoticed, I recognize your stare, your rapt hunger.
If I smile, Father, perhaps you will notice me?
This story of you I like better:
The court, where you were often gone so, so long, echoes with the pop of tennis balls, sneakers
skidding, grunts, victory whoops.
Glistening men, bare-armed, parade in shorts whose length define their decade.
They like you; you play well. And you… like them.
In the evening, a cousin stops by. The cat is up a tree. Your wife sweeps the patio. The children
are abed. This distant cousin, he taught you vegetables and tapered candlesticks, in your youth.
You never could abide her sex, my mother’s or my stepmother’s.
Yet how you yearned...
with your brilliant black hair and rare smile, run to your room when they call. Lock the door. Do
not emerge. They have words to cut you with, fists for your cheekbones. They will make you
break the cat’s back and eat your own vomit.
Don’t smile. Don’t wear that dress, those shorts, that nail polish.
I am a zipper undone in silence.
At dinner I bat my eyes like the hero in my book. She had long lashes. She killed bad guys.
You say, “So you’re a bitch, now.”
No. I’m not that girl.
The neighbor girls are long of hair, necks, fingers. In the damp woods they tilt back pilfered
beers and hand me a cigarette. You never drink. Not a puff of smoke. Arms crossed, I don’t
either. “Wrong,” I declare them, a learned word you ingurgitated, then bandied on to me.
In a bronze F-150 they carve up the beach spitting sand. They brake under the lifeguard stand.
You whistle, lift your sunglasses.
They roll their sweat-wet hips and shoulders, blustering bulldogs, prowling.
You shake your head, “Duty calls, ladies,” and chase the waves.
“Butterfaces,” you tell me later, “too bad.”
At night, there is the warm curve of you against my t-shirt’ed back, the scritch of stubble, the
arm’s seat-belt weight across my torso grazing new unbound breasts, the warm hardening curve
of you against my buttocks, the smother-weight inside my chest. Gray-matter fog churns in the
wait between breaths.
Mid-sermon, I pause in note taking, despair in my lungs: I will never see the Kingdom of
I am a soiled, ugly child. I will never be good enough. How can He love me, this unwanted filth?
A no-good rag useful only for sopping up others’ spills.
Aunt, the one you didn’t like much because of the muumuus, she calls me tout de suite. “Don’t
you want bonbons and sweet cakes and bubbles anymore?”
“I grew up, Auntie.” Lip gloss and pop rocks now. CDs and things. Daddy’s buying me new
clothes. A girl’s gotta be sexy.
How long ago now—we trusted you to lift us by the armpits and make gurgly noises. We trusted
when you lowered your lips to ours, we wouldn’t feel your teeth. Taste our own blood. You
wouldn’t rip us open.
Squint one eye, to see better
things that are far away: the bright face of the full blood moon
through a telescope; the ever-falling cosmos.
Squinting will make you ugly.
I don’t mind.
I want always to stay
in the crooked cradle of your arm, squinting
at the night sky.
Moments surface, crawl out from cracks, surprise corners. Your black monster mustache on my
belly, how I hated it, the tickling!
Later, when I felt your tender attention only during the unsettled darkness, those bloated hours
between tuck-in and sleep, how I missed the simplicity of your rough whiskers.
You had soft hands.
In the story you told, softness meant value. See? A doctor rarely labors, never hefts a hammer,
Eventually, you believed your story. After all, your hands were soft as flowers petals.
Can hands confer value upon those they touch?
Can they take it away?
The truth is you’re not a Jedi, Father. You cannot right wrongs or drive cars or pay bills by
thinking at them. Put some elbow grease into it. There’re PB&Js to make, lawns to mow, stars to
The sun came up while I lay awake waiting for you.
Remember when, some open-sore time ago, that nineteen-year-old boy you loved put my
girl-hand around his smooth pedophile cock?
Remember what you told him? "I forgive you. It’s understandable."
Snake! Give me that shovel! In!
Nose to the glass.
Outside, her mother-rage is a maelstrom of metal. She corners the white-mouthed serpent while
Dog shadow boxes behind, jaws snapping air.
It’s finished. Slaughter Meat—
Fanged, bloody-eyed head, the snake is severed by her killing storm, violence loosed after years
of silent swell.
There were those mild midnights on the driveway under the sky. Those brassy malodorous
summer evenings on the salty water. Those haunted vigils we kept, neither stirring in our bucket
seats, boys and her slumbering in your black Grand Prix. Many nights—my skin the only
boundary between you and me.
Several hairs scrub free as I claw awake.
Sleep crusts my eyelashes.
Downstairs eggs and bacon pop in the grease
The four of us eat in viscous silence. We are cut loose, bobbing in the wake of departure.
Old mammoth oak stretched with banana spiders and Spanish moss:
I bury the dead there.
Secret away among branches.
Listen for their scritch-scratch-scritch at the eaves.
In such a place, learn peace in solitude;
let the ants crawl;
count each red flare to soothe the stinging nettle bites.
Fever-focus hurt. Thing other than me.
I trace the cut, dip a fingernail into it.
In minutes, the bleeding stops. In hours, once wet and hot, the flesh will be dry and warm, scab
How you wanted—whom you wanted—
Perhaps even you didn’t know.
Here, have me.
In all those years, weren’t you expert at one delicious dish?
But you did have such a smile on you.
Put the tip of your knife in the silvery place where the soft-scaled belly meets tail. Press down.
Draw the blade away, not toward. Cleave the meat, and fish out the gnarled black guts; smell the
And if he tries to help? Say no. This is most important.
Stanchion mother, how you noted every sharp corner of every human soul—the better to weather
the inevitable cut upon collision.
And, oh, were there collisions.
For you, of all your six cowering siblings, victims of the cycle, learned to stand and speak.
Speak you did.
And still not enough.
In a dream the lions are dead.
I wade through the day, unconscious. I am the fish that swims in the curtaining red guts of the
Swim, swim to your next safe harbor. Look not right or left.
Swim, and be merry. Leave memory and still
A man is neither a boy nor a brother. I’m lucky in this. A man may be a teacher, pastor, or
principal. He may be a doctor, cousin, uncle, boss, therapist, neighbor, boyfriend, or member of
the choir. Even the worship leader with whom I’ve sung duets. Be afraid of men.
"He’s not good enough" and "No one will ever love you" Father,
do not mean, "I love you."
Familiar eyes, fogged-window breath: Regret stands at the door between us.
It’s not that I didn’t need a father. A starving child will gobble even the rottenest fruit,
worm-ridden, to ease the gnawing. She will beggar up to scoundrels, thieves, charlatans. They
will exact payment from her hide, pillage what remains. She will name their lies and still believe
The aisle stretched infinite. I walked alone, gave myself away.
There he was smiling. "A good guy, really."
My vows monotoned in my mouth.
By now, I’d learned what love was: The will to stick it out.
What would it have been to hear you call me beautiful?
I wonder how your touch would’ve felt on my body unsullied by thoughts of my strong
girl-thighs, of the softness of my child-skin, of the silkiness of my hair.
What if you had, just once, said you were proud?
You move among the white-clothed tables, thanking my guests. They toast your happiness. How proud you must be!
You’re softer in the middle, balding. Who are you?
My new husband dances with his mother.
Someone says "Congratulations"—snagged in passing by my voluminous skirts. I apologize,
move out of his way.
Was it this room? Or this one?
The elevator pauses, dings. Blue shirts and trousers stride out.
I’m here for an ultrasound; when my husband enters me, it hurts. What is wrong with my body?
Fifteen years ago you lost your license in a room like this.
Sometimes when I close my eyes and set my brain to float its murky waters, I see flashes in the
deep, the lagan left behind. Slashing metal, white-hot teeth, mouths and jaws, snarling, snapping.
Rictus, blood! Someone’s entrails—flotsam feed. What delightful carnage! This twist, a sensible
depravity. A simple violence.
I don’t love you,
he told me once. To you
every morning, every night:
I hate you. My life is worse for your being in it.
Mother, may I fault you for stealing
—from us—a fugitive/remnant part of your Self, tucked safe? I hope.
May I be angry?
Men with bruised under-eye shadows. Men with soft hands. Men with a delicate lisp or bad teeth.
Men who watch you move, gaze narrow with plans. Men proffering extravagant gifts. Men
who—asked a question—stiffen. Men whose unwelcome hug folds you inward, backward. You
smell of clean sheets and of danger.
Last person to lunge at me across the dinner table:
My ex-husband, too late to rescue my toppling globe of wine.
A child—friend of a friend’s—squashing my blue play-dough tower.
Ah, but I’d been telling neither child nor husband how I loathed them. Could that have been the
Quiet now, champagne drained, the new year over.
Outside and apart from the others’ joviality, I’m struck by the night’s starlight softness, the
patterning of rain on the pines, the far-off grumble of someone else’s thunderstorm.
I need to breathe.
Mustn’t trust the warmth, the friendships, the cheer.
The courtyard market trembles with echoing children’s voices. Feet skip along cobbles, sweaty
hands clasp and clap. The cacti ache open, their stomata releasing summer’s heat. Breads,
squashes, meats, cheeses, naturopath tinctures and lineaments. Families in hemp and spun cotton.
I am the pillar upon which I lean, cemented, apart.
What are the limits of empathy? Tell me, what betrayal is so great that a soul cannot remake
itself, find redemption?
But this is no fairy story. I write my boundary ‘round me: Come no farther.
I dream the lions are dead, and grieve, courting the lost and ugly years.
I’m here with you, your hooded eyes and not-so-silent judgments. My heart is in the corner on a
shelf in a jar, lid snugged tight. Safe.
We are older. You are silvered, wiser, but still so broken.
Am still in a jar
on a shelf,
not so whole myself.
This is the hospital where you practiced. This is the hospital bed where it happened.
This is the place in my belly where it hurts when I think of her, the nameless girl, your patient.
This is the lie you spoke.
This is the truth: There is no absolution—only onward.
Oh, and some long day hiding under the sheets, a dream comes to me: A battlefield where I rise
up and say,
I fight the dragon and slay him.
I rescue the princess and crown her.
I cut the chains away with my sword
and walk across the threshold.
A gong moans soft and round and deep.
“Remember this. Forget that.
You are walking into warm water. You are submerged. What do you see?”
In NREM sleep, electric arcs dance long and slow and bright beneath the waves. Learning life
Two fingers slipped inside. What—
I am outside.
I am five.
I am four I am three I am two who am I and what is in out what—
I am outside.
A lizard wandered up the screen door, toes articulate, eyes between half closed and black marble.
When I caught it, I opened it.
When you are not quite ready (you will never be), open the ripped-edged reliquary.
Do not be afraid.
Do not underestimate the powers you find there. Hold them gently. They are not your enemy.
Trust in friends. Trust your body. Listen more than you speak.
Do not give up.
I rocked a baby once, held her like I’d wanted to be held, pressed my hopeful hands into her
dense and sleeping core.
"Let her be whole and happy. Let her breathe freely. Let her love hugely and be hugely loved."
I prayed a long while. I don’t know how long.
Lora Rivera writes and climbs rocks in Tucson, Arizona where she's worked as a literary agent, children's biographer, and crepe maker. Today, she develops eLearning for child welfare professionals and serves as the senior editor of Stories from the Drylands, a community climbing anthology. In a land awash with sunlight, she'd trade her mother's Irish hues for her Asian-Indian father's darker tone—but that's all she'd like from him, thank you. Connect and learn more at www.lorarivera.com.