THEY DON’T KNOW

“…How they pray for rain
They don’t know a thing
About what it takes
Livin’ this way…”*

My mother never learned to swim,

but that’s just one of our stories.

//

Another goes like this:

My father used to play music

at a bar called the Corner Club,

named for its place in the elbow

of a gravel road that makes a sharp turn

eight miles north of town, for reasons

unknown to most people.

Surveyors will tell you,

this is a correction line —

a place where the curve of the earth

met a desire to map.

Long before my father

met my mother at the Corner Club,

land men decided to correct a line there,

so the whole could be parceled

into near-perfect squares,

divided from itself,

and sold.

//

My mother arrived to a home

rooted in this violence.

//

Soon after the surveyors left,

the land men dug the first gravel pit

in the county, and used the rock

to make highways through lowlands.

Then they drained what they could,

made farms and money

from potato, winter wheat, sugar beet.

But they left our swamp,

which was too low and thick,

and in the elbow of that road

they made a bar.

In the back of that bar,

my father made music,

and my mother —

who never learned to swim —

or to sing,

found that if she listened,

she could hear words,

before they were spoken.

//

What they don’t know:

We are made from the failures of maps

and the promise of music.

Or the promise of maps,

and the failures of music.

In all the places

where bodies of water refuse

to give their shape to a territory,

our truth seeps.

And we are made

from the moment when bodies

learn to be buoyant,

to flow together,

from a source unnamed —

in spite of everything

the land men claim.

//

My mother never learned to swim,

but she grew-up floating the Mississippi

on a ramshackle raft

made from john boats and barn doors,

and the turned up hoods

of broken-down cars.

No matter what they tell you,

she said — Ours is not the same river.

Our river is narrow,

and wild, and forgiving.

Our river curves softly,

and it moves slow.

Our river is not a line in the land to correct,

it is the land,

and it is all the water

they can’t see.

//

We were told never to swim in our river,

because our river carries our ghosts,

who have names, and miss our joy.

They don’t know those names,

and we were never supposed to tell them.

They don’t know,

how our river swallows all the things we’ve lost,

as well as the wicked will we’ve wished away.

They don’t know,

how our mothers can’t forget.

Our mothers,

who hold our stories, with violence

pooled in their hips,

reminding us.

There is no away.

//

I learned to swim in gravel,

staring up at machines that sat idle

on the edge of that blue-green hole

we called The Pit.

We were always waiting

for the land men to dig again.

Waiting for the bubble to un-burst,

and the bust to boom,

so there would be good work,

for the men who left.

“They’ll be back,”

Our mothers shouted to us

over the water,

Calling us in,

with anticipation and warning,

as if a storm like that

could be weathered with grace.

But when the land men finally returned,

they found The Pit overgrown,

and the children long gone.

Instead of leaving the place to heal itself,

they called it a lake,

and gave it a new name.

Built vacation homes,

and bike trails, and a brewery,

they called The Pit.

//

When my mother started to bleed

for the first time,

her mother told her

it was an ordinary curse,

and would bring trouble.

Close your legs fast,

she said.

And convinced she was dying,

my mother tried to stop the flow with her hands,

but couldn’t.

//

Some people call them Swamp Stompers,

the wild girls who live where the land is still wet,

its counters unmapped.

To them, female bodies are just wildlife,

another lonely place they can fill

with their stories of taking.

They don’t know all the water we hold,

or that we hold it for our daughters.

They don’t know the source of our lives,

or of our longing to live.

//

I knew her as Riverine,

first daughter,

a ghost now,

like the others.

According to my grandmother ,

a dowser who traced our power

and our heartbreak

to a vein of water that flows unseen

between two worlds,

I would have three children.

Two would be daughters,

born from the same river.

//

In the dream of Riverine,

my grandmother said she looked over the water,

saw a bird she didn’t recognize.

It had a call she’d never heard,

and would never hear again,

but she told me to listen

same as my mother did.

Though we don’t know now,

what a bird is saying,

we can still follow its song.


*Lyric from They Don’t Know by Jason Aldean. One in an ongoing series of pieces written after listening to, and reimagining, Top 40 Country Songs.

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