THEY DON’T KNOW
My mother never learned to swim, but that’s only one of those stories.
Another goes like this:
My father played music at a bar called the Corner Club, named for its place in the elbow of a two-lane 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 mother met my father at the Corner Club, land men made a decision to correct the line right there, so the whole place could be parceled in near-perfect squares, bought and sold.
Soon after the survey, the land men dug the first gravel pit in the county, and sold the rock to make highways through swamplands. They drained what they could to make farms.
But they left our swamp, which was too vast and thick, and in the elbow of our highway they made a bar. In the back of that bar, my father made music.
And there, my mother — who never learned to swim or to sing — found that if she listened, she could hear words even before they were spoken.
What they don’t know:
We are made from the failure of maps and the promise of music. Or the promise of maps and the failure of music. In all of those places where bodies of water refuse to give shape to territory, we seep.
And we are made from the moment when bodies first learn to be buoyant, to flow together, in spite of everything the land men claim.
My mother never learned to swim, but she grew-up floating the Mississippi in a raft made from old boats and barn doors, and the turned up hoods of stalled pickup trucks.
No matter what they tell you, ours is not the same river.
Our river is small 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 after dark, because our river is home to our ghosts, who have names.
They don’t know those names.
How could they?
Our river swallows the dear things we’ve lost, as well as the wicked things we’ve wished away.
They don’t know how our mothers never forget. Our mothers, who hold our stories and remind us:
There is no away.
I learned to swim in gravel, while staring up at machines that sat idle on the edge of the 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 work for the men who had left.
“They’ll be back!” our mothers shouted over the water, calling us in before a storm.
But when the land men returned, they found the pit overgrown, and the children long gone.
Rather than leaving the place to heal itself, they called it a lake. And they said our job was to clean up or get out of the way.
When my mother started to bleed for the first time, her mother told her to close her legs. Convinced she was dying, she tried to stop the flow with her hands, but couldn’t.
Some people called 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 dreamt our heartbreak at the source — I would have four children.
Two would be daughters, born to the river.
In the dream of Riverine, she said she looked on the water and saw a bird in flight, told me to listen like my mother did.
Though we can’t understand what a bird is saying, we can still love its song.