It took me awhile to name it. In those early days, I just called it my shadow — a darkness sharing my same shape. Moving almost like me, but not exactly.
A bit more like water. A bit less like girl.
My mother never learned to swim.
This is the story I tell when I want to explain something elemental about her and trauma.
About me and my shadow.
Am I her shadow?
I tell the stories as she told them.
First, kneel on the ground in front of the only person in the world who is allowed to brush your hair. While she brushes, she explains that there were boys. Her brothers, but they could have been any boys at all.
As she braids strands of your hair together, she tells you how they tossed her body into the Willow River when she was a girl the same size and shape as you are.
How they knew she was afraid, but they didn’t seem to care.
It was her first lesson in abuse.
They laughed at the way she would sink and rise and sink again.
Her shadow would sink and rise and sink with her.
Eventually, she climbed up the river bank holding onto the roots of a willow tree. Barefoot and soaked, she made her way home.
There, her father was waiting with a willow switch.
“What were you thinking, being so close to the water?”
It was her fault.
She looked at the ground beneath her, and her shadow trembled.
Though she never learned to swim, my mother taught me about that river.
Not the Willow River that you can see on a map, but the one beneath it. The river that flows between women as they teach their daughters, and each other, how to survive abuse.
In greek mythology, willow trees are sacred to goddesses of the underworld.
Celtic folklore reveres willows for their close association with water, believing that they can see deep into the psychic world.
Because of this, willow branches make the best divining rods.
My grandmother calls herself a water witch.
She taught me to search for water underground.
“The most important thing is letting your whole body relax, so you can sense what’s stirring beneath the earth.”
They say if you have a secret, you should tell it to a willow.
Willows are are secret-keepers. We kept secrets in our bodies too.
In Irish folklore, willows have souls that speak through music.
We speak through music, moving with the sound.
My shadow rippled over whatever ground I’d just covered, or sometimes, it stretched out before me like a premonition.
It was proof that I was not see- through.
That I had a body.
That my body was real as anything.
We used to swim in a gravel pit in the middle of a hay field.
Never once did we call it a ‘gravel mine’ but I guess it was. It was a mine that was ours, or rather, it was on my uncle’s land.
The water in the pit didn’t move like other water does, so it seemed safer somehow.
We’d tie our inner tubes together with baling twine, a group of girls laughing as we’d raft across a pit surrounded by earth movers.
I didn’t know the word ‘extraction.’
I couldn’t fathom what it meant to us.
I knew the gravel pits where my uncles had dug up rocks to sell. I knew the flooded iron ore mines where my grandfather had worked. I’d seen the signs, Black Dirt For Sale, along Highway 169, where high school kids were loading sod onto the backs of semi trucks.
Land was always being mined, and we were mining it.
But before that, it had been stolen.
We had stolen it.
The word ‘mine’ is the first word in a story about trauma and our bodies.
I am time traveler, peering into the water of a mine pit lake near Nashwauk, my boat gliding smooth over the treetops of an underwater forest.
They stopped mining here decades ago.
My shadow creates a dark place among drowned trees, and where it is dark, fish swarm.
When did these waters rise?
Did my grandfather walk among those trees, on his way to work?
Are those willows?
Sometimes I ask myself what is the opposite of extraction. It’s not to put things back in place.
That would be impossible.
Put the girl back on the bank of the river, dry and dreaming?
Sarah pulls her boat up to a small landing at the bottom of a steep wall that was cut decades before either of us were born.
I look at her and I think time bends a little.
Granddaughters of miners, bodies with shadows.
Sunlight illuminates the underwater forest, and it looks like the bow of her canoe is resting ever so slightly on the edge of a cliff.
I can name it.
It took years of looking back at the ground I had covered, it trailing me, shifting shape as I moved.
A glass baby bottle used to shock me into silence with a ‘thwap!’ on the head.
A willow switch. A bottle of vodka. An earth mover.
Beneath the water, the cliff drops straight into an abyss. A Northern Pike makes its way up the slope.
We name what we are doing healing, and dive deep.
Sink, rise, rise, rise.
Shanai Matteson (she/her) is an artist, writer, and cultural organizer. As a 2018 McKnight Artist Fellow, Matteson has been creating visual artwork and storytelling spaces that uncover familial and cultural relationships between violence, femininity, earth, and resistance to extraction. Her website is shanai.work