Don’t sacrifice your skin for anyone

by Sheree Matthews

I.

driving on the open road

a wide blue sky beckons me on

tarmac whistling

from mounds of snow sun-bleached grass waves

I’m heading in no particular direction

stopping when the mood takes me

eating fish, talking to the locals

burrowing my toes in black sand

soaking up this slow, old-fashioned breath of life

II.

You have to respect ice. It holds ancient air. Air bubbles from centuries past that can be drilled out and analysed. Retrieve vital information about climates past. Like the rings within trees, each bubble holds clues about life. I wonder if they drilled through me, pulled out bubbles of air, what secrets they’d find?

I say good luck to them. I live in this body and I still don’t have a clue about who I am from one moment to the next. The key to that knowledge is ancient.

III.

I’m late collecting my luggage. I’m one of the last few to go though security. A uniformed man and woman stop me. Ask me to follow them to an inspection area. No one else from my flight is there. While the woman switches on their x-ray machine thingy, the man seizes my luggage. He asks me questions at the same time.

Is this your first time in Iceland?

Where are you from?

How long are you here for?

Why are you here?

Are you here for work?

From the stopping and searching and questioning, I can’t help but answer the questions with attitude. Short and snappy. There’s tension in my voice that comes out sounding like impatience and disbelief and exasperation.

All the time they send my luggage through the conveyor-belt sensor backwards and forwards, pointing things out on the screen and saying things in Icelandic to each other. Then they put on the blue rubber gloves and start to open up my baggage. Pulling things out, moving things around.

The woman pulls out my coffee and my squeezy lemon and bottle of honey. And holds each one up to the man. I verify what they are. Then, I’m free to go.

Have a nice stay now. Enjoy your visit. Smile smile smile.

IV.

I sleep in the cradle of mountains. The silence is soft and muffled and heavy. It rains over night. Looking out across the fjord I see black, brown and sage as the landscape loses it white mantel. Life is coming back to the Western valley. An icy wind still blowing in from the Arctic but the land is on the turn and it reflects in my mood. I find myself humming as I fix coffee. My hips sway between the cooker and sink in the cabin.  My cheeks are flushed and even without looking I know my eyes are sparkling, matching the ice crystals in the remaining snow.

V.

In the 9th century, the first Viking to sight Iceland was Gardar Svavarsson. His ship ran off course in harsh weather while sailing from Norway to the Faroes Islands. Off the back of his reports, Norsemen and Celts followed and settled. With little significant immigration since that period, Iceland remains genetically homogeneous. Isolated. Nordic. White.

VI.

The smooth fold of the map between my fingers brings me right back into the excitement swelling in my stomach. I’m actually doing this alone. Driving the ring road around the island, with only Beyoncé to keep me company. Lemonade. Empowering. The glacier lagoon is just there by the side of the road. It’s weird how close it is to modern civilisation. I soak it all in. This luminous turquoise bluey-green river with floating icebergs. Bulky icebergs that are melting . Rapidly. Tourists take photographs of themselves with a foot propped up on an iceberg like hunters displaying their kill. I feel disgusted. But how am I any different? I came on a whim; I came on a credit card.

VII.**

Foreigners in Iceland are required to carry a passport or legal identification at all times.  The law also states that the police can search your home if they suspect that you might be attempting to usurp their immigration laws.

It’s human nature to clump ourselves together into groups of people that look, talk and think the same. It’s about feeling safe. Throw someone different into the mix and the seeds of prejudice blossom.

VIII.

Coppery red flat tops

curl in towards

soft shiny centres

The symbiosis of a fungus and a green alga, lichen is the first plant to colonise a hardened lava field. Versatile and hardy, it thrives to survive under harsh, volatile conditions. I marvel at its tenacity, wishing I was as robust. Clinging to rocks, tree trunks and wire, lichen grows and glows. Branching and shrubby, once upon a time I would have been too afraid to look so closely, to distinguish life amongst the dark holes of decay. Now I don’t look away. Now I see the beauty.

IX.

During the interwar period, there was a nation-wide building of swimming pools. Being able to swim was very important for a country heavily reliant on fishing. It was a matter of safety. Each village has a swimming pool. It’s a place of worship with sauna and coffee and community.

X.

Inside a bookshop in Reykjavik, on the top floor, is a coffee shop.

I order a latte and search for a seat. A man looks to be leaving. I utter the word, ‘Excuse …’  when he looks at me and shouts, ‘Get the fuck out of here, you fucking nigger!‘ Followed by a guttural laugh in my face. I stand with my mouth open. Speechless. I close my mouth and walk away.

I feel as if I’ve been slapped in the face. I feel exposed. I sit in a corner. My vision blurs. I feel a wetness in my hands.  This man’s guttural sounds continue.  I realise he must be mentally unstable. There has to be something wrong with him. In that moment, I’m glad I didn’t respond to his abuse with abuse. It’s not part of my make up. I know that much.

XI.

You have to get naked into the showers first before you put on a swimming costume. Wash all your parts especially your armpits, genitals and feet. Then you’re allowed into the pool. I hesitate before I haul my black body in there. I fear there’ll be security guards overseeing the washing of the bodily parts.

The pool is busy. I get in. Water not too hot and not too cold. Just right. I just swim for the hell if it. Allowing the water to slide off my shoulders as I extend my arms in breast stroke. Allowing the water to glide between my legs as I repeat the action like a frog. Stretching my body out and then contracting. Expand and contract. Expand and contract. I feel energised and free and comfortable. I had a feeling of gratitude towards my body. I felt calm and centred and present.

*Title quoted from a poem by Emmy Fisher.

**as a source of information or inspiration see: http://issuu.com/rvkgrapevine/docs/issue02_2017_lowres

Sheree Angela Matthews is a writer, artist, Black Eco-Feminist attempting to increase the number of black people exploring nature. She believes that we all have a responsibility in making this world a better place for all. And it starts with ourselves. 

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