Books for the News

Where the North Sea Touches Alabama


An excerpt from Where the North Sea Touches Alabama by Allen C. Shelton

This is the sketch I made the day my father was buried:

The beaver, long leaf pine, flint and quartz, swamp age: 1–1600. The first graves in the shape of a snake at the foot of Crooked Mountain are constructed. Beans and corn arrive from Mexico. De Soto passes by. The final collapse of the mound builders takes place as the blue celt is left behind in the dirt where the Big House will be built.

The mule, corn, cotton, creek, and iron age: 1799–1942. Revolutionary war veteran Tyree Landers arrives. The first Baptist and Methodist churches are established. The Creek Indian War brings Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett to within miles of my home. The Big House is built with bring interior colors. Elizabeth Champion dies. The Trail of Tears sucks the Creeks out of the area. They leave gold buried in secret places. The Confederate officer John Pelham is killed. The map of this world is drawn by the Confederate officer. The original families that settled the valley go extinct and the exile of the dead begins. The woods overtake the Champion graves. Luke Coppick leaves the Big House. The Big Barn is built. The first telephone is installed in the Big House. The gold is taken out of the ground by an Indian with a metal detector. The long leaf pines are timbered.

The Black Angus, grass pasture, lakes, and steel age: 1947–1981. My grandfather A. C. enters this world from Jacksonville and buys the land that will become the Shelton farm. He builds the first lake and names it the Big Lake. The beaver swamps are drained. Luke Coppick sees a ghost. The subway project is abandoned in the back pasture for lack of funds. Bob Parker goes away. John Parker moves out of the Big House. A. C. III arrives and paints over the buttermilk pain in the Big House. County water is installed. Debbie’s throne is cut into the creek bed. The Ouija board is buried in the ditch coming out of the spillway. Martha White goes missing. A C. III begins his collection of Patrik’s art.

The dog, lawn, swimming pool, and plastic age: 1985–2013. The first swimming pool is built. A. C. dies. Tyree finds his door in the sandbox. The chicken houses encroach. Coyotes arrive. Mary Pullen has a stroke in the garden behind her house. Kato the dog is assassinated. The farm is sold off. Mary Pullen and Mary Janie die. The first nondenominational church is erected. A. C. Jr. builds his house on the mountain. Patrik Keim is dead. A. C. III leaves the farm and goes on the road, chasing tenure-track jobs like a dog chasing cars. The Big House is sold to a lawyer. THe road to the farm is named Shelton Road. No Shelton lives on it. A. C. Jr. dies in Birmingham. Eli the dog disappears in the woods around my father’s house. The last stronghold of A. C. III’s home disappears underground. A. C. III discovers the North Sea.

Each house I had inhabited in this world, each of my elders, was now somewhere else. The psychic interiors that had made these spaces my mother’s or my grandmothers’ had sunk through the ground into another world. I can see this place. I can feel it. It makes my heart beat faster. I am interacting there with my relatives in rooms that no longer exist. My grandfather A. C. always suspected the existence of this other world. He had wandered the pastures every day, looking for that abandoned subway station in the back pasture that would have allowed him to go underneath to where the stars fell beneath Alabama. My father and I are now part of this historical recording and our time here is over. There is no equivalent to the Lisbon earthquake in this history. The history is parsed out in tiny bits that become monumental only over time, resembling a layer of sedimentary rock jutting out of a mountain slope covered in brown leaves and pine straw. In the distance I can hear water lapping at a shore. Alabama was once underwater according to fossil evidence. The prehistoric is coming back. This new Alabama has a shoreline bordering a cold sea with no resemblance to the Gulf of Mexico. Kafka ends The Castle in midsentence with the fog even thicker than in the opening: “She held out her trembling hand to K. and had him sit down beside her, she spoke with great difficulty, it was difficult to understand her, but what she said” . . . and then nothing. The rest of this sentence has vanished into the same fog that opened the book. It’s where the North Sea touches Alabama.

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