Sharks Tooth Cove
from Songs of Gentle Sadness
By Buie Seawell
At a place where the Lumbee River turns left by more than ninety degrees, leaving its right bank deeply undercut so cypress trees hang precariously over the dark, swirling water below, there is a cache of ancient remains – prehistoric shark’s teeth and bones from a Palaeocene time when this was a great ocean’s edge. My friend Bill knew of this sacred trust of time, and one day took me there.
We rode bikes over the Fourth Street Bridge and along the far bank of the river on a sand path. At nine I wasn’t suppose to stray this far from my Grandmother’s house on Elm Street. But just the words “Sharks Tooth Cove,” lifted the veil of obedience that a young boy lived within and carried me pumping pedals furiously behind my older friend. Bill McLain was 12, wore weird thick glasses, and knew about stamps and the rules of poker and dinosaurs. Today he was going to show me one of life’s greatest mysteries, right here in Lumberton.
Bill stopped his bike abruptly and dropped it near some low bushes. Abandoning my bike as well, I followed crouched low behind him through tangled branches until the swirling river lay before us. He stepped down off the root contoured bank and into a shallow round pool of two foot deep, cypress brown but clear water. Carefully he ran his fingers through the sand bottom like a short toothed rake, and then rising up he held before me a canine shaped incisor. I starred down without moving.
“It’s maybe 60 or 70 million years old,” Bill said, like that was something everybody knew. I reached toward the little thing, and as though it were as nothing as a toy – not a shooter understand — a toy in my marble bag. He dropped it into my hand. “It’s yours,” he said.
In years to come, I would learn the word “palpable.” My history professor at Davidson College, Dr. Frontis Johnston, used the word in a lecture about the Civil War. He talked about his feelings as he uncovered a musket-shot from the battle ground of Second Manassas in Virginia. “Gentlemen,” he intoned, “at that moment history became palpable.” Back in my dorm room armed with my faithful guide to life beyond the river – Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary – I uncovered the meaning of yet another word of the lingua non Lumbee, “PALPABLE (adj.), tangible, manifest, obvious, unmistakable.”
I had known the meaning, but not the sound of it, when that ancient tooth dropped into my hand, and when I rubbed it with my fingers and wondered with a still child-fresh mind what that great fish was like . . . what he was doing in Lumberton, how such a thing could die and yet be remembered 60 million years later! In repeat trips to the cove, Bill and I would find a hundred or more such fossils, one big enough to send to Raleigh to the State Museum of Natural History. I had so many shark teeth I kept them in the bottom of a goldfish bowl my turtle lived in. They became almost ordinary in their abundance, but in that first discovery something extraordinary had happened, and I am still – layer by layer – uncovering its meaning.
When I was seventeen I stood on the opposite bank from Sharks Tooth Cove, a place we called Scouts Hole, and watched as the lifeless body of a young Indian boy was pulled into the aluminium boat of the Robeson County Sheriff. I had been sent there by our daily newspaper, for which I was a photographer, to take a picture of the search for the drowned boy. Reflex Graphic in hand I arrived just as the grappling hooks did their untidy work and the child was lifted from the Lumbee’s dark waters. From a distance I snapped a couple of pictures and retreated quickly to my car.
The Sheriff’s men saw me, knew me, called after me, “Wait a minute there, son, we’ll bring him over there to the bank where you can get a better picture of us…” Pretending not to hear, I left.
My boss, the city editor Penn Gray, liked the picture, and on Friday it was on the front page. I think he liked it because you could see the river and the boat and the small body just coming out of the water, but not so close as to offend folks. Only I noticed beyond the boat that special place where the remains of ancient days collected, and waited for discovery. I wondered if this Indian child, we called them like the river, “Lumbees,” would be remembered. At least there was a picture, and for me death was now as palpable as life.
When years and years later I would experience my own greatest loss – of love, not life – I would remember the feelings swirling around Sharks Tooth Cove, and write these words to no one other than myself:
I walked the matted leaves of lately fall
When rains have set them down
Along the banks of Time
Without a trace or sound of passing
And thought not word nor act of mine
Remained for later find
Wondered what of all I’d been –
A child, a man, a father, a lover –
Might somehow, some way, sometime endure
A presence in the silent flowing
Safed away by stream and silt
Into some eddied crook of space
All I heard was nothing
All I felt, too soft for imprint
The currents rippled not
The air moved only imperceptibly
When did he pass away?
All I ever was
You the eddy
You the place beyond the current
The silt into which my being sinks
And when young boys come
In summer days to dig
And find the trove of ages passing
What shall there be of me
The Waters do not speak
The winds of late November stir leafless
My hands reach to make some last imprint
Upon your receding flesh, then
Winter comes again
And I am gone.
When I returned to Lumberton after my first year of college I asked my mother if she knew where my shark teeth had gotten to. She couldn’t remember. I reminded her I kept them in the turtle bowl. Untended my turtle had died, and he and “that awful mess in the bottom of the bowl” had been thrown into the garbage.