Oil and Smoke – Madeleine Sardina
When Mama died, she took the oil with her. Thirty-eight years the rigs pumped up the black sludge, filling the pockets of the bankers and fueling the drinking habit of everyone in Juro. Men like my daddy worked on the rigs all over west Texas, keeping the twenty-foot tall beasts moving through the dust storms that came from the north. While the rest of the world trembled beneath the weight of their fake money, we sold real gold by the barrel. When the war came, the bars were lousy with young men whipping out every scar from the metal beasts they tamed, as if that was enough to make lieutenant. Daddy was always a rig man, or that’s what he said when his pals pulled out their enlistment papers. He stayed in Juro while the war cut our population by a third, warming his lonely body at the Tilt n’ Tumble bar. My mother found him there.
Their love was fast and forbidden, by God more than anyone else. Mama was no good Christian girl — she liked touching darkness and letting it touch her. Daddy would spit fire talking about the way she would let evil things in through her tongue and the tips of her fingers, but even as a child I knew he was more afraid of her than angry. Still, I stayed quiet when he went on his rants, even when the whiskey on his breath was laid on so thick it was all I could do not to gag. Those were the only times I heard him speak of her.
“You lucky you didn’t come out with horns,” he told me one day, sitting on the porch chair, Jack and coke in one hand and cigarette in the other. “I asked your mama about a thousand times who your sire was and you know what she said? ‘Devil only knows.’”
I was five and sitting on the porch with a straw doll I’d made at school. “Am I the Devil’s daughter, Daddy?” I asked, because even then I knew how to keep him talking about her.
“You tell me, Milly, huh? You got any horns? Any of those cloven hooves they talk about in church?”
“No sir. No sir, I ain’t raisin’ no goat child.” He knocked back his drink and poured a straight shot of Jack from the bottle leaning against his ankle.
Mama died the day I was born. I came quick, too quick for the trip to Odessa near eighty miles away. There was one midwife in town and she arrived in time to pull me from Mama’s heaving body, in time to name me after Daddy’s long dead mother Millicent, in time to pronounce Mama dead eleven days after the Germans surrendered. On nights when I couldn’t sleep, I imagined my mother clutching at the older woman, whispering ancient words while black blood and my slick, tiny body poured out of her. But her dark magic couldn’t save her from the blood loss or the seizure that stopped her heart.
Daddy mourned the dead rigs more than my dead mother. When he drank, it was not with her or me in mind, but those great rusting shadows. That was why all of Juro drank after the war. The country rose up while we sank into the dry sand that would eventually bury us. Daddy made money on the upkeep of the rigs for a while when the speculators came back to figure out where the oil went, but when they couldn’t find it, they left with their money and Daddy started buying cigarettes with his unemployment checks.
Mama took the oil but left us the house. It had belonged to her father or maybe an uncle, Daddy was never clear on that. The man died of influenza within the week Mama found out she was pregnant and he signed the house over in his will. It was short but wide, like its last owner, Daddy always said. It was one of the oldest in town — built when the pieces of the rigs were hauled by train and then by Clydesdale deep into the unfounded Texas prairie. The house was bound with good wood and metal brought in from the north by some poor speculator who thought winning big with his oil venture meant his betting problem was cured. From him it passed to one of Mama’s old relatives, then a new relative, then her. I got to grow up in my own house with my own bedroom because she knew better than to trust Daddy to value my shelter more than his vices.
I was born in their bed, hers and my father’s, dark blood spilling across the once-white sheets. In his fonder moments, a drink shy of rage or maybe two drinks past it, Daddy would tell me I was beautiful, her spitting image, black eyes and blacker hair. “When you’as born,” he slurred, calloused hand resting like a blade of grass on my shoulder, “you had about three hairs on that round head o’yours and the biggest eyes I’d ever seen. Big and black as a crow. Thought I’as looking at a little demon for a spell ’til I caught a sliver of the whites.” Then he sobered up, or sobered down, and the anger would return like the shattering of glass against the wall.
The midwife who delivered me — Pearl — became my nanny, or a broken equivalent. She came over each night when Daddy went out to cure that day’s hangover. When the sun sank below the horizon, Pearl would knock on the front door and my father would walk out, press a handful of change into her hand, and head to the bar. She’d talk me to sleep at night, telling me old western stories about thievery and bandits and heroes on white horses, or sometimes she’d talk about our town and how mighty it had been when the rigs were pumping out gallons of crude. “This town was founded on that there oil,” she said. “Your daddy and the men like him poured everything they had into those rigs, their youth and life and future, and the oil burned it up and left. Now the town ain’t got no money and they’re stuck here with nothing but their pride.”
Pearl told me stories about everything I asked — where the dust storms came from, why the bankers’ horses were so big but the horses at the Rocking L Ranch all looked like skeletons and smelled like they were dying, what the bomb drills at school were for if we were no longer at war. She took her time, stretching out each tale for at least a week. She started from the very beginning every time and always told the whole truth, no matter how harsh or frightening the facts were to me. For years I was too afraid to ask Pearl about my mother.
Six years after the oil ended and I began, I was walking home from school, stopping every half mile to kick out the dirt that filled my worn down shoes. School was three miles from the house. I started each afternoon with a cluster of tiny companions but halfway through the second mile everyone split off in their own direction and I walked the last half hour alone. Daddy had walked with me for the first week the previous year, my first year, but once I knew the way and had made enough friends to keep me company, he’d taken to spending his days in town and simply meeting me at home with a slurred and disinterested inquiry about my day.
I could see the house in the distance, a gray smudge blurred by the September heat. The soles of my feet were getting hot and I decided to try to run the last stretch, imagining how proud Daddy would be when I got home earlier than usual. I hiked my then too-big drawstring knapsack higher on my back and leaped forward, toes digging into the earth. The sticky summer wind pushed back my tiny black ponytail and my teeth gritted against the sand that blew into my mouth, but I ran in a race against myself to my home.
Before I could even clear a quarter mile, a rusty red pickup truck cut off my path, kicking filth and exhaust fumes into the air. I stopped short, breathing hard already. The man who got out was a friend of my father’s — Lee. He was old, older than Daddy at least, and a thin man. He had wrists so small Daddy joked they were always a handshake away from snapping. Lee was never cruel to me, always saying hello when he was at the house, calling me a little lady instead of a little demon like Daddy did.
He stumbled from the driver’s seat, leaving the huge door swinging wide as he dragged his feet towards me. “You,” he slurred, and I felt the cold hand of fear around my heart. “You the cause of this. You the reason they gone.”
I said nothing. I’d seen men like this enough already to know that saying things would only make it worse. Lee might once have been a kind man, one of the quiet ones that acknowledged me with a smile rather than a scowl when I snuck off to my room when he came to visit. But he was still one of the rig men and a rig man’s temper turned sharper than a busted liquor bottle.
I stepped back and felt the heat somehow more now that I knew I had to run, now that it wasn’t a stupid race. I stared at him for a long moment while he stood there, wobbling. And then I bolted.
I’d made it almost around the truck, could see the edge of my house peeking out from behind the red, when he grabbed my ponytail and whipped my head back. “C’mere!” he shouted, grabbing my knapsack for more leverage. “Little demon!”
My body went limp, trying to use what little weight I had against him, but he had a hold on me already and he was far from as fragile as my daddy thought. I whimpered a plea to let me go, promising I’d ask Daddy for money or food or whatever he needed, but he wasn’t interested. “I’m sick o’ watching this town die while you get to live!” he roared, holding me in the air under my armpits. “I’m sick of the dust storms and the rust and the heat. My family’s all the way back in Oklahoma waiting for me to bring back that money. What do you think I got to give them, huh?”
He hauled me to the truck while I struggled and screamed. When he tossed me into the bed, I whipped back around, snapping at him with my tiny teeth. “There really is poison living in you!” he shouted, snatching his hand back with more than a little surprise.
“Mr. Lee, I’m just tryin’ to get home,” I told him. “My daddy’s expectin’ me!”
“I don’t give a shit what your daddy’s expectin’. He screwed this town when he screwed your mother, and now I’m gonna get back the oil that Devil-woman took from us.”
He pulled out his bowie knife, the one I’d seen him show off a thousand times before while he and Daddy smoked on the porch. “I can gut a mule deer in under a minute with this bad boy,” he’d say. “Always keep it nice and sharp, ready for any man or beast try’na to break its way into my home.”
The knife glinted in the sunshine and when I tried to scramble away, the metal of the truck bed singed my skin. He grabbed my ankle and kept me anchored in place, but before he could gut me or squeeze out even a drop of blood, Daddy tackled him to the ground. I threw myself over the side of the truck bed, landing on my back hard enough to knock the wind out of me. While I lay there trying to breathe, I heard Daddy and Lee wrestling on the other side of the truck. I looked underneath, between the wheels and axels, and saw Daddy pin Lee on his chest. The thin man looked over and met my gaze. “It’s your job then, Roy,” he sneered. “You won’t let the rest of us gut that little oil hustler, then you’d better do it yourself.”
“You’re fucking crazy, Lee,” Daddy growled. I saw he had Lee’s bowie knife in hand, forced between the pinned man’s shoulder blades, and I felt a surge of pride like I’d never felt for my father.
Daddy stood, threw the knife to the ground next to the defeated Lee, and walked around the truck to where I lay trembling. He lifted me onto his hip and started the walk back to the house. I clung to my father’s neck, looking over his shoulder at the red pickup. The thin man sat on his knees in the sand, watching us go. He was not the last man to try sacrificing me to the great black monster that lived in the earth.
Pearl walked me to school after that. Each morning she met me on the front porch and each afternoon I met her at the park next to the school. I had no complaints about this arrangement and in fact was happy with the chance to hear more of Pearl’s stories than just what bedtime allotted. But after Lee’s attack, I became more aware of the angry eyes of my father’s drinking buddies. “Mizz Pearl,” I started one winter afternoon, “why did Mr. Lee try to kill me?”
Pearl’s toe caught on a raised edge of the sidewalk and she stumbled, looking at me with fear for a moment. “What’s that, Milly?”
“Why did Mr. Lee try to cut me open with his knife?”
Pearl was quiet but I saw the way she looked around, over my shoulder and her own. “This ain’t the place to talk about that, darlin’,” she hissed in a voice I’d never heard her use before. I fell silent, tugging at the drawstrings on my bag until we made it away from town and the only sound was the wind whistling over the prairie.
We were about a mile from home when Pearl finally spoke again. “Do you wanna hear a story about your mama, little demon?” the old midwife asked me.
I desperately did, but the fear about what Mama really was sat in my stomach like a boulder. Daddy had hardly told me of her mysterious magic, never what she did with it or how dark it made her soul. I wanted to think of her as a good witch, a misunderstood miracle-worker, making the earth’s black blood bubble up for Juro. But at night I could see Lee’s knife when I closed my eyes and I had to know what sins my mother had committed against this town that made the men in it hate me so. Still, I couldn’t answer — couldn’t say yes and wait for the truth, couldn’t say no and push it off even further. So instead I looked at Pearl and waited for her to decide for me.
“Your mama was a beautiful woman,” Pearl started softly. “Most beautiful in town. Wouldn’t have had to work a day in her life if she didn’t want to, but she wasn’t the sort to settle for some wealthy northern man or anyone who looked at her too keenly. Your mama was crafty in a way that made a lot of people uncomfortable. Rumors started about her dancing with the Devil, wandering out into the desert. Some said they saw her lying naked in the sand in the middle of July — should’ve burned herself alive. But when she came back there wasn’t a mark on her. She gathered herself a reputation and it made everyone steer clear of her. Except for your father.”
Pearl told me how they fell in love when the town was desolate, when even the functional rigs couldn’t keep the men from leaving for glory in the east. How when they came back, Mama was heavy with child, with me, and the whole town was filled with rage over my conception. My father, a good rig man, steadfast and strong like the rest of them, had buckled and made a new Devil-child. “There was a night,” Pearl told me, so hushed I could hardly hear her over the howl of the Texas wind, “when the rig men arrived on her doorstep, at the very house you live in now, darlin’, and demanded she burn with the child inside her.”
But my father defended her. He stepped out of the house, while Mama whispered prayers to her god with two hands pressed to her belly, and he told them they were not welcome, they would not get their bonfire, and he would sooner burn the house himself than let any of them near his unborn child. And so the crowd dispersed with the understanding that if the child was not his, if the Devil had made a new spawn, then my father would destroy all remnants of Mama’s sins. But when that baby — when I was born in a rush of life that destroyed my mother, there was no way to tell who or what had fathered me. Daddy only knew that he had loved my mother and he held in his hands a likeness to her he could not deny. And so he called me his own.
“Daddy’s my daddy,” I told Pearl. “He told me so, said I would have horns and goat feet if I wasn’t.”
“Of course, Milly,” Pearl soothed, putting her hand on my shoulder and pulling me closer as we walked. “But when people get scared, they like to point to all sorts of things they can blame it on. So many things happened the day you were born, it was easy to put the blame on your mother when the rigs stopped pumping.”
She told me about the panic I couldn’t remember, when the banks pulled their money and the speculators moved on. Daddy buried Mama while I screamed from the sand but before he could mound the soil over her still swollen corpse, the rig men came. Daddy was too tired and lost to fight them on anything, so he carried me back to the house while smoke billowed from the hole he had dug her. He’d hoped that was the end of it. “We all did,” Pearl continued, and now we were almost home. “But people who are always afraid are always dangerous. You best keep to yourself and your daddy from now on, alright darlin’? No use pokin’ your nose in anything. They’ll be lookin’ for any reason to do you harm.”
That was the last Pearl spoke of my mother and all I asked to hear. It was then that the nightmares began — dreams of the house burning, of my mother’s charred corpse crawling from her unmarked grave to reunite with her lost love, of a goat man claiming me as his own, his heir, his Devil-child. Those dreams never stopped and neither did the waking nightmare of Juro.
I was fifteen when they acquired their blood sacrifice. Pearl had passed away two months back, but I was old enough now that an old woman walking beside me would do me no better than walking alone. I jogged to and from school, moving quickly in the desert as the sun came up. The runs home were worse. The drunks were out in droves by then and even the roundabout way I took through town led me past enough wandering eyes. None had touched me since Lee, though some had tried when I was smaller and Pearl was still around to talk them back. I was old enough to walk alone and old enough to know I was unsafe.
When I broke out of the town and into the empty prairie, I felt safer. It was easier to spot danger here at least. It was easier to be tricked by the insincerity of the dry Texas grasslands. That day, as I ran, I became aware of a low rumble behind me, vibrating the ground with every pound of my foot. I slowed and turned to find Lee’s rusty red pickup truck kicking up filth behind it. Panic seized my throat. The cold hand in my chest, the same feeling of panic I woke up to after every nightmare, tugged on my ribcage and with every ounce of energy that remained in me I ran. Already I knew it was too late.
I thought about turning back to town, not yet too far. I could run around and past the truck, confuse them and then reach the school or the sheriff’s station or something that would save me. But even in my contemplation, the roar of the truck’s engine had grown so loud I couldn’t hear my own footfalls anymore. It cut me off and Lee with three other men — only one I recognized, Ozzie, another drinking buddy — leapt out and had me in their arms immediately.
I screamed, but it was drowned by their chants of, “Oil hustler, oil hustler!” They pinned me to the truck bed, one man at each side, and Lee pulled out his bowie knife. He pressed the point to my stomach, above my navel, where my womb would be. “If you give us back the oil, we won’t have to pour it out of you,” he crooned.
The madness in his voice made it lilt the way it had last time when my father had pinned the same man to the ground with his own knife. I roared at him, baring my teeth and forcing the same wildness into my eyes. I hoped to frighten him or maybe make him think that I really was the Devil-child he thought me to be. But he was too far gone, deep in the alcohol-induced rage that made men think they were invincible, as were Ozzie and the two strangers who held down my arms while Lee pressed the point of the knife into my soft flesh. Blood rushed out readily, hot and red, and the sight seemed to fill them with even more rage. “Where’s our crude, whore?!” Ozzie shouted.
A shout like the bark of an angry dog startled them and their heads whipped to the side. I struggled beneath them in the moment of distraction, tears running clean streaks down my cheeks, and in an instant I was released. They slid me from the truck bed, dumped me in the hard-packed earth, and nearly ran me over in their haste to escape. I felt my blood pooling on my stomach but I knew from the sting that it had not cut deep. Relief washed through me and I sobbed quietly while I waited for whatever had frightened them off to destroy me. But instead, my father alone crouched beside me, double-barrel rifle in hand. “You hurt bad?” he asked, hand sliding under my head to lift me. “What’d they do to you?”
“Just my belly,” I said by way of explanation, and let him examine it for himself.
He sat back when he was satisfied with the lack of severity and the rifle dropped to the sand. “I think it’s time you learned how to shoot,” he said. I smelled alcohol on his breath. I thought about telling him not to carry a gun while he was drinking. Instead I started laughing.
Daddy taught me to shoot by sitting on the front porch with a six-pack of Buds and watching as I tried to punch holes in his empty cans at twenty feet. It was slow learning but as I began to hit more than I missed, the nightmares, with their midnight panic, receded. By the time he got sick, I could shoot a can off the fence at fifty feet with my own rifle I earned from a half-cent reward he gave me for every bullseye.
I was seventeen when he stopped being able to get out of bed. I walked to and from school alone and without fear, barrel of my rifle poking out the top of my knapsack. Daddy had stopped going to the Tilt already, but now he stopped leaving the house altogether, sending me into town for booze and what little groceries we needed. I tried to make him see a doctor, tried to get him to do anything but sit on the porch and drink, but eventually he couldn’t even make it to the porch and by then I stopped trying to change what was already happening. I watched my father die. On my eighteenth birthday, the eighteenth anniversary of my mother’s death, the eighteenth anniversary of the dry wells in the middle of the prairie, Daddy sank into himself and died.
I buried him in the middle of the night with the wide Texas sky stretched out above me. It was late May and the dirt was soft from the spring rain, but my hands still bled on the rough wood of the shovel. As I dug, I wondered if this was the shovel that had buried my mother, or tried to. I wondered if the spade would strike her body, would crumble it to ash on impact or if I would uncover her body preserved and round. I wondered about my father, still young, back bent in agony over his lost love, while I lay in the dirt and wailed for the same bloody woman.
The mob came within the week. I was ready, had known that with the new absence of my protector, they would be free to do with me as they wished. In the days since Daddy’s death, I’d thought of a thousand ways to defeat them, to punish them for how they had destroyed each of my parents. On the seventh day, when the dawn lights were just beginning to touch the west, I saw the flume of sand billowing in their wake and I left. Out the back door onto the open prairie, armed only with my knapsack and Daddy’s porch chair, I hauled myself far out to the horizon. A black point was my guide, a long-dead oil rig still standing tall though its joints had weathered and rusted from disuse and the harsh Texas winds. I trudged until I stood in the black beast’s shadow, staring up at the point of its hull.
I shook the chair free of dust and set it facing my family’s home, shaded by this useless creature the mob worshipped. They had reached the house by then and I saw the beginnings of the smoke funneling through the windows and out the back door. Within minutes, the prairie was clouded with the orange fog and a bonfire smell clogged my lungs. I pulled a near empty bottle of Jack from my knapsack and knocked what was left of it down my throat. I dropped the bottle to the side of my chair and set to work on Daddy’s old shotgun in the shadow of the oil rigs that had abandoned him.
When the mob learned I was not asleep in Mama and Daddy’s bed, they would be looking for me. When they did not hear the screams they had waited eighteen years for, they would be looking for me. I cleaned Daddy’s shotgun and whispered Mama’s prayers and waited for them to find me.