The Very Last Time We Struck It Rich


by Peter Damien


At first, we thought the black liquid was oil, that we’d struck it rich and that we’d be able to retire and live in leisure. We actually started writing down all the ways we’d spend the money. Our first choice was a doctor for Grandpa, who had had a horse fall on him years back in the War, and whose leg had never fully healed. It didn’t matter, though, because the black liquid, it got Grandpa first.

We didn’t see the black liquid arrive in the first place. First, it was Father with a pick-axe and shovel, struggling all day on digging a well into the hard ground. That night, he struck a stone a few feet down, said some cusses which Mama told him off for, and then he retired for supper and bed.

Next morning, the well was half-full with the black stuff. It bubbles a bit, Father said, and I wanted to ask what was makin’ the bubbles, but he was already busy talkin up a storm to Mama and Grandpa about how he had to go to town now, talk to some men about this. And then he said it. He looked at us all, grinning and flushed with excitement, and he said, “Goddamn it, we’re gonna be rich!”

Mama didn’t even tell him, about the cussin. Grandpa just snorted and creaked his way to the porch to smoke his pipe. I trailed outside too, to see about the stuff in our well.

I walked out to where the well was, and I leaned against a little mound of dirt near the edge and peered in. If Mama had been out to see me doin’ that, she would’ve tanned my behind till I couldn’t sit right. She was terrified of wells, kids nearby them especially. She was always telling me about some boy she knew when she was a kid, how he’d slipped into a well and how he’d splashed down there howling for help until finally, he just drowned. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it put the fear into me when I was little.

I was older though and this one didn’t scare me none. At least, not the way it did with Mama. This just wasn’t as deep. It didn’t look near the same as what Father had described. Maybe I didn’t understand what he meant by the depth of the well or how the black liquid was “halfway.” This wasn’t anything like halfway. The black liquid bubbled still, just a few inches below the dirt edge of the well. It looked like air bubbles or some such, to me. It was just a few inches below the dirt edge of the well.

It looked like the surface of water, at midnight. Looked like that even though the morning was wearing on and the sun was climbing hot in the cloudless sky.

I got down on my hands and knees and leaned over the edge, so’s I could see my own reflection in it, though I wasn’t so sure how smart this was. I half-expected no reflection at all.

There was a reflection, though I kind of wished there wasn’t. It was my face, sur enough, but it was…different, somehow. The shadows on my face were deeper, darker. I looked older. The biggest change was my eyes, though. The rest of the reflection was still me, but the eyes, they were someone else’s altogether. Or something else. They scared me so much, I pushed back form the edge right then.

I was about to go home when I stopped and pick up a long stick from the dirt. This time, I didn’t get no closer than I had to. I slid the stick slowly into the black liquid.

I don’t know what I expected. I didn’t hit anything solid. It was thicker than water, but not so much. I might’ve relaxed a little, but then I pulled the stick out.

It was gone. All the stick that had been in the black liquid, it just wasn’t there no more.

I dropped the stick and walked home without looking back.

In the shadows of the little ramshackle porch, regular clouds of smoke floated, like from a train stack. I found Grandpa sitting in an old and creaking rocking chair.

“Ain’t gonna get rich,” Grandpa said, like I had been here the whole time. “This is just another damn thing.”

He meant that Father was big on getting’ rich, but all the things he tried, all the money he spent, it all just did nothing. Mama said once that maybe we just wasn’t meant to have more than this, and then Father snapped at her and then Grandpa and I had to go outside while they had a talk.

“I don’t like that black stuff,” I said.

“I ain’t seen it,” Grandpa said, through a big cloud of pipe smoke. He added, “That boy’s got to dig a new well now.”

“It made my face look bad,” I said. “And it ate my stick.”

“Get rich,” Grandpa snorted. Then he looked right at me with yellowing eyes and a haze of smoke and said “No good’s going to come of this.”

He was right.

#

By the time Father went to town, the black liquid was at the very top of the well. By the time he came back, it was pooling up at the bottoms of the dirt mounds, making tiny rivers in the ground’s cracks.

I didn’t mention that though, because I came in and saw Father’s face. He was sitting sprawled, like he had fallen into the chair,and his face was drawn and ashen.

“…bunch of the others had just come into town, like me,” Father was saying. “McMurtry, he was digging a new well too, and it had black stuff first thing this morning. Some of the others was there, same thing. Their wells had that instead of water now. Buckets were gone, wells half-full, like us.”

I wanted to say it was well past half-full, but he kept talking.

“We talked a while about what to do and when I was about to go, that fella Thompson who lives way out? He turned up to tell us how it was dripping outta his ground pump. Same stuff.” Father shook his head. “Ten damn miles off. Same damn stuff.”

There was a long silence. Then Mama said, in a small voice I’d never heard from her, “So it’s not oil?”

Father just shrugged. “Not like any oil I know.”

Mama said, “What’ll we do?”

Father just shook his head.

 

Before bed that night, I went out to the black well. “Don’t you go near that stuff,” Mama said on my way out the door. “I won’t,” I said, but I did. Went right to it.

It was comin’ out of the well on all sides now, lot further out than before. It flowed out and made pools in the lower spots. It just sat there on top of the brown land, like rain after a hard drought. It was always bubbling.

Grandpa was out there, this time. He leaned against an old and scuffed up cane, pipe clenched in his jaw, puffing away.

He was tossing small rocks into the well. They hit without much splash and they vanished without a trace.

We looked at each other in silence. He gave me a rock, then went back to throwin’. I slipped mine into a pocket when he wasn’t looking. I admit, that stuff scared me too much to be tossing rocks at it.

One little pool, black as night, broke its banks and scurried down to start making another.

#

I woke up the next morning to shouting and noise, just chaos. Father was out when I woke, shouting at Mama to hurry the hell up. And she was hurrying, dressing in a rush and running out without even noticing me standing there. I didn’t see Grandpa nowhere.

I went out and I nearly screamed.

The black liquid had spread so far, so damn far. Fifteen feet or some such from the well in every direction, blacker than pitch and bubbling away. Even as I stood there, I could see it advancing more. It had to be faster now. One more night, I thought, and it would be bubbling at our porch.

Father was maybe ten feet in front of it, with a shovel, digging frantically. He was working on a trench. Maybe only a foot deep. Mama was rushing his way, from the barn by the house, a shovel in her hand. She hunched up and got right to digging along with him.

I started toward them, but the moment I was off the porch, Father whirled my way, wild eyes and red face, and he bellowed at me like nothing I ever heard, “No! Don’t you dare come any closer!” He yelled at me so awful, it put me back on the porch without me meaning to.

“Where’s grandpa?” I shouted. We wasn’t that far apart, but it felt like miles.

Father didn’t answer, but Mama stumbled and looked back toward the well, and that said it all.

I didn’t feel nothing about it, though I know I should’ve. I just stared and I might’ve been filled up with that black liquid for all that was inside me.

They dug and dug, making a long line between the house and the black liquid. But they wasn’t fast enough, not how it was moving, and I started thinkin’ that I was gonna stand here and watch it eat them, then the house, and that was when the men from town rode up in a clatter of horses.

They rushed up with shovels, after wrestling the horses to tie up. The horses were panicked and pulling, rolling their eyes just from being near the black liquid. The men all had shovels with them. They said a few grim words, dismissed Mama back to the house with me, and they dug like. Made it larger and deeper.

“Inside,” Mama said, ushering me in.

In the house, I just sat there. Mama cleaned, paced, just poked at stuff. She was pale as new cheese, and her eyes were wet. I wanted to hug her – mostly I wanted her to hug me – but I knew my Mama and she ain’t much for that, ‘specially not now.

So we sat in silence. I stuck my hands in my pocket and brushed the stone Grandpa gave me, and I wasn’t full of that black liquid anymore, I was full of ice and hurt.

After some time, the door swung open and Father came in. Filthy and sweaty, with a look on his face that that I didn’t understand but which scared me.

“It’s done,” he said. “It’ll buy time.”

Mama only nodded. She’d seen that look too, but I think it said more to her than me.

“I got to go with,” Father said, nodding to the men outside.

“No. No…”

“I got to. I got to do for ‘em what they done for us. We got to help each other, you know that.”

Mama’s breath was thin and ragged. “You got to help us.”

“I know. I’ll be back soon.”

He kissed her then, held her tight, then touched her cheek and came to kneel by me. This close, I could see the dust on his beard, making it all brown.

“I love you,” he said. Then he kissed me on the head and held me so tight it hurt, though I didn’t care a bit.

When he pulled back, what shocked me were the tears on his cheeks, making muddy tracks through the dust on his face. I guess I never even thought of Father as someone who could cry.

“Father…” I said, but he stood and headed for the door. We followed him out. He got the horse saddled and out of the barn, grabbed a shovel, and rode off with the other men. He didn’t even glance back at us. They just rode away.

And that was the last time I saw Father.

#

We didn’t say nothing for a long time after he left. I was waiting for him to come back at first, but looking at Mama cooled that notion. She didn’t cry, not a bit, but her face had gone ghostly white and her lips pushed together in a bloodless line. I told myself if she wasn’t going to cry, I wasn’t going to cry.

We sat by the front window and watched the black field of liquid slowly expand. It was so large in every direction now, and all full of bubbles that, from this distance, looked like a long field of stars. Where it was closer to us, though, we could see it moving, and it hypnotized us in place. We watched it approach the trench the men had dug. We watched it spill in, and began to fill up.

Finally, when it crested the top on our side, Mama said, “We got to go.”

I was startled and followed her out the front door without thinking. ‘Til that moment, I had still thought that somehow, this was gonna be fine, our home was gonna be fine. But that black liquid, it was comin’ awful quick.

She saddled a horse and brought it out the barn, tying it to the post by our house. It wasn’t easy, the horse was as spooked as me and didn’t want to be touched none. We tried to tie him up so he was out of sight of the black liquid, but that didn’t help much. Mama went back into the barn. There were clunks and thuds and a big din of animal noise. Then the barn door got blasted out of the way and every animal we owned went stampeding out. The cows lowed and rolled their eyes and heads. One fled around the barn and away, but the other panicked and ran back into the barn. But it wasn’t them, or the goats, or even the cat Jehoshaphat, what had caught my attention. It was one of the chickens. A big brown hen went through the air, flapping and screeching like mad. I watched as it flapped right down into the black liquid.

It was just…gone. No splash, no struggle, nothing. It was like the liquid opened and closed over the chicken and all that was left was a small series of ripples. The bubbles took care of even those pretty quick.

“We’re goin,” Mama said. She climbed up, then hauled me up, and we went down the road fast. Mama didn’t look back, but I did the whole way, ‘til we went up a ridge and out of sight.

#

The long ride to town takes no time at all on a scared horse that wants to bolt. We went up the hills to head to town, I thought, but then Mama turned off the road and we stayed on the side of a hill. When I asked why, Mama said, “town’s in a valley,” and that was all.

I didn’t fully get it, ‘til we came into view and there was a small break in the trees, and then I gasped like someone had hit me square in the gut.

The black liquid was into town, came down the low paths opposite us. The whole way, the trees was just gone, like they’d been clear-cut all at once. In town, people were fleeing up the hill, heading our way. Some shops and houses were vanishing, crumbling as some of it was swallowed, and the rest just tumbled in. A wagon sat in the middle of the road, and then it was just gone.

And the screams.

There were horses and cattle that no one had set loose and which were yanking and digging frantically, trying to get themselves loose. Even from way up here, I could see they were foaming and bloody from the effort.

But even worse, there was a woman atop a stone building. The black liquid was all around, but didn’t seem to eat stone. She was sobbing and howling and babbling.

A man stood up a hill a little, five feet or so of black liquid between them, and he was crying right back, just as hard as her. I watched as he took a running dive. He went right into the black liquid, easy as diving into a deep lake. He didn’t come back up.

The woman sobbed and peered over the edge at the blackness. I wondered what it did to her reflection when she looked in.

Mama said, “Come along. We got to be quick.”

We turned and went up the hill, but I kept thinking about the woman and the man  who dove in. I wondered if she would dive in to join him.

I wondered what was under there.

#

We rode a bit, heading up the small hills which lead to bigger hills which lead to the mountain. Soon, the horse became impossible and we had to set him loose, though when we did, the fool thing just bolted up  the same way we were going. A lot of animals were.

After that, we just walked, with the folks from town. We all mostly knew each other, but nobody talked. We shared the load of what little supplies we had, and we trudged up.

At night, we huddled by fires. Some of us looked at the stars, some of us looked to God, and some of us looked down at the valley. So many trees were gone now, and even at night that black stuff was visible. There was nothing as dark as that.

Nothing changed for days. We hiked, we climbed, we spent our nights watching the black stuff take over. The trees in the valley went away. Soon, the black liquid would go so high, it would spill over the sides of the valley.

Just like it spilled out of our well.

#

That was a week ago. We are as high up the mountain as we can get. We set up a small camp, some shelters, because it’s cold up here. The animals that fled our way gives us food, the snow pack further up, that gives us water. It hasn’t rained all week, and I wonder if the black liquid is to blame for that too.

No one much looks at it…or they say they don’t, but it draws the eye. After it crested the valley, it began rising a bit faster. It swallows the low hills around us, and it seems to go further and further toward the horizon every morning. All the trees are gone. We are on a tall island, growing less tall with each day.

Some men talk about hollowing boulders somehow to make boats, but I put no faith there.

Mostly, Mama and I sit and we hold each other. When she sleeps – and she does that a lot now – I write this.

The liquid is blacker than pitch, than anything. The bubbles are bigger and slower now, and I still wonder what makes them.

Once upon a time, we though this was oil, and we were gonna be rich. We even began listing all the ways we’d spend it…