The Last Oil Well
by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith
Why are you always so cynical?
That’s what people were always asking my father.
Live long enough and you’ll be cynical too. My father would answer.
Five times a day father would remind me, “If others hear, it will be bad.” he’d say. And then we’d kneel and face the mosque and pray. Make that ten times a day. Because he’d say something similar after we prayed. I realize now I should have listened.
It was summer, and the market stalls were full. Full of dates, and figs, and fish, and red beans. It was going to be a good summer. Even apples were sitting in the baskets; which meant caravans were getting through from the north. At one of the shops that sold junk, I almost bought another radio to add to my collection, but it was a model I already had, and besides, I only had a handful of coins with me. And I was getting hungry so I bought some fish wrapped in paper. It isn’t really paper, but that’s what they call it.
I can’t believe I almost bought another useless radio. I do miss the radio. I used to listen to it at night. The stories about the Silly Farmer. I remember a long running joke on one program, about a man who buys a chicken farm. And he has all kinds of adventures getting the copy of his deed processed. He’s trying to get it processed without paying a single bribe. And since he won’t share his life’s rewards, he has to do all these crazy stunts at the request of the officials and the tax office. It was so funny. And then he goes to the city and has adventures there. The episode where they beat his wife is so good I cried and laughed at the same time.
And then... and then he’s back home... and he’s ready to start harvesting his chickens. He’s waiting in the field. He’s waiting in the field. And he’s waiting and waiting... and his neighbor comes up and asks, “How’s that new crop of chickens coming along?” And the farmer says, “I don’t know. Not too good. I guess maybe I buried the eggs too deep.” We laughed for weeks about that, Father and I. We laughed for weeks.
But that was a long time ago. We were lucky and had one of the fancy radios. The ones that only need to be wound up to play. Other families had to buy batteries and even thought they were cheap enough. You never really got your money’s worth, because even if they were wrapped they might not be new. A lot of merchants knew how to unwrap the batteries and use them and then wrap them back up. Often one evening of the radio could cost as much as a meal. And that would be hard to pay. At least that’s what mother told me.
But there was no radio. One night, father took me out past the fire that always burned near our door, and we walked over a hill, and on the other side it was very dark. Looking back where we’d come I could still see the glow of the fire; but looking down I could hardly even see my feet, it was that dark. And we were just standing there looking at the sky. My father had my hand in his, and his was cold, cold like Mr. Ushawari’s had been, that’s the man that drowned in the river. And I know because when Mr. Ushawari was pulled from the water I ran across and touched him, and he felt the cold like my father’s hand felt cold.
We were watching the sky, and I looked up at my father, and he shook his head, and pointed up. He used his big hand to turn me so I faced the sky and after another moment I saw what he was waiting for. We watched as a speck of metal fell from the sky. After that we had no radio. We twisted the dial a lot, and only got the sounds of rain. Father said it was our last radio satellite and that he was surprised how long it lasted... considering. I didn’t learn till much later what he meant.
At that time we owned a pasture, and a little garden, and a stony path. I spent most of my time guarding the goats from vampires and dragons and wolves. There weren’t really any wolves, but I had a flail I carried around, and a horn, and father would bring me something to eat each day at noon. And it wasn’t a bad job, not really. One day it was very hot and the goats were under a tree, and it was very apparent they weren’t going anyplace, and I started climbing the rocks up past the shadow of the mountain. I was just kicking the dirt and looking for those little lizards that puff their heads, and then I found something that looked like yesterday and tomorrow, both at the same time.
I’d found a big steel horse with its face down in some tall grass. When I got closer, there were silvery cans laying half buried by the sand. There were big pieces of sun-bleached wood, and off to the side, tires and some broken glass.
I walked up to the horse and saw it only had front legs. I noticed it wasn’t really a horse. Just shaped a little like a horse. I walked to the place where the iron stood tall and I almost got myself into some trouble. There was a wooden platform and I was testing it with my foot and I was just about to step on it when it cracked like an egg and fell away from me. It fell straight into the earth! I could see the wood tumbling over and over as it fell. I backed away. When father came with food I took him back to show him.
“How Cashi, can you see our sheep from here?” he asked as we climbed the hill.
“I could hear them being fine.” I said.
“Have you taught them how to yell, ‘Help we are being driven away very silently’?”
“No father,” I said, seeing his point and hurrying my steps.
“Let us see what has taken you so far from your responsibilities,” he said.
When we got to the well, it was just being noon, and the sun lowered itself into the hole and we could see the opening. It went down in a series of broken steps. Huge rocks jutting into the cylinder of its descent.
“Run and tell your uncle. Tell him and no one else. Tell him to bring a bucket and rope. All the rope he has, and also bring all the rope from the store. If that idiot in the store says anything, tell uncle to mention, ‘schoolteacher’ then tell the man at the store I will pay him for any rope that he doesn’t get back.” He thought for a minute. “Maybe while you’re at it you could bring him that little kid, the one with the curved horn.” Dad put his hand on his head, with one finger curled, letting me know what kid he was referring to.
On the way I drove the kid before me, hurrying him along. I did all dad asked, and uncle kept asking why he was needed, and I kept shrugging my shoulders, and even with all that delay we were still back within an hour. I also brought some water and some bread. Father patted me on the head. “Nicely done.” he said.
They tied the ropes together and lowered the bucket into the hole. When they pulled it up it was half-full of black snot. Father smiled. Uncle slapped him on the back and they danced a minute and then found shrubs to break off and they covered the hole. Over the next few days they spend a lot of time out there, pulling up the darkness. That’s how I pictured it. It looked like they were pulling up the very shadow of the Earth. The house filled up jars and bowls and wooden crates with the seams black with oil oozing out.
One day they finally had enough saved, and they loaded it on a cart and took it to the city. When they came home they had real money. At first I thought it was just pictures on tired paper. But father gave some to the vendors and I got to have two apples, one red and one yellow, because I pretended I couldn’t make up my mind. After five minutes of dallying he just said, “Fine“ and got them both.
He made me promise not to say where the hole was, or what was in the hole, or where the money came from. But I was a child. So one day when Justin was bragging I told him my father was selling shadows and we were going to be rich. And Justin called me names, so I took him out there, but he kept his eyes closed as we went. But I forgot to make him keep his eyes closed on the way home. So I had to promise him a pony. I was going to have so many he could have one, I said.
Three days. It took three days for them to come.
Three days after showing the hole to Justin they came. I was watching the goats. I could see the whole valley. Uncle and father were in the hills pulling up on the long rope. At first it was like a dust storm on the horizon. A sand storm maybe. It was a big cloud of furious survey heading in our direction. The goats ran in circles bumping into each other, crowding around my legs and bleating. The cloud separated into twenty trails of converging dust. It was a line of vehicles crossing the valley. The lead facility was a great fortress. Large flat shiny doors were open, and they were tracking the sun. Large tubes jutted out, one of them always pointing at me so it looked like an angry eye glaring at me or a knot hole in a door waiting for me to look through. The steel monster stopped right at my feet. Goats were crushed by the treads, but I was scared and said nothing, as a man’s head popped out of a hole and he asked me in bad Arabic where the oil was.
I answered, “What’s oil?” and he pulled a box out, aimed it at Princess, and Princess turned into smoke that only smelled like goat. Next he aimed the box at me. I pointed back to where father toiled. And the whole hornet’s nest of churned sand, chugged away, crawling up the slope.
I followed them but from far back. When I got there they were pushing father away from his find, and they raised a piece of cloth with red on it, and father came back from his project and I could see tears in his eyes.
“What is it, father?” I said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I thought this was my land.”
“Father, they killed some of the goats. And they made ashes out of Princess.”
He didn’t speak.
“Father, will they be taking the other goats?”
Uncle joined us. He was speaking to my father. “They say we’re free. They say the tyrants who were over us, have been replaced by good Arab men. They say the oil has been nationalized and that it will be used to benefit our land. But to be of benefit to us it must be hauled away.”
Father looked at the uniformed men as they nailed down tents and set up big steel machines, like the one that killed Princess.
“I’m sorry, father,” I said.
“May they prosper... for a time.” He said. He said that while looking at the warrior men. It was many years later when I finally understood, what he was saying was actually a curse. By that time the men were long gone. The oil was gone. I still tend goats; sometimes my son will help, but most of the time he’s off at the canteen drinking dark coffee from little white cups. From time to time I wander up in the hills. But now I can’t even find traces of the black hole or the men who once guarded it so well.
Copyright © 2004 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith