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Oil People Illustration by Franziska Barczyk.

Oil People

New fiction from David Huebert.

They are in the attic among the relics when Marc makes the offer. The birds gaze down in their dead-eyed hundreds; the cage of the hoop skirt ruffles on its stand. Jade always takes guests up here their first time—the attic teetering with bankers boxes, crates of journals, flaccid hardcovers, blasted drill bits, crude daguerreotypes. Out the window squats the red-bricked museum building. Beyond it the ersatz fields, the jerker lines swaying, the engine churning in the pumphouse. If it were night they would see the glowing plants, thirty clicks away in Sarnia. If it were night they’d see flares.

I’ve done it five times, Marc says, squaring his shoulders. Done it. He wiggles. Marc is eleven, two full years older, but it is not his age that makes her wonder, nor the downy dark hair rashed around his lips. It’s his sloe-eyed confidence, the tease of the storm in the window. 

On the lawn below, new-hewn planks for the road, treated logs for the replica derricks. On the fringes of the fields, the ceaseless sway of the jerker lines. She has seen the magazines in the soggy cardboard box on the low school roof. Trish boosted her up and together they clenched and stared at the raw clefts, spored pelvises. 

Five times, he repeats. 

What comes to mind is slugs, watching them shrivel and squirm in the lettuce patch as her father pours salt from the Windsor box. 

In and out, he says. Simple. 

Where? He grins. Shows gums, membrane. The remnants of a lip tie. Right here, he says. 

No. The bedroom. 

Shh. He holds up a hand. Noise from the ladder. Feet on rungs. Jackie’s face appears, grinning in the hatch. She sets an elbow down, spins one of their mother’s Marlboros. Marc stands panting, snub-nosed, open-mouthed. Jackie lights the Marlboro. 

You shouldn’t be smoking here. 

Who’s going to stop me? Pig Valves? 

You shouldn’t call him that. 

Thanks. You two going to kiss or what?

Marc spins, ruffled. Thumps over to the ladder and stands there huffing. Jackie clears the ladder and Marc awkwards past her, pumps down the rungs.

Jackie glides up to the window, hitches her bra and exhales a soft luxury of smoke. Soon Marc appears among the lumber in his mud-stained Air Jordans, brochure crinkled in his hand. He lopes up the long drive, rat tail bobbing past the geese and the dug well, through the jerker lines, beyond the museum. At last, he turns off towards Oil Heritage Way. 

“Wow,” Jackie says, mock-shivering. “Hot date.”

At the Canadian Petroleum Legacy Museum, we use genuine nineteenth century drilling technology to produce 20,000 barrels of crude annually. Using our “oil farming” technique, we drill day and night from 200 wells, all more than a hundred years old. The Legacy Museum is a family business, run by the descendants of oil pioneer Clyde J. Armbruster, who drilled the first gusher in Oil Springs and helped trigger the Lambton County oil rush of the 1860s. By the 1890s, Armbruster had become the most prolific oil producer in Canada. Come see the famous Canada Rig, watch the sway of our iconic jerker lines. Walk our fields to step into history and revisit this astonishing moment of global energy transition. Oil, illuminating the future!

Rain pelts the roof and a plastic bag zooms past the window. Something thumps in the fields. Jade tips and tilts, back and back, flirting with the edge. Chair, Phil says. Chair, her father says again. She comes down, confronts her dinner. Meatloaf with broccoli casserole. 

The rain picks up to a gallop. Phil stands to get the buckets but her mother waves a hand. Don’t worry, Laura says. They’re already out. Even in the old wing? Laura smiles, shows the gap between her teeth. Jade chews meatloaf and tries not to think of beef, cows, grass, reactors. Her molars find a grain of gristle and she thinks of chicken livers in the grocery store, of the pig farm up the road. A story she heard once about dehorning, her uncle with bolt cutters in his hands, a dozen steer shooting blood from their heads. 

Her parents talk guests, media, the bid. Her father gleams the words: “National Historic Site.” Jackie serves herself salad and pushes it around her plate, brilliant with indifference. Her parents drone logistics and Jade’s eyes land on the mantelpiece, Jackie’s old prize bill. The purple ten, special issue from the Trudeau government. 1971. All the refineries gleaming, triumphal, wending train tracks, skyscrapers, the city on the hill.

Her father takes the Tabasco, showers his meatloaf. They sit listening to the wind croon, rain tock into buckets. Jackie pinkies ketchup, mentions the news, a story about radiation, the Chernobyl babies—her pet horror.

Stop, Laura says. She’ll have nightmares again.

Jackie turns to Jade, hisses: Don’t think you’re safe.

Jade squirms. Safe from what?

Jackie turns hard on her little sister. Radiation, she says, doing ghoul-fingers. Chernobylings! You do know, Jackie says, coming closer. About the babies born with no ears. Kids with tiny useless arms. She mimes it, flailing chickenish.

Laura bristles, stands. Jackie rises, smiling, spins around. Clear your plate missus. Jackie laughs, floats away, leaves Jade alone at the table, staring into the hot sauce, the Tabasco bottle, its glimmering fish-green necktie, the strange red glow of its core.

Jade knows that newborns have silver eyes, that babies cannot see colour. She’s read about cesium-137, corium lava, bubbler pools. She knows about iodine fallout, xenon gas. She knows it is in the air, in the grass, in the cows, in the milk. On TV, she’s seen the scorched building, the dipygus piglet, and the radiotrophic fungi growing on the reactor walls. She knows about thyroid cancer, acute radiation syndrome. She knows about the doctors advising women to abort. And she knows how they claw at the gates of her dreams. Legions of babies. Babies with cloven hooves. Babies with fangs. Fingerless babies, babies with horns growing out of their eye sockets. Picket fences adorned with baby heads.

The storm takes out a few jerker-line posts. Her father is up early to repair them. She watches from the window as he raises the mallet, thumbs his belt loops, worries his moustache, heads back to the shed. She thinks of his heart. She has a hard time picturing it, a pig’s valve. Between thwacks, he looks up, sees her in the window of the old gothic home. She meets him in the kitchen, where he’s boiling water for instant coffee. 

Want a ride today? 

Bus is fine. How bad is it? 

Phil grins. Not the worst, he says, cupping her face in his thick hands. He kneels down beside her and cinches her onto a chair. Strokes her hair and puts an Eggo in the freezer. Pads the butter into the grids the way she likes. Then the syrup, how he always does it: a long-tailed serpent, a perfect ess. 

Sure, she says. A ride would be nice.

On her way across the schoolyard, she catches Marc’s eye. He’s standing on the hill where she lost a tooth last year, and when she passes he drops his gaze, comparing comics with Adam Saulnier. Maybe he’s embarrassed. Maybe he’s scared. Maybe he won’t say anything. 

At lunch she finds Trish. Dainty Trish with her rainbow scrunchies, perpetually rearranging her pencil case. 

Only oil witches eat baloney, Adam Saulnier boors as he passes. You smell like burnt rubber. 

Don’t mind the spaz, Trish yells. Pig fucker! 

The afternoon passes in Ancient Egypt, lessons on King Tut. On the bus home the kids ask if it was good for her. She glares at the chip bags in the ditches, bullet holes in the yield sign. How the world can pivot. How the muck can rise and thrash and seem to scream. 

Was it good for you, Oil Witch? 

The trees whiz by, the willows, the branches from the storm raked to the sides of the road. Bulrushes climb out of high-way grit. 

What’re you talking about? 

The blowjob, Adam Saulnier says, jabbing a thumb at Marc. He mimes it, makes choking sounds. Jade curls into Trish, who glares back, mutters something about incest. I heard your sister plays the rusty trombone. I heard she’s pregnant, got a changeling. Adam whispers in Marc’s ear, but Marc does not turn back. Sits pressed against the window, looking out. Jade stares into the back of Marc’s rat-tailed head but he won’t turn, won’t meet her eyes.

Jade is watching a new show, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Her mother appears, hair freshly washed, curls drying. She smells of coconut and nicotine. The turtles are breaking into the Technodrome, trying to return Master Splinter to his human form. 

Laura sits down beside her girl, heaves her long day sigh. She nods to the show. Aren’t you a little old for this? 

A pink brainy blob is lecturing Shredder. Jade considers explaining the backstory, her fascination, the story of a boy named Yoshi finding four baby turtles that had tumbled into a storm drain, then finding them crawling in a strange purple ooze that turned out to be a potent mutagen, mingling DNA with whatever creature it touched. 

Instead, she shrugs. Are we poor people? 

Her mother laughs. She does a little gesture around the land. We’re not poor people. We’re oil people. 

In their house, this is a stock phrase. Yet she finds that she has never heard it in its realness, its music, its wonder. She thinks the phrase to herself, then speaks it wistful: Oil people. 

Her mother smiles, flips her wet hair. That’s right: it’s in our blood. 

Their parents go out and Jackie makes herself a drink, serves Jade a glass of orange juice and cackles as Jade rises, nauseous, and spits it in the sink, her mouth and throat a corrosion of vodka. 

Jackie laughs, snorts. Sorry. It’s too easy, you’re too easy. Come back, she says. Jade approaches, sits gingerly on the far pole of the couch. Listen, she says, hitching her bra. You’re growing up. It’s not easy. It’s mean. She shrugs, downs her screwdriver. Sometimes you get bitten. Sometimes you bite back. 

The turtles are smashing droid heads together. In our blood, Jade thinks. She turns her pale arms over, examines the veins beneath her skin, that curious circuitry of blue.

Jade dreams the inside of a reactor. A wide open hangar like a huge pool, knee-high water glowing computer blue. In the middle the great churning core. In the reactor there are needles, driving down, needles pumping through the floor, which, she sees now, is made of skin and flesh. An alarm starts to honk and blare and when she looks down she sees the skin floor opening, hinging open on a vague black underworld. She reaches down and dips her hands into the oil, drawing it up like black ink and when she looks at her hands again she finds them burnt, blackened. Her hands melted into lumps, smoking lumps, oozing together in the sticky black. Then the goo-hands grow little heads and start talking but she cannot hear because the alarm is blaring, raging, rising and she is clawing useless at the walls, trying to climb for the light but the sun turns bruise, darkens and shrivels until it’s a prune, at its fringe a tiny necrotic tear.

Phil makes her Eggos, slides her orange juice. The butter melts in the grids, mixes with the syrup he’s snaked on. Want a ride today? he asks, his mouth full of waffle. He has syrup in the corners of his pushbroom moustache. No thanks, she says, heading out through the dining room. Wait, he calls. Not hungry? She opens her backpack, slips the Tabasco in. No thanks, she says again, letting the mean into her voice. Her father appears holding the plate, the golden disks of the toaster waffles. I don’t like those anymore. 

Jade is drawing a lion—the hieroglyphic for L—when she sees him mince through the hall. She waits for him to pass, then excuses herself. Clipping her toenails on the desk, Mrs. Arsenault nods her along. Jade drifts the hall, walking soft, careful not to squeak. Waiting outside the bathroom, she hears the shush of a urinal, the creak of a rusted faucet. 

Woah, Marc says. Is this about the bus? I didn’t say anything. 

She steps close.

Promise. He’s shuddering, the buffed hall gleaming black and maroon. 

Do you still want to? 

He swallows, hard. Here is the hinge. She’s been relying on this moment. Here is his choice, the place where all rumours could swivel on him. Be brave, she thinks. Brave boy. 

Yeah, he says. 

She takes him by the hand, leads him down into the basement, slips with him into the janitor’s closet. They stand among paint cans, filthy mop heads strung from rafter nails. Jade eyes the doorway, then nods down. Let’s see it. He swallows hard. Slowly, he takes it out. Opens his palm and holds it as if counting change. Close your eyes, she says, and he does. The fluorescent lights click and hum. His eyeballs twitch under their lids.

She takes it in her hand and it shrinks, turtles. Quietly, she eases the bottle from her jacket pocket. No peeking, she says, and the corners of his mouth flicker. She peels back its little hat and starts to rub. It’s a mutant, she realizes. Vein-clung, vermiculate. Its horrid vertical mouth opening as if to speak. 

What is it? 

You’ll see, she says, rubbing quiet, calm. Rubbing gentle, soft, until he starts to squirm.

She walks home quick, trying to beat the bus. She cuts across the shoulder, into the ditch, over the soy field. She hustles down the hill through the snatch of woods, past the jerker lines and the curbed wells and into her room. Michael Jackson glares, reaches, his belt full of bondage loops. Katarina Witt gleams, sticking the double axel. Jade’s fingers probe her forearm, set in. The phone is ringing, and then it is not. She hears her mother calling—Phil! Phil! Still in her room, Jade sees her mother in the kitchen, toeing the patch of burnt tile in the shape of a chicken. Her mother going stern, saying no, really, that couldn’t be right. Her mother cupping the receiver, shouting for her father. Phil! Phil! Her mother will not say hot sauce or doctor or Marc Oliver. Jade’s fingernails sink into pale forearm flesh, loose a few trembling beads. She touches the blood, gropes its gratitude of red. Closing her eyes, she sees a thousand babies, naked in glass hospital warming chambers, their eyes fused shut. Twitching, spasming, crying. She hears footsteps, her mother. In perfect unison, the babies’ eyelids snap open. All the same—their wretched eyes, red. All looking at her, watching her, seeing her. All their lily mouths blooming open at once to tell her it’s in our blood, in our blood, our blood.

David Huebert’s fiction debut, Peninsula Sinking, won a Dartmouth Book Award and was runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. He won the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize and was a finalist for the 2020 Journey Prize. His new story collection, Chemical Valley, will be published by Biblioasis in 2021.