Texan Gospel

by Tyler King



At the museum, my small hands searching
for a railing or my father, we descend
into the earth. The drill-bit crowded
with other children wrapped in the arms
of their parents. We shake. Further down,
we learn how dinosaurs became oil,
their flesh turned to fuel. Out west, the Permian
churns with the past. It’s getting hot,
the announcer says as we pierce the salt
dome. Darkness around us, and I am scared
we will drown in this fake well, that the trembling
will never stop, that instead of oil,
warm lizards will crawl into the capsule,
baring white teeth, and snuff out all the lights.



Baring white teeth, we snuff out every light
and fall to fighting. Crude tar smeared under
our eyes, mud caked to our limbs. The stench
of sulfur draws out tears, but we’d never call
this crying. We are twelve, and despite our soft
bodies, we pray for manhood. Across the lake,
the sky flares red. The truth is illegal gas,
burnt when no one watches, but we see
this torch as something divine, giving enough
glow to sharpen our faces into wolves,
to say, yes, this is the answer. I am
so far from home by this lakeshore. A boy
asks if I’m from the Northeast, not Texas.
My voice fraying from home. I paint more oil
on my face, say come here. He does, fists raised.



Hands raised to my face, he says come here
and uncurls his fingers. Inside the deer
blind, I’m belly-down on the floor, eyes trained
on my game, headphone volume cranked up high
to cover the shells being fired and dropped,
whatever small whinny the animals
around us make. There’s a wasp nest outside,
humming against the metal floor. My father
goes to see. The air is violently warm.
It’s fall, and this ranch is all hill country,
smoke strung web-like through trees. I run
the moment light lurches into the blind,
not looking at the feeder, or the guns,
or the men behind me; aching to breathe.



When I am behind the men, I breathe.
There’s no space in the backcountry to hide
how my face burns. It’s one hundred ten degrees
today, and I feel like tinder. So easy
to light. I delight in the fact I am
more lithe than the other boys, my saving
grace in the desert. When we pass a dead
pumpjack, I want to scale it, to impress
and crush. To reinvent tall tales: a small
boy drilling the derricks that mar this land.
It would be easy enough, my pack flooded
with carabiners, to fake the climb.
But in this heat, the plan melts. Sweat
down my spine, no wind buffeting my back.



I land on my spine, wind knocked through my back,
and I cannot hear my father calling
for me through the trees. I think I see rocks
behind my head. Or trees across my legs.
He lifts me from the ground—or the bike.
His face swims into something I don’t know.
I say I can’t breathe, that I’m dying, the trail
home stretching forever until I collapse
onto the porch. That night, my grandmother
spoons wonton soup into cups, and I hold
my younger brother close. Before us, the taste
of gunpowder, salt, sulfur. Fire blossoms,
whispers in the July night, and I forget
the bruises down my side, wearing light instead.



Oil bruises the water. I wear a light
jacket leaning down into the marsh.
The first science lesson I learned: water
despises petrol, rejects it into
a rainbow skin. I wonder how easy
it would be to burn away. After the last
spill, the boys in my class asked why that wasn’t
a solution. Never mind the bodies
beneath, the trapped and teeming life. A perch
breaches, biting my finger. I expect
sudden rainbow scales, but the oil
is minimal, not enough to choke it
into revealing its real form. I step
forward, the water breaking at my waist.



Waist-deep in water, I watch canoes beach
from afar. Motorboats circle the bay,
trailing white water and smog. The Gulf
has offered more than my city and its swamps,
traded streetlights for salt-swept hair, shirtless
boys. I pretend myself out of Texas,
skipping to other shores. I swim further,
and the refineries coast out of view.
A reed curls at my leg. I close
my eyes. And then, the cutting stench of gas
whirs by, sending a wake over my head.
I scramble for the dock, finding slippery
purchase, haul myself dripping onto land,
my skin sticky from silt and muck and fuel.



Silt and muck sticks to my skin. The fuel
ran out days ago, but the lights aren’t
back on. Here’s a new ritual: finding
my siblings’ rooms in the dark, hoping rain
won’t revisit again. The muddy bayou
was just landscape until it jumped its banks,
tongued people’s doorsteps. Then months later, cold
snapping down the streets, no power again.
Maybe it’s not my city’s fault, the land
not primed to rebel. But in oil class, we
fracked water into an imitation
earth, and our vista burst. What I would give
to return to some second-grade science,
to that museum, searching for safe hands.


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