Short Story Series: Picher Perfect

The Lore:

Northeastern Oklahoma is often called “Green Country” because of the abundance of man made lakes and heavily treed rolling hills. Tucked away just a few miles from the Kansas border lies Picher, a modern day ghost town described by one local news source as “The biggest environmental disaster you’ve never heard of”.

Picher is surrounded by huge piles of “chat” – white, chalky mining tailings – the aftermath of lead extraction from nearby mines. The small rock byproduct was used by local residents to fill their driveways. Children rode bicycles over the mounds. Picnics and family reunions were held there. The chat symbolized the town’s major employer and folks paid dutiful homage. They had no idea the towering mountains of rock concealed toxic hazards.

Nearly a hundred years of unrestricted subsurface excavation eventually destroyed Picher and left many adults and children with physical and developmental disabilities.

It all started in 1913 when zinc and lead were discovered in the area. The town that sprang up overnight was aptly named after O. S. Picher, owner of the Picher Lead Company. By the 1920’s, the population neared 15,000 – with more commuting from other communities to work in the mine or for service-related businesses. Lead and zinc mining consumed the tristate corner consisting of Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas – and Picher was the crown jewel, producing more than $20 billion in ore over a thirty-year span. Over fifty percent of the bullets used by our military during World War I came from the Picher mine. Production surged again during World War II.

The mine waste, or chat mounds – some as high as 150 feet tall, were piled all over Picher. They shadowed residential neighborhoods, schools, churches, and businesses. Fine, toxic dust blew over the town – and residents breathed it in on a daily basis.

Water runoff from rain polluted the area’s creeks and water supplies. When mining finally ceased around 1970, underground tunnels were no longer pumped out. They eventually filled with even more toxic wastewater, infiltrating trees and soil.

Perhaps the worst consequence of the mine operations was the subsurface excavations. The huge caverns were tunneled so close to the surface; tree roots were later discovered in the roof of some of the shafts. Parts of Picher began to collapse into deep sinkholes. The Army Corps of Engineers determined 86 percent of the town’s structures were in danger of caving in.

Creeks where residents gathered for swimming and fishing were contaminated by cadmium and arsenic. The people didn’t know. They attributed their chaffed, red skin to sunburn, not realizing it was actually chemical burn. Cancer in residents skyrocketed.

The EPA finally labeled Picher as a Superfund site – which basically means it is too toxic to clean up. Federal buyouts began with the government paying people to relocate. Even then, a handful of residents refused to leave.

It wasn’t until a destructive tornado hit the area in 2009 that the town ceased municipal operations.

Today, Picher is a modern ghost town. Tar Creek continues to run red from metal contamination. Chat piles, though not as tall, still dot the landscape. The clean-up and reclamation project is moving at a snail’s pace. It could be twenty or thirty years before the area is habitable again.

Read more about Picher and other strange tales in ROAD TALES, Myth, Lore and Curiosities from America’s Back Roads. 

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The Story:

Picture Perfect

by Debra S. Sanders

“Oh, lawdy, I’m a dyin’ and ain’t nobody can save me.”

Dolly Mae Jarvis rocked back and forth, wrapping her arms across her stomach. The pain in her belly grew more intense with each breath, exacerbated by a thick, fetid salvia forming in her mouth. Her legs crumbled beneath her, sending her withering body to the floor.

It was the eighth attack in three months and the worse by far.

The first time, she thought premenstrual cramps had brought on the pain but it came at the wrong time of the month. A week later, it happened again – only this time it was so severe she spent the day in bed with a heating pad.

Her neighbor, a kindly old widow named Maude, tended to her with homemade soup and herbal tea. When that did little to ease her discomfort, Dolly went to the local clinic. Seventy-five dollars and a sympathetic smile later, she was told, “It’s a stomach flu. Everybody’s got it. Just let it run its course.”

Dolly Mae went back to the clinic between attacks four and five. After extracting a vial of blood for tests, it was determined she was anemic. The doctor administered a B12 injection and sent her home.

During the seventh attack, the pain rendered Dolly unconscious. Maude called her mother, a woman devoid of parental instincts, and demanded she take the twins while Dolly Mae recuperated. It was a full week before the poor girl regained her strength, primarily due to Maude’s nurturing and home cooked meals.

But now she was back to square one, rolling from side to side, racked with pain and guilt. I’m dying. What will happen to my babies? They were only three. They needed her. She couldn’t die. Not yet. If anything happened to her, the state would no doubt put her children in foster care. Her mother wouldn’t take them and their daddy took off a month after they were born. There was no one else to love them.

A tear trickled down her cheek.

“Dolly Mae! Oh dear, are you sick again?” Maude was at her side, smoothing the hair from her face. “C’mon, honey, let’s get you in bed.”

“Mama’s bringing the kids home tomorrow. How can I take care of them like this?” she sobbed.

“Tsk, tsk. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about those children. I’ll help you.”

“Who will raise them when I’m dead, Miss Maude?” The woman’s laughter irritated Dolly to the point that she rolled away in disgust.

“Look at me.” The sharp tone commanded obedience. Dolly rolled over, timidly meeting the woman’s stern expression. “You’re not going to die. Do you hear me?”

“The pain is awful. I can’t take much more.”

Maude’s face softened. “Do you want to get well? I can help but you must promise to follow my instructions without question.”

Dolly nodded. “I’ll do whatever you say.”

Maude placed her hands over Dolly’s stomach and closed her eyes. She began to hum a low, indistinct tune under her breath as she rotated the palms over her pelvic region then up to her sternum.

An intense heat flowed from the old woman even though her hands hovered a good four inches above the afflicted area. To Dolly’s amazement, the pain began to ebb. Minutes later, she sat up, feeling much better.

“Why ain’t you done that before?”

“You weren’t ready. This is only a temporary fix. You’re not healed yet. I needed to get you on your feet for the next part. Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

“Yes, Miss Maude,” Dolly exclaimed enthusiastically. “Just tell me what to do.”

“Very well. I’ll have you in perfect health by tomorrow but you must do exactly what I say and not tell anyone about our plan. Do you promise?” The girl nodded. “I need a photograph from when you felt good. A time when you were smiling and happy. Then tonight, meet me at nine o’clock by the chat pile where the creek runs under the bridge. Bring a change of clothes. Something pretty.”

Dolly frowned. “I don’t understand. Why the chat pile? And why after dark?”

Maude tilted her head, shaking her finger. “No questions, remember?”

“Okay, sorry. I’ll be there and bring everything you said.”

“Good!” The older woman leaned in and kissed her cheek. “Not a word to anyone, dear.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Dolly waited until her neighbor was gone before getting out of bed. None of the woman’s instructions made sense but it didn’t matter. Maude had made the pain go away though Dolly was still confused about how. She’d heard stories of people laying hands on diseased folks. She reckoned Maude must be one of those gifted healers.

Fishing a shoebox from her closet, Dolly sorted through a stack of old photos until she found the one she wanted. Dolly barely recognized the happy, smiling face staring back at her. The picture was taken right after she met Ben . . . right before she became pregnant. At eighteen, she was the prettiest girl in Picher, Oklahoma and the photograph proved it. Black hair cascaded across slim shoulders, framing almond eyes and full lips.

Dolly always wondered if her dark, good looks was behind her mother’s hatred. She bore no resemblance to the blonde haired, blue eyed woman who gave her life, only to the man who drank himself to death and left his wife in a mountain of debt.

But on this day she’d gone feeling reviled to basking in the glow of new love. Ben had just asked her to marry him and happiness shone in her face. It was exactly the kind of picture Maude had asked for.

A few hours later, Dolly closed the small overnight bag on her bed and headed for the door. She’d carefully folded a white and pink floral dress and placed it inside. It was the only dress she owned but at least it was pretty.

At eight forty-five, she began the ten minute walk to the chat pile, using a flashlight to illuminate the darkened street. Half the residents of the small mining town had already moved away. More were planning to do the same all because of a bunch of lies from a group of nosy environmentalists.

They said mining sludge had contaminated the water and ground. Ridiculous, Dolly sniffed, picking up her pace. They’d succeeded in closing the mine. People lost jobs. The mountains of tailings were a reminder of the children who played there and family picnics from happier times. Those stupid bureaucrats ruined life in Picher. If taking a dip in the swimming hole at the end of a hot summer day was bad for folks, why hadn’t anyone noticed before now?

Dolly arrived at the low bridge and turned right, following the uneven ground to the chat pile rimming the creek. She shone her flashlight near the pool of dark water and spied Maude standing at the edge.

“Hello, dear. You’re right on time.”

Dolly picked her way down the sloping bank. “I brought everything you asked. Here’s the picture.” She pulled the photograph from her pocket and handed it to the older woman.

Maude glanced at the glossy image and smiled. “It’s perfect!”

“So what now?”

She returned the photo. “Chew this up and swallow it.”

Dolly’s eyes widened. “I ain’t eating that.”

Maude arched a brow. “We discussed this, young lady. You promised to do exactly what I say. Don’t you want to feel better for your babies?”

Dolly nodded. Releasing a reluctant sigh, she tore up the photograph and stuffed the remnants into her mouth. After a few minutes of vigorous chewing, she managed to swallow.

“Good girl. Now take off your clothes and step into the water. You can leave your underwear on.”

Dolly took a step back. “It’s cold! And I didn’t bring no towel.”

“You won’t need one. Trust me.”

After a moment of hesitation, Dolly began to undress. She’d come too far to stop now. The thought of those awful stomach pains returning spurred her actions. She dropped her jeans and sweater on the ground and stepped into the slow moving stream. “Brrrr, it’s freezing!”

An effervescent laugh trailed over the water. “Just wade in past your knees. That should be enough.”

Dolly did as the woman asked, moving her bare feet through the soft silt until the water lapped at her thighs. She wrapped her arms around a shivering torso as she fought to stay warm. Suddenly, something touched her ankle, slithering across her calf. Dolly squealed and twisted from side to side, searching the ripples. It had felt like a snake but a Cottonmouth wouldn’t attack like that. She tried to step back. It was as if her feet had settled into quick sand.

“Miss Maude! Help me! Something’s out here and I can’t move.”

“No worries, child. You’ll be fine.”

Her breath came in short spurts as she struggled to free herself. That thing was crawling up her leg, circling itself around her like a boa constrictor. Dolly thrashed her hands against the water, twisting violently until she lost balance and fell backwards. She went under. When she emerged, her feet came out of the water. They were covered in a black sludge.

Sputtering through a mouthful of water, she called out again. “Miss Maude . . . help me!”

“It’ll be over in a minute, dear. Try to stay calm.”

Dolly didn’t understand why the old woman wouldn’t help her. She managed to regain her footing and stood up. The sludge slid past her waist, climbing up her torso and arms . . . like it was alive. The pain in her stomach was back, ten times worse than it had ever been before. It was as if her insides were being shoved into her throat.

Dolly tried to scream but it was too late. The black substance covered her mouth, her nose, her eyes . . .

 

Maude hummed a little tune as she watched the sun rise above the chat pile. Another beautiful day. She glanced at the black cocoon near her feet. Oh, good. It’s almost ready.

A few minutes later the pod began to wiggle, much like an egg in the process of hatching.

This one went better than any of the others, she smiled brightly, running a hand over the top of the murky water. The oily black substance crawled up her arm to the elbow.

“Yes, yes. She’s almost ready. We’ll bring the twins to you soon. It will be the start of a new generation.” Maude giggled as the sludge rolled off and disappeared beneath the surface.

The mine had unwittingly awakened an entity from a centuries old sleep. It was now her lord and master. Maude had been serving it for nearly three decades. Those silly government bureaucrats thought they could close down the town and make it go away but they were wrong.

She’d been transitioning hybrids into society for years. They were positioned in local political offices who were already in talks to rebuild the town through reclamation efforts. There would be new people to changeover. Why, it was only a matter of time until they went national. And international. It would be a global transformation. A perfect world built from a perfect host.

The cocoon shuddered. A large piece fell into the water. Then another. And another . . . until Dolly Mae emerged looking exactly like her photograph. Young, flawless, happy.

Maude handed her the overnight bag. “Get dressed, dear. We have much to do.”

A few minutes later, Dolly twirled around, smiling at her benefactor. “Does this body look okay?”

Maude nodded as her eyes turned completely black. “It looks . . . perfect.”

 

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About Debra S. Sanders

Debra is an RV nomad, traveling full time with her husband, dog and cat. She writes, hikes, star gazes and explores myth, lore and curiosities from America's back roads. She also indulges in colorful sunsets and good wine.

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