“Never knew,” Lee said.
“She’s pretty at night,” the historian said.
Lee said, “Either a ton has changed or I never got up this high as a kid.”
“Probably both,” the historian said.
“Thanks again,” Maya said, “for inviting us.”
“Well… someone needs to take a closer look around.” He smiled gently, sipped his beer.
She smiled back.
“I have known Mitch for a long while, Lee,” Maya said. Tell him about the thread, Mitch.”
“Cotton or wool?” Lee asked.
“Stop it,” Maya said and huffed. “The throughline we found, Mitch. Tell Lee.”
“I found,” he said, “and happened to share with you.”
She snorted. “You’re assuming I didn’t play dumb, and you know what they say about people who assume.”
“They reach their conclusions through something abductive rather than inductive in its rationale? She wants me to tell you about the water,” Mitch said. “But it’s a bit boring.”
“Not the way you tell it,” Maya said.
“You care?” Mitch asked Lee.
Lee didn’t answer.
“You actually care about this stuff?” he asked again. “No one cares about this stuff.”
Lee said, “For personal reasons, yeah, I care a bit. Does it have anything to do with healings?”
“He knows?” Mitch asked her.
“Well grab something to drink,” Mitch said. “It’s going to be a long night.”
“Already is, good brother,” Thulani said. “But this is no bad thing.”
“Anyways, best to begin with what I know,” Mitch said. “You know why Missouri’s got its name, right?”
“After some gal named Ouri?” Lee asked.
“No,” Mitch said. “It was the Ouemessourita tribe. Never did a full-blown thesis on them or anything, but I can say that we know the French settled out here. When they sampled the water in this whole region, they liked the taste and thought it was cool to drink – especially the stuff by springs.”
“Well yeah,” Lee said, “spring water always tastes better.”
“Unless it comes at the expense of your village’s job market,” Thunlani called over his own shoulder, “and free, clean water.”
They all embarked on a spontaneous, self-imposed moment of silence.
“Well it was more than that,” Mitch said finally, “wounded soldiers recovered in half the time in this region.”
“Exactly that. It’s why the French took so much of the middle west at first. The Parisians settled wherever they could find a spring, especially in the four states areas, but they went as far east as Nashville and as far south as Austin. They claimed Cahokia and Hot Springs and Eureka Springs Arkansas eventually. Even New Orleans. It was kind of one of those domino moments – what with the sick in Paris getting healed. Without their water, though, the Oumessourita couldn’t fend off the smallpox and typhus. The sicknesses cut their societies in half.”
“With the help of gunpowder,” Thulani said.
“Thulani, you okay?” Maya asked.
“What? Oh yes, sorry. I probably just need a break.”
“Need to talk?” Maya asked.
“You have some thing to smoke?” Thulani asked.
“Got a light?” Maya asked.
“Toss me your little cigar,” Thulani said.
“Cigarette,” Maya said.
“Yes, this meaning is the same.”
“Not in the loft!” Mitch shouted. “Smoke outside, kids.”
They left down the main stair.
Mitch grabbed a handful of chips and tossed them haphazardly into his mouth, letting the dog pick up the rest, and brushed off his lapel.
“The French?” Lee asked, walking beside him.
“Doesn’t matter,” Mitch said, “Point is there was a war, French were hurting, shared water with the Spanish who were forced to pact with England. Spanish opened us wide for immigrants. Protestants moved in, lines were blurred. They negotiated the return of Louisiana in 1800 which included the waterways.”
“Rivers. Lakes,” Lee said. “Okay, so?”
“Well that, but not just that. Single source aquifers and everything else below.” He pointed out the back door to the view into west Joplin.
Mitch grunted, then started walking back to the stairs.
Lee checked his phone – no calls, no texts. “Groundwater.”
“That. And the water under groundwater. So Napoleon technically owned the land, but the Spanish hid it until the French tried to reclaim it. That plus the Haitian revolution… the French retreated, stopped trade in NOLA cause they needed cash. Napoleon got his lump sum.”
“The Louisiana purchase,” Lee said.
“The Louisiana gamble,” Mitch said and snorted. “Napoleon hoped the money outweighed the power of the Oumessourita water. Eventually Meriwether Lewis—“
Lee asked, “Ooh! Lewis and Clark? I always thought he was cool. One time my dad took me canoeing and I pretended…” The memory of his father left an awful sweet and sour taste in his mouth, like poorly-made Chinese food.
“Yeah,” Mitch said, “Lewis took over. Guy knew waterways. But he was an old addict and he got on a steady supply of this stuff. Governor Wilkinson never told Lewis where the source of the water was. They’d lost it. Water seeped up and did weird things to the whole region, changing the minerals. So Lewis took to sipping this half-hearted sludge that leaked up through the soil cause he thought it was the same. And he had to keep drinking that poison to keep from getting feverish. Then he started mixing it with whiskey and in his desperation he went to Washington D.C. to find a reserve of the original water. There wasn’t one, so he finally died.”
“Oh come on,” Lee said. “Meriwether Lewis killed himself.”
“No, no, no. Suicide did not end Lewis’ life,” Mitch said. “Withdrawal did. He needed that sludge to heal his wounds first and then later to stay alive. Too bad he couldn’t find the real stuff. So Ben Howard took over and then Clark. And then 1821 when they named the land of the Ouemessourita Missouri. Like six thousand of us lived here, minus—”
“The natives,” Thulani shouted up at them.
“Thought you went for a smoke break?” Mitch called back.
Lee turned with them and they started descending down the stairs. They got some snacks.
“Nice of you to say so,” Thulani called, “but I cannot break her habits for her.”
“That’s a joke, right?” Mitch asked. “You didn’t really try to—“
“Something I need to know?” Mitch asked.
Maya said, “Need? No. Want? Yes. Get what you want? Time’ll tell. Keep talking, Mitchell.”
“I’ll do what I want, woman,” Mitch said.
Instead of looking angry, Maya batted her eyes.
“Anyone want a beer?” Mitch asked.
“So. You know that’s how the modern translation of Beowulf starts? So. It’s an Old English word meaning ‘begin story now,’ but that’s how we say it these days: so.”
They all stared at him.
“Sorry,” Mitch said. “Where was I?”
“Naming the land.”
Mitch took a deep swig. “Think it’s 1856. Hour and a half Southeast of Joplin Creek, that strange water poured into Basin Spring. Dr. Alvah Jackson found that’n and founded Eureka. The water hardened some of our land, turned it to lead and zinc and whatnot.
“Well the old Missouri boys discovered that lead in Mine Creek. Civil War. General Edmund Kirby Smith ordered Sterling Price to sweep through Missouri, capture it for the feds. But they stopped him at Westport our Gettysburg. Bloody mess, and I mean that both ways.”
No one laughed.
He said, “Rumors spread of some of troops in that skirmish using the water to heal from their wounds.”
”Then they lost it. Sam Clay, that Scotch-Yank whisky distiller from Henry County. His secret ingredient?”
“Oumessourita water, but yeah he found it. Henry Clay, Sam’s cousin, preferred the whiskey. Thought it gave him good luck. Well, when Sam ran out of the water, Henry literally ran out of luck and lost three presidential campaigns in a row. After that they found the iron ore that the water deep down there kept turning the land into, investors put in the railroad by Joplin’s Creek. Boomtown, all of that crap. The end.”
“Sounds like a cheery story,” Lee said.
“I’m a historian,” Mitch said, “my source material’s not made of bubblegum and baby’s breath. I’m not here to curb your boredom. I’m here to tell God’s honest truth. You want a happy ending, go find some naïve Methodist preacher like Harris Joplin.”
Thulani cleared his throat.
They turned to the noise. Except for Mitch, who was sipping his beer. He walked back to the window and looked out at his city, a city of sicknesses.
“Hope isn’t naïve, American. The most hopeful sermons I heard were preached by refugees in the cages your people call ‘camps.’”
“Your African sermons are all good and well,” Mitch said, “but from where I’m standing, I’m dealing with history.”
“From the place where I stand,” Thulani said, “so am I.”
“What kind of sickness?” Lee said.
“Not at liberty,” Mitch said, “but look close enough and you’ll figure that one out yourselves.”
“It could be from the mining,” Maya said. “They say the chat piles infected our single source aquifer. There was more cancer in Webb City and Oronogo. More juvenile-onset diabetes. More—“
“But it sounds like we’re not talking about cancer and diabetes,” Lee said.
Maya said, “We’re talking about a plague.”
“Anything other than sickness?” Lee asked.
“We need to figure out what happened,” Maya said. “If we go back far enough, we’ll find a solution.”
“Mom’s sick,” Lee said.
“What?” Mitch asked.
“My mother is sick with whatever this is,” Lee said. “Has been for some time.”
“What’d you say your name was?” Mitch said.
“She wouldn’t happened to be a Cailin, would she?”
“What?” Lee asked.
“Nothing. Yeah, there are other side effects. Seizures. Pre-eclampsia. But if she doesn’t stay on the stuff, she dies even sooner than all that.”
“Same composition minus the pigmentation of course,” Thulani said.
“What?” Lee asked.
“It is the same!” Thulani said.
He started cackling.
…which was impressive for an old man. After the heel clicks, Mitch found himself wondering if the guy could axe-kick a soccer ball.
“The sample,” Thulani said. “It’s the same as our original.”
“Original what?” Mitch said. “Sample of what?”
“You sure?” Maya asked. “Are you—“
“No I’m not positive,” Thulani said, “but it’s the best I can do with this.”
“How sure?” Maya asked.
“About eighty percent,” Thulani said. “We need a contrary sample to confirm.”
“Chat piles,” Maya said. “Get some sleep.”
“Original what?!” Mitch said.
“Never you mind, Mitchell.”
brought to you by the Joplin Convention & Visitors Bureau
written & directed by Lance Schaubert
produced by Carrie Puffinbarger