Tableau 4

When we get back to the apartment, I head for the fridge. I’m pulling out a stir-fry when Mwanza slaps it out of my hands.

“You’re not eating,” he says.

“Not yet,” I reply. “Give it back. I need to heat that.”

“You don’t get this, do you? I said you’re not eating.”

“You cannot be serious,” I laugh. “You’re drunk! Do you think you’re my parent? Am I on restrictions? We dieting?”

“It’s not a joke! What happened back there? I have to fight some guy off of you, you ruin our night, and now you’re going for waffles like nothing’s wrong. What the fuck, Bitumba.”

“What the fuck me?” I am incredulous. “I ruined our night? First of all, we didn’t have a night together to begin with.”

“And whose fault is that?” He moves toward me, and my stomach starts to feel weird again. “You barely went near me all night. You wouldn’t have noticed if I left!”

“Mwanza, are you kidding? I was following your plan. Which was disgusting, by the way. But we did what you wanted.” Like we always do.

“What I wanted. You think I wanted to watch you flirt with other guys? Dance with them? I was supposed to leave with the girl no one could get. Not the skank everyone touched. A guy thought he could kiss you!”

“But he couldn’t, and I showed him that.” So much nonsense has just flown at my face; I don’t know how to respond, so I settle for a low blow.

“Are you really mad that a guy tried to kiss me? Or are you jealous that your knot-headed friend didn’t want to kiss you?” He’s staggering closer to me, and my stomach hurts more, but I can’t stop talking, can’t stop dripping derision from my lips.

“Poor Mwanza, let down by all his women!”

He shoves me then, hard. One second my feet are under me, and the next they’re gone. My arms flail out in a stupid attempt to grab a stabilizer, but there’s nothing to hold on to. I’m crumpled against the fridge, and Mwanza is inches from my face, breathing heavily. I don’t know how he moves so fast. I see his chest heaving, and our eyes widen together as I inhale – and get hit with a wave of understanding. Every part of him, his face, neck, arms – I grab his hands to confirm – smells of vanilla.

“When you said I wouldn’t have noticed if you left,” I say slowly, “That wasn’t a hypothetical.”

His fist clenches. Unclenches.

“What did you do?”

Silence.

“Does your dick smell like vanilla, too?”

His hand slaps the side of the refrigerator, so hard that magnets fall down. A couple of them bounce off of his head. It’s funny.

“Be grateful that wasn’t your face,” he says. “Women who are disrespectful can still get slapped.”

That’s so ridiculous, I can’t hold in the laugh. It comes barking out, before I wipe it into severity.

“If you slap me,” I say to him, “I will kill you.”

 

He kicks the fridge now, and tears out of the apartment, banging the door shut behind him. I slide until I’m lying straight on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.

 

It had never occurred to me that Mwanza might be lying about the love, too. I close my eyes. This whole time, at the window and in my head, I’ve taken his love for granted, berated myself for not meeting him in what I thought he felt. I was wrong. Amazing how much energy I wasted, calling myself stupid for not being into something that seemed perfect on paper. Perfection does not exist. Couple goals are made up! We don’t love each other. We don’t want each other. This can end, and we can be free to exist Elsewhere, Otherwise. I almost smile. I would be happier about it if the message hadn’t been delivered so violently.

 

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

 

“Bitu! Bitumba!” Mwanza is back.

He tries to pull me up, but I roll away from his hands. You can smell tobacco on him. He has made himself into a vanilla cigarette.

“Don’t touch me,” I say tiredly. “Go away again. You tried to hurt me.”

“You hurt me first!” There’s a squeaking sound, and I feel a puff of air at my back. Is this man kicking at me now? I sit up and stare at him.

“Damn it, Bitu.” He slides to the ground. Mwanza is art. The way he moves is graceful fast; even his violence seems choreographed. Now he just lets one foot slip out over the floor, allowing his body to follow, keeping one foot anchored while bending that knee. I don’t think he appreciates his physical gifts, this beautiful monster. He probably feels the same way.

“You, know, I’ve said sorry,” he says.

“No, you haven’t.”

“Well, whatever. Sorry! But you didn’t apologize for anything, either.”

Me apologize. I didn’t do anything.”

Exactly! You don’t do anything with me anymore. I saw you at the club. You danced with everyone. And the way you looked? Happy. The love of my life doesn’t care what I do. She’s happier with others than she is with me.”

Maybe I was wrong about being wrong.

“Did you just call me the love of your life, after you fucked some other girl in my vicinity?”

“Why do you think I did it? You didn’t even notice! You don’t see me anymore. It’s like you’ve forgotten who we are, Bitu. We’re the lovers who came from different parts of the world to be together. I set you up here; this country has the two of us in its seams. You’re pulling away, I don’t know why – why? And it’s tearing the seams and it’s hurting us!”

“What do you think love is, Mwanza?”

“It’s pushing through white-hot pain, withstanding all, because you know you’re supposed to be together.”

“Do you really think that?’

“I know it.”

“I don’t want that.”

“You don’t want anything, but you don’t say what you do want, either. You being so damn impossible to please, but I’m wrong, because, ‘Oh, I pushed you; I threatened to hit you; I fucked some other girl.’

“Do you admit that you did all those things?”

“It doesn’t matter!” he yells. “What do you want?”

I don’t know,” I whisper. I’m overwhelmed and exhausted. Tears drip slowly out of my eyes. Mwanza grabs my inner thighs, and pulls me across to him.

“You want this,” he says urgently. “Us. This.” He tries to kiss me, and I try to bend away like before, but we’re too close to the floor and he pulls me in through the small of my back. He tries to kiss me again, and I turn my head. Again he tries, and again, and again, until I don’t care about stopping him anymore. I let him kiss me, and I let him pull me to bed, and as much as he’s claimed to be hurt by it, Mwanza doesn’t seem to care when I go into my head.

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Tableau 3

When my friends and I get to the club, Mwanza does not seem to notice. All his energy is concentrated on a girl with bantu knots and a septum piercing. As we pass by the two of them, I can smell her perfume: vanilla, just strong enough to make you feel a little sick to your stomach. I say “hi”, and he barely glances at me; his “hello” is distracted.

That was disrespectful,” my friend Lunge states.

Lipuo, one of Mwanza’s friends, is posted by the bar, so we sidle over to him. He greets me properly. After the third cheek kiss, I nod in Mwanza’s direction.

“How long has that been going on?”

“Ah,” his eyes shift away form mine. “Barely happening. Like, right before, um, you got here.”

“For some reason,” I say, “I don’t believe you.”

“Bitu, relax hein, you know us. That’s nothing.”

“Bull shit,” Lunge says. “That is wrong, Bitumba,”

 

She’s right, and wrong. It’s disrespectful, but it doesn’t bother me. Well, it does; I don’t like being brushed off. The cause of it, though? Another girl? I don’t care about it. That bothers me. Shouldn’t I feel some sort of jealousy? Hurt by his inattention? The only thing hurt is my pride, and I can fix that by following instructions and “doing my thing”.

 

This is how I find myself in someone else’s arms later, realizing the simplicity of spinning a person fast, then holding them close. We’re just dancing. I’ve been dancing with everyone, remembering how good it feels to get physically close to people. Dancing flirtation is an art, a joy because it doesn’t mean anything. Or so I think, until he brings his face closer to mine, to – what? Kiss me? I turn my head, so he only kisses my cheek, and we smile at each other. Then he leans in again.

 

“Let me tell you a secret,” he says, and I almost fall for it. But I see his lips in time to bend away, even as he attempts to pull me in through the small of my back, and he kisses the air.

“You won’t let me?” he asks, puzzled.

“No,” I tell him.

“What! Why not?” he demands now.

“I – ” I begin, and then stop for two reasons. I don’t know how much of an explanation this guy deserves. Shouldn’t a “no” be sufficient? Besides that, though, I was going to say I have a boyfriend, but I don’t know if I want Mwanza to be my excuse. I don’t know if he is. It doesn’t matter, though, because this guy is not listening to me. Even if I hadn’t stopped talking, he would have cut me off.

 

“Oh, fine, whatever,” he’s been saying, letting go of me. Then he adds,

“Fucking tease.”

“What – ” I start to say, but this time, Mwanza cuts me off. His fist comes out of nowhere, connecting with this guy’s jaw, and his head follows after as he efficiently butts the guy to the floor. I don’t know where he came from. As he pulls me out of the club, it occurs to me that he may have been paying more attention than I originally thought.

I allow myself to be taken – dragged – the few blocks home. Again, part of me thinks abstractly that this is disrespectful. Ignore me at he place you decided we’d go, then take it upon yourself to decide when we leave. That’s not okay, but again, I also don’t care. Why not? My stomach hurts.

Tableau 2

I chose this.

Twenty-three months later we tell each other we’re in love every morning, and reaffirm it each night before bed. I work as a nanny during the day for a wealthy couple in Pretoria, and write freelance articles coming home on the Gautrain. My parents visited Joburg once. They like Mwanza, and approve of our life here. It makes my mom sad to have me so far from her, but my dad is less bothered. Moving away is probably one of the more Congolese things I’ve done.

Everyone can see our relationship progressing far into the future. At the window, I sometimes wish the glass would give way – not break, but just change form so that I could slip through it like water and fly freely through the space outside.

Of course, the flying would really be falling. The first time I realize this, my eyes travel down, following my body’s imaginary flight. Something distracts them, though, and instead of landing below my window, my eyes stop at the stoop of the building across the street.

There’s a figure there, hunched over. I can’t tell if they’re male of female, but does that really matter? Probably not. Whoever they are, they’re bent over a book, a journal, writing furiously and then thoughtfully. Their head is kept fastidiously buried in the pages, so that their face is obscured. Forgetting about the personas in the other apartments, I watch them write for a long time, so long that I almost miss my cue from the sun.

For the first time, I don’t worry about love. Instead, as Mwanza sprays on Eros (the first bottle is almost done) my thoughts are flooded with questions about the writer. How long do they stay there? How many days have they been coming out? Have they always been coming out?

The next day they’re back, and the next, and the next. I take to waking up earlier, so that I can watch them emerge from the building. Every morning they walk onto the stoop, look furtively across the street in their line of vision, and then sink into writing. They don’t look up once the notebook opens. All I ever see is its cover, shooting out at me, blocking both visage and contents. I want to see their face. I want to read their words.

It’s a Friday morning when Mwanza looks into my eyes and our routine falters. He’s coming in to kiss me, but pauses above my lips.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, and I’m so thrown by the change that I almost tell him the whole truth.

“I feel…off,” I say. “Restless. Do you ever feel like you want to jump out of your skin and go somewhere?”

“I love my skin,” he replies. Deadpan humor. “But if you want to go somewhere, let’s just go out.”

“I don’t think out will cut it.”

“No, no, you don’t do enough. All you ever do is see that kid and send off articles. When’s the last time you danced?” Mwanza rolls out of bed now.

“We went out, like, two weeks ago,” I remind him. He shakes his head flippantly, putting toothpaste on his toothbrush.

“Well, this time will be different. We’ll make it an adventure, like you always want. Look hot – hot, Bitu. Go with your girls. I’ll be with my boys. We’ll each do our own thing like we don’t know each other.”

“Why?” I ask as he begins to brush his teeth.

“Because,” he moves the brush around in his mouth a bit before continuing, speaking through his actions. “When you try to look hot, you look good. When you look good, other guys hit on you. And when I leave with the girl all the other guys struck out on?” He finishes brushing. Spits.

“I’ll be the club god.”

He flashes his Wolf Smile.

Tableau 1

Every morning, I go to the window. I wake before Mwanza, always. His arms are around me, and I lie tangled up with him, breathing in his scent. He always smells faintly of Eros cologne. He’d roped me into coming to buy it with him the first time we met, expounding the ways the superior scent would positively impact his success “in all areas of life”. African men and name brands. The second time I visited, I brought him a bigger bottle. If I were to roll over now, I’d see the two Medusa heads guarding our room from the dresser, aided by Mandela’s eyes.

As Nelson’s portrait watches, I lie there and try to feel comfort in my confinement, tenderness in how tightly Mwanza chooses to wrap onto me. This consistently fails. Every morning, I gently shrug off his arms and spend an extra moment lying still, just out of his reach. When his breathing slows and becomes heavy again, I balance on the balls of my feet, and then deftly step over his body and onto the windowsill.

It’s a balancing act. The sill is wide enough for me to fit if I turn my body sideways, hold my knees to my chest, and lean against the glass. I balance my body to stay in the space, and steal the time in a place Mwanza cannot consciously miss it. As he slumbers on, I press my forehead into the glass and dream of being Elsewhere.

There’s no actual place in mind. That is beside the point. I’m tired of being here, but I also know that I would tire of being Anywhere. Isn’t it better to stay in the familiar? This is the daily argument in my head, and when that becomes overwhelming, I settle for looking out the window and into other apartments, imagining the people inside. Are they happy? I create personas and plan futures for them, until the sun’s rays hit our side of the street. That’s my cue to get up, softly step over the still-sleeping Mwanza, and roll back into his grasp.

A few minutes later he’s awake, his arms squeeze me and his lips are pushed against mine.

“I love you,” he says, before getting up to brush his teeth. I stay in bed. He must think of me as such a lazy riser. As he lightly reapplies the Eros – he has not even started the second bottle yet – I lie where he left me, and try to convince myself that it isn’t a lie when I say I love him back.

What is love, anyway? It has to be more than a feeling. Butterflies – people always talk about butterflies. Or a rushing sensation. Do people really feel that all the time? Does he?

Maybe love is comfort: looking at someone and feeling you know each other and are content together. Could that work for me? Am I content with him?

            Or maybe, love is a choice. Maybe you choose to stay in love with someone, make yourself content, force butterflies, and re-create rushes out of your memories. I could probably do that.

Sometimes, in his arms, I find myself marveling at how I ended up here. I came to South Africa as a visitor; it had never been my intention to stay. Then I fell in love with Braamfontein and Rose Bank lifestyles. I met Congolese people my age, both connected to and removed from their home cultures, so that they tolerated the aspects of my character they did not understand, appreciated where I diverged form tradition, and otherwise pulled me in.

“You been saying you wanted to marry a Congolese man,” my friend said one night, over the phone. “You better find one now.”

Enter Mwanza. He was – is – fine. Six foot three and muscular, skin dark so that his eyes always sparkle and his teeth shine white. My second visit, I stay in his apartment for two weeks. I was supposed to be staying by my cousin, but his place got filled up the night before I arrived. The cousin made us off limits to each other, so I never worried about any of the feelings we developed.

Right moves, wrong person. I don’t know how he did it. My last night, one second we were bumping shoulders playfully – the next he had grabbed me, spun me somehow, and had me locked in his arms, facing him. It was a lot. I melted.

“Don’t look at me,” he told me.

“There’s nowhere else for me to look,” I replied.

“Well, still. Close your eyes. I got you a goodbye present, did you know? I have to get it, but if I look at you, I won’t be able to leave you.”

“So don’t give me a present.”

“Just – ” he was exasperated. He removed one hand from my back, and used two fingers to gently close my eyes.

“Don’t be an asshole,” he said softly, almost whispering. “There. Now, hang on.”

I remember noticing that instead of completely letting go of me and leaving, both hands were again clasping me, pulling me in through the small of my back. There was the sound of a gulp, Mwanza gulped, and I wondered if he was going to kiss me. He did, before I could consider whether or not that was something I wanted.

“Don’t leave,” he whispered when I opened my eyes.

“My plane is tomorrow morning. I don’t have a choice.”

“That’s stupid,” he said, instinctively tightening his grip as I bristled. “Everyone has a choice, always. You could go back to the States with your ticket. Or, you could choose to stay with me.”

“This isn’t my home.”

“Mine either. But you’re American. You can make anywhere your home, with your magic passport.”

“My parents…”

“How often do you see them anyway? Listen. You have no job; you have no responsibilities. You rent an apartment full of things you don’t care about. Sell them. Stay with me. I own my place. Your room and board are covered!”

“You aren’t serious, was all I could say.”

“I am. Besides, didn’t you say you were falling in love with me?”

“What I said was that if I stayed longer, I might.”

“So do it. What do you want?”

I thought of a line. I didn’t know if it was true, but I said it.

“I want to kiss you again.”

He smiled, then. It wasn’t a completely nice smile – it made me think he looked more triumphant than happy. The first of what I’d privately dub Mwanza’s Wolf Smiles. I didn’t like it, but I let him smile, let him kiss me, and I stayed.

Enter LTs

The Intruder had torn out of the Hills, and stopped on a plateau between the shrine and the slope down to the village. She’d been the only one around, unnoticed as he struggled to get a hold of himself. Magic poured off of him, and as he shook his head, wisps of suggestion and desire wafted around it.

His mission had been largely unsuccessful, as he’d known it would be from the minute he got inside. The Man had miscalculated in sending only him – he could only get inside and rearrange, which was not enough in this case. Falling onto his back, he realized that it was only the shock of finding an Intruder dropped suddenly into their midst that had prevented the priestesses from overtaking him. Their eyes had not had a chance to focus properly on him, yet for a terrifying moment they had all paralyzed him. Then, confusion had engulfed them, and they had shouted incoherent accusations, curses, and questions upon him. How had he gotten in? What was he doing? Where did he come from? Who sent him? As they turned to each other to organize themselves, he gathered enough willpower to jump away and out from their line of vision.

He knew the number of physical entrances (one), altars (one), reflection pools (one) and idols (none). He did not know where they retired, how they practiced, or where they took and then disposed of their sacrifices. He was not even sure if that was still practiced in the Hills, or if it had ever been.

He was bothered. Hazy eyesight had followed his path and he could feel its effects on him. The lust was overwhelming. Half of him wanted to jump out of its skin and crawl back to them as an offering. Standing fully clothed in the middle of the clothe-less women, he had felt overexposed and ashamed, and that feeling lingered. He needed to hide himself from the memory of their eyes.

He discovered two new eyes looking at him – hers. She had stopped what she was doing, and noticed him. He noticed her, and his body still heaved with the magic pouring off of it, and he still wanted to jump out of himself and hide, so he settled for jumping out of his clothes instead, and hiding in her. He did what he knew how to do, and she never took her eyes off of him, though she later regretted this the most. The magic steamed off of him, and some of the suggestion flowed into her, and though she never spoke or made a sound, he did not stop talking. All that he could do was get into places and rearrange, and now, repeat what he had seen and felt, over and over. When the Intruder finished, he’d sighed gutturally with relief, then made a popping sound and vanished.

She’d sat up and pulled the skirt of her dress down. It had not been beautiful, or good, or wanted, and she’d known she would not speak of it to anyone. She’d simply gathered her things and walked back to get lost in her family, and everything might have been fine had her stomach not grossly expanded five months later. When her family found out what happened, they stopped speaking to her. Shame, and extreme empathy, can do that.

She’d spent three months in silence before running back to the Hills to go into premature labor at the mouth of the priestesses’ shrine. When they found her, they reached into her and pulled out twin babies, and a mess of magic had tumbled out after them. They understood its source, knew that she could not return to where she’d been, and so took her and the children into their care.

Now, years later, they had all departed, and she remained, having inherited the Priestess title. It was hers in name but not practice, as she had been created for the world, rather than of it.

She was normal. Her twins were strange. Sometimes, they claimed the floor moved. Once she caught them crashing into each other, saying they were practicing jumping spirits. They constantly vanished into the hills, reappearing only when she was at her wits end to finding them. Yet no one else could ever be lost from them. They had the uncanny ability to know exactly where someone was, simply looking up as if seeing them, even when the person was far away. Her twins were strange, and she was isolated, but all were greatly respected in the world. On the whole, the three were happy.

Makeda

There Hills were her shrine. They had been created for her. She had created them for herself, along with the rest of the world.

When the succubi were first introduced to the universe, they quickly realized that they would not be able to survive in groups. Their constant need for desire and worship would lead not only to fighting and jealousy, but to the rapid depopulation of the world. Each set out to create her own world, with her own feeding supply, and she had created this one.

She made it beautiful, with deep seas, wide plains, flowers of every color, and rolling hills. The hills were her favorite part.

Then, she populated it with worshippers. Her worshippers, of varying degrees. She planted people like seeds, sowed reverence into their hearts, and watched them grow. As they grew, she walked among them, cultivating societies and expanding civilizations. It took her 1000 years.

At first, she fasted, not wanting to feed until the world matured. Then she realized her hunger was blocking her progress. When she grew weak, her world faded.  People bickered, and the hills began to die. So in order to protect her work, she broke her fast.

It was easy. The whole world loved her. People travelled to bring gifts to her Hills. Every day, a new person offered Themselves to her. Some she immediately took into her body and devoured. With others, she went into their minds. All she had to do was Look at their eyes, and she got into their souls. They would become enchanted, mindless, and run across the world doing her bidding. With other bodies looking after things, she was free to retreat into the Hills. Eventually, her hold on the souls would wear on her ambassadors, and they would return, obsessed with the idea of connecting with her fully. They would beg to be devoured as well, and she would oblige. It was all out of love. She loved them.

That was why she left, finally. It occurred to her that it might have been wrong to create life simply to be used and destroyed. She wasn’t sure how morality worked in a world of one’s own devising. Still, some part of her felt monstrous, especially when she watched the surviving family members of her sacrifices. She could see their loss, and it made her feel lonely. Everyone loved and worshipped her as strongly as ever, but that too began to feel bad.

She knew that if she were to stop feeding, the whole world would die. She also knew that she no longer wanted to feed on her own people.

So, she made arrangements. She shielded her eyes and took lovers without eating them, willing herself into pregnancy, and maturing her daughters into priestesses. She only had daughters, and they lived in the hills. Her daughters had her blood, her mind, and her eyes, but they had their fathers’ hearts. Thus they could enchant and bewitch and entice, and as they coupled with worshippers of their own, the world continued to flourish. But they could not feed as she did, which made them almost perfectly safe.

Then, she left. The rest of her life was spent casting around the universe. Fifty years were spent ruling a nation in the Eastern Earth. Daughters and prosperity remained wherever she had been. At what should have been the end of her life, she realized she had left enough energy behind her to stick around intangibly.

She brought her body back to her Hills, finding them as glorious as ever. Most of her priestess daughters had set out on their own adventures, but a few descendants remained. When her body died, her spirit sank into the hills. Every so often it would lust itself out of the hills and find amusement by jumping into a descendant at random. In this way, her exploits continued, and her world prospered even more.

PoK

The most popular attraction of the attendant’s world was a large hot spring the worldspeople had named the “Pool of Knowledge”. 

 It had started as a relatively unobtrusive body of water, until one day a couple of teenagers had jumped in for a dare, and suddenly found themselves spouting the secrets of the universe. Two more had jumped in and promptly broken up, as they locked eyes and each realized the other was sleeping with someone else. 

 It didn’t take long for word to get around the entire world that bathing in the waters of the spring allowed one to know Everything there was to know, Ever. It took even less time for the banks, lawyers, patent offices, architects, engineers, and advertisers to swoop in and turn the hot spring into one of the greatest tourist attractions the universe had ever seen. The people of her world built an enormous bath house around the spring, complete with changing rooms, a little terrace cafe, and a photographer who would take your picture before you came in, and just as you were leaving.

She was the sole bath attendant. More truthfully, she was the sole surviving bath attendant. The Pool, as it was commonly called, was tricky, for it granted people access to all the knowledge there ever was, only as long as one was in the water. As soon as you left, you forgot all that you had just learned. This led to some extreme reactions. The bath house pictures twisted into a cruel joke: while everyone’s “Before” picture showed happy and excited faces, the majority of the “Afters” portrayed someone sobbing, raving, or on occasion, dead. 

People did drown in the Pool. Some believed that if they kept their heads under water for long enough, they could carry the information out with them. Not only did this result in their drownings, it also resulted in the drownings of the several bath attendants who attempted to rescue them. The attendants would either lose track of themselves in the informational overflow, or they would lose their lives while struggling unsuccessfully to bring the bathers back up to the surface.

Many bathers were scholars would come back, determined to steal knowledge away. She had always refused to deal with these people, as they appeared to her both foolish and greedy. In any other setting she would also think them immoral, but any morality in the vicinity of the Pool seemed to be suspended.

These scholars would always bring journals and pencils, and coerce naive bath attendants into taking note of every new bit of information they screamed out. Unfortunately, there was new information to be screamed every second, much too quickly for it to be gotten down. The inevitable outcome was that when the zealous scholars eagerly left the Pool to find nothing but gibberish-filled pages, they would fly into uncontrollable rages rendered impotent by their hoarse voices. At this point, they would simply shoot the disappointing attendants, who were too cramped from writing to defend themselves.

One scholar, imagining himself rather clever, brought a tape recorder, but upon triumphantly leaving the Pool and seizing the recorder, he slipped and electrocuted himself.

The question, to most people, was the Pool’s Usefulness. What was the point, many asked, of having access to Everything, if one could do Nothing with it? This question took lives as well, as people’s intellects cracked from the pressure of how pointless everything about the Pool seemed to be. Scholars who had spent their lives pursuing knowledge suddenly found themselves without a reason to live, once they found themselves unchanged by its source. There was a period of time where it looked like the Pool would have to be shut down, but then some nihilists picked up on it and made the bath house the focal point of all their retreats. After them, the other faiths followed, both in an effort to keep “with the times” and to send missionaries to poach nihilists for their parties. Thus, the Pool stayed in business, the economy of the world flourished, and everybody was slightly less happy for it.

The current, surviving bath attendant had bathed in the Pool once, and quite enjoyed herself. She was, in fact, one of the teenagers who had initially jumped in. At the time, she’d been anticipating getting her hair wet and calculating where her wash cycle would leave her by the next week.In reflection, she often thought that this may have saved her from going mad as so many others did. Having access to all the information Ever had been an interesting bonus to her experience, but also a sort of distraction that she hadn’t minded losing as soon as she’d stepped out. That was all she needed to never go back in. 

There were only two people in the universe who had successfully taken knowledge away from the Pool without losing their minds or lives, probably because neither of these people realized what they’d done. One was a little boy who liked to look into worlds. The other was the attendant.

These days she simply sat by the pool with earplugs to block out the revelatory shouts of the bathers. Every so often, she fished a too-long-submerged bather out of the water with a large net-like scoop that she had devised, so as to allow her to do her job without actually touching the water. Since she had been put in charge (by necessity), there had been no more drownings, although the occasional suicide was still committed in the changing room by a scholar who could not handle the disappointment that accompanied drying off. Those, she could do nothing about. So instead she read, she wrote, she watched detachedly, and occasionally used her scoop to break up the arguments that would arise between competing scholars in the water.

‘Knowledge,’ she thought, ‘Was no good without Sense.’