It’s Kamanda’s fault.
This is Kadima’s thought as she maneuvers the long pole, dipping the net into the water to scoop up the body at the bottom of The Pool. She stands, straining her muscles and using her body weight to lift, keeping the pole from slipping off its axis. The scholar emerges, sputtering and struggling.
“Put me back!” he yells. “I almost had it!”
“You’ve had enough!” she calls, fighting to keep him up. “Any longer underwater and you would’ve died!”
“You don’t know that!” he screams. “I’ve dedicated my life to scholarly pursuits. I am the most respected mind in my field – who the fuck are you to tell me when I’ve had enough?”
“I’m the fucking bath attendant!” Kadima shouts. The surviving attendant, she thinks, expending more energy to swing the net to The Pool’s edge and dumping the scholar on the side. “Don’t go back,” she pants.
Using the net exhausts her, but it’s better than the alternative. Too many other attendants lost their lives before she came up with the idea for it, and convinced Kamanda to have it made.
Kadima has also installed several cautionary signs around The Pool. They say vaguely,
“You Cannot Take It With You”
“Holding Your Head Underwater Causes Drowning Before Remembering”
“Why Trouble Yourself? Go Home”.
Kamanda doesn’t know about these. If she did, she would have them taken down. Nothing can mess with Kamanda’s money. Nothing has ever blocked anything Kamanda wanted, since their childhood.
Kamanda always got people to do things. As Kamanda’s best friend, Kadima seemed to be roped into doing the most, despite or perhaps because of her ever-present skepticism. Kamanda bossed; Kadima negotiated, and they had adventured through life without much negativity, until The Pool was discovered.
That night, Mfumu, Kamanda’s boyfriend, had driven the three of them deep into the Lubourg forest, in the heart of Congo. He drove until there was no more road, and then Kamanda had made them continue on foot “until we find something.” Eventually, they’d discovered a spring in a clearing, and Kamanda decided that was it! She and Mfumu dove in. Kadima, wary of the dangers that could lurk in an unexplored area, had stayed to the side. She decided to sit out and keep watch until the others were finished.
“Of course,” she’d imagined Ngondu, her brother, saying. “Be practical so your so-called friend can play. Why should you both enjoy yourselves?” He had never been a fan of Kamanda.
Mfumu and the friend in question had interrupted Kadima’s thoughts by cursing at each other.
“Ten!” Kamanda screamed. “You’ve cheated on me with ten other women, conard!”
“Salope, you were planning to sneak into my brother’s room tonight!” Mfumu hollered back.
Their chests rose and fell rapidly, and Kamanda had moved as if to hit him.
Kadima forgot danger and cannon-balled into the water, hoping that the shock would startle them calm. It had worked, but then she’d been there with them, knowing they were telling the absolute truth. She’d also known that it didn’t matter, and once they’d been quiet for a moment, they’d known it didn’t matter, either.
They’d calmed down and broken up, right there. Kadima had remembered her watchman responsibilities and climbed out, irately ignoring them babble secrets about the Egyptians, the follies of colonial explorers, and string theory.
When they’d left the water, Kamanda and Mfumu were confused by their hoarse voices and feelings of betrayal.
“Maybe talk less,” Kadima had told them. “And that feeling’s natural when you discover infidelity, isn’t it?” They hadn’t known what she was talking about.
Kamanda was wealthy, and connected, and she talked to her more influential friends. Soon, more people than Kadima really thought necessary were involved, running tests on the spring. Eventually, after many more voices had become hoarse from spouting the secrets of the universe, everyone came to the same conclusion: bathing in the water taught you everything there was to know about anything, ever.
After that, everyone went wild. It hadn’t taken long for word to spread about the spring, and even less time for the lawyers and banks to swoop in and turn it into one of the greatest tourist attractions the universe had ever seen.
They built an enormous bathhouse around the spring, complete with changing rooms, a little terrace cafe, and a photographer who took your picture before you got in, and after you came out. It was advertised as The Pool of Knowledge.
The whole forest was razed for the bathhouse, its minerals dug up and incorporated into the construction. Kadima was ambivalent about this, but Kamanda simply paid off or imprisoned the environmentalists, rationalizing that the Congolese hadn’t even been using the forest before. People had grown up believing it was haunted, so no one ever went in. Now, the place turned into such a hot property that simply trying to access The Pool became dangerous. Everyone wanted to control the property. Those who couldn’t, settled for controlling the land outside of it. Visiting the bathhouse required traversing a minefield of human gangs and terrorist tariffs. The government offered to send soldiers for protection – for a fee. Kadima was dubious. She’d noticed that some of the gangs wore fatigues with a similar insignia to the army’s.
“Man,” said Ngondu, “I thought Africa had territory issues before. This is wild!”
“Maybe this is the sign we need to shut things down,” said Kadima. “I don’t think The Pool is meant to be used by the world.”
“Absolutely not. This is the sign that we are going to make so much money!” Kamanda retorted. “Think about it: how much is too much to pay, to attain all the knowledge in the universe? There is no amount too great! That’s why they’re all out here!”
“I think we’re going to make more trouble than anything,” Kadima had said dubiously, but Kamanda wasn’t listening.
“If this world can’t use The Pool,” Kamanda said, “It won’t. We’ll move it off the Earth!”
She called in new scientists, engineers, and biologists. They detached the former forest, sent it into space, and turned it into its own world. Now, travel agents got involved, because the Pool of Knowledge became the destination to beat all destinations!
Kamanda stayed on Earth to run things remotely, sending Kadima off with The Pool. Since she was so worried about everything, Kamanda reasoned, she might as well keep an eye on things with the bath attendants. That was when Kadima had become aware of the trouble.
“Are you not warning people back home?” Kadima had called to check in with Kamanda. “They’re losing their minds over here. You have to put some sort of disclaimer in the advertising!”
They had figured it out back when Kadima had reminded Kamanda and Mfumu of their break up. The Pool was tricky. It granted people access to all the knowledge there ever was, only as long as they were in the water. As soon as you left, you forgot all that you had just learned.
“It doesn’t matter what we say to them,” Kamanda explained. “They’ll keep coming anyway.” She was right.
“But it’s different from when we first discovered it,” Kadima pressed. “We were only looking for adventure. Our expectations were low. Everyone who goes into the pool nowadays wants something. They have expectations about what their experience will be, what they want to know, and what they will come away with. Then, of course, they learn how wrong they were to have any expectations, and then they forget everything they’ve learned!”
The bath house pictures were becoming 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 died 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 either lost track of themselves in the informational overflow, or they lost their lives while struggling unsuccessfully to bring the bathers back up to the surface. After the fifth drowning, Kadima posted the explicit signs.
Many bathers were scholars, determined to steal knowledge away. Kadima 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 brought journals and pencils, and coerced 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. After the third shooting, Kadima posted the vague signs.
One day, a scholar came in with a tape recorder.
“What is that thing?” Kadima asked, when he came into the bathing area with a big box under his arm.
“This, girl, is my ticket to success,” he told her, turning it on. “It will take down everything I say, and I won’t have to rely on any of your lousy scribe-work.”
He seemed to have thought of everything, even tying a cord to his ankle and connecting it to the Pool ladder, so he wouldn’t swim out of the recorder’s range. When he finally tired himself out, he rushed out of the pool and snatched it up.
“Wait,” Kadima cautioned. “No one else has managed to take anything away from the water. Maybe there’s a reason for that.”
“Maybe they’re just stupid,” he replied, and pressed the “play” button. They could hear the splash of him getting into the water, and then his voice came through clearly, reciting Einstein’s theory of relativity.
“I did it!” the scholar cried triumphantly. “Did it! Ha!” He hopped up and down, holding the recorder high, gibing at Kadima, shouting over his recorded words.
“Be careful!” Kadima yelled, too late. He’d never untied the cord around his ankle, and it tripped him. He slipped and cracked his head open.
The question that began to bother 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? Scholarly intellects cracked from the pressure of how meaningless everything about The Pool seemed to be. After dedicating their lives to the pursuit of knowledge, scholars found themselves unchanged by what they assumed to be its source, and suddenly lost their wills to live.
Kadima, hoping that finally The Pool would have to be shut down, posted the imploring signs. Visitors were dissuaded for about a month, but just as Kadima was packing her things to leave, Kamanda marketed The Pool to the nihilists. They made the bath house the focal point of all their retreats. Kamanda further manipulated the other faiths into following suit, both in an effort to keep “with the times,” and to send missionaries to poach nihilists from their parties. So The Pool stayed in business, the economy flourished, and everybody was slightly less happy for it.
Everybody except for Kamanda, of course, who was still happy to make outrageous amounts of money.
“And you shouldn’t be too sour about it, either,” Kamanda reprimanded Kadima. “It’s not like you aren’t getting a portion. It’s not like you aren’t complicit.”
“It’s not like anyone else could survive at this job,” Kadima said, “Or keep the bathhouse moderately safe.”
“Well, leave then,” challenged Kamanda. “If you think everything will fall apart without you, and you are as against The Pool as you say you are. Go home!”
She was afraid to. Afraid of what might happen if she did leave, and they found a way to keep it going. So, she stayed.
These days, Kadima simply sits by the pool with earplugs to block out the revelatory shouts of the bathers. Every so often, she fishes a too-long-submerged bather out of the water with the net, so as to allow her to do her job without actually touching the water. Since she’s been put in charge, there have been no more drownings. The occasional suicide is still committed in the changing room by a scholar who cannot handle the disappointment that accompanies drying off. Those, she can do nothing about. So instead she reads, she writes, she watches detachedly, and occasionally she uses her scoop to break up the arguments that arise between competing scholars in the water.
“Are you never tempted to go in?” Ngondu asked once, on a visit. She had allowed him to sit with her, and treated him in the cafe, but warned him not to even think of bathing. “Or, or try to perfect the tape recorder thing? You’re saying you haven’t picked up anything in all your time here? Kadima, if you wanted to, you could bring all that knowledge back to our world! You could help people!”
“Are you kidding?” Ngondu was shocked. “By giving them exactly what they’ve been searching for, losing their lives to attain! No one would have to drown or kill themselves anymore, if they could just get knowledge on dry land.”
“I don’t think that would help anything,” Kadima said. “People aren’t really any happier knowing everything, than they were only knowing what they knew before. They only feel loss afterward, because they kidded themselves into believing that in the water, they had gained something beneficial. But they didn’t, because they never would have been able to use any of that properly. People who waste their time traveling to The Pool to learn, can’t handle understanding something that must occur to them in the water.”
“What’s that?” Ngondu asked.
“I can’t really explain it.”
He hadn’t liked the answer, but he’d respected her enough to go home without getting in.
A splash interrupts her reflection – the scholar from before dives back into The Pool. He jeers at Kadima from the water; she looks away, letting him believe in his triumph, conserving her energy. It doesn’t surprise her later when she hears frustrated sobs coming from the changing room, followed by a gunshot. The rudest ones take it the hardest.
“Knowledge,” Kadima thinks to herself as she buzzes for a cleanup, “Is no good without Sense.”