What I Never Told Them - Gustavo Bondoni
“I once wrote a story about sentient seaweed,” I said.
The other panelists laughed. The audience laughed. It was probably the most successful panel I’d ever been on. There were actual humans in the audience.
The next day, people would tell me that they enjoyed the panel and buy one of my books in the dealer room and asked me to sign it.
All was well until someone asked me to send them the story about the sentient seaweed. That’s when I realized I’d screwed up.
I mumbled something about sending it over and planned to forget. But one of the other panelists chose that moment to drop by and say: “Oh, that’s right. I want to read that one as well.”
It got worse. Unlike the editors I’d tried to sell that story to, everyone wanted to read about sentient seaweed.
The story had appeared in an antho that paid very little and sold even fewer copies. At the time, having gotten the thing out of my system, I was relieved that not many had read it. Exorcised at little cost to myself or others.
Five years later, the debt was coming due because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.
After the con, we went our different ways. I flew back to my new home, where I’d moved after it all happened. I changed planes in Rabat and mounted an ancient propeller-driven craft that deposited me in Timbuktu, where the customs people already knew me and gladly accepted a pair of bottles of duty-free whisky in lieu of a resident’s visa. I had a visa, but playing the game turned the officers into co-conspirators.
The final leg of the journey took me to the village of Aguelhok, where I was considered the crazy stranger, and inevitably asked to assist any foreign tourists who happened to be passing through.
I’d chosen the village because it was as far into the Sahara Desert as I was willing to go.
But the internet reached me, and I scanned the obituaries of the writing associations for the inevitable.
They tricked in. A rash of science fiction writers and fans, missing. Some were tracked as far as a plane to southeast Asia… and then disappeared.
No one knew where they’d gone to. After a while, the genre world went on with its life, more amused by the string of coincidences than saddened by the losses.
But I knew what had happened and I mourned each loss.
The well water was always crisp, cool and perfect. But that evening, as I approached the little circle of dusty grey stones that surrounded the village’s only source of water, little Youssouf, the ten-year old son of the owner of the general store, stopped me.
“Water’s green,” he said in French, the language we had in common. His was bad. Mine was worse. “Don’t drink it.”
“No,” I breathed.
I stared into the depths, dropped the bucket into the darkness, and pulled it up hurriedly.
Whether the water was green or not, I couldn’t tell, but I could smell the earthy smell of algae inside.
My heart sank.
I left the bucket on the edge of the well and walked home.
Darkness fell and I covered my head with my pillow, but to no avail.
I heard the sibilants first, like static from a mistuned radio in my head, but then, I felt the peace overcome me and the words formed.
You sent supplicants, the voices said.
But they don’t last very long.
Your teachings are good, in that they come, but you do not teach them to last.
How can they attain a true state of peace in such a short amount of time?
“Humans can’t survive underwater,” I screamed.
Then I ran into the night, heading north, deeper into the desert. It wasn’t a place of dunes but a place of rock and dirt, but I’d felt safe there.
No longer. I’d been found. I needed to run to dryer ground.
A drop of water hit my parched lips. Warm but pure. No algae lived in the well from which that had come. A little more, and the tang of a metal cup.
“I didn’t want to die,” I told the man who’d found me out on the dry, rocky plain and who’d propped me against the side of an ancient Toyota Land Cruiser. “That’s why I did it.”
He looked at me, not understanding, not judging. Patient.
“I told them I’d write their holy book. I’d seen them all drown, you understand. Elena. Diana. Ricardo. So peaceful when we pulled them out of the water.”
I coughed, my throat too dry to pull up anything.
“I resisted the pull as long as I could. And when I couldn’t resist any longer, I made a deal with them.”
He looked at me impassively.
“Do you understand? I made a deal. I told those telepathic plants that I would only achieve peace if I could do their work, send them acolytes. I explained about holy writing, and how it moved us.” I laughed. “You don’t believe me. You don’t believe that there is a shallow pool beside an artificial island in the sea near Borneo where sentient seaweed can make you feel at peace with everything. So at peace in fact, that you’ll drown there with a smile. And you can’t resist it.” I tried to give him a smile. “Of course you don’t. It’s stupid.”
He returned my smile. His was sad, gentle. He had greying hair cut near the scalp, and a greying beard.
“I didn’t want to be a prophet,” I said. “I just had no other choice. Do you understand?”
He murmured something. It sounded like a prayer.
He was right to pray, because I felt life leaving me as darkness overcame everything.
With my last strength I rubbed my hands against the dry, lovely dust.