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Some Distant Waterholes of Note

Some Distant Waterholes of Note
by M. Bennardo

Yes, Mother Zambu, Glorious Matriarch of Trillo Family, of Purpurto Clan, from the belly of Zamzamzar, has traveled through the night.

Yes, Mother Zambu, Honored Ten Season Mate of Musth Bull Zadhar, has worn a dusty track among the Distant Waterholes that twinkle down from the black savannah of the sky.

Yes, Mother Zambu, Prodigious Rumbler of Many Useful Histories, has visited among her far sisters and farther cousins, returning to tell the tale of those Distant Waterholes on which they live, and how their ways and lives differ from ours.

* * *

--First --ask Mother Zambu's Daughters --how did Mother Zambu climb above the horizon of the All Encompassing Waterhole to the black savannah of the nighttime sky?

--Most simple, dear children --Mother Zambu replies. --For three weeks I walked alone into the highlands, climbing the dusty dry ways of the White Mountain, my long trunk full of cool sweet water to refresh me and my hindgut full of delicate leaves to replenish my strength.

--And so --ask Mother Zambu's Daughters --what did Mother Zambu find there?

--Why listen, dear children --Mother Zambu replies. --Upon attaining the white of the White Mountain, I thereupon found a great frosty sheet whipped by angry winds, with a surface as jagged to walk upon as a carpet of broken flints standing on edge. Even so, I followed its length with pained and studious steps, until I reached the white clouds of the day sky.

--And so?

--So I walked on, dear children, from frost white to cloud white --replies Mother Zambu --and I floated most comfortably upon the pale blue of the sea of the day sky.

--And so?

--I floated on --replies Mother Zambu --until the sun grew fat and red, and then disappeared behind the western hills. Until day sky blue became night sky black--the black savannah spreading out before me, hardening into substance until it was firm enough to bear my weight, and full of millions of twinkling Distant Waterholes. Full of wondrous, strange destinations to visit.

* * *

Yes, dear children, there is a Distant Waterhole on the black savannah where all the water is red with blood. See it there in the night sky, its crimson hue startling in the blackness? The way it gained its bright color is this:

By some whim or mistake of the Compositor, the ones who live on that Red Waterhole carry their tusks on the inside rather than the outside. And so, their tusks are forever gouging their own bellies and legs with every movement they make, blood always running out of those poor brothers and sisters, staining the Waterhole and everything on it.

As a consequence, these ones do everything with great care, and stay as still as they possibly can. It is something to see them all buried to their shoulders in cooling mud, bulls as well as cows, trunks raised high above them like reeds swaying in the breeze, waiting for the wind to blow leaves out of a nearby tree into their grasp.

Now, trees die. So, being most curious, I did ask of an elder matriarch of sixty seasons this question: Honored Mother, how is it that the trees that supply you and your handsome daughters with sweet blown leaves are kept from dying?

For it would be a disaster for these sedentary creatures if all their trees should turn brown and dry, their withered leaves rattling in the wind! But the answer was most surprising.

No one can keep a tree from dying, so said the matriarch. But each one who stands in the mud bath keeps a seed in her throat, and keeps her mouth open and turned up to the sky. Whenever she should die of disease or old age, a new tree will grow from the seed in her throat, turning the ample residue of her body into wood and bark and tender green--wonderful new growth to replace any of the old trees that may die!

* * *

--What an ingenious solution --cry Mother Zambu's Daughters --and we don't suppose the dead ones complain too much as they are composted into life-giving trees.

--No --agrees Mother Zambu --they do not complain much at all. But listen: you haven't heard the most remarkable such story yet.

* * *

There is another Distant Waterhole, dear children, where all the water is deep and blue. There is no bottom at all to the Blue Waterhole, and no land for anyone to stand upon.

Yes, dear children, I tell you that there are no lions, no antelopes, no leopards, no running hairless apes. No shrubs, no grass, no pigs, no cranes. Indeed, there are only the strongest of the swimming animals, and the strongest of the flying birds. But fish in great abundance of every sort and description--even a great many fish that we know nothing about here.

But I was going to say that on this Waterhole, our kind have their ears on their hind part, on either side of their tails, and use them to beat the water continuously, just as the wide wings of the eagle beat the air. This method of flotation and locomotion is most effective, and you will find the elephants that live there always swimming on throughout the deep Blue Waterhole, searching for leaves and branches swept along by the currents.

But whence do these leaves and branches come, you ask. Dear children, that is the first question that your Mother Zambu asked as well, as soon as she found one with the years to answer!

There are indeed trees in the Blue Waterhole, it seems, but they can grow only in one place: that is, upon the broad backs of the grandest matriarchs. It is very uncomfortable for the matriarchs so burdened, the roots searching down through their thick skin, groping for purchase and gripping painfully, forcing them to sink deeper and deeper underwater with every passing season--the trees stretching taller and wider and bearing more and more leaves and fruit--until at last only the tips of the matriarchs' trunks remain above the surface of the water.

Then, finally, dear children, those last bits must disappear too, in the silence of the great ocean. But the trees float on along the currents, until the others strip them bare of leaves. Is that not an ingenious solution as well?

* * *

--It is most a remarkable tale, and those creatures are most ingenious --say the Daughters of Mother Zambu reluctantly --but it is not a pleasant tale to think about for very long.

--Pleasant? Dear children, I did not travel to these Distant Waterholes in search of pleasantness --replies Mother Zambu --but rather in search of the truth.

--But what should happen --ask the Daughters of Mother Zambu --if the matriarchs refused to let a new tree grow, for instance? One way or the other, it is too horrible to think about!

--Harumph, I see --replies Mother Zambu. --Since you wish it so, I will try to make my next story less distressing than that.

* * *

There is a third Distant Waterhole, dear children, where everything is the brightest green. There is no want of anything on this Green Waterhole, and the inhabitants are really very fortunate, for trees grow in great abundance without anybody having to do anything to encourage them.

Indeed, there grows on the Green Waterhole a great variety of leaves to enjoy: cool leaves that refresh as completely as a trunkful of water; fiery leaves that add a fascinating spice to life; bitter leaves, and earthy leaves, and sweet leaves, and every combination imaginable. Yes, dear children, no two meals ever need be the same on the Green Waterhole!

And so your Mother Zambu wondered: What is the cause of all this abundance? For a great while, nobody could tell me. But at last, I was able to uncover the answer!

It is owing to the fact that no other leaf-eating creature exists on the Green Waterhole. No monkey, no ape, no giraffe, no antelope, and not even any ant--in short, nothing else to impede the feasting of the elephants that live there.

Or at least I suppose they are elephants. For they have no trunk at all, dear children--for what need is there to reach when leaves are always close at hand? And they have no tusks either--for what need is there to dig or root? In fact, these elephants have neither ears nor eyes nor legs nor feet--only mouths and guts.

And of those wonderful guts (hindguts, foreguts, longguts, shortguts, guts of every description and location!), yes, of those beautiful manifold guts, there is one about which I could indeed trumpet a ten-day epic--

* * *

--This story started out well enough --say Mother Zambu's Daughters --but now it sounds as if you are telling us a joke.

--A joke, dear children --replies Mother Zambu. Why I am only telling you what I have seen with my own eyes!

--Even so --say Mother Zambu's Daughters --we don't like these leg-less, trunk-less, tusk-less elephants. They aren't a thing like us! Why, they might as well not be elephants at all.

--I see --says Mother Zambu. So you only want to hear stories if they are about elephants?

--Of course --say Mother Zambu's Daughters. --What good to us are stories about the other creatures of the world? Except as fairy stories and fables! Elephants are the pinnacle of creation, you must know.

--Oh, dear children --says Mother Zambu. --Oh, dear children, listen to my last story before you say anything else about it!

* * *

There is a fourth Distant Waterhole, dear children, where the water and land alike shine with the brightest white. This Waterhole can be seen even in the day sky sometimes, at morning and evening, the first and last of the Distant Waterholes to appear on the black savannah.

And on this White Waterhole, there are no elephants at all. Or, at least, no elephants worth mentioning.

Tut, tut, dear children! I know what you are about to say, so there is no need for you to interrupt me. Listen instead, and perhaps you will learn something worthwhile.

Instead of elephants, the hairless apes have overrun the White Waterhole, throwing up gleaming silver towers taller than the tallest anthills! Turning under the grass of the savannah so the soil covers the tender shoots! Erecting great barriers around all of the most succulent trees! And even throwing death at any elephant that strays too close to their ever-spreading habitations!

After searching a long time, I did at last find a small group of elephants still living at the sufferance of the hairless apes, and I asked them--

* * *

--Please --say the Daughters of Mother Zambu, unable to hold their silence any longer --this is the worst story of all! We don't want to hear such trash and lies.

--As I said, dear children --replies Mother Zambu --I have seen this all with my own eyes.

--Oh, perhaps such a wretched Waterhole does exist --say the Daughters of Mother Zambu --but if so, then it is not one that is worth telling any stories about.

--One? --replies Mother Zambu. --You think this is merely one Waterhole I am talking about? Look above you, to the black savannah! Of the millions of Waterholes that shine there, how many do you think have NO elephants at all! Half? Three-quarter? Nine-in-ten? Or ninety-nine-in-one-hundred? Those stories, I spared you. Those stories, I did not tell!

--Ugh, why can't you stick to stories that we know? Why must you invent these flimsy lies of distant journeys to wrap around your trite and dubious lessons?

--Lies? Why, dear children, follow my footsteps if you like. They are there for anyone to see and verify!

* * *

Yes, Mother Zambu has traveled far throughout the night.

Yes, Mother Zambu left her footprints trailing in a dusty, milky band across the sky.

Yes, anyone may follow the way, from Distant Waterhole to Distant Waterhole. --Who will go? Who will go? So Mother Zambu asks. --Which of my daughters will follow me there--

--Which of my daughters will see the truth?

* * *

M. Bennardo’s short stories have recently appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Mithila Review, and Syntax and Salt. He lives in Kent, Ohio. Although he has been known to travel alone, the people he meets are mostly the same.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Many of my ideas come from what I read, though it is often a long process to turn the germ of the idea into something sufficiently different that I can write my own story about it. A period of years is not uncommon, and I have been known to completely forget the original source of inspiration during that time.

In the case of “Some Distant Waterholes of Note,” I actually do remember where the germ originated. It was a 1758 book by Emanuel Swedenborg called Earths in the Universe, or sometimes Earths in Our Solar System or Worlds in Space, in which Swedenborg recounts his conversations with spirits from Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, and other celestial bodies. He questions the spirits of each planet about their beliefs, their appearance, and their customs.

As in many invented travelogues from the time, the people that Swedenborg encounters are strange to us, but are also all recognizably some version of humanity: the spirits of Mercury always say the opposite of what they mean; the spirits of Jupiter have highly developed facial muscles that allow them to communicate almost entirely expressions (they are walking emojis, I realize now); the spirits of Mars have faces that are half-white and half-black.

For Swedenborg, slight differences in anatomy are intertwined with huge differences in behavior, outlook, and society. For example, the people of Jupiter are bipedal like us but have a completely different way of walking because of their social beliefs around presenting their hyper-expressive faces.

As I read, I started to wonder what types of planetary inhabitants a Swedenborg who was not human would have described. If Swedenborg had been an elephant, for instance, what differences in elephant anatomy, custom, and outlook would he have observed? That was the germ of the story. From there, the germ slowly mixed with additional thoughts and questions (and evolved a bit along the way), until about four years later the first draft of “Some Distant Waterholes of Note” emerged.