The Telling

Michelle asked me if I wrote stories about bees. This is the only one. It is based on the poem, Telling the Bees by John Greenleaf Whittier.


by Keith P. Graham

The things in the pool called to her. The voices echoed in her head. Even Yuri could hear them now. Erin looked into his blue eyes and she knew what the big man was going to say.

“I can’t,” Erin said and looked away, “it’s too soon.”

“But you have to tell them.” Yuri’s voice was firm. It was his commander voice. The executive officers always had that voice. They must learn it in OCS.

“Why not you? Why not Carlos? I’m a tech. I didn’t sign on for this.”

“They are calling for her.”

As Yuri said this, the roaring winds let up slightly. There was a voice in the wind. As the thin walls of the emergency shelter shook, she heard the call. All the castaways heard it.

“Mary! Marrrrrrreeeee!” echoed in her head like the beat of some badly mixed music, strong on the sub harmonics. She felt it, rather than heard.

“They won’t stop until you talk to them. You have to tell them. You have to make them understand.”

The others in the emergency shelter listened to the conversation, but did not make eye contact. They could hear the calling inside their heads, too. Carlos made himself busy at the coffee machine, but Erin knew that there was no coffee left. Carlos drank the last cup nearly three months before. They were almost out of everything. Carlos turned sipping a cup of hot water. The gust wind made the walls thrum.

“Yuri is right.” Carlos said. “You were closest to Mary. You have to let them know. We may starve to death, but the voices have to stop. They are an intelligent race. We need to communicate with them, even if it’s just to stop the voices.”

Erin had to agree. She knew better than anyone did what Mary would have wanted. Mary would not have hesitated.

Erin put the breather over her shoulders and positioned the tubes in her nostrils. She wore layers of heavy underwear under the coveralls, but the thin cold wind would still chill her when she left the shelter. Fitting the goggles over her eyes, she unzipped the inner door and left them behind.

The brilliant red light dazzled her for an instant. The huge dying sun, taking up nearly half the sky, bathed her with a cold dark red light.

The ship sat at an odd angle near the top of the hill. The brilliant surface, colored with moving bands of rainbows, was cracked and dull in places. A pocket of dark matter had left a scar across the paisley surface. The shining shapes and swirls, which once had grabbed at the foam of subspace, were now dull and useless.

A mast projected from a hatchway and a dish of golden petals like a partially opened flower pointed upward as though looking for a familiar sky. The red giant never moved because of the gravitation lock that held the planet’s one side facing the sun. It was always late afternoon. As Erin watched the dish moved slightly, trying to track a star that she could not see. It was sending a signal for help that must arrive too late.

Erin stumbled in the heavy gravity. It was nearly twice earth normal. Even after three months she still had trouble walking.

A few steps down the hill Erin passed Mary’s grave. She jerked her head away and tried to block the memory. It was too late. She could see in her mind Mary lying on the hard ground, her body broken in a short fall in the heavy gravity. Mary looked up at Erin and then her eyes looked through her. Mary’s body shuddered and her back arched and then nothing.

Erin’s brain had been playing this movie over and over again. She loved Mary. There was no recovery from this. Erin was totally lost. The better part of her being was now an empty hole.

The ground was covered with a dozen centimeters of black mold. In some places the surface was split into fractal patterns of deepest red. The mold was soft and her heavy boots made deep red tracks in it. She had to be careful because she could turn an ankle on a hidden pebble. Mary fell less than three meters and the fall had killed her.

The path down the side of the hill was almost gone. It was Mary’s path. Every day, in spite of the high gravity, Mary had walked to the pool so she could to talk to the Swimmers. The strange creatures of the pool were what made this dying planet interesting. They were the only discovery the exploration team had made.

The mold, growing in delicate silicon threads, was growing back, covering Mary’s tracks.

The path curled down the gentle slope, and it took Erin over an hour to reach the pool. The Swimmers reached into her mind, calling for Mary. They needed her, too. They missed her too, and they did not understand why she did not answer. Erin was tired and had not eaten that day. None of the lost travelers had eaten that day. It was near the end of their time. It was time to tell the things in the pool that Mary could not come. Soon, none of them would ever come again.

There was a small flat boulder and Erin pushed the dusty mold off of it as Mary had done once. She sat on the boulder, with her head between her knees and gasped for breath. The thin icy air cut her throat until she remembered to breathe through her nose. The oxygen from the breather revived her. She looked out over the ponds.

The planet was old and cold, perpetually dim. There were no longer any mountains and even the hills were low and flat. In the shallow valleys of the northern continent were networks of small deep ponds. The nearly circular ponds scattered before her as far as Erin could see. They did not freeze in spite of the cold air. A mist constantly rose from them and the small stones that lay piled around the pools were covered with rime ice.

Mary’s path went directly to the nearest pool. After resting, Erin stood up and followed the path to where she saw marks made by Mary’s hands and knees in the mold. Erin got down and fitted her hands into Mary’s smaller imprints. Erin remembered her warm delicate hands. She tried to feel Mary’s presence.

“Mary!” the voices called from the pool. Erin looked down into the dark water. The sun’s red light did not penetrate the depths, but there were shapes moving down there. Dark ribbons of color snaked back and forth across her vision. Erin knew that the Swimmers would come to her if she was patient.

Something touched her cheek and splashed back into the water. Erin gasped in sudden fright and sat upright. She could see ribbons swirling down into the depths. She calmed herself, found some courage, and bent over the pond again. She closed her eyes and this time did not jump when something touched her face. It was wet, but warm, and it stroked her chin. Erin kept her eyes closed. Another ribbon touched her ear and ran across her cheek. Another, and then another, felt her face and the skin of her neck. Something touched her hand and something wriggled inside the hood of her jacket.

“Erin?” a distant familiar voice asked, “Erin, is that you?”

Erin could hear them gently speaking to her. They were not real words, but they were more like the sounds you make to a favorite kitten as it sleeps on your lap. “Good Erin… Fine Erin… Pretty Erin… Yes… Good girl… Love…” The words were more like feelings and gentle thoughts, but the voice in her head was unmistakably Mary’s voice.

Erin opened her mouth to answer, but a ribbon found her lips and pushed its way in. She tried to open her eyes but her face was completely covered. In a panic she tried to pull away, but the long filmy tendrils held her. She pulled and thrashed and managed to free herself as the ribbons pulled away from her face in shuddering leaps and splashes. When she finally escaped their pull, she shot backwards so fast that she landed on her back.

Erin felt her wrist break with a snap as she tried to stop her fall. She cried out in pain and looked back at the pond, kicking with her feet to get away from it.

The water boiled as though a thousand fish were churning it. A shape began to rise from the pool. Thousands of iridescent strings, ribbons and bands plated together to make a human figure that rose out of the water. Water poured off of it. It raised a braided arm and a bluebottle finger squirmed. Water poured from an open mouth, but the voice was in her head and came from all of the pools at once.

“Where is Mary?” it demanded. “Bring Mary to me.”

Erin stared in horror at the shape. It was the figure of a petite woman, standing in the center of the pool. It was Mary.

Erin struggled back up the path to the shelter. Carlos set her wrist and wrapped it firmly in a soft cast. He gave her a pill and said, “It should heal in a couple of weeks,” but it was gallows humor. In a couple of weeks they would be dead of hunger unless a rescue ship had been able to follow their signal across a thousand light years.

“Do you think you can go back, and try again?” asked Yuri. The command voice was gone now, along with the feigned hope of being rescued. “We should continue with out mission. We should try to continue contact with these creatures. Mary thought that they were highly evolved, highly intelligent. It’s all that’s left of our mission. There should be something to show for…” he did not finish.

“There’s something there,” Answered Erin, “but it is so different. We have nothing in common. I don’t understand it. Maybe Mary could talk to them, but I can’t”

“Mary thought that it was a group mind.” Yuri said.

“Yes, she told me. It is more than a hive or a herd. It might be a real cooperative intelligence. We can hear them thinking, even this far away. They are threads of tissue or strands of some kind of plant or something. How can they have any intelligence?”

“They are alien. We can’t expect them to be human actors in rubber monster suits.” Yuri said.

They paused a moment and the cold wind shook the shelter’s walls. As though carried on the wind, the voice from the pond called for Mary.

“Mary could understand them, I think.” Erin said. “She talked for hours every day. She listened to them and learned from them every day for months. She would have wanted us to tell them. They deserve to know that she is dead. They should know that we are going to die.”

“Maaaarrrrrrreeeeeeeeee!” the voice in her head howled.

“I’ll go back and try again.” Erin said.

The pill that Carlos had given her killed the pain in her wrist, but made her legs feel like rubber. She had to be careful. A fall in the high gravity could kill her. She struggled down the hill for the second time in 24 hours. She could see her own footsteps already blurring on the path as the mold grew over them.

She stood at the water’s edge looking into the distance. As far as she could see, there were small ponds. They did not reflect the sun’s red light, but were cold and black like deep holes the dark land.

“I’m here.” She said aloud to the pool. “I have something to tell you.”

A blue coil leapt from the water and disappeared with a crack. Tight ripples moved across the surface at unnatural speed. The water roiled and Erin could see the threads of pale light just under the surface, dancing in and out of the depths. A deep purple ribbon popped up and back in the water. Soon there was a complex pattern of wavelets that shifted and moved on the surface.

Erin knelt by the edge of the pond. Favoring her broken wrist, she leaned over the water.

This time she kept her eyes open.

Tiny strings touched the surface in inched up towards here. They wriggled and writhed, gently moving towards here and then backing away. Like a small child, afraid to touch a frog, they moved and gently stroked her face and then pulled back into the water. A larger strip of green wriggled up, tapped her chin and then disappeared into the water with a plop. A larger band of pink rose up and confidently ran its tip over her forehead and down around her eyes and, massaging the flesh under her chin and then it too, returned to the water.

“Erin,” the voices in her head said. “Do not be afraid.”

“I am not afraid.” She said out loud. It was more to convince herself than to tell the things in the pool.

“Erin,” a large rose colored rope curled out of the water and touched her broken wrist. It pressed against it until Erin felt a slight pain from the pressure and then it quickly moved away, almost as if shocked.

“What is wrong? Why are you…” there was along pause as though thinking, “unhappy?”

They could read her mind, and feel her pain, but they could not understand.

“There is something that you must know.” Erin said, reluctantly.

A single thin thread of brilliant green stretched high against the gravity and then arced towards her, stopping inches from her face. It waited, as though watching her.

“Mary has… She is… Mary is dead.”

The voices stopped. All of the smaller threads pulled back. A larger blue ribbon with a bulbous end rose from the water and hung centimeters from her forehead. It whispered to her and it seemed like the words of a language that she did not understand. The nightmare movie played in her head. Erin watched Mary as she stretched upward to fix the broken communication mast. She stepped on the ship and stepped still further as she struggled in the deadly gravity. Erin saw Mary’s foot slipping. Erin opened her mouth to say something and then Mary fell, impossibly fast and hit the ground in a horrible angle. Mary struggled to breathe. She looked at Erin and Mary died.

Erin opened her eyes and the large blue ribbon was touching her tears. It was warm and soothing.

There was a boiling in the water as tendrils, some as thick as her arm, rose from the water and fell back in. There were words that echoed out of the water and lodged in her head, but she did not understand them. The image of Mary dying played repeatedly, backwards and forwards, fast and slow. There were answers from other pools and soon all of the pools were boiling, as far as she could see.

Then there was silence.

A single thin band rose from the still blackness and touched her face, followed by another, and then there were a dozen and then a hundred, and then more than could be counted. They touched her body and wrapped themselves around her and stroked and hugged her everywhere.

They cooed to her in foreign words and she thought of things long ago and far away. Memories began to flow from her and were echoed back to her in images from far away. She floated above the pool, held by a thousand gentle tendrils. She slept and she dreamed. She dreamed of everything she knew and the Swimmers heard her dreams.

Carlos and Yuri found her asleep by the pool. They woke her and she smiled for the first time in months.

“Are you OK?” Yuri asked. Before she could answer, there was a splash in the pool and a pile of pale shapes, like lumps of gelatin, appeared on the cold rocks surround the pool. They squirmed into a pile and then stopped moving.

“Take these. Eat them” the voice in their heads said.

Carlos looked at the threads. “We can’t. The life on this planet is mostly silicon crystals.” He raised his voice as though hoping the things in the pool would hear. “We can’t!”

A dark purple snake rose from the depths. It bent towards them as though it could see them. A strong voice filled their heads with one word. “Honey” It said. Erin touched the lumps and they shivered slightly. She took a small piece and tasted it. It was smooth and cool and melted on her tongue. It was sweet, but not like honey, but tasted like the soft inner heart of yeasty French bread.

Yuri unzipped the hood from his parka and filled it with the gift. Carlos did the same. They struggled to their feet, fighting the gravity. Together they managed to return to the survival tent and the hungry crew.

Each day, for the next two months the crew shuffled down the hill and carried back honey and then the rescue ship arrived. The rescuers found Erin, Yuri, Carlos and the three other crew members, thin and exhausted, but alive.

On the day that they left, Yuri waited at the top of the hill for Erin. She walked up from the pool, pausing often to catch her breath.

“You told them that we are leaving?” Carlos asked.

“I told them, but they don’t understand. We are all here, they say. We will always be here.”

Carlos shook his head.

“They don’t think like we do.” Erin said.

“They understood about Mary, didn’t they?”

“No, I don’t think so. Nothing can die here. Life is distributed. It lives in every thread and ribbon and rope in every pool on the planet. Individuals Swimmers can die, but their experience and thoughts, even their souls live on everywhere. The Swimmers share each other forever. Mary is not dead. I spoke with her.”


“She’s down there.” Erin pointed to the pools. “So am I. We’re together now, forever.”

Yuri looked at her incredulously.

Erin laughed and poked him in the ribs. “Hey, even you are down there. They’ve got you, too.”

“What? No way.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’ll live forever, now.”

“You are nuts. The Swimmers are nuts. I’ll be glad to get off of this place and sleep in normal gravity again.”

The crew left the planet and some had long and interesting lives, but some of them lived happily, floating in dark pools, for eternity.

The End

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I started reading Science Fiction in the 1950s. I started Writing SF in the 1960s. Then, I had a life. Now I am retired, raising chickens and keeping bees. I am still an avid reader and I have sold about 70 stories in the last 20 years.
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