The City of Unmanageable Blood, J.V. Sumpter
CW: Pregnancy scare, PCOS, slight medical gore, death by medication side effects, brief mention of suicide
The troubles began with the drought.
Droughts were not unusual here, but this time, when the burnt-orange clouds remained tight-lipped and refused to let fall the healthy red rains—when the gondolas and dinghies sighed for the thick tides to flood the city channels and buoy them up again—when the dawn of the third month brought bickering neighbors into desperate solidarity, a sisterhood sealed by night rituals of frenzied rain dances and supplication to the moon above, shining its soft white light—the management of the city panicked.
Soldiers were sent door to door. They pushed aside recalcitrant citizens and searched each house, the whole time demanding to know who was harboring the child. The child, whose maledicted presence surely was responsible for the curse that had fallen on the city and kept the rains locked behind steely thunderheads.
The people protested.
The woman in whom the city lived was a virgin, they said. There could not be a child.
Then why, said the soldiers, had there been no rain?
No one could answer that.
The soldiers did not discover a child. However, one unlucky officer stumbled upon a sign—a hill, so small it was almost imperceptible—when her boot, then her knee made hard contact. The hill immediately ruptured; it gushed a brown goo. Horrified, the discovering officer jumped up and ran to the nearest canal. Hoping, presumably, to wash the brown substance off her face and clothes. She stopped, of course, at the edge; she’d forgotten the canals were dry.
* * *
The saying is true: once you know what to look for, you see it everywhere.
The soldiers began discovering these small hills all over the city. They pimpled the dry-grass countryside, skimmed the beached boats in the canals, and pushed up against the foundations of buildings—inferred from the hairline cracks that spidered the walls. The incredible thing was that no one had noticed them before.
Overwhelmed by their number, the soldiers quickly abandoned their task of mapping all the hills in the city and the surrounding areas. They dashed off a flustered report to headquarters, entreating help with this mystery.
The response was slow, but informative. Headquarters reported signs from other cities in the network. Hairs growing in biomes unsuited to them—and growing so tall they dwarfed the tallest buildings. Hairs dying in the forests of the north. Plagues of red spots breaking out on the bodies of northern populations. Neuroticism possessing the people in the factory cities, causing them to hoard fuel en masse in light-yellow gobs rather than burn it as they’d been ordered. The factory people’s rebellion did not stop even when headquarters starved their cities for seven days.
It was the moon, said headquarters. Its light had grown weak. And erratic.
Something had to be done.
* * *
Citizens of the blood city watched skeptically from their porches as two women from headquarters held either side of a frighteningly tall ladder and angled it into the black of a clear night sky. A third woman, wearing a large brown satchel across her body, mounted the ladder and began to climb. She climbed higher than the tallest house in the city … higher than the tallest commercial building … higher than the planes flew … and higher still. The sky was empty of clouds and thus would be unable to catch her fall.
More than one citizen felt her heart in her throat as they watched.
The ladder swayed uneasily as the climber reached the top. Carefully, she opened her satchel and removed the artificial moon. It was round as a communion tablet, and it shone a piercing yellow.
The citizens covered their eyes. They could not remember their moon ever being that bright.
Hugging the ladder tightly, the climber reached her other hand into her satchel and withdrew a stapler. She positioned the yellow circle over the natural moon and stapled it to the felt of the sky.
When she reached the ground again, the citizens took her on their shoulders and let out the loudest cheer.
* * *
Everywhere, people got sick.
Symptoms were disparate, swift, and severe. Migraines. Nausea. Boating. Pain. Depression. Heart palpitations. Fits of anxiety that escalated, in some cases, to suicides.
And the citizens complained. Everything started when you gave us that fake moon, they said to headquarters.
And its light, they said, its light … There was something deeply unsettling about it.
Headquarters responded to all complaints with the same tactfully worded letter. It commended the citizens for their long-suffering patience and their confidence in the plan. It urged them to hold onto faith a little longer, as it could take three months to adjust to artificial moons. It listed improvements that had been observed across the cities: the factories were working again, the forests stopped dying, the hairs stopped growing, and the drought was over. It reminded them that artificial moons had helped thousands upon thousands of women with cities inside them, and that was a fact.
It promised that, with time, everything would be okay.
* * *
The drought had indeed ended, but the citizens of the blood city were too sick to go out in the boats and do business as normal. Their one entertainment was to watch the women from headquarters return, at precisely the same time each night, with the impossibly tall ladder on their shoulders and a moon in the satchel. The climber never failed to staple the artificial moon exactly in its spot and return to the ground safely.
The natural moon eventually went out altogether, but nobody noticed.
One citizen, exhausted from tending to her sister, who was so sick she could not leave her bed but who still watched the nightly spectacle through her window, asked one of the ladder-holders what was the name of these moons so she could know what name to curse.
The ladder-holder acted like she didn’t hear the reason the citizen wanted the name or the anger in her voice.
They have many names, she replied. One is Ocella.
Thank you, said the citizen. And she returned to her house.
* * *
The blood city was dead before they realized the end was nigh. The city in which the clot started, of course, realized it. And so did headquarters.
Headquarters made a valiant attempt to stop it, and in truth, they could not have responded more promptly or effectively. But the clot would not let anything prevent it from flying straight into the heart. The woman and the cities inside her passed away at age 19, and her name lives on somewhere in the pages of a class-action lawsuit.
Her mother, who had been using artificial moons for years, never touched or looked at them again. She and her husband forbid their surviving daughters—the deceased’s little sisters—from ever going on “those horrible things.” Having seen what happened to the eldest, they did not need much convincing.
Years passed, however, and the sisters grew up and moved out. Unbeknownst to each other, the sisters eventually, quietly, started using fake moons. One lived to seventy, when she passed away in a car accident caused by a drunk driver, and the other passed at forty from stomach cancer, which happened for no reason at all.
J.V. Sumpter recently received her BFA from the University of Evansville. She is an assistant editor for Kelsay Books, Thera Books, and freelance clients. She received 2020 Virginia Grabill Awards in Poetry and Nonfiction, and her most recent publications are in Leading Edge Magazine and New Welsh Review. Visit her on Twitter @JVSReads.