The Blood Orchard was acting up again. Ophelia hated dealing with the damn things. She’d never had a red thumb like her father. Or her brother. Or anyone in her family. But the name on the shingle belonged to her and so the orchard did too. Familial responsibilities and all that.
Hemophelia was the nickname she’d earned for her lack of skill. It felt clunky to her and didn’t roll off the tongue at all. A poor nickname as far as nicknames went. But people seemed to enjoy calling her that so she didn’t make a big fuss and if she had to be teased at least it was by people she knew.
But the orchard was being fussy again, so she found herself getting up at the ass-crack of dusk and shuffling out to the meticulously manicured rows in her robe. Shuffling was the only approved mode of travel when cranky in a robe. Waddling was approved only for older folks but otherwise it was shuffling.
The orchard was located on a dry patch of dirt, some fifty feet underground. The trees withered in direct sunlight, so a careful UV/Microwave mix was developed, after years of experimentation, which could sustain them throughout the year. They were phosphorescent, which was a strange way to describe their light rather than calling them, say, bioluminescent. But bioluminescence didn’t come close to doing justice to the harsh pale light coming from the things. A different natural process was at work here, and so phosphorescence it was.
The trees drank polluted water, filled with heavy metals and other toxic minerals. They filtered the necessary nutrients out, such as iron, to fill their nutrient sacs. The sacs glowed a dull red in the underground light. A glow too bright meant either something wonderful or something terrible was taking place in that particular tree. It was hard to know until the harvest time came.
They say that trees bear an uncanny resemblance to lungs, if lungs were turned inside out and growing up out of the ground. Since trees are basically the lungs of the Earth, the comparison makes sense. But that went double for these trees. Triple. Except instead of oxygen, these trees dispensed a more… lucrative resource.
She paced the rows of the orchard, inspecting every tree, every trunk and branch, every blood sac, every corpse root. Did we not mention the corpse roots? These trees only took root in the flesh of a freshly made corpse. The type of corpse changed the type of blood that could be harvested from it. For human blood, human and near human roots were required. Animals yielded animal blood (vets pay a lot for the stuff, you know) and for special cases… well, very few were brave enough to venture outside the bounds of common corpse roots.
Ophelia had heard rumors of orchards that dealt in celestial blood, harvesting their angelic stock and mixing it into heady wines and arcane poultices. Others traded in Infernal blood and the ichors of other Cosmic horrors. Very few stayed in business for long. Ophelia imagined it was akin to managing a nitroglycerine farm. Valuable, to be sure, but damn dangerous.
She finished her examination of the first row and started on the second. So far everything looked reasonably healthy. “The Tree of Liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of patriots,” her father liked to remind her. If the Tree of Liberty drank the blood of patriots, then what, pray tell, would she call these trees that dispensed of blood? Anti-Liberty Trees? Treason Trees? Actually that last one had a ring to it. With Benedict Arnold as their patron saint, they might have a shot at marketing their crop as some kind of mirror universe 4th of July… thing. She’d have to workshop it.
She finished the second row. A few of the A- trees were looking a bit shriveled. She’d have to mess with their water intake later. She started on her B+ row. They were one of her more popular stocks, mainly because of the pun name for the wine. B Positive! She liked it, anyway. The most numerous trees in her orchard were the O- trees. Universal blood donor and all. But they were more of a cash crop than a luxury item. They paid the bills, but they were boring. It was the ABs and the positives that sparked her imagination. She could make all kinds of fancy wines from the blood harvested from those. The rarer the better. Blood diseases had a special spice to them. Something about the shape of the cell or different mixture of blood cells to platelets or plasma really brought out the…
She came upon a problem, then. One of her O- trees was showing the first signs of a blood infection.
“Shit,” she hissed.
Diseases were one thing, but an active infection was bad bad bad. She came closer to the offending tree. It pulsed with a sickly orange light. It’s blood sac undulated. Something was going on with it, but her experience wasn’t broad enough to know exactly what to do. She would have to consult her manuals and journals. She could lose a whole row of trees if she wasn’t careful. Or a whole orchard if it was one of those vampiric infections.
“Bad news for you,” a nearby blood raven cawed. “Bad news indeed.”
“Yeah,” a corpse root clacked, twisting its neck to look at her. “Especially with mirror universe 4th of July coming up. Bad luck, girl!”
“All of you shut up,” Ophelia grumbled.
“Why?” the blood raven cawed.
“Yeah, why?” the corpse root clacked.
“Because blood ravens can’t talk,” Ophelia jabbed an accusing finger at the bird.
“Damn straight. And you! I just don’t like you,” she said to the corpse root.
“That’s harsh, girl,” the corpse root clacked.
Ophelia lazily shuffled back to her domicile, a rickety thing at the edge of the orchard. Her bed was smushed into the corner behind a wall of books. Everything her father had left her regarding the care and maintenance of the orchard was here. It could take all night. Or all week. But she had to figure this out.
Sickly orange glows were not very common, apparently, so looking up the cause and the cure to such a malady took very little time. Sanguis Parasiti Arabico. Arabian Blood Parasites. Mildly contagious. That was a relief. Gestation period 5 months. Interesting. Tree to human transmission rate: 93%. Wait, what? Human symptoms ran the gamut from imbalanced humors to something called “Total Body Dysplasia”.
“Shiiiiiiit,” Ophelia hissed.
This was a wrinkle she hadn’t foreseen. It made sense, she supposed. It was human blood she was cultivating, after all. Still, this wouldn’t do. She had to contain this parasite to the one tree. No one was going to buy any product laced with parasites. Well, that’s not true. There was maybe one guy who would, but she had no idea how to get in contact with him. Eccentric collectors tended to be hard to reach.
Armed with her trusty ax, smock and bucket, and a face visor for good measure, and wishing she could just go back to sleep, she went to trim her orchard, as it were.
“Beautiful day for a pruning, isn’t it?” the corpse root asked. Ophelia ignored it as she set up for the task. With her bucket placed just so, she could drain the sacs without letting the parasites loose in the soil. She had to be careful with the sacs themselves so they didn’t flat out explode. That would be disastrous.
With one eye closed and other trained on the first blood sac, she swung her ax back over her shoulder, readying it for a precision strike.
“Evening, Ophelia!” a familiar voice called out. Ophelia turned abruptly.
“Hey! Stay there, I’m in the middle of something!”
She turned to face forward again, not realizing her ax had caught on the sac. As she turned, the head of the ax ripped away the top layer of the sac, rupturing it and sending streams of blood shooting right in Ophelia’s face. She caught several spurts of it before the sac emptied completely. She stood frozen to the spot, her mind wiped of any kind of thought save gut wrenching panic.
“Are you still busy back here? Can I come over?” the voice called again.
“No! Stay away! Biohazard! Code Red! Bwooop!” That last one was her imitating a siren.
“Biohazard? What the heck are you doing back here?”
The owner of the voice, the too dumb and handsome for his own good Marcello, cleared the nearest row of trees before coming face to face with a blood soaked Ophelia.
“Whoa, what happened here? That’s not your blood, is it?” Marcello asked.
“Why didn’t you stay away? Why didn’t you listen?” Ophelia asked, terrified and angry and tired.
“What’s the big deal? I don’t mind a little red if Hemophelia doesn’t. Besides, I was just wondering if you still had any AB mix left for this vamp party I’m hosting,” Marcello said.
“You could catch Blood Parasites from me! You could… Aaaagh!”
Ophelia was so mad she could explode. Instead, she opted to vomit and then faint.
When she came to, she was in her bed. How had she gotten here? The answer appeared when Marcello poked his head in her hut.
“Hey! You’re awake. I was getting worried.”
“What happened?” Ophelia asked.
“You passed out. I’m not sure why. Blood doesn’t phase you at all,” Marcello observed, drinking a cup of something warm.
“I passed out? Oh no. The parasites! I have to burn everything! I have to… oh god I’m in bed!” she cried, ripping the sheets off her. “Where are my clothes?” she asked when she realized she was in her underwear.
“They were a mess, so I got the top layers off and put them in your hamper,” Marcello said.
“My hamper? With my clean clothes?” she screamed.
“Oh. Whoops,” he said, sheepishly.
“Marcello, you need to disinfect, like, your entire body. Right now!” Ophelia cried, looking for the bottle of bleach she kept next to her toilet.
“It’s fine. Blood parasites aren’t going to infect us. That requires blood to blood transmission,” Marcello explained.
“Blood to blood?” Ophelia asked.
“Yeah. Or like, the mucus membrane. You know, kissing. Bumping uglies. Bam bam,” he mimed two bodies ramming each other but good.
“It’s not transmissible through the skin?” Ophelia asked.
“Unless you have an open wound, not at all,” Marcello lied, the blood parasites in his brain now directing his every move. “So, why don’t you get dressed so you can sell me some of that high quality wine? That vamp party isn’t going to supply itself, you know.”
And that was how the Red Death first entered our world.