The Bloodletters

The sick and dying children were lined row upon row under the trembling flicker of the fluorescent lights, their jaundiced faces upturned toward Belle as she heel-clicked her way through the pre-dawn hush. They eyed her with every imaginable expression: need, gratitude, distaste and in some cases outright hate, as though it might be her fault they were in this predicament, laid out and helpless with sinuous bodies redolent of Holocaust dead.

Mostly, though, they looked to her with greed. Those faces synchronized in a collective stretch toward her, like leeches arrowing at the hot stink of a passing animal. The satchel Belle carried was heavy enough to be tilting her sideways. It was the first day of her fifth year on the job, and to celebrate she had brought with her three bottles filled with blood.

It was a long walk to her station, and being an early riser she found most of the donation chairs empty. They were hard, narrow things not unlike those used by dentists, but fitted with syringe-tipped rubber tubes for donating blood directly to the children in the hospital bays. Each bloodletter had a station consisting of a computer and a donation chair, and each bloodletter’s donation chair was situated facing the bays of patients for which he or she was responsible. That year, Belle was responsible for bays LC95 to LC99 — twenty-five children in each, one hundred and twenty-five patients in total. A thick pane of glass separated bloodletters from their patients.

“You made it, Belle.” At the station beside Belle’s reclined Lana, a bloodletter of some thirty years experience. Lana was small and hard and dry from decades of pouring her life essence into dying children. There was no way of knowing how many she had saved. That year, she was responsible for bays LD00 to LD04, the next five in a line which, as far as Belle or any of the other bloodletters knew, was without end.

“Yep. You surprised?”

“Not in the least.”

“Would you have been surprised five years ago?”

“Utterly.”

It was a running joke made humorless by its appalling reality. Many bloodletters — rumors said close to fifty percent — did not survive to their fifth year. Some might last three or four; some were dead in their first week, or even (so Belle had been told) in their first day. If you made five, the common wisdom stated, you’d probably live to donate until retirement.

“Where are you sending it today, Lana?”

The older woman sighed. Her skin clung to the hollows of her skull, and the sclera of her eyes was gray-yellow. “Most of it will go to LD02.”

“Did you fill any bottles at home last night?”

“Just one.”

Belle looked through the glass and into bay LD02, Lana’s most problematic that year. The patients were gaunt, their mouths gaping, some of them with missing teeth that had flopped from their pale, receding gums.

“How’s number fourteen going?”

“Improving.”

Patient 14 had been Lana’s sickest at the beginning of the year, moribund almost. Now, though, he appeared to be healthier than any of the other children behind the glass. His arms had thickened and his skin was almost rosy, his chest rising and falling with what could almost be termed athleticism. He was sleeping now, his lips twitching.

Belle turned on the computer and opened her satchel, taking out the bottles she had filled at home the night before. In a moment, a schematic of her bays materialized on the monitor; she allocated the blood using sliding bars on the touch screen and then screwed the bottles into a series of extractors. There was a sound like the flushing of an aircraft toilet and the blood was gone.

“Watch it, darling.” Lana looked at her dreamily, arm stretched out, the tube extending from her arm dark with blood. “You haven’t made five years until the end of the day.”

Belle lay back on her donation chair and pushed the syringe into the weeping track-mark of her arm. She didn’t need to do anything else. The machine began to suck, its proboscis stiffening and twitching as it filled with blood. She had already told the computer where to direct the flow, and beyond the glass Belle watched the fluids diverting this way and that through the spiderweb of tubes connecting her to bays LC95 to LC99.

Her biggest problem at the moment was deciding what to do about the children in LC99. Two of them — Patient 10 and Patient 11 — seemed to be getting worse, no matter how many extra bottles she was preparing for them at home in the evenings. In desperation, she was diverting more and more of her blood to them, but the result was that other patients in the bay were beginning to go backward. At the start of the year, Patient 25 had been her healthiest, almost ready for discharge, but Belle had been able to provide her with so little (it was, she reminded herself, the simple reality of triage) that the girl was wilting like a waterless flower.

For the first time, Belle had actually fainted one evening on her way home on the train.

Worse, blood theft was beginning to break out in LC99. A week earlier, Patients 10 and 11, buoyed perhaps by some near-death adrenaline surge, had shambled from their cots and yanked out Patient 25’s IV line. Belle had been there to see it all happen. The two sick boys had stared for a moment at the spurting syringe, unsure what to do with it, then began passing it back and forth, sucking at the point until their chins and gowns were streaked with blood. Patient 25, obedient, remained motionless in bed. Belle hit the alert and orderlies brought the situation under control, but she knew it was only a matter of time before it happened again.

Belle drifted, multi-coloured speckles blushing across her vision as the proboscis sucked and sucked. The other bloodletters arrived, some showing up early but others appearing right at their designated start times. Some brought in bottles of blood filled at home, while others arrived empty-handed. The latter were often viewed with scorn, though there was in reality no legal requirement for bloodletters to drain themselves outside of hours.

A bloodletter named Thuong was on Belle’s other side, and was thus responsible for bays LC90 to LC94. He had the combined distinction of being responsible for the five healthiest bays Belle had ever seen, and for being the most vocal critic of those he saw as not giving enough of themselves.

“I watched Prentice every day of last week,” he had told Belle not long ago, the mask of his anaemic face eerily lineless. “On Monday he brought in one bottle. Tuesday to Thursday, none. Friday, half a bottle. It’s wrong.”

Belle had tried to think of something to say, then been rescued by Lana. “You can talk,” she called across, her speech slurred. “Your bays came to you healthy and will leave you healthy. Let’s not pretend you’re their savior.”

“Maybe. But I’ve watched him during the workday, too. I timed him. He spent half the day disconnected. And when he was hooked up, he was at minimum flow.”

“Quantity isn’t always quality.”

“He’s playing us. He’s playing us and he’s playing the patients.”

The back and forth had given Belle time to build up her courage. “I read an article recently,” she said. “It’s since been taken down. But the article said that giving blood in mass quantities results in reduced richness. People who don’t give as much of themselves are actually able to give in smaller quantities that are much richer. Banks were never meant to have no upper donation limit. By giving less, you may actually be giving more.”

But Belle did not practice what she preached. She could not stop herself from giving and giving, pushing the limits of the flow metres, carting two, three, four, even five empty bottles home, night after night, to be brought back glinting red in the morning. It was the guilt, omnipresent, an unspoken motivator that hovered over all of them day and night, dwarfing any positive motivations which might at times have glimmered around the periphery of the work. None of the administrators needed to ask, though at times Belle felt they took full and shameless advantage of their guilt; a huge shelf of take-home bottles and syringes loomed immediately alongside the exit. Still, it was the sight of the children through the glass that made it most difficult to hold back, to look after one’s self.

Five years was a long time to be working in the bank, and as she lay back Belle reflected on how quickly it had gone. She enjoyed it. No; that wasn’t quite right. She found it rewarding, despite the many challenges. There were the remarks made by those who worked in other fields (“All bloodletters do is lie around and read magazines all day!”), and the painful awareness that there was never going to be enough blood to go around; there were the blood thefts and the politics and the odd deaths of bloodletters in their donation chairs. The deaths were, of course, the worst. “Dead bloodletters can’t turn off the pumps,” was an expression she had heard very early on, but only fully understood when she saw her first body, shrivelled like a mummy and seeming impossibly small as the syringe sucked dryly at the puckered track-mark.

Then there were the annual blood deliveries, bottles and bottles the ministry provided after demanding half a drop from every member of the body politic. Those deliveries were welcome, a godsend at times, but the logic of their distribution baffled and enraged Belle beyond words. Just the previous week, she watched as Thuong’s bays were given not the same amount as hers, but actually more. The healthiest patients absorbed the blood like sponges, while her sickly darlings had to be content with a watery trickle.

Thinking in this way, Belle was interrupted by a silhouette that bloated in the haze before her like a melanoma. She blinked, sitting up, and saw that it was Mirtschin, their sector’s administrator. He was a large man, broad, gray around the temples with suntanned skin.

“Sorry to interrupt, ladies.” He was standing between Belle and Lana. Thuong was reading a book about natural methods of increasing platelet count, his syringe operating at just a shade above minimum flow.

“How can we help?”

“Just want to provide you with these.” He handed them both some brochures, which Belle immediately opened. The text was large, designed to be read with tired, unfocused eyes. “Our yearly targets now require us to adhere to some new protocols,” he explained. “It will increase the richness of the blood significantly and result in better outcomes for patients. In a month I’ll be checking in with you, but you need to make sure you’re ticking these boxes.” He leaned over Belle and pointed onto her brochure. “You see? Here, here and here.”

It was nothing new. Dietary requirements and exercises that studies had shown would vastly improve the richness of their blood.

“Value adding,” Mirtschin said. “Value adding for our stakeholders. These brochures represent best practice. We will settle for nothing less than best practice.”

Belle turned down her flow meter, clearing her vision further. Mirtschin’s pointing arm came into full focus. She noted with a little flare of anger the clean, well-healed scars on the administrator’s arm. He hadn’t sat in a chair in years. Like the rest of them, he had forgotten the dull ache, the strange vacuum somewhere deep within the self that only increased as the flow metres were cranked. From the day they started at those banks, it was often said, the administrators had fought to get out of the chairs, to stop giving blood to the patients. Some bloodletters even believed that the administrators secretly tampered with the flow meters, that the level three of today was more like the level four of the previous year. It might have been true or it might not. There was no way of knowing and Belle preferred not to think about it.

Lana gave a cynical sniff after Mirtschin was gone. “When are we supposed to do all these exercises? It’s impossible. When I started as a bloodletter, we used to be given time to develop the richness of our blood. Now it’s just drain, drain, drain. Why doesn’t Mirtschin hook himself up for half an hour so I can…” She paused, scanning the brochure. “So I can do damned lunges.”

Right then, two orderlies appeared on the other side of the glass at LC99, small, androgynous figures in hairnets and surgical masks. Behind them was an assortment of perhaps twenty men and women of varying ages. They picked their way gingerly through the maroon tubes spiralling around the hospital bay.

“Guardian visits?” Lana asked, craning her neck. “This early on?”

“Yeah. They’re staggering them now to reduce congestion around the bays. Look, Thuong has visitors in one of his bays as well.”

Belle watched as the interlopers spread out among her patients in LC99. In some cases, she noted, the children had no visitors at all. This was the part of the job she found the most difficult. Parents, step-parents and grandparents arrived to greet and console, and, should they choose to, pump their own blood into their relatives. It was depressing in its predictability. The supposed loved ones of the sickest patients gave them nothing (or, at best, a quick squirt down the tubes), while the healthier patients received liters and liters. Over in Thuong’s bays every child had a visitor who was fully hooked up and on maximum flow. Lana and Belle watched the spectacle for perhaps half an hour, at which point the visitors were taken out and both women resumed bleeding themselves.

Sometime during that day, Belle either fell asleep or passed out. She dreamed. In that giddy miasma she recalled a fairy tale told to her as a child, perhaps by her own mother in the years before she died. There had been a giant, Belle remembered, a giant not of the cruel variety but nonetheless vilified by the simple folk who lived in some nearby coastal township. When this giant fell in love with the beautiful daughter of a lord, the humans realized they had a chance to destroy him. The maiden waited at the sea where there was a time-worn hole in the rocky shore, and when her gargantuan admirer appeared, she gave him a challenge: Prove your love to me by filling this hole with your blood. Not knowing the fissure trailed back to the ocean, the giant used a sharp stone to open the artery at his wrist. The wound pumped and pumped. He never saw the stain spreading in the ocean behind him, and died there on the cliffs, bloodless and heartbroken.

When Belle awoke, it was because Lana had reached across and hit her alert. Patients 10 and 11 were out of their beds again, both hunched over Patient 25 and passing the syringe backward and forward, sucking and chewing at its tip while Patient 25 lay back and watched. The blood that was intended for her drooled in viscous globules from their lips and spattered onto her wan face.

The orderlies came. They returned 10 and 11 to bed and cleaned up the mess. Belle sat back, exhausted and — inexplicably to her — close to tears. She could not remember her dream and only hated herself for turning her attention away for long enough to allow such a thing to transpire. Soon Mirtschin arrived.

“Don’t blame yourself,” he cooed, and Belle’s vision was so blurred she could no longer see the scars on his arms at all. They might never have been there. “What 10 and 11 need is richer blood, and you can give it to them.” He pressed the brochures into her hand, face creased in a paternal smile. “In fact, this being Tuesday — and I’m sorry about the timing — I’ll need a bottle from each of you now. For richness testing.”

“For God’s sake.” Lana rolled her eyes but offered up her arm nonetheless. “I wish you’d just leave us alone to put our blood into the patients. It’s a waste of resources.”

Mirtschin just smiled. “It’s best practice.” He sucked a bottle of blood each from Lana, Belle and Thuong then continued on his way up the line.

When he was gone, Belle turned to Lana, who was unhooking herself and preparing to leave. “Whatever you do,” the older woman said, “don’t take any bottles home this evening. Give yourself a break.”

Belle looked through the glass at Patients 10 and 11. They appeared no healthier. They were bloated, the blood pooling and clotting uselessly in their stomachs. If they were going to steal from others, she thought, the least they could do was inject it into the vein.

Then she remembered their parents and was thunderstruck by guilt, almost floored with it. Her legs felt weak.

She looked to Patient 25. The girl, despite what she had endured, made no complaints.

“Lana,” Belle managed, and her voice reverberated and blurred as though spoken into a tunnel. “How much — how much of 25’s blood did they get before you woke me?”

Lana was on her feet, bag packed. “Forget it. It’s not important. Go home.”

Belle watched her leave. She sat there for some time, staring not through the glass but at it.

“You can find out, you know.”

It was Thuong. He was out of the chair and had put on his coat in preparation for the cold of the evening.

“What?”

“I said that you can find out. Want me to show you?”

She thought for a moment, head buzzing. “Yes.”

He walked around to her station and tapped away at the monitor. She watched him through a fog. Eventually he brought up a screen she had not seen before, which seemed to show measurements of wasted blood.

“There you are. Greedy little pigs got a few liters out of her. Have a nice night.”

He moved off into the bright, fluorescent darkness. He did lunges as he walked, stretching his legs outward, heaving with exertion.

Turning up and down the rows, Belle saw that all the other bloodletters were gone, too — for as far as she could see, anyhow. The stations receded off toward a dizzying horizon, like a vista sighted between two facing mirrors.

Belle tried to sit up but was too weak. The best she could manage was an upward tilt of her head. All the patients in LC99 were watching her, as were the children in each other visible bay. The ceaseless masses studied her with flat, accusatory eyes.

Last out tonight, she thought with a little pride. I can stay another half hour.

After gathering her strength, she managed to reach an arm to her screen and bring up LC99. She slid all the bars to zero except that belonging to Patient 25, then turned the flow to maximum. She would give the girl what she was owed, then go home, and not take any empty bottles with her.

The syringe burned as it sucked.

It was only a minute before Belle lost consciousness again, returning to her dream of the giant. Like him, she never saw the red-pink stain stretching out into the sea behind her.


Brendan James Murray is an award-winning Australian author and teacher. Though he has been writing strange stories for years, he is best known down-under for narrative nonfiction books that approach history from unusual angles. The Drowned Man (awarded Best True Crime in 2017 by the Australian Crime Writers’ Association) examines a murder on a naval ship during World War Two. Venom: The heroic search for Australia’s deadliest snake is a history of the Taipan, the most venomous snake on earth. Brendan lives with his wife, Greta, on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.