In the City of Ladies, the skyscrapers have breasts, firm perky ones whose nipples harden in the chill of winter. No one thinks much of it because everyone in the City of Ladies has breasts, and although some still choose to wear brassieres, they are considered purely optional, even a little retro, with their wire clasps and shining eggshell cups.
In the City of Ladies, the preferred mode of greeting is a gentle curtsy, and as a result, the sidewalks are filled with bobbing: heads and breasts, especially on Tuesday afternoons, which is when everyone goes to the open-air markets for watercress, red meat, and broth. This is what is eaten in the City of Ladies: sirloin steaks and lamb loins seared at high heat, peppery watercress salad, clear and subtle soups.
In the City of Ladies there is no alcohol, only water, still and sparkling, which is served in fancy glasses, chilled to precise temperatures, by bartenders wearing soft white kidskin gloves. In the City of Ladies, everyone wears gloves, of course, to protect the delicate skin of their hands, and there is no hard labor in the City of Ladies, only corporate event planning and editorial design and food styling.
There is no grime in the City of Ladies, and no crime either, only rhyming poetry and none of the nasty after-effects of industrialization. The City of Ladies has been gently urbanized, without overcrowding or tenement housing or sewers. Of course, it wasn’t always this way, but in the City of Ladies, long memories are not cherished. To be a sister is to forget.
Yet not all the sisters are as forgetful as they might be, and every year, some choose to leave the City of Ladies. A few, having studied the books of myths, seek male companionship or procreation. Others carry the old ways in their bodies: a soreness of muscles, the taste of strong drink on their tongues. A few feel suffocated, strangled by the weight of breasts that have never seemed entirely their own. So each year, the ladies who are in charge of such things escort their departing sisters to the gates of the City, which are filigree and lacy and strong.
When the gates are opened, there is an exchange: the backs of familiar heads for the sight of new faces. The newcomers have been waiting; they have traveled long and far to seek admittance. They are given gloves, escorted to filmy-curtained suites to refresh themselves. They are fed suppers of watercress and steak tartare, and their brassieres are unhooked, discarded. They smile nervously at one another and lift chilled glasses in a toast. It is dusk, and outside in the City of Ladies, the breasts of the skyscrapers glow rosy against the sunset.
The nuns were known across Europe for their preserves, which were exquisite, concocted in small batches from freshly plucked alpine fruits. In glass jars, the jams and jellies glistened on breakfast tables from Vladivostok to Copenhagen, and in the orchards around the mountain convent the nuns weighed ripe pears in their palms like full breasts.
What was preserved: the fruit, the summer sweetness of a company of women in the orchard sunshine, the memory of the sisters who had stood over the pots in the months before. In the convent kitchens, the sisters peeled and cored, chopped and macerated, practicing their witchcraft of pectin and hard work. The sour taste of a drop of blood became a finger-pricked counterpoint to the perfume of apricots and plums. The recipes had been passed across the years with only the slightest adjustments—a dash of nutmeg, a touch of anise.
As the moon waxed and waned over the walls of the convent, the sisters polished new jars and poured them full of curds, coulis, and marmalades. They dreamed of orchards that went on for acres, a kitchen with hundreds of pots and pans, a group of women who traveled far and wide to gather the world’s bounty: the mango and the quince, the Chinese gooseberry with its fragrant scent and pale green flesh.
It happened gradually at first: a forgotten pot hardening with sugar burned black, a batch of jars bursting into shards as they were carried into the cool of the store room. There were fewer of them than there had been once, for the world outside the convent had grown tired of nuns, and jams came now from enormous factories, where the only song was the electrified hum of silver machines whirring.
Yet the sisters were not to be dissuaded. Instead, they brewed stronger concoctions—dark fig pastes, a cherry jam thick with smoky spices. For so long now, they had cast their love out from the convent in hundreds of glass jars, offering up the fruits of their labors. For so long, they had read from the scriptures and given their thanks for the fruit of the tree bleeding juice against Eve’s teeth. It was true, wasn’t it, that the less-perfect fruits tasted sweetest after stewing—that there was no jostled peach or half-squashed berry that could not be redeemed?
So they had all believed, for they were themselves the bruised apples of the world, not loved enough by the families who had left them by the convent gates, the husbands that had pushed them out when their wombs had not borne the fruit of a human child. In the convent, every woman had her role to play in the big, bustling kitchens, her voice one of many raised in song along the raspberry vines.
Now the raspberries shriveled amongst the leaves, and the sisters’ numbers dwindled so that matins rang thin in the hall, and in the kitchens, pots stood cold and empty. In Vladivostok, an old woman sighed at the memory of a piece of toast she had eaten as a young woman in love, shining with dark berries. When a blight in the orchards turned the cherries to dark rot, the sisters had no choice but to empty their stores and carry the last jars up to the long wooden table that ran down one wall of the kitchen.
Something in the world had gone sour, too sour to be remedied by a spoonful of jelly—too bitter even for the nuns with their strong potions and deep, heavy pots. So they prepared the last recipe, their voices raised in a final song. Perhaps, this could still preserve them, the slow stewing of the fruit, the passing of the pot from one sister to another. They waited patiently for it to cool and set, then dipped their spoons in and lifted the jam to their lips, sweet and heavy like an ending.
It’s an old story: the Roman legions, the village burned, the women raped and drowned in the lake where they had washed their underthings. The little girl left on the shore, untouched, alone.
Her name was Christiana Elena, and even before the legionnaires came, the elders had said there was something about this one. In her fourth year, when she had left her mother’s lap to sit with the older children on the far side of the fire, great-grandmother had pointed to her kneecaps, rounded and smooth: lucky, she had said, in a voice cracked with age and unknowing. It was only three years later that she was gathering berries on the far side of the lake, her basket nearly full when she smelled the smoke. She ran out to the beach and stood, blessed kneecaps caked with dirt as the village burned before her.
It was night before she made her way into the water, tasting ash in her mouth as she swam toward the lake’s center. There, the bodies floated—aunt, sister, mother. She clung to them through till dawn, when the sun rose over the swell of flesh: an island.
At first, there was only silence, but by the time the day grew hot, the insects buzzed among the limbs and torsos. Birds cried out overhead, and in one, Christiana heard the voice of great-grandmother.
She stayed, catching fish in a net made from the hair of her middle sister, eating the mushrooms that sprang up from her aunt’s fingernails, the soft greens that grew between her eldest cousin’s toes. Her mother’s body became the first house: sad brown eyes the windows, and the sweet curve of her shoulder a bed to sleep in. An earlobe for a pillow, a knuckle for a spoon. Amidst such fullness, she could almost forget she was alone.
As the legionnaires marched farther and wider, the others began to arrive—the other girls who had been wily or strong or stubborn or mostly, just lucky. A dark-haired girl leading a cow heavy with calf; a thin-faced girl with only eight fingers; a girl in a boy’s body with streaks of blood and dirt lacing her back. In their first nights, they shivered and rocked, cried out against remembered pains, but in time, the water calmed them, lapping up against their memories until their dreams ran clear.
There were no new bodies. These girls had traveled too far for the dead to follow, except in dreams. Even so, the island grew around its new inhabitants, stretching across the center of the lake in an alchemy of flesh turned to soil. Lanes sprouted along the paths of veins and arteries. A grove of thigh bones grew into saplings. A garden of thumbs and fingers bloomed. And then, before long, a body politic: a council to keep the peace, to minister to the sick, to soothe the melancholy. A chorus of voices to sing the nightmares away.
The day that Christiana Elena died, the rest of the founders joined hands and made a ring around the island, where they stood for ten days and ten nights, growing still and quiet. Their bodies became the wall, a way to protect the place they had created: a place where bodies are not buried, a place where they become.
Why have you come here? We all have our reasons. The legionnaires are not the only ones for whom the body is a vessel to be spilled. It is by their hands that the island grows, each new arrival a departure from a place where lucky can only mean gone.
We sighted you on the shore, pacing the same beach where Christiana Elena stood with her perfect kneecaps. We saw ourselves in your cracked lips, your bruised forearms.
Step in now. These boats are the cupped hands of our sisters. We will paddle you home with oars made of sterna and scalpulae.
This is no paradise: we sweat and we hunger; our bodies ache and they slow. But when the wind blows, we sing along with the songs of our foremothers, and when the rain falls, we taste their tears on our cheeks. And so we stay, until our bodies learn the curve of the shoreline. Until our thighbones arch into bridges, our elbows harden into the knobs of doors. Trace the ribs of the island wall and feel its strength beneath your fingers.
Will you join us? When you are ready, lie down to rest. Let the watercress sprout in the soft down of your cheek as the water plays against your hairline. Let the cows graze on the nape of your neck. Let your eye become a wishing well, your teeth become a stairway. Let your tongue become the path that will lead the next woman home.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.