by Keyan Bowes

Vijay averts his eyes as he hurries past the group of lepers clustered round a small trash fire on the sidewalk. Mumbai still has some, with horrifying gargoyle faces and missing toes. The uneven cobbled sidewalks are lined with the cocoon-like figures of sleeping street dwellers. Before him rises the gothic bulk of Victoria Terminus, its ominous carvings peering into the dark through hundreds of eyes. The air smells of feces, night-scented flowers, the sea, and a rotting rat.

The Saturday night party at the Press Club had gone past midnight, and then two of his old friends had wanted to sit and talk. Now it’s after 2 a.m. The last train has left and so, therefore, have the taxis. He hopes he won’t have to walk all the way home to Cuffe Parade.

Bhai?” says a voice. “Brother?”

A man steps from the shadows. His nose is gone, and a hole gapes in one cheek. Vijay walks on quickly, suppressing pity and disgust. Leprosy, a plague as old as the Bible. In the wealthy, it’s Hansen’s disease; the victims get treated and recover. The poor get crippled and beg.

Bhai?” The man stumbles along behind him. “Vijay-bhai? Don’t you recognize me?”

As the leper speaks, he does.

“Raj? What…? They told me you were dead. Two years ago.” Raj. Vijay’s childhood friend. Raj, who died while Vijay was studying overseas, and Vijay had wept secretly over Mother’s letter.

“Yes,” Raj says, his voice soft and harsh, his eyes shadowed by the dirty shawl wrapping him. “I’m dead.”

“Don’t say that!” In a flash, Vijay understands. Raj didn’t die, he contracted the living death of leprosy. Mother’s letter lied, maybe to save Raj’s family shame. Or perhaps to punish Vijay for converting away from his old Hindu religion. She’d been sad and angry, but eventually came to accept it, or at least stopped mentioning it.

“They can cure leprosy nowadays,” Vijay says. Why hadn’t Raj’s family done something? Money problems? Fear? Shame? “They have medicines. Don’t worry about the cost. Tomorrow, I myself will take you…”

Raj interrupts him. “This is not leprosy, Vijay-bhai. No hospital will help me.”

It’s true that Raj looks terrible, much worse than any of the other lepers. “Of course they will help you,” Vijay says. “If it isn’t leprosy, then the doctors will find out what it is.” Yaws? Kala-azar? Something.

Raj just shakes his head no.

Damn this fatalism! He must get him to treatment. Maybe his family had actually tried, maybe Raj had just refused.

“Vijay, I truly am dead,” Raj says. “I have no breath.”

“What?” Vijay says, trying to reason with him. “If you were dead, you would be cremated!”

“My body disappeared from the hospital before my family arrived. I am dead. Mein hoon ek zinda laash.

Zinda laash. A living corpse. A zombie. Suddenly, Vijay’s terrified.

The Raj-creature steps into the hard light beneath a street lamp and pulls a long knife from under his shawl. Vijay jumps back, ready to run, not questioning Raj’s story now. If Lazarus was raised from the dead into true life, perhaps darker forces exist that raise the dead into a strange half-existence. He’s too new to the theology to understand it all, but he can figure it out later.

“A tantric promised he could make me wealthy, pay for my sister’s wedding. He used me for his magic, killed me, turned me loose like this.” His ruined mouth twists.

“But, what are you doing here?” Vijay asks warily, watching the knife. With the lepers, he means, but doesn’t say it. Raj seems to understand anyway.

“Where else would I go? When there is no hope, when you are a corpse who cannot die, even the ordinary street dwellers run away. The leper folk understand.”

Painfully, Raj bends down, places the knife on the ground. Most of his fingers are gone. The dark skin on his forearm is shriveled and ragged. “I stole this from a shop.”

He struggles to his feet and removes the shawl, exposes a bare neck. “I waited two years for someone to help me. There is no one, only you. Please, kill me again.”

Vijay swallows hard and picks up the knife with his handkerchief. A ripe smell of decay overlays the scents of feces and flowers and sea. He tries to steel himself for what he has to do.

Someone coughs. The group of beggars is watching him, heads turned from the fire. Vijay looks at them, at the knife, at Raj. He hears a quiet voice from among them. “Kill me too, sir.”

“I can’t!” Vijay cries and steps back. “Raj, I promise I’ll arrange your sister’s wedding.” And he drops the knife with a clatter.

The lepers murmur. Vijay walks away hurriedly in the direction of Flora Fountain, trying not to run.

Sahib!” someone calls. It’s not Raj. “O, kayar-sahib!” Hey, Sir Coward.

Vijay turns back to see a leper lifting the knife, using both stump-fingered hands. As he watches, the man hacks at Raj’s neck until the head falls to the paving stones with a fleshy thud, and the body collapses into a pile of rags. The warm stench of decay overpowers all the other smells. The executioner looks at him, his eyes dark pits under the harsh street lamp.

The leper had the guts to do what he couldn’t.

Vijay pauses, salutes him. The man gives a small nod and returns to the fire.

Questions whirl through his mind as Vijay continues his long lonely walk. What has he done, or not done? Was it his duty to help Raj by killing him? Certainly not the other man, the leper. His new faith is clear that you could only take a human life if… well, if you were a soldier. Or an executioner. Or law enforcement in the US, where policemen kill people all the time. Police in India might torture suspects, but they don’t kill them. Anyway, the Bible is quite clear about healing lepers, not killing, even mercy-killing. But the point isn’t lepers, is it? It’s Raj. Was Raj alive?

Had Vijay dropped the knife just in time to avoid a murder, or was he what the man said, a coward who failed his friend? Tomorrow, he’ll seek out Father Thomas for answers.

As Vijay nears his apartment, he can’t stop thinking about Raj.

The sea wind is blowing in his eyes. Maybe that’s what’s making them water.

Keyan Bowes is a peripatetic writer of science fiction and fantasy based in San Francisco. She’s lived in nine cities in seven countries, visited many more, and still hopes to add even more to the list. These places sometimes form the settings for her stories. Her work can be found online in various webzines (including a Polish one), a podcast, and an award-winning short film; and on paper in a dozen print anthologies.

She’s a graduate of the 2007 Clarion Workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers, and a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Keyan’s website is at www.keyanbowes.org. Look for her next story, “Octonet,” in Escape Pod some time in 2019!

“Lepers” first appeared in Big Pulp. Copyright © 2009 by Keyan Bowes.

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