How to Escape from a Leper Colony
The winner of Boston Review's 13th Annual Short-Story Contest
May 6, 2006
24 Min read time
The nuns said that it was pardonable because of depression and stress. But these are words used when we want to forgive a crime but know we cannot. Babalao Chuck said that young Lazaro was covered in his mother’s blood and body. Her red sari redder. The gun in the volunteer’s hands. Five shots in a young mother’s back leaves little room for sympathy. The volunteers at the leper colony were Trinidadian doctors and British journalists and criminals forfeiting time in jail for time among lepers and sometimes smooth-faced men who carried tiny Bibles in their pockets. No one ever told me which kind killed Lazaro’s mother.
Killing ayoung mother is not such a big thing if the mother is a leper,especially if she was a leper when she conceived. Nuns are notsupposed to have romantic feelings for each other or for priests orfor us. This is something they are thought to have in common withlepers. We are not supposed to have desires. The volunteer was askedto leave, and that was to be the end of it.
What evil thingLazaro will do later we will forgive him for, because we know hispast and because we know he is one of us. For a leper, many thingsare impossible, and many other things are easily done. Babalao Chuckcould fly to the other side of the island and peek at the nunsbathing. When a man with no hands claims that he can fly, you listen.He would return and tell us about the steam in the nuns’ showers.About how they had soap that lathered. How they had shampoo thatsmelled like flowers.
When I left Trinidad for Chacachacare it was1939 and I was only 14. I came for two reasons. The first was to burymy father, who had lived there for three years and had just died. Thesecond was because I had become a leper. It was in my arm. The samearm my mother held as she walked me to the dock and left me there.Her cotton sari swishing the ground as she ran back to the mainstreet, to catch a bus that would take the whole day to get her backto San Fernando, way down in South. I thought of her sitting in thebus for hours, her face against the glass, the hole in her nose emptybecause she had sold the gold to buy me a used sari and a bag ofsweets as a gift for my new caretakers.
I also sat that whole day.I was waiting for the nuns to come get me. I pretended I could hearthe sounds of the junction that the driver had dropped us off at. Itwasn’t Port-of-Spain, but it was the biggest, loudest place I hadever been to. It was like a wedding in my village with all the foodlaid out for me to stare at. Men crowded around a small stand thatsold raw oysters. They dipped the shells in hot pepper sauce beforeslurping the meat down their throats. Women reached up for brightlycolored buckets and brooms that hung on display. My mother and Irushed by, avoiding getting close to people.
During ourlong walk, the busy road turned into a dusty path. And then we werewalking along a wood dock with the sea beneath us. My mother sat medown with my legs hanging over the side and pointed to the smallmound many miles out into the ocean. That would be my new home, shetold me, where the nuns would take me in and bless me with thesacrament of confirmation when I was older. She did not say, if Ilived to be older. Instead she kissed me on the mouth and made mepromise not to eat the sweets. And she left. And then it was soquiet, with only the waves and the breeze as sounds of life, that Iclosed my eyes and pretended that I was back in the junction, eatingoysters in pepper sauce, putting them in my mouth with my goodhand.
My arm was wrapped and in a sling. Even in my mind Icould not forget how my elbow was hurting me in a funny way thatwasn’t about pain. Even alone on the dock I was too afraid to touchit, to give that arm the healing power of the other one. It is adangerous thing when a girl is afraid to touch her own body. I wasafraid to touch places on me that weren’t even private. And I wasgoing to die for it. Die for having those places.
It was not aparade of white nuns who came for me. It was a lay volunteer, allwrapped in cloth. “Get in the boat,” he directed. In his voice Iknew that he was a man—nothing in his gauzed body revealed it. Icould not tell if he was Indian or African or French. The skin aroundhis eyes was covered in a dark protective salve. We did not speak aswe motored the five miles to Chacachacare.
At the docks he told meto go. I heaved myself one-handed out of the boat. The boat sped offto the other, safer, healthy side of the island. I faced the intakehouse. It was a welcoming hue. Not the color of sores or witheredlimbs. The walls were blue, a mother’s color, and the trimmingswere green, the color of life. I did not think I would be unhappyhere.
I presented the bag of sweets to the nun who greeted me. Shecradled it with her gloved hands and smiled. Then she sent me tobathe in the sea. “Hurry,” she said. “Before it gets dark.” Idid as I was told. I knew that the Caribbean Sea could heal manythings. If you have a cold, go bathe in the sea. If you aremelancholy, go bathe in the sea. If you are a leper, go bathe in thesea—but on the leper’s side.
He was there on the beach when Icame out of the water. Lazaro was not the name he was born with. Hewas given that name because he refused to die. He was 16 when I methim that first day, older than me by almost two years but muchsmaller. He had been born in the colony and still showed no signs ofleprosy and no signs of leaving. The world would not have him. Surelythe leprosy would show soon. In truth, he had nowhere to go. Hismother, a dougla, had passed on her mixed genes. One could not tellif Lazaro was African or Indian—there was talk that there wasFrench in him, too. And that his father was one of the French priestswho came over once a week to serve the mass. Who is to know? Thedougla might be a type of chameleon. They can claim any heritage theydesire. They can claim all if they like. Though it is true that notall will claim them in return.
“Is your father they burningtomorrow?” he asked me as he skipped stones into the water.
The sun was almost down. My sari, a lovely red but frayedin places, clung to me, and I felt cold. He wore only a pair ofchildren’s short pants. I hadn’t thought about my father all day.“I been thinking they would bury him, even though heIndian.”
“You thinking wrong. Here we all Indian, nomatter how much African we have in us.”
We began to walk back tothe surgery, where I would spend the night. The nuns, who were ournurses, hadn’t decided yet on my treatment. I looked overLazaro’s small body. “Where your leper part?”
He tugged at the crotch of his pants.“In my head.” I expected him to pull his thing out and show it tome shriveled. I waited anxiously. “The next head, rude girl.” Hepointed to his temple. “It’s in my mind.”
On my second day Iwatched them push my father’s wrapped body into the crematorium.The nun who had sent me to the sea, Sister Theresa, stood with herreplicas. Their white faces pink with the heat. They were all youngenough to be my mother—not like the old dogs at my school inTrinidad. I didn’t understand why they cremated the lepers whenthey had so much bare land on the island. When I asked Sister Theresashe told me that this was okay because so many of the lepers areHindu anyway.
But it wasn’t okay, really. Because my mother is aChristian, and she told me that if I went to Chacachacare the nunswould feed me better than she could and give me medicine that shecould not and that I would be buried under a stone likeJesus.
There were two churches. One for the Catholics, where thenuns joined us on Sundays, and one for the Protestants, who werethought of as exotic. There wasn’t any place for Hindus. Though myparents were both Indian, only my father had been Hindu. From him Iknew that the Hindu god wasn’t so different from the Christian god. . . one manifestation came in many dozens of forms while the otherversion came in only three. But the same god. The same jealous god,the same god who fell in love. The Christian god even sometimes fellin love with men, like King David. “God loved King David the way awoman loved a man.” My mother would slap my father in the face whenhe said things like that. Then she would accept his cuffs as hermartyrdom. When he showed the first signs of leprosy in his fingersshe told him that it was God’s punishment. But he would not repent.For me, it was easy to chant about Jesus Christ and slip in a LordKrishna here and there.
* * *
For many days the nuns didnot know where to put me. I slept in the surgery where they tookblood and logged my wounds on a tablet with only my given name,Deepa, in block letters. One option was an Indian woman who had lefther child behind with family when she became a leper. She wanted me,but the nuns thought that this might be bad for us both. I, an Indianchild, had left a mother behind. It was too perfect to be healthy.
They put me with an old African woman. “Thisyour bed,” she said. “Yours against the wall and mine beside thedoor. This so if there is a fire my old leper legs will have lessdistance to go. Is also so I can keep my eye on your comings andgoings. There’s all kind of talk of a cure for the leprosy and ifyou go back to your mother I don’t want she to think I been raisingyou poorly.” Her name was Tantie B. I had never known mygrandparents, since my mother had sailed over from Madras in southernIndia before I was born. I knew only southern Trinidad. Tantie B wasmy grandmother in Chacachacare. And Lazaro was mybrother.
For the first months after I arrived Lazaro wouldtake me for walks. The island was green with palm and sea grapetrees. It was loud with the howler monkeys that snored all day andmated all night. Lazaro and I often went beyond the fence that keptthe lepers to the leper side. We would climb under it, through agorge deep enough for a body. It had been first dug out by an iguanaand was now maintained by Lazaro. We would climb trees. We would eatgreen fruit and spit the seeds out, aim for lizards and fire ants.One day Lazaro took me further than he had before.
“There,” hesaid, pointing down the hill to a clearing with spots of grey. “Thenun burial ground. That’s where they put the nuns’ bodies.That’s where I want to be buried.”
“But you ain anun.”
“You a boy. You couldn’t be anun.”
“Why I can’t be a nun? Didn’t Peter take over thefamily after Jesus dead, like widows does do? Peter get to be buriedunder some rock. I want a rock over me.”
We climbed down the hillto look at the burial site. The grounds were clean but sharp withankle high grass. When we walked we made a swishing sound like waves.The stones over the graves were marked: Sister Marie, Lover of theLord; Sister Margaret, Lover of the Word; Sister Ann, Lover of thepoor and the wretched. We sat among the stones. Lazaro inspected myarm.
“Soon they going have to chop some of it away.”
“What you love?”
“She . . .” I paused. I had not seen orheard from my mother in months. I had not expected her to writebecause she had had very little schooling. But this was the firsttime that I had thought of her in a while. What was she now? Was shea new wife? Was she going to be someone else’s mother? “She awoman who works in the cane field. She does pray to Saint Ann to sendher signs.” I pushed some dirt around with my toe. “Who was yourmother?” I already knew of Lazaro’s tragedy from the littlethings Tantie B had whispered to me at night and the stories BabalaoChuck told in the clearing when Lazaro was off helping haul in thegoods from the delivery boat. I knew, but it still seemed the rightthing to ask. I lowered my head so he would know I did not mean to bebold.
“My mother is the woman who tell me that I was her miracle.I was her sign.” With his hand he raised my face so that our eyesmet. It felt like a penetration, and I shuddered a little. “Shetell me a island could be like a kingdom.” He spoke softly, and Icould see that his eyes were heavy with their water. “Try a nextthing,” he breathed out, so that I realized there had been a longsilence between us. “Everyone love their mother. What else youlove?”
I thought about this. I let my hand run throughthe sharp grass, feeling tiny cuts opening on my fingers. “Myown-self,” I answered at last.
“Then on your grave it will say‘Sister Deepa, Lover of She-self’.”
“What your stone goingsay?”
“Brother Lazaro, Lover of Deepa.”
I sat on a stonewith markings that were clear and fresh. I felt the curved coolnessthough my clothes. It wasn’t smooth. It was rough, and the thincloth of my sari did not do much to cushion. I lifted my feet to tryand balance. To try and press the cold stone onto me. “Don’tfall,” he said.
“I won’t.” But I got up anyway. “Why wehere?”
“Because we lepers.”
I nodded. “But whyhere-here.” I spread my arms wide to mean the world.
Lazaroshrugged. “You don’t listen to the priest on Sunday?”
“Inever understand what he does say.”
“We here because God wantsomeone to know him.”
“Like a friend?”
“Like when someoneknow you it make you real. Like the tree that fall in the forest whenno one was around. God had want to be heard.”
“A tree fall inthe forest?”
“All the time.”
I could not help myself.Suddenly my body felt heavy. Suddenly I felt alone. I walked over tohim and bent into his small chest. I cried loudly. I cried for mymother. “I’m here,” Lazaro said. And he said it over and overagain.
* * *
The doctor dressed in white. He covered hishair and face. Only his eyes showed, and I couldn’t tell if he wasFrench and tanned, or African but light, or Indian even. I imaginedhe was my father, who I couldn’t really remember. I imagined thisas he leaned into my face and his face turned hazy and thendisappeared. I slept as he carved out the muscle around my elbow,which wasn’t much muscle to begin with as I was still only 14 andquite skinny. “They didn’t cut your arm off,” a nun smiled atme and said when I awoke. And I knew that was something to bethankful for.
I was allowed to watch a movie twonights later at the small cinema that had been built for thevolunteers and the nuns. Once a month was leper night—for those ofus who had gone to mass every Sunday and who had been to hospital. Iinvited Lazaro, and they allowed him to come even though neither theProtestant nor the Catholic Church could claim him in theircongregation. And he was not ill. He was never ill.
The lepers satin the front rows. The nuns sat in the very back, like chaperons. Themovies that were brought were old movies. Movies that were alreadyold in Port-of-Spain. Old even in San Fernando, where my mother was.They weren’t even talkies, most of them. Silent things withcaresses so passionate they made even the nuns giggle.
Movies arelike so much art. They can start a revolution. This was not a movieabout war. Or about race and oppression—no one talked about thosethings in 1939. A man loved a woman. A woman loved a man. They werewilling to do bad things for that love.
* * *
I was notyet 16 when we made the biggest decision of our lives. Lazaro wasalmost 18. Appropriate ages for independence. We went into the jungleof the island to build it. We stole wood meant to steady the leperhouses. This was more important. Tantie B did not know what we weredoing. I was still alive. She was still alive. Babalao Chuck wasdead. I did not go to see him cremated. I believed his stories. Ibelieved he had flown away. I told Tantie B that Lazaro and I weregoing to build us a house, separate and away from the other houses.And because all every leper wanted was a world that was the same asTrinidad, a vacation home in leper town didn’t seem unbelievable.“Every young couple need some privacy after they wed,” Tantie Bmused. And I imagine she thought that Lazaro and I were in love. Icannot blame her. I imagined the same.
But wewere not building nuptial quarters or a honeymoon shack. We weregoing to build an altar to goddess Kali. Kali who dances and spinsthis Kaliyuga world. Bringing the destruction we asked for when wedidn’t know what we were asking. “Dear lordess,” I said as Inailed and Lazaro carved. “We is your servants. I drag this wood onmy back to show you that I ain no better than dust.” For by then Iwas resigned to the fact that when I died I would not beburied.
It felt as though we were playing a game. But I knewit was not a game. We would be punished, though we would not belashed or starved. Hurting our flesh was not something our nuns wouldever do. They were of a peaceful order that believed in punishing themind. We would be forced to do penance. Perhaps we would beseparated. Perhaps we would have to spend days in church, he in theProtestant, me in the Catholic, where we prayed and prayed all theprayers we could remember and then were forced to learn others. Thiswas not a small crime. This was blasphemy. They would tell us we werebuilding false gods, though I knew Hindu gods could not be fake,since they were around before Jesus. But even my mother had wept thatperhaps my leprosy was a curse for the things my father had taughtme.
From my mother I learned that Christians love leprosy.Christians are not so passionate about polio or cholera. But Jesushad touched lepers. Jesus cured lepers. Leprosy gives the pious achance to be Christ-like. Only lepers hate leprosy. Who wants to bethe one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes,too. We want to be like Jesus. Or like Shiva. Or like whomever youpray to.
And then we were caught. We had built Kali out of wood.She was rough and less attractive than we knew her to be. But wepainted her, and a little color made all the difference. We tookflowers from the graveyards and placed them at her feet. I did notknow how to worship her. I only knew a few Tamil words. My father hadtaught me the names of the gods and had taken me with him for Diwalicelebrations, but both he and my mother spoke only English to me. Mymother, I believe, did not want me to learn Tamil. She did not thinkthere would be any need. Perhaps my father felt that since I wasMadrasi I would know my language as I knew myself. And yes, I knewsome things. I knew how to say please, auntie and thank you, uncle. Iknew how to ask for water or the outhouse. I did not know how topray.
Though his mother had been half Indian, Lazaro alsoknew only English. First we prayed the Hail Mary. Then we chantedsome words in Ibo that Babalao Chuck said were holy. “Sometimes wegoing call her Yemaya,” Lazaro said. “I want she to have manynames.” Then he went on his knees and swept the dust from her feetwith a son’s tenderness.
We were caught one night because we had not returned to our huts. We were caught because we had decided to spend the night with our Kali. We took our bedding and slept at her feet, under the same one blanket. I had grown taller in the almost two years I had been in the colony. Lazaro had remained small. I wanted him to hold me, but it was uncomfortable and awkward. So I held him. We slept with his back to my chest. I was aware of my breasts breathing into his shoulder blades. I tried not to cough or sneeze.
To the rest of the colony, lepers and nuns and volunteers, it would be okay for us to marry. But that we might be off fornicating was something unacceptable. They came for us with torches. We awoke to what felt like a dream. We saw the light before we saw their figures. Sister Theresa, a covered volunteer, and Tantie B.
“It is worse than we thought!” whispered the young nun loudly. “It’s the occult.” She backed away, her skin darkening with the night.
Tantie B looked around at what we were. Two young people. An altar. The forest. She shook her head but said nothing.
“Better if you had just been fucking,” said the volunteer quietly as he leaned his torch into Lazaro’s face. His body was covered in a white bed sheet. I held onto Lazaro, feeling the heat on my skin and thinking that this was not a dream.
Lazaro blinked furiously.
“Do it, for God’s sake,” said the nun.
“Yes,” said Tantie. “Then let them come home.”
Under the face wrappings and dark salve, the volunteer’s face twitched. He looked as though he was smiling. Tantie B and the young nun stepped back with what seemed like instinct. Perhaps the volunteer knew he was completing a history as he flung the torch to hit our Kali with the force of someone knocking down a city’s walls. To be certain, Lazaro knew.
Lazaro wrenched away from me. He flew like smoke. The fire seemed to catch him. Then there was a high pitched screaming and a deep adolescent howling. I saw Kali rock on her base. I saw the bushes go up in flames. Then there was heat and darkness. Someone began a furious Hail Mary. Then there was nothing.
I woke up in Tantie B’s house, in my cot against the wall.
“You sleep through the night,” she said when I opened my eyes. “You been in the surgery.” I was aware that my face was heavy.
“Took the whole night to get the fire down. Then when folks return we find the phone lines all dead. Been cut.” She cleared her throat. “And he missing.”
“Who?” I asked, and heard my mouth make a noise that was muffled. My tongue felt dry, as if coated with cotton.
“They both missing.”
“Who?” I tried again.
“Lazaro and the volunteer.”
I lifted myself off the cot and went to the mirror. My face was covered in gauze. “You been burnt, my daughter,” she said quietly but without looking at me. “And the statue fall on you. Smash your face and knock you out.” I did not feel pain, but I could not shake off the feeling of dreaming. “It going be okay,” she said again, more loudly this time. I pinched myself where my neck was exposed. I looked behind me and then quickly looked back again. If what was behind me changed then I would know I was dreaming. When I whipped my head around there was a shout: “The beach!” I looked over at Tantie. Her face looked heavier than mine felt. Since we’d lived together she had lost two toes. I’d grown more than two inches. She nodded at me. We stood and walked slowly to our door.
Some people were shouting, calling to each other. Most were huddling forward in whispers. We lepers all walked to the beach. There was already a small crowd forming a circle at the shore. It was easy for Tantie and me to slip in and see. We were on the leper’s side of the beach and there was Sister Theresa’s body—bloated and blue. Her nunnery uniform in pieces and sticking to her body in its fuller places. But she was mostly naked. And she was entirely dead.
“Have mercy,” said Tantie. “Next he coming for me.”
And there was no Lazaro. I thought he might come to me. Give me a sign. Tell me that he loved me. That he was seeking revenge for the injuries I had suffered. But he did not come to me, after all. It was not me he was avenging. I sat on the shore and watched the day unfold. My bandages were due to be changed that evening.
Some of the other lepers sat with me. Perhaps we have a sixth sense. When lunch was cooked Tantie brought it to me and then didn’t leave after we had eaten. I mostly watched the trees and studied the howlers to see if any of them was a boy instead of a monkey. I kept alert so I could decipher any signs from him. Anything that would tell me what to do or where to go. Word came that the boats had all been punctured with large holes and the radios had disappeared. Then I began to watch the big island—the continent of Trinidad—and I wondered how anyone would know to come save us.
I watched the first nun leap off the dock at dusk—right after supper. She had made sure she had a full belly. Then they all lined up to jump. Oh, to see them. Their white robes flapping like wings, then their bodies hitting the water like birds hunting a fish prey. Then see them swimming. Swimming as though they were the hunted ones. And Lazaro, my Lazaro, was still missing.
None of us lepers had left Chacachacare since we arrived. An island can be a world. We knew that the Americans had built a Navy base on Trinidad because there was a war going on somewhere. We might as well have been going to the moon. It was as dangerous and as crazy. We did not line up on the dock like the nuns. We just walked into the ocean. Until we couldn’t walk and we had to swim. We took only ourselves. It was as if we thought we were coming back. As though we were so powerful we could go to the moon on vacation. I treaded water and imagined I heard gun shots and the dancing of boots on stone. My bandages came off in the water. The sea seared into my cheeks and mouth and the soft part around my eyes. Tantie did not come. She stayed behind on the shore and watched me soak into my real life. “I can’t swim,” she said and went to our house without looking back at me.
* * *
Now when you sail by on your ships you will say the island is haunted. You will visit the places where we bathed and played soccer. You will take pictures of our houses, our beds made up stiffly like war bunks. The sheets still on them and the pillows well placed. You will see the plates and bowls sitting on the table, the pots and pans lying dirty in the sink. In the surgery, all the records resting open for any curious boaties to rummage through and know that someone’s leg had been chopped off, someone else’s penis. Someone’s arms were too ruined to hold her baby, someone else had been cremated. Someone had begged to be killed in his sleep. The x-rays will still be up on the x-ray machine. Our medicines, the salves that only soothed but didn’t heal, all exposed. Now the government says they will tear down everything and build hotels and casinos so that your ships have a reason to stay and spend money.
But if you go deep, you will also find our goddess, rough and elegant. I left her behind. You may visit her if you wipe the dust from her feet. I left for the sea. I swam in the soup with everyone. Nuns and volunteers holding on to lepers for dear life. The dark protective salve running off their faces and revealing them to be of every race. Lepers hoping a shark would come and eat their legs off so at least they’d be lighter and their bodies would stop being a dead weight.
* * *
About Boston Review's 13th Annual Short-Story Contest
Tiphanie Yanique’s story drew me in with its odd, dreamy locale and fresh language. Physical and mental erosion, isolation, the mysterious connections forged in the most unlikely of places were just some of the themes explored in this haunting and nuanced work. The writer took some chances and they paid off, making this my choice for the 13th Annual Boston Review Short-Story Contest.
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May 06, 2006
24 Min read time