Eyes averted, Vijay hurries past the group of lepers clustered round a small trash-fire on the sidewalk. Bombay has so many, with horrifying gargoyle faces and missing toes. The neon street lamps cast a dim purplish light on uneven cobbled sidewalks lined with the cocoon-like figures of sleeping street dwellers.
It’s after 2 a.m., and the last train has left. The gothic bulk of Victoria Terminus rises before him, 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. There’s no taxi anywhere.
“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. 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. In the April of 1975…” 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 Raj didn’t die, he contracted the living death of leprosy. Mother’s letter lied, to save him pain and Raj’s family shame.
“They can cure leprosy nowadays,” Vijay says. Why hadn’t his family done something? Money problems, most likely. “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 actually tried, maybe Raj 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.
“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.”
“But, what are you doing here?” Vijay asks warily, watching the knife. With the lepers, he means, but he 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 the sea. He tries to steel himself for what he has to do.
Someone coughs. The group of beggars is watching him, heads turn 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, 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’s had the guts to do what he couldn’t.
Vijay pauses, salutes him. The man gives a small nod and returns to the fire. Vijay continues his lonely walk. Sir Coward indeed. The sea wind is blowing in his eyes. Maybe that’s what’s making them water.
originally published November 23, 2009
Keyan Bowes is frequently ambushed by stories, and took the 2007 Clarion Workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers in self defense. Keyan’s work has been accepted by several magazines, including Strange Horizons, Cabinet des Fees, and Expanded Horizons, and is included in three anthologies, Eight Against Reality and The Book of Tentacles, as well as Art From Art (forthcoming). Her story “The Rumpelstiltskin Retellings” was made into a short film by Justin Whitney (Sea Urchin Productions). She is currently working on two young adult fantasy novels.