“The Lepers” (story)
by Matthew McDonald
11th grader at Morristown High School, Morristown
English teacher: Alysha Wecht
Honorable mention award: $50
I am traveling with the lepers on the high road. I forgot when I first came to them, it appears so long ago in my memory. Neither can I remember why I first came to them. Nor am I among their number. My skin has remained smooth, and my eyes still see as well as they did when I first came. Perhaps that is because I was always a leper and my skin is as horrid as theirs, and my sight, too, but that I did not know it until I decided to go and see them for myself.
When I was a boy I saw them often pass through our town. Before they processed down the main street and we all, children and parents alike, stared at them as they passed, a leper would come and cry on the road outside the town, “Leave bread and alms if you are kind folk, the lepers are coming through!”
We are continuing northward, to where I do not know. I have always followed close behind them, snatching the bread and the coins they leave behind by mistake. At first I felt ashamed, for I stole from the poor, then one day I realized that I was also the poor. I have not regretted my sojourns with the lepers since.
They all march in single file, holding on to the shoulders of the one before them. They look like the risen dead themselves, clambering to hold on to one another so that they are not left behind. The one who leads them is the one who calls to the townspeople we pass. He carries a great staff which clicks on the ground as he ambles slowly onward. When I first came, he appeared strong and tall, and with each passing day he has lagged a little more. At first, he slouched over. Then he began to stumble and drag his feet dressed in bloody and ragged cloth, and a limp developed in his right leg. It looks as if at any moment he will keel over and be left by the side of the road, his staff to be passed to the next strongest who walks behind him.
I am proved true. The lepers stop on a hill, not to rest, but to watch. The leader drops behind him his staff, and it rolls slightly away in the dirt. He walks over to the tree line by the side of the dirt path, and holding up an arm to the trunk of the great tree, he turns his back to it and slides slowly, slowly down into the grass. His comrades look at him briefly, and whether they cannot speak or will not speak, they move on without a word. I remain where I am until they are out of sight over the hill, and then I walk on.
I walk briskly and keep my head to the ground so as not to look at him. I’m kicking up the iron-red dirt, which in the fading sun looks like the color of fire. I do not have a chance to smile at its beauty.
“Stop!” The shout comes from behind. I whirl with a grimace. Under a tall oak, the leaves shading his face, is the generalissimo of the disease.
“What for?” Perhaps he does not expect such a response, for he is quizzically silent for a time.
“Oh, I don’t know. It simply seems improper. Have you any money or food?”
“The only coins good for you, old man, are two over the eyes.” He laughs dryly.
“How about some bread then?”
“I’ve eaten all of mine.”
We are quiet for a time. I try walking on.
“Wait!” he cries. I turn around once more. “Come close.” I step off the road and into the shade of the tree. His eyes are looking past me, over my shoulder, and it is clear that they have seen nothing for a very long time. “Are you a leper?”
“No, I am not.”
“Then why do you travel with lepers?”
“I have my reasons.”
“Hmph,” he glowers. “Tell me your reasons as to why it is good to travel like a leper and I will die a happy man.”
“Because it is better to walk over the whole of the world than to stay in one place. Because it is a great freedom to roam the world without anyone ever telling you otherwise.”
“You are a fool. I would trade all my days of freedom just to die in a feather bed, instead of on dry grass and in rags. In heaven, I shall have a thousand feather beds and walk no more.”
I go on to the town ahead. When I get there, I scrounge the ground for alms as I always do and look out to the road ahead. Then I turn and go to the tavern and ask for a bed.
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