Interview with a Leper — Part 2 of 2

And now… the rest of the story.

Wow, the sun is barely up and already it’s in my eyes. My walk to the city is due east, and the glare is impossible to avoid. I look away periodically to recover, but the light plays tricks with my vision. See, there’s a blur of movement over there. Is anything there, or am I seeing spots?

No, somebody’s coming. Who would be out here at this hour? It’s uncommon for travelers to be leaving the city in the middle of the week. I wonder who it could be.

Yes, that’s definitely a man. No, a group of men. What could they be up to? Strange.

“Unclean!” My voice is rusty and thin from disuse. When was the last time I actually said something? I’ll have to add ‘speaking practice’ to my daily regimen. “Unclean!”

I’m lawfully required to warn them, even though it’s pretty obvious what I am. Soon they should switch tracks to avoid me. How interesting that they continue this way. They’re not stopping. I guess they didn’t hear.

I try yelling again, but I can see the man’s face now. His eyes are looking right at me, and here he comes. I’m more curious than anything – this is a highly unusual turn of events in my consistently predictable existence.

He persists in coming near to me. It’s not often that I run out of things to say, but as the stranger looks into my eyes – eye to eye, man to man – all I can do is wait for him to make the first move.

“Simon,” is what he says.

“How do you know me, my lord?” Racking my brain to remember this man. An old business associate? Some relative from my wife’s side of the family? I’m terrible with names.

He simply smiles in reply. A smile. What a surprise. “Do you want to be clean?”

What a question. Do I want to be clean? Not really. I’ve spent the past nine years industriously forgetting cleanness. I’ve reinvented my purpose, goals, definition of success. I’ve settled for manageability, staying power, the will to survive, man against nature. Without quite knowing it, I’ve somehow allowed a different category of life for myself, different from anything I’ve ever experienced but still worthwhile. I’ve created new wishes and new ideals, full of small and easy-to-reach plans. Nothing so wildly unattainable as cleanness.

And yet.

As he reaches for my shoulders – and now I realize this man is actually going to touch me – it’s apparent that he thinks he really can make me clean. And what if he’s right? If I can actually be cleansed of my leprosy, then what am I standing here for, like a stupid stick? He’s waiting patiently for my answer.


It shocks me how the cumulative emotion of every day of those nine years can be present in the one word. Of course this is what I want. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted, I just never knew what it was called. Yes, sir. I want to be clean, if cleanness can be had for the asking.

A sudden breeze tickles my nose, caresses my face, ruffles my hair… What is this? I tug my bandages away and find whole hands – brown and unblemished, with fingers extending all the way down to the nail. My hands. My old hands, the ones that could work the land and hold my children. Hands that can easily manipulate the dirty cotton strips wrapped around them. Hands that catch hot tears beginning to fall from my face.

A strange joy surges up from my belly, pulling my mouth open wide and flooding the air with incredulous laughter.

“I’m clean!” Compelled as I am to say it, the word is still so odd in my mouth. I had better say it again and again, just to help me get used to it.

I’m clean! I’m clean. I’m clean. Clean.

© Cortney Matz, 2008

Interview with a Leper — Part 1 of 2

This is a short story that’s just a little bit too long – so I’m breaking it in half. The rest will be posted tomorrow. Enjoy.                 -Cortney

I’ve gotten used to being lonely. In my situation, it happens out of self-defense. When you live alone and you eat alone and – even if by chance you do come across another human being – you prefer to remain alone… there’s not much helping it. Loneliness becomes familiar, like a gimpy leg or the winter time. You just sort of persevere. 

So it’s pretty okay as long as I stay awake. When you’re awake you can control a lot of things – not everything, but enough to keep some sort of balance. Balance is key. If you’re off balance, then you can’t make sense out of the natural chaos that comes your way in life, which makes for stress. There’s always going to be something negative coming at you, no matter who you are, and the only way to beat it is to withdraw from the stress of it. Stress kills the little enjoyment people like me can derive out of life.   

This is another thing loneliness does to you; you become a philosopher. Not that there’s anyone around to listen to your great insights into the human drama. But I digress. 

I have a hard time sleeping. Not the way most people do – I fall asleep just fine. I even stay asleep with no problem. It’s the waking up part that unnerves me.

When I sleep, I sometimes dream about my life the way it used to be. And for a few moments – or hours, whoever knows how long dreams last – I’m not alone. I can smell the sweat of my team as we work to plough the land. I feel my daughter’s arms around my neck and hear my wife laughing as she chases us around the garden. 

The sounds are in my ears even as morning cruelly drags my eyes open. Like a massive scab being ripped off my soul. The realization hits in waves, tearing at my skin, dragging away at my hope with teeth and claws. To be forced to admit that I am dying, that everything I’ve ever loved and worked for is gone – that’s what sleeping means. Nothing is so demoralizing as to be confronted with reality when one has so carefully buried it with comforting distractions. 

I spend most mornings at the city gate. It’s a good place to meet businessmen as they head home, having sold their goods and filled their money bags. Puts them in a highly philanthropic mood. There are also various do-gooders who will pay their service to God by tossing a loaf of bread to one or the other of us – keeping careful distance, of course. 

About noon I’ll treat myself to a nice lunch in the shade. There’s a tamarisk tree about halfway between the gate and the tiny lean-to that I call home. It’s a perfect picnic spot for one. 

By evening I’ve tidied the yard around my house, stared at the sky for an hour or so and amused myself with some sarcasm and ridicule toward my neighbors. Take it from me, what leprosy doesn’t get out of the body it robs from the mind. Nine out of ten of these people should be mental patients, and the rest are self-absorbed naysayers. Get within a foot of them, and you’ll hear every reason they ever had to be bitter about life. Give me a break. We’re all lepers, in case you haven’t noticed. 

Evening is the best time for me to go to the river. The only known treatment for leprous skin is cleanliness, and it’s a dusty world we live in, so I try to wash every day. The others are all scared of wild animals, so they clear out by twilight. The water is cold by now, but it doesn’t matter much since I’ve lost all sensation except for a few patches on my legs and shoulders. I have the water all to myself. 

It’s easy to lose touch with the finer things when you live alone. So while I’m bathing I usually recite poetry, plays, or parts of the Torah – whatever I can remember from school. It keeps a bit of culture in my life, and enhances the romance of a starry night.  

After my bath it’s time to take myself home. I tell myself stories as I bandage my hands and feet. There isn’t much left of either of those, since the local wildlife enjoys munching on them when we sleep. That’s another major downside to losing consciousness for any length of time. 

So here I am – another morning, another trip to the city gate. It’s shaping up to be a hot day.  

So that’s pretty much my life right now. Not the lap of luxury by anyone’s standard, but it could be worse. I could be dead. 

That was a joke.

© Cortney Matz, 2008

Continue to Part II