The unnamed protagonist has recently lost someone she loved, and her solution is to abandon the present, and the overwhelming pain. The seamless narrative lands her in a medieval seaside village where mermaids wash ashore, devils haunt in packs, a child is born with the head of a fish, and where one day, quite out of nowhere, there emerges a sage and wandering leper. The leper leads a small group of the villagers, including the protagonist, on a journey to Jerusalem, a harrowing pilgrimage that compels all the travelers to confront their deepest selves.
Exquisite and lyrical, The Lepers Companions is a heart-rending tale by one of our most fiercely original storytellers.
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One day in the month of September, when the low autumn sun was casting long shadows across the grass, she lost someone she had loved. It does not matter who that person was or what sort of love it had been. The fact was that he had gone and she remained.
She knew it would take at least two years to recover from the first shock of the loss; to disentangle her body from his body, her memories from his memories, her life from his life. What she wanted to do now was to bang the door shut on this present time by setting out on a journey to some distant country and staying there until the present had blurred and shifted and become indistinguishable from the past. But that was not possible. She had to stay where she was. She had to sit still and try to be patient, even though her mind was trapped like a wild thing in a cage, zigzagging backwards and forwards, desperate to find a means of escape.
She was terribly afraid. All her old fears had stirred themselves and were lumbering towards her through the tunnels of the past. They crowded around her, the quick and the dead, the forgotten and the remembered. They walked with hard sharp feet across her scalp. They sat there in the shadows, watching her. They were cold and without mercy.
She searched for images that might help her. She saw herself climbing up something like a stem; step by determined step her fingers clasped so tight that the bones showed white at the knuckles.
She saw herself clinging to a raft. All the land that was ever in the world had disappeared. She could feel the sun on her back, the salt on her lips, the lurching of the waves beneath her body. She raised her head to look up and within the dazzle of light she could just see the thin line of the horizon where the water and the air merged together. That became her destination.
She saw herself as a snake or a spider, or any other creature that becomes trapped within the confinement of its own skin and at a certain point needs to split through the outer casing and shuffle it off. She had once watched a snake during the final stage of this transformation. It was lying in the dappled shadow of a tree, as exhausted as a baby that had just been born. Its new skin was shiny and slippery with life while the old one was white and dry, paper-thin and empty. When she picked it up it rustled softly and she felt she was holding a ghost in her hands.
She could imagine the shell of her own body like that:
a shed skin with everything remembered on it, from the whirling pattern at the tip of each finger, to the ridge of bones down the back, the curve of the ear, the mouth, the nose. She could see it being lifted up by a gust of wind and carried away, and she felt a strange sense of relief when it had gone.
There was a village not far from where she lived. It was close to the sea and when the tide was out the shallow water was pulled back to reveal a huge expanse of rippling sand. The place had such a quality of silence and emptiness to it that sometimes, especially at night, she could find quiet just by imagining herself there. She would walk in her mind across the sand, feeling its ridges under her bare feet and she would look at the sea and be comforted.
At one end of the village was a very old church; a yew tree stood close to the entrance gate, wildflowers bloomed among the grass, the gravestones were pockmarked by lichen and the weather. A mermaid with sharp teeth and a lascivious smile was carved above the east door and a man with leaves in his hair leered down from a corner of the roof and vomited a stream of water from his open mouth when it was raining.
The air inside the church was damp and cold even on a summer's day and the light had a dim underwater quality to it. A fragment of the original stained glass had survived in one of the windows. It showed an angel with narrow seagull wings sprouting from his back and pointed feathers covering the nakedness of his body. His feet were bare with long toes and he was marooned on a little patch of black and white tiled floor with an expanse of plain glass all around him. The expression on his face was gentle and compassionate, and sometimes she would sit beside him in her thoughts until their eyes met across the infinite space that divided them and she was comforted.
And then one night in the month of February when the east wind was bitterly cold and she felt so sad she didn't know what to do, she found herself going down the main street of the village. The ground beneath her feet was as hard as rock and deeply rutted by the wheels of carts. The houses on either side of her were small and battered; they reminded her of the nests of birds, as if something like a swallow could have made them from river silt and twigs. The church was newly built, the stones yellow and clean. Everything was different to how she had known it and yet she was shocked by the sense of intense familiarity that surrounded her, the sense of coming home.
Following a path that led to the sea, she reached a rickety wooden hut and a few fishing boats. She accidentally trod on a pile of empty oyster shells and felt them splintering under her feet.
A dog with pale eyes watched as she approached and that surprised her because she had somehow presumed there would be no life here, nothing apart from the shifting of wind and sunlight and the movement of the waves.
She sat with her back to the hut and looked out across the shimmering expanse of sand and sea. "I have left one place and come to another," she thought to herself. "I have stepped out of the time I was in and now I will be here for a while, until things change and pass."
I was sitting with my back propped against a wooden hut and I was lost in thought, although if anyone had asked me what I was thinking about I would not have had an answer. I was drifting in the dark while all around me the sun was bright and the sky was blue and the air was filled with that yearning cry of seabirds which can so easily bring me close to tears.
Far away on the glistening sand I saw the silhouetted figure of a man bending over something that lay heaped at his feet. It could have been part of a wrecked ship, the trunk of a tree, a bundle of sail. It could have been a fish or a seal or even a person drowned and washed ashore by the tide.
I knew I could pull the whole image nearer to me just by concentrating on it and then I would understand what was happening, but for the moment I chose to leave it undisturbed. Even from this distance I could sense that the man was fascinated by the thing he had found, but afraid of it as well.
I became aware of someone sitting next to me, his back also leaning against the hut. It was an old man busy mending the broken mesh of a fishing net and singing to himself in a soft monotone as he struggled with the task. His fingers were bunched together like the feet of dead birds and I could feel the tiredness in them, and the ache. I knew that in a few days he would be setting out alone in a boat and he would never return to this place, but for now he was here in the sunshine with the sound of his own voice echoing around his head.
I got up and followed the path that led to the village. Mud as hard as stone and grass burnt yellow by the last frost. Nervous chickens scratching for food, a goat tethered to a post, a pig in a pen and a dog with pale eyes watching me. There were people here as well and I could recognize each one of their restless faces, although I could not necessarily put a name to them. Even the smiling mermaid carved above the church door and the man with a wide mouth through which the rainwater streamed were as familiar to me as the details of my own life.
The first to move close was a young woman called Sally, the fisherman's daughter. She had gap teeth, rough awkward hands, and a round moon face in which the shadows of her own uncertainty were clearly visible. She blushed easily and I could feel how the sudden heat swept across the surface of her skin, making her tremble with confusion.
The shoemaker's wife was next, with big breasts and softly curling hair, her body heavy with the weight of the baby she was carrying: an elbow pushing sharp against the inside of her womb, a head poised above the bone cup of the pelvis, ready for the slow fall. Only a few more days and the process of birth would begin. This was to be her last child.
Her husband the shoemaker was there working at his bench, his shoulders hunched forward. He looked tired and the blindness which would make him feel cut off from the world was already closing in, tightening its grip. The priest was standing silently beside him, staring towards me but not seeing me. I recognized him as the angel from the church window, but then again as someone I had once known long ago.
I walked on through the village. Walls were pulled back like curtains so that I could see inside the houses. In one there was a woman lying in the sour stink of a dark room while a mass of devils crawled over her naked body. Her husband was with her, and even though his face was turned from me I was suddenly afraid of him.
In another room in another house a woman was sitting upright in bed while all her life walked before her eyes, fast and then slow, the years unfolding into each other as she watched them.
There was the man who was old enough to remember the time when the Great Pestilence had come to the village. And there was the red-haired girl and the man with a red tongue, and all the others who lived here; a crowd of them jostling together.
Which was when I saw the leper, or to be more precise, I heard him, since it was the beating of the wooden clapper that warned me of his approach. He was just passing the boundary stone close to the last house and was walking straight towards me. His body was draped in a long brown cloak and his face was shielded by a hood.
The leper was the only one here who was a complete stranger to me. I knew nothing about where he had come from or where he was going. I had no idea of what he had looked like before he became ill or how badly he had been disfigured by the sickness. He walked past me without saying a word and was gone.
I went back along the path that led to the wooden hut and the fishing boats. I had decided to see what it was that the man had found washed up by the tide.