16. San Lazaro leper hospital
He followed her across the courtyard to a row of identical wooden bungalows.
She stopped at the third and climbed two steps onto the front porch.
Her candle flickered in the pre-dawn blackness as she held the screen door open
and whispered, "There are several unoccupied beds, Senor. You
may take your choice. We will talk again after you rest." She
started to leave, but then turned back and handed Ellis the candle. "Be
sure to extinguish the flame before you go to sleep. Fire is the only
thing we have left to fear." Ellis had experienced loss in his lifetime,
but he'd never before known the sting of such utter abandon, and his whole
body trembled as he went inside and closed the screen door behind him.
The dormitory was a long, narrow room with wooden cots side-by-side along
the walls. Ellis tiptoed over the rough-sawn plank floor looking for
an empty bed. He chose the first one he came to, closest to the door. The
other men in the room appeared asleep, so as quietly as he could, he slipped
off his boots and lay down on the bare mattress. He must have closed
his eyes, because when he felt someone gently tapping the bed frame, he looked
up and in the candlelight saw three men standing over him. Draped from
head to toe in dull, brown cotton robes, their faces hidden in shadow, when
they saw Ellis awake, they moved in closer and leaned over his bed. One
of the men said softly, "Welcome to the San Lazaro leper home, Senor ."
"Our Sanctuary of Sorrow," whispered the next.
"Welcome to the living death," said the third. Their haunting, disembodied
voices sent a chill down Ellis' spine.
"Sister Adriana let you keep the candle. You must be a very important
person," the first man said. "I would like to know such a man as you," and
he extended his hand out from the folds in his robe. "Shake."
Ellis tried to sit up, but when the man reached out to him, he shuddered in
revulsion and fell back on his cot. What appeared before him was not
a hand, but a bloated, rotting stump, the fingers gone, and in their place
a line of loathsome, putrescent blisters surrounded by glistening infectious
ulcers. Ellis tried to breath, but his throat closed against his
own vomit as the man waved the offending limb in his face. "Come on, amigo ,
shake hands with me! You are a filthy leper, but I don't mind if you
touch me." The man cackled contemptuously and then returned the hand
to its place inside his robe.
The second man bent low over the bed, his face just inches from Ellis' pillow. His
breath like a newly opened grave, when he spoke his voice was a harsh, guttural
whistle. "I suppose Sister Adriana told you that you are not a leper,
but only a victim of Hansen's disease. She probably said your symptoms might
not progress and may even go away on their own. God bless her. Such
optimism springs from her deep-seated belief in the Almighty, but there are
those of us who do not share her sunny outlook on the future." At
that he reached up and removed his hood.
Ellis' body went rigid with repugnance. Wave after jolting wave of
nausea swept over him. He cried out and tried to turn away, tried to
shut his eyes against the odious specter hovering over him. The
man moved in even closer. His face was completely covered in a
mass of hideous, oozing eruptions. His upper lip was gone and his nose
a huge, grotesquely distorted, gangrenous strawberry. Something projected
from it and moved when he spoke. The man picked up the candle and held
it close to his face. "Sister Adriana made these nostril stoppers to
keep the blow flies from entering my nose and laying their eggs," he wheezed. "You
see Senor , the maggots would feed on my brain and I would die." The
man coughed once, and then to Ellis' horror, he smiled, pulled the wooden pegs
out of his nose and held them out for inspection. "Say farewell to the
joys of human life, amigo. "
The third man stood very still at the foot of Ellis' bed. His
face hidden in the dark shadows under his hood, he spoke, his voice clear and
strong. "Do not be afraid, Senor. We mean you
no harm. We want only to be your friends. You are here with us
now, but you cannot truly be one of us until you abandon all hope. You
will understand more fully when, like us, you have suffered the loneliness
and helplessness of the living dead. Even though your efforts will be
futile and pathetic, you must be diligent in your attempts to come to terms
with your situation, because it is only through a desperate struggle with your
humanity that you will finally realize you have been forever forsaken and disowned. From
this day forward, when you talk to Almighty God, do so in the sure and certain
knowledge your prayers will go unanswered. This, my friend, is
the path to peace of mind in this Sanctuary of Sorrow."
Ellis turned over and buried his face in his old, moth-eaten mattress. He
hadn't cried since a young boy, but this horror more than he could bear, now
his tears came in a gushing torrent and his body quaked with each woeful lamentation. Will
this nightmare ever stop, he asked himself? He wanted to pray for it
to be over, for morning to come, but he was afraid of the unspeakable horrors
the light of day would bring. He wanted to pray for himself, to
ask God to end this cruel joke, to let him go back to his life. He wanted
to pray for death, a quick, merciful death. Whatever lay beyond must
surely be better than this world. He wanted to pray, but then he remembered
the man's words, your prayers will go unanswered.