I became aware of author Keyan Bowes‘s short story Lepers when I received it as part of the latest newsletter from Mysterion Magazine.
Since I’m interested in having at least one of my short stories published by that periodical, I thought it might be a good idea to see what they think is acceptable fare.
Oh, Mysterion is:
…an ezine of Christian-themed speculative fiction edited and published by the husband and wife team of Donald S. Crankshaw and Kristin Janz. We seek quality speculative fiction with Christian characters, themes, or cosmology. Join us as we rediscover the mysteries of the faith!
Lepers is a little over a thousand words long, qualifying it for something just a tad longer than flash fiction. It chronicles the brief encounter between Vijay and his former friend Raj, who he was told had died while studying abroad, but in fact, has become something like a zombie.
The story is set in Mumbai, where apparently Leprosy or Hansen’s Disease is common…except it isn’t Hansen’s Disease. Vijay discovers that Raj, and many of the other lepers living on the streets in filth and depravity, are actually undead creatures, either cursed for converting away from Hindu, or people who were used by a tantric for their magic after having been promised wealth or other benefits.
More than anything, Raj seeks a release from his hideous existence and offers a knife to Raj along with the plea to kill him (again). Apparently these undead can die a second time, but only if someone else does the deed.
Naturally, Vijay hesitates, but then picks up the knife. Other lepers witnessing this, beg Vijay to kill them too, somewhat mirroring how lepers would often approach Jesus with pleas to heal them.
However, Vijay finally drops the knife, unable to commit the unthinkable. The lepers call him a coward, while one of them picks up the knife and decapitates Raj, providing him with the mercy of a second death.
It’s a very short story and a baffling one. Who are these lepers and what is this strange curse or disease? Where did it come from? Is it isolated to Mumbai, or are other parts of India or the world affected?
Whatever the affliction, it isn’t Hansen’s Disease, and although the story alludes to it, the disorder certainly isn’t among the series of Biblical skin diseases that are a result of the various sins described in Leviticus 13.
After Raj is dispatched by the other leper, instead of running away in terror as one might expect, Vijay pauses and salutes the man, who responds with a nod before returning to a nearby fire.
As Vijay makes his way home, he ponders:
Questions whirl through his mind as Vijay continues his long lonely walk. What has he done, or not done? Was it his duty to help Raj by killing him? Certainly not the other man, the leper. His new faith is clear that you could only take a human life if… well, if you were a soldier. Or an executioner. Or law enforcement in the US, where policemen kill people all the time. Police in India might torture suspects, but they don’t kill them. Anyway, the Bible is quite clear about healing lepers, not killing, even mercy-killing. But the point isn’t lepers, is it? It’s Raj. Was Raj alive?
Had Vijay dropped the knife just in time to avoid a murder, or was he what the man said, a coward who failed his friend? Tomorrow, he’ll seek out Father Thomas for answers.
I can’t imagine in what reality a man could discover that there is a community of cursed, undead people living in plain sight of the human population of one of the most heavily populated cities in India, and all he can think about are the social and moral implications of his failing his friend’s request to cut off his head with a knife.
If it were me, after having witnessed such a horror, I’d have run all the way home, locked the door behind me, and curled up on the floor in a fetal position until I could finally stop screaming and crying.
And I can only imagine Father Thomas’s reaction when Vijay tells him about last night’s encounter.
It’s an interesting concept, and given that Bowes has “lived in nine cities in seven countries, [and] visited many more,” she no doubt has plenty of experiences with different locales, including Mumbai, to describe them with genuine authenticity.
Unless she was hampered by a severely limited word count when this wee tale was originally published in Big Pulp in 2009, it should have been developed more in order to do the subject matter and the characters justice. This is a story that has merit to be sure, but it really needed to be expanded, and by quite a bit, in order to explore its full potential.
This author has been published in a variety of anthologies and periodicals. Visit Amazon to find out more.
EDIT – 1-17-2019: Turns out Big Pulp has a 2,500 word count limit on submissions, so that explains why Bowes’s story seems so truncated. I know it’s been ten years, but I’d still like to see this story/universe expanded.