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Authors: Julia Blackburn

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The Leper's Companions

BOOK: The Leper's Companions
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JULIA BLACKBURN's
The Leper's Companions

“One of the most trenchant treatments of voice and viewpoint in recent memory.”

—
The Boston Globe

“Blackburn's fluid, lighter-than-air prose makes the journey irresistible. It has the vivid splendor of a Technicolor dream that can suddenly turn into nightmare.”

—
Newsday

“The power of Blackburn's book lives in her language.… Blackburn's words, eminently edible, taste of the strange nourishment the best novels provide.”

—
Salon


The Leper's Companions
revels in Bosch-like imagery, creating a dreamscape where magic and rough realism bump convincingly against each other.… Invites comparisons to such twentieth-century fabulists as Italo Calvino and Jeanette Winterson.”

—
The Commercial Appeal
(Memphis)

“Rich and vivid. The reader will experience another world.”

—
San Antonio Express-News

JULIA BLACKBURN
The Leper's Companions

Julia Blackburn lives in Suffolk, England, with her husband and two children. She is the author of
The Emperor's Last Island, Daisy Bates in the Desert
, which was shortlisted in Great Britain for the Waterstones/Esquire Nonfiction Award, and
The Book of Color
, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. All of these are available from Vintage Books.

ALSO BY JULIA BLACKBURN

The Emperor's Last Island

Daisy Bates in the Desert

The Book of Color

FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, AUGUST 2000

Copyright © 1999 by Julia Blackburn

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York in 1999.

Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage International and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to New Directions Publishing Corp. for permission to reprint “Away Melancholy” by Stevie Smith from
The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith
. Copyright © 1972 by Stevie Smith. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the Pantheon edition as follows:
Blackburn, Julia.
The leper's companions / Julia Blackburn.
p.    cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-82925-2
I. Title.
PR
6052.
L
3413
L
4    1999
823′.914—
DC
21

Author photograph © Jerry Bauer

www.vintagebooks.com

v3.1

Contents
1

O
ne 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.

BOOK: The Leper's Companions
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