How to Escape from a Leper Colony

By Tiphanie Yanique


The nuns said that it was pardonable because of depression and stress. But I know that these are words used when we want to forgive a crime but know we cannot. Babalao Chuck said that when they found the gun it was still in the volunteer’s pulsing hands. Young Lazaro was covered in his mother’s blood and body. Her red sari redder.

Killing a young mother is not such a big thing if the mother is a leper, especially if she was a leper when she conceived. Nuns are not supposed to have romantic feelings for each other or for priests or for us. This is something they are thought to have in common with lepers. We are not supposed to have desires.

The volunteers at the leper colonies were young Trinidadian doctors and British journalists and criminals forfeiting time in jail for time among lepers, and sometimes young people who carried tiny Bibles in their pockets. No one ever told me which kind killed Lazaro’s mother. The volunteer was asked to leave and that was to be the end of it.

What evil thing Lazaro will do later we will forgive him for without remorse because we know his past and because we know he is one of us. For a leper, many things are impossible, and many other things are easily done. Babalao Chuck said he could fly to the other side of the island and peek at the nuns bathing. And when a man with no hands claims that he can fly, you listen. He would return and tell us about the steam in the nuns’ showers. About how they had soap that lathered. How they had shampoo that smelled like flowers.

1st Burn the dead

When I came to Chacachacare it was 1939, and I was only 14. I came for two reasons. The first was to bury my father who had lived there for three years and only just died. The second was because I had become a leper. It was in my arm. The same arm my mother held as she walked me to the dock and left me there. Her cotton sari swishing the ground as she ran back to the main street, to catch a wagon that would take her to the train that would take her the whole day to get back to Siparia, way down south in Trinidad. I thought of her sitting for hours, her face against the glass, the hole in her nose empty because she had sold the gold to buy me a used red sari and a bag of sweets as a gift to my new caretakers.

I also sat that whole day. I was waiting for the nuns to come get me. I pretended I could hear the sounds of the junction that the wagon driver had dropped us off at. It wasn’t San Fernando or Port-of-Spain, which we had only rushed by in the train, but it was the biggest, loudest place I had ever really been. It was like a wedding in my village with all the food laid out for me to stare at. Men crowded around a small stand that sold raw oysters. They dipped the shells in hot pepper sauce before slurping the meat down their throats. Women reached up for brightly colored buckets and brooms that hung on display. My mother and I rushed by, avoiding getting close to people. We only stopped once to stare at an automobile that roared by in smoke and shielded an African driver who wore bright white gloves. I could not see his passenger. Besides the big work equipment on the plantation, I had never seen a automobile before.

Slowly the festivities disappeared. The busy road turned into a dusty path where there were odd crisscross markings in the dirt that my mother said were from an automobile, like the one we had seen. After hours of walking, and my mother telling stories of her young life in Namakkal, we could more than smell the ocean, we could hear it. And then we were walking along a wood dock with the sea beneath us. My mother sat me down with my legs hanging over the side and pointed to the small mound many miles out into the ocean. That would be my new home, she told me, where the nuns would take me in and bless me with the sacrament of Confirmation when I was older. She did not say, if I lived to be older. Instead she kissed me on the mouth and made me promise not to eat the sweets. And she left. And then it was so quiet, with only the waves and the breeze as sounds of life, that I closed my eyes and pretended that I was back in the junction, eating oysters in pepper sauce, putting them in my mouth with my good hand.

My arm was wrapped and in a sling. When the wagon driver had asked, my mother told him I had broken it and she was taking me to an obeah man. I was ashamed that she had been made to sin, tell a lie, because of me. Even in my mind I could not forget how my elbow was hurting me in a funny way that wasn’t about pain. Even alone on the dock I was too afraid to touch it, to give that arm the healing power of the other one. It is a dangerous thing when a girl is afraid to touch her own body. I was afraid to touch places on me that weren’t even private. And I was going to die for it. Die for having those places.

It was not a parade of white nuns who came for me. It was a lay volunteer, all wrapped in cloth. Someone doing community service for a crime committed or someone doing penance for a sin confessed. “Get in the boat,” he directed. In his voice I knew that he was a man, for nothing in his gauzed body revealed it. I could not tell if he was Indian or African or French. The skin around his eyes was covered in a dark protective salve. We did not speak as we motored the five miles to Chacachacare.

At the Chacachacare dock he told me to go, go. I heaved myself—one handed, out of the boat. The boat sped off to the other, safer, healthy side of the island. I faced the intake house. It was a welcoming hue. Not the color of sores or withered limbs. The walls were blue, a mother’s color, and the trimmings were green, the color of life. I did not think I would be unhappy here.

I presented the bag of sweets to the nun who greeted me. She cradled it with her gloved hands and smiled. Then she sent me to bathe in the sea. “Hurry,” she said. “Before it gets dark.”  I did as I was told. I knew that the Caribbean Sea could heal many things. If you have a cold, go bathe in the sea. If you are melancholy, go bathe in the sea. If you are a leper, go bathe in the sea—but on the leper’s side.

He was there on the beach when I came out of the water. Lazaro was not the name he was born with. He was given that name because he refused to die. He was 16 when I met him that first day; older than me by almost two years but much smaller in size. He had been born in the colony and still showed no signs of leprosy and no signs of leaving. The world would not have him. Surely the leprosy would show soon. In truth, he had no where to go. His mother, a dougla, had passed on her mixed genes. One could not tell if Lazaro was African or Indian—there was talk that there was French in him too. That his father was French. That his father was one of the French priests that came over once a week to serve the Mass. Who is to know? The dougla, the mixed race, might be a type of chameleon. They can claim any heritage they desire. They can claim all if they like. Though it is true that not all will claim them in return.

“Is your father they burning tomorrow?” he asked me as he skipped stones into the water.

The sun was almost down. My sari, a lovely red but frayed in places, clung to me, and I felt cold. He wore only a pair of children’s short pants. I hadn’t thought about my father all day. “I been thinking they would bury him, even though he Indian.”

“You thinking wrong. Here we all Indian, no matter how much African we have in us.”

We began to walk back to the surgery, where I would spend the night. The nuns, who were our nurses, hadn’t decided yet on my treatment. I looked over Lazaro’s small body. “Where your leper part?”

“I all leper.”


He tugged at the crotch of his pants. “In my head.” I expected him to pull his thing out and show it to me shriveled. I waited anxiously. “The next head, rude girl,” he laughed loud enough that I grew ashamed I had been staring. He pointed to his temple. “It’s in my mind.”

On my second day I watched them push my father’s wrapped body into the crematorium. The nun who had sent me to the sea, Sister Theresa, stood with her many replicas. Their white faces pink with the heat; their hair covered in a veil with a blue band about the forehead. They were all young enough to be my mother—not like the old dogs at my school in Trinidad who wore huge wing-like headdresses. I didn’t understand why they cremated the lepers when they seemed to have so much bare land on the island. When I asked Sister Theresa she told me that this was okay because so many of the lepers are Hindu anyway.

But it wasn’t okay; not really. Because my mother is a Christian and she told me that if I went to Chacachacare the nuns would feed me better than she could, and give me medicine that she could not, and that I would be buried under a stone like Jesus.

There were two churches. One for the Catholics where the nuns joined us on Sundays and one for the Protestants—who were thought of as exotic. There wasn’t any place for Hindus. Though my parents were both Indian, only my father had been Hindu. From him I knew that the Hindu god wasn’t so different from the Christian god…one manifestation came in many dozens of forms while the other version came in only three. But the same god. The same jealous god, the same god who fell in love. The Christian god even sometimes fell in love with men, like King David. “God loved King David the way a woman loved a man.” My mother would slap my father in the face when he said things like that. Then she would accept his cuffs as her martyrdom. When he showed the first signs of leprosy in his fingers she told him that it was God’s punishment. But he would not repent. For me, it was easy to chant about Jesus Christ and slip in a Lord Krishna here and there.

2nd Go to the cinema

For many days the nuns did not know where to put me. I slept in the surgery where they took blood and logged my wounds into a tablet with only my given name, Deepa, in block letters. One option was an Indian woman who had left her child behind with family when she became a leper. She wanted me, but the nuns thought that this might be bad for us both. I, an Indian child, had left a mother behind. It was too perfect to be healthy. The nuns were not keen on putting me with a young man or even with a man and his wife. I could be temptation. Nuns knew about temptation.

They put me with an old African woman. “This your bed,” she said. “Yours against the wall and mine besides the door. This so if there is a fire my old leper legs will have less distance to go. Is also so I can keep my eye on your comings and goings. There’s all kind of talk of a cure for the leprosy and if you go back to your mother I don’t want she to think I been raising you poorly.” Her name was Tantie B. I had never known my grandparents, since my mother had sailed over from Madras in southern India before I was born. I knew only South Trinidad. Tantie B was my grandmother in Chacachacare. And Lazaro was my brother.

For the first months after I arrived Lazaro would take me for walks. The island was green with palm and sea grape trees. It was loud with the howler monkeys that snored all day and mated all night. Lazaro and I often went beyond the fence that kept the lepers to the leper side. We would climb under it, through a gorge deep enough for a body. It had been first dug out by an iguana and was now maintained by Lazaro. We would climb trees. We would eat green fruit and spit the seeds out, aim for lizards and fire ants. One day Lazaro took me further than he had before.

“There,” he said, pointing down the hill to a clearing with spots of grey. “The nun burial ground. That’s where they put the nuns’ bodies. That’s where I want to be buried.”

“But you ain a nun.”

“Who say?”

“You a boy. You couldn’t be a nun.”

“Why I can’t be a nun? Didn’t Peter take over the family after Jesus dead, like widows does do? Peter get to be buried under some rock. I want a rock over me.”

We climbed down the hill to look at the burial site. The grounds were clean but sharp with ankle high grass. When we walked we made a swishing sound like waves. The stones over the graves were marked: Sister Marie, Lover of the Lord; Sister Margaret, Lover of the Word; Sister Ann, Lover of the poor and the wretched. We sat among the stones. Lazaro inspected my arm.

“Soon they going have to chop some of it away.”

“I know.”

“You afraid?”


“You brave?”


“What you love?”

“My mother.”

“And who she?”

“She…” I paused. I had not seen or heard from my mother in months. I had not expected her to write because she had had very little schooling. But this was the first time in a while that I had even thought of her. What was she now? Was she a new wife? Was she going to be someone else’s mother? “She a woman who works in the cane field. She does pray to Saint Anne to send her signs.” I pushed some dirt around with my toe. “Who was your mother?” I already knew of Lazaro’s tragedy from the little things Tantie B had whispered to me at night, and the stories Babalao Chuck told in the clearing when Lazaro was off helping haul in the goods from the delivery boat. I knew, but it still seemed the right thing to ask. I lowered my head so Lazaro would know I did not mean to be bold.

“My mother is the woman who tell me that I was her miracle. I was her sign.” With his hand he raised my face so that our eyes met. It felt like a penetration and I shuddered a little. “She tell me a island could be like a world.” He spoke softly and I could see that his eyes were heavy with their water. “Try a next thing,” he breathed out, so that I realized there had been a long silence. “Everyone love their mother. What else you love?”

I thought about this. I let my hand run through the sharp grass, feeling the tiny cuts opening on my fingers. “My own-self,” I answered at last.

“Then on your grave it will say ‘Sister Deepa, Lover of She-self’.”

“What your stone going say?”

“Brother Lazaro, Lover of Deepa.”

I sat on a stone with markings that were clear and fresh. I felt the curved coolness though my clothes. It wasn’t smooth. It was rough and the thin cloth of my sari did not do much to cushion. I lifted my feet to try and balance. To try and press the cold stone onto me. “Don’t fall,” he said.

“I won’t.” But I got up anyway. “Why we here?”

“Because we lepers.”

I nodded. “But why here-here.” I spread my arms wide to mean the world.

Lazaro shrugged. “You don’t listen to the priest on Sunday?”

“I never understand what he does say.”

“We here because God want somebody to know him.”

“Like a friend?”

“Like when someone know you it make you real. Like the tree that fall in the forest when nobody was around. God had want to be heard.”

“A tree fall in the forest?”

“All the time.”

I could not help myself. Suddenly my body felt heavy. Suddenly I felt alone. I walked over to him and bent into his small chest. I cried loudly. I cried for my mother. “I’m here,” Lazaro said. And he said it over and over again.

The doctor dressed in white. He covered his hair and face. Only his eyes showed and I couldn’t tell if he was French and tanned, or African but light, or Indian even. I imagined he was my father, who I couldn’t really remember. I imagined this as he leaned into my face and his face turned hazy and then disappeared. I slept as he carved out the muscle around my elbow, which wasn’t much muscle to begin with as I was still only 14 and quite skinny. “They didn’t cut your arm off,” a nun smiled at me when I awoke. And I knew that was something to be thankful for.

I was allowed to watch a movie two nights later at the small cinema that had been built for the volunteers and the nuns. Once a month was leper night—for those of us who had gone to mass every Sunday and for those of us who had been to hospital. I invited Lazaro and they allowed him to come even though neither the Protestant nor the Catholic church could claim him in their congregation. And he was not ill. He was never ill.

The lepers sat in the front rows. The nuns sat in the very back, like chaperons. The movies that were brought were old movies. Movies that were already old in Trinidad, where my mother was. They weren’t even talkies most of them. Silent things with caresses so passionate they made even the nuns giggle loudly.

Movies are like so much art. They can start a revolution. This was not a movie about war. Or about race and oppression, no one talked about those things in 1939. A man loved a woman. A woman loved a man. They were willing to do bad things for that love.

3rd Kill a nun

I was not yet 16 when we made the biggest decision of our lives. Lazaro was almost 18. Appropriate ages for independence. We went into the jungle of the island to build it. We stole wood meant to steady the leper houses. This was more important. Tantie B did not know what we were doing. I was still alive. She was still alive. Babalao Chuck was dead. I did not go to see him cremated. I believed his stories. I believed he had flown away. He said his Orisha had taught him. I told Tantie B that Lazaro and I were going to build us a house, separate and away from the other houses. And because all every leper wanted was a world that was the same as Trinidad, just with limbs that were fragments of the big island’s, a vacation home in leper town didn’t seem unbelievable. “Every young couple need some privacy after they wed,” Tantie B mused. And I imagine she thought that Lazaro and I were in love. I cannot blame her. I thought the same.

But we were not building honeymoon quarters. We were going to build an altar to the goddess Kali. Kali who dances and spins this Kaliyuga world. Bringing the destruction we asked for when we didn’t know what we were asking. “Dear lordess,” I said as I nailed and Lazaro carved. “We is your servants. I drag this wood on my back to show you that we ain no better than dust.” For by then I was resigned to the fact that when I died I would not be buried.

It felt as though we were playing a game. But I knew it was not a game. We would be punished, though we would not be lashed or starved. Hurting our flesh was not something our nuns would ever do. They were of a peaceful order that believed in punishing the mind. We would be forced to do penance. Perhaps we would be separated. Perhaps we would have to spend days in church, he in the Protestant, me in the Catholic, where we prayed and prayed all the prayers we could remember and then were forced to learn others. This was not a small crime. This was blasphemy. They would tell us we were building false gods, though I knew Hindu gods could not be fake, since they were around before Jesus. But even my mother had washed my mouth with soap when I said such things. Even she had wept that perhaps my leprosy was a curse, for the things my father had taught me.

From my mother I learned that Christians love leprosy. Christians are not so passionate about polio or cholera. But Jesus had touched lepers. Jesus cured lepers. Leprosy gives the pious a chance to be Christ-like. Only lepers hate leprosy. Who wants to be the one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes, too. We want to be like Jesus. Or like Shiva. Or like whomever you pray to.

And then we were caught. We had built Kali out of wood. She was rough and less attractive than we knew her to be. But we painted her and a little color made all the difference. We took flowers from the graveyards and placed them at her feet. I did not know how to worship her. I only knew a few Tamil words. My father had taught me the names of the gods and had taken me with him for Diwali celebrations, but both he and my mother spoke only English to me. My mother, I believe, did not want me to learn Tamil. She did not think there would be any need. Perhaps my father felt that since I was Madrasi I would know my language as I knew myself. And yes, I knew some things. I knew how to say please, auntie and thank you, uncle. I knew how to ask for water or the outhouse. I did not know how to pray.

Though his mother had been half Indian, Lazaro also knew only English. First we prayed the Hail Mary. Then we chanted some words in Ibo that Babalao Chuck said were holy. “Sometimes we going call her Yemaya,” Lazaro said. “I want she to have many names.” Then he went on his knees and swept the dust from her feet with a son’s tenderness.

We were caught one night because we had not returned to our huts. We were caught because we had decided, without really deciding, to spend the night with our Kali. We took our bedding and slept at her feet, under the same one blanket. I had grown taller in the almost two years I had been in the colony. Lazaro had remained small. I wanted him to hold me but it was uncomfortable and awkward. So I held him. We slept with his back to my chest. I was aware of my breasts breathing into his shoulder blades. I tried not to cough or sneeze.

To the rest of the colony, lepers and nuns and volunteers, it would be okay for us to marry. But that we might be off fornicating was something unacceptable. They came for us with torches. We awoke to what felt like a dream. We saw the light before we saw their figures. Sister Theresa, a covered volunteer and Tantie B.

“It is worse than we thought!” whispered the young nun loudly. “It’s the occult.” She backed away—her skin darkening with the night.

Tantie B looked around at what we were. Two young people. An altar. The forest. She shook her head but said nothing.

“Better if you had just been fucking,” said the volunteer quietly as he leaned his torch into Lazaro’s face. His body was covered in a white bed sheet. I held onto Lazaro, feeling the heat on my skin and thinking that this was not a dream.

Lazaro blinked furiously. Perhaps he still thought he was dreaming.

“Do it, for God’s sake,” said the nun.

“Yes,” said Tantie. “Then let them come home.”

Under the face wrappings and dark salve, the volunteer’s face twitched. He looked as though he was smiling. Tantie B and the young nun stepped back with what seemed like instinct. Perhaps the volunteer knew he was completing a history as he flung the torch to hit our Kali with the force of someone knocking down a city’s walls. To be certain, Lazaro knew.

Lazaro wrenched away from me. He flew like smoke. The fire seemed to catch him. Then there was a high pitched screaming and a deep adolescent howling. I saw Kali rock on her base. I saw the bushes go up in flames. Then there was heat and darkness. Someone began a furious Hail Mary. Then there was nothing. I woke up in Tantie B’s house, in my cot against the wall.

“You done sleep through the night,’ she said when I opened my eyes. “You been in the surgery.”

I did not think I responded. I was aware that my face was heavy.

“Took the whole night to get the fire down. Then when folks return we find the phone lines all dead. Been cut.” She cleared her throat. “And he missing.”

“Who?” I asked, and heard my mouth make a noise that was muffled. My tongue felt dry, as if coated with cotton.

“They both missing.”

“Who?” I tried again.

“Lazaro and the volunteer.”

I lifted myself off the cot and went to the mirror. My face was covered in gauze. “You been burnt, my daughter,” she said quietly but without looking at me. “And the statue fall on you. Smash your face and knock you out.” I did not feel pain, but I could not shake off the feeling of dreaming. “It going be okay. Maybe for the best,” she said more loudly. I pinched myself where my neck was exposed. I looked behind me and then quickly looked back again. If what was behind me changed then I would know I was dreaming. When I whipped my head around there was a shout: “The beach!” I looked over at Tantie. Her face looked heavier than mine felt. Since we’d lived together she had lost two toes. I’d grown more than two inches. She nodded at me. We stood and walked slowly to our door.

Some people were shouting, calling to each other. Most were huddling forward in whispers. We lepers all walked to the beach. There was already a small crowd forming a circle at the shore. It was easy for Tantie and me to slip in and see. We were on the leper’s side of the beach and there was Sister Theresa’s body—bloated and blue. Her nunnery uniform in pieces and sticking to her body in its fuller places. But she was mostly naked. And she was entirely dead.

“Have mercy,” gasped Tantie. “Next, he coming for me.”

And there was no Lazaro. I thought he might come to me. Give me a sign. Tell me that he loved me. That he was seeking revenge for the injuries I had suffered. But he did not come to me, after all. It was not me he was avenging. I sat on the shore and watched the day unfold. My bandages were due to be changed that evening.

Some of the other lepers sat with me. Perhaps we have a sixth sense. When lunch was cooked Tantie brought it to me and then didn’t leave after we had eaten. I faced inland. I mostly watched the trees and studied the howlers to see if any of them was a boy instead of a monkey. I kept alert so I could decipher any signs from him. Anything that would tell me what to do or where to go. Word came that the boats had all been punctured with large holes and the radios had disappeared. Then I began to watch the big island—the continent of Trinidad—and I wondered how anyone would know to come save us.

I watched the first nun leap off the dock at dusk—right after supper. She made sure she had had a full belly. Then they all lined up to jump. Oh, to see them. Their white robes flapping like wings, then their bodies hitting the water like birds hunting a fish prey. Then see them swimming. Swimming as though they were the hunted ones. And Lazaro, my Lazaro, was still missing.

None of us lepers had left Chacachacare since we arrived. An island can be a world. We knew that the Americans had built a Navy base on Trinidad because there was a war going on somewhere. We’d heard that the Marines were there, too. We might as well have been going to the moon. It was as dangerous and as crazy. We did not line up on the dock like the nuns. We just walked into the ocean. Until we couldn’t walk and we had to swim. And we took only ourselves. It was as if we thought we were coming back. As though we were so powerful we could go to the moon on vacation. I tread water and imagined I heard gun shots and the dancing of boots on stone. My bandages came off in the water. The sea seared into my cheeks and mouth and the soft part around my eyes. Tantie did not come. She stayed behind on the shore and watched me soak into my real life. “I can’t swim,” she said and went to our house without looking back at me.

Now when you sail by on your ships you will say the island is haunted. You will visit the places where we bathed and played our pick-up soccer. You will take pictures of our houses, our beds made-up stiffly like war bunks. The sheets still on them and the pillows well placed. You will see the plates and bowls sitting on the table, the pots and pans lying dirty in the sink. In the surgery, all the records resting open for any curious boaties to rummage through and know that someone’s leg had been chopped off, someone else’s penis. Someone’s arms were too ruined to hold her baby, someone else had been cremated. Someone had begged to be killed in his sleep. The X-ray’s will still be up on the X-ray machine. Our medicines, the early salves that only soothed but didn’t heal and the more modern penicillin, all exposed. Now the government says they will tear down everything and build hotels and casinos so that your ships have a reason to stay in the region and spend money. Or perhaps you will only walk along the shore and swim in our beach.

But if you go deep, you will also find our goddess, rough and elegant. I left her behind. You may visit her if you wipe the dust from her feet. I left for the sea. I swam in the soup with everyone. Nuns and volunteers holding on to lepers for dear life. The dark protective salve running off their faces and revealing them to be of every race. Lepers hoping a shark would come and eat our legs off so at least we’d be lighter and our bodies would stop being a dead weight.

Tiphanie Yanique, assistant professor of English, won a 2006 Boston Review Fiction Prize for this short story. A native of St. Thomas, Yanique, who earned her M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Houston in 2006, joined the faculty in fall 2007.

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