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"Lilith! You must come quickly. Lilith!"
The sound of her name penetrated her sleep. She focused on the language that was being used. English. Not Hindi. One of the nuns rather than a villager. Slowly she opened her eyes and turned her head toward the noise. The heavy tarp that served as the door to her hut was pulled back. Sister Joseph filled the space.
"They are asking for you on the hill. You must hurry."
The plump older woman stepped inside and instantly Lilith pushed herself farther back on her sleeping mat. "Do not get too close. I am not dressed."
The sister obeyed and turned away. Lilith got out of bed and began to assemble what had become her unique habit. First, a cotton slip. Then, a long bolt of silk she pulled over her head that covered her from neck to foot, shoulder to wrist. Ties secured the material to her body, making the uniform less cumbersome. At times she was sure she must be mistaken for a mummy.
Finally she reached for the gloves that sat on her writing table, which was the only other piece of furniture in the small hut other than her sleeping mat. As she slid the gloves up her arms Lilith felt the material cling to her skin. It was a sensual feeling that she allowed herself to enjoy for only a second.
"The brothers have need of your medicine," Sister Joseph told her with her back still turned to her. The brothers were Buddhist monks rather than Christian brothers, but the nuns who lived in the village situated below the monastery treated them with as much reverence.
"They have a visitor among them. Looking for retreat, I think. I believe a leg wound has festered."
"Leprosy?" Lilith asked. "Has he become infected by one of thevillagers?"
"No." Sister Joseph shook her head. "He hasn't been exposed to anyone long enough. Unless he contracted it somewhere else. Listen to us," she said sheepishly. "A man comes in with a wound and we automatically assume it is one of the rarest and hardest-to-contract diseases in the world. We're growing paranoid I think."
"But this is our world," Lilith reminded her. "It is what we see every day. It is natural to make assumptions. I will go to the brothers. I'll see what can be done."
The woman backed out of the hut and Lilith followed her at a distance. It was still night, but nearing morning. Animals in the forest just beyond the village sent signals to their comrades to start the day. They were familiar sounds but still exotic to Lilith's ears even after all this time.
She followed the path that led from her camp up a steep hill that was flattened at the top. A hundred years ago devout monks had come together to build a monastery as a tribute to Buddha. Today it served the same purpose.
Deep in the region of Arunachal Pradesh, near the China border, this track of forest was almost forgotten to the rest of India. As were her human inhabitants. It was why the monks had claimed this space in their search for solitude. It was why the lepers had been banished here, ejected from society.
It was why Lilith called it home.
The trail steepened noticeably but Lilith didn't falter, her legs well used to the path. Although she chose to live among the Christian nuns who had come to care for the lepers, it was the monks with whom she continued her spiritual education. Poor Sister Joseph tried so faithfully to convert Lilith. But while she enjoyed the stories of the man known as Jesus, for in many ways he was also an outcast from his people, there was something about the monks' teachings that called to her.
Maybe because she was surrounded by so much death. The idea of coming back to life to try again appealed to her. Obviously there was more to the religion and Lilith embraced all facets of it, but it was the idea of returning as something different, someone different, that mattered to her.
Not that she ever planned to tell Sister Joseph. The woman would be crushed if she knew there was no hope for conversion. Still, despite their varying religious beliefs, the monks and the nuns had no problem coexisting. If neither subscribed to the other's beliefs they still respected the sacrifice each had made for their faith.
As she climbed higher, the air thinned. Lilith could see the structure in the dark. The monastery was built of stone and mud bricks. An impressive sight, it rose three stories and had over a hundred different rooms linked by long corridors. It was a square design with an orchid garden in the center that Lilith knew the monks referred to as the inner sanctum.
At the main entrance Lilith pulled down hard on a rope several times to announce her presence. The bell clang could be heard throughout the compound.
Eventually the door opened and beyond it she recognized Tenzig, one of the younger brothers. His head was shaved and he was wrapped in the traditional saffron-colored robe that declared his spiritual path. His expression was as serene as ever. He stepped back to allow Lilith to enter, clearly not surprised by her arrival and not in any particular rush. They spoke in the hushed tones of his language as he directed her through the labyrinth of hallways.
"Tell me again, why am I here?" Not that she didn't trust Sister Joseph's version of events, but she found herself needing the distraction of conversation. There was always risk involved when her medicine was needed. It made her nervous. She could feel her heart racing just thinking about what needed to be done.
"A visitor came to us. Looking for peace. He walked with a limp. Now the fever has taken him and we fear the only recourse is to remove the leg. He needs to sleep before we can do this. You understand?"
"Sister Peter has seen him?"
"She is already with him. We went to her first."
Sister Peter had recently arrived from the United States. A medical-school dropout who had been called by her faith to take a different path, she had quickly proven herself an invaluable asset among the monks, the nuns and the villagers. If Sister Peter was concerned the leg would have to come off, then the situation was as grave as Tenzig said.
"You can't take him to a town? Find a real doctor?" Lilith could only imagine the shock the man would suffer to be put to sleep against his will only to wake and find a leg missing.
"There is no time and it is too far to travel even by automobile. Also, we think he would not want to leave this place. We think he would not want the exposure that his wound might cause in a village large enough to have a hospital."
Lilith nodded. Many who came to the monastery who claimed to be searching for peace were actually looking to get lost. This man, it seemed, was no exception. A criminal maybe. Dangerous possibly. Perhaps she would serve a greater good by giving him more than a numbing sleep. It would be so easy. A simple touch.
If only death weren't so very disgusting to her.
They stopped beside a door and Tenzig knocked gently. He was commanded to enter. Inside the room Lilith saw another brother, Punab, sitting side by side with Sister Peter as the two of them tended to the man on the bed.
The patient was naked but for a cloth that had been draped over his hips, no doubt in deference to the sister's sensibilities. His hair was thick and ink-black. Damp, too, from either the fever or the cold compresses being applied.
His chest was broad, well defined with muscle and covered with the same inky-black hair as what was on his head. His legs, too, looked thick. Strong. It was as if he exuded strength despite the flush of fever on his cheeks. There was a heaviness to the man without being fat. A solidness that his entire body conveyed. Even in his hands and his feet.
Lilith wondered how much his body matched his spirit. If they were at all close, she predicted he would be stubborn. It would not be easy to kill this man. Certainly it would take more than a mere fever.
Glancing over the rest of his body, she saw, high on the inside of his left thigh, the infected injury. Almost perfectly round, it was viciously red and oozing pink puss.
Definitely a bullet wound. Lilith had seen enough of them when hunters poaching tigers had missed their mark and found people instead.
"I can't get his fever down. And he won't let us get close enough to the wound to see what's causing the infection," Sister Peter relayed.
Lilith could see the concern on the woman's face. Her dedication was unquestionable, but she was not a doctor. She would feel responsible if something happened to him in her care even knowing that she had done everything she could. If for no other reason, Lilith wanted to help her friend. She would do what was asked of her regardless of the risk.
"He won't let you?" Lilith asked. "He is weak from fever. Can't Punab and Tenzig hold him down?"
Both monks were smaller than the man on the bed and more used to meditation and study than fighting, but surely in this man's weakened condition the two of them could subdue him.
Punab, much older than his sister counterpart, a fact emphasized by his deeply lined face, shook his head. "This man is not like others. This man is a warrior. He'll not be held unless he chooses."
Lilith translated the monk's words since she knew Sister Peter still hadn't grasped the nuances of Hindi.
"A warrior, huh? More likely a thief who got caught on the run. We've seen his kind come to the monastery before. They say they're looking for enlightenment then after a few days, when they figure the coast is clear, they disappear. No doubt this one would have done the same if he hadn't gotten sick."
He didn't look like a thief, Lilith thought. Something about his jaw, the shape of it, made him seem too proud. He was Indianshe could determine that by the bronze color of his skinbut his features had been sharpened by another race. She watched him for a long minute and decided that while he was not a thief, she could not say for certain that he wasn't a killer.
Warriors killed, after all.
Suddenly his eyes popped open and he focused on her. "Don't let them take my leg."
Startled by his sudden alertness, Lilith took a step back. He spoke in English and his accent was British.
"You need to rest," she replied in his language. "I can help you sleep. I can take the pain away."
"No," he rasped. "They'll take it while I sleep. You can't let them."
Lilith moved closer to the bed. Impulsively she reached out to him, thinking to adjust the damp cloth on his head and soothe it over his face to remove the droplets of sweat that beaded his forehead. But she caught herself before she touched him.
It wasn't in her nature to touch anyone. For comfort or anything else. Even when she was wearing her gloves. But clearly the man needed to be assured. What Lilith didn't know was if her assurance would be a lie.
She met Sister Peter's steady gaze. The two women were a stark contrast to each other. The nun's blond hair to Lilith's dark. Sister Peter's brown eyes to her gray. Tall where Lilith was not. But despite their physical, religious and cultural differences they communicated easily and without many words.
"I can try. No doubt something was left inside the wound. A bit of dirt or debris. I can try to cut around it and clean it out. But if the infection worsens "
There was no need to finish the thought. It was a common misassumption that leprosy somehow caused limbs to simply fall off a person's body. The truth was that the numbness caused by nerve damage often resulted in minor cuts left untreated for too long. In the heat and humidity, infection would take hold quickly, leaving amputation as the only recourse.
Lilith had been witness to the procedure too many times since she'd arrived here from Nepal. Glancing down again at the man on the bed, she found it hard to imagine how he would handle the loss of his limb. Clearly the fear of it was enough to keep him fighting through the delirium of fever.
"Let us see what we can do. After all, it is such a nice leg." Lilith smiled softly and Sister Peter smiled back. Tenzig and Punab made no comment.
"The cup, Tenzig." Lilith pointed to a shelf that held a clay cup used for transferring water out of a larger bowl in the room that was continually kept filled. Cleanliness was serious business for the monks and they spent nothing short of an hour every day rinsing their bodies and their spirits of dirt.
Carefully Lilith tugged at the material bunched at her fingers until the glove slipped off. She started to reach for the cup that Tenzig filled when she saw him freeze.
She might have thought that it was fear of her that had him rooted to the floor, if she hadn't seen the quick glance he gave toward the bed. Lilith heard the gasp of Sister Peter before she actually felt the grip of a hand around her left wrist.
The man's grip was tight but it was clear his intention wasn't to hurt her. Merely to get her attention.
He had it.
Her eyes were pinned to where his hand circled her delicate wrist less than an inch away from the exposed skin of her hand. "Let go," she said softly.
"You can't let them do it," he said. "You can't let them cut it off. No matter what happens you can't. I must be able to run. I have to run. "
Lilith looked away from where he was holding her and focused on his flushed face. "I won't let them take it.You will run again. You will see. But you need to let me go."
He said nothing. His chocolate eyes remained fixed on hers.
She tried to smile gently the way she thought a mother might smile to give ease and comfort to a sick child. "It is going to be all right. I won't let them hurt you. Let go now."
"Your face " he whispered then swallowed hard.