Leprosarium; Napkin; Street


I remember lovely sunny October day: last year of medical school. Field trip to the leper colony 100 km outside of Moscow, town of Zagorsk. That is how lepers live: small apartments in one-story barracks, thick cabbage soup, cabbage from the nearby village, thick smell of the slow-smoldering life as you enter the porch of the dwelling.

The fall around here is crisp, blue with early streaks of long strong winter. The foliage is down, but still alive deep down. It’s alive just getting by the lives of creatures not able to return to previous life and just awaiting the all canceling frost.

Skin signs: hard leprosy, used to be 6 million lepers around the world, conservatively speaking. Here on the outskirts of the provincial town of Zagorsk—is a quiet silent harbor nurturing bacillus of Hansen, smoldering under the dying skin.

Family couple of older lepers eat there and smile at the visiting students, field trip from the infectious disease practice. Students are gone to the city by the sunset. Lepers will stay here forever. We have to rush to the last train.

Little chapel is boarded, some abandoned warehouse, and jackdaws scream and fly away from the meaningless roof into the empty sky. Forty minutes to the train station across half-frozen field. Cold wind brings definite smell of the sulfites, then all of a sudden changing to the smell of the manure, then burning old boots and peat.

The city dump of this ancient habitat is somewhere close, settlement with all the symptoms of protein malnutrition on half-empty streets and in short line outside the little shop with empty shelves.

All of what I saw then and all that I remember have no logic. It’s only stream of life in one direction beyond the horizon toward Invisible Island where we all gather at one time.


They were sitting at the table as usual. And as usual he insisted that they would change the table, closer to the wall, nearer the window, to make sure that the table would not wobble. She was hiding her smile with light sadness, but on the surface, mockingly, as always. He was trying to hide his belly under the surface of the table, under the tablecloth, and clandestinely opened the upper button of his pants and a little bit the zipper. Habitually she pretended that she didn’t see. His face expressed customary light excitement and expectation before dinner. As he always said: Dinner is not just consumption of food, not a digestion but an ancient ritual of the communion, merger, trust, and yes, to a certain degree, common digestion. She noticed that he somehow left a little triangle underneath his lower lip unshaven. The server approached and announced the chef’s specials in some distinguished manner somewhat solemnly. They both knew beforehand what they were interested in, but habitually did not interrupt the server, older middle-aged man with indefinite Eastern European accent. “I could do it if I had to,” as always proudly thought the husband, but he didn’t say it, feeling his wife’s sight. She knew this phase as all others, at any rate. Everything went by according to the long-established plan, and they both knew well that one bottle of California merlot was not enough to last until the end of the main course with artichokes and asparagus. They conducted the usual table talk. But despite its habituality and repetition, after a certain age they both started to find in such conversation some support for themselves and to their relations in that turbulent sea of life, and before some vague fear, unknowingness beyond the dark window of the restaurant. And all of sudden, with nostalgic feeling of the teenage prank, so characteristic for him in the younger years (“Peekaboo,” when their daughter was still little), he threw a large white clean restaurant napkin over his head. It covered his face, leaving only his torso with shirt and necktie and jacket as if they were just hanging in the room across the table. She immediately felt as if something irrevocably changed. His face disappeared behind the white surface, and there was nothing implying that he ever existed. Still her feminine soul was not scared, but somehow elevated, and became prepared for the distant faraway lonely flight. Flight where only she could see the landscape of the memories of future and past lives.


I remember that stone wall along the street and smoke over the invisible river.

I am one of them, but my presence is unknowable for them, and still I am

one of the shadows on the wall calling, stretching

my hand, but one cannot cross that street.

This twilight world is quiet, no sound.

The shadows on the wall vanished without a trace.

The memory of stone akin the ivy crawling,

mycelium of memory, cemetery thicket.

But the dispute is meaningless—

hand doesn’t reach the birds flown away.

The gate’s ajar. But no people, no faces.

And yet everything shows that the life has existed and exists.

As if Almighty passed by touching

with his wing night shadow of the tower.

His trace disappeared.

But on the street, those two figures continue their endless discourse.

And they don’t hear him.

He lives in the noise of lindens and in the touch of wind from invisible fields beyond the city.

Somewhere nearby the child is not asleep.

He hears the hubbub of adults, and then it’s a quiet hour.

One cannot hear the sound of bodies, but only whisper of the souls along the street.

Where an angel has just flown by.

There is no exit, but it’s not a dead end.

The boundaries of the city lie in the unconsciousness of fields.

There is still light.

Transparent early evening.

It’s time to go home—toward the light, toward smell of life.

But there is no place to go.

Last trace is cold. The disposition of bodies, geometry of gesture—

along the Lobachevsky lines along the haze beyond the horizon.

But there is no horizon.

There is only street as a line of the lost names of the last words—

an immeasurable remainder of the unsaid.

Then figures are melting and the speech disappears in lightening trunks of forest.

And only flock knows if birds have souls or it’s only clot of the smooth musculature

harboring its tart gulp.

Still places have souls.

Thus irradiated forest carries its destiny through nuclear ravine.

The street almost empty, dust, rustle of fate.

Although there is no promise that anybody will reach his destination.

And in the morning there are no coins left, no things dropped in the twilight by the stone gates.

Nobody will come.

Beyond the window life is silent like a still life, unmovable until next century.

There is thin pulse—life on a thin thread.

Light of the dark eyes in the gloomy dilution of the darkness.

That’s how my family is: everyone scattered.

The molecules of love dissipated around the world,

and on the way there I am ефдлштп to myself,

but woman—fate would listen for a moment, nod, and then slowly leave

along this quiet street beyond the frame without an answer.

A native of Moscow, Andrey Gritsman emigrated to the United States in 1981.  He is a physician who is also a poet and essayist. His work has appeared in many literary journals and was on the Short List for the PEN American Center Biennial Osterweil Poetry Award.  Andrey Gritsman runs the Intercultural Poetry Series in a popular literary club, Cornelia Street Café, in New York City.