Leila balanced the water jug on the top of her head to start the long walk back home. People bustled through the streets of Jerusalem, some off to market pushing against those on their way up the hill to the temple. She expertly stepped to the side as a laden donkey lumbered up the tiny street. Not a single drop of water fell upon her head and she smiled.
She weaved her way through the throng until she reached a small side street. Leila heard a commotion behind her and turned to find a mob headed her way. People shouted and jeered, forcing bystanders aside as they drove a solitary figure ahead of them. The crowd opened a wider birth around the figure than seemed possible in the narrow confines, but as the mob drew close, Leila could see why. The woman that hobbled before the mob was trying to cover her face, but the blisters were still visible. A leper. “Unclean!” the leper shouted as she drew near.
The woman tripped and fell to the ground in front of Leila and grunted. Leila moved to help the woman and drops of water fell on her head. The cool water startled her to awareness and her hand stopped, no more than a hand’s breadth from the woman. Realizing her mistake, Leila recoiled.
The leper looked up at Leila, brown eyes haunted and full of tears. Her face contorted with fear and anguish, but she forced words from her blistered lips. “Unclean!” she shouted as she stumbled to her feet. She choked out a sob, covering her face again with her shawl and fled before the mob. Leila ducked backward into the side street, letting more water slosh out of her jar in her haste.
The mob screamed curses at the woman, throwing rotten food and pebbles at her as she disappeared from Leila’s sight further down the street.
Leila breathed hard, unable to believe she had almost forgotten herself and touched the woman. Such a stupid mistake. Well, she had paid for it with precious water. She might have to go fetch water again today. Unable to shake off the experience, she felt uneasy for the rest of her journey home.
She pulled the water jug down from her head with practiced motions as she reached the small house. It was quiet here, protected from the cries of the mob and the street. She ducked in through the door.
Setting the water pitcher on the small table, she busied herself with her next set of chores.
“Leila,” said a quiet voice. She spun, hand going to her mouth.
A dark figure loomed before the doorway to the bedroom, swathed in coverings. “Who’s there?” Leila asked, her voice shaking.
“Leila, it’s me. Simon.”
She breathed a sigh, her hand going to her chest. “Don’t scare me like that. Shouldn’t you be at the shop?”
“I don’t think I can go back there,” Simon said, his voice rough.
“What do you mean? They have no more work?” Leila grew concerned. No work, could mean they had to move again.
“No, not that. Something worse.”
Leila couldn’t quite comprehend what he was saying. She moved forward, preparing to embrace him and tell him it would be all right.
He took a step back, holding out a hand toward her. “Don’t come closer.”
She stopped, her mind reeling. “No. No, tell me it isn’t true.” The emotion came upon her with such force that that she screamed at him. “Tell me it isn’t true.”
Simon, her husband, stepped forward slowly and pulled back the covering from around his head. Leila choked on a sob, her body convulsing as she fell to the floor, her knees no longer supporting her weight. She wept there, body racked with sobs. Part of her expected to feel his arms around her as when her blood had covered the bed last year, proclaiming for the final time her barrenness. But his arms did not encircle her, and she knew why.
She looked up, eyes blurred with tears. “Simon,” was all she could force out of her lips.
Her husband sat slumped against the doorway to the bedroom, not looking at her. Instead, he was staring at his hands that were starting to show the same blisters as his face.
“I will go to the temple today,” he said, his voice firm. “I will send word to my brother.”
“No,” she said through tears, shaking her head.
“He will accept you into his home,” Simon continued as if she hadn’t spoken.
Leila’s mind reeled, unable to process the situation. Simon kept talking, trying to comfort her, but she stopped listening. All she could think about was a leprous woman herded before a mob. Thrust from the city by an uncaring people only to waste away in exile.
Simon stood slowly. “This will not grow easier the longer I wait. I must go to the temple. It is the law.” Leila could imagine it playing out, Simon before the priests being declared unclean and then driven from the city.
She could see the whole rest of her life playing out before her, the barren widow of a leper. Her barrenness was like a plague unto itself, isolating her with just as much finality. No one would know from looking at her, but she would be an exile all the same. By all rights, Simon should have divorced her her curse was confirmed. But Simon was a different kind of man. That was why she loved him. No other man would marry her now. She would live out the rest of her days alone in another man’s house accepting his charity.
Leila stood to her feet. Simon was there facing her, blisters marring the bearded face she loved with her whole being. She set her jaw, then surged toward him. Leila clutched at his surprised face and kissed him with everything she had in her.
He recoiled, pushing her away with a cry. “What have you done!”
Leila licked her lips, savoring the taste of him.
Simon seized her arms in his meaty hands, shaking her. “What are you thinking? You wish to be cursed among men?”
Leila looked away, the words sticking in her throat. “I am already cursed.” Her voice strengthened and she met his gaze. “I would rather be twice-cursed and with you than cursed and without.”
“You will become a leper!” he said, tears running down his face. “You will be exiled and die!”
“Then I shall have my wish to grow old and die with you,” she said. She took his calloused hands in hers. “We shall grow old in suffering, and then we shall pass from this world together.”
A half laugh burst from him. “You stubborn, ridiculous woman,” he said his tone angry. But there was half a smile on his lips. “I shall love you until my breath leaves me.”
“As shall I,” she said. “Come, let us go to the temple.”
The water jug sat half full on the table, forgotten and alone.