A hand clawed briefly at his sleeve. It had shot out at surprising speed. The traveller attempted to disengage himself, to no avail. The beggar clung tenaciously to his clothing.
‘Please, spare me some sympathy, spare me some money!’ implored the voice. Hollow pits had long since replaced the eyes. The disfigured features twisted themselves into a grimace. The traveller had been warned. Stay clear, was the message, and he had long since stifled any feelings of pity. The beggars were everywhere, victims of an unknown plague. The beggar’s other hand reached out, grasping his clothing with surprising strength and pulling him closer. The traveller felt hypnotised. Fear of the disease and the abnormal rooted him to the spot. The beggar spoke again: ‘What if this happened to you? What if you had had my disease? Would you not wish for pity, and money? Mostly we receive a few coins; it helps us keep body and soul together. Social outcasts are we, but our feelings are nonetheless human.’ The beggar spoke lucidly, coherently.
‘Yet what we have need for is solace, and companionship. Why is that so strange? This disease rots our bodies, not our souls. It isn’t contagious, so there is nothing to fear. We’re not abnormal, it’s just that something abnormal has happened to us.’ The beggar lifted his head towards the traveller.
‘My name is Sarton,’ he said. ‘I thought it might help you understand.’ The beggar’s grasp released abruptly.
‘Go in peace,’ he whispered.
The traveller stumbled away, fear gripping his very essence. The following morning he was there again, this time searching for the strange beggar, whose words had dwelt in his mind all the time he had dined. His five-course meal and feather-soft bed had not held so much attraction as it normally would have. The television had seemed so superficial and thoughtless. His evening had become empty and meaningless. A dark sadness had enveloped him.
Why did he choose me? came the thought, unbidden to his mind. Yet the more he had thought, the more he had felt. So it wasn’t surprising really that now that he found himself searching for the beggar.
He arrived at the same spot, but Sarton was not there; he had expected him to be in the same place as the day before. The traveller crouched down and spoke urgently to another unfortunate soul. ‘Excuse me, where’s Sarton?’ he asked, the beggar’s words from yesterday still reverberating in his mind.
The other beggar cocked an ear. ‘I remember you,’ he whispered, cracked lips masking the sound a little. He fixed his face sightlessly on the traveller’s. ‘He’s dead.’
The traveller sank back with a jolt and tried to speak. No words came.
The beggar spoke again, calmly. ‘I was his friend. They carried him off to the pit this morning.’ He sniffed the air. ‘It’ll rain soon, I reckon,’ he said. ‘You know, he left you a message. Would you like to hear it? I thought you might. He said: “the worst thing is that we cannot cry.”’
The traveller stumbled away with a sob that was wrenched from the heart. Behind him he barely heard the beggar turn to the more pressing matters in hand.
‘A penny for the afflicted!’