TICHILESTI, Romania -- No signpost marks the narrow side road off the Black Sea coastal highway. The tiny commune doesn't even appear on official Romanian maps. Centuries seem to roll away as the 2-mile dirt track leads toward whitewashed huts and stone cottages at the head of a steep valley.
Tawny, gnarled figures crouch to toast their corn bread supper over an open fire beneath an ancient willow.
Some have cauliflower ears. Many are missing noses, or have only moist lesions where their eyes once were. One or two have wooden legs. All have lost teeth or fingers; they grip cigarettes between tanned stumps protruding from the knuckles.
"Don't stare, son," chides one. "We're not in a zoo."
This is Tichilesti, Europe's last surviving leper colony. Founded 120 years ago by an order of monks, the "leprosarium" numbered 300 patients in its 1930s heyday, when the biblical scourge was already nearly extinct in the developed world.
Only a couple of dozen old-timers remain. The infirmary is boarded up, except for a side room that serves as an Orthodox church. Inmates live in rough-hewn dwellings they built.
"We're no different from any other village, really," chuckles resident physician Ignescu Barbescu. "Two of our gentlemen haven't spoken to each other in 50 years. No one knows why. We think they quarreled over a woman."
Condemned to isolation by a folk culture that saw their deformities as divine punishment, Tichilesti's "unclean" married among themselves and enjoyed a bucolic idyll of sorts, farming a few fields sloping away from their hillside homes and scouring the surrounding forests and marshes for plants to brew oils and salves to ease their sores.
"Don't feel sorry for me. I give thanks every day for my life," smiles Vorile Tarote, leader of Tichilesti's dwindling Baptist congregation, converted from Romania's majority Orthodox faith by a British army chaplain who stumbled across the commune toward the end of World War II.
"I fish, I have my chickens and my pigs, I grow my maize and tomatoes. I've never wanted for anything."
Until now. The Tichilesti lepers are no longer contagious: After 1952 the Marxist regime began importing Western medicines. But they and some 30 younger outpatients still rely on regular doses of an expensive drug, Danone, to keep them in remission. When the cash-strapped health ministry declined to raise his $150 monthly budget last year, Barbescu had to introduce rationing.
"They said we belonged in a museum," he recalls bitterly. "And they couldn't afford to subsidize a museum."
They did, however, offer a grotesque sop. The Romanian government is auctioning off warehouses full of designer clothing collected by Romania's late dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu, and his wife, Elena, during four decades of state visits and shopping trips to Paris and Milan. Officials overseeing the sale have promised that any "slightly soiled" items will be donated to Tichilesti.
Not, parliamentary spokesman Mihai Nica adds hastily, that anyone will be able to tell.
"They'll be getting furs, pullovers, crocodile skin handbags -- all very chic, and all in very good condition, because they were worn just once or twice," he says. "We can't afford to give more money, but at least they'll be warm."
The thought of tottering around the winter mud in the old despot's silk pajamas and mink coat coaxes a wry cackle from septuagenarian Mihai Buzatu. The bureaucrats, he grumbles, have clearly missed the point.
"They don't understand, do they? We need the tablets, the Danone. We need it now," he wheezes, pausing in his daily round of the hen house. "If we don't get it, this thing could start spreading again."
That may already be happening. Last summer, a decade after he was pronounced cured and discharged, 32-year-old Severin Ternu was readmitted with the telltale light patches on the skin that herald the onset of an attack.
Leprosy is the least infectious of all the major communicable diseases. Of 19 children born in Tichilesti over the years, all were born healthy and left to join mainstream society on reaching adulthood. But poor diet and the presence of other chronic illnesses increase the chances of relapse or fresh infection.
"This is an ailment of the poor, the ill-nourished, with limited access to health care," says the regional hospital director, Mihai Romila. "If they really think these people are just a bunch of relics who will die soon, they're wrong."
Like most of Tichilesti's inhabitants, Ternu hails from the nearby Danube Delta, a nearly roadless 1,000-square-mile tract of wind-swept wetland bordering the former Soviet Union where Europe's longest river branches into meandering channels before it meets the Black Sea.
The sandy soil supports scant agriculture. Bites from the swarms of summer mosquitoes easily turn septic. Water is drawn for drinking and cooking from a flow that has served as a sewer for five countries.
Illiteracy is high, and the largely ethnic Ukrainian population mistrusts strangers, not least the itinerant public-health workers who appear once or twice a year in the remote hamlets toting out-of-date potions and hefty consultation fees.
"All in all, those swamps are the perfect breeding ground," says Romila. "There could be dozens more cases like Severin out there."
Still, if treated promptly with a cocktail of antibiotics, those afflicted can recover completely. But the prospect of social ostracism, experts fear, encourages new casualties to ignore early warnings until irreversible nerve damage has set in.
Stored in the nasal mucus, and passed -- like its close cousin, tuberculosis -- through the air, the bacterium that causes leprosy assaults parts of the body at random, reorganizing tissue and causing numbness.
Fingers become rigid and clawed. Burns and scratches go unrecognized, grit in the eyes and stones in the shoes undetected. Eventually, the affected parts wither away or have to be amputated.
"I found help in time, so there really is nothing to fear. I know that. You know that," remarks Ternu. "But, this is Romania. My grandmother and her friends believe in werewolves and vampires. As far as they're concerned, if a man is a leper, he must have deserved it."
Now officially "clean" for the second time, Ternu isn't about to chance his luck on the outside again, even though he could probably explain away his missing pinkie as the result of an industrial accident. "Out there, it's hard. In here, I have everything I need."
On the living room walls, Ternu's posters of semi-nude super models vie incongruously with the previous occupant's fading photos of wedding parties, christenings, funeral wakes, from which younger versions of his neighbors grin guilelessly.
For many of those far-off revelers who still live, time is starting to hang heavily.
"My husband is dead. My friends are all gone," whispers Filomeia Climov, the colony's oldest member. "Each evening I ask Our Lady to let me join them." She prepares to make her bedtime obeisances before an icon of the Madonna over her fireplace.
Abandoned here in 1912 when she was 8, blind for a half-century, she insists that her longing stems not from self-pity but the weariness of extreme age.
"I've known happy times, I've known sad times, mostly happy, God be praised," she says. "But now I'm tired. I'd like to go."
Pub Date: 2/05/99