This weekend we have an excerpt from Fat Man and Little Boy, by former contributor Mike Meginnis. Fat Man and Little Boy is the winner of the 2013 Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize and was named one of “the year’s most impressive debut novelists” by the Brooklyn Book Festival and one of Library Journal’s “25 Key Indie Fiction Titles, Fall 2014.” In this powerful debut novel, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan are personified, born on impact as Fat Man and Little Boy. Their small measure of humanity is a cruelty the bombs must suffer. Given life from death, the brothers travel west from Japan to France and later to America. Their journey is one of surreal and unsettling discovery, and author Mike Meginnis transforms these symbols of mass destruction into beacons of longing and hope.
Now, the Japanese soldiers come once a day. They open the door enough to let in a long sliver of light, which is crossed intermittently by the slanted shadows of their arms and legs, and which climbs the wall as tap water climbs a glass. They lead with the tips of their guns so he knows they can kill him if they want to do that. He wants to know why they don’t want to do that. He asks but they do not say. He asks them if he is free yet. He asks them when he will be free or otherwise dealt with. He considers the possibility of escape. The odds look slim. He is not quick on his feet. He asks them what’s happening outside. He asks them how bad has it gotten or if things are better. They slide in a bowl of sticky white rice and a black crust of bread. They slide in a bowl of water. They give him candles and matches. He thinks the matches may be useful, and so he saves them, using the candles to light one another, pressing them end to end as if they are kissing.
He can tell when night falls by the distant hum of crickets, certain bird calls, and the quality of the air. He lets his candle burn until it is a glossy little pool of burning wax, a circle of fire. The wax spreads beneath it, becoming a spider. The spider’s body becomes a char circle, becomes an ashy mushroom cap on the floor. The fire goes out. Then it is time to lie in the dark and do his best to sleep. His arms curled up beneath his head to make a pillow, his knees against his keening gut, he shivers. He rolls a little back and forth to make warmth.
He remembers. Dreams and memory devour the night, mingled beyond recognition. Half-faces and crumpled hands, footprints, coral reef.
He pees in the corner. He tries sometimes to open the door in case they have forgotten to lock it. The door locks from the outside and the inside, but they have the key. They have not yet forgotten to lock it. He has considered blocking the door with his body so they cannot come in. He thinks they could not shoot him through the heavy door. But neither could they feed him.
He tries to tie his robe more tightly closed. There is too much give in the cloth. The sleeves are frayed and offer little warmth. The bunker grows hot at midday, after the soldiers come with his meal and before his hunger remembers itself. It grows cold in the night.
He sits at the center of the room, making shadow puppets in the light of his candle, pretending to be a tree. Pretending to sway in the wind. Watching his tree-shadow sway as he sways. He makes a hand-turtle come out of its shell, tremble at the world, and duck back in. Peering from inside, sniffing the air. He makes a hand-rabbit leap around the room until it falls and breaks its leg. It snuffles, waits to die.
He is given to uncontrollable fits of sobbing without apparent cause, or with causes too trivial for words: the way his walrus shadow climbs the wall so that his head looms on the ceiling like an astral body. The first and last sparks of certain candles. The way his water trickles back between his feet after it rolls down the wall.
On the fourth day he can’t hold it in anymore. He shits on the floor. The smell is terrible, though his candles obscure it, and on the fifth day the soldiers come in to see what he’s done. There are purple blotches all over their faces and necks but he doesn’t know what it means. They curse at him, using the only English words they know, as one guards him with a ready rifle and the other scoops up his mess with a shoe. It leaves a long brown smear like a sunflower shadow. The smell fades.
He finds that he can light his candles merely by touching their wicks with a finger. Once lit, this flame burns bright and tall, blue and angry. Wherever he goes in the room, the flame follows, leaning toward him as if pointing him out in a lineup. These flames cannot be snuffed but must exhaust themselves in their own time.
He gives up checking the lock and tells himself he has forgotten checking, so there is one less thing to worry about.
He plays with his body until it becomes strange.
On the seventh day he dreams of eating one of the burnt bodies outside the bunker. Beneath the charred black crust of their skin he imagines a pink, soft meat like salmon steaks. On the eighth day the soldiers do not come. On the ninth day they do not come. He shits again, mostly water. It makes him feel even more empty. He is hungry all the time. He is always looking at the door, waiting for the door to open. For instance he will count down from a high number, thinking that surely they must come for him before he can count down from a thousand, from ten thousand, from a hundred thousand.
He tries closing his eyes as long as he can bear it. Tries sleeping but can’t sleep. Tries singing but he doesn’t know a song. Tries thinking about women. Tries counting again. Assures himself they’re on their way. Finds it easier to sleep as the hunger progresses, as he has less and less energy with which to want and think and need.
Published by permission from Black Balloon Publishing