The opening of Little Boy, the debut novel by John Smith.
An Editor’s Choice in The Bookseller’s Discover Review, it is available to purchase from Boiler House Press.
One morning a small boy was found buried in the ground in the Belgian Congo. He was buried up to the scalp. A tangle of filthy weeds encircled his head. Nothing could be seen of him but a little dome, hard and hairless, fixed like a rivet in the wild grass. The boy was not dead—not quite dead. The sun had singed the dome, deepening its cracks, raising its carbuncles, and it was now an unpleasant shade of yellow.
The man who found him was an Englishman named Robert Sharp. He had been walking in the tall grass with his guide, rifle in hand, on the lookout for roan deer. It was now late morning. The year was 1935. A buried boy was almost the last thing this gentleman had expected to find in this plain, far from human habitation—but such things were not unheard of.
Mr Sharp laid down his rifle and began uprooting flowers and weeds and tufts of grass. After some time he had unearthed a good part of the head and shoulders.
The boy made his first observations of the sky, and Mr Sharp went away. He was gone for what seemed to the boy like a very long time. Then he returned with his guide, a wiry man with heavily lidded eyes. They leaned over the boy and gazed at his head.
It was not a large head. It was small and narrow, predominantly gray in color, yellow on top, veined with sickly reds and greens. His scars, of which there were many, had not faded into the skin as scars usually do, but had swollen to great sizes, cracked asunder in festering gulfs, twined together, branched and sprouted into curious shapes. Tumors covered his face. The biggest and most bulbous of these embellishments lay above the eyes and below the mouth, which would have been advantageous to the boy, had the face remained in any salvageable state. But the nose was in a pulp, and the mouth lay open, like a doll’s mouth. Only the eyes were immediately recognizable as belonging to a living creature. Lidless, dilated, they stared out of the twisted mass of tissue, staring without fear or pleading or desperation or accusation or even confusion. His facial expression—to the extent that one could be observed—was one of mild dissatisfaction.
‘Hurry up, old boy,’ said Mr Sharp. ‘Quick.’
The guide plunged his hands into the dirt either side of the boy’s skull, applied pressure to the temples and lifted, without result. The boy wondered what was happening.
The guide made a groaning sound.
‘Let me at it,’ said Mr Sharp.
He scrambled down onto his knees and began squeezing and pulling at the boy with all his might. But the boy would not budge.
‘What shall we do?’ said the guide.
Mr Sharp stood up, reached into his breast-pocket and withdrew his pipe and a few shreds of tobacco. He was a tall man, slender, a little knock-kneed and yellow-haired. After a brief silence he instructed the guide to get the mattock. The guide went to the pack, which he had left a short way off, and untied the mattock. Mr Sharp, having sat down on a stone, placed his pith helmet on the ground at his feet and began to light his pipe. As the guide began to dig, Mr Sharp wondered why the child’s face did not stir, why it stared silently ahead, no matter how much they pulled and prodded it. Mr Sharp was no great judge of the ages of children, but he estimated the boy to be about six, or perhaps six and a half.
To extract a child from a shallow grave seems at first, to the casual observer, a ludicrously simple matter. And in most cases it is. But in the case of the boy there were several complications which revealed themselves gradually and unpleasantly to his rescuers. The first being that his shoulders, which they had expected to be roughly symmetrical and equal in size, were all crumpled over to one side and fused together in places. His arms, which they thought reasonable to assume would be connected to his shoulders, were nowhere to be found. A few yards from his head they found a long rigid limb which they took for a leg. And a little further on, tinged with the telltale yellow, was something small and hard, resembling a finger, or thumb. They were unable to extract any of these pieces, for they were wedged among the rocks, and at a certain depth the ground became too hard for the mattock. The guide identified a number of gleaming strings, perhaps of ligament.
‘They keep going up the hill, Mr Sharp,’ he said, stumbling up through the rank grass towards the top of the bluff. ‘Look, here.’
Mr Sharp made no reply. He did not rise from his stone, nor look at the guide, nor look at the boy. One could not even have been sure that he was listening. He gave a few thoughtful, distant jerks of the head, sending puffs of smoke from his mouth, and squinted at the sky. He sat a while in this manner, listening to the heavy breathing of the guide and to the tick tick of the mattock, slower and slower. Then he turned his head and watched the mattock for some time, moving in repeated arcs over the savannah.
‘Carry on, Malupenga!’ he said gallantly. ‘That’s the ticket—sweat out the toxins.’
After a tranquil pipe Mr Sharp went down into the ditch for a look. He cleaved to the sides, fearing that he would stumble and break a limb. They lay scattered, all still embedded, partially unearthed, sticking up out of the floor of the ditch. In the center was the greater part of the boy—the lurid bald head and shoulders, stiff and motionless, like a damaged marble bust.
It was impossible to say with any certainty what each of the other scraps was. Perhaps they were merely rocks that looked like body parts. It was difficult to tell. Even the face, the more he looked at it, seemed less and less to resemble any face he had ever seen. He could not even be sure that all the body parts, if they were body parts, belonged to the same child. The situation seemed to him very unusual.
A wind blew and the distant thorns began to convulse.
‘Try socking him one,’ suggested Mr Sharp.
The guide drew back his foot.
‘Lightly,’ said Mr Sharp.
The guide socked him one on the back of the head, but it was to no effect.
‘Tricky business, this,’ said Mr Sharp.
He got out of the ditch, went back to the stone, put his helmet back on and dabbed at the bristles of his moustache with a small handkerchief. Soon he became weary of the sound of the mattock. He came up with a plan, which he described to the guide. They would mark the place, he said, and return together to Jadotville, some twelve miles away. They would notify the mining corporation there. They would tell them a boy of six or six and a half was buried here, buried discreetly and discretely, dismembered, strewn underground across a great area, so that it was impossible to remove him by hand. Then it would fall to the corporation to bring the infant to safety—an operation for which it would be far better equipped, he explained, than they were. The hour was late and he was thinking already of his tot of rum and quinine and of curling up in the twilight underneath his mosquito-curtain.
The guide stood a while in the ditch. There were ants on the little digit. He looked at the head and there too regrettably he saw that spiders and safari ants were crawling, hastening in and out of the mouth and nostrils, up and down the swirling philtrum and over the long weals of the forehead. Bending, he scattered them with his hand, but they returned, and the guide said to himself that as long as the boy lay exposed in this manner in the ground it was inevitable that vermin should come and feast on what edible matter they could find, and for a moment his mind was full of spiders and other creatures, the beasts and birds of the plain, that would come creeping out of the jungle and whirling down out of the skies—each in their turn, or simultaneously—to devour the face.
Mr Sharp cried out that it was time to go. He had his rifle slung over his arm and his helmet on his head and he was brushing the dirt from his puttees. The guide knew all too well Mr Sharp’s little fits of impatience. He got out of the hole and heaved onto his shoulders the pack—the towering, wobbling, sixty-pound pack, laden with tools and wicker baskets and bottles and Swiss pedometers and boxes of ammunition—and they set out.
The boy stared dumbly from his ditch. He had paid little attention to his rescuers. Everything was strange to him—the sky, the smells, the wild savannah stretching for miles, the shadows of the stones and of the termite mounds crawling eastward over the frantic grass. The boy did not know he was a foundling, did not know into whose hands he had fallen, nor did he know what enormous asperities lay before him. His thoughts were simple. Finally freed from the dark, he attempted to shut his eyes. But he could not shut his eyes. To execute the command that would have lowered the lids over his eyes was beyond his abilities. His body would not listen to him. And in any case, he had no eyelids.
After a while he stopped trying. He watched the sky fade until it was dark, then he observed the stars. He heard the men beating through the grass. He listened to their steps until they were quiet, and there was no sound but the wind and the birds and the hiss of the trees.
Mr Sharp dutifully reported his discovery to the mining corporation. Some men came—very fat men, dressed in white—and examined the boy in his ditch, standing around him and talking in low voices, setting up theodolites, putting stakes into the ground and tying pieces of string between them.
Larger and larger groups began to arrive in the plain, more and more of the earth was dug out, and more and more body parts were placed carefully aside. Simple shelters were erected, with timber posts and grass roofs, to accommodate the great number of men who had been recruited for the effort. But soon these shelters, in their turn, were outgrown by the operation, and as the ditches and trenches grew larger and deeper and the excavation became more extensive, they were cleared away and replaced with more permanent structures. After a few months the whole region had undergone an extreme alteration in appearance. The hole had grown into a gaping pit, several hundred feet in depth, and the hill had vanished, and a russet haze darkened the air, and everywhere was heard the chatter of hydraulic drills and the thunder of dynamite.
The rescue of the boy was an operation of the utmost intricacy, due to the depth and distribution of the scraps. The enormous quantity of these scraps was quite in excess of what one would expect from one child. The reason for this curious anomaly was not clear, and the corporation did not like to speculate.
The main piece of the boy—the one comprising his head and trunk—had been successfully extracted and set aside, in a shed. With this action the corporation could well have given up, abandoned the site, and left the rest of the scraps buried out of view. There were some within the leadership who advocated this course of action. But since it had been discovered that his plot coincided with rich natural deposits of various minerals, such as cobalt, silver, nickel, bismuth and arsenic, the argument was made that if the corporation carefully calculated and defrayed its expenses, it was possible to continue extracting the boy’s fragments without adversely affecting its business. So the corporation persisted, and even profited, maintaining a record of what it had recovered of the child and including him each year among the tables and inventories of its annual reports. It did not comment on the nature of the abnormality that enabled him to survive in his most unusual manner, though it reported accurately on his physical condition.
The reports were largely ignored by the general public. There was some small interest outside the Congo, in medical circles. Certain obscure journals advanced the hypothesis that the boy was not the only one of his kind. Other cases were presented and debated—all male, all paralytic, all prepubescent, in similar states of survival, all panting on like him in spite of catastrophic injury to the musculoskeletal, digestive, circulatory and respiratory systems. Theoretical models were proposed to account for the persistence of his consciousness, his extraordinary resilience, his extreme limbic and cortical malleability, his absence of motor control and various other features of his condition.
But the corporation paid no attention to such speculations, and soon the interest waned, his novelty as a medical curiosity began to fade and the medical profession found other things to talk about.
For the next four years the boy lay in an open-sided shed, in a state of dazed discomfort, while the rest of him was being retrieved. They had placed him on his left side, facing out of the shed. He was small in stature, no more than three feet from top to bottom, but very heavy. Though he had no arms or legs, he was in possession of a fine solid pair of stumps, projecting from below the flitters of his pelvis.
The shed was his home. From the day he was placed on its concrete slab until the day he was removed he did not stir an inch. His eyes remained open. His mouth remained open. Every part of him was fixed and still. He had a large part of the mine to gaze out on—one half of the gaping pit, the precipice, the road curving around its edge, the buildings on the other side, the headframe that towered above the buildings, and the vast hazy sky. Far off he could even see a part of the workmen’s camp with its few jacaranda trees and its little narrow church and the elderly Belgian nuns going in and out in their white habits.
He was seldom disturbed. Each day the workmen brought in cartloads heaped high with scraps and emptied them around him, one shovelful after another. A white gentleman in a white uniform came now and then to check on him, before hastening away, by means of a hammock supported by two guides, to one of the other sheds under his supervision. From the perspective of the corporation it was an ideal arrangement. The boy asked for nothing, nothing was provided.
He was a simple-minded boy, prone to fits of brooding. Deprived of a mother and a father, of company and motion, of affection and attention, of anything resembling the natural concomitants of childhood, he found it difficult to make sense of the simplest concepts. When he tried to think of the time before his rescue, to recall for instance the loss of his first leg, or the loss of his second leg, or of his arms, or the onset of his tumors, he drew a blank. He knew something was wrong with him, but he did not know what it was.
He was in pain—this at least admitted of no ambiguity. His left shoulder and his left hip ached from supporting him in his position on the filthy floor. The dry, itching crusts of his scabs were extremely unpleasant, particularly on his face. This dryness also affected his mouth and eyes, which were perpetually open. He felt the puffiness and the tightness of the infections, the weight and pressure of the foreign matter that clung to him. But he could not scratch these itches, nor summon anyone to scratch them for him. All he could do was lie still, staring unblinkingly in the one direction, with the same idiotic expression on his face.
As the months went by there was little change in the condition of the shed. The limb heaps grew. The young simpleton found ways of growing accustomed to things. He ceased to fear the harsh sounds. He grew accustomed to the flies moving about on his head, his tumors, his face, his eyes, scuttling across his corneas, buzzing overhead. He listened to them and soon ceased to worry about them. He grew accustomed to the workmen, their loud boots and voices, and the rattle of the limb-carts and the constant scraping of their shovels. He listened to them talk about the mine, and the bosses, and various other things he did not understand.
Thus he passed the first years of his melancholy existence, scarcely expecting that things would or could be any different.