The semi-autobiographical tale is inspired by the author's time in Provence.

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Margaret Atwood, Two Scorched Men
Margaret Atwood's latest piece of fiction is 'Two Scorched Men'
| Credit: Courtesy Margaret Atwood; Scribd

You can see Margaret Atwood's handiwork on bookshelves, on Hulu, and now in an online-only short story. Her latest piece of fiction is Two Scorched Men, a semi-autobiographical tale inspired by her time in Provence.

Told by an unnamed narrator, it follows the friendship between John, an Irish World War II veteran, and Francois, a former member of the French resistance. The full story is available on Scribd.com starting today, but EW is giving you an exclusive first taste below.

Excerpt from Two Scorched Men, by Margaret Atwood

"John has shot himself in the radiator," said François. He laughed his pink-cheeked, silent laugh. "But you mustn't tell him that I told you."

"What do you mean, in the radiator?" I asked. François was not always self-evident.

"He meant to shoot himself," said François, "but he changed his mind and shot the radiator instead." He paused, giving me time to say "Really?" with the required lift of the eyebrows.

"Yes! I think so," he continued. "There is water all over the floor. He has called a plumber. He is in quite a rage."

"Oh dear," I said. John had been our landlord over the winter, although Tig and I were in another rented house by then. John had been in the habit of coming down from Paris to see how we were getting on, he said, though I suspect the real reason was to have an audience, apart from his skeptical French wife. He'd stay in a room he kept for his own use, emerging to shamble around the grounds, argue with various handymen employed to fix things, and share the odd meal with us.

I was thus familiar with the rages, which could be unleashed at any time. I also knew where that radiator was located: in a back hallway off the kitchen. That was where John cleaned his gun, or guns. I was uncertain as to the number. What did he shoot with it, or them? Wild boars, possibly, once. The hills were swarming with them; they rooted up the vines, plus you could make sausages out of them. But surely no boar hunting recently, for John: He was no longer in good enough shape for it.

"In the radiator! It is so funny," said François, making more laughing expressions. "But you mustn't tell that you know. His feelings would be hurt."

This is how the two of them went on: laughter on the one hand, rages on the other. They were close friends:one lanky, explosive Irishman, one short, roundish, genial Frenchman.It was an unlikely pairing. However, although John's rages could be directed at anyone or anything, they were never directed at François. And François was as solicitous about John's emotional state as if he'd been a stray kitten, of which François had adopted several.

Here is the clue: They'd both been in the war.

They're dead now. A thing that happens increasingly: People die. This radiator incident took place in the early nineties, when the two of them must have been—what? I'm counting backwards. John had been in the British navy, let's say he was eighteen, nineteen, or twenty in 1939. Therefore at the time of the radiator shooting he must have been in his early seventies, more or less. François was three or four years younger.

Both of them presented me with their stories that year. Since they knew what sort of creature I was, they also knew—indeed they trusted—that I would someday relate their lives for them. Why did they want this? Why does anyone? We resist the notion that we'll become mere handfuls of dust, so we wish to become words instead. Breath in the mouths of others.

Gentlemen, the time has come. I will do my best for you. Are you listening?

[section break]

I must now set the scene: the scene in which I came to know the two of them.

John's house—the one Tig and I rented that winter—was in a Provençal proto-village: a few houses scattered around a crossroad, most of them on working farms. There were straying pigs (rages about the pigs). There was a lot of mud on the roads (rages about the mud). There were neighbors in thick knitted cardigans and filthy overalls (rages about the neighbors). John's house, however, was not part of a working farm. It must have belonged to gentry once, and John qualified as a modern-day version of that: a spacious flat in Paris, near the church of Saint-Germain; a retirement income that allowed for indulgences, such as trips and dining out; the country house we'd rented.

The house was two-story, stone, eighteenth-century, with the vertical shutter-trimmed windows of that time and place. It had an ironwork fence and gate, a trim garden inside that, a portico facing south, its pillars twined around by wisteria. It had one of the most beautiful interiors either Tig or I had ever seen. Despite its beauty, this interior always seemed indistinct, as if it were being viewed through smoke: the colors a little faded, the outlines a little hazy. The furniture was neither comfortable nor convenient, but it was authentic. John made sure we knew that, though the exquisite taste was his wife's, not his. (He never threw rages about this unseen wife, or not when we were around.)

During the war the house had belonged to an Englishman of ambiguous loyalties. Just as the war was ending he was found murdered, on the porch with the pillars and the wisteria, in the lovely garden, in the sunlight. Bullet in the head. No gun in sight, so not suicide.

"Why?" I asked John. A shrug, followed by a mini-rage about the criminality and secretiveness of the region. Nobody knew why. Or rather, someone must have known but nobody would say. That's what it had been like then, said John; it was still like that, under the surface. You never could tell when vengeance might strike, over some dirty piece of political backstabbing or sod-off insult, or a scuffle over some syphilitic wench, or over a land tug-of-war, there was always that, or over the two big ones: theft of snails—lay hands on another man's snails and he'd garotte you—and truffle poaching, which would earn you castration with a rusty paring knife.

And serve you right, said John, for being so sodding stupid.

The woods were full of signs threatening traps or poison, to deter potential miscreants and their truffle-sniffing dogs. Once, when hiking in the hills, we'd come upon two huge raw bones, cow bones they must have been, wired into the shape of a St. Andrew's cross and dangling from a tree. Was it a hex sign of some kind? A warning, but about what, or to whom? We were off the main trail; nobody came there. "Don't touch it," said Tig, but I wouldn't have anyway. There were already flies, and a stench of rotting meat.

We told John about the bone arrangement, which generated another rant about the dark doings in these parts. Evil peasants, dead ignorant, witless mud-wallowers, emmerdeurs, smugglers, thieves. No respect for civilization, or the law either, such as it was.

But maybe this was because of historical memory, I said. The distrust of authorities. Over the centuries there had been many waves of nonconformists in this area: the Cathars, the Vaudois … (I was a reader of tourist guides in those days.)

John let out a bellow. The Cathars! What tripe had I been dabbling in? Stuff the Cathars, thought they were perfect, holier than thou, nobody gave a toss about them except for the peddlers of cheap souvenirs made in China and crapulous handicrafts reeking of lavender; and stuff the Vaudois too, pretentious Bible-kissing po-faced hypocrites! The two of them—just two more examples of the kind of pious dog-fucking that went on whenever religion entered the picture.

But they'd been horribly persecuted, I said. The Cathars. Wasn't it Simon de Montfort who'd incinerated Carcassonne—everyone inside its walls, including women and children—and had said "Kill them all, God will know his own"?

At this point Tig slid off to the kitchen to pour himself a Scotch. He was not much interested in thirteenth-century dualism, or heresies in general, or massacres; unlike me. At that time I was a collector of the many excuses people had come up with for butchering one another.

John, however, was well versed in heresies. No, he said, it wasn't Simon de Montfort, the lip-ripping eye-gouger, it was some driveling Catholic abbot; and it wasn't Carcassonne, it wasBéziers: a wall-to-wall cut-and-slash orgy and human barbecue, the stench must've been foul. If I was going to mess around in French history—which he didn't recommend, it was one bloodbath and charnel heap after another—I should at least get it straight. Anyway, stuff their persecution! They were heretics, it was their choice, what did they expect? They'd have been disappointed if no one had persecuted them, they were all masochists anyway, rolling around in their pain and getting off on it, fuck them, so three cheers for the Catholics, they were good at the persecuting, he'd say that for them.

Not that he himself was a Catholic. Stuff the Catholics, and most especially the Irish ones! He reserved a special circle of hell for his native country, and never tired of relating anecdotes about the venality of the politics, the perviness of the clergy, and the dumb-cluckery of the average Irish peasant. [small cut here]

I wasn't willing to let go of the heretics. But the nonconformists, I said, attempting to herd him back to the topic. Especially in the south of France. Their refusal to toe the line. Surely that had something to do with the strength of the French Resistance down here during the war? Such as the Maquis, who'd hid out in the mountains and snuck down at night to assassinate the occupying Germans and blow up railway lines?

What kind of brain-dead North American twat was I? said John. Did I know how many innocent villagers had been lined up and machine-gunned in retaliation for that useless and selfish Maquisard playacting? None of their heroics had made a blind bit of difference, it was just throat-slitting for cheap thrills, stuff the Maquis!

After running out of groups to denounce, he'd shut himself in his room and (I suspected) weep. Underneath the bluster he was a sentimentalist, like many of the enraged. He must have had an idea once—possibly he still did have one—of how things ought to have been in a better world than this, but I never found out what it was.

An excerpt from Margaret Atwood's Two Scorched Men, published by Scribd Originals. Copyright © 2021 Margaret Atwood. Reprinted with permission from Scribd LLC.

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