Bourbon Penn 20

We Aren’t Violent People

by E.C. Barrett

When I was fifteen I shot a raider in the head as he made for the gap in our blockade. An explosion of white, red, and pink — the sharp, liquid, and mush that make a person — attended my first kill. I understood then that Gran’s hard eyes were earned in taking so many lives during the slow flood that swallowed both coasts and pushed survivors inland. Her eyes have been dimming for some time, milking over, full of ghosts.

‘Your mama was a lovely woman, from earth-to-earth,’ everyone told me after that first blood spray from one of my bullets. ‘But you, Bertie, take after your grandmother and no one else.’

They were right about Mama. She was a spring ephemeral in a barren land, fragile roots trying to tap into pockets of fecundity that didn’t exist.

Gran’s the sideways rain in a squall, the rock-splitting thaw of spring.

Even now, her small room full of the scent of warm beeswax and a mint poultice on her chest to ease her breathing, I’m reminded of rushing water as I sit beside her sickbed.

How Gran, who was just Roberta back then, held the land with two young children and a third still at her breast, is a matter of legend. I’ve heard probably every version from folks who heard it from their parents or grandparents. My favorite used to be the one where she hides the suckling babe in the ferns with the others and changes herself into a moose with antlers as wide as a barn door. Story goes she drove the stunned invaders over the cliff by the locust grove where red yarrow sprung up that summer and ever after.

“What troubles you, girl?” Gran’s voice cuts through my thoughts.

Nearing thirty as I am, I’ve aged out of the phase where her calling me girl causes consternation. “I was thinking about you, old woman, betting this will all end with you growing a big set of antlers and wandering off into the forest.”

A shadow flits across Gran’s eyes as the flickering candlelight deepens the lines of her face into a dried-up riverbed. “Guess you’ll have to wait and see.”

“Maybe I’ll even follow you out there,” I say, picking lint off my pants rather than watching how my comment lands.

Her sigh carries with it the half-dozen other times I’ve tried to talk to her about wanting to leave. “Your place is here. These people need you.”

My chair creaks as I lean forward, dropping my voice. “Even if that’s true, which I don’t believe it is, why is that a good enough reason to keep living like this?”

She pushes herself up on her pillow. “This whole town is your family, even the ones who aren’t blood. You leave them, you’re leaving family.”

“I know you’d do anything to keep the town safe,” I say, thinking of the real story of how Gran held the land and all the brutality since. “But I don’t know that I think one life is more important than another.”

“You’ve got no grounds to judge me. It’s arrogant and selfish and I raised you better.” A coughing fit racks her diminished body. She turns to face the log wall beside her, likely uncomfortable with her frailty.

I’m perfecting my next response when her ragged breath slows and her thin mouth puffs out with a soft snore.

• • •

With my rifle slung over my shoulder, I make for the carwall, where Lancaster shares the night guard with his brother, Virgil.

We haven’t seen anyone at our gate in almost two years, but before that we had to defend ourselves from raiding parties too often for ten lifetimes. After the first attack, Gran had dozens of dead cars built up on either side of the dirt road, stacked like a block wall with the occasional front end jutting out perpendicular as a battlement. Seventy feet long in either direction and three cars high, it makes a good place to shoot from. The road’s the only way into town unless you climb either of the rock-slide mountain arms bowled around our ten homesteads, which we keep watched anyway. From the right spot, a good shot can pick off every last one of them without being seen. I’ve done it myself.

Lancaster and Virgil are playing cards and don’t hear my approach. I lob a pebble at the back of Virgil’s head.

“Not enough excitement out here to keep your eyes open,” I say when they startle and turn to face me, guns half-raised.

Virgil swears under his breath as he rubs his thick skull. Lancaster chuckles as he hops off a Buick and saunters over to me.

“Go home Virgil, I’ll take over for the night,” I say.

He throws a knowing smirk at Lancaster and disappears down the road into town and out of sight. We climb into the bed of a pickup truck layered in old, mismatched patio furniture cushions. The mustiness of mildew and the warm, sharpness of something I’m told is motor oil, scents our quick, pants-around-the-ankles sex. After we’ve gotten as much satisfaction as we can from each other, we pass a flask of mash liquor back and forth, perched on opposite sides of the truck bed.

“She’ll be gone soon,” I say and he nods, his long face thoughtful in the light of the full moon. I wonder, as I do from time to time, what our lives would be had we been born before the flood. Then I wonder if there are places in the world today where we could do more living and less surviving. “What if we left, after we bury her?”

He looks at me long and still until he shakes his head. “I think we’d probably be murdered in the first week.”

“We’re likely to meet a violent end here, all the same.”

“It’s not the same; we’ve got family here.”

I take a long swig, wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. Between the mash and the conversation with Gran, there’s a meanness in my belly that wants escape. “Gran told me the real story of how the town survived that first winter after the government fell,” I say, even though I swore I’d never tell a soul. “When Pops died she said the town would look to me to lead one day and I needed to know what it takes.”

When he doesn’t say anything, I continue. “About two-dozen refugees were camped on the edge of town. They’d helped with the farming through the spring and into the fall, but come January it was clear there wouldn’t be enough food to go around. Gran marched them off that cliff at gunpoint. Every last one of them, families just trying to survive.”

Lancaster watches me with a cautious look, like he’s trapped a raccoon and he doesn’t yet know whether or not it’s rabid. “Sounds to me like all the people who have been born and lived after their kin didn’t die from starvation that winter owe Roberta a debt.”

“So, you think she was right? And if I should have to make a decision like that?”

“I think you’ll do what the town needs you to do.”

I might feel betrayed if I wasn’t so damn conflicted — doesn’t stop me from being aggressively frustrated that he finds it all so cut and dried. Handing him back his flask, I stand and stretch. “I’ll take the rest of the shift. Head on back.”

“I just said what I believe, Bertie. Can’t fault me for that.”

“I need time with my thoughts,” I toss over my shoulder as I hop out of the truck bed. He’ll let it go, even if he doesn’t want to, because there’s no use in pushing me to talk. Climbing up to my favorite lookout, I pretend not to hear him kick at a rock, muttering to himself as he disappears into the night.

• • •

The light of the full moon licks the grave markers on the other side of the wall, dozens of would-be invaders buried as a warning. It shouldn’t be a sad sight. Every single body in the patch of earth outside this scrap-metal wall would have killed us if it weren’t for Gran’s leadership. Another story we tell ourselves.

Staring down my rifle, I aim at the wooden crosses, pretending to shoot, lifting the barrel with little bounces like it does during target practice. Plink, plink, plink, I hear in my mind, as if the sound of a bullet in flesh and bone isn’t as familiar as my own voice.

Beyond the graves, silver light touches on something as it moves at the furthest edge of where I can see. My finger steady at the trigger, I follow it as well as I can. Binoculars aren’t usually much good at night, but the moon’s so bright I pull them from my jacket pocket, rest them on the barrel and squint through the lenses.

By the edges of the locust grove, probably trampling the budding yarrow, a moose is limned with moonlight. It turns to look in my direction. The two lobes of its antlers could be five feet wide all together judging by the distance. There’s a lot of meat in a moose and it’s been years since I’ve tasted it. Sliding off the dented hood of a Dodge that used to be red but is so sun-bleached it’s pink, I slip through the gate without looking back.

The graves don’t say anything to me as I pass. They never have, but I always listen. Before he drank himself to death, Pops used to say he could hear them calling to him at night. With that much mash in them a person could hear just about anything, I suppose. Once I clear the burial ground I break into a quiet run, scanning the fields on either side of the road while keeping an eye on the cliff edge, where the moose grows larger. Reaching the line of black walnuts I’m further than I’ve ever been alone. By the time I get to the bend in the road, where it curves off to the south, away from the locust grove, I could fire every bullet in my belt and unless someone’s sitting awake, no one would hear me.

Normally, it takes a lot to get my heart racing. The feel of it thudding against my breast, the adrenaline rushing through my limbs, eggs me on.

At about a hundred yards from the moose I slow to a crouched walk, hiding below the waist-high grass. The sky — large and deep and filled with stars so close you think you could leap up into space — domes overhead. The night is still and somewhere in the back of my mind I register the lack of sound: no birds nesting in, no insects sawing away. A scent on the faint wind is suddenly foul, like a carcass rotting nearby. Pressing the heel of the rifle firm into the pit of my arm I sight the moose between the eyes, unnerved by the placid way it looks at me, like it hasn’t a care.

It makes a certain kind of sense, Gran’s legend, picking a moose over something like a mountain lion or even a grizzly — too much blood in the killing, too much violence in their nature. The legend tells us we aren’t violent people, just doing what we need to do to survive.

I don’t shoot the moose.

• • •

I’m still asleep the next morning when horns from the carwall cut through a dream I’m having about a pack of wolves feasting on the belly of the moose as it mewls at the dark night sky. The same rotting smell from the night before, faint, but there, turns my stomach. I dress quickly, pull on my harnessed pistol and grab the shotgun on the wall by the front door as I head out into the bright April sun. Breaking into a run, I join others headed down the half-mile stretch from the center of our clustered homes to the carwall.

Neighbors who’ve reached the gate ahead of me peer into the distance. Some nod or half-smile when they notice me, others simply make room for me to get to whoever sounded the alarm. Gran’s only been confined to bed for two months, but these people have known me my whole life. They want me to lead.

The boy on guard duty — a sixteen-year-old with full cheeks and a worried look — waves me up to lie on the hood of a Ford Escort on the top course. “Just one wagon, as far as I can see,” he says, handing me his binoculars as I stretch across the sun-warmed metal.

Following the line of his arm, I find the wagon just north of where the road curves out of sight behind a conifer stand. The back is covered but the sides are rolled up to the top. One figure in front, two in back. A scrap of blue fabric, just visible, waves in their wake. We’ve been told the makeshift flag means: works for food and lodging. Ridiculous notion. Anyone can wave a flag.

“Let me know if you see anything else and keep an eye on that tree line.” I hand him back the binoculars and I’m off the wall in three hops, from one battlement to another and down to the dirt. “Looks like a family ‘flying blue.’” I order a bag of food and basic supplies put together and each of the battlements covered by two good shots.

If they look starved we’ll give them food to get far enough away to not be our problem. If they don’t leave, we’ll shoot.

When I walk out with the bag of food, Lancaster a few paces behind, the man and woman meet us out in front of their wagon. The girl, no more than twelve or thirteen, sits silently in it. I let the parents take in what they can over my shoulders, without saying anything. Their eyes skip from the weapons to the open gate and promised town beyond.

“I’ve got blacksmithing skills and a strong back — we’re not looking for charity,” the man says as I hold out the sack of food.

“I was a teacher,” the woman says, “I could help out with the children.”

“We don’t take anyone in and this is the only handout you’ll get.” I step closer to them, empty hand on my holstered pistol, keeping far enough away they can’t get the jump on me but hoping the girl won’t overhear. “And if you come around again, we’ll shoot you and salvage what we can from your belongings.”

From the look on his scarred-up and sunburnt face — the hard line of his jaw, narrowed eyes — there was a time the man would have spit at the bag of food and taken a swing at anyone who threatened his family. The woman doesn’t give him a chance. She snatches the bag from my hand and tosses it in the back of the wagon while she mounts the bench in one fluid motion, steadier than she’d looked a moment ago.

The man makes to follow her and then turns back around, fists balled at his sides, and starts toward me. The shot from Lancaster’s gun hits the man in the chest. He staggers backward and to the ground. My bullet finds the woman as she aims a shotgun she’s pulled from under the bench, knocking her into the back of the wagon.

Keeping a wide berth, I make my way to the side of the wagon, where the woman gasps and writhes at the girl’s feet. The child doesn’t cry or scream. She stares at me, wide-eyed daughter of the devastated world, and I am reminded of the moose and the choice that was made and was mine.

“I’ll do it,” Lancaster leans close to my ear to say, trying to offer me a kindness. His readiness to do such a thing makes the turn down of his lip, the scowling slits of his eyes, suddenly ugly and hateful to me. By the way he pulls back, just a little, he sees it in my face.

“There’s been enough death today. We’re not killing her.” A wave of energy rushes through me, a lightness of being I’ve never before experienced. I turn to the girl, smiling with pride at the decision I’ve made, just in time to see her lift a single-shooter pistol with trembling hands.

There’s a searing hot explosion in the top right of my head at the same time as the bullet shatters the air. My shoulder slams into the ground with the full weight of my body, and then nothing.

• • •

It takes a moment for my eyes to focus. I’m in my own bed, a dim light filtering in through the pale yellow curtain over the window behind me. I sit up too quickly and the room spins to a stop. Lancaster wakes in the chair beside the bed, blinking away sleep.

He reaches over timidly to brush hair out of my eyes. “How do you feel?”

“My head …” I say, trailing off as my fingertips explore the bandages wrapped around my forehead.

“Flesh wound, doesn’t look like it will infect. But you’ve been out for the better part of two days.”

The girl’s face flashes before my eyes and my stomach fills with acid from wanting to ask and not wanting the answer. “Did you … is she dead, Lan?”

“Had to fight off half the town,” he shakes his head, “but you’d made your intention clear.”

I envelop one of his large hands with both of mine, squeezing tightly.

Before either of us can say anything else, the door creaks open, and Gran walks through. She’s dressed in pants and suspenders, her silver hair braided and draped over her shoulders, cheeks full of color, eyes almost as clear and hazel as I remember them from when I was a girl.

“You’re awake,” she announces matter-of-fact, “good,” and walks back out the door.

• • •

There’s no use in denying the relief running through town at Gran’s sudden recovery, though if anyone’s surprised that their time of need should rally her, they don’t know her an inch. She orders a celebration. Tables are brought out and set end-to-end to fit all fifty of us in the middle of the wagon-rutted road running between the houses. Two days of cooking manifests in pies and potatoes, green beans in garlic sauce, butternut squash, and in the center of it all, a pig roasted and gruesomejolly with an apple in its mouth. The town eats long into the evening. Elderberry wine-stained teeth stretch between wide grins.

I’m in no mood for merriment.

Lancaster locked the girl in the room next to ours after carrying her — screaming her head off through town — while folks reminded him we don’t take anyone in and he should get it over with before she gets a shot at anyone else.

When I visited the girl earlier today she looked like she would leap at me, clawing nails and biting teeth, if Lancaster wasn’t standing there. What did I expect after cutting down her mother in front of her? She’s alive thanks to me. I can take comfort in that.

I’m half asleep in my chair when the shouting begins. A fistfight between Jack and Franklin, who’ve been harboring silent grudges for years over a service rendered and never compensated. Franklin is so out-sized he’s soon on his back, blood clotting in the dust beneath his head as Jack slams his meat fists into the sides of Franklin’s face.

Out of habit, I look to Gran to break it up. She’s sitting in a circle of chairs with the three other old folk left from her generation, all of them purple-teethed and wobble-headed. Maudlin tears stream down Gran’s face, which has to be the strangest sight I’ve ever taken in. It’s enough to make me consider whether I’m dreaming. “What should we have done?” she asks them. “What else could we have done?”

“Everybody has the right to survive,” bleary-eyed Mr. Cassim says, and they all nod.

I want to listen longer but Franklin’s getting his face bashed in and he’ll be dead if I don’t stop Jack. Scrambling to my feet and over to the men, I grab for Jack’s shoulders, to yank him up. When he shoves me away I lose my footing and stumble backward, fall on my tailbone so hard it sends bright sparks up my spine.

Lancaster, who’s been arguing with Virgil’s tall tale of taking out a dozen raiders on his own, stands from his chair so fast it thuds to the ground. Jaw set, brows furrowed, he looks down at me and then over at Jack and sets off at a run, tackling Jack to the ground.

“Christ, Lan, what are you doing?” I curse, pushing painfully off the ground. Lancaster ignores me, too busy wrestling with Jack.

Jack gets a couple of solid punches in. Lancaster’s a good fighter but Jack’s a mean son of a bitch. I grab a carving knife from the gelatinous meat of the cooled pig scraps and throw straight and forceful. Flecks of fat spin off the blade before it buries deep in Jack’s left thigh, but he’s so hopped up on his own rage it’s like he doesn’t even feel the blade as he pulls it out.

Lancaster manages to scramble away and to his feet. They square off, Lancaster’s hands balled into fists, Jack slashing the air with the knife.

A part of my mind registers Jack’s wife standing on the other side of the tables, clutching their son and pleading with her husband to put down the knife — but not the part that keeps telling me that it’s Jack or Lan, Jack or Lan, and I’m not going to let it be Lancaster who bleeds out on the ground and leaves me. I’ve no time to decide. I run at Jack, throwing myself onto his back, the force crashes him to the ground with me on top of him.

Jack tries to shake me off and stand up in the same motion, bloody knife still in his grip, but a vein pulsing on the side of his neck catches my eye and I bite where the blood throbs just under the surface of his skin. My mouth fills with the hot, metal taste of him. Flesh tears between my teeth, snagging until I rip my head back. I spit pieces of him into the dirt, and I bite again until his blood sprays so wild and angry I have to stop because I can’t see anything.

• • •

Jack’s wife scream-sobs for a good twenty minutes until someone ushers her away so we can clean up the mess in peace. The tables are cleared. Jack is laid beside Franklin — who died anyway — in the community house. We’ll bury them tomorrow.

Every clanking of plates and chair legs cracking as they’re carried away makes me flinch, ready for someone to come seeking justice. A part of me desires it. Half the town was already in bed when the fight happened, and those who didn’t wake will hear about it soon enough. It’s got to be a matter of time.

Once the cleaning is finished, those who have stayed sit in a circle with Gran and Mr. Cassim and the other old folks, passing refreshed jugs of wine among themselves. From the dark corner of our porch, where Lancaster is wiping Jack’s blood off my face with a damp towel, I can just make out the conversation.

“Who would’ve thought Roberta’s granddaughter could turn herself into a wolf?” Mr. Cassim asks.

“Vicious-toothed and ready to tear a man’s throat out,” my neighbor says and I wince, my stomach curdling with disgust. But his voice is buoyant, boastful even, when he raises his jug and adds: “And isn’t that just what you need in times such as these?”

E.C. Barrett built a house in the woods, with her craftsman partner, from trees they felled, milled, and raised by hand. Her nonfiction writing was awarded first place in police/crime/court coverage by the New York Press Association and she received an honorable mention in the 12th annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Short Story Competition. She attended Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2018 and received a residency fellowship from the Saltonstall Arts Colony in 2019. This is her fiction debut.