Matt Starr: Carthage (fiction)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: They say write what you know, so I write about the South. I’m a product of North Carolina; the son of a mill worker; a small town specialist; a disciple of McCarthy and Faulkner; a kid from a city built on top of a grave. And in my South, the struggle between the demons of the past and our better angels rages on. The stories are different. But the setting’s the same.
It would’ve been quite something to have known her before the world burned down.
Hannibal stared at her through his monster mask as he held his clasped hands toward the sky, low and gray and draped over them like a canopy. He exhaled slowly, his breath billows of milky smoke in the permanent winter, as she put a careful boot forward, narrowing the distance between them to ten paces. She kept the silver steel of the 22 caliber handgun level with his throat, because when she missed, she always missed high.
Hannibal loosened his numb fingers. As far as he knew, the town was otherwise forsaken, but he could never be sure. He’d long ago come to terms with the likelihood of something lurking in the stillness, looming like a heavy shadow. “I’m just passin through on my way to Carthage,” he said with a thick and waxy southern voice. “Please. I don’t have no food.” He nodded toward the canvas backpack in the soot-soaked snow to his right. “You can see for yourself.”
She mounted her thumb on the hammer. “There’s nothing left in Carthage,” she said, her words filtered through the respirator wrapped around her ashen face.
He swallowed the stale air. “I’m goin to visit my father. It’s his birthday.”
She glared at him from beneath the fur-lined hood of her parka as she circled left toward his backpack. “I just told you. There’s nobody there. You have any weapons?”
“Just a blade.”
Hannibal titled his chin toward his collar. “Under my jacket.”
She edged closer to him, keeping the gun aimed with her right hand as she extended the wool fingers of her left toward the zipper atop his collar. She kept her eyes fixed on his, but he wouldn’t return the favor. His breaths ran shallow as she pulled the slider downward along its corroded teeth until the jacket parted, exposing his thermals. With surgeon steadiness, she located and removed the bowie knife from its thermoplastic sheath, clipped at the hip to a strap that ran diagonally along his torso. She backed away and knelt beside the backpack.
“You alone?” she asked as she began to rummage through his belongings.
Hannibal hesitated. “Yes ma’am.”
“You’re headed in the wrong direction, you know?” she said as she combed through his blankets and spare garments. She removed a legal pad and examined the writing within—blue and chewed and illegible. She held it toward him and shrugged.
“It’s a calendar. I made it before—”
“You made this?”
She shook her head as she thumbed through the wrinkled pages. “This would be something else if time still existed.” She looked at him, standing there with his eyes to the ground. She placed the gun next to her foot and scraped the bottom of his bag for anything she might have missed. Her hand emerged with a small, brass trinket. She flipped it open. “A compass?”
She mulled the current situation over before grabbing the gun and rising to her feet. She approached slowly and studied his face, namely the balaclava dressing it—poorly doctored with paint to convey gruesome, blood-spattered fangs. “What’s with that ridiculous mask?”
Hannibal began to grin, but he quickly suppressed it as if the world was normal again—a child in church with a funny thought in his head. “I reckon it’s supposed to ward off scavengers.”
“How’s that working for you?” she asked.
He glanced at her before returning his eyes to his boots. “Jury’s still out.”
“Take it off.”
Hannibal removed his mask. He was just a kid—lanky and awkward and baby-face bent. The past year had found him wandering, sleepless and alone, a faded copper color surrounding the trenches beneath his eyes. And he was out there by himself, a knife his only salvation from unfathomable hells. She took a step back, digesting the shaggy-haired sight before her eyes. She tucked the six shooter into the front pocket of her parka before removing her hood and lowering her own mask.
Hannibal got a good look at her for the first time; he stared at her through a smoky trance as he swayed in the bitter cold. She had earthy, brown eyes and a quicksand gaze that starkly contrasted her ghastly pallor. She was much older than him, but the furrows of her face were beautifully sculpted—mapped out like roads leading to sunken cheekbones.
“What’s your name?” she questioned, her voice deep and warm like nostalgia.
He cleared his throat. “Hannibal.”
“Like the tree?”
“Like the tree.”
Hannibal and Olive navigated through the hollow heart of town, the air enveloping them acrid and dense. The ash-littered streets were lined on either side with automobiles charred beyond recognition, and shards of glass lay jagged and sprinkled before gutted buildings. Soon the sky would redden and the night would come on, unforgiving like a dark penance.
Hannibal kept pace at Olive’s side as she minded him with a watchful eye. She had returned his bag, but only a few of its contents. “What are you doing this far in?” she asked.
He drew a sharp breath into his raw lungs. “I was on my way to see my father when I ran out of supplies. I try to keep along the railroad, but I was desperate. I ain’t had nothin to eat in four days. I was goin to see what I could find here. I figured it was a better bet than the highway.”
Olive ignored the first part of his statement and nodded as she briefly descended into her memories. She had known the highway; every once in a while she found herself there again in her mind amidst the clutter of abandoned cars and blackened bones cleaned of meat and tissue. She could hear the distant screams trapped in the fog of the horizon, bloodcurdling and lost. She could smell the undigested viscera that lay decomposed and strewn about for miles on end—the rotten fruits of human nature.
Hannibal mumbled as if weighing a decision.
Olive stirred herself from her morose reverie. “Do you know where we are?” she asked.
Hannibal’s eyes gleamed at the question. “Loom City,” he responded.
“How can you be sure?”
He pointed ahead. “The street markers. Oregon. Tennessee. Michigan. There’s a state for every street. Except for this one.”
Olive looked up at the weathered green signs—the letters within them hardly discernible—as she and Hannibal dragged along the main thoroughfare. Main Street dissected the town into two halves. The left-hand side was dressed with the remnants of small homes, their walls folded inward toward their foundations. To the right, a vast brick edifice sat dilapidated, the chain-link fence surrounding it warped and tarnished.
“The mill,” Hannibal said.
“Anything in there?” Olive asked.
“Just scrap, far as I know. Metal and flesh.”
Olive nodded toward a large, spire-crowned structure a quarter mile further down the road. “What about there?”
Hannibal squinted at the belfry leaning atop it. “The Lutheran church. I’m sure they have a pantry, but it’s probably tapped.”
Olive looked into the sky, its dreary gray dwindling into dull vermillion as each minute became the next. “Well, we don’t have much of a choice. Besides, we need a place for the night.”
Hannibal agreed and they forged ahead. Caring for others certainly wasn’t characteristic of the life Olive currently knew. If she had stumbled upon anyone other than Hannibal, she very well may have buried a bullet between his eyes and backpedaled south until his corpse was a memory. Alas, she had gone against her better judgment and decided to help him, if only until morning.
They had reached the church’s adjacent parking lot when Olive stopped cold in her tracks. She lifted her index finger and pressed it against her mouth as she looked at Hannibal with eyes wide and wild. A low jingle rattled through the dusky silence and Hannibal’s face washed white with fear. Olive grabbed him and they dove for refuge behind a pile of debris.
A haggard figure shrouded in layers of indistinguishable material pedaled sluggishly down the street, the bicycle beneath it overcome with rust. As it drew closer, it began to hum a haunting tune, baritone and unnerving. Hannibal peeked over the rubble and caught a glimpse of its face—stoic, yet stoned and grotesque like a gargoyle. It was an old woman. She stopped in the middle of the road before straddling her bicycle and burying both arms into the knapsack perched atop her handlebars. Her arms emerged with two heaping handfuls of a white, grainy substance. She didn’t blink as she let it cascade over the calluses of her fingers to the snow-dusted earth below.
“What’s she doin?” Hannibal whispered.
Olive offered no response as the old woman balanced herself and began to cycle down the street in the opposite direction, crooning her forlorn song and ringing her bell. Soon she disappeared into the evening haze, the small crystalline mounds in her wake the only proof that she hadn’t been an apparition.
“What was that all about?” Hannibal asked, his breath erratic.
Olive stared at the bicycle tracks. “She was sowing the earth.”
Dust drifted from the oak of the arched door as Olive pulled it open. The foyer of the church was dim; the dying daylight from the world outside was the only illumination. Hannibal and Olive entered the sanctuary—blood-trimmed sky seeping through the stained-glass windows revealing pews, overturned and gnarled. Hannibal and Olive waded through a graveyard of crumbled pages scattered about the aisle. When they reached the altar, they looked to the wall behind the baptismal font, yellow scrawl stretching smeared across it. It read: On vacation until further notice.
They looked at each other.
Olive picked up a broken candle from the base of the pulpit and lit it with a long, thin matchstick which she pulled from the pocket of her parka. Hannibal followed as she led them down a narrow flight of stairs at the rear of the chancel, the air saturated with moldy aromas beneath dancing cobwebs. The basement kitchen was spacious; tin cans and plastic jugs lay empty along steel countertops. Olive opened the pantry only to find its shelves bare. Hannibal lifted the door of the icebox, before letting it fall closed immediately.
Olive looked at his bleached face, noticing a putrid odor that she hadn’t before. “What is it?”
Hannibal stepped back and grimaced at her through chapped lips. He turned and gagged, his eyes beginning to water as strings of saliva fell to his feet. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You don’t wanna know.”
They ascended the stairs into the sanctuary once more. Olive waved her candle about, searching the room. The meager light shown on a spiral staircase, suspended beside the organ piano in the corner; she climbed it as Hannibal followed and they found themselves in the pastor’s study. The room, while frigid and vacant, was in otherwise impeccable condition given the circumstances.
“Hold this,” Olive said, handing the candle to Hannibal.
She heaved her duffle bag onto the floor in the center of the room; its thud surprised Hannibal, given the willowy frame of the woman who’d been toting it. She removed a chair propped against a roll top desk in the corner. Leveraging her weight against it, she broke off all of its legs and collected them. She then tossed them into the fireplace at the back, along with a variety of pages she’d gathered from the floor.
“Light,” she said, reaching toward Hannibal.
He returned the candle to her and continued to squirm under his crossed arms, the splitting cold drawing like razors on his exposed skin. She lit one of the pages first and nurtured the fire, stirring the legs of the chair and allowing them to catch. She returned to her bag as Hannibal wrapped himself in a blanket. He dropped to the floor and scooted in toward the warmth of the kindling flame. Olive removed several cans from her bag and Hannibal turned. His eyes grew cartoonish. She had food. She had a lot of food. Her bag was stockpiled with canned vegetables and precooked meats.
Hannibal’s mouth began to water, hunger digging at his whimpering stomach like a dog, scooping its own festering wound with a flat, dry tongue. Olive looked at him, and though she thought better of it, she couldn’t circumvent the sheer desperation in his gaze. She slid a can of Spam across the floor in his direction and watched as he pounced on it like a fiend, his hands shaking as he peeled it open. He ripped the balaclava from his head and proceeded to devour the contents of the can as Olive removed her respirator and spread out her sleeping bag, before nestling into it.
“You’re not gonna eat?” Hannibal asked through a stuffed mouth.
“I ate earlier,” she said, pulling her duffle bag under her head like a pillow.
Olive watched Hannibal as he finished his first meal in days. She didn’t know why she’d made an exception for him. Maybe it was the innocence. Maybe it was the loneliness. Maybe it was the stupid makeshift Halloween mask. Maybe he’d projected an energy she’d known to be extinct. Maybe he was good.
“You don’t belong out here, you know?” Olive said.
“How do you figure?” Hannibal asked, swallowing the last of his dinner.
“You don’t belong out here with these barbarous men. They’re animals.”
“I do okay,” Hannibal said, his eyes spellbound by the fire.
“So what were you doing traveling north?”
Hannibal frowned as he fought off the nausea from his undigested supper. “I told you,” he said. “I’m goin to see my father. In Carthage.”
“It’s his birthday, right?” Olive questioned. The sarcasm in her tone went over Hannibal’s head.
“Tomorrow,” Hannibal responded.
“How do you—” Olive began to question, before remembering that she’d confiscated his homemade calendar earlier in the day. She altered her course. “How do you know he’s still there?”
Hannibal locked onto her with unchanging eyes. “I know.”
Thunder rolled on the other side of the wall as the fire inside began to crackle, its harsh, scorching notes permeating the room.
“Why don’t time exist?” Hannibal asked.
Olive’s face curled in confusion. “What?”
“Earlier. You made a remark that time don’t exist.”
They sat there in silence for a moment as Olive looked into the fire. “Before everything was gone.” She paused. “Before everything was gone; right before all the animals died out, I came across a coyote just south of Richmond. We stared each other down. He was gaunt and tired, but for some reason I knew that I was more afraid of him than he was of me. My friends were gone. I was starving. I hadn’t eaten in days. So I fired one into his chest. He staggered at first. But then he just laid down to the flat of his stomach. He just laid there and died, this gorgeous creature so broken and pitiful. He accepted it—the inevitability of it. He hadn’t stopped looking at me the whole time. And in a way, I’m not sure he ever will.” She looked at Hannibal. “That’s when I knew that it was only a matter of time. And time isn’t relevant. It’s all for nothing.”
Hannibal fiddled his fingers. It was obvious that he didn’t know what to say.
Olive sighed before changing the subject. “Where were you coming from?”
“Just outside Atlanta.”
She looked at him in astonishment. “You came all the way from Atlanta with nothing but some clothes and a compass to wish your dad a happy birthday?” She was still humoring him as far as she was concerned.
Hannibal removed the compass from his pocket, its face speckled with dirt and years. “I’d barely started grade school when he gave me this. He told me no matter where I was or how bad things got, as long as I had this I would always be able to find my way home. Every October 6th since I was born, I’ve spent with my father. He’s eleven miles away. I can be there by dusk.”
Olive nodded. For the first time she believed him. She shook the heaviness from her eyelids as she propped her head against her bag.
Hannibal looked at the compass. “You think I could have my knife back, too?”
“Don’t push it, kid. Get some sleep. I’ll take the first watch.”
Hannibal and Olive departed at dawn. They made their way to the edge of town, the train tracks along it laced over the swollen earth. The approaching day cast a murky fog over everything, making it difficult to discern where the earth ended and where the sky began.
Hannibal yawned unsatisfying sleep from his heavy chest. “What do you miss most?” he asked.
“You know,” Hannibal said. “What do you miss from before?”
Olive sighed in agitation as she put one foot in front of the other through the low visibility of the morning. “It’s too early for questions.”
Hannibal tucked his chin like a child scolded in school for talking in class.
The silence that followed fell over Olive like shame and she was surprised at how guilty it left her. For the first time in her life, she couldn’t remember being anything but bitter. She looked upward at the drab sky, hovering above them like a pall.
“Stars,” she said.
“Stars. I miss the stars sheening the sky like a pincushion, shimmering in the night.” Olive stopped walking. “My Lettera 32. My dogs.” She looked at Hannibal, who had stopped with her. “What about you?”
Hannibal paused. “It wasn’t really a thing. It was a sound. A whistle.” He closed his eyes. “The whistle at quittin time. My father worked second shift at the mill in Loom City and sometimes when I was little, if I’d saved up enough money, I’d ride the bus out to meet him at shift change.” He laughed. “It rang out like a banshee with steam breath. Some people found it shrill and unpleasant, but to me it always felt like home. My father would be beat up pretty good. He’d be covered in grease and oil and he’d be dead tired, but when I ran up to him he’d lift me off my feet, just like we were at the beach and the water was gettin too deep.”
Olive stared at Hannibal as if she longed for his memory.
He opened his eyes. “There’s been times since everything happened that I’ve thought of that whistle—imagined it.”
“When was the last time?” Olive asked.
“I didn’t leave Atlanta without food. I stumbled across a group of scavengers somewhere around Spartanburg. Nasty lookin guys with kitchen knives and baseball bats with nails hammered through them. They told me I was lucky they were so nice. Said if it’d been anyone else I’d be with the Lord. After they took the food, one of them suggested I take my knife and bleed myself out.”
Olive gulped. “My God.”
“It could’ve been worse,” Hannibal said. “They could’ve eaten me. Or they could’ve just killed me and left me for someone else I reckon.” He looked into Olive’s eyes for more than a moment. “But then I wouldn’t have made a new friend.”
Olive looked back at him and a strange feeling came over her. His story had moved her like nothing had in a long time. He reminded her of a boy she’d known in college. And suddenly she realized she couldn’t remember the last time she’d made love.
He leaned in close. “Can I ask you somethin?”
“What kind of dogs did you have?”
Olive sighed. “Weimaraners,” she said.
Hannibal smiled and began to walk forward again.
Olive shook her head and watched as he trotted ahead, rawboned and far too punch-drunk for someone his age. And all at once, a profound warmth etched cracks into the bitterness.
“You comin?” Hannibal asked from ahead.
By noon Hannibal and Olive were walking more closely than they had before, kicking rocks through the subsided fog as they headed northeast toward Carthage.
“How do you even know where your father is?” Olive asked. “Isn’t everything gone?”
Hannibal grinned. “Main Street runs into Route 239, and we’re the first house a quarter mile down the road. It has these scrolled balconies that we used to watch the sun set from, and a veranda underneath with rockin chairs and swings. I used to go there when my nerves got the best of me. There’s a lawn out front where my father and I used to play catch. You can’t miss it.”
“And you’re sure he’s still there?” Olive asked.
She had no more than finished her question when a hawk soared overhead, dust dripping from its pinions as it departed south. Its massive wings stretched, broad and robust, as it glided almost celestially through the grim sky. Hannibal and Olive continued to gaze upward, long after it had vanished.
“Maybe it ain’t all for nothin after all,” Hannibal said.
Olive continued to walk ahead. “Isn’t it funny?” she asked.
“Isn’t what funny?”
“Isn’t it funny how we found each other in the middle, in a place where the streets are all named after states?” She smiled for the first time.
Hannibal smiled back through his mask. They were five miles from the city limits and plenty of day remained. He opened his compass and thought of his father. Tears began to well in his eyes as the needle confirmed his direction.
“Keep up, kid,” Olive called as she continued ahead.
“Hold on,” he replied, kneeling to tighten his boot. Olive kept walking. Hannibal began to pull at his frayed laces when he heard a snapping sound to his right. He rose to his feet and cautiously approached the emaciated tree-line to the fringe of the tracks, a foul odor pervading his nostrils with every step he took. His heart began to palpitate as he pulled back a stiff branch and looked at an uprooted tree just ahead.
The human carcass lay disemboweled at the base of the tree, a hulking man crouched directly above it, body matter cupped in his hands as he leered at Hannibal through cloudy eyes. He rose to his feet, his gore-bedewed bomber jacket shining above his prey. He stepped over the body and began to snarl behind the leather skin of his face, worn like an old baseball glove.
Hannibal took a step back and clinched his fists. He flinched once before taking off toward the railroad, retracing the same direction he’d come from. The man charged after him, barking like a hound as wet flesh flew from his jaws. Hannibal tripped over his own feet just before the tracks as the man chasing him lunged forward; they fell to the ground.
“Olive!” Hannibal screamed in fear.
The man pinned Hannibal, strands of entrails and sinew dangling from his chin as his eyebrows arched. Specks of carnage peppered Hannibal’s face as he struggled beneath. His peripheral vision caught sight of Olive darting toward him in the distance. He reached to his hip in despair, only to find his knife missing. The man continued to hold Hannibal down with his left hand as he delivered a devastating blow with his right, before reaching to the ground next to him. He lifted his hand above Hannibal’s chest once more, this time clutching a railroad spike. Hannibal grabbed the man’s wrist in an attempt to hold him off, but his efforts were futile. The spike entered next to Hannibal’s sternum slowly and deeply as he retched. The man removed the spike and hovered above Hannibal briefly, before a sequence of thunderous pops rang out into the air, sending him to the ground.
Olive dove to Hannibal’s side. “No, no, no.” She cradled Hannibal’s head. She touched his wound with her trembling hands but she didn’t know where to start. Hannibal looked into her eyes, blood pouring from his mouth to the snow below. When they’d met he’d felt her cold, but the last thing he felt was her radiating warmth as she laid his head in her lap and his gray eyes fell lifeless.
Olive reached the city limits just before dusk. Downtown Carthage was a skeleton comprised of brick and mortar bones. She’d taken Main Street to Route 239 just as Hannibal had said, the imminent night brooding on the horizon. The first house on the right had once been white; its cupolas now reposed, stained deep and leaden.
Olive sauntered down the front lawn walkway toward the porch. She entered the house to find it like so many others she’d encountered on her travels: desolate and bleak. She checked all the rooms, her steps echoing throughout walls and hallways like a haunting presence. Swinging the storm door open, she exited through the back of the house and found herself in a field, stretching into the distance beyond her visual plane.
She walked for a while forward before she stopped. She closed her eyes as she finally understood. She took one more step forward before heaving her bag to the ground and sitting in the dead, brittle crabgrass beneath her.
She struggled to find words. “Your son was the type of person that—” She paused. “I’m sorry. Your son was the type of person that you felt like you knew your whole life when you’d only just met them. Too often people muddy things up by saying things they don’t know, or saying things that just aren’t true. So, I’m just going to say what I know. I know that your son did the best he could against impossible odds. I know that he kept on breathing.” She choked up. “I know that he loved you. But above all, I know that he was brave. And I know that he was good. He was just the boy among wolves in the pale blood of night.”
Olive removed the compass from the pocket of her parka and placed it on the smooth headstone in front of her. She looped her arms through the straps of her bag, dust falling from her shoulders as she departed south into the darkness.