In The Savage, Frank Bill’s raucous and action-packed follow-up to Donnybrook, mayhem is still the order of the day. Chock-full of Bill’s signature razor-sharp prose and bloodlust, The Savage is “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale set to the tune of Hank Williams Jr.’s ‘Country Boys Can Survive’” (Ace Atkins). Here, one of America’s most iconoclastic young storytellers presents an unnerving vision of a fractured America gone terribly wrong, and a study of what happens when the last systems of morality and society collapse.
Clasping his eyelids tight, Van Dorn recalled the echo from the radio, speaking of the dollar losing its worth. Of a global downfall dominoing across the United States, of militias formed by the Disgruntled Americans, a group of fed-up military and police tired of the government milking the working class. They wanted change, so they’d taken out the grids, the world’s power switch, eliminating lights, sounds, and anything that warranted electricity, and what followed was the images of men being kneeled in front of women and children, homes besieged by flame, a pistol or rifle indenting a face enraged by fear, hurt, and anger. Trigger pulled. Brain, skull, and hair fertilizing the soil with departure. One man’s life taken by another without mercy.
Van Dorn had spied upon these foreigners over the passing months. Men who’d trespassed through the acres, raiding, robbing, slaughtering, and burning human, home, and salvation.
As he opened his eyes, sweat trickled a salty burn from his brow. Wanting to help those weak and in need, he feared risking this freedom he’d forged since the fallout, one of silence, separation, and singleness. Instead, he’d made his way back into the camouflage of the woods. Tried to dissolve what he’d viewed from his memory, though it haunted him night after night.
Hunger pained Van Dorn’s stomach, as he’d not eaten in days. As he laid a hand to the heat of the broken pavement, his chest pounded with dread from the engines’ bouncing horsepower through the valley; the sounds and vibration were a signal, these men were getting closer. He knew what they’d bring. Death.
Glancing back through the line of brush and briar that scripted the hillside, Van Dorn knew he couldn’t drag the venison that lay before him back to shelter to field-dress it. He’d no choice but to chance his freedom. Salvage what meat he could out in the open.
Several miles back, he’d shot the doe. Tracked the beast’s blood spots over the dead leaves until it gave in. Tumbled downhill and out into the open road.
Before the power devolved into a station devoid of words, the static speak on a local NPR news broadcast foretold of the unraveling domino effect that was upon the land. How the U.S. dollar had failed as one war after another bankrupted the very same government that had created the disaster with countries they dealt promises to in the first place. Countries that had been using their own currency rather than America’s coin for day-to-day living. These countries and foreign territories waited for America to crumble within a digital age of gadgets, degrees, and national debt. Disorder was coming in pockets of civil unrest. Militias had formed after the Disgruntled Americans made a bold statement with armed robbery, testing the strength of the United States’ protection of its citizens. Men and women had walked off their jobs. Law enforcement disbanded. States were attempting to secede from the union. Cities and towns were being looted. Criminals were beginning to run rampant. Military had been spread thin, were trapped on foreign continents fighting other men’s conflicts. Human beings who wanted to govern and police everything had lost their rules. Then came the explosions from the networking of small militias. Electricity had been cut and the everyday noise of vehicles, music, television, and people vanished.
As he took in the glassy coal eyes, trees sketched shadows over Van Dorn as he unsheathed his blade, thinking of a time before his father and he had settled with the Widow, a time when his father and he had roamed the roads like vagabonds. Stealing and scrapping. Living hand to mouth. It was preparation. Something Van Dorn didn’t understand then but understood now, so many years later.
With the blade in his right hand, his left spread beneath the deer’s chin. Pulled the head back. Pressed the edge into the white of the deer’s throat. Watched the blood spill warm.
Lifting the hindquarter, Van Dorn stabbed the serrated edge above the genitals. Split the hide up to the rib cage, careful not to part the intestines or the stomach, taint the meat. Fluid steamed from the innards. Flies buzz-sawed the air around his one hand, severing the fat, which held the colors of plum, crimson, and pearl hanging half out. He cut the diaphragm from the cavity. Dug his arms elbow-deep up into the venison, feeling the wall of heat and marrow, gripping the esophagus with one hand, the other hand severing it with the steel.
Tugging the veined heart, lungs, and intestines free, Dorn left the bladder.
In Van Dorn’s mind, he recalled the broken-speak of his father telling how the only thing of value would be a commodity: Something of weight. Gold. Silver. Bullets. Arrows. Those things that’d break or burn flesh would render food, water, survival.
Buzzards circled overhead. A few landed fifteen feet away, stood tall as Van Dorn leaned forward on his knees. Tawny beaks hooking the slick noodle insides. Jerking the fuming hues of organ as he tossed them their way.
Crystalline beads stung Van Dorn’s eyes. Red encircled the venison’s outline. Splitting the almond hide around the neck and shoulder, he dug his feelers into the fur, pulled it down the carcass, and freed it from the shoulder, ribs, spine, and hindquarter, exposing the beet-colored meat. He paused. Heard the barreling sound lessening his time for what he could cut. He’d have to make a decision.
With a fevered action, Van Dorn guided the blade down one side of the spine. Hands stained warm and slick, he carved and sectioned the loin. Placed it into the foiled insides of his satchel. Zipped it closed. Warded off the heated air and the insects with their larvae.
Eyes swiveled from side to side, keeping watch up and down the passage of the back road. Ears tuned to the vibration of distance being closed by the oncoming rumble as he worked the blade along the shoulder.
He wanted more than the loin. Something that would last longer than a day or two. Something that would ease the pangs for protein and mineral.
Across the road, triple strands of rusted barbed wire ran from post to post, bordering a barren expanse of dirt and burnt weeds where crops were once nurtured. Now it just held unturned soil that hid the scattered bones of horse, cow, or wild game that’d been set free or run down and butchered or wasted for this new sport called survival.
A .30-30 lever-action Marlon lay over Van Dorn’s back, a gift from his father, Horace, that had once belonged to his grandfather. Rungs of brass ran across his front, a gift from the Widow a few years ago. Handcrafted by the crazed Pentecost Bill, a leather smith with three daughters spewing the teachings of the good book.
The rattle of engines replaced sound. Slick insides splatted from the buzzard’s beaks to the ground. They extended their shadowy wingspan. Disappeared into the gray-blue above. Van Dorn turned. Sheathed the blade. Ran. Worked his way up the hillside.
Hands red and peeling, he grabbed small trees for leverage. Climbed his way up the embankment of splintered sycamore, gray oak, briar, and dying fern. Trundles of leaves lay upturned from the weight of his tracked kill. Hamstrings burned and forearms tightened as his heart raced.
Two ATVs humming with the knotted tread of mud and black plastic fenders throttled down. Went silent. Behind them a flatbed’s transmission ground gears to second, then first, slowing its pace. Tires came to a stop and the engine found the same quiet as the ATVs that waited on the road now thirty feet below Van Dorn.
Two men stepped from their four-wheelers. Boots crunched across the road. Door hinges squeaked from the flatbed’s cab. The third man dragged his leg, raking the crumbling silt of the road.
Foreign English emerged from one of the upright men. “What is this beast?”
While the other voiced, “’Tis a deer.”
The hobbling man paid them no mind. Raised his head to the air like a malformed dog. Inhaling the bark, leaves, and pollen that lay within the hot air.
Van Dorn sat, ducked down behind a barrel-shaped oak. Chest heaving in his temples. Lactic acid stiffening his muscles. His hands quaking with the fear of being captured. Possibly killed by these ungodly forms of human. Criminals. Seeing them more and more over the passing weeks. Crossing the county back roads and Highway 62.
Unable to fight curiosity, he wanted to catch a better glimpse of the men. To view these savages. Swiveled his neck, peeked through the weeds that camouflaged him, took in the three shapes. Two stood, one kneeled. All sniffing the dry heat of the day.
Their arms, bulky cords of muscle connected to bone by tendon. Inked with skeletons, devil horns, daggers, and lettering, suspending from leather vests and jagged flannel. One of them had hair rifling in singed fibers from his skull. Another’s face was stitched and chinked by scars.
The two who stood kept pivoting their heads. Taking in the surroundings. Studying the landscape. While the one kneeling poked the violet meat. Thumbed the hide hanging loose, submerged his index into the blood that had expanded from the field dressing. Tasted it. His eyes followed where the loin had been removed while his right digit traced it. Van Dorn heard the words that sputtered like an exhaustless vehicle. “’Tis a fresh kill.”
Glancing up the hillside, the kneeling man sat patient. Eyeing the incline for a hint of passage. Watched the dead stillness of trees and leaves. His head turned oddly. Deciphered the skids of soil. Looked at the downward path Dorn and the deer had created.
Van Dorn could taste the stench of these men. They’d the air of mildew, scorched antifreeze, gunpowder, and decayed flesh. It made his throat burn from the acid that bubbled in his gut. Fighting the dread embedded within, Dorn slowly turned his eyes away from the distorted silhouettes of men. Looked behind him, upward through the tiny growth of trees and briar, forty more feet to the top. Another fifty to Red, his mule. And all at once an itch tickled his nostrils, a numb comfort overcame his mouth, and he sneezed. “Shit!” he mumbled.
Footsteps tripped across the crumbling cinder. Then stopped. The scrape of a voice with a Spanish accent: “A sneeze.”
The other figure pointed to the hillside. “Upturned leaves.”
Van Dorn imagined the location of the men in his mind. Twisted his neck to look one last time. The one kneeling met Van Dorn’s eyes. Went from slits to wide.
The man unholstered his pistol, stood up, thumbed the hammer of a 9 mm and yelled, “Something human eyes us from that tree’s flank! Can see the shape of its head.”
Van Dorn did what he should’ve already done. Stood up and ran. Leaves mashed and limbs crunched. A voice belled, “Shoot! Shoot this shape that spies on us!”
Knees burned, hands grabbed tiny trees, and Van Dorn climbed another foot closer to the top. Then another and another. An explosion crowned through the valley. Earth exploded below him, then came the combustion of automatic carbine. Footing gave as he fell backward.
Leaf, rock, and limb accompanied Van Dorn’s descent.
His twenty-one-year-old frame took the jags of land. Marring and denting his arms and shins, until he lay at the bottom of the hill.
Gathering his bearings, catching the air that’d been knocked from him; adrenaline coursed through his body, blotted out the ache that would come later, after the rush, if he lived long enough to encompass the hurt.
Moans reared from the bed of the truck in the road. Scuffed-leather-covered feet came before Van Dorn with the hum of insects and a smell that made the insides of his mouth water and his stomach buckle. He wanted to retch as his eyes made out splotched and stained clothing. Over the dented and moist chest that drew to a cryptic leathery face. Lidless orbs, unblinking. Lips misshapen, revealing teeth and tongue. This texture of man looked as though he’d eaten a plate of explosives with a chain saw and lived to tell about it.
One of the men said, “Look at the size of this man-child.” The other said, “Bring him to his feet, Cotto will enjoy soldiering you.” The man grasped and pulled Van Dorn by his locks to bent knees.
Feeling his hair give, Van Dorn knew in order to survive, to escape, he’d have to do just as his father had done that night long ago. He’d have to kill. And he thought of the milk jugs filled with soil or water, used as makeshift targets. Empty cans of Miller High Life and Evan Williams bottles shot from fence posts. Or walnuts sprouting from tree limbs. Offering a marksmanship that dropped deer, rabbit, squirrel, and groundhog from their life-span. Left to be carved and cleaned for subsistence. He thought of that night. Of a man’s recognizable face before his father had told him to turn away. Then came the drum-crush of gunfire. And when he viewed the sheen of flesh again, it was an unimaginable sauce of flinted bone.
Like now, the tides had turned from a doe killed for eating to human sacrifice for the continuation of one’s existence.
Being dragged across the road, Van Dorn struggled to find his balance amongst the memory from that time he couldn’t bury. From years before, emotions of dread and the pulse of testosterone turned to fuel for his actions, for his continuance.
The one dragging him paused. Looked down at Van Dorn. His head twisted side to side. He’d an insignia branded upon his horsehide neck, a spider spread with tactile legs and a red dot upon its center.
Van Dorn had seen it before. But where was unknown.
Pawing and reaching at the hand that held him, Van Dorn reacted, palmed his Ka-Bar knife attached at his hip. Pulled and swiped upward at the arm. A line erupted with the ooze of red so dark it was black.
The man released Van Dorn, screaming, “Motherfucker!”
Another hand slapped at his shoulder from behind, tried to rein him in. Wielding the blade just as his father had taught him, Van Dorn met the digits of the man’s hand. Pain erupted thick as sap spit from trees. “Heathen bastard!”
As he shuffled backward toward the primered truck, Van Dorn’s back stung. The ache and scrape of his descent was weighing in. Sheathing his blade, he slung the leather strap from his back attached to the .30-30. To his front, a man bore down on him with a pistol. Van Dorn pointed at the form. Took in his beaver-skinned complexion, black hair, and acne-pinched cheeks with dead eyes. Van Dorn envisioned a deer lifting its head after eating acorns from the ground; he imagined aiming for its heart, and he pulled the trigger.
The man’s expression parted out of the temporal line of his skull. Another shape came at Van Dorn; he chambered a new piece of brass. Hands bloody and pulsing, raised. Energized by fear, Van Dorn told himself to shoot. Shoot as his father had done that evening long ago.
And he did. Skull bone tarred over the road.
After many months of living out of eyeshot, watching the harm of others while dodging scavengers and this horde of Spanish-speaking men, he’d now killed two of them in seconds.
Cries and whines reached for Van Dorn from the truck. He viewed what he had overlooked: an iron cage calcified and welded to its bed, restraining ivory outlines. Visages bruised, dirty, and starved of faith. “Help us!” they cried. “Please!”
Women and children. Young boys and girls. But no men.
Towering, large, and muscled, Van Dorn was the apparition of hope. Hair smeared across his head like mud, at odd lengths. Smudged face and trembling, but not broken. Then the familiar—a female with sweaty strands and a blemished outline spoke, “Dorn, help us. Please. They … they’ve slaughtered Daddy.”
The Sheldon girl from over around Frenchtown. The Widow and Van Dorn’s father helped her family run fence line for separation of their cows and hogs two summers before this hell hit. Helped them build a hog pen. Butcher, process, package, and freeze their beef and pork. He and the girl had fished, hunted, rode mules. Shared the first of several kisses, groping, and adolescent lust.
The roar of more engines from the distance rattled and scoured the land. Around the bed of the truck came the third frame, dragging his leg. A pistol raised with the same spider tattoo across the back of his hand. Van Dorn trained his rifle at the outline and followed the only word that coursed through his mind: Kill!
• • •
Hidden by the tarnished chrome trunks of trees and rock, Van Dorn climbed back up the hillside, .30-30 in his grip. Heart bunched in his chest. Out of breath. Shaken by his actions of survival, he turned to take a final glimpse of his eruption from the hilltop.
Below him, the roar of more vehicles had pulled up and stopped. Men like those he’d shot stepped from their trucks and four-wheelers.
With a matte black HK33 assault rifle draped across his front, one man studied the brain and bone fragmented upon the pavement. Blood thick and drying from the midday heat. The man shook his head. Motioned to the other men who walked the road with hand signals, no words. Some with heads burred. Others with oily tresses. Inked-up arms wielding AK-47s, some pointed, others surveyed. Van Dorn knew what they were doing, looking for the one who’d slaughtered their own like an Old West showdown from the films he’d watched with his father.
Pale Rider. High Plains Drifter. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The Outlaw Josey Wales.
The men picked up their dead. Flung them into the bed of a rusted Chevy as though they were sacks of feed. Then they dragged the deer, hefted it up onto the pile of bodies.
The one man with the HK33 stood out. He wore an ink of thorns around his sand-stubbled head. Several teardrops fell down his cheek. Mossy-bearded. Arms covered in smears of blanched ink and wolf spiders upon each hand. Studying the hillside, he listened for something more than silence. He and two others walked toward the mess of leaves along the road’s edge. Looked back to where the deer had lain. Pointed. Motioned index and middle fingers like an upside-down peace sign into his left palm, as if legs walking up the hill, then lifted his right hand into the air and circled his index overhead.
Two men got on the discarded ATVs. Another opened the abandoned truck’s door, sat in the driver’s seat, the caged humans attached to its rear. The Sheldon girl screamed, “Dorn! Dorn! Come back!” Until an older female’s hand smothered her speech.
The man with the HK studied her. Walked toward the cage and questioned her. Moments passed with an exchange of words. Then the man walked to his ATV. Engines roared. Others got back into their soil-specked vehicles. Drove down the road slow. Gazing and examining the hillside. Van Dorn worked his eyes open and closed. Trying to place the men’s tattoos as he ran back to where he’d tied his mule.
• • •
Van Dorn’s arm ached as he swatted the flies from the bedroom’s doorway. Rot hung in the air like manure spread upon a field to treat the soil. Two bodies of bone lay in the bed. Resting, he told himself. The Widow’s skin appeared ashen and sunken. Eyes no longer soft like her touch, warming him with comfort, but now full with the decomposition of sunken burrows.
Horace, Dorn’s father, lay thick boned, hair once the color of raven now fine as thread for sewing, his muscles deteriorated beneath his decaying cotton shirt and denim pants. Empty brown beer bottles lined the floor next to the bed. Home brew from the Widow’s brother-in-law.
Backing up from the room, Van Dorn pulled the heavily grained door closed. Walked back through the old farmhouse with the insignia branded upon those men haunting his mind. A black widow with a red dot in its center. Strobing over and over in his memory. Where had he seen it?
In the kitchen, sun bleached through the panes of window. Vibrations pulsed through Van Dorn’s spine, arms, and legs. He dropped into a wooden chair. His .30-30 flung upon the table. Hands pressed into his face. He’d killed those men. Their hides roasted brown like a duck’s skin. Who were they? Where had they come from? Why’d they have the females and children caged like livestock being transported to their butchering?
Where were the fathers, the brothers, the uncles, the men?
They’d loaded up their dead. Tossed Van Dorn’s deer into the truck with them. As he raised his head from his hands, the thought that he’d ignored for far too long came: How long before he was discovered again?
Van Dorn remembered his father telling him, “You’re a survivor. A pioneer. You know the ways of the land. You’ll have to search out similar folk. Educate those that have no learning to what you know. Won’t be safe to hole up here forever.”
Van Dorn’s sockets pained and squeezed in his skull, remembering everything he’d tried to forget but couldn’t: His and Horace’s return to southern Indiana. The squatters. Stopping for gas. Gutt. The Widow. Gunshots. Stains to the slats of floor. Tarp. Digging a deep depression within the earth. His father’s slow unraveling over the years spent with the Widow. The crazed words that fell from his tongue as time passed with a bottle in tow. Saying, “Men will cripple the weak quick as an unexpected winter frost in 1816. Know who’ll survive? Ones that’ve been taught how to nurture and live from the land.”
Standing, Van Dorn removed the meat from his pouch. Hands quivered, his mind replayed the actions that had been cast upon him without notice. Sketching those caged people’s faces from memory. Worn. Crusted but familiar; the Sheldon girl. He wondered if she’d tried to fight back. Knowing her father would have. He was a hunter, trapper, labored in the blood of life. He was not weak. And Van Dorn wanted to be the same.
Placing the beet-colored loin on the cutting board. Pulling his blade from its sheath, he parted the dark meat. Cut with the muscle’s grain. As was true with his father, Horace, violent actions came when his hand was forced. If there’d been a test to take a life, he’d have passed it. He thought of how easily the men dropped to the ground. Everything within them evaporated with a single gunshot. They became weightless. Their beings exhausted. Just like when his father and he met the Widow. Even before that. When they’d left Harrison County. Abandoned the working world. Lived on the road, thieving scrap tin, aluminum, steel, and copper from foreclosed homes.
• • •
Horace always warned Van Dorn, someday it would come to this. Kill or be killed.
But it haunted Van Dorn, leaving all those others behind; seeing their lost complexions saddened him. He’d viewed the dismantling of others, but never so close. He told himself he’d no time to free them. He was one against many.
Van Dorn’s stomach groaned. He couldn’t eat till dark. Fearing someone or something would see the smoke from a fire.
Running a forearm below his nose, he sponged mucus. Justified his choice of morals. He did what he had to do.
Grabbing a ceramic bowl from the cabinet, he placed the slices of meat inside. Turned and walked into the dining area, to the basement door on the far side of the room. Opened it, descended the old wooden steps. Outside light opened the darkness from small windows within the four corners overhead. Carved shadows down the rock walls that were lined with plywood shelves and weighted by jars and jars of canned vegetables. Green beans. Peas. Potatoes and carrots. Pickles, sliced to quarters or speared, and corn that’d been cut from the cob. A stain graphed around the rust-speckled freezer that had held dead game. Nourishment that’d been wrapped and stored till it went too long without power. He’d eaten and salvaged what he could, but most of the meat within it had expired.
For Van Dorn, vegetables served little purpose without meat. He longed for eggs and their thick cholesterol centers. He’d killed his remaining hens when too many weeks had passed without deer, rabbit, or squirrel.
The smell of mildewed earth and rotted meat rose all around him. He stepped to the wooden box that covered a hole within the floor. Where a whiskey barrel had been lowered into the ground. Gravel lined the outside of it, insulating it with cool. Creating a makeshift fridge built by his father and him.
Like his father, the Widow had learned him about the old ways. Gardening, hunting, fishing, and trapping. Loading ammo. Dynamite. Sharpening of a blade. Knowing one’s direction by the rising and lowering of the sun. And now it was being used.
Opening the barrel, he laid the meat inside. Wishing he had enough room to save what had been in the freezer.
He grabbed a jar of beans, pinkie-sized chunks layered the liquid within. Laying them on top of the wooden lid, he slid a walnut chair from beneath a matching table. Sat down. Glanced at the radio that offered no sound.
Beneath the table and in the corners, coils of boneless muscle lay. Skin patterns golden brown with black slithering their way toward his booted feet. As he reached down, one of the coils came cold into his palm. Screwed up and around his forearm. Raising it to the tabletop, he let the serpent slither from him and lie facing him. And her memory wrangled within. Droplets of moisture slid from her tight cheeks where eyes the shade of sky smiled. Her hands soft, working the blade, peeling potatoes, shedding their jackets, quartering them into a liquid that steamed. Blue flames heating the pot upon the gas stove. “You’re Van Dorn?” she asked.
“Your father, he speaks highly of you and your labors.”
It was Dorn’s first visit to the Sheldon girl’s home. His father and he had come looking to size up the property for running fence line. Dorn had stepped into the home for a swig of water.
“Does he, that’s his offering of kindness, I suppose.”
Dorn was hesitant. Nervous. Shy around a female near his age. But also of beauty.
She smiled, her teeth were of pearl, lips smooth, and she asked, “And you, how would you speak of your father?”
“Strong and of great knowledge. A man who fights many demons.”
“Demons? Awful colorful words, dramatic even.”
“Not when one’s viewed all the broken pieces of the world of which we’ve traveled.”
Running a forearm to blot the damp about her forehead, Sheldon shook her head. “You’re a traveler. Not from here. Where all have you seen?”
“I’s born here. Father took me to the road when my mother abandoned us. Took to Kentucky. Tennessee. Ohio. Seen those that’ve been relieved of their worth.”
“And now you’re gonna help my daddy construct a fence.”
“What my father told me. Think I could trouble you for a glass of water?”
Laughing, Sheldon told him, “That’s why you’ve stepped into our home. Not to see and flirt with the daughter. How about iced tea, is that suitable for a traveler such as yourself?”
Taking to the wonder within her bright eyes, the elegance of her pale pigment, Van Dorn smiled and replied, “Please, it’s of no trouble.”
Now, cat eyes watched him within the shadowed basement. Black tongue forked, jutting in and out. Van Dorn rubbed a pointer over the scaly head, whispering, “Know what I must do. Leave here. Find those faces I left behind.”
Van Dorn fell silent, watching the serpent. The others gathered around his feet. He sat waiting for dark. His memory drifting to a time before the silence. A time when he questioned how much longer he could live in an existence of hand to mouth with his father. Scavenging through the rural areas of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio. Where in the wee hours of night they ripped and cut bronzed wiring and piping from the walls and floors of foreclosed homes. Traded the weight for tender at salvage yards.
Frank Bill is the author of the novel Donnybrook and the story collection Crimes in Southern Indiana, one of GQ’s favorite books of 2011 and a Daily Beast best debut of 2011. He lives and writes in southern Indiana.