The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Carrion” by Savannah Johnston

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Many literary magazines spread on the floor cover up.

When someone is faced with a life or death situation, principles that in quieter times appeared self-evident can become much more difficult to hold. In Savannah Johnston’s “Carrion” (Moon City Review), a young man’s convictions are tested as his situation becomes dire.

Johnston opens the story with Tennessee, the young male protagonist, attempting to cut the boot from his father’s severely infected foot.

“Tennessee cut the tongue out of Pop’s boot to get the thing off. Blood had seeped through two pairs of socks. At the sight of blood, Jonathan, his husky, whimpered and snapped her jaws. Tennessee shooed her away. She listened, but he had to tie her puppies to his pack to keep them from licking Pop’s boot.”

Through this opening paragraph, Johnston reveals two key elements that fan throughout the story. The first is the hunger of Jonathan and the pups—shared by the boy and his father. The second is the question of what restrains that hunger from turning wild, like the creatures of the forest bustling around them, “circling, waiting.”

Pop passes away, and Tennessee is set with the task of burying his him, which is no small task. Tennessee has no shovel, and has experienced firsthand what happens in the forest when a body is buried less than five feet down. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the camp they’re residing in is temporary, and they must move on before winter sets in. As Tennessee digs, Johnston reveals more about the situation, and how it relates to the thematic questions.

“The sun had already begun to sink behind what Pop had called Mother Lode Mountain. It wasn’t the largest peak in the range, but it was closest to a couple of waterfalls so it was popular with the tourists. In the high season during the summer, they’d cut a path through a few scattered campgrounds, taking what they needed. Mother Lode Mountain tourists brought all kinds of things: RVs, generators, clothes blankets, canned food, tools. They had enough to never miss a few things here and there, Pop said.”

While father and son were never in search of carrion—like the turkey buzzard circling overhead and the coyote pack lurking around the forest—they have been subsisting in part on what they can steal from tourists—rationalized neatly in the last sentence by Pop.

It’s easy to imagine that rationalizations like these are what allowed Tennessee and his father to carve out their existence on the edges of society while also being at peace with the social mores they were willing to break. Johnston also reveals another narrative Pop told Tennessee, a narrative that influences the story in unexpected ways.

“When he was little, Pop told a story to keep him (Tennessee) close…Pop’s story was about a man who wore a long coat. The man lived in their mountains, and he skirted the tourists with enviable ease. He ran with the deer, the elk, the coyotes, the bobcats, and even the bears. For all intents and purposes, he wasn’t a man at all. He followed the tourists’ trails and when he felt like it, when he found one he wanted to punish, he’d pick them off. Poof. You’ve gotta be smarter, Pop said. You’ve got to stay close to camp.”

While Pop intended this story as solely a cautionary tale, it becomes much more than that as the stakes become higher for Tennessee. He digs through the night and by dawn stands head-deep in the grave. The coyotes close in and attack. Tennessee climbs out and scares them away, but not before they get to Pop’s messy foot.

“Tennessee rubbed his eyes with his fists. His knuckles were wet. He stood, careful, and lifted Pop’s ankles. It startled him how much meat looked like meat. The flesh of a dead man wasn’t much different than that of a deer.”

With this simple-yet-breathtaking paragraph, Johnston opens up an entirely new world for her character. Who before was Pop is now simply a “dead man.” Tennessee, who to this point has worked so hard to keep his father’s body from being used as carrion, now sees that same body through the eyes of the wild animals surrounding him, or like his dog Jonathan, who couldn’t help but lick her lips at the sight of blood—even of her owner.

As the story rushes toward a close—the wild closing in, still far from winter camp, still without needed supplies—Tennessee gives in and kills one of Jonathan’s pups. Through this, Johnston leads us to wonder Tennessee might someday soon become the cloaked man in Pop’s story, running with the wild things, occasionally picking off tourists. In the face of desperation, what was once a cautionary tale, meant to keep Tennessee from wandering too far from home, now serves as a potential model for leaving the last of the society’s mores behind in order to survive.