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Authors: Larry Watson

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Orchard

BOOK: Orchard
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To Susan

Praise for Orchard

“[A] beautifully written and textured novel . . . [Watson] succeeds in creating his own small world. . . . Lovely, haunting.”

—USA Today


Orchard
is a small masterpiece. . . . Exquisitely paced and rendered in lucid, chameleon-like prose . . . It allures, it pulls you immediately into its depths and settles inside your bones for a long and haunting stay. . . . Dialogue and narrative unerringly reflect the novel’s emotional and physical landscapes, places of light, shadow and uncertainty that will dwell in the reader’s memory for a long time to come.”

—San Francisco Chronicle

“Larry Watson takes the less-traveled roads, through landscapes and heartscapes vaguely familiar, intensely poetic and always jangling. . . . He has established himself as one of the leading poetic realists, painting his stories across the canvas of interiors: small-town America and the human heart. . . . [Orchard] is filled with characters who are as flawed as their surroundings and circumstances and a landscape that is achingly painted.”


San Jose
Mercury News

“This, Larry Watson’s sixth novel, is unquestionably his best. . . . Watson has got inside each character’s inmost being, understanding not only how each works, but how he or she perceives the others. Everything is done with an eloquent economy.”

—Chicago Sun-Times

“Technically flawless and quietly unnerving . . . An emotional and physical landscape composed in melancholy autumnal ochers and chilly winter grays.”

—Entertainment Weekly

“A novel of beauty and power . . . Watson’s short chapters are like quick brushstrokes. . . . Throughout, [his] spare prose and exploration of timeless themes, including the difference between love and possession, and the meaning of art, create the effect of a rifle shot that echoes long after firing.
Orchard
is a rewarding, memorable novel.”

—The Charlotte Observer

“An engrossing story . . . Watson’s clear prose simply enchants. . . . Fragments of memory enhance the sweet melancholy of the novel and draw the reader into the book’s rhythm. The author’s sense of the land is dazzling, serving as a vibrant element for each scene.”

—BookPage

“Lovely . . . Watson’s writing is perfectly calibrated, a balance of restraint and virtuosity that serves his story to the end in this luminous novel of love, grief and fidelity.”

—The Arizona Republic

“Marvelous . . . Showing a deep maturity of thought and craft, Watson surpasses himself in [Orchard].”

—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Disturbing and introspective. It left me mulling over the complex characters long after I finished the last page. . . .
Orchard
builds to a riveting climax. . . . Watson’s writing is meant to be savored.”

—The Missourian

“At the heart of this provocative, disquieting story lie passion and obsession and the choices people make because of them.”

—The Miami Herald

Acknowledgments

Grateful acknowledgments to my wife, Susan Watson, for her inspiration, love, and support; to my editor, Lee Boudreaux, for her sensitivity, sharp eye, and enthusiasm; to my agent, Ralph Vicinanza, for his wisdom and friendship. Thanks also to Laura Ford, Elly Heuring, Amy Watson, and Eben Weiss.

1

Henry House stayed out of the orchard’s open aisles and instead kept close to the apple trees as he tried to work his way unnoticed down the hill. This meant he could barely rise out of a crouch, ducking under one low gnarly branch after another. The new November snow further complicated matters. It was just enough to cover the few apples that still lay on the ground, and when Henry stepped on one it was likely to burst under his weight, causing him to skid on the slick snow and apple mush underfoot. Each time this happened, apple scent rose up to his nostrils, and in his mind he heard again his father’s old reproach: Watch where you walk.

The apple trees gave out well short of the cabin, but the final eighty yards were no easier to negotiate. The scrub trees and brush thickened, the hill steepened sharply, and Henry had to dig in the edges of his boots and descend sideways to keep from hurtling headlong down the slope.

He had taken no more than three steps, however, when he lost what little foothold he had. He wasn’t sure if it was another apple he’d stepped on or a pocket of wet leaves, but his foot slid out from under him, and he fell hard on his backside. In the next instant, he was
sliding down the hill with the speed of a child on a sled, threatening to slam
feetfirst into the very building he had hoped to creep up on.

For all the suddenness of Henry’s fall, it did not feel to him, in those first seconds, so much like an accident as a fulfillment— so this is what I’ve been heading for.

As he bumped and skidded down the hill, he still had the presence of mind to do two things: He held his right arm—the arm that had never healed right—over his head to keep it from hitting a rock or snagginga fallen tree limb. Second, Henry managed to clap his left arm over his mackinaw pocket and keep it closed, thereby preventing the pistol from slipping out into the snow.

With his hands thus positioned, Henry couldn’t do much to check his descent or to protect the rest of his body from banging and scraping its way down the slope. And yet with that one arm held aloft, Henry felt a little like a rodeo rider, which meant the earth itself was the bucking horse he had to ride.

2

Weaver had never known a model with this woman’s talent for stillness. And
talent
was the word for it. For that she did not have to be taught or trained. She did not have to be reminded or cajoled. When told to pose in a particular position, she assumed it immediately and held it without protest. Without protest? Beyond that. She took to motionless-ness eagerly, as if stasis were her natural state and she had been waiting for a reason to return to it.

Furthermore, her stillness had a quality as amazing to him now as when she first posed for him, though Weaver was at a loss to put a name to it. It had nothing to do with lethargy or languor. She did not relax into her pose the way some models did, leaving their bodies in order to let their minds wander. Weaver hated that, and he could tell when it happened. Energy and a degree of muscularity left the body. You wanted stillness, but not the repose of a cadaver. Even when she was in a pose— lying back on the bed, for example—that would have allowed her to relax so completely she could fall asleep, she never did. She was still, but she was
there
.

Perhaps even more remarkable was her lack of self-consciousness about her body. Weaver knew she was not immodest or vain, yet she disrobed in front of him as openly as . . . what was Weaver thinking? As his wife? Harriet had her own art: finding the odd angle or obstruction that permitted her to undress out of his sight. Back when she modeled for him, she often used the screen and stepped out draped in the sheet he provided. But this woman . . . When Weaver first told her she could undress behind the screen, she looked at him as if he were an idiot. “I’m going to be naked before you, yet I should hide myself while I get that way?”

She undressed like his daughters. That was it. She undressed as easily and efficiently as Emma and Betsy had when they were young and he’d supervised their baths. A task lay before them that required they be unclothed, so they quickly attended to the matter. The carpenter picks up his hammer, the artist takes brush in hand. This woman shed her clothes, nakedness her craft and art.

Occasionally, Weaver’s curiosity—or was it his perversity?—led him to test the limits of her talent. He devised poses difficult to hold, like this one, which required her to kneel on the bed but keep her body’s jointed parts strictly aligned and perfectly angled: head in line with shoulders and hips, arms straight down at her sides, knees bent at ninety degrees. Weaver wanted all the curves in this pose to come only from the parts of her she could not control—from those magnificent breasts; that gently rounded bulge just above her pubis; the flare of her hips; the long, slight swell of each thigh—as if her eroticism were asserting itself without her consent. Weaver thought that forcing her to hold that pose—how her trapezius muscles must have knotted themselves with the effort of holding her head up, how her knees must have ached!—might break her down, might force her to ask him for relief. It did not. Weaver had also hoped, when he first conceived of the pose, not merely out of a mild malice but out of aesthetic intent as well, that it might at last reveal the secret of her. It did not.

3

Sonja had often wondered why all men carried their rifles in a similar manner. Had they been taught? Had they simply copied other men— their fathers, as their fathers had before them? But on that day, when she walked to the barn with Henry’s Winchester cradled in the crook of her arm, she realized, given the gun’s configuration, its length and weight, there were only a few ways to carry it. It was the same with babies. Sonja had heard people talk of an instinct for motherhood, and she had silently scoffed. If one wished to hold a baby, one simply lifted it, without thought or education and certainly without knowledge in the blood. Babies and rifles—their shapes furnished the necessary instruction:
Carry us this way.

And though she would have needed instruction to tell her where on the animal to press the muzzle of the gun, her husband had provided that lesson on many occasions. He told her about the small brain that horses had, though Henry always said it with affection, and if the horse himself were present, Henry would tap with his index finger that white diamond high on the animal’s forehead where the hair seemed to grow in a different direction from the surrounding russet coat. At Henry’s tap, the horse always blinked, and when the lids closed over those great liquid globes, Sonja waited in vain to see tears squeezed out. Yes, if you could only cry, she thought; if you could only show remorse . . .

She stood in the barn’s chaffy dark, her nostrils stinging with the smell of dung, mildew, kerosene, and sweat-soaked leather. She levered a shell into the chamber, and the horse, as if he heard the metallic slide of the Winchester as another animal’s question, nickered an answer from his stall.
Over here, I’m over here.

Perhaps if she had faced the horse head-on, if she had stood a few feet away from the stall, raised the rifle to her shoulder, and taken aim—there, at the point of that white diamond behind which the horse’s brain made its horsy connections—perhaps if Sonja had acted quickly in this way, she would have been able to pull the trigger. Instead, she entered the adjoining stall, kicked her way through the loose straw, and reached the rifle over the wooden bar to aim accurately. In this narrow space, the horse gave off so much heat Sonja half-expected to see his body glow. When the gun’s muzzle touched the horse’s head, his ear twitched the way it would if a breeze blew down the length of the rifle barrel. His eye widened and rotated toward Sonja. A white rim showed around the eye like a sliver of crescent moon in the night sky. Then the horse stood still, as if he knew his duty was to make no move that might tremble Sonja’s will or throw off her aim.

She could not stop her ears to prepare for the explosion, so instead she tried, in her mind, to move away from this moment. And once she did, her determination wavered and then left her completely. What was the use? She could pull the trigger until the rifle was empty, but it would do nothing to bring warmth back to her little boy’s body or her husband’s heart.

Sonja pulled her finger out of the tiny steel hoop of the trigger guard and in the corner of the stall set the rifle down, unfired but with a shell still in the chamber and the hammer still back. She walked out of the barn and sneezed twice in the sudden sunlight.

Henry carried the
rifle into the kitchen, where Sonja sat at the table peeling potatoes. He held the gun toward her as if it were an offering.

“What was this doing out in the barn?” The gun was just as she had left it, cocked and ready to fire.

Sonja did not look up from her work. The peelings fell into the garbage can she held between her knees. Each potato she sliced into quarters and dropped into a pot of water.

“Did you take it out there?” he asked.

There was still enough pale autumn sunlight left to illuminate all the room’s corners, but Sonja had turned on the overhead light to help her see any rotten spots on the potatoes.

“Did you hear me?” Henry said. “I asked you, did you take it out there.”

“I heard you.”

The rifle’s bruise-dark steel looked, under the light’s glare, like a machine far too complicated for this environment. In the kitchen one picked up tools of the primitive sort, instruments for cutting, spearing, scooping, and stirring. The rifle’s smell, gun oil and varnish, was similarly out of place.

“Do you see this?” Henry said. “It’s cocked. Do you know how easy it could go off? Somebody could get killed.”

When she still did not look up at him, Henry left the kitchen. He went out the back door, and from the porch he sighted the rifle at the large sugar maple that overhung the gate leading to the small pasture. He didn’t aim at any branch, scarlet leaf, or knot on the maple but simply the center of the trunk. This wasn’t target practice. He didn’t know whether the gun was loaded. Never before in his life had he squeezed the trigger of a gun without knowing whether the hammer would fall on a live round or an empty chamber.

The sound of the gunshot, because it had, for echo’s effect, the box of the house and the emptiness of the surrounding fields, was both percussive and clanging. Though the dog was not gun-shy, it yelped and skittered sideways off the porch. It knew the difference between a shotgun’s boom—a sound to which it was accustomed—and a rifle’s sharp report.

Henry stepped off the porch and levered open the Winchester. The spent shell casing popped out. He worked the rifle’s action again and again until all the cartridges had been ejected and were lying on the ground at his feet, their brass glinting in the soft dirt like the recently unearthed artifacts of an earlier civilization. Even after he was certain the gun was empty, Henry lifted it to his shoulder again, aimed at the maple tree, and squeezed the trigger. It was hard to believe that the same action could produce both the earlier explosion, when the air itself split open, and this small, flat, disappointed
clack.

This time Henry did not carry the rifle into the kitchen but leaned it gently beside the back door.

She had to have heard the gunshot. And she must have startled at the noise. Yet when Henry walked back into the kitchen, she was still working on the potatoes. The peeler spit out strips of potato skin with the same speed the Winchester ejected cartridges.

“I have to be sure,” he said, “that it wasn’t June took it out there.”

“It wasn’t June,” Sonja said.

Henry knew the rest would come, but he had to wait until the last potato was quartered and dropped into the pot and she had wiped her hands on her apron.

She looked squarely at him. “I was going to shoot your horse.”

“I thought it was getting better for you,” Henry said.

Tears glistened in her eyes, and she set her lips in resolve.

Henry pulled away the garbage can, and before she could bring her knees together, he wedged himself into the space between her legs. He put his hands on her shoulders. “Sonja? Is it getting any better?”

When she lifted her face to him, the tears ran out of the corners of her eyes and back into her hair. “I dream about him. . . .”

“Who? John? Or Buck?”

“In the dreams, he’s small. Like a pet. And he’s in the house. His hooves clattering all through the house . . .”

Henry dropped to his knees before her. “Do you want me to do it? Will that make it better? You say the word, and by God I’ll go out there and put a bullet in Buck’s brain.”

During Sonja’s long silence, the dog returned to the porch, his nails clicking on the wide boards. When he lay down, his flopping weight made a sound like a laundry bag of wet garments being dropped at their door.

Henry moved closer to her, forcing her legs farther apart in the process. His hands went to her waist. “Do you hear me?” he said. “Say the word.”

She twined her fingers in his hair with such force he could not be sure if passion or anger tightened her grasp. She brought her face close to his.

“There is no such word,” she whispered.

In 1998, forty-five
years after Henry House fired a 30-30 slug into the maple tree, a tornado dipped out of the leaden August sky and skipped across the bayside waters of Lake Michigan. When it touched the soil of Door County, Wisconsin, it dug in hard and mangled and uprooted a west-to-east route across the peninsula. One of the trees irreparably damaged was that sugar maple. In the process of the tree being cut and split for firewood, the tunnel that Henry’s bullet bore was improbably opened, more likely by the ax or maul and wedge than the chain saw. When the logs were brought into the house and stacked behind the woodstove, the slug slid out. A three-year-old girl, believing it was a pebble, picked it up. Even her child’s hand could tell it had a warmth and softness unlike any stone.

Henry turned his
back to the bar, and with both hands held his rifle overhead. He raised his voice so all the patrons of the Top Deck Tavern could hear him.

“Can I have your attention? I got a Winchester thirty-thirty here I’m willing to sell to the highest bidder.”

A man at a table near the window shouted out, “What’s the matter, Henry—won’t your wife let you out hunting no more?”

Henry ignored him. “Those of you know me know I take care of my equipment. The man who buys this rifle will get himself a clean gun that shoots true and has never jammed.”

A cigar smoker sitting a few stools away from Henry said, “If it shoots so goddamn straight, why’re you selling it.” He didn’t pose this as a question, and his companion, the only man in the bar wearing a tie, said, “A fellow hard up for cash and in a hurry. Always a bad combination.”

The bartender wiped off the bar where only a moment earlier the rifle had lain. He inspected his rag as though he expected it to show a stain of gun oil. “Suppose I bid a buck,” he said confidentially to Henry, “and that’s the only offer you get.”

Over his shoulder Henry said, “Then you got yourself a rifle and I’m a dollar richer.”

“Jesus, Henry. You could just as well give it away.”

“If it comes down to it, Owen, I might do exactly that.”

From the end of the bar, a man sitting alone said, “What the hell. I’ll give you fifty dollars for your rifle.” If it weren’t for the voice—as deep and casually precise as a radio announcer’s—you might have thought, as you squinted through the Top Deck’s dim light, that this offer came from a boy, so slight was the figure perched on the stool.

“Maybe you’re joking, mister,” Henry said, “but I’m bringing this gun over to you and I expect to get paid in return.”

“For Christ’s sake, Henry,” Owen said. “You don’t want to do this. If you’re strapped for cash, there’s other ways.”

Henry looked down at the Winchester as if he were contemplating an object that already belonged to another.

“I could help you out myself,” Owen said.

“If you want to help me,” Henry said, “offer me fifty-one dollars and take this gun out of my hands.”

Meanwhile, the short man at the end of the bar had climbed off his stool, taken out his billfold, and was counting off fives and tens on the bar. “And that’s fifty.” He knocked on the small stack of bills and then spread his arms wide.

Henry walked over and extended the rifle. “Mister, you bought yourself a Winchester.” He swept up the bills and without counting them stuffed them into the front pocket of his dungarees.

The rifle’s new owner hefted the gun and tilted it back and forth the way a tightrope walker might hold his balancing pole.

Look here, Henry wanted to say, you buy yourself a rifle you don’t want to check its weight; you want to bring it to your shoulder, peer down its sights, work its action.

Instead, this slight, wiry man dressed in a white shirt and paintsplattered khakis leaned the rifle against the bar, and then stepped back and cocked his head as if his main concern were with how the blue-black steel caught the light. When he lifted it again, he picked it up by the barrel and passed the bore under his nose. “It’s been fired recently.”

Maybe this fellow knew guns better than Henry thought. “I wanted to make sure it was firing properly.”

“Why would you have any doubt?” He laid it back down on the bar and picked up his drink.

The man had a way of locking you in with his narrow-eyed gaze and holding you longer than you liked. Now he arched his eyebrows as if he expected Henry to blurt out a confession that would reveal his real reason for firing the rifle.
I only killed a maple tree, mister.

“You can sight it in all you like,” Henry said. “It’s always going to shoot a tad high.”

“What was all that talk about straight shooting? Was that just advertising?”

“It shoots straight. Just a little high.”

“Whoa. Take it easy. You don’t have to defend your rifle’s honor. I don’t give a damn if it shoots around corners. I have no interest in firing the thing.”

“What do you want it for then?”

The man regarded the rifle once again in that head-cocked way. “I’m going to paint it.”

He glanced down at the streaks, smears, and splatterings of white, gray, brown, black, yellow, and green paint on the man’s trousers and tennis shoes, and then Henry drew a breath and asked the question, though he dreaded the answer. “What color?”

“What color? What
color
? Jesus Christ, I’m not going to paint the goddamn gun; I’m painting a picture of it.”

Henry nodded in relief. “And why my rifle?”

“You mean mine.” He tossed back his drink, then cracked an ice cube between his teeth just the way Henry’s mother used to do back in her drinking days. “I wanted the history.”

If Henry hadn’t felt so embarrassed over his question about painting, he might have asked, What history? Instead he said, “Like you say: It’s your gun. You’re free to paint it with red and blue polka dots, if you like.” He chose those colors because they did not appear on the man’s pants.

When Henry left the Top Deck, he did not go directly home. He walked along Gull Road, past the Loch Lomond Resort and the new golf course. He remembered another walk after giving up a gun. . . . Henry’s father had confiscated Henry’s rifle the day before deer season opened because Henry had left it out unsheathed overnight. One afternoon Henry’s friend Phil Trent came over, and by the time the boys had finished looking at the French playing cards that Phil had borrowed from his father’s dresser drawer, Henry had forgotten about his gun. The faint blush of rust on the barrel did not magically appear during the night, but that sign of neglect was exactly what caught Henry’s father’s eye. He made Henry put the rifle in a storage locker in the cellar. On the opening day of deer season, Henry was up before dawn, and by the time the sun rose, he was out walking, weaponless, as the first shots were fired.

BOOK: Orchard
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