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 snagging a 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.
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 motionlessness 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.
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.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Orchard by Larry Watson. Copyright © 2003 by Larry Watson. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.