NEA Literature Fellowships

Larry Watson

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(2004 - Prose)

From the novel Orchard

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 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. There was a baby; if one wished to hold it, 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 was 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 hair. 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 at the side of the horse's head. In this narrow space, the horse gave off so much heat Sonja half-expected to see its 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.

Larry Watson is the author of six novels including Montana 1948, White Crosses both from Washington Square Press, Orchard (Random House), and three other published novels. He has published short stories and poems in Gettysburg Review, New England Review, North American Review, and other journals and quarterlies. His book reviews and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Washington Post, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Essays for Contemporary Culture, Imagining Home, Off the Beaten Path: Stories from the Nature Conservancies, The Most Wonderful Books, and Writing America. He and his wife Susan live in Milwaukee, where he teaches at Marquette University.

Photo by Susan Watson

Author's Statement

Perhaps there are writers who are sure of the value of what they produce, but I'm not one of them. Doubt and insecurity always plague me, and this was doubly true when I worked on the manuscript that would eventually be the novel Orchard. I was experimenting with multiple characters, shifting points of view, and a non-linear structure. When I learned that I had been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, I felt relieved - perhaps my experiments were working. And if relief seems an emotion insufficiently grand for such an award, I ask you to consider your own experiences - the operation succeeds, the plane lands safely, the storm passes over. If there's an emotion that's sweeter in the moment, I'm not sure I know what it is.