This story is by Carrie Muller and won the Grand Prize in our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Carrie Muller lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and dog, and spends most of her free time scrounging for snacks. Her work has been published in Hoot Review. Find more of Carrie’s writing at carriemuller.com and follow her on Twitter (@carriebeanz).
When the snow came their breath turned slow and deep. The orchard stood bare, the apples long since crushed and drained, their juice strained into bottles and tucked away to hibernate in the old barn. Stephen and Marjorie retreated to their room. They still had work to do.
This was how Stephen treated it, like a chore left unfinished. The last piece of business to take care of before the year turned over. So Marjorie sidled up to him, soft and sweet, though warier than she’d been when they were first married. Afterward she molded her body to his in hopeful exhaustion, and they slept. Yet every few weeks when they woke to red drops on white sheets, Stephen’s jaw set a little more. “We’ll try again” turned into “same as last year, and the year before.” Finally he said nothing, and the silence between them rang out over the frozen landscape.
He left when the ground thawed. He packed his trunk, strapped it in the back of the Chrysler, and drove down the front lawn, leaving deep ruts in the wet ground. Two weeks later a letter arrived for Marjorie saying he’d be back when the apples were ripe.
She wouldn’t hold her breath.
Marjorie walked the orchard at night, a ghostly figure in the spring moonlight. As the trees grew plump with blushing white blossoms, she methodically plucked the blooms between two fingers and let them fall in her wake, scattered on the thin, young grass.
This task completed, she settled on the porch, one knee pulled to her chest as the thick summer air drew close and still around her and the cicadas took up their electric hum. She watched the orchard. New shoots stuck out at odd angles from the limbs. The leaves looked like lace, chewed through by insects. Other years, Stephen would patrol the orchard, picking beetles off the trees while she followed after to catch them in a bucket of soapy water. Up and down the rows, laughing as they drowned the pests one by one — a nice, clean death, Stephen called it.
The few apples that managed to escape her purge ripened high up on the trees, dusky red brush strokes on pale green skin. The branches drooped and the apples dropped to the ground. They lay there until the acrid, visceral scent of rot saturated the air.
Marjorie slept in the spare room so she wouldn’t have to face the empty side of their bed. This room was meant to be the nursery, but they hadn’t wanted to tempt fate by prematurely exchanging the oak four-poster for a bassinet. Not that it mattered now. She kept the windows open so the heavy air could press in and around and on top of her, so that she woke in sweaty sheets as if from a nightmare.
The nights grew longer, and flocks of geese sounded the turning of the year as they fled south. Early one morning, the dim silence exploded with three blasts, one after the other.
Marjorie lay on her back. She hadn’t been sleeping. She wasn’t worried, however; there was little of real value in this place. Nothing a man might shoot for.
She rose and wrapped a sweater around her shoulders. Silently she made her way downstairs and out the porch door, shutting the screen gently behind her. Mist curled around the trees in the orchard. She peered into the darkness but saw no one, listened but heard nothing. Barefoot, she crossed the yard to the barn. Nearly a year had passed since she’d gone near it. She paused at the door. Silence. She unhooked the latch and threw the door open. A chill autumn breeze caught her hair and nightgown as she stood in the doorway, defenseless. By the dank stillness of the air, she could tell that no one was there who shouldn’t be.
The barn still smelled faintly of manure, the sharp stench of cow pies and the dull reek of pig dung. It had soaked into the wooden beams long before they moved there and replaced the livestock pens with rows and rows of pine shelves where bottles of cider now stood like sentinels keeping watch through the night.
She ran her hand along the line of dusty bottles. It didn’t take long to find the source of the noises: several bottles had exploded, splattering cider on their neighbors. It happened every year; the pressure of the yeasts in the cider strained against the bottles until the glass could no longer hold.
She pressed a finger into the puddle on the shelf. This was their only source of income for the year, this cider. Stephen took such care with every batch. Four years ago the orchard had blight and he had to find work at a neighboring farm for the season. This batch, he’d boasted, was perfect.
Without thinking, she picked up a bottle and smashed it on the ground. The noise startled her at first, but then she laughed out loud and cleared an entire shelf in one motion. The glass shattered. Foam bubbled up and then receded. She took bottles from the lower shelves to pitch at the ones higher up so that they tipped over and cracked like eggs. Like a vengeful fury, she swept through the place until every shelf was empty and the liquid dripped down like water off stalactites into the pools of cider below.
When she was finished, she turned to survey the destruction. She smiled. There. Now everything of value was gone from this place.
Pale light streamed through the slats in the walls and striped the wet floor. Her nightgown had been sliced open by a glass shard and blood trickled down from a gash on her thigh, staining the white cotton red. She bent down and examined the wound with sticky hands.
She straightened up at the sound to find Stephen standing in the doorway. Slowly, he moved toward her, his eyes steady on hers, not bothering to avoid the glass shards. He kneeled in front of her and gently touched her thigh. He tore a strip from her nightgown and wrapped it around the cut. After half a year of disuse, Marjorie wasn’t certain her voice would work. Instead, she ran her hand through his dark hair. The glass cracking under his boots, he picked her up and carried her away from the scent of yeast and apples.
He carried her past the orchard, where the morning light glowed against the leaves, all red and gold and dusted with cinnamon. He opened the screen door and carried her across the squeaking floorboards and up the stairs, his boots heavy on each step. Marjorie thought it odd to hear sounds in the house again. He opened the door to their room and carried her inside. The air was stale and musty from months of neglect. He laid her on the bed and hurried to open a window. Cold, damp air ran over her like a soothing hand.
Then Stephen was there, next to her, stroking her hair and murmuring sweet words. “I’m sorry” turned into “I love you,” and then his shuddering sobs were the only sound as he curled his body around hers.
She clutched at his shirt. “The cider.” Her voice was a rasp.
“We’ll try again,” he whispered.
She held her breath.