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To celebrate National Short Story Day read Winter Orchard, a touching short story by Josephine Johnson.

To celebrate National Short Story Day we would like to share with our readers Winter Orchard by Josephine Johnson, the winner of the 1935 Pulitzer Prize. This moving short story captures the beauty of winter landscapes alongside the severity of nature; it is subtle yet perceptive, dark and hopeful at the same time. It is a perfect story to honour National Short Story Day which falls on the shortest day of the year – the official beginning of winter. We hope you enjoy it!

Winter OrchardWinter Orchard

by

Josephine Johnson.

The hills are mild but high, long sloping and yet not austere. They rise gradually, one after another, and on the second hill is the orchard where knotty fruit still hangs, red and wizened ghoul apples and brown peach stones like cocoons. Not even the young terrific winds of March can loosen these old shrivels, though in October the young fruit fell like plummets even in the moving of a mist.

The hills are mild but high, long sloping and yet not austere. They rise gradually, one after another, and on the second hill is the orchard where knotty fruit still hangs, red and wizened ghoul apples and brown peach stones like cocoons. Not even the young terrific winds of March can loosen these old shrivels, though in October the young fruit fell like plummets even in the moving of a mist.

In the winter of the ice storm, when nothing was left unsheathed or open to the air, all the trees were seen as through glass, so that the sun clashed and burned in their branches, but without heat; and every bud dripped small and glittering icicles. The ground was frozen over with four layers of snow and ice, and had a crust like white undented iron. The rabbits starved, and skittered over its surface to gnaw the apple boles. The gashes of their teeth stretched two feet high above the ground, yellow and alive in all the frozen cold. They gnawed the stems of snow-berries, and the low vines were peeled white. In the saw of the north wind we scattered corn under the trees to fill the rabbits’ shrunken pelts, but they stripped the bark in increasing circles and died because they had not strength to escape the hawks and hunters, or the beagle hounds that skidded noisily over the ice fields, shattering the frozen aster stalks and stems of sorrel. Torn tufts of rabbit fur blew in the buckbrush clump, and their hawk-picked bones were scattered on the fallen sycamore. Those that lived gnawed frozen apples, and starved until the spring.

It was beautiful, though, in its white and awful indifference. The north wind rattled the elm branches together, and the brittle golden-rod shot across the ice ground, broken from its stem. It was hard to walk upright even on the level places, and the slopes were impossible to climb. We slid down hills and crawled up on our hands and knees, or pounded out each step to make some foothold in the steel. The air came icedown, cold like mountain water, in the lungs. There was no food for the woodpeckers. Each branch was bound in a solid coat of glass, and in the bitter wind the crows and jays disappeared so that the orchard was empty of all sound except the thin branches thrown against each other. Wherever they could break through the icy sheath, the titmice tore open the orchard-moth cocoons and ate the fat pupa cases there, so that few moths lived to the spring. But those that the titmice could not break were among the few things that had no suffering or starvation in this iron winter, and lay senseless in the dark quiet of their shells.

At sunset the orchard reflected the sky like water, and the west light changed to shell and orchid when it struck the ice, and ran like cold sap along the glassy twigs. It was somehow terrible, walking between the frozen boles in the clear light—for it was bitterly clear in those days, and the sun without heat,—to think of them bound unmoving in the hard ground, unable to stir or to escape the wind. All night in the poured moon-air and in the coldest hours near dawn they would have to stand there, fastened by their own iron gyves into the earth. The nights had a bitter intensity and when the wind died it was like a world in which trees and shadows and the light were frozen in the air which itself was solid ice, and through it the stars were seen, magnified and enormous.

The trees were planted within a road’s space of the pond, and in the spring rains the water spread out until the apple trees along the edge stood inch deep in sloppy pools. But in the ice winter the pond was frozen a foot deep, and the marsh grasses along the rim were bent over in a glassy mesh. The only air that the fish could get came from the broken holes when ice was cut, and these froze over in an hour’s time. The willows had a gaunt, twisted look, and their roots were level with the ice, submerged all winter in the frozen water. It was queer to think that the pond had ever shrunk till its bare mud rim stretched out on every side and the willows were a long way off as though they had moved themselves away.

Quail lived, through that winter, where the corn was scattered under a brush pile near the orchard, and once the dogs sent up a hawk with the bloody body of one in its claws, while the covey flew off with a queer crying sound, more sad than frightened. Blood spots were on the snow, and small breast feathers blown and tangled in the rusty vines. When the snow fell at night, adding layer after layer to the already smothered earth, the tracks of field mice were stitched across its surface in the morning, and the brush marks of wings that had come near for an instant to the snow, then were carried up in heavy flight. There was something, neither mouse nor mole, which made its tunnel under the spot where the corn was scattered. It was dark-furred, with small round ears, and one saw it only either coming or going, never quite in view. But it fed well, having made its home under the very table of its food.

The long freezing came slowly to a close, and late in February the first inches of the icy shell softened and spread in pools along the ice beneath. There were days of cold rain and fog in which the tired ice slid and shattered to the pit-marked earth. Slowly the earth showed through the ragged southern banks, and at last there came an hour in which a redness flowed along the apple branches,—a redness which was not sun on ice, but the warm magenta stain of birth.

From Winter Orchard and Other Stories collection by Josephine Johnson.

Winter Orchard small

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