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The orchardist, p.1
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       The Orchardist, p.1

           Amanda Coplin
The Orchardist


  A Novel








  The roses you gave me kept me awake

  with the sound of their petals falling.














  About the Author



  About the Publisher


  His face was as pitted as the moon. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and thick without being stocky, though one could see how he would pass into stockiness; he had already taken on the barrel-chested sturdiness of an old man. His ears were elephantine, a feature most commented on when he was younger, when the ears stuck out from his head; but now they had darkened like the rest of his sun-exposed flesh and lay against his skull more than at any other time in his life, and were tough, the flesh granular like the rind of some fruit. He was clean-shaven, large-pored; his skin was oily. In some lights his flesh was gray; others, tallow; others, red. His lips were the same color as his face, had given way to the overall visage, had begun to disappear. His nose was large, bulbous. His eyes were cornflower blue. His eyelashes nothing to speak of now, but when he was young they were thick-black, and his cheeks bloomed, and his lips were as pure and sculpted as a cherub’s. These things together made the women compulsively kiss him, lean down on their way to do other chores, collapse him to their breasts. All his mother’s sisters he could no longer remember, from Arkansas, who were but shadows of shadows now in his consciousness. Oh my lovely, they would say. Oh my sweet lamb.

  His arms were sun-darkened and flecked with old scars. He combed his hair over his head, a dark, sparse wing kept in place with pine-scented pomade.

  He regarded the world—objects right in front of his face—as if from a great distance. For when he moved on the earth he also moved in other realms. In certain seasons, in certain shades, memories alighted on him like sharp-taloned birds: a head turning in the foliage, lantern light flaring in a room. And there were other constant preoccupations he likewise half acknowledged, in which his attention was nevertheless steeped at all times: present and past projects in the orchard; desires he had had as a young man, worries, fears, of which he remembered only the husks; trees he had hoped to plant; experiments with grafting and irrigation; jam recipes; cellar temperatures; chemical combinations for poisoning or at least discouraging a range of pests—deer and rabbits and rodents and grubs, a universe of insects; how to draw bees. Important was the weather, and patterns of certain years, the likelihood of repetition meteorologically speaking, what that would mean for the landscape; the wisdom of the almanacs, the words of other men, other orchardists, the unimportant but mostly the important words. He thought of where he would go hunting next fall. Considered constantly the state of his land, his property, his buildings, his animal. And mostly he thought of the weather that week, the temperature, and existence of, or potential for, rainfall; recent calamities and how he was responding to them; the position of the season; his position in the rigid scaffolding of chores—what he would have to do that day, that afternoon and evening, how he would prepare for the next morning’s work; when were the men coming, and would he be ready for them? But he would be ready for them, he always was, he was nothing if not prepared. He considered those times in life when he had uttered words to a person—Caroline Middey or Clee, or his mother, or a stranger who had long forgotten him—he wished he had never uttered, or had uttered differently, or he thought of the times he remained silent when he should have spoken as little as a single word. He tried to recollect every word he had ever spoken to his sister, tried to detect his own meanness or thoughtlessness, his own insensitivity to certain inflections she might have employed. How long ago it was now. At times he fretted about forgetting her, though in fact—he did not like to admit this—he had already forgotten much.

  Now, at his back, the shrouded bushels of apples and apricots rustled in the wagon bed, the wagon creaking forward beneath the weight; the old, old familiar rhythm in accordance with these leagues of thought. Dazzled and suspended by the sun. The mountains—cold—at his back. It was June; the road was already dusty. His frame slightly hunkered down, the floppy calfskin hat shielding his brow, under which was a scowl holding no animosity. The large hands, swollen knuckles, loosely holding the reins.

  From the wheatfields he entered the town, and drew down the main street. Quiet. It was Sunday. The nearer church, he thought—the Methodist was on the other side of town—had yet to release its congregation. He hitched up outside the feed and supply store, watered the mule. While he was setting up the fruit stand—tugging forward each burlap-covered bushel in the back of the wagon and unveiling them and unloading them—a woman rounded the corner and gained the platform, approached him. Half her face was mottled and pink, as if burned, her mouth an angry pucker. She held defensively to her breast a burlap sack and bent and inspected the uptilted bushel of Arkansas Blacks. She reached for an apple but did not touch it; glanced dubiously at a bushel of paler apples he presently uncovered. What’re those?

  He glanced down. Greenings. Rhode Island Greenings.

  When he spoke, his voice was low and sounded unused; he cleared his throat. The woman waited, considered the apples. All right. I’ll take a few of those. From the folds of her skirt she brought out a dull green change purse. How much?

  He told her. She pinched out the correct change and handed it to him.

  As he filled the sack with fruit, the woman turned and gazed behind her. Said:

  Look what the cat drug in. Those two looking over here like that, you aren’t careful, they’ll come rob you. Hooligan-looking. She sniffed.

  After a moment he looked where she nodded. Down the street, under the awning of the hardware store, two girls—raggedy, smudge-faced—stood conspiratorially, half turned toward each other. When they saw Talmadge and the woman observing them, they turned their backs to them. He handed the burlap sack to the woman, the bottom heavy and misshapen with fruit.

  The woman hesitated, still looking at the girls, then turned and nodded shortly to him, stepped off the platform, moved down the street.

  From the wagon he retrieved his wooden folding chair and sat down next to the bushels. Wind gusted and threw sand onto the platform, and then it was quiet. Rain was coming; maybe that evening, or early the next day. The girls moved; stood now with their shoulders pressed together, looking into the window of the dry goods store. A gust of wind blew their dresses flat against their calves, but they remained motionless. He pulled his cap low. What did two girls mean to him? He dozed. Woke to someone addressing him:

  That you, Talmadge? Those girls just robbed you.

  He righted his cap. A slack-mouthed boy stood gaping at him.

  I saw them do it, said the boy. I watched them do it. You give me a nickel, I’ll run them down and get your apples back for you.

  The girls had gotten farther than Talmadge would have expected. They made a grunting sound between them, in their effort at speed. Apples dropped from their swooped-up dresses and they crouched or bent awkwardly to retrieve them. The awkwardness was due, he saw, to their grotesquely swol
len bellies. He had not realized before that they were pregnant. The nearer one—smaller, pouting, her hair a great hive around her face—looked over her shoulder and cried out, let go the hem of her dress, lurched forward through the heavy thud of apples. The other girl swung her head around. She was taller, had black eyes, the hard startle of a hawk. Her hair in a thick braid over her shoulder. She grabbed the other girl’s wrist and yanked her along and they went down the empty road like that, panting, one crying, at a hobble-trot. He stopped and watched them go. The boy, at his side, looked wildly back and forth between Talmadge and the ragged duo. I can get them, I can catch them, Talmadge, he said. Wildly back and forth.

  Talmadge, the boy repeated.

  Talmadge watched the girls retreat.

  He and his mother and sister had come into the valley in the summer of 1857, when he was nine years old. They had come from the north-central portion of the Oregon Territory, where his father had worked the silver mines. When the mines collapsed, their mother did not even wait for the body of their father to be dredged up with the rest, but gathered their few belongings and set off with Talmadge and his sister at once. They traveled north and then west, west and then north.

  They walked, mostly, and rode in wagons when they came along. They crossed the Wallowas and the Blue Mountains, and then came across great baked plains, what looked to be a desert. And then when they reached the Columbia they took a steamboat upriver to its confluence with another river, where the steamboat did not go farther. They would have to walk, said the steamboat operator, uncertain; if they were thinking of going across the mountain pass, to the coast, they would have to find someone—a trapper, an Indian—to guide them. And still Talmadge’s mother was undeterred. From the confluence of the river they walked four days toward mountains that did not seem to get any closer. The elevation climbed; the Cascades rose before them like gods. It was May; it snowed. Talmadge’s sister, Elsbeth, who was a year younger than him, was cold; she was hungry. Talmadge rubbed her hands in his own and told her stories of the food they would eat when they set up house: cornbread and bacon gravy, turnip greens, stewed apples. Their mother said nothing to these stories. Why did she lead them north and then west, west and then north, as if drawing toward a destination already envisioned?

  They had heard that many, many miles away, but not so many as before they started, on the other side of the mountains, was the ocean. Constant rain. Greenness. Maybe that’s where they were going, thought Talmadge. Sometimes—but how could he think this? how could a child think this of his mother?—he thought she was leading them to their deaths. Their mother was considered odd by the other women at the mining camp; he knew this, he knew how they talked about her. But there was nothing really wrong with her, he thought (forgetting the judgment of a moment before); it was just that she wanted different things than those women did. That was what set them and his mother apart. Where some women wanted mere privacy, she yearned for complete solitude that verged on the violent; solitude that forced you constantly back upon yourself, even when you did not want it anymore. But she wanted it nonetheless. From the time she was a small girl, she wanted to be alone. The sound of other people’s voices grated on her: to travel to town, to interact with others who were not Talmadge or Talmadge’s father or sister, was torture to her: it subtracted days from her life. And so they walked: to find a place that would absorb and annihilate her, a place to be her home, and the home for her children. A place to show her children: and you belong to the earth, and the earth is hard.

  They climbed through cold-embittered forest and sought respite in bright meadows thick with wildflowers and insect thrumming. Maybe, thought Talmadge, they had already died, and this was heaven. It was easy, at moments, to believe. They came to a mining camp where five men sat inside an open hut, shivering, malnourished, warming their hands around a fire. It was lightly raining outside. When Talmadge and his mother and sister came and stood before them, the men looked at them as if they were ghosts. Their mother asked the men if they had any food to spare. The men just stared at her. They stared at the children. Where are you going? said one of the men finally. You shouldn’t be here. The men had some beans that they shared with them, ate them straight out of the can. And then—Talmadge would always remember this—a man took out a banjo and began to play, and eventually, to sing. His teeth were crooked and stained, as were his mustache and his beard. His eyes were light blue and watery. He sang songs about a place that sounded familiar to Talmadge: Tennessee. It was where his own father was from. Talmadge thought later that the man was crying. But why was he crying? He missed his home, said Talmadge’s mother.

  The men told them that there was a post ten miles up the creek where they could trade for supplies. It was a good time to travel, since it was summer, but in the winter it would be impassable. Talmadge and his mother and sister set off from the miners and reached the trading post later that day. And then they kept walking. What are you doing? the people said. Turn around. You have young children. There were two days of rain, and cold. His sister developed a hacking cough. And then they came through dense forest, and stood on the rim of a valley illuminated as if it was the end or the beginning of the world. A valley of yellow grass. Still but for a ribbon of water moving at the bottom of it. His sister, beside him, caught her breath; and on the other side of him he could feel his mother’s silent, reluctant satisfaction.

  They walked into the valley.

  On a plateau stretching back from the creek was a filthy miner’s shack, and two diseased Gravenstein apple trees. On the opposite side of the creek was the outlying field, bordered on its far edges by forest. To the east was a dark maw of a canyon. Three weeks later they discovered, a mile away into the canyon and through more forest, along a portion of the upper creek, a cabin. And here, as well as down below, was a miner’s sluice box situated along a shallow portion of the creek. One of the first chores Talmadge’s mother assigned herself was to dismantle the sluice box and take this, as well as other tools she found pertaining to that trade, and bury them in the forest. I’ve had enough of mining for one lifetime, she said.

  For a year he and his mother and sister tended the ailing Gravensteins and also planted vegetables from seeds his mother had sewn into the linings of their winter clothes. The summer of the next year they sold fruit to the miners at Peshastin Creek, and traded for supplies at the post in Icicle.

  Late that first summer and then again in the spring, a band of native men came out of the forest with a herd of over two hundred horses. The men did not try to speak to Talmadge or his mother or sister; and neither did Talmadge or his mother or sister attempt to speak to the men. They remained in the field for three days.

  When the men arrived again the following summer, Talmadge’s mother went down to the field where they camped and offered them fruit and vegetables, loaves of potato bread. The men accepted her gifts; and when they returned, four weeks later, they offered her a deer they had killed, strapped to the back of a horse.

  They were horse wranglers—mostly Nez Perce at that time, but later there were also men from other tribes: Palouse, Yakama, Cayuse, Walla Walla, Umatilla. They hunted horses in the ranges to the southeast—the Blue Mountains, the Wallowas, the Steens, the Sawtooths—and trained them and sold them at auctions abroad. They had been stopping over in the valley for the last decade or so to feed and rest the horses, and to avoid the lawmen who scouted the countryside searching for rogue bands such as theirs.

  On their trips south, after selling the horses at auction—when the men came into the orchard with their herd largely diminished, and many of them sporting handsome leather vests and saddlebags—they brought gifts for Talmadge and his sister: candy, or bits of milk glass in the shapes of animals. They let Talmadge and his sister explore their packs, and took them on easy rides around the field, the children sitting before the men in the saddles.

  These trips south the men would stay just overnight, and wou
ld be gone by the time Talmadge woke in the morning. The ash of their firepits not yet cold, and the general odor of horses and tobacco hung in the air for hours afterward, provoking in the young Talmadge a particular melancholy, and emptiness.

  Among the men there were sometimes boy children—sometimes two or three, but rarely more. Some of these children appeared only once; they came for a season and then were not seen again. The only child constant from the beginning was the nephew of the Nez Perce leader, a boy known to Talmadge and Elsbeth as Clee; he had another, private name used only among the men. He was dark-skinned, muscular, tall, with a wide, pensive forehead and a large, careful, expressive mouth, although he was not known to smile often, or make exaggerated facial expressions. Even as a child he was quietly, fiercely attentive. His hair came down to almost his elbows; at times it was fixed in two braids, with hair crowding his eyes.

  But there was from the beginning something distinctly different about Clee. He did not speak. It was not just that he was shy, or particularly wary of Talmadge and his sister, or chose not to speak to white people; he did not speak at all, even to the men he rode with. He was not deaf, for he heard the noises Talmadge and his sister heard, turned his head, physically reacted when they did. He had the habit of cocking his head, slightly, to speakers who addressed him. But no words issued from him, ever.

  What’s wrong with him? Elsbeth asked their mother once. Their mother, who was washing dishes at the time, crouching creekside, shrugged. There might be something wrong with his vocal cords, she said. Or—maybe he just doesn’t want to talk.

  But why?

  Their mother shrugged again. I don’t know, child, she said.

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