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The orchardist, p.10
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       The Orchardist, p.10

           Amanda Coplin
 

  Caroline Middey likewise inspected the child and washed her in a basin of warm water, wet-eyed and praising God, and then Talmadge left the cabin while Caroline Middey helped the girl nurse the child. He did not know how long he was gone; just walked up and down the aisles of the apricot orchard. Unseeing, fatigued. Numb. And then they all went to bed, although it was newly dark. Caroline Middey slept with Della in the girls’ bedroom—Jane’s body was cleaned and bound in the sapling shed, ready for burial the next day—and Talmadge took the baby into his bed. They had not yet named her, he thought, rousing from shallow sleep. He had asked the girl just the day before if she had chosen a name—to be without a name for too long was not good for the child, he thought—but Jane had turned her face away and had not answered him. It had offended her, somehow, his asking it.

  When the infant cried in the night, he gave her his finger to suck. Her gentle noises and whimpers roused him all night from deepest sleep.

  II

  Talmadge had lived forty years in the orchard without any exceptional event happening to him, barring inclement weather or some horticultural phenomenon. Nothing to speak of in the human realm, really. And then this happened. Death in the orchard. The infant’s screams sounded different to him, now. He walked among the apricots at midday, squinting in the heat and light, disoriented, until Caroline Middey called him for dinner.

  What do we call her? said Caroline Middey, of the infant who slept now atop a pillow beside her on the love seat. Caroline Middey was knitting. It was after supper. Della sat at the kitchen table, and Talmadge stood at the stove, heating water.

  It had been two weeks since they had buried Jane up-mountain, on a plateau near a grove of pears he and his sister had planted after their mother’s death, and which had since gone wild. The pear trees—there were four—from a distance reared against the sky; but up close they curled in a thick, woody bramble over a cliff edge. Standing beside the trees, one could look down on wheatfields, miles below, rolling to the horizon. Jane was buried under the only tree that was not a fruit tree on the plateau: an enormous prehistoric-looking cottonwood with small silver-green leaves that flashed constantly in the wind.

  And the wind was alive the day they put Jane into the ground; it played over the plateau and made the sound of rain in the tree and in the long dry grass. And Talmadge was relieved: for the sound hid them all from each other, and Della in her grief. Her hair blowing over her face as she stood beside the grave, unmoving.

  He said to her, now, of the child:

  What do you think we should call her?

  Della was motionless, as if she hadn’t heard, but then she shrugged. Gazed to the far corner of the room. As if she didn’t care at all what they were discussing.

  We have to call her something, said Caroline Middey.

  Talmadge wiped his hands on his thighs and went to the window, to the trunk beneath it. Got down on one knee, heaved open the lid. And how long it was since he had investigated there. Out of the trunk rushed a cidery smell.

  Della had already explored the trunk with Jane, but despite herself, she looked at what Talmadge was doing now.

  After searching for a moment he found a large Bible, and after looking at it he took it up, and went and sat at the table across from the girl. Della—again, despite herself—glanced at what he was doing. She was acutely aware of the onionskin pages whispering between his fingers. He took out a sheet of paper stuck within the middle pages. There were other markers—letters, notes, recipes—but this was the main one, the important one. He unfolded the paper and ran his palms over it, several times, to flatten it. On the sheet was drawn a family tree, the names in flourishing script. After a minute of looking, he placed his fingers on a tier of names.

  My mother’s sisters, he said, and cleared his throat. And he read off the names: Angelene, Theodora, Carol-Ann, Beverly, Sandrine, Louisa, Minna and Martha (twins), Susanna Ray, and the baby, Lorene Ada. Talmadge’s own mother, Beatrice, was the second youngest.

  Talmadge was silent, remembering.

  Della said, stirring, The first one, I like the first one, I think that should be it—

  Surprised, he touched the paper. Angelene?

  Yes—

  And they all looked at the child atop the pillow, with her crimped and glowing face, her miniature hand near her temple. They silently agreed it was too soon to judge if the name suited the creature, or vice versa, just yet. Time would tell—

  Talmadge, though he did not show it, was pleased. His pleasure came from the fact that the child was named for a good woman—all his mother’s sisters were good, he was sure of that, though he had never met this one, Angelene, or he could not remember her distinctly; his aunts, all of them, variations, in his mind, of his mother—but really the pleasure came from the sense that, thus naming her, he bound the child to the place, and to himself.

  As for Della, she chose the name because it had excited some memory the moment she heard it. She could not remember her own mother’s name, but that name—Angelene—was close to it. Angelene, Della murmured to herself that night before she went to sleep. Angelene. It was close. It wasn’t exactly right, but it was close.

  She thought Jane would be pleased.

  At times, when they were eating supper, Talmadge felt the girl’s eyes on him, and regarded her. They stared at each other, and then, after a moment, she slowly looked away. What did she think of him? he wondered. What kind of man did she think he was? He had raised the scythe toward Michaelson, but that was all. In the end he had not threatened Michaelson at all, but simply bought him off. He had let Michaelson get away. Did she think he was a coward? Or clever, for understanding that that was the best way to get rid of him?

  The girl’s mind, her thoughts, eluded him.

  After Caroline Middey left for home that first time after Jane’s death, he let Della do what she wanted, which was mainly to sit for long hours on the porch, and then to wander in the outlying fields, sleep in the waist-high grass. She wore the same dress, the same stockings, for days on end before he suggested, over supper, that she change them. You’ll feel better, he said, embarrassed. He washed their clothes in the creek while she sat in the apricot tree, watching him. He made other suggestions: that she help pick the fruit coming in, that she hunt herbs in the forest. At times she obeyed, or at least with the fruit. He did not know that she was afraid of the forest, which was a realm Jane had navigated.

  She was fairly good about tending to the child when she cried to be fed, but there were times when the child cried and Della did not appear. Talmadge kept Angelene more or less with him at all times now, in a covered basket at the end of the orchard rows, or on the porch, if it rained. During one of her visits, Caroline Middey presented a long swath of fabric to be wrapped around the body, in the style of an Indian papoose, to strap the child to his back or front while he worked. For a long time the child thus accompanied Talmadge in the pouch as he walked the rows. He became used to her humid weight, her specific presence, on his chest.

  Della increasingly slept outdoors despite the cold, and so the apple crate in which Angelene slept was moved from Della’s room into Talmadge’s own. Not near the window, where there was a draft, but between the bed and the closet, under an applique wall hanging his sister had stitched when he was a boy.

  This first year passed in silence, weariness, troubled dreams, confusion. Despite this, Della was able to begin to recognize the landscape around her, and from several aspects and objects she drew, unconsciously, a sense of comfort and orientation. There were the areas in the long grass of the outer field and the nearer plum orchard where she slept, depending on the weather and the time of day, curled and dreaming. There were certain avenues between trees where she preferred to walk over others, because of some singularity in their design, or because of other conditions born out of circumstance—the grass was in shadow, it was in light; it was slightly warmer, co
lder, brighter, it smelled particularly earthy, dank, of honey—and there were avenues through which she passed in order, simply, to reach her destination. Each time she walked through the avenues it was as if she was also experiencing, on some other level, a dream that was as unique as the avenue itself; and each time she walked through it, she experienced the dream over and over again. These dreams were not distinct, they were not, exactly, known. Some of these avenues were the ones Talmadge frequented, others were not. The avenues needed someone to walk through them, however infrequently, and look at them. In this way she exhibited a superstitious streak—if she did not walk these avenues, if the avenues were not looked at, then something would happen—though if asked why she did this, she would deny any major feeling for the avenues; she was just walking in certain directions according to some vague desire.

  But there were other, more concrete comforts she absorbed. The color of the grass, almost blue, at dusk. The good order of the toolshed, where she sometimes slept at night. The same order of the kitchen, when she stood there alone, after searching the cupboards for something sweet to eat. She admired in the man his order, even though she herself was outwardly slovenly. On a wall in the shed was various horse tack, bridles and lead ropes, spurs, blankets, a saddle on an old, carpeted rack. She drew to these objects; took the bridle from the wall, tested its weight along her arm.

  The winter was quiet. Della huddled on her pallet in the toolshed, refusing to come indoors. Inside the cabin Talmadge read bits of old almanacs to the child between bouts of stoking the stove. On Christmas Day, Caroline Middey arrived, driving a sleigh. She laughed, her cheeks splotched red from the cold, as she dismounted. She hailed the girl, who peered at her from around the side of the barn, to help her bring in the presents. Inside, they sat drinking hot cider. The girl opened her gifts: a woolen dress, winter stockings, a new pair of boots. Also, a tin of shortbread, a sleeve of strawberry candy, and a hot chocolate mix. The girl was unimpressed by the clothes, but coveted the food. She was already thinking of the places she would hide it. She wanted to be shown immediately how to prepare the hot chocolate: and so Caroline Middey showed her. The girl attentive—wolfishly so—at her elbow, watching her every move.

  As early as March Talmadge was working outdoors again, clearing the debris between the rows, checking for rot and early pest damage. He walked the avenues of the apricot orchard, the child strapped to his front, drawing the air—cold, with notes of deep thaw—into his lungs. The sun reflected off the planes and islands of snow in the field, which at that hour—still early—were dazzling. His breath vaporous before him. Della came out of the cabin and stood on the porch, a bit of dried oats at the corner of her mouth. When Talmadge saw her, he told her to go put on a sweater, it was too cold to be standing on the porch like that. She went back inside the cabin and, miraculously, did as she was told.

  In the early spring he started to evaluate the apricot orchard to determine a pruning design and schedule, and also to note which trees needed to be repaired, destroyed, or replanted. Just to perform a proper evaluation took two weeks. He took notes in his fine, crimped hand in a notebook he kept in his front shirt pocket.

  In April the true labor began. He rose before dawn and was at work in the trees as the sun rose. On a ladder, with his shears, maneuvering into the farthest reaches of the understories. At times whistling, at times muttering to himself. But mostly silent. Always working in that calm, deliberate way that made it impossible to imagine that he would ever complete the row, not to mention the entire orchard, in time. How could he afford to be so careful? It’s that it was just possible, but barely. The design, the organization he achieved in the rows, in each tree, pleased him like nothing else. It was his passion, his whole life.

  Della watched him warily the first spring, not understanding quite what it was he was doing.

  Late April the horses arrived. Della climbed into an apricot tree on the upper creek bank and watched the men exercise and train the animals in the early morning, watched Clee and the wrangler separate certain horses—the wild ones—from the herd and attempt to dominate them.

  Della asked Talmadge one evening: Where do they come from?

  Who?

  The horses.

  From the auctions, he said, and then, thinking she meant something else: And the mountains.

  But she was unsatisfied. No, she said, I mean: Where do they come from.

  He didn’t know what she was talking about; was at a loss. Said, finally: I don’t know.

  Waking in the middle of the day in the sun-warmed grass of the upper pasture, Della experienced the end of a dream. She looked at the wavering grass tips above her, framing the washed and distant sky. The grass rustled, the creek perpetually murmured; an insect chorus flared sharply now, near the crown of her head, and then quieted—and these sounds, and the heat and brightness, drew her back into the world, oriented her somewhat. But a moment before, in the dream, she was in Michaelson’s basement, walking up the rotting stairs, in line with the other girls, up toward the light. The image of Jane squinting beside her. You are going to be all right today. And: Remember: when he tries to— You should just—

  Being with the men was a thick screen they had to pass through in order to experience what lay beyond. And what lay beyond? What lay beyond, Jane? A place to stay, and keep their children. Jane did not ever tell her, however, what to do if she, Della, was by herself. If Jane was to suddenly disappear. If Della had no children—if the children too disappeared.

  She sat up in the grass now and peered, her head spinning slightly, toward the cabin. These days she thought she was bored or restless, but she was neither of these things. She was waiting. But for what, exactly, she did not know.

  She climbed into the tree.

  Clee was the first to swing upon his horse—a graceful buckskin almost seventeen hands high—and took off with a jerk, rode into the horses. They leaped away from him and rolled their eyes. Pressed back their ears like a bunch of scared cows. He rode among them, made the horse upon which he rode pivot as he looked out over the other horses, riding up close to them, reaching out to feel their hides—this they did not like—and soon he chose one. He memorized momentarily the lay of the head—the ears and eyes and length of snout, the architecture of jaw—and the breadth and weight of the horse’s shoulders. He lifted an arm to indicate the horse he had chosen, and he gestured again, and the wrangler mounted a horse—he rode with his bottom lifted slightly off the saddle—and drove straight through the other horses, to the horse Clee had indicated, and with a lasso on the pommel of his saddle, swung, and captured the horse in a matter of seconds. Then he dragged the horse back—Clee had ridden back to the clearing by this time and sat his horse, waiting, and the wrangler wore a fanatically grim expression. The horse bucked, and the wrangler’s face hardened. He narrowed his eyebrows and smote the horse’s flank with the reins, which did not work the first time to suppress and discourage the horse, but after a series more, did. The horse puffed and sidestepped but conceded. The horse upon which the wrangler rode pivoted carefully on its back legs, its chin lifted rigidly.

  The wild horse, thus whipped and discouraged for moments, was tacked up with incredible speed by a battery of men. The wrangler, holding the rope taut, sidled up to the horse and, bending over, delivered hot instruction into the furred ear. One man on the opposite side of the horse charged near and threw a saddle upon its back, and the wrangler tucked the latigo beneath the horse’s belly. In a quick fluid motion the man on the ground reached forward and caught the strap and fastened it in a tight cinch under the belly and moved away. In a similar fashion the horse was fit with a bridle, bit, and reins. Once outfitted, the horse was released by the wrangler, who pushed it away with his foot, the horse upon which he rode skipping lightly, and the newly tacked horse spun and bucked around the central figure, who held it by the rope hanging like a large necklace around his breast.

 
Clee, having watched all this preparation, spat on his hands and rubbed them together, and then bent and scooped up a small handful of dirt and rubbed his hands together again and stepped forward, all the time watching the horse as it pivoted and squealed. The man who held the rope gave it to Clee and stepped back. Clee wound the rope ends around his fists and worked the horse like an unwieldy kite. He worked closer and closer to the horse, scrutinizing him, acting as counterweight. The horse was belligerent, but after twenty minutes or so there came a lull. Clee waited, rode out two, three more belligerent fits. And then when the horse subsided Clee came boldly forward, and the horse, surprised, chagrined, jerked back; but Clee had stepped heavily into the stirrup and swung his body atop the horse, and the horse leaped like a fish loping upriver. Clee took this all in stride, and while the horse leaped, he arranged the reins in his hands, tipped his hat back. Casually. Then when he decided it was time to begin, he settled his body despite the frantic possession of the horse, and leaned forward and hitched up his heels sidelong on the horse’s flanks and dug them into the meaty horseflesh and came down alongside the horse’s neck, tipping his hat farther up on his forehead. He pressed his cheek, with utmost concentration, against the horse’s neck. Closed his eyes. The horse resisted, leaped again, and careened toward the half circle of men; the circle widened.

  It took a long time. By the time Clee was finished the horse was shivering, brimming with wildness just contained. Its flesh, and the air around its flesh, was primed with the energy of corroded nerves, of that which could not be dominated having miraculously been dominated. When Clee bent forward and pressed his cheek near the horse’s ear and jabbed the flanks with unforgiving boot heels, the horse widened its eyes in fury and lust and stepped forward, and now backward, whatever Clee willed. Clee touched the cord of wildness and the horse responded, helpless as it was to its own nature. Afterward the horse was stripped of its tack and left to join the others. It trotted back into the herd, nudging its way through the other horses. If they resisted it, it nipped at their ears.

 
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