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The orchardist, p.11
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       The Orchardist, p.11

           Amanda Coplin
 

  The next morning the horse refused to be caught, and it took three men on horseback to corner it and catch it and drag it back to the prescribed area. Again the battery of men, headed by the wrangler on the broodmare, forcibly saddled it.

  From her perch in the apricot tree Della watched, and in the silent morning air, under the heavy gray sky, she heard the sound of the iron bit clacking against horse teeth. The curses of the men alternated with soft phrases, almost a croon. Clee stood away as before, wiping his hands with dirt and spit. He mounted the horse and endured the minutes of abuse; he rode out the bucking, the careening, as the horse tried to exorcise him, in vain. And then the leaning forward, the boots pulled back, the hat tipped back upon his brow. The pressure, the long curious dance. Again, the domination.

  Della didn’t know what was happening; she felt light.

  In her absorption in the horses she was distracted from who her sister was, or continued to be. Because Jane still existed, somewhere, thought Della. It was Jane, after all, and their life together, that Della dreamed about, even if she could not remember all of it, when she slept those long hours in the sun-warmed grass. In unconsciousness Della was remaining available to Jane, faithful to her. Not that she thought that Jane would return, but rather, in that unconscious state, Della might meet her; Jane would communicate herself. Now the horses—somehow, some way—increased the possibility of communication. Della was unclear about how it worked, exactly, but was sure of the impulse: Jane was in the horses, or the horses were in Jane. And Della, by understanding the horses, by being on a horse, might understand the realm in which Jane now moved. It was all but spelled out to her. If she was good enough, if she became powerful enough, Jane might fall around her, in an instant, and Della would feel her again, the old sensation of her.

  It was around this time—in April, the apricots were in bloom—that Della accompanied Talmadge to town to sell fruit. As she walked down the main street—he had given her money to buy a soda at the general store—she caught her reflection in the window glass, and started. It was Jane in the window glass, with longer hair, with thicker bangs crowding her eyes. Wearing a scowl the likes of which she never wore in actual life. There was Jane, glowering and swinging her arms like a boy. It was, Della understood, her own reflection; and yet she could not help but believe that it was also Jane’s. It was a game she, Jane, was playing. From that point forward Della could never see her reflection without thinking that her sister also looked out at her, was almost on the verge of smiling—with ridicule, with pain.

  And then there came a point—sooner, because of this game—when Della could not remember what Jane looked like, exactly, because her memory was now full of her own image. There was actual pain in Della’s heart when she realized this. But then there were other things besides the image that she could recall and grasp: the way Jane caught her breath, sometimes, before she spoke; the sound of Jane’s voice, deep and sweet, a little husky when she was angry; whole sentences she had spoken—Della woke at night with the sentences suddenly in the room with her—Jane’s arms, her armpits, her neck, smelling, faintly, of bread; she had a birthmark the size of a blueberry, black, on her left shoulder. A constellation of moles on her chest. She liked sweet tea, molasses, sour apples.

  As Della’s preoccupation with the horses increased, her feelings for the child—Angelene—became confused. Even though Angelene was her sister’s child, Della was unsure exactly what that meant. What that was supposed to mean. At first Angelene was a leech that needed Della’s body, her breast, multiple times a day; and then, over a period of time, Angelene was a chore that needed doing, and a difficult one at that. What was this thing, after all, that had come from her sister? Was it a part of her sister, after all? Was it a part of Della? Della recalled the days, weeks, after Angelene’s birth, when Jane fell into a distraction so deep Della had trouble calling her back from it. What was wrong? Was she, Jane, disappointed by what had happened? Their new circumstances? Jane could not locate the source of her ill feeling, but was confused, somewhat, about her feeling for the infant. It—the child—was not what she had thought it would be. The child was interesting in its way, but it did not satisfy all that she expected it would. It did not inspire her. It was not her unspoken ally, but an alien creature. She loved it, and feared it. Once or twice, in her deepest heart, when it would not stop wailing its one constant note, she hated it. At times it was utterly strange to her. What do we call it? said Della, letting the wee thing grab her pinkie as the three of them lay in bed. But Jane was adamant: they would not name the infant before she felt differently about it—before she loved it completely and without reservation. The time would come: but they must wait.

  All of this—Jane’s ambivalence about the child, and her subsequent death—was too difficult to think about. Della diapered the child quickly, fed her without considering when she had done it last, was slow to come if she heard the wails from the open cabin door in the afternoon, if she came at all.

  The man was there, after all, to care for her.

  With the coming of the horses again in the summer, Della was intent: she wanted to learn to ride. She was the one, and not Talmadge, who asked Clee to teach her. Clee, after conferring, through the wrangler, with Talmadge, agreed to do it. Of course the girl needed a distraction.

  I don’t want her riding the wild ones, said Talmadge, as if that needed to be stated. Teach her on one of the tame ones, the tamest one you have, I don’t want her scared—

  She sat before Clee in the saddle, and they rode slowly around the field and then through the horses.

  Listen.

  The sun lay on her shoulders; on the top of her head. There was the creaking of the saddle as their bodies pitched with the horse’s gait. A pit of sickness in her stomach, from excitement, and the heavy, lackadaisical swaying of the animal. And the sound of the outside herd: breathless, snorting, stomping, crying. The horses, fresh from the mountains, stank under the heat: of sweat and grass, dust; feces. Their coats rippled as they moved under the sun. Some rolled their eyes. At the edges of this, the sound of crows bickering suddenly in the near treetops; and then a cry of a very small bird, far off. As she listened, one horse took the cuff of her pant leg between its teeth and pulled. Clee put his boot on the horse’s side and pushed it away, and the horse rolled back, screamed high in the back of its throat. Della, from her new vantage, felt the scream in her spine, and between her legs.

  We should be grateful, I guess, said Caroline Middey, who had come to visit. She and Talmadge sat on the porch and watched the girl ride in the field below. The baby slept, her mouth open, on Caroline Middey’s bosom.

  She needed something, didn’t she, said Caroline Middey. But her voice was flat; she was unconvinced.

  Talmadge said nothing. He had been hopeful about the girl and the horses, but now he did not know what to think. He recalled her toothy grin while walking up the hill to the cabin, after her lesson the day before, when she thought no one was looking. It disturbed him. Her incessant talk of the animals over meals. When the men were there with the horses, she did not sleep the day away, as she had before. She hardly slept at all; had startled him, several times already, dropping out of the barn loft at dawn.

  Was it normal, he thought, for someone to change so quickly? If only she would sleep indoors, he thought; if only she would wash herself, and spend more time with the child—

  What is it? said Caroline Middey now, sensing his unease.

  He hesitated. It was early yet. He should be patient, he should let the childish mania, if that’s what it was, spend itself.

  Nothing.

  She learned to pull herself atop a horse—saddled at first—by the pommel. Pulling her body up by the sheer strength of her arms. She could not do this at first. To gain strength, she hauled rocks, a bucketful in each hand, back and forth across the field—a tedious, body-killing exercise—watching the men ride, in the fall.
And then, finally, when the men returned in the spring, she was able to pull herself up. She learned to pull herself atop a bareback horse by holding on to its withers this way. Up in one clear motion, Clee showed her, mounting a horse himself, before he knows what you are doing. You’re not hurting him, said the wrangler, who sometimes joined them, who came when Clee beckoned. The wrangler voiced what she was doing wrong, clarified a point Clee was trying to relate.

  Sit up. Look around you. You’re riding with your arms. Clee waved his arm to get her attention, then stomped firmly, exaggeratedly, on the ground, stuck his chest out, to show her: You ride with your legs. You drive the horse by your knees. Then, watching her: Why can’t he hear you? Are you using your knees? You’re not strong enough.

  For the first year she was not even taught how to use the reins. Clee stomped in the dirt, stuck out his chest. Your knees! Sit up! After she learned to sit up—her spine ramrod stiff, her shoulders set back, chin lifted, eyes ahead—she learned to lie long upon the horse, put her face against the horse’s neck. The horse knows you now. She rode different horses constantly. Now the horse knows you, you can talk to him. Whatever you want to say. Clee looked over her head, respecting her privacy, while she spoke to the horse. And then, finally, the work with the spurs, and reins. Still not strong enough. She had to drive with her knees—she had forgotten—and then she had to lie long: she had to whisper secret words to the horse, but loud enough so the horse would feel it in his brain. She had to hurt the horse: she had to make the horse do what she wanted, but so that the horse wanted it too.

  She dreamed of them: the horses in the field. She dreamed of horses in the mountains at dusk. She dreamed from the perspective of a horse: running in a valley of dry grass, searching for yellow mountain daisies to eat. The chevron of the herd. The screaming on the high passes with other mountains in the background.

  Della woke from these dreams with her heart beating fast, often in the dank cold of the toolshed. Sometimes after these dreams, she discovered she had wet herself.

  I want to go to the mountains, she said to Clee.

  He pretended not to hear her.

  The gelding paced twenty feet away from them, his dark brown coat shining with sweat. Della stood still in the dirt, watching him. When she was ready, she nodded to Clee. Clee nodded to the wrangler and another man, who captured the horse, brought him forward, then receded. Della came forward, her stomach and head emptying of feeling. Who was she? She was full of air. She was nothing but air with a straw hat on her head, and boots. Just meat and water and a heart. She wanted to tell Clee she couldn’t do it: there was the moment when fear passed through her—cleanly, like a knife—but she did not open her mouth, did not turn her face away from what was before her.

  She approached the horse, holding up her hands the way Clee had taught her to: attempted to feel the horse—his energy, his intent—through the space that separated them.

  But she could not get close to the horse that day. A few times she came very close, but then she or the horse startled, which ballooned into staggering violence: the horse charging her, his head down, or spinning abruptly to show her his hindquarters, to kick out. Out of the way! shouted the wrangler. But Clee raised his hand to him, not taking his eyes off Della: there should be no words now. The girl would have to learn to navigate danger by herself, without help.

  Eventually the gelding was recaptured and released into the outer herd, and the handful of men who had drawn in to watch it all retreated to their camps, began their suppers.

  But the next day Della was insistent: Again. And again the gelding was captured, and again she approached him, arms held out.

  She approached and retreated, approached again. Retreated. One man, and then another, who had drawn from the orchards to watch her, headed to their camps.

  Some men remained, thinking that she might do it. But then one man turned away, headed to the camp. Dusk was falling.

  Talmadge was walking down the hill.

  When he understood what they were all looking at, it was too late for him to call for her to stop. And he had known—how to avoid it, how to ignore it?—this was coming. This was what she wanted. Fear and a kind of disgust rose in his throat as he watched her approach the beast.

  But then she rushed the horse—there was no other word for it—and grabbed the withers and wrenched her body upon his back. There was the moment when she wore an expression of surprise; and then she was grinning. The men roused, and cheered; they applauded; some of the men who had gone away came jogging back. She lay now almost horizontally on the horse’s back. Her arms almost encircled his neck. She was still grinning. And then the horse bucked—that awful ripple of muscle as he bowed his head—and instead of being thrown, Della slid off the horse while his head was down. Skipped away quickly.

  Talmadge was bewildered by what he suspected was not only her luck, but her skill up on the horse. He marveled at the speed with which she had mounted the horse—she had been on his back instantly, almost within a blink of an eye—and when she scanned the crowd and saw him, he raised his arm to her. Waved. But wasn’t he angry? He let his arm drop. Was he congratulating her?

  But she looked at him only for a moment; and he wasn’t even sure she had seen him. She was laughing now, and crying. The men had taken her up on their shoulders.

  Clee and Talmadge stood together now, regarding her from a distance. Talmadge did not say, Don’t do that again, because he knew it was too late. He was too tired to even reprimand either of them: Clee or the girl. He said, finally, That’s enough for tonight, and then, without looking at Clee, trudged back up the hill.

  That night, Della ate her supper with the men.

  Let her have something that makes her happy, thought Talmadge: it was his refrain at the time. Though frequently he thought it was a mistake to reward her. Her work—in the orchard, and with the household chores—was shoddy. At times she left a mess on the counter after she fixed herself something to eat, or she damaged the scions while she picked even though he had shown her, repeatedly and with exceeding patience, how to do it correctly. She went for weeks without changing her clothes. Her hair was full of knots. He was fairly certain, after seeing her scratching, she had lice from sleeping in the barn. He should not bother her, he thought, he should not pester her. And yet how was he helping her, he thought, if he allowed her rudeness, her standards of squalor, to go unchecked? To put it bluntly, he was unsure of his role in her life. He was unsure if he had a right to tell her what to do. Or, if he did, what tone he should take: one of gentle suggestion, or firmer, one of demand.

  In his indecision, he was clumsy, and ultimately let her get away with many things, while at other times speaking roughly to her over matters that seemed trivial. They were both, to certain degrees, confused by each other.

  When the men came back into the orchard, Della continued to shadow them. Her skill at riding, but then also wrangling, improved. She wanted to travel with Clee and the men, she said, she wanted to see what they did at auction. And she wanted most of all to go with the men, if they would let her, into the mountains, where they hunted the horses. She told Talmadge this while making a great effort to look at him directly, her gaze peeling away from him.

  He listened to her silently. He wanted to encourage her interest in anything other than what lay behind her, but at the same time he did not want to encourage such fantasies with the horses and men. To allow the girl to be taught how to ride was one thing, but to allow her to accompany a group of men to a place where more men gathered, to drink and carouse and observe the beasts they had trained, was another. It was beyond inappropriate that she should go, that he should allow her to go. It was all utter foolishness and danger. He did not understand at first why such a prospect would even be attractive to her. But he did not utter that word—No—that would have, he thought, squelched the hope in her. He did not know then that she did not need words from him, t
hat she would do what she wanted regardless of his opinion.

  She began to follow the men after they had left the orchard. She traveled behind them at a distance and joined them, suddenly, at auction. There she appeared, and acted as if she had been among them all the time. The first time this happened a man spotted her a day out of the orchard, and one of them escorted her back. It was amusing to some of the men, since she had been riding one of their own horses that she had stolen at some point and hidden in the woods. And so she was a horse thief too. This first time Talmadge accepted her back and told her, as she ate the food he had prepared for her, that it was wrong to follow the men, they could not be bothered by children in what they did, and it was no place for a child to be, the places they went were very dangerous. She listened impassively. The men returned three weeks later, and when they set out again, this time for Seattle, she followed them and got as far as the river crossing at Icicle, where her horse shied and would not enter the water. Someone noticed her then, and brought her back.

  In the winter, the men and horses absent from the orchard, Della helped Talmadge with the chores. Bored, she spoke down at Angelene on a blanket on the floor, made faces at her. Caroline Middey taught Della to knit and can food, but Della did not care for either of these things. When the men returned in the spring, she changed again into her riding clothes, a motley outfit assembled out of Talmadge’s old clothes and maybe things that were cast off, or stolen, from the men.

 
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