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The orchardist, p.12
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       The Orchardist, p.12

           Amanda Coplin
 

  She approached Talmadge one day as he worked in the late afternoon. The men had just climbed out of the trees and made their way across the field to their camp, to eat. They would leave the next day. She said: The only reason they won’t let me go with them is because they know you don’t like it. If you say so, they’ll let me go with them.

  At supper that night he told her again that the men could not be bothered with young female company, that she needed to leave them alone. Or at least put it out of her head that she would travel with them. It’s not your place, he said, and she looked at him with a gaze that surprised him: it was an adult gaze, calm and slightly amused. He looked away from her, unsettled. Her gaze told him that he did not know what he was talking about; as if he, and not she, was the hardheaded one.

  When Talmadge talked to Clee about Della and asked him to forgive her nuisance and to forgive him also for not being able to keep her movements in check, Clee, after waiting to see if he was finished speaking, nodded. Talmadge said: Of course she cannot travel with you. I understand that. And Clee looked at Talmadge in much the same way as Della had, which annoyed him. Is that what you want? said the wrangler, approaching Talmadge the next day. If it is what you want, we will take her with us the next time—

  Caroline Middey said that she was only surprised that Della had returned to the orchard at all between her failed excursions to join the men. Why would Della need permission from Talmadge to do anything? Was he her father?

  She asked you to speak to the men out of respect, said Caroline Middey, but she does not need your permission.

  And so I should let her go because of that? said Talmadge, incredulous.

  Caroline Middey shrugged. To her, the girl could no longer be protected. Caroline Middey asked what it was exactly that he had planned for the girl. Was he going to train her in the ways of the orchard? (There was a note of sarcasm to this comment he chose to ignore.) There had been a glimmer, when Della and Jane first entered the orchard, that perhaps he could train them, they could be his apprentices and find a living at it like he had done. And they would have a trade and a way of earning money that would make them independent. Surely that was the most important thing. And they had helped him at first, for a short time, after Angelene’s birth. They had all worked together in the orchard. But after Jane died, Della’s interest in the orchard ceased. To her the orchard was an empty scene that did not fill until the horses entered it. And now she wanted to be a horsewoman. It was the only thing she wanted.

  She was maybe sixteen at this time. If you wait, said Talmadge in the wake of another of the men’s departures, if you wait until you are eighteen, if you wait two years from now, I will buy you a riding outfit and I will buy you a gun and I will show you how to use it. I will give you all these things, if you wait. You are too small now, he wanted to say to her. You are stupid and young, he wanted to say, and you still will be two years from now, but I will have less responsibility for you then. Or, he thought, she would have changed her mind. He wished for her to outgrow the desire to ride with the men without ever passing through it. That was what he hoped would happen.

  She said nothing to these references—two years from now—these gentle bribes. She was puzzled by references to the future, quietly infuriated by them. She attempted twice more to join the men and each time was rebuffed and delivered back to the orchard with increasing grimness on the part of the man who escorted her.

  And then one night in May, two months before apricot harvest—her third in the orchard—Della came into his bedroom and stood at the foot of his bed. He had woken a moment before with a start. The air coming through the open window smelled of blossom. The moon lit up a portion of her chest and shoulder. They regarded each other. When she came closer, stepping through the moonlight, he saw she wore a white nightgown and her hair was untied from its braid and loosed down one shoulder. She had bathed. In the nearer darkness he could not make out the features of her face. She pulled up the gown and removed it.

  No-no, he said, as one would to a small child, when she attempted to round the bed.

  No-no, he said again, but she came around quickly and got into bed beside him. Put her leg over him. She was small, but strong. He laughed out of helplessness and then pushed her off him and she tumbled to the floor with a thump. She grunted and then was on her feet in an instant.

  I don’t want you, he said when she came at him again. I don’t want you!

  She stood still, her dark face observing him, both of them breathing hard, and then she turned and left the room.

  She did not come to him again. The first few nights after the incident he waited for her, sitting up in bed, his heart beating fast. But she had made her bed in the forest and did not come back for three days. When she returned, coming out of the trees at dusk, smudged and frowning, she did not seem overly bothered or upset. She ate the supper set in front of her with the usual indifference and distraction. It was as if the scene in the bedroom had never happened. But it had happened, he told himself. She had come into his bedroom at night and undressed at the foot of his bed and come toward him—

  He would never tell anyone.

  There was a man he saw every year at the plant sale in Malaga, another orchardist, who designed rifles. Ten years ago this man had invited Talmadge to see his work, and Talmadge, standing in the man’s workshop, had admired what he had seen. It was this man Talmadge approached now about a rifle for Della. The man was pleased; invited Talmadge again to his workshop.

  The rifles were fine, but nothing impressed Talmadge in the way he had hoped. Should he have brought the girl, he thought, to pick one out? The man had a catalog of rifle designs, and he gave it to Talmadge to look at. Talmadge flipped through the catalog but still found nothing. The desire to buy her something special, the certainty that he would find it, had dissipated.

  I’ll make something for you, said the man, with such quiet confidence that Talmadge was relieved. Who was the gun for? the man wanted to know. Before he realized what he was saying, Talmadge said: My sister.

  When she travels with you, said Talmadge to Clee, I want you to take care of her. I don’t want her harmed in any way. By which he meant he did not want her harmed in the way of men. He did not say he did not want her harmed in the way of horses, for that was inevitable; he had seen how the men rode, he had seen Della’s tutorials down in the field when she was thrown and then rose, holding her elbow or knee or ear, limping momentarily, wiping a bit of blood from her mouth or nose. Grinning that dumb grin. It was not that type of pain Talmadge was worried about. She was not afraid of the horses or of being hurt with the horses. He did not want her to feel scared in the presence of the men, he did not want her to find herself all at once surrounded in a way that she had been surrounded before. He did not want her to feel abandoned or helpless. But the wrangler said they would watch out for her, and the other men would too, they had come to make a space for her among them even if there were those who did not care for her so much. And it was not even her so much they did not care for as the idea of her, a young white woman riding among them. But if it came to it, they would protect her, if not for her sake then for Clee’s, who was their leader and whom they respected. They would defer to him.

  But most of the men liked her; they liked, were amused by, her fierceness and her earnestness about the horses. They too at different times and in different situations would witness her strange vulnerability and wanted to protect her.

  The rifle was a fine specimen of craft proportioned for a young woman, made of cherry and maple and decorated with carvings of roses and vines along the stock. You did not notice the power of the design unless you regarded it closely. The rifle appeared lightweight, and yet it contained the heft of a serious firearm.

  He approached Della in the orchard row where she worked and said, This is for you.

  She hesitated and then took the rifle and held it away from her body as if
she did not know what it was. She was bewildered, which on her face registered as consternation, or disgust. She did not take her eyes from it as he spoke.

  You don’t know how to use it, do you?

  She peered at the gun.

  No one has taught you how to properly shoot a rifle, have they? he said, and after another moment she shook her head and he said, No. That’s what I thought.

  That summer, after her initial lesson from Talmadge, Della practiced shooting in the forest. That fall after apple harvest they left Angelene with Caroline Middey in the orchard and he took Della hunting east of Chelan Falls. As they rode in the endless-seeming scrub, he explained to her that when she traveled with the men she was responsible for securing her own food, she should rely on nobody else. The men could not be expected to make exceptions for her. When Talmadge spotted the first buck, they dismounted at the edge of a wide rock quarry. Lay on their stomachs in the leaves. He repositioned the rifle on her shoulder before leaving her alone and watched the side of her face and then looked at the sky. He covered his ears. Waited while she waited. Finally she pulled the trigger. The gunshot cracked and echoed in the sky.

  They hiked down to the area where the animal was struck, and he showed her how to look for blood in the grass. You move in its wake, he told her. He did not know how to tell her about intuition.

  It took them a long time to find the buck. The shot had grazed its neck. It was a bad shot. But Talmadge patiently led her in pursuit, and late afternoon they found the animal in a band of aspen twenty yards from a creek. It was the last surge of daylight; the air was golden. Talmadge strung up the deer in one of the trees and then slit its throat. After it was sufficiently bled he handed her his hunting knife and instructed her to make the major incision from the groin to the breast. The knife was old and had belonged to his mother. He reached inside the animal for the innards and spoke to her in a quiet voice about what he was doing. She stood to the side and watched. He asked her to come forward and reach in and detach the liver, and she did so. Peering with concentration. He told her to go wash the liver in the creek, and she set off silently with the organ in her hand.

  He continued working. When dusk had fallen and she had not returned, he went down to the water to look for her. At first he did not see her. But then he saw her crouched at the water’s edge thirty feet away. When he called to her, she did not move. The creek was too loud, he thought.

  She had knelt and put her head to the ground, her arms crossed in front of her. When he reached her and touched her shoulder, she slowly sat up. Her face was ravaged by crying.

  What happened? What’s wrong?

  She would not answer him. She stood with his help, looked out over the water as if searching for something. He helped her wash the blood and dirt from her arms and face and then led her back to the camp. But she could not stand the sight of the buck. She halted and wailed high in the back of her throat when they came out of the trees and saw the bloody form strung up.

  What is it? he said.

  I lost it, she said, and began to pant with despair. I was washing it, and it went down the river. I tried to get it— And she began to cry, and put her hands over her face.

  It’s all right, he said, confused. It’s all right. Hush, now.

  But she would not hush, she would not be consoled.

  He packed up everything they had unpacked earlier and rode with her a short distance away and set up another camp. She sat on his jacket on the ground, hugging her knees, rocking slightly on her tailbone. He built a fire. It was nearly dark; the stars had come out. He made some food for her—some oatmeal—and for several moments stood and watched her eating. And then he walked back to the former camp and built another fire and finished butchering the deer. When he was done, it was full black night. Cold. He cooked up a bit of the heart and ate it with some onions and pepper he had packed. His mind—empty, but troubled—was soothed by the flavor of the meat. When he walked back to the other camp, the girl was sleeping huddled on her side. He put more wood on the fire and lay down opposite her and listened a long time to the sounds of the flames and the other distant sounds of night before he too was able to sleep.

  You don’t have to kill a deer, he told her the next day, thinking it was the size of the animal that had overwhelmed her. You can hunt rabbit, and squirrel—

  It wasn’t until later that he thought of the deer strung up in the tree, and what it had cost the girl to see something like that. How he had told her to stick her hand into the animal to get its organ so that they could eat it for supper.

  He taught her how to clean the rifle. He bought her boys’ riding breeches and wool underwear, plaid button-down shirts, and a jacket to replace the strange costumes she wore. He bought her riding boots, and a bedroll. A fine, simple saddle. A pocketknife and a hunting knife with a leather sheath that attached to her belt. He showed her how to clean the knives as well. It was best, he said, that she keep the large knife under her pillow while she slept. So thieves wouldn’t get it, he said.

  And so she traveled with the men, at first simply to and from the auctions. It should begin that way, Talmadge reasoned, and then they would determine from there what to do. Perhaps she would tire of it, he thought, perhaps it would not be what she had imagined, and she would abandon her original idea.

  But she did not tire of it.

  Clee and the men took her into the mountains to the southeast, the ranges there as far as central Idaho, to hunt the horses they would train and sell at auction. When she came back from the first hunt—they had gone into the Sawtooths—she had completed, or nearly completed, the gesture she had begun with learning how to ride: to transform herself from someone powerless to someone powerful. Talmadge could not yet tell if it was a good thing. She still had her child’s body—she was short, and shaped like a boy—but her mind had passed into another place. It was not a matter of her being largely a child beforehand, and having passed into adulthood. It had little to do with that: childhood and adulthood. She had passed into a place independent of those two states. Was she happy? He could not say definitively that she was unhappy. Perhaps she was involved—maybe she had discovered (he hoped for this but did not believe it) a happiness so remote, so calm, and it was this by which she was distracted, that she was so utterly involved with at times, so that when she entered a room where he was, or an orchard row where he worked and looked to greet her, she seemed not to see him.

  Caroline Middey watched Talmadge, also, change. Concern about the girl had grown into a stealthy practice, had consumed him, although he did not like to talk about it. His characteristic expression of distant calm was replaced by anxious distraction—his eyes told the world he was thinking not of what was before him but of what was absent from the place. An expression of constant inner speculation: Was the girl, at that moment, safe? Was she afraid? When Caroline Middey spoke to him, as they had been speaking over a lifetime—porch correspondences, meandering but thoughtful conversations—he increasingly failed to contribute: his silence was not that of unspoken agreement, or that which reflected his absorption in their exchange, but was rather that of not having heard her at all. At times he drew himself up while she was talking, as if just realizing it was him she was addressing: that there was another person with him on the porch.

  For a time, his anxiety at Della’s absence, instead of decreasing, increased. And he was almost impossible to talk to. Like a man in a dream.

  She’s not yours, said Caroline Middey, finally, one evening.

  What?

  She doesn’t belong to you, Talmadge.

  It was a cruel thing to say, she admitted: but was it, really? The girl had come from nowhere to take advantage of him and his kindness, and Caroline Middey, understanding what the girl had suffered, did not blame her, not really—but for Talmadge to pine after her, if that’s what he was doing, was ridiculous.

  But no, that was not right.
She must not rise to the temptation to so easily classify his behavior that way. He was not pining after Della. He was worrying about her. Of course the situation called forth Talmadge’s sister: lately, as Caroline Middey observed Talmadge, his sister was never far from her thoughts.

  Elsbeth. For a time after her disappearance Talmadge had been all but comatose, and Caroline Middey drove to the orchard often to look in on him. To make sure he had gotten out of bed, and washed and dressed. She’d combed his hair, and cut it when it became too long. Made him meals that would keep. You just have to add water to that and cook it, Talmadge, she would say, and he would nod. During the heavy work times in the orchard she would remain, sometimes for a month at a time. In his grief he might forget to begin work: but when he began, it was difficult to get him to stop.

  He had pulled out of that grief, eventually—out from under the suffocating weight of it. Suffering had formed him: made him silent and deliberate, thoughtful: deep. Generous and kind and attentive, although he had been that before. Each thoughtful gesture hoping to extend back, far back, to reach his sister, to locate her somewhere.

  Caroline Middey did not know where the girl—Elsbeth—had gone. She had seen, however, when Talmadge did not, that the girl was likely to go. She’d had the look of departure about a year before she disappeared. A watchfulness. Stirrings of restlessness in a creature otherwise inimitably patient. It was no wonder Talmadge had not seen it. The two were uncannily similar, but they were different in that way: Talmadge would remain in the orchard until the day he died, whereas Elsbeth, for whatever reason, wished to go elsewhere. Who knows why the girl had gone like she had, in such a dramatic fashion? That was what unsettled Caroline Middey the most: she did not think the girl capable of such cruelty toward Talmadge, and so believed, reluctantly, that she, Elsbeth, herself had not caused it. Oh, Caroline Middey did not like to think of what might have happened to the girl. The girl setting off, to be caught by something she did not anticipate. What else could have happened, really? The only thing worse, perhaps, than knowing for certain that she was abducted was not knowing. That was the sad truth. And Talmadge lived in that uncertainty, he had made his home in it, and there was no possibility of him resting—truly resting—ever again.

 
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