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The orchardist, p.13
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       The Orchardist, p.13

           Amanda Coplin

  And so the fact of Della leaving the orchard upset him, naturally—upset those demons he had slain, carefully and with great strength, in the beginning, and steadily over the years. And now here he sat again—distracted, anxious, afraid. Caroline Middey sought to comfort him by harshly reminding him of their—his and Della’s—relationship.

  You cared for her for a while, she said. That’s all you can do, Talmadge. She wanted to go: and so give her your blessing to go. Now forget her. If she comes to visit, fine. She is a visitor. But she doesn’t want to live here, she doesn’t belong here—

  And, understanding that he needed something to focus on, if not Della:

  Think of Angelene now, think of the child—

  And always the mention of the child changed him. The change was in his eyes: they focused; the mention of the infant introduced the present again.

  And that was the point of children, thought Caroline Middey: to bind us to the earth and to the present, to distract us from death. A distraction dressed as a blessing: but dressed so well, and so truly, that it became a blessing. Or maybe it was the other way around: a blessing first, before a distraction. Caroline Middey scrutinized the point; did not know if the distinction was important. (All distinctions are important.) But she did not think any more about it because at her back, suddenly, the child woke from her nap, and she rose at once to go to her.

  If Angelene was within range when Della came to the cabin to rest between bouts of training, Della scooped her up and raised her high overhead, laughing a strange boisterous laugh. Angelene at first was baffled, befuddled—but was soon overcome with the speed of flight up into the air, and squealed, happily, her lopsided grin showing the squares of her new teeth. Up she went, and down she came, the soft featherlike hair suspended and then flattened; and Della embraced her between flights, pleasure on her face, particular satisfaction. But then—if you blinked you would miss it—there came a growing expression of indifference on Della’s face. Where did it start? Her cheeks, her mouth, her eyes? When it was in her eyes, it was finished. Della kissed the girl on the neck, absently, before delivering her to the ground. Angelene protested, squirming in Della’s arms, before she was left alone, but laughed when she was released, thinking she was going to be captured and thrown up again into the air; and when Della straightened up, Angelene reached out for her reflexively, but Della would not pay her any more attention. It was as if Della had totally forgotten the joy of moments before; she turned and was gone into the distance of grass, absorbed with whatever filled her mind then, whatever came next.

  After the trip to the Sawtooths, when Della was gone for two months, when she returned and tried to scoop Angelene from the grass, Angelene screamed, terrified, and struggled within Della’s arms, and Della set her on the ground, embarrassed.

  Talmadge, perplexed, said: She hasn’t seen you in a long time.

  Angelene clung to his leg, held her fist to her mouth, looked at Della with wide, glassy eyes.

  Jesus, she acts like I’m going to kill her or something, said Della, and laughed, squatted down again, opened her arms, smiled encouragingly, nervously; but Angelene turned her face away into Talmadge’s pant leg and would not budge.

  Give her a few days, said Talmadge. She just has to get used to you again.

  And it was not only Angelene who had to get used to her. Talmadge found himself impressed, and disturbed, by the creature before him. It was the old Della, but definitely changed. Hardened, sun-darkened, stoutly muscular. If he did not know better, he would’ve mistaken her for a native woman-child riding with the men. She was both more assured and quieter, deeper. It was as if the distances she had traveled had ironed out some of her foolish impulsiveness, her flippancy. She again watched Talmadge over meals but held his eyes longer now before decisively looking away. She was a master, even at that age, of guarding her feelings, her thoughts, and he realized without being aware of it that he had had the possibility to know her, before—had he known her?—but now that had changed. The possibility was gone. Now no one would know her unless she herself willed it. And there was nothing quite like the will he sensed in her now.

  Later that week—the men were still in the orchard—Talmadge headed toward the sapling shed for a pair of shears, and found Della leaning in the eave of the side of the cabin, smoking a cigarette. She stood up straight when she saw him, stubbed out the cigarette. As if he had caught her at something, he thought. He looked over his shoulder, to see what she had been looking at. There was Angelene sitting in the grass before the apricot orchard, jabbering to two sticks held in her fists. You couldn’t see it, with her sitting like that, but there was a fabric cord tied around her waist. It was something he sometimes did, tying her to a tree, so he could keep an eye on her without fearing she would wander off. He was ready to explain about the cord, which Della had no doubt seen, when she said:

  When I left, she was so different. She was a baby.

  He noted the sadness, the earnest awe, in her voice. He looked toward the child in the grass.

  She’s still a baby, he said.

  I know, but—she’s different.

  There was nothing he could say; it was true, she was different. At times when he took her up out of the crate in the morning, the crate she was rapidly outgrowing, it was as if she had grown, changed, overnight; her hair was different, her eyes; the shade and texture of her flesh, her limbs; and, most disconcerting and delightful of all, she was beginning to speak. She increasingly talked back to him when he murmured to her, and he understood that she was becoming what she was destined to become, when he first held her in the open air of the world: her own person, her own independent and particular self. He marveled at it all. And what would she grow up to be like? What was inside her, already formed, that would draw forth with time, and what was it that she most needed him to teach her? Would she be amenable to his help, his advice in worldly matters? And what advice did he have to give? But she already accepted him as her own, wanted him to hold her the first hour of every day, and then, after she climbed down from him, trailed at his side perpetually, looked up often into his face. Trying to determine how he felt about certain things they saw together. She adored him, and he in turn felt himself totally circumscribed by his love for her; the quality of the emotion that bound them chastened him, filled him. And yet the emotion—the severity of it—at times made him afraid.

  But he did not know how to communicate this to Della. He did not know the effect those words would have on her. He did not, could not, understand how she saw the child: did not know, exactly, what Angelene meant to her.

  Despite Della’s absences, and despite Angelene’s terror at having her aunt embrace her, there were moments of apparent communion between them. The rest of that summer Della remained with Talmadge and Angelene in the orchard—not so much through a choice of her own, but circumstances having to do with the circulation of the horses; the whole business was slow that summer—and often in the afternoons the three of them walked to the upper pool. Della walked with Angelene on her shoulders, the child’s small fists gripped in Della’s own. Talmadge fished for the better part of the afternoon, and then afterward, while he fried the fish over a fire for their supper, the girls swam. Angelene sat naked in the shallows while Della, who had not taken off any of her clothes—just her hat—waded farther out, dove down and then came up again, hair plastered to her skull, water spilling from her eyes, calling to Angelene, who watched her from afar. And what was it Della said to her? What were the words? Talmadge could not remember. Strings of words, phrases, delivered in that singsong she used with the child, which was touching and sad somehow, because her own voice was rough and childish; she who was little more than a baby herself, thought Talmadge; one baby beckoning to another. Della was a little over seventeen years old then. But to Talmadge she was younger than that, a perpetual child.

  Another time—this was perhaps a year, two years later
, in another season, fall—Talmadge went out onto the porch and saw down in the field Della holding Angelene on her hip. They stood before a horse: a beautiful, muscular sorrel mare. Angelene, who was quite tall for her age, was more than a third of the size of Della now. The child’s legs dangled long from where Della’s arms were cinched under her bottom. The horse they were looking at was a tame horse: he made sure of that, at once, for he would not have Angelene near any wild horse. It might have been Clee’s horse, or Della’s own. Yes, that was probably it, it was Della’s horse, and she was showing it to Angelene. The field was full of horses, the men moving around purposefully, breaking camp. Maybe Della was telling Angelene good-bye, thought Talmadge, for she, Della, was going that entire season with the men: she was going to winter with them in the south. He thought Della and the child were simply looking at the horse; but when Della turned her face slightly, to look at Angelene, he saw that she was talking to the girl; and the child responded after a moment, lifting her own arm to the horse, pointing something out, before bringing her hand down again.

  Later these peaceful moments between Della and Angelene were the exception, not the rule. Angelene fussed when Della approached her. At first Della shrugged off the girl’s hysterics, laughing: Silly kid. But then it was almost as if she was angry when the girl did not immediately go to her, accept her affection. One time Della arrived with the men and camped below with them as if she had no kinship with neither Talmadge nor Angelene; she did not greet them at all. And when he went down at night and found her among the fires, she looked up at him and said, after a moment: Evening. He asked her if she was going to come up to talk with him on the porch, to see the girl. She did not answer him right away, but stared beyond him, beyond his shoulder. Not as if she was angry; in fact he had a hard time reading her face. No thank you, she said. I’ll stay right here. And then, almost as an afterthought, and so softly he would question if he had imagined it: Where I belong—

  What do you mean? he said, but she didn’t answer him. It was soon too uncomfortable to stand there without an answer, the men around them pretending to ignore them, talking to each other to feign that they weren’t listening. Eventually he returned to the cabin.

  After that she spent more time with the men while she was in the orchard, not even bothering to divide her time between the men and himself and Angelene; not bothering to come up to the cabin at all. What kinds of things was she telling herself? he wondered. What kind of story had she invented? It was his fault, he thought, one of his many faults, that he was not stricter with her during this time, that he did not insist on knowing what she was thinking, did not demand she explain herself. He did not say to her: This is ridiculous, this is your home, and more important, this is your niece, and she is as good as your daughter, and you are as good as her mother, and it is better that you take her with you on these errands of yours into the mountains than leave her here and have both of you become strangers to each other. This is no good, he should have said; he should have given up Angelene so that Della could ruin her, rather than keep her for himself, so Della could ruin herself, and in doing so ruin them all.

  Oh, but he could not have given up Angelene, even if Della had wanted her. He would have done nothing differently. He would have kept Angelene close to him, as he had; but he should have insisted that Della stay too. She was not all cold, and more than that, she was not bad. He was convinced of this. The change with her—this distance, this hardness—did not happen overnight, it was gradual; and since it was gradual, he had taken a part in it. The day she failed to appear for Angelene’s sixth birthday party, and then after that, when it seemed that she had actually gone for good, he thought, with gentle surprise: It is done. It is done. And was he, after all, surprised? Had he not been waiting for it? Still he was shaken that she had actually gone and done it, set out on her own.

  Is it what he had wanted? Did he want her, finally, to leave?

  At times he pitied her greatly; and other times he was moved, watching her, by her unrestrained happiness on the horses. He was awed by, but also wary of, her willingness to go up into the mountains to do these dangerous things, without regard for the fact that she might die, without regard for Angelene.

  But there was that fear he had also, when he saw Della go pick up the child. When he saw them standing close to the horse that day, very still, Della talking to the child, he thought: Good; look at them, this is good; but he also thought: Why doesn’t she put her down? Why doesn’t she just put her down?

  He didn’t want Angelene to be infected, he thought now. As if Della, and the pain she carried with her, was a disease.

  He did not grasp at first, despite her long absence, that she was gone indefinitely. And then one day—walking down an orchard row, shears in hand, he turned his face to a barren patch of ground—he knew she was gone. Even if she was to come back, the situation between them would be different, in that she would be her own person as she had not been totally, to his mind, before. When she came to the orchard between her other sojourns, she was still a part of the orchard, a part of their lives; and he would still try to protect her from harm, he counted it his responsibility to do so. But no longer. If she came back now, it would be to look at him across the distance of that severed connection. And how had it been severed? It had been severed by her actions, but it was also something that was separate from her, that he could not define: that had to do with himself, and the orchard, and the passage of time. Somewhere along the way he had forgotten to remember her; he had forgotten to constantly call her back from the distances she was always intent on pursuing.

  And Angelene, too young at the time to articulate her feelings for Della, regarded her as part of the orchard as the men and the horses were a part of it, interesting and unusual and even phenomenal, but they had nothing to do with, were separate from, what constituted the real orchard life, which was Angelene and Talmadge by themselves. The last few times Angelene saw Della, as a child of four or five, neither made a move to embrace the other. Della was difficult to place for Angelene during that time. She was Angelene’s aunt, but Angelene did not understand what that meant exactly. In the grain of Angelene’s life Della was the one thing going the opposite direction; she didn’t fit. She was always there, the odd detail agitating an otherwise serene existence.

  Talmadge did not speak to Angelene about who Della was or where she came from, and why she was so different from other women. Angelene was too young then anyway to understand. If she voiced any confusion to him, neither of them remembered it. What she did remember was riding Talmadge’s back in the orchard—for pleasure, now, since she had outgrown the papoose—with grass and honeysuckle stuck in the corner of her mouth, asking endless questions about the animals, the clouds, the trees, the fruit. And he answered, beginning: Oh . . . Thoughtful answers.

  They had moved into the time in the orchard when Della came no more. Angelene always thought she could place the moment exactly, the beginning of this time. Her birthday was held every year after apricot harvest, with the horses down below in the field, and the men up in the yard, dressed in their town clothes and sitting in chairs and on the ground, eating food Caroline Middey had prepared. Whether it was a fact or simply the way she remembered it, this birthday party—her sixth—was the first that Della did not attend. Talmadge kept drawing to the edge of the yard to look out at the treeline across the field, expecting Della to ride out of it.

  This was the image Angelene had of him at that time, always moving to the edges of some celebration, assuming a position, looking out for Della. He was to speak of her less often in the years to come, but he never lost that air of distraction, of looking out. It made Angelene sad for him, and resent the one who stayed away.


  Della entered the picture booth—she had not known what it was beforehand—to satisfy a mild curiosity.

  It was a kind of closet, very quiet compared with the outside carnival she had just co
me from. These carnivals cropped up around the auctions, and she was sometimes let to wander off by herself. Be back at camp before dusk—

  She sat on a blue velvet-cushioned stool. A man she could not see—he was in the ink-black darkness before her—told her to hold very still. He was taking her picture. Did she know what that meant? Don’t move your mouth, he said. Sit still. Try not to blink.

  Ultimately, the picture was the size of her thumbprint. She kept taking it out of her pocket, afterward, as she walked the carnival alone among the blinking, lurid lights, and looked at it. This was what she looked like. The girl in the picture was pale (but that was the effect of the film; in life she was rather dark-skinned) and had a startled expression, dark eyes. A mouth almost lost in sternness. The man had made her take off her hat and her hair was raggedy and held together in two braids, one of which lay coiled on her shoulder. A smattering of freckles across her nose. Her shoulders were very narrow. One of her front pockets was torn.

  She did not know that you were supposed to give the picture to your sweetheart—how would she know this?—and so she thought she would give the photograph to Angelene, or Talmadge, before she remembered she did not see them anymore. She fit the photograph inside her breast pocket. After a few minutes, when nothing else in the carnival succeeded in catching her eye—and she was hungry, but found no food stalls—she turned campward.

  She wondered that evening, watching Clee move around the fire preparing supper, what his image would look like, captured in a photograph. His frame was tall, heavy; his square head would take up the entire frame, she thought, not understanding how a camera worked, not understanding that the lens could be adjusted. His hair was brushed up in a pompadour and braids, in the style of many Nez Perce men at the time. His eyes were heavy lidded; his cheekbones high and set wide apart. He wore a dark wool shirt and a vest with fringe on the front, and a beaded necklace with a medallion that he wore inside his shirt. And also a scapular—that was what it was called, though she did not know it at the time.

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