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The orchardist, p.14
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       The Orchardist, p.14

           Amanda Coplin
 

  She thought about this photograph of him that was not taken. That night, taking out the photograph as she lay on her bedroll and looking at it in the firelight—her own small, pale, startled image—she imagined this invisible counterpart alongside it, giving it substance and weight.

  Angelene sat on Talmadge’s shoulders: I am queen of the orchard! Singing in the trees while they worked, silly songs he knew, and also hymns. Their voices in the trees. His absentminded whistling. The lilting sound, every once in a while, of Angelene asking a question.

  Riding in the herd, the sound like one constant, endless sigh; some horses frantic and others calm, some remembering some wrong done to them while others wanted only to sleep, and each struggling with hunger and thirst; some horses pregnant, others desperate to copulate; and all moved forward as one body amid the heat and the dust. The men and Della spaced out and caught among them like ornaments in a blanket; like disparate thoughts fretting to cohere. The feeling that this would never end, being caught in the herd, heading east or north, west or south, moving for some purpose, though that purpose was for the moment lost; the horses—the herd—carried the men at times more than the men guided them. The men were bound by time—they must reach the auction that evening, or the next day—and yet the riding among the horses through the landscape was endless and timeless, distanceless. It made some men—not the ones who were riding, but others, who lived elsewhere, employed in different occupations—desperate; it made Della sink down under the pressing weight of all that time, all that distance—for it was not deficit but surplus experienced between two destinations—and though she felt at times she could not move, because of the pressing weight, she also felt placed. Ensconced. Safe.

  Angelene crouched in Talmadge’s closet, among the hanging flannel shirts. In the corner, atop two boxes of crystal glassware—Talmadge had found them at a fair and was certain they had value—was an open-topped box. She reached inside it.

  She did not think she was forbidden to be there—she roamed in and out of his room as if it were her own, and often cleaned there, on Saturdays—but besides this, she did not even think she would be reprimanded for going into his closet. There were the few times when he called her for supper and found her there, hidden among his shirts, a game. But she did not know what he would say about her exploring the contents of the boxes, disassembling them, without his permission. But she did it anyway, sensing that he would never be truly angry at her. And where was he now, as her fingers clutched an object, smooth—glass?—beneath a gingham wrapping? He was out in the orchard, working, or sleeping on the porch. Later he would leave her alone in the orchard while he went to town. But now she was too young—eight years old, barely that—to be left by herself.

  She was used to Talmadge’s boxes. There were the boxes of glassware, but also boxes of old almanacs and newspapers, magazines, other dishes and knickknacks, in the shed. Things he had picked up over a lifetime of fair-going and browsing the secondhand shops. People sometimes went to estate sales in other counties, and brought treasures back for him. Thought this might interest you, Talmadge. He had a collection of postcards, tiny porcelain bells, and spoons with emblems of the forty-five states on the handles. He did not order these from the catalog but kept track of their production and then looked for them in the secondhand shops. The storekeeper in town knew his predilections.

  Objects too at times, after all, like the landscape, held the potential for meaning—she took out the first object now—and were able to comfort.

  These items Angelene had never seen before. Two ambrotypes: one showing a dark-haired woman standing on a hillock with two young children, a boy and a girl, standing in front of her; the woman had her hands resting protectively on the children’s chests. The other ambrotype showed the children alone, holding hands in front of a trellis, squinting in the sunlight. There was also a pair of extremely old children’s leather boots with a ruffle along the toe; a white christening gown, yellowed with age; and a pair of baby’s booties.

  Talmadge had not told Angelene about his family, or about his history in the orchard. What, then, must she have made of those images? Did she know that was Talmadge’s mother, and the little girl standing beside him was his sister? Did she know that Talmadge was the boy? Did she understand that Talmadge had ever been a boy? It was difficult to know exactly what she made of the images, though she must have been impressed by them, because she returned to them again and again.

  One day she was particularly confident and brought in a cup of tea with her to the bedroom. She had already pulled out the box minutes before in anticipation of viewing, and left the room for the tea—and as she returned, coming into the room, she tripped over a slightly raised floorboard, and fell. The cup, like some bad joke, landed in the box, and with horror, as she lifted out the cup and felt the box for moisture, she saw that the boots were relatively unharmed, but the gown was stained and the ambrotypes were ruined. She cleaned the objects to the best of her ability, so shocked and afraid that she was unable even to cry. Her hands shook. She wrapped one of the ambrotypes that had broken in a handkerchief and then put the box back. Maybe, she thought, he wouldn’t know that she had done it. Oh no, she would say, when he pulled out the box and asked her if she knew anything about it. What happened?

  But at supper that night, unable to contain herself, she burst into tears and told him what she had done. He got up from the table and went into the bedroom and came out a few minutes later. She did not remember what he looked like because she did not look up at him. He did not sit down at the table but remained standing.

  Those are not your things, he said, and when she didn’t answer, he told her to go to her room. She went, relieved, but also confused. He had never sent her to her room before.

  The next day he was what she considered cold to her, and she sulked and grieved. She hid in the grass of the plum orchard and planned to stay there, even when he called her for dinner. But he didn’t call her for dinner, or even come look for her. She grew hungry. It was made worse by the fact that she detected—how could it be?—the odor of pancakes coming from the cabin. He had propped the door open. And then, coming on the tail end of the other odor was the odor of bacon. He was in there whistling to himself. Finally she got up and walked around the side of the cabin. When she stood in the doorway, he looked up, as if surprised to see her. Oh, there you are, he said. I thought I was going to have to eat this all by myself.

  After they ate, she sat on his lap on the front porch and cried and told him she was sorry. He stroked her head.

  You’ll ask me next time, he said. I can show them to you.

  Yes, she said. I’m sorry.

  All right.

  And what was he to tell her, about the ambrotypes? That conversation was an invitation to question him about the objects, but he dreaded such a conversation. Why had he left them in the closet that way, why hadn’t he put them up? His pointing out—This is me, my mother, my sister—would lead to other questions, ones that he felt unprepared to answer. Where is your sister now, Talmadge? He would lie about it, with only little qualm—the child was too young to absorb the fact of another girl’s disappearance. It would be cruel to introduce a story like that to her imagination. Maybe he would tell her all of it later. Much later, when she was an adult.

  But there it was: he did not believe she would ever be an adult. He watched her, thinking: And how does one so small and perfect in her way become an adult? The change would never occur if he kept his eye on her; because how could change happen so quickly? There was only one answer: it could not. But then she had changed so much already—

  Also—he did not want to consider this directly—he did not want to excite dormant questions about Angelene’s own mother. He and Caroline Middey had decided to tell the girl, when she asked, that her mother had died of sickness. That Jane and Della had come to Talmadge from the forest, and Jane was pregnant; she gave birth, and then died.
Della had left the orchard of her own accord; she did not want to stay there, and so had left. Explaining Della’s character beyond this—explaining how she could have left, by unspoken agreement, Angelene in Talmadge’s care, and did not ever come to visit anymore—was beyond him. Regardless, it was years away before such explanation was required. Or so he hoped.

  But the girl, miraculously, had not yet asked about her mother. She was attentive enough to exchanges between certain women and their children in town, but thought, as far as he could tell, that some people have mothers like some have siblings: by chance, and not necessity. He was ashamed to make her wait, to rely upon the great mountain of confusion that would have to amass before she initiated the first, tentative conversation. It pained him to think of it.

  But he did not want to disturb her, either. Let her childhood, for as long as possible, remain unblighted—

  A week later, while Angelene and Talmadge were in town, they got their photograph taken at the portraitist’s studio. It was a surprise for the girl. There was a lilac-colored dress hanging in the back room that Angelene was supposed to change into. Caroline Middey had helped Talmadge pick it out. When Angelene changed into the dress and came out to join him, she could see how pleased he was. He was dressed up too, was wearing a fancy cowboy hat. He reached for her hand.

  How lovely, the portraitist kept saying. How lovely.

  Della lowered herself above the horse’s back without touching the flesh, holding herself up in the scaffolding above the chute—and both men, one at either elbow, saying Okay? and checking to see that the horse was not caught in the chute, that no impediment would keep the animal from surging with utmost force the moment it was released. As soon as the panel at the opposite end of the chute was wrenched up, Della would drop onto the horse’s back. She would be carried forth, crashing through the chute and into the arena in a matter of seconds.

  Both Clee and the wrangler disapproved of this spectacle and had tried to keep her from doing it. But at the last moment they had no power over what she did; they just stood by and watched like the rest. Disgusted. Clee’s jaw hard.

  This entry did not excite the auction-goers so much as make them extremely uncomfortable. Just last year a rodeo man had mounted a bull in the deep chute and been trampled to death before the bull reached the arena. The entrance was unnecessarily dangerous; there was always a moment when the chute seemed too long, and she thought she would be flung underfoot. That dread, that sureness that she was going to fail, to die, was why she did it. She craved, for some reason—she would not look at it directly—that sense of despair.

  Now, in the chute, hovering over the horse, her extremities emptied of feeling, and she felt only the steady, increased beating of her heart. She dissolved.

  Are you ready? the man on her left whispered to her. Did she respond? She must have, for the panel shot up with a grating noise, and the animal jolted beneath her.

  She saw despair as one sees a solid object in the distance. And then she was inside it. Through it.

  Perhaps it was not the despair she craved, but the moment afterward: the brilliant moment of not falling. Success.

  But, no. What was recognized as success—the applause, the exclamations, the job well done; she was already off the horse, pumping people’s hands in congratulations—did not fill her. Did not even begin to fill her. What she wanted was the despair, or something else that was found there. Something that lived with despair. But the moment she was inside it, she failed to find what it was she wanted so badly.

  And so she would ride again.

  After Angelene’s ninth birthday, Talmadge took her to the far apple orchard and showed her a quarter acre that had been sectioned off by small wooden posts in the ground. These posts marked the border of the orchard that was to be entirely hers. She would be responsible for clearing the plot, cultivating the soil, and choosing the trees and planting them. When he explained this to her, she felt buoyant with joy. Her hands began to sweat. In her excitement and confusion, she said: Does Della have a plot like this?

  No, he answered, after a moment. At that point they had not seen Della for three years. Angelene would never know why she had asked such a question.

  And so she began to tend her own orchard, and think of many things she had not thought of before, such as if she had a choice, which kinds of trees would she plant, and what would thrive there, and how far apart she should plant the trees, and where she would get the trees. Talmadge observed her struggles, answered her questions when she asked him. He bought her a small notebook like his own to fit into her front overall pocket while she worked. She began to be interested in the tools at the hardware store, the prices of different seed. She had a rough understanding, despite her age, of what was expensive, what was overpriced, what was a bargain. She and Talmadge discussed these things on the long wagon rides to and from town.

  Mostly she learned from watching him. She watched him in everything he did; she was his shadow in the trees.

  Clee’s men left Della, not at that auction where she mounted the horse in the deep chute but two years later, when she got drunk one evening off corn liquor another man offered her. She came back to camp—she had finally found it in her confusion—and the wrangler helped her to her bedroll and told her to be quiet. When she retched, Clee came out from his tent and sat with her and helped her. In the morning when she woke, the camp was dismantled and the men were gone. They had left her there. When she caught up with them midday, none of the men would look at her. Clee and the wrangler came to her after supper, and the wrangler told her that if she acted that way again, she would not be welcome to ride with them. She said she understood. But she did not apologize.

  For some reason—she did not remember why afterward—Angelene wanted to grow, along with four apple trees, a cherry tree, and a peach tree, a pumpkin patch. Talmadge did not even bat an eyelash when she told him this. He was responsible for obtaining the first seeds for her.

  It seemed it would last a long time, when Della was traveling with the men. She had a sense, deep inside her, that when she was riding with them, when they were camped on some sage plateau, set to arrive in Spokane the next evening, or perhaps the morning after that, that she would be doing it a long time. For as long as she could envision. And she would never change, she would never be any different from that image of herself in the thumb-sized photograph she carried in her pocket. And yet it had lasted no time at all. She traveled that way, with that ease—but it wasn’t ease at all, she just remembered it that way—for two years, perhaps a bit more. And then other things distracted her. Drinking, but that was not all of it. Riding horses wasn’t enough, anymore, to access that despair that she needed so badly. Jane had been in the horses, but now she was not. She was elsewhere. What had happened to her? Della could no longer remember the way she smelled, what her voice sounded like. Had she ever had a sister, or was that a dream, like so much else?

  Angelene entered one of the pumpkins from her first harvest in the county fair, and won a prize. Afterward, the newspaper wanted to take a picture of her with her pumpkin, and so she sat on a bale of hay with her pumpkin at her feet, her old straw hat on her head, and posed. In the moment after the man took the picture—Angelene was blinded by the flash, and there was the high insect whirr of the box camera—she heard two voices, girls, or they could have been young women. The first said: Who is that? And the other answered, breezily: Oh, she’s that whore’s girl, she won that prize—

  That whore’s girl. Angelene did not know what that meant, exactly, but she knew enough to break out into a cold sweat the moment she heard it, and later hesitate, on the ride back home, to ask Talmadge what it meant.

  He did not notice anything was amiss. He looked straight ahead in the wagon, on his face an expression of subdued pleasure from her winning the prize.

  She let the moment pass, intuiting, even then, what would hurt him.

 
; What’s a whore? she asked Caroline Middey two days later, as they peeled potatoes in Caroline Middey’s kitchen. They were preparing supper for them all: Talmadge had gone to town but would be back by evening.

  Caroline Middey raised her eyebrows but did not take her eyes from the task at hand. She hesitated.

  A whore is a woman who lies with men for money, she said.

  Angelene, after a minute, said: Oh.

  Then, the inevitable: What do you mean, Lies with?

  Caroline Middey sighed. She and Talmadge should have talked about this: When was it the right time to talk to the girl about—things? But, she thought, if it was up to Talmadge then the girl would never be told.

  Angelene, working slower now, watched Caroline Middey, as if to glean any information—any knowledge—from the other woman’s expression.

  There is an activity, said Caroline Middey, that grown men and women—married people, but they do not have to be married, do they, no. She hesitated, considering. There is an activity that they do, when they love each other, and they decide they want to be together, where they take off their clothes, and rub—certain parts of their bodies together. This is called intercourse.

 
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