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The orchardist, p.16
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       The Orchardist, p.16

           Amanda Coplin

  What’s that?

  I said I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.

  About what?

  About—my life.

  There was silence. Caroline Middey continued to eat.

  I don’t know why I go to school, said Angelene, doubtful.

  Caroline Middey nodded once, to encourage her to keep speaking.

  All we do, said Angelene, it seems like—here she became nervous—me and you and Talmadge, all we do is the same thing all the time, and nothing changes, and you have to do it every day, and I just—I mean, why do we do it? I’m not saying I don’t like to do it, because I do, but, I mean, why—even the learning, and even doing anything, I mean, I was just thinking about it—

  But that’s where she stopped. She didn’t know how to continue. She was going to cry again. This speech was not at all what she wanted to say, but she hoped that Caroline Middey would see through it, or know what she really meant.

  Caroline Middey, after a long pause, so long in fact that Angelene thought she was not going to answer her at all, sighed and patted the quilt under which lay Angelene’s hand.

  My dear, she said. There is one thing I want to tell you, and I hope you carry it with you to the end of your days.

  Angelene felt her body dissolve in anticipation. This is what she wanted, finally: someone to give her the answer.

  No matter how bad you feel, said Caroline Middey, glancing at the girl now, or how bad you think your situation is, there is always somebody else who is feeling worse than you are, who is in worse shape. And so you should never, ever complain. Never.

  And then she sighed again, and patted Angelene’s hand over the covers, and wiped some toast crumbs from her chest onto the plate, and got out of bed. She said, without looking at Angelene, You stay in here as long as you want. I’m not going to tell you what to do. You’re a growing girl, you’re getting big. You get your thinking out of the way, or whatever you like, whatever you have to do. I’ll be outside.

  After she was gone, Angelene lay on her belly and cried silently and hotly into the pillow and then got up and washed her face in the basin, and dressed. She joined Caroline Middey in the garden and the older woman accepted her without pomp, told her to watch the radishes, they were tough, and she had damaged one already because she did not understand how they were growing. Angelene nodded and listened to her. Very soon the feeling she had woken to—the dread of existence—wore away under the work, and she felt fine. Better than fine—she was relieved, refreshed, although she would have told no one that, not even Caroline Middey, who laid a hand on her shoulder, gently, as she passed to inspect the lettuce farther down the row.

  There was one woman during the time of fruit-picking who seemed to seek Della out, a woman roughly the same age as her, but very small and round, with a round, pointed, volelike face. Her dark hair bound up in a red kerchief. She picked alongside Della in the first camp and jabbered at her through the limbs as they worked. She had asked Della’s name early on, and Della had told her, and the woman had said that her name was Margaret Peabody but that everybody called her Maggie P. That’s the initial, not the vegetable, she had said, and laughed at her own joke, but Della had not known what she was talking about.

  Maggie P., for her small hands, worked quickly, and talking a mile a minute did not seem to hamper her work at all. She was propelled by constant speech, and did not flag, even when she commented, Phew, I’m parched, aren’t you? Or: Lord, I dragged myself out of bed this morning, what about you? And she was careful but speedy climbing up and down ladders, pausing only briefly in her speech if she encountered a bundle of fruit that needed extra attention. Those times when Maggie P. ceased to speak were golden pockets of silence, and Della reveled in them, knowing that they would be interrupted only moments later by the insistent voice saying, Where was I? What was I telling you about, now?

  Though the heat bothered Maggie P., and her mother had told her she was capable of making a better use of her time than working in the trees, Maggie P. said that she enjoyed it. Every year around harvesttime, though she said she was going to enroll down at the stenographer school, like her aunt had arranged for her, every year she was drawn to the fruit on the trees; she saw the people come in, the workers from the south, and she just threw on her old clothes, her denim overalls and her kerchief, and went and worked among them.

  There’s nothing like it, she said, for how it wears out the body and what you get for it. I’m not talking about money, now, I’m talking about fruit! Twenty pies I made one year, with my mother and aunts and the little ones. Blueberry pies, strawberry pies—you ever pick the berries? It’s different work, harder in some ways, but if you get the hang of it, you can make some money—

  And on and on she went.

  When the cherries were done, they went together to pick a peach orchard that Maggie P. knew about and had picked the previous year. Though she had found Della the job, and they roomed together with two other women in a picker cabin up the hill from where they worked, in the morning Maggie P. found Della’s bed empty. After breakfast, she found Della working among others in the trees. But Maggie P. found a place beside her and took up the thread of soliloquy she had left the previous afternoon.

  Maggie P. was used to quiet types. Her father was a quiet type. As long as Della did not object to her talking, as others often did, she would just go on doing it.

  Maggie P. was not one of those people who talked only about themselves. Early on, she had asked Della where she was from and what she was about. When Maggie P. got monosyllabic answers or none at all, she took the hint and began talking about herself. But that did not lessen her curiosity about her new friend, which was not the rabid inquisitiveness of the gossip, but the true kind.

  You say you’re from up Wenatchee way? said Maggie P. one day. Well, they have some fruit up there! I haven’t picked it, but I’ve heard stories about some orchards—and hoped the other woman would chime in. And when she didn’t, she, Maggie P., hoped she, Della, appreciated, or was at least comforted by, the mention of the place Della was from. She wanted to make her feel at ease.

  For the most part Maggie P. bewildered Della in her talkativeness, and annoyed her. Where there was a constant stream of words, Della would have preferred the silence, the minutiae of sound of work in the trees, of movement of bodies and birds, and of faraway sounds the origin of which she could only guess at. Maggie P. brought the world right in front of them; she pointed it out, and then she talked about it. But despite this, despite Della’s annoyance with her, there were moments, especially before they went to sleep, when Della, exhausted, tucked into her bed, watched Maggie P. brush her short, thick cap of hair over and over again with equal parts absence and attention, and then, her eyes squeezed shut, apply cold cream to her face, and then also her elbows and chest, talking to Della all the while. Della, during these times, did not feel annoyed, but simply watchful. It reminded her of other times, watching the girls at Michaelson’s camp prepare themselves for the evening, when she would forget—but how could she ever forget it?—what came later. Here, watching Maggie P., Della reminded herself the woman was only preparing to sleep: there was no other purpose attached to her self-care.

  The other women were asleep, or hadn’t come in yet. Maggie P. always liked to read a little bit before she went to bed, did Della mind the light? She didn’t. And so Della went to sleep often to the sound of Maggie P. reading, for in reading she was still not silent, but chuckled softly, or sounded out difficult words, grunted, gasped. Turned the page. Sighed.

  Della, for some reason, when she slept near Maggie P., slept deeply, and woke refreshed.

  In late July Talmadge and Angelene packed up the wagon and drove to Malaga, to attend the annual plant sale and carnival. In Cashmere they picked up Caroline Middey, who climbed into the wagon with her shopping baskets and her basket of food, and a large parasol that was not for her—
she had a large straw hat—but for Angelene, since the girl sat in the wagon bed, and Caroline Middey worried about her. One could never be too careful about sunstroke, she said.

  They always went the same way, south along the Wenatchee River until its confluence with the Columbia. The Wenatchee River was narrow and familiar, clattering and riffling, surrounded by evergreens and then, later, rocky gravel banks, but the Columbia was different. It was kingly. Serious, roiling, wide. It looked as if it was not flowing very quickly, but Talmadge told Angelene that it was. No matter how many times she saw the Columbia, she was always struck by it. She sometimes dreamed about it, about walking along it and staring at its strange opaque quality, or trying to cross it by herself, and drowning.

  In Malaga, on the bluff above the river, the merchants had set up their wares, small tents erected to harbor young trees, the saplings anchored in barrels of wet sand. Caroline Middey set off by herself, and Talmadge and Angelene toured the booths along with the other orchardists and homesteaders, and the odd travelers who had come upon the fair by accident and did not know what it was. All of them traveling from booth to booth, taking the wedges of apples and pears handed out, tasting them. It had taken several years for Angelene to realize that the orchardists handed out the fruit for a purpose; they were samples from trees whose saplings were for sale. What you tasted at the fair you could grow yourself, if you liked, if the trees’ needs were compatible with the soil and the climate where you lived.

  Angelene remembered Talmadge’s expression during these trips. He was looking for something, but he did not know what it was. He wanted to be surprised; he wanted one of the orchardists to surprise him. He went from booth to booth with a distracted expression on his face, his brow both soft and furrowed, taking what fruit was offered to him. His lips shone slightly. She followed him closely.

  For a long time the highlight of the trip for Angelene was the carnival, appended to the market and lining the bank of the river. Here people milled about, eating food and talking, children darting through the crowd like sparrows. There was an outdoor band, banjos and violas and accordions, and a few couples dancing jerkily before them. Talmadge put Angelene, before she grew too big, on his shoulders to see. A child pushed past, her face decorated with blue and yellow paint. A short man with a mop of greasy curls climbed onto a boulder and shouted that whoever wanted a pony ride should come see him in the next ten minutes. Holding hands now, Talmadge and Angelene moved through the throng. A white-faced clown juggled yellow apples. A fire-eater displayed a mouth large enough to fit a fist into; a dancing dog with a bow tie and tails, a top hat strapped beneath his chin, waltzed with a woman; a troupe of children bent low to the ground and stood on their heads; a man performed card tricks with tremendous flourish; and another man pulled objects—a pocket watch, an egg, a handkerchief—out of his hat by just passing his hand over it, and also coins and small stones from behind children’s ears. From behind Angelene’s ear he pulled a mountain daisy, the face spanning no more than a centimeter. Ah, he said. A flower! A flower for a flower!

  Talmadge, Caroline Middey, and Angelene ate lunch on a blanket at the river’s edge, apart from the crowd. They ate food they had prepared that morning, biscuits and venison and apricots, some pickled cucumbers and asparagus in small jars. Afterward Talmadge walked to an old man selling watermelons and purchased one. He brought it back to where they sat and cracked it on a rock and cut chunks out with his pocketknife. They ate bent over and with their elbows held out, so as not to soil their clothes. Angelene laughed. They ate the whole melon, slowly, their hands dripping.

  Della did not think she was listening much to Maggie P.—hearing her voice but not really listening to what she said—but she found that she knew, somehow, certain details of the other woman’s life. That she was born in Ellensburg but her family lived now in Vantage. Her father was a doctor, and she had nine brothers and sisters, of which she was the eldest. Her father came from a large family as well, and Maggie P. had lots and lots of cousins. Among the aunts on her father’s side there were working girls—two who had gone into the stenographer business, which had upset the family for a little while, until they—the family—found other things to get excited about. One of the things they loved to get upset about was every year at harvesttime when Maggie P. ran off, as they called it—as if she wasn’t ever coming back—to work the trees. They didn’t understand it.

  Della did not speak to Maggie P. at first, beyond the most basic pleasantries, and it was understood between them that when Maggie P. asked her a question that she, Della, did not want to answer, then Maggie P. shouldn’t take it personally. And she didn’t. But then in the midst of working, Maggie P. would sometimes pose something so casually, and Della’s answer promised to be so safely hemmed into Maggie P.’s quick response, that at times Della found herself speaking, hesitantly, and so quietly that Maggie P., who oftentimes worked below her on the ladder, had to strain to hear her. What was that, love? I didn’t quite hear you there— And Della would repeat herself: Well, I have a niece too, and a sister— Oh, they live up Wenatchee way, do they? Yes—

  And although it seemed that Maggie P. divulged every detail of her life to Della—it was long hours they worked together in the trees—she did not tell Della everything, because one did not divulge everything. She did not tell her, for example, that her one great dream in life was to own her own orchard, and live on it with a man from Mexico. She was ashamed to admit she did not have one man picked out, but she saw him in her visions of the future, and he was short and robust and brown, like her, with the lovely square, strong hands of the Mexican laborers. She had learned a few words of Spanish, and had tentatively spoken to a few men as they passed each other in the green aisles, frightening one, amusing another. The one who was amused spoke back to her, but she did not understand what he said. She was haunted by the possibility that she had missed her chance for happiness. But she had not missed her chance, she told herself, for her chance would not let her get away so easily. Each morning she was fortified by hope: the future loomed.

  My stars, girl, said Caroline Middey, pulling a straight pin from between her lips. She knelt beside Angelene, who stood on a stool before the full-length mirror in Caroline Middey’s guest bedroom, wearing a gingham dress that Caroline Middey was letting down the hem for.

  You’ve grown two inches, at least, said Caroline Middey.

  Angelene said nothing, but when Caroline Middey bent down to work again, Angelene put her shoulders back. Lifted her chin. Gave herself a steely—and by this she meant to be womanly—look. And then saw (but could not be sure): the suggestion of breasts beneath the fabric across her chest.

  And then the peaches were done, and Maggie P. was going to pick berries farther south. Did Della want to join her? It was good money, and she would show her just how to do it, there was no better teacher, really—

  But Della was going west, to the coast, to the canning factory, as she had planned. Maggie P. kept a straight face upon hearing this news, although she could hardly believe it. Why would any person choose to work in a canning factory if they could pick berries in northern California?

  Well, which one are you working at? Which canning factory?

  Della said she didn’t know, she would find a place when she got there. She didn’t ask why Maggie P. wanted to know, but Maggie P. said: I’m going to write to you.

  But you don’t know where I’m staying, said Della.

  I’m not stupid! Maggie P. burst out, and walked away quickly.

  It was a common occurrence that whoever met Maggie P. and came up against her immense friendliness thought she was immune to hurt feelings. But she wasn’t. She wished people would understand that. It wasn’t very nice, really, how most people treated her.

  The first railroad, the Great Northern, came to central Washington in 1893, seven years before Angelene was born. Thousands of men had worked to bore tunnels into the sides of
mountains for the trains to pass through, connecting those people and products east of the mountains to those west of them. There was a party in Cashmere when the track was laid. The station was erected soon after, and the first train of passengers rode to Seattle free of charge.

  Locomotive travel gave an air of authority and sophistication to the town, at least for a little while. People, even if they couldn’t afford a ticket to Seattle, could at least dream about it. If they had enough money, they could step up onto the train—Watch your step, ma’am, let me help you there—and travel wherever they liked. And most people did, at one time or another. And then, like all wonderful things—or most of them, anyway—the novelty wore off, and the train—hearing it, seeing it—became normal.

  The train also was a boon to the fruit industry. Orchardists and farmers were able now to sell fruit to distributors, who sold the fruit abroad for a greater profit. This was the time the orchardists, some of them, began to think about large-scale fruit distribution, and to bolster these plans, irrigation. Water from the Peshastin Ditch, first begun in 1889, reached the orchard slopes above Cashmere in 1901. In 1902, a box factory opened in Brender Canyon. Three years later, the newly platted town of Cashmere—before, it had been called Old Mission, for the Catholic missionaries who had first settled there to preach to the natives—shipped 135 carloads of fruit down the river to Wenatchee.

  The early part of the century was a time of busyness, and pride. “Wenatchee, Washington,” the box labels read. “Apple capital of the world.”

  when Della entered a lumber camp and applied for employment, the man said that they did not hire females. But she persisted—she hung around the camp and watched the men, the small tasks they busied themselves with in the off hours, the men unsuccessfully shaking her off—and the lumber boss said that if she wanted, if she absolutely insisted on staying and hanging around, she could have a job in the mess hall, helping with the cooking. She refused this offer, and continued to observe the men, stalking their work. She began to imitate them at chores with which she was unfamiliar—the sharpening of blades, the greasing of ropes and pulleys—and also, as a matter of course, and because she was able, she began to take care of the horses.

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