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The orchardist, p.18
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       The Orchardist, p.18

           Amanda Coplin

  Late fall the wrangler came into the orchard alone, without the horses, at a time when he otherwise would not have been there, and told Talmadge he had received word: a young woman who was reported to be Della had been injured in a horse stampede in Idaho. He himself hadn’t seen the girl, said the wrangler, but there were reports that it was her. Clee had already gone ahead to the place where the girl was convalescing, in a small hospital outside Coeur d’Alene.

  Talmadge made arrangements immediately. Angelene would stay with Caroline Middey. No, said Angelene, I want to go with you. He didn’t argue with her, was too distracted. All right, he said.

  Angelene didn’t know why, exactly, she wanted to go. She did not want to see the woman she barely remembered mangled in some country hospital. But she had seen Talmadge’s face when the wrangler gave him this news, and knew she had to go with him. To comfort him, if necessary; to protect him.

  They traveled by train to Spokane, and took horses from there. The wrangler went with them. When they arrived at the hospital, the wrangler and Angelene waited in the lobby while Talmadge went in to see the woman. He came out less than a minute later, his face ashen.

  It’s not her, he said.

  After the lumber camp Della avoided entering towns and lived in the forest. For a time she was not ill, but in her right mind. When she finally entered a town for supplies, nobody looked at her twice—or if they did, it was for other reasons—and nobody pursued her. When she ran out of money, it did not matter so much; she found what she needed in the woods.

  Trouble in the form of winter was approaching. But still she did not seek the respite of towns. The forest would absorb her, she thought, it would keep her until the future showed itself.

  Clee had known before coming to Coeur d’Alene that the girl in question was not Della, because he had seen her—Della—several weeks before, coming out of the forest north of Sultan Creek on the western slopes of the Cascades. He and a small band of men led some horses—what had not sold at a winter auction in Seattle—through the depressed and mostly empty mining town. He had looked over his shoulder once at the road dappled with snow, and saw a figure beyond the horses, fading into the trees twenty yards away. He blinked, and she was gone. But some instinct told him it was her. Had it been her? It could have been anybody, he told himself. And this creature was hatless, and short-haired. Had he imagined the pallor? Her hunched posture?

  He was imagining things, he thought. It was some guilt—though he did not believe he was guilty—coming to visit him.

  He had left the men, however, and gone into the forest to track the creature. He thought he would find nothing.

  But there she was—and it was her—just letting an armload of kindling fall to the ground. He got off his horse and walked, leading the animal, toward her.

  But it was as if he was invisible; she did not acknowledge him, after an initial glance. She crouched down, began to prepare a fire. She could not light the tinder, and so he came forward and offered her a matchbook from his vest pocket. She took it from him, wordlessly.

  Her hair was short, as if it had been cropped carelessly with shears, and there were sores and scabs on her face and neck. Her eyes were depthless. She was in the throes of some sickness, he thought.

  It was early November, and cold. The first snow had fallen a week before, was ankle-deep on the ground.

  She wore boots, strips of fabric tied around the soles.

  He took off his jacket and put it around her shoulders. She accepted it, pulling it tighter around her, huddling closer to the fire. He hung back and watched her. The sun was beginning to set. He considered taking her arm—or even gathering her whole body up, quickly—and carrying her back to his camp. But he knew suddenly—of course—he could not put his hands on her.

  But neither could he leave her. He stayed until darkness fell.

  She slept, and he returned to town for food. At a tavern he bought hot sandwiches, and brought them back to the space in the forest. At the odor of the food she rose to eat—and then immediately fell asleep again.

  He went to his horse and unstrapped a blanket, put it over her. Covered himself in a saddle blanket and sat at the base of a tree, near the girl, settled against the trunk.

  He slept.

  In the morning she was gone. She had kicked dirt on the fire. His coat lay in a pile near his feet.

  When he heard the rumors about the girl in Idaho, he thought: It could be her. She had seemed witless when he saw her in the forest, but he wanted to believe she could have gotten a job, despite this, working again with the horses. But when he saw the girl in the hospital bed—a large, strapping red-haired girl—he was not surprised.

  He would not tell Talmadge about seeing Della in the woods.

  Salt in the wound, he thought.

  Della headed east, over the mountains.

  She did not realize, in her growing disorientation, that in moving east she was walking toward her past. Was returning to it, unconsciously. Like a dog to its vomit.

  There was a man she had traveled with briefly before she found work at the lumber camp. She had met him at the canning factory; he had a job swabbing the floors. He was very tall and lean and had a long face, hazel eyes—one eye was glass, slightly larger and greener, rounder, than the other—and a perpetual thin, hand-rolled cigarette hanging off his lip. He did not try to talk to her at first, but she saw him in the morning when she was getting off her shift and he was coming in. The long, slow movements of him pushing the mop across the floor.

  The first conversation they had was about the sickening odor of fish guts. Gets in everything, he said. Your hair, your clothes. Sometimes I think I smell like it. He sniffed his arm.

  Getting out of here, he said one day. She wasn’t even sure he was speaking to her; but they were the only ones in the cloakroom at the time. She nodded. Then, out of simple curiosity, she asked: Where are you going? North, he said. Maybe to Seattle. Inland, anyway.

  It was enough for her. She was tired of working at the factory. She knew that once she left she would never see the place again.

  Her instinct proved sound: the man was harmless. She would not travel with him far, but for some reason she did not find it repugnant to ride with him—he drove a mule and wagon with his few belongings inside, and she rode a horse—for a little ways.

  One night they sat fireside and he told her of his travels in Oklahoma and Texas, of the people and animals he had encountered there. He had not worked with horses but had cared for them, and mostly done cooking for various ranching establishments. He told her about weevils, and sandstorms, and scorpions. Had she ever seen a scorpion? The most satisfying thing he had ever done was to kill a scorpion with a piece of pewter—just stabbed its belly while it slept. I’m not one for killing, he said. But I didn’t feel bad killing that scorpion.

  That night she dreamed that Michaelson’s throat had been cut. He was on his knees; and he wore a necklace of blood. When he upturned his head—to take in some awful visage in the trees, or perhaps gape at the star-filled sky that surrounded him—his head, nearly decapitated, fell too far back, and his neck was a blood-rich stump. In the dream she was moved, awed. Terrified.

  It was November, and there was much work to be done. Angelene helped Talmadge in the apple orchard, and in the evenings studied at the kitchen table while he dozed in the chair in the corner. He seemed more tired than usual, she thought.

  Della dreamed of cold, of snow. And then realized she was awake.

  She wasn’t hungry anymore. When one accepted the cold, one didn’t mind it. Was warm, even.

  At times she was walking, and other times she was on her back, staring at the sun, which seemed very close and muted in the overcast, viridescent sky.

  It seemed there was laughter everywhere. And then she heard crying—terrible, terrible crying—and was afraid.

  Coffee? sa
id Angelene, and rose from the table.

  They had eaten Christmas dinner: rabbit dressed in chestnut butter and sage; collard greens and Brussels sprouts; mashed squash with raisins; onion bread. Apples stewed in brandy. Plum cake.

  I couldn’t eat another morsel, said Caroline Middey. But they would all have coffee, despite the hour. It didn’t affect them like other people.

  Talmadge, in his chair in the corner, was asleep by the time Angelene had prepared the coffee. Caroline Middey glanced at him, smirked. She sat at the table and beckoned to the girl, who also sat. The coffee steaming before them. Caroline Middey was opening a package—a cross-stitching packet—that she had bought for the girl, but feared might be too advanced. They looked over the materials. Caroline Middey spread the instructions on the table, flattened them with her palms. Cleared her throat. Several minutes passed in silence.

  Oh, this doesn’t look so bad, said Caroline Middey.

  Della woke startled, lethargic, and hot, in a narrow high-backed bed, her feet near a deep fireplace roaring with flame. She sweated, and when she tried to sit up, her head ached. She eased back again onto a multitude of pillows.

  Look who’s up, said a woman—a nun, Della saw, by her modest wimple—who pulled up a stool beside her and sat down and took Della’s hand, not to hold it, as Della thought, baffled and embarrassed, at first, but to feel her pulse. The nun, after smiling briefly, looked into the middle distance of the room, trying to determine the strength of blood in Della.

  You’ll live, she said finally, and replaced Della’s arm back onto the covers. Patted her hand, and rose. The woman’s touch rang on Della’s flesh afterward, like the reverberation of a bell.

  She lay in the high-backed bed while storms raged and winter spent itself. The cabin was an outpost that functioned also as a hospital—situated high on the pass, meant to cater to cases such as hers: people who had tried to cross the mountains but failed, mostly due to inclement weather.

  There were two others who convalesced in the room with her—a hunter who had broken his leg, and a young woman who had tried to cross the pass to reach her husband, who was in Seattle, but got caught in a snowstorm. The woman, who had been pregnant, had spent two days in the snow before the nuns had found her. She had miscarried.

  Twins, confided the nun.

  They stayed together in a close room, and the nuns slept on either end of it. The walls were made out of a dark wood. The fire roared constantly. The nuns—there were three—fed it as if it was an animal without which they would all perish. And in a sense it was.

  They fed the invalids dark broth.

  Della knew it would be fruitless to try to leave the place: the windows were white with storm, and besides that, she was not strong enough yet to survive by herself. She drank the broth, she let the nuns prod her and bathe her, she listened to the hunter snoring and the young mother weeping silently in the darkness.

  Della would have to wait out this time, she knew, like all the others. The thing was to not fight against it, but let it pass over her; patience was the hardest thing to learn. Eventually, she slept.

  She heard the quiet noises of the nuns praying before dawn: voices different from the ones they used with her and the hunter and the mother. Who were they talking to? God, she remembered. And then slept again.

  In February she left the hospital, joined a group of mountaineer-salesmen who had stopped at the hospital to deliver supplies. Their route took them north and then east, they told her, over the North Cascade Pass to the mining town of Mazama, west of the Okanogan. Della was welcome to join them if she wished.

  She rode with them into the pass. The cold and bitter weather, the merciless days of snow and rain, almost made her regret leaving the hospital. But in the end she was satisfied; she had had to leave that place, that roaring fire, the praying voices of the nuns. She had to fling herself into the openness again, so she could think properly.

  At times she and the mountaineers—there were three besides herself—had to pull the mules over the rocks, cajole them, force them up steep boulder-rich valleys. At first these episodes quickly exhausted her, and she feared becoming ill again; but then her strength eventually returned. There was one bad snowstorm during which they could not drive and remained in the covered wagon, drinking condensed milk out of tins, eating corned beef and crackers. But after that—days after that—they reached the high point of the pass, and began to descend into the lower elevations. The temperature rose, and their collective spirit with it. They were on the opposite side of the mountains now; the hardest of the traveling was behind them.

  She left the mountaineers at Mazama and rode with others—miners—down to Winthrop. The rains terrible; mud perpetually to her ankles.

  Is it always like this? she asked one man.

  He laughed at her.

  It was too wet to camp in the woods, and so in exchange for doing chores, she slept in the barn loft of a woman whose husband worked up-mountain.

  And then the weather warmed, and she was off again.

  It was early spring, but before the snow had melted—she was south of Twisp, but still in the Methow Valley—when, coming out of a store in a small, ramshackle, barely there town, she saw Michaelson walking down the street.

  He did not see her. She moved down off the platform, into an alleyway between buildings, and looked out. He was handcuffed, and the men he walked with—two in front, one in back—looked like the law, or bounty hunters. One walked with smug superiority, while the other two were modest, slightly embarrassed, even.

  She stared at Michaelson. He was familiar to her, and yet altered. She could tell after watching him for a minute that he was in a calm state. He appeared as if he had been in hiding: his skin was yellowish, and his face was grizzled with salt-and-pepper stubble. She remembered his passion for being clean-shaven. (Once, during an excitable phase, he had shaved all the hair from his body; some of the girls had helped him.) As he walked now he squinted and pressed his side with both hands, as if he had a cramp. And then he dropped his hands, grimaced, kept on.

  She followed them at a distance. After a few blocks he and the men entered another building—most likely the police headquarters, or a law building. She stepped up onto the platform half a block away and pretended to look at a window display.

  Good riddance to old rubbish, said an old man with frog eyes, who sat in a rocker at the end of the platform, and spat. He’s been polluting this county for too long, said the man. It’s about time the law sat up and paid attention—

  What’s he done? said Della.

  The man laughed shortly. What hasn’t he done, is more like it—

  Della said, after a minute, feigning a lack of interest: What’s going to happen to him?

  The man removed a tin of snuff from his breast pocket. Sending him to Chelan, last I heard. Hope it’s the prison from there—

  Over the next three days she entered the town. Told herself she was there to run errands, but really she was listening for news. The frog-eyed man delivered the gossip: they were going to send Michaelson to Chelan on the Friday train.

  Chelan on the Friday train.

  She went fishing, though it was too early in the season to do so; too cold. But she had to do something: she was hungry, and also needed to distract herself.

  Her wool gloves with the fingertips cut off were rotten, her fingertips bloated and hard. She baited the hook, stabbing the grub in the belly. Chelan on the Friday train. She had been contemplating going south, finding work again in the trees. Maybe heading to the coast after that. And then remembered the nauseating odor of the cannery.

  Remembering the lumber camp, what had happened there, she became hollow with dread; stopped what she was doing and simply stood. Stared ahead of her, at the snow-patched opposite bank.

  She cast the line, and at the cold kerplunk of the bait in the water, her vision narrowed
, and all she could see was the dancing water. The light on the water.

  Chelan on the Friday train.

  She walked into the ice-rimed pond up to her calves—her boots would be ruined—the water numbing her feet, her flesh, her blood. She was panting. But soon she calmed.

  She would need a horse to ride to Chelan on.

  No! she thought, slogging out of the water. Why would she ever go see him?

  Later, walking through the forest, she thought: Maybe.

  The next morning she changed her mind: she would not go to Chelan. It was foolish: it did not make sense.

  And yet she could not forget him. That strange expression of pain as he walked down the road. If she were to step out and intercept him, would he remember her? What would she say to him? He to her? And how would she respond to him?

  She lay on a bedroll in the dark and should have been too cold to think, but in half consciousness she gathered to herself the myriad things she had ever felt for him. Fear—but that was to be expected. He was in charge: and like God, who they sometimes heard about, his reasons for doing what he did were often inscrutable. When Jane and Della first arrived at the camp, they heard stories from the other girls: that at times all Michaelson wanted to do was sleep; to eat special meals prepared for him and lie still in a chair on the front lawn, the sun on his limbs; or stand in the creek a half mile away, sometimes for hours, thinking his thoughts. Or he spent the days in bed alone. He had favorite girls, and sometimes during these calm states he would ask for them. They would be prepared and delivered to him. In his room the favorite girl slept with him, or sang songs, read out of books, if she was able to, or loved him. But most often, when he was like this, he did not want to love, he simply wanted the presence of another person in the room. There were rumors: he made one girl prick another in the center of her palm with a needle; he made a girl burn another on the inside of her elbow with a cigar. But mostly the girl—whichever one he chose—sat beside him on the bed and touched his head, and remained with him while he slept.

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