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The orchardist, p.19
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       The Orchardist, p.19

           Amanda Coplin

  The times they—the girls—braced themselves for were the times he had a fire in his blood—when he did not sleep, and paced the house, rushed outdoors as if wild dogs were at his heels. This was a time of his projects and plans, great domestic festivals where the parties of men flooded in, and the girls dressed in their costumes, and there was music and alcohol and dancing. And when the property was not enough to contain him, Michaelson left with a few of his men and they were gone for two, three days, sometimes longer. Most often they were on a quest: to find a girl who had escaped. It did not matter when she had fled: sometimes Michaelson’s blood called for him to search for—to turn the countryside upside down for—a girl who had disappeared five years before. There was a girl left in charge when the men went off. Her name was Ellie; she was also the cook, and the keeper of the infirmary. She was not usually mean, but whipped a girl raw once for trying to escape while Michaelson was away. Ellie was fifteen, but to Della she seemed middle-aged.

  Michaelson did not ever think Della was special—he never regarded her singularly or treated her any different from the other girls—but Jane was one of his favorites. What does he do? Della wanted to know, when he took Jane privately to his room. He wants me to talk to him, said Jane. That’s all. What do you tell him? Della asked. Jane shrugged. I tell him stuff, she said. I make stuff up. Della thought this was funny, and then worried. What if Michaelson found out she was lying? But overall it seemed all right: if Michaelson was keeping her for himself and just wanted her to talk, then that meant she was kept from the other men who would be unsatisfied by just talk. And so Della decided to be grateful for Michaelson’s attention.

  But then she saw, as Jane undressed one day—she caught a glimpse of—a series of perfect raised circular welts on the inside of Jane’s thigh. They were angry, deep purple, puffy. What’s that? said Della, though her heart had already begun to pound with knowledge of what they were: she had seen similar marks on other girls. Cigar burns. And then Della could not believe it: Jane lied to her. Bug bites, said Jane, and her eyes obtained a kind of cast. They’re not bug bites, said Della. They’re burns. From his cigar. But Jane would not answer her, and Della’s heart pounded harder.

  What did you do tonight? Della asked her, and Jane would say: I sang him a song. Or: I read him a story. She had a burn—blatant—on the back of her hand, on her neck. Her hair was falling out.

  And then one day walking down the hallway Della passed by a bedroom where the door was closing, and saw Michaelson, his bare back to her, lying naked on a bed, and Jane, just sitting down behind him, and folding her body—also naked—around his. A shirtless man was closing the door.

  Where did Della go after this? Not to the room where she was assigned—and she would be punished for this later—but outdoors, to the barn, where in her rage, she gnawed on saddles hanging on the wall, she ate hay and pulled her own hair, weeping until she was sick.

  She hated Michaelson. And what was it to hate? It was not to wish him dead, though she wouldn’t have minded that. It was to wish he had never been born. And for similar reasons she also hated Jane, and herself.

  She hated the world.

  When Michaelson came into the orchard, and Jane had seen him—she and Della and the baby in the basket had stopped in the middle of the field before they knew anything was wrong—Jane told her to go back into the canyon and place the baby in the creek, at a place she had shown Della earlier. Della had never thought it would come to this. Do it, said Jane, not taking her eyes from the man standing before the apricot orchard, waving at her. Michaelson. We will meet in heaven, said Jane, her voice flat. It will be all right. She told Della to do the thing and then meet her near the bend in the path, near the cache of tools.

  Della retreated into the canyon and went to the place where they had talked about: where the water was deep enough to drown the infant. She stood creekside, holding the basket with the baby in it, but finally could not do it. She took the child to the upper cabin. Lifted it from the basket. Behind the cabin, in a basin before the hill, she placed the child. Covered it with sticks, but not so many that it would not be able to breathe. The baby cried, and Della shushed it. He’ll find you, she said. Be quiet. On the way down the hill, she threw the empty basket into the air; it caught in the low branches of an evergreen.

  Jane was already sitting on the limb of the oak when Della reached the spot. What are you doing? said Della, although they had already discussed it. But again, Della thought it would never come to this, or that Jane would not go through with it. She didn’t know why she would doubt Jane, who made plans and carried them out always to the fullest degree. Jane had said that if Michaelson ever came to get them, she would kill herself. Della had preferred to think it was an expression only, an exaggeration. We can run away, Della had said, feebly; but Jane did not want to run away. He will find us, she said. I don’t want to go back there, ever. She said, not that day but before, in the darkness of the room in the cabin in which they slept: We are cursed for this life. It had the sound of repetition: someone had told it to her, and she was echoing it.

  From what she said about their own mother, Della knew Jane held beliefs about another life: about heaven. The details were unclear. But at a certain point Jane was willing to seek entrance to this other life if it meant a swift departure from the one she was in.

  Did you— Jane asked, but could not meet Della’s eyes. She wanted to know if Della had drowned the infant. She held the rope—the noose—in her hands. Fit it over her neck, then took it off. Adjusted it, put it back over her head. Awkward. Della, who had climbed the tree with the help of the nail system they had devised earlier—there was a series of nails pounded into the back of the trunk—sat beside her now on the branch, sweating and still, gripping her own noose.

  Della was going to tell her that she had spared the infant.

  There was movement at the canyon mouth. The men were coming.

  Like we said, said Jane. Do it now. Della.


  But Jane fell from the branch before Della could answer her.

  She stole a horse in a neighboring town—it was easy enough, outside a tavern at night—and discovered the next morning, having ridden the better part of the night, a venison sandwich in the saddlebags and, sewn into a handkerchief and stuffed into a hidden pocket, bills of money.

  In Chelan she left the horse tied outside the general store, where somebody was sure to notice it that day or the next. She would not return to it. Bought new clothes at the feed and supply store, a new hat. Went to the barber’s for a haircut. Though they had shorn her at the hospital, her hair had grown considerably since then, fell almost to her shoulders.

  Cut it all off, she told the barber, who regarded her at a loss.

  She sat in the café across from the courthouse and contemplated a course of action. Should she go into the courthouse and ask to see him? But even if they let her in to see him, what would she say?

  After she left the café, she toured the outside of the courthouse. As if she was looking for something. Around the back side there was a large fenced yard—for the prisoners, no doubt—and then beyond that, beyond a stretch of poor, bare field, forest. Foothills rising in the distance.

  She came upon a group of boys, in knee-pants and flat caps, all of them, their backs to her, and as she watched, one of them lobbed some object—it was a brown soda bottle—over the high fence.

  When they noticed her observing them, some flinched, until they saw she wasn’t going to go after them. One boy turned to her and said, Sometimes one of them (by his gesture she understood he was referring to the prisoners) gets a bottle, and they get into a fight. They use the bottle, they make it into a—knife. The boy grinned. It happened once. His brother saw it—he gestured to another boy.

  When nothing happened—there weren’t even any prisoners in the yard—the boys dispersed.

  But she stayed and
studied the perimeter of the yard, the fence, for a long time. Before she left, she scanned the ground and tossed whatever she could find—rocks, sticks, other solid refuse—over the fence. And then left at once, not looking back over her shoulder.

  Almost since the beginning—or for as long as she could remember, in the life she had lived with Jane—Della had moved according to Jane’s direction. Jane was the orchestrator, Della the follower. (Before this time was the time with their mother, and Della knew it should have been black—their mother was ill, and unhappy—but to Della this time was one great brightness.) But after Jane died, Della learned to get by on her own. Mostly her movement was dictated by her will to survive: walk this way; sleep here; eat this, but not that. Watch out for this person or animal; that person or animal is harmless. Today you do not need money; today you must earn money to buy food, because you are starving.

  Now, after seeing Michaelson on the road, something inside her—something that had been dormant—woke. Propelled her. She stole a horse, rode to Chelan, drew to the jail, all according to some instinct. She was preparing to do something, but she did not know what it was. She saw its edges, but the thing had yet to reveal itself to her. She had thought she was going to the jail to speak to him, and that was all. But when she saw the boys lobbing objects over the fence, she knew what she was going to do; it was as if a door had been opened, briefly, and she could see what was possible.

  The next day she entered the courthouse. Entered an office with a tall ceiling, and a long counter, behind which a young man worked. He looked up at her, all solicitous attention.

  May I help you?

  She seemed to think for a moment, really consider what she was going to say before she said it. Her coat was folded over her arm; she held her hat in her hand.

  I was wanting to speak to somebody. I killed a man last fall, and come to turn myself in—

  When it was circulated among the men who frequented the orchard that the girl in Coeur d’Alene had not been Della—and that Talmadge had traveled there, and been disappointed—one of the men approached Talmadge in the spring and told him that the year before last, in the summer, they had seen Della picking cherries in the Yakima Valley. She might go there again, said the man; they would watch for her in the coming harvest.

  The Yakima Valley was not too far away, thought Talmadge. Maybe she would return for the work—not to pick cherries, it was too early for that, but maybe she would return to help groom the trees after winter—and come up and see them. But when she did not come, he thought that he would go down and look for her. He would take the mule and search for her in the place where the man had last seen her. Richardson Farms: that was the name of the place. Talmadge wondered where she had learned to pick cherries, and if she liked it. But then he thought: And what if she was not glad to see him? It might embarrass her, even. I thought it was all right for you to go, before, he would tell her, but now I’ve changed my mind. That was as far into the conversation he got with her, in his mind, before he faltered. He did not know what he would say next.

  He talked to Caroline Middey about it. Should he take the mule down there and find her? As usual, she expressed no surprise when he asked her. As if people asked her these sorts of questions every day of her life: serious questions, silly questions. And he supposed that was true, that her life was made up of such questions. What people must ask her, in their most vulnerable states.

  She was snapping beans on her porch when he asked her this. Seemed to mull it over.

  Might as well just stay put, she said finally. If she wants to come see you, she will.

  I know, he said.

  Well, if you knew it, you wouldn’t have asked me. So why’d you ask?

  He didn’t answer.

  You think she’s going to see you and all at once take back her orneriness? You think she’s going to see you and remember her responsibility to that child?

  I thought she was dead, he said.

  Now it was her turn to be silent.

  I know, she said. I know what you felt. But running after her isn’t going to make it better. She knows where you live. She’s got to sow her oats, or whatever they say. Seeing you’s just going to complicate things.

  But in the end he disregarded what she said, and took the mule to Yakima. It was two years now since she was last seen, picking cherries, and when he got to the farm the trees were busy with workers. The owner hadn’t heard of a woman named Della Michaelson, nor seen anyone matching that description. There were a lot of bodies who passed through, he said apologetically. He let Talmadge walk the rows, however, by himself, for as long as wanted, and in the evening invited him to eat supper with his family.

  The following afternoon Talmadge, Caroline Middey, and Angelene sat inside Caroline Middey’s house, at the table. They had just finished eating supper, and Caroline Middey had cleared the table. They sat with a bowl of walnuts that Talmadge had brought from Richardson Farms between them, depositing the shells in a paper bag.

  Where did you get these? said Angelene suddenly.

  From town, said Talmadge, before he knew what he was saying, and cracked another walnut. Turned his eyes to the corner of the room.

  Angelene, too, looked into the corner of the room, wondering why he was acting so strange.

  Caroline Middey stood and asked if they would like any coffee, she was going to make some.

  Caroline Middey reflected the next day, after Talmadge and Angelene had gone, about how it took everything within Talmadge not to pack up the wagon and go search for Della in earnest. He would have let the orchard go, he would have told the men who passed through that they could work the trees if they wanted, but it would be in vain, for he would not be there to organize and sell the fruit. He would be scouring the countryside, searching for the last place Della worked, the last place she was seen. And when he found her? Maybe he would try to persuade her to come back. And if she didn’t, if she wasn’t interested in that, then maybe he would continue to follow her, getting work where she was working, to always be there, watching and making sure she came to no trouble.

  Of course Caroline Middey had no proof he would have gone to these extremes. He most likely would have given in to more of his whims of tracking her if Angelene hadn’t been there living with him. With Angelene there, growing up, watchful, inquisitive, he knew he must remain in the orchard. She was his anchor in the orchard, physically at least.

  And there was also the influence of herself, Caroline Middey, to take into account. She told him—almost always when she was asked—when he was acting a fool, and overlooking something more important that was at his feet. Pay attention, she liked to say. You wish she was here? Well, she isn’t. She has to come of her own account. Another thing she said often: She knows where you live.

  But there was only so much he could take, so many times that he did not go look for her. Even though Caroline Middey told him he was doing the right thing, and there was Angelene, the physical proof of her in the orchard, her working and healthy body, her beauty and intelligence—even though that was in front of him, he always kept a part of himself separate, a space for Della to come and fill. Not only a few times, but every time he did not give in to his urge to go look for her, he resented the moment that came in its place. Even if the moment was beautiful and was something he valued, and made him who he was. He could not help but also long for that other life in which he lived with Della, even if she abused him.


  The legal counsel of Cashmere was a man they called the Judge, though he was not in fact a judge. His name was Emil Marsden, and it was his father who had once been a judge. The father had come from the East with his wife and two children, who were babies at the time, and built a mansion on the outskirts of town. When he was a young man, Emil returned to the East to study law, like his father. When he learned that his father was ill, he traveled back to
Cashmere to live in the house with his sister, Meredith, and father until his father died. (His mother had died a decade before, of a bad heart.) The father’s illness was protracted, and by the time he died, Emil had already begun to assist the townspeople with their various legal problems, which mostly had to do with the land. He had not yet attained his degree, but this mattered little to the townspeople. He left again for university, returned two years later, having finished what he needed to, and set up a practice. The townspeople accepted him as if he had never left.

  He was impressive-looking—tall, dark-haired, with a great bristling mustache—and also soft-spoken, not given to speeches; for this reason Talmadge did not dislike him, was willing to seek out his assistance.

  Talmadge and the Judge had been acquainted since the Judge was a boy, when Talmadge sought his father’s advice about the occasional land dispute. To call it a dispute was an exaggeration. Talmadge had questions about the land, about the exact perimeter of his property. Once in a while—twice a decade, maybe—a man came around who was interested in knowing just how far Talmadge’s claim reached. It was a railroad man, or a surveyor marking new plots. You own this land right here, they said, with your orchards and such, but how far into the woods there? How far up the ridge? Talmadge was unsure of the exact perimeter, since storms and the passage of time destroyed the old markers such as trees and basins, and certain fields shrank or grew haphazardly—and these men were interested in exact measurements, not satisfied with approximations. Talmadge was annoyed with these men, but when they persisted he was forced to go to town and consult the Judge: at first Emil’s father, and then, after a time, Emil. The old claim would be pulled from its folder, the boundary markers—or what constituted boundary markers—reviewed, and Talmadge would carry the information back to the orchard, holding the terms carefully in his head, so that if the men were to come back the next day and question him—and they most always came back—he could verify what was legally his land.

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