The Orchardist, p.2Amanda Coplin
There was no exact moment Talmadge could recall when he and Elsbeth became friends with Clee; but when the men came into the field with the horses, Talmadge and Elsbeth sought Clee out, and in the privacy of the outer forest, or in the canyon, they would show him treasures they had acquired—rocks, candy, bits of animal hide—and also show him places, nooks and crannies, weird sunbathed basins of grass deep within a bramble hedge, they had discovered. And likewise Clee showed them objects he had accumulated that year from auctions—small toys and carvings, folded illustrations, carnival and sideshow posters, even swatches of fabric—velvet, satin, chamois—they rubbed between their fingers, against their lips and cheeks. It did not seem to matter, then, that Clee could not—or did not—speak. There was no deficit in their relationship, no lack.
Talmadge and Elsbeth’s mother died of a respiratory disease in the spring of 1860. Two years later they harvested two acres of apples and one acre of apricots, and with the money they earned from selling the fruit they razed the miner’s shack and built a two-room cabin. He was fifteen years old, and Elsbeth was fourteen. The next spring they planted three plum trees around the side of the cabin, and the first apple trees inside the canyon mouth.
In the fall of 1864 Talmadge contracted smallpox and nearly died. The sickness left him badly scarred on his face, chest, and arms, and partially deaf in his right ear. In the spring of the next year the canyon flooded, and they lost many apple trees. That summer, in 1865, Elsbeth went into the forest beyond the field to collect herbs and did not return. He enlisted the help of the miners at the Peshastin camp, and when they did not find her, he asked the men who came through with the horses if they would help him search. Clee found her bonnet, and another, her picking basket. That was all they ever found.
Elsbeth Colleen Talmadge. She had black hair like him, like their mother, and a large bulbous nose. That nose will be the end of her, murmured his mother’s sisters. A deformity (but it was not that, only an exaggerated feature) one wore inside one’s clothes was one thing, but on a face—they pitied her. Talmadge’s mother did not comment; she did not talk about such things as a girl’s looks, because she did not think they were important. Her daughter was simple, but sturdy-bodied, large-footed. She would do well on a homestead. She had Talmadge, also, to guide and help her. It was Talmadge who was the brains of any operation the two of them—he and Elsbeth—undertook. Always thinking, always planning. A new way to plant, to harvest. Ideas for irrigation. Even at that age. This is what we will do, he would announce, quietly, seriously. What do you think? He always included her: every project he engineered that succeeded, he credited her as well, naturally. Once or twice, very rarely, she had her own opinion about how to do things—or a variation of his own idea—and if it was a poor idea, he corrected it, silently, in the doing. But she was not stupid—brain-addled—no matter what people said. He loved her, he loved her deliberation and her decisiveness in certain small domestic activities, her gentleness with animals; her heavy, serious inwardness. She was able to cross-stitch elaborate scenes without the aid of a model or picture—scenes that bewildered him, and her too, if he asked her about them. Where did such images come from? Groves, large lakes, lions, angels. And yet it was true she had trouble, at times, constructing sentences to speak into the air, the air that seemed to get thinner when she was speaking to someone who was not Talmadge or their mother, on the verge of tears. He protected her, he placed himself between her and the world. She did not have to go to town and interact with the people; he would do that, though he was shy, too.
And though she trusted him—had always seemed to trust him—and did not seem to begrudge him, or withdraw from him, she must have had aspirations that she did not tell him about, that she kept to herself. He remembered one day, as she entered a room, he suddenly seemed to recognize her—her physical being came into stark relief for him—but he did not know why. And then he realized: it was because she wore a new frock. It was not a new dress, but an apron. Sky blue and not like the other gray one she usually wore. What’s that? he said. Where did you get that? This was after their mother died, when, very rarely, his tone became careless. She touched the cloth but did not look down at it. I made it, she said. I got the fabric from—but he did not remember where now. He said, because he was suddenly angry, You can’t be spending money on things we haven’t discussed. We’re supposed to be saving up for—but again he could not recall what he had said. Some project or another. The whole time she did not move her head. Her eyes—an opaque light blue, the same color as his—did not alter, but her mouth hardened. A barely perceptible change. The fingers of her left hand hanging at her side twitched—a reflex, maybe, of the hurt or anger that did not show on her face. And all at once he was no longer angry. Moments passed in silence. When he was angry it was not serious, and it came out in little sideways bursts like this. He was quickly ashamed afterward. Now he said quietly, not looking at her: Your frock is nice. And: I can see you did a nice job with the—but he had no vocabulary for what she had done—the tailoring—and so gestured generally instead. She responded a moment later with a slight nod of her head. And then they broke out of the scene and continued as if it had never happened.
He came around always to that frock, as if the key to her disappearance lay there. Why that frock? It was new, the material—the color—was strange, even fetching. It was not like the clothes she usually wore. Later he would think of it as a traveling outfit—a start to a traveling outfit. She was preparing already to go—
Or perhaps it was on sale, in the bin with other cheap scraps at the general store, and she had bought it impulsively—not out of any vanity, or with any motivation attached to it, but because it was a bargain. That was something that she would do, he could imagine her doing something like that.
But, finally, what the apron meant—if it meant anything at all—he would never know.
The night after Clee came out of the forest with a piece of fabric—Elsbeth’s bonnet—clutched in his fist, he and Talmadge sat together on the darkened porch, and Clee wanted, though he was unable to do so, to communicate to Talmadge the events of his life. About how he was related to many of the men by blood, but did not have any immediate family. His father and two of his brothers had died in wars in the 1850s. His own mother had taken care of the remaining siblings—and how many of them were there? how many brothers and sisters had he had, once?—and even though the others told him that he was too young to remember his mother or what had happened to her, he remembered: the tepee walls shuddering as if from a great wind, his mother, who squatted across from him—she was attempting to light a fire—ceasing her movements, gazing at him, her eyes wide, listening. And then the animal skins ruptured and Clee could see the sky beyond the man’s head, and a hairy arm grabbed Clee’s mother around her waist. Clee’s mother was sucked out of the tepee, into the sky. She disappeared all at once, in the blink of an eye. And although this was one act of violence among many in their village that day, dozens killed, and tepees and storehouses set afire, he remembered a kind of peace afterward: just the sky and the animal skins flapping.
He had made sounds, the others said, when he was a baby. But after the raid he was speechless. His voice had been carried away; it had pledged allegiance to his mother, or to some other element of that day; and without those elements restored to that place, his voice also remained outside it, outside himself.
After the main village was destroyed, his other brothers—the ones who had remained after the others had left—simply disappeared forever. He did not even know how many sisters he had had. When he found Elsbeth’s bonnet, his own family had been gone for over half his life.
The other men thought Elsbeth had run away, or the forest had claimed her. It was not so very strange. But Clee searched with a certain quiet resolve uncommon for someone his age. He tried, with his skills, to track her, but she could not be tracked. Maybe at one time she could have been, but no longer. He cir
Out of this brief obsession Clee and Talmadge’s relationship solidified. When the men passed through with the horses, Talmadge and Clee sat on the porch in the evening, looking out over the land and with a view of the field below where the other men camped, their fires like distant stars. Clee and Talmadge smoked tobacco, and Talmadge did not speak much. Sometimes one or both of them would come away from the evening—and who was the first to move? had they slept?—with the impression that leagues had been discussed between them. Talmadge knew little of Clee’s past, and Clee had forgotten Talmadge’s sister’s shape, her face, but the young men appeared regularly in each other’s dreams, where it was as if their chests were unstoppered, and they walked together and sometimes turned and faced each other directly, and spoke volumes.
By the time Talmadge was forty years old the orchards had grown to almost twenty-five acres. It was an expansion of what he had originally planned with his mother, and then his sister. On the hill above the creek was the cabin and three acres of apricot trees, and around the side of the cabin, surrounding the shed, a half acre of plum trees. In the field across the creek, before the canyon mouth, nearly a quarter mile away, were nine acres of apples; and inside were twelve acres.
The men helped him groom and harvest the orchards in season, and he in turn lied to the authorities who infrequently came through asking about the men and their business. Horse stealing, emphasized the authorities; but Talmadge feigned supreme innocence. What the men did or did not do within the realm of legality was not his concern: he provided a place for them to stay, and they in turn helped with the chores, the scale of which would overwhelm him otherwise. When the bulk of the fruit became too much for him to manage at harvesttime, he sent a portion with the men, who sold it at auctions and fairs, and he split the profit with them.
The land claim was officially one hundred and sixty acres under the Homestead Act of 1862; he purchased the land as soon as he was able, on his eighteenth birthday. Over the years he bought the lots around it as well so that he owned over four hundred acres of land. He left this other land uncultivated, was satisfied to keep it as forest.
He did not articulate it as such, but he thought of the land as holding his sister—her living form, or her remains. He would keep it for her, then, untouched. All that space would conjure her, if not her physical form, then an apparition: she might visit him in dreams, and tell him what had gone wrong, why she had left him. Where did she exist if not on the earth—was there such a place?—and did he want to know about it, if it existed? What was a place if not earthbound? His mind balked. He was giving her earth, to feed her in that place that was without it. An endless gift, a gesture that seemed right: and it need never be reciprocated, for it was a gift to himself as well, to be surrounded by land, by silence, and always—but how could this be, after so much time?—by the hope that she might step out of the trees, a woman now, but strangely the same, and reclaim her position in that place.
Three days after he saw the girls in town, he was braced aloft in an apricot tree on the homestead and saw them come out of the upper forest. He quit the shears and watched them. It was morning. They paused at the treeline and then came down through the pasture, their dark hair like flags riding the grass. At the edge of the yard they hesitated, discussing between themselves—what?—glancing repeatedly at the cabin, the outlying land.
He climbed out of the tree, the shears clamped in his armpit. When he walked out of the orchard, the taller girl—the one with the braid over her shoulder—turned to him, and froze. The other girl—her hair also dark, but fuzzy, tangled, unkempt—had been chattering to the other, but ceased abruptly when she saw him approaching. Both stood watching him, their eyes swarming the shears. He halted twenty yards from them.
You-all lost? he called. They looked away at the trees. The shorter one—younger one, he decided—held her mouth open and panted slightly. Their faces were filthy. Even from where he stood, he saw their arms discolored with dirt.
He crossed the yard and went into the cabin. He laid the shears on the table and took his time stoking the ashes in the woodstove. When he went outside again, they had come closer, but feinted back when he came out onto the porch. He took the buckets near the door and went down to the creek and gathered water. Returning to the cabin, mounting the rise in the orchard, he saw that the lawn was empty. Then he saw them; he tried not to fix them directly, where they lay now in the border between the lawn and the outer grass, peering out, thinking themselves hidden.
In the cabin he rebuilt the fire, and made thick cakes out of meal and creek water, and fried them over the stove. Lost himself in the task. When he came to, he thought: Why was he making so many? And then he reminded himself: the girls had come to eat with him. He set the cakes on the table along with an uncapped jar of milk. He hesitated. Finally he left the cabin, shears in hand, and walked to the apple orchard, a deeper section up the creek, leaving them to themselves.
Late afternoon, when he returned to the cabin, there was no sign of them. The food had been eaten. The plates were clean. They had even eaten the crud on the griddletop, the charred remains of the mealcakes. The bowl on the table was empty of fruit. He stood for a moment, then checked the cold pantry. They had taken his eggs and milk. Backing out, he checked the cupboard by the stove. They had taken his cornmeal, and salt. He waited a moment, then went out onto the porch and looked across the lawn, at the trees. They were not there any longer, he thought; they had gone. He looked at the trees. Dusk settled within the branches, touched the ground.
Inside, he took off his boots, and slept.
The following day at dawn he hitched the wagon to the mule and loaded a small supply of apples and apricots. Before stepping into the wagon, he carefully counted his money. He fit the soiled bills into his leather wallet and gazed at the trees sharpening in the blue light.
Before he reached town the sun was high and rinsing the standing wheatfields, quiet but for their resplendent shushing. The heat warmed his face but was not oppressive, and blew a clean scent down the road. A few white wisps of cloud in the sky posed silently.
He tied the wagon outside the feed and supply store and watered the mule, walked down the platform to the café. Inside, he sat at the counter and ordered fried eggs and coffee. The girl who took his order was maybe thirteen years old. He studied her from under his hat brim as she wiped down the counter, carried a stack of dirty dishes to the kitchen. He guessed the girls he had seen were about the same age. When she came back out, she set his eggs in front of him. Refilled his mug quickly. He watched her awhile longer, until she looked at him pointedly, unsmiling, and he looked away.
A little while later she came to pour him more coffee and said, My daddy’s got something to say to you. She withdrew and disappeared into the kitchen. A moment later the proprietor, Weems, came out from the back.
I told you, Pa, said the girl, and floated past them down the counter.
Weems came to sit down next to Talmadge, looked after the girl. Only after a moment did he seem to recognize her.
My youngest, he said. Been working here a week and thinks she owns the place. He smiled faintly, scratched his chin. That’s all my girls working here now—and the boys, all but the youngest, working next door.
Talmadge nodded absently—he was not really interested in the other man’s family dynamics—and drank his coffee.
Weems half turned toward Talma
Well, said Talmadge. Need supplies.
Weems motioned for coffee, and peered past Talmadge to the lot in front of the café. The day glaring now. You bring the wagon? You planning on doing some business?
That’s what I come about.
Weems nodded distractedly. With Sykes?
With Sykes. Or you.
Weems squinted outside again. But you’re just in here a few days ago. You got something new? He frowned. You still got some of those Northern Spies?
Talmadge shook his head. Naw, he said. Just more of the same. And some ’cots.
Well, I don’t know, said Weems after a pause. I just don’t know. Couldn’t give you money no way.
Talmadge nodded again, absently. What about trade?
Show me what you got, and we’ll talk. I’d like to see those ’cots.
On the way out the door, Weems said, Lord, I almost forgot. I had Jinny out there keeping an eye out for you, and I almost forgot. Somebody’s looking for you.
Talmadge frowned at the ground. Outside was a breath of hot air. Who’s that? he said.
Don’t know. Said he’s from up Okanogan way. Hunting some girls.
Talmadge looked up. Some girls?
I think so. He come into town a few days ago asking around about his girls, run off or something, and Willie Angell said there were some girls matched his description who’d run off with some of your apples not just last week.
Talmadge hesitated beside the wagon. He tugged his hat brim while Weems pulled a bushel of apricots toward him for inspection.
Is that so? said Weems. Some wild girls steal your fruit?
Talmadge tugged his brim. Naw, he said. He could feel himself making a face of disgust. Nobody run off with anything.
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes