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The orchardist, p.20
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       The Orchardist, p.20

           Amanda Coplin
 

  The Judge stood up behind his desk when Talmadge was shown in by Meredith, the Judge’s sister, who quickly left them alone. The study was wide and spacious, dim and cool. Smelled, faintly, of books. The room was lined with dark shelves. Cherry. The single window looked out onto a flowering plum tree in the yard.

  The Judge asked him to sit down, and Talmadge sat in the horsehair chair before the desk. They exchanged formalities: the Judge asked after Angelene and himself, Talmadge. And how was the Judge? The Judge was fine. It was a week of fair weather, was it not? And to think that some folks were predicting rain. Not a cloud in the sky as far as either man could see. But weather was tricky like that. Not that rain would be bad. They could use it, in fact. Rain would be welcome. The Judge asked after Talmadge’s trees. They were doing well, said Talmadge, though the winter had been hard. Getting ready for bud break, are you? We are, he said, yes, soon. After a few moments of silence the Judge asked what it was that he could help Talmadge with.

  When Talmadge told him that he was interested in composing his will and testament, the Judge nodded. If he was surprised at the request, he did not show it. He drew forward a pad of paper, took a pen from its brass holder. A brief silence followed, and then Talmadge said there wouldn’t be much to write, it was simple: he would leave everything to Angelene.

  Two weeks before, he had fallen from a tree. Sprained his ankle and wrist. Angelene had trussed the ankle as best she could, and then went off to fetch Caroline Middey. Caroline Middey had inspected his joints, which were, she said, not the real problem. A minute before, she had listened to his heart and lungs with a stethoscope, and asked him about dizziness and vertigo.

  You must not overly exert yourself, she said. Do you hear me? If you need the extra help, I’m sure you could ask one of the men to stay out here with you—

  He hadn’t answered her.

  And you best go see the Judge about your will and testament, if you haven’t. Go and see him, Talmadge.

  He was amazed at the way she told him what to do. After the initial surprise at what she said, he found that it didn’t offend him. No one else could talk to him like that without his bristling. In fact, he was relieved at her advice. She would always tell him exactly what she thought, and what she thought, he knew, was sound.

  Now, in the Judge’s study, the Judge laid down his pen. Of course, he said. Then: There is the matter of your possessions. I have to write it all down, to draw up a formal letter. There’s the land, of course. I can get the information from your claim, that won’t be difficult. But then there is the cabin and— The Judge hesitated. He saw Talmadge wanted to say something. What is it?

  Talmadge was silent for a long time. He was looking out the window.

  I’d like to find that girl, he said finally. Della.

  The Judge leaned back in his chair. Della, he said. Do you mean—

  The girl’s kin, said Talmadge. She used to live out there with us.

  I remember, said the Judge. Then: How long has she been gone now?

  Talmadge was silent.

  Going on nine years now.

  The Judge nodded again.

  And you want me to help you locate her?

  Yes—

  Talmadge wanted the Judge to know that he didn’t want the girl to be located so she could be brought back to him (whether or not this was true was for him to decide later); he didn’t want to disturb her now if she had found somewhere else she wanted to be. It wasn’t even necessary that Della know that he was looking for her. He, Talmadge, just wanted to know that she was all right, that she had not come to any harm. If anything else, it would set his mind at ease; he could not rest—if he thought about it in different terms, he could not “die peacefully”—knowing that she was in trouble somewhere. But then a thought occurred to him: And what if she was? What if she was miserable? What if she was dead? What would he do then?

  The Judge asked Della’s full name, the last place she was seen, her age, identifying features, any other information that might be useful to him. Talmadge answered the questions to the best of his ability.

  I’ll see what I can do, said the Judge. He made notes on the pad, and for a moment there was just the sound of the pen scratching the paper. Talmadge looked out the window, at the plum tree, at the light on the grass.

  Then the Judge said, looking up from his notes: Is this in relation to the will? I mean, if you find her, does it make a difference?

  Talmadge hesitated—the thought had occurred to him, to include Della in the will—but he said it did not make a difference.

  The Judge nodded. Of course, he said. I’ll see what I can do. Then, pushing the pad away a few inches: Even if you do decide to change the will, you can always change it back later—

  It won’t change, said Talmadge.

  Caroline Middey, though she held firm in her belief over the years that Talmadge should not go hunting Della, did not like to see the consequences of Talmadge’s taking her advice.

  Who knows if things would have been worse if he had gone looking for her? There is no one to tell us what would have happened if he tracked her down and persuaded her to come back to the orchard, or, if she refused, if Talmadge, his curiosity satisfied, would have come back to the orchard with a different perspective. He did not go after her himself, but those months after he fell out of the tree, though his physical wounds more or less healed—though he walked with a slight limp afterward—a kind of vacancy, a silence, hung around him, like a mantle on his shoulders.

  Am I responsible for that? Did I do that? Caroline Middey wondered at times. But then she always came back to the same answer: Life had done it, not her, Caroline Middey. But wasn’t she a part of life? Should she have known better? There were no answers to these questions.

  If Della had visited Angelene’s own plot in the outer orchard at that time, she would have seen what had captured the girl’s interest, what had caught her eye, at the Malaga fair the previous year. With each successive trip, the plant sale became more interesting to her. When she knew she was looking for a plant for her very own garden—what would suit the area in the bed between the asparagus and lettuce, for example?—her interest became singular and almost obsessive. What a delicious feeling to walk through the fair with her own bag upon her arm, driven by her own purpose. Here are my pumpkins, Angelene would have said to Della, if Della came through in the fall. Angelene probably would have left at least one on the vine, a particularly large and beautiful one, if she knew Della was going to see it.

  Or, in the summer: Here are the strawberries—brushing aside the soft leaves with her hand to reveal the cluster of small red fruit beneath—and of course you may try one, Angelene would tell her, and Della would lean and reach her hand inside, pick one off the stem, put it into her mouth. Please let it not be sour, let it have had enough time in the sun to be sweet on her tongue. Here are the fig trees—not quite ripe, but you can see the general shape of the fruit, quite weird, don’t you think?—and the apples—I am working on those, Angelene would say—and the cherries; yes, let’s pick some now, and I’ll make a cobbler for you, for all of us, to eat with our supper. There is cream in the cold pantry, I was going to churn it into butter, but now I won’t, now it will go on the fruit, I will spoon it onto the hot fruit and biscuits—

  Though Angelene told herself at the time that she did not care about Della, it was amazing how often she found herself caught in these fantasies, these daydreams: De
lla coming back to find Angelene alone in the orchard, and falling under Angelene’s casual, but powerful, hospitality.

  She thought that besides the actual fruit of her labor, she would share with her also—she would give her—those hours spent alone in the quiet, in the resplendent light of the outer orchard, among the half-dug-up plants and roots lying wrapped in wet newspaper, Angelene kneeling, digging in the soil. Angelene would give Della the hours of clement weather, the odors of the earth and sun and pine, and the freedom that comes from knowing you are the only human for miles, and the freedom to sing, to talk to yourself, to laugh, and of course, if need be—but there was hardly ever need for this—to cry.

  Talmadge and Angelene set out from the orchard before dawn, and reached the market by midmorning. The air was cool with pockets of cold, smelled of alfalfa. It was April; the season was changing.

  They unpacked fruit—now mostly apples from deep storage—alongside the other vendors, arranged it in bins on tables they kept stored in the warehouse by the river. Afterward they took out their folding chairs, settled within them.

  For dinner they ate egg sandwiches Talmadge had packed that morning, and then Angelene went to the man who sold pickles and bought a pickle for each of them. After dinner, when it became slow again, Talmadge dozed upright in his chair, and when the customers came, they spoke to Angelene in a whisper. When Talmadge woke, it was late afternoon.

  Angelene retrieved their market mugs and said she was going to the coffee stall. When she returned, she said that Caroline Middey had invited them to supper, and also to spend the night, because it looked like rain.

  Talmadge peered at the end of the marketplace, at the sky. Boisterous blue, and cloudless. It did not seem like rain at all.

  That’s what I said, said Angelene. But she said it would probably rain. She does know things.

  She does, he said, and Angelene went off again, to tell Caroline Middey that they would accept her invitation.

  When the market was nearly over—it was almost four o’clock—and several of the vendors were already packing up their stalls, Talmadge saw the Judge coming toward them through the crowd. As he neared them he took off his hat, looked down at the fruit with a puzzled expression, from—what was it?—a kind of embarrassment.

  What do we have here, said the Judge. Look at this fine fruit.

  He had something he wanted to say, Talmadge saw; he had come about something in particular. The Judge glanced at Talmadge and then, frowning, looked down at the fruit again.

  Talmadge told Angelene to start packing up the wagon; he would be right back, he was going to talk to the Judge for a moment.

  He and the Judge walked out of the market, into the open air. They began to cross the field, in the direction of the river.

  What is it? said Talmadge.

  It’s about Della.

  Talmadge wanted to ask what he had found out, but said nothing at first. He understood that he did not want to ask anything because he did not want to know if Della was dead. And yet by the Judge’s demeanor it was now a possibility. But he would not ask it; suddenly he did not want to know.

  The Judge stopped walking.

  Is this something you want to talk about here? I was going to ask you and Angelene to come to supper this evening—

  Talmadge asked the Judge to wait for him. He walked back to the market, to Angelene, who was putting away the fruit. She looked at him, amused at first, and then the smile faded from her face. She asked him if everything was all right. He told her that everything was fine, he just needed to talk to the Judge about something. She was unconvinced, he could see; but when he asked her if she would mind loading the wagon by herself and transporting everything to Caroline Middey’s—he would meet her there later—he could see that despite her worry she was pleased, satisfied, that he would ask her to do something independently. She said that she would do it.

  He returned to the Judge, who waited for him in the field. By unspoken agreement they set off again toward the river.

  I got word, said the Judge. She’s up in a jail, in Chelan.

  Talmadge was so relieved she was not dead that what the Judge said failed at first to touch him. They could see the water now. The colorless grass pressed flat against the sandbank. The odor of the river and the thawing ground reached his face; he inhaled deeply.

  I don’t know all the details, said the Judge. I just heard from a jail warden up there that a woman by her name is incarcerated there. Talmadge, he said, after a pause. She turned herself in, about a month ago. She said she—killed somebody. A man up around Seattle way. At a lumber camp.

  Talmadge stopped walking. The water was loud in his ears, and the sun bright on the field illuminated all the hidden and variegated patterns. No, she could not have killed somebody. That was not right. But the Judge had said it, and the girl had turned herself in. She could have taken a bad turn, she had made bad turns in his imagination these years she was gone, but nothing like this. Nothing short of killing her own self was as bad as this. She had killed somebody. He should not have stopped walking; with a lack of movement his thoughts overwhelmed him. He started forward again; the Judge followed.

  Killed somebody? said Talmadge. If it was a man, he thought, and she was just protecting herself—

  It’s unclear, said the Judge. That’s the strange part—she’s claiming she killed someone, but there’s no proof of it. Or not yet. She might have simply injured the man. The authorities are—investigating it.

  You don’t know if she killed someone or not? said Talmadge, incredulous. She might have injured him? Then: What’s all this about? He was surprised to hear anger in his voice.

  The Judge shook his head. Seems like she was working out at a lumber camp, and got to roughhousing one night with the men, they were all playing cards, and—they were drinking as well—this man accused her of cheating, apparently, and she got upset and stabbed him with a broken bottle—

  Talmadge looked at the river. He did not want to think of the broken bottle. He did not want to think of her playing cards, being near such men. But hadn’t he allowed it? What had he done? What had he ever been thinking?

  He turned to the Judge.

  Is she all right? I mean—

  After a silence, the Judge said, I believe she is fine, Talmadge, physically speaking. They say she appears in her right mind—

  Her right mind, thought Talmadge. But what did that mean?

  He regarded the Judge, who had politely averted his eyes, was watching the river.

  You want to come to Caroline Middey’s for supper? said Talmadge, after a silence. She wouldn’t mind having you, I’m sure. We could—talk more.

  The Judge shook his head. My sister’s expecting me. Talmadge—

  They regarded each other warily.

  I’m sorry, said the Judge.

  Talmadge, looking away at the ground, his mind full of incoherent, distracted thought, nodded.

  As they started back across the field, Talmadge felt the new knowledge inside him: the girl was in jail. He felt as if they walked at an incline, though they did not; there was a dull ache at his sternum that could have been grief. He tugged his hat brim to hide his increasing anxiety.

  How long has she been—

  At this jail? Only a month or so.

  A silence passed.

  How much longer does she have?

  It depends on what they find out, said the Judge. They’r
e keeping her at the jail for the time being.

  If there wasn’t proof of any wrongdoing, Talmadge thought, then wasn’t that illegal? He said: Can they do that?

  The Judge shrugged. It seems she prefers it that way—

  Talmadge took off his hat and slapped his thigh with it. She prefers it that way? How could anybody prefer it that way? After a minute, he replaced his hat on his head, said: I appreciate you finding this out for me—

  It’s not a problem, said the Judge. I just wish I had better news.

  That night, after Angelene had gone to bed, Talmadge told Caroline Middey what the Judge had said about Della. They sat on the porch, despite the cold, blankets over their laps. Caroline Middey had brought out her knitting, but as soon as he started telling her about it she left the long needles and heap of yarn in her lap and rocked in the chair, staring out at the dark.

 
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