The Orchardist, p.21Amanda Coplin
Lord have mercy, she said. Prison? Prison?
Jail, he corrected. Not prison.
Caroline Middey shook her head.
I would never have thought it, she said. Then: What are you going to do?
There had never been a question about what he was going to do.
I’m going to see her, he said.
As he was drifting to sleep he thought of his will and testament. It had only seemed natural, before, to leave everything to Angelene. But now the situation was different. Wasn’t it? Logic born of anxiety entered his half-conscious mind: Della was in jail—and would likely go to prison—because she did not belong anywhere. His naming her as heir to the land would tie her to a place in the world. Criminals by and large were vagrants, drifters (weren’t they?): they certainly did not own land. Della was different from them; he would make her different. As a legal landowner, she would come back to that place that claimed her. Her tie to the land would be official, it would be written down—
And, he thought, she would be responsible for Angelene. Blood and law. That was important, that would be written down too—
Angelene sat at the large, ornate dining room table in the Marsden house. Talmadge and the Judge were in the study. The Judge’s sister, Meredith, entered the room with a tray of coffee and shortbread, and said, smiling at Angelene, You look very nice, dear. And Angelene said, bowing her head modestly, Thank you. Talmadge had wanted her to wear her nice gingham dress, and her straw hat with the ribbon. Her special shoes. Stockings, even. She did not know why. He would tell her when he was ready. He was thinking about something else all the way to town, and did not speak much to her. What’s wrong? she asked him once, and he said that nothing was wrong. He just had to go see the Judge about some business.
Finally the men came out of the study and entered the dining room.
I’ll make more coffee, said Meredith, rising from her chair.
Oh, Meredith, that won’t be necessary. Will you bring the port?
She left the room and returned with a bottle and a tray of glasses, and the Judge poured the alcohol, and when the glasses were passed around, Angelene was included. She glanced at Talmadge, who nodded at her to tell her it was all right.
To our health, said the Judge, and they all drank.
In the wagon on the way home, she knelt up against the back of his seat, her face pressed against his shoulder.
What was that? she said.
What was what?
What happened back there—with you and the Judge. We drank that—port.
I made my will and testament, he said.
She said, Why?—even though she knew what a will and testament was. But she was suddenly embarrassed, and afraid.
Again he hesitated.
It’s so that the land will go to you and to Della, if something happens.
She was as struck by the mention of Della’s name as much as anything. But she forced herself to ask, though she only partly wanted to know: What do you mean, if something happens?
The wagon creaked along in its tracks. She had her arms around his neck. They both stared ahead at the road, the ash and clay mildly glittering.
If I should die, he said.
They gave her a cell at the far end of the jail. The twelve cells, and the larger holding cell near the front of the jail, were all empty as she passed them the first day. They’re out in the yard, explained the guard who opened the cell door for her and stepped aside as she entered.
They aren’t to talk to you, the warden had told her that afternoon, of the other prisoners in the jail. She had spent the better part of the morning and afternoon in his office, after her initial conversation with the young man at the front counter. She confessed her crime to the warden; and then a secretary was let into the room, and she confessed again, and the secretary wrote it all down on a typewriter. Della’s throat hurt from talking; she could not remember ever talking so much at one time. Was tired from holding in her mind all the pertinent details she wanted to relate to the warden, so that he would consider her guilty and dangerous enough to warrant incarceration in his jail.
The warden, when he could see Della was tiring, called to the young man at the front desk. When the young man appeared in the doorway, the warden said: Get Miss Michaelson a sandwich from the cafeteria. And—coffee? Do you take coffee, Miss Michaelson?
She said coffee would be welcome.
Knowing what we know, the warden said, we cannot let you room in town. You’ll have to stay here. You understand.
She was silent, looked down at her lap.
But, he continued, we can assure you that you will be safe here, quite unmolested by the men, until we figure out—your situation. Do you have any objection? Then, as if he’d just thought of it: Would you like a lawyer?
She pretended to hesitate.
I don’t have no—any—objections, she said. And I might get a lawyer—later. But—I know what I did. I killed a man. I deserve to be locked away.
The warden stared at her. When he realized she was finished speaking, he told her he would see her the following morning. The guard had then taken her to the jail, in the basement of the courthouse.
After the guard left her alone, she studied the cell. It was more accommodating than she had thought it would be—a cot along the side wall; a basin on a pedestal; a slop jar behind a canvas partition in the corner. A small rectangular window that overlooked a portion of the front lawn. The jail was not in a proper basement, but was only half submerged in the earth. And the cell was relatively large: approximately ten by eleven feet. Packed dirt floor. Brick walls.
There were seven incarcerated men there at the time, and two in the holding cell. They occupied the cells at the front of the jail. The cell across from her was empty.
She went and looked out the window. There was a great cottonwood on the lawn that the wind was upsetting; it nodded like an encephalitic. She went and sat on the cot, touched absently the wool blanket. She would do all right here, she thought.
The men were let in from the yard soon after, and she went to the bars and observed them as they walked down the hallway past her. They looked in at her, startled. Impressed. One or two chuckled, poked their neighbors in the ribs: Look, a woman! They all looked at her but one—Michaelson—who trailed behind the others, shuffling, holding his side. He seemed to be in pain. A guard walked slowly behind him, watching Michaelson’s movements carefully.
Neither the guard nor Michaelson looked at her.
That’s it, murmured the guard, we’re almost there.
Della stepped quietly back from the bars after Michaelson had passed, went to the cot, sat down. Listened to Michaelson’s unsteady progress down the hallway.
That’s it, said the guard.
The sound of a cell door opening, and then metal on metal: a lock slipping into place.
I’ll get the doctor, said the guard.
What’s wrong with that man? Della asked the guard who delivered her breakfast the next morning. It was the same guard—tall, dough-faced—who had followed Michaelson and ushered him into his cell the day before.
The man glanced at her, said: He’s sick. His tone neither friendly nor unfriendly.
It seemed the guard would not answer her—was ignoring her—he was sliding the tray through the slot, and she took it—but then he shrugg
Awful sick, as far as I can tell.
She wanted to ask him, What’s he done? But she thought it was too soon for that, too quick. And so she accepted the food tray, and that was all.
That evening, when the men were let in from their time in the yard, Michaelson wasn’t among them. She came away from the bars again—alert, confused—and sat on the cot. Her heart pounding hard and steadily in her chest.
What happened to that man? The one who was sick?
There was another, younger guard—thin as a stick, nervous, pimply-faced—who served her breakfast. He shot her a startled look.
I just heard he was sick, she said. I saw him. He didn’t look well. I was just wondering what happened him—
The boy opened the slot and shoved the tray in; it made a grating sound. Suddenly he muttered, Needs an operation. But he should last for the trial. That’s all we care about here—
And he glared at her, as if angry for disclosing so much information. But then she realized he was just excited.
She looked away. Said, flatly: Well, he didn’t look well. Glad to hear he’s getting help—
Talmadge had thought, before, that he would just go and see Della directly—he would drive the mule and wagon up there—but the Judge said that since she was incarcerated, there was a procedure to these things. It could be that Talmadge would travel all the way there and not be able to see her, for whatever official or legal reason. And so, with the Judge’s help, Talmadge composed a letter to the warden, asking for permission to come see the prisoner Della Michaelson, who, it had just been verified, was incarcerated in his jail.
Two weeks later, the Judge received a reply. Talmadge was welcome to come visit any time between the hours of ten and four o’clock the following Friday.
The next evening, over a supper of trout and creamed spinach on the porch, Talmadge told Angelene that the Judge had found Della. She was living in Chelan, he said.
Angelene, who had been chewing, slowed, stopped.
He did not tell her Della was in jail. That would come later, he decided, after he had learned more about Della’s situation.
I’m going to go visit her, he said. I’ve thought about it, and think I should go by myself this time. I’ll take the mule. Then: I just think it’s best if I go by myself, this time.
Angelene said nothing at first. She took up her fork again, took a bite of trout. And then said, surprising him: I don’t want to go anyway.
Her voice was soft. He studied her profile momentarily before she turned her head away, pointedly, and looked at the trees. Should he ask her what was wrong? Why she didn’t want to go? He felt himself rise to ask these questions and then, at the last moment, falter. And then it was too late: the moment had passed.
He would not question her now.
He set out in the early morning. Angelene came out onto the porch, a blanket around her shoulders, and watched his last preparations.
He asked her again if she was certain she did not want to stay at Caroline Middey’s. She shook her head.
You said I didn’t have to.
You don’t have to. I just don’t want you to get scared out here all by yourself.
I’m not scared.
Well. It might get lonely.
Don’t let a bear come and carry you off.
Aren’t no bears around here.
I saw one just the other day.
But she had smiled, briefly.
You know where the money is. You know where the gun’s at.
Yes, she said. I know where it’s all at. And then she looked askance at the trees, half amused, half annoyed. You going to Chelan or what?
All right, he said, and got up into the wagon and waved at her. When he was halfway across the pasture he turned and looked back at the cabin, but she was no longer on the lawn, or on the porch.
The man, Michaelson—but he was going by De Quincey now, she had heard a guard and a prisoner both call him that—was indeed sickly. What she had first observed in town, when he walked, squinting and disheveled, down the street, was not a passing discomfort but a disease. She did not need to know what it was exactly: only that without an operation, at some point soon, he would die.
He was getting progressively worse. She had been at the jail a month now, and passing outside her bars he was a head hulking against a frame of bones. But even so, hunched over, he was still impressively tall. That old rangy frame. He was not able, because of his sickness, to move freely. When he walked down the hall and passed her cell—holding his arms around his stomach as if holding his insides together—he continued not to see her. But then one day the men were led back in from the exercise yard, and she was at the bars, and he passed her, again behind the other men—the guard had not come in yet, he too lagged behind—and she said his name: Michaelson. He looked over at her, confused, a man coming out of a distant dream. His gaze took a moment to recognize her. But then he continued on, was not impressed, or didn’t care. But it was him, Della thought, coming away from the bars and sitting on her cot. It was him!
Come on, said the dough-faced guard.
She was let out once a day into the yard, before the men. She, being the only female, was led out there by herself. She walked a circle just shy of the perimeter, strolling but not lingering too much in one place lest she draw attention to herself. Every once in a while she would look over her shoulder and seek the whereabouts of the guard. If he was not looking, or dozing—the dough-faced guard was prone to napping—then she would bend and pick up an object from the ground that might be of use later. If he was looking, she would pretend to be tying her bootlaces. Some stick, wedged into her boot. Rocks, the same. A glass bottle she stuck down the front of her pants.
The guards were lax about patting her down: she amassed a collection of objects in her cell, stuck them in a split in her mattress.
The drive was easy, the roads fine. Although, he noted, even an easy trip now was not as easy as it once was. Discomfort roused in his joints and spread. The first day he drove too far without stopping to rest, and he was overly stiff that night as he prepared his fire. After he ate, he got into the back of the wagon to sleep. The smell of the blankets—the outdoor blankets, his mother used to call them, used for overnight trips—made him remember earlier times, times he could no longer recall clearly.
In the morning—tired, disoriented—he went down to the water and washed his face. His head spun slightly. The day was very bright.
As the wheels creaked along in the wagon tracks, his thoughts turned to what lay ahead. The girl in the jail. And what would she be like now? She was a girl when he had last seen her, but now she was a proper woman. She had turned herself in, he remembered: and so maybe she had had a conversion of sorts. Not a religious conversion, but a change of heart and mind: she had done something wrong, she had committed a crime, but she wanted to take responsibility for it. That was something. And, he thought—the wagon shivering and sighing in the tracks—maybe the girl was guilty about an event, an action, that was not her fault.
He would determine what had happened, and help her. Either way—whether she was guilty or not—he would help her.
And then one day the dough-faced guard led her out into the yard when the men were coming back in. There was a sort of construction project going on in the building that prevented her from going out into the yard earlier, at
The next day, when they passed her again, she had a blade fashioned from a stick hidden inside her jacket sleeve. But when the time came, when Michaelson passed by her, a little more than an arm’s length away, she did nothing; she simply watched him. Her heart racing. She wanted him to recognize her, but he did not.
And then she thought, it did not matter if he recognized her or not. The next day, waiting for the men to file inside, when he passed by her, she struck him with the sharpened stick.
But something funny happened. Instead of going for his neck or his face like she should have done and like she meant to, at the last moment she dropped her hand, barely grazed his side. The weapon was short and made for superficial wounding, except if one was going for the neck, where one could press down into the flesh to get at the vein. But at the last moment it was as if she had become bashful, or worse, lost courage. And he grabbed his side and grimaced but did not even so much as look at her. He pushed her aside as if she were a fly. Swatted her away, groaned. And then the other men were on her, trying to get the stick away. Someone hit her in the eye. Her own weapon scraped her knuckles. The guard hurriedly led Michaelson away.
He’s already suffering! somebody shouted. What are you doing?
In Chelan Talmadge inquired of the first passerby who looked at him about the location of the courthouse. He traveled to it, and sat in the wagon looking at the building in which Della was housed. It was smaller than he thought it would be, though it was properly official-looking, and well made of pale granite and stone. A great lawn spread on either side of the wide staircase leading up from the sidewalk. Automobiles lined up along the street before it. There were only two horse-drawn wagons that he could see.
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes