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The orchardist, p.23
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       The Orchardist, p.23

           Amanda Coplin
 

  Angelene had come out onto the porch, her hands at her face, shielding her eyes.

  She waved. When he came up into the yard, she had gone back into the cabin but soon came out again, went to the wagon, and helped him down onto the grass. How was it she knew he needed help? For he was the one who needed help now, he realized. Had he ever leaned on her like this? (He leaned on her heavily, more heavily than he would have liked. He was shaking; he longed, momentarily, for the old motion of the wagon. He was sick with fatigue.) He said something into her hair as he struggled against her, and she said, What? But she bore his weight and helped him across the grass to the porch, she did it as if she had done it a thousand times. It did not even register on her face that it was something out of the ordinary. They headed up the steps, and then on the porch he lowered his weight into the birchwood chair and she was leaning over him, speaking to him. He saw for the first time that her hair was wet, slicked back, and she wore her market-day shirt, the white shirt with the design in pink thread embroidered on the collar. Had she been to market by herself? She was leaning over him, speaking to him, and then—he did not know what happened next—he was asleep.

  When he woke, he was in his bed, and it was dark. Crickets called outside the open window, and over everything wafted the odor of fried onions. She passed by the open door of the bedroom, and when she saw he was awake, she came inside. Sat on the edge of the bed. Helped him sit up. A lantern was bright in the room behind her, and he could not make out her face. After a moment she placed a hand on his hand.

  I knew you were coming today, she said. When I woke up this morning, I knew it.

  There was a silence. He thought he should tell her about Della. Where should he begin? But before he could speak, she said: Are you hungry?

  He nodded.

  She rose, and returned with a plate of food. Eggs scrambled with bacon and onions, bread and tomatoes thinly sliced, coffee. She sat on the edge of the bed while he ate.

  Aren’t you going to eat? he asked her.

  I already ate.

  How long have I been asleep?

  Three hours or so.

  After she took his plate away, she came and sat beside him again, but this time in a different position, and he could see her face. The dark, generous eyes, the puzzled brow. They regarded each other.

  He began to speak.

  You don’t have to tell me now, she said, and averted her eyes, picked a piece of lint off the quilt. Smoothed the fabric with her hand. You don’t have to tell me now. You rest—

  Was she still angry? At him? There was that hardening of her mouth—anger, but also sadness.

  It would all become clear, he thought, it would all come to the surface, when he talked to her, when he told her what had happened—recently, on his trip to Chelan, but also in the past. It would all become clear—

  Did you go to market? he asked her the next day.

  Yes—

  How did you get there?

  The horse, she said. And then, when it failed to register on his face that he knew what she was talking about, she said, The horse Clee left the last time. I took a small load and set up where we usually do—

  The horse? he said, and at his tone, she looked at him, silent now. He knew which horse she meant. Clee would at times leave a horse behind so that Talmadge could use it in his work, if he needed a creature stronger than the mule.

  Yes, she said, and looked away from him now, soberly. It’s all right, Talmadge, it was fine—

  He was amazed that she had sensed, before he realized it in himself, that he was upset with her. But why, he thought, should he be upset with her?

  It was the old reaction, him and the horses—but this girl, Angelene, was fine. She was fine, he admonished himself, and reached out, touched her shoulder, pretended to brush something off that was there, a bit of leaf, a strand of hair. She smiled faintly. The smile meant: I forgive you.

  Della, alone in her cell, took the letter out from the envelope and looked at it, the words on the page.

  He hadn’t written it, she was certain of that; it was a woman’s hand. She wondered, briefly, if it was Angelene’s hand, but then dismissed that. It was too mature-looking.

  She went to the window, looked out.

  So he had been to see her, and would come see her again. She supposed there was no harm in it, not really; she supposed seeing him would not disturb her plans too much. It was nothing for her to see him—she would see him and get it over with—but it was imperative that he, Talmadge, not find out that Michaelson was there in the jail as well. That might change things.

  But he did not necessarily have to find out about Michaelson. Even if the warden discussed what had happened—her attack on Michaelson—he, Michaelson, was going by a different name now. Talmadge would not, unless he investigated further, come to any easy conclusions by himself.

  But still, she worried.

  But there was nothing to do but to see him. She must not raise a fuss, not about this; she must be patient, she must bide her time.

  He would leave the orchard again in two weeks. He had talked to the Judge about it. He would tell Angelene—what exactly he did not know, but he would tell her something—and also try to fit as much work as he could into the weeks before he left. He could feel her wondering at his renewed energy, his bustle, which he knew was agitated: but she said nothing, perhaps thinking he still suffered from his recent overexertion from the trip to Chelan.

  They worked in the apple orchard outside the canyon mouth when, suddenly, Angelene pulled her arms out of the limbs in which she worked and turned her head to the forest. Expression like an animal sensing weather. It’s too early, he told her. He knew she was waiting for the men; he was waiting for them too. But it was too early. They came the first week of July, and it was barely June. She went back to working, reluctantly. A minute later she stopped again, pulled her head out of the limbs, turned to the forest. She began to say something, and the forest line shook, began to produce horses; first two or three abreast and then a great surge of them, the bulk moving from the trees into the field.

  Well, he said, and he and Angelene began to disengage from the trees. Headed down the hill to the creek, toward the horses.

  He was struck, as he was always struck, by the horses’ simultaneous ugliness and beauty. Different shapes, heights, colors: cream-colored, black, brown, yellow horses, horses with dappled rumps, with stockings; some white horses with pink snouts and blue eyes; tall horses, with muscular necks; others short, stunted, dwarfed-looking. All weighing around a quarter ton, some just over. He had seen these herds for years, and yet when they came through the trees he was always surprised by them. They were dirty, unkempt, stinking; overall unpredictable. Perhaps what made them so impressive was their unhandledness. They had encountered no human up there in the mountains where they were captured. The men had gone up there, to the places where the horses lived, and dragged them—the horses—down to the plateaus and lowlands, and as a result the horses held the deepest grudge; they tore this way and that, tossing their heads, breathing rancid horse breath out of their rancid horse lungs. This is how he imagined it, as a boy lying awake at night, unable to sleep because of their presence in the field. He did not understand what they were. What do you mean, what are they? his mother had said. They are horses, Talmadge. But they were unknowable, both singly and as a herd. Even now it was difficult to look away from them.

&nb
sp; The men on horseback came out of the trees, one after another, and lifted their arms in greeting. Clee’s horse, a dark palomino with yellow-stained mane and tail, a silver medallion on its breast strap, came stepping out of the forest. Clee too lifted his hand, but seriously, unsmiling. Something had happened, Talmadge thought; something had happened on their journey to make them early, this was why Clee looked so grim now. He and Angelene had by this time made their way into the field; the men simultaneously rode through the horses toward them.

  When Talmadge and Clee and the wrangler settled on the porch and removed their hats, and Angelene had gone inside to get coffee, the wrangler told Talmadge that one of the men had spotted a scout—the law—two days before, and they, the men, decided to go another way—to go north, and loop around, which they usually avoided because the terrain was rougher and more difficult to navigate. But the possibility of danger was less threatening than certain danger seen at a distance; and so they had risked it, this other route, and passed unscathed. That’s why they were early. While the wrangler talked, Clee wiped the sweat from his face with a large handkerchief, his eyes closed, and then replaced the handkerchief in his pocket.

  Talmadge nodded. He said that he and Angelene were more or less ready for them. What they needed to do in order to prepare for them, the last work, could be absorbed by all of them in the next couple of days.

  In fact he was relieved to have the men come early, because he had not yet told Angelene about Della. Angelene seemed to not want to talk about it. Now they could work, all of them, and he could put aside the task of discussing Della for at least a little while longer. But he must tell her soon, he thought, because the situation involved her. He would tell her after the men had gone, when by that time the excitement of the men would have diluted the fact of his trip to Chelan; the trip would have waned, become unimportant; would have less potential to hurt her.

  The men had hunted deer that morning, and the carcasses were thrown over the backs of several of the horses. Soon after they arrived, some of the men, Clee included, took the deer to the opposite side of the field, downwind from the horses, and butchered them. They erected a camp and cooked the venison over large fires.

  Clee, having overseen the food preparation, sat beside a fire and packed a pipe full of tobacco. Talmadge sat beside him, in a collapsible chair made of wooden poles and canvas. He watched the other man’s movements dully, but thought about all the years he had watched Clee do this. Pack a pipe full of tobacco. Clee’s movements, his face, were as familiar to Talmadge as his own, and yet there existed a chasm between them that they never regarded directly. Different lives. He had seen this action—this habitual movement—since he was a teenager, sitting beside Clee, the odor of the horses and woodsmoke in the air, but the movements at the same time seemed singular, new—the deft hands, the long fingers, working. It was the casualness, but also the ceremony, the severe quietness, that Talmadge appreciated.

  Clee’s hands were stained red from the butchering. Blood smudged on his cuffs. He pulled on the pipe a few times and then there was the odor of tobacco smoke mixing with the odor of fires and venison. The sky overhead was darkening, and when Talmadge pulled his face away from the fire—the smoke was in his eyes—the outer air was cold. Evening had set in. The fires sent their flames high. The men talked and laughed, and behind and beyond them was the sound of the horses, which never died. The sound was loud and soft at the same time, like the sound upon which other sound was built. You didn’t hear the horses until you listened for them; and then they were very loud. Already Talmadge was becoming used to them. How that presence equated with silence until it was gone, and then you understood what silence really was.

  Clee was regarding him; held up his pipe: Where was Talmadge’s pipe?

  Talmadge held up his pipe, which he had gripped in his palm, lying in his lap.

  Clee passed him the pouch of tobacco, and after a moment—what had he been thinking about?—Talmadge began to pack the pipe. His hands shook slightly. Clee watched him for a moment, then looked away.

  They sat smoking in silence, and then Talmadge said:

  The Judge found the girl—

  Clee looked up. He pulled on the pipe, blew smoke rapidly out the corner of his mouth.

  She’s in Chelan, in a jail there—

  Clee remained still; and then, after a moment, he leaned forward, removed the pipe from his mouth. Spat. Paused for a long time, his eyes downcast and unmoving.

  She tried to kill a man, said Talmadge. Stabbed him with a broken bottle, something like that. Well—I don’t know the half of it. It was the Judge that found her—

  Clee put the pipe in his mouth, slowly.

  Angelene doesn’t know about it. I haven’t told her yet. I mean, she knows I went to go see her, but I didn’t tell her about the jail—

  Clee nodded, understanding. Then he looked at Talmadge. He made a slow, deliberate, heavy movement with his head, staring hard at Talmadge, which meant: You went to see her?

  Talmadge brought the pipe to his lips, found the fire had gone out in it. Clee, after a moment, dropped his eyes, fished for matches in his vest pocket.

  I didn’t see her, said Talmadge, and leaned so that Clee could light his pipe. She was—in a cell where they wouldn’t let her see anyone. She was—misbehaving. She did something wrong. They wouldn’t tell me about it. He put the pipe in his mouth.

  Clee, after a minute, nodded.

  They’re going to keep her in there—I don’t know how long. She might have killed the man she stabbed, they don’t even know. It’s like she—well, like she wants to be there. She turned herself in—

  Clee glanced at Talmadge. They were silent for several minutes.

  When Talmadge looked out, he caught sight of Angelene as she loitered between the fires and the men. She passed among them meekly, letting them know by her insistent presence that she was available to help them, if they needed it. But, like always, they largely ignored her. It had always been that way. It had been that way too, in the beginning, with Della, he remembered. At times, after a long day of working in the trees, they might acknowledge Angelene; they might even joke with her or tease her; but for the most part they simply let her be among them, they did not bother to pay her any special attention. This was not in anger or resentment; it was, Talmadge thought, a sign of respect: toward Angelene, toward himself. Not to be coddled, not to be made an exception. She understood this, he thought, though she was puzzled at times at their seeming rejection of her.

  Just now, a man whistled softly out the corner of his mouth and nodded to the nearby low table beside Angelene, meaning, Bring me that plate, and she hurried to the plate and brought it to him, and he put some meat on it. He spoke to her briefly, not looking at her, and she nodded and took the plate to a group of sitting men, one of whom took the plate from her and said something to her, smiling. Angelene said something back, and the group of men laughed. When Angelene turned, Talmadge saw that she was smiling, also blushing.

  Later he remembered Angelene moving through the darkness of the camp. By the firelight she looked as if she wanted something; there was a kind of sorrow there. But if he were to call to her, she would turn and come to him, and by that time her face would be closed; or, if not closed, then there would be another expression there. The plain, the normal gentleness with which she always regarded him.

  But what was that expression before she came to him? What did it mean? Was she
unhappy? Did she too, or some part of her at least, wish to leave?

  This look of sorrow as she walked among the fires—it was familiar to him, he had felt that way too, when he was younger. How to talk about it, how to talk about such things. When he was a boy he was happy when the men arrived, and in a way wanted them to remain forever—but he was also anxious that they had arrived, that he was no longer alone. The sorrow came from those two feelings—the happiness of company, the anxiety of interrupted solitude. That was what he had felt, he thought, and what to some extent he still felt. But never to the extent he had then, when he was young, when he did not know what to make of his feelings. When one is young, he thought, one thinks that one will never know oneself. But the knowledge comes later; if not all, then some. An important amount.

  Angelene: he could only guess her mind. Did she herself know the root of her sorrowful expression? If she were to know it, if he were to tell her, Your face is full of sorrow, would she understand even a little the feeling that gave rise to it? Maybe she was truly sorrowful; maybe she was unhappy. Of course she loved the land; but maybe she did not know what else was inside her. Maybe she wanted to leave the orchard but did not know it. She was still young. She still had much to discover about herself. He had not told her yet—how could he have this conversation with her?—that it was all right to think of leaving; one should not expect to be constant one’s entire life. He certainly did not expect her to stay: or this is what he would tell her. If she ever wanted to go, she could leave. He would not try to stop her. But then he wanted her, in a way, to remain constant in her childish dream of becoming an orchardist alongside him; because she was good at it, and—this was the main reason, he knew—because he loved her and wanted her to remain close to him.

 
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