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The orchardist, p.24
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       The Orchardist, p.24

           Amanda Coplin
 

  But he would try to tell her eventually that it was all right to leave. There was the possibility, he reminded himself, that her future did involve the orchard, and that her choice to remain there was made not out of fear of the outside world but rather a knowledge and willful rejection of it. There was the possibility that her becoming an adult did not necessarily mean that she would move away from him. She could change, he told himself, and still remain in the orchard. But despite her apparent love of the trees, despite her intelligence and skill and aptitude in caring for the entire homestead, he remained doubtful. It was too much to wish, much less assume, that she would remain by his side.

  Angelene walked over to him, leaned against him, put her hand on his shoulder. She smelled, faintly, of licorice.

  The wrangler, who had come and sat beside Clee, addressed her, his eyes smiling: Are you coming to the auction, then? Talmadge was just telling me how much you wanted to go— There was an edge of laughter to his voice, although he was not laughing; he was teasing her, because he knew she was a homebody, and even though she was awed by the horses, she wanted little to do with them.

  But Talmadge waited to hear what Angelene would say.

  She squeezed his shoulder.

  I don’t want to go, she said, shyly, glancing down at Talmadge. Not really. Or, I would go, if Talmadge comes too—

  Well, go if you want to go, said Talmadge, and his voice, surprising them all, was gruff. There was a moment of silence, and then Angelene took her hand away.

  He shifted in his seat. Incredibly, he heard his voice again:

  Those places are no places for girls. I should have known that a long time ago, but like a fool—

  Clee peered out toward the forest. He puffed on his pipe. Angelene was still. He knew that if he were to look at her, there would be a look of confusion on her face. But underneath, he knew, she understood. She understood exactly what he was talking about.

  Another guard replaced the angry, pimply-faced guard who had told Della that Michaelson needed an operation. This new guard was also young—maybe just twenty years old—and was what others would call handsome. His name was Frederick. He stuck his arm through the bars the first day, to shake her hand. She stood away and observed the gesture, surprised.

  Frederick smiled at her—he had a complexion the color of newly washed buckskin, and dark ash-blue eyes. Dimples one could fit a knuckle into. When she didn’t come forward, he pulled his hand back through the bars. But kept his smile.

  That’s all right, he said. Then: I heard about you. Only woman they’ve had in here for quite some time. Then: You turned yourself in, didn’t you? Isn’t that what I heard?

  I have no idea what you heard, she said, and he laughed. Not a mocking laugh. She glanced at him, despite herself, thinking: And maybe this one was different. Maybe.

  For his second trip to see Della, Talmadge would bring gifts. Some green apples, and candy—lemon drops, she had always like those—and magazines. He stood before the magazine rack at the feed and supply store, deciding what she might like. The clerk, when he saw how long Talmadge stood before the rack, asked if he could help. Talmadge said he was looking for something to give a young woman. The clerk said, Angelene? and Talmadge immediately regarded him. He was younger than Talmadge would have thought—he had in fact hardly taken note of the young man when he entered the store, barely saw he was a copy of the owner, and assumed he was the owner’s son; or could it be his grandson? In any case Talmadge did not recall ever having seen him before. The boy was no older than seventeen, had hair the color of a newly hatched chick. No, said Talmadge, after a moment, and turned his attention back to the rack. Someone else. The clerk pointed out the domestic magazines and the fashion magazines. Talmadge picked these up, looked at them. They were all wrong, of course. He put all back but one, and then withdrew two horse magazines, and a Wild West magazine. He didn’t know what she would like, but there was something there for her, anyhow, out of the ones he had chosen.

  He told Caroline Middey, later that day when he went to see her, that Angelene hadn’t wanted to come to town that morning; she had told him at the last minute, after he had prepared the wagon, that she had chores in the orchard she wanted to tend to.

  Caroline Middey didn’t say anything to this at first. They settled on the porch and ate some sliced bread and cheese, some cherry tomatoes. She was going to say something but then checked herself and rose, went inside for coffee. She returned, and sat. They poured their coffee. Caroline Middey asked again why the girl hadn’t come.

  Chores, you said? But shouldn’t you be out there helping her?

  Talmadge brought his mug to his lips. Of course they could both see through the girl’s excuse; but Talmadge did not particularly want to discuss it. He said: She wanted to get a head start on things. I told her we could wait, but she didn’t want to—

  Caroline Middey picked some bread crumbs off her dress front. Without looking at him, she said: She’s not jealous, is she?

  Jealous? Even as he said it, an idea was blooming in his mind.

  Caroline Middey looked at him.

  You going around all over town collecting gifts—I don’t know, a girl might get jealous of something like that. Then: You better have a superior gift for her, is all I’m saying. For her birthday, she said, when her statement failed to garner any reaction from him.

  Talmadge looked to the road across the field. In fact he had forgotten the girl’s birthday, that it was coming in a month’s time.

  Oh, Talmadge!

  He cleared his throat.

  I’ll think of something.

  You’d better, said Caroline Middey. And then, a minute later, hesitantly: You’re going to tell her? About her mother? You always said you would tell her when she got to this age—didn’t you? In my opinion she is ready, she was ready a year ago at this time, she is a proper young woman now, it’s right to tell her—

  Heavy clouds had moved in since he had arrived. The landscape darkened; a cold wind moved over the porch. And then the clouds moved over the sun and all was mellow gold, and a fine rain fell.

  Caroline Middey peered out at it.

  You going home in this? You want to stay the night?

  This? I’ll be all right.

  How you planning on getting to Chelan? You’re not taking the wagon again, are you?

  He shook his head.

  Taking the train, he said. In fact it was the Judge who had recommended it. Talmadge had gone to see him the week before, to tell him about the trip, and the Judge asked him how he had gotten to Chelan the previous time, and suggested the train might be more convenient, more comfortable for a man in his situation. He too thought Talmadge was getting old, thought Talmadge.

  The girl going with you?

  Talmadge shook his head again.

  She doesn’t want to go on the train? Incredulous. Does she know about the train? You told her you weren’t taking the wagon—

  I told her about it. She’s taking me to the station.

  He had not told Angelene about his plans to visit Della again, but she had guessed them. The day before, as he took out his suit from the closet, he turned to see Angelene in the doorway of his bedroom, regarding him.

  You going to see her again?

  He folded the suit over his arm.

  Yes—

  She nodded, shortly. Then, as if trying to hide her interest: You’re not taking the mule again, a
re you?

  I was thinking about the train this time.

  They both stood in silence.

  Is the Judge coming out to—

  No.

  I’ll take you, then, she said.

  Caroline Middey sighed and got up from her chair, went inside. When she came back a minute later, she wore a shawl and had two packages wrapped in butcher paper in her hands. She held up the package in her right hand.

  This here’s what you asked for. I was able to mend them all right. It would help if we knew how big she was now. Probably hasn’t gained in height, but in other ways—well, she’s still a growing girl, I suppose. But I guessed, I did my best. If they’re way off, bring them back, and I’ll work on them.

  Talmadge nodded.

  And this—Caroline Middey held up the other package—this is for our girl Angelene. Tell her it’s an early birthday present. She smiled to herself as she handed it over. Oh, she’ll like it, she said.

  He held both packages, one in each hand. The one for Della was bulkier, heavier than the one for Angelene.

  When you get back, said Caroline Middey, come see me and we’ll talk about Angelene’s birthday. And, she said, regarding him frankly, of course I’ll want to hear about your trip.

  He arrived in the orchard at dusk. When he entered the cabin, packages in hand, Angelene was sitting at the table in the front room, a notebook open in front of her. At her elbow sat the lantern and inkwell, blotting paper, flannel scraps. She was practicing her penmanship exercises. When he came in she looked up at him, frowned; touched distractedly the old cigar box in which she kept her supplies. There was an ink smudge on her cheek. He came up behind her and touched her shoulder and looked down at her work. After a moment he said: Have you eaten?

  She shook her head.

  Are you hungry?

  No.

  Well. I could make us something to eat—

  She leaned over the page.

  I want to finish this—

  He went into the bedroom and set the packages on the bed alongside the suit he had put out that morning. He found his shaving kit in the top bureau drawer, placed that on the bed as well. All this would have to be assembled and packed.

  Angelene stood now in the doorway. She looked at the items on the bed.

  All that stuff for her?

  Talmadge thought of what Caroline Middey had said, about the girl being jealous.

  Before he could say anything, Angelene turned from the doorway and was gone.

  He didn’t know whether to go after her. He sat down on the bed.

  She came back a moment later, leaned in the doorway. When she spoke, he knew that she had been preparing to say it—her voice, at the last moment, quavered.

  Seems like she could get all that stuff on her own. Then: What’s wrong with her? Is she sick?

  He understood: these were things you would take to someone who was ill.

  She’s not sick. She’s in jail.

  Angelene was silent.

  Jail?

  Yes.

  She was looking at the things on the bed.

  What do you mean? You mean she works there?

  He looked into the corner of the room. No—

  Oh, she said, after several moments. Then: You didn’t tell me that.

  No, he said. I was waiting to tell you. I should’ve told you sooner. But I didn’t know—

  She was still staring at the bed.

  He took up the package from Caroline Middey.

  This is for you. It’s from Caroline Middey.

  She took the package, but continued to stand there.

  Are you going to open it?

  Now?

  She hugged the package to her chest. Across her face drifted a crimped expression of confusion.

  Is she coming to live with us? When she gets out of there?

  Talmadge surveyed the items on the bed, as if an answer lay there. He saw the magazines. It occurred to him for the first time that Della might not be able to read. She could look at the pictures, anyway, he thought.

  I don’t know. I haven’t asked her yet. When I went there, to the jail—he forced himself to look at Angelene now, to speak to her as an adult—I didn’t see her.

  Angelene stared at him.

  What?

  I went there, but they wouldn’t let me see her. They had her locked away.

  In the jail? But you couldn’t see her?

  Talmadge shook his head.

  But—you’re going to see her this time?

  I hope so.

  Again she hugged the package to her chest. She looked at the things on the bed, on her face a confused, faraway expression. Then, as if she had just discovered something—there was the same helpless expression: Is it her birthday?

  I don’t believe so, he said. No. And then he realized that he did not know when Della’s birthday was.

  Angelene was looking at the items on the bed.

  It’s my birthday soon, she said.

  He hesitated.

  I know, he said.

  The next day they set out from the orchard in the early morning, and by the time they arrived at the station it was early afternoon. People were filing onto the train as Talmadge stepped out of the wagon. He gripped the top of the canvas sack in his fist and looked up at Angelene where she sat in the wagon seat.

  You going straight to Caroline Middey’s?

  She nodded.

  I don’t want you to go back to the orchard today. Too much driving in one day.

  She nodded, then hesitated.

  But you drove all the way here. If I drove back, it would be like I was driving just once—

  He looked at her.

  She looked down the road.

  All right, she said.

  Caroline Middey’s expecting you.

  All right.

  He continued to stand there. He glanced at the people getting onto the train.

  You better hurry up, she said.

  He looked up at her. He wanted to tell her something but had forgotten what it was. For a long and untethered moment—how frightening it was—he forgot her name.

  Talmadge, she said.

  What.

  You’re going to miss it.

  But he didn’t miss it. He got on and found a seat and sat down and looked out at the girl sitting slightly hunched in the wagon, looking straight ahead of her. She did it—she remained there—for his sake, he thought; she would much rather have made her way immediately to Caroline Middey’s house, or back to the orchard.

  What are you going to do today? he had asked her, and she had said, after some contemplation, hesitating, glancing at him: I might go fishing.

  In the river? In that place by—

  Yes.

  He nodded. That should be nice, he said.

  The train pulled away and she was gone; soon there was new country out before him, rolling by.

  He had said to Caroline Middey two days before, when they were discussing Della: She will come stay with us, later—not soon, but later—

  Caroline Middey looked at him sharply.

  Maybe after I’m gone, he said. She’s the one—she’s going to stay with the girl.

  Caroline Middey was silent. But then eventually she said: And you’ve spoken to Della about this? Angelene? They’ve agreed to it?

  Talmadge turned his head slightly as if hearing a sound across
the field. He sniffed, was silent.

  Talmadge.

  He did not answer at first. Finally he said: They’re kin.

  Caroline Middey stirred. Said: I knew the girl only a short time, of course. Lord knows I have sympathy for her, for her situation. And then she was silent for a minute, reflecting, remembering. But if she remembered too much, if she called too much forth, she would be unable to say what she was going to say. We each of us decide for ourselves. You can’t force her into coming back.

  Talmadge was silent.

  You are Angelene’s family. I am her family, if you want to think of it that way. Leave the girl alone. Della, I’m talking about. Let her go. She wants to wreak havoc, get into trouble, why hold on to her? Is that who you want to come back to take care of Angelene?

  Talmadge lifted his chin as if he was going to speak, but he did not speak. He was waiting for her, perhaps, to spend herself. To convince him.

  Have the two ever even spoken? I mean, since you found Della? Do they want each other? Does Angelene even want her, Talmadge?

  It doesn’t matter what we want, he said. It’s blood—

  Oh, Talmadge, said Caroline Middey, surprised. The chair squeaked suddenly as she shifted again. Blood! Blood, you speak of! Blood means nothing—

  With Talmadge gone from the orchard and Angelene working alone, the place took on a delicious strangeness, and she often felt as if she was looking at things for the first time.

  There was the creek, endlessly clattering, and the main room of the cabin, smelling, no matter how much it was aired out, of beeswax and old paper. There was the smell of the shed, of damp wood and sun. The smell of earth and grass, the leagues of forest, after a rain. The smell of cornbread in the oven. The crows in the yard, the glossy midnight of their backs. The interminable chores, both large and small, that constantly, rightly, occupied her. The bright and silent stars at night, so close you felt you could walk into them. The cacophony of birds at dawn.

  There was a certain uncanniness Angelene felt opening her closet in the morning, her oatmeal-colored dress hanging in the space on its hanger, her workboots leaning against each other on the porch. (You turned them over and shook them, knocked them on the post, for mice.) The narrow bed with its purple, red, and green quilt, the bedside table with its jar of rocks, piled books. The porcelain basin near the window where she washed her face, the pitcher with the brown rose painted on it, the large crack like a vein in the bottom of the basin. The apricot orchard, the buzzing bees like a haze in spring. The barn—the smell of hay and manure, grease, old leather. The sun streaming through the slats. The mule’s nose in her palm.

 
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