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The orchardist, p.26
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       The Orchardist, p.26

           Amanda Coplin

  Della recalled the day she had first seen him, that day in town when she and Jane stood on the street platform, waiting for him to fall asleep so they could steal his fruit. She had been amazed that day, through her hunger, at how slowly he had moved, how alone he seemed. Or maybe this was something she thought later. He was quite large, and tall, but he did not scare them in the least. And in the beginning, when they were all together, Jane kept aloof from him, and Della knew that she should too, but there were those weeks in the orchard when she followed him, and he was kind to her. His kindness was there—it had not changed—as he reached through the bars, his hands clutching the top of the bag.

  He was speaking, but she had not been paying attention. He reached forward and gripped one of the bars. She stared at his knuckles. She realized, when she stole a glance at his face under the brim of his hat—the world of his face—that he was utterly familiar to her.

  What did she say to him? I don’t need anything from you. But that wasn’t important. What one said wasn’t important.

  When he was gone, she went to the window and looked out, but couldn’t see him.

  He slept little on the train to Cashmere. The motion and the constantly changing landscape outside the window gnawed at him and kept him awake. He was dismayed by the thought—his mind kept coming back to it—that he could board a train in Chelan and be delivered to Cashmere the same day. This was the reason for the confusion that kept welling in him, that his mind would not fully accept. And each time he had to reassure himself that such a thing was possible, that he lived in a time when it was possible; and wasn’t that grand? His body did not understand; he had been upset the other time as well, taking Angelene to the ocean. His stomach gripped, he was distracted, kept drawing his face to the window to verify that it was true: he was in Chelan before, but he had left that place, and soon he would be in Cashmere; but that morning he had been at the boardinghouse in the city in which he had seen her. It seemed impossible that he could hold those two places—Chelan, where she was imprisoned, and the orchard, where she was not—in his body at once, that his body could access both places in the realm of one day. It did not seem right. It was the rapidity that overwhelmed him and bothered his sensibility. He had moved slowly all of his life. He was used to seeing things drawn out of themselves by temperature and light, not by harsh action.

  But this was something different. This was how people lived, now.

  But what did she do? said Angelene. She and Caroline Middey sat on the porch, peeling potatoes. What had preceded this question—this outburst—was a timid line of inquiry, begun by the girl, and paced out slowly so as not to jar Caroline Middey, not to upset her. But when Angelene received vague answers—She’s led a different life than you or I, poor dear; or, She just came to her senses, bless her, she’s taking responsibility for her actions; and that from someone who had always been honest with her and avoided simple answers, told her straight what she thought, what the facts were—finally she lost patience and asked the question, the answer to which Caroline Middey kept stepping around—

  What did she do?

  Caroline Middey paused in her work, and then wiped her brow with the back of her hand. It was as if she hadn’t heard Angelene, but Angelene knew she was thinking, and would speak when she was ready.

  Well, I’m going to tell you, said Caroline Middey. And it’s going to be something to take in, all right, but I’m warning you—she lifted her eyes from her work—you will want to judge her, and you are allowed that, I suppose, but it is also your responsibility as . . . part of her—family—to know the whole story about her. Well, she stabbed a man. Yes. And that’s terrible. Just terrible. But—we do not know the whole story, not even me, not even Talmadge. He and the Judge are sorting it out. She stabbed a man—we don’t know why, not really, or who he was—and then she turned herself in. That’s what’s happening. But I doubt we know the half of it.

  Angelene listened carefully. She did not know if she was unimpressed by such news—if she had been expecting it to be something like that, violent—or if she was numb from the shock of it. She hardly felt anything at all. What impressed her most was that Talmadge was visiting somebody who had stabbed someone.

  Did he die? said Angelene. The man?

  We don’t even know that, said Caroline Middey.

  Two guards and the warden came into Della’s cell before breakfast, and the warden told her to step into the corner and remain there: they were going to search her cell for weapons.

  There aren’t any, she said.

  Kindly step back, Della.

  She did as she was told. What shocked her was that he had called her Della. He had always called her Miss Michaelson before. She did not know why it bothered her so much.

  She stood with her back to them so she wouldn’t have to watch what they were doing. They found another stick in the middle stages of being sharpened, and her collection of stones. A bottle.

  This is very bad, said the warden quietly, as he passed her. The guards shuffled behind him. The door was closed, locked behind them; and she was left alone.

  Talmadge immediately forgot about, but was revisited, days later, by the warden’s phrase: how Della had been “a fount of information when she wanted to get in there,” meaning the jail. Talmadge had been surprised, at the time, that the warden had put it that way. Why on earth would anybody want to be incarcerated? Or—he forced himself to ask the question—why would Della?

  Maybe the answer was simple. It was the end of winter—or was it early spring?—when she had turned herself in. Maybe she was cold, and hungry. Warmer weather was coming; but maybe she could not wait any longer. He assumed, at the time of her confession, she was itinerant. Maybe—because of her physical state—she was not in her right mind. He was able to imagine that much: in such a situation, he would concede the possibility of certain mental weakness.

  And maybe, after turning herself in, she realized what she had done—confessed to something terrible, and untrue—and was ashamed to retract her story.

  As for her attacking this other man at the jail—Talmadge did not believe the man totally innocent. He had most likely called to Della, teased her. Provoked her. Talmadge did not believe the warden’s claim that Della and the men had no contact—of course they did. He did not see how the warden could be so naive. Della and the men lived in the same environs. Physical contact was only part of the potential harm.

  Della had her reasons, he believed, for everything. He just needed to talk to her, to understand what had happened—the truth, if you will—so that he would know how best to help her. He had been overwhelmed upon seeing her the first time; but the next time he would gather all the information and not accept silence or any evasion; he would have to be prepared, he would have to be stern. Even intimidating, he thought; though he did not know exactly what that meant, or how it would manifest—

  Now the warden made the guards sweep the yard for objects that could be made into weapons.

  But the yard was large.

  On her tour around the perimeter, in a depression at one end of the yard, near the fence, was a sort of quarry—the smaller stones had been collected by the guards, and only the larger, half-submerged stones remained. There, shining for a moment in the sagebrush—but was it a mirage?—was a flat green bottle, most of the surface coated in dust. A long-legged spider crawled out of the mouth as she took it up.

  Her back was to the courthouse, where the gua
rd might or might not have been watching. She fit the bottle into her waistband and pulled her shirt over it. Smoothed her shirt and glanced over her shoulder. But nobody was watching, nobody was paying attention. She continued onward, toward the other end of the yard.

  Angelene preferred usually to dress in dull, unassuming frocks, complete with her signature straw hat when she went out into the sun or on wagon rides to town, but for her birthday she wore dresses the shades of pale flowers. Also she washed her hair and braided it over her shoulder, as she had when she was very young. It was he who had braided her hair then, securing the ends with bits of twine tied very tight. He had never questioned her about this birthday ritual where she dressed remarkably different from her usual self; thought, somehow, his drawing attention to it would embarrass her.

  The day she turned fourteen, a week after he came back from his second trip to Chelan, he came out of his bedroom in the early morning to see her preparing breakfast. The last year or so she had been waking before him—at dawn, or just after—and spent the mornings alone, outdoors, walking, looking at the fruit. Thinking her thoughts, some of which she told him and others not. This morning she glanced at him, brought him coffee as he sat at the table. She wore the pale purple dress Caroline Middey had sent with him two weeks before, as an early present. It was, he thought, made of the same material as Della’s new shirt, the one Caroline Middey had sent with him as a gift. The morning was cold; the door stood open, and the girl had wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. The way she gathered the shawl across her front, he thought, was distinctly womanly. She glanced at him again, and said: What?

  You look nice today.

  Well— She turned back to the stove and stirred the eggs. Blushing.

  Caroline Middey arrived late morning. She looked out at the men and horses below as if she had seen them every day of her life, and told Angelene to help her unload the sacks of groceries from the wagon.

  There was a ritual to this day: the men would have arrived two or three days beforehand and begun their work in the trees, and then on the day itself, Caroline Middey would arrive, with the groceries necessary to feed twenty people. Bread and corn stew and pickled vegetables this year, with strawberry cake. It was her contribution, said Caroline Middey, when Talmadge tried to give her money for it. He tried to give her money every year, and every year she refused him. Besides this, she would have another gift for the girl; the dress that she had sent with Talmadge before did not count. Spreading out the gift-giving like this was her way of reassuring herself that she was not spoiling the child. But she had another gift for the girl, stowed up with her in the wagon; she would present it after they had eaten, when Talmadge would give her his gift as well, and Clee.

  The men this year had arrived two days before. In the morning the wrangler reminded them of the girl’s birthday, the day they would all take off work early and participate in a feast up on the lawn before the cabin. They worked until noon and then hiked to the upper pool to wash. Afterward they dressed in their fine town clothes if they had them, or at least made an effort to look polished. There was a lot of goofiness with flowers and grass; flowers in their buttonholes, crowns made of grass and cattails. (Some of these were given as gifts to Angelene, who took them and donned them all, or as many as she could, some unspringing from their knots; she crouched down to fetch them up again, tried to reassemble them, on her face her usual look of intense concentration.) Waiting for the call, some men milled about talking and watching the horses, others napped, and others, because they could not help themselves, drew again to the trees, began to do light work there. But all were waiting to be called at the particular time when they would be invited up to eat before the apricot orchard. Finally the time came; the girl went to the ledge above the creek and beckoned them with uncharacteristic boldness, and they traveled to the upper lawn, some settling in chairs or on the grass, some standing. Wordlessly, they took the food offered by Caroline Middey or the girl. They ate second and even third helpings if they were offered, but did not ever ask. Talmadge sat in one of the birchwood chairs on the grass, near the porch. Clee sat beside him, in the other chair; the wrangler beside him, perched on one of the walnut chairs that had been brought out; and Caroline Middey and the girl on the porch steps. They sat with plates of food in their laps.

  How does it feel to be—what is it now—fourteen? said Caroline Middey.

  Angelene looked at her, smiling.

  What? said Caroline Middey.

  It doesn’t feel any different, said Angelene. Or none that I can tell, anyway.

  Fourteen, mused Caroline Middey. That is an important age.

  Is it? Angelene regarded her, half smiling, guessing the woman was teasing her.

  Certainly, said Caroline Middey, but did not explain right away. She took a bite of her bread, chewed it.

  You are almost a young woman. Almost. Some girls are still children at this age. Playing with their dolls and such, talking in their baby voices. Some girls at this age can still be forgiven for doing and saying such things. But we think you are a young lady, we have thought so for quite a while. You are beyond your years, my dear, in many ways. I’ve talked to you about that before, haven’t I?

  Angelene nodded absently, wiped up some soup from her bowl with a piece of bread. Talmadge did not know what Caroline Middey was talking about. Talking about the girl’s womanhood seemed premature. He looked out at the orchard.

  Do you feel like a young woman? persisted Caroline Middey.

  I— said Angelene, chewing. She swallowed, peered out at the trees.

  Oh, now, said Caroline Middey. What I mean is, are you ready to put away childish things? Are you ready to embrace your responsibilities as a young woman, and especially a young woman on a homestead?

  Angelene looked to Talmadge suddenly, thoughtfully.

  He had the impression Caroline Middey was leading up to something, but he didn’t know what it was. She hadn’t informed him of what was about to happen, if anything. It had to do with the gift-giving, most likely.

  Caroline Middey smiled wryly down into her lap.

  I’m just saying, she said, last year I got you that set of whistles—

  Angelene laughed. The woman had bought a set of bird whistles for the girl, who had delightfully confused the local bird population for two weeks after her birthday last year, whistling up into the trees the different calls of their kind. It had amused her for a short time, but the calls had gone unheeded since then. It was, he thought, a child’s gift, and by then, even last year, Angelene was not so much of a child. She was already something different.

  Well, I brought you something different this year, and I wanted to let you know that this is a gift for a young woman, for a serious young woman with a homestead to run. And she put down her bowl and plate to the side of her, on the porch steps, and lumbered up; Talmadge and Clee both rose to assist her, but she waved them away and went inside the cabin. Angelene looked again at the trees. When Caroline Middey returned, she had a package under her arm, and she sat down, gave it to the girl.

  Is it time? said Talmadge. Usually they waited until after the cake and coffee was served for the presents, to draw out the anticipation. Now it was Caroline Middey’s face that turned red.

  I just couldn’t wait, could I? she said.

  Well, I have to get mine, said Talmadge, and stood. Clee and the wrangler stood as well.

  I’ll start the coffee, said Caroline Middey, a
nd the girl rose also to help.

  Clee touched Talmadge’s elbow, and the wrangler said that Clee had something to show him. The three of them traveled across the lawn, where the other men lounged, sated from the meal; smoking, some talking, some napping. Others had gone down to the camp on the edge of the field to sleep in earnest, and this is where the three of them walked now. Clee went into a small tent, and then came out a moment later, carrying a rifle. He handed it to Talmadge.

  For the girl, said the wrangler.

  It was Della’s rifle. Talmadge glanced at Clee, who was watching him, attentive, almost smirking with pleasure. Talmadge held the rifle in his hands, motionless, for a minute, looking at the different shades of wood that he had almost forgotten, and the intricate carving along the butt and forestock. He gripped the rifle tightly in his hands, rubbed his finger across the carving: brambles, ivy. It was, he thought—as he had first thought, holding it those many years ago—unusual and beautiful. He felt for a moment a welling of jealousy that Clee had found the firearm. But the jealousy dissolved as soon as it arose; he gave the rifle back to Clee, who watched him expectantly.

  It’s beautiful, said Talmadge. And then, understanding Clee would give the rifle to the girl now, said: She will like it very much.

  But Clee shook his head, and glanced at the wrangler, who said: He would like you to give it to her. It is an important gift—

  Yes, said Talmadge, after a moment. He was going to say that Clee should give her the gun himself, because he had found it, and there was no reason why Clee should not give her the gun, and not himself. But then he thought about the book of clothing patterns wrapped in butcher paper waiting in the top drawer of his bureau, and gravely doubted himself. Why had he not thought of something as grand as this for the girl—and she had been wanting her own rifle for two years now—something important, with weight?

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