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The orchardist, p.27
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       The Orchardist, p.27

           Amanda Coplin
 

  The wrangler was speaking:

  He would prefer you give it to her. He found it for you to give to her. If you do not want it, he will take it back, he will trade it when we go to auction—

  No, I will take it, said Talmadge. How much?

  They settled on a price.

  When they walked up the hill, they saw that the men were drawing to the porch for their cake and coffee. Talmadge put the rifle in the lower branches of an apricot tree, and they continued to the porch.

  The girl opened the gift from Caroline Middey first. It was a set of hide curing and flint knapping tools. It did not come from the catalog, she told Angelene, but was an amalgamation of different tools she, Caroline Middey, had used over the years, and also those identical to the ones she still used, and swore by. If you are going to be an expert knapper, she said—in a way that made Talmadge understand that they had discussed this before, the girl’s eyes bright with satisfaction and pleasure—then this is where you start, and I shall show you how to do it all, after a bit here. The girl rose and embraced the older woman, and Talmadge wondered: Since when had the girl wanted to learn how to knap? And then Angelene came away from Caroline Middey and turned an expectant look at Talmadge, so open that she blushed and turned her face away.

  Young lady, he said, I believe your gift is over there in the orchard somewhere.

  She smiled at him, took a tentative step in that direction, confused.

  You mean—

  I mean, he said, you should go over to the trees, the one on the end there—and look for it.

  She traveled across the grass, some of the men looking at her curiously—perhaps they had seen the gun too and known what it was she was getting even before he, Talmadge, did—and she went into the trees and then hesitated and then came out a minute later, holding the rifle.

  Oh! said Caroline Middey.

  Angelene came across the grass, holding the rifle awkwardly, turning it in her hands, looking at it. She paused before them.

  It’s so—nice, she said. It has—flowers on it.

  Let me see, dear, said Caroline Middey, and the girl went to her, handed her the gun. She seemed relieved to not be holding it. She looked at Talmadge, confusion drifting across her features.

  Thank you, she said. I thought— She hesitated. It’s very nice. She would not look at him. When she did look at him, it was as if she had mistaken something about him; he had surprised her. She was looking at him as if she had just understood who he was. He was surprised at such an expression. What had she been thinking, before? Why was she so confused? Again he thought of the book of clothing patterns, which he had seen on display in a window in Chelan. He had thought the women on the package seemed sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and strong; and like a fool he had gone in there and inquired of the lady clerk about a gift for his young friend—that was what he had called her, his young friend—and she had suggested the book of patterns.

  Where did you find this? said Caroline Middey now. It is a piece of art— Then, a minute later: It reminds me of something—

  She handed the gun to Clee, who admired it. He nodded at it and smiled at the girl, and then handed the gun to the wrangler, who studied it briefly before handing it to Talmadge.

  You-all haven’t had any coffee, said Angelene, moving suddenly toward the cabin door.

  Clee stirred, and the wrangler said, Clee has something for you.

  Oh, yes, said Angelene, drawing toward them again, blushing.

  Clee took something out of the inside of his jacket pocket. It was a narrow wooden box that opened on a hinge along its spine. Angelene took it, looked at it. Oh, she said, opening it. It’s a cedar box. Smell that— She handed it to Caroline Middey.

  Talmadge, when it was his turn to admire it, turned it over in his hands. The cover was carved with roses.

  I’ve always wanted a pencil box, said Angelene, and, surprising them all, went to Clee, awkwardly embraced him. Clee looked askance, patted her back.

  We find all kinds of things, said the wrangler, at the fairs and auctions—

  When Angelene pulled her face away, she was crying. She smiled at them all. I don’t know why I’m crying, she said. My presents are very nice. And the food—the food—the cake—it is all very good. I just—it’s my birthday—and then she covered her face with her hands.

  Now, now, said Talmadge, after a moment. We haven’t sung the song yet.

  No, Talmadge, don’t sing it, please, she said.

  But he began it. For she’s a jolly good fellow. Caroline Middey sang, and so did some of the men who knew the song, who still remained in the yard.

  When she was younger, when she was four, five, even six years old, he would put her on his shoulders and they would walk through the apricot orchard, she grasping at the ripe fruit, he veering jerkily this way and that, and by her knees she would steer him, and she would shriek with laughter as he skipped and then slowed to a walk. Into the field! she would yell, and he would obey, hurry on his legs (already old then) down across the creek and into the waist-high grass. Why had they begun that ritual? The birthday walk, they had called it. They had begun it to wait for Della, he remembered, those years when she was tardy on the day of the girl’s celebration; to entertain the girl, distract her from the fact of her aunt’s absence, they would take a long walk, sometimes roam the field, pretending Talmadge was a horse and Angelene an explorer, and other times venturing as far as the outer orchard, waiting for a sign, waiting for the other’s appearance. They no longer went on the walk, he thought, because they knew she was not coming; and besides, he could no longer carry her on his shoulders. Standing, now—she had come over to him as they sang—her head rested against his sternum. Difficult to think that he had ever bore that substantial body on his shoulders. Even thinking about it now made him tired. To think of walking to the outer orchard and back after a day like this, of activity and the men’s faces in the yard, the unusual sight of them dressed in town clothes, of their like weariness, made him want to sit in the birchwood chair and give himself over to sweet unconsciousness.

  The girl pulled her face away. Talmadge, she said. She was serious now. Talking about how this year she wanted to try a new apple in the outer orchard, she had been reading about it, she wanted to talk to him about it—

  The girl was fourteen, he thought—fourteen!—and was immediately elated, and sad.

  The handsome guard—Frederick—patted down Della before leading her back into the jail, and found the bottle. He told her to remove it from her waistband. Get it yourself, she said, and when he reached for it—after pausing momentarily—she grabbed it first and then brandished it in front of her. He stepped back—but unhurriedly, and with a strangely amused expression. But there was also concern there. He watched her warily.

  Della, he said, and pushed his cap far back on his head. What are you doing, love.

  Don’t call me that, she said. Then: You let me see him.

  Frederick raised his eyebrows, feigning ignorance.

  I want you to set up something so we can talk.

  You must be dreaming, Miss Michaelson. Prisoner Michaelson.

  I’m not dreaming. I need to speak to him. Wanted to say, but did not: You all harp on about civilized behavior. Well, that’s what I’m trying to do. Talking before killing. Letting him know—reminding him—why I’m killing him.

  Seriously, said Frederick, giving her a frank smile—but still teasing her,
she felt—you best throw that away, or give it to me—

  No. You—you set it up so I can talk to him, and—

  Me?

  Yes. You do that, or else—she stopped to think for a moment—I’ll tell them you tried something with me. The warden won’t like that, will he? A young man forcing himself on a prisoner. A female prisoner! Paused. Then, quietly: I just want to talk to him, is all. For a minute.

  Who?

  You know who.

  He turned his head, looked out over the yard. Squinted in the late sun. Chewed something in his back teeth. She felt, suddenly, that he might help her; and what a miracle it was. After a minute, still not looking at her—she had tucked the bottle again into her waistband—he said, quietly: Are you ready to go in, Prisoner Michaelson?

  He did not take the bottle from her.

  Caroline Middey was not the only one who remembered the rifle. When Angelene first saw it, held within the low boughs of the apricot tree, she caught her breath. But why? Because she had discovered her birthday present? She put her hands on it and disengaged it from the branches and thought—or some part of her registered, for memory still worked hard within her to locate where she had seen the rifle before—that it was simply uncannily familiar to her. She must have seen one like it in town, she thought, or in a catalog: but those two possibilities failed to ring true to her. She carried the rifle out of the orchard, across the grass.

  And that was when she knew, when she saw how Talmadge looked at it, and how the other men—Clee, the wrangler—feigned surprise, and how it caused Caroline Middey’s sudden, alert confusion; all of this, but mostly by Talmadge’s face, which was a touchstone for her, she remembered, she knew, the gun had belonged to Della.

  It’s her gun, isn’t it? she said to Talmadge, two days after her birthday, when they were alone again in the orchard.

  He sat at the table, the lantern lit—it was after supper—polishing his boots. He was planning to leave for Chelan again in two days.

  Yes, he said, and put his fist, which held a flannel scrap, on the tabletop, held still.

  She stood before him.

  Are you angry? he said.

  No—

  They remained still, each one waiting for the other to condemn, to burst out with anger or apology, explanation.

  Angelene, for a moment, could not remember if she was angry or not. She was—had been—impressed by the gun, by the majesty of it, and also by the fact—and this is where most other girls her age would disagree with her—that the rifle was not brand-new, but used. The wood had a fine patina that made Angelene appreciate it, its worn beauty. About who had used it—Della, in the beginning—she harbored feelings of helpless anger, but also—she hated to admit this—a certain tender fascination: young Della, the Della she remembered, toting this weapon on her early excursions into the mountains. She appreciated this too, despite herself.

  But Talmadge had not explained any of this to her. This, the accompanying story, seemed like part of the gift, but instead he had marred it by more silence.

  But this desire—to have it all, the object and the history—was unconceived in her mind, and she knew only that she was unsettled, unsatisfied.

  I’m sorry, he said. You don’t like it?

  I like it—

  Then, a minute later: It is very beautiful. I love it. But—I wish—

  And what did she wish?

  I wish—you would tell me about her.

  She was alarmed she had said such a thing, for she did not think she meant it. She did not want to know about Della, did not want to hear about her. Had said it, perhaps, to hear how it would sound. That was all.

  Talmadge was looking into the corner of the room. He too looked alarmed.

  Oh, I don’t know! she cried. You are so—quiet!—about it! You won’t tell me anything! And Caroline Middey won’t either! Or—not all of it. There’s something you’re not telling me, and I don’t know what it is—

  She held out her arms in front of her, as if trying to shape in the air all that she could not say, all that she did not understand.

  He looked at her, and she regretted everything. Her arms returned to her sides. She regretted stepping out of her room—it had been a whim, after all—to speak to him.

  His face was full of immense sadness.

  Frederick came close to the bars and said that Michaelson would speak to her, if she still wanted him to. He would come and stand outside her bars after lights-out that evening, and she could say what she had to say to him then.

  Let me go see him, she said. Let me go see him in his cell.

  Frederick was incredulous. He tipped his hat back on his forehead, then pulled it down. Laughed shortly. You’re crazy, he said.

  Angelene entered the canyon. Entered the orchard. It would be there, he said, at the bend in the path. It was afternoon, the road was lit up. The rest of the orchard was shadowed by the overhanging canyon wall, but this part was still illuminated. And then the road bent, up ahead, and she could see the tree he was talking about. She saw it and then looked away from it. And then looked again.

  How many times had she looked at this tree? Not once like this. She stood now at the base of it. She had thought in some indirect way, throughout her life, about how large the tree was, how it stood there like a sentry, marking the bend in the road. After the bend the road leads—where? She had never followed that road, never. That amazed her, suddenly. At what point did the road end? She would ask Talmadge about it. No, better yet—she would see for herself.

  But now she looked at the tree. How did one get up into a tree like that? She went to the trunk and looked at the bark. A galaxy of cracks, rivulets. Shining, porous, fibrous skin. She looked up. The nearest branch was maybe fifteen feet up. She scouted the ground as if she would see some sign of how her mother had gotten up into the tree; as if some clue would have waited all these years for her to find it. Of course she found nothing. She rounded the tree slowly, looking at it from different angles.

  Jane would have been there, higher up on the limb. And Della would have been there, a little farther down. It was not hard to imagine two girls sitting on the branch, their legs dangling, fitted with their own nooses. Like a game. And the one on the left—her mother, Jane—saying to the other: The men are coming. I’m going to do it. Come on—and then she jumped. The moments before, that conversation leading up to the moment of jumping, were not hard to imagine. But the moment itself—a girl leaping from a tree, the rope suspended in midair between them, the girl and the tree—that was difficult to imagine. How does a girl get up into a tree such as this and at the same time fix her own circumstances of death? Where did the rope come from? How did she tie the noose? How did she know it would work?

  But an element even more difficult to imagine—even more so than the body of Angelene’s mother hanging in the air—was that what was coming had been more terrifying to the girl than the actual experience of hanging. This was what Angelene could not comprehend.

  She thought of Della. Who, in order to have survived, in all likelihood must have hesitated; she must have watched her sister jump first, and paused on the branch. Why was this other one not as afraid as Angelene’s mother? What was it about the life they had shared that made her, Della, want to remain in the world, when the other one did not? And Jane, Angelene reminded herself, had a child. She had just given birth to an infant who had lived. But the one who hesitated, who somehow found life
worth living, had just suffered enormously, had lost two children who had lived inside her. But she, and not the other one with the living child, had hesitated.

  But, thought Angelene, looking up into the tree, Della had jumped, in the end. Something had persuaded her at last to jump. It could have been her sister struggling. It could have been the despair and the realization of what was happening. It could have been that.

  Angelene could not find a way to climb the tree. And so she returned to the cabin for a ladder.

  Michaelson stood before the bars now. In the dimness Della could barely make out his facial features. From his outline she could tell he held his stomach as before. She had heard him come shuffling down the hallway ten minutes after the lights turned off; Frederick had escorted him, but now he left them alone. You best not try anything, Frederick had said, dead serious now, to Della before leaving. This is a favor, now. You best behave.

  She said nothing.

  Michaelson stood in the dimness, unmoving as a statue.

  What do you want? he finally said. And his voice was low, gravelly, almost slurred.

  Despite herself she came closer to the bars. Hung on to them and pulled herself up so she could get as close to him as she could. She tried to pick up his odor but could not; he smelled of nothing.

  Come closer, she said. But he did not move.

  What do you want, he said again.

  You know who I am?

  Again he was silent. But then he sighed.

 
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