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The orchardist, p.28
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       The Orchardist, p.28

           Amanda Coplin
 

  There are so many of you.

  And then it was silent.

  I’m Della, she said. Della Michaelson. Then, when he didn’t say anything: I’m named after you. You gave me your name! I can’t even remember my other name!

  He shifted slightly. That is what I did, he said. Sighed again. That was the way I used to do it, it made things easier. But—that is over now. I am not that person anymore. I have changed. Do you not know it is possible to change?

  She had been waiting for it without even being aware that she was waiting for it: the old familiar note of self-righteousness. He had hit it perfectly. She gripped the bars and pulled herself up, almost off the ground. Her hands were sweating. Liar, she said, quietly.

  Hush, said Michaelson.

  Hush, she said.

  That was before. I am a new man now. I have—changed my ways. And he coughed quietly while holding his stomach.

  She whispered again: Liar!

  He ignored her, said: It’s true. While I have always been sensitive to the Lord’s instruction, I have now learned to—reinterpret—some of His teachings—

  I’m going to kill you, she said.

  No, he said sadly. I believe this sickness will do it first. This sickness is doing things to me that you are not capable of. You should be thanking the sickness, if anything.

  She tried to shake the bars, but of course they did not move.

  I’m going to kill you! said Della. You killed my sister!

  In the silence she could tell that he did not know who she was talking about. Before she could stop herself, she said: Jane! You killed Jane!

  And then the air between them changed. Michaelson did not speak for several minutes.

  Jane, he said. Ah, yes.

  You remember her—

  There was another silence, and then he said, Yes. And then, several moments later, And you must be that pesky sister of hers—

  Della, she said. Della!

  And she felt him study her anew in the dark.

  Look what you’ve become, he said. In prison, and threatening to kill a man of God!

  A man of God! she bleated. A man of God!

  Mock me if you want to—

  You’re a liar! You are not a man of God! And if you are—then I do not believe in God!

  Blasphemer!

  She was crying and shaking the bars. She hit her head on the bars. She reached through the bars and tried to catch him, but he stood too far back from her.

  Look at you, he said. Ah, now I remember! Now I remember you well!

  She screamed, and in between her screaming—living in her scream—she could hear him laugh. But she did not know if he was laughing now, or if it was her own scream that contained his laughter that she was hearing.

  Angelene sat on the limb from which her mother had hanged herself. From there she could see out over the orchard and beyond a portion of the field. It was the best vantage, she decided, from which to observe people entering the canyon mouth. It must have been this factor—the ability to witness the shaking trees, the hides of the men’s horses and the flesh of the men themselves glimpsed through the foliage below—that spurred Della at last to jump. Jane could imagine what was coming, and that was enough for her to act, but Della needed the rawness of the calamity opening right in front of her to urge her off the branch.

  Angelene waited for the trees to shake, but no trees shook for her. All was still.

  All at once the birds set up a clamor in the deep forest. The sun was setting.

  She climbed down out of the tree, her heart pounding. What if Talmadge had found her there? Somehow it had been necessary to climb the tree; but she would not do it—there was no reason to ever do it—again.

  The night Michaelson came to see Della, they put her afterward in solitary confinement. Although she had not touched him. She could not stop screaming. She screamed to cover the sound of her own screaming. Frederick rushed Michaelson back into his own cell, and by the time the head guard on duty came inside and fixed the lights, Della had bloodied her mouth on the bars. What is she doing? the head guard asked Frederick. What happened? Frederick shrugged, his face red. They opened Della’s cell and put their hands on her and took her away.

  The warden will come see you tomorrow, said the head guard, who had blood now on his shirt. He released her into the new cell and pulled the door shut behind him. Bent and spoke through the small window: Try to get ahold of yourself, for Christ’s sake—

  Talmadge arrived again at the courthouse. The warden, when he came out to meet him, told him that he would like to speak to him privately. He led Talmadge through the hallway, to his office.

  Talmadge knew, without the warden saying anything, that Della had gotten into trouble again.

  The warden motioned to the chair before his desk, and Talmadge, after a moment, sat down.

  It’s inexcusable, really, said the warden, also sitting. She’s had—a fit, of sorts.

  Talmadge experienced a twinge of panic. He waited for the warden to continue.

  A fit?

  The warden made a face of disgust. It happened after lights-out, two days ago. She threw a tantrum. The head guard on duty judged it necessary to put her in solitary confinement, for her own safety—

  For her own safety? said Talmadge, bewildered. What do you mean?

  The warden pursed his lips, would not meet Talmadge’s eye. It was a full—raging—mad—fit. The walls of the solitary cell are padded, there was less likelihood of her hurting herself—

  Talmadge was speechless. Imagined her now, in a cage. He gripped the arms of the chair in which he sat.

  The warden seemed embarrassed. She’s calmed down, he said. She’s—contained now.

  Contained? said Talmadge. She’s still in there?

  Yes, said the warden, and for a moment seemed embarrassed again—or was it shame? But the moment passed, and his expression was hard. Like I said, it’s for her own good. She doesn’t even seem to want to come out—

  Talmadge grunted in dismay, and the warden looked at him sharply.

  There was a silence.

  Well, something must have set her off, said Talmadge. A person just doesn’t fly into a fit. What happened?

  The warden frowned.

  Somebody must have said something to her, said Talmadge. Then, after a moment: The man she attacked a while back, maybe. Where was he during all of this?

  The warden was staring stonily into the corner of the room, distracted. As if a new line of speculation had just been introduced to him, and he was busy following it now.

  This man, said Talmadge—what was his name?

  De Quincey.

  De Quincey. Where was he when she had her fit?

  In his cell, of course.

  Could he have—called to her?

  The warden, after a moment, shook his head. Someone would have heard them. Someone would have reported it, if he was abusing her. Or the guard would have heard something. The warden looked uncertainly at Talmadge. No matter what has happened thus far concerning Della, we actually run quite a tight ship here, and we pride ourselves on our humane treatment of the prisoners—

  Talmadge was silent.

  And besides, said the warden. This man—De Quincey—he’s sick.

  Sick?

  The warden nodded, looked again into the corner of the room. He has cancer of the stomach. He can barely walk to the yard, let
alone call down the hallway. He’s quite weak.

  Silence passed.

  Who is he? said Talmadge, thinking: There must be more to the situation than this. Della would not harass or hurt a man just to do it. There was something here that neither man was seeing.

  The warden looked at him quickly, annoyed. I told you, Robert De Quincey—

  No, said Talmadge, and cleared his throat. I mean—what is he like? What does he look like? What is his—profession?

  The warden sat back in his chair.

  Large fellow. Sick, like I said. He paused. He was brought in around the same time as Della, as a matter of fact. Again he paused. We found him up on the highlands, he was wanted for running a still up there, he had some sort of outfit there in the woods, gambling and whatnot. Strange man. The warden shrugged, as if to say that it made no difference if he was strange or not. Quiet fellow, he continued. Intense. Then, as an afterthought: People up around Ruby City say he was into all kinds of things—gambling, girls, gunrunning—

  Talmadge sat forward.

  What did you say his name was?

  The warden looked at him blankly, surprised that he, Talmadge, would ask the question again.

  De Quincey, he said. He regarded Talmadge a moment later, sharply, with curiosity. Why? Do you know him?

  But Talmadge didn’t answer. If it was true, what he was thinking—the man was Michaelson—then surely there was no mercy in the world.

  What is it? said the warden. Do they know each other?

  Why hadn’t Della told him, thought Talmadge, when he was there to see her before? Didn’t she know that if she told him, he would be able to help her?

  He stood.

  The warden, also, stood.

  They stared at each other.

  I want to see her now, said Talmadge.

  The warden looked over Talmadge’s shoulder, at the wall. As if considering the request.

  Was it possible, thought Talmadge, that after all this, the warden would not let him see the girl?

  I’m not going anywhere until I see her, said Talmadge quietly.

  The warden, after a moment, glanced at him. He moved toward the doorway.

  Follow me.

  The cell where Della was kept—in solitary confinement—was separate from the other cells. They entered the jail, the warden leading Talmadge, and instead of heading straight down the hallway, they took a sharp right, and walked with the holding cell on their left—which at that moment held two men, both of them on bare cots, apparently asleep. Through the bars Talmadge could smell the alcohol. The warden, before him, cleared his throat: and the sound was absorbed immediately by the walls, the air. They turned right, quickly, again; the warden quietly cursed his lack of a lantern, and they continued down the hallway. Near the very end, on the left, was a door, with one small rectangular window at waist height. It was incredibly dark, and Talmadge could not understand why the hallway was unlit. The warden rapped three times on the door, then took a ring of keys clutched in his fist—he had carried them from his office—and unlocked the door, opened it.

  The darkness was almost beautiful. It was wet-black and rich, smelled of soil.

  Della? the warden called.

  There was no answer.

  Someone is here to see you. Mr. Talmadge is here to see you.

  Still no answer.

  Again he called into the darkness: You are allowed to see him if you wish. You can go outside, if you like. Wouldn’t you like to go outside?

  And then a sound from within, a croak:

  No.

  Talmadge touched the warden’s shoulder, said: It’s all right. I’ll go inside, if you’ll let us be for a few minutes—

  The warden, hesitating, finally stepped aside.

  This is highly unorthodox. I can’t be responsible for—her actions—if you go in there. I don’t know what she’s capable of doing—

  It will be all right, said Talmadge. Then: I take responsibility for whatever happens. I just want to talk to her. It will be all right.

  Della, called the warden again, after a moment, into the dark. Della, I’m going to leave Mr. Talmadge here with you. He’s going to talk to you. This is a favor to—both of you. Then, when there was no response, the warden turned to Talmadge: I’ll be waiting down the hall. Please don’t be too long.

  Talmadge entered the darkness.

  Della?

  I’m here. Don’t touch me.

  I won’t touch you.

  And indeed he couldn’t even see her. He felt as if he had lost his bearings, was beginning to lose sense of his physical boundaries, his body. He raised his hand in front of his face but could not see it. There was a suggestion—a ghost—of a lesser darkness near where he guessed the door was at. But still he could not locate her form.

  He became aware, suddenly, of the sound of his own breathing. And it was creaking, somewhat labored.

  Oh— he said.

  There was the sound of her movement—a shifting—in the space below him.

  What do you want. What are you doing here.

  Are you sick? he said, confused. Are you all right? They say you had a fit. Is that true?

  A fit, she said. I suppose so. A fit. She laughed, but ceased abruptly.

  I know who it is, he said after a moment, deciding to address the problem directly and at once. I know what’s going on.

  Silence again. He felt, for a moment, that she was not there. There was a startling lack of attention.

  Della? Are you there?

  Listen, she said, and her voice was so quiet it was almost inaudible. He strained to hear her. Don’t tell the warden. Don’t tell anyone about this, or I’ll—

  Don’t threaten me, young lady, he said, his voice loud; and again he heard his own terrible breathing. He could not hear Della’s breath at all. I’m here to help you, and you’d better listen to me. I’m going to tell the warden and the Judge about Michaelson, and I aim to get you out of this place. Or transferred, at least. This is no place for you. I don’t care what you did. And—he said suddenly—I want to know: Did you kill that man in the first place, or was that a lie to get you in here? The possibility—the likelihood—of what she had done, her strategy, was forming rapidly in his mind now, took shape before him in the darkness.

  I probably killed somebody, she said after a long silence. Even if it wasn’t the one I thought I did—

  Hush, said Talmadge, startled. You just hush. Don’t go saying those sorts of things in here. We got to get the Judge’s help, we got to know what he would do—

  Please, said Della, and he could feel her now in the dark rise, there was a subtle breeze. Please don’t say anything to the warden. It’s—important to me. Please. I’ll—tell him myself.

  Talmadge grunted.

  Please, Talmadge, she said, and it was this—the sound, unself-conscious, of his name in her mouth—that instigated his relenting. He was silent.

  It’s my trouble, she said. Let me tell him.

  You tell him, he said finally. All right. But you better do it.

  I’ll tell him.

  All right.

  He moved toward the lighter darkness. His body ached. It seemed he would never reach the door.

  Are you coming? Della? They said you don’t have to stay in here anymore. Come on out, now.

  There was a brief silence.

  I’ll come out, she said.

  I’ll get
the warden—

  No, she said. You go first. I’ll come out later.

  He hesitated in the threshold.

  Della, he said. Come on, now.

  I don’t want you to see me, she said.

  Caroline Middey and Angelene stood in the wet heat of the main room of the cabin, immersed in the project of canning vegetables. Water roiled in the large cast-iron basin on the woodstove and the girl, on a stool, eyed the water level over the tops of the jars, touching their tops with a wooden spoon.

  Caroline Middey had arrived that morning unexpectedly. Angelene, when she heard the far-off noise of the bells on the mule’s breastplate and the creaking of the wagon, realized she had been waiting for her to come. The wagon was full of bushels of vegetables and fruit and Caroline Middey’s own tools, although there were tools there, Angelene’s and Talmadge’s, she could use. But depending on what she was canning, Caroline Middey preferred to use her own things.

  They had sat on the porch and shucked the corn and shelled the peas in silence. It had taken a long time, and every once in a while one rose to get water or iced tea for them both. Now in the cabin, with the windows shut and the door closed to keep in the heat, it was too hot to talk. Angelene had stripped to her underclothes and wore her hair up in a kerchief. Caroline Middey had rolled up the sleeves of her dress. Both were barefoot. The fine hair at Angelene’s temples was dark with sweat, and both were deeply flushed.

  Caroline Middey was pouring more boiling water into the basin, careful so the cloud of steam did not rush into her face, when she heard a sound of pain behind her. She set the kettle down and turned. Angelene, at the table, had cut her hand on a jar top, and stood clutching her arm to her stomach, forcing herself to look ahead at the wall. She did not want to look at her hand, did not like the sight of blood.

  Let me see.

  Angelene showed her without looking at it herself. The cut was in the center of her palm. It was not deep enough to fret about—it did not need stitching up—but Caroline Middey made her sit down while she fetched the iodine and bandage.

 
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