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The orchardist, p.29
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       The Orchardist, p.29

           Amanda Coplin
 

  The vegetables, said Angelene.

  We’re watching them.

  Caroline Middey, leaning close to her, began to clean the wound. Holding the girl’s hand open in her own, she said quietly and suddenly, as if just remembering it: I had a girl, once, who lived with me. You knew that. (Angelene didn’t.) They sat silently, and then when Caroline Middey began to wrap the hand, she said: She was learning about the herbs, the midwifery. She was what they called my apprentice. When there was another long pause, Angelene looked at Caroline Middey, who was concentrating on the bandage, lost in thought.

  What happened to her?

  Oh— Caroline Middey pinned the end of the soft bandage, and stood. The consumption, when it came through. She died. It was a long time ago.

  When they were finished canning, they opened the door and the windows and went out onto the porch. Then, when that wasn’t enough, they went and crossed the grass, went down to the creek. Waded into the water.

  Oh, Lord, said Caroline Middey, her skirts gathered up around her hips. The water coursed around her knees. She closed her eyes. Oh, that feels nice.

  Angelene sat down carefully so that she was waist-high in the rushing water. After a moment she lay back, holding her bandaged hand up into the air.

  After they cleaned up after the canning, and properly washed and dressed, they ate a meal out on the porch. Caroline Middey had packed a meat pie for them to share, and for dessert she had brought the little cinnamon cookies that Angelene liked so much. Caroline Middey made coffee and they sat in the birch chairs, sated and barefoot, stuffed, tired, content.

  Angelene had closed her eyes, and although she had been distracted from thinking about Talmadge and Della since Caroline Middey arrived that morning, she said: Do you think she’ll come back with him?

  Caroline Middey, after a minute, sighed. I think it’s gone beyond that, she said. Maybe, before—but not now— And for a moment, confused, Caroline Middey realized she did not know how much Talmadge had told the girl. She looked at the girl’s face, but could read nothing there. The girl’s mind worked—she could see the emotion moving there—but at the same time her face was closed. She had seen that before—but where?—and then she remembered it: in Della.

  I don’t pretend to know anything anymore, said Caroline Middey finally. And that was all they spoke of it.

  Della did not leave solitary confinement after Talmadge visited her, but stayed another day. The warden withheld food until she came out. They let her immediately, after she had eaten a little, into the yard.

  The sun assaulted her; she did not know what to do with herself. She could not see properly, but walked in the direction of the fence. It was nearly twenty yards away. She would not make it there, she would turn before she reached it. But this was the only way, to walk in this direction, to reach the exact center of the yard, the place at which she was equally far from every point: the jail and the surrounding fence. In this way, being equidistant from all points, it was almost like being free.

  Before she reached this point she smelled woodsmoke. The odor was coming from the direction of the lake. She stopped walking and tilted her head up at the trees and sky. She couldn’t see the smoke. She couldn’t see the lake. There was a sound coming out of her that frightened her. It was a quiet sound. She touched her face, as if to verify she was still there.

  He slept most of the train ride back to Cashmere. He had barely made the train, had run to the platform, wheezing. He held up his hand. A porter leaned down to help him up. Took his bag from him.

  That’s fine, I’ve got it, Talmadge said, and coughed loudly.

  Are you all right, sir?

  Talmadge walked down the carpeted aisle, gripping the backs of the seats for support, and sat down at the far end of the car, in a seat by the window. Closed his eyes, and willed his body to calm. It hardly felt like his body at all, it was like a wild animal. He removed his hat, his forehead clammy with sweat. Suddenly he was cold. His heart beat raucously within him, and blood thudded in his ears; the world before him tilted. He feared, for a moment, he would faint.

  But he calmed, eventually, and was able to sleep. Woke, and opened his eyes to the dun-colored hills under late afternoon light. He felt extraordinarily empty. The sun a great honey-colored orb he could not look at directly. Caroline Middey would meet him at the station, or the girl. He knew, suddenly, with a sort of detached dread, that once he stepped down off the train, he would be sick.

  The train slowed, switched tracks with a slight jerk, and then slowly and steadily gained speed. He thought of Della—of her voice in the darkness. I don’t want you to see me. But why? he thought. Had she hurt herself so badly? Was she so unclean? Surely she knew he would not mind. But was that really true? he thought. If he had seen her face contorted by injury, or seen the filth on her flesh, would he have been unable to leave her? He felt contempt, suddenly, for the warden, for his brand of gentleness. Must he put her in that godforsaken cell? Solitary confinement. Any punishment seemed better than that. The warden spoke of being humane.

  Talmadge looked out at the hills.

  She would not tell the warden about Michaelson, he decided. But he felt he, Talmadge, had no choice in the matter, to believe her when she said she would tell him herself. Caring for someone meant trusting them. She would not tell the warden the truth: but Talmadge had to give her the choice, at least.

  He continued to gaze out the window. He would wait until the end of the week, he decided, and then visit her again. He hoped his body would recover in the meantime. He could not wait any longer than that. He would go there and tell the warden the truth. Surely the man would agree that one of them—Della or Michaelson—must be moved. Talmadge would get recommendations from the Judge. If the authorities had not found any body in Seattle, or complaints, any warrants out against her, then maybe she would be let go—into his, Talmadge’s, care. He would take her home, to the orchard.

  But the girl—Della—must remain calm, he thought. She must stay out of trouble. And trust him to figure out the details of her release.

  Outside the train, light raced through a line of birches planted at the edge of a massive field. Tessellation of light through branches and between leaves; an exodus of light, repeating interminably. But it was not the light, he thought, but himself—the train—that moved.

  A week was too long, he thought.

  What happened to you, said Frederick.

  He and Della stood in the yard, near the entrance to the jail. Frederick stood in the shadow of the overhanging roof; Della stood in the sunlight, squinting. Hatless.

  I don’t know, she said. Then: You don’t know what he’s like. When he talks to me, I get so mad—

  Well, said Frederick, after a silence. It’s a shame something like that had to happen.

  It didn’t have to happen, she said. It was my fault. I forgot what he’s like. But—it won’t happen again. I remember what he’s like now. I’m ready, now.

  Frederick appraised her.

  You’ll help me again?

  Frederick said nothing. After a moment he leaned, spat.

  I heard what he done, said Frederick. I heard what kind of place he had up there in the woods. He glanced again at Della, to see if he wanted to question her; he did not.

  She had turned and stared ahead, out across the yard. Her thumbs in her belt loops; a stiff, artificial pose.

  I might help you, said Frederick. Or I
might not. You got to have some plan. He shook his head. I’m not taking any part in something like what happened the other night. Forget that you almost killed yourself. I almost lost my job.

  Della said nothing to this. She continued staring out at the yard, the dust baking in the heat.

  I’ll think of something, she said.

  I don’t know if it makes much difference, Talmadge, said the Judge. I don’t see—

  But Talmadge did not understand how the Judge could not see. To Talmadge it was as clear as glass: Della should not be kept in the same place as James Michaelson.

  It’s not only for her sake— Talmadge began.

  He can’t hurt her, can he? said the Judge. They don’t have access to each other? And Talmadge, she was the one who attacked him—

  Talmadge did not know what to say: the Judge was right. How to express—he had almost said it, before the Judge interrupted him—that he suspected Della was up to something, was possibly planning another attack. It did not matter that she seemed to be without resources: it had seemed that way before, and look how much damage had already been done. He was about to share his suspicions with the Judge, but now he thought it was best to keep such thoughts to himself, lest it cast Della in a more negative light.

  Once the warden knows— said Talmadge.

  He doesn’t know? You didn’t tell him? The Judge regarded him, shocked.

  Talmadge looked away. The girl wanted to tell him herself, and I thought it was best—

  The Judge was quiet, considering. He looked down at his desk, touched some papers before him.

  I’ll draft a petition, asking for one of them to be moved. You can take it with you when you go. Give it to the warden after he finds out about their relationship. He paused. We’re not standing on solid ground here. But I guess it doesn’t hurt to try.

  We have to do something, said Talmadge.

  When Talmadge failed to exit the train, the day before, Angelene and Caroline Middey sat waiting for him in the wagon. They discussed between them if one of them should approach a train official, ask after Talmadge. Or maybe he had decided to take a later train. It was possible. And then Angelene, while they sat in silence, pondering their next action, was suddenly moved with anxious fear and rose, stepped down from the wagon. Told Caroline Middey over her shoulder that she would return in a minute.

  She boarded the train with the help of a surprised-looking porter. Explained, briefly, what she was doing. Who she was looking for.

  The porter led her down the length of the car and then opened a narrow door; helped her across the grated platform, and then into another car. And another.

  I asked him if he needed assistance, said the porter, but he seemed to prefer to be left alone—I thought I would let him rest awhile, there’s no harm, really, this train isn’t set to leave for another two hours—

  She saw Talmadge immediately upon entering the third car. Several rows down on the left, facing her, sitting beside the window, asleep.

  She touched his shoulder. Talmadge.

  He stirred. For a moment after he opened his eyes he was still, gazing out the window, and then he sighed, deeply, stirred again. Are we here already?

  Angelene spoke to the porter: There is an older woman in a wagon just outside, wearing—a straw hat with a green ribbon. Please fetch her, and tell her to come help.

  The porter offered to assist Talmadge off the train.

  That’s all right, said Angelene, shaking her head. We can manage ourselves.

  The porter obeyed.

  Caroline Middey heaved up into the train car, clapping her hat on top of her head to keep it in place, and held still for a moment, gazing down the aisle.

  There you are—

  Together, she and Angelene helped Talmadge from the train.

  Angelene and Talmadge stayed that night, and the following, at Caroline Middey’s house. Talmadge spent most of that time sitting in one of the chairs on the front porch, a quilt over his legs. (A quilt over his legs, though it was July. Angelene’s own scalp perspired; sweat ran down her spine as she walked slowly through the town, her shopping basket on her arm. That was what bothered her most: not his being too weak to dismount the train by himself, but the image of him on the porch, in July, with a blanket over his legs.)

  Angelene went to town the morning of the second day, and when she returned, crossing the field before the house, and approached the porch, where Talmadge and Caroline Middey both sat, they abruptly ceased speaking: she had interrupted an argument.

  What is it? said Angelene. Then, when neither of them answered her: Would you like me to go?

  Caroline Middey gazed sharply at Talmadge, who refused to look at her.

  You might as well tell her, said Caroline Middey. Tell her all of it.

  Talmadge’s jaw worked beneath his flesh; he was swallowing hard—in anger, Angelene thought.

  Talmadge, said Caroline Middey. You can’t tell her only half of it. It’s worse—for everybody—if you tell her only half of it. You’d see that, if you weren’t so doggone stubborn—

  What, said Angelene. What’s going on?

  Neither of them looked at her.

  Talmadge, she said.

  He looked at her then. His face was livid, but closed.

  Get your things, he said. We’re going now.

  He was silent nearly all the way back to the orchard. But finally, as they left the road between wheatfields and entered the forest, he said that Della had been getting into trouble at the jail. She had been getting into fights. (With a man? she asked.) Talmadge hadn’t known who the man was, before, but this last trip he had discovered it was somebody from Della’s and Jane’s past, someone whom Della had reason to hate. The man was, he turned out to be—

  Michaelson, said Angelene. She was driving the wagon, and at this utterance was careful to keep her posture stiff. But fear—or maybe it was a kind of excitement—had landed on her shoulders, substantial and terrible, like a bird of prey. She was chilled, and broke into a sweat.

  Talmadge was silent, but she could feel his surprise. He had forgotten, perhaps, that he had told her the other man’s name.

  What’s going to happen? said Angelene.

  Talmadge was silent for a minute. I talked to the Judge. He’s writing up a petition, to get one of them transferred. He paused. When I go back to Chelan, I’m going to give it to the warden. He was quiet for several minutes. I want her to come home, he said. I’m going to try—with the Judge’s help—to bring her back here.

  Angelene stared ahead. She did not know if she was angry. She wanted to be angry. She was dismayed, and irritated, by the tenderness in his voice. He was a fool, she thought suddenly.

  What did Caroline Middey say? said Angelene. Back at the house. Was she angry?

  Talmadge didn’t answer right away.

  I didn’t want to tell you about him. And she thought you should know.

  Does she want Della to come back? said Angelene, carefully, after a pause, and it was that question—she could feel it in the air between them—that Talmadge did not want to address: the real reason why he and Caroline Middey had been arguing.

  Again he waited to answer.

  Of course, he said.

  There was nothing but time for her in the jail, and yet she could not come up with a plan to get close to Michaelson. In order to kill him, she must be close to him; and in order to be close to h
im, she would either have to find a way—by herself, or with Frederick’s help—to overcome her cell. She could not fit through the bars, even if she starved herself; she had tried it already. (Her body, miraculously, almost fit; but her head was too large.) Frederick would not lead Michaelson back to her cell. And there was no way to access him by simply passing him in the corridor, as they had done in the beginning (her perfect chance! she realized now). Now she was led out separately from the men to the yard, with a margin of several hours between them, for safety.

  The other prisoners, as they passed by her cell, did not look at her anymore. They thought she was insane.

  And so how to go through with it? She thought of poisoning Michaelson’s food, but ultimately rejected that idea because she could see no way to execute it, and besides that she wanted him to die by her own hand—and in a more direct way than poisoning him. She thought to stab him, and then strangle him, would be the best way. Weaken him just enough, and then place her hands around his neck—

  Envisioning this, she slept poorly, and woke sweating in the sheets. At times the fetid odor of the jail seemed new to her, and she longed for the open air. She was suffocating. Became superaware of the bars, their immovability. And began to feel, during certain dark, boundless moments, the possibility of an existing chaos; that she was moving in a chaos so complete she could not fathom it, much less navigate it.

  But she was in control, she told herself, waking suddenly. She rose with difficulty from the cot—at times her body ached now, from what? a unique tiredness—and shuffled to the window. A band of tepid darkness. If she bent low and craned her neck, she could just see the moon. Sometimes it was a bright island on the floor of her cell and she watched it, sitting on her cot, her legs drawn up. Suspicious, and then eventually calm. Sad. Finally, empty. When the moon disappeared, she felt an awful grief in the back of her throat, in her mouth; and she held it there for as long as she was able. She swallowed it. Eventually she lay on her side, and slept.

 
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