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The orchardist, p.30
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       The Orchardist, p.30

           Amanda Coplin
 

  When Talmadge asked Angelene to accompany him to see Della, she said yes.

  She sat creekside, in a ladder-back chair, doing the washing, the basin at her feet and the washboard between her knees. She wore her washing dress, which was large and shapeless but nevertheless was draped high over one thigh. As she worked, some of her hair had come undone from its bun. In her concentration she poised on the balls of her feet, flexing her calf muscles.

  It was a womanly pose, he decided; and as he regarded her, walking down the hill, he was surprised again at how she was changing, how youth seemed to fall away rapidly now, like a snake shedding its skin. Youth dropping away from her like veils, revealing: What?

  He left his bedroom now in the mornings expecting to see Angelene the girl, but now there was this girl-woman moving about, making coffee and mending his clothes, who sometimes smiled like Angelene but who also donned another face that was gaining steel. Her smiles tended to be absent now, she was distracted; the great wheel of thought had begun to turn. She was off now, and he had to guess more than ever before, these last few weeks, the meaning of her expressions.

  There was something about her appearance now, about her bare leg and the undone hair, that seemed uncouth to him. He was almost angry—but about what? he thought to himself—striding across the grass. She grimaced down at the ground in concentration, plunged her arms again and again into the grayish water. When he approached her, he did not know what to say. But then she glanced up at him, and a moment later sat up straight, ran her arm across her forehead. She was pausing for him, waiting for him to speak. And then he asked her if she wanted to come with him to Chelan, to see Della. Which was not what he had meant to say at all. But he continued: He didn’t know when he would go, but it would be soon. Maybe before the end of the week. She breathed heavily from the exertion of the washing, ran her arm across her brow again, and this time there was a slight change in her eyes—she was not looking at him, but farther down the creek—and she nodded, said, Yes. All right. She curled her lips slightly in anticipation of working again, and then bent to her task.

  Lately she had been taking on more physically demanding chores, the kind that wear out the body completely, or those menial tasks that exhaust just by their mere repetitiveness. He did not ask her to do any of these tasks, and in truth some of them were unnecessary; but he woke in the mornings and she was pulling weeds in the plum orchard, or emptying the pantry, stuffing the cracks in the wall with newspaper. Repainting the shelves. (Where did you get that? he asked her, of the paint. In the shed, she said. For the life of him, he could not recall ever purchasing that paint, but she had it there in her hands, there it was: and so it must be true, he had purchased the paint.) Yesterday she combed the apricot trees for pests, lightly brushing the bark with her fingers, feeling the underside of limbs, pinching off the larvae, squelching them under her bootsole. And today it was washing the linen, even, he saw with astonishment when later it was hung to dry in a tree, the mule’s blanket.

  He turned and headed up to the cabin, unsure of what had just happened. He had gone to tell her to cover herself, to remember her age and sex and where she was, but he had invited her instead to go to Chelan. He did not know what was more strange, that he had asked her such a thing, or that she had said yes.

  That night she asked him, over supper on the porch, when he was planning to go. He said that he hadn’t decided yet. She nodded, but there was an expression on her face: disappointment, or anger, something. After a minute he asked her if there was a time she would prefer over another. She hesitated, then shook her head.

  It’s just, she said.

  He waited.

  It’s just—I need a hat.

  He paused. A hat?

  She nodded. I just have to make sure that before we go, I have time to go to town and get a hat.

  He nodded, as if he understood. But then he asked:

  At the feed and supply store? You mean a work hat? He wondered what was wrong with the hat she had, the good sturdy straw hat they had bought the year before, at the Malaga fair.

  She shook her head. No; the hat I want is at—the lady apparel store.

  He had to remember a moment where it was, the lady apparel store. He did not think he had ever had occasion to go there before. He wondered if Angelene had set foot in there; and if she had, when, and what for. He was mildly curious.

  The lady apparel store?

  Angelene nodded. We are going on the train, aren’t we? If we are going on the train, then I shall—I shall require a hat.

  He had never heard her talk like that before. He didn’t know what to make of it. Ultimately, however, if it was a hat she wanted, then a hat she would have. She would be nervous; perhaps the hat would comfort her. And she never had been a child to ask for things: when they went to town she never begged him for sweets or trinkets like he had heard other children whine for; no, she had always been a spectacle of goodness and obedience. Or obedience was perhaps not the right word, for he never set out rules for her to obey; but she obeyed him nonetheless; she obeyed his unspoken will. He had been lucky, he thought. If she wanted a hat, then she would have a hat.

  If she wanted two hats, she could have two hats.

  In town the next day, with the Judge’s help, Talmadge wrote to the warden, stating that in three days’ time he would be coming again to visit Della; was that all right, and was that a good time, and to please send word immediately if it wasn’t. He posted the letter, and then went to the café to wait for Angelene, whom he had left at the lady apparel store that morning. He had not offered to accompany her inside, and she had not asked. She seemed to know beforehand exactly what she wanted; but as soon as she opened the door to the store, as soon as she let go of his hand on the platform, a lost look came over her face and she moved disoriented through the doorframe. A lady would be there, he thought to himself, to help her. A woman who would know exactly how to help her, who would be much better suited to help her.

  At the café, he ordered a cup of coffee. He sat at the counter. In the corner, a group of men held an anxious discussion. A man called out to him: You’re not set to take the train today, are you? And Talmadge shook his head, asked what the problem was. The man said that a portion of track just up into the mountain pass had been damaged by a rockslide early that morning, and they had shut down the whole system for maybe as long as the rest of the summer. The man shook his head, incredulous, disgusted, but also delighted in the way that people are often delighted by bad news, or the opportunity to discuss bad news that does not immediately affect them. Another man said that they would most likely get things up and running before then, they just had to tell people that it would be much longer than it would, so people would be surprised and satisfied when things were up and running sooner than expected. The men all agreed that this was what was most likely going to happen.

  Talmadge wondered, as he left the café, why they would close down the whole line if only a portion of the track was affected; why not run the line up until the station before the portion that was ruined? But he wasn’t an engineer; those men had their reasons, no doubt.

  When he met Angelene on the street—she had come out of the lady apparel store bearing a hatbox awkwardly beneath one arm—as they walked to the wagon, he told her about the train. There was an alarmed look on her face that softened into blandness a moment later, then resoluteness.

  We’ll take the wagon, she said. Was it a question,
he wondered, or a statement?

  He considered. With both of them driving, he might be able to do it. If she was with him, he knew, he would be able to stand it; he wasn’t even afraid of the bone-weariness that had possessed him the last time.

  I can drive, she said. I can drive the whole way.

  No, he said, and cleared his throat. We’ll take turns. He paused. It’ll be cold at night, we’ll have to—

  I washed all the travel blankets.

  It was true. She had. He said, after a minute: And you can wear your hat.

  Her mouth curled up a little at one corner, but she said nothing.

  There was a different way she walked now, he noticed. She walked with her head high, almost haughty. Proud.

  They arrived in Chelan three days later, in the late morning. They deposited the mule at the stables, and then made their way to the boardinghouse. The landlady was not there, but a young man—friendly, with a head of thick brown hair combed back from his brow—was stationed behind the front counter.

  He introduced himself as the landlady’s son.

  We thought you might be arriving today, he said, and showed them to their rooms on the second floor.

  They washed and dressed separately, and afterward Talmadge went to Angelene’s room and knocked on her door. She opened it.

  He said nothing at first. She wore a pale sky blue silk dress with a dark green sash tied around her waist. Button-up black boots. And there on the bed, in an open-topped box, just unsheathed of tissue paper—Angelene lifted it now—was the hat. It was white and gigantic, a behemoth. Decked out in snippets of blue and green ribbon. She fit it carefully onto her head. It looked like a cake, he thought. Carefully, again, her eyes wide with concentration, she tied ribbons beneath her chin. When she finished, she stood still, and then turned her body slightly toward him.

  She was waiting for praise.

  Oh, he said finally. Well, I’ve never seen one quite like it. That’s a hat, all right. This is the one you got in town?

  She nodded.

  Well—it’s a dandy. A dandy.

  They walked down the stairs, and past the startled expression of the young man, who arrested his arm as he lifted it in farewell.

  Outdoors, the air was incredibly fresh. Cool. Piney. She took his arm.

  What is that? she asked after a minute, and he knew she was referring to the clean, wet, rich odor of the air. It smells like—

  The lake, he said. We’ll go see it later. Then, because it had just occurred to him: We’ve never been here before, together, have we?

  She shook her head.

  Talmadge, she said a minute later.

  What?

  She hesitated. Nothing. Never mind.

  There was the courthouse, and the great lawn before it. Men sat on benches set up from the sidewalk, reading newspapers.

  They began to climb the steps. When they were almost to the top, she slowed. Halted.

  It’s just in here, he said, and continued to attempt to guide her upward.

  She pulled her arm from his. When he looked at her, he saw her expression. Of indecision. Fear.

  Talmadge, she said again.

  He looked away from her, at the steps they had climbed, at the lawn.

  All right, he said.

  I can’t.

  He hesitated.

  I’m sorry—

  It’s all right.

  She bowed her head; and despite his disappointment—the girl would not go in after all to see Della—he feared that the girl’s hat would overbalance her.

  She had lifted her head again. Began to untie the ribbons at her chin. Removed the hat. Her head now—her skull—looked unnaturally small.

  You wait out here, he said. I’ll be—no more than an hour. He paused. You’re sure, now?

  She hesitated, then nodded.

  He watched her descend the steps and then cut away across the lawn. Head to a tree in the near distance.

  Angelene walked across the grass. She was a coward, she thought calmly: she must accept it.

  She had thought herself brave, when Talmadge that day had approached her as she did the washing and asked her to go to Chelan. She had not wanted to go, had not felt herself rise to the invitation: but she said yes. Because she had been told—she now knew—what had happened to Della and Jane, and the structure for sympathy had been laid: Della was worthy of her pity, and so she, Angelene, would pity her. She would comfort and help her, because that’s what Talmadge was doing. And though he did not say this, this is what he expected of her too.

  To go along with this new benevolence she did not feel but was prepared to feel, she sought to alter her outward appearance accordingly. She changed her posture; she bought a hat. Any day now she would be flush with the clarity and confidence of adulthood.

  But she did not know where the doubt, the fear, began. It had always been there, but she had sought to rearrange it within herself; and in the constant rearrangement was transformation. This is what she told herself; what she hoped. And then when she decided that it was in fact doubt and fear that she felt, she told herself such feelings didn’t matter, ultimately. What mattered was that she was trying to feel otherwise. But the walk to the courthouse proved her undoing: her hand felt cold in Talmadge’s hot one. She could not do it, she decided as they ascended the steps. She was not an adult; she was not benevolent, she was not brave. If she were made to stand before the bars and confront that person—that hero and monster out of her youth—then she would throw a tantrum. She would pull her own hair, she would kick the bars. She would howl. Della knew something about her, Angelene, that Angelene did not yet know about herself; and that knowledge infuriated her.

  She was not yet ready to see her. And so Talmadge continued up the courthouse stairs alone.

  Angelene sat now on a bench affixed to a giant tree—a pine—overlooking the lawn gently sloping to the street below. A band of lake showed between the storefronts on the opposite side of the street.

  Her hat sat beside her on the bench, a failed friend. The wind rose and got into the collar of her dress, and bathed her head. She breathed deeply, not feeling so ashamed anymore. She waited.

  Della sensed Talmadge coming before she saw him; and then, before the guard appeared leading him, she smelled his pine-scented hair dressing. And then heard the telltale clearing of his throat. A nervous tic she remembered from her adolescence. She avoided looking at him for as long as possible.

  Eventually she lifted her eyes to him.

  The guard left them alone. Talmadge stood close to the bars, gripping the top of a canvas sack in his fist.

  He saw her looking at the bag.

  Not from me, he said. They’re from the girl. When we left— But then he hesitated, and looked away from her, briefly. Said: She thought you might like some apricots.

  Della told herself she would not go to him, but she felt herself drawing toward the bars. She took the sack from him, looked inside. There were nine apricots—she counted them—glowing at the bottom of the sack, some still with leaves on them.

  Have you talked to the warden? said Talmadge.

  Della turned and walked to the window, looked out. She had caught that slip of his—When we left—that made her think the girl—Angelene—was close by.

  She looked out the window.

  Is she here with you?

  He didn’t answer right away.

  She didn’t want to come ins
ide, this time, he said.

  Della peered out at the courthouse lawn. Far away, near the street, stood a tall pine with three benches built around its trunk. On the bench on the opposite side of the tree from her sat a girl or woman, turned so she could just make out her profile. But then the girl-woman moved, and was gone from view. Della could just see a portion of her shoulder. And then the girl turned again, and there was the side of her face.

  Is she outside?

  Talmadge was silent.

  The girl-woman shifted back and forth by the smallest degrees. What was she doing? Reading? Speaking to somebody? Feeding squirrels or birds? The wind came and pressed the tree boughs down over the benches, and the girl was obscured from view.

  Della wanted, suddenly, to see her in her fullness. She wanted the girl to get up and walk across the lawn, toward the window, so that she could see her.

  Is she outside? Is she wearing a—white dress? Or—blue?

  Pause.

  Yes.

  The evergreen bough had risen, and the girl, revealed momentarily, scratched her shoulder. Angelene.

  You behave, said Talmadge. You keep to yourself. I have the Judge working on this. We’re trying to get you out of here. But you have to be good. You have to leave him alone. Della?

  If only Angelene were sitting on the bench facing the courthouse. Then Della could see all of her. But who would want to sit facing the courthouse, when you had the other view? Della didn’t blame her at all.

  Why won’t she come in? Are they—won’t they let her?

  When Talmadge was silent, Della understood. Of course the girl didn’t want to come inside. Why would she?

  Della went to the cot and stood beside it. Feeling like she had missed an important point. Someone had once told her what to remember, and she had forgotten it. She forgot it a long time ago but had now just missed it. She had been paying attention to other things. She had made a mistake, somewhere. For a moment she was untethered. Weak.

 
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