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The orchardist, p.31
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       The Orchardist, p.31

           Amanda Coplin


  But she put up her hand to silence him.

  After several moments, she said: How old is she? She must be nine, or ten by now—

  He was silent, but she could feel his incredulity.

  She is fourteen, he said.

  Long moments passed while she absorbed this.

  Della, he said. I’m going to talk to the warden—

  No, she said, moving toward the bars now. With great effort. No, please, don’t—

  I have to—

  No, please, not yet, give me—another week, at least—

  His eyes became hooded. Why? Why another week?

  I just need another week.

  As Talmadge exited the courthouse, Angelene drew to him from across the grass. When she reached him, gazing at him—shy, expectant—he could not bring himself to greet her. Silently they descended the stone steps, turned onto the street.

  The air was clear and bright. The sky overhead a brilliant blue.

  There were many people out. She again—but hesitantly this time—clasped his arm. The afternoon was expansive, the air was golden: it felt as if evening would never come. The women wore wraps around their shoulders or head, and some glanced at Talmadge and Angelene, curiously, as they passed. They passed a woman and her two children going the opposite direction, a boy and a girl, the woman putting her hand on the back of the boy’s skull to drive him toward the curb of the platform to avoid the pedestrians. The boy wore breeches that came down below his knees, and his hair was plastered around his brow and ears with pomade. They were headed somewhere important: a church service, perhaps, or a funeral. And sure enough, by the time Talmadge and Angelene reached the end of the street—the street continued down the hill in a series of steps and platforms to the lake—church bells pealed. A great gale of swallows erupted over the scaffolding over which they looked; a few crows flew silently; and there was the lake out before them, green-blue and sparkling under the sun. They stood at the south end; the northern end was away into the canyon fifty-five miles. They began to make their way down the steps to the lake. His legs shook, which embarrassed him. Angelene held on to his arm.

  When they reached the bottom of the platform, there was a whole culture at the level of the lake. Couples promenaded under the afternoon sun—Chelan, besides being a business capital of the region, was also a popular spot for honeymooners, for sweethearts—and again, despite the cold that swept over them now, despite the air smelling of smoke and glacier, children played in the water, their guardians hunched under coats and watching them from the shore.

  They walked toward a large warehouse in the distance. The building was placed where the lake curved, was seemingly built on the water, backed by forest. Perhaps there was a café or a food stall there, he thought; he and Angelene had neglected to eat since that morning, and he was hungry.

  Inside the warehouse was a great boat. It was a steamboat, painted white, with green and blue trim. People were boarding the steamboat by way of a wide gangplank bordered by heavy ropes; men and women together, the honeymooners, and other, older couples, and families. One or two others boarded singly. A man at the entrance to the platform sold tickets. Talmadge, after observing the boat for several minutes, went to the man and asked what it was for; where did the boat go? The man—short, mustachioed, wearing a derby cap—looked at Talmadge as if he was stupid. A cigar, which had gone out, was stuck between his lips. Angelene regarded him with barely concealed distaste. When the man spoke, it was in the manner of a drawl, and Talmadge could tell it was a rehearsed speech (he didn’t even look at Talmadge): Haven’t you heard of the Lady of the Lake? The steamboat that goes all the way to the tippety-top of Lake Chelan? You are in luck, my friend, because she only goes twice a day, and you are catching her for her second trip. If you don’t go right now, you will have to come back early, early tomorrow morning, and if you miss that— Here he made a face, as if smelling a bad odor. Well, you might as well go right now, it’s the same trip, different day— And he shrugged, as if he didn’t care. But then he chewed on his cigar for a moment and said, still not looking at Talmadge, What’ll it be, friend? For you and the young lady? Today or tomorrow? Tomorrow or today?

  They bought ice cream cones at a stand on the opposite side of the warehouse and returned to the beach, sat on a pile of old railroad ties that dampened the back of their clothes. He looked out at the water and the children splashing in the shallows, their guardians on the shore. It was too cold for swimming, too cold for ice cream. And yet it was the height of summer. Or just beyond. There were still very hot days to come. The girl ate her ice cream, squinted in the sun reflecting off the water. He did not ask if she wanted to take the boat trip. They had to get back to the orchard. Suddenly it seemed they would never arrive there again. He sat holding the ice cream cone, confused.

  Talmadge, said Angelene: look. The boat was setting out over the water. It moved very slowly, it seemed, but in fact it moved quite quickly.

  By the time they reached the top of the platform, the sun had set. He was upset and shaking, and the ice cream had made him sick.

  She held him lightly by his elbow, but he shook her off and said, gruffly: I’m fine.

  Talmadge would tell the warden about Michaelson: and so now Della had only a very small window in which to act.

  She was not even angry at Talmadge for declaring that he was going to tell the warden about her past. Understood that that was what he thought he had to do. She was tired, and confused. If she had her wits about her, perhaps she would be angry. But she was not angry.

  Please don’t do it, she had said. Please don’t.

  He had been perplexed at her tone—helpless, tired, beseeching—but was resolved. She could see the emotion move like weather across his face.

  I’m going to tell him, he said. He needs to know, Della. We have to—get you out of this place. This will help. Don’t—be afraid.

  She had been silent, and gone with the sack of apricots to the cot, sat down. Wished he would go away. She needed time to lie down and perhaps cry, and sleep: to invent a plan. A plan had eluded her the previous handful of days, but now, tonight, it might visit her. She had to prepare for it.

  Please go.

  Her voice was not angry, but conveyed that she needed him to go, because she was incapable of composing herself any longer for polite company. She had allowed him to remain there speaking to her for a short time, but her patience—her tolerance—for such an exchange had spent itself. She was withering.

  She had closed her eyes, and remained that way for several minutes. When she opened her eyes again, he was gone.

  They have read the petition, said the Judge. They have heard our request. They want to send her to Walla Walla—

  A man’s prison? said Talmadge, rising swiftly as he was able from his chair. That’s their bright answer—

  Talmadge, after a minute, sat down again. The Judge stared at the corner of his desk with a slightly embarrassed expression.

  The Judge explained to Talmadge that Walla Walla accepted female prisoners too; but it was as if Talmadge was incapable of hearing it.

  I don’t think there’s anything we can do, Talmadge.

  Tell them I want to see her.

  I’ll do that, but—

  I want to see her, and I want to take her out for a day before they send her away. They can at least give us that.

  Talmadge, said the Judg
e, carefully, they don’t owe you—or her—anything. He paused. She tried to kill a man, Talmadge. More than one. What do you want them to do?

  Talmadge stood again.

  I want someone to take her out of there! I want someone to take her out of that place!

  After a minute, the Judge drew a piece of paper toward him on the desk. He cleared his throat.

  I’ll see what I can do, he said.

  It was nearing harvesttime, but Talmadge, Angelene noticed, did not prepare as he usually did. He was often in the trees, walking the rows, but he had a harried expression on his face, and he actually did little work. In the weeks before the men came into the orchard, the time Talmadge and Angelene usually devoted to grooming the trees and doing some early picking—the routine was different every year, depending on the state of the trees, and the weather—Talmadge, this year, did not tell her what he was thinking in terms of picking and preparing; he did not share his plans with her at all. She did not even think that he had a plan. Even a year ago such a prospect would have been impossible, in her mind. But now she was not surprised. When had that change, that specific change, occurred?

  She woke at night and heard him moving in the cabin, making coffee, coming in and out from the porch. He could not sleep. He was also losing his appetite.

  The second week in September the men came into the orchard, and despite the state of the trees—it seemed not to matter, suddenly, that they had been neglected—fell to work immediately. Talmadge and Clee did not work with the other men or with Angelene but walked up into the canyon, into the far apple orchard, and then beyond that, to the upper cabin, and the pool.

  I don’t know any other way around it, said Talmadge. I need your help—

  He had leaned down and with great effort overturned a large rock half submerged in the earth. Was searching for—grubs?—beneath it. A distracted expression on his face. Strands of black hair escaped from the pomade slick and fell into his eyes. He pressed his lips together.

  Clee, beside him, had been listening to it all: the waning health of the girl in the jail, her delirium; her insistence on needing more time. Talmadge’s conviction that she wanted to kill this man, Michaelson.

  But she would not kill Michaelson, he wanted to tell Talmadge. She might have indicated her desire to do otherwise, but she would not do it. He recalled the time she had traveled with the men, her wariness at killing any animal for food. Talmadge had taught her how to shoot, and she had successfully—though perhaps not skillfully—hunted and killed animals during her tenure riding the countryside with the men. But Clee watched her closely and saw she would rather not eat meat at all, if it meant she had to kill it herself. Soon after she had joined the men, Clee saw she hardly used her rifle, of which she had been so proud at first, at all. But, he thought, she was proud of it as an object that signified her independence, and not necessarily of its destructive use as a weapon.

  To shoot a creature from a distance was perhaps enjoyable at first, as a game, but to see the effects close up—the bloody corpse, or the suffering animal pulling its mangled appendage across the forest floor—was not only distasteful to her, but appalling. She would, even if often she could not be found to do the chore, help butcher a deer. But a shade would come down over her eyes, and she would perform the task perfunctorily, her attention divorced from the job at hand.

  She had stabbed this man Michaelson so superficially and embarrassingly in the jail, he thought, because she had not the stomach for close physical violence. That was the simplest answer—or one answer—to why she would not kill him. She might think she wanted to kill him; but finally, she was incapable of it.

  Clee stirred from where he had been holding still, watching Talmadge, who had given up his quest for the grubs and now watched the soil, scanned it, disinterestedly. What was he looking for?

  If there’s another way, I don’t see it, said Talmadge, as if talking to himself.

  Let her be, Clee wanted to say. Let her—finally, finally—alone. She will kill him, or she will not. If she does not, something else will come in its place. It’s not for us to decide.

  I have to do it, said Talmadge, staring, defeated, at the soil.

  They stay up there, said Angelene—I don’t know where they go—but while the rest of us work, they go up there into the canyon, and don’t come down until the sun has set. I don’t know what they do up there, or how they eat. They don’t even bring any food with them, she said, flustered.

  Caroline Middey had arrived in her wagon in the afternoon, and Angelene had gone to her, drawn to her from the trees, and when she reached the older woman, Angelene embraced her, placed her head on the other woman’s breast, unabashedly, like a child. What is it? said Caroline Middey. What’s happened? And Angelene, after shedding preliminary tears—these quickly ceased after a flood, and she was embarrassed—led Caroline Middey to the cabin, where Angelene removed the older woman’s boots, and then made her tea. They sat in the birchwood chairs in the new darkness, and Angelene told her what was happening: that Talmadge and Clee held deep conferences in the canyon, leaving the rest of them to work. And lately he hardly spoke to Angelene at all.

  It’s like he’s sick, said Angelene. It’s like he can’t help himself.

  Caroline Middey was nodding. She was silent for several minutes, lost in thought. Eventually she said: He has got it into his mind that he is to be the savior of that girl, and it won’t let him alone. He is going to die of it—

  Don’t say that, said Angelene, sitting up.

  I’m sorry, child, said Caroline Middey. But I have not seen the likes of it before.

  She was silent then, because she had just remembered an exception: his feverish existence after the disappearance of his sister: him refusing food, combing the forest, pocketing different objects—rocks, sticks, flowers—which, he claimed, bore some sort of sign within them. Some sort of map that would show him the way.

  I’ll talk to him, said Caroline Middey. We’ll get this sorted out between us.

  Angelene was silent. Didn’t want to say what she was thinking: that she—Angelene—and Caroline Middey had receded in importance to Talmadge; they had become insubstantial to him. Della was the only one who mattered to him now.

  And then Frederick appeared outside the bars, in the darkness. Della sensed him more than she saw him, and rose from the cot. Nearing the bars, she observed with surprise that he held the posture of one who had been waiting a long time. What had he been doing? Watching her sleep? He was looking at her almost as if he disapproved of her—as if she had done something to deliberately betray him, and he had come to have it out with her. A grimness plagued his mouth.

  What, she said. Then: How long have you been standing there?

  He still peered at her. It was hard to see him in the darkness, which seemed, with every passing moment, to increase. What time was it?

  And then Frederick spoke. At the end of the week, he said, they were taking Michaelson to the hospital ward in Seattle.

  Della waited, alarmed. Why was he telling her this? She asked him if this news was supposed to make her happy. He hesitated and then said it didn’t seem right that a man like Michaelson should die in the comfort of a hospital, while someone like her, Della, for example, was locked up for a crime she committed when she was probably just protecting herself.

  Isn’t that right, he said, looking at her. And that was when she understood what was happening. She told him he was r
ight. He’s going to die anyway, said Frederick, looking away. Probably doing the son of a bitch a favor. And he snorted quietly, gathered phlegm to spit; but he did not.

  Somebody had hurt him, she thought suddenly, without wanting to know it. But she knew it. Big, strapping Frederick. Or not him, but his mother, perhaps. A sister.

  Della asked if he was really telling her what she thought he was telling her.

  He said he was working the morning of the transfer, and would come open her cell. He would come and do that, and then be on his way, he said. What you do outside of that is up to you. I won’t have no more part of it.

  But then he looked at her again.

  They’ll catch you more likely than not, he said. Even if they don’t catch you in the act—and they probably will—they’ll know who did it. This isn’t good for you. He winced with frustration. I mean, you’re going to do it, but—you have to know they’re going to catch you. You have to—decide if it’s worth it. If it is, fine. But if not—

  But Della could not absorb this, she could not listen. Her body had become cold and her fingertips beat. I am a bird, she thought. I am as light as air.

  Harvest was not over yet, but the men had done their preliminary picking and were packing up to leave. Talmadge was preparing to go with them. He and Clee would ride with the men for part of the way and then split off to go to Chelan.

  He did not tell Angelene what they were doing, what was happening. We’re going to go see Della, he said, but would not look at her.

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