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The orchardist, p.32
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       The Orchardist, p.32

           Amanda Coplin
 

  Is she coming back with you? she asked him, baffled. Were there developments he had failed to tell her about? Correspondence from the Judge? The warden? Della herself? And if so, why hadn’t he told her? Why wouldn’t he look at her now? He wouldn’t even answer her questions.

  I can help, she said. Whatever it is, I can help—

  You’ll help by staying here and not asking questions.

  Hurt, she withdrew, went deep into the orchard with her picking bag. He would regret the way he had talked to her, she thought, and come find her, penitent. But he did not. When she went back to the cabin, hungry, after dusk, he had already gone to bed.

  Clee had picked out a horse for Talmadge to ride, and in the morning, at dawn, when the other men were decamping, Talmadge packed his saddlebags. Angelene sat wrapped in a blanket on the porch and watched him. After he was done packing, he went inside the cabin and saw that she had prepared breakfast enough for the both of them. The meal laid out on the table. He hesitated, then retreated to the porch. Stood in front of her.

  Thank you, he said.

  After a moment she rose, and they went inside to eat. They did not speak during the meal.

  He did not want to hurt her. He thought, after he had set off with Clee and the other men, that he would make it up to her when he returned to the orchard. When this whole situation was resolved. He knew he had been absentminded, he had neglected his duties in the orchard and toward her. He had not cared for her as he should have. But it was only because the other one in Chelan needed him so much. He had neglected Angelene for a few weeks, but the other one he had neglected for years—since the beginning, almost. It was time to make up for that now.

  He should have taken Della in hand much sooner, instead of fooling himself into believing he was giving her her independence and freedom. He should have said: No, you may not travel with the men—excusing all his reasons why he had decided otherwise. He had learned, these last few months, the extent of how much he had been responsible for her, and how he had failed her. Where had it begun? He was not fool enough to believe it had begun with him not taking up arms against Michaelson—or not taking up arms to the extent she might have expected, or wanted, him to. It was not as simple as that. The beginning of his failure was unclear. He was not even sure that it was something that he could have prevented. And that, finally, was the hardest part, the hardest thing to accept. His only excuse was that he never knew that it would go this far. He did not know Jane would kill herself from fear. He realized the girl, Della, might have blamed him all this time for not standing up to the other man—she thought he, Talmadge, was weak—but this was only what she felt superficially. Her anger at him was deep, but finally had little to nothing to do with him. The anger was the mask of an emotion that would not show its true face. She fought against the same force against which he fought. Fate, inevitability, luck. God. He would fly in the face of this force now, for her. If she could be freed from it, he would free her. He would make it all up to her, now.

  Della half turned toward the bars, squinting in the sun coming through the small window. There was something she had just remembered or wanted to remember; she did not want to forget it, and at the time of remembering it, it had seemed impossible that she would ever forget it, but now she had forgotten it. She stood and looked at the sun-covered wall. Her mind struggled, but she could not grasp it, that thing.

  A moment before, she had gotten up from the cot on which she lay looking at the window because someone down the hallway was trying to get her attention. Someone had not called her name but something close to it. It was the call and then something after it like a cough and a moan. And then silence. She had risen and gone to the bars, strained to look down the hallway. But it was silent and nobody was there. She had thought for a moment that it was Michaelson trying to get her attention. Trying to communicate a message to her, trying to persuade her not to kill him.

  She had waited and then turned to the wall. Saw the sunlight. There was something she had been thinking about, before, when she lay on the cot. She went to the cot and lay down again. But she could not remember it, that thing. It would not come to her.

  The sound of water roiling in the kettle drew Angelene from the bedroom. Alone in the cabin—in the orchard—she took the towel and lifted the kettle and poured water into the mug with coffee powder and then replaced the kettle onto the stove. Wiped her hands on her apron front and returned to the bedroom, where a white dress was laid out on the bed.

  Midmorning of the second day there was a rainstorm, and Talmadge and Clee hid in a stand of evergreens. It seemed the rain would go on and on. Clee managed to light a cigarette and sat smoking, and by his posture he seemed ready to wait a long time. Talmadge, despite himself, dozed. Woke to Clee stirring. The rain had stopped. They urged the horses out of the trees. Water from the branches poured onto their hats and shoulders. Clee grunted. Up ahead was a railroad track, and they approached it. As they crossed it, the sun came out.

  Della took the box wrapped in twine—had she been saving it for this moment?—from the slit in the mattress where she had hidden it along with the fruit—the apricots that she had not eaten had begun to rot—and untied it. Unlidded the box.

  Inside was a square of cotton batting. She stared at it and then took out the cotton, and something—she barely sensed it—fell out of the box. She bent and inspected the floor and found, a minute later, what had escaped: an apple seed. She picked it up and went to the window, held it in her open palm in the light. Studied it.

  It took Talmadge and Clee three days to reach Chelan. They separated once they reached town, and Talmadge deposited his horse at the stables. As he was checking into the boardinghouse, the landlady smiled tentatively at him and told him that his daughter was already there.

  Pardon?

  But then he looked up to where the lady was smiling and saw Angelene, in a white dress, standing on the staircase. On her face an expression of excitement, fear.

  Out of the landlady’s gaze, in the upper hallway, Talmadge took Angelene’s arm and steered her into his room. She sat on the bed as he shut the door. She bowed her head.

  She had taken the train, she said, her head still bowed, and had arrived the day before. She had gone straight to the boardinghouse, and had not gone out at all. Only the landlady knew she was there. She hesitated before continuing. She didn’t know what was going on, she said, but she knew Talmadge wasn’t there just to visit Della; she knew it was more than that, and that what they were planning, he and Clee, was maybe illegal, or else they wouldn’t be so secretive about it.

  Talmadge held still. He looked over her shoulder into the corner of the room. While traveling to Chelan, he had gone over and over the plan in his head—if one step succeeded, then it opened the possibility of executing the next step, and the next—and the more he thought about it, the more hopeful—though hesitantly so—he became. There were moments of grave doubt; but those were just moments, and they passed. There was dread, but that was also to be expected. Now, with the entrance of the girl, the foundation of the plan shifted, groaned with the effort to sustain the feasibility of succeeding in these new circumstances.

  I don’t know what you’re doing, she said. But I want to help you.

  He didn’t speak for a long time. He didn’t want her involved in any way, but did not know what to tell her now. If he asked her to stay out of it—and what tone would he use for this? What would be most succ
essful? Would she listen to him? Or would his protestation finally work to encourage her? She was no longer a child, but neither was she an adult. He had shielded her from so much already. Whatever speech he directed at her, whatever he asked her to do or not to do, could bring a myriad of consequences. Oh, he was tired of thinking about it all. How his words and deeds affected Della and her trajectory; and now Angelene too.

  Finally he said: I thought maybe, in the beginning— He faltered. I thought maybe, once she got out, she could come and take care of you. But now—

  She watched him.

  What was he saying? The girl, as ever, had this particular effect on him. He spoke things to her, when she solicited them, that he was unaware of even in himself. Opinions. Long-held beliefs and judgments. What was he saying? That he had given up on Della being a guardian for Angelene? That is what he had said. And then, suddenly, he was confused: Della would never return to the orchard. (But that was too much, he thought, that was too far—) He turned his face away, exhausted.

  I can take care of myself, said Angelene, her voice shaking. You don’t need to worry about me.

  Several minutes passed in silence. Talmadge did not know what to say anymore.

  Even if she doesn’t come back to us, he said. We just have to get her out of there. He paused, searching for the right words. She’s sick, he said finally.

  Sick?

  Yes.

  It was quiet for a minute.

  Then we should help her, said Angelene.

  He looked at her.

  No, he said.

  She looked at him, startled.

  Why?

  Because I said so.

  That’s no answer.

  Because—it doesn’t have anything to do with you, he said. I’m the one who got her into this fix. It was me. And now I’m going to help her. But you got to stay out of it. It has nothing to do with you, now.

  She wanted to talk back to him, he saw, but after she met his eyes, she fell silent.

  I have an appointment, he said, finally, and as soon as he said this, and saw her face looking at him, expectant, full of compassion, he experienced vertigo. He put one hand on the bed frame and the other over his eyes.

  Talmadge? Her voice was frightened. Sit down.

  I’m all right. He sat.

  She left the room and returned a minute later with a glass of water. He took it from her and drank. Afterward, hesitating, he reached for her, and she came and sat beside him, laid her head on his chest. He put his arm around her.

  You shouldn’t have come, he said.

  When she woke him from his nap, an hour later, he saw that she had laid out his suit and polished his shoes. After he dressed, she brought him up a plate of roast chicken and mashed potatoes. Placed it near the basin.

  It was four o’clock. He told Angelene that he would be back in an hour or so, and that she shouldn’t leave the boardinghouse. She nodded.

  I’m serious, now.

  I know.

  He walked down the stairs and touched his hat to the landlady, who spoke to another lodger at the counter. He exited the boardinghouse into the expansive, sweet-smelling late afternoon.

  In the warden’s office, the warden sat in strange dimness. It was the time of day when the sun illuminated the opposite side of the building; Talmadge had never visited the warden this late in the afternoon. The warden could have turned on the overhead electric light, but he did not. He sat in the soft darkness and watched Talmadge warily. He had risen to shake Talmadge’s hand when he arrived, and then asked him to sit. Now the warden regarded him with a neutral expression.

  You received our letter, I take it? About the transfer?

  Talmadge nodded.

  The warden gazed down at this desk. A grim, sad smile on his lips.

  Talmadge cleared his throat.

  It’s strange, said the warden suddenly, and raised his eyes to Talmadge. We told her about the transfer, but it’s like she doesn’t care. Or she doesn’t hear us. Sad, he said in the ensuing silence. She seemed so—bright—before, when she first arrived here. Maybe that’s not the right word for it. But she has deteriorated mentally. Physically as well. He sighed. It is a shame—

  Talmadge lifted his chin, as if to speak. He didn’t care for the warden’s words anymore—they didn’t matter—but neither did he want to seem rude. He needed to maintain the warden’s sympathy.

  About your request to take her out, said the warden, leaning back in his chair. It is highly unusual. But, seeing she’s going to be sent away anyway, and there are no laws against such visits, or—he smiled an uncharacteristic, mischievous smile—at least no laws that cannot be circumvented, I’ve decided to allow it. As long as you’re supervised, he said. He continued: he had always been sympathetic toward Della, he said, until a certain point, but when it came to Talmadge—here he looked at Talmadge, unsmiling, serious—he had no qualms.

  Talmadge walked back to the boardinghouse in the waning light. It was done. The first step was completed, it had cleared the way for the rest of it.

  There was a chill in the air.

  Inside the boardinghouse they were having supper. He stood at the base of the stairs and listened briefly to the voices in the dining room, and knew Angelene was not among them. He climbed the stairs, carefully so that he would not make any noise, and made his way down the hallway. Paused outside her door. He should go straight to bed, he thought. He knocked. She answered immediately for him to come in.

  She was in bed, in her nightgown. Her hair loose around her shoulders. She looked frightened. He sat on the edge of the bed. After a moment he took her hand. He told her all of it. That he was going to meet Della tomorrow and take her down to the beach; that Clee was going to create a diversion, which would distract the guard; and that Talmadge was going to lead Della onto the boat, where she would hide, and then the boat would set sail, and she would be free when she reached Stehekin, the small community at the top of the lake. In the silence that followed, he said there were people waiting in Stehekin for her, there was a horse.

  Angelene’s face flushed as he spoke.

  I’ll help you, she said.

  He shook his head.

  Please, Talmadge.

  No.

  Her mouth was hard; her eyes filled with tears.

  He squeezed her hand. You’ll stay here, out of it, he said. It’s the best way.

  But in the morning he returned to her door, and knocked quietly.

  Come in.

  He opened the door. She sat fully dressed on the edge of the made-up bed. As if waiting for him.

  Come with me, he said.

  It had occurred to him, when he had gone to bed the previous night, that he had wanted to keep Della safe, but had failed. He was trying to keep Angelene safe, but might very well be in the process of failing her too. Perhaps the better decision was to include her, after all.

  But in nothing truly dangerous, of course. He was not a monster.

  They walked to the boat together. It was set to depart in one hour, the first of two times that day. Talmadge bought them both tickets, and as they walked up the gangplank, he explained: an hour before the second departure, she, Angelene, was to board the boat and go to the cupboard—they had reached it now—and store a jar of water there, and some food. The supplies were in his saddlebags back at the boardinghouse. All she would have to do would be to open the cupboard, place the items inside, close the
cupboard, and then exit the boat. And then go straight to the boardinghouse and wait until he came for her.

  Let’s go, he said. He did not want to linger too long on the boat. As they passed by the ticket collector, Angelene said, What about him? And Talmadge said, after a long pause, You don’t have to worry about him.

  Clee stood at the side of the arena and watched the horses. There were about twenty-five of them, and some of them were from the mountains. As he stood watching, a man came over to him from inside the arena and touched his hat in greeting.

  Morning.

  Clee nodded.

  They looked out at the horses.

  You doing some buying?

  Clee nodded again.

  The man nodded too, amiably. Seems like you wouldn’t be needing any horses with all them you got.

  Clee did not respond.

  Anything look good to you?

  Clee was watching a white and black and ocher horse near the center of the herd, and also a gray horse with a spotted rump, near the outside. But he pointed to a pair of roans instead.

  Which?

  Clee pointed again, more emphatically.

  The man looked at the ones Clee pointed at. The roans, there? Those look like fine enough horses. He cast a mild puzzled glance at Clee. But like I said, what’s a man like you doing buying horses? You don’t have enough to suit you? And then, seeing Clee’s hesitation, he laughed.

  The owner on the other side of the arena came over to them and greeted them. The other man moved away. Clee, with a gentle but authoritative flourish, again indicated the roans.

  You want to see them first? You want to ride them?

  Clee shook his head. He took out his wallet. After he had paid the man, he pointed at the man’s shoulder to get his attention—the man looked at him, surprised—and then pointed emphatically to the horses and then gestured to the sky, and then drew a small hill in the air with his finger.

 
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