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The orchardist, p.33
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       The Orchardist, p.33

           Amanda Coplin
 

  The man stared at him.

  Clee repeated these movements, patiently.

  I don’t—

  Again.

  The man hesitated. Tomorrow? he said. You’ll pick up the horses tomorrow?

  Clee nodded.

  Suit yourself, said the man.

  The wrangler told the boy—young, Cayuse, with large, beautiful black eyes—what to do. To wait until night and then take at least ten horses, and include the roans and the white and black and ocher horse and the spotted gray horse. He told the boy to go look at the horses beforehand, in the daylight, and to come back and tell him if he had any questions about which horses he meant. The boy said he understood. The wrangler said that he and Clee would be watching, in case anything went wrong. But nothing should go wrong. Did the boy understand what they wanted him to do?

  I understand, said the boy, and wanted to say but did not, We have stolen horses before, this is nothing new, I know what I’m doing—

  Clee went to see the owner of the horses in the morning, but when he arrived, the owner was abashed, pale.

  Somebody stole the horses, he said.

  On the bench in the garden where she had fallen asleep, Caroline Middey woke. It was late afternoon and she had been dreaming, but about what she could not remember exactly.

  She had been troubled since she dropped the girl off at the train station the day before.

  Around her the garden was in verdant bloom; the smell of the air was almost sickening with odor, and although it was late in the day the last bees were industrious in the crocus, the birds had started their racket in the trees. There was a shadow over most of the grass, and for a moment Caroline Middey did not remember what month it was, or her age; and then she remembered, and knew that she was nearer to death than any of her young enterprises—and why should this surprise her? But the knowledge seemed new—she was going to die, like all the others, and the knowledge was absorbed by the garden, which simultaneously cradled her and drew her out of herself, into the perfume, into the noise.

  Why had she said those words to Talmadge, about Della—that she was beyond help? She heard her own words in her mind as if they issued from another person. She wept now, silently, for herself and for the girl. Her hands rested on either side of her on the soft boards of the bench.

  We do not belong to ourselves alone, she wanted to say, but there was no one to speak to.

  The next day, at one o’clock, Talmadge went to fetch Della. He was allowed to take her for the afternoon; she was to be back by dusk.

  She came up into the courthouse hallway, flanked by two guards. She looked very small between them. She wore a soiled cowboy hat and a man’s shirt. She didn’t look at Talmadge until she stood before him, and then she glanced at him. There was a trace of curiosity there, in her face, before she looked away.

  The warden explained to them both: he was assigning them a guard, a young red-haired man named Officer Wallach, who would shadow them, who would make sure Della didn’t try to run away. Talmadge watched Della’s face as the warden said this, but there was no change. There was to be no leaving the city limits, said the warden; there was to be no consumption of alcohol. Did they understand? Yes, they understood.

  Released, they walked in the direction of the lake. The young man followed behind them, at a distance. As they passed by the storefronts, Talmadge asked Della if she was hungry.

  They went into the café where Talmadge had first dined several months before. They sat at the counter—the young guard took a nearby booth—and Della ordered eggs and sausage and toast, orange juice and coffee. They were silent until the food arrived, and then Della removed her hat and began to eat.

  Talmadge, strangely, did not feel the need to speak to her. He simply watched her. She ate deftly, her eyes downcast. Her hair had grown a little, and she wore it tucked behind her ears. It made her appear even more like an adolescent.

  When she was done eating, she wiped her mouth with her shirtsleeve. She asked if he had any tobacco. He said he did not. She wiped her mouth again, this time with her fingers, and then slid off the stool and went to the guard, who paused in his own eating—he had ordered food as well—and took out a pack of cigarettes and gave one to her. She stood before him a moment longer—her back was to Talmadge, but he could hear her speaking quietly to the guard—and after a moment the man frowned, gave her another cigarette, and then another, and then put the pack away. She bent slightly, and the guard lit her cigarette with a match.

  She returned, sat beside Talmadge.

  The waitress brought her an ashtray.

  Talmadge watched her smoke. What ease. She glanced at him again. Her eyes had taken on some of their sharpness again, after their blandness—detachment—while eating.

  Where are we going?

  I thought we’d go down to the lake.

  She didn’t answer at first.

  Why?

  He looked at her. What do you mean, Why? He thought, but did not say: Is there somewhere else you would rather go?

  She frowned; was going to say something, but stopped herself. All right, she said.

  He watched her smoke.

  What kind of tobacco is that?

  She held the cigarette before her, regarded it. Why?

  What is it?

  She shrugged. Pall Mall.

  You like those?

  She shrugged again, turned and looked out the window to the street.

  What are your regulars?

  What?

  I asked: What are your regulars?

  She glanced at him. Lucky Strikes.

  When he paid the bill, he bought three packs of Lucky Strikes and two matchbooks, and gave them to her. She held them in her hand for a moment, as if testing their weight, and then put them in her pocket.

  Thank you, she said, frowning.

  Going down the platform took a long time, since his legs were still shaky. She did not say anything about this; did not offer to help him. She waited for him at intervals, smoking. Wallach, respectful, stayed far behind. When they reached the bottom, they strolled along the shoreline until they reached the pilings that Talmadge had sat on with Angelene. He sat down, relieved at the opportunity to rest. Della stood near the lapping water, her hair blowing in the wind—she had taken off her hat and slapped her thigh with it—before joining him.

  They looked out over the water.

  Pretty, ain’t it, she said.

  He looked at her. She withdrew the cigarette pack from her pocket.

  It was the time of day when the light on the water winked and sparkled. A few children played again in the shallows. As they watched, the great steamboat came toward them out of the distance, a spot of white gaining shape. It trudged through the water, its whistle groaning.

  It took a long time for it to reach the warehouse. It maneuvered slowly into the building.

  I want to do right by you, he said. Won’t you let me help you?

  She replaced the cigarette pack in her pocket, looked over the water. Did not answer him.

  After a while, he said: He’s dying, you know. He’s going to die without you helping him do it.

  She frowned.

  Some people just can’t die fast enough, she said.

  Talmadge leaned, and spat. Well. He’s on his way. You ought to leave him alone.

  When she turned to him, he could read, in the sudden openness of her face, so
me of her old self, her old meanness and innocence, there.

  You don’t know nothing about it, she said. You ought to stay out of it.

  He wanted to take her by the front of her shirt.

  Didn’t I near kill the man myself? Didn’t I about stab him to death on my own property?

  Well. Not near enough happened to him.

  A breeze came up off the water, smelling cold. He stood suddenly.

  Take my coat.

  She would not take it at first. But he did not relent, and so she took it. It hung heavy from her shoulders.

  I’m not cold, she muttered, and took out another cigarette from the pack, attempted to light it. But there was too much wind. She tried for several minutes but then ceased.

  He turned toward the platform. He could not be sure, but he thought he saw Clee among a group of people watching out over the lake. A tall man wearing a black hat. And then the man—Clee—raised his arm. It was him.

  Talmadge, too, raised his arm.

  What are you doing?

  Nothing, he said, and lowered his arm. Listen, he said, and stepped toward her. When he took her by the shoulders she startled, and tried to pull away.

  Hey—

  You’re a young girl, and he’s at the end of his life. He’s going to die as sure as anything. You can see that, if he’s as sick as the warden says he is. Why can’t you let him be? You hurt him, and you only hurt yourself. You hear me? He’s going to die. But if you get at him again, they’re going to put you away for longer—

  So?

  He shook her. He was ashamed, but he did it. And don’t you care? He spoke louder now, into her face. A young person like yourself? And you got your family—Angelene—to think about? What’s she going to do, if you get locked up for longer? I’m not going to be around forever, and you’re going to be all she’s got—

  She ain’t my responsibility, I ain’t got nothing to do with her—

  But her voice shook.

  He shook her again. Bullshit, he said, his voice quavering, and let her go.

  From way off down the beach, a shot rang out. All the people on the beach, the children in the water, the parents, the strolling couples, turned their heads in the same direction.

  Della, who had stepped back, was rubbing her arms where he had gripped them, and looked in the direction of the shot. Vaguely curious.

  Wallach was walking toward them, turning his head to look over his shoulder at the people beginning to move in the opposite direction down the beach. He jogged the last part of the way toward them. He was frowning.

  You got to come with me, he said.

  No, said Talmadge, and both young people looked at him, surprised.

  The warden promised me my day, said Talmadge. We’ll sit right here for you, we won’t go nowhere. We might go up into town, to get something to eat—

  Old man, said Wallach—almost laughing with surprise—you’re going to follow me. He took a pair of handcuffs off his belt beneath his jacket and put them on Della, who looked down at them disinterestedly.

  Every time I look over my shoulder, I better see you two, said Wallach, wholly serious now, and turned and set off across the beach.

  They followed him. They moved in the direction of the warehouse. As they neared it, more and more people joined them; and the young man in uniform before them appeared and disappeared among the crowd. Wallach looked back a few times, but then he was gone; there was something happening up ahead; a large crowd—

  Talmadge stopped.

  Della stopped too. What?

  They were near the warehouse. Come on, he said. She didn’t move at first, but when he looked over his shoulder, she was following him, moving against the current of people, a blank expression on her face.

  Before they reached the ticket man, Talmadge took off his outer flannel shirt and wrapped it around Della’s bound wrists, to hide the cuffs. Della said nothing. He bought two tickets and then they went together up the gangplank and then onto the boat. Talmadge led her to the cupboard. He slid open the door, and saw the jar of water the girl had put in there. A brown bag of food. A wool blanket. He slid the door back closed, testing its resistance. It was a shallow space, he thought, but she would just fit.

  You want me to get in there?

  Hurry up, he said, and looked around them. Now he sweated. The world, for a moment, seemed ready to burst at its seams.

  When she didn’t move, he said, unable to keep the impatience from his voice: What is it?

  Her mind was chewing on something. She stood there, unmoving.

  He turned and looked around them again. There were not many people on the boat; some had unboarded to see about the commotion on the beach. But they would all be back, and soon.

  You want me to—

  Get in there. Yes. There’s room. And—Angelene left some food in there for you, and water—what is it? You’ll fit, he said again, thinking that was what daunted her.

  But she continued to gaze at the space, as if it were some foreign beast.

  You don’t get caught, you don’t go back, he said. You stay in there for an hour or so, and you can come out. Just keep your cuffs hidden. You get up into Stehekin, you have some time, but not much. Get those cuffs taken care of. There’s a place—

  I know, she said. How did she know? he thought. But then, he thought, she probably did know. This girl had lived many lives. But still she hesitated.

  What is it?

  She would not look at him. She looked down into the cupboard once more—he had slid open the door—and then straightened up, gazed around at the deck. It was as if she was coming out of a dream.

  No.

  Talmadge stood there. It occurred to him at once that if she wouldn’t get into the cupboard, and the young man, Wallach, found them arguing on board, Talmadge would go to jail too, and Angelene would be left alone. Why was it that the most terrible possibilities reveal themselves only at the last moment, when it is too late to change course?

  What do you mean, no? he said, and he heard the anger in his voice. He had to resist the urge to take her arm and throw her, in one violent motion, down into the cupboard. She was not very big, he thought suddenly; he could easily overpower her. And the way she stood there—almost nonchalant, as if they had all the time in the world—made him seethe with incredulity.

  Della, he said, his voice shaking. I’m not going to argue with you, now. You get into that cupboard—

  She looked at him, but as if seeing him from a great distance. She stirred slightly.

  I can’t go, she said. And then, enunciating: I don’t want to go—

  How can you not want to go? he said. His voice was quiet with astonishment. How was it possible that she was refusing him? The extreme obviousness of the mistake she was in the process of making robbed him of sense. He stood there, silent. Helpless.

  It seemed a long time before she turned her body, as if to leave the boat. She hesitated. The guards will be coming soon, she said, without inflection.

  He was staring above the cupboard door, at the white painted boards, a slant of light revealing the cracks and bubbles, curls of peeling paint.

  I wanted you out of that place, he said. I wanted to help. But I also—wanted you to check on her. When she’s older. I wanted you to—

  But he did not finish his sentence.

  Wind came off the water and moved into his hair, got into his clothes. Sh
e would not be entering the cupboard. Neither was there a rush to get back to the crowd on the beach, to save themselves. When Talmadge thought, finally, that’s what they should have done—that’s where he should have led her, at once, after she refused him—three officers rushed onto the boat, and seized them.

  V

  When Talmadge came to take Della down to the lake, she thought it was a gesture meant to inspire her to be good. They were going to send her to Walla Walla—or that is what they told her—but she only half believed they were prepared to do it. She could imagine the conversation between Talmadge and the warden: if Della improved her behavior, if she showed a drastic change in attitude—if she apologized, and perhaps explained her motives, which included divulging her past—then the warden would be that much more likely to consider transferring her elsewhere. Or maybe nowhere at all, if Michaelson was in fact being moved. Chelan did not seem so bad, or so far away, when compared with Walla Walla. This outing to the lake, Della knew, was an opportunity for Talmadge to persuade her to be good: to tell the warden her story, and ask for leniency.

  The officer assigned to them—Wallach—she had never seen before. A new group of officers had arrived lately at the jail for training. Puzzled, earnest, curious faces peered at her now at mealtimes, sometimes offering a tentative greeting through the bars. They all knew who she was, what she had done, but she was indifferent to them. Did not bother to learn their names, or determine in which ways they could be useful to her. She would most likely never see them again, she reasoned, beyond next week and only valued her alliance with Frederick, which was indispensable to her now.

  She had to remind herself that it was real, it was actually going to happen: at the end of the week Frederick would unlock her cell, and she would go to Michaelson, and kill him.

  But that was five days away.

  Now it was nice to be on the beach, it was nice to be out of the cell. And Talmadge had bought her a meal at the café, and cigarettes. She thought it would be all right: and then he began to act funny, trying to talk to her about Michaelson. And he also kept looking over at the platform as if he were waiting for somebody; he even waved at someone. But when she asked him what he was doing, he didn’t answer her. And then the gunshot; and everybody moved down the beach at the same time, to see what was going on. Wallach handcuffed her, and she and Talmadge went down the beach behind him. It was difficult to see; there were many people. Talmadge spoke up, told her to follow him. Reluctantly she obeyed, followed him to the steamboat warehouse. Then he wanted her to get onto the boat. She hesitated, confused. He bought them tickets. On the boat, he led her to a cupboard, and told her to get inside.

 
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