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The orchardist, p.35
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       The Orchardist, p.35

           Amanda Coplin
 

  But when Caroline Middey explained to Talmadge how disclosing the story of Jane’s suicide would help both his and Della’s cases, he refused to tell the Judge about it. With more reflection, he most likely would have changed his mind. Because Caroline Middey, in theory, was correct. But before he could change his mind, Caroline Middey, acting on her own, told the Judge what had happened in the apple orchard those fourteen years before; she told him the whole story.

  After this, the reporters and journalists took a different interest altogether in the case. It grew into what it did in fact resemble, a sordid saga of sex, murder, and mayhem. And the focus was not only on Della and this new character, Jane, and their tormentor, James Michaelson; the Wenatchee World also picked up on a cue from the Leavenworth Echo, where somebody in town reminded the writer about Talmadge’s past, primarily the fact that as a young man, just seventeen years old, he had lost his sister in the forest beyond the homestead. She had gone out with her basket to pick herbs in the afternoon, and simply disappeared.

  It was astounding how one fact can blossom, with the nourishment of speculation, into myriad stories. Talmadge, who was orphaned utterly (utterly because his sister was taken away too) at a young age, lived in the orchard alone for more than forty years before Della and Jane came to live with him. In all that time, some said, he had not stopped grieving for his sister, whom he had loved dearly. One old-timer was tracked down in Peshastin and quoted as remembering the two siblings, Talmadge and his sister, both of them dark-haired and very quiet—“mute-quiet”—walking down the main street of town, holding hands, looking into storefront windows. She was his everything, his alpha and omega, gushed one writer, and then pointed out that it was not surprising that later in life—but did time really matter in affairs of the heart?—he would cling to and act so protectively toward other females. Just as Della Michaelson could not be blamed for wanting to punish her abuser, Talmadge could not help attempting to rescue her. It was as simple as that.

  The stories were traded at a fever pitch among reporters and then, of course, among strangers, those who came to watch the trials in Chelan but also the townspeople of Cashmere, Leavenworth, and Peshastin who were acquainted in different ways with Talmadge, with Angelene, and even with Caroline Middey. All of Angelene’s classmates and their parents reading the newspaper, openmouthed, shaking their heads. It was impossible to say how many people thought they deserved it—You take up with trash, you get what you pay for, one Leavenworth citizen was quoted as saying, bizarrely—or how many people were shocked with them, grieved for them. It was only too bad that to gossip and support mean ideas was easier and more enjoyable, really, than to keep quiet and know in silence that the true story can never be told, articulated in a way that will tell the whole truth. Even if it is better to be quiet, quietness will never reign. People talked, even the best of them.

  Talmadge sat defeated at Della’s trial, a look of incomprehension on his face. The most closely held stories of his life had been plundered and spelled out in the newspapers, his business there for all the world to see. It seemed nothing was kept private, nothing sacred.

  Because of the grand portraits that were drawn of Talmadge and Della, of their pasts and their emotional landscapes, many people sympathized with them. What they had done might not seem right, exactly—the law was the law—but it could certainly be understood why they had done what they had done.

  There were others who were able to keep their distance, who looked at the situation objectively, kept their cool while reading the feverish emotional accounts in the newspapers, and finally decided that the law had been broken, and the reasons why the players had done what they had done didn’t matter, ultimately. If Talmadge had cared too much for the girl, then he should not have adopted her. And what ridiculous logic, they said, a lie really, that Della didn’t have a choice in punishing Michaelson. Of course she had a choice. We all have a choice. She just did not practice self-restraint. These people were amazed by how much print was devoted to, and ultimately wasted on, the feelings of the people involved. As if feelings finally made any difference at all.

  Caroline Middey and Angelene were allowed to see Talmadge after his surgery. Caroline Middey stood by while a nurse bathed him; Angelene excused herself beforehand, waited in the hallway.

  Talmadge, who was overcome perhaps with embarrassment, perhaps by it all, wept silently. Caroline Middey pursed her lips in frustration. It’s all right, she said, after the nurse had gone and she, Caroline Middey, buttoned his pajama shirt and eased him back into the bed, covered him up. He had shut his eyes but was still crying. Caroline Middey sat beside him. Held his hand.

  It’s my fault, he said.

  No, said Caroline Middey. No.

  Soon he was asleep.

  The day Della was to be transferred, two weeks after her sentencing—almost a month after the attempted escape—Caroline Middey and Angelene made their way to the courthouse. There was already a crowd forming. Suddenly it became obvious that there would be newspapermen there, and those men would want to talk to them—Della’s people. And so Caroline Middey led Angelene across the street to the café, where they had a view of the front of the courthouse.

  Vermin, said Caroline Middey.

  When a guard came outdoors and stood on the step and spoke to the people waiting on the lawn, Caroline Middey and Angelene went out.

  When people saw them coming, they let them go to the front. There was a hush as Della was let out. For some reason Angelene thought there would be shouting, or jeering, but there was not, it was very quiet.

  Della came out flanked by two guards. She was squinting, as if it was too bright outdoors. She and the guards reached the bottom of the stairs and began to head toward the prisoner wagon, which was a short distance away.

  Della! Caroline Middey shouted, and raised her hand.

  She looked over at them, confused. Blinked.

  Caroline Middey waved to her.

  There was the sound of someone taking a photograph, a mechanical expulsion of air. It was that quiet in the crowd.

  And then the guards ushered her onto the wagon, and they couldn’t see her anymore.

  VI

  On the way back to Cashmere, on the train, it began to snow. Caroline Middey, who sat across from Angelene, dozed. Angelene looked out the window, at the flakes floating silently in space. It was late afternoon, and the sky was neither light nor dim.

  She recalled the time on the train, only two years before, when she and Talmadge went to Dungeness Bay. Do you remember? she wanted to ask him now, and was startled again—the core of her startled—at his absence. Where was he? But even before this thought was completed, she knew: he was gone. Elsewhere. Another space held him.

  She watched the snow.

  That trip to Dungeness Bay, that whole time, seemed very far away now.

  They arrived to find the orchard in a state of squalor. The late apricots had gone unpicked, and the fruit, having rotted on the limb and in the avenues, lately frozen, had thawed under the sun. A quiet, gleaming excrescence. The rodents and other animals had begun their work. The apples below in the field and in the canyon hung heavy on the limbs, expectant. Some wore hats of snow. They would be useless if a frost had already got them. They glanced at it all. It was pointless to perform an inspection now, this late in the day, said Caroline Middey, wearily. They entered the cabin.

  I’ll make coffee, said Angelene.

  The men arrived two weeks after Angelene and Caroline Middey returned to the orchard. They came into the field as they usually did, thronged by horses, but this time was different because neither Clee nor the wrangler was with them. No one came to greet Angelene right away, though she stood at the lip of the apricot orchard and watched them. Finally a man detached from the herd and came to her. Caroline Middey came from the cabin and stood behind Angelene, her hands on Angelene’s shoulders. Protective. The man
was young, broad-shouldered, handsome. Angelene faintly recognized him. A distant cousin of Clee’s. Caroline Middey had never seen him before. He gazed beyond the women, at the cabin, and then looked at Angelene.

  We have something for you, he said.

  The women followed him down into the field. The other men, as soon as Angelene entered the field, drew to attention. Whoever had been sitting, stood. The man who had come up to Angelene and Caroline Middey went into the herd, and appeared at the far edge a minute later, coming toward them now. He was leading a gray horse with a spotted rump.

  What’s this? said Angelene.

  It was the horse that Talmadge had paid for and Clee had arranged to be waiting for Della in Stehekin.

  He paid for him, he’s yours, said the man. We brought him for you.

  Angelene took the rope from him. The horse was enormous, beautiful.

  Thank you, said Angelene.

  You couldn’t have sold it? said Caroline Middey.

  The man said nothing. He turned, and joined the others.

  By dawn the next day, the men were gone.

  Caroline Middey stayed for a month, helping with the fruit. She was also, Angelene knew, worried about leaving Angelene alone. But that was what Angelene wanted. She didn’t want to go back with Caroline Middey, stay in her house.

  Are you sure? Caroline Middey had asked her. I don’t think— But then she faltered. Had trouble sorting out if she wanted the girl to come live with her, Caroline Middey, for the girl’s sake, or for her own. Whose loneliness were they discussing? Did she, deep down, think the girl capable of caring for herself?

  I’ll come see you, said Caroline Middey. Every other week or so I’ll drive out. And you can come see me when you’re in town.

  Yes, said Angelene.

  Talmadge did not want her to visit him in prison. But if she must contact him, a letter was permissible. Caroline Middey—who was allowed to visit him—would give him reports on the girl’s health and well-being, as well as on the state of the orchard. Likewise, the girl could expect to learn how Talmadge was faring through Caroline Middey.

  That’s not fair, said Angelene, barely able to contain her anger—and sadness, and despair—when this request was presented to her. I want to see him—

  But in the end she finally decided to obey him. She had come to understand that the specificity of the request spoke volumes about his state of mind there, or one he was trying to cultivate. Seeing her might disturb him in a way she was unprepared to take responsibility for, ultimately; and sensing this, she stayed away.

  But she wrote him letters.

  Dear Talmadge, Caroline Middey and I have cleared the apricot orchard and near apple orchard but the far one is a wash this year. Ground froze over before we could help it. It will be easy to recover in the spring, I am not worried. . . . Made you some raisin buns, which I hope keep. I wish you would tell Caroline Middey what you want to eat, so I can know what to pack for you. . . .

  But he never told her things he wanted, just thanked her through Caroline Middey.

  One day Caroline Middey told her that Talmadge had asked if Angelene had been to see Della. Angelene looked at Caroline Middey quickly. The older woman was darning a sock heel in her lap and did not look up. What do you want me to tell him? said Caroline Middey, and from her tone Angelene knew the woman was prepared to lie for her.

  Don’t tell him anything, said Angelene, softly. He can ask me himself.

  Fourteen months translated into nine months. They let him out early for good behavior.

  Angelene and Caroline Middey met him at the train station in Wenatchee. They met him there so they could ride the wagon north, and Talmadge could see the country, the orchards in the height of summer.

  Caroline Middey drove. Talmadge sat on the wagon seat beside her; and Angelene knelt behind him in the wagon bed, her arms encircling his neck. He held her hands with both of his. At times brought her hands up to his cheek, to his lips, kissed them.

  Talmadge approved of the orchard, of all the work that had been undertaken in his absence.

  The men still come? he asked, and she nodded. Although they came less, and more sporadically, now. It was difficult to depend on them; finally, unwise. And so she did not depend on them.

  He absorbed, during the first month, how much work she had actually done.

  Caroline Middey helped too, she said.

  He asked her one day, grabbing her wrist, startling her—it was meant to be playful, but it also contained some anger, she thought—when was the last time she had gone to school.

  She did not answer. But inexplicable to her, tears welled in her eyes. Why should she be ashamed?

  I couldn’t go, she said. I had all of this, here—

  And then he released her, and accepted her as she drew forward to be embraced. She wept against him.

  I’m sorry, he said. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry.

  The first two months he woke in his bed, in the orchard, and did not know where he was. Was he still in the prison, on the low-slung cot? He waited a moment for the odor of piss and standing water to reach him. For a moment he imagined it did, and his soul shrank. And then a sound in the outer room—the stove ticking, a wind bracing the window frame, the girl clearing her throat—familiarized the darkness. This was not a darkness to fear, but his home.

  Only then did he relax and was able to sleep.

  There was this confusion, in the beginning, at night. And then—he did not know why—it left him.

  After that he could recall almost nothing about the prison, about his time there. What he had thought about, how he had passed the hours. What he had eaten, whom he had spoken to. When he thought of prison he imagined Della’s jail cell, and her drawing to him from the other side of the bars. I was in prison, he told himself, had to remind himself. But some odd mercy had found him, and covered, like a cool hand, his memory. He did not know if he should be grateful for this or not.

  It seemed at first that the townspeople did not know how to regard Talmadge and Angelene. When they began to sell fruit again at market, people approached them cautiously. The townspeople did not make small talk like before, and if they smiled, the quality of the smile was peculiar: it either contained fear or a kind of excitement, as if the person was on the verge of asking them outright about what had happened on the beach. Have you been to see her? Have you heard from her? Where is Jane buried? Does the girl (meaning Angelene) know who her father is? Other people stayed away completely, as if Talmadge and Angelene had done something wrong. And Angelene supposed they had, but for people to hold a personal grudge was puzzling to her.

  Talmadge looked through people now. He did not comment about the quantity of the fruit he and Angelene sold, which was about normal, in the end, because while there were those who had bought from them before who now stayed away, others began to buy their fruit for the novelty of it, to say that they had. To show others a nickel Talmadge had handed back to them as change—He touched it—to put it in a ring box, perhaps, to pass down to their children. The worst times were when a lady would approach with a casserole or a cake, determinedly walking toward their booth, and state her condolences outright, or say something about the Lord or about their souls, or Della’s. Talmadge and Angelene did not know what to do with the food. They could not bring themselves to eat it. They would take it home, where it would remain in the icebox, or tucked away on the counter, and go bad. Eventually they dumped it in the scrap heap behind the outhouse.

  It was wonderful when they came into contact with a person who acted as if nothing had ever happened, as if he had not read the newspaper for the last year. Angelene didn’t know if it was reasonable to believe that people were ignorant of her and Talmadge’s personal lives at that point, but she supposed it was possible that some of their acquaintances simply refused to read, after a certain point, about thi
ngs that they deemed none of their business. One such person was the man at the Malaga plant sale, the orchardist who also made rifles, whom Talmadge had known for many years. After the plant sale in late July, the man invited Talmadge and Angelene to his home south of Wenatchee, and they sat on his porch and drank lemonade, and he showed them his workshop where he was working on guns. In his presence Talmadge seemed to relax, and the entire time the man’s face remained neutral, there was no trace of anxiety or pity. Was it possible he did not know what had happened to them? But then once, while Talmadge was talking, Angelene looked at the man and he was staring at her almost as if he was angry. But it was not anger. He was trying not to let the pity through. They looked away from each other. The entire exchange transpired in a matter of seconds.

  And of course Talmadge and Angelene regularly visited Caroline Middey while they were in town, and also, at times, they stopped by the Marsdens’. Talmadge would be driving the wagon north on the road out of town, toward the foothills, when suddenly he would urge the mule across the field and onto the lower road that led to the Marsden mansion. There were no more long talks in the study between the two men; now all four of them—Talmadge, Angelene, the Judge, and his sister, Meredith—sat in the dining room with the curtains pulled back on a view of the river, and ate pie and drank coffee. The talk was light, of weather mostly, and of the orchard. There were awkward moments when it was apparent one of them was thinking of Della, or a detail of what had happened the previous year, but no one ever spoke of it. It was awkward enough that Angelene was incredulous every time Talmadge urged the mule to the lower road; as if he could not, for some reason, help himself.

 
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