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The orchardist, p.37
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       The Orchardist, p.37

           Amanda Coplin
 

  Della, after a moment, shrugged. Stared again into the corner of the room.

  Thought I’d feel glad about it. Or sad, maybe. She shrugged again. Maybe that sounds strange. I don’t know. Thought I’d feel something. She paused. But I don’t.

  Della often thought she saw the girl, Angelene, on the prison grounds, but it was always somebody else. Reason told her that there was no way the girl could be incarcerated there, but during those moments when she thought she saw the girl, she believed it was her with her whole heart. Reason had nothing to do with it.

  The other prisoners were not unkind to her, and among the other women there was the possibility of friendship, but she kept herself separate from them. She was already thin, but she lost more weight; she looked at herself in the mirror and hardly recognized her face. She developed eczema on her scalp so badly that the prison barber had to cut her hair off for it to be properly medicated. She looked more like a boy than ever, but she didn’t care.

  She worked in the laundry, spending the afternoons sorting and washing sheets and prison uniforms. The filth and the stains disgusted some of the workers, but she was immune to it all. Such things did not disgust her.

  The days went by. One day was very much like another. She enjoyed her job at the laundry, which was the easiest job she had ever had. And then she reminded herself that it wasn’t actually a job.

  And then in the summer—she had been in prison for almost two years—the guard came to her cell where she lay on her cot and told her she had a visitor. She did not even ask who it was, thinking it was Caroline Middey, who visited her every few months. She got up and waited while the guard unlocked the door and then led her down the hallway, showed her into the room where she would see the visitor through the screen. She saw, a moment later, the figure standing, the girl.

  She wanted to speak to the girl, but could not. She felt as if someone had punched her in the stomach. She made it to the chair before the screen, and sat down, and the girl sat as well, and then soon after that Della started crying. She was sick. There was too much she wanted to say.

  But eventually she calmed, and they had a conversation. For some reason Della heard herself asking if the girl had thought she, Della, had made the right decision not getting into the cupboard. The girl was ambivalent; would not answer definitively either way. And so that was something, finally, she, Della, could grasp: the girl did not blame her for doing what she had done. Indicated she understood Della had had her reasons for not getting onto the boat.

  Mostly it was fine just having her there—a young woman to be certain, and so refined and polite, Jane’s daughter—sitting there before her. How similar to Jane she looked; but when she spoke, Jane disappeared. That’s how it was, Della thought. That’s how it was supposed to be from the beginning. Jane had warned her: children come to displace. They live on the earth after you are gone, and forget you. It’s not their fault.

  Your mother used to say— said Della, suddenly, after she and the girl had already said their good-byes; the girl had half risen from her chair. Now the girl looked at her wide-eyed. Surprised.

  Your mother— continued Della, despite herself, knowing she should stop, but then found she could not go on. How to describe a dream? A feeling?

  What did she used to say? said Angelene, after a silence.

  Della, staring into the corner of the room, had forgotten what she was going to say.

  She said—that you would be wonderful. That you would be better than all of us put together. And she was right. She paused. Nothing bad has happened to you. You have a good life. You have a good life, don’t you?

  There was silence before the girl answered.

  Yes.

  Della wanted to tell the girl many things. She wished she could embrace her.

  The girl stood awkwardly in front of the screen.

  Della forced herself to meet her eyes, if only for a moment.

  The girl was shy.

  Thank you for coming to see me, said Della.

  When Clee was let out of prison, no one was waiting to meet him: he had arranged it that way. He had asked the wrangler to leave him a horse at the stables; and that was the only favor he asked.

  The horse was a sorrel gelding: muscular, tall, with a white star on his forehead, white stockings. He saddled the horse and led him outdoors, and drank in the color of the day. The sky; the sheen of the horse’s coat. The odor of horseflesh and dust, sun. Clee placed his hand on the horse’s side. The wrangler had chosen well; had known what Clee would have liked. Hesitating—the anticipation was great, but the joy was in the anticipation—he mounted the horse. Settled himself within the saddle, situated the reins in his fists. The horse stepped back, and forward. Snorted. Pawed the ground. Clee grabbed the withers with one hand and simultaneously drew up on the reins. Walked the horse in a tight circle. By the way the horse moved, Clee knew it was the wrangler who had trained him. Clee spurred him, and set off at a rocking lope toward the road. Away from the stables, away from town.

  Clee left Walla Walla forever.

  He rode alone for two weeks. East, and then north, then east again, and then south into the mountains. It was late summer: in the early morning, in the Sawtooths, hoarfrost glistened for miles. He rode. Finally entered the Wallowas, and then knew where he was going.

  The wrangler was in the outlying field when Clee rode up onto the Wallowa homestead, and lifted his arm. A child ran out to greet him, the sex undecipherable until the child—a boy—was at Clee’s knee, and then the child tore away again, shouting Father! Father! in Nez Perce.

  He stayed for supper. The main house—narrow, smoke-filled, two-story—held the wrangler and his wife, their children. Those who could not fit in the house slept outdoors, in tents and tepees and outbuildings. Children in all states of dress ran around, coming straight up to Clee or peering at him from around trees and shacks. Other families—or just single men—lived and camped here too.

  They ate venison and summer squash the first night. He sat and listened to all of them speak. He did not get tired of it. Babies were passed to him, and he held them. Looked into their new, unblemished faces. One he held—his eyes dark and ancient—reached out and grabbed his nose.

  There was one child, a girl—nine, ten years old—who kept bothering the wrangler, tugging his sleeve, sidling up to him and speaking to him with her hands cupped around her mouth—a secret—and glancing intermittently at Clee. The wrangler kept brushing her away. But finally, in agitation, the wrangler conceded to the girl’s request, said, Yes, yes, shooed her way. The girl came over to Clee, hesitant but smiling. Her hands held carefully behind her back.

  She wants you to watch her ride, said the wrangler. She’s been waiting for you—

  Clee looked at the girl. He did not recognize her. But then, there were many children over the years, and he could not remember them all—

  Don’t bother him, he’s eating! said one of the women, in Nez Perce.

  But Clee rose. The girl grinned, and took his hand.

  She led him only a few feet away, outside the light of the multiple fires. She attempted to mount a gray mare much too large for her, but could not. Clee, when he saw she was becoming frustrated, boosted her up onto the horse’s back. And then stepped away.

  The girl walked the mare in the outlying field, never going very far. Every time she circled past him, she beamed. He nodded at her.

  The stars shone bright above them, and the intermittent heat from the fires reached his back. The sound of the people talking was constant, rising and falling, rising and then falling. The girl was heading back to him, out of the greater darkness, the horse’s movement making no sound. A gentle wind, a kind of sighing, moved over the earth; and for a moment he felt as if his body had evaporated.

  Watch me, watch me! pleaded the girl, and he nodded, his heart beating through his body, which felt hollow wi
th fear and joy.

  Angelene was packing up at market one day when a boy came up behind her and touched her shoulder.

  She was alone. It was late summer; she had been coming regularly since the spring to sell fruit. Talmadge was too weak to travel now, stayed perpetually in the orchard.

  What? she said to the boy, who was standing still and staring at her. She continued to place the fruit in bins, packing it all into the back of the wagon.

  The postmistress wants to see you. She said to come by before you go home.

  All right.

  She said to come right away.

  Angelene looked at the boy, who, she noticed now, appeared frightened. She finished packing up the wagon, and then afterward drove to the post office. A telegram had been sent from the prison.

  She rode to Caroline Middey’s house and showed her the telegram. They sat in the chairs on the front porch, and then after a long time Caroline Middey went inside to make tea.

  What do we tell him? said Angelene, wiping her face.

  Tell him the truth, said Caroline Middey. What else is there to say?

  But still they sat there and did not move. Their tea grew cold. Angelene spent the night there, and then they left together in the morning for the orchard.

  Della had volunteered in a work project that involved, among other things, scaling buildings under construction—she was allowed to do this, they learned, because she had worked once as a topper in a lumber camp. The day before, she had fallen from a scaffolding and broken her neck. She had died immediately. There were harnesses and other safety devices she was supposed to be wearing, but she wasn’t wearing them.

  The train bearing her body came from Walla Walla, and Talmadge, Angelene, and Caroline Middey were at the station in Wenatchee to meet it, dressed in their finest clothes. Talmadge wore a new hat, leaned on a cane. They watched the box that contained Della’s body be loaded onto a wagon, and then they all got up into the wagon and with the driver and another man headed north, in the direction of the orchard. They arrived in the afternoon. The driver and the other man hiked with the casket down the hillside and across the creek, through the field. Talmadge, Angelene, and Caroline Middey followed behind them.

  She would be buried on the upland ridge next to Jane.

  On the plateau the yellow grass waved in the wind and the air smelled of honeysuckle and duff. The hole had already been dug in the ground. Talmadge had hired other men to do that as well, because he was too weak to do it himself. But still he had insisted on helping. The men lowered the casket now into the ground, and then they walked away, to give the family their privacy.

  Talmadge had refused to believe, at first, that she was dead. And then he refused to accept the circumstances of her death: someone had killed her, he insisted. Michaelson, or one of his associates, a guard. She had been murdered. He was sure of this; and after Angelene and Caroline Middey had arrived in the orchard and told him what had happened, he walked alone into the trees in the dusk, leaning heavily on his cane. It wasn’t until he had reached the outer orchard, the tree at the bend in the path standing still in the darkness—the tree, the inimitable trunk darker than the outer darkness—that he began to weep.

  He had not seen Della or communicated with her these last few years. But the girl—Angelene—had gone to see her, and though he did not know the specifics of what had passed between them, he did know that the girl was planning to see her again, and so he liked to think that she, Della, had begun to accept her life, and calmed. He did not expect her to be happy—how that word lost meaning as the years progressed—but he only wished her to be unafraid, and able to experience small joys. He wished that she would get out of that place—prison—and find her home again in the orchard. Or wherever else she thought would welcome her.

  He leaned down and grasped a handful of dirt, threw it into the grave. Caroline Middey did the same. Angelene broke away and returned with a shovel, staved the head into a pile of dirt. Began to move the earth in earnest. She was inexpert but steady. One of the men wandered back over, to say that she needn’t do his job; but he watched her and then turned away, left them alone again. When he reached the other man, he shrugged slightly.

  Talmadge and Caroline Middey stood away and observed the girl work. When it was finished, none of them were able to speak. Angelene was shaking, her face mussed with sweat. As they turned and headed away—they had to, for the sun was setting, and they had neglected to bring lanterns—Angelene leaned against Talmadge. He put his arm around her. Caroline Middey placed her hand on the girl’s shoulder. They walked thus across the grass, incredibly slowly. Angelene cried tonelessly all the way back to the orchard.

  Where are her things? cried Angelene, coming into his bedroom in the middle of the night. Her clothes—her things. Where are they? Who has them?

  He had sat up in the bed, trying to orient himself. What had happened? Where was he? The girl, Della, had died—

  Angelene came around the side of the bed and got in beside him. He lifted the quilt, and drew her inside. She huddled against him, her head on his chest, weeping.

  We’ll send for them, he said, putting his hand on her head. Don’t cry now. We’ll find them. We’ll bring them back. Hush. Hush.

  VII

  There came again, during that following spring and summer, the feeling that Angelene had almost forgotten, of being alone in the orchard, of being utterly herself. She was not really alone—Talmadge was always somewhere around, in the cabin or working elsewhere in the orchard—but she had begun, through working again on her own plot, the feeling of sinking into that solitude as she had before, when Talmadge was away in Chelan. The sun hovering in its zenith, the birds squawking in the high canopy, the earth giving off its tremendous deep odor. The sapling roots frail in her hands.

  She did not know if she reflected at all upon the relationship between what she was feeling—the depth of her own privacy—and what Talmadge might have felt all those years living alone. She knew that there was a difference between their situations: where she had his company to steep herself in at intervals—she had that possibility of companionship—he had not. He might have had friends or acquaintances in town—Caroline Middey, for example—he could visit with every other week or so, or they could come visit him, but it was not the same as having somebody who lived with you. It was not the same as having family. Even if that family was very quiet, as Talmadge and Angelene were, at times, with each other.

  When she was alone, when she was working, it was as if she forgot about herself. It seemed strange to state it this way, but it was as if she had no outline, no body, even though the work was very physical. Where did her mind go? Her mind was steeped in the task at hand. At such times she felt a depth of kinship with the earth, and also felt very grown up, unshakable, rife with compassion.

  The knowledge was cultivated in her also that while Talmadge was her family, her deepest friend, his health was in a state of decline. And Caroline Middey, too, who was like her mother, was nearly eighty years old. The one who might have accompanied her through adulthood—maybe, maybe—was buried now. (And she admitted to herself that in light of this, Talmadge’s plan to free Della, that incredibly ill-advised plan, did not look so foolish to her now as it had before, when it was first presented to her. Talmadge had known what he was doing. She appreciated this now, she appreciated what he had attempted to do for her.)

  She revered solitude, but only because there was the possibility of breaking it. Of communing at last with another. What would happen when Talmadge died? Caroline Middey? Their particular sensibilities would be gone; and with them they would take their knowledge of her. Then she would be truly alone. This was another solitude. It terrified her.

  As he lay inert on his bed, which the girl had pulled out near the woodstove—the girl leaning over him, fixing his bedclothes—the past receded, diminished to a point.

  He had
never been a boy, afraid and hoping perpetually for his sister. He had never been seventeen years old, or twenty-five, thirty, dying of lust after supper. Never the happy man working alone, laughing to himself at some joke he had heard others tell in town. Never wanted to lay his head on Caroline Middey’s breast. Never sung hymns to himself, out of absence or loneliness. Never admitted to any person the fact of how his own image pleased him, though he knew he was considered ugly, even without the smallpox scars. Never was he kind, or cruel. Never fed the two girls who came to him, never pitied them. Never regretted not laying hands on Michaelson—the day on the Okanogan, or later, when he came into the orchard. He had never been awed by Della, puzzled by her—never was relieved when she left. Never missed her severe quirk, her tendernesses that cut him to the quick. Her strange hair, her eyes, her glances. Her way. Never witnessed her, a girl barely reaching his shoulder, on a horse as mean as any snake. Never sat with Clee in silence, smoking pipes on a summer evening. Never roamed with Clee as a boy through the tall grass, running after his sister: a game. Never was in prison. Never cried for his mother. Never sought to conjure his father’s face. Never tasted an apricot, or trout, or soil. Never slept under the slow-wheeling constellations, or bathed in a winter creek.

  The wonderful as well as the terrible impressions receded, and the world when he opened his eyes each morning was altered; and then in the afternoon, and after that, every time he slept and woke. The same four cabin walls holding different shapes of light and shadows. The woodstove. The girl moving in the domestic sphere. He knew her name, and then it was no longer necessary, somehow, that he remember it. It was not his fault; he did not feel that it was his fault. She sat beside him and spoke to him and it wasn’t even necessary anymore that he understand what she was saying. She touched his head and wiped his brow with a wet cloth, and that was pleasant. He might have spoken too, but what he spoke did not matter. She came and went; he called her by different names.

 
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