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The orchardist, p.5
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       The Orchardist, p.5

           Amanda Coplin
 

  For their beds he filled burlap bags with leaves. He had three quilts besides his own, which he packed. He brought a lantern, and thought as he led the mule up the hill: What if they were unfamiliar with lanterns and burned down the cabin in the middle of the night? He thought he should try to explain the mechanics of the lantern but could not imagine such a conversation. Sun winked through the trees. He anticipated the small rent in the forest to the right and soon found it and waited to make sure they saw him, then stepped off the road and guided the mule up the embankment. He heard them struggle behind him, and hesitated. The mule looked over his shoulder.

  He came to the small clearing, the narrow, clattering creek. Beyond the creek the cabin stood backed by two massive overhanging evergreens. The cabin and trees sat on a small rise overlooking the valley on the opposite side. He crossed the creek and walked around the side of the cabin to view the orchards below. There was his own cabin, the elbow of creek.

  The girls sat on the opposite creek bank and watched him. The mule entered the water and moved over to them and they arranged their postures to accommodate his grazing.

  The cabin was one room, dank and cold but solidly built. (Too wet up here, their mother had said, when they first discovered it. They chose to settle below, in the valley, even though early on it meant huddling in the miner’s shack, which, for its closeness, was as dry as a bone.) The cabin’s single window—large, paneless—overlooked the valley. He swept away most of the leaves with his boot and then constructed their beds and draped the quilts atop them.

  Outside the cabin he hailed the mule and unstrapped his fishing rod, and hiked along the creek for a half mile to the pool. The girls followed him and sat on the rock outcropping jutting two dozen feet out into the water. He scouted the ground and found pale larvae on the underside of a log and then baited the hook and cast into the water. In an hour he caught three fish.

  At the upper cabin he started a fire. The girls crossed the creek and resumed their previous positions. They watched as he gutted the fish and threw the entrails into the water. By the time he cooked the fish, it was late afternoon. He set the plates of fish on the porch, and from the saddlebags he removed apples and apricots and biscuits wrapped several times in a cloth and set these on the porch as well. He went around the side of the cabin where the mule had gone to warm his rump in the sun and gathered the reins and led the mule across the creek. As he passed the girls they gathered their legs close to them and looked in opposite directions. He continued down the slope and listened for their footsteps but did not hear them.

  When he made his own supper, it was dusk. He ate cornbread, an apple. He did not light a lantern. The flesh of the apple shone moonwhite, and he ate it and chucked the core into the orchard. He sat on the darkened porch and rolled a cigarette, a ceremony he saved for Clee but for this one time, and he did not bother to question the impulse. He sat smoking. After a while he saw, like twin phantoms, the girls creep down the avenue between apple orchard and canyon. They momentarily disappeared and then came out of the canyon mouth. Crossed the field, disappeared again, and then alighted at the edge of the apricot orchard, settled into the grass. Awaited, with their peculiar and indifferent curiosity, what he would do next.

  Della was happy.

  She and Jane were submerged to their necks in the pool beyond the upper cabin where the man had made them a place to stay but where they did not stay. A mile or so down the hillside the man worked in the orchard, or he was done for the day, he was washing himself in the creek, the same creek that fed the pool in which the girls now swam, and that flowed out and down the hillside through the forest, to where it clattered below the apricot orchard. When hunger struck one of the girls, they immediately swam to the rock abutment from which they had lowered themselves into the water a half hour before; but, finding they could not pull themselves up again because of their weight, they swam to the shallows and slogged, fully clothed, up onto the rocks. Panting. Dizzy. Clutching each other for support, both giddy with hunger, they made their way through the heaven-reaching evergreens, found the path that led down to the orchard.

  The air along the path was warm and shrilling with insects. Out of the water, despite their cumbersome bellies, they felt light.

  The path lowered down into the far orchard; and since it was inside a canyon, it was darker and quieter and was at that moment full of cold hush. In almost total silence the bats darted through the tall grass. One grazed Della’s knee; she slapped at it.

  It was two months since Della and Jane had left the place where Michaelson was, and their experiences with people had been few and far between. They roamed the forests mostly, after they escaped, and when they came upon a homestead, or came into a town, they sized people up in terms of what could be extracted from them. It was the easiest way to get by. Jane was especially good at it. She was able to determine who would give them money, shelter, food, or other things. Some people weren’t willing to give anything, some were persuaded to give one or maybe two of those things, and a few—these were very, very few—would give you whatever you wanted. It was important that none of these people want anything in return.

  They sat now in the long grass between the apricot orchard and yard. The man had begun to cook supper and had left the cabin door open, an invitation they did not take him up on. Not yet. And preferably, not ever. Living with Michaelson had taught them both that you could read nothing definitive in a man’s face, even if he appeared kind. Kind could turn on its head instantly; could throttle you, or hit you across the face with the back of a hand.

  The odor coming from the cabin was of frying mealcakes, and bacon. Della fell back in the grass, a fake swoon, and then after a moment, when the joke failed to garner any reaction from Jane, sat up again, continued to wait.

  And then finally he came out onto the porch and set the plates on the top step. He stood and looked out over the grass for them. If he saw them, he did not show it. He went back into the cabin.

  It was Jane who fetched the plates. Della stood on the edge of the yard, in case they needed to run. When Jane reached her, they sat down in the grass and lowered their faces to the food, breathing in the odor of it at the same time as they ate, so that they choked, gasped, slurped. Jane folded an entire mealcake into rough quarters and stuffed it into her mouth, her eyes bulging with the effort to chew it.

  The man brought his meal out onto the porch and ate quietly with the plate on his lap. The lantern was turned up in the cabin behind him and illuminated the room at his back.

  Afterward Della, stuffed and sated with food, again waited in the grass while Jane returned the plates to the porch, and took the quilts that had been placed for them on the top step. He had made beds for them in the upper cabin—nothing much, just sacks filled with leaves, to give their backs some relief—but they preferred to sleep outdoors. Sleeping indoors, where the trees and moonlight cast violent shadows on the walls, was unnatural. When one slept indoors, there was always the possibility that danger lurked just outside the door, the window, was waiting for them. When one slept outdoors, on the other hand, danger was confused, passed them over. At Michaelson’s they had slept together with the other girls in the basement. You could tell nothing of the life of the house from the basement, which was more like a large cellar. It smelled of roots, and urine. Someone perpetually crying, bodies turning over and grumbling, sighing, whispering, all day long. For that was when they slept: in the daytime. The darkness complete, liquid black. Della could not see her hand in front of her face. And so she and Jane, if they had a choice, would not sleep indoors—in a man’s house—ever again.

  They chose a different spot to sleep each night, usually in the long grass under a fruit tree, and bedded down. One quilt under them and one over them. They slept with arms entwined, as they had in Michaelson’s basement, and were often immediately asleep. Della might wake and see the sky through the branches, choked with stars, and squeeze
Jane’s hand, only to have Jane keep breathing heavily, anchored in a private depth.

  We’re still here, Della would whisper in the morning, to Jane; and Jane would respond: We’re still here. It was a game of theirs, a ritual; and like many of their games and rituals, Della could not remember how it had begun.

  They entered the cabin repeatedly while the man was not there, and were touched each time, irremediably and despite themselves—they did not discuss this—by the domestic warmth. If such a house existed, why could it not be theirs alone? The boards creaked and sang beneath their weight. The plate-glass windows, recently washed, were streaked, admitted soapy light. The pine countertops fairly gleamed. A black cast-iron stove stood kingly against the back wall. The range had a stone top; a bucket with ashes sat on a shelf beneath it. On the back burner sat a scuffed navy blue kettle. Above it, on the top shelf of a doorless cupboard lined with newspaper, sat a white coffeepot, and dishes. Between the range and the stove was a low-slung hamper stocked with wood. On the opposite side of the stove was a white porcelain basin and a pitcher of water, and above it, a dented oval mirrorglass hanging from the wall by a wire. On a tin tray sat a black comb and container of pomade. An almanac calendar from the year 1865 hung beside the mirrorglass. A small walnut table, more rectangular than square, and two chairs were situated before the woodstove, filling the area between kitchen and sitting room. In the sitting room a horsehair love seat stood against the wall, and beside it, in the corner, a horsehair chair, the seat tattered and lumpy. Near the chair was a shelf of old almanacs, newspapers, magazines. Before the love seat was a rug of hooked fabric scraps, rose and green and purple; and in the opposite corner, a steamer trunk and a rocking chair so old and delicate it seemed to have sprouted from the room itself. This was where the sun came and lay, and the rocker, which was mahogany, was wrung of color. The odor of the room was baked fruit, beeswax, pine, and old newspapers.

  There was an apricot tree in the orchard that was perfect for stepping up into. Once one of the girls did this, a curved branch invited another step up, and a branch above that dipped slightly in the middle, inviting a hand to grip it for leverage. Once one girl had situated herself on the second tier of branches, the other was able to climb up as well, and situate herself on a level slightly lower. The branches had formed to the girls’ slightly reclining positions, to the arches of their feet. Their strange girth. They climbed up there until the wood became soft under their palms and feet. From here they could watch whatever was happening below in the field; and if they climbed higher into the tree, which they had done, they could locate the man wherever he was working. They were camouflaged—or they thought they were—and suspended, safe from danger on the ground.

  There was a type of heat and light that was direct and overhead and bleached the orchard of color. The orchard at noon on the hottest days. And then there were mornings when the air was blue and soft, and the leaves of the trees looked like velvet.

  There were times when the girls knew where the man was in the orchard, and times they did not. These times they trod slowly and carefully, not that they thought he would harm them—not really—but it had become a kind of game. You might turn the corner into an orchard row and find him there, walking toward you or away, or maybe you saw his legs, his trunk, obscured in leaves.

  Della, distracted for a moment in the heat of the day—the sun hung high, and sweat trickled down the back of her skull—turned the corner and almost ran into him. She stepped back and held very still, did not look up at him. Said, lightly, before she stepped around him: Afternoon.

  He had become for them not a threat, though he was not devoid of threat—why had he taken them in, why did he stand for them to roam the place without demanding anything from them?—and this threat entertained them more than the fact that they were curious about him. They were not interested at that point in the history or emotional life of men they encountered. This was not a rule they had set up for themselves, but rather a consequence of their experience. It was only important to know—to sense, but also to recall—if the man before them would fly into a rage, would lunge at them; was capable of swift and unremitting violence. And yet Della found herself those hot days roaming the avenues, struck by a sharp and intermittent desire to see this new man’s—this orchardist’s—face. She was dissatisfied with seeing the front of his overall pockets, his denim legs in trees, his large burnished hands hanging at his sides. Through glances she had caught various features—his nose, the set of his shoulders, the striking color of his eyes. But he had one of those complicated faces that one had to consider at length to understand how emotion lay on it, to understand it at all. It was like a landscape: that wide and complicated, many-layered expanse. She wanted to study his face: because it was different in an important way, but she did not know, exactly, how.

  While Jane napped in the grass a little distance off, Della sat three trees away from where the man worked. She put a long piece of grass between her lips and mouthed it. He came down out of the tree a few minutes later. Approaching her—she stared straight ahead, careful not to look at him—he wiped his hands on his thighs, and then bent low and picked a honeysuckle. Straightened up, studied it. Plucked the purple needlelike petal, put it between his teeth. Finally she glanced at him. Honeysuckle, he said, his voice low and disinterested. You take the petals like this—she glanced at him again, and he bared his teeth to show her how to put the needle between her front teeth—and suck on it. See? There’s a little honey in there. A little sweet. What the bees like. He unceremoniously spat out the petal and turned and walked in the other direction, whistling now, down the row.

  It was usually Jane’s job to fetch the plates of food from the porch—she was the brave one, she was the one who would sound the alarm if there was danger, and Della must start running first—but one morning Jane would not be easily roused. She batted away Della’s hands when Della prodded her shoulder—I’m hungry!—and so Della crept to the edge of the lawn, crouched, waited for the man. He had again left the door open, and again the odor of the hot food wafted out. She shifted in the grass, impatient. She had grown very large—increased size, even, in the last two days, she could feel it—and rocked on her haunches, lost balance as his form passed the doorway. He had not even come outside yet, but she lumbered up onto her feet, dizzy, panting like a dog, and headed across the grass. When he came outside, she was standing at the bottom of the porch steps, her chin lifted but her gaze askance, her elbows held out in the attitude of accepting the food. Well, hello, he said. And then, when she didn’t answer, didn’t change position: Here you are. But she would not take the plate from him; he had to set it on the porch before she would accept it.

  While Jane slept again, this time in the afternoon, Della waited two trees away from the man working. She chewed honeysuckle, sweated though she was in the shade. Was remembering how Michaelson would come out of his room, stark naked, and chase them—all the girls, set loose like a bunch of stags, or does—in the upper part of the house, and whoever was caught was either let go—a boundless relief—or taken to his room to love him, or maybe whipped. Or both. You could not tell what he would do. The girls rushed through the rooms, shrieking with excitement and fear.

  Here, said the man suddenly, coming down the ladder, and she startled. She pretended not to pay attention, but she listened, and glanced at what he was talking about when she couldn’t help herself: You hold the apricot like this. (The apricot small and glowing in his palm.) For apples it’s different, but this is how you hold an apricot. You see the little bit of the stem there? That’s the scion. You have to be careful there. You damage that and you damage that part of the tree, the limb where it grows, it won’t be able to produce any more. Then, looking down the avenue: That’s probably all you need to know, for now, if you want to help. And then he turned and walked down the row again. Whistling and then singing in a slightly wavering baritone. A hymn? She thought she might know it. But she
didn’t know where from.

  Jane disapproved of the communication between Della and the man, though she said nothing to Della about her behavior. Perhaps Jane didn’t know about it, but that seemed unlikely, since Jane knew everything. She had not told Della she should not talk to the man. Jane did not think, probably, that Della was growing sympathetic toward him, because to her, to both of them—they did not have to state this—this was an impossibility. Men were, by definition, untrustworthy. They were to be sized up, to determine what they, the men, might want from Jane and Della, and likewise, what Jane and Della might get from the men, if they had anything that the girls wanted or needed. The men were there to trade with, and to perhaps fear; but not to like for the sake of themselves. And, this also went without saying, they were definitely not there to be loved.

  Those weeks—was it months?—in the summer orchard, Jane and Della roved, and crouched in the grass, and slept, and ignored or pretended to ignore the man, and ate ravenously, like animals, when they were fed. It was unclear how long they would stay.

  Oddly, though their bellies were full to bursting and it was apparent they would soon give birth, there was no urgency to the days. They slept late, cast off the quilts from their sweating bodies, rolled over or crawled on hands and knees to find shade, and slept another hour or so on their sides, their mouths hanging open. One day faded into the next, and one was much like the other. There was little change. Perhaps time had stopped; perhaps it had never existed. It was unclear, even, what was happening. Did they want to stay, or would they leave? The days transpired in a dreamlike haze, made so by the incredible heat and the long hours of light. Grasshoppers shrilling their one-note song. The meaning of the day, if it had any, was to track, however abstractedly, the movement of the man, for what purpose it was unclear. Immediately the purpose was food; and more distantly, there was a feeling, a notion originating inside the deepest parts of their brains, that he might be needed for other purposes, mainly having to do with what was happening to their bodies: the arrival of their children.

 
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