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The orchardist, p.6
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       The Orchardist, p.6

           Amanda Coplin

  Their children were from God. Jane had seen them in a vision—it was when she was with Michaelson, and he had given her the seed paste to try, as he sometimes did—and she had fallen asleep and dreamed that their children, hers and Della’s, grew inside them, and when they were born—they were also angels—they would carry Jane and Della on their backs, away from Michaelson’s place, to safety. Jane described their moonward journey. That was in the beginning.

  And then Jane’s interpretation of the dream changed. It wasn’t the children who carried Jane and Della out of that place, but the other way around. Of course babies weren’t angels, of course they could not fly. Jane bided her time. But they would escape by spring: Jane promised.

  They rose one morning in the orchard and it was humid, and cool, and the sky overhead was dark gray. They woke with the quilt pulled up to their chins; they had not kicked it off in the night. They rose when the first raindrops hit their faces. They did not discuss what they were doing but crossed the yard and hesitated only briefly before going up onto the porch. Jane’s brow furrowed. The door was open. There were two birchwood chairs on the porch, but when Della went to sit in one, Jane grunted and motioned that they should not sit there. The man, when he came to stand in the doorway, found them sitting with their backs to him, legs dangling off the side of the porch. Della turned to look over her shoulder at him, but Jane told her in a low voice to turn around.

  That morning the two of them ate on the porch while the rain poured down a foot from their knees, and behind them, inside the cabin, the man sat in the chair in the corner, drinking coffee—Della could smell it—and reading a newspaper.

  Jane had thought that if there was ever a moment that presented itself for him to forget his manners and take advantage of them, then that moment on the porch, in the rainstorm, was it. But he did not even sit outside with them. He waited indoors until the rain stopped, and then a few minutes later, the sun showing palely through the breaking clouds, he passed by them and walked across the grass and into the orchard.

  Two days later, as he crouched creekside washing dishes, Jane passed close to him on his right side, entering the creek to cross it, and Della came a moment later on the other side, slightly behind her sister. Absently, as if he were a rock or another solid object she was using as a crutch in her forward progress, Della placed her hand on his shoulder, and then, a moment later, removed it. The man kept still until after they had passed. They crossed the field at a slow pace, heading for the canyon. They did not look back.

  There was a cache in the outer orchard, near a bend in the path, where Jane stored various objects: rope, twine, shears. A wooden sawhorse that had been difficult to move from the shed without the man noticing. Della did not ask at first what Jane was doing.

  In case, said Jane, when Della finally asked her. In case he comes. By he Della knew—the hair rising on the back of her arms and neck—Jane meant Michaelson. He won’t come here, said Della, meaning: He doesn’t belong here. Jane nodded, absently. Just in case, she said again. We have to be ready—

  The girls spent most of their time in the apricot orchard, or in the plum orchard around the side of the cabin, where it was coolest in the heat of the day, but they had also become familiar with the outer field, its shaded borders along the forest treeline. They had wandered enough into the canyon, and along the path up to the cabin that was meant as their own. They had spent hours submerged to their chins in the upper pool, except for lately, when they had grown too large to do so. They would not have the strength now to pull themselves up out of the water.

  All of this—the land, the trees, the weather, the water—they considered the man’s domain. Nothing happened in these parts that he was not aware of and over which he did not have power. If he did not have the power to prevent certain things—this they almost believed—then at least he had the knowledge necessary to protect himself, or the strength to endure it.

  They found, in the closet of one of the two small bedrooms—the bedroom that was not his—a box with a pair of girls’ boots in it, and a dress, and what looked to be a gown for a baby. And a baby’s small booties. The girls sat on the floor and exchanged these items wordlessly between them, piecing together the man’s past, trying to create a story out of it that would make sense, that would draw him more clearly in their minds.

  Had he bought these clothes for them—Jane and Della—and the baby’s clothing as well, for the children to which they would soon give birth? They did not believe he had done this, but said it only to practice, to begin, a line of speculation. The clothes were old, threadbare. Moth-eaten. Another possibility, of course, was that the clothes belonged to another girl, a girl who had been there before them. They took turns holding up the dress before them and did not look at each other. Did not wish to believe that it was so. For the girl who wore those clothes no longer existed, they were sure of that. You do not save the clothes of a person who has simply gone away.

  They laid the girl’s dress on the dining room table. They discussed where to put the other items—the girl’s boots among the man’s own in his closet, the laces of the baby booties tied and hanging from the same nail as the picture calendar—but in the end the dress laid out on the table was enough, they thought, to let him know they had seen his secret.

  It was just before dusk when he arrived home again. He had been to town. The girls were situated in their apricot tree, facing the cabin this time instead of looking out over the field. They wanted to see his reaction. He led the mule and wagon to the barn and then he was there a long time. It was full dusk when he crossed the grass to the cabin. There was a flare in the window as he lit the lantern.

  The door of the cabin stood open and they waited for the activity and the odor that accompanied the preparation of their evening meal. It did not come.

  Jane scratched her calf in the tree. They were both very hungry, and disappointed about the food. But it was worth it. Now he knew they were paying attention.

  And then there was a strange movement from deep inside Della, a sort of turning.

  It was morning. Jane, who had gone to vomit a little ways off, behind the outhouse beyond the shed, made her way back to Della now. The sight of Della in pain provoked Jane’s own sickness, and thinking that Della was suffering too from nausea—she was not—Jane gathered Della’s hair hanging over one shoulder and twisted it in her hand, and bent slightly, to support Della if she needed to retch. That movement—that gathering up of the hair in her fist, and leaning close—reminded Della of their mother, who did the same thing when they were sick as small children.

  Earlier, before the sun rose—or maybe it was still night, because the stars were out—Della woke on her back with a terrible tightening in her belly. Lay breathing shallowly until the pain was too great and she attempted to roll onto her side, but could not. She kicked Jane until Jane rose and finally realized Della’s trouble. Jane’s face looming above hers, concerned.

  What is it?

  I don’t know—

  The pain, instead of increasing throughout the day, waned. By evening she felt better than she had for a long time, clearheaded, even a little giddy, her body loose and limber as if she had run a great race.

  The woman, Caroline Middey, came into the orchard that afternoon. She and the man sat up on the porch now. The evening was not yet dark enough to warrant the lanterns.

  Caroline Middey had come into the orchard once before. She had walked in the orchard alone while the man worked elsewhere, and tried to get the girls to come to her. She called to them, even if she could not see them. She sensed they were near. She stalked the orchard, walking slowly, holding her skirts up out of the grass.

  You come to the cabin, she called, and let me have a look at you. Let me have a look at your babies. No one’s going to hurt you, here, there’s no need to be afraid—

  They would not come to her, but she had anticipated this and finally
pulled from her front skirt pockets wrapped pieces of toffee, and called: I have candy here, I have toffee, I’ve got—let’s see—the hard kind you can suck, and I’ve got the soft kind, like a caramel, like a butter caramel. And at that Della broke out into a sweat—toffee!—and when she started forward, Jane grabbed her arm. They could see the woman from where they crouched in the grass. Finally Della broke free and came forward, came up quietly behind Caroline Middey so that the woman turned suddenly, and said, Oh! There you are—

  The two girls would not go into the cabin to be examined, and so Caroline Middey made them lie on a table—an enormous twine spool set on its end—in the shade at the side of the cabin. It was where the man sometimes worked on his tree projects. Della lay now on her back, her dress up around her armpits, sucking a toffee and looking distractedly at the sky.

  Men had been their most common tormentors, but there had been women too. Before Michaelson there was Louisa Glassley, “Miss Weeza,” the director of the girls at the camp in Tacoma—the first place the girls were sent after their mother died—who laughingly said, when Jane at first complained about what was happening to them: You’ll get used to it. That was the only woman in charge, but there were others, other older women at the camps who resented the younger girls and would spite them, hurt them, at every possibility. Jane, who was a favorite among the men, went to put on a pair of good boots for the evening entertainment, only to have her foot meet shit. She recoiled, and the women, who were waiting in the wings, peering around the doorway, screamed with laughter. Other times it was the casual beating that disguised itself as roughhousing, teasing, playful fighting. Come on, love, you can do better than that! What do you do when he tries to— And then more screaming laughter.

  Della glanced several times into the older woman’s face and saw large gray eyes, fine hair on her upper lip. A large flesh-colored mole on her cheek with a perfect brown hair coming out of it.

  I have no doubt that is most likely the case, said Caroline Middey now, to the man, on the porch. Jane and Della lay in the shadows along the side of the cabin. Caroline Middey had brought them a small black kitten, and now the animal crouched on Della’s chest, Della’s fingers threaded over its spine. The kitten stared at her with china blue eyes.

  Hush, said Jane, although Della was not conscious that she was making noise. She, Jane, was trying to hear what they were saying on the porch. Della was interested in the conversation only in theory. What absorbed her was the tiny creature on her chest, staring at her so intently. It had two white front paws. Wasn’t that something? Like he stepped in milk! How did— Hush! said Jane, sharper now, and Della at once heard herself, the end of it, cut off, cooing to the kitten.

  There was the sound of rustling in the leagues of the orchard, the wind in the moist leaves. Combing the long grass. The moon was revealed and obscured by the leaves above their heads. Inside of this soft noise certain words were carried around the side of the cabin, certain words spoken by Caroline Middey. The man said something, but it was a murmuring too low to understand. He went on for a long time, a considerable amount of time for him. At the end of it he cleared his throat, which they could hear distinctly. Caroline Middey said something, briefly, and then it was quiet. The wind had died down.

  That’s what I would do, anyway, said Caroline Middey.

  Della knew that they were discussing her and Jane. Of course that was why the woman traveled all the way out there. To give them the kitten, yes, but also to confer with the man. He had been gone for three days earlier in the week. He had left food for them in the cold pantry, wrapped up, for them to eat when he was gone. He had stood on the lawn and called to them where they sat in the high grass that he was going on a trip, he had left food for them, they should feel free to eat that and whatever else they liked. He would be back in a few days.

  The wind came again, and Jane shifted beside her. The cat startled, and Della brought the creature up into her neck and held it there. It struggled for a moment and then began to pant and purr at once.

  Stop it, said Jane, watching her. You’re hurting it. It can’t breathe.

  The adults continued talking. Della relaxed into half sleep. The cat had gone, escaped. Jane beside her was tired, but she held herself awake, listening. Della thought of the cat bounding away into the orchard—the action to her was comical—and, startling awake, laughed suddenly and loudly. The two voices on the porch ceased abruptly, and Jane clapped her hand on Della’s mouth and leaned over her, breathing into her ear. Only when the voices resumed did Jane lean back, relax, resettle into the grass.

  The cat, said Della after several minutes, waking again. Without understanding why, she had begun to cry.

  We’ll get it tomorrow, said Jane. Hush now. Go to sleep.

  Della continued to cry until she discovered that the voices on the porch were conspiring with the moon and the stars through the trees, and the wind that covered it all, and those powers knew where the kitten moved in the orchard and would inform her, if she just went to sleep, of its location the first thing in the morning. All that was required of her was to sleep. And so she did. At once, suddenly, as if stepping off a cliff.

  It was Jane who intuited when the elements—human and otherwise—shifted around them and were no longer amenable to their presence, and who determined when they should linger, and when they should flee. She had told Della months before their departure from Michaelson’s that they were going to escape. How? Della had asked, but Jane had just shaken her head, as if to say that that was not the right time to speak of it. And it was a wonder she told Della at all, because the girl was known to leak things—information, stories, and rarely but horrifyingly, feelings—like a cracked kettle. But this information about their escape she kept quiet. Nothing came out of her during times with the other girls—during meals, or settling down to sleep—which was remarkable, for she was filled with the urge at times, she did not know why, to dazzle them, the other girls, with a story, or a joke—to make them appreciate her perhaps, or even envy her intelligence, her wealth of stories: her cleverness. But she thought about what Jane had said and knew this information was different; it could not be shared, no matter how much Della wanted to be liked. And she knew her sister would do it: plan their escape. It was as good as fact: she and Jane would escape from that place. When would it happen? Jane would let her know. She was waiting for the right time. Timing, according to Jane, was everything.

  Caroline Middey left the orchard, promising to return at the week’s end to check up on them. Two days later, when the man went to town, Jane and Della entered the cabin again and went through his things. Della did not know what they were looking for, but this looking through his things had a different feel to it; it was not like the other times when they entered the cabin out of boredom or simple curiosity, this had the feeling of a mission about it.

  In an old cigar box atop the bureau in his bedroom—the box was full of odds and ends: old coins, buttons, pins, screws, bits of twine and colored thread—Jane found a folded piece of paper that had her and Della’s names on it, and Michaelson’s. She could not tell what it said other than that, but it was enough. They had to leave, said Jane, and Della nodded, absently. She was wondering if he’d left them any food in the cold pantry, even though he said he would be back by evening. She wondered also if he was bringing any sweets from town.

  Jane packed some food in a burlap sack, and then they were in the woods, walking. Jane kept looking over her shoulder as if expecting the man to appear suddenly with the mule and wagon. Della wanted to laugh. It was like a game. Surely she and Jane would return by nightfall, because he would have cooked them something to eat. Surely they were not really going away! Jane was playing a game. But they kept walking, and by late afternoon Della was hot and dizzy and empty—alarmingly empty—and wanted to rest. Where was the creek? Where had the creek gone? Jane said she didn’t know where the water was. They had forgotten to bring a c
ontainer of water to drink from. Now they had to go back. But Jane seemed not to hear her when Della said this. I need to lie down, said Della, and then in a high, helpless voice: I’m going to be sick. And she went into a grove of trees—cedars—and fell immediately asleep. When she woke, her cheek was in the dirt and she was retching, and pushing, and something hot and wet was coming out of her buttocks. She tried to call for Jane, but she was too weak. She wept onto her folded arms.

  And then she was asleep again, and when she woke it was the morning of another day and her arm was around Jane’s neck and they were moving slowly through the trees. I’m sick, said Della. Yes, said Jane. Della turned and looked at her sister’s face and saw that it was raw from crying.

  She was immediately again asleep. When she woke she was not moving but lying on her back. The world was slowly spinning. There was a face of an Indian looming above her. She was very hot. She tried to say something to him—to ask for water—but her mouth wasn’t working, it felt stuffed with a rag.

  When she woke again she was in a room slightly familiar to her. But she could not place it. It was night, the windows were dark. There was Jane on a bed above her—Della for some reason was on the floor, on a mat—and Jane was stripped of clothing but for an undershirt, and she was crying.

  It’s happening, thought Della. It is all happening again.

  And then Caroline Middey entered the room. It seemed she was coming to Della from far away. The old woman approached her and leaned over her and said, in a voice also muffled and far away: It’s going to be all right, dear. The worst is almost over—

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