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The orchardist, p.7
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       The Orchardist, p.7

           Amanda Coplin
 

  In town, at market, Talmadge accepted samples of gooseberries, tufts of bread. He did not leave immediately, as was his custom, but toured the stalls. He bought an onion loaf, and a handful of aniseed to make into a pudding a woman recommended. He bent over a scrap of paper, writing instructions given by different women, translated by his hand into pictographs and bundles of sticks, undecipherable to all but him.

  Potatoes, molasses, cheddar cheese. Cream, and a silver tin to store it in.

  When he arrived at dusk the girls were not at the base of the apricot tree or in the plum orchard, where they sometimes squatted in the grass, watching him work. He waited on the porch, anticipating their forms separating from the trees. The water, full and reckless in the creek, was loud in his ears.

  He hiked to the upper cabin, holding a lantern before him. In his pockets were biscuits and bacon wrapped in thin cotton towels. Perhaps one of them had given birth, he thought, but then he thought: No. For some reason he thought he would intuit when one gave birth. And it was not the right time for it yet.

  He arrived and found the upper cabin empty. He stood in the entranceway, looking at the leaf-filled sacks, the lantern light shuddering on the fine-grained walls.

  Two days later, in the afternoon, the men arrived with the horses. Talmadge went down to speak to Clee, but Clee wasn’t among them. Talmadge questioned one of the men, who told him that Clee and the wrangler—another one of the men, a Cayuse—had stopped to help some travelers. A person who was sick. The man shrugged.

  Talmadge returned to the porch and waited.

  Clee and the wrangler arrived in the orchard at dusk. Talmadge went down into the field to meet them. Clee, atop one horse, held the younger girl, who appeared unconscious; atop the other horse, led by the wrangler, was the older girl, wide-awake and alert.

  They stopped at the creek. Clee delivered the younger girl—dirt- and blood-smudged, half conscious—down to the wrangler. The wrangler was unnaturally small of stature, and the girl’s form dwarfed him. The other girl would not be helped—she raised her arms and made a hissing sound when Talmadge held out his arm to her. She attempted to dismount by herself. As she struggled, sliding off the horse, he held up his arms to brace her but she turned, holding herself up by the pommel, and struck him in the face. He shied away, held his nose. Clee grabbed hold of her and dragged her from the horse. She howled in anguish. Talmadge spoke gruffly from beneath his hand to let her go, and Clee let her go. She leaped away from them and spun around, feinted back. Turned in wide arcs, kicking the dirt. Murmured some unintelligible, breathless story out the side of her mouth. She had the surprised look of wanting to run; but there was the girl unconscious over the wrangler’s shoulder; there was that. Talmadge held his nose and then took his hand away and looked at it, wiped his hand on his thigh. He went to the wrangler and the man delivered the girl to him. Talmadge jumped a little to resettle the weight and started for the cabin. The men hesitated, not knowing if they should follow him or not.

  The other girl, furious, bewildered, covered her face with her hands. A moment later she kicked the dirt, followed Talmadge to the cabin.

  Inside the cabin he tried to enter his own bedroom with the unconscious girl but the other girl objected to this, she wailed high in the back of her throat as soon as he went into the room, she would not follow him. And so he entered the other room, which he had not set foot in for several months—he did not visit it except to air it out every three months or so—and laid the girl down on the bare mattress. It was dusty in the room, and cold. The other girl did not object, but stole into the room behind him. He thought he should take the girl’s clothes off her, they were filthy. But he could not imagine such an act, could not imagine going through with something like that, especially with the other one watching. He left them, went to the porch, and told Clee and the wrangler, who stood waiting on the grass, that someone would have to go fetch Caroline Middey. The wrangler said immediately that he would do it, and turned and started down the hill for a horse.

  Talmadge and Clee exchanged glances; then Talmadge turned and reentered the cabin.

  He removed his hat before stepping into the room. The older girl sat on the edge of the bed, clutched the other girl’s wrist. Protective. She looked up at him as he came in, aimed her gaze over his shoulder.

  After a few moments of silence, Talmadge cleared his throat and said: Caroline Middey’s coming. She’ll come right away; she’ll know what to do.

  The girl looked back at her sister on the bed, who, though apparently asleep, had an agonized expression on her face.

  The older girl said quietly, still gazing at her sister: She’ll be all right. Then: It’s just happening, is all. There was a moment where it seemed she would continue—she had more to say—but then she let the moment pass, was silent.

  He hesitated. We should get those clothes off her—

  And then the girl looked at him. The quality of her gaze did not change—she still looked through him—and while her face appeared to relax, he recognized it as a hardness: her eyes became slightly hooded, her nostrils dilated. She gripped the mattress edge, as if to brace herself. Her voice when it came out of her was hard as steel.

  You touch her, she said, and I’ll kill you.

  Clee, sitting in the birchwood chair, turned his head to look at Talmadge—a very slight raising of the eyebrows, an appraisal: What is happening? You know them?

  I don’t know them, said Talmadge, and sat down in the opposite chair. He took off his hat and then put it back on again. A gesture of frustration, weariness. It was early evening, but darkness had not drowned out all objects: the hides of the horses shifted below, and the sky, far above, was still pale. It was quiet—too quiet, Talmadge thought—in the cabin at his back. But the girl would not speak to him; she would not let him close to examine her sister; and so he decided to leave them alone for a time.

  He accepted the pipe Clee lit for him now, and after pulling on it briefly, he told the story: how the girls had come into the orchard, and he had been watching out for them; how they were wanted by a man—their father, maybe, he didn’t know, but a strange and violent criminal—who lived north of Ruby City, up on the Okanogan. The man had already been to town, looking for them. I thought I’d help them until they had their babies, Talmadge said—surprising himself, for this was the first time he had heard himself articulate such a plan—and then they can be on their way. If they want. It’s not proper, he said after a silence, for a girl to give birth in the forest. Without a woman’s help, he added.

  Clee had brought out his pipe and sat smoking while Talmadge talked. After a minute he took a few brief pulls and then set the pipe on his knee to rest.

  I wish she’d come, said Talmadge suddenly, and his voice seemed loud, and startled.

  When Clee had found the younger girl, he thought she was dead. He brought the pipe to his mouth. He thought she was dead but she was not dead. Not dead on the ground when he leaned over her and put his hand into the sweltering crevice of her neck, to check for a pulse. The other girl speechless from fear and anger beside her. She was not dead then, and not dead sitting before Clee on the horse, the long ride back to the orchard. The men guiding the horses carefully across the landscape, as if the girls were made of glass. Not dead when the wrangler took her down from the horse; not dead when Talmadge took her next upon his shoulder. Through this all, she was vital, though crouched down near, and hovering over, death. Perhaps feeding on it to stay alive. There were people like that, he knew: they existed. This one was one bright nerve. Once, before he had taken her up on his horse, when she still lay in the hot wheat, she had opened her eyes and taken him in. The black eyes burning: and in them no insanity but the insanity to live: the pure animal will decked with human desire. This one was too fierce to die. The girl will not die in that room, he wanted to tell Talmadge now. He had read in her eyes, in the riddle of her face, that she w
ould not die in that room. Although, he thought ruefully—taking the pipe from his mouth and knocking its bottom, gently, on his palm—he had assumed events according to such intuition before, and had been turned on his head. And remembering such slights, such crimes, a challenge was erected suddenly between him and the outside air, though he sensed the futility of such a challenge: the girl would die tonight, or she would not. Let the night do its work: he defied it to take her.

  I wish she’d come, said Talmadge, again, of the old midwife, as if he had forgotten he had said it the first time; and Clee wanted to say: It does not matter when the woman comes. The night has made up its mind. It’s we who are too slow, who move in the wake of events already decided for us, who refuse, who are too weak or too simple, or are perhaps, strictly, unable to understand—

  Caroline Middey arrived after midnight. Talmadge stood at the pasture edge, holding a lantern aloft, watching for the horses he sensed, minutes before, were coming. The wrangler’s horse materialized first out of the darkness—a suggestion of a form and then a form—and then another horse appeared in its wake. Atop this horse sat Caroline Middey. She wore a large straw hat and was wrapped in a blanket so she resembled some sort of doll. She wore a severe expression, and Talmadge thought, as he helped her down off the horse, that she was angry; but, firmly planted on the ground, looming and sharp-featured in the lantern light, she removed the blanket from around her shoulders and handed it to him, and untied the ribbon from under her chin, took off her hat, and grinned. I don’t know the last time I took a ride like that, she said. And then she turned to unstrap her bag from the side of the horse. When she turned to him again, she was serious.

  Where are they?

  Inside.

  They walked to the cabin, shadows bounding before them. Down in the field, the men had lit fires. The horses spread to the forest, shifting and reshifting under the moonlight.

  Caroline Middey took this all in.

  There was a young man waiting on the porch steps who took Caroline Middey’s horse and led him to the barn.

  Talmadge hesitated on the porch.

  What is it? said Caroline Middey.

  I ought to stay out here.

  And why’s that?

  Again he hesitated. They don’t like me.

  Caroline Middey snorted. She looked at him now. For a moment it seemed she would argue with him, but she did not.

  I’m going to need you, she said. You can stay out here, if you want, but don’t go far. She hesitated again, as if she wanted to say something—but then she said nothing. Regarded him briefly one last time before going indoors.

  He sat in the birchwood chair. Leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. His stomach was empty, lightly convulsed. His head ached. He could not remember the last time he had eaten.

  Caroline Middey returned soon afterward, and he stood. How much time had passed? It might have been only a few minutes, it might have been an hour. Her gaze took a moment to realize him.

  You didn’t say both of them were laboring.

  He started.

  I didn’t know it had anything to do with laboring, he said finally. Just the one was sick, I thought, just the one was having trouble.

  Caroline Middey shook her head.

  What, he said.

  Both of them are laboring, she said. It’s started, now. She frowned down at the lawn off the porch. Heat some water. I need something for my tools if it comes to that. And you got some towels?

  He was silent, wondering at it all.

  Talmadge.

  Yes. A few. I got some quilts.

  It’ll ruin your quilts.

  Don’t matter.

  I’m talking about some animal blankets or such as that.

  I got some in the barn.

  Get those. And get towels.

  Later in the cabin he poured water from buckets into a pot on the stove and then opened the stove and stoked the fire within. The door to the bedroom where they lay was shut. There were at times brief murmurings behind the door but for the most part it was silent. Was this how it all went, he thought, in quietness like this? He thought he would have to go gather more firewood from the barn, but when he went out onto the porch he saw a pile of kindling and logs had been stacked near the door.

  He went and sat in the birchwood chair, downtilted his hat over his eyes.

  When he woke—he had not realized he had slept—it was still night, black-dark and motionless. Caroline Middey sat before him on the porch steps, smoking a sweet-smelling cigarette. The lantern glowed still between them. A rabbit at the mouth of the apricot orchard froze, its eyes catching in the lantern light, and then bounded away down the avenue of trees.

  Talmadge cleared his throat. Are they—

  Caroline Middey glanced over her shoulder at him. She turned forward again, flicked ash off the side of the porch.

  They’re all right for now, she said. Then, several minutes later, glancing at him again: You still planning on looking out for them, after all this is finished?

  Talmadge looked at the field below, the remaining fires winking in the dark. The horses, stirring slowly. Marauders. He said nothing at first.

  I reckon I would help them if they needed it.

  Caroline Middey frowned out at the darkness. They’re going to need it, all right.

  He said nothing.

  After a while she crushed out her cigarette and said, Well— and stood. Placed her hand on his shoulder as she passed him, went indoors.

  The morning was bright. Down in the field the horses grazed and the men picked fruit, their bodies appearing and disappearing among the foliage.

  Talmadge waited on the porch for Caroline Middey. When she came through the doorway, she blinked rapidly in the light.

  Well? he said.

  She blinked. From within her skirts she pulled out a cigarette she had rolled earlier, put it between her lips, and lit it with a match from the same pocket. Moved slightly on the porch, as if disoriented. The older one will have hers tonight, she said. But the other one. She paused, glanced out across the grass. The other one’s baby died. Or one of them. Yes, there were two. That’s what I think. She hesitated. Yes, that’s what I think. What I think happened is that she passed one some days ago, but there’s still the rest that needs to come out. Either that, or she hasn’t passed either baby at all. I asked her about it, asked her when she stopped feeling it. Poor thing doesn’t know. Caroline Middey smoked and then smiled, but it wasn’t meant to be a smile. Going to have to go through it anyway, bearing that thing out of her, whatever it is. But it ain’t going to be no live baby, whatever it is. She smiled again the smile that wasn’t a smile, and rubbed her eye with the heel of her hand and continued smoking. She looked out over the bright yellow field. Lord, she said.

  Talmadge didn’t know what to say. He too looked out over the field. What happened to it? he said finally.

  I don’t know. After a moment, she said: I could be wrong. But from her voice, Talmadge knew she was saying it for his sake.

  Is she going to—die?

  Caroline Middey looked at him quickly. Who, the girl?

  Talmadge didn’t say anything.

  They ain’t but little girls, both of them. But the body will do what it will, unless it just can’t. She was going to say more but then she didn’t. She smoked and looked out at the field. Lord, look at those horses, she said.

  At dusk, the fires glowed at the edge of the field and the men stood around eating their supper in the firelight. At intervals there came from the cabin a strangled cry, not of the baby but of the mother before the baby, where she doesn’t want to make sounds but cannot help herself. Talmadge sat waiting on the porch, his hat in his hands. The cries subsided, and then rose. Finally Caroline Middey came to the door and said his name.

  He stood and went inside the cabin.
r />   The bedroom was lit by a single lantern on the bedside table, turned high. The center of the room, in contrast with the outer darkness, was bright.

  The older girl, sitting up in the bed, looked away when he entered the room.

  The other girl lay on a pallet on the floor. Like her sister, she wore only an undershirt, and her body shone with sweat. Her stomach ballooned before her. She held her fists over her eyes, and shook: a fine, constant tremor.

  The room bristled with heat, smelled of iron. He took off his hat.

  In the intense light the skin around Caroline Middey’s eyes was bruised-looking. She crouched beside the girl on the floor. To Talmadge she said: I don’t know how much longer it’ll be with that one—nodding to the girl on the bed—but this one I have to help quick. She stroked the girl’s head. I think I might have to pump it out of her.

  Talmadge was speechless.

  I want you here if I need help. This here is Della. That’s Jane.

  Jane was watching him. When he looked at her, she turned her head carefully away.

  You sit down there, said Caroline Middey, indicating the bed. In a few minutes I’ll want her to start pushing, and you put your hands—there—on her legs to help her.

  Talmadge went to the bed. When he sat down, Jane pressed her lips together. On the floor, Della began to moan.

  Caroline Middey stood over Della now, had reached under her and was kneading her back. The older woman’s face was reddening from exertion. She looked over to Jane. Lie back a little, she said. Just like I told you. Talmadge—make her lie on her back. Hold her down.

  Talmadge hesitated. Lie back, he said.

  The hair at Jane’s temples was wet, and her eyes, for a moment, were pleading. He felt as if she was going to say something to him. And then all at once she bent to the side and gagged. He wanted to help her; but he knew better than to touch her before he had to. A moment later she lifted her body, wiped her mouth, and eased back against the headboard. Her eyes closed.

 
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