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The orchardist, p.8
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       The Orchardist, p.8

           Amanda Coplin

  That’s it, murmured Caroline Middey. Looking up: Move forward, Talmadge. Take her legs, there—

  Jane let him touch her, for a moment. But then she placed her hands on his hands and removed them. Batted his hand away when he reached out again.

  You have to take hold of her, Talmadge, said Caroline Middey. And then, raising her voice: You have to put your hands on her—

  Jane pushed his hand away.

  Jane! admonished Caroline Middey.

  Jane opened her mouth and wailed—high, pleading—and directed her gaze over Talmadge’s shoulder.

  In an instant Caroline Middey stood and reached over the bed and took hold of the girl’s shoulders and straightened her. You push! she said into the girl’s face. Jane twisted within her grasp, and Caroline Middey shook her. To Talmadge, angrily: You hold her down, do as I say! This ain’t going to take all night if I can help it. When Talmadge hesitated, she took hold of his hands and placed them on the girl’s thighs. Hold there! She squeezed Talmadge’s hands, which in turn squeezed the girl’s thighs.

  Jane pushed back against the wall, her eyes wide and helpless.

  Now push! said Caroline Middey. Push up against the wall if you need to! Talmadge will hold you—

  Jane bent to the side again, gagged.

  All right, said Caroline Middey, crouching down. It’s going to be all right, dear, she said to Della. You just do as I say and you’ll be all right.

  Every few minutes, Talmadge looked over to Caroline Middey and the girl on the pallet. Caroline Middey stood over her and massaged her stomach from above. The girl cried open-throated and low. It was a terrible sound. There were moments in the room when it was completely silent, and then it was raging with noise of the girls’ separate pain. Jane half sat up, straining against the headboard. She pushed with her feet against Talmadge’s thighs, her toes curling with effort. She held his forearms. When necessary, he leaned back, away from her, to counter the force. She rocked in that position, and they bore against each other. When the head of the baby crowned Jane’s vagina, the girl’s hair was wet with sweat and the sheet beneath her was bright with red blood.

  Mama, Della cried. Mama! The makeshift bed beneath her was black.

  Hush! said Caroline Middey. Looking over to Jane: Push!

  The girl pushed.

  Caroline Middey looked over to the crowning head. She squinted. You’re going to have to handle it, she said to Talmadge.

  What, he said.

  You’re going to have to take hold of it gentlelike and help it out. Raising her voice to Jane: You push, girl! You hear?

  Jane let go of his arms. When he released the girl’s thighs his handprints lingered in her flesh before fading.

  You put your hands in her and get it out! yelled Caroline Middey.

  There was nothing else but for him to do it. He put his fingers inside the girl and told her to push the thing out. She gasped and gripped the sides of the bed—her knees wide open—and Caroline Middey echoed his demand: Push! His voice was low and quiet: Push! It was a purple and red mess. The girl struggled, and began to relax.

  Talmadge! said Caroline Middey.

  He disregarded hurting her for one graceless moment and put his hands inside her up to the wrists and she screamed and he dug in farther and felt the shoulders of the thing and he pulled on them not harshly but not gently either. God damn it, he said. God damn it. When the shoulders were out, the little beast turned its body toward its mother’s thigh. The girl grabbed her knees and yanked them apart and in one shivering closed-mouthed cry pushed the body from her own.

  There! called Caroline Middey. But her voice to Talmadge was far away.

  That singular movement—a body falling from another body—confused him the moment it occurred. He did not know where he was. He dwelt upon the image of the body—tiny, hot, bloody—in his hands. What was it? Where did it come from? The room oriented itself around it. He cut the umbilicus with his pocketknife and brought the infant close, hooked his finger across its face and into its mouth for the mucus, brought it to his shoulder and slapped its bottom—how did he know to do this?—and the thing screamed in his ear. The room seemed to swell, to pulse; the elapsed time, the snug hours, blossomed grossly. The room had grown increasingly warm and thick with the odor of sickness and birth and it was into this world that Talmadge surfaced. He held the body close and felt that it belonged to the room as much as to the girl and at the same time that it belonged to nobody.

  Caroline Middey said, Wash it off.

  He stood and left the room.

  Outside, it was night, but he made his way to the creek without difficulty.

  Beside the water, he knelt and took a handkerchief from his pocket and plunged it beneath the riffle. He wrung out the handkerchief in his fist and situated the infant in the crook of his arm and dabbed at its face. It was a mewling thing, and small. He felt the name on his lips, the name of the thing he could not name, the name that would not come to him. He felt himself approaching it, stuttering over it, not making a sound. He dabbed at its face.

  The moonlight on the creek danced and splintered on the surface of the water.

  He returned to the cabin. He swaddled the body in a towel and stood before the fire. For a moment he hesitated as the confusion flared: Was it animal? He could not name it, the being or the feeling. It passed.

  The baby was female.

  Della stood fully dressed at the edge of the apricot orchard and looked down into the field. It was morning. She leaned on a walking stick. The horses had been there—when she lay in bed she could hear them through the open window—but now they were gone. Talmadge said that any day now, however, they would return, and she would be able to see them, if she wanted to.

  She walked into the apricot orchard and when she saw Talmadge in the tree—his legs were visible, he was up on the ladder—she did not crouch down the row from him but went straight to the ladder and looked up. After a few moments he recognized her presence and looked down at her. His face was flushed and sweating, framed by branches. He was wearing the floppy calfskin hat. Are you hungry? he asked her, uneasy, and she didn’t answer, but moved away from the ladder, continued down the row. What was she looking for?

  Later, in the cabin, she sat on the edge of the bed and Caroline Middey showed her and Jane again how to feed the child. Della unbuttoned her dress to the waist and came out of her sleeves and so sat with her whole torso bared. It was easiest that way. Caroline Middey gave her the infant and showed her how to hold the child, how to brush the nipple against its mouth, how to situate the child once it started feeding.

  But like the time before, the child would not take Della’s nipple. They tried for several minutes and then Caroline Middey took the child and gave her back to Jane, whose nipple the infant greedily took into her mouth. Jane drew her face close to the infant’s skull, her eyes wide.

  It’s early yet, said Caroline Middey. We’ll keep trying. The little one has to learn she has two mothers.

  And then Della leaned into Caroline Middey—her forehead pressed against the older woman’s shoulder—while she took Della’s breast in her hand and proceeded to milk it. The milk drained into a cup below. Della tried very hard not to, but she cried. The room was very quiet except for the sound of this weeping and the sound of the child feeding.

  At the café where Talmadge had gone again to sell fruit, Weems came up behind him as he sat eating at the counter, and placed a hand on his shoulder.

  Talmadge craned his neck to look up at him.

  Did that Michaelson fellow find you? said Weems. He was here a couple days ago, looking. And Weems’s eyes, which had been merry—with nervousness, maybe, concern—became sober, almost sad. The townspeople who knew anything were keeping quiet, he said. But you know how that goes. He smiled again that sad, reticent smile. You might have some trouble on your hands. That man
isn’t in his right mind—

  Talmadge asked Caroline Middey if he was doing the right thing, letting the girls stay with him, or if she thought he should find a better place for them. Caroline Middey had been thinking about it all, of course, but had just been waiting for him to ask her. She told him that he should at least apprise the sheriff of their situation, that it was possible they might all be in some danger.

  He told her she was right. But he did not talk to the sheriff. What if there was some law of which he and Caroline Middey were ignorant, that judged the girls, and the baby, as Michaelson’s property? It was preposterous, and immoral, but there were immoral laws out there, he knew. And what if he had broken a law in fostering the girls? What if, in contacting the authorities, he inadvertently made things worse? He sensed looming trouble, but could not verify its shape. He would wait and see; he would ask the Judge about it, maybe.

  He knew that he should be careful, he should be clearheaded and strategic more than ever, but he felt, those first few weeks after the child’s birth, as if he could not concentrate, as if he was living in a dream.

  He was startled, now, coming up through the apricot orchard, to see the cabin vivid with moving forms; girl-shapes floating past the windows, the chimney perpetually exuding thick smoke. Caroline Middey beating rugs on the porch, her voice moving like a constant chord over the lawn, some objects absorbing, and others reflecting, her voice. Sounds moving over the planes of wood of the cabin and porch. And above and below all this was the sound of the child’s cries, hovering in the trees, seeming to come from all directions at once. Was it a comfort? It was all new—the company, the sounds—but also he felt as if it had been going on for a long time. He was, he thought—and was shocked at this discovery—happy.

  Della lay beside Jane, who was sleeping turned to the wall. The door of the room was open, and Talmadge and Caroline Middey sat out in the front room and talked. They had left the door of the cabin open out of sympathy toward the girls, since they—the girls—were not allowed to go outside the cabin after nightfall. They must stay indoors now, they must rest. With the door open, perhaps it was not so bad. An hour ago Caroline Middey had examined Della and applied ointment to the stitches. Della was to lie still and not move.

  And what if the stitches tear? Della had asked her.

  Well, it would be unpleasant, said Caroline Middey. There was a risk of infection, besides. And what was infection? Della had wanted to know, but had not asked.

  Jane? whispered Della now, but Jane did not answer.

  The night air came through the cabin door and crossed the threshold of the outer room and reached the bedroom where she lay, her face turned to it. She could see the darkness off the porch. The air was cool, with an edge of cold, even. She could hear but not see the trembling leaves.

  Again there was the murmuring back and forth of the two adults, punctuated by one word or a string of words spoken louder than the others, or Talmadge clearing his throat. Spans of long silence. A sigh, a single sentence. Talmadge crossed the room to stoke the fire in the woodstove. There was the sound of the upset heat and embers and then the creak as the stove door was closed. Talmadge cleared his throat, returned to sit.

  Della rose and put her feet over the side of the bed. There was a tightened feeling, a deep itch, where the stitches were, and she wanted to laugh and cry. She stood and went into the other room where they were, and they both stopped speaking and turned to her.

  What is it, dear? said Caroline Middey.

  Della stood near the table. She had come to get something. Had she been sleeping? Was this all a dream?


  She went over to where they sat. Between them lay the sleeping child, stomach-down on a folded quilt. An ogreish-looking thing. Della was still amazed that it had come from the inside of Jane. No one had told them exactly how it would work. And yet Jane had known, somehow. They were blessed, said Jane; they were going to give birth to themselves. It would be themselves they gave birth to, only better. That was why she and Della must work so hard to protect them, their children. In protecting the children Jane and Della would also (Jane explained this over and over again) save themselves—

  Della took up the child awkwardly and put her against her shoulder. The gentle snuffling, the warm weight. Hush, said Della, jostling her. Hush. Talmadge and Caroline Middey watched her silently. Warily. She turned and walked to the open door and stood looking out into the night and then turned, went to the woodstove. There was a slow and penetrating heat coming from it. With one hand she took the leather mitt and put it over the handle and opened the door.

  What are you doing, dear, said Caroline Middey now, and both she and Talmadge rose. But they did not come forward, not yet.

  What do you want? said Caroline Middey. We’ll get it for you. Are you hungry? Are you cold?

  Jane appeared in the doorway of the bedroom, her eyes small with sleep. She glanced at Della and then looked out the open door, into the night. After a moment she came forward and took the child from Della, who resisted her only momentarily, then shuffled back into the bedroom. Shut the door.

  Della, her arms suddenly empty, stood and stared into the orange heat.

  Caroline Middey came and closed the stove door. Her hand rested on Della’s shoulder. They tried to talk to her a few minutes more, but then Caroline Middey gave her a mug with a little brandy in it and she drank it and Caroline Middey put her back to bed.

  Don’t close the door, murmured Della.

  We won’t.

  No, I mean the other one, the other one. Keep it open.

  All right, dear, we will. We’ll keep it open. You go to sleep now.


  Talmadge walked the apricot orchard, slowly, looking at the trees, which appeared the epitome of health. The bright fruit. His hands, reaching up to feel the branches, surprised him. Had he always had hands like this, red and splotched? Was he really so old? The bark beneath his thumb was gray and ridged; he rubbed it several times before he took his hand away.

  In the weeks following the child’s birth, he felt a precarious weight in his stomach. Instead of feeling relieved, as he had expected to feel—the girls had given birth, and it was terrible, but it was over, and neither of them had perished—he felt as if he had forgotten something. It was Michaelson, of course. But Talmadge told himself that Michaelson would not find them; even if one of the townspeople did surrender the information of his whereabouts, the orchard was tucked far back into the foothills, hard to access if you did not understand the roads or the lay of the land. But nevertheless he could not avoid the feeling of deep unease; it would not leave him. He did not tell Caroline Middey about it, but suffered alone, thinking it would pass.

  Two days after Caroline Middey left, he woke to his room full of light. The baby was crying. He sat up, confused. Della stood in the doorway of his bedroom. She had reached out her hands to brace herself within the doorframe, placed one bare foot on top of the other, and gazed at the corner of the bed.

  Jane told me to come get it, she said, of the child, who lay beside him. It took him a moment to remember what she, the infant, was doing there. And then it came to him: she had fussed in the middle of the night, and neither girl had roused to tend her, and so he had brought her into his own bedroom, and fallen asleep as she cried. Still confused, Talmadge understood that Della would not cross over into the room to retrieve the baby. And so he lifted the child and delivered her to the waiting girl, who retreated with the child into the other bedroom. Slammed the door—carelessly—behind her.

  In the outer room he opened the door of the woodstove and stoked the cold ashes. He could not believe the brightness of the day; he had overslept. Before he reached for the matchbox, he had a moment of disorientation. As he leaned to light the stove, he felt, suddenly, a wetness on his mouth, and reached up and touched his face. Blood. His nose was bleeding.

The door of the other bedroom opened and Della stood looking out at him. Expectantly, as if he had called her. Talmadge saw behind her to Jane in the bed, the infant nursing at her breast. Jane looked at him, frowning slightly. But it was also as if she did not see him: was deeply absorbed by some thought or memory, and his sudden presence—his trouble—was an irritation.

  It’s all right, said Talmadge, thinking they would be spooked by the blood. His voice shook (but why?). It’s all right.

  Isn’t it market day? said Caroline Middey. She had come at the end of the week to tend to the girls, and that morning noticed Talmadge had not gone into the barn to see about the mule, had not prepared the wagon. She thought maybe she had gotten the day wrong.

  But Talmadge, who had worked that morning in the far apple orchard, said he wasn’t going to market.

  Caroline Middey stared at him. He had not missed a market day for as long as she could remember.

  Maybe next week, he said.

  When three men came out of the forest and into the upper pasture, Talmadge got down out of the limbs of the apricot tree in which he worked and went to meet them. He was not expecting anybody. Only when the men were almost in the yard did he recognize Michaelson. Or Michaelson’s likeness, for this man had none of the sloth of the other whom Talmadge had met; but there was a certain gravity to this man’s movements that still recalled the other. As the man steered his horse through the grass, Talmadge felt his stare upon him, a singular, contained attention aimed at his chest. Talmadge touched his hat as if to remove it but then changed his mind, pulled it lower on his brow. Righted it at the last moment so he could see properly.

  All the men had rifles in their scabbards. The man on Michaelson’s right was red-haired, sleepy-looking; the other was lean, mean-looking, with deep lines around his eyes and mouth. As Michaelson dismounted, the mean-looking man looked up toward the cabin. When he looked at Talmadge, the man fixed him in one long unintelligible stare before looking away.

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