The painted drum, p.1
THE PAINTED DRUM
To my daughters
1 Revival Road
2 The Painted Drum
3 The Orchard
NORTH OF HOOPDANCE
1 The Visitors
2 The Shawl
3 The Wolves
4 The Little Girl Drum
5 The Ornamental Man
THE LITTLE GIRL DRUM
1 Shawnee sat her little brother down and pried the crayon…
2 “The dead are drinking here tonight,” said Ira as she joined…
3 Shawnee stared into the fire for a while, then suddenly…
4 At the lighted gas stop, Ira bought fifteen dollars worth…
5 Shawnee pulled herself out of her body and went up…
6 Morris found the pile of blankets and stepped into the…
7 A hospital is a world apart, running day and night…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
OTHER BOOKS BY LOUISE ERDRICH
ABOUT THE PUBLISHER
Leaving the child cemetery with its plain hand-lettered sign and stones carved into the weathered shapes of lambs and angels, I am lost in my thoughts and pause too long where the cemetery road meets the two-lane highway. This distraction seems partly age, but there is more too, I think. These days I consider and reconsider the slightest of choices, as if one might bring me happiness and the other despair. There is no right way. No true path. The more familiar the road, the easier I’m lost. Left and the highway snakes north, to our famous college town; but I turn right and am bound toward the poor and historical New England village of Stiles and Stokes with its great tender maples, its old radiating roads, a stern white belfry and utilitarian gas pump/grocery. Soon after the highway divides off. Uphill and left, a broad and well-kept piece of paving leads, as the trunk of a tree splits and diminishes, to ever narrower outgrowths of Revival Road. This is where we live, my mother and I, just where the road begins to tangle.
From the air, our road must look like a ball of rope flung down haphazardly, a thing of inscrutable loops and half-finished question marks. But there is order in it to reward the patient watcher. In the beginning, the road is paved, although the material is of a grade inferior to the main highway’s asphalt. When the town votes swing toward committing more money to road upkeep, it is coated with light gravel. Over the course of a summer’s heat, the bits of stone are pressed into the softened tar, making a smooth surface for the cars to pick up speed. By midwinter, the frost creeps beneath the road and flexes, creating heaves that force the cars to slow again. I’m glad when that happens, for children walk this road to the bus stop below. They walk past with their dogs, wearing puffy jackets of saturated brilliance—hot pink, hot yellow, hot blue. They change shape and grow before my eyes, becoming the young drivers of fast cars who barely miss the smaller children, who, in their turn, grow up and drive away from here.
As I say, there is order, but the pattern is continually complicated by the wilds of occurrence. The story surfaces here, snarls there, as people live their disorder to its completion. My mother, Elsie, and I try to tack life down with observation. But if it takes a lifetime to see things clearly, and a lifetime beyond, even, perhaps only the religious dead have a true picture of our road. It is, after all, named for the flat field at its southern end that once hosted a yearly revival meeting. Those sweeping conversions resulted in the establishment of at least one or two churches that now seem before their time in charismatic zeal. Over the years they merged with newer denominations, but left their dead sharing earth with Universalists and Quakers and even utter nonbelievers. As for the living, we’re trapped in scene after scene. We haven’t the overview that the dead have attained. Still, I try to at least record connections. I try to find my way through our daily quarrels, surprises, and small events here on this road.
We were home doing pleasant domestic chores on a frozen Sunday in the dead of winter when there was a frantic beating at our door. In alarm, Elsie called me. I came rushing from the basement laundry to see a young man standing behind the glass of the back storm door, jacketless and shivering. I saw that he’d lost a finger from the hand he raised, and knew him as the Eyke boy, now grown, years past fooling with his father’s chain saw. But not his father’s new credit-bought car. Davan Eyke had sneaked his father’s new automobile out for an illicit spin and lost control coming down off the hill beside our house. The car slid toward a steep gully lined with birch. By lucky chance, it came to rest pinned precisely between two trunks. The white birch trees now held the expensive and unpaid-for white car in a perfect vise. Not one dent. Not one silvery scratch. Not yet. It was Davan’s hope that if I hooked a chain to my Subaru and backed up the hill I would be able to pull his car gently free.
My chain snapped, and the efforts of others only made things worse over the course of the afternoon. At the bottom of the road a collection of cars, trucks, equipment, and people gathered. As the car was unwedged, as it was rocked, yanked, pushed, and let go, as different ideas were tried and discarded, as the newness of the machine wore off, Davan saw his plan was lost and he began to despair. With empty eyes, he watched a dump truck winch his father’s vehicle half free, then slam it flat on its side and drag it shrieking up a lick of gravel that the town road agent had laid down for traction.
Over the years our town, famous for the softness and drama of its natural light, has drawn to itself artists from the large cities of the eastern seaboard. They have usually had some success in the marketplace, and can now afford the luxury of becoming reclusive. Since New Hampshire does not tax income, preferring a thousand other less effective ways to raise revenue, wealthy artists find themselves wealthier, albeit slightly bored. Depending on their surroundings for at least some company, they are forced to rely on those such as myself—a former user of street drugs cured by hepatitis, a clothing store manager fired for lack of interest in clothes, a semi-educated art lover, writer of endless journals and tentative poetry, and, lastly, a partner in the estates business my mother started more than fifty years ago.
At any rate, one such artist lives down at the end of our road, in a large brick cape attached to a white clapboard carriage house (now studio). Kurt Krahe—last name correctly written with an umlaut, a vampire bite above the a—is a striking man. Formerly much celebrated for his work in assemblages of stone, he has fallen into what he calls the Zwischenraum, the space between things. Kurt has lost his umlaut to American usage, but he loves German portmanteau words. Sometimes I think he makes them up, but Zwischenraum is real. It is the way I see the world sometimes. Kurt has fallen into the space between his own works and is now mainly ignored. He hasn’t done a major piece in years. Often, his sculptures incorporate native slate or granite and to help with the massive project of their execution he occasionally hires young local men. Krahe’s assistants live upon the grounds—there is a small cottage sheltered by an old white pine—they are to be available for work at any time of day or night. There is no telling when the inspiration to fit one stone a certain way upon another may finally strike.
Kurt’s hands are oddly, surprisingly, delicate and small; they remind me of a burly raccoon’s hands, nimble and clever. His feet are almost girlish in their neatly tied boots, a contrast to the rest of him, so
When Davan Eyke was forced to leave home, he did not go far, just up to Krahe’s to inhabit the little cottage beneath the boughs of the beautiful, enfolding pine. It is a tree of an unusually powerful shape, and I have speculated often with the artist upon the year of its first growth. We are both quite certain it was small, a mere sapling, too tender to bother with, when the agents of the English king first marked the tallest and straightest trees in the forests of New England as off limits to colonists and destined for the shipyards of the Royal Navy, masts to hang great sails. A large pine growing now was a seedling when the climax growth, the pine canopy so huge and dense no light shone onto the centuries of bronze needles below, was axed down. This tree splits halfway up into three parts and forms an enormous crown. In that crotch, there is a raven’s nest, which is unusual since ravens are shy of northeasterners, having a long race memory for the guns, nets, and poisons with which they were once eradicated.
When Davan Eyke moved in, the ravens watched, but they watch everything. They are a humorous, highly intelligent bird, and knew immediately that Davan Eyke would be trouble. Therefore they dropped sticks upon the boy’s roof, shat on the lintel, stole small things he left in the yard, and hid them. Pencils, coins, and once his car keys. They also laughed. The laughter of a raven is a sound unendurably human. You may know it if you have heard it in your own throat as the noise of another of Krahe’s favorites, Schadenfreude, the joy that rises as one witnesses the pain of others. Perhaps the raven’s laughter, the low rasp, sounds cynical to our ears and reminds us of the depth of our own human darkness. Of course, there is nothing human in the least about it and its source is unknowable, as are the hearts of all things wild. Davan Eyke was bothered though, enough so that he complained to Krahe about the way the birds disturbed his sleep by dropping twigs and pinecones on his roof, which was of painted tin. End over end, the refuse clattered down.
“Get used to them” was all the artist said to Davan Eyke.
Krahe tells me this the day I bring the mail, a thing I do for him often, when he feels he is close to tossing himself into the throes of some ambitious piece. Then, he cannot or will not break the thread of his concentration by making a trip to the post office. There is too much at stake. This could be, I know although he will not admit it, the day his talent resurrects itself painfully from the grief where it has been plunged.
“I have in mind a perception of balance, although the whole thing must be brutally off the mark and highly dysphoric.”
He speaks like this, pompous, amused at his own pronouncements, brightening his eyes beneath harsh brows.
“Awkward,” I say, deflatingly. “Maybe even ugly.”
In his self-satisfaction there is more than a hint of the repressed Kansas farm boy he was when he first left home for New York. That boy is covered by many layers now—there is faked European ennui, an aggressive macho crackle, an edge of Lutheran judgmentalness about, among many things, other people’s religions. He says he has none. I can infuriate him easily by observing that, all the same, he is still Lutheran—a fire-breathing crank. Lapsed, maybe, but still tearing down hypocrisies. Still nailing his theses to the doors of cathedrals. He also descends at times to a strata of ongoing sadness over the not-so-recent loss of his second wife, who was killed on a road out west when her car ran over a large piece of stone. “Do you know,” Krahe said once, “that a stone can be wedged just so into the undercarriage so that, when you press the gas pedal, the accelerator sticks and shoots the car forward at an amazing speed?” That was the gist of the fluke accident that killed his wife. A high school prank near Flathead Lake. Stones on the highway. Her speed increased, says Krahe, as she pressed on the brakes. Not a beautiful woman from her pictures, but forceful looking. Resembled by their daughter, Kendra, a girl evidently committed to dressing in nothing but black and purple since she’s entered Sarah Lawrence.
“He’s not working out,” Krahe says now, of Eyke, who has moved just out of earshot. “I shouldn’t hire locals.”
I tell him that I resent his use of the word “local.” After all, I am one, although I qualify in his mind as both local and of the larger world since I spent several years in London, living in fearful solitude on the edge of Soho, failing my degree, and also because he senses that I’ve had a life he knows nothing about, which is true, but I never talk about who I really am with him. The work I do with mother takes us into an extremity of places and lives, too, and I suppose this also exempts me from the “local” tag.
“You wouldn’t have to hire anybody if you used smaller rocks,” I answer, my voice falsely dismissive.
“This guy’s a brainless punk,” Krahe continues.
“I thought you knew that when you hired him.”
“I suppose I could have told by looking at him, but I didn’t really look.”
“The only job he’s ever had was cutting grass, and half the time he broke the lawn mower. He broke so many on this road that people knew enough not to hire him. Still,” I tell Krahe, “he’s not a bad person, not even close to bad. He’s just…” I try to get at the thing about Eyke, but there just isn’t much to get. “…he could learn a lot from you.” My defense is lame and my lover does not buy it.
“I was desperate. I was working on Construction Number Twenty.”
That is the working title of a piece commissioned many years ago by a large Minneapolis cereal company to rise on the corporate grounds. It is still not finished. Krahe slowly flips the mail along his arm, frowning at each envelope as though it holds a secret outrage. In contrast to those sprightly hands and feet, his body is thick, he favors the heavy plaid woolens sold by mail, and his movements are ponderous and considered. His black hair is cut in a brushy crew cut, the same hairdo Uncle Sam once gave him. At fifty-six, he hasn’t lost his strength, and though he complains about his loss of energy, when I see him and my heart charges up, it is like being near a power source. When he speaks of Kendra coming home for a weekend, his voice is tender, almost dreamy. In those times there is a kind of yearning I’d do anything to hear directed toward me—I think I also love him because I want to know this side of him. Kendra doesn’t seem to have a complicated view of her father. And he sees Kendra, I tell myself, partly as the incarnation of his lost wife and not as his actual self-absorbed and petulant daughter. I don’t like her and she doesn’t like me.
I stay and watch the two men wrestle steel and stone. Davan Eyke is slight by contrast. He doesn’t look in fact as though he can lift as much weight as his boss. Together, though, they haul stones from the woods, drag and lever blocks of pale marble delivered from the Rutland quarries and farther away, too. His studio contains German Jurassic limestone, ammonite fossil-bearing rock, a granite shot with bits of hot blue. If Davan himself was artistic, this would be an ideal job, a chance to live close and learn from a master. As it is, Davan’s enthusiasm dwindles in proportion to the resentment he quickly transfers from his father to his boss.
Elsie sighs and makes a face when I tell her Kendra Krahe is visiting her father, and that he has invited us to dinner. I laugh at her eye-rolling. Krahe often invites us to dinners that do not materialize once Kendra
I shouldn’t be so hard on her, I suppose. But is it proper for the young to be so disappointing? And Krahe, why can’t he see? I have wished she’d find a boyfriend for herself, wished dearly, and still, such is the engrained denial of class distinction in our country that neither of us thought it strange not to consider Davan Eyke, either to dismiss or encourage such a match. There he was, sullenly enduring his surroundings, winging pebbles at the tormenting birds, but since he was not of the intelligentsia, such as we are, who live on the road, he didn’t occur to us.
This is the sort of family he is from: the Eykes, our closest neighbors. The father is a tinkering, sporadically employed mechanic. The local gas truck was driven by Davan’s mother, until she took over the school bus route. They belong to an Assembly of God church, a scruffy-looking place with the same sort of plastic sign in front that gas stations use to display shifting prices. The two-word mottoes change weekly. God Loves. God Knows. God Sees. In the Eykes’ packed-earth yard, a dog was tied for many years, a lovely creature part German shepherd and part husky; one eye brown and one blue. The dog was never taken off the short chain that bound it to the trunk of a tree. It lived in that tiny radius through all weathers, lived patiently, enduring each dull moment of its life, showing no hint of going mean.