The Painted Drum, p.10Louise Erdrich
“So would you help me dig Mike up?”
“Chook, let me…let me figure out something else.”
“Okay, Bernard. It’s not like we have to do it today. Tomorrow maybe.”
“You said the drum came back.”
“The judge’s got it at his house.”
“Well, that’s the first good thing.”
“They brought it to the right person, eh?”
“Who’s this ‘they’?”
“Two ladies from out east. Those women had come across that drum, I don’t know how. It had to do with some old man. Geraldine has been trying to get ahold of you. Me, I am getting my boy to drive me.”
I knew I had to be there, right then, at the drum’s return. If Chook actually got a ride from someone else, this was a big event. And I had to be there not only for my own reasons, but to neutralize her presence. I said good-bye and got ready to go over to the judge’s house.
The judge lives on his uncle’s old land pretty much right where Nanapush’s old shack caved in one harsh winter. I don’t even know if the judge ever met his uncle or if old Nanapush, of whom my father told me stories, realized that he had a nephew, anyway, drifting along through the tribal records and the off-reservation families, and those who moved to Canada, like the judge’s people, who came here to powwow and felt back at home. People come and people stay. There is a strong pull. You return for one funeral after another and all of a sudden you don’t leave and you are picking up where someone else left off. So with those women who traveled cross-country with the drum. My phone rings again half a minute after I hang up with Chook. I hear from the judge’s wife that these women are a mother and a daughter. She says she thinks that they are connected to an old branch of the Pillagers through a girl who escaped the sicknesses here by going to that eastern school, Carlisle, where they took so many of us at one time.
The judge’s house is a pleasant, modest little prefab construction, brand-new, that has a full basement garage as it sits on a little hill. From that hill, I’m told, old Nanapush used to watch all who passed and to anticipate all that would happen. The judge could look out his picture window and do the same, I suppose, but he probably sees even more than his old uncle by sitting on the courtroom bench. A little driveway curves up to the house and makes a U so that a person can easily turn around and go back out. That’s a nice feature of the house. There’s a lot to like about it. Geraldine, his wife, the new Mrs. Nanapush, has hung about six bird feeders outside the double glass doors on her deck and when I drive up a flock of tiny gray birds starts up, silent, and disappears. It’s a good time of the year—most of the ticks gone, air cool, leaves just turning, school started but the kids still playing outside, exposed but not down with the viruses that will get them once they’re inside coughing on one another all day, which will then fill the hospital—a nice time of year.
“Piindegen! Come in!” Geraldine is such a pleasant woman, wavy black hair and fair skin, her brown eyes secret and quiet, her smile a delicate curve. I always wish I’d asked her out when we were younger. Who could have known when she was gawky and her ears stuck out and she hid behind strings of hair, that she’d turn out like this?
I’m nervous as I walk into the house, and I concentrate on wiping my shoes even though they are perfectly clean. I am relieved to see that they have kept the drum covered in the middle of the room, so I don’t have to look on it quite yet. I am not easy in a social setting so it is not a simple thing for me to introduce myself, and I am glad Geraldine steps in and gets me acquainted with Elsie Travers and her daughter Faye. I sit down in a chair that matches the couch. The two women are sitting on that couch. Talking requires an effort. Both of the women have long hair, the mother’s in a twist and the daughter’s clipped back in a tail. They are slim, and dressed in combinations of black and cream white with very plain metal jewelry—heavy chains, stoneless rings, round stud earrings. They don’t go in for patterns or any sort of trim on their clothes, I see, and their shoes are very simple with no bows or tassels or fancy heels, either. The effect of them is somehow classily monklike, or undertakerish. They seem very different from people here. The younger woman speaks out like a lawyer in a hard, suspicious, accentless voice. I think her features, sharp and definite, her eyes with a Chippewa slant to them, though, are very striking or even beautiful. From one side that is, but then just ordinary from another. And the older one, too, looks different from moment to moment. First she is all excitable and anxious, then she turns right off and sits back watching everyone else like a little gray sparrow hawk ready to strike. As Geraldine says, these women who found the drum are somehow related to the Pillagers, who have mainly died out, so it is quite interesting that they’ve surfaced. Geraldine, especially, who is always collecting and compiling tribal history, shoots questions at them in her pleasant, friendly, interested way. If they stop talking for a minute, she fills up their tea mugs and asks them something else.
“What made you bring back the drum?”
“I kept it for a time,” says the younger woman, thoughtful, “then I thought I should pass it on.”
I nod as she explains about keeping tobacco near it and taking care of it. She did things just the way they are supposed to be done.
Right then Chook and her son, John, the handsome one, drive up to the house. We fall quiet, not wanting for her to miss anything important. John walks her up the steps and she enters. Chook is round as a turnip and today she is wearing a hot pink rayon top with Japanese-like patterns of black flowers. Her skirt ripples all around her like a bush, and when I bend to focus my eyes I see it’s embroidered all over with tiny yellow roses and rust red twigs. She has her hair tied back in a blue headband and she is smoking a cigarette, which she puts out halfway and drops into her purse.
“They don’t taste so good anymore,” she says to the room of people watching her. “I think it’s because of this blood-thinner medicine that they got me on. So there it is, that drum which my husband helped out with at one time.”
Chook stands looking at the drum, then reaches into her big canvas purse. She takes out a package of cookies and a pair of scissors, then neatly cuts open the cellophane on the cookies. Then she pulls the plastic tray halfway out of the clear package and sets it in the center of Geraldine’s coffee table, pushing aside a fresh coffee cake that Geraldine has cut in squares. I’m glad we are at Geraldine’s, for to drink tea at Chook’s house is almost dangerous. She scours her mugs with Comet cleanser and there is always a faint, gritty taste of the stuff. Now Geraldine pours a fresh cup of tea for Chook and she talks, addressing the two women from the east.
“That old drum, it had a reputation. You can’t mess around—once you do keep that drum, you gotta keep it with respect.” She looks at us all with little blinking round eyes, and nods at the cookies she brought, which happen to be the kind of deadly, sweet, pink, waffle-wafers that I am forbidden to touch by my doctor.
“Bernard here,” she says, “he’s the one to tell you about this drum. He knows it well, too well. When that drum passed out of their family, people forgot about them. They got no attention. But you see, that is sometimes how things heal up. Now, I think, he don’t want that drum to resurrect old sorrows for him, eh?”
She looks at me with a searching expression, but I say nothing.
“We all got sorrows,” Chook hunches her shoulders and holds up her bony hands. “We got sorrows or if we don’t work them down, then our sorrows got us.” She rattles the cookie package at me, but I resist.
“What does that have to do with the drum?” says the older of the two Pillager ladies. She is polite and yet nobody to mess with, I see. But Chook is up to dealing with her.
“Take me for instance,” says Chook. “That old Mr. Bush sent John’s brother here off to the Desert Storm, and he breathed something that upset his system and now it’s maybe killing him. But he never yet got a medal for that. Anyway, what I’m telling you is you wear down these sorrows using what you h
She drinks her tea, blinking all around the room.
“Drums get their power from how they are treated, though,” Chook goes on. “You got to keep them protected. If someone comes in where the drum is, uses bad language, you got to put them out. As for getting the drum in the first place, if you get the right guidance you can make a drum. But otherwise a drum must be given to you. Someone must give that drum freely. You cannot buy the drum. You cannot steal the drum.”
She stops right then and stares at the younger woman and says, “So you bought the drum from an old man?”
The younger woman gathers herself, sips her tea, doesn’t meet anybody’s eyes. “His name was Jewett Parker Tatro,” she says.
Geraldine sits back on the hard chair she has brought from the kitchen. The judge, with his round cheeks and intelligent face, sits near to her. He touches his stringy little Indian mustache.
“I think that was the name of the Indian agent at one time. His name has come up on some old probate documents.”
I know who this Tatro was, of course, as he figured in the shameful episodes that my father needed to confess. Tatro had gone from being an unscrupulous Indian agent, when his job was phased out, to owning a bar. The reservation, which had been dry for many years, decided to allow alcohol in order to keep liquor revenue within its borders. But the bulk of that money passed into Tatro’s hands, anyway, since he was the first to open his doors, and later, made some exclusive deal with the area supplier. At any rate, Tatro was or became a collector by default—when the need is on, some people they will sell their own grandmas. Or her old moccasins or the cradle board she beaded for a grandchild or a jingle dress. At one time, the wall of Tatro’s bar was full of these things—some beautiful and sacred, like the drum.
“That’s all we know about it,” says the younger one.
“Where it ended up,” her mother adds. “Of what brought that drum into the hands of Tatro, and what it was before, who kept it and so on…”
She trails off. All of a sudden I can feel Chook’s amused waiting. I can feel Geraldine’s eyes on me and I know she knows, she’s known from the beginning, why I am here. She knows enough about things generally to know where the drum came from, but she doesn’t completely know its origin or kinship; she doesn’t know how it is tied into my family or why my grandfather brought it into being. I look at the two women sitting in the judge’s living room—so prim and intense. Their hands are folded in their laps, but I can tell they have long fingers. Their feet are tucked away from sight, but they probably have big narrow feet with long second toes. Those two don’t know who they are, what it means that they are Pillagers. They don’t know that they came from Simon Jack and they don’t know what he did to Anaquot, my grandmother, or to my aunt whose name is never spoken, or to himself. They don’t know what the drum did to him, either, what the drum knows, or what it contains. They don’t know why my father sold it in spite of the many persons it healed. They don’t know the whole story, but I do know it. So I tell them.
Among the Anishinaabeg on the road where I live, it is told how a woman loved a man other than her husband, and went off into the bush and bore his child. Her name was Anaquot, and like her namesake the cloud she was changeable, moody and sullen one moment, threatening, her lower lip jutting and eyes flashing, filled with storms. The next moment she would shake her hair over her face, blow it out straight in front of her, and make her children scream with laughter. For she had two children by her husband, Shaawano, one a yearning boy of five years and the other a capable daughter of nine.
When she brought the baby out of the trees late that autumn, so long ago, the girl was like a second mother, even waking in the night to clean the baby and nudge it to her mother’s breast. Anaquot slept through its cries, hardly woke. It wasn’t that Anaquot didn’t love her baby, no it was quite the opposite—she loved it too much, the way she loved its father, not her husband. This passion ate away at her and her feelings were unbearable. If she could have thrown that love off, she would have, but the thought of the man who lived across the lake was with her always. She became a gray sky, stared monotonously at the walls, sometimes wept into her hands for hours at a time. At last, she couldn’t rise to cook or keep the cabin neat, and it was too much for the girl child, who curled up each night exhausted in her brown and red plaid shawl, and slept and slept, so that the husband had to wake the girl to wake her mother, for he was afraid of Anaquot’s bad temper, and it was he who roused her into anger by the sheer fact that he was himself, and not the other.
At last, even though he loved Anaquot, the husband found their life together was no good anymore. So it was he who sent word to the other man’s camp. Now in those days our people lived widely scattered, along the shores and in the islands, even out in the plains. There were hardly roads yet, just trails, though we had horses and wagons and for the winter, sleds. And it was very hard when the other man’s uncle came round, in his wagon fitted out with sled runners, to fetch Anaquot, for she and her husband had argued right up to the last about the children, argued fiercely until the husband finally gave in, turned his face to the wall, and did not move to see the daughter, whom he treasured, wrap herself in her plaid robe alongside the mother in the wagon bed. They left soon after, with their bundles and sacks, not even heating up the stones to warm their feet. The father had stopped his ears, so he did not hear the cry when his son understood all of a sudden that he was the one who would be left behind.
As the uncle slapped the reins and the horse lurched forward, the boy tried to jump into the wagon, but his mother pried his hands off the boards, crying gego, gego, and he fell down hard. There was something in him that would not let her leave him, though. He jumped up and although he was wearing only light clothing, he ran behind the wagon, over the packed drifts. The horses picked up speed. His chest scorched with pain, and yet he pushed himself on. He’d never run so fast, so hard and furious, but he was determined and in that determination it was impossible for him to believe that the distance that soon increased between himself and the wagon was real. He kept running and pretended they would stop, wait for him; he kept going until his throat closed, he saw red, and in the ice of air his lungs shut. Then, he said as he fell onto the board-hard snow, he raised his head. Still watching the tiny back of the wagon and the figures of his mother and sister, something went out of him. Something failed in him. He could feel some interior something break. And at that moment, he truly did not care if he was alive or he was dead. So when he saw the gray shapes, the shadows, bound lightly from the trees to either side of the trail, far ahead, he was not afraid.
The next the boy knew, his father was shaking him, already had him wrapped in a blanket and was carrying him home. Shaawano’s chest was broad and although he already spat tubercular blood that would tell the end of his story, he was still a strong man. It would take him many years to die. In those years, he would tell the boy, who had forgotten this part entirely, that at first when he talked about the shadows he thought his son was visited by manidoog. But then as the boy described the shapes, his father felt very uneasy in his mind and decided to take his gun out there. So he built up the fire in the cabin, and settled his boy near, and went back out into the snow. Perhaps the story spread all through our settlements because the father had to tell what he saw, again and again, in order to get rid of it. Perhaps like all frightful dreams, amanisowin, he had to say it to divide its power, though in this case it would not stop being real.
The tracks of the shadows were wolves, and in those times when our guns had taken all their food for furs and hides to sell, wolves were bold and had abandoned the old agreement between themselves and the first humans. For a time, until we understood and let the game increas
For a time, the boy had no understanding of what had happened. His father kept what he knew to himself, at least that first year, and when his son asked about his sister’s brown plaid shawl, torn in pieces, why it was kept in the house, his father said nothing. But he wept if the boy asked if she was cold. It was only after Shaawano was weakened by the disease that he began to tell it far too often, and always the same. How when the wolves closed in, Anaquot threw her daughter to them.
When his father said those words, the boy went still in thought. What had his sister felt? What had thrust through her heart? Had something broken in her too, the way something broke like a stick inside of him? Even then, he knew this broken place would never be mended inside him, except by some terrible means. For he kept seeing his mother put the baby down and grip his sister around the waist, her arms still strong enough. Then he saw Anaquot swing the girl lightly out over the board sides of the wagon. He saw the brown shawl with the red lines flying open. He saw the wolves, the shadows, rush together quick and avid as the wagon with the sled runners disappeared into the distance, forever, for neither he nor his father ever saw Anaquot again.
The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes