The Painted Drum, p.11Louise Erdrich
When I was little, my own father terrified us with his drinking. That was after we lost our mother, because before that, the only time I was aware they touched the ishkode wabo was on an occasional weekend when they got home late, or sometimes during berry-picking gatherings, when we went out to the bush and camped with others. Not until she died did he start the heavy sort of drinking, the continual drinking where we were left in the house for days. And then, when he came home, we jumped out the window and hid in the woods while he barged around, shouting for us. We only went back when he fell dead asleep.
There were three of us, me the oldest at ten and my little sister and brother twins of only six years. I was surprisingly good at taking care of them, I think, and because we learned to survive together during those drinking years we always have been close. Their names are Doris and Raymond, and they married a brother and sister in turn. When we get together, which we do when we can, for they live in the Cities now, there come times in the talking and card playing, and maybe even in the light beer now and then, we will bring up those days. Most people understand how it was. Our story isn’t that uncommon. But for us, it helps to compare our points of view.
How could I know, for instance, that Raymond saw it the time I hid my father’s belt? I pulled it from around his waist while he was passed out and then buried it in the woods. I kept doing it every time after that. We laughed at how our father couldn’t understand how when he went to town drinking his belt was always stolen. He even accused his shkwebii buddies of the theft. I had good reasons. Not only was he embarrassed, after, to go out with pants held up with a rope, but he couldn’t snake that belt out in anger and snap the hooked buckle end in the air. He couldn’t hit us with it. Of course, being resourceful, he used other things. There was a board. A willow wand. And there was himself, his hands and fists and boots and things he could throw. He’d never remember. He’d be furious and wreck us, wreck things, and then he’d talk about our mother. But it got so easy to evade him, eventually, that after a while we never suffered a bruise or scratch. We had our own places in the woods, even a little campfire for the cold nights. And we’d take money from him every chance we got, slip it from his shoe where he thought it hidden. He became, for us, a thing to be exploited, avoided, outsmarted, and used. We survived off him like a capricious and dangerous line of work. I suppose we stopped thinking of him as a human being, certainly as a father, after only a couple years.
I got tired of it. When I was thirteen years old, I got my growth earlier than some boys, and one night when Doris and Raymond and me were sitting around wishing for something besides the oatmeal and commodity powdered milk which I had stashed so he couldn’t sell it, I heard him coming down the road. He never learned to shut up before he got to us. He never understood we lit out on him, I guess. So he was shouting and making noise all the way to the house, and Doris and Raymond looked at me and went for the back window. Then they stopped, because they saw I was not going. C’mon, ambe, get with it, they tried to pull me along. I shook them off and told them to get out, be quick, I was staying.
I think I can take him now, is what I said.
And I know they were scared, but their faces, oh their faces rose up toward me in this beautiful reveal all full of hope and belief. So when he came in the door, and I faced him, I was not afraid.
He was big though, he hadn’t wasted from the alcohol or the long disease yet. His nose had got pushed to one side in a fight, then slammed back on the other side, so now it was straight. His teeth were half gone and he smelled the way he had to smell, being five days drunk. When he came in the door, he paused for a moment, his eyes red and swollen to tiny slits. Then he saw I was waiting for him and he smiled in a bad way. He went for me. My first punch surprised him. I had been practicing this on a hay-stuffed bag, then a padded board, toughening my fists, and I’d gotten so quick I flickered like fire. But I wasn’t strong as he was, still, and he had a good twenty pounds on me. Yet, I’d do some damage, I was sure of it. I’d teach him not to mess with me. What I didn’t foresee was how the fight itself would get right into me.
There is a terrible thing about fighting your father, I never knew. It came on sudden, with the second blow, a frightful kind of joy. Suddenly a power surged up from the center of me and I danced at him, light and giddy, full of a heady rightness. Here is the thing. I wanted to waste him, waste him good. I wanted to smack the living shit out of him. Kill him if I must. If he died, so be it. If I died, well, I wouldn’t! A punch for Doris, a blow coming back I didn’t feel. A kick for Raymond. And all the while me silent, then screaming, then silent again, in this rage of happiness that filled me with a simultaneous despair so that, I guess you could say, I stood apart from myself.
He came at me, crashed over a chair that was already broke, then threw the pieces, but they easily bounced off and I grabbed a chair leg and whacked him on the ear so his head spun. I watched, like I say, stood apart. Struck again and again. I knew what I was doing while I was doing it, but not really, not in the ordinary sense. It was like I was standing calm, against the wall with my arms folded, pitying us both. I saw the boy, the chair leg, the man fold and fall, his hands held up in begging fashion. Then I also saw that now, for a while, the bigger man had not even bothered fighting back.
Suddenly, he was my father again, as he lay there in his blood. And when I kneeled down next to him, I was his son. I reached for the closest rag, and I picked up this piece of blanket that my father always kept for some reason next to the place he slept. And as I picked it up and wiped the blood off his face, I said to him, your nose is crooked again. Then he looked at me, steady and quizzical, clear, as though he had never drunk in his life. He kept looking at me as though I was unsolved, a new thing, and I wiped his face again with that frayed piece of blanket. Well, it really was a shawl, a light kind of old-fashioned woman’s blanket shawl. Once, maybe it was plaid. You could still see lines, some red, the background a faded brown. He watched intently as this rag went from his face and as my hand brought it near again. I was pretty sure, then, I’d clocked him too hard, that he’d now really lost it and there wasn’t a chance. I mean, a chance of what? I suppose a chance of getting a father back. A thing I hadn’t understood I wanted.
Gently though, he clasped one hand around my wrist. With the other hand he took that piece of shawl. He crumpled that and held it to the middle of his forehead. It was like he was praying, like he was having thoughts he wanted to collect in that scrap of cloth. For a while he lay like that and I, crouched over, let him be, hardly breathing. Something told me to sit there still. And then at last he said to me, in the sober new voice I would hear from then on out, did you know I had a sister once?
There was a time when the government moved everybody off the farther reaches of the reservation, onto roads, into towns, into housing. It looked good at first and then it all went sour. Shortly after, it seemed like anyone who was someone was either dead, drunk, killed, near suicide, or just had dusted themself. None of the old sorts were left, it seemed, the old kind of people. It was during that time that my mother died and my father hurt us, as I have said. But now, gradually, that term of despair has lifted somewhat and yielded up its survivors. We still have sorrows that are passed to us from early generations, those to handle besides our own, and cruelties lodged where we cannot forget. We have the need to forget. I don’t know if we stopped the fever of forgetting yet. We are always walking on oblivion’s edge.
I do know that some get out of it, like my brother and sister living quiet. And myself to some degree, though my wife has moved to Fargo and I miss her, and miss my children between their visits. Before my father died, he found a woman to live with him. I think he had several happy years, and during that time he talked to me. Once, when he brought up the old days, and again we went over the story, I said to him at last two things I had been thinking.
First, I told him that to keep his sister’s shawl was wrong. Because we never keep the clothing of the dead
The other thing I said to him was in the form of a question. Have you ever considered, I asked him, given how your sister was so tenderhearted and brave, that she looked at the whole situation? She saw the wolves were only hungry, she saw their need was only need. She knew you were back there, alone in the snow. She saw the baby she loved would not live without a mother, and only the uncle knew the way. She saw clearly that one person on the wagon had to offer themself, or they all would die. And in that moment of knowledge, don’t you think being who she was, of the old sort of Anishinaabeg who thinks of the good of the people first, she jumped, my father, n’deydey, brother to that little girl, don’t you think she lifted her shawl and flew?
My father is a Shaawano and I’ve grown up in the range of those wolves, though I didn’t understand for a long while, of course, how it was that they related to our family. In summer that pack disappears on the far mainland where the shore is still wild and never was developed. I hardly ever hear them then. But in winter they come out onto the ice of the lake and hunt the islands. Then their howls travel through the frozen space and to hear them brings back all the tumult of my heart in younger days. I don’t know why their cries do that to me; perhaps it is because I’ve always had that longing, that need, to pierce through my existence. I am a boundary to something else, but I don’t know what. Mostly I have made my peace with never knowing, but when I hear the wolves that falls away. Unrest grips me. I have to leave my house and go out walking in the night, hungry to know what I cannot know and desperate to see what will always be hidden.
There was an old man once who wanted to be with the wolves and know their thoughts. He went out on the ice and sang to them and asked them to sink their teeth into his heart. I guess the singing kept him warm enough so he lived out there for three days and nights. On the fourth day, the wolves finally came to him, or rather, he realized that all along he had been looking straight at them and only when they were ready had they let themselves be seen. I know about this man because I sat with him in the hospital just a few years ago, and I talked to him while I was on night duty. I pulled a chair up next to his bed.
“Those wolves were curious,” he said, “just like anyone would be. What in the heck’s this young man—I was young then—sitting out here on the ice for? They came up to find out if I was dangerous or crazy or good to eat. Even then I was tough and stringy, so I guess they decided crazy. They sat and watched me for several hours to see if I would do anything and after a while they went away.”
I asked the old man if he’d learned what he needed to learn from them, if he’d found anything out at all.
“Oh sure,” he said. “I found out they think like us. They were watching me, but I was watching them, too. I was hungrier than they were. They had just eaten. They were full. One yawned. Another started playing hockey with a piece of ice.”
I couldn’t believe that.
“It’s true,” he insisted. “They play with things. They like to play with those big black birds, those ravens. Sometimes the ravens get the wolves to hunt for them. I’ve seen it where the ravens come back and tell the wolves where there is something to kill and eat. I thought if the raven and the wolf can get along, perhaps the man and the wolf can get along, too. But I couldn’t stay out there long enough to test that out.”
“Their thoughts. Did you know their thoughts,” I asked. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
The old man knew I was trying to pin him down and I could tell he wasn’t sure if he wanted to tell me something. He was silent, turning things over in his mind, but at last he must have decided to take a chance and tell me. There was one wolf in particular, a gray wolf, he said, who came back several times and sat before him. Suddenly that wolf was staring at him with a human’s eyes in the face of a wolf. The old man did not know when it was he looked at the wolf and found he was staring back at it, but at some point he was aware that he and this particular wolf were holding each other’s gazes and had been doing so for some time. The wolf was asking him a question, he realized, and he knew after some more staring what that question was. The old man stopped.
“Well, what was it?” I was impatient to know.
“Oh.” His thoughts came back to me. “A standard question. He was asking me, ‘Do you want to die?’ But that is just wolf practice, asking that. I wanted to get past that and into something else. So I formed a question of my own in my mind and without ceasing my direct stare I spoke to the wolf, asking my own question: Wolf, I said, your people are hunted from the air and poisoned from the earth and killed on sight and you are outbred and stuffed in cages and almost wiped out. How is it that you go on living with such sorrow? How do you go on without turning around and destroying yourselves, as so many of us Anishinaabeg have done under similar circumstances?
“And the wolf answered, not in words, but with a continuation of that stare. ‘We live because we live.’ He did not ask questions. He did not give reasons. And I understood him then. The wolves accept the life they are given. They do not look around them and wish for a different life, or shorten their lives resenting the humans, or even fear them any more than is appropriate. They are efficient. They deal with what they encounter and then go on. Minute by minute. One day to the next. And so, my friend, I did learn what I had come there to find out. I’ll tell you now: I wanted to know how not to kill myself. For that very thing was my intention and had been so for weeks, I could see no way around it. I knew what chaos and everlasting questions such a death brings down upon the living. But I was past caring about that. Since I was resigned to killing myself, you could say my life was nothing, my life was cheap. So before I went through with it, I decided I would sit with the wolves.”
“You never killed yourself, obviously,” I said, “but did you perhaps try?”
The old man didn’t answer directly. He sat up. “Open the tie on this bare-ass dress,” he said, “and look.”
When I opened his shirt I saw across his back and shoulders the regular, deep, violet-brown scars of a sundancer who pulled buffalo skulls.
“That’s what I did instead.”
Sometimes I think that is the way to go. That old man made sense to me. I remember him always when I go out on cold nights and stand on the ice and listen to the wolves. Those wolves will tend their sick and their old; they’ll bring them food. Sometimes they will even adopt a human baby as their own, I’ve heard, though I’ve never known that to be true. They are usually just hungry, as they were when Anaquot fled. The baby who was saved that day grew up and lived a long life, and as a young man I went to sit with her sometimes. Her name was Fleur Pillager. From this old Pillager lady, I learned the next part of what I’m going to tell you. She told me things in detail, as though they happened directly to her, and in a way she had experienced them, too, even though she was tiny, and helpless, and wrapped in her mother’s shawl.
When a love burns too hot, it scorches everyone it touches. We old women know it is a curse to love like that. So my mother was cursed. Anaquot was numb when her lover’s uncle dropped her at the turnoff to the house, and she was uncertain. The uncle gave her no directions, and seemed anxious to get rid of her, perhaps, she thought, because he needed to forget what had happened with the wolves…though his back had been turned. He really didn’t know. He hadn’t seen it happen. As for Anaquot, it was easy for her to forget. She had already forgotten. Only, the story did not forget her. When her baby peered up at her from the warmth of its fur bag, she knew the baby remembered. The knowledge was there, in the tiny black eyes sharp as bitter stars.
She stood in the snowy clearing of her lover’s house with her baby, and watched the smoke curl from a small stovepipe chimney. A woman opened the door. Her face was pleasant, but worried, and she had the strong features of people on that side of the lake. In youth the women tended to be plain and as t
Had she imagined, later, another set of tracks beside hers? A set of careful, small, regular steps? It always seemed when she recalled entering the house that she had noticed she was accompanied there through the fresh snow of the empty yard. But then the drama of arrival took over. She was brought into the warmth. The woman—her man’s sister or sister-cousin, she assumed—showed her own children off to Anaquot. There were three. There was a bewildered-looking boy just out of the tikinagaan and starting to walk. An older daughter whose mouth curled hard and greedy, and who stared at Anaquot’s baby with the cold interest of a snake. There was a sturdy older brother just starting to get his growth, whose soft eyes reminded Anaquot of the eyes of the man she loved.
And where, anyway, was he?
Somehow, she didn’t want to ask. She thought she’d pick the clues up. Maybe he’d be back that night. She looked around for his things, perhaps the beaded ogichidaa vest that she remembered, or a pair of summer makizinan, a pipe, tobacco. But she saw nothing to indicate the presence of a grown man except the rifle gleaming on the white bone antlers set in the wall. And that could have been the woman’s gun. She didn’t know.
The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes