The painted drum, p.12
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       The Painted Drum, p.12
 

           Louise Erdrich
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“Namadabin!” The woman gestured for her to sit, and Anaquot carefully wiped her hands clean on a white cloth before she smoothed back the fur of the bag that held the baby, and looked into her face. The new one was sleeping now, her mouth tipped open in trust to show delicate, dented gums. The rose brown cheeks were plump with mother’s milk, the perfectly formed head and face still wobbly on the stalklike neck. With her eyes shut in curved slant lines the baby was the picture of peace. But then the eyes opened and a little fire shot into the room. The baby was, after all, the child of an act of perfidy and thrilling joy.

  What pain there had been in bearing the baby, Anaquot had welcomed. It had eclipsed her heart’s agonized dissatisfactions. Now, as she tried to get her bearings in the situation, she remembered that she’d been near death when she’d bled after the birth and it hadn’t mattered to her. That’s how deep she’d sunk into this. That thought strengthened her. Her heart surged when she realized she’d soon see her lover and her hands traced the rim of a tin tea mug before she set her lips to it. Had his own lips touched there too? Drinking tea that morning? Was this a kind of kiss?

  “Aaniin izhinikaazoyan?” she asked the woman in a pleasant voice. By any measure of hospitality, the woman should have offered her name first, but perhaps in the intrigue of seeing such a young baby she had forgotten. Even now, the woman didn’t answer, as though she hadn’t heard or was distracted by a child’s request at the same time. She bustled, took some bannock from a cloth that had kept it warm; she gave Anaquot the bread, a bit of clear grease to dip it into, and also a small bowl of stew. Then the woman hastened to the corner to set out some blankets and make a place for Anaquot to rest with the baby. As she did this, Anaquot felt a prickling sensation along the side of her face, then at her back right between her shoulder blades, and she knew the girl child was staring at her. She turned around of course and sure enough those eyes opaque as mud slid away. Anaquot gave herself a little shake and tried not to feel the crawl of hatred that came so clearly from the girl.

  “I don’t need to take the girl’s sleeping place,” said Anaquot. “I don’t need to use her blankets. I have my own.”

  “Save your blankets,” said the girl’s mother.

  And a voice, a little whisper, echoed her, out of the air.

  Save yourself.

  The voice was just a thread of sound.

  “Awegonen?” said Anaquot, looking around for the source.

  The woman helped her from the chair and brought her to the corner. As Anaquot sank back into the blankets, covered herself, and began in that secret darkness to nurse her baby, she realized that she was tired, swimmingly exhausted, and the baby was still so little that the cold made it dangerously drowsy. She held it inside her shirt to warm it with her own skin, and the baby gradually relaxed. But as Anaquot drifted deeper toward unawareness, she experienced a sharp stab of lucidity. In that clear moment, she realized that she was more than tired. She was lost. The story had her by the throat. Frightened, she curled around her child as though to protect it, but sleep hurled them both to darkness and scattered them across the ice.

  Her sleep was so profound that she forgot where she was and also who she was. She forgot she had a baby or was in love. She forgot her old life, her daughter, the son and husband she had left behind, and the uncle. All she could remember was the face of the woman who had greeted her at the door of this house. So she smiled when by lamplight that face appeared before her, strong and brown, the straight eyebrows concerned and her teeth gleaming in a smile. Yes, marveled Anaquot, those teeth were very white, and then she sank into a deeper obliteration and did not wake until dawn, when the people in the cabin all around her began to stir.

  Although awake, she was so uncertain of her surroundings that she didn’t open her eyes, but stayed hidden in the blankets with her baby pressed to her, nursing again; had it nursed all night? The hungry rhythm of its pull comforted her, made all of this seem real again. She had the distinct sensation that, outside of the blankets that covered her completely, a huge leave-taking was occurring. Many people were stumbling out, saying their good-byes in low voices so as not to wake her. Perhaps her lover had returned, she thought, with an entire hunting party. Perhaps they all had spent the night upon the floor, each curled in blankets they now carried off over their shoulders or rolled and strapped to their backs. Listening, she could see each in her mind’s eye as he or she departed, and when the cabin was quiet she smiled. Her lover, she thought, had sent them all away! Soon, he would come to her. She would feel the weight of his hand on the blanket. He would slip underneath the heavy wool, the quilt, and he would curl behind her. He would bury his face in the hair flung across her shoulder. She took a deep breath. The baby stirred. Nothing happened. Slowly, she drew the blanket down, away from her face, and looked out. He wasn’t there, but that same woman was. She sat in a pool of light from the window quietly sewing beads onto a swatch of velvet.

  “Giwii minikwen anibishaabo ina?” The woman asked, without turning, whether Anaquot would like to drink some tea.

  Anaquot crept from the blankets, still aching and tired as though she’d kept walking all night. She left the baby in the blankets and at once felt strangely light. It had been a day and a night and a morning that the baby had been in her arms. Along with her things, she had a big stack of cattail down to use when she needed to change the stuffing in its bag. Now she changed the fluff she’d pinned against the child in a scrap of bashkwegin. She put the baby back into the blanket, and burned the soiled down in the stove, which was fancy iron from the trader’s store and which filled Anaquot with pride for the wealth of her lover’s family. Then she poured herself a cup of tea. As she drank from the same tin cup she’d used the night before, she imagined the cup belonging to her lover. She looked around for the bag and saw that her things were neatly stacked beside the blankets she’d slept in. Her own baby’s carefully beaded tikinagaan, which she’d carried with her because it was too cold to put the baby in it as they traveled, was propped against the wall. She had tied her clothing and small possessions in the skirt of her summer dress and carried the round bundle by the knot. She also had a hand drum with a white line painted across it, and a beater she had made herself with a handle of red-barked alder. She kept the drum and beater in a handwoven drawstring sack. The drum was the most precious thing she owned, and she was glad to see it among the other things, because there was something missing. She was sure of it. But her head ached and she couldn’t think of just exactly what.

  Anaquot carried her tea back to the blankets. Although the woman had smiled at her, she hadn’t invited Anaquot to sit with her in the light of the window. As Anaquot sipped the tea, she suddenly remembered what was missing. Her daughter had brought her skirt bundle of possessions, too. Where was it? As soon as she thought of the girl, she heard a slight rustle behind her and she put down her cup of tea in order to investigate. But she saw nothing. Across the floor, the little boy who had just begun to walk was sitting in the circle of warmth by the stove, playing with a pile of pinecone dolls. Perhaps one of them had rolled into her bedding, thought Anaquot. The older boy and girl were nowhere in sight. She put her hand down and retrieved the cup, took another sip, and rocked her baby. She watched the light move across the shoulders of the other woman as she beaded the velvet. As she worked, the woman sang. Her voice was husky, sweet, pleasing. The song had a melancholy lilt. Anaquot soon found that she was drifting, her thoughts were disconnecting, her entire body was loosening. The last thing she saw was the woman, close now and blocking out the light. She saw the woman bending over her, and then Anaquot felt the woman ease the baby from the loose basket of her arms.

  Anaquot was not without her own resources. In spite of her changeable nature and her weakness when it came to love, she possessed an unusual toughness of mind when it came to protecting herself. In addition, she was to find, someone had come to help her. A being had walked beside her, making tracks only she could see. Now she could feel hers
elf plunging through sleep as into a dark lake. As she fought to swim back to the surface, someone helped pull her up. As though treading water, desperate, she managed to stay just a breath above oblivion. She opened her eyes a slit, though her eyelids seemed made of stone, and she saw the shape of the woman move across the tamped-earth floor with the baby in her arms. And then she heard the woman’s song, which now had words.

  This gall of the wolverine

  I place beneath your tongue

  To murder your mother’s desire.

  Anaquot lunged forward, knocking the cup aside, spilling the rest of the tea across the floor. As though noticing her clumsiness, but kindly attempting not to draw attention to it, the woman brought the baby back and nestled it in the blankets. Then she wiped the tea off the blankets and asked Anaquot if she would like to eat.

  There can be nothing in the bannock, which she shares, but you must dip the stew from the pot yourself, someone whispered in Anaquot’s ear. With a huge effort, she cleared her mind and rose to her feet, thanking the woman, pretending she hadn’t heard the song. The baby slept soundly now, its breath quick and shallow, as infants breathe. From time to time it whined or growled a little in its sleep, but that was nothing to worry about. Anaquot ate hungrily and watched as the woman continued to bead the velvet bag. At first, Anaquot thought it was for a baby, as it laced up the middle, but the top looked like the bottom and there was no place for the baby’s head to peep out on the world. Look more closely, said the little voice. If a baby was put inside there, Anaquot thought, it could only be sewn in for burial. As suddenly as she thought this, she imagined that she knew just exactly what the kindly-looking woman was doing. She had put the poison under the tongue of the baby so that, when it nursed, Anaquot would absorb the killing stuff through her breasts. And the poison would eventually kill the baby, too. The woman was looking forward to putting it in the ground.

  I don’t know why, thought Anaquot; her heart beat crazily and her brain spun but she managed to shield her knowledge from the other woman. I don’t understand! As she pretended to busy herself with her child she thought hard, and harder yet, until the answer finally came in the shape of her lover’s eyes. She had seen those eyes on the older boy. His own son. Which would make the woman not his sister, aunt, or cousin, but his wife.

  All that had happened now laid itself out very clearly before Anaquot. The woman had intercepted the message from Anaquot’s husband and found out everything. She had sent her own brother in the wagon across the ice. That was why the man she thought was her lover’s uncle had been so cold to her, so guarded. The woman had chosen a time when her husband, Anaquot’s love, was gone on the trapline. That way, she could kill Anaquot and the baby and have the bodies stiff outside the door when he returned with his load of furs. Closing her eyes in an effort to contain her fear and panicked anger, Anaquot saw the scene this woman planned: there was her lover returning through the snow, dragging his toboggan laden with bales of skins. How surprised was he to see that she was standing at his cabin door, holding their baby in her arms! How long did it take for him to notice, as he neared, her icy rigidity, her eyes staring blind and her mouth frozen open on a word? How many endless steps before his cry of greeting turned to a wail of horror? How long the quiet, how closed the smile, as his wife slowly opened the door?

  I know that I have done a wrong thing, a bad thing, thought Anaquot. But I don’t deserve to die for it! The small whispering voice, which she now thought of as a helpful spirit, answered her somewhat mockingly. You don’t deserve to die? What about your little girl?

  My little girl? thought Anaquot. Do you mean the baby in my arms?

  The whispering laughter grew lighter and spoke. No, mother, don’t you remember? There was one who gave her life for you.

  All of a sudden Anaquot let what happened on the way there flood into her—the ice, the wolves, her daughter. When she remembered, her mind cracked open. She knew that she loved that daughter more than anyone in her entire life. She loved her more than her little brother or her father, more than the baby in her arms and more, even, than her lover. She loved that daughter more than she loved herself. Her mind veered off. She knew if she absorbed the knowledge directly into her heart now, it would kill her. So she sat there humbly and let her mind be taken wherever it would be allowed to go. As she sat there, the voice returned and she grasped at its words with hope.

  My things are inside of your things, my bundle is safe in yours, just like when I was inside of you, mother, when you carried me safely into life.

  Anaquot busied herself among the few possessions she had brought, and while the woman continued to sew the burial shroud for her baby, she untied the bundle of her skirt. Sure enough, inside her rose red skirt there was her daughter’s smaller bundle of things, which she now took apart and examined.

  There was the little hatchet that her father had made, a toy, but sharp and capable of chopping thin poles to make playhouses. There was a small bark box that contained three awls and three thorn-apple needles, a ball of waxed sinew, and a packet of thread. The bundle also contained a little sheaf of bird bones, bleached hollow, for making whistles, and a packet of medicines that Anaquot now remembered making up for her daughter and teaching her to use. When she saw these medicines, and held the bark packet in her hands and examined the powders and twines of roots, Anaquot realized that she had not always been such a bad mother to her older daughter. Not at all. Until her love burned out of control, destroying her perspective, she had been a careful and knowing mother. She had loved her daughter, taught her sewing skills, and provided her the medicines to cure all ills she could imagine. There was even, she saw, taking from a tiny feather pouch a bladder of oil, just enough to strengthen the baby to withstand the poison laid under its tongue. There was nothing else she could think of, however, to protect herself from its effect.

  After she administered the medicine to her child, it stirred and became more eager, lifted its head, peered at her wailing to be fed. Its hunger grew uncontrollable after a while and it began to beg with small complaining noises and then to roar with despair. Anaquot could not bear it. Even though she believed the poison that the woman had given would harm her, Anaquot put the baby to her breast.

  First, she knew the pleasure of solving its desperation. Next, with a deep sigh, they melted together as one. She closed her eyes and saw the two of them together as a dot of light and then they grew and grew until they had no edges at all and were the radiant center of an infinite wheel.

  This vision frightened her with its strangeness, but when she opened her eyes they were still there in the ordinary afternoon. She realized her belief about the poison might be wrong; still, she couldn’t shake it from her mind. The winter sun had entered the window at a fierce angle and its red-gold light blazed across the blue cupboard in the corner, the table, the stove, the other piles of blankets and the pole bed and the chair where the woman sat counting the little boy’s fingers over and over with him. Bezhig. Niizh. Niswi. Niiwin. Naanan. This counting between a woman and a child had been happening since numbers began. The blazing light intensified. It burned a hole in her heart, as neat as a bullet hole, and then, just as the woman’s song meant to, it took away her desire.

  She experienced her love’s absence as a gradual clarity. The light faded into the trees, the room grew cold. The woman set her little boy in the corner with a rind of deer meat to chew, and then set about perfecting the fire in the stove so that her bannock would cook evenly. By the way she did this, her movements careful and spare, Anaquot saw how many thousands of times she had made food for her family. She looked past the woman, saw the milk cans full of water in the corner, knew she’d hauled it from the river or melted fresh snow. So much work and care was apparent all through the little house. The logs were neatly tamped, the quilts clean and mended. The little boy wore a shirt of thick flannel and little pants sewn of deerhide. There was a rabbit-skin blanket laid over the bed the woman was now sharing with her
daughter. Those blankets took long weaving, skill, as did the reed mats on the walls and the beaded vest that Anaquot now saw was set out for mending in the last light of the day.

  It was this vest, exactly, that she remembered her lover wearing. She had traced the beaded flowers and the maple leaves, the curl of the vines, as she talked to him in the shadowy overhang of rich new leaves the previous summer. Now the sight of the vest filled her with a new feeling—not of longing, but of sorrow. How hard his wife had worked, placing each bead just so, and how many hopes she had sewn into the colorful centers of the roses! Even now, the woman bent above her stitching with a singular attention that revealed her love for the wearer of the vest. Anaquot saw that. In fact, once Anaquot began thinking this way and noticing everything around her, all the work the woman did, all that she needed to protect, Anaquot didn’t blame her for the poison.

  “But you don’t have to poison my baby,” said Anaquot, clearly, to the woman. She rose from her blankets with energy. “I’m ready to do all that needs to be done.”

  The woman put down her needle, folded her hands on the table, and frowned as Anaquot sat down across from her. This time, when Anaquot demanded her name, she told her that she was named for the spirit of the wolverine. Ziigwan’aage was indeed a poisoner, or rather, she was one who was entrusted with all of the most dangerous medicines and deep knowledge of them. She knew the properties of all the plants and how they interacted, especially mushrooms, the food of the dead. She knew which fish spines to strip for venom and twice a year she traveled west to trade for the milk of snakes. She had never used her medicines for a dark purpose until now, but she had reason.

  “So you’ve awakened” was all she said.

  “I have,” said Anaquot, “in every way.”

  Ziigwan’aage waited calmly for her to go on.

  “I see your love for him and for your children. I know why you brought me here. I understand it. We would not in fact be enemies were it not for him.”

 
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