The painted drum, p.13
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       The Painted Drum, p.13
 

           Louise Erdrich
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  For the first time, the woman seemed a little shaken. Perhaps it was Anaquot’s directness, or the hard confidence in her eyes, the smooth power of her movements. Or perhaps Ziigwan’aage hadn’t put the thoughts together in her mind like Anaquot did. Perhaps she’d laid all the blame on Anaquot and not on her husband because she loved him so, and wanted to believe him. Whatever the reason, Ziigwan’aage now found the things that Anaquot said were compelling to her. Ziigwan’aage could think of no reason that she shouldn’t continue to listen, and gestured for Anaquot to continue.

  “He told me that he once had a wife, but he threw her away,” said Anaquot.

  Ziigwan’aage’s eyes jumped to Anaquot’s face and her mouth squared when she saw it was true.

  “He didn’t mention his children,” said Anaquot. “I never heard about them.”

  At this, Ziigwan’aage’s body stiffened. She looked away from Anaquot and her stare scorched the air all around the two. For a long time they sat, in silence, until the light of the afternoon disappeared entirely. Then they got up at the same time and began to work, as one person, their movements smooth and spare as if they’d been sisters since they were born. Sisters who might hate each other at times, but who matched so well that the work almost did itself.

  When the two older children returned from their day at school, they were cold and hungry, laughing. Banging their empty lunch pails they looked eagerly at the stove. They went silent when they saw the visiting woman at work, chopping gristle from frozen meat to add to their mother’s stew. Because something in their mother’s bearing had led them to believe, even before the visitor arrived, that she was a threat and not to be trusted, they were surprised to see that the two were speaking calmly and easily, working side by side.

  The children knew in this way that something had changed; what it was they couldn’t tell. They had no way of knowing that a great change was being effected in the two women. As Anaquot and Ziigwan’aage worked, their hearts turned slowly, suspiciously, unevenly at times, toward each other and against the man they had both loved, whose name was Simon Jack.

  He had a strict mind and a somewhat foolish heart. A contradictory person, he was known for his rigid memory of ritual and detail. He was the one they called upon for the sequence of songs, the order of creation, the accounting for of spirits. He had a love of little pleasures, like gambling, and he was vain of his looks, though he wasn’t even that handsome. His wife oiled and combed and cared for his long, stringy hair better than she cared for her own. He was picky about his shirts and trousers, and he wore a white shell earring. At the same time, he cared nothing for the things of this world and would spend days in the woods, fasting, humbling himself before the eternal mystery of existence. He was ten years older than his wife, and Anaquot was a few years younger than she. So he had seen enough of life to know that such love as he and Anaquot felt was sure to bring disaster. He had hoped that there would be no child of their intensity. By leaving his family for a time, living up on the trapline, making himself secret and scarce as his wife’s namesake, he thought he could weather the storm in his heart. He both hoped and feared that it would be the same with Anaquot. But when he came home, his blood still raged and it was all he could do to contain his black longings and hide the estrangement of his affections from his wife. She knew anyway, found out the details from other women, and sent him out again while she decided what to do with the situation.

  As for Ziigwan’aage, she was by no means a simple woman either. She was born in spring, when the wolverine kits come from the den and proceed to sink their teeth into anything that moves. She grew up in the twilight time when her people, the Anishinaabeg, were battling great waves of disease. Those were the times when the entire force of a woman’s existence was focused on keeping her children alive. Ziigwan’aage kept her ear to the ground and took note of illnesses as they passed into the settlement. She kept her children home at the slightest hint of something dangerous and allowed no visitors. When they weakened, she made sure she had the plant medicines she needed, picked at the highest concentration of their power. Every morning, she checked her children’s eyes and tongues. She smelled their breath and sometimes even frowned over their stools to make certain that they were healthy enough to send out into the world. Her pharmacopoeia was the woods, and at the slightest hint of trouble—dulled gaze, white tongue, a sour heat in the lungs—she picked what she needed, rummaged in her stash for the ingredients to teas, burned a powder beneath their noses, or swabbed a tincture on their gums. There was no chink in her vigilance, no margin for error. She could not afford a distraction. So when her husband began to behave in a way she found all too familiar from other women’s reports of their husbands, she decided she would cut short this nonsense. She had no time for it. She wouldn’t tolerate it. Not when she had the lives of children on her hands.

  Ziigwan’aage had deemed it most expeditious to get rid of the other woman, though she was still deciding whether to spare the baby and raise it as her own. But then Anaquot had startled her, and made her think. She had impressed Ziigwan’aage as a formidable opponent and, still better, as an invincible ally. Not that they’d actually decided what to do about Simon Jack. His fate was on a thread that they pulled between them, this way and that. Sometimes as they talked they laughed at his transparent ways and marveled, with deep irony, at the similarity of things he’d said to them both, promises he’d made, endearments even. They held nothing back in their dissection of his behavior; they continued on until both felt they had purged themselves of any pity or attraction. Of course, they both knew, they hadn’t any illusions—not loving Simon Jack in the abstract was much easier than not loving Simon Jack in the flesh.

  In this regard, Ziigwan’aage had the advantage of living in the heart of her family. Her old mother and sisters, her aunts and uncles, and of course the brother she’d relied on, lived all around her and could be reached via endless networks of trails broken through the trees. These people were, in fact, the crowd of beings Anaquot had sensed leaving very early that morning, having already stayed the night. They had congregated in order to take a look at the woman who had tried to steal Simon Jack. While Anaquot slept in the grip of the sleeping medicine, they had gloated at her capture and admired her baby, then melted off into the blue morning air, leaving so little trace of themselves that Anaquot had wondered whether they were actually spirits. She found now that they were tremendously real.

  They came back that night and sat quietly or talked of their own matters. One by one they took the baby in their arms and admired her, examined her fingers, exclaimed at the depth of her eyes and the bow of her mouth. They noted the curve of her ears and texture of her hair, even unwrapped her feet to see whether her toes were of a uniform length. As they went over the baby with great care, by means that were invisible to Anaquot, she herself went from being outside of them all and looking in, to being one gathered into their edges and absorbed. With imperceptible gestures Ziigwan’aage told them that in the end she had decided to adopt Anaquot instead of kill her, so that gradually they stopped treating the woman as one soon to be dead. Even though no word was addressed to her, Anaquot knew that she and her baby were now under the protection of these people with the severe and handsome faces, with the hair that waved about their shoulders, and the restless hands. She also understood, to her deep unease, that they would keep her no matter what. She would not be allowed to go. Now Anaquot saw that every one of them had brought along some object that they were making. Even while speaking their hands polished or beaded or wove or quilled or whittled. As she picked up her own beading to concentrate upon, she understood that if she was to be accepted by the Pillagers, for that is what the people of this band called themselves, she must keep silence, imitate their actions, and closely observe and take note of all that might assist in her survival.

  Because she had seen the wife of Simon Jack sewing that bundle from which no child could peep its head, Anaquot was still extremely careful
with the information she divulged, for information is power. She did not tell her baby’s name to Ziigwan’aage. Instead, she used a nickname she herself had been given by an old French trader. Fleur. So that baby was disguised before it had even spoken. Hidden by a lie. Watchful underneath. Too much had already happened to the baby, who hadn’t even crawled yet or clapped her hands or eaten from a spoon. Her sister gave her life for her. Her mother ran from one husband to another man’s intercepting wife. The baby was surrounded by sharp discord, jagged sorrows, and that cunning presence. Pain and truth. A spirit comes into the world and disrupts the flow of things. Changes the course of love. Takes lives. Challenges the order. So it was with this weak little baby, Anaquot saw, and she was more determined than ever to protect her. For it seemed the spirits had some great work in mind when they made the child.

  As she sewed or cooked next to Simon Jack’s wife, this woman with the powerful name, Anaquot deliberately kept herself humble. To combine humility with the unyielding directness that had already saved her life was to protect her by also protecting Ziigwan’aage’s pride. Never, she promised herself, would she challenge Ziigwan’aage, especially in the presence of others, not ever when it came to Simon Jack. Anaquot would allow the family to snub her in subtle ways and when that happened she would pretend she hadn’t noticed. At crucial moments, she would stand her ground. Although there was some mutual decision among Ziigwan’aage’s people to tolerate Anaquot, she knew well that she was not among friends. Three of the women who came around were Simon Jack’s sisters. Long ago they had accepted Ziigwan’aage as one of their own. There was no hope for Anaquot there. Likewise, she could detect no crack of sympathy in the attitudes of the formidable grandmothers of Ziigwan’aage’s children. There were the uncles and a grandfather and even a great-grandfather, but Anaquot knew it was dangerous to align with men. Only one woman, Doosh, a blood sister to Ziigwan’aage, gave any sign of sympathy. Doosh was slow and somewhat vacant, but she treated Anaquot with neutral kindness. Anaquot made a great effort to remain calm and aware around these relatives, in addition to assorted cousins and clan members, and that was difficult even without Simon Jack to deepen the conflict and throw the whole mess into relief.

  That the whole thing really was a mess and nearly out of control became clear when Simon Jack simply walked back into the house one day stinking of bait. He must have been prepared for Anaquot’s presence by one of the uncles, for he didn’t so much as glance at her, though when his snake-eyed daughter brought the baby over he cupped Fleur under her arms, held her at arms’ length, and looked her over very carefully, for a long time, before he instructed his daughter to bring the baby back to its mother. Did something pass between the two? Some heat of recognition? Some bounce of delight? Why did Simon Jack smile so broadly? He kissed the baby before he handed her away and got down to his food. Deep in the night, when Anaquot woke to hear him stirring around (she thought) in the other part of the cabin with his wife, the picture of that smile on Simon Jack’s face as he gobbled down food pierced her and she wept with degraded fury, making no sound. Then a thousand morbid sexual pictures went through her mind and she managed to calm herself and to slow the pounding of her heart only by conjuring up a strong rope in her thoughts and then, not without a mental struggle, tying up Simon Jack. When she had him tightly bound with those imaginary ropes, she hoisted him into a tree and let him dangle there. The gentle swaying of his cocoonlike shape lulled her. But the last image in her mind as blackness covered her was still Simon Jack’s broad and uncontainable grin when he saw his baby. He loved Fleur, at least, and couldn’t hide it, Anaquot was certain.

  In the deep of her heart she was also certain of two other things: Simon Jack loved her, too. Or at least he would want to sleep with her. The way he ignored her was much too elaborate to be construed as anything other than his own weakness. In order to take advantage of a time he might slip, she must cultivate patience. The other thing was the girl cold with malice. She was a danger. Anaquot thought she’d better pursue a way of getting rid of her.

  What there was about Simon Jack to attract two women to his bed was not apparent at first. The hair straggling down his back was prematurely gray, he was too lean in the chest and shoulders, also he was bandy-legged and he stooped a little when he walked so he looked much older than he was. Long thin wisps of mustache drooped to either side of his mouth, and he had a habit of glancing just above a person’s head when he talked and never meeting their eyes. But that, it turned out, was part of his way with people, a mannerism that gave him a hold over them. For when all of a sudden he did fix them with an unblinking gaze, a look remote, chilling, intimate, and immoderate, they were often startled into silence and submission.

  That’s what had happened with Anaquot when she first met him. Simon Jack was known for many things, respected and a little feared, so the full force of his attention had been thrilling to Anaquot. She’d grown lovesick over him. It galled her now that she’d broken her marriage, abandoned her son, and allowed her older daughter to die, just so that she could be with Simon Jack. She’d thought she couldn’t live her life without the force of him pouring over and all around her. But as women have found since love began, she found she could live. And determined that she would. Seeing the wife and children about whom he’d misled her, and feeling his studied indifference to her presence as an insult so complete that it severed her dependence, Anaquot found a solid place in the swirl of pain and panic in her heart. Too much, too much, she had given too much. She discovered a rock to stand on, a jutting reef.

  The next day she stepped onto that rock with her baby and allowed all that was unbearable to rush around her—Ziigwan’aage’s colliding outrages of love and hate, the daughter’s black, interior purpose, the little requests and petitions of visitors who needed something of Simon Jack, the younger son’s lively innocence, her own baby’s needs. She performed patternless, absorbing, hectic, trying tasks with steady calm. She slowed her movements, allowed her whole body to become a contained absence. She was so conscious of keeping a close check on herself that she did not notice that when she did this, her effect upon others was something like Simon Jack’s. Ziigwan’aage’s attention unwillingly turned toward her, as did the frozen spirit of her daughter. Simon Jack tried to hide his uneasy curiosity. But the presence of a woman who did not belong where she was and yet kept herself keenly occupied, displaying no hint of uneasiness, disturbed them. Anaquot neither desired to please nor seemed anxious not to offend, yet she did both. Nobody could tell how hard that was. Anaquot considered each act and weighed each word before she uttered it. She found within herself a deep reserve. She exercised control only over herself, and was unaware that to do so can often cause others to lose theirs.

  Which is why Simon Jack tried to slip beneath her blanket one night. It was a rash act and Simon Jack had desperately resisted it. Anaquot had only imagined that he might come, but when she felt his hands on her, she did not what she wanted to do, but what would save her life.

  “Get away from me! Go play with yourself! Leave me alone!” she hissed, pushing at him violently, waking the baby to cry and to wake the others. Rejecting Simon Jack was one of the most difficult things she had ever done, but it had the desired result. Ziigwan’aage, who was of course awake, stared up into the freezing black air of the cabin and allowed a slow smile to creep across her face. She had been tempted to kill Anaquot ever since her husband had returned. Simon Jack crept to the coldest corner of the cabin and curled in his blanket, alone. Then he chopped wood all the next day with a hard, specific fury. Ziigwan’aage sang as she cooked. When she served the food, Anaquot ate heartily and without fear for the first time since she’d come to the cabin.

  The two women never discussed what they would do to take away their man’s power and divide it between the two of them. But after that night it began to happen that Simon Jack felt a little dizzy in the evenings and went to his blankets in the corner before they turned the lamps out, and fe
ll asleep there while the women sat at the table working. They were beading something. They did not know what it was yet, what was taking shape beneath their hands. They placed each bead just so on the velvet and the beads turned into four-petaled flowers that told stories and held great meaning. These flowers lay along white vines that writhed like snakes across the velvet, and there were horns on the vines and leaves of impossible shapes springing off here and there. What they worked on had the most amazing vitality. It grew between them. And still they could not tell what it was until one day Simon Jack walked in and saw that they were making him a dance outfit, either that or an elaborate set of clothes to be buried in, but as the dance outfit was far the better option he mentioned it out loud.

  “Oh yes,” said one of them—they could never remember which—“you will dance in these handsome clothes. You will dance your heart out, little husband.”

  The last part was spoken beneath her breath, so he didn’t hear it, but the other woman smiled and their needles flashed, spearing beads and affixing them. And so the outfit took its shape. The horned white vine twisted like a snake down the two front pieces and coiled itself around the back. Sometimes they ran out of thread and continued to sew with grasses or wolf sinew or even with their own hair. It was only from necessity that they did this. They did not mean to bind him to them in an evil way. They did not mean any evil at all. They were only caught in what the story did to them. The story Simon Jack had set into motion. No, if anybody was responsible for the elegant armbands and wrist guards, the leggings, or the too ornate breech clout, it was Simon Jack. And if each woman beaded the bottom of one of his makizinan the way grieving widows bead the soles of their dead husband’s, it was only the fault of Simon Jack again. For it was he who played with Ziigwan’aage’s toothed and closely guarded heart. He who had raked his eyes down Anaquot’s breasts and kindled the heat that flowed up and licked through every sense until she couldn’t think and let things happen that shouldn’t ever have taken place. So although they didn’t understand where the outfit was going or what would happen to Simon Jack once he put it on, they sewed. And it could even be said that they enjoyed their work and found the doing of it an act of love, though not exactly love of Simon Jack.

 
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