The Painted Drum, p.14Louise Erdrich
The two women stitched each other still closer, became true sisters. Anaquot had left her family behind and was hungry for connection. And Ziigwan’aage, though surrounded by family, was set apart because of the nature of her fierce personality and knowledge of medicines. She began to appreciate and then rely on Anaquot, who was almost as smooth and efficient a worker as she. A deer carcass vanished between them in no time, for instance, reduced to its respective parts, as did any animals trapped. The skins were quickly removed and beautifully stretched on frames. Ziigwan’aage had more time to do things, even to enjoy herself. And so did Anaquot. They went to town, brought Doosh along. Bartered bitterly and happily. Anaquot always bought a ribbon or a string of licorice for Doosh. One day they met a mission teacher in the store. He told them he was taking students to a place where they would get educated better than white people. “Your daughter is intelligent” was all Anaquot said to Ziigwan’aage. But Doosh would not let up on the idea that the girl with the cold eyes, Niibin’aage, should go.
They went home. Between them they carved up a bear killed in its winter den. Soon its thick, perfectly tanned fur coat lay before the warm stove and the baby rolled and played on it and cooed with that engaging and astonished recognition that occurs halfway through a baby’s first year and makes everybody laugh. For it was spring now. Some days the snow dripped and melted and Ziigwan’aage let the children go without their daily bear-grease rubdown, and then without their heavy, scratchy, woolen underwear. The ice on the lake was dull gray, soft, and porous looking. They were not allowed to cross it anymore on the way to school, but had to go the long way around, through the woods. Ziigwan’aage walked with them. That was another reason that she valued Anaquot’s presence in the house—she could leave Anaquot with her own baby and Ziigwan’aage’s youngest, and Ziigwan’aage could walk with the children to make sure nothing happened to them. Anaquot observed that if the girl went to the boarding school, she, at least, would not have to face that walk every day. Spring weather could be treacherous, and the animals were gaunt and hungry. Ziigwan’aage always carried the gun.
One day, when Ziigwan’aage returned from walking the children to school, she was hauling a dead wolf behind her on a toboggan she’d improvised from tree bark and some vines. It was the biggest wolf either of the women had ever seen. The fur was a light glossy gray and the brush of its tail longer than a grown man’s arm. The creature’s face was calm and almost smiling. Anaquot placed tobacco on its throat and all four paws. It could well have been one of the wolves that killed her daughter. That pack was known here and it was mostly grays.
“How did you kill him?” she asked Ziigwan’aage.
“Around the bend, past that rock, he stood before us. So I shot him. It was a good shot.”
The bullet had drilled the heart. When Anaquot saw the wound she put her fingers into the blood and before she knew what she was doing she had put her fingers into her mouth. Some old women say that by tasting wolf blood you will know the shape of things, but Anaquot had never known that to be true. The blood tasted like any other blood, but sharper. They would probably eat the wolf, because they ate everything, but the meat would have to be boiled in seven waters and seasoned heavily. As the women worked on the wolf, skinning it, Anaquot thought she heard someone singing; then later on a small voice whispered in her ear.
This is the one who ate my heart, mother.
With a strange cry, Anaquot dropped the knife. Ziigwan’aage picked it up. But Anaquot’s hands were shaking and she could not continue to work.
“What is it?” asked Ziigwan’aage.
“My daughter speaks to me,” said Anaquot.
Ziigwan’aage knew immediately just whom she meant, and put down her knife and sat with Anaquot.
“I knew there was someone else with you when you came here,” she said. “She has been here all along.”
Anaquot nodded. “But she hasn’t spoken to me for almost two turns of the moon. I thought she’d left.”
“I don’t think she will ever leave,” said Ziigwan’aage.
They both stared at the carcass of the wolf. After a while, Anaquot said, “We will make hoods and mitts for the children, fur on the inside to keep them warm.” Without another word the two set to work, disposed of the wolf perfectly, and set its bones to boil on the stove. That night, they ate the creature, whose meat was bitter.
The Little Girl Drum
Now, let us not forget that Anaquot left behind a man grieving in the snow. The stricken husband, my grandfather, Old Shaawano. I knew the old man well because he’d keep me sometimes when my father and mother hit the bottle. When I was small, he tried to hold me close to him, and that’s when he taught me all about the drum. Still, there are many things I know from sources other than my grandfather. I was friends with the old men who were close to him, and the old ladies too. I was the kind of boy and then young man who always felt old, maybe because my father’s beatings made me old. I never wanted to be young because the young suffer. I always liked to listen to the old people. So it was through them that I know what it was like for my grandfather when Anaquot left him, and after he had picked up his daughter’s scattered bones.
During that time, a sick uneasiness of grief afflicted Old Shaawano and sent him wandering. Whenever the need to tell the sad events panicked him, starting with an ache like cold and spreading outward until it squeezed his heart and prickled in his throat, he left the house. He left my father, just a little boy, to fend for himself. He could not be still. Weeks or days of wandering and talking might go by before he returned, exhausted, and collapsed in his cabin. Then, absurdly, he was enraged to find his son gone. But he always fell into a sickness and forgot to look for the boy, but instead lay helpless, his brain on fire. At the merest touch he felt his hair crackle. He hated for the wind to graze him as it fanned the heat all through his body and caused a bloody coughing that would not stop for days. He stayed indoors, usually in bed, and waited in sick trembling for the cup of despair to pass.
At these times, during the days when he was alone, my grandfather often heard things or saw things that he definitely knew were not there. His low, dark house was only one room with a small window on three sides. It still stands in the bush behind my house, used for chickens, so I know it well. The door on the fourth side opened out where it shouldn’t have, west, where the dead go. From his cot, on good days, Shaawano could see out the door into the woods, but he usually kept the door shut to block the ghosts. Even so, some got by, squeezing underneath the sill or sliding through the cracks between the door and its casing. The ghosts were all strangers. He didn’t know why that should be. He kept asking for his little girl, but none of them paid attention. Many were from the other side of the lake, and he’d made it a point to avoid people from there ever since that demon Pillager had stolen away his wife. That these unknown ghosts came, rather than his daughter or his own relatives, was a disappointment. My grandfather told me that our family, my ancestors, were clever people, while these strangers didn’t seem very bright. He would have liked to see his grandparents, such generous, kind people, or his parents, who had died a few years before, disappointed that they couldn’t cure his grief. He was even sure they would provide him help. Only, they never came.
The ghosts who did come to visit him were tiny skeleton children who flitted and zipped across his ceiling like spidery bats. Or they were shadowy, dull figures who seemed content to sit in the corner or slowly rock in his chipped green rocking chair. They usually did nothing but sigh and mutter, low, so he could never distinguish their words. That he could not make out their conversation or their complaints or whatever they were trying to tell him on these visits was maddening. He assumed they were judging him, blaming him, for letting his daughter die and his son run away. Their eyes raked over him. They sneered in his face. When he could stand it no longer, Shaawano would lunge from his bed and strike out right and left, in a frenzy, using whatever came to hand—knife
When he’d emerged, and was sitting in the sun, Shaawano would feel a remorse and calm so thrilling that tears might fill his eyes. He missed his son. There was so much that he wanted to show him! My grandfather noticed everything—the way wild raspberries had taken root in his torn and idle fishing nets and how young trees had grown through his junked wagon and the piles of his traps. Their prickling fronds, wildly spurting out the wood of the wagon box and through the jaws and knots of things that catch and kill, were a glorious signal. A chickadee pausing with a tiny worm in its beak, the blessed gurgle of a red-winged blackbird, the waves sounding on the lakeshore—anything, everything, caused Shaawano a happiness almost as unbearable as his pain. In this way, too, it was difficult to be so weakened. To wildly celebrate would have once been the appropriate response to any small light or joy. Now, standing up to the beauty, being small in it, taking one breath of sweet air after the next, often produced its own form of panic. This, he named after some time, guilt.
My grandfather said himself that he had been an evil person in his first season of random pain. He had done many things that were beyond the limits of decency. Things he dreaded bringing to mind. The worst things, of course, pierced into his brain with illuminating power. Those things were not the fighting or brawling or fucking or the stupid thefts. The scenes that came back vivid and sharp-edged were the cruel moments when he’d felt a black satisfaction, even a surge of glee in his throat, when he hurt his own son. He’d left the boy hungry and even ridiculed his grief over the loss of his mother. He had tampered with his son’s spirit and now the boy was lost to him. Someone else had stepped in, taken the boy home, and barred Shaawano from visits. But the damage to the boy was done and some things cannot be undone. It was as though what happened with the wolves had set loose one long string of accidents that seemed like fate. And now the guilt. Shaawano couldn’t get what he’d done out of his mind. He began to hate himself so much that the only relief he could obtain was to picture himself going back and savagely attacking the man he had been. He killed himself over and over in his mind. But when his bloody fantasies were exhausted, Shaawano was always left with Shaawano. The man who could never take back a single blow.
So there he was. He had started making pine pole furniture to get a living, and he could carve out and put together rough chairs and tables or bend more intricate pieces out of red willow. This passed his time between the great troughs and crests of his diminished life. If he prayed, it was for the numb peace that gave his hands the steadiness to work with those tools without one hand cutting off the other hand. He was, yes, tempted. Sometimes hating what his own hands had done he imagined taking the saw to them. But which hand would cut the other off? Which would die, which be saved, which would he choose? Sometimes he favored cutting off the right, for the right hand had certainly done the most damage. But then the sly hand would remain, the hand that pretended to be weaker and clumsier, but really wasn’t. He would be left with the fist that sucker punched, the hand of deceit, the fingers that should have reached out to gather back his daughter when she left him lying in stubborn grief, and went out to join her mother on the wagon.
“That was it,” he said one afternoon in the middle of one of his hand-hating reveries. He looked at his hands and flexed his fingers, broad palms, thick square fingers cushioned with calluses from his work, and saw them suddenly as innocent. Why should they suffer when they’d only done as Shaawano himself commanded? He thought immediately, with some relief, to put a bullet through his brain and send off the real culprit.
“That was it,” he said again. The brain, the brain had commanded all of Shaawano, had told him to let his wife go off one winter day to live with Pillager. Maybe if Shaawano’s brain had only willed his wife to stay, Anaquot would have, and then that wrong-hearted passion would have gone spent, she would eventually have accepted her place on this side of the lake, and his little girl, his baby sweetheart, would have grown up beside him. Instead, his daughter’s graceful bones were picked clean by ravens. He had gathered them up, his tears freezing into an ice mask across his face, and put them in a place that only he knew about.
Now he dropped his chin to his chest and squeezed his head in his hands, but even as he put on the pressure until his eyes burned, he knew it wasn’t really his brain but his heart that had made the decision to let Anaquot go. The heart with its pride, the heart that couldn’t bear his wife’s heart to have turned away. Shaawano’s heart had refused to be patient and instead behaved with an impetuous, despairing fury. His heart had fought itself and lost. His heart had bested the brain with all its reasons. Yes, it was his own stubborn heart that failed. A knife would cut his heart out fine. Just fine. He would throw his offending heart to the ravens, yelling, “Here, have that too!”
And so it went with my grandfather. He put first one part of his body and then another on trial. Each was found guilty at first but then pointed to another culprit. He judged his limbs, his eyes, his ears, his bones, his blood. He weighed the evidence against each but always, in the end, could not think how to mete out proper justice and so had to admit, having gone over his whole body from hair to fingernail, that the criminal was not within him but outside of him. The culprit was made up of some force or intangible extra self he could only call his spirit.
Kill that! he urged himself then, but knew even as he cried out that he had already done so. He’d tried to poison his spirit, drowned it methodically, savagely, choked it off. Alcohol had been the tool. He thought back to when he took the first drink of his first real dirty drunk and remembered how he’d wept into the amber flame deep in the cup and how his sorrow had been answered with a spreading warmth and a forgetting.
“That was it,” he said one more time. The pain in his life had started because he needed to forget. Now, with no part of himself left to blame, and in the ruin of his spirit, my grandfather remembered.
He remembered how his daughter had curled in the crook of his arm when he sat with her listening to the old people talk around the fire during berry-picking time. He never brushed away his little girl, even when she clung to his pant leg. Instead, he crouched at her level when she needed him and looked into her eyes before he picked her up. Always, when their eyes met, he felt that they exchanged a secret love. It was just between the two of them, his first-born, his daughter. Every time he lifted her to his chest, he experienced a fierce thump of emotion. He would protect her with his life! And so, how come he hadn’t? Over and over now, he remembered the actual events of the day she was killed and how he had failed at each crux of the unfolding decision to prevail over Anaquot with his arguments. And then the unbearable findings. At the memories of what the wolves in their innocence had done, the blood crushed around my grandfather’s heart and he had to gasp for breath. It was then, unable to unfreeze the pictures in his brain, that my grandfather fell into a weak faint and had a sort of dream.
He saw his little girl. She was alive and whole once again. She came into Shaawano’s house through the western door and stood before him in the fringed, brown plaid shawl. Her eyes, so beautifully slanted and dark, shone with a fervent love that seemed to flow straight into him. The painful terror frozen in his chest turned to water. Then she spoke.
“I know where they put the trees for the drum,” his daughter told him. “Many years ago they cut the logs and put them in the water down near Berry Point. A hundred years later they took them out to dry and set them up on a rock wash under a cliff. Now that wood is ready.”
“Ready for what?” said Shaawano.
“For making a drum.”
She stood there looking steadily at him for some time, and Shaawano knew she saw everything about him. She was wrapped in calm, reading the truth of his mean and shabby life. She nodded slowly as she discovered the sad things, the vicious, the cruel-hearted and even bizarre little crimes. A look of disbelieving sorrow passed over her face, but just when my grandfather thought that she would turn away from him, she stepped closer.
“We are waiting to sing with you,” she said in that gentle voice he had loved. He bent his head in grateful shame, and when he looked up she was gone.
Afterward, my grandfather lay on the rough boards of his floor, for how long he did not know. Tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes and ran down the sides of his face and puddled in his ears. His girl had visited from the other side of life, but though he wanted desperately to join her, he knew that her visit was meant expressly to give him a reason not to die yet. She had given him a task that was meant to keep him here upon the earth.
He didn’t start right away. He had to let the whole of what had happened sink into his mind. He remembered what he’d heard of great cedars set aside until generations should pass. This wood was being cured in a special place, where it would grow in strength and resonance. From each generation certain men and women had been chosen to look after the wood, to visit and talk to it, to catch it up on local history and smoke the pipe with it. Those who were chosen had always been the kindest and steadiest among the people, the ones everybody trusted. They were not sodden drunks, or mean, or anguished and sick to death, like my grandfather thought he was. They had not let their children die or be eaten by wolves or any other animal. They had not slept for weeks out in the woods because nobody wanted them in their house, as had happened to Shaawano. They had never lain in fear of what their brains would tell them to do next. They had never had no one to talk to but quarrelsome spirits. So Shaawano could not help but feel it impossible that he, out of everybody else in his generation, should be the one to use the wood that his people had cared for with such devotion, through time. He could not believe that he should be the one to make the drum.
The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes