The painted drum, p.15
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       The Painted Drum, p.15

           Louise Erdrich
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  He had to talk to someone. But all the people who had cared for the wood were dead. The people who had come to sit with his grandmother and grandfather were long gone into the world of spirits with his daughter. As for the ones closer to his age, he didn’t trust them. He had wandered too much and he knew things about them. He couldn’t think of a single person, though he ground his teeth and gulped swamp tea until his brain steamed. Then one day as he dragged himself to his woodpile, he thought of a woman who was not all that old, and who used to drag her leg. This woman had never married anyone, not because of her frozen leg, but for other reasons. It seemed she preferred not to talk to people, though she wasn’t unkind. There was something else about her, but my grandfather could not remember what it was. Then, oh yes, he recalled how she hid her face or turned away in agitation when she was spoken to and he knew what it was—she was very shy.

  Too shy to ever marry anyone! That was it. Her name was Kakageeshikok. She was named for a very old woman who gave her name away when she grew too old to use it anymore. Kakageeshikok was named for the eternal sky, though she was just called Geeshik, sky. Like her name, she was always in the background of things and seemed a woman of endless patience. She lived alone. People didn’t bother her because she never bothered anyone and she was poor—there was nothing to steal. Yet though she didn’t talk to people, my grandfather remembered, she would always be seen just outside the circle when the old people talked. She was always in the lodge listening in silence to the teachings and absorbing all that happened. She was so forgettable, and yet she was always there. Geeshik never put herself forward. Shaawano now smiled at certain memories of her. Whenever an important person wanted to park his ass in her spot, Geeshik always gave way and moved. If there wasn’t enough food to go around, it was Geeshik whose bowl, of course, went empty. Children loved her—they played all over her, Shaawano remembered, until they reached a certain age. Then they forgot about her. She wasn’t even of enough substance for the bad ones to torment. Geeshik: the thought of her somehow gave him hope. Did she live yet? Was she even around?

  Nobody knew at first, though she had never lived far off in a tangle of bush, but right out in the open on the east side of town, just off the main road. But her house was as forgettable as she was and blended into its surroundings in a quiet way. It was just a little whitewashed cabin with a yard of matted grass. Her door was a plain wooden plank with an antler for a handle. Nobody had seen her go in or out of that door, and nobody ever saw her walk anywhere either, yet she was present at all events of any note, sitting in the background against the wall, overlooked. She existed in such an invisible way that maybe, thought my grandfather, she did not really exist at all. Maybe she had died in her house. He would have to find out. He would have to go there. But in a way he dreaded this as much as he had ever dreaded anything. He could not get a certain idea out of his mind—the notion that he’d find her in her house, dried out, motionless, curled up like a dead gray spider. Only she would be alive. Her eyes black and liquid as tadpoles. She’d come toward him rattling like an old seedpod. She’d call him. She’d speak his name.

  So as he rapped on her door and rattled the antler handle, he called her name out first. Geeshik! He waited. Stunted trees grew here and there around her cabin. Wind ticked in the leaves. He knocked again. Once more, he leaned toward the wood and called her name. Geeshik! He caught a whiff, as he did so, of mildew and cinnamon. Then a soft voice, a whispering voice, said out loud, “I am coming.”

  And of course she was not frightful at all.

  As she opened the door to let him in, for she knew him immediately, she knew his voice, my grandfather saw that she had grown into a fine-skinned, fragile, oddly young-looking woman. She was shadowy and small. Her eyes were not dark or wild, but open and blinking. He thought at once of a soft little owl. She fluttered a hand at his feet, and he slipped off his shoes. Her dirt floor was covered with skins and clean blankets. She had a real glass window. In her own house, she was bolder and more noticeable than she was in the world outside. She nodded in a surprisingly confident way and padded across the room. Her body had settled now so that the limp of her youth was only a rocking motion of her hips and back. She indicated a stump chair for him. She poured tea from a brown pottery brewing pot into a pretty white cup and set it before him. He put his hand on the cup. She sat across from him with her own cup. Then she waited. She didn’t say anything. My grandfather stared at the cup so hard he memorized it. There were flowers painted on it, pink and lavender. It was a white lady’s cup she’d probably got from the mission, not old or new, not big or small. It was the kind of cup a woman would keep special on a shelf and maybe never use, so he was touched she had given it to him. And the tea in it, he found when he sipped, was flavored with that cinnamon he’d smelled in the doorway. It had a very good taste and Shaawano remembered that tea wasn’t always bitter and hard to swallow the way he made his. He knew now that he would have to speak first. But he understood there was no hurry. She didn’t mind. From the way she treated him, my grandfather realized that he was not the only person to suddenly remember the existence of the little woman and seek her out. He understood that while he had grown up and lost his children and wife and started grieving, while he had become volatile and oblivious, she had continued to slowly and steadily remain herself. Things had changed on the reservation, but she had held her place. She was exactly who she always was. Her gift was to be unremarkable. She was a person who would always be there to answer her own door. There would always be tea in a flowered white cup. And there would be her silence, which was somehow so kind and restful that Shaawano had drunk two cups of tea, slowly and with pleasure, before he felt compelled to speak.

  During that first visit, he told her everything. He went through it all from the day he first realized that his wife was pregnant with another man’s child, to the waste of anger that followed when he’d driven off his son, to the dreams or visions he had experienced so recently and his questions and his hesitations, his belief that he was not worthy to make the drum. When he’d finished with all of it, the sky had gone dim through that one real window. Again, there was that comforting silence and in it he realized that Geeshik had not spoken. So at last he asked her the question he meant to ask.

  “Why me?”

  Geeshik sat there so quietly that he began to wonder if she’d even been listening at all. Then she rustled a little in her chair. Her voice came out a whisper, but her words were clear.

  “Do just as she tells you.”

  “But I don’t know how to do these things.”

  “Just do as she tells you. That’s all you can do.”

  My grandfather looked at her with an appalled desperation. She blinked back at him, sipped her cup of tea. It was too overwhelming—the sacred old wood, the dream instructions. His father had made drums but that was a world ago. And not only that, but they were hand drums. My grandfather remembered his father splitting the ash and bending it after it had soaked, creating the circle, the hoop. He himself had helped stretch the rawhide on and shaped it, but those drums were different. One-person drums only, not the drum his daughter meant. No, the drum that was to be made of that special wood was a drum that would attract the spirits in a powerful communion that my grandfather could not, and didn’t want to, think about.

  “I must let this pass,” he said to Geeshik, shaking his head. “I’m not the man for it.”

  Geeshik smiled a nodding smile. A very little smile. The sun came slanting through the window and warmed the smooth old table. Far away, someone chopped wood. The ax made a rhythmic, high, knocking sound. My grandfather closed his eyes and could see the movements of the chopper, steady and practiced and resigned. Over and over, the wood split, dropping to either side of the stump. The chopper neatly lifted each half on the ax blade and split a stove length with one downward stroke.

  “That’s how you’ll do it,” Geeshik said. “One stroke.” It was as though she could see what my grandfa
ther saw in his mind’s eye. He went back over the timing of her words. It seemed that she was referring to the effortless fall of the ax and thoughtless grace of a good wood splitter. Maybe she was saying he had the same skill—in him, not evident, but ready to come out. Grandfather Shaawano made a groaning sound of bleak frustration. He lifted his hands and hung them in the air and put them down, an empty gesture. He didn’t even know how to start.

  “Just do everything she tells you,” Geeshik said.

  My grandfather thought of placing tobacco where his own father used to put his tobacco. At the side of the clearing around his cabin there was a birch tree stump. Over the years it had always worn a heap of tobacco. When my grandfather was little, his father used to hold tobacco every morning in his small hand with him and pray for a good life. When he grew older, Shaawano swiped some of the tobacco off the stump every now and then to roll his own cigarettes. But he had still had a good life, he thought now, up until he began to wreck it for himself.

  “I’m not the man for it,” Shaawano said, then he laughed a little, feeling foolish.

  “Come back sometime,” she said, standing up. A pretty clear signal that she wanted him to go.

  My grandfather walked home and didn’t feel any better about things. He went to sleep and when he woke he stretched and felt no better and got up anyway and set about his day. First he fixed up a little iron woodstove that he’d traded with a farmer for two bedsteads. The nickel plating was chipped and ruined, but the stove still gave him a feeling of cheer on a cool morning. His water was boiling. He poured half the water into another pot for mush and dropped two handfuls of meal in and put it back on to boil. He’d thrown the leathery swamp-tea leaves into the first, dented tin pot when he remembered about the tobacco. With an ironwood stick, he stirred the mush, then wiped his hands on the pockets of his pants and took a bag of crumbled tobacco off the shelf by his door. He brought it out into the yard. There was nothing special about the day. A little cloudy. Light breeze. Grandfather Shaawano found the birch stump, which hadn’t rotted away like he imagined. He opened the bag and took some tobacco out and said to the twitching leaves of a popple tree or to anyone or nobody or to the Creator, “Thank you for my existence.”

  He put the tobacco on the stump and waited for something to happen. A woodpecker tapped away, testingly, then paused, perhaps flew to another tree and began tapping, this time harder. The breeze was causing light waves to slap on shore. My grandfather forgot he was waiting for anything but his first taste of tea. He walked back into the house.

  So it went like this, every day. The days began with putting out tobacco, then a breakfast of tea and mush. The day continued on and he cut poles or went to the sloughs for willow, and on yet some more as he worked on his chairs, and the tables, which he could now make because he’d bought a good hand plane. Late summer turned to fall and winter came and went and every day my grandfather put out tobacco. He picked up the tobacco and went outside half in a dream, but once he put his tobacco down and said his words he always noticed something—mouse tracks in the snow, impossibly delicate, the deep scent of wood smoke, clouds booming over the leafless trees. These sharp moments of seeing did not fill him with the wild joy that had been so frightening when he first quit wandering. He wasn’t swallowed up with fear or sadness, either, nor did he dream of the dead. If he was visited by spirits, they kept to themselves. For many hours, most of the day, he became lost in his work and forgot everything but what was before him—the feel of the tool in his hands, balance, the tension of fitting together his pieces, which he made with pegs and no nails, the critical shaving and adjusting that made his work stand level. He sold everything he made to a trader who came with a wagon to take it away, but he spent so much time on each that he never accumulated money. Sometimes he could afford oatmeal—zashi manoomin, slippery rice. He thought of tapping the stand of maple around him soon, in spring, so he could have pools of syrup in his gray bowlfuls of oatmeal. Then he found himself whittling the taps and spouts and making baskets or makakoog of birch bark with ash trim, to catch the sap. He surprised himself all the time. Where before he had talked endlessly of what he was going to do and never did it, now he only thought about things he was going to do and then found his actions carrying out his thoughts before he’d even given them words. One day in late spring, before the blackflies hatched and when the nights were still cold enough to kill off the mosquitoes, it occurred to my grandfather that he would go and see for himself whether that wood his daughter told him about in the dream was even in the place she described.

  He found himself making his own lunch, first thing next morning.

  These days, he bought a new substance called peanut butter and ate it instead of grease on his bannock. There was nothing in the world that tasted so good. He spread peanut butter on a slab of cold bannock, slapped another piece on top, and tucked it into his pocket. Then he began to walk, although he knew he could not get to the place he wanted to by walking. He would have to find someone with a boat to take him there, as it was far across the lake, where the people had lived in the old days, starting before the agents and missionaries, even fur traders, even rum, when life was no doubt hard and full of cruel tricks but at least the clans and families were together.

  My grandfather went straight through the bush for a good while. It didn’t bother him. He had a hundred ways of getting places from his house. Ever since he was a boy, he had liked walking in the bush. No one could get him lost. Even when he was drunk, he had never once started off in the wrong direction or found himself somewhere and didn’t know how he got there. Most people are completely oblivious when blacked out, but my grandfather seemed to retain his sense of place even when the rest of him was howling crazy. So he knew just exactly at which cabin he would come out of the woods, and was there at the hour of the day when the fishermen who lived around there went out to set their nets.

  Albert Ruse, Akiwenzi, Morton, Ningabianong—none would give him a ride in their jiimaanan or had an extra boat or canoe or old washtub for him to use. They knew what he was like, or thought they did, and assumed they would never see whatever scow they lent him in the same shape or maybe in this life. But then, just as they were all pulling away, Albert turned and yelled that he, Shaawano, was free to take and put back together an old wiigwaasi-jiimaan, his canoe made of birch bark, and to keep it if it hadn’t already disintegrated out in the bush behind his house.

  All right, all right, thought my grandfather, if that’s the way you’re going to play it, I’m your man. Up surged his old belligerence and off he tramped to Albert’s house, where he located the broken hulk, hoisted it on his back, and without a word to Albert’s old lady or the gaping children trudged back off into the bush, where he didn’t let the damn thing down off his shoulders until he got home and eased it off into the patch of bright sun before his door.

  “It’s not in that rough shape,” he muttered, running his hands over the perfectly bent cedar ribs that had somehow retained their old shape. Of course the jack-pine root lacing had popped in many places and the bark was split here and there. Quite a bit of work. My grandfather took an old makak and a hatchet, went off into the woods, and collected enough pitch to do a preliminary mending. From his ash pile he plucked chunks of charcoal, ground it to a powder, mixed the powder and the pitch. By the time it was too dark to see anymore, he had patched the burst seams and used sticks and baling twine to hold the sides in place. Tomorrow, he thought, stirring up a fresh batch of bannock for himself, I’ll dig more jack pine, cut some bark to patch with. That night, as a tonic for his blood, he drank cedar tea, just as his old grandmother had. He felt the benefit, after he banked the fire and laid under the quilt, of his blood washing in and out cleanly around his heart. And then, just before falling asleep, he chuckled out loud as he thought of Albert, who always liked a good joke, even on himself. My grandfather saw himself paddling with deep, even strokes past the men as they played out their nets. He would nod as Albert wid
ened his eyes, and indicate with a hand movement that Albert could kiss his ass. Or maybe not. Maybe he’d just enjoy the man’s surprise and appreciation as he paddled by in the old wreck of the canoe, now beautiful and whole.

  That canoe made my grandfather a little too famous, even before he’d gotten out to the far side of the lake. Albert heard about the first time he tried it out, and he came to see him, carrying his pipe. Grandfather Shaawano was daubing the seams yet again with pitch when Albert called out from the woods and then walked into the clearing. He had his son with him, a boy about fifteen years old, and when they saw the canoe they both grew excited with admiration for my grandfather’s perfecting touch. The bent ash gunwales were laced again with wet jack-pine root and lashed with strips of rawhide that had shrunk as they dried, so everything was strict and tight. My grandfather had restained the two deep vermilion circles into the prow. And then the patching and the cleaning. All of this in just a week. Albert exclaimed so loudly and was so happy that Shaawano grew nervous, imagining he would demand the canoe back now. But he did no such thing. Albert had never been a drunk. He provided well for his family and was faithful to his wife. He was a very good fisherman but not clever with his hands like my grandfather. He wanted to hear all about Old Shaawano’s work, every detail, to know where he had fetched the pitch and from what kind of tree and how he mixed it. My grandfather Shaawano found himself talking as he hadn’t talked in a long time, about the pieces of knowledge he’d picked up from his father and his uncles, and about how one thing had made sense after the next in fixing the canoe. They talked at length and finally, at last, Albert took out his pipe. He put it together and loaded it, then lighted and smoked it and handed it to his son, who smoked and handed it on to Shaawano, who did also. He handed the pipe back to Albert, who smoked it again before he asked, “What about the drum?”

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