The painted drum, p.16
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       The Painted Drum, p.16

           Louise Erdrich
 
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  It was then that my grandfather made the connection. Albert was a cousin to Kakageeshikok.

  “Geeshik told you.”

  “Who told me?”

  That wasn’t it at all. The night after he’d jokingly pointed my grandfather toward the old canoe, a young girl had come to visit Albert in a dream. She came to thank him. She said she would do good things for him. Each time she spoke, a drum sounded. The drum grew louder until he woke. It had taken Albert some time to puzzle out the meaning of the dream. That had not come clear until he finally thought of the old canoe he’d given my grandfather earlier that day. Then he was sure that my grandfather, the drum, the canoe, and the girl must have some connection. Albert went still and let the smoke dwindle from the pipe, waiting for my grandfather to fill him in.

  Shaawano cleared his throat. He was choked up. His daughter was so polite! Even in the spirit world she remembered her manners with elders, and had thanked Albert for his help.

  “N’dawnis,” he said, nodding proudly and shaking his head. Then for the second time he told everything—the story Albert doubtless knew, about Anaquot, and the dull, long years of fury and wandering that followed, and at last, how his daughter had come to him in a dream and what she had asked of him.

  “So I need the canoe to get to those old trees,” he concluded. “I was out that day looking for a way to get there.”

  Albert started to chuckle at some private joke. He poked his son in the ribs and said, “You know, don’t you?”

  “What?” His son rubbed his side. “Know what, n’deydey?”

  “About the old man,” Albert laughed harder. “My grandfather.”

  “What?” said old Shaawano.

  “Friend,” said Albert, “you’ll like to hear this. The old man, my grandfather, the one who made that canoe in his age and cared for it until he died, he was the keeper of that wood. He smoked his pipe with it.” Albert lifted his pipe, which was long with a smooth okij, golden red. “This very pipe. This is the one he smoked with those everlasting trees.”

  By the end of the evening it was settled. Albert and my grandfather and the boy—whom Albert had sent to the mission school, but who kept running home, so that Albert was educating him in the old ways as best he could—would go out together and visit the old cedar trees. Albert would tell Geeshik what was happening. She would nod, my grandfather imagined, blink her grave, wide, owlish eyes, and smile her hidden smile. She knew everything, she knew it anyway, said Albert, she had learned all there was to know by sitting quietly and humbly in the corner.

  “She knew you were going to find your way toward this,” he told my grandfather. “This was the fourth generation, this is the time, and it was said that our drum would be brought to us by a little girl.”

  “It is an honor,” said my grandfather, after a while. “Still, I would rather that my little girl was grown up and standing before me now in the fullness of her own life.”

  Albert put his hand on my grandfather Shaawano’s shoulder and they stood together.

  “Even this does not bring her back to you, I know. Still, it is something.”

  “Yes, it is something,” said my grandfather.

  The day that my grandfather, Albert, and his boy, whose nickname was Chickie, went out to visit the trees, new leaves were just unfurling. A light breeze gave no hindrance. There was warm sun, a clear sky. Best of all, no zagimeg and no biting flies. The three paddled all morning, ate their lunch of grease and bannock and tea on a flat gray rock, and continued on into the afternoon, until they reached the place where they thought the trees were. Albert had gone there with his grandfather when he was young, but his memory was a little off. My own grandfather’s ideas had been formed by the dream, but they, too, were faulty. The three tramped around in the bush until it grew too dark to see, then they made a fire for the night, boiled more tea and roasted a duck that Albert had plugged on the way there. After they had eaten, they talked of small matters and then rolled up in their blankets.

  As they were falling asleep, my grandfather heard a far-off pack of wolves raise their howl. For a long time the wolves spoke of all they’d seen and felt and eaten that day. Shaawano stayed awake listening. He had never blamed the wolves for what they had done. He had never gone to war with them. The wolves had only acted according to their natures, after all. Only humans can choose to change what they are, and change is treacherous. Even now, the first drink that Shaawano had taken still haunted him, as did the other first drink in his life—the first drink he had refused. In the howls of the wolves, full and gurgling, he saw that full glass, the one he had mystically pushed away, and even in the holy dark somewhere near the great old trees, he dreamed that instead of pushing the drink away he reached for it and put it to his lips, and as its fire entered him, he sighed and began to weep.

  Those great trees had been struck down by lightning, it was said. They never had been touched by a whiteman’s ax. In the morning the three walked out into the bush and after only minutes of walking a strange thing occurred. They burst into a clearing, or what seemed like one. As their eyes adjusted from the cool shade of the woods to a dazzling plain of light, they saw from the nakedness of ground that they had come upon an area of devastation. Trees had been snapped off like matchsticks and pulverized to splinters. Only a few of the toughest plants grew among the fragments of the trees. It was as if a giant had smashed its foot down and ground everything beneath his heel.

  “What did this?” said the boy in awe.

  “A whirlwind,” Albert told him.

  “Do you think it smashed the drum trees?” asked my grandfather.

  “It might be good to smoke the pipe here,” Albert said.

  So they sat down in the glare of mild sun and Albert took out his grandfather’s pipe. My grandfather had never kept a pipe. He wasn’t the type to have been given one and he was glad now that by mistake he had never acquired one. If something had happened to a pipe of his during those bad years, he’d have that on his conscience along with everything else. It was good to smoke the pipe that Albert kept. All three soon felt their uneasiness lessen and a sense of admiring wonder take its place. Here was evidence of a casual, intentless power. It made and it destroyed. Grew trees and crushed them. Brought people to life and stood back as they made what they could of their time on earth. As my grandfather held the pipe in his hands, praying, his attention was drawn by a still patch of light behind and beyond Albert and Chickie. He looked at the patch of light for some time, as he spoke, before he made out its shape. A wolf was watching from the leaves, huge and gray. Its yellow eyes burned with an ancient calm but its tongue stuck out sideways between its teeth, as a dog’s sometimes will, so that along with inscrutable menace it also looked just plain goofy. My grandfather laughed. The others turned to see what he had laughed at but the wolf was gone, only a few disturbed leaves quivered. Through these leaves my grandfather Shaawano saw where they must go.

  “The trees are around the bottom of that cliff,” said my grandfather, pointing as people pointed, silently kissing at an upwash of rock beyond the wolf and the crushed circle of trees. “We have to walk around the base until we stumble over them.”

  “Giin igo,” said Albert, blowing the ash from his pipe. “I don’t mind what we do.”

  “I’m ready,” said the boy.

  The three walked halfway around the base of the cliff and saw nothing. Discouraged, Grandfather Shaawano rubbed his hands across his face. When he opened his eyes and squinted straight up before him, he saw that just past a tangle of willow, higher than he’d imagined, the logs were lying on a rock shelf, a stone bed where nothing would take root. The three climbed a tumble of washed-down, split boulders and edged out along a broken path that widened to the shelf. There were the cedars, four of them lying together in a row. My grandfather sat down next to one of the great logs and leaned against the curve of the wood. He could see far across the bay into the opening of the channel and through that to an island so far, blu
e, and cloudy that it seemed almost a mirage. Yet it was very real and Shaawano remembered it well. He and Anaquot had run away to that island from their camp, and there they had made their daughter in the first sweetness of their love. They had wanted to be alone together, just the two of them, feeding each other berries and touching whenever they wanted, in the open, underneath a limitless sky.

  Perhaps the great trees had seen their fumbling, human, all too brief happiness and taken pity. Perhaps the trees knew all along. Perhaps the trees had decided to do what they could for the childish lovers, and for their daughter. The body of a drum is a container for the spirit, just as if it were flesh and bone. And although love between a man and woman can change and fail, overreach itself, fall prey to suspicions, yet the drum lives on. The drum waits with the patience of unliving things and yet it heals with life itself.

  5

  The Ornamental Man

  I was years away from my existence when my grandfather began the making of the drum sitting here before us in this room. As for the wife who had left him, and Ziigwan’aage, who had befriended her, they had long collaborated in the leisurely destruction of Simon Jack. During the making of the drum, my father was free to go wherever he willed. He sat with my grandfather, when he could sit still, and tried as best he could to be a son to the man who had left him in a cold house. But some things are only undone by the cruelest means. The ishkode wabo already had its hooks in my father’s gut. Every so often, he left my grandfather and got drunk. Still, he saw the making of the drum, or much of it. When there was something that he could do, he helped. At the same time, on his drunks, he learned all there was to know, and then some, about the goings-on of people near and far, even those across the lake. He learned about his mother, Anaquot, and the wife of the man she’d gone to, and about his half sister, the one they called Fleur, whom he’d hated for her innocent part in the killing of his older sister. All these things he told me at one time or another, or I heard them from other people closely involved, like old Albert. For the making of this drum, as you can imagine, given the caretaking of the wood and the advent of dreams and the tragic incidents and surprising redemptions surrounding its origins, made Anishinaabeg from miles all around both hopeful and curious. They came to visit my grandfather. Soon he had more help than he could manage, and more advice than he could trust.

  My grandfather packed his tools into his canoe and outfitted himself to camp alongside those trees for as long as it would take. After he got to the place and set up his camp, he examined each tree for rot, chose one, and cut away branches from the smoothest and most symmetrical part of the trunk. He carefully marked the trunk all around and used ax, saw, and wedge to remove a section that would make the body of the drum. Once he had that section, he rolled it to his camp, where he would hollow it out. He already had a pile of smooth rocks heating in a blaze and he kept that fire going, feeding it hotter and hotter until the rocks glowed red when he rolled them from the fire with a piece of ironwood. He used a pair of antlers to place each rock exactly where he wanted it—on the heart of the wood. The stone burned itself in, leaving a shallow, charred hole. Once the stone cooled he replaced it with another, and so it went, a tedious, exacting process. The time it took seemed endless, but my grandfather needed that time now, because the drum could not be made with a wholly conscious plan. Parts of its making had to be dreamed.

  When my grandfather fell asleep at night he looked forward to the possibility that something of the drum’s construction and character might be revealed. Wrapped snug in a woolen blanket, face covered with a light cloth, he drifted off in a state of comfort. He’d never rested so well. Spirits came to him, but not to torment; they were curious as their people, the Anishinaabeg, and wanted to know what Old Shaawano was doing and how the drum was progressing. Half-conscious, my grandfather heard murmuring and low arguments, tinkling bells and footsteps. Where before these sounds had frightened him, now he was lulled. He felt secure as a child snuggled up in the corner of the cabin while the grown-ups talk low and laugh around the stove.

  When my grandfather had finished with the main body of the drum, he lashed it into his canoe and started paddling for home. His vision of how he would dress the drum was still incomplete—the colors, symbols, and type of ornament the drum required still evaded his dreams. He couldn’t get a picture in his mind. But on the way back, something happened that he was to describe many times after in his life. He reached the smooth waters of the bay across which stood his cabin, just as the sun threw red light off, going down. A great cloud had come up behind him and lowered a blue shadow across the water. Just where that cloud stopped and the clear red sky began, there was a line of brilliant space. A yellow line glowed across the earth and the lake with a startling radiance. As my grandfather paddled into that dazzling moment then, he heard a little girl’s voice calling from shore. From the south there was a clap of thunder. From the west a stiff breeze blew. My grandfather put his hand up to test the wind and the sun struck his hand a bright, startling red. He thought of the wolves and of the one that had watched him. He saw pictures. There they were. Little girl. Hand. Wolf. The bowl of reflecting water cut in half by the yellow strip of light would be the design on the head of the drum. All was still in the four directions. He saw the whole thing in his mind.

  Chickie came up with the moose when he was out picking berries. It so happened that he was sitting on a flat rock and eating a sandwich. There were two buckets of berries at his feet, and his little sister was teasing crayfish near the water’s edge, trying to get them to grasp onto a weed so she could yank them out. She was very quiet. Chickie was too. There was only the drone of big horseflies to bother him—an unusual number of big flies—and he remembered his great-aunt telling his uncle to go and fetch a gun because of the flies, for with big flies a moose must be about. Chickie had brought a gun to the berry-picking flats in case of bears. He put his sandwich in his pocket and picked up his gun. Just then, two moose broke cover. Deranged by the flies, they made a mad, shambling dash for water. Usually, moose are shy, almost paranoid. But not when chased by flies. Which is how Chickie got his animal. He got his bead on the hulking bull. After Chickie and Albert dressed the meat and dragged it home, they soaked and soured the hide to loosen the hair, scraped the hide clean, then brain-tanned it. From that hide my grandfather cut two circles for the drumheads, top and bottom. He would have lashed the skins tightly on right away, except that the night before he meant to do it his little daughter visited. She stood before him in a bell-shaped dress and said, “I’ll tune the drum. Put me inside, Deydey. There, I’ll be content.”

  My grandfather was mystified by this, and yet her visit was so precious to him that he didn’t mention it to anyone else. He was stingy with these visions. He liked to save them to think about. Still, the meaning did elude him. Put me inside the drum. What did she mean by that? A small bell was often hung within a drum to sweeten its sound. Other things were put inside, too. Grandfather Shaawano had known the bones of seagulls to be used, suspended across the center of the interior. His little girl had loved ribbons. He decided that he would trim the drum’s skirt with ribbons.

  But that was not all of it because it seemed that she had wanted to be the drum itself. He decided at last that he would go talk to her, as best he could. He would go to the place he’d hidden her bones. So that next morning he made his fire in the little stove that vented straight up through the roof and he boiled water in the dinged-up kettle he had thrown many times against the wall in old rages, but always hammered back into shape when he came to earth. He poured water over a few leaves and balsam needles in another pot and let it steep, poured the tea into a cup. He brought the cup outside, where he could drink it looking into the woods. He was, perhaps, fortifying his spirit.

  The path that the wagon had taken through the woods and then down to the lake was grown over. There was a copse of birch trees located maybe twenty feet into the woods. When several birch trees grow from one stu
mp they form a central hollow that collects leaves and pine needles. In this place, so beautiful and calm, my grandfather had long ago placed his daughter’s bones. He’d chiseled into the wood and then capped the hollow with a round flat stone so that the bones would not be disturbed. He had hoped that the birch trees might grow together and surround his daughter, might encompass her. But the hollow had stayed a hollow and the four trees still grew from the central core, though they held the stone in tightly. He put tobacco on the stone and then he sat down in the sticks, duff, and leaves. An old song came to him. He shut his eyes and sang it. Then he sang a lullaby, the one Anaquot had always sung. As my grandfather sang the lullaby, he felt his throat closing with tears, but they melted down inside him instead of flowing out and after a while he felt better. He had brought some pretty cloth and a stick of hard candy. He put those on the rock.

  Grandfather Shaawano had also brought along a sandwich and a jug of water. He spilled a little water on the stone and tore off a bit of his sandwich and put it there too. He thought about the drum and about all that had happened. It seemed to him that since his daughter’s first dream visit he had been driven from one question to the next question. He’d worked hard on putting the drum together, piece by piece. He’d enjoyed the exhaustion and he had needed the concentration. The life force, the restlessness, the need to move and think and accomplish things that had grown in him since he stopped wandering, were all directed into the making of the drum. It felt good now to sit in the woods doing nothing. Letting his thoughts range free. Enjoying each bite of the bannock with the salted and peppered venison grease spread inside. There were puckoons growing in the woods, mushrooms, berries. He thought he might spend the day hunting and picking them. But he heard, behind his head, which was pillowed against the birch, a small rustling and whispering. He heard the bones click. Then he turned and saw that two long, graceful, curved bones had crawled from the nest.

 
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