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The painted drum, p.17
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       The Painted Drum, p.17

           Louise Erdrich
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  Well, maybe an animal had pushed them out, he thought, but he was sure he hadn’t seen them before. He picked the bones up, cradled them in his hands. Then he knew what his daughter meant and why she’d visited. He knew what to do.

  So that is why the drum that now sits in this room was made with the little girl’s bones. They are strung inside on a piece of sinew anchored to the east and west, for the drum has its directions and should always be aligned as the judge has done. That little girl’s bones gave the drum its voice. Everything else about the drum, all you see, was long considered, and the meanings debated by all of those who would learn its songs and take care of it. But the bones were my grandfather’s secret. He didn’t even speak of them to his son. It was me he told, long after the last time the drum was used.

  I was born many years after the drum began its life, but my grandfather and eventually my father talked about it so much that it seems part of my first memories. When my mother was with my father, she made sure that whenever the drum came out for a ceremony, he was there too. My grandfather had my father sit at the drum just behind the other men, tapping a stick on his knee, learning the songs. My grandfather started taking him along with him even when it became clear that he was lost to the bottle. Even if my father was sleeping off a drunk, my grandfather kept him near the drum, hoping that the songs would do their work. I think it might have been, no I’m sure it was, those early years with the drum that protected him later on once my grandfather died and even, perhaps, protected me. Maybe those songs helped me to survive my father’s drinking rage. For in the rare times he was sober he sang those songs and made me learn them too. And later, I never did search out oblivion in order to forget my father’s harm. Something steadied me. Something gave me rightness in my mind. Something gave me an inside calm.

  This drum was powerful. People searched it out. This drum was so kind that it cured people of every variety of ill. Because our family kept this drum, people came to us. All of the people who lived close to the drum and dreamed up its songs or helped the drum somehow—repaired it or gave it gifts or even helped the people who came to see it—we grew strong. That’s what the drum is about—it gathers people in and holds them. It looks after them. But like a person, things can go wrong in spite of all the best care. And this drum had its own history and sorrow.

  When I was growing up, singing that drum’s songs, I heard things discussed. I listened in on the old men’s gossip. Some stories went on for months, even years. There was one that the old men always returned to and found endlessly interesting to discuss. Years back, they said, a comical delusion had apparently gripped a man called Simon Jack. It had started with his sly mention of the fact that he was a two-woman man. That was not allowed in the church of course, or by law, but in the old days it had been the privilege of a clever hunter. A man who could attract, keep, and provide for two women was considered powerful, a man to envy and to follow.

  Simon Jack had made this boast, but when the old men went to visit the cabin where, Simon Jack implied, the women served his every need, it was found that the opposite was true. Simon Jack was bossed, bullied, and disregarded. He was a slave to those women’s ideas. He jumped when they commanded. And yet, when he talked in town, he boasted of their meekness and made out that he was feared and adored. Perhaps he really believed his own words. Those who visited Simon Jack’s home reported, for instance, that he’d ordered Ziigwan’aage to make tea. She ignored him. After some time he went over to the stove and poured water into cups from a cold kettle and served it to his guests. Anaquot, where’s the bannock, he cried. She slung the round loaf at his head. He picked it up, thanked her condescendingly, as though she had humbly delivered it. And so on it went. He claimed that “his women” were working on a beautiful beaded outfit for him, and although that was true, there was something about the way they beaded that made the other men uncomfortable. After all, everybody knew that Anaquot and Ziigwan’aage had been working on that outfit each winter for years. They hadn’t finished it, or maybe they had, and then they had resewn it. What was going on? Were the two of them, perhaps, crazy too?

  Then all of a sudden, the men heard that the outfit was completed. Simon Jack was seen in the woods from a long way off, flashing, gleaming, beaded everywhere. He was a riot of flowers and vines. Every inch of his clothing was covered. He wore a beaded vest and beaded breeches trimmed with otter fur. It was the most extraordinary clothing that anyone had ever seen, and he wore it constantly. He didn’t take it off to go to sleep or for the dirtiest work. The outfit grew stiff and began to reek, but Simon Jack kept wearing it. He wore it for one whole winter on his trapline. He was still wearing it when he came out of the woods in the spring with a load of furs. By now he had become an object of pity. Although he was avoided because his odor had become spectacular, people left food out for him, on stumps, where the dogs could not reach. He had nowhere to go. Barred from his own cabin, chased from the tent that Ziigwan’aage now shared with a younger man, he took to sleeping in barnyards, wandering the ditches. He showed up anywhere people gathered, hoping he’d be fed.

  And to think, said the old men, at one time he was well off. He had all he could want. A wife, children, knowledge, and powerful songs. Now, he has only the clothes he wears.

  Which though stinking had held together. In spite of his claw-like, broken nails and the matted balls of hair that hung down beneath the hat, in spite of the filth crusted along the neck of his shirt and the perfectly black, glossy black, engrained dirt that became his skin, his clothing had not fallen to ruin. The fully beaded sashes and epaulets and leggings had lost not a single stitched bead. Nothing had unraveled. The colors held. The cut beads still glittered at the flowers’ center. Manidoominensag, little spirit things, that is the word for beads in our language. They are more than just decorations. They have a life of their own. It was now perfectly understood that the women whom Simon Jack had bragged of dominating—the young one he’d gotten pregnant and the first wife, that spring wolverine—had known just what they were doing. They had trapped him. It was he who had donned the suit, after all, clothes that supposedly illustrated for the world his wives’ meek devotion. But those were not just flowers, not just vines, not, as I said, little beads. Those little spirits were his arrogance for all to see. Filth and brilliance. They were Simon Jack inside out.

  Ahau! said the old men. It happened this way. He walked into the dance circle one afternoon early in the summer, and he sat down next to my grandfather. They should watch out for the rain! He pointed his chin up to the clear sky and the men remembered, as much as his smell, thinking that it certainly was not going to rain. That much they thought they knew. Rain required clouds. But my grandfather took no issue with the pitiful being and only offered Simon Jack his open can of chewing tobacco. Simon Jack took a pinch, made a little wad of the stuff, and stuck it in his lower lip. His teeth were green fangs. His long narrow jaw snapped like a fox’s. People were fascinated with his fingernails—long and twisted, gnarled like gray turtle shell. Of course, they also looked at the fancy beadwork designs that flowed all over him. He wore two bandolier bags with white backgrounds fully beaded. He folded his legs crosswise and people noted that the bottoms of his makizinan were beaded. The old men said that those makizinan were only worn by the dead. Simon Jack nodded critically at my grandfather when he rose to go sit near the drum.

  “They are singing those songs backwards,” he said. “They shouldn’t do that.”

  The other men thought he was wrong, and who was he to criticize? But it turned out Simon Jack knew what he was talking about, for my grandfather was very troubled by what was happening. He knew the songs that had appeared in people’s minds when the drum came into being, knew them like he knew how to breathe, but all of a sudden, when Simon Jack came into the circle, there was a shift. Grandfather Shaawano described it afterward as someone talking in his ear so he couldn’t think. The men were distracted. The songs got jumbled.

  All we c
rave is a simple order. One day and then the next day and the next after that, if we’re lucky, to be the same. Grief is chaos. Death or illness throw the world out of whack. The drum’s order is the world’s order. To proceed with and keep that order is a gesture of desperate hope. Protect us. Save us. Let our minds remain clear of sorrow so that we can simply praise the world.

  When the songs go backward, when they won’t stay in place, when the men strike the drum out of time, things should stop. We should ponder the event. Later, my grandfather was to make clear what he should have done when things went haywire. But until that day he had never lost the order and thought that he could recover it by force of mind, so the men kept on playing and singing.

  Simon Jack stood and danced in place, then he danced into the circle and rounded the drum. There was nothing wrong with what he did, at first. He was showing respect. Except that soon there were no pauses, no relief. One song now led straight into the next and it was as though they all were caught—drummer, singers, dancer, drum itself—in a dark outpouring of energy. The others in the circle were disturbed. They didn’t know what they were hearing, or seeing, but they knew what they were feeling. One man said his breath cracked in him. Their hearts stopped, then raced. A sickness in another man’s belly became an ache. Someone’s legs itched, but he knew he shouldn’t dance. It was enough to see Simon Jack out there, stamping and bobbing with a terrible intentness, close-stepping as if he was flattening the grass with his dead, dead makizinan. It was enough to understand that moving toward the drum at this time would be a mistake. Those in the circle didn’t know what they felt or whether they were possessed; but nobody stopped the drummer and nobody stopped the dancer. It was as though they were all suspended, frozen, as though nothing about the scene was moving. Although everything was. And it was moving faster. The beat was. The men. Their high-pitched voices. And even faster and faster until—and my grandfather saw this, for he was staring at Simon Jack—he turned around, a flash of beads and fur and tails, and he began to go the wrong way. He went the spirit world way around the drum. The old men saw it happen. They saw his face go gray and his eyes roll white into his head. They knew, right then, he would not complete his circle and he did not. Halfway around, he fell dead.

  After that, my grandfather put the drum away. He kept it off the ground, in its own place, of course. He took it out occasionally to visit other drums. He fed it tobacco and water and he made sure that it heard no bad talk and saw no bad sights. But even when the desperately ill or those pleading for the sick begged him to take out that drum, he never would. And as I said, he told me why, he confided in me. He said that he couldn’t be sure of that drum anymore. He told me that the drum itself contained his daughter’s bones. He believed that she was subject, as children are, to rages beyond their control, and that she had caused what happened in the circle. She was angry at the man who took away her mother and caused her own life to end. She had no pity on pitiful Simon Jack.

  In the end, though Simon Jack had nearly ruined his life, my grandfather was the only one to take pity on him. The men carried Simon Jack from the circle to my grandfather’s house and laid him out on a bed of pine boughs in the yard. There, the women who care for the dead made a fire that they would keep burning for three days to light the way for his spirit. They washed Simon Jack for burial. As they worked, the rain sprinkled directly down upon them from a clear sky, just as the dead man said it would.

  I heard it whispered when I was young, then it was talked about more openly as people forgot who the Pillagers were or why so many had feared Ziigwan’aage. When they prepared Simon Jack, they found the reason he never took those clothes off. It was simple. He couldn’t. The clothes were stitched directly to him. His skin had grown around the threads and beads in some places. The clothes were molded to him in others. The women clipped the clothes carefully from Simon Jack and burned them in a great fire hot enough to consume even the glass beads. They tied his body in birch bark and laid him naked in the ground. He was buried at the entrance to the main path out to the Pillager camp, where those two women would have to step over him whenever they came to town.

  Generally, it is, or was, not considered right for a woman to step over anything that belongs to a man. It supposedly gives her power over him. So I don’t know what the women had in mind when they put Simon Jack underground there—perhaps it was a warning or a reminder, or perhaps with the dead the old taboo is reversed. I really don’t know whether Simon Jack’s placement bothered Anaquot or Ziigwan’aage or whether his death made the least difference to them at all. They were to die in the appalling illness that shook our tribe apart. The child alone survived, my father’s half sister, Fleur. And of course there was Niibin’aage, lost into the east by then. As for the drum, it was cared for in the best way possible, as I have said, but it was never used again. I think my grandfather had a conflict in his heart over what to do with it. Once, he told me about the secret location of a cave and he asked me to make sure he was buried there, and the drum with him. Another time he said it should be burned. He also told me that he’d written down songs with some old men and that the drum should be restored to use after forty winters.

  My grandfather died unexpectedly. He died before any of these options could be made definite. After his death, when the old men came together to discuss who should take over his songs and feed his guardian spirits, and who should care for his little girl drum, things were disposed of as the old men saw fit. They gave the drum to my father. Perhaps they thought its power would heal him up, sober him. Or maybe they knew he would sell the drum, as eventually he did, to the trader Jewett Parker Tatro for rum and beer. Perhaps they knew how it would happen and they thought that the drum needed to go east, to grow up a little more before it returned. Because the forty years my grandfather spoke of are past. All those afflicted, bothered, or healed and made whole by that drum are gone. Only the songs remain.




  Shawnee sat her little brother down and pried the crayon from his strong, chubby fist—it was purple, it looked to him like something good to eat, the name of the crayon was even grape. The feel of the word on her tongue made her mouth water and she wanted a cup of commodity grape juice so terribly: the feeling came over her with such a strong rush that she tasted the cold sweetness of the drink in her mind. Her brother, Apitchi, made a lip-trembling face and then opened his mouth to bawl but Shawnee had a trick she played on him. She reached toward his mouth quickly and tickled his tongue softly with her finger. Usually, he was so surprised that his howl turned into a laugh, but this time he was very, very hungry, truly felt deprived, and in his heart he really knew that the crayon would have been good to eat. So he let blast with a scream of rage that made Shawnee clap her hands over her ears and brought Alice from the other room, where she was curled up under the blankets.

  Alice was six years old, way past the toddling age, her legs skinny and bare. All she wore was one of her mother’s old sweatshirts, and it drooped off of her slender body, hanging empty past her fingers and knees. The sweatshirt said University of Phuk U in red block letters, and it was sweatshirt color, gray. Alice’s thick black hair was cut straight off, right below her ears, and it stuck out on both sides of her head like Darth Vader’s helmet in Star Wars. For a while, they had owned that movie, and also a small black TV that had a slot to insert a movie cassette in the bottom, and the movie would come on the screen. But then it had to get sold, and the movie went with it. Before it was sold Shawnee and Alice had watched the movie countless times. They knew it all by heart, every word. Alice rubbed the sleep from her face and watched Apitchi bawl, along with Shawnee. They both just watched him because they knew there was nothing that could be done once he started like this.

  “I’m hungry,” said Alice.

  “No, you’re not,” said Shawnee, “because there’s nothing.”

  Alice nodded and sucked on a finger. She knew that. They
had already scraped every particle of oatmeal from the pot that Mama had left on the stove. They had been hungry the day before, and the day before that too. They had wiped the pot with their fingers. Alice’s stomach felt so caved-in she thought maybe it was sticking to the back of her body, and the places that it stuck hurt with stabbing pains. While she was wrapped in the blankets, she had peeled some flecks of paint off the walls and chewed on them like candy.

  “I’m cold,” she said.

  “No, you’re not,” said Shawnee, “because Mom said don’t turn up the heat there’s just enough to last until she gets home.”

  Alice knew that too, and so she put the blankets around her and waited to fall asleep. There was a thick old bearskin on the mattress they had dragged out onto the kitchen–living room floor, dusty and stinking a little, but the fur was the warmest place in the house. Shawnee wished that she could curl up on the bearskin with Alice until Mama came back, but Apitchi was everywhere, into everything. He knew how to climb. He would look for food until he discovered something that he thought he could eat. Shawnee was afraid he would find some kind of poison. She supposed now that it really wouldn’t have hurt him to eat the crayon.

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