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The painted drum, p.19
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       The Painted Drum, p.19

           Louise Erdrich
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  “Objectively speaking,” she whispered, knowing the man would bend closer to hear, “I shouldn’t have left them in this cold. But the only way I could get some money was if I came to town.”

  “How,” said the man, “and where?”

  “Here,” she said, calmly. “I came here to sell my body to the highest bidder. The truth is my kids need some food, the house needs heating oil. My oldest, she’s nine. They’re okay for a little while. So listen, niiji, if you don’t have the money, if you can’t pay, tell me now so I quit wasting my time on you.”

  He stared at her with his mouth a little open.

  “I’m just kidding,” said Ira. “Thanks for the beers.”

  As she wasn’t kidding at all, she got up. She stuffed her gloves in her purse. She zipped up her thin black parka and put up the pointed hood. Her face was surrounded by bristles of cheap black fur.

  “Wait,” said the man, “I can’t just let you go like that. We should walk down to the gas station, get some food. I have this much.” He took a ten-dollar bill from one pocket, fished a five from the other. “And I do not even have to see your naked gleaming body. We can get some milk and bread at the gas station. Peanut butter. If what you say is true, if your children are out there, then we get my brother to give you a ride to your place. Once there, you put your kids to bed and then deliver yourself to our lust.”

  Ira looked at him and raised her eyebrows, two clean black arches.

  “Just a joke,” said the young man.

  “What’s your name?” said Ira.

  “John,” he said.

  “And your brother?”

  “Morris.” Then in Ojibwe. “Ma’iingan izhinikaazo. He is named for the wolf.”

  “Your brother shouldn’t have that name,” Ira said as she followed him out the door.

  She watched him walk ahead of her. His hair hung long down his back and he adjusted a heavy skinning knife at his belt. He wore a heavier parka than she owned, and good leather boots. So maybe his story about the job, the house in two pieces, the wife, maybe all of that was true. She had persevered in the tribe’s social service agency all day filling applications for emergency heating oil. Before she left home that morning, she’d cooked up a pot of oatmeal. She thought of her daughter, who was named for the Shawnee prophet like her cousin and great-aunt, so many in her family. Ira thought what a practical girl her Shawnee was, how she’d take the younger two and put them to bed, and then would crawl in next to them for warmth. They’d be sleeping by now, underneath all of the quilts and blankets, curled in the skin of the bear her father had shot. She would be back with the food before they woke, and the delivery truck was on its way. So she followed the man with the ma’iingan brother.


  Shawnee stared into the fire for a while, then suddenly she was so comfortable that she went directly into a sleeping dream where everything that just happened was a dream and her mother was shaking her and saying, “Wake up, wake up,” and when she did wake up she saw that the half-made baskets piled next to the makeshift fireplace were blazing. The fire had already spread over to the trash can just under the window. Shawnee blinked as the curtains burst into light. Then the fire licked here and there like a tongue. Alice woke up and the two girls tried to throw cups of water on the flames, but the water only trickled out of the tap, which was already blocked with ice. Still, the fire gave them time. They took all they could outdoors. The fire ate into the walls and then pulled itself under the roof until it found a way to push an arm of flame into the air. The children stepped back, and back again, then sank again into their blankets and huddled in the bearskin. There were blasts and balls of exploding shimmers and then the blaze attained a steady roar. It was warm in the blankets. I shouldn’t sleep, Shawnee thought, but she found herself curling around Alice, who held Apitchi tight against her, and then she closed her eyes.

  When they woke the flames were low and the sky was still dark. Somebody must have seen it, Shawnee thought. If we stay here they’ll find us. So they edged closer, and closer, as the house cooled, but it was still dark outside when the house no longer gave enough warmth. They were standing in the ashes by then and were covered in black soot. Apitchi whimpered in a low, despairing, birdlike voice. Alice was silent. Her eyes were wide and glittered with black frost. They couldn’t get warm. Their nearest neighbor was six miles down the road. Three miles if you cut through the woods. Although it had just snowed, the old snow was crusted hard enough to hold them, Shawnee thought. So she tied Apitchi onto her back with a long, knitted scarf. Then she walked into the woods. Her feet sank through the snow about three inches, then found the hard pack. She broke the trail. Alice followed in her steps.

  At first they could see by the starlight reflected on the snow. Then, where the pines grew thick, Shawnee couldn’t see at all. The children walked in a liquid black ice, knocking into trees and snapping sharp fir branches. “Alice, hold my parka,” said Shawnee, but she felt her sister’s grip weakening. “Hold my parka,” she screamed, shaking Alice. The grip desperately tightened. Apitchi was a block on her back. She kept shifting him to keep her balance. The snow was softer underneath the pine trees and from time to time they floundered and fell, but always righted themselves at last and went on, weaker, colder. It would happen a little bit at a time this way, Shawnee thought, and finally they would not get up at all. The thought made her pedal her legs with more force and drag Alice with her and so they went on, forward, she thought. She didn’t know anymore. She wasn’t like some kids who stayed in the house. She went outside a lot. Played all day in the woods and never got lost. But she’d never been out in the dark and in the cold like this. She thought her feet were frozen, maybe. She couldn’t feel them. Alice had good boots. She thought that maybe Apitchi was frozen dead, too. But she did not stop. The force of her own wanting to live drove through her. Something passed through her in the dark that was darkness also. She knew that she would keep walking and she’d drag her sister and her brother too. She fell asleep walking once, and then woke, pulled her sister’s jacket, dragging her along. They would not get away from her. She wouldn’t stop. And she kept on thinking that until the snow gave way beneath them.


  At the lighted gas stop, Ira bought fifteen dollars worth of groceries—bread, peanut butter, milk, applesauce, macaroni. The man paid and Ira took the bag. Walking back outside, they hunched over, stabbed with cold.

  “Gisina,” he said.

  “I gotta get home now,” said Ira. “You take me.”

  “I told you I can’t, we get my brother and he takes you in his truck, remember?”

  “I remember it,” said Ira as they ducked along the edge of the road, hunched against the cold. “But I think I would rather go with you if you could take me. I don’t know about your brother as I’ve never met him. Your brother is a stranger to me.”

  “Morris, he’s okay.” In his voice there was something else, too, and Ira’s mind grabbed onto it.

  “What,” she said, “what about him?”

  But they were at the house. It was very close to the gas station. The man’s brother lived in town, in a house Ira had never before noticed, which in itself was odd, the never having noticed a house in a place so small that everything was seen many times. Now the brown-board one-story house stood out. It felt to Ira like the house had suddenly been put there, as in a dream. They walked through unbroken snow up to the door, which was clawed by animals and jimmied around the knob. As they stood before the door waiting for the brother to answer, Ira’s throat tightened and she realized that even in the cold she was sweating lightly. The sweat was freezing in a sheen of ice on her brow. She wanted to turn and run away but John held the groceries. So she stood there, and when the door opened with a fierce shake, as it was stuck, she flinched and stepped back. Then she was pulled or propelled into a dark, close, rank den of a place. The two men went into another room and talked and made some deal, apparently, because when John returned, he gave Ira
the groceries.

  “I have to go, really, because my wife will be needing me.”


  “I am who I said I was. I am not any different than that. I am not a bad person.”

  “But your brother is.”

  His eyes shifted away.

  “Not always,” he said. And then Ira was alone with the brother who bumped around in the half-dark getting dressed to go outside.

  “Morris,” she called out. “So chi miigwech for giving me the ride back to my kids. They shouldn’t be out there alone.”

  “They shouldn’t be out there,” he agreed. His voice was gravelly, harsh maybe, but at least he said something to her. And he did seem to be getting ready to go. “I don’t mind. We have to start my truck though and she’s a bitch in this cold.”

  “Okay,” said Ira, clutching the bag. She was encouraged and felt easier. She didn’t look at the brother directly, but stole small glances in the dim light. He was tall and rangy, with a lean, hungry-looking face, powerful shoulders and a bony, jutting nose. She couldn’t see his eyes, but when they went out the door she finally caught a glimpse, then wished she hadn’t. His eyes were bugged out, big and staring, white all around the black pebble of the iris. He looked like a man scared permanently out of his wits.

  “Don’t mind it,” he said, as he noticed how Ira went very quiet getting into the truck. “I got this sickness where I can’t ever shut my eyes.”

  He frowned, jiggled the key softly, then bent to the wheel in concentration and tried to get the engine to turn over. “C’mon, c’mon,” he said, “ninimoshe, c’mon baby.” He cranked the engine and each time gave a squirt of gas; he had some method by which he slowly brought the frozen block to life, but it took a while and in that time Ira began to know something. There grew in her a feeling that her children weren’t all right, they weren’t asleep. Hungry, well, she knew that already. She began to think that she should have taken them along with her to town because at least they could have crashed someplace together, somebody’s couch. Now their situation was not good; she could feel it in her gut, a crawling sensation that made her act desperately. Later, she regretted very much that she put her hand out, touching Morris. At the time she even knew it was wrong, because he looked at her as the engine groaned. Even though his face was dark in shadow, the whites of his eyes gleamed out, and there was something awful in his look.

  “Gegaa, gegaa,” he shouted, and then, at last, the motor caught with a roar and the cab shuddered. Morris whooped and pounded the wheel. He was sort of too excited, thought Ira, as though he was on some drug, but maybe it was for his eyes. He could be on some medication. Morris backed the truck from the snowy yard and said, “Which way?”

  “I live out by the border at the old treaty signing.”

  “Way out there!” Morris marveled as they pulled into the road. “You guys are true-life bush Indians.”

  “My dad was. He still hunted and trapped all year but there wasn’t a living in it. He has died since.”

  “You got a job?” Morris’s eye rolled wildly at her and he grinned, his teeth big and sharp in the dashboard’s reflected lights.

  “I did until my dad went, then I didn’t have no one to take care of my kids. So I get by, you know, I sell my beadwork and stuff. If I moved into town, I guess I could do pretty well.”

  “Oh, I’d say,” but when he looked sideways at her, Ira thought he meant something else.

  “Not that way,” she stated, without laughing. Now was when she began to wish she hadn’t touched him.

  Morris gave a little hoot. As the heat came on, the cab of his truck began to smell like blood.

  “You hunt yourself?” said Ira.

  “Do I hunt myself ?” Morris asked. “I’d like to see that.”

  “I mean, do you hunt, just hunt?”

  Morris didn’t answer, so Ira said, “You can’t shut your eyes for real?”

  “Yeah. They will not close. I put drops in. Take the wheel.”

  He quit steering and Ira slid over beside him to keep them from going in the ditch. He plucked a little squeeze bottle from his breast pocket and tipped back his head. “Ah,” he screwed the top on the bottle, dropped it back in his pocket, took the wheel with one hand. He grabbed Ira with the other and hauled her close to him. “I liked that.” The truck swerved.

  “You got to keep both hands on the driving,” she said, unhooking his arm from around her shoulders. She slid back to her side of the truck. “Look, it’s iced up bad out there. Really, it’s very dangerous.” The road was plowed recently enough so that beneath the new and fluffy snow there was a hard, slick finish. “The conditions are definitely no good. Hey,” she tried to shift the mood. “How do you sleep?”

  “I never do sleep,” said Morris. “That’s why I’m crazy.”

  “You don’t seem too crazy,” Ira said.

  “The VA sent me everywhere, all around the world, I been to Singapore. They couldn’t do shit. I can’t have sunlight or any light. Mostly I live inside listening to TV. Tapes. I got a million tapes. Cassette tapes. Nobody wants their cassette tapes anymore. The church gives ’em to me. People give ’em to me. I sit indoors and listen. So I know everything. All there is to know. It’s all on tapes. It comes through my ears.” He tapped the side of his head.

  His ears look normal, Ira thought.

  “My brother is the good talker. He’s the one who charms the ladies. He told me all about you.”

  “What about your tapes? What are your tapes about?”

  “Every kind of music, you would not believe. I got opera tapes which I can’t make out the language, Mötley Crüe tapes, George Michael, every C-and-W tape there is or was. I got classical music tapes however I don’t like to read the labels as it hurts my eyes, so I can’t tell you who is who by name. There is this one guy I listen to all the time, the fucker plays like his hands are on fire. And books, every book. Everything from horror books to spiritual messages. This one I had on before I left, I got the whole set of wisdom. Listen to this one,” Morris spoke slowly and carefully. “‘If anyone were to ask life over a thousand years, why are you alive? The only reply could be—I live so that I may live. Life lives from its own foundation and rises out of itself.’ How about that?”

  As they bounced along Morris steered the truck, slowly, carefully.

  “A guy wrote that in the twelfth century A.D.”

  “If somebody asked me over a thousand years,” Ira said, cold inside, “I would say I live because my children need me.”

  “Yeah,” said Morris. “That’s what my brother said. He told me all about how you needed money.”

  “I don’t need it all that bad anymore,” Ira said. “I only got to last until tomorrow.”

  “Well, I got money,” said Morris. “I got quite a bit of money. On me. And I don’t ever get a chance to be with a woman. I can’t go in bars.”

  Now Ira knew why her throat clenched, why she’d been afraid. She knew why John had delivered her to his ma’iingan brother.

  “If you have so much money,” she said, her voice rising too high, “why don’t you buy CDs?”

  “Well, I have them too, and a player, of course. But I like listening to tapes for some reason. The assortment, I guess, and they’re free. My house is a grab bag of tapes. Powwow tapes. Poetry tapes. The most beautiful stories in the language. Ira, listen to this,” Morris’s voice rose high, almost a wail. “‘It isn’t given to us to know those rare moments when people are wide open and the lightest touch can wither or heal.’ What about that? Fitzgerald. I wish I could stop this truck,” said Morris. “I wish that I could kiss you.”

  “No,” said Ira, “I got to get back to my kids.”

  “Well, I think this is a rare healing moment, and a kiss”—Morris slowed the truck until it crawled—“that won’t take a few seconds. A kiss is an efficacious drug. It might change my life.” The truck stopped, idling. Morris turned to her and the light played up in his eyes so they fla
shed and burned. “Please,” he said, putting the truck in park. Ira didn’t move. “You want me to start the truck moving?” They sat suspended, breathing, looking at each other.

  “You’re pretty,” said Morris. His voice was low. He was choking on his breath. “Want me to start the truck?”

  “Yes,” Ira said.

  “C’mere then.”

  She slid across to him in a trance of fear, but when he did not move toward her but only sat very still, something else happened. She put her hands over his eyes. He seemed to be holding his breath now, even trembling a little. He wasn’t going to hurt her, she realized. She kissed his mouth, and his foot pressed the gas pedal involuntarily, so it roared with a human sound. He laughed sheepishly and said, “I guess that tells you how I feel.” His breath was surprisingly sweet and his face smelled like soap. Still, underneath that, the truck smelled of blood. He leaned back into the seat like he was fainting a little. She kissed him again. Then she took her hands off his eyes and got back on her side of the cab. He sat up, stared forward, then pressed the gas pedal slowly and shifted evenly so there was no sudden jolt. They went along in silence.

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