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The painted drum, p.2
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       The Painted Drum, p.2

           Louise Erdrich
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  I suppose I am no better than the Eykes. I called the Humane Society once, but when nothing happened and the dog still wound the chain one way and then the other, round and round the tree, I did nothing. Rather than confronting the Eykes, which seemed to me unthinkable since Mr. Eyke not only hauled away the trash but mowed our field, yanked out saplings to prevent the trees from closing in, and lived close enough to call in emergencies, I remained silent. From time to time, I brought the dog a bone as I passed on walks, and felt a certain degree of contempt for the Eykes, as one does for people who could mistreat an animal. Still, I did nothing.

  That is one failure I regret, having to do with the Eykes, for all of us on the road were to pay for what was done to that creature. The other failure was the shortsightedness regarding Davan and Kendra.

  A turbulence of hormones flows up and down this road. On my walks, I’ve seen the adolescence of each neighbor child hit like a small quake. Except in the wide loop sold off by a lumber company, divided into twelve five-acre parcels, and settled in development style, most of the houses on this road are surrounded by a depth of dark trees and a tangle of undergrowth. No two are within shouting distance. Yet you know, merely waving to the parents whose haunted eyes bore through the windshields of their car. You hear, as new trail bikes and motorbikes rip the quiet, as boom boxes blare from their perches on newly muscled shoulders. The family cars, once so predictable in their routes, buck and raise dust racing up and down the hills. It is a painful time, and one averts one’s eyes from the houses containing it. The very foundations seem less secure. Love falters and blows. Steam rises from the ditches and sensible neighbors ask no questions.

  Davan hit like that, a compact, freckled boy who suddenly grew long-jawed and reckless. Elsie says she knew it was the end once he started breaking lawn mowers, slamming them onto the grass and stones so savagely that the blades bent. She quietly got my mower fixed and did not ask him back to cut the grass. I took over that job. Davan’s brown hair grew until it reached his shoulders, and a new beard came in across his chin like streaks of dirt. Frighteningly, Davan walked the road from time to time dressed in camouflage, hugging his father’s crossbow and arrows, with which he transfixed woodchucks. That phase passed and he lapsed into a stupor of anger, which lasted for years and culminated in the damage he did to his father’s new car. It was the most expensive thing his family ever bought, and since he left home soon after, it was clear he was not forgiven.

  Kendra, on the other hand, had resolved her adolescence beautifully. After a few stormy junior high school years following her mother’s death, she settled into a pattern of achieving small things with great flair, for as I mentioned she had no talents, and was at most a mediocre student. She gave the impression that she was going places, though, and so she did, though her acceptance into a prestigious college was a mystery to all who knew Kendra. Her teachers, including me, were stymied. Perhaps it was the interview, one woman told my mother. Another was convinced of a mistake in the college computer records.

  At night, in raw blue winter darkness, Krahe enters our house via that back screened porch, a door to which he has the key. The back door inside the porch is the only one that unlocks with that key, and I keep things that way for the following reason: should I decide, should I tire, should I have the enlightenment or the self-discipline or the good sense to stop Krahe from coming to me in the night it will be a simple matter. One locksmith’s fee, nothing more. One tossed key. No explanation owed. Though my mother must sense that Krahe’s night visits occur, we do not and have never spoken of it. Her room is downstairs at the other end of the house. We live privately, in many respects, and although this is how we prefer to live, there are times I nearly spill over with my need and wish to confide my feelings.

  For when he steps into my room it is to me as though I am waking on a strange and unlikely margin. As though the ocean is set suddenly before me. Landlocked, you forget. Then all of a sudden you are wading hip-high into the surge of waves. In the moment, there is so much meaning, so much hunger in our mouths and skin. I think every time is the last time I will be with him. I am physically amazed. What I like best is the curious, unfolding, confessional quality of sex. I seek it, demand it of him, and for a matter of hours he is bare to me, all candor and desire. How can he lie? He begs things of me. Put your mouth here. We are reversed from our day selves in nakedness. I gain assurance in some switch of roles I do not altogether understand but which I suspect is entirely due to my manufactured scorn. He believes I am invulnerable. I protect myself with every trick I know.

  Ravens are the birds I’ll miss most when I die. If only the darkness into which we must look were composed of the black light of their limber intelligence. If only we did not have to die at all. Instead, become ravens. I’ve watched these birds so hard I feel their black feathers split out of my skin. To fly from one tree to another, the raven hangs itself, hawklike, on the air. I hang myself that same way in sleep, between one day and the next. When we’re young, we think we are the only species worth knowing. But the more I come to know people, the better I like ravens. If I have a religious practice, it is the watching of these birds. In this house, open to a wide back field and pond, I am living within their view and territory. Krahe’s family group of birds divided up a few years ago. Once, they numbered eight or more. Now just three live within and around the pine, and six live somewhere in the heavy fringe of woods beyond my field. Two made their nest. Three hatchlings were reared. The other raven was killed by Davan Eyke.

  You may wonder how on earth an undisciplined, highly unpleasant, not particularly coordinated youth could catch and kill a raven? They are infernally cautious birds. For instance, having long experience with poisoned carcasses, they do not taste first of dead food, but let the opportunistic blue jays eat their fill. The ravens watch, amused, to see if these bold greedy birds keel over in agony. Only when the jays are seen to survive do the ravens drive them off and settle in to feed. Davan had to use his father’s crossbow to kill the raven. One day when Krahe was gone, Davan sat on the front stoop of his little cottage and waited for the birds to gather in their usual browbeating circle of derision. As they laughed at him, stepping through the branches, he slowly raised the crossbow. They would have vanished at the sight of a gun. But they were unfamiliar with other instruments. They did not know the purpose or the range of the bow. One strayed down too far and Davan’s arrow pierced it completely through. Krahe drove into the yard and saw Davan standing over the bird. Amazingly, it wasn’t dead. In some fascination, Davan was watching it struggle on the shaft of the arrow, the point driven into the earth.

  Krahe walked over and bent to the bird. He snapped the arrow’s point off and drew the shaft tenderly, terribly, from the bird’s body. For a moment the raven sprawled, limp and addled, on the ground, and then it gathered itself. The two humans watched as the bird simply walked away from them and entered the woods to die.

  All of this time, overhead and out of range, the other birds wheeled. For once, they were silent.

  “Let me see the bow,” said Krahe conversationally.

  Davan handed it to him, prepared to point out its marvelous and lethal features.

  “And the arrows.”

  Davan handed those over too.

  “I’ll be right back,” said Krahe.

  Davan waited. Krahe walked across the yard to his woodpile, turned, and fit an arrow into the groove. Then he raised the bow. Davan stepped aside, looked around for the target, looked uneasily back at Krahe, then touched his own breast as the sculptor lifted the shoulder piece. Shot. Davan leapt to the other side of the white pine and vaulted off into the brush. The arrow stuck just past his shoulder. Then Krahe walked over and removed the arrow and laid the bow on the block he used to split his firewood. He axed the weapon neatly in half. He laid the arrows down next like a bunch of scallions and chopped them into short lengths. He walked into his house and phoned me. “If you see that boy running past your house,
” he said, “here’s why.”

  “You shot at him?”

  “Not to hit him.”

  “But still, my God.”

  Krahe, embarrassed, would not speak of this again.

  Davan had saved enough money from his pay (we thought) to buy himself a small old Toyota, dusty red with a splash of dark rust on the door where a dent had raised metal through the paint. The car now spewed grit and smoke on the road as he drove it back and forth to town. He’d returned to his room in his parents’ house and he resumed, every day, his chore of feeding the dog, though he never untied it from the tree.

  That dog’s maple grew great patches of liver-colored moss and dropped dead limbs. The dog was killing it. Shit-poisoned, soaked with urine at the base, and nearly girdled by the continual sawing and wearing of the chain, the tree had for years yellowed and then blazed orange, unhealthily first of all the trees upon the road. Then one day it fell over and the dog walked off, calmly, like the raven, into the woods, a three-foot length of chain dragging. Only the dog didn’t die. Perhaps it had been completely stark mad all along, or perhaps it happened that moment after the tree went down when, unwrapping itself nervously, the dog stepped one step beyond the radius of packed dirt within which it had lived since it was a fat puppy. Perhaps that step, the paw meeting grass, rang down the spine of the dog, fed such new light into its brain, that she could not contain the barrage of information. At any rate, the outcome of that moment wasn’t to be seen for several weeks, within which time Davan had successfully raised dust near Kendra on illicit visits hidden from her father, and secretly taken her out with him to local parties, where at first she enjoyed her status as a college-goer and the small sensation caused by her New York clothing styles. Then, at some point, something awakened in her, some pity or conscience. Before that I’d seen nothing remarkable about Krahe’s daughter, other than the clothing. Her lack of kindness, laziness, feelings of enormous self-worth, all typical of women her age. Then all of a sudden this urge to care for and rescue Davan Eyke, a sudden unblocking of compassion that made Kendra come clean with her father. Her humanity terrified Krahe more thoroughly than if they’d been trying to get pregnant.

  I step out of the car with the mail and see Krahe standing square in front of Davan, who slouches before the older man with obdurate weariness. Locked in their man-space, they do not acknowledge me. Krahe is of course telling Davan Eyke that he doesn’t wish for him to see his daughter Kendra, in the course of which he probably calls Davan some name, or makes some threat, for Davan steps back and stares at him alertly, hands up as though ready to throw off a punch, which never comes. Krahe kicks him over, instead, with a rageful ease that astonishes Davan Eyke. From the cold ground, there suddenly, he shakes his head in puzzlement at Krahe’s feet. When Krahe draws his leg back to kick again I move forward. The kick stops midway. Davan rises. The two stare at each other in a spinning hatred—I can see the black web between them.

  “You still owe me,” says Davan, backing away.

  “Say you won’t see her first.”

  Davan just starts to laugh, raucous, cracking, a raven’s laugh. I can still hear it through his car window as he revs and peels out.

  I turn to Krahe.

  “You should let Kendra see him,” I say.

  He is as astounded at my temerity as I am. Not only am I not the sort to get involved in other people’s business, and this is definitely not mine, but he also knows that I’m not fond of Kendra.

  “What’s it to you?” he says, more amazed than defensive.

  “She’s got a right,” I say. “And besides, she’ll see him anyway.”

  “No, she won’t,” says Krahe.

  We hold each other’s gazes belligerently. “You’re the dad,” I finally shrug.

  I suspect that he will learn soon enough just how much weight his objections carry with Kendra. Still, I don’t understand why Krahe detests the boy so much—it is as though Davan has tapped some awful gusher in the artist. Is it partly the fear we nonbelievers have for what Krahe calls “the fundamentally insane”? He adds holy rolling to the list of Davan’s undesirable Eyke-ish qualities when he sees the family truck pulled up at the unkempt church, which he calls a Quonset hut. Is he afraid that Davan Eyke will draw his daughter into the flock? Whatever else, his anxiety is also a productive, dark vein, for now in a welter of frustrated energy, Krahe starts working. He finishes Twenty. He produces, hardly sleeps. Hardly sees me.

  It is difficult for a woman to admit that she gets along with her own mother—somehow it seems a form of betrayal, at least, it used to among other women in my generation. To join in the company of women, to be adults, we go through a period of proudly boasting of having survived our own mother’s indifference, anger, overpowering love, the burden of her pain, her tendency to drink or teetotal, her warmth or coldness, praise or criticism, sexual confusions or embarrassing clarity. It isn’t enough that she sweat, labored, bore her daughters howling or under total anesthesia or both. No. She must be responsible for our psychic weaknesses the rest of her life. It is all right to feel kinship with your father, to forgive. We all know that. But your mother is held to a standard so exacting that it has no principles. She simply must be to blame.

  Elsie and I are past the blame, and as she sits before me now we are listening to a CD of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Major. It is a familiar piece, a thoughtful conversation between old friends. I am writing as usual in my daily journal, a red hardbound book that I order every year through the mail. This journal company has been in existence a long time and I have thirty-three of these books stacked among my other notebooks, shelved in my room. My mother’s eyes are closed. It strikes me that there is something in the nakedness of her face and shut eyes like that of a newborn animal. Her skin has always been extremely clean and fine. Always, she has smelled to me of soap, but now she’s added a light perfume.

  I think that she knows he has been here. Last night, he came down off the manic high in which he hung, raven- or hawklike, between one uninspired month and the next. It is morning. Even to me the house seems different, more alive, alert, and with a comforting maleness, after Krahe has made love to me in the night. Still, openly becoming Krahe’s lover would upset the balance. As well, I believe my deadlocked secret love and unsecret contempt is the only hold I have over him, my only power. So things remain as they are. Elsie and I maintain a calm life together, the treasure of routine. I do not dread, as others might, her increasing dependence. It is only that I have the strange unadult wish that if she must pass into death, that rough mountain, she take me too. Not leave me scratching at the shut seam of stone.

  Winter lets go of this road with a rush of dark rain. The snow and slush melt away, raising slick mud that freezes to a glassy tar. One day the weak sun heats the bark of young birch trees; the next, a sudden temperature drop ices the drawn sap and splits the trunks. All through the woods they gape like throats. New sounds are heard. The caterwauling of the barred owls startles me from sleep, raising bubbles of tension in my blood. I cannot imagine myself changing the locks. Without a word, without a sound, I circle Krahe, dragging my chain.

  During these weeks, there is no sign of the dog that slipped free of the dead maple, and Elsie and I can only assume it has been taken in somewhere as a stray or, perhaps, shot from off a farmer’s back porch for running deer. Indeed, that is how it probably survives, squeezing through a hole in the game-park fence, living off hand-raised pheasants and winter-killed carcasses.

  The dog reappears during a false three-day warmth that doesn’t fool a soul. My neighbors up the road, the ones who clear-cut fifty acres of standing timber in four shocking days, have their cocker spaniel eaten. They leave the dog out all night on its wire run and the next morning, calling in poochie from the back door, Ann Flaud in her nightgown pulls the dog’s lead toward her. It rattles across the ground. At the end of it hangs an empty collar, half gnawed through. She stands with the collar in her hand, on her back s
teps, wondering.

  There is little beyond that to find. Small evidence. Just a patch of blood and the two long, mitteny, brown ears. Coydogs are blamed—those mythical creatures invoked for every loss—then a bear, then Satanists. I know it is the dog. I have seen her at the edge of our frozen field, loping on long springy wolf-legs. She has no starved look. She is alive—fat, glossy, huge.

  She takes a veal calf for supper one night, pulled from its stand-up torture pen at the one working farm on the road that survived the nineties. She steals suet out of people’s bird feeders, eats garbage, meadow voles, and frogs. A few cats disappear. She is now blamed for everything. And seen every day, but never caught. The farm panics over missing chickens. One of my rougher-hewn neighbors misses a bear’s hide and finds it chewed to yarny bits deep in the woods. It is not until the dog meets the school bus, though, mouth open, the sad eye of liquid brown and the hungry eye of crystal blue trained on the doors as they swish open, that the state police become involved.

  A dragnet of shotgun-armed volunteers and local police fan through the woods. Parked on this road, an officer with a vague memory of a car theft in Concord runs a check on Davan Eyke’s red car as it flashes past. Eyke is on his way up to Krahe’s, where Kendra, less boldly attired than usual and biting black paint from her nails, waits to counsel him. Apparently, they go for a walk in the woods, leaving the car in the driveway in view of Krahe’s studio. They return and then, against Krahe’s express, explicit, uncompromising, direct orders, Kendra does exactly as she pleases. The human heart is every bit as tangled as our road. She gets into the car with Eyke.

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