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The painted drum, p.20
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       The Painted Drum, p.20

           Louise Erdrich
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  “You do love your children, don’t you,” he said.

  “Yes,” said Ira.

  “But that second kiss,” Morris said. “Was it maybe personal?”

  Ira said nothing, just pointed out the many small drifts on the road. Morris concentrated, slowing now, very cautious. When the driving was smoother he put his hand in his pocket and pulled something out and slid it across the seat.

  “You take this.”

  It was a wad of money.

  “No,” Ira said. “I didn’t do nothing.”

  “Please keep it,” Morris said, in a formal voice. “I feel dishonorable. Anyway, I got to get us to your place and return home by sunup. Morning light hurts my eyes very bad, I might need a pain pill, though I’m trying to get off those things. In the full sun I’ll get sick. I maybe could go blind. Things are going bad for me. Yesterday I head-butted a mirror. Then I cut my feet bad walking in the bits. I scored my knuckles with a knife, cutting cabbage for a soup. I had to go to the emergency and get everything sewed up and there’s still frozen blood all over in here; I guess I was hunting myself.”

  “You don’t have a bandage on.”

  “I don’t care to have one.”

  He put his hand in the dash light’s glow and she saw black stitches running down between his fingers. His hand looked like a paw.

  “You shouldn’t go slamming your face at mirrors,” she said.

  “They give me the creeps. The Chinese believe you shouldn’t ever have one facing your bed or your soul might crawl out of your body at night and slip into the mirror.”

  “Oh,” said Ira, startled, “I sort of believe that too.” Then she was watchful. “We’re almost at the turnoff. Slow down.” She helped him steer and they bumped down the awkwardly plowed road until they came to the place where Ira’s house was. The dark was lifting only slightly and at first she couldn’t see past the headlamp’s arc. So she couldn’t tell what had happened until the truck got close to the black and delicately smoking foundation.


  Shawnee pulled herself out of her body and went up into the trees. At first she was frightened by the lightness, the drifting. She clung to her brother and sister and they came up with her. They were made of ash, black reeds, soot, a powder of loneliness, smoke. They held one another, but they couldn’t speak or cry out. They were in blackness so deep that they did not know where it stopped or where they started. There were tiny blue flashes of light. Strings of electricity pulled snapping out of the air. They could hear things, just as they had before, though the reference between sound and object was fading. The wind rushed in the heavy branched pines. There was the hushed question of an owl. Then just the sound, and not the bird.

  Jostling lightly as they moved along the branch, they made a sound like the scrape of dry twigs. Their heads were bowls. Air flowed through the hollows of their curved, black ribs. In the deep eyeholes, fragments of ice gleamed. When one of them bent the branch too far and fell, they found they could hang in the air. Awkwardly, slowly increasing their skill, they figured out how to maneuver from one tree to the next. Jerky and tentative at first, then launching themselves with increasing grace and ease, they traveled. But they kept returning to the tree, the shapes underneath. Those shapes drew them. They cocked their black skulls, and the ice in the eye sockets gleamed with raw curiosity.

  Shawnee woke up in the dark. The sound of drumming would not let her sleep, although she wanted to. She had finally gotten comfortable, so comfortable. Her dream was dark and fantastic. Nothing hurt. But the drum was loud, insistent, a full noise that made her jumpy inside. She lifted her head and shook off the snow. That sound was coming from just outside of the ditch. A fast, rolling beat. It drew her staggering to her feet. On her back, nestled close in the shell of nylon and down, her brother stirred. Alice didn’t move, but Shawnee lifted her anyway, dragged her by her hood and her hair. The drum grew louder, showing a way out, beating her around a tree and then a rock and over solid ground, all in the dark. Roused by the drum whenever she almost quit, Shawnee went on until she bumped flat into a wall. She moved along it and felt a window. She beat on the glass so hard with mitted and frozen fists that it shattered, and then she bawled like a little dog right outside the door.


  Morris found the pile of blankets and stepped into the tumbled ash and debris of what had been the house. He put his arms around Ira and lifted her out. He shook her and kept talking to her until finally she could hear him. She grabbed his hand.

  “Bernard’s place,” she said, understanding that Morris had found signs of her children. “They might of took the woods.”

  By the time Ira and Morris reached the house, it was light out and they saw the tribal ambulance team was already pulled up in the plowed drive. They ran, stumbling. The children were in back, wrapped in heated blankets. The EMT showed them to Ira, but when they stared at her their eyes looked frozen. She kneeled in the rescue truck, waiting for them to blink or move. When they slowly closed their eyes she grabbed for them, but they were all right, just falling asleep. The EMT told Morris to get in front because of his eye condition, then he told Ira she couldn’t ride with her children, but had to follow with Bernard. There wasn’t any room for her and they had to keep these children stable, he said, though really, it looked as though they’d all come through it.

  “They were dressed pretty decent anyway, it saved them. I don’t think they’re even gonna lose their hands or feet.”

  “Their ears and noses look okay too. And they kept a core temp. Don’t listen to Bug,” said the other EMT. “Of course they’re not gonna lose something. Make old Bernard crank the heat up and you follow us. We will not speed but we’ll keep the light on and hit the siren if anybody gets in our way.”

  Morris sat in front, strapped in, with gauze packs on his eyes, dripping saline.

  “Reach behind that bandage and put those drops in, Popeye,” said the driver.

  “Popeye?” said Ira.

  “Nickname,” said Morris.

  Then they were off; Ira and Bernard followed along in his truck. Her head was tucked down. She was breathing in a panicked way, moaning a little with each breath. Bernard drove steadily along behind the ambulance, his tough old hands out of their gloves, gripping the wheel. He wore a plaid parka and a gray hat with padded flaps. He kept his eyes on the back of the ambulance, frowning in concentration. The wind was up, blowing the snow in snake swirls across the road. The cab of the truck finally began to warm.

  “That’s Chook’s son, Morris,” he said, jutting his chin at the ambulance. “Ma’iingan. He can’t see nothing. Legally, he’s blind.”

  “Well he drove me to the house. It’s burnt down. Just ashes there.”

  Bernard looked over quickly at her. He hadn’t known this.

  “That’s why your kids come through the woods.”

  “I went to the agency for emergency fuel, some groceries.”

  Bernard could smell the smoke and stale booze on his old friend’s daughter. He knew she had done some partying, too. He didn’t ask, or speak of it. He listened to her tell him about the people at the office and how the fuel truck would get out there later this morning and there wouldn’t be a gas tank or a house to heat. She said that she could pick up a box of commodities at any time that day. She could have yesterday but didn’t have a ride.

  “I’ll pick it up and have it at the hospital for you. They will keep your kids a few days, I bet. How come you never called me? I could have given you a ride.”

  “I didn’t have no phone. I just went out to the road and waited and hitched in. Once I was there, I never thought of you, but I could of gone over to the hospital and caught you when you got off.”

  If you weren’t drinking, Bernard thought, but he just shrugged.

  “Well, I had a day shift for once, lucky thing. I was home because of it. And Morris, he got you out there somehow. And your kids made it, safe.”

  Ira’s face was wet. Tears were lea
king from her eyes now and her nose was running. It wasn’t the pain from thawing out her hands and feet.

  “I’m not a bad mom. I had a few drinks,” she said. “I was gonna…well, I did get some food off Morris’s brother. Then he dropped me off with Morris. I knew there was something wrong.”

  “They said it was close,” Bernard said. “Your kids were going hypothermic when they got to my house. Those emergency guys hooked your kids up right away to their warm IVs and got their temperatures regulated. That girl of yours, that Shawnee, she’s a strong one.”

  “You got it,” said Ira.

  “Something else,” said Bernard.

  “What?” said Ira. Now that she was getting warm, now that the blood was swelling painfully in her hands and feet, she fought sleep. She was sinking into it, leaning against the seat-belt strap. Her head lolled down; she jolted herself upward.

  “She said that she heard the drum,” Bernard said. “She said the drum told her where to go. It was pitch-black in the woods. My lights were out. She found me anyway.”

  “So you were up at night, drumming in the dark, having your own little powwow,” Ira mumbled, dropping into sleep. She began to breathe deep and light.

  “No,” said Bernard to himself, after a while. “No, I wasn’t. That drum is still covered up in the corner, where it always sits. I was asleep when they broke my window.”


  A hospital is a world apart, running day and night by its own rules. Ira had stayed in the hospital for only a short time when her children were born. Her father had been in the hospital a few weeks but then he died at home. She hadn’t ever stayed overnight with him. So the way things worked at the Indian Health Service hospital was new to her. The first day passed in getting the children settled, in watching them, talking to the doctors, calibrating each step of their recovery. That night, Ira fell asleep on a plastic recliner in her daughters’ room. The chair was slippery and hard but reclined at a good angle. She’d certainly slept in worse places. The next morning, she woke stiff and sore, but that could have been from running through the snowy woods. Shawnee and Alice were in a double room and Alice still had the IV drip with the plastic catheter taped fast to the back of her hand. She was too weak to use the bathroom and the nurses had fixed an overnight diaper onto her, which humiliated her. She wouldn’t speak. She lay very still with her eyes shut, pretending to be unconscious. During the night, Ira had risen every time the nurses had come in to check the children. They used a finger tube to read their respiratory rates and oxygen levels. They checked pulse, temperature, and blood pressure. After she was sure that the nurses were satisfied, she had gone into Apitchi’s room. He had a fever. She had dragged her pillow and blanket in and stayed with him for half the night in a chair identical to the one in her daughters’ room.

  Ira knew or was related to some of the nurses who had trained on special IHS scholarships and then come back home. One, her cousin Honey, had always said that she was going to be a nun, but ended up as a nurse. She was a strict Catholic. As Ira helped Honey and the other nurses tend to one and another of her children, they talked to her and got the story. No one blamed her outright. But the Indian Child Welfare was going to conduct an interview with her, no question, and then speak separately with each of her children. The head of that department had scheduled a case worker from ICW to come by the hospital.

  Honey brought fresh clothes, and Ira showered in the bare tile bathroom next to Shawnee’s bed. The water washed down black at first, and Ira remembered the soot and it seemed very long ago. She turned the water up as hot as she could stand it. There was a big plastic bottle of all-over body-wash shampoo fixed to the wall of the shower. She used a lot of it, and then stood under the hot dribble like a grateful dog, she thought, just like a grateful animal. The bathroom was full of steam as she dried off with a tiny, thin hand towel. She hadn’t wanted to ask about getting a real bath towel. She skimmed her hair back in a ponytail and checked her purse, but she didn’t put on makeup. Looking plain was good, she thought. She never could look good again. She would never leave her children for a minute.

  Once she was clean, it felt like she really lived at the hospital now. She still felt fuzzy—too much had happened. She wished she had a cup of coffee. A woman came into the girls’ room. She carried a briefcase and held a clipboard, and she wore a full-length down coat, mukluks, and St. James Bay woolen mitts. Looking straight at her, Ira’s heart jumped. It was the wife of John, the woman with the neat white scar that cut across her lips. Her name surged into Ira’s mind. “Seraphine!”

  “Yes, boozhoo! We’re getting a blizzard sometime today,” she informed Ira. “We’re really lucky it wasn’t yesterday.”

  Ira was glad she’d said we; it would have been an accusation if she’d said you. Seraphine left the room and Ira followed her silently, numb in her thoughts. They went down the hall and entered a little office with a wall of gray shelves and cabinets, stacks of papers and boxes of tongue depressors and rubber gloves. A dead computer and a fake plant were on the desk.

  “Let’s just squeeze in here, it’s private,” said Seraphine.

  There was a padded desk chair and metal folding chair. Seraphine swept her hand at them both and let Ira choose where to sit. Ira took the metal folding chair.

  “Now let’s go over things,” Seraphine said. There was a pen chained to the top of her clipboard. A tribal ID hung from her neck on a bright pink, canvas ribbon. Her dress was stone gray with soft little sage-green flowers on it. Seraphine’s face was extraordinarily beautiful, finely made, a haughty Michif face. Her skin was the pale gold color that white people broil themselves on tanning machines to achieve. John was right, thought Ira, his wife is very good-looking. He had also said that she knew medicines, and Ira wondered if she would act all spiritual. But Seraphine was quietly matter-of-fact.

  “First of all,” she said, after she had confirmed Ira’s basic information, “what are you now doing for a living?”

  “I sew a lot. Quilts and powwow outfits. And I bead. I had a thousand-dollar men’s fancy regalia burn up with my house,” Ira said, remembering and missing, as she would now for years, something lost in the fire.

  “That’s a chancy living.”


  “I think I saw one of your bead yokes—I know your style.”

  “All my dad’s things are gone now, too,” Ira went on, and a strange feeling overtook her momentarily. Those things that had burned were all that her father had left behind in his life. Now there was nothing to remember him by but his grave. “Oh, no,” she said.

  “Excuse me?”

  “Nothing.” Ira touched her face.

  “Tell me what happened the day before yesterday,” said Seraphine. “Can you explain why your children were left alone for an extended period? I have to set this down in my report, so take it slow.”

  “They weren’t alone,” said Ira, “they were with Shawnee.”

  “Shawnee is a minor. The law says you can’t leave your children with a minor overnight. Of course, you’re under tribal jurisdiction, but the judge usually upholds the same standard.”

  “I didn’t know it was against the law.”

  “Have you done this often?”

  “Never, no, maybe once. This was an emergency. I went to the office to get some heating assistance and a food voucher or whatever. You can ask the personnel, Itchy Boyer, some others. I hitched in but I had trouble getting a ride back.”

  Seraphine made some notes on her pad of paper, then rested her clipboard on her knees.

  “Look,” she said, “I know all about it. John told me.”

  Heat flooded Ira’s face. How much was told? What had John said?

  “Morris gave me a ride out to my place.”

  “And John and you walked to Morris’s place.”

  Ira hesitated. “Yeah.”

  Seraphine frowned at her paper, then shook her pen to get the ink to flood into the tip.

said Ira suddenly. “I met John at a bar, but he was only interested in getting me to Morris’s place. He gave me money for groceries.”

  Ira rubbed her hands together. Her skin was tender.

  “Okay,” Seraphine said, writing down some words. “So far your stories match.” She was only joking, and she smiled as she wrote, but Ira felt her throat go dry and scratchy. If Seraphine wrote up a bad report on her, what? Could they take her children? Her breath snagged in her chest. Seraphine kept talking. “So you met John at a bar and he gave you money for groceries and then left you over at Morris’s house.”

  Ira nodded. The red cotton placket-front blouse she was wearing, the too large bra, the baggy black pants, and the hospital slippers made her feel poor and beggarly. But I am poor and beggarly, she thought. Everything I have is burnt. She remembered Shawnee’s school pictures. Her breath caught. And now this woman is going to ask me if I had sex to get the money. But I can honestly tell her that I did not, though I would have, but would have doesn’t matter. And Morris can tell her, too.

  “Morris knows,” Ira blurted.

  “Morris knows what?”

  “I’m really tired,” said Ira, wiping her hand across her face. “Can I go back to my kids? I lost my daughter’s school pictures in the fire.”

  “I just have a few more questions.”

  Ira leaned across the desk, put her head on her fist. “Okay.”

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