The painted drum, p.22
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       The Painted Drum, p.22

           Louise Erdrich
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  “I’ve got fifty.”

  “Trying to give me money again.” Ira pushed the clip back at Morris. “Just take it. Keep it. I want you to have it.”

  “No,” said Morris. He tried to give it back, but Ira had left the room. So he lay back with the beaded sunburst in the palm of his hand, running his fingers across the perfect, smooth, curved rows of beads.

  “We’re none of us perfect,” said Honey. Ira’s cousin was round, cute, and full of satisfaction about her house and children and hardworking husband. She had it all. She was sitting in the girls’ room on the plastic recliner. Ira came in and sat on the end of Alice’s bed and wondered if Honey had found them a place to stay.

  “You blame your mom,” said Honey to Shawnee. “But you shouldn’t. Your mother is a human being. She has her faults, as do all of us.”

  Shawnee had been staring at the blank TV. Now she looked at Honey. She saw her so clearly. She saw her thin brown hair with the floss cut so it curled around her ears. She saw the heaviness in her face and neck, her strong little black eyes. She saw how Honey liked to visit them because they made her feel so much better about her own children and her situation in this life. She wondered if Honey went to school or just practiced until she got the job of nurse. Anyway, even if she’d learned all there was to know, she didn’t know her mother or have the right to tell Shawnee to blame or not to blame her. And her mother was a human being, that was true, anybody could see that. This woman had not been to the edge of life.

  “I’m not stupid,” said Shawnee to her mother’s cousin.

  After that, although Honey tried to talk to her, held her hands out, Shawnee did a thing she discovered she could do with her mind. She clicked the woman’s mute button. She had just learned about the mute button on the television’s remote control. So it was comical—nothing she said came through—just her mouth moving, her eyebrows wiggling up and down, her finger pointing, waving, her arms finally flapping at Shawnee’s mother, who went out the door with Honey and came back alone and said, “So much for that.”

  “What?” said Shawnee.

  “She hasn’t got a place for us.” Ira laughed suddenly. “You told her, I guess,” she said. “We’re not stupid. You got that right, baby girl.”

  Ira sat back down on Alice’s bed.

  “That woman came,” Shawnee said, “and Alice asked her how she got that scar on her face.”

  “Oh, you shouldn’t have asked that, Alice.”

  “But it was interesting,” said Shawnee.

  “It was?” Ira could not help it, she was curious and still could not remember.

  “A matron,” said Shawnee. “What’s that?”

  “Oh, that’s in boarding school,” Ira said. “I’m not going to send you kids to boarding school.”

  “That’s good,” Shawnee said.

  “Bernard came,” said Alice.

  “He said to tell you he has our food. He’ll bring it to wherever we go,” said Shawnee. Then stopped. Bernard had patted her shoulder and told her that she was a strong little girl, a good sister. Her mother had tried to touch her only that one time, since the fire. Shawnee almost wanted to force her mother to get angry with her just to get it over with, but at the same time she hoped her mother would say that Shawnee had saved her brother and sister, that she had dragged them through the snow, that she had refused to let them fly away as black skeletons.

  “Where do we go now?” Alice asked.

  Ira leaned over and put her arms around Alice. As she held her, rocking, she looked over at Shawnee, and that was when Shawnee thought her mother was going to say, in a mean and low voice, maybe, How could you have burnt down the house? But Ira didn’t say it, she just kept rocking Alice, and looking at Shawnee, and looking back down at Alice. After a while her mother’s face seemed to open up like a flower. She smiled and a softness flowed from her and wrapped around Shawnee and held her.

  Apitchi was burbling weakly, coming out of his long still sleep. This time he didn’t know his mother, he could get no comfort from her and each breath wheezed and rasped in his chest. Ira sat with him, holding him. She thought he seemed to be losing weight. Even as they sat there, he was growing less substantial in her arms. She put him down and he was motionless, hot, his skin dry and burning. Ira got a washcloth and rinsed it in cold water, squeezed it out, and began washing Apitchi down with it. With every few strokes of the cloth against his skin, the cold was gone. She had to rinse it again. She kept on rinsing and wiping and then suddenly his eyes, which had been wide open, went glassy and blank and stared sideways. His arms and legs moved in climbing motions. He grinned terribly, his baby teeth clamped tight, and he shuddered. Ira pressed the nurse call button, yelled for help, tried to hold his arms still but he was twisting, snaking along the bed. She clamped herself over him. His mouth was open and he was choking on blood and foam. She turned him over and at last the nurse came, and then more nurses and two doctors, until people filled the room. Ira stepped back into the corner, frozen to the wall. All she could see of Apitchi was his foot, still jerking, then his foot went still.

  They kept working on him, calling for things she didn’t know the names of. Nobody noticed her. He couldn’t be dead, she thought, as long as there was so much activity. She fixed on the bustling of the nurses. The low-key, businesslike voices of the doctors reassured her. If the doctors were giving orders there was hope. At last, one of them said, “His mother?” A nurse said Ira’s name and beckoned to her. The doctor turned from the bed and took Ira’s hand, an act that made her gasp with fear.

  “Ira,” the doctor said, quiet behind the mask, “your son is very sick. But we think we have him stabilized.”

  Now the nurses were moving away from the bed and the other doctor went out of the room. Ira could see Apitchi in the bed. He seemed to have shrunk yet again, he looked like a tiny monkey. He was far, far away. Ira could tell he wasn’t in his body.

  “We’ve got a problem,” the doctor said, taking off her rubber gloves and removing her mask. “This seizure is probably related to the fever, but it could have some other source. Normally, I’d have your little boy helicoptered out, but we’ve got bad weather out there. We’re going to have to keep him here until the blizzard clears up. You’re staying nights, aren’t you?”

  Ira nodded. She reached forward and held Apitchi’s foot. His foot was still fat and round. His foot still fit into her hand.

  “I’m sleeping in the chair.”

  “Let’s get a roll-away in here,” the doctor said to the nurse.

  “Now you”—the doctor touched Ira’s shoulder—“you’re going to have to keep your strength up. Your little boy is going to need you.”

  “What about my other two, my daughters?”

  “They’re going to be fine, but I’d like to keep them another day or two.”

  “That’s good,” said Ira, “because I don’t know where we’re going next.”

  “I hear your house burned down,” the doctor said. “I’m sorry.”

  Ira said thank you.

  “Do you have someone you can stay with?”

  “I should go ask Bernard.”

  “Okay,” said the doctor. “For now, let’s just take care of your little boy.”

  A hospital aide brought in a roll-away cot and shoved it against the wall. The doctor stayed and went over Apitchi’s pulse and temperature again, then she left and later on the nurse left too. Alone with Apitchi, Ira didn’t dare take her eyes off of him. But finally she had to use the bathroom and when she came out he was still all right, he even looked a little better, maybe. So she unlocked the steel hook on the side of the cot and laid out the bed. Then she lay down on it. The bed was so comfortable that she fell asleep for perhaps an hour. When she woke, old Bernard was sitting in a chair on the other side of Apitchi’s bed.

  “Oh, hey,” she said. “You’re here.”

  “I came to work early,” said Bernard. “Zero visibility out there. I barely did make it. I heard t
his little one is sick.”

  “Pneumonia,” said Ira. “But he had a seizure and they don’t know why. Maybe the fever.”

  “Poor little guy,” said Bernard. “A seizure.”

  “Scared the living hell out of me,” said Ira, sitting up and staring at Apitchi. “Now they have him on a medicine for that, too.”

  “What about you,” said Bernard. “Did you eat?”

  “I forgot about supper. I slept.”

  “They left a tray here,” Bernard said, collecting it off a table behind the curtain. “Must have seen you were sleeping.”

  Bernard brought the tray around the side of the bed and Ira put it on her knees. She’d lost her hunger, but she thought that she should eat, in case.

  “Probably got cold,” said Bernard. “Should I go and leave you to eat?”

  “No, no,” said Ira. “Stay here and talk to me. Can I interest you in a piece of”—she lifted the plastic dome, wet with condensed steam—“gray stuff? There’s chocolate pudding, too.”

  “I’ll keep you company,” Bernard said. “I bring me a lunch every night, but sometimes I eat those good old hospital cafeteria leftovers, too. They bring ’em around to me.”

  Ira found that, although she felt no hunger, she was eating everything with quick efficiency. She hoped that somebody had helped Alice cut her meat into little pieces. Perhaps they were asleep now, her daughters; it was late.

  “Can I ask you something?” Ira was nervous. “You can say no.”

  “All right. What is it?”

  Ira stirred her pudding around and around. “Well, I’ve got to ask you, I mean, can we come stay with you? Until we figure out our housing?”

  “Okay,” said Bernard.

  Ira looked up in relief, she smiled. “Really?”

  “I got room,” Bernard said.

  “Oh, thank you.” Ira put her hands on either side of her tray. She nodded. Tears suddenly stung in her throat. “Chi miigwech, Bernard.”

  “I got room,” he said again.

  “I can cook,” said Ira. “I’ll cook for you.”

  Bernard waved his hand aside and they both sat in the quiet looking at Apitchi, watching the glowing numbers of his oxygen and the graph of his heartbeat on the monitor. Ira finished up the food on her tray and set the tray on the broad windowsill.

  “I sat with your dad in the nights,” said Bernard, “when he was sick in this here hospital. We used to talk.”

  “I didn’t know that. I mean, of course I knew you two were friends, and that, but I never knew you stayed with him in the hospital.”

  “Oh yes, he told me things I never knew. I learned things about him, when he was here in the hospital.”

  “I guess people talk,” said Ira, watching Apitchi’s face, “at night. It can be a lonely place. I wish I could’ve stayed with him. I was taking care of the kids.”

  “He sure loved these little ones,” said Bernard.

  “I know he did,” Ira said. “Shawnee remembers him best. What kind of stories did he tell you?”

  “About the wolves,” Bernard said.

  “He gave that name to Morris,” said Ira. “Why was that?”

  “Morris was going in the army. He needed that name for protection.”

  “Okay,” said Ira.

  “I think I have to tell you something,” said Bernard.

  “Go ahead.”

  “I was sleeping when your daughter heard that drum. I never struck that drum. That drum is no ordinary drum. It is very old and originates generations back. I have been looking after this drum, waiting for it to tell me what to do. Every day I put out my tobacco, and I ask for direction. Sometimes I hear the songs. The drum talked to your daughter.”

  Ira sat very still, her hand on Apitchi’s ankle. “I don’t know what that means,” she said.

  “I think it means that this drum is now ready to be put to use,” said Bernard. “I was going to wait and say this. But being as your boy here is sick, I think we must act.”

  Ira looked into Bernard’s eyes, round and direct as a bird’s. “It can’t hurt,” she said.

  “Tonight I’m going to bring the drum up, then,” said Bernard. “I have it sitting downstairs in my office. And I am going to get Morris to help me with the songs.”

  “Morris knows them?”

  “Some. His mother bothered me to work with him. See, this here drum went traveling for a time. Most of the songs got scattered.”

  “What will the nurses say?”

  “Oh,” said Bernard, “they’ll be all right. It’s not the first time they had to contend with their own medicine. There’s a hospital policy on traditional healing. We can’t burn any sage, but the drum we can pound as long as we keep it low and everyone is awake. We’ll do it in the morning.”

  Bernard left the room and went downstairs. While he was gone, Ira checked on Shawnee and Alice. They were asleep, breathing calmly, and when she slipped from their room she saw Bernard getting off the elevator. He carried the drum in a canvas case, by a strap, and he also carried a cloth case that looked as though it held a short pair of skis, but she knew it held the legs that kept the drum off the floor. She followed Bernard into the room. He took the drum from its case, then put the drum on the recliner, and pushed it against the wall.

  “There’s room, isn’t there?”

  “Sure,” Ira said, “there’s room.”

  Bernard left the case standing in the corner, and he went out the door. The night nurse came in and checked everything about Apitchi. Then she left. Ira smoothed out the covers on the cot again, and climbed in with her clothes on. The drum was behind her head, just above. Immediately, she slept.

  The nurse tucked the digital thermometer underneath Shawnee’s arm and she swam up from her dream to half-wakefulness. She heard the whoosh of the pump on the blood pressure cuff, and heard it again as the nurse stood over Alice. An hour ago, Shawnee’s hands had throbbed and itched, but now that the medicine the nurse had given her had kicked in, she was comfortable. The nurse went out of the room, but Shawnee did not return entirely to sleep. The door was open a crack and she could hear the nurses talking at their big round station in the middle of the ward. It was comforting talk. A low babble. Heat flowed softly through the louvered vent alongside the window. Her mother was down the hall with Apitchi, and she had come through the woods. They were all safe. Since they’d been in the hospital, every time Shawnee closed her eyes she was back at the house as it burned, or dragging Alice, or floundering through the snow with Apitchi on her back. Now when she slept, she dreamed the whole thing over again, and several hours later she woke cold. She did not know where she was at first. Her vision was clouded, her eyes weak, and she felt the snow reaching up around her waist. But then she heard the beating of the drum, as she had back in the woods. Once she heard it she slowly allowed herself to return to consciousness. She pushed the sheet down, tossed off the pillow that had fallen over her eyes. As the room and its safety surrounded her, she was flooded by a startling and almost painful happiness.

  Morris knew that he had fallen hard in love with Ira while they were back there in the cab of the truck. Did she know that her voice was lovely? So precise and yet hesitant? Could she even imagine how the give of her lips and the soft, hot little cave of her mouth, behind her lips and teeth, affected Morris? His fall was so dramatic and sudden that he’d actually trembled when she said her name in his room. They had taken him off morphine and he hadn’t cared. That’s how distracted he was. He thought of everything about her, everything he’d learned. The power and determination as she trudged through the snow, her devotion and her failure, her dignity which had not yet allowed her to ask to move in with him, though he hoped that she would ask. He had to know her. He had to understand the simplicity and even placement of the beads in her beadwork. It took patience and years of practice to bead that well. Yet she was impulsive, too. She made tiny mistakes, one here, one there. Some mistakes had bigger outcomes than they deserved. He felt
so much pity for Ira that he wanted to take some of her trouble on. He missed her. He felt the print of her body against his when he’d dragged her across the seat. The aching print. There was the knowledge that his eyes were all fucked up and would not get better and he was addicted to painkillers. Not an ideal father figure. But there were positives. He did get a disability check and Bernard had come to talk to him about the songs belonging to the drum. His father had left those drum songs to him—taken the scrolls into the earth, but taught some of the songs to Morris first. The old man who had spoken to the wolves had both named him and taught him a few more songs. Then Bernard had taken over. Those songs had helped Morris, even kept him sane. He was sane now. He wanted her. He wanted to get his shit together and be clean. He wanted to construct a life that she could tolerate.

  “Thank you for bringing my next wife,” he said to his brother on the phone. “I love her and can never thank you enough.”

  “I got no claim on her,” said his brother, who was very surprised.

  “You sure as hell don’t,” said Morris.

  “She’s got kids,” said John.

  “Don’t I know it. And don’t give me any of that shit about getting herself laid for food. I want to know something. Why I saw men die for oil in this country where a woman has to sell herself for bread and peanut butter.”

  “Macaroni too,” said John.

  “The hell with you. I want to know why I lost my eyes for that. It should not be.”

  “Okay now,” said John, “don’t go off on that track.”

  “I’m going to have her,” said Morris.

  “You’re not ordering a Happy Meal,” said John. “She’s no Happy at all that I could tell. But then again, she can talk straight at you.”

  “I’m going to do more,” said Morris.

  “And what is that?”

  “I’m going to help her raise her kids. I’m going to give her all my money. I’m going to teach them everything I know.”

  “Well, good luck to you then, brother.”

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