The painted drum, p.23
The Painted Drum, p.23Louise Erdrich
Morris hung up the phone, quiet with ecstasy. In his mind Ira drove the truck and they put the kids in the jump seats right behind. Tipi canvas and poles and their suitcases of regalia corded down in the truck bed. Him on the passenger’s side. They were going to the big arbor powwows in Montana where the drum entered you straight up from the earth. Yes, it will be a beautiful, new life, thought Morris. I’m just going to lay here and pile on the details. I’ll play my own tape in my head. Let’s see, first I’ll buy her a soft fleecy tight-fitting sweater through which I will feel her breasts with my hands. And food, we’ll have food. Maybe all kinds of waffles in a restaurant. Juneberries. We’ll pick from a roadside bush. The only thing is, I’ve seen her face for the last time, maybe. Probably. This made Morris weep. His eyes felt deliciously soothed, but the tears stung his raw cheeks.
Bernard checked the gauges on the boilers and went down his twenty-item checklist. He made sure his crew was keeping the emergency room entrance free and clear of drifting snow. He helped clean a hospital room, using proper infection-control procedures. He ordered lightbulbs and did a small repair on the intercom system. Then he sat down in his office, drank a cup of strong tea, and thought he’d go up next and check on the drum. What had happened surprised him, but at the same time he had expected something like it. Ever since his children had grown up and moved to Fargo and his wife had followed, he had wondered why he couldn’t make himself move away to be near them. Though they visited often, he missed out on his grandchildren growing up. And he missed out on living with his wife, although it seemed like they got along better now. Still, he hadn’t known why he stayed on the old allotment except that the city was too loud, too fast and cramped for space. There were only sidewalks to walk on, no paths. Perhaps, he thought, someone needed to keep up the old house. There was his hospital job, but he could have quit that. He was over retirement age anyway.
No, the reason he stayed had not come clear until it was piercingly apparent. He’d stayed for the drum. He had the most intimate knowledge of it, knew the sequence of all the songs, could bring together those who possessed those songs he’d forgotten. He alone could fit the scraps together. And he had, as best he could, in these past few months. His waiting was over now and he and Morris would sing the healing songs, softly enough, after the doctors did their rounds. Seraphine would come. He thought of Seraphine and of the strange thing about her scar.
Seraphine had been raised in a traditional way by her grandparents and she spoke little English. But then her grandparents died and Seraphine was sent to boarding school. Bernard recalled that life well, for he had been there, too, in his own day. Sometimes all of the children in the rows of beds cried at night and it was the saddest sound Bernard had ever heard. It was forbidden to speak what the teachers called Indian; sometimes those words seemed to inflame a special wrath from the teachers and the matrons who took care of the children. One day, Seraphine forgot or rebelled and began to speak her own language and would not stop. The matron was showing girls how to mend cushioned chairs. In her hand there was a thick needle for sewing together upholstery. She turned and struck Seraphine. The needle ripped across the girl’s face, and although the doctor who sewed the wound together was sensitive and careful, the scar of speaking her language remained across her lips all of her life.
Bernard thought about Seraphine as a little girl and about the wolves who had talked to Ira’s father and about the curved bones in the drum. He thought about Shawnee and her stark little heart-shaped face. And about those women who had brought the drum here from the east. Everything now fit. The little girl had come home and she had saved a girl, a relative, a sister. Bernard promised the drum that he would teach Shawnee everything he could, before she went away. She and her brother and sister would not be with him long, not if Morris had anything to say about it. But then, who knew? Who could tell what Ira was thinking?
Ira was staring at Apitchi. She couldn’t sleep. She had got up to watch him. It was impossible to tell whether he was better or worse or just the same. His arm seemed even thinner than a few hours ago, and as she stroked it she felt his slim bones and tried not to let her throat shut with fear. You’ll be all right, you’ll be all right, she prayed. She closed her eyes and tried to send her spirit out of her body into his body, she tried to make her spirit fight everything that hurt him, she tried to make him well. She opened her eyes, tears fell on her hands, and she thought, Any moment I’ll start raving at the mouth. I’ll start making those God bargains people do. I’ll scream my fucking head off and I’ll beat myself up. But she did nothing, only sat there for a long time more, holding his arm.
She was no Christian, certainly no Catholic, but she wasn’t of her father’s conviction, either. An odd thing came into her mind suddenly. She realized that her father’s ceremonial pipe, a sacred pipe, had survived the fire. It was the only thing besides what they were wearing, and the blankets on the ground outside the house, now under the snow. The pipe had survived exactly because she was so careless with these old beliefs. Her father had told her that when he died she should put his pipe in the woods, in a hidden place, and go and get it when she needed it. There were plenty of times since then she might have needed it, but the truth was she had forgotten all about her father’s pipe. Well, she’d go out there now and she’d find it, hidden in a hollow log under rocks in a place halfway to Bernard’s.
“I don’t know about these things,” she said out loud. “I don’t know.” This business about the drum sounding. This man with the eyes not closing. What, had Morris seen too much? Join the club. Was it the war maybe? Was it looking at himself in the mirror? But he had a kind face as long as he closed his eyes. Even, he would be called good-looking. Basically. Without the eyes, again. I’m starting to like him. Ira grabbed her hair. I hate looking at my face now. I don’t know. And I don’t know either about myself as a mother. No good, maybe. I know I love them. I know I give up things for them. I don’t have men. I don’t have lots of things. But why did I go in that bar on this one night of all fucking nights instead of going home? How did all of this get set into motion? Was it the oatmeal? The last pan of fucking slop? How come I didn’t walk to Bernard’s then, and borrow some food and catch a ride in and out with a trustworthy person? Was it because I never thought of it, or was it because I wanted—just for a moment, or one night, just an evening, really—to get away from my kids?
She had put her hands on her head again and tugged at and messed up her hair. After a while she smoothed it down and wiped her face. Stupid drama. She whispered to Apitchi, “I am going to take care of you real good when you get well.” She put her hand on his chest and felt his ribs go up and down. The regularity of his breath calmed her and she sat for a long time with him like that, just letting her hand rise and fall.
The sun blared down, slats of blinding white through the hospital blinds, the intense brilliance after a storm. Ira woke. Apitchi woke. The girls woke. Morris. Even Bernard, who got a nap in, woke. It was that disorienting day that always occurs after a storm, when there is no school so kids come in to work with parents, or the parents stay home and change shifts around. All routine is shot to hell, yet everything that needs to run, does run. The roads are not yet plowed out. Houses are covered. Or the ashes of houses. Snow blankets the whole reservation. The trees glitter. The open fields are long swoops of white. The reeds sticking out of the sloughs are spears of glowing frost. Under the whiteness the world looks perfectly arranged. Things look settled and planned and accounted for. The business of building and digging and tearing up the earth is halted. And yet, you will see that the roads that matter, the ones most necessary, are cleared between people. Just one lane at first. The plows push away the snow with a cheerful energy. By the end of the day there will again be a pattern of trails.
In the service bathroom, Bernard washed his face and combed back his hair. He smoothed his shirt down his arms and adjusted his belt, then brushed his teeth and stuck his toothbrush in his shirt po
Over the entryway of our local general store, the head of an eastern coyote is mounted, teeth set and bared in pink, plastic gums, yellow glass eyes fierce and wide. It pains me to look at the poor, snarling mask, such a misrepresentation of coyote nature. The two I’ve seen gave penetrating stares and were calm. They veered from my presence and disappeared into the cut over undergrowth. One of them carried a limp, brown mouse. People generally believe that our east coast coyotes are crossed with dogs, but that is not true. They have actually crossed with the Canadian gray wolf, and in the process have grown large or fallen mysteriously silent. Like many who have adapted to survive in the eastern seaboard states, coyotes have become reserved and self-contained. They almost never raise yipping howls of joy over a kill, nor do they cry out when returning to their dens. They know better. There is no closed season and no hunting limit on their lives.
Still, some nights when they feel secure in their presence, and are overjoyed and thrilled, or just need to talk, they pour looping yodels for hours from the cliffs in the game park and from that end of the road where Kit Tatro lives. Elsie hears them first, wavering above the Bach, and punches the pause button on the CD player’s remote control. If the howl persists we go outside to sit on the back porch and listen. In mid-September, as the nights and mornings are growing crisp and cool and the deer are retreating from the roads and orchards into the densest brush they can find, it seems to us that the music of the coydogs, as they are mistakenly called, is the music of all the broken and hunted creatures who survive and persist and will not be eliminated. For there they are, along with the ravens, destroyed and returned.
One night, almost a year and a half after changing the back door locks, we are sitting in wicker armchairs on the back screen porch, listening. Between coyote intervals, Elsie and I hear steps crunch down the cinders of the driveway and slap softly along the flagstone walk that rounds the corner of the house. Neither of us speaks a word, though I am astounded and disbelieving. We both know who it is, and also where he is headed. In addition, it is then that I know for certain that mother knew all about those visits to me in the night. Surely she would utter some startled challenge otherwise. There is a half moon out but the porch is in complete shadow, and Elsie and I are invisible. Kurt walks up the steps, the screen door whines softly open. He enters the porch and steps toward the door with the changed lock. The instant I realize that he is going to try the door I feel a pang of sympathy for him and scrape my foot on the painted floorboards. He freezes.
“Sit down, please sit down,” I say. “Elsie and I are listening to the coyotes before we turn in.”
He gropes for a chair, lowers himself into it right next to me. Krahe has quick social reflexes. Without revealing a trace of embarrassment and without acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation, he begins a polite conversation. Elsie answers his questions about her health in more detail than he probably wishes, but she is being game about the whole thing.
I have seen Kurt from time to time at a distance and even said hello to him once at the general store, beneath the snarling glass-eyed head. After I changed the lock, I stopped answering Kurt’s calls. To find that he has, perhaps, been intermittently trying the back door is disturbing to me, and also touching. He sits so close in the dark, perhaps without knowing exactly my position, that the warmth his body sheds drifts along my skin.
“What have you been doing?” It is a light conversational question asked in a tone of voice that makes it into a deep and unanswerable query. What have I been doing?
“Lately?” I suppose my voice is wary.
“We have a lot to do,” I say, although things have actually been slow.
“It’s not only death,” says Elsie. “Sometimes people want to downsize, dramatically. Or they move into assisted living.”
“Assisted living. Beistehendsleben. That sounds better.”
“I’m turning in,” Elsie says, and then she gets up and walks into the house. I try to rise, too, but Kurt puts his hand on my arm (he knows exactly where I am) and says, “Don’t go.”
I am a nondescript-looking person, dark hair, dark eyes, fair skin. A face that is neither flashy nor plain. Medium build, medium height. My size is always medium, my pants length regular. I favor neutral colors. Medium heels. There is really nothing memorable or interesting or odd or certainly beautiful about me. So when Krahe touches me and I feel very suddenly that I am all of these things—odd, beautiful, interesting, drawn in color—it is very difficult. I sit back, his hard-palmed hand still on my arm. I am not capable of moving away. He speaks to me.
“I don’t understand it,” he says.
Outside in the dense black thicket of weeds and scrub that surrounds the mowed portion of the yard, a few hold-out fireflies pulse. Sometimes the wind takes them, scattering their lights. Beyond the tall grass the orchard weeps fruit. The branches of the old trees are loaded with tough little apples that the bears like. I’ve seen one on a dark afternoon, browsing there. Maybe there’s one now.
“Do bears come out at night?” I ask him. I can’t think of what to say, and he doesn’t answer. “Because I think there might be one in the orchard.”
“We never talked. You never answered your phone. You walked away from me.”
“I still don’t want to talk. There isn’t anything to say.”
“Of course there is, there is a lot to say. Why did you do it?”
“I had to do it.”
“Listen, I have not gone to a woman since you locked your door on me. I have been waiting; I work with stone. I know how to wait, but tonight I couldn’t help myself.”
His voice is so raw I put my hands over my eyes. I am silent, paging through my thoughts like a diary, knowing that anything I say will be wrong. Or worse than wrong. I am so afraid that my hand shakes and I know my voice would quiver if I spoke out loud. The last crickets in the grass are seething and sighing, and I listen to them, clinging to my silence with desperation now, waiting for him to leave. He stirs and stretches his arm out and touches mine. I close my eyes and a kind of brilliance is wheeling there, a green, blazing circle. We sit together for a long time, not talking, not saying anything. At last, Kurt tells me things I’ve heard before. Other men have said these things to me. It is almost a relief to hear them. His voice floats up in the dark, disembodied, talking and talking: I am cold. I am strange. I have abandoned him. I have hurt him. I begin answering by rote, apologizing, but not explaining. We fill a crack with words that freezes and becomes a rift that keeps widening until a gulf filled with words plunges down between us. After that we just kept throwing our words into the pit. I know there must be better ways, forms of communication that work, ways that women manage to stay with men and men with women. But what are they, what can they be, other than words? The words collect between us until the coyotes start up. Then we fall quiet, sit there together, and he holds my hand. It seems to me that we are closer, listening to that unknown language pouring out of unknown heart, than we were when we tried to exchange our words. And maybe even closer still after the coyotes are finished, when he does not try to sleep with me, but leaves. And closest of all when I go inside, close the door behind me, bolt it, and walk up the stairs alone.
I sleep so heavily that I forget where I am in the morning and for a few seconds I am oddly suspended. I could be anywhere, dead or sti
Sipping thick coffee downstairs, I watch my mother carefully as she slices and chews the same dry toast she makes for herself every morning. This will be our routine every day until she dies, but she won’t take me with her, as in my childish wish. No, I’ll be left on this earth to make what I can of my own days.
“Let’s sell the business,” I say to her.
She turns to me; her delicately slanted eyes have a dark shine to them, a wary challenge. Of course she has always known what she can expect from me, and she has counted on that.
“And do what?” she asks.
“Let’s be wholesale importers and go traveling. We’ll have a house on Grandma’s land and I’ll write. The history of the drum. Everything Bernard told us. Or poems. Poems to Netta. We can do anything.”
She ignores the fact I’ve mentioned Netta. Pretends not to hear.
“On what money?”
“Let’s sell the house, too.”
“No, we can’t, we can’t do that.” She shakes her head, staring at me as one does in the first shock of panic or betrayal. She tries to right herself. “You’re talking wild stuff!” Her mouth sags a little to one side and I see, with the most wrenching tenderness, how old she really has become. It never was my sister’s loss, or the loss of my father, that bound me to this place. It was my loyalty to my mother and the determination that she should not live a life of grief alone. But I see now that she has done that anyway—for what has my presence been to her but a reflecting mirror? I have matched the gentleness and precision of her life with mine. We’ve really been one person, she and I. But we must go deeper now, and perhaps apart. We must see what each of us is made of, what differing stories. I have always been afraid of talking to my mother on this level, of breaking through the comforting web of our safe behavior. We have knitted it daily and well.
The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes