The painted drum, p.24
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       The Painted Drum, p.24

           Louise Erdrich
 
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  “Where were you that day?” I ask.

  “What day?” She doesn’t look at me. She pretends this is a normal question.

  “The day she stepped out of the tree.”

  “Jumped?”

  “No, she stepped off a high branch. Daddy let me drop. She saw him let me fall. Maybe she thought I was dead. I don’t know. She just stepped off. The car was gone. You were off somewhere. Where?”

  Now she looks straight at me with the crust of toast in her fingers, and sees that I am going to wait until she answers me. She swallows her bit of bread.

  “She stepped from the branch,” she says.

  She nods and shuts her eyes as though looking into herself, and I know she has always seen another picture and believed another story: which one exactly doesn’t matter—it is just that it had to do with forgiving me, which she has done every single day. And I fear that she cannot stop forgiving me even now. But then she opens her eyes, and with the air of having made a decision, she speaks.

  “I was with someone.”

  “You had an affair?” I ask this stupidly, for now I’m the surprised one.

  She nods and says quietly, “I was not home very much at all. Don’t you remember?”

  I’m quiet and at a loss for a moment, then I ask, suddenly shy, “Did you love him?”

  “Of course.” She is looking down at her hands. “Inordinately, foolishly,” she whispers, then looks up at me. “But that is the way people should be loved.”

  We stare endlessly into each other’s eyes, which is a very hard thing to do with your mother. It is scarily intimate to gaze into the source of your life. But I know what freedom she is offering to me now. I am in that moment so truly alone that my breath goes out of me, and I feel a bit light-headed. I have to close my eyes and then I have a strange sensation. First, I feel her flowering above me, a leafed-out tree filling the sky with darkness, growing best at the expense of what’s beneath. Her guilt has been greater, deeper, and so black I’ve lived in its shadow. But suddenly, the sun is shining directly on me; I feel it. The brightness and steadiness and softness of light warms my skin and fills the room. When I open my eyes she is still there, but she isn’t forgiving me anymore. No, it is I who am forgiving her.

  As a result of having his marijuana crop, the main source of his winter income, destroyed last summer, Tatro has finally discovered what kind of Indian he is. He has done this not by tracking his bloodline back through dusty genealogies, but by consulting a shaman. Broke, he decided to start over. Find a new path. My sly revenge has backfired, as most revenges do. Elsie actually likes him to bend her ear, she finds him entertaining. So it is my own fault that I learn, contrary to any expectation I might have formed, that there are a number of practicing shamans right here in New Hampshire. A sort of underground network surrounds each shaman—people who know people who know people…that sort of thing. Through these contacts a person who needs to consult a shaman can trace his or her way to the center of the web.

  Later on that day, Elsie is talking to Kit, who has stopped by on his way out to hunt, though I’m sure it isn’t even bow or muzzle-loading season yet. Maybe he is putting his marijuana crop to bed or preparing a new spot for next year. I try to edge past them, but Elsie won’t have it.

  “Excuse me, I’ve got to—”

  “Stay here,” says Elsie. “Kit’s telling me something very interesting.”

  “So they don’t advertise,” she goes on.

  “Oh, some do. There are little newspapers that go in for that sort of thing.” He is very serious. “But of course the really good ones don’t need to, they are known by reputation.”

  “Their powers, I suppose.”

  He nods and tells us that the shaman he consulted gave him a blanket and a water bottle and then put him out in his backyard to fast for four days. The shaman made a circle around him and told him to stay in it. Then the shaman went back into his house and lived his ordinary life while Kit sat in the circle through a sunny afternoon, a cold night, a light drizzle in the morning, and so on. Four days of it. From time to time the shaman came out of the house and burned sweet grass or sage and fanned the smoke onto Tatro. During the four days, Kit was supposed to have a vision that would give him his financial bearings and tell him about his own tribal origins. But he didn’t really have a vision, it turned out. He ended his fast dizzy, sick, calm, but utterly miserable because he’d found no answers except, perhaps, that he should visit an employment agency. It was on the way home that it happened, though, like a thunderclap.

  Driving the two-lane highway, Kit passed a sleek RV, only to find there were a line of them before him, all the same, going no more than 50 mph. Irritated and anxious to get home, he passed another RV and crept up behind the next one. Kit wasn’t the sort to putz along in the group and he was determined to travel at his own speed. He made it around six before he realized that they were all the same make—Winnebago. But that didn’t faze him. No, he said, he had to be hit on the head by the spirits to see it. As he passed another RV on a slight uphill, a red Jeep Cherokee came barreling at him out of nowhere. As Kit swerved, his first terrified thought was I should have stayed with the Winnebagos. Even as he wrenched back into the right-hand lane, he braced himself, sure he’d smash into one of them. But to his surprise a space had opened. The Winnebagos had seen his plight and parted to take him in. All of this happened in a second or two, the miss and entry each only cleared by inches. As Tatro floated on, driving, half out of his body, the terror left him and in its place there grew a singular joy. He was safe, he was at ease, taken in, accepted. He belonged.

  We all gave that a long beat of silence.

  “So you think you’re a Winnebago?” I ask.

  Kit Tatro puts his hands up, and Elsie smiles and won’t speak.

  “We prefer to be called Ho-chunks,” he says.

  “There was a Cherokee. Why couldn’t you have been a Cherokee?”

  “Remember, the Cherokee nearly killed me. I figure that we might have been traditional enemies.”

  I hope he’s kidding when he says that, but he doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor about this.

  “So your vision consists of a brand name. You are a brand name?” I can’t help myself.

  Kit puts his hands up again as if to say, Don’t ask me. “I’m doing research now. I’ll tell you all about it if you like.”

  Then Kit Tatro walks off into the woods just behind our house. He is carrying with him not a musket, this time, but his bow with the arrows fitted into a graceful outrigger-type rack. He is dressed not in the usual hunter orange or camouflage, but in a radiant buckskin jacket and black jeans. He is carefully shaved and the long hair he has been growing out all year tosses across his shoulders. Actually, he does not seem to have been tending a marijuana crop. And one wouldn’t like to see him gut a deer in that jacket without an apron—the unmarked leather is spotless and soft as caramel. He nods to me as he crosses the edge of our yard. As he disappears, striding along in his boots, hair flowing behind him, he looks less like the forlorn wannabe I am used to seeing. He has more presence somehow, more attitude, a new gravity. It really seems like he is someone.

  Dear Faye and Elsie,

  I have been meaning to write to you for a long time now. Please accept my apology on this delay. Things have been very busy with the drum ever since last winter. At that time an incident occurred.

  A family of four—three children and their mother—have lived near me. Last winter, while the mother was gone, the house burned down with the children getting out in time. It was a subzero night and the oldest girl, named Shawnee, decided to take her little brother and sister through the woods to my house. There is a shallow ravine that fills up with snow just before you get to my yard. All three plunged down into it. They very well might have froze. Shawnee said that she was having a dream, and the others had blacked out and given up, when she heard the sound of a drum. As she describes it, the sound drew her up. It got louder
and louder until she reached my house with her brother and sister. All of this time, I was asleep. The drum was with me as it always is. I heard nothing. To my ear, the drum was silent.

  I wanted to tell you this as a way of thanking you. The drum is in regular use now, and you are always welcome wherever the drum is.

  My father was the one who sold the drum to the old Indian agent, Jewett Tatro, shortly before he moved back east along with his collection. Selling that drum was one of the things my father most regretted having done in his life. When he spoke about it, he would hang his head and stare at the floor for a long time. It was as if he was looking right through the floor. You couldn’t talk to him at those times.

  With the drum back, there is a good feeling here. People have come together around it. I am surprised. That young girl Shawnee has moved back with her mother to a house built on the site of the old one. Our housing authority did come through there pretty good.

  Sincerely,

  Bernard Shaawano

  So who can say where we’ll find our rescue?

  Still, this is not a story about the kind of revivals that occurred so long ago at the end of our road. For to suddenly say, I believe, I am convinced, even saved, and to throw myself into Native traditions as Kit Tatro wishes so sincerely to do, is not in my character. Salvation seems a complicated process with many wobbling steps, and I am skeptical and slow to act. We will travel back home to be part of what Bernard calls feasting the drum, and we also will learn the songs that belong to it. But I’m sure that in spite of my impulsive suggestions to Elsie, it will take us years of prudent thinking and financial juggling to actually change the circumstances of our life. Yet change they will. Even now, nothing is the same as it was before I reached out of my untested rectitude and stole the drum.

  Then, too, sometimes things happen all at once.

  I walk often in the woods in the early fall, before the hunters arrive from Concord and the suburbs of Boston and proceed to blast away at dogs and cows. Every year there is a goodly take of tame creatures. And people. Housewives are blown from their backyards when hanging out laundry. Flame orange is in. Nobody wears white mittens or caps. Hunters react to the flash of white, sure they’ve glimpsed a deer’s flag, a panicked stot. And so I go out walking before the carnage begins. The day is fine. There is a snowmobile path that passes just behind the new development and then up across the small tabletop pastures, a stand of birch, and into rocky pine and hemlock terrain. The trail goes straight up in places at such an angle that I can’t imagine how the snowmobilers make the climb. In others, it winds among great boulders, some big as houses, and when I walk this part the pine duff and loamy dirt exude a crushed and woody fragrance at my heels.

  As always, I am grateful for the stuff of life, the detritus. Things don’t know that they’re ruined; they glory in it, they fall cheerfully apart or decay flamboyantly. Look at the woods. I gather and closely examine things—a pale leaf, a Russula, staghorn moss, and fairy cups. I wonder at their nature, to be so passive and contained. I glimpse the white point of an antler twenty or thirty feet off the trail among rocks and I veer immediately off to pick it from the leaves. But it is not an antler.

  I see right away it is actually a rib pulled up from its cage, and as I brush away the leaves I see that the rest of the skeleton is more or less intact and that our friends, the ravens, have neatened up the scene by picking clean the bones. They gather now, interested, laughing in the high hemlocks. I turn over patches of gray fur, strings of white. Around the bones of the neck and mossy scarp of hide, a collar pulled up tight beneath the skull. On the ring of the buckle, a stout clasp is still attached to a chain that must have been pulled taut between two boulders but has gone slack and drapes along the ground. I follow the chain to the rocks and see it is still wedged fast—a short stick that passed through the final link has locked it tight. Maybe if her collar had been leather, I think, there would have been some give. She might have managed over time to slip it over her ears. But it was a tough nylon thing with a heavy buckle and prong, and probably too tight to begin with. So she died here, at the end of it. The blue eye and the brown. The hungry smile.

  Coming down off the trail, I am lost in my own thoughts and unprepared when a bear chugs across the path just before it gives out on the gravel road. I am so distracted that I keep walking toward the bear. I only stop when it rears, stands on hind legs, and stares at me, sensitive nose pressed into the air, weak eyes searching. I have never been this close to a wild bear before, but I am not frightened. There is no menace in its stance; it is not even very curious. The bear seems to know who or what I am. The bear is not impressed. I admire his size, blackness, health, gloss, the picture he makes before he vanishes. And he really does disappear. He turns and I see him take one stride before he’s swallowed up. That is the only uncanny part—how he’s there and then he’s not. I am left in a swirl of small woods noises. A squirrel jumps from one branch to another. A chickadee scolds. A twig scrapes somewhere. And then a plane goes over. I keep walking. As I do, I think of the orchard and its ripe apples, heavy loads, and am sure the bear has been there. When I finish my woods loop and come back to the house, then, I walk back to the orchard, wondering if the bear has left a sign, scratch marks on the trees, scat, a footprint.

  Nobody has been there to pick the apples except, perhaps, the bear. Wizened, gnarled, hollowed by yellow jackets to crisp husks, the apples lie in windfalls and still burden the trees, even though I see Kurt did a good job. He took out the interior shoots that a tree will grow against itself. He left the lateral branches so the fruit would be easier to pick. Still, I look with surprise and satisfaction on the mess. This is what has become of all those supernal blossoms. These judicious pruning cuts have healed over but the apples were too much. Already there’s more damage and deadwood to be left as it is—I’m quite sure the orchard will not have a savior like Kurt to contend with again. I step toward my sister’s tree and see right away that her branch has cracked off under the weight of apples. It has crashed down against the tree, connected only by a few straps of bark. A hard tug and it would lie completely severed in the long, fine, pallor of orchard grass. I sit down with my back against the tree, pull my knees to my chest, and close my eyes. The weak sun flows down on me. Apples are burnishing to cider all around me in soft heaps. I hear them dropping off the trees, and suddenly I wonder what they taste like. I wonder if they’re any good. I think that I might eat one.

  As I walk through the door of the house, brushing sticks from my hair, the telephone rings. I hesitate, but then rush to pick it up. It is Kurt. Someone has broken into his studio, the renovated barn behind his house. That person has used all of the power equipment that Krahe keeps in the barn to demolish Number Twenty-one and all else that he has worked on or produced in the past year, certainly since Kendra’s death. Many things that were stored alongside the new projects are also damaged. I have no idea why this particular act of vandalism frees the two of us, but hearing Krahe’s agitation and reading his call as a sort of plea, I drive up to the barn to examine the disaster with him. By then, the police have left and there is nothing but splintered wood, shattered rock. All of the broken stuff and the pieces so massive they could only be nicked are scrawled with loops of spray paint. The paint is an intense blue, that blue my mother loves, and in its twizzling energy it is like an obscure but brilliant form of writing. Some new language is at work. The blue is everywhere.

  “Who do you think did it?”

  He touches my shoulder. Although it has been over a year since Davan’s mother and I met on the road, I see her right away. Mrs. Eyke’s eyes are pressed like coal into the soft whiteness of her face, and she smiles, but I say nothing.

  Kurt is walking around with his hands on his head, groaning, but here’s the peculiar thing. He seems more excited than horrified by the trashed scene. He seems more thrilled than bereft. His face is glowing with intensity and his hands fly off his head in big gestures as he talks
of the destruction. Frohlockendzerstorung. The word invents itself. A nameless wildness bubbles up inside of me and I want to shout. Kurt and I walk across a short piece of field to his house to have some coffee, and as we walk we link arms eagerly, naturally, as if no time had passed, as if there had been no other accidents or grief in the world, but only this one retribution from an unseen hand, which seemed to wreck with more joy than malice, the way a child does, wondering at the breakage and startled to laughter by the noise.

  That night I stay with Kurt at his house, and I actually call Elsie to tell her that I won’t be coming back until morning. Her voice is careful, perhaps a little sad, but mostly she sounds relieved.

  “Good night, dear,” she says.

  There are other things that she could say to me, things I will never hear. I doubt that many mothers say these things to their daughters. Maybe it would be like telling your daughter the truth about the pain of childbirth. They try to protect us, even when we’re middle-aged. So I must supply the words for myself:

  Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.

 
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