The painted drum, p.3
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       The Painted Drum, p.3

           Louise Erdrich
 
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  On the computer check, the car turns up hot, stolen, and as it speeds back down from Krahe’s an hour later, the police officer puts on his siren and spins out, giving chase. There ensues a dangerous game of tag. On our narrow roads filled with hairpin turns, sudden drops, and abrupt hills, speed is a harrowing prospect. Davan Eyke tears down the highway, past his family church and the week’s wishful-thinking motto, God Cares, hangs a sharp left on Jackson Road, and jumps the car onto a narrow gravel path mainly used for walking horses. He winds up and down the hill like a slingshot, meets the wider road, then joins it and continues toward Windsor, over the world’s longest covered bridge, into Vermont where, at the first stoplight, he screeches between two cars in a sudden left-hand turn against the red. Leaving town, he pops an old man walking the road—John Jewett Tatro—high into the air. The car has vanished before Tatro rolls to the bottom of the embankment. Tatro lies there, dying among the packed brown leaves, the snow crust, the first tough shoots of trillium. No doubt, the ravens are curious. On blacktop now, Davan’s car is clocked at over a hundred miles per hour. There isn’t much the police can do but radio ahead and follow as fast as they dare.

  Another left, and it seems Davan is intent on fleeing back toward Claremont on the New Hampshire side. The police car slows as Eyke swings around a curve on two side wheels and makes for the bridge that crosses over the wide, calm Connecticut that serves as our boundary. The afternoon air is on the verge of freezing, the mud’s a slick gloss. According to the sign that blurs in Davan’s eyes, the bridge is liable to ice up before the pavement. It has. The car hits transparent black ice at perhaps 120 miles per hour and soars straight over the low guardrail. A woman in the oncoming lane says the red car travels at such a velocity it seems to gain purchase in the air and hang above the river. She also swears that she sees, before the car flies over, the white flower of a face pressing toward the back window. No one sees a thing after that, although there is a sort of witness near the scene. An early fisherman pulling his boat onto shore below the bridge is suddenly aware of a great shadow behind him, as though a cloud or bird has fallen out of the sky and touched his back lightly with its wing.

  Within minutes of the radio call, all of the pickups and cars on our road gather their passengers and firearms and sweep away from the dog posse to the scene of greater drama at the bridge. Although the wreckage isn’t found for days, and requires four wet-suited divers to locate and gather, the police make a visit to Krahe’s on the strength of the woman witness’s story. Fearing that Kendra has gone over the bridge as well, they take me along to question my friend.

  I wait on the edge of the field for Krahe, my hand on the stump of an old pine’s first limb. From deep in the brush, I hear the ravens, the grating haw, haw, of their announcement, and it occurs to me that he might just show up with Kendra. But he doesn’t, only shambles toward me at my call. As I walk toward Kurt, I feel for the first time in our mutual life that I am invested with a startling height, even a power, perhaps more of an intelligence than I am used to admitting that I possess. I feel a sickening omnipotence.

  He starts at my naked expression, asks, “What?”

  “Davan’s car,” I report, “went over the bridge.” I don’t know what I expect from Krahe then. Anything but his offhand, strangely shuttered nonreaction close to relief. He has apparently no idea Kendra might have disobeyed him and gotten into the car. Unable to go on, I fall silent. For all of his sullen gravity, Davan had experienced and expressed only a shy love for Krahe’s daughter. It was an emotion he was capable of feeling, as was the fear that made him press the gas pedal.

  I stare at Kurt. My heart creaks shut. I turn away, leaving him to talk to the police, and walk directly into the woods. At first, I think I’m going off to suffer like the raven, but as I walk on and on, I know that I will be fine and I will be loyal, pathologically faithful. I will be there for him when he mourns. The knowledge grounds me. The grass cracks beneath each step I take and the cold dry dust of it stirs around my ankles. In a long, low swale of a field that runs into a dense pressure of trees, I stop and breathe carefully, standing there.

  Whenever you leave cleared land, or a path, or a road, when you step from someplace carved out, plowed, or traced by a human and pass into the woods, you must leave something of yourself behind. It is that sudden loss, I think, even more than the difficulty of walking through undergrowth that keeps people firmly fixed to paths. In the woods, there is no right way to go, of course, no trail to follow but the law of growth. You must leave behind the notion that things are right. Just look around you. Here is the way things are. Twisted, fallen, split at the root. What grows best does so at the expense of what’s beneath. A white birch feeds on the pulp of an old hemlock and supports the grapevine that will slowly throttle it. In the deadwood of another tree, fungi black as devil’s hooves. Over us the canopy, tall pines that whistle and shudder and choke off light from their own lower branches.

  The dog is not seen and for a time, at least, she abandons Revival Road; there are no spaniel or chicken killings, she does not appear again near the house where her nature devolved, she doesn’t howl in the game park or stalk the children’s bus stop. Yet at night, in bed, my door unlocked, as I am waiting, I imagine that the dog pauses at the edge of my field, suspicious of the open space, then lopes off with its snapped length of chain striking sparks from the exposed ledge and boulders. I have the greatest wish to stare into her eyes, but if I should meet her face-to-face, breathless and heavy muzzled, shining with blood, would the sad eye see me or the hungry eye? Which one would set me free?

  He has weakened, Kurt, he needs me these days. Elsie says, out of nowhere, Don’t let him use you. I touch her shoulders, reassuringly. She shrugs me off. Perhaps because she senses, with disappointment, that I actually don’t care. Shame, pleasure, ugliness, loss. They are the heat in the night that tempers the links. And then there is forgiveness when the person is unforgivable, and the man weeping like a child, and the dark house soaking up the hollow cries.

  2

  The Painted Drum

  I am called upon to handle the estate of John Jewett Tatro just after his Presbyterian funeral. Elsie has her hands full rearranging the shop, so I drive to the Tatro house to make the appraisal of its contents. The morning is overcast, the sky threatful, an exciting dark gray. The Tatros have always been too cheap to properly keep up their road, and the final quarter mile is all frost heaves, partly crumbled away, the gnarled bedrock exposed. I bump along slowly so as not to slide into the frozen swamp grass and iced-over ponds at either side. I wish for thunder, then take back my wish. The wind is still brittle and icy. Any rain that falls will turn to slush and send us swerving back into the cold exhaustion that was February. We are over halfway done with March. April, though fickle, will inch us toward May’s tender, budding, bug-hatching glory.

  The Tatro house is not grand anymore. The original nineteenth-century homestead has been renovated and enlarged so many times that its style is entirely obscured. Here a cornice, there a ledge. The building is now a great clapboard mishmash, a warehouse with aluminum-clad storm windows bolted over the old rippled glass and a screen porch tacked darkly across its front. The siding is painted the brown-red color of old blood. The overall appearance is rattling and sad, but the woman who greets me is cheerful enough, and the inside of the house is comfortable, though dim. The rooms are filled with the odor I have grown used to in my work. It is a smell that alerts me, an indefinable scent, really, composed of mothballs and citrus oil, of long settled dust and cracked leather. The smell of old things is what it is. My pulse ticks as I note that even on the ground floor an inordinate number of closets have been added during some period of expansion. Some run the length of whole walls, I estimate, roughly noting the room’s proportions.

  The niece, whose name is Sarah, surname also Tatro, is an RN at the hospital just north of here. She is a pleasant, square-jawed woman, hair of light brown and eyes of blue, a woman in
her midthirties, years younger than I am, the sort of mother who volunteers to supervise recess or construct grade school art projects. The sort of community citizen who campaigns for historical preservation and school bond votes. I know the type. I have attempted to be the type. So has my mother. But our fascination for the stuff of life, or more precisely, the afterlife of stuff, has always set us apart. Mother started the business and we have run it jointly now for nearly two decades. We are fair, discreet, honest, and knowledgeable. We are well-known in our part of New Hampshire, and well respected I think, although I’ve always known that we do not fit in. There is a certain advantage to our gender. More often than not, it is the women of the family who get stuck dealing with the physical estate, the stuff, the junk, the possessions, and we are also women. We understand what it is like to face a mountain of petty decisions when in grief. As I sit down with Sarah, formalizing things over a cup of coffee, I feel that comfortable and immediate sense of connection that one can have with other women in this time—sympathy, of course, but also some relief. Finally, to get on with things! There is even some excitement at the idea of the task ahead. Cleaning out a house is bone-numbing work, but there are always discoveries along the way. Some are valuable—under a coat of milk paint an original Shaker table, Herter Brother chairs, a fabulous porcelain or saccharine but valuable old Hummels amid chipped salt and pepper shakers. Once, an old bucket forgotten in a pantry corner turned out to be a hand-painted Leder, worth thousands. First editions turn up, first printings, a signed Mark Twain, a Wharton, a pristine Salinger—you never know what will surface from even the most unpromising pile. And, too, some discoveries are revelatory—diaries, packets of love letters, a case of antique pornography featuring trained ponies, death certificates that list surprising causes, unknown births. The contents of a house can trigger all sorts of revisions to family history.

  There is also, in my eagerness to take on the Tatro estate, a thread of personal connection that reaches back several generations. It is nothing my mother or I would have pursued while either of the Tatro brothers was alive, although it has to do with our specialty—Native American antiquities. In The History of Stiles and Stokes, a book published on subscription by our local historical society, there is an entire chapter devoted to the branch of the Tatro family that lives in Stiles, and within that chapter a paragraph about the grandfather of the most recently deceased Tatros. Jewett Parker Tatro was an Indian agent on the Ojibwe reservation where my grandmother was born and where she lived until the age of ten, at which time she was taken east and enrolled at Carlisle Indian School, in Pennsylvania. A young teacher from Stokes, only twenty years old, had written to Tatro and was even put up at Tatro’s house on the North Dakota reservation while he recruited students there. He’s the one who got my grandmother to come to Carlisle. There, she learned to sew intricately, to add and subtract, to do laundry, scrub a floor clean, read, write, and recite Bible passages, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Keats’s odes, and the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Carlisle Institute was also where she fell in love, or came to know her husband, I should say. It is hard for me to imagine that the cold little woman I remember, the anti-Grandma, I used to call her, ever fell in love or felt much in the way of human emotion.

  The young teacher whom she married kept her in the east, though she returned to the reservation for a while when she inherited land, and bore my mother on her own allotment. My grandfather lived there too and apparently was, in turn, educated by the Ojibwe in the arts of trapping and hunting, occupations he so thoroughly loved that he returned to Stokes and worked for the rest of his life in the rich people’s game park that abuts Krahe’s land. My grandparents lived in a little house just outside the game-park gate. Elsie and my father bought a new house and we kept living in it when he died—six months after my younger sister. So that’s our little cat’s cradle of connections. That is why we are not really Easterners and partly why, I suspect, Krahe finds me interesting—he can’t quite place exactly who I am.

  The connection between Tatro and the reservation is also of interest because it wasn’t uncommon for Indian agents to amass extensive collections of artifacts, and of course mother and I have always wondered whether the Tatro house held such a trove. We have had little indication, beyond the odd reference here or there. The last two Tatros were a forbidding couple of fellows who lived meanly and died within two months of each other—the younger of natural causes and the older, of course, of the shock and injury he sustained when struck by that doomed Toyota. Although once in their house I see little that would lead me to think that their closets hold anything more exotic than magazines and clothing and phonograph records, there have been rumors. And to our knowledge, there has never been a large-scale Tatro collection donated to any local, state, or college museum. There are those many closets and the thick walls of the downstairs rooms. Also, there is or was the nature of the Tatros—oh, there is certainly that—to consider.

  They were sharp, they were shrewd, they were flinty, unreasonable, calm cheaters and secret hoarders. They haunted tag sales. Bought food in bulk. Hitchhiked when gas was expensive, though they were not poor. Ate day-old rolls and bread and drank postdated milk. Saved the rubber bands off broccoli and bananas, when they bought such luxuries. They boiled the sap from their trees and stole the corn from their neighbor’s fields. They picked fiddleheads, tore fruit off stunted trees, shot and roasted raccoons. Each fall they bought and salted down or froze half a pig, devouring it from snout to hock over the course of a year. To my mind the Tatros were exactly the sort of cheap old Yankee bachelors who’d have kept a valuable collection of artifacts just because it never occurred to them to part with anything. They never would have thought of donating, or even selling; they would have simply hung on to their stuff—moldering, mothballed, packed away with cedar blocks—until Judgment Day. Or so I hoped.

  Curiously, perhaps, as we are put in the way of many fine objects, the house I live in with my mother is not cluttered. It’s not that our vocation has turned us snobbish. Rather, it is the constant reminder of our own mortality that reins us in. The useless vanity of holding on to anything too tightly is, of course, before us always. To strive to own anything of extraordinary value mostly strikes us as absurd, given our own biodegradability. Still, there are a few things we’ve come across and found irresistible. That they are in our line of specialty probably reveals that we are more captive to our background than we admit—a lustrous, black, double-throated Maria Martinez wedding vase; an Ojibwe cradle board, the wrap intricately beaded on velvet; three very fine Navajo rugs; a bandolier bag that was probably carried by the last Ojibwe war leader, Buganogiizhig; a few seed pots; several shaved-quill boxes; and some heavy old silver and turquoise that must be continually polished. Oh, we’d like to leave our path to heaven clear. Travel a spare, true road. Yet we’re human enough.

  Sarah Tatro did not intend to let the house and its contents trap her. Over the cup of coffee—one of those thick diner-style white mugs surely swiped from a local café by one of the uncles—she told me that she was anxious to clear the place out and put it on the market. I found her forthrightness appealing and yet, at the same time, that the Tatro house should pass from Tatro ownership after nearly two centuries infected me with a faint melancholy. It is unusual for one place to remain so long in a single family’s hands—I was, surprisingly, tempted to try dissuading her from breaking with the past and carrying on with, of all things, her own life. I controlled myself. I took out my notebook and began to make a rough list of the contents of the house. Later on, I would be joined by two assistants, but I prefer to work alone at first, as does mother. I like to get a feel for the things in the house, a sense of the outlook or taste of the person who, though safely in the next world, still lingers in the arrangement and treatment of goods. I like to make peace with the dead.

  Were I a traditional Ojibwe, I would have a special place in the community because of my line of work. According to
a number of written sources from my collection, the objects left behind by a dead person were regarded with fearful emotion. They were never kept by family, but immediately gathered up by a person whose job it was to parcel the belongings of the deceased out to others. I assume things haven’t changed much, at least among people who live the old way. Possessions are thought to attract the spirit back to their loved ones, and so only persons unrelated to the dead are considered safe to handle them. Those persons who distribute the objects should not wear the color red—it is the one color the dead are thought to see clearly. It attracts them. They wander toward it. I avoid wearing red in my work, for somehow I find that idea compelling.

  I tell Sarah that I am ready to begin a preliminary tagging and cataloguing of the main portion of the house, and then I ask if her uncles had any particular interest, field of study, or collection that might require special handling or appraisal.

  “Oh, I don’t know, there’s just so much of everything.” She waves her hands. “So many old sets of dishes. Uncle John owned a number of guns. Some of those are old. And then the closets on the ground floor go way back behind the walls. They’re stuffed. That’s pretty much to say it’s anybody’s guess.”

  I am on my own, and very soon I am immersed in the pleasures of my job. The sorrows of strangers are part of my business, and were I to examine my motives in continuing this work, I might find that from their losses I extract some bit of comfort—as though my constant proximity to death protects me and those I love. The furniture in the first two rooms on the ground floor is in adequate repair and quite good, though there are no “finds.” Predictably, the Tatros weren’t bibliophiles, nor is there much in the way of decorative little touches—lamps, vases, figurines. Yet the walls are hung with six nicely done paintings by local artists and there is one oil sketch, a sort of pre-painting drawing, by Maxfield Parrish. I am pleased to see it and I wonder if the Tatros were acquainted with him. That particular discovery would have made my day at any other time. In this case it also indicates the Tatro tendency to hold on to things, as the Parrish was well-known to have value and could easily have been sold. I try not to get my hopes up, but when I open the door to the first closet my fingers are clumsy with excitement. Quickly, I go through what I can see—the usual boxes of magazines. Piles of curtains and old and faded linen. A great many boots of all styles, reaching back for decades. Mothballed coats of everything from wool to skunk skins. The closet goes on and on, but soon enough I decide to leave its contents to the patience of my assistants. The next closet, running between two parlorlike rooms, one of which probably at one time held a piano and other musical instruments, is stuffed with records. 78 rpm. Most swing or big band groups. I’m not an aficionado of the music of that era so I only make notes and leave the details. I am beginning to worry that the rumors were just that when, upon opening the first of a wide bank of drawers built into a wall, I find the first indication of, it seems curious to say, life.

 
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