The painted drum, p.4
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       The Painted Drum, p.4

           Louise Erdrich
 
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  Some estates come to life and others don’t. Some holdings have little personality, others much. For instance, there is a moment I think of still, one I nearly missed. Years ago, I opened a small wooden chest containing what appeared to be handkerchiefs wrapped in tissue paper, only handkerchiefs, bearing the owner’s initials, L.M.B. I was about to empty the box and stack its contents among the linens when I noticed a label. Pinned to each cotton, lawn, lace-trimmed, or embroidered handkerchief, I realized, was a carefully cut piece of paper. Of course, I examined the papers. Each bore a date inked in ladylike script. A name or names were written. And then occasions. Teddy’s Christening. Venetta and John Howard’s Wedding. And then, Teddy’s Funeral. Brother Admantine’s Wake. First Opera, La Traviata. Wedding. Broken Arm. And far down at the bottom, perhaps the first such kept handkerchief and the author of the collection, a child’s small square of fabric clumsily sewn with the initials and labeled My Mother’s Funeral. I remember sitting with the handkerchiefs belonging to L.M.B. as the rest of the work of pricing and sorting swirled around me. Here was a box containing a woman’s lifetime of tears. I passed through several stages of emotion. The first was elation at the novelty of such an odd, Victorian idea, and the urge to show the box and its contents to my assistants. Next, I was swept through with such irritation for this evidence of outrageous thrift that I had a rare thought. I almost never think of non-Indians as white. After all, my own skin is pale. But I experienced a sudden bolt of prejudice that surprised me. Just like a white lady, so stingy with her tears she kept them, and then I recovered myself and sat further, still holding the box, which was very light, the wood dry old varnished pine, and turning over one and the next handkerchief. Theodor’s Precious Birth. Aunt Lilac’s Deathbed Supper. What was a deathbed supper? Cousin Franklin’s Wedding to Mildred Vost. More funerals. As the other workers tackled the next room, I was left alone with the box in my lap and it was then, sitting with L.M.B.’s sorrows and joys, that my own eyes filled with tears. There weren’t many. I am not the crying sort anymore. So when I did feel that swell of sadness I reached immediately for one of the handkerchiefs, dabbed my eyes dry, and added my own tears to the box. Then I closed the box. I knew what had happened was exactly right. Tears Shed for L.M.B., I might have written on a scrap of paper. I’d have to buy the box myself now, but that seemed the proper close to the collection.

  Later, I heard that L.M.B. was a ferocious old bore in her age, critical, churchy, and prone to making complaint calls to the parents of young boys who cut across her front lawn or spoiled her tulips. But that’s what I mean by coming to life.

  The estate of John Jewett and Burden Tatro comes into a similar focus when I make the acquaintance of a doll with a face of fawn-skin and eyes of jet. I know that the doll is something special the moment I put my hands on it. She is wrapped in faded red trade cloth and placed inside a shoe box. The shoe box is mistakenly stored upon a shelf of shoes, and when I open it I catch a whiff of smoked hide. It is a smell that could have accumulated molecule by molecule inside of the box only if it was not opened for a very long time. As I unwrap the doll, the fugitive taste of smoke vanishes and there is the doll herself, exquisite. The perfectly cured hide of her skin has somehow retained its softness, though from the faintly smudged darknesses on her arms and skirt I see she had been loved as a toy. Her red quill lips are stitched into a calm, amused smile, and her bead eyes are set at a lively angle. Her coarse black hair was plucked from a horse’s mane and each black thread sewn into her head and then divided into braids. Her dress is also made of tanned hide, decorated with bits of shell and the old antique beads called greasy yellow and ruby red whiteheart and german blue. Her waist is belted with a woven sash. Attached to it she wears a tiny scabbard that secures a tiny skinning knife. Her moccasins are sewn with flowers, and she wears jewelry. A ring of trade silver makes a bracelet on her arm. From her pierced fawnskin ears dangle miniature earbobs that are hawk’s bells so unusually small that they could hang from the throats of warblers. She carries a thimble-size basket woven so cleverly that I laugh in pleasure. I bring the doll out at once, and show her to Sarah.

  “Oh, there she is!” She takes the doll from me and handles her with familiar tenderness, smoothing the coarse hair down and caressing the slender horsehair brows embroidered above the glittering eyes. “My uncles used to let me play with her if I was very good.”

  “She’s very good, you know. Valuable, I mean. We should have a museum curator look at her.”

  “Yeah?” Sarah is surprised, but not particularly pleased. I think she feels the same way I do about the doll. It is personal—the delight of the doll’s presence has nothing to do with her worth.

  “Were there other things, American Indian I mean, of that era?” I ask. “Did your uncles keep them all together somewhere? In a cabinet? Trunks?”

  “Oh God, yes, I’d forgotten all about it. One of the Tatros way back lived with Indians,” she says. “There was a lot of old beadwork and stuff. Come on upstairs, I’ll show you.”

  On the way up the stairs, I try to breathe slowly. There is an attic room of course—a long unfinished tar-papered hall lined with simple board shelves and stuffed with old suitcases. The major portion of the collected items are kept in the suitcases, Sarah tells me. There are as well some larger things wrapped in old bedspreads and horse blankets. We unveil these at once—a cradle board not as good as mine, large birch-bark winnowing baskets, a curious, beadworked footstool. A drum. The suitcases hold some precious examples of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century bead and cloth-appliqué work. There are moccasins, leggings, beaded ceremonial breech clouts, a vest, and two bandolier bags (in extraordinary condition, worth a great deal). There are also a number of lesser items—small purses of the sort once sold to tourists, a band for a headdress from which the feathers are all removed, tobacco pouches, woven carrying straps and reed mats. We lay things out, unwrapped, on the tops of suitcases, draped off the edges of drawers and shelves, but stop eventually. The collection goes on and on.

  “Congratulations,” I say. Sarah Tatro looks startled.

  “Congratulations for what?”

  “You can probably retire. Or at least take a long vacation. No more early-morning wake-up calls.”

  “You think all this is valuable….”

  “Very.”

  Sarah drops to a trunk and stays there, puts her head in her hands. “You mean, they were sitting on this all along?”

  I don’t reply and after a time she shakes her head and laughs shortly, without humor. “They were so cheap with themselves that they ate oatmeal for dinner. And they spread Crisco on their bread instead of butter. The taxes on this place had gone sky-high, of course, and they wanted to keep it. So they lived on nothing. But in the end”—her voice lifts—“I have to say I think they enjoyed their stinginess.” And then she laughs with more ease. “They probably enjoyed what they had here. You can see they went through things. Checked them for mildew or bugs, I guess, rewrapped them. Set mousetraps. Look.” She shows me the date on a newspaper that was used to cushion a lovely little sweet-grass basket. “Last year’s.”

  “That’s fortunate,” I say, “the acid in the newspaper could have ruined that basket.” I move closer to look at the little coiled and sewn basket, and that is when I step close to the drum.

  I’m not a sentimental person and I don’t believe old things hold the life of people. How can I? I see the most intimate objects proceed to other hands, indifferent to the love once bestowed. Some people believe objects absorb something of their owner’s essence. I stay clear of that. And yet, when I step near the drum, I swear it sounds. One deep, low, resonant note. I stop dead still, staring at the drum. I hear it, I know I hear it, and yet Sarah Tatro does not.

  “I’m getting out of here,” she merely says. “Too dusty. I’ll be back later on this afternoon. I’ve got some errands in town.”

  And so I am left with the original Tatro’s loot. I continue to s
tare at the drum, what I can see since it is mostly swaddled by a faded quilt. I don’t just hear things and I’m not subject to imaginative fits. There will be an explanation. Something shifting to strike the skin. A change in air pressure. The quilt isn’t anything special, a simple collection of squares, yarn-tied, the sort of thing sold at church bazaars. I step over to the drum and pull the fabric entirely away. The light comes from two bare bulbs with pull chains, and casts harsh shadows. The head of the drum glares out, huge, three feet across at least. The buffalo or moose skinned to make it must have been a giant. In spite of its size there is something delicate about the drum, though, for it is intricately decorated, with a beaded belt and skirt, hung with tassels of pulled red yarn and sewn tightly all around with small tin cones, or tinklers. Four broad tabs are spaced equally around the top. Into their beaded tongues of deep indigo four white beaded figures are set. They are abstract but seem to represent a girl, a hand, a cross, a running wolf. On the face of the drum, at the very center, a stripe is painted in yellow. That is all. The figurative detail, the red-flowered skirts, the tinklers, combined with the size of the drum, give it an unusual sense of both power and sweetness.

  I draw a folding chair close, sit, and jot down the details. My hand drags across the page. This is the sort of find that would usually thrill me, but I am not pleased. I put down my pen. I am uneasy, anxious. I look around. I hope that Sarah has not returned from her errands yet. I set my hand on the drum and then I feel, pulled through me like a nerve, a clear conviction. It is visceral. Not a thought but a gut instinct. I cover the drum again with the quilt and go downstairs to make sure that Sarah is really gone. When I see that the garage is empty and I’ve called through the house to make certain I am alone, I prop open the back door and go straight back upstairs. I bundle the quilt more tightly around the drum, and then I carry it out of the house. I set my bundle on the gravel only briefly as I lift the hatch on my car, then I slide the drum into the cargo hold and hide it by pulling over it the theft-deterring blind I always use when parking at big auctions.

  I work the rest of the afternoon without thinking about what I’ve done. When my thoughts flicker toward the drum, I veer away from any further examination. What I’ve just done, or am about to do, is probably a felony and could ruin our business. The ease with which I have done it bewilders me. For a person who has not stolen so much as a candy bar in all of her life to walk coolly out of a client’s house with such a valuable object might signal insanity. The beginning of a nervous breakdown. But I don’t feel that way. I feel quite lucid. And I wonder whether others who suddenly commit irrational and criminal acts feel this calm acceptance of an unknown part of themselves.

  Dusk is forming, blue and cold, by the time I arrive at home. I leave the drum in the car, wrapped in the quilt, underneath its stretched plastic curtain. I don’t want it in the house yet. I have to think—not about whether what I’ve done was right: I have decided that I wouldn’t have done it unless it was on some level right. And yet the explanation of this rightness swirls out of my reach. My real concerns are whether I can keep the drum hidden and whether I’ll get caught. I am pretty sure that Sarah Tatro hasn’t noticed the drum; in fact, she seemed indifferent to all of her uncles’ objects save the doll she played with as a child. I’m also fairly certain that she is the only one who’d have any possible knowledge of her uncles’ collection. And even she had forgotten it existed. I’d had to take the drum that afternoon, if I was to take it at all. Once I catalogue the objects and have them appraised, the drum will price itself out of reach of any but the wealthiest collectors, or a museum. Yet I don’t want the drum. What would I do with such a thing, where would I keep it? No, I didn’t take the drum for myself. I reassure myself of this again as I sit down to dinner with my mother.

  “You have an odd look on your face,” she says. “So, how was it?”

  I take the salad bowl from her hands and begin forking leaves onto my plate.

  “Well, it was there,” I tell her.

  “Oh!” She puts her fork down.

  I’ve taken a mouthful of spinach leaves but suddenly I feel too tired to even chew. I slump in my chair, throw my head back, stretch my arms. “I’ve been crouched over the notebook all afternoon. It’s a real haul. Old—I mean old old—Tatro, walked away with everything—dolls, beadwork, cradle boards. You name it.”

  “The thieving bastard!” she marvels again. “So he got away with the good stuff. He had an eye.”

  We sit there with our food between us. Elsie’s hair, sleek and pulled back in a knot, is very white. I am always very proud when people tell me that she is beautiful. She bore me, and then my younger sister, in her thirties when she had given up on getting pregnant. I was a gift. It’s very nice being told, all of your life, that you are a gift to someone. We are very happy right then, although I don’t know exactly why. Perhaps it is just that our secret expectations or suspicions have been met.

  “There was a drum,” I say to her.

  She pushes her plate away and puts her elbows on the table, leans toward me, peering at me. Her eyes are narrow and slightly upturned at the corners. The iris, dark brown, has the milky blue ring of age but her gaze is still sharp. She is waiting for me to describe the drum.

  “One of the big drums,” I say. Her fingers flicker on the table.

  “Was it dressed?”

  “What?”

  “Decorated.”

  “Yes.”

  “How?”

  I tell her about the figures and the cross.

  “Not a cross, not Christian. That is either a star or the sign of the four directions. Was it painted?”

  “There was a yellow line.”

  She closes her eyes, presses two fingers to the space between her eyebrows. I watch her carefully because she does this when she is trying to form a thought. I am quiet. Finally, she speaks. She talks a long time, and I can only sum up what she says: The drum is the universe. The people who take their place at each side represent the spirits who sit at the four directions. A painted drum, especially, is considered a living thing and must be fed as the spirits are fed, with tobacco and a glass of water set nearby, sometimes a plate of food. A drum is never to be placed on the ground, or left alone, and it is always to be covered with a blanket or quilt. Drums are known to cure and known to kill. They become one with their keeper. They are made for serious reasons by people who dream the details of their construction. No two are alike, but every drum is related to every other drum. They speak to one another and they give their songs to humans. I should be careful around the drum. She is bothered by its presence in the collection.

  “It’s more alive than a set of human bones,” she finishes, then hesitates. “Of course, that is a traditional belief, not mine.”

  I nod with some relief, for although I am surprised by my actions this afternoon, I do not believe of course that the drum itself possesses a power beyond its symbolism and antiquity.

  After my mother goes to bed, I clear a pile of my files and notebooks off a low table in the corner of my bedroom and then I bring the drum inside and balance it carefully on the table. I shove two chairs up against each side. Whenever I touch the drum, even to set it down, it makes a sound. A high, hollow note. An uncertain creak, like a question. A slight tap on its edge sets up reverberations. It is exquisitely sensitive for so powerful an instrument, and I wonder what it sounds like when struck with force, by many and in unison. I turn off the light, get into bed, and lie there in my room with the drum. I leave my windows open just a crack at night, even in the winter. I like my room chilly. The darkness crackles with March cold and from time to time, deep in the woods, a barred owl screams like a woman in pain. I imagine that I might have dreams—pragmatic as I consider myself, it has been a long, strange day. The realization that I’ve stolen the drum outright surfaces and sinks. Tomorrow’s Saturday and I’m glad that I have got the weekend to decide how to proceed with the estate—I’m not sure I trust myself
to catalogue another thing. No matter how justified by history I feel, I tell myself that I will not evade my guilt or rationalize away my conduct.

  Which is not the same as even considering that I might do the right thing and return the drum to Sarah Tatro.

  All I have is other people’s lives. What I do belongs to them and to my mother—her business, her legacy, her blood. Even the box of tears in my closet belongs to another woman, L.M.B. But now I’ve stolen the drum. And it seems to me, as I am lying in the dark of my room, that my instinctive theft signifies a matter so essential that it might be called survival. I have stepped out of rules and laws and am breathing thin, new air. My theft is but the first of many I’ll accomplish—though not of objects. There are other things I need and will have to have, things I’ll take. Thoughts, plans, private rages, and even joys now secret to myself.

 
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