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The painted drum, p.6
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       The Painted Drum, p.6

           Louise Erdrich
 
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  “Just let me know,” he says, “about those trees. I’ll be glad to bring my chain saw over and—”

  “What trees?” I break in.

  “The apple trees,” says Elsie, “the orchard. Krahe thinks that with a bit of judicious pruning—”

  “A great deal of severe pruning!” Krahe says with an infuriating laugh.

  “—we could bring back the orchard!”

  “Now while it’s still cold, before the buds form. They could even bloom this spring.”

  “The orchard is gone.” My heart flares with anger and I want to reach over and shake her, but I keep my voice even. “You know I like it ruined.”

  “It could be beautiful again, alive,” she says. And just like that I know she has abandoned me. Leaning on the table, I knock over my cup of chocolate and must grab dish towels off the counter to mop with. Krahe actually tries to help me and suddenly, over the spilled chocolate and in the smell of dusty grass clippings, I detect the shadow of a masculine expectation. It advances across the floor like a gloaming, to where I’m mopping up the syrupy spill on hands and knees, a dusk of longing that I would have loved to enter the day before but which panics me now. I rinse a towel out beneath the faucet, wringing it too hard, glancing out the window at the rows of beautifully gnarled trees.

  The kitchen feels too small, even the house too enclosed. Elsie’s sudden betrayal has pierced me. I feel childishly vulnerable. I hang the towel up and smooth my hair back into its clip. “I’m going out,” I say before either Elsie or the too attentive Krahe can form the next sentence. And I do go out. I’ve still got the car keys in my pocket. I climb swiftly into the Subaru and drive to Kit Tatro’s. Though I could easily have walked there, Krahe might have taken his leave of Elsie and followed, cut me off, found me out.

  I pull into Tatro’s littered yard and park next to piled bones and the tatters of a painted tipi. I’ve seen it often, hiking by, and now I notice up close that the symbols painted on the sides with worn acrylics are finely done, very detailed. A black bear, side view, is caught in midstride. There is a white line leading from its mouth into the bear’s stomach, ending in a sharp spear point. I suppose this has something to do with hunting magic, and indeed, Kit Tatro can use some. I happen to know, because he sometimes asks permission to hunt on our land, that he takes advantage of the doe season open only to those who shoot with muzzle loaders. I’ve lost track of his comings and goings. Sometimes he gets his doe, other years he complains of wet gunpowder or the excitement of a mis-fire. He’s never talked of going after bear.

  I get out and walk past the rusted Studebaker that I imagine Tatro has had towed here intending to restore, past a stack of mink or chicken crates, an unraveling yellow roll of crime scene tape perhaps bought at a garage sale, a little tan junked computer, a bowl of teeth, open cold frames jammed with milk cartons full of dirt out of which frail tomato seedlings urge themselves to light, hardening off. There is no sign of Kit and he doesn’t answer my knock. But the solid door behind his screen door is open. The doorknob to the screen door is a screwed-on wooden spool, the old kind before thread came wound on plastic. I touch the knob. Somehow it charms me, that little thoughtfulness of saving and using the old spool. Maybe one of Kit’s wives saved the spool—he’s had a succession of pale and stoop-shouldered girlfriends, unhealthy-looking women all alike, sad and rickety-boned. Not one of them can I put a name to, and not one of them has stayed with him.

  “Hey!” Kit rounds the corner, wiping his hands on the droopy stomach of his T-shirt. “You’re back!”

  “I had a thought.” I want to get this over with as quickly as possible. “Would you be open to taking care of our lawn? Can we strike a deal? We need somebody to mow.”

  Kit Tatro gives me an ironic, awful smile (two of his teeth are gray and fanglike), and he holds out his hand in a sweep to show me that he isn’t a person who mows even his own yard.

  “Well, I know that,” I say, “but you can use our mower.”

  “I dunno, I’m kind of backed up.”

  I want to say, Backed up skinning roadkill? But I find myself instead doing something that I wouldn’t ever have thought of doing. I am desperate to seal this pact with Tatro, and most of all anxious to make certain Kurt Krahe never again has an excuse to mow our lawn.

  “Did you know, by the way, that my mother’s one-half Indian? That she’s Ojibwe? That’s why I was looking at your Native stuff.” I nod slowly at the tipi and heaped bones.

  Kit Tatro suddenly stands rooted, serious, silent but electrified like a person who has grabbed hold of a live-current horse fence. He darts his eyes from side to side and then his whole face twists with a weasel interest. I’ve somehow risen from the dead, or at least from a place of low obscurity. I’m magnetized, a super-being. I can’t help feel gratified, though I can see right now I will regret this revelation.

  “Gee,” he marvels. “I thought you guys were, like, Korean or something.” He turns his mouth down, lengthens and strokes his stubbly jaw. “Yeah. Whew. When should I start?” An unworthy thrill of gratification takes me by surprise. I’ve managed not only to thwart Krahe’s lawn-mowing plot, but also to punish Elsie by means so obscure she’ll never know what I’ve done. Now she’ll be saddled with Kit Tatro’s attempts to untangle his genealogy and join his tribe, and she’ll have to endure his questions about her own knowledge and upbringing, which will disappoint him, as my mother is perfectly assimilated, cold-blooded and analytical about the reservation present, and utterly dismissive of history.

  I am not inexperienced in love, I just haven’t been successful at it, if you count long-term marriage as the benchmark. But the couples I used to envy have all broken apart. And marriage simply scares me. Perhaps I excuse my lack of courage in the matter by observing that those I do know who’ve stayed together have fused or discarded chunks of personality. Canada geese. Swans. Crows. Ravens. All creatures who mate for life. Perhaps they have an ancient genetic command woven into them that we now lack and long for in equal measure. The phone beside my bed rings. Krahe calls me at midnight, knowing I fall asleep shortly after. Sometimes he calls to say good night, and tonight I consider not picking up the telephone.

  “Just called to say good night,” he says, and because his voice has always moved me with its resonance and depth, and because he is on the other end of the telephone, not here with me, I feel safe enough to be somewhat more direct than I usually dare. I actually tell him not to cut the grass because it makes me uncomfortable, because I can’t stand to see him doing something so mundane, and because I think it is a bad sign.

  “A bad sign of what?”

  “Your sorrow,” I say, wary of referring to our relationship. “Going around cutting people’s grass is so completely out of character that it signals, to me at least, how broken you are and how lost in your grief. Just to see you behind a lawn mower is disturbing.”

  But he seems pleased about that, and he laughs a little.

  “You don’t know me well,” he says. “You don’t know that I actually like cutting grass and that for me it is a sign of getting better. It represents new growth. Besides, it is not just anybody’s grass. It’s your grass.”

  “Which you are shaving to the bare earth,” I say, then I soften, and drop my voice. “There wasn’t any grass there to begin with, Kurt, it’s too early in the spring. The grass has really not begun to grow yet.”

  He’s very quiet. We breathe on the line. Eventually he clears his throat.

  “Oh, fuck,” he says, “maybe I’m in bad shape. I didn’t notice that.”

  Then he asks me to go out to dinner with him at Sweet’s Mansion, a grand house restored as a restaurant and considered quite romantic. He’s never asked me out or taken me anywhere in public before and perhaps out of sheer surprise I accept the invitation.

  After I hang up I unplug the phone. I have brought the drum back in and covered it with my favorite old star quilt, but I am very conscious of it and I have developed more
affection for it than I should feel for an object that I intend to repatriate—for we’ll find the rightful owner by inheritance, I’ve no doubt of that. At the furthest reaches of my doubt, I admit of possibilities. In dark hours, my mind creaks open and allows a sensation of comfort in the great drum’s presence. The house is quiet, the road still, even the wind in the pines a mere shiver. It is one of those hours when the world takes a breath. When for a moment there is peace, not desolation, at the heart of things. I turn out the lights and lie on my back, bunch a fat pillow under my knees, stretch out my arms, take up the whole bed, close my eyes. I try very hard to put Krahe out of my mind, and after a while I succeed in drifting into a delicious state of half-sleep. I love to fall through that transition alone, to feel the gentle prickling of my body lifting off, the fluttering of my mind as it releases images, talk, pictures that begin to lose reference until they take on a dream irrationality. Tonight there is the brilliance of Krahe’s white shoes and socks methodically striding back and forth across the dead lawn. There is my mother’s earnest and disquieting betrayal. Chocolate steaming in figured cups. The drum gradually falling asleep beneath its quilt. Then, as I am tumbling toward sleep through the brain’s dark, I see a tarp of battered canvas, frail seedlings, a painted bear and the white arrow at its heart.

  I am much more familiar with the Sweet Mansion and its furnishings than are most who come to dine. The Greek Revival mansion was built by the New Hampshire mill owner Henry Sweet, who worked hundreds and maybe thousands of young women into early graves and created of their dead-hearted misery and the electricity generated by the millrace he owned an illuminated park for his children. The glow cast from the high plateau of Goodie Hill, the setting for the mansion and its grounds, could be seen far into Vermont and was used to guide aircraft down the Connecticut River well into the 1940s. The children kept up the property into the second half of the last century and then sold the place to a developer. Elsie handled the estate sale, which was surprisingly paltry as all of the furnishings and heirlooms had long been divided up among the many Sweet descendants. The developer speculated by building a dozen houses on five-acre lots on one end of the property, and used the proceeds to restore the mansion and open it as a restaurant, which was his dream. My familiarity with the contents of the place is the result of having scouted out and sold most of the nineteenth-century (we try not to use the word Victorian) furnishings to the owner. Almost none of them are original to the mansion, but they look as though they are because we took such care in finding good pieces from that period.

  I am sitting across from Kurt, knees under a starched white cloth, in one of a set of Belter tiger-oak rococo chairs, in a corner of what was once a formal parlor. He is dressed as himself once again, a rumpled shirt of some rugged mixture of silks and cottons, a beautiful tweed jacket, jeans worn in for real, not distressed. He runs his fingers across the top of his head. His hair is longer than he usually allows it, and I notice as I always do when it is a bit too long that he has really got quite beautiful hair, thick and springy, with a wave to it. He is one of those men who’d turn heads if he let his hair grow out, become a streaked mane. Maybe he’d be insufferable, I think, maybe he’d never even look at me. Then I’d be safe.

  “I can’t stop thinking about Kendra today,” he says. “I feel heavy.”

  “What do you think of when you think of Kendra?” I ask.

  His face freezes to a careful mask, but after a little while he smiles and his features soften. “You know what I think of? How she traced her hand and drew a beak on her thumb and made a turkey. You know, the turkey hands they make in kindergarten at Thanksgiving. She made one for me last year as a kind of joke.”

  “A sweet joke.”

  “I know.” His hand on the water glass trembles a little. He takes a drink. “What do you do with it,” he says. “What do you do?”

  There is nothing to say to that.

  “She was lucky to have you as her father. You were a good father” is all I finally come up with.

  “Do you think so?” He searches my face, his eyes bleak, his stare endless.

  “Yes, I think so.”

  He nods. He keeps on staring at me. “Faye, I know she’s gone. And I sometimes feel you slipping away, too, please don’t slip away.”

  “I’m not.”

  But inside, I know I am and he knows it too, and it isn’t just the lie, unless the lie stands for everything I am afraid of. I do not know why it is happening.

  “You can’t stand it, can you,” he says after a long pause.

  “Can’t stand what?”

  “What I’m going through. You think it’s catching.”

  “No.”

  “You think you’ll get sadness, grief, whatever, like a virus.”

  “No.”

  “Then what is it? I lied to you, I know I did, but I never will again. I have taken a vow in my very being that I will die first. No lies, ever.”

  I nod, I want to say I believe him, I want to answer, but a nameless feeling close to dread sifts up inside me and covers my heart and takes away my words, leaving a kind of shame.

  “I don’t know what it is,” I whisper, after a time, and we sit there together in baffled silence, touching the bases of our wineglasses.

  “I spent about six hours in the woods today,” he says at last.

  “Looking at rocks?”

  “And at stumps. There’s something human about them. I’ve decided that I hate them.” Kurt frowns and shuts his eyes, cocks his head to one side as though listening to an interior voice. When he opens his eyes, they are a smoky, soft color and filled with sadness.

  “You know, I think I’ll have the halibut,” I say, then I look down at my hands, and am overtaken by a wash of despair at my clumsiness. The menu is slightly blurry and as I pretend to read it I am visited by the idea that even our most intimate sexual moments, when he sobs into my hair or I lose all sense of where my body stops or my pleasure and his begins, our nakedness, our imperfections bare to each other’s sight, our coarse humor, our dirt, lack of shame, our easy joy, have nothing to do with aspects of ourselves that, if we let them develop, become actual and other selves. The thief in me. The murderously jealous father in him. The wish I have to make him feel better, which seems so pure, may be selfish. I understand his tedious anguish.

  There is very little said about how repetitious grief is.

  “Why don’t you want me to prune the orchard?” asks Krahe.

  A surprise darkness skims up my back. It is a prickle so unfamiliar that at first I do not recognize it as anger. And in fact, my voice emerges sounding different from how I feel. It is light, maybe girlish—a mature woman’s panic.

  “I told you I like it the way it is,” I say, “dead and ruined.”

  “It could be beautiful.”

  “It is.”

  Before he can speak again, I’ve risen and turned away. I thread among tables and chairs, and then up a set of stairs, gliding my hand along the smooth banister. The feel of old wood calms me a little, but I still feel like running down the back stairs and out what was once the scullery door. Instead, I continue down the hall. The ladies powder room is furnished with an exquisite Egyptian Revival dressing table that I remember as having gone very reasonably at auction. There is also a fainting couch upholstered in striped golden satin. I sit down on it and then tentatively lie back, close my eyes.

  Perhaps it was easier to live with the longing for Kurt, the uncertainties, even to indulge the unnecessary, and maybe insulting, secretive precautions. To deal with him in the everyday world of sorrow and surprise takes the mythology out of the relationship, but it is more than that. I feel his suffering when he is near as a physical weight, crushing one heartbeat and the next, squeezing my breath. The madness of sorrow emanates from him. It enters and unfurls in me. It revives my own pain. Unsolvable. Alive. Death has again brushed close, hurled Kendra and Davan off the bridge, tossed Tatro down a steep ditch and allowed him to die i
n the earliest spring growth. I am part of the chain of events that began when Davan gunned his engine on Revival Road. And the drum is part of it, too, and my taking of it. Kurt Krahe’s mowing of dead grass is part of it, as is his pledge to prune the orchard. For death has set changes into motion all up and down Revival Road, and there is no telling when one event will stop bumping into the next.

  Returning to the room where Krahe is waiting, I pause in the doorway. I have taken another route back to the table and Kurt is staring at the place where he thinks I will appear. It seems a bit underhanded to watch him as he watches for me, but I do anyway. He is not talking on his cell phone, which actually gets a signal high on this hill. He is not even looking at the woman at the next table, who is beautiful. He’s not drinking wine or fiddling with his napkin. He is just waiting. Waiting for me. And the way he is sitting there, unaware and waiting for me, strikes me. Perhaps this is the last moment in my life I will be truly appreciated by a man. I stand there and take it in.

  When finally he rises, anxious, I propel myself into the room. He doesn’t say “Where were you?” and I don’t make an excuse. We sit down slowly at either side of the table and proceed to order and then eat our food—everything is either tasteless or too rich. We speak about small things with calm detachment. I marvel at this. You would not think we ever slept together. You would not think he pulled my hair until tears filled my eyes or that I bit him so hard I drew blood. You would not think that sometimes we have gone so far into sex that we could not get out, that sex kept driving us, hurting us. You would not think we have looked into each other’s eyes, boundlessly at peace, or that we’d ever lain naked in the raining woods and laughed ourselves sick. I know he is on the brink of asking what is this the way people do, but I will not allow him to speak. So we talk about the rocks, the ravens, the trees, and all of the little things that happen on our road.

 
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