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The painted drum, p.7
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       The Painted Drum, p.7

           Louise Erdrich
 
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  I’m home before eleven, like a good teen on a demure date. The light is on in the first-floor living room, where Elsie likes to sit and listen to music. She has Satie on. The master of punctuation. When I walk into the room she stiffens in her chair, casts her gaze upon me, and says, in that parental voice even grown children dread to hear, “Sit down, we have something to talk about.”

  “Can it wait?” It must be that she has seen the drum, and although I know it is inevitable, I really don’t want to talk about it tonight.

  Elsie stares at me, trying not to blink. The music has become the backdrop to a suspense movie. All jagged exclamation points. I turn it off and sit down across from her. She is wearing an old pink chenille bathrobe and elegant turquoise earrings.

  “You left these in.” I tap my earlobes.

  “On purpose,” she says.

  “Oh?”

  She pauses in an ominous way before she speaks. “Years ago, I nearly stole these earrings from a client.”

  I turn away and busy myself examining the folds and stitches of one of her more complex afghans. She continues.

  “I was very tempted. I happened to have recognized the earrings from a little-known Curtis photograph. It wasn’t that the earrings are so valuable, but that they’d lain close to the girl’s neck, the subject, and if I had them it seemed, I felt, as though I was part of his work too.”

  “I took the drum for similar reasons.”

  “Oh, no doubt.” Her voice is dry. After an empty pause, she prompts, “When are you planning to return it?”

  “I’m not.”

  She throws her hands up, lets them fall to her knees and hang down, limp rags of dismay.

  “It would look odd if I just brought it back now. No one knows it’s missing.”

  “Nonsense. You could say you had it repaired.”

  “Well, I could. You’re right.”

  “But you won’t. You don’t want to.”

  “No.”

  “What are you going to do with it?” she asks, and I respond before I’ve thought out my answer. The resolute note in my voice surprises me.

  “For now, keep it. Later we’ll find the rightful owner.”

  She shrugs and seems to think aloud. “Well, yes…it’s Ojibwe and the fact that Tatro spent his life as an Indian agent on our home reservation probably makes your guess as to its origin, maybe even your intention, fairly reasonable.” She opens her arms as though surrendering. “Good luck to you, then. Not only do I want no part of it, I’m thinking of bringing it back to the Tatros’ myself. You could purchase it, you know. I bought the earrings.”

  “Before or after you told the family that they were in a famous photograph?”

  I think I’ve got her, but she refuses to be embarrassed.

  “Only a fool would have revealed that. Of course I got them for a good price.”

  It’s no use, and I hate being at odds with her. Still, the idea that she would actually take it upon herself to return the drum makes me regress a little. “Don’t you touch that drum!”

  “You exasperate me.” She closes her mouth in that tight, straight line that means we’re finished arguing. This is as angry as we ever get, and we both know it won’t last. Sure enough, over breakfast, Elsie tells me that she’s decided, upon reflection, that the fact that the drum was stolen from our own people is a piece of sychronicity so disturbing that she now understands how I was motivated. I, on the other hand, am moved to tell her that I am sorry to have possibly compromised her also in the theft, as it is both of our business reputations at stake, and even (now that I know she won’t hold me to it) that I’ll consider returning the drum. But she says that she wouldn’t think of returning it, that she’s always wondered exactly how it was that Jewett Parker Tatro acquired his hoard, and that maybe in discovering more about this particular drum we will find that out. She’s willing to help me, in fact, learn its origins.

  Elsie has ideas. She is spilling over with ideas and with lists of people and with plans to see them. “I’m thinking of old Shaawano, gone now,” she says, “and Mrs. String. Her first name is Chook and she’s related to the old man and married to Mike String. Lots of the people have passed on, of course, the ones who would know. But to lose or be swindled out of a drum like this is no small thing.”

  We are sitting together over our usual spare female breakfast of coffee and whole grain toast. Sometimes we add yogurt or fruit, but I haven’t grocery-shopped yet this week and we are even down to the last of the bread. Elsie has toasted the heels for herself and given me the last two regular slices. I didn’t like the heels as a girl, and that little forgiving sign of her motherly attention, a tiny thoughtfulness, touches me. But I say nothing about it. I only agree that we should hire some extra people this spring or summer so we can travel as we choose. I know that the Shaawano family is of the original people who either moved south and returned, or who originally came from the south and were named for that direction. I remember Mrs. String, a round woman shaped more like a knot than a string. She is a vivid, little, lumpy-bodied lady with dark, age-freckled skin and a fluffy halo of dandelion white, permanented hair. She tends to dress in outfits of bright, flowery rayon separates that mock each other and yet somehow make their peace. I remember admiring how a skirt blazing purple iris and a burst of roses on her vest oddly complemented her poppy-dotted blouse and gave a kind of whirling effect to her, as if she were always in motion. Mrs. String’s voice is extremely gentle, marked by the old sweet accent of a person who grew up speaking Ojibwe and whose English is forever rounded and shaped so that all of the words seem kindlier. Mother tells me that Mrs. String’s mother would have known some of the original signers of the treaty that provided for the reservation. She probably spoke about them to her daughter. Those people were the holdouts, the ones upon whose stubbornness the land claim is based. She might have known about the ones who famously would not sign the payoff later, as well, like Old Nanapush, whose formal portrait by a government photographer around the time of his death by old age features a discreet but unmistakably obscene gesture. As she speculates, I can see that Elsie is becoming so intrigued with the hunt for the drum’s origins that she really may have forgotten, already, that it is stolen property.

  “Not so fast,” I break into her schemings. “We should wait for a while. I don’t want the drum resurfacing so closely connected with Tatro’s death that it gets back to his surviving family…well, his niece.”

  Elsie agrees and goes off, muttering, to comb through her files of letters and old papers. There is more to it, though. Even then I know it. I want the drum for myself, at least for a while. I’ll keep it off the ground. Already I’ve got a wooden tobacco box set on the windowsill beside it. I don’t know much, but I’ve got this certainty: That for the time, at least, the drum should stay with me.

  Who in all of this time mourns for Davan Eyke? His mother took no more than a few days off of work and still drives the school bus. Every time I see her grim face high in the driver’s seat I imagine that she is aching for Davan, but perhaps it’s also true she’s yearning for a cigarette, for instance on the Monday morning I pass her on the way to the Tatros’. She is standing beside the parked and empty school bus, smoking with calm determination, stoking herself with nicotine. She lights a new cigarette from the still burning stub of the old one and gestures to me as I draw near. I stop in the road and roll down my window. It would be rude to do otherwise. “Hello,” she says, and offers me a cigarette. I get out of my car to accept, though I rarely smoke. She lights it for me. I ask how she is.

  “I am not so fine,” she answers.

  “Has your church been supportive?” I ask, because I can’t think of anything else to say.

  That’s when she laughs, in surprise or derision. And her laughter is exactly like Davan’s laughter the last time I heard him. It is the laughter of ravens. Grating, unreadable. I stare at her and nod in sudden understanding. The reeking blue smoke curls around us. We are sile
nt. After a few moments, I feel we have entered a nameless and intense mental engagement, that Davan’s mother in her sorrow has become savagely herself, and so needn’t speak again. Yet she communicates perfectly. She knows. She knows that her son’s death had something more to do with Krahe than the eye or facts can tell. She stands with me to try to absorb in words what it is she senses in images. But nothing comes clear.

  We grind out the cigarette stubs with the ends of our shoes and then she nods and steps up into the bus. She settles into the driver’s seat and looks away from me as she starts the engine. She is an oddly put together woman, with exquisite black eyes and a big white dumpling of a chin. She wears no makeup and cuts her dark hair in a boxy helmet. As she shifts the bus into gear, she lifts her face keenly forward and moves down the bumpy road. She knows all about me, as people on this road do who have known my family since my grandparents came here. Most of all, she knows what happened. She would never wonder why the orchard is forsaken, or try to fix it. I suppose she pities me in some abstract way, as they all do. But that is neither here nor there.

  I get back into my car. Driving toward the Tatro place, I am stricken with a familiar and weary repulsion. Everything around me is ludicrously, suddenly, worthless. The Assembly of God sign is even blank. Mrs. Eyke’s black laughter and the hard edge of her grief have invaded my thoughts, and I even feel complicit in the death of her son because of my uneasy relationship with Krahe. I am too tangled in what happened, it disturbs me. Perhaps it started on the day I tried to unwedge the Eyke car from the V of birches. Or it started when I looked too long at Krahe, and he at me, and we knew that we were going to sleep together.

  Later that day, as I am taking notes on the contents of the Tatro kitchen, I remember the orchard. It occurs to me that I must develop a more serious plan to thwart Kurt in his next helpful policy. I’m not sure our conversation at Sweet’s Mansion persuaded him to leave those trees alone, and I plan to call him that night. I practice several ways to let him know, again, why his attentions aren’t wanted in the orchard. I plan to tell him my reasons for leaving the place unkempt, blowzy, unproductive. I want to make sure he lets those apples rot. Fewer blossoms every year, the apples crabbed with thrips and worm-riddled. Branches down, dying, silvered in the heavy sun. I want the long grass to shield the starving mice who gnaw rings around the bases of the apple trees, girdling them, choking them off, bringing them down. But even as I’m thinking this, I am too late. My imaginary conversations and persuasions are a waste of time. For he is revving up his chain saw, macho New England accouterment. He is striding into the orchard and lopping off deadwood with furious ease. Even as I am leaving the Tatro estate, he is piling brush. As I drive home he is putting a cone of fire to the driest twigs. I see the white spiral of smoke as I turn onto Revival Road, and breathe the scent of burning apple wood.

  There are weeks of dry warmth, which is bad for our wells and ponds but wonderful to see in the woods. The willows blaze in tender bud. Drifts of wild plum blossoms float among the cavern pines. The rapturous trilling of spring peepers begins, that electronic sexual whine. I keep the windows slightly open as I drive the back roads to the Tatro house, and breathe the watery air. The road’s final quarter mile is now almost impassable, the bedrock sunk against gaping holes, swamp grass and overgrown ponds to either side where the peepers warble and moan at a throbbing pitch. As I bounce along I quiet the frogs, momentarily, so that I seem to be continually piercing a wall of sound.

  In the orchard, the tiny cold buds are deep pink at the base, white at the tip. The apple trees with their low, thick crotches are shooting out leaves from every node of trunk and every branch behind the cuts. I sit an afternoon away in the snow-drifted grass, the sun-blasted grass, the grass thrown back in long shines of wind, the new grass rising underneath in shy waves of power. I want to remember the orchard as cold, sleeping, wrecked, and still mine, before it happens.

  One hot ninety-degree May afternoon throws the switch.

  Full moon, a spring midnight. Over everything like clear glass the light falls evenly, a tarnished silver. I am awakened by something stealing up on me, creeping through the window screens, over the drum. A breath of orchard sweetness sails, curls into my room, and I remember the days when the orchard bloomed this way every spring.

  My little sister was alive then. Over the years I’ve warped my life around her memory, I think, even though sometimes now I can’t picture her at all except from photographs. I cling to what I do remember of her—little incidents. The time she ripped my fairy book or squeezed the paint from my paint set, or left my clay out to dry. The times she crawled into bed with me after bad dreams—her telling me about them, her breath hot along the side of my face. She tickled spiders out of their webs and wore pink Keds with laces she colored blue with a ballpoint pen. She was a very good sister who loved me so much that she sacrificed herself for me without hesitation and for no use, no use at all. It happened out there in the orchard.

  With their deadwood sawed away, the trees have come alive. Each is loaded with as many open blossoms as the live twigs can hold. I rise and walk to the window and sit there with my hand on the drum. I can see her, running in her checkered shorts, with her flag of brown hair flying. She is climbing, quick and nimble. I can just make out the dim shapes of the trees, their twisted arms that hold her. There is no wind and the odor of white blossoms is so profound that it makes steps into the air. Only old wood can bear such rapture, I think, but maybe you have to die first, like the trees, like her.

  I am making eggs for breakfast the next morning when I hear the putter of the lawn mower. I’ve woken furious and self-berating. I dragged my heart around like an apple on a string. Dangled it, daring some man to take a bite. Now Krahe sinks his teeth into it and I’m terrified to be devoured. I jerk away and swing wildly out of reach. And now the lawn mower! I turn off the stove and charge outside, but when the mower comes into view Kit Tatro is behind it with his shirt off. Kit’s bare flesh. An unforeseen drawback. His skinny chest heaves as he cuts the rise. The arrowheads and amulets on cords around his neck tangle as he strains to round the bitten stump of an old elm. His arms are ropy and sickly pale. His tender skin is an affront. I want to tell him to put his shirt back on, but don’t know how I would say such a thing without hurting his feelings. He waves at me and then I have to wave back. He cuts the engine, walks toward me.

  There’s a couple of things he wants to ask me.

  “You should ask my mother,” I say quickly. “She’s the one with the cultural knowledge.”

  “Well, this is about the grass.”

  “Oh.”

  We talk about whether to reseed some bald spots and how there are new shade-friendly varieties. For a man with a grown-over, junked-up yard, he is surprisingly critical of the quality of my lawn.

  “Some of it’s just quack,” he states. “Around the back of the house you’ve been invaded by creeping charley. And there’s dandelions. I don’t even know where to start with those. What do you want me to do?”

  “Just leave them.”

  He looks dubious, skeptical, pained. To divert him I change the subject.

  “Do you know how to install a new lock and key set?”

  “Of course.”

  I show him the back door to the stairway that leads to my room, and he tells me that he can drive to the hardware store for a new lock and that he’ll change it as soon as he finishes the lawn. Later, while I am working upstairs, I hear the whine of his drill and the fumbling and knocking of his tools as he sets about the task. Once, twice, I nearly go down and ask him to quit, but then I look out a back window onto the trees, the bursting clouds of blossoms.

  4

  Jewelweed

  The summer passes and I handle the sale of the Tatro collection to a Cincinnati museum, all except for the drum. I’ve grown very attached to having it in my bedroom; I touch or gaze upon it every time I enter. The drum exerts the most connective hold upon me, and it even s
tarts to influence my dreams. Years ago, my sister stopped coming to me at night. I stopped dreaming of her, and I missed that because it was comforting to imagine that she lived a life parallel to mine and was not dead but merely somewhere else. I even wrote down things she said to me. She spoke in the form of poems. Now I am surprised to dream that she’s learned to play the piano. Her hands move with an alert grace, and she glances up at me and nods. She has a husband, a dark man walking at a distance. She is a woman, all grown up in spite of death. Bach’s Thirteenth Invention fills my dream with dark rigor, a precise contrapuntal tangle of notes. I confuse her fingers with the passionate mechanism of the spider, and I wake up sweating and cold again with loss. I lost myself along with her back there, I know it. When I touch the drum and think of her, though, I feel much stronger. I feel she has come back to help me. And so the summer, with my dreams of her that return, precious and specific, passes too quickly, as they all do here. The time of the year comes that I am always surprised to find so hard.

  The orb spiders have taken up their posts in the unmowed fields of August. Just as things come ripe, the creatures always set their webs, sewn with perfect zigzag seams, across the swathes of grass, jewelweed, goldenrod, milkweed, and burdock behind the sagging barn. Last week, we were approached by a chain restaurant that specializes in false folksiness. Were we interested in selling the wide, weathered boards? Only if you’ll take the orb spiders, too, Elsie said. But they just wanted the barn board, and of course she would never destroy the barn. So the spiders wait. I am careful not to disturb their quiet weavings. I watch each spider closely, admire its curved and tapered legs. They are black with hot yellow death’s heads on their bellies. They are patient with the gravity of their intent. Of their means of survival they’ve made these elegant webs, their beauty a by-product of their purpose. Which causes me to wonder, my own purpose on so many days as humble as the spider’s, what is beautiful that I make? What is elegant? What feeds the world?

 
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