The Painted Drum, p.8Louise Erdrich
Today, my art is blackberry jam. I gather my equipment. It is time. Late summer builds to a steamy and forgiving lushness in New Hampshire. There is the crushing scent of heated earth. The audible drinking of taproots of white pines. Maples sucking deep. Best, there is the threatful joy of blackberries, bushes so lush with fruit that to pick them I brave the summer’s last ticks and stinging flies. We used to pick them, my sister and I, and because of the dreams I think of her with special intensity as I walk. Past the orb spider field, through the laden orchard, down a ravine, and into the boggy cutover land belonging to an absentee landlord, forty acres dense with bramble and slash. I’m heated up, sweating; my hair falls out of its tail and swings down my back. The first blackberries that I pick ring the bottom of the light old lobster pot of dented aluminum, which I’ve vowed to fill. As soon as the bottom of the pot is covered, a berry-picking stubbornness comes over me. I am a determined picker, lusting after the loaded branches, taking care not to knock off the berries so dense with sweetness they’ll let go if the bush is roughly bumped. While picking at the edge of a clearing, I am buzzed low by a helicopter, its loud ratchet an excitement. The metal creature dips so low I can see the features of the men inside of it, and then it veers off, over a fling of young maples. I search my way through the half-dried muck of hidden ponds, skirt the edges of our neighbor’s horse pasture, probe the deeper woods for an opening where sunlight has brought from the ground sweet berry bushes and burdened them with fruit. Everywhere, I find jewelweed, or touch-me-not, frail bushes of tiny, fierce, golden-mouthed flowers, spitting seeds.
As I return from my berry picking, carrying the lobster pot with both handles, I brush through the jewelweed. The light seeds bounce off me, ping off the curve of the cheap old pot. Some tear like tiny cannonballs through the webs I’ve tried so hard to avoid. I stop, of course, and watch the spiders. Exiting the field, I leave them to the suave calm of their thoughtful repairs. My scratches tingle and my hair’s a knot of twigs. I’m slick with sweat and gritty with scrapings of bark and wood rot, and I’m peaceful. I have reached an understanding in the woods, as I always do.
Perhaps, I think as I settle the pot in the deep sink and run the water, cold from the gravity-feed well and pure as the rocks it has dropped through, my purpose in life is to pay attention and to remember. Here is my real history: a father I loved and feared, a sister I simply loved, the loss of both, then mother and I together. There were hospital stays, jobs that never quite took, loves that foundered. I always came back. The relief of returning to live with my mother got stronger every time. There was always the pleasure of constructing a secure and orderly design to our days. And our work is varied and often strange so there is always enough to think about. Of course, there is now Kurt, who in his suffering has become dangerously close. But the important thing, I think now, is to preserve what Elsie and I have made between us. Our breakfasts and dinners. Our net of small doings. Our thank-you notes. Our web. Our routine.
Which is about to be disturbed.
Three things happen in swift order.
My mother begins to sing to me. We are raided by the town police. My blackberries boil to a purple foam and then overflow the blue kettle I have transferred them to. It is a much heavier pot, sort of a large Dutch oven, sandcast and coated with thick enamel. But first, the singing, which mother often does. I don’t mean that she actually serenades me. Her singing occurs when we are together in the same room pursuing mutually exclusive tasks. This afternoon, even in the heat, she is knitting an intricate afghan. After I brought the berries in, I showered so I am cool. My hair is slicked back and braided. I am washing away the detritus of the woods, swirling leaves and thrips down the drain, when Elsie starts to hum. Soon, there are words. Of course, as these are songs from my childhood, these words fill me with an awful poignancy. “Bye-bye Blackbird.” “Autumn Leaves.” And yes, a few songs in Ojibwe, mainly hymns that my grandmother sang in the old language. From way back, we have been converts. As for the love songs, which she returns to, “Green Fields” and “Greensleeves” and “Silver Dagger,” they have solemnly bitter endings. All the good ones do. Still, can you stop your mother from singing to you? Who would do such a thing?
I pour sugar into the berries ready to boil in the blue enameled kettle. The berries soon fill the kitchen with a fruity steam, and stain the insides of the pot blue-black. As I stand there stirring down the dark mass, the calming motion of my spoon and the sweet curls of fragrance allow me to think with indulgence about the old controversies that once surrounded the kettle I am using. This kettle was a source of enmity between my mother and my father, and so it remains for me a souvenir of their eternal contest. They argued viciously about this pot. It seems a humble thing to argue over, but for them, everything was monumental. Nothing was too small.
My father didn’t like that my mother had spent so much money on it. And yet she made most of the money in the family—her business was well run even then. She even met my father through the business—he was there when she came in to assess the contents of his mother’s house. They married quietly. He was fascinated with her background, I think, as though she had some mystical connection to the natural world that he lacked and loved. That was, perhaps, true enough. Their main pleasure in their first years was planting, gardening, digging wells, ponds, making patios, and setting up benches where, still, one can sit and watch the fireflies signal. I came along and surprised them, and my sister a little more than two years after. Although she was younger and followed me everywhere, her personhood was always stronger than mine. Netta had all of the sandy-haired sun in our joint personality. She burned hot. She was just my opposite. Where I was quiet, neat, untiring when it came to detail, Netta was bold and impatient; she could be careless and even cruel.
When she was still six and I had just turned nine we caught fireflies in Mason jars. We wanted lanterns, so we filled the jars with at least a dozen bugs each, then lay in the backyard across an old car blanket and played a game of memory, our favorite game that summer. We played with three decks, the cards spread facedown all around us. By dusk and by firefly light we matched the cards slowly, one to the next, concentrating fiercely on the placement of each. I think that early training is the reason I remember anything at all. The lights ebbed and burned, but at last the fireflies seemed to tire. We gathered up the decks of cards and secured them with a rubber band. I let my fireflies out and watched them waver into the cool weeds and willow bushes that bordered the yard. Then I turned to see where my sister was. Netta had smashed her fireflies onto her face and chest so that she glowed in the dark. She ran, danced, an eerie slash of heat.
Our father was an underpaid professor of philosophy, endlessly reworking his thesis on Miguel de Unamuno into a book on faith and science. He commuted thirty miles to the college town, but only three days a week. He had a way of alternating vast musings with petty concerns, announcing that the mind is a wolf and explaining how our illogical longing for a life after death is an animal hunger, and then stopping to castigate Elsie’s blue pot. He’d light on me and my sister. Your mother is the Renaissance and I am the Reformation, he’d explain. That’s why you are reasonable children. Who’s the most rational today? She gets the last cookie. Both of us would reply. He would pick only one. He was very clever at setting us against each other—choosing me, then my sister, or my mother as his favorite. I remember the heat flooding into my face as he pointed out and laughed at my drooping socks or the expression on my face, and the slick black joy when he praised me at my sister’s expense.
He was a striking man who cultivated a wild professorial mop of hair. Grayed prematurely, as if by the conflict of his thoughts, it flopped in long curls down either temple. When he was in a good mood, he let us brush it and arrange it and mother took pictures of him with a head full of plastic barrettes. He didn’t mind looking absurd as long as he was prepared for it and was in charge of the circumstances. Caught off guard in a mistake or foolishness, he would
I’ve inherited the slender bones of his face, the delicate chin and severe, pale mouth, and perhaps his dark striving for explanations. But my sister had a happier love for inquiry, or would have. She was a questioner, could never get enough of things. And they looked alike, too, even though I had his features. She had his hair, only pale brown, and all of his expressions. She had his hands. She had his unmatching socks and distracted frown. She was like a whippet, and very strong. They had the same frame, Elsie said.
As I stare into the melt of blackberries, I remember my father’s habit of folding his metal-rimmed eyeglasses down his nose while looking at me keenly. It was a gesture I found both sweet and stodgy. He was not a person you could feel one way about. Because like my sister, he had a cruel streak that came out in surprising ways, because he managed somehow to control my mother and sometimes exerted upon us all a disfiguring attention which set us against one another, I came to realize, even back then, that we both loved and faintly disliked him. Pop wisdom has it that the unpredictable parents hook you deepest with intermittent reinforcement; you become that rat who presses the lever a thousand times for a kind word, a gesture of love.
When he died, mother gave away everything he’d owned down to the last paper clip in his office, which has since remained an unused room except for storage. It is filled with boxes that we never open, things that we don’t want to look at. The blue pot escaped the purge and reminds me of him, though.
As I am standing there stirring down the blackberries and remembering my father, a siren, strange and alarming, goes off at the turnoff to our road. Our first instinct is to worry that our neighbors have suffered some calamity, and to stare out our window where soon, as the sound enlarges, we expect to see the squad car hurtle past. But the revolving white blue flashers and the wailing noise halt in front of our windows. I’m still stirring, mesmerized, as our town police officer, Lonny Germaine, emerges from the car, from which a magnified radio distorted voice carries. The electronic voice gives indecipherable orders and Elsie, who has stopped her singing, says, “He’s drawing his pistol from the holster!”
I remove the dripping spoon from the berries and hold it over the kettle as Lonny rushes to our door, which we can see through a side window. We crane to watch him invade our house. With a mighty swing of his booted foot, Lonny kicks in our door, which gives so easily that he stumbles into the entryway, then rights himself and walks bent-kneed into the kitchen with his gun out two-handed, police fashion. Elsie gasps. “For heaven’s sake, Lonny, the door wasn’t locked! Put that down!”
All I can think of is that he’s come for the stolen drum. I am found out. I am finally exposed. I cannot move. Lonny gapes at us and then lowers his gun. He mutters foolishly. Outside, the radio-voice squawks like some great, hungry bird. I am released from my fear.
“Lonny Germaine,” I sound like a fussy schoolteacher, “would you care to explain?”
Lonny puts his gun into its hip holster, his fair cheeks suddenly mottled by embarrassment. He is a milk-white and black-haired transplanted French Canadian with round blue eyes and a pink bud of a mouth. He would perhaps have been a heartthrob in some past century, but for these times his looks are unattractively lush.
“The state police,” he says.
I cry out, suddenly, like a suspect in a crime drama. “Where’s your warrant?”
Lonny puts up the palms of his hands. “They said I should use extreme caution, use police procedure upon entering. They said there was a big patch—biggest ever in this part of the state—right out back of your place in a clearing in the woods. And you”—Lonny nods his head earnestly at me—“or some other lady was out there harvesting it.”
“Patch of what? Who?”
“Marijuana! They saw it from the helicopter.”
“Okay, I remember that helicopter.”
“So you decide to barge in here like some TV cop.”
“Well, you never know,” says Lonny, complacent and not at all defensive.
“Never know what? You’ve known us since you were a little boy. And you think we turned into drug lords?”
“It does pay,” Lonny says. “And they saw this woman out there.”
“It was me,” I say, “I was picking these blackberries!” I raise my dripping spoon. “For this jam!”
Lonny, confused now, snaps the holster on his gun and walks back out to the car to reconnoiter with the squawk box. For a while, as the two of us veer between outrage and amusement, and as I keep stirring the berries, we hear the staticky burps of conversation from the open car window. Suddenly Lonny puts his siren on again and bucks off, speeds away, up the road. Apparently he’s been instructed to harvest the crop, for perhaps an hour later, just as we’ve got used to the silence and started the rest of our day, the siren wails again. He gets so few opportunities to use it! Down the hill flies Lonny, and we jump to the window in time to see that the trunk of the police car is tied shut over a huge pile of what must be marijuana plants. As he bumps over the frost heaves in the gravel road bed, the tall fronds of the plants bob and wave, spilling out the sides of the trunk’s lid.
“So then, who planted it?” I ask Elsie. “Are you holding out on me?”
“Kit Tatro planted it,” she says. I’m surprised she knows this. But she goes on to say that she’s noticed him popping in and out of the woods across the field.
“I thought he was hunting,” I say.
“You don’t keep track of the hunting seasons, do you?”
I guess not. Tatro seems so much a part of the woods around here, almost part of the scenery, that I’ve never questioned much about his comings and goings. With a sigh and a little whoosh, the blackberries boil over the pot’s rim and cascade across the white enamel of the stove.
My father would have made a great thing of how Lonny burst into our kitchen. There would have been a hue and cry at the next town meeting. Delicious outrage. Letters to the Editor. There might have been a lawsuit. We just let it go. In the same way, we do not bother the spiders. I leave them alone. Father once had them sprayed to death, but they came right back. Look and observe, he said to us, pointing out the spiders, the wolf spiders and the flies—one and the same—the devoured becomes the devourer. He surrendered the field to the spiders, but continued to enforce his boundaries with nature selectively, kept birds from nesting in the eaves, but allowed cats to wander in and out of the loose rocks of the foundation. That was another thing my parents fought about. The cats. Elsie spayed. Father let them go feral.
These things may seem trivial, but they grew mighty. Great fury composed of need, duty, competition, sexual ambivalence, and pride existed between my parents. My father used his achingly snobbish sensitivities, his depressions, his startling sweetness, exactly the way trainers of horses use reins and whips in clever ways. It always astonishes me that relatively small humans can control horses weighing a ton and a half. Likewise my mother’s power, which has since shown itself to be considerable, was somehow channeled by means that were nearly invisible. Some days he just seemed to wear her out with his small naggings, other days it was the big thoughts that flummoxed her and bent her to his will. In the case of the blue enamel kettle, it was not the money alone he objected to, it was that she had spent a great amount upon a pot that was just shy of being the best pot. There was, he knew—although pots were more
Cretinous was lighter fluid, the word I mean. Flames shot to the ceiling when my father said it. Other words they used in arguments had similar effects. They always used elevated words for simple insults. Neanderthalic for stupid, myopic for shortsighted, petulant for mean, and so on, as if they paged through Roget’s before they fought. We learned a great deal of vocabulary from their fights. Arrogate, obfuscate, phantasmagoria, stipple, hirsute, quell, atrophy, craven, natter, gnomic, pornographic. These were not words ordinarily encountered on grade school vocabulary tests, but I, at least, began to use them in my everyday writing assignments and soon enough was treated differently, as though I was really smart.
Brush jewelweed and its seeds pop six feet. Orb weavers make a very distinctive seam down the center of their webs. The juicier the berry, the sharper its thorns. What’s the difference between smart and self-protective? They are the same, I think. Only when you are secure enough not to fear immediate survival can you display creative intelligence in anything you do. For instance, once we had enough money to live comfortably, my mother proceeded to make us almost wealthy by dealing boldly in the most extraordinary rugs. She foraged for rugs in the dry, rotting attics of down-at-the-heel scions of Yankee landowners, scrounged for rugs at neighborhood yard sales, hassled over rugs that came from overseas in bales smelling of sheep fat and burnt dung. She slipped out of rummage sales with Navajo rugs woven with careful flaws to let the bad spirits out of the design. She bought the rugs and sold them and bought them again. To her, it was a dance of happy shadows, and sometimes the money was abstract, or even distracting, as was she, the buyer. It was the rug itself that chose its place in the world. She told me this with the same gravity my father used pronouncing on his book. I didn’t take it the same way, though, because the notion made her happy. She believed in it the way she believed in blue.
The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes