The Painted Drum, p.9Louise Erdrich
There was a blue she worried over then, and covets even now. She still regards blue objects with ferocity, assessing and comparing their blueness to the particular hot blue she claims made queens of courtesans and fools of kings. A dye of indigo and radioactive cobalt. A blue of furious innocence within the ochre of the pattern and the cinnamon and the dried blood of the other wools. It is a blue so intense it looks as though it were made on another planet. It is the blue behind your eyelids when you press past the yellow lights. It is the O.D. blue, I tell myself, of ecstasy and death. I’ll avoid it, thanks anyway. I’ve survived that blue and I will not look upon it anymore.
Oh yes, and my father also had blue eyes, though his were paler and a bit washed-out, with amber flecks.
“Between the eater and the eaten,” said my father, absurd when drunk. “Perfect unity. I have proved it with a mathematical formula.” We nodded. “I’m glad someone understands how faith eats reason and becomes a new beast. Or some two.”
He liked to work in his upstairs office after dinner, and we sneaked past him, or tried to be in bed before he came down the stairs. Still, I remember him always holding hard to the stair rail, blurred and loquacious. This one night, he’d caught us and so we sat on the bottom step with him, ready to bolt. He talked to us and praised us and compared our looks and held our hands. He tried to teach us how to whistle by putting our fingers between our teeth, but couldn’t do it himself and dribbled spit, which I pointed out. He kept trying to whistle in novel, boyish ways until at last he grew furious at our polite silence and we jumped up and ran.
“Get back here, you little shits!” he yelled as we leapt up the stairs. “If I really am your dad, and I’m not sure I am your father, why don’t you little twats tell me to go to hell?”
“Shut up,” said my mother, charging down toward him, for once forgetting that they fought with elevated diction.
The novelty of the shut up silenced him. We squeezed past her, thrilled we’d been called twats, which we understood. You’d think that the appalling thing he said would have upset us or caused us to lose sleep, but it didn’t. Although, as I said, we loved him, not only the word but his idea excited us, for we then spent an hour whispering, imagining that he was not our father. It gave us inspiration to picture our father as, for instance, the man up the road who tapped maple trees, pounding hollow tubes into the bark, adjusting the buckets underneath with a kindly, brown hand. Or our father as the man who ran the pygmy zoo in summer, a wretched attempt at attracting tourists, of which there were none. The zoo man displayed pygmy breeds—tiny goats, dwarf rabbits, and miniature stubby-legged horses; he loved, he said, all the runts of the world. And although I was tall, his philosophy was one I appreciated. When my parents fought, they grew like giants while I shrank.
My father was becoming frustrated with his work, and from the upstairs bedroom he had converted into his office, I would hear him talking as he worked. Sometimes it was to argue a position along and we’d hear the muted rise and fall of certainties, though we could rarely get the words. Other times he seemed to be pleading with someone else, his voice a low wail. “Opposite ends?” I heard him cry once. “But no! Each lives by its contrary!” We melted away from the chattering sounds, usually left the house entirely, when we heard the high crackle of his voice.
Those were the times we roamed far, picked berries, waged our jewelweed wars, made investigations into the habits of the salamanders, tracked deer and coyotes, observed the spiders. One day, we returned from puttering in the woods, hoping it was all over, to find him eating a bowl of cereal in the kitchen clad in nothing but a pair of boxers made of that peculiar boxer-short material, thin cotton printed with intricate red-brown squares and diamonds. I was familiar with the melting physique of my father, the drooping muscles of his chest and arms. But I hadn’t ever seen him in the boxers, legs mean and knobby, white feet tender. I turned away, but my sister turned toward him.
“Everything is elusive and in the air, but this, this is real.”
The wonder in his voice caused me to look back. He was looking at Netta as he stroked a four-inch pile of neatly stacked white paper, his typescript. It didn’t register to me at first that his work was finished. The way he nodded, grinning, saying yes, yes, alerted me to the response he was after and caused me to fear that yes, certainly, he had gone nuts.
The year he finished his book and developed its chapters for his lectures, the year he began to make increasingly impenetrable pronouncements, was the year that he grew a cult. The cult was like a fungus. That’s how we saw it—the students in his thrall grew on him like mushrooms. In the classroom, his erratic nature became a kind of charisma. His students began to show up at our house, looking thin and fanatical in worn-out expensive clothes, their hair thickly matted or combed through with oil. Their eyes blazed through the walls. They saw everything. They slept on our floors. We stayed in our room. I developed a horror of running across them ensconced here and there in the house, smoking, muttering, surrounded by books and half-finished term papers.
He began to give them lectures in our wide, sweet kitchen. They lived on cigarettes. Saucers of butts collected. They lived on bitter black coffee and on Elsie’s cooking, which they ate with famished ardor but never complimented. At first, I think, she was amused by the flotsam, and she pitied the students. Soon they bored her. And then one of them burned a neat round hole in a very old Tibetan rug and she kicked the lot of them right out the door. She rousted them from their sleeping corners and the basement couch. She chased them from the attic and the loft in the garage. She drove them back to the college and dumped them at the stone gates. They were lucky she didn’t spay them like the feral cats. But then afterward, as my father, in his office, faced the lonely task of counting up his polite rejection slips from mystified editors, and rebundling his manuscript and sending it back out, she began to leave us. She took long buying trips and when she came home she was distracted, her attention had lifted from us. We could feel it. We had to call her over and over to get her to answer a question. We had to pester her and pull on the hem of her skirt or the fabric of her dress to get her to listen.
These are times a child remembers very clearly—the absence of the two of them. The clearing around my sister and me. I can remember a specific fantasy, I don’t know if my sister shared it. I imagined something deliciously awful happened to one of us, and saw our parents holding hands as they sat at the bedside. Still, we were not technically abandoned, not at all, for our father never actually left the house. For days, he didn’t move from his office, where he’d set himself a haven of safety, shielded himself with stacks of books, papers, files in boxes and in cabinets. Elsie utterly ignored his presence. I did not dare to go to him, nor did my sister ever part the waters of the papers that lapped up the sides of his desk. Sometimes, though, as we passed his office door we heard a dry, cold, rustling sound. It was the sound that waves make when water is frozen a few feet out from the shore, the sound of waves lapping against fresh ice. Almost a music, not a papery sound at all.
That was when my sister and I started living in the orchard—it was a fine place to be. Our trees were houses and dens, whales or seagoing boats or great flying creatures—we lived for days in the branches, brought blankets to make tents, scrounged the kitchen for lunch. Perhaps we could have stayed there day and night but we always came in by ourselves. One day around dusk, though, the first time all summer, our father came out to the orchard to fetch us. I can remember that his appearance made us suddenly angry enough to defy him and to yell down that we were going to sleep in the trees. It was a game at first, and then we became wild, taunting him, throwing down apples. He stood below glaring up at us, hands at his sides. He started to climb, but we scrambled dangerously higher. He must have decided that he’d catch us quicker if he coaxed us, then, so he put out his arms, opened his hands, spoke softly. Come on. Come on. We had climbed far too high by then to jump into his arms, but he didn’t seem to understand thi
“You jump,” I said to my sister.
“No, you jump,” she said, and shook my branch.
“Okay,” I said, but I really didn’t mean it. I lost my balance and dove straight for my father, who stepped aside. I landed on my back just next to his legs and I remember in that endless time, windless, before I could breathe, looking up into the branches and seeing her.
I could see in my sister’s face that she’d seen our father let me fall. She stared down at me with great concentration and then she stepped off the branch. Our father tried to catch her and stumbled over me. She landed next to him, I didn’t see where. I think that I heard my father shriek at me Don’t you move, Faye, don’t you ever move, I’ll kill you myself, and then he was running across the field with her. Again, our mother was not home, and she’d taken the car. He ran down the road to the Eykes’, and I remember thinking what it would be like at the hospital, and what my father would say when they put my sister carefully on the bed in the doctor’s office, and the doctor shook his head and looked helpless. I knew that my father wouldn’t have to say anything to convince them all that I’d pushed her or shaken the branch or she’d taken a dare—all he’d have to do was blame it on himself too ostentatiously, but with small thoughtful pauses, and they would think he was trying to protect me, as any other father would. Somehow I knew all that was before me. I knew how my mother and my father would regard me from then on. And how I would come to regard myself.
Perhaps I even knew that his lies would squeeze his heart shut in a year, for I knew I’d lost them both, or all three of them. I knew that now I was alone. The sun gave off that sweet, endless, August glow as it sank behind the first few leaves. Eventually, of course, I disobeyed my father and moved. I didn’t know where to go, so I went into the field of orb spiders. At first, as I walked in among their waiting webs, I was afraid. The mind is a wolf. Then the light shed down sharply golden and I began to think. Thinking saved me. Perception saved me. I saw that the spiders were just substance. Not bad, not good. We were all made of the same stuff. I saw how we spurted out of creation in different shapes. How for a time I would inhabit this shape but then I’d be the lace on my sister’s shoe that had dropped off her foot onto the weeds and tamped grass, or I’d be the blue pot my parents argued about, or maybe something else. There was nothing but the endless manufacture of things out of nothing. I saw the changing and exchanging of shapes. The grass growing all around me, now, would one day be the cow, the milk, the flesh of the calf, then me.
I thought and thought in order to avoid something massive. But whenever I stopped thinking, it lay before me just the same.
The bronze sun turned across my shoulders and stung all the way down my arms. I tapped a loaded jewelweed and the seed flipped out of sight. Feral and silent as coal, the spiders ranged to all sides of me. I put out my finger and with the slightest of motions I stroked the back of a spider. I coaxed the biggest one, using a thin blade of grass, into my palm. Then I held it for a motionless time. It was a sun-warmed thing, heavy as a dirt clod, but light as a plastic toy. Poised, excited, it vibrated with cold breath, ticked swiftly in my hand. Hummed, sang, knocked away the edges of the world.
NORTH OF HOOPDANCE
I’ve got a big truck, first of all, so with it comes the responsibility to haul drunks from ditches and boats hung up on shore and to make deliveries of emergency wood. Next there’s the fact that I work in the hospital, which makes people think, I do not know why, that the medical profession has rubbed off on me. Like maybe I picked it up from watching how the doctors and nurses take care of people. Then there is the idea that I supposedly have so much extra time to kill, living alone as I do, that it is a favor to me to ask a favor of me. So people kindly fill up the boredom of my hours by getting me to do all sorts of boring things for them.
There is a person who asks a lot of me, a woman for whom everything goes wrong. She has tired out everyone else on this reservation. I think I am the only one who doesn’t find a dire excuse of their own to get rid of her before she makes a request. So this woman, Chook she is called because of her crackling thin hair and how she always wears a hat, this Chook must think everybody on this whole reservation except me is in a state of continual emergency. People tempt fate, even, when Chook calls them up, by inventing really awful things that nobody wants to happen.
“Mary Sunday’s stove blew up, so she can’t drive me into town,” says Chook. Or even, “Teddy Eagle has something called yellow fever that could turn into smallpox if he’s not real careful.”
She laughs. As she is no dummy she knows a stupid excuse when she hears one. But I just take it at face value.
“That’s tough luck,” I say, resigned. I wait to hear what she’s got in mind for me to do. I really don’t know why I always end up helping her out. She’s a hard person to feel sorry for because she has more pity for herself than another person could possibly muster, but perhaps I do these things because I know in spite of everything that Chook is a good mother. Her irritating requests and desperations end up benefiting her children and the grandchildren she is raising—the oldest two grown sons, Morris and John, and the two much younger, a boy and a girl, who, unlike Chook, are always well dressed and with whom she is strict. From being around them I know they get good grades, and are not allowed to drink soda pop or watch too much television or ride around on other kids’ ATVs without a helmet. Plus she is kind of hysterical about seat belts, which, really, a mother should be. Still, that doesn’t make her less annoying or cause my eyes not to roll up to the ceiling when I answer the phone and it is her.
One day she calls, my day off, of course, and has a peculiar mission for me to go on. Sometimes I think she steals a look at my schedule in the back room on the hospital wall. I’m yawning. I thought for once I’d sleep in. But Chook has other uses for me.
“Bernard,” she says, “have you got a pickax?”
Many of her requests begin like that. She’s got most of my tools and garden equipment at her house now.
“Yeah,” I say, “I still have my pickax. You haven’t got that yet.”
She gives a soft, sad little laugh. “When Mike died, he took all his tools with him, eh?”
Mike was her husband, whom I sometimes think died so he wouldn’t get pestered by Chook anymore. He needed the peace and quiet. He went easily, no fuss. Drove himself to the emergency room and was dead of a heart attack five minutes after he got there. In the ground three days later. With all of his tools, according to Chook. I don’t even want to know what she is talking about. But she tells me.
“He borrowed from everybody else, so they come here for the funeral supper and they end up taking whatever they lent my husband and more, too, I think, besides. Once that night was up I look around me and I don’t see half what we used to have. But I was too broke up to say anything about it, eh? Me, I never said nothing. Just let it go.”
“I’ve got quite a lot of business going on today, Chook, so if you—”
“Oh, Bernard? There’s something I gotta ask you!”
I shut my eyes, weary already, already anticipating one of her usual requests. “Let’s hear it.” But instead of a ride to the bank during which I will hear the state of her meager bank account, or a plumbing disaster where I’ll be confronted with a tangle of plugged pipes, she asks me something I can’t register at first. She asks me to come and help her dig up her husband’s body. She has to repeat it three times before I realize she’s serious.
“I can’t do that! I mean, I would never do that. Anyway, I think you have to get some kind of permit, or go through the church.”
“No,” she says, “I don’t have to do that. Remember, he had himself buried on the ridge with the traditionals.”
Well, I did remember that, for all it was worth; to me it didn’t matter if he was buried underneath my front steps. I certainly was not goi
“And you know what Mike had buried with him, you remember that, don’t you?” Chook was going to needle at me until I did something.
“His own pickax.”
“No, haha! You’re funny, Bernard. No!”
“Then what was it?” She was going to tell me no matter what.
“He had the tobacco box, even the scrolls of all the songs that went along with that drum your grandfather made, the one that took the sickness out of people. Mike had that drum’s belongings, you recall, because his father was on that drum and one of its keepers. Mike never thought that the drum would come back here.”
“So what do you want the things for?” I said, not even then understanding.
“Because it has.”
I hung the phone right up on her. I’d never done anything like that before. My hand had done it for me, refusing to have anything to do with something so alarming as the drum still existing, even much less returning. She called back.
“We got cut off!”
“Yeah.” I was troubled. There was so much more to this, more than ever had been admitted to those not directly involved way back then. Many people were affected by this drum. Many people know part of the story. But I know all or most of the history of this drum. I know because my father talked once he got sober, talked like his own father had, endlessly, hoping to be redeemed by the story. And he was only one of those who could not forget. Once his mind cleared he had to contend, of course, with the shame of all he had done when he was boozed up. So he talked to try and wear down the edges of that shame. And I was the one who listened.
The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes