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The Painted Drum

Chapter One

Revival Road

Faye Travers

Leaving the child cemetery with its plain hand-lettered sign and
stones carved into the weathered shapes of lambs and angels, I am
lost in my thoughts and pause too long where the cemetery road
meets the two-lane highway. This distraction seems partly age, but
there is more too, I think. These days I consider and reconsider
the slightest of choices, as if one might bring me happiness and
the other despair. There is no right way. No true path. The more
familiar the road, the easier I'm lost. Left and the highway snakes
north, to our famous college town; but I turn right and am bound
toward the poor and historical New England village of Stiles and
Stokes with its great tender maples, its old radiating roads, a
stern white belfry and utilitarian gas pump/grocery. Soon after the
highway divides off. Uphill and left, a broad and well-kept piece
of paving leads, as the trunk of a tree splits and diminishes, to
ever narrower outgrowths of Revival Road. This is where we live, my
mother and I, just where the road begins to tangle.

From the air, our road must look like a ball of rope flung down
haphazardly, a thing of inscrutable loops and half-finished
question marks. But there is order in it to reward the patient
watcher. In the beginning, the road is paved, although the material
is of a grade inferior to the main highway's asphalt. When the town
votes swing toward committing more money to road upkeep, it is
coated with light gravel. Over the course of a summer's heat, the
bits of stone are pressed into the softened tar, making a smooth
surface for the cars to pick up speed. By midwinter, the frost
creeps beneath the road and flexes, creating heaves that force the
cars to slow again. I'm glad when that happens, for children walk
this road to the bus stop below. They walk past with their dogs,
wearing puffy jackets of saturated brilliance -- hot pink, hot
yellow, hot blue. They change shape and grow before my eyes,
becoming the young drivers of fast cars who barely miss the smaller
children, who, in their turn, grow up and drive away from

As I say, there is order, but the pattern is continually
complicated by the wilds of occurrence. The story surfaces here,
snarls there, as people live their disorder to its completion. My
mother, Elsie, and I try to tack life down with observation. But if
it takes a lifetime to see things clearly, and a lifetime beyond,
even, perhaps only the religious dead have a true picture of our
road. It is, after all, named for the flat field at its southern
end that once hosted a yearly revival meeting. Those sweeping
conversions resulted in the establishment of at least one or two
churches that now seem before their time in charismatic zeal. Over
the years they merged with newer denominations, but left their dead
sharing earth with Universalists and Quakers and even utter
nonbelievers. As for the living, we're trapped in scene after
scene. We haven't the overview that the dead have attained. Still,
I try to at least record connections. I try to find my way through
our daily quarrels, surprises, and small events here on this

We were home doing pleasant domestic chores on a frozen Sunday in
the dead of winter when there was a frantic beating at our door. In
alarm, Elsie called me. I came rushing from the basement laundry to
see a young man standing behind the glass of the back storm door,
jacketless and shivering. I saw that he'd lost a finger from the
hand he raised, and knew him as the Eyke boy, now grown, years past
fooling with his father's chain saw. But not his father's new
credit-bought car. Davan Eyke had sneaked his father's new
automobile out for an illicit spin and lost control coming down off
the hill beside our house. The car slid toward a steep gully lined
with birch. By lucky chance, it came to rest pinned precisely
between two trunks. The white birch trees now held the expensive
and unpaid-for white car in a perfect vise. Not one dent. Not one
silvery scratch. Not yet. It was Davan's hope that if I hooked a
chain to my Subaru and backed up the hill I would be able to pull
his car gently free.

My chain snapped, and the efforts of others only made things worse
over the course of the afternoon. At the bottom of the road a
collection of cars, trucks, equipment, and people gathered. As the
car was unwedged, as it was rocked, yanked, pushed, and let go, as
different ideas were tried and discarded, as the newness of the
machine wore off, Davan saw his plan was lost and he began to
despair. With empty eyes, he watched a dump truck winch his
father's vehicle half free, then slam it flat on its side and drag
it shrieking up a lick of gravel that the town road agent had laid
down for traction. Over the years our town, famous for the softness
and drama of its natural light, has drawn to itself artists from
the large cities of the eastern seaboard. They have usually had
some success in the marketplace, and can now afford the luxury of
becoming reclusive. Since New Hampshire does not tax income,
preferring a thousand other less effective ways to raise revenue,
wealthy artists find themselves wealthier, albeit slightly bored.
Depending on their surroundings for at least some company, they are
forced to rely on those such as myself -- a former user of street
drugs cured by hepatitis, a clothing store manager fired for lack
of interest in clothes, a semi-educated art lover, writer of
endless journals and tentative poetry, and, lastly, a partner in
the estates business my mother started more than fifty years

Excerpted from THE PAINTED DRUM © Copyright 2005 by Louise
Erdrich. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins Publishers. All
rights reserved.

The Painted Drum
by by Louise Erdrich

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0060515104
  • ISBN-13: 9780060515102