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Our German Relative

Our German Relative

By Mitchell Toews

Whenever our family got together, it was inevitable that we would sit and tell stories. We would gather in my grandparents’ adjoining kitchen and living room, tjinja on the floor to make room on the couches and chairs for our elders. Here at the heart of their warm and crowded house, no one would be out of earshot. Yarns were unravelled and our feelings rose and fell. It was as if we were on a ship and the prairie around us was a rolling ocean – in all that sprawling snowy sea, my grandparents’ house was the safest harbour. And yet the stories often reminded us of the many dangers that exist in what seemed such a placid and familiar world.

At Christmas, Grandma always told the final story. That was our tradition. It was about my great-aunt Rosa when she was a child in Russia.

Enunciating with care in her precise English, Grandma Zehen told the story. Her narration was theatrical and thrilling, but still heartfelt and purely told. She would fill in detail and sentiment, adding dialogue to suit. But most engaging of all, she always told the story as if it was ours. This may not have been strictly so; it may have been cultural lore as much as family history. I never felt that it mattered – I just remember waiting for the story every Christmastime.

Lights were dimmed, candles lit. Out came the platters of Christmas cookies from the warmth of Grandma’s oven. Baked fresh this evening, we had been smelling them since the stories began, all of us waiting for them to arrive. I will never forget the candy taste of the pink icing, the buttery aroma with just a hint of vanilla. I can still see the warm glint of the crystal sugar in the candlelight. Best of all, dee tjinja got first pick from the overflowing trays!

Grandma began her special story once everyone had their cookies and we chewed as quietly as we could to listen.

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Not too far from Odessa, on the shores of the Black Sea, there was once a place called Molotschna Colony – ‘Milk River’, you know, as Englanders say it. My mother’s sister, my Taunte Rosa, attended grade school in one of the villages there. By Soviet dictate, the lessons were taught in Russian. The teacher, however, was brought in from Germany for the school year. Naturally, she was fluent in Hoch Deutsch – the language the Molotschna Mennonites spoke in church. She spoke Russian too, but best of all, thisLehrerin was also able to get by in her Mennonite students’ native PlautdietschObah, for the tjinja, of course, Plautdietsch was like the difference between day-old rye bread and fresh raisin toast with butter!

After Russia’s Godless Revolution, another state dictate forbade all religions. It was illegal to come together in any kind of gathering, especially for groups with obvious proclivities towards worship. Why even our little get-together today would have been banned under these new laws! Ambitious and diligent, the government officials were particularly strict in overseeing the local Mennonites in everything they did: at work, at home, and in Taunte Rosa’s school.

But there were still some aspects of Christendom that refused to fade in Russia. In a practical sense, this referred to the calendar and the arrangement of holidays, most of which were based on old religious traditions too deeply ingrained in society to go away overnight. Christmas ceased to exist, but a single day of rest near the end of December was permitted in Taunte’s village. Despite this, officially, even the simplest Yuletide symbols were banned.

Can you imagine? We have not experienced oppression like this in Canada, but let me tell you, it was a profound stimulant to Christmas joy back then! There is a kind of enthusiasm for celebrations that only forbidding them can produce. Ha! Bibles came out of secret hiding places. Clandestine late-night services were held in barns and haylofts and carols were sung in whispered voices. Even the auf’jefollna cast aside their backsliding ways and rediscovered their fervour!

Now, kids, I’m sorry for all the big words and grown-up talk! What Grandma is saying to you is that Christmas was taken away. And not just Christmas, but Easter too and even going to Sunday School. It was a mixed-up time, joh? But you little ones shouldn’t worry – the next part of the story is really for you, most of all!

So, now…little Rosa was very excited and too young then to grasp the full extent of the ban. She felt that taking away Christmas was like a game the adults played – the government on one side, trying to catch you; the parents and kids on the other side, trying to be clever and feeling the dangerous exhilaration of outsmarting the apparatchiks and their stuffy No-Christmas rules.

Christmas baking was one of many pieces in this complex game. Most Mennonite families still made Christmas cookies and other festive treats, but these traditions were known to the officials and were part of the ban. Christmas cookies were kept secret and were hidden.

A few days before Christmas Day one year, Rosa joined the game. That day, her mother had baked a batch of these secret Christmas cookies, and young Rosa couldn’t stop herself. She took one of the best, one with pink icing and red and green sugar crystals on top – and snuck away. She wrapped it in oiled paper, then in a folded piece of cardboard and secured it snugly with a thin ribbon she had saved from her birthday. Her coat had an inside pocket and she placed it there, near her heart. This was her Christmas gift for her teacher, Fraulein Rosenfeld. Rosa was so fond of her pretty teacher, you see, and was always broken-hearted in the springtime when Fraulein packed her trunk and left on the train.

Imagine the winter sky, children, as big there and just as blue as it is here. Think of Taunte Rosa as she hummed ‘Stille Nacht’ ever so softly while she walked to the schoolhouse, her boots squeaking in rhythm on the hard-packed snow path. Rosa, you see, felt guilty for not telling her mother about the gift. But, you know just how she felt, joh? She wanted to give this gift so badly and feared if she had asked, the answer would be no.

After lunch at school that day, while the other children dressed to go out and play, Rosa walked shyly to Fraulein’s desk and placed the ribboned gift in front of her. Fraulein tilted her head, not used to gifts from children in her class. Desperately saving for passage to strange, distant destinations like Canada, America, and Mexico, the families of Molotschna had little left over. And, of course, no one in any of the Russian Mennonite Colonies gave gifts for Christmas.

“What’s this?” the teacher asked.

Rosa stood at the edge of the desk, her heavy parka over her arm. At first, she was terrified, sensing that her teacher was angry and that she had done something wrong. “A present, Lehrerin,” was her meek answer.

Fraulein answered with a hum and a slight frown. She was a prim woman, thin and neat and somewhat severe. Her eyebrows raised and her eyes flicked up to see if anyone else was in the room. It was empty; all the children were already on the playground. She picked up the light bundle and unwrapped it with long piano fingers, laying the shiny ribbon on the varnished desktop. She undid the folded oil-paper and looked down at the small Christmas cookie.

“Well, well,” she said, before taking a deep breath and sitting upright in her chair. “How nice, Rosa. But, tell me please: did your mother give you this, for me?” She left her steady gaze on the child but took care not to stare too hard.

Rosa looked down, her cheeks flushing. “Nay, Lehrerin. It was me,” she confessed.

Nicht Mutti?” replied the teacher in more formal High German; her tone firmer, a hint of accusation lingering.

Nein, Fraulein. Mother doesn’t know.”

Fraulein Rosenfeld nodded curtly. She rose and walked swiftly to the doorway, her heels like hammer blows on the oiled wood floor. Looking down the hall and then closing the door, she paused there, her hands clenching as she gathered her thoughts. Rosa waited, feeling ever smaller next to the tall desk. The door locked with a sharp snap.

Nah joh,” Fraulein Rosenfeld began. When she turned back to Rosa she was smiling. “This is so nice.”

Rosa squirmed, basking in the moment.

“It’s just so nice!” Fraulein repeated. “Can we have it now, Rosa?”

The little girl studied her teacher’s face. Then, eyes shining, she said, “Joh!

Fraulein Rosenfeld looked through the window to the playground. Then she returned to the desk and broke the cookie into smaller bits. She ate some of it, passing a small piece to Rosa.

They ate together, chewing busily like church mice, with the teacher standing between little Rosa and the door. Fraulein fretted from door to window and to the large white-faced clock on the wall behind her, above the lined blackboard, keeping watch all the while.

Soon the cookie was gone. The teacher took the wrapper and folded it over and over until it was a small square. She pushed it deep into her pocket, together with the curly ribbon. She moistened her fingertip and dabbed at the few remaining crumbs. Holding one finger upright in front of her pursed lips, she took Rosa’s little hands and squeezed them gently, leaning over to kiss her on the forehead in the silent classroom.

“Our secret, joh?” Fraulein said in a whisper.

Rosa nodded, elated to have a secret with Fraulein – an honour she did not fully grasp. But perhaps it was just what the Fraulein had been lacking in cold and distant Molotschna.

 

molotschna sm
Page 232, “Building on the Past”, Raduga Publications, Rudy P. Friesen

 

You see, Fraulein Rosenfeld was much revered by the officials who ran the school. They saw her presence as a special concession to the Mennonites. On the other hand, the local teachers felt it was a slight to them and they treated her with cool disdain. For Fraulein, from a remote dairy farm in southern Germany, this teaching position was Godsent. It combined her gift for language and her love of children. To her, some minor social distance was a small price to pay. But ask any oma or opa whose children have since begun their own lives and families, and they will tell you, it’s easier to feel lonely at Christmas than at any other time of the year.

Fraulein gazed with fondness at the tiny girl, she saw the brightness in her eyes and touched her braided blonde hair.

Just then, the first of Rosa’s red-cheeked classmates huffed into the cloakroom stomping snow off their boots and unwinding scarfs, their yarn-strung mittens wet and dangling. They looked at the two at the front of the classroom. Rosa’s friend Tina called out that they missed her for the game of fox and geese they had played, running in the fresh snow. Before Rosa could reply, the bell rang and the children returned to their seats.

Now tjinja, you might ask, how dangerous was that one innocent küak? Surely no great peril could come from something so small? But all it would have taken was for the wrong official to find out about the cookie – why what would have happened to them then? Those Russians, obliged by strict orders to find them, might have detained Rosa’s family. Maybe they would have been sent to a distant work camp or suffered some secret cruelty in Moscow, too horrible to name. Who knows?

And all because of a Christmas cookie.

#

Grandma folded her hands in her lap. The house fell still and silent until Grandpa prayed, his voice solemn and thick with emotion. When he finished, after, “Amen,” we sang, giving thanks for our deliverance, rattling the windows, billowing our hearts; “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”

At last, late on Tjrist’owend, I would lie in my bed and retell myself Great-Aunt Rosa’s story. Fraulein Rosenfeld was like a relative we saw just once a year – a loyal and trusted member of our family there in the tiny house behind the bakery on Barkman Avenue. With this visitor, never distant though she came from far away and long ago, our Christmas was complete.

 

Reprints and re-blogs are welcome. A version of this fiction appeared on Red Fez Christmas, 2016.
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The Business of Saving Souls on SickLit

Update: My prickly story about the conflation of business, big church and politics appears on SickLit Magazine today, May 15.

This is a reprint of the story which first appeared on another of my favourite literary journals, Literally Stories.

This is what SickLit Senior Editor Nicole Ford Thomas had to say about it:

“I really like “The Business of Saving Souls,” as it seems at first like a warm and fuzzy church parable about doing good, but down deep, it’s a lesson about standing up to corruption–all corruption–and fighting to take care of each other.”

SickLit recently ran a reprint of another of my stories, “The Rothmans Job”, which first appeared on the vibrant Canadian literature site, CommuterLit. I have a total of seven stories on CommuterLit and another five on Literally Stories. Thanks to the editors of all of these exceptional online literary journals!

I hope you enjoy the pieces and welcome your comments.

Special thanks to the editors at SickLit. They are awesome sauce. (Or, “hosanna!” as they’d read responsively at the NTCCF.)

Allfornow – Mitch

The Beefeater and the Donnybrook

 

Update: 4.11.17 – Hi, from a sunny day in April, beside the lake,

Janice and I have been travelling and have both been down with a cold lately. My blog activity has been limited, though I have been able to keep up with daily writing. Today I heard from editor and literary paragon, Charlie Fish, that another of my stories has been accepted for his award-winning site, Fiction on the Web.

Feedspot has named FotW a TOP 20 short story site on the internet!

Short-story_20_transparent_216pxHere’s what Charlie says about FICTION on the WEB: “It is a labour of love. Every single story on here is hand-picked and carefully edited by me. I don’t have a staff, and I don’t make any money. I do this because I want to give authors a chance to get their work out there, and I love sharing great stories with the world.

FICTION on the WEB has been online since 1996, which makes it the oldest short stories website on the Internet.”

Here are a few snippets from my latest story:

The Beefeater and the Donnybrook

By Mitchell Toews

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2017

MICAH JAMES WAS shorter than average and had an interesting kind of face. His eyes were recessed and penetrating and his complexion had the weathered texture and ruddy colour of a mountain climber or a big game hunter. He was neither. Micah James was a quiet, middle-aged family man – an engineer working for the City of Halifax in Canada.

The Jameses were leaving together soon on a long-awaited trip to London. His wife, Marion, had planned the trip from the packing process through tipping and all conceivable forms of disaster planning.

[SNIP]

“Ok, I’m on it! Walk will do me good.” Micah said, giving Marion an assuring glance and summoning up some energy for the trip. It was fine – the kind of little blip he had been secretly hoping for.

[SNIP]

Twisting in his crouch, Micah was eyeball to kneecap with a pair of creased black pants, gold piping on the sides. His eyes followed the stripes up to a white satin tunic and topping that, a dapper red fez. Then the voice again, but softer, “Are you alright, mate?”

[SNIP]

He waited in line at the reception desk, listening to an instrumental version of a Bob Dylan song. It was piping out of a speaker in the tile ceiling above him and he laid his head back to peer at it. Thinking of his own rapid descent into hell, he picked detritus from his oily beard; bits of styrofoam and other rancid urban spod. His thinning hair hung in limp disarray and the belt of the raincoat had come loose and was dragging on the ground behind him like an obedient, filthy snake.

[SNIP]

See it on FotW on May 19: an ever-worsening yarn that plays out on the streets of central London. 

Other stories that have appeared on Fiction on the Web:

Nothing to Lose

July 8, 2016. A baker and former hockey player reminisces on his colourful history as he delivers buns in the dusty Manitoba sun.

Heavy Artillery

Oct. 30, 2016. The story of young Matty and his characterful neighbour encountering a travelling salesman in the sleepy Manitoba town of Hartplatz.

The Preacher and His Wife

 Jan. 23, 2017. In Hartplatz, rural Canada, a neighbourhood scandal brews when young Sarah reports that her grandmother’s engagement ring has gone missing.

The Rothmans Job

February 19, 2017 UPDATE

SickLitMagazine has advised that they will be publishing a reprint of “The Rothmans Job” which first appeared (see below) on CommuterLit.com.

The story will run in late March or early April.

sicklit

allfornow – Mitch

January 30, 2017 UPDATE

TODAY, this twisted Canadian yarn, born in absurd truth and transported on the wings of a fictional 1991 prairie storm, is published by CommuterLit – a Toronto based online purveyor of morning short stories, lox and bagels. (And they are all out of lox and bagels.) 

http://commuterlit.com/

If a Neo-Noir Xmas Tragicomedy sub-genre exists, then this story belongs there. If not, then maybe this story inspires it?

A snowy night. An unlocked warehouse. A characterful materfamilias.

The Rothmans Job – EXCERPTS
By Mitchell Toews
.
A STORM LIKE THIS was rare. Snowflakes blocked out sky and sun and moon and stars. The flakes – as big as baby fists – had been falling for three days. Light and dry, they flew, then settled, then flew again – whipped by a dodgy north wind. At night, the tops of buildings disappeared except for the occasional glimpse of a red tower beacon or a snapping row of flags, like those atop The Bay.
.
Through this otherworld trudged Waxman and Thunderella. Waxman led. He wore two snowmobile suits and his knees could not bend more than a few degrees. Lumbering and stiff, he plowed through drifts for his female accomplice, Ellen Thundermaker.
.
[snip]
.
“No way, Waxy. It’s gonna be all imported cheese and fancy wine. Crab meat. Vienna sausages…” she said, stopping to let him join in.
.
“Ha-ha. Yeah – uhh, Heineken beer, Dijon ketchup, Swiss chocolate – or, you know, one of those giant bars, ahh,”
.
“TOBLERONE, TOBLERONE!” she shouted out, filling in the missing name.
.
“AS if,” she added, suddenly serious…
.
[snip]
.
(about 2,400 words)   Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2017.

#

Waxman, Thunderella, Pegasus, Otto the inventor, the police, Pozzo, Roland, and (in absentia) Poland, all look forward to making your acquaintance.

allfornow – Mitch

Everyday Fun with U.S. Politics!

Here’s a fun game to play each day when the latest appalling thing shows up to spoil your perfect 7-minute eggs:

#Episode45

#Episode45 is my hashtag game for an imaginary TV series. It’s kinda like “As the World Turns” and “Breaking Bad” combined into a weekly show, featuring some of the daily participants in the CNN – Fox News buffoon-a-paloosa that airs each day on our real TVs.

I have been writing captions for select new atrocities, under the #Episode45 banner. It’s fun and easy. Each day, there’s a new DEPLORABOMBSHELL and you just take it and, wearing your best Dr. Suess/Charlie Chaplin/Seth Meyers absurdist’s garb, turn it into a TV Guide-style episode summary.

episode45

I’ve selected a gangland, ship-of-fools trope for the #Episode45 mob, led by their intrepid kingpin, “Fat Donnie”. New characters come and go every day, just like the real White House. I’ve substituted bocci for golf – a move designed to protect the innocent (don’t want to put anyone off their game) and I also try to not let it get too far beyond the pale.

Awww, shit — who am I kidding!? It’s WAY BEYOND the pale! But, in fairness, it’s not as crazy as the stuff that is going on in the real world.

That’s the beauty, you can’t overdo it.

Anyway, here are the summaries I’ve churned out so far. Feel free to join in and create your own #Episode45isms! In fact, you might want to branch out:

  • Slam the DEMS! #WhataboutthoseE-MAILS?
  • A UK-Vonnnegut-version? #BrexitofChampions?
  • Some Canadian content? #SayItAin’tTRUDEAU?

I’ll leave it with you. Here are my attempts, from oldest to newest:

Fat Donnie and his consig. Pauli the Perm wrap up a summit on neutral turf with rival gang boss, Bareback Vlad. Sean the Lip voices his loyalty to the merger along with ruthless fixer, Mikey “Pastor” Pence. (Repeat)

“The Enemy of My Friend” Fat Donnie considers turning over old adversaries to Bareback Vlad, the handoff to take place on Fifth Avenue. 

Mikey Plaid Jacket is chafed over Fat Donnie’s apparent disinterest. Meanwhile, Donnie and Bareback Vlad plan a second meet, this one at an old girlfriend’s crib: The Playboy Mansion.

“That’s Gonna be Special” Fat Donnie is secretly recorded Vogueing in a spandex catsuit. Cross-town rivals, The Persian Posse, assume Donnie is mocking them and threaten war. Confused, Donnie’s former coffee-boy, “Book’em” Page disavows his bucking video on YouTube. (I know, this one’s pretty weird.)

imwithstupid

 

“I know you are but what am I?” Mikey Plaid Jacket gets peeved at Fat Donnie and his new BFF, BugEye Rudi. Meanwhile, Silent Bob of Five-Oh is putting bigly heat on the gang and Donnie’s putter has turned stone cold.

 

“That’s a gimme!” This weekend, Fat Donnie & “Pastor” Mikey Pence enjoy a little bocci. Pastor Mikey’s job is to keep Donnie’s equipment squeaky clean—and his bocci balls too—and also to nod & gaze adoringly at the back of FD’s head as he plays.

Fat Donnie’s wife, Carmen, reveals her preferences in today’s romp, “I Like Big Butts”. Her favs? CNN, but, “recorded so I zap all dose old people ads.” She’s reading Tapper, listening to Maddow and is a big fan of Mexican soap operas, saying, “so much like REAL LIFE!”

one word

“One Word: Plastics” In this tense episode Fat Donnie moves his investments. “Look, whose gonna fly without that they’re strapped wit a ghost gun? Nobody, dat’s who. Opportunity? Yuge.” Cameo by John Wick.

“The Fall of Vane DeSeet” Sensing a legal dragnet closing fast around him and the gang, Fat Donnie sets up his son, Vane, to take the fall. “I love ya, Vane, boy, but sometimes it takes tough love.” Guest: Hope It Sticks Hicks

Tune into #Episode45 for more hi-jinx, tomf*ckery, and the endless blame, shame, and hard rain that’s a-gonna fall.

“Bladder leak underwear may cause rash, increased self-doubt and overwhelming recollections of past glories…”

“THIS is CNN,” booms the rich, familiar voice on the TV.

“LUKE! I am your faaaatha,” Janice replies, a mockingjay from the other room.

I must admit that since I began watching CNN with my morning coffee, there’s one trend that I find disturbing and uncomfortable.

No, it’s not journalists being called “enemies of the people”, it’s not “grab’em by the you-know-what,” and it’s not the protection of the environment being pulled away like Lucy does with Charlie Brown’s football. To be sure, those things and many more, with their inexorable spill into the Canadian lives of my kids and grandkids, bug me plenty.

But what makes me feel small and alone and a little bit vulnerable out here in the rock and lakes and boreal bush is the advertising on CNN.

“Huh?” you say.

It’s this way: as a former long-time advertiser, I can’t help but observe the demographic targeting on CNN.

And there’s the rub. I now find myself listening (covertly) to all the ads for pills and treatments, hair-teeth-heart-cancer, all the stuff from stair-climbers to (ahem) blue pills.

And by blue pills, I of course mean daily low-dose aspirin, in case there’s any confusion.

The darn thing is, I am now apparently the target market for this senior basket of goods. My turn to say, “Huh?” How-the-Metamucil did THAT happen?

Oh, well. As one of my favourite characters in my upcoming WIP novel would say, “It ain’t what it ain’t…”

So, next time you hear those dulcet James Earl Jones tones, think of me sprinkling Plavix on top of my tumeric flavoured Boost.

P.S. – if you have any design ideas for securing my walker on a windsurf board, send me a shop-drawing!

A Day in the Life

What activities fill a writer’s days at Jessica Lake? Usually, it’s routine: up an’ attem, walk, yoga and then eat. Or, brecky first and then get right to work on projects. Projects like building a shed, fixing the dock, or making a couple of rock and cement steps on a gravelly path that can sometimes be slippery.

If I am working on a short story, a re-write, an edit, a submission, or my novel – then that writerly craft supercedes the physical kind. Sometimes I blog and act the fool on social media. The bonus of being a class clown on twitter is that there’s no teacher to send you out in the hall like the pipsqueak that taught me in 1968 by negative example not to have a supercilious speech affectation, lest people believe I am a pretentious and secretly self-loathing boob in a too-tight tracksuit.

Whatever… I get up in the morning and make some shit – whether it’s words or waves or something made of brick and mortar.  But not sticks and stones – I don’t argue on twitter.

Partly, I try to avoid arguing online because I lose — how do you win, really? — and partly because I feel like that twitter-wars are more of a forum for the same light livered guys who used to phone in and yell at our receptionists and then became sweet-as-Rogers Corn Syrup when I got on the phone. Weasels and bit players. Sorry for the digression – that kind of loudmouth schnookery gets me whipped up.

I’m a damn lib and I mock the USA’s Le Petite Orange and all those in Canada who would have us go that yelling-at-the-receptionist direction. I try to be supportive of thoughtful people in an offbeat and often cryptic way, even if we disagree. It’s kinda fun.

Back to activities: If there are kids and/or grandkids around – they trump all and any other. It’s the law. When conditions beckon, there’s windsurfing and cross-country skiing here at Jessica the Awesome.  (BTW, I’m writing this in my wetsuit, waiting for the wind to pipe up, so if you smell neoprene, that’s why.)

Yesterday, I finished off a small project of the outdoor-splinters-in-the-fingers variety and then made a final edit for a story that launches today in riverbabble 33. My literary friends in Berkeley have shone the light of publication down on me once again and I’m feeling pretty plucky about it if I do say so myself. I sometimes think my luck in the Golden State is owing to the ghost of Randy Joe P, a RIP Fresno State alum and long-ago potentate of Steinbach’s third street. He was a fine fellow who might have some supernatural sway down there in the Bay area. I remember him a grade ahead of me. I recall him not taking any guff from the aforementioned boob in the tracksuit and so, Randy was a fav of mine and if anyone can control the roulette wheel from the twilight zone, it would be him.

Anyway, I was cleaning up my tools when I spotted something strange out in the middle of the lake. My binocs confirmed that it was a capsized canoe with the two paddlers hanging on. The short version is I zipped out in our boat and pulled them out of the water, dragging the canoe in behind us. They were, like the unfortunate Canada Goose gosling earlier that day that was taken by surprise by a hungry seagull, inexperienced. Luckily, good things exceeded bad — youth, warm water, and most of all, life jackets — and the voyageurs’ soaking experience ended well.

I was thinking today as I edited my novel — my editor, btw, is a godsend, or at least, “highly recommended by 7 out of 10 deities” — that I am fortunate to live in the woods, hard by a clean lake, and experience daily the wondrous shock and awe of nature. True, I miss society and mostly just grunt expressively when I am in a civilized social setting, but that’s a small price to pay.

To conclude, a few whitecaps are showing and I just might be able to get out there and sneak some sailing in before my calcified and scarred OWG joints seize up and demand beer, so I’ll end here with the admonishment to avoid arguing on twitter and furthermore, never turn your back on a seagull.

“The Margin of the River” riverbabble31   http://iceflow.com/riverbabble/issue31/issue31.html

“In the Dim Light Beyond the Fence” riverbabble32
http://www.iceflow.com/riverbabble/issue32/issue32.html

“Nothing to Lose” riverbabble33
http://www.iceflow.com/riverbabble/Welcome.html

bofotw best of fiction

My story, “Nothing to Lose” first appeared in “Fiction on the Web” and has appeared elsewhere on the web since. The story is also in print in “The Best of Fiction on the Web” an anthology and you can BUY that door-stopper of a beauty for less than the price of a tracksuit!

CA – https://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/0992693918/ref=nosim/fantasticfi0e-20

UK https://www.amazon.com/Best-Fiction-Web-1996-2017/dp/0992693918

USA –– https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0992693918/ref=nosim/speculativefic05

 

 

 

 

 

Memorial Day 1973

As the U.S. remembers their fallen, I am reminded of a day years ago that made the war in Vietnam real to me. I was a teenager and a ball tournament near the border let me mingle with Americans.

At the beer garden after the games, I met a young man a few years my senior. We talked about the war and he showed me his draft card. His status teetered on the very edge of the draft lottery, which ended for good soon after our meeting. The reality of this fellow’s fate and how different it was from mine struck me and I think of it — and him — every year at this time.

A while ago I wrote a story based on that long-ago border town baseball encounter. “A Vile Insinuation” appeared in CommuterLit in June of 2016 and it’s linked here, along with the other pieces of the trilogy to which it belongs.

In June 2016 Toronto-based CommuterLit published “The Red River Valley Trilogy“:  “Encountered on the Shore” (Rerun Friday, October 6, 2017), “A Vile Insinuation”and “Without Reason”. The linked stories concern, respectively: the aftermath of a violent encounter on a city street; a young American leaving the ball fields of North Dakota for the killing fields of Vietnam; and a devout Mennonite man grappling with cancer and faith. These trilogy stories question “things happen for a reason” morality.

allfornow,
mjt

Toopoabeide

TOOPOABEIDE*, or “working together” is the Plautdietsch word for collaborate. And, thanks to the generosity and skill of one of my hometown heroes, that is what I am able to do in an upcoming story.

I clearly remember sitting cross-legged on the floor in John Henry Friesen’s Steinbach sign-painting shop in the sixties, watching with unflagging attention as he lettered signs and trucks. I attended, usually along with my dad, while “John Henry” built, sculpted, painted or otherwise, “hucked stuff together”. He is a wonderful artist, a creative wonder-worker, and a local institution.

John and I have connected on the internet a few times and not long ago I showed him a draft of a story that I wanted to send out for consideration by literary magazines. A while later he came back with the drawing shown above. In the meantime, my story was accepted by the Canadian publication Pulp Literature and — with JHF’s permission — I sent them a copy of his fanciful artwork. 

Editor Jennifer Landels replied in the affirmative and John’s art will grace the title page of my short story, “Away Game”. I am pleased as I am sure John is too. (“Cool.”) I can only imagine my late father, who has an inspirational role in both the story and the art, is happy about our prose-ink collaboration. Dad was a great fan of John’s and, if my story is at all accurate, still is.

I’ll post the publication details as soon as they are available.

~~~

* Tawp-oawr-bide

 

Fiction on the Web Presents “City Lights”

My short story, “City Lights” is up on Fiction on the Web. FotW, based in Londonis one of the first literary magazines to appear online. It was founded by writer-editor-screenwriter Charlie Fish and has been running continuously since 1996.

An earlier version of “City Lights” first ran on LingoBites as “The Light Pool” and is available on that site in English and Espanol, in both text and audio. It’s a dark story of class conflict, bias and selfishness.

Another story of mine, “Nothing to Lose”, was chosen for inclusion in “Best of Fiction on the Web”, an anthology that launched in January of 2018 and contains 54 stories from FotW’s 23 years of publication. This outstanding collection is available for £16.99 | USD$19.95 and all proceeds go to the Guy’s and St. Thomas NHS Foundation Trust.

You can buy the book from Amazon (UK linkUS link).

“The Doeling” in Cabinet of Heed

May 6, 2018: One of my short stories has been accepted in Cabinet of Heed. CofH is a newer literary publication run by Simon Webster and it contains top writing, including many award winners, past and future.

My 2,800-word scamper, “The Doeling”, is in Editor Simon’s eighth issue. I hope you like it.

May 7, 2018: Also, be sure to read some of the other poems, flash fiction and stories you find in the Cabinet – it’s top drawer!

And if you are a lover of planets with a red sun, the twilight zone, red pill-blue pill dilemmas and other such alternative circumstances, I’ve linked a copy of “The Doeling” with a completely different ending. Is you is or is you ain’t?

The Doeling_Toews, Mitchell, Alternative Ending

 

Nobel Driving

When I was 16-years-old, I received my driver’s license, on my second attempt. Being headstrong and conceited, I wanted to show off my prowess behind the wheel and I drove my mom’s car fast, reckless, and erratic. Pedestrians and other drivers were terrified, except for the few knuckleheads who, like me, mistook foolishness for power and strength.

I continued my wanton ways, knowing in my feckless heart that my judgement was better than the established lawmakers and traffic regulators. Many others feared a tragic and destructive end to my selfish story. The townspeople cowered in their carports, not wanting to venture out into the street lest I appear in their rear-view mirror, my wind-whipped mane waving like a speedway banner out the window of Mom’s ’68 American Eagle.

I continued to drive wild, much to the chagrin of the police, judges, my parents, and unsuspecting townsfolk. If they objected, I called them names and revved my engine, which was a very large engine, let me assure you.

Not long into my reign of terror, the province carried through on a long-planned and much-awaited change to the traffic laws. The speed limit on the nearby TransCanada highway was increased from 60 MPH to 70.

“See!” I crowed proudly, sailing downwind on this fortuitous but tainted breeze. “I told you those restrictive speed limits were no good. If it wasn’t for my bold actions, challenging the established norms and imposing my superior will, we would never have achieved this historic milestone! The province has ME to thank.”

“Here! Here! Do a burnout!” cried the adoring crowd, who now looked at me with new respect as I thundered by, 50 MPH in a school zone, Deep Purple thumping in a “Hail to the Chief” kind of way. The people cheered like had never been heard before in the history of hearing as I displayed my impressive skill, swerving smoothly to avoid a careless child and crossing guard. What were they doing on the street? SAD!

Following a groundswell grassroots campaign, I was nominated for and awarded the National Driving Award. Speeding down the TransCanada on the way to the presentation ceremony, I lost control and sideswiped a busload of my supporters. The Eagle landed upside down in the ditch and while no one on the bus was injured, they all had to have their heads examined, this I can tell you.

 

 

Pre-marathon

SUBTITLE: NOT A WHOLE LOT OF PEOPLE COULD REALLY CARE LESS ABOUT THIS. But still, it’s my blog, so, “I don’t GAVE a F*CK,” as the gruff locals say on Penrose Pond.

I understand from watching the Olympics and such that marathoners often do a lengthy run shortly before the race for which they are training. This final simulation gives them relatable experience and confidence in their preparation. At the same time, it’s not as long as their actual race, so they have to project a mental extension into their fatigue and expect intangibles like competitive spirit, adrenalin, desire and other unknowables to emerge on race day.

There’s a danger in this. In fastball, I remember hitting several consecutive home runs in a batting drill, just before our season opener. The Jugs pitching machine was set at full speed and was whirring in dropballs. I was hammering those pitches all over the ball diamond. My confidence ran high and I couldn’t wait to see our opponent’s live pitching.

Those, of course, were the last dropballs I saw that season.

So, to drag the original metaphor over the finish line, the pre-marathon that is a novel’s first draft can be deceptive, I suppose. I don’t know, because I’ve only ever written one and I just finished it last night.

On November 11, 2017, I wrote the first 673 words. I wrote a flashback opening sequence. I thought my editor would balk, but, like Mikey of  Seventies breakfast cereal fame, “He liked it!”

From there I went on, stroking out line drives and sharp grounders. I pulled fat pitches around the foul pole — and yes, beloved daughters of mine, there are some foul ones in there. (Sorry!) I bulled my way through a cold November and withstood both the freeze-up of our plumbing and the mid-novel doldrums of December. With a flip of my calendar page, I turned January into last month, passing Janice’s birthday with hardly a flicker. (Paying dearly – a mistake I won’t repeat, no matter how compelling the MC!) February leapt by and soon it was March. The fifteenth became the nineteenth — more notable birthdays that I met in the sweat latitudes — as I wrote steadfastly about the distant boreal and her splendour.

Then, on March 22, (good old double-digits, my lucky charm) I wrote 2,599 words, the concluding litany of a string of 100,089. The last two: “The End.”

“A back-country road trip into the secret, lethal places within the Canadian boreal forest through the four seasons: friendship, loss, guilt, and violence.”

* * *

“What’s next?”

Good question. I am hoping Editor James holds out his hand and asks, “the red pill or the blue pill?” Somehow, I don’t think it will be that easy. I think that I just recently got used to the loping cadence and easy restrictions of my original precis. Will this familiar pace continue? I trashed that first outline into an all but unrecognizable hulk. Will I run rampant in draft two? If I do, what will be left?

So many questions. For now, I will save a place for my familiar characters, and maybe leave a spot open in case someone new drops in. I know that if I keep the ending I wrote at 2:07 A.M., I’ll then have to change the flashback opening – maybe just one word though.

Or maybe all of them?

Still and Cold boathouse mulholland

 

The 8K-word Story

Around Halloween, I sent my freelance Editor, James, a precis for a story that I hoped would be, “a little longer than my usual 3,500 or so.”

He replied that I should not feel bound by the 8,000-word limit I had set in mind. “You’ve more than an 8,000-word outline here, looks to me,” he wrote back.

“Well, we’ve been playing catch with this thing since November and I am now on the brink of the 90,000-word elevation. OMG. Startled emoji. #climbingEverest. I have kept my routine intact for this long-form excursion – write every day, usually in the morning. Edit a little, but not full-out. Read segments aloud to Jan.

I’ve been sending James instalments every three or four days. He usually replies within two or three. He suggests, trims, refines, but uses small tools – the big John Deere is still in the shed.

The novel cadence, I find, is a little like a game of catch with a football. You catch, adjust the ball in your grip, line up the laces, chatter a bit, set up, take a step and toss it. Repeat.

James keeps things in bounds that tend to creep around, run aground, deafen with too much sound, and bark like a hound. Like… The plot: “You killed him?” The location: “I thought they were out in the boat, not on the dock!” Character traits: “Don’t be so soft on him. Make him a real bastard!” Style: “I’d say this is rather not Toewsian! You do well with the ands, not the short sentences, don’t be afraid!” The POV:  “Why are we in Vivaca’s head?” Mechanics: “Why do you use so many semi-colons?

Etc.

And now we are reaching the end. It’s scary. It’s not the REAL end, it’s the end of the first draft, James reminds, but still. Change is afoot. Hope I can still go to sleep in a rowboat adrift on Bannock Lake and wake up pushing a pick-up truck out of the snow on the side of a granite outcropping. I’ll keep talking like my characters and secretly trying out dialogue on Jan. I’ll miss the words, “hollowway, loon shit, diewel, thwart,” but there will be plenty more, I’m sure.

top of everest

Things to Look Forward To:

! James cutting a broad, gory swath on his first overall read-through edit!

! Replies from Beta readers.

! Submitting edited novel excerpts to literary journals!

 
I expect that the summit of my first draft will be like the top of Mt. Everest — littered with lots of discarded material. I fear that, but, it’s a tough business. Pass the oxygen.

Tray Bong!

Mitch