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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.

#

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

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

 

 

I’m One of Those

I received a forward from a friend who I enjoy a lot and also respect, not a little. He’s a person almost anybody could model their life after and enjoy many improvements in the process. That goes for me, that’s for certain!

Anyway, he’s of a more conservative bent than me, for the most part. Not altogether and not in the context of the current binary way of things. I believe we can disagree civilly.

The forward was about the dangers of large-scale immigration and why we should object to it in Canada. The message closed by encouraging recipients to: “Forward to everyone on your contact list!”

But… “everybody on my contact list” contains mostly people like me: those whose antecedents arrived here with no money, little or no English, next to no desire to learn English, demanding their own schools, refusing to join the army, getting free land for nothing while people who lived here for generations were forced to give up land for these newcomers.

The ladies wore weird headgear, the men’s closets were imbued in octopus ink, women were treated like indentured cooks-maids-baby incubators and every third adult male started his own church when he wasn’t debating buttons versus hooks and other matters of eternal salvation.

I come from a long line of ‘undesirable aliens’ — similar to the ones we Canadians are now supposed to “watch out for!”

I and my kind are lucky our predecessors were given a free, tax-payer-sponsored, gov-enforced sanctuary on the East Reserve, or all the gun-toting Canadian citizens back then might have chased the invading hordes of Mennos the heck back to Mother Russia to get ground up like foarmaworscht in history’s most violent wars.

The wide-eyed Molotschnian folk who arrived here were dependent in many ways on the kindness of strangers. They received that from Canadians — and Germans and Brits along the way, too! Now it’s our turn, even if we don’t like the looks of this incoming bunch. Some of them are religious fanatics. Oba!

By 2050, Canada will be 50%+ Asian and the U.S. will be a Hispanic majority, so really, squabbling now is just a waste of our znackzote-scented breath anyway.

My grandkids are French-Menno-Ukrainian-Metis and I’m proud of it and I suspect old Delegate Toews might be too if he was still around. He is one of those responsible for some of the details of the Mennonite diaspora, back in 1873.

charter

I respect opposing opinions because the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants us the ability to be 100% full of horse dung, a by-product that — when frozen — is good for road hockey but wears out its welcome in a warm room full of loud-talking Mennonite settlers’ offspring.

“Disagreement makes the world go ’round.”
— Chuck Toews (to me, my sisters, my daughters, and quite a few others)

Best of Fiction on the Web

Write. Edit. Research. Submit. Wait.

Repeat.

For short story writers, this is the air we breathe – the ink we drink. The, “Thank you for submitting,” e-mail we dare not open. It can be a grind because even the best get rejected. Even the best are shunned.

But occasionally the stars align, the would-be fatal bullet hits you right in the pocket flask (or Bible; it’s either Gibsons or Gideons) and you survive. A story appears. People read it and a few of them comment. One or two like it. The story makes its way around and the editor might think, well, that was a pretty good pick!

Then, riding that rare rogue wave – you get picked again. You are, dear boy, a ‘Best of’ author. (Cue: Whistling Bridge Over the River Kwai music or maybe Chariots of Fire – bare feet slapping through the surf.)

Anyway, this is a long way round to tell you that my story, “Nothing to Lose” is one of those fortunate few to be picked for Charlie Fish’s first ever anthology of Fiction on the Web (1996-2017).

Mine is a story about a Canadian man and some of the choices he had to make on the prairies in the early 1960’s. Do we ever fully release ourselves from the grasp of regret? At what cost?

All I know for sure is it’s nice to be picked.

I remember the ribboned woodgrain of that pale yellow door. I remember the diesel exhaust residue from the Zamboni and the other smells – ice, sweaty leather, and the stick of Juicy Fruit the caretaker gave me. He’s beside me at the back of the pack, me trying to see. It’s the Bantam team try-out results.

.

I had no real chance. I started skating late and despite a love for it, the goalie spot was unlikely for me. “A foregone conclusion,” as my dad, a famous defenceman in his day — try-out with the Red Wings — used to say.

.

“Think you made it?” Mr. Thiessen said, looking down at me.

.

“Nah. Pete, and then Bobby, as back-up,” I said, flipping wet hair off my forehead.

.

“Can you see?” I said to him. The list was taped to the door of the dressing room. It was on the coach’s Royal Bank of Canada stationery. Typed names. Double-spaced.

.

“Gotta do the ice,” he said, chewing hard on his gum. “Huskies play tonight.” He nudged me as he walked off. “Let me know,” he said, turning half around, his boots loud on the skate-scarred wood planks.

.

goalie

The Best of Fiction on the Web press release

Chapter 26

Mulholland and Hardbar

My WIP novel work continues and I have reached 64K words. That’s 64,000 first draft words. That number will likely turn into quite a few less after some slasher action by the grim reaper, formerly of Cambridge… now a regular at the White Hart, near Gunthorpe Street of Whitechapel. (My freelance editor James, who believes the only good adverb is a dead adverb. He likes his verbs naked.)

It is a pivotal chapter – where the book’s title characters meet! Here’s a chapter blurb:

Chapter 26 – Mulholland has a guest. Hardbar has injected himself into the world of Penrose Pond. They start out with an apropos sea-faring adventure, on April One. It’s Grandfa’s birthday, and also a wee tip-o-the-cap to the author’s real-life father-in-law – a dark-skinned gent named Henry (Heinrich) Kasper, born on April 1 and said to be descended from one of the three wise men.

The introduction of Mul and HB, featuring: Krüt, a parka Jesus, and a “beastly waat schneemachine!”

And a first-draft snippet:

With a glower, Hardbar dove headlong off the foot ramp of the snowmobile where he stood. He was powerful, and he cleared the water easily, his padded chest landing with a muffled, “whump!” on the ladder. A crescent of ice near his knees broke away and floated creekward. His lower legs were immersed, and he scrambled, cursing — his eyes wild — towards Mulholland.

“Back! Pull backwards!” he yelled as he scampered forward, banging his knees on the ladder rungs and scuttling forward, all ahead full.

Mulholland, kneeling behind the ladder, jerked hard to pull it towards him. It did not budge with the 150-pounds of Hardbar weighing it down. It was too heavy for Mulholland and his awkward position. He jerked again and again, but his knees and toes just slipped on the ice. As he tugged, the grey, deeply fissured wood dowel that was the bottom rung made a cracking noise. He stopped for fear of snapping it.

Hardbar was now more than halfway towards him. Another large half-moon had broken away behind him and a grinning semi-circle of dark swirling water reached as far as Hardbar’s feet. The snowmobile end of the ladder was submerged.

“STOP!” Mulholland commanded. Hardbar looked up at him, his face wet and granules of ice stuck in his beard. “We gotta slide the ladder along with us. It won’t move with you on it – I got no grip!”

“Okay, yeah!” Hardbar said, understanding the predicament immediately. He flopped off the ladder, lying alongside and hugging it one-armed and one-legged in a post-coital embrace. He untied the knotted arms of the parka. “Here,” he said, flipping the coat at Mulholland who was shimmying down along the other side of the ladder, bringing himself abreast of Hardbar. They each grasped a sleeve and the hooded parka lay atop the ladder spread-eagled.

“Like Jesus on da cross,” Hardbar commented, looking at the parka figure. Then, his accent faint, he said, “serious, can you swim? I really can’t.”

Tray bong, tray bong…
Mitch