Morning Serial: Prairie’s End, Manitoba 1

I wake up most mornings with a half a dozen characters, a plotline or two, and a bunch of run-on sentences running around in my head. After the requisite morning constitutions are ratified, I oftentimes just let these night-grown inspirations fade away.

Well, no more! I am resolved to give my readers something to read! How about a good old-fashioned serial? Compelling, bent-widget characters with a rollicking plot fraught with lotsa knots, cliff-hangers and roundabouts that meet in the middle.

In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, it will be voluminous, spontaneous, and free-flowing. You don’t know where the story and the characters are going, so why should I? I won’t promise 50,000 words, but you never know what my morning coffee will deliver!

Fun? I hope so! My ulterior motive is to build a readership who appreciate my brand of schiet-stained rambling and are on-board for something maybe not so much fine arts mastered but more glockenspiel on acid. You know what I mean.

We begin…

Episode One: Wading for Godot (915 words, about a six-minute read)

Donald and Maria Oswald were happy. They had a quiet, loving marriage and lived in a paid-for double-wide—(“This Unit will make your smiles DOUBLE WIDE!”)—just a fat pitching wedge away from the Beauchamp Highway. Their corner lot was neatly tended, grass grew dense and dark green on the sloping lawn. No weeds defiled this Gretna Green.

“Just ‘cuz we don’t have no basement, don’t mean we don’t need no drainage,” Donald would proclaim. Standing stiff and tall inside next to the ‘Proud Panoramic Picture Window’ like an animated John A. Macdonald statue, he would watch the rain come down. He took inordinate satisfaction from seeing the rivulets run off the convex dome of packed topsoil. “Glad I mixed ‘er wit pea gravel,” he would murmur, his Adam’s Apple riding up and down like a ball on a string.

“Fallin’ on my head like a mammary,” he would sing-song, grabbing Maria’s blue jean mama butt as she walked by and the torrents poured out of the sky.

In Spring and Fall, there was a lot of rain. During the brief heat of Summer, thunderstorms visited them almost nightly, hammering the tinny roof in a deluge. These were angry, driving rains, the drops making pock-marks in the sandy aggregate of their block road that dried hard like smallpox scars. Often hailstones collected, glimmering white in the blue lard bucket that held the downspout, looking like batting practice baseballs before a Reimer Reindeer game.

“Real cedar siding,” Donald would point out to visitors, tapping on the horizontal slats and sneering at neighbouring vinyl facsimiles, their brittle, embossed skins yellowing in the sun.

On the adjoining lot were two Granny Houses. They were placed one at each end of the seigneurial shaped, convex-topped grass strip like identical twins on either end of a teeter-totter.

“We got the Little Big House Deluxe models,” Maria would chime-in as they toured visiting relatives from Wawanesa. “It was a little more money but Juanita and Wade are worth it. Family, you know.”

The Little Big Houses were likewise clad in cedar, with black shingle roofs—(“low-slope”)—and eight-by-eight decks, each holding identical Canadian Tire MeatMaster barbeques. Each home was like a brown Lego piece, wedged snugly into its end of the fish-finger shaped lot, the two protruding decks facing one another like four-year-olds with their tongues sticking out.

Juanita lived in the rearmost cube. She was a pert, big-busted woman with grey hair tousled just so and her strip mall clothes tight-fitting and providing an easy-to-follow focal pathway to her freckled but still-smooth cleavage. “Gotta show the boys what they want,” she’d trill, pushing her butt out and pointing her breasts up. “Hi-beam!” she’d proclaim proudly as Wade cringed. Gino, owner of the local service station and a widower, came by on alternate Wednesdays to align her headlights.

Juanita’s son by Donald was a middle-aged man named Wade. He was her detached co-habitant on the narrow property, living across the grassy curtilage that separated their tidy abodes. Wade was a man for whom two things were true. First, he was not yet achieving the success he foresaw for himself as a child. Second, he won $25,555 in the first ever Lotto 5/55 draw held in Manitoba in 1982. His five numbers won second-prize – he needed the bonus number to claim the top prize of $55,555. It was widely believed that the existence of this latter cash fact greatly contributed to the ongoing truth of the former life fact. This apparent causal relationship was invisible to Wade’s parents, Donald and Maria, and his birth mother, Juanita, but was plainly evident to all of the neighbours in the Jolly Reindeer Trailer Court and Retirement Club.

He was known as “Wade-a-minute,” or, “Wade-down,” or sometimes, “LightWade,” by the sharp-tongued ex-farmers and ex-cops and ex-Reimer Reindeer truck drivers that populated the ticky-tack, block-on-block grid. They thought little of this 48-year-old bachelor living next to the rolling strip of black macadam that stretched from Prairie’s End, Manitoba to Toronto, Ontario.

“He’s just lucky he hit that jackpot,” they’d say, their cups of Timmies steaming in mute agreement. “I’d be set for life too if I’da won that kinda money when I was twenty!” Truth is they didn’t, they wouldn’ta and they had no clue.

Wade knew of their name-calling, but he didn’t care. It was him after all, not them, who had taken the $25,555 Lotto cheque and signed it over to his cousin Woody, a newly-minted investment advisor in Winnipeg. His money went all-in… Apple (AAPL) at $220 USD per share. He had invested on a drunken bet, Woody saying he would give Wade his new Camaro if Apple stock did not at least double in the first year.

Had he not panicked and sold most of his shares in the tumble of 2009, just last year, Wade would be worth a couple of million now. But, unknown to his family and neighbours, he still had done well. Really well, or, “Seea scheen!” as his boss, Old Man Reimer, would say. Wade kept his financial success to himself and worked patiently on his master-plan. He tapped the keys of a calculator and smirked to himself, his pencil poised above a neat column of ledger entries at the kitchen table in the Deluxe Little Big House.

“Just Wade ’til next Tuesday!” he whispered to himself. “Then we’ll see who the ‘under-achiever’ is around here!”

Next: The Stampede is Ont!

 

 

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The Bottom of the Sky (Dos)

Here’s a fast literary, “Guess what!” in case you were just waiting for some random information from the noireal. My short story trilogy, “The Bottom of the Sky”, is Fiction on the Web‘s Pick of the Month.

movie poster tbots 2
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The bottom of the sky is where allegiances collide: a charter boat owner, the ship’s captain, and a young deckhand. When an act of needless violence plays out on the waters of Acapulco Bay in 1955, simple lives are pushed off course, perhaps to be lost forever.    
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Note that “Part 2” appeared as a solo piece in Rhubarb Magazine back in 2016 as “The Fisherman’s Story”. I had to find out more, so I wrote the prequel and the sequel.
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FotW is a London based literary site, the first of the species, to be exact – publishing online since 1996!
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P.S. – It’s been suggested that this trilogy might lend itself well to a screenplay conversion. What do you think? “CUT!” or “That’s a wrap!”? 
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sailfish
allfornow friends,
Mitch
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The Ins and Outs of Religious Freedom

Jan & I have created a private enterprise to govern our lakeside hut, The SheShed. We have righteously decreed that no person possessing an INNIE belly-button shall be granted entry. “Outies Only,” is The SheShed credo.

“So what?” you say and I agree. We are, after all, a private entity and interdiction from our Outie-exclusive establishment does not pose an injustice, nor cause harm, to the people of Canada nor does it materially interfere with any other individual’s fundamental rights and freedoms. It’s not like our privately-funded SheShed is a law school or a university, for example!

However, if we received a tax exemption because The SheShed was deemed to be a non-profit religious organization, I suppose some people might wonder about the fairness of either our tax designation or our Outie/Innie policy. Some people might object to being forced, due to our tax exemption, to support a greater tax burden. Especially, I expect, the Innie community who would in effect be paying greater taxes so that The SheShed could more easily (with less expense) discriminate against them!

Oh… What about our neighbour’s scandalous Innie-Only club, a den of concave depravity? Could that evil place of debossment be granted religious status too? Equal to ours? (How depressing!)

Anyway, like-minded Outie individuals are welcome to stop by The SheShed and fellowship with us. Muffin tops, button mushrooms, walleyed pike, Vesuvio’s pizza and other protuberance delicacies are always on the menu.

As our slogan says, “We’re All Puffed Up!”

Innies, accompanied by an Outie spiritual advisor, may even drop by on Forceful Fridays when we train our stomach muscles to distend our belly buttons in an appropriate convex manner, as taught by the ancient PITIFUL scripture, “Proper Inner Tummy Inflation and Full Umbilical Loading”. Through rigorous training, even deeply impacted Innies can be reeducated and their possessors deprogrammed, allowing the bodies true, natural Outieness to stand proud, a button—not a pockmark—on their midriff!

Peace-Out! brothers and sisters, or as we conclude in our sacred covenant down at the ol’ SheShed, “NO LINT? NO PROBLEM!”

allfornow friends,
Mitch
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The Rothmans Job

Dec 30, 2017 – It’s 30 below zero (Celcius) and our sewer line is frozen. Here’s a story to suit. This story appeared on CommuterLit January 30, 2017 and was reprinted on SickLit March 30, 2017.

The Rothmans Job
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.

And the people, knowing about these storms, stayed home. In the downtown core, only buses, snow ploughs and police cruisers were out. These motorized vehicles, accustomed to roaring at will, crept along the blanketed streets in peevish silence, their motors and tires muted by the all-enveloping snow.

No humans, no dogs, no birds. It was up to the storefront mannequins – who must have longed to sit – to maintain a watch over the streets. Vigilant, they gazed unblinking through the plastered glass at the frozen lunar streetscape.

Through this otherworld trudged Waxman and Thunderella. The diminutive Waxman led. He wore two snowmobile suits and his knees could not bend more than a few degrees. A bearded Weeble, he waded roly-poly through the drifts ahead of his towering accomplice, Ellen Thundermaker; aka “Thunderella”.

Thunderella towed in her powdery wake a red and yellow child’s sled. It was a Union Flyer and a likeness of flighted Pegasus was screened in reflective paint on both side rails.

Waxman, Thunderella and Pegasus pressed on like arctic explorers. Their goal was the unlocked side door of the Rothmans Cigarette warehouse on Harbour. Waxman had promised fifty bucks to Abie Wiebe – the inside man.

“Hey, Waxman,” Thunderella called from the rear. The wind had died and her voice only had to overcome the snow that coated every surface and baffled the air itself. This snowfall was ultra-absorptive like paper towel brands promised to be.

“WAXY!” she repeated, straining to be heard above the zizza-zazza of his nylon pant legs. He was a heavy man with thick thighs.

“What?” he shouted straight ahead, unable to twist around because of his insulated entombment. He halted, breathing hard, his moustache and scarfed chin hoary with frost. Thunderella bumped into him as she slogged along, head down.

The collision, one of many rear-enders on that street that winter, was enough to push Waxman off-balance. He fell, landing in a puff of white. Cursing and then laughing, he walrused his weight over so that he lay on his rounded backside. He picked a package of Rothmans out of the top pocket of his quilted inner overalls.

“We gonna make it?” she asked, reaching for a smoke.

“No problemo, ‘Rella,” he replied, shooing her hand away. “Two blocks, then through the side door by Perkins Cleaners; then open up the cage. That’s where the expensive stuff is. Abie says that cage lock has been busted for a year.”

#

Roland Barislowski bent forward, touching the freezing cold steering wheel with the absolute least amount of finger skin required to maintain vehicular control.

He peeked through the tiny fan-shaped portal of clear windshield.

“Need a periscope, like Lindbergh,” Roland said aloud. His voice sounded muffled in the anechoic enclosure; six inches of stubborn snow capping the rooftop.

The call had come around two A.M. He had just fallen asleep after pounding Old Viennas with Art, his brother-in-law from Virden. Art was stranded in the city because the highway was shut-down.

“Warehouse alarm went off. Cops’re there,” said his boss, Pozzo.

“Where’re you?” Roland said into the phone, his voice phlegmy.

“Regina airport,” Pozzo said, placing an unenthusiastic Rollie in charge.

Roland’s bottom was warm on the quilt he had tossed into the front seat but the small of his back felt like it was packed in ice. He lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings at the windshield. The rings – twirling in languid slow motion – disintegrated when the blast from the defrost fan hit them.

His brother’s name was Paulos. Everyone called him Poland — Roland and Poland. Very funny, Roland thought. They weren’t even Polish. But nicknames were nothing new in the North End – everybody had one.

Just like Paulos, Roland worked at Rothmans. It was Paulos’ job to take calls like this – the wonky alarm was set off by rats every two weeks or so. But Paulos was out-of-town and so Rollie had been given the key on this cryogenic night.

“Man, there is no one out here!” he said in the coffin quiet of the car interior.

He drove west until he hit a major street that had been cleared. Heading north he came up on the warehouse. An empty police cruiser sat idling at the curb. The trunk was open a crack and a bungee cord, hooked to the underside of the bumper held it shut. He parked beside the police car and went in through the side door of the warehouse, which stood wide open.

“You Poland?” said the cop. There were two of them. This one and a little guy down near the cigar cage. Mutt and Jeff thought Rollie – what his dad, Otto, always said when there was a big guy with a little guy.

“No, I’m his brother, Rollie. I work here too. Paulos is outta town.”

“Eh? Who’s this Paulos guy?” the big cop said, bleary-eyed.

“Paulos is ‘Poland’,” Rollie said, employing the ever-useful air quotes. “His real name is Paulos and he’s my brother. He’s away and I work here too and I got the job of coming out on this mother of a night.”

“Who’s a  mother?” said the little cop. He had walked over from the cage and was holding a few crushed packages of cigars and cigarettes. He saw Rollie studying the packages and said, “Gotta take these. Evidence.”

‘Yeah, fine,” said Rollie. “So, I guess you want me to do an inventory – see what’s been taken?”

“Good idea, Poland,” said the big cop, yawning. He yanked his police hat down low over his face, closed his eyes and leaned back against the forklift. “You guys sure you wanna report this?” he said without opening his eyes. “Seems like a lot of bother, this close to Christmas, for a lousy coupla-hun worth of smokes.”

“We’ll see,” Rollie said, grabbing the clipboard from its spot on the cage door. He used the pencil that was attached by a string to check off the missing items.

“Hey, Officer! Flip the cage light on please – the switch is right behind you,” he yelled. “Close that side door too.”

The little cop stopped stuffing the cigar boxes into his overcoat and did what Rollie asked.

#

Rollie sat in his car, which was now uncomfortably warm. The plastic frost-guards on the windows were broken and while the rest of the window was clear, the section in middle was fogged. He keyed letters into his pager, holding his breath as he concentrated on tapping the tiny buttons. He entered Pozzo’s number and typed the message:

Many CASES RothM King missiong. Cops took stuff but don’t think they were in on it. Call me!! – R

It’s gonna be an insurance jackpot, Rollie thought. His boss was crafty. He’d shut up about the stuff that Officers Mutt and Jeff had swiped – including the loot crammed into the cruiser trunk – in exchange for their listing an inflated tally on the police report. Pozzo would use their complicity as “wiggle room” to alter the report as required. Pozzo would make money on the deal; his Caddy stuffed with pricey goods that were easy to sell to bar owners and smoke shops.

Rollie and Paulos would get a C-note or so to play along.

“Nice work if you can get it,” Roland said to himself. That nugget courtesy of his late father, Otto. Otto Barislowski had run a ramshackle sash and door shop – BARIS GLASS – for thirty years. Honest guy. Never made much but his family was fed and clothed. “You get a roof over your head and there’s coal in the chute,” the old man would say to Rollie and Paulos.

Rollie pointed the old Ford east and took side streets home. He coasted through the stop signs at each intersection, as stealthy as Santa’s sleigh. After a few blocks, he killed the lights and prowled along at idle speed from streetlight to streetlight. Cranking down the window, he could hear the snow compressing under the tires. The air smelled clean like the laundry he would bring in from the winter clothesline for his mother – his t-shirts like stiff slabs of flake cod.

“Otto-Matic Windows,” Rollie announced to the empty park that abutted the road. He wound his window up a few turns and thought of his father’s invention – a house window that cranked open and closed like a car window. A year after Barislowski’s gadget came out, a big window brand from Minnesota launched a similar version – but more refined – and that was that. Otto Barislowski always believed the US outfit had stolen the idea from him. Disillusioned, Otto sold the company a few years later.

#

“Jesus H. Christ!” said Waxman. He panted as he lay on his back in a snowdrift, the heavy case of Rothmans Kings beside him. “It is frickin’ hard work being a criminal mastermind!”

Thunderella watched him. The Pegasus sled rested behind her loaded with its own case of cigarettes and also a 24-pack of Super-Fluft Toilet Paper Rolls. Three-ply.

“What the hell are you doing with that?” Waxman had growled at her when they were in the warehouse.

“They were in the bathroom! We are almost out at home – so, I figured, ‘Why not?’” she had explained, in reply.

“I guess we can get $3, maybe $4 per carton for the smokes,” Waxman said from the snow bank, bringing her back into the now. He held a mittened hand up so the big flakes would not land in his face. “So, we got 96 cartons – that’s three hundred bucks! Kids are gonna get some great presents this year.”

“No way, Waxy. It’s gonna be all imported cheese and fancy wine for you and me. 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.

“As if,” Thunderella added, suddenly serious. She pointed a gauntlet at the elfin figure below her, “you know the only two reasons I’m in on this stupid caper, right Einstein?”

“Yeah, and they’re both home sleeping, Ellen,” Waxman said, holding a hand up to her.

“It’s a bent-ass world,” she replied. It was her stock comment to the many philosophers who populated the dingy Nox Beverage Room where she worked slinging draught beer. It seemed to fit the moment.

Thunderella helped Waxman up. “Ready to go?” she asked.

#

Rollie saw them about the same time they saw him.

“No sense in running, ‘Rella,” Waxman said without breaking stride.

“It ain’t a cop anyway,” his wife replied. “Maybe we can get a ride? I’m pooped.”

Waxman stopped. He dropped the case of cigarettes down off his shoulder and held it against his belly, arching his back. “Hell, yeah. My back is killin’ me, eh.”

“Fuckin’ A,” she said, tugging at the sled. “Let me go first.”

“Yeah, show a little cleavage,” he said.

Thunderella stuck her tongue out at him and strode; pushing through the fallen snow with purpose towards the approaching car.

“Jesus H. Christ,” Rollie said to himself. He rolled the window all the way down. It’s them! He recognized the “Rothmans” name and logo on the side of the boxes. He calculated: one case on the sled, one case being carried. “That makes two plus one that the cops had and the two in my trunk,” he said out loud. “Five cases of RM Kings altogether.” This was perfect, seeing as he had told the cops to mark down ten cases as stolen.

“Hi, honey!” Thunderella said to him as she neared the car. He shifted into park. She was a tall woman. It looked like she was about six-months pregnant, but it was hard for Rollie to tell because of the puffy parka she wore.

“Mother of a night, or what?” said the man behind her. Roland was surprised by Waxman’s appearance – short and almost round. He walked like a wind-up toy.

“Listen,” Thunderella said, fanning her face with a mitten. “We live maybe ten blocks that way, at Schultz Street,” she said, pointing east. “Any chance a girl could get a lift?”

“What’s that?” Roland said, feigning ignorance and pointing his chin at the cigarette cases.

“Well,” Waxman said, leaning sideways to speak around Thunderella. “We was shoppin; and then this buddy of mine, he got a deal on smokes. So we went down to his place and scored these smokes and then we had a few pops – well I did, anyway, she’s up-the-stump, eh.” Waxman spat the story out and while he did, Thunderella swivelled around so Rollie couldn’t see her face and gave her husband a cross-eyed look.

“Got a helluva deal on the ass-wipe – I mean toilet tissue,” Waxman said – a bit distracted – in conclusion.

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Rollie said.

Rollie rubbed a glove against the inside of his foggy windshield, thinking about what to do. The cops had left the warehouse by now. These two lived right on his way home. He peered ahead in the headlights – there were no signs of movement in any direction. Not a creature was stirring. He considered himself, Paulos, Pozzo and also Mutt and Jeff. He considered the little beaver of a man and the beautiful, imposing pregnant woman standing beside the road in the frigid, forsaken night with stolen cigarettes and toilet paper.

A minute later the old Ford crept down Flora Avenue, the snow-crusted roof bearing three cardboard boxes and a flying horse. The red taillights vanished in a flurry of blowing snow.

#

Pozzo walked into his office, tucking in his shirt and adjusting his tie. He sat down at his desk and then dialed the phone, pushing the little buttons with extra vigour. He was in a fuming swivet about something.

“Poland!” he said in a loud voice. “What the hell is wrong with that shit-for-brains brother of yours?” Pozzo listened intently to Paulos’ reply.

“What do mean, ‘What do you mean?’” he said in a sing-song voice. “First I get stranded in the bloody Regina airport then I find out we got ripped off. And then,” he re-gripped the phone and moved it close to his mouth. “And then I go to the can just now for my morning constitutional and guess what?”

“No frickin’ TOILET PAPER, that’s what!”

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.