Do You Fiction on the Web?

You should.

Editor Charlie Fish @FishCharlie publishes a lively, online short story compilation. Each day sees a new story – from fast-moving flash-fiction pieces to longer short fictions. The stories span all genres, styles and topics. Fiction on the Web is UK-based, but it features authors from around the world.

Charlie was kind enough to publish one of my favourite stories, “Nothing to Lose” and I’m hoping you will read it here, on: FICTION ON THE WEB. It touches on baseball, hockey, family and regret. Nothing, I’m afraid, about Donald or Hillary, so you might want to shout, “You’re the puppet!” a few times, just to tide yourself over.

http://www.fictionontheweb.co.uk/2016/07/nothing-to-lose-by-mitchell-toews.html

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

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Tafelberg

With Halloween approaching – I can hear the leaves crunching as it gets nearer – here is an excerpt from a 17,000-word sci-fi novella I wrote last year. (There’s more, should that be required.)

The story, “Tafelberg”, is one that I tried to write, “in the genre”. Now, to me, that sounds very writerly, but I am not exactly sure what it means. What I want to say is that it is written in the kinda breathy, urgent style of a serialized story, one with cliff-hanger chapter endings and — if it were a TV show — lots of musical stings, right before commercial breaks. I read a lot of comic books when I was a kid and I tried to channel a little of that dramatic over-the-topness.

Aaaaand, Action!:

Part 1 – Battle Weary

It was almost dawn and I shuddered with exhaustion, laying the hot, heavy torch on the sandy ground at my feet. Climbing up the nearby beacon tower, I reached the observation point. From there, I could see to the base of the cuneate rock slide below our position on the peak of Tafelberg. After attacking with mortal consequence all through the night, our enemy would stop and simply – even meekly – descend, at sunrise.

Down into that decimated landscape is where the kakkerlaks retreated.

Only the spiniest, hardiest flora remained – the omnivorous beetles had devoured everything else. Scant shade remained for their daylight retreat. By now all the plants that were left were inedible. Dry and spiked; impossible to chew even for these plate-sized eating machines that – like their plant kingdom counterparts in this arid place – wore their skeletons on the outside of their bodies. The remaining cacti – big Kadushi and Yatus, as well as smaller Pear cacti and Turk’s Cap stood defiantly on the rock strewn slope. Scraggly, leafless Acacia trees cowered dutifully, facing ever westward. They dotted the lower elevations as did partially eaten Aloe Vera plants. The largest, fleshy spears of Aloe were turning red-brown in the sun; the remnants looking like they had been attacked by a school of piranha.

If they make one more run for us this morning, we will make it, I thought.

My shoulders hurt. The rotator cuffs – ruined long ago – now seemed to enjoy the pain they inflicted; burning like embers in a dying fire. How did a Canadian club volleyball team on a winter junket to Costa Rica get involved in this supernatural, international catastrophe? 

I switched gears; thinking not of larger whys and what ifs, but concentrating rather on the immediate and the dire.

We have enough homemade napalm left and the ignition torches are fully charged. If they surge again, we’ll burn them back and then the sun will come out fully and they can go and do whatever it is they do during the day. 

I listened intently, my head to one side, but could hear no rustle. I could not hear the characteristic whisking sound – like plastic on plastic – of the roaches as they rose up, millions strong, along the side of the mountain, walking on the backs of the multitude above them. Climbing, ever climbing they came – a single-minded horde of limitless number.

“Matt!” I heard Willem shout from the next post, to the east. I climbed down, labouring a bit. I could smell the kerosene smoke on the wind as his blow torch smoldered, burning precious fuel greedily. “Dey are going down,” the thickset Dutchman said as he walked towards me. “There is a huge pile of dem on a flat spot just below Jan’s position upwind. Dey are piled up and eating something and dere’s a group – maybe thirty – iggies close to them, hissing like fury.” He stopped talking as he reached my post.

Leguaan, I thought, pronouncing it mentally in the slurring, luxurious Dutch fashion. I had learned more Dutch – curse words in particular – than I thought I ever would. Papiamentu too, and in just 15 days.

These island iguanas were tough buggers alright, no matter what you called them. The cockroaches left them alone and lately we had noticed the lizards actually killing and eating some of the giant insects. Big iguana adults – there were quite a few five-footers around now, which is something you rarely saw before the mutation – would whip their tails furiously into a swarm of bugs, killing a few. Then  a company of smaller iguanas would run in – comically bow-legged and bright-eyed – and retrieve the carcasses. There were precious few leaves left on the trees – the voracious roaches consumed those – and so the iggies were evolving; reverting to their carnivore roots. Like us, I hoped – that we few humans left on the island of Curacao, le humain, could evolve and remain on top of the food chain. I did not like our odds – they were unspeakably bad in terms of numbers – but I did like mankind’s track record. We’re good at war – even we Mennonites, if we are forced.

We are making a new language, I thought. Tafelgesprek: Dutch, English, French, Spanish, Papiamentu and German. And, before the internet died, the language of knowledge, as we frantically researched what these enormous insects were; how we might fight them; where to find our resources and how to build our weapons.

“May I tell the boys to shut down and getting some sleep before it is too hot?” Willem asked.

“Yeah. Schlope tiet (sleep time) I offered, in Plautdietsch. “They should eat and drink first, sleep until ten and then we should be able to drive down to scavenge some avgas, kerosene and water.” I replied.

It was interesting to me; Willem – a Dutch expat – could sometimes comprehend my lousy low German. My Mom would be proud. Likewise, a few Dutch phrases: Pas Op! dicht bei; g`n dach; resonated to me.

Jan, the crew chief from the next post, was coming up to us. “Is there cold beer for breakfast?” he called, his boots kicking up yellow dust as he came towards us. Another person, a slender black teenager, jogged towards us, his low-slung camo pants exposing a swath of bright green underwear.

“Hey, ti gason! (‘little boy’ in Papiamentu)” Jan called to the thin boy, “if I had SNOT green underwear, I would not show it off.”

The boy, Boosty, grinned and shook his head. “We are all out of bug sludge, but there were hardly any big ones on our side, since midnight really. Mostly just the smaller, light brown ones. I don’t think they like all the gravel over dat way – they seem to get coated with dat yellow dust and it irridates them or somethin.” He was a local boy and spoke Papiamentu, Dutch and English perfectly (almost), as well as lots of French and a little German.

“It’s true,” Willem said, his big voice bouncing off the rock wall behind me. “Dey hate da mine dust over on dat side. Dig themselves out and wriggle (he grinned – proud of the English word) and shake dey big wings and they, well they clean each utter off.”

We stared at him, blank looks on our faces. Insects that groomed one another. Every day was a new series of revelations and astounding, incomprehensible conclusions.

What’s in the mine dust that bothers them? I wondered.

~ ~ ~

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

A Romp of Otters

For today’s post, here is a copy of my angsty email to Canadawrites — concerning the CBC’s Short Story Prize:

Hi!

I am a nobody from nowhere — well, literally, from Jessica Lake in Manitoba — but figuratively, I was right the first time.

As such; an n from n, I have skepticism for writing contests. I have entered quite a few as I prosecute my personal war on anonymity and have formed some impressions. If you care what an n from n believes, read on. If not, hit delete and it will not make any difference to me or the three otters in the lake in front of me.

Unrelated Question: Do three otters make a romp? Another time, perhaps.

Anyway, here in point form, is my romp:

1 – Unless a contest is starved for entries, the slightly better than average need not apply. Even though the bell curve is equally dominant in all writing contests, big contests will only select from two categories: the known (may also be, the “trending”) and the truly remarkable newbie. In that regard, big contests are really good at flushing out exceptional new voices. Way to go, CBC. This is a great thing. Seriously.

2 – Before I rush to my PayPal account and contribute to Mike Duffy’s first publically-funded pension (he has acquired several more since leaving CBC’s employ) I need to believe that (per 1, above) I am known; I am trending; or I am an exceptional but undiscovered new voice. This level of self-assessment is difficult. It is made doubly so, like a Duffy chin, by the need to also understand the field. I have some small idea of how my competitors stack up — I read a lot of stories in Canadian literary journals — but, I read them through my n from n lenses and I don’t read them all.

Being a collector of money, but no longer an efficient earner, I have to think hard about this. Besides, I already pay to support the CBC, but even the otters roll their eyes when I take the grouchy old man approach. So…disregard that last bit.

3 – The cousin factor. Right now, you, the person reading this, knows a “really good writer”. They are cousins, friends or friends of friends. Their blog and Facebook posts are brilliant; they say daring stuff; they are creative and mightily imaginative; they are unafraid. They really have a future. I am such a person to a few within my n from n spheres. But I am not that person to you or, most cogently, I am not that person to the judges. They have their own secret stars and they will remove the bushel basket not from my flame, but from that of their own brightly burning “discovery”.

So, por moi, it is the small, n from n type contests, where I can pay my dues. I’ll work the minors and when in the opinion of my readership I am ready for the big time; when I have a few more two-legged advocates and when I can claim more of a literary platform than having flipped the ball to Bergen in the low post a few times, I’ll give you a try.

allfornow,
Mitchell Toews
@mitchell_toews

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

Au Vent Fou

I LOVE THE WIND.

I have come to love it because I am, and have been for twenty years, a windsurfer. Windsurfers pay attention to the wind, for obvious reasons. It becomes an obsession – I cannot pass by a pond of any size greater than a few board lengths and not mentally assess the quality of the chop, the direction and the relative strength and stability of the breeze blowing across its surface.

The wind is the engine and it is the determining factor in all decisions the sailor makes. Windsurfing, perhaps more than any other kind of sailing is closest to the wind. The sailor holds the wind in her hands, by proxy. Rudderless, the windsurfer depends on the intimate interplay between three, critical and infinitely variable elements: the craft on the surface of the water, the fin that imparts the energy from the sail, and the sail itself. Point of sail, mechanical differences, skill and luck play key roles too, but water, physics and wind make the stew; the other factors are more like flavourings.

Windsurfing – strangely counterintuitive despite its apparent simplicity – is difficult to learn and therefore, worthwhile just for that reason. For example – the greatest speed is found across the wind, on a reach, not downwind as beginners so often suppose.

There are many other rewarding factors too. One of the best being the look on the faces of boaters and other sailors who return to shore when the wind promises to be wicked. Windsurfers rig up and go out when that happens. We pass each other, coming and going – we matching the wind’s foolishness; them practicing moderation. I am grateful for being on the fool’s side of the equation and hope to continue to enjoy this cocky excess for as long as I can.

#

In the normal course of non-windsurfing life, we generally don’t learn much about the wind. We suffer it and curse it, when it is ruinous. We savour it, when it offers cooling succor. We experience it without really understanding it. Where does it come from? How is it controlled? It is, above all, mysterious. The wind operates in anonymity; invisible except to the touch. The falling barometer can divine it but offers no real idea as to the exact time, duration, location or the strength with which the wind will blow.

The wind is notoriously unpredictable. It comes and goes – a steady wind is rare, gusts are the norm. Even in the mistrals and siroccos of the world, where breezes can be forecast with a degree of daily certainty, the wind reserves the right to variegate – if not with colours, for it is transparent, then with intensity and direction.

The Mayans worshipped several gods and one of them, named Huracán (remind you of something?) ruled the wind. Well, that is, it did its best to try. The wind had other ideas. In the Mayan tradition, it was truly wild; uncontrollable and without heed.

#

Here are the things about the wind that I have learned by sailing in it, or that I believe to be true. The wind is sticky. In fact, the air that is propelled by the wind is the sticky bit. It sticks to itself – clinging to similar molecules like an evangelist to his pew. Temperature and humidity form into homogenous clumps that travel together. These clumps adhere to shorelines and points of land; they avoid dissimilar clumps like magnetic poles. This meniscus – or surface tension – characteristic seems to me, more than any other single factor, to define the physicality of the wind.

So, as I look out to windward, I watch the colour and texture of the waves: grey, wrinkly chop (like in the picture above, with the incredibly handsome – but also grey and wrinkled – sailor) foretells of a low, powerful gust – an even more accurate telltale than whitecaps. Context clues like trees, flags, and other sailing vessels help to enrich the description. Then the gust arrives and…nothing. The next time, with the identical context clues, …whoosh! A powerful gust.

Tumbling Tumbleweeds

My theory – more of a mental picture, really – to explain this inconsistency is that the wind is like a series of passing masses, travelling like giant, invisible tumbleweeds of moving air. There is a rowdy mob of them, randomly jostling, pairing and shouldering one another out of the way. They crowd forward on the water and despite manifesting signs like waves, chop, and flag-waving they sometimes bounce right over my sail – leaving me waiting; bereft of wind power. Their stickiness and propensity to cling to a surface and then suddenly release gives them this strange variability. Like a stampeding herd they race across the surface, sometimes jumping over, other times bulling their way through those objects they encounter on their unplotted path.

I think of these invisible tumbleweeds as gleeful and childlike; or like antelope or a flight of plover – unified and unscripted, a spontaneous choir in a rapturous choreography. This is of course influenced by my personal bliss at being part of this natural symphony; of being in the wind, and I am sure the wind is as uncaring and detached as the falling snow or a single flame in a raging fire. We assign emotion and judgement based on the outcomes and our perceptions.

My logical mind knows the wind is neither angry nor kind. It just is.

On a still, hot Spring afternoon, I raked leaves near the shore of our lake. Hearing a strange noise, I looked up towards the sound to see a swirling upwelling of leaves, branches and dust. It sounded like a highway tractor with a heavy trailer load, slowing down to stop, its brakes hissing.
.
Suddenly, our neighbour’s under-construction boathouse floor was lifted off of its foundation and became a giant pinwheel of plywood, spinning in slow motion and spitting nails and splinters of wood like a gattling gun. It rose up to maybe twenty feet in the air and then dropped to land mightily on the flat calm of the water. A zephyr of water carried on,  jetting away like a motorboat across the surface and then abruptly lifting off and disappearing.
.
All of this happened in under ten seconds and after the waterspout vanished, the air was once again perfectly still and the only noise was the lapping of the wavelets caused by the boathouse floor landing in the lake and a few leaves and twigs falling into the water.
.
I stood stupefied, holding my rake up in mid-air, looking to see if anyone else was around – to corroborate what I had just witnessed.
.
Hot air, bound and then releasing in an explosion of movement was to blame. The spin of the earth put English on the rising column of air as it rove down the wooded hill and picked up the thousands of pounds of fir plywood and 2X8s like so much kindling.
.
“Au vent fou,” I said aloud into the quiet, dumbstruck, thinking of the name of the Quebec windsurfing shop where I had just bought some gear, online.

Think of us, we windsurfers, when you drive your car on a warm day, your window open. Let your flat palm play in the wind like a foil, lifting and dropping in the stream of air. Then imagine that feeling; that unseen, natural power and think what it would be like to have your whole body pulled along over the water, at speed, the board slapping impatiently at the surface and the wind – a careening, magical hoard rushing towards you, raucous and eager as hounds in the hunt.

There you have it, that is the wind, and logic be damned.

The Trump Patch

I THINK I NEED A BREAK. Too much Trump, too much despair. I never want the whole world to agree with me, except now. I want the world – every person – to disavow Trump. That’s not healthy.

It’s also a wee, tiny bit judgey. Besides, it’s an American thang, so wuddaIcare? (Yeah, right. Like when your neighbour gets a new stereo and plays Abracadabra by the Steve Miller Band all Sunday afternoon. It has an unavoidable spill-over effect.)

So, to ward off all this bad mo-jo, I’m going on the patch. The Trump patch (“May cause nausea and/or rectal discharge”.)

If he does not get elected, things will carry on in apple-pie order. By the way, isn’t that a great saying? I know, right? (As my sister likes to say, accompanied by a funny facial expression.) The apple pie saying is an idiom used by Joseph Conrad and more recently by a really good contemporary poet named Trish Hopkinson.

Anyway, back to Trump; he does not win, all is well. He goes away except for some parting deplorable remarks and I go off the patch. End of story.

And if Trump wins? Accch. I have no idiom for that. “Deportation order? Court order? Out of order?” Hey Joe! – little help here? (Mr. Conrad knows about darkness, after all.)

I think what I would do if Trump becomes POTUS is gather my wife and my daughters and all the strong women I know — it’s a lot; I have the best women — and I’d find a person with a really obnoxious pro-Trump t-shirt and I’d let him explain to my grand-daughter how this all works. The whole rape culture thing, I mean.

And maybe my grandma Toews could come back for that one meeting and give us some tips on what she did when her generation of women rose up and set aside a lot of these crazy notions, like, fifty years ago.

Grandma is not gonna be pleased – she already weeded that row of beets.

So, bye-bye CNN, I’m on the patch. Smell ya later, Stephen Colbert, I’m outta here. Alec Baldwin: have a blast. (Heyyyy, isn’t he also the scream-at-his-daughter-on-the-phone guy?) No matter, they will figure it out without me. As John Wayne used to say, “Exercise yer conscience, if ya got one!”

POST SCRIPT: Wait. There is good from this – maybe I need to stand up and take it like a . . . well, just take it. After all, I have abused my maleness. I admit it. You have too, male reader. So maybe THAT is the silver lining here. Reminding all us would-be figuratively lily white, testiclularly-endowed humans that we have pulled a few trump cards ourselves. Maybe this spray-tanned, comb-over windbag was placed here for a reason. 

 

 

Lunch with a Mennonite

HERE IS A QUICK RECOLLECTION of a lunchtime talk I gave at a Charlotte, NC advertising agency.

I worked for a Southeast Manitoba manufacturer and our weltlich new VP of Marketing – a Ka’toolsch from Montreal – had hired a new agency. As the advertising manager, it was my job to work with them.

The agency was made up mostly of transplanted New Yorkers, New Jerseyites and Penn State folk who had moved to warm and charming Charlotte. They all had pre-conceived notions of what a Mennonite was and now they had a new Canadian client spending money like it was znackzote.

Our contact at the agency conscripted me to give a presentation about Mennonite culture and religion. I felt largely unqualified, but I agreed to step up to the plate.

I sat on a tall stool in the centre of the office bullpen, surrounded by mostly female media people, graphic artists, creative types, PR professionals and copywriters. They sat with their pens poised expectantly above unsullied, lined notebook pages, legs crossed.  Their freshly glossed southern lips made me nervous and unsure.

Piety anxiety of the highest, and most distracted, order.

I spoke and they, well, they listened. Intently. They nodded silent approval as they played with their hair; tiny beads of perspiration dotted the bridges of their pert noses and those belle cleavages. I gulped back my self-doubt and forged on past einbach and zweibach and beyond, my figurative cleats digging up clods of antebellum red clay as I rounded second base and bore down on the Holy Ghost. I slid home; safe in a cloud of mixed metaphors.

It was astounding – I had discovered . . . Mennoporn!

Afterwards, there was quiet conversation together with rollkuchen and watermelon and I allowed to my agency contact, in my very best Barkman Avenue utsproak, that it had been a successful, and tasty, “launch”.

allfornow – Mitch (from one parallel north of Minnesota)

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

 

 

 

 

Nothing to Lose

ONE OF MY EARLIEST short stories, and one that has undergone literally hundreds of re-writes, was published not long ago.

“Nothing to Lose” appeared on the outstanding UK-based literary site, Fiction on the Web.

fiction-on-the-web

Fiction on the Web, hosted and edited by Charlie Fish, is a wonderful webpage for readers and writers alike. Charlie encourages comments and it is interesting to read the discussions that typically arise.

Please check out, “Nothing to Lose” and feel welcome to make a comment or a suggestion! There’s lot more on the site and it is a great place to spend a fall evening.

Do you ever wonder, “What if?” We all do, and some regrets recur and can dominate if we let them.

I hope you enjoy Nothing to Lose! See my Gravatar for a current list of my published works: http://en.gravatar.com/mitchtoews

allfornow – Mitch

P.S. – if you like BASEBALL, there’s a segment in the story you may enjoy.

 

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

 

Life on Duotrope

 

duotrope-stats
I make submissions, but I do not submit

I remain optimistic about my Submissions. I am earnestly hopeful. My forehead wrinkles are extra bumpy as I think, “They have got to like this one!

I detest form letter Rejections, but they are feedback and register an unmistakeable opinion. I’m always saying smarmy shit like, “I value your honest opinion,” so I guess I better shut my rollkuchen input port and take it.

I inject Acceptances like heroin; mainline into my ego stream. Ohhhh, what a feeling…what a rushhhhhhh!*

When a story HITS I announce it. And by “announce”, I mean strafing social media like a half-drunk, live-in-the-basement male adult at the paintball range. I tweet and blog and Facebook and update my Gravatar, boring readers to a point where I fear their minds involuntarily leave their bodies, à la Homer J. when he wanted to stop listening and Flanders kept on talking.

homer

Today there are 5925 markets available via Duotrope. Hmmm, five is my lucky number…I should submit!

allfornow – Mitch

(*1971, Crowbar, CKRC radio, Winnipeg – these Canadian lyrics undoubtedly blared from the AM radio in my Dad’s Dodge station wagon, on those special days I was allowed to drive it.)