The Bottom of the Sky (Uno)

London is calling! Great news from England. My trilogy, “The Bottom of the Sky”, will be published in Fiction on the Web. Editor Charlie Fish read the three-part short story at my request to critique and assess. Normally, FotW does not run stories longer than two or three thousand words, but Charlie has begun to consider lengthier pieces.

“I’ve increasingly been publishing longer pieces (to the considerable detriment of my time, but mostly totally worth it), and this would just about fit into one release.”

– Writer, Editor, Screenwriter – Charlie Fish.

“The Bottom of the Sky” began as a single short story that was published by Rhubarb Magazine in Winnipeg. (Now sadly out of publication.) “A Fisherman’s Story” ran in issue 39, back in September 2016. My thanks to Editor Bernice Friesen who was kind enough to give me my first fiction opportunity in print. Ink!

It was exciting but the full story including the things that had happened to me, or those I had witnessed, the experiences that triggered the story in the first place, remained untold. So too, the many circumstances — both causal and consequential — that I imagined continued to nag at me.

I wrote “A Fisherman’s Story” in 2014. During January of 2017, I was inspired to complete the story. I wanted to write a prequel and a sequel. The first segment, the prequel, was completed that year: “Part 1 – The Mismaloya — Acapulco, 1955”

Part 1 introduces the chief characters, Avelino and Jose, cousins who are partners in a charter fishing boat in Acapulco. The cousins are from the tiny fishing village of Mismaloya, near Puerto Vallarta. A young boy, a pinche named Carlos, signs on as a crew member aboard the Mismaloya for a sailfin day trip.

A number of changes were made to the original story and it became, “Part 2 – The Fisherman’s Story — Mismaloya, 1975”. This account tells of Jose and his wife Violeta and their daughter Josefina. The viewpoint is that of Violeta and the reader also is introduced to Matthew, a Canadian Mennonite church volunteer living in the village. There to help build a school, Matthew meets Jose and the two become oddly-matched friends, fishing with handlines in the bay most evenings.

In “Part 3 – Avelino and Carlos — Acapulco, 1976”, Avelino engineers an unexpected reunion and the story concludes near where it began, on the Pacific shore overlooking the bottom of the sky.

All told, the trilogy involved over three years of writing, on and off, the support of freelance editor James McKnight (another Londoner), and the difficult but necessary learning curve provided by numerous litmag rejections. 🙂

Thanks to Charlie Fish, who is a charming and skilled literary friend with roots in NYC, Birmingham and London.

Charlie Fish wrote an award-winning short film that starred Richard E Grant, Warren Clarke, Emilia Fox and Celia Imrie. He hung out with the guy who wrote Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek. @fishcharlie

 

Charlie is the creator, editor and hard-working jackfish-of-all-trades for Fiction on the Web, the internet’s first online literary magazine. 

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This trilogy has attracted several comments about its suitability as a screenplay. 

Cinema ain’t my jam, but I admit that I had visual—and sometimes cinematic—scene-play in mind as I wrote.

So, if you know a screenwriter looking for an intense, visceral story that can be filmed in one location with a small cast – pass along the Fiction on the Web URL! (Sorry: no bloody chainsaws, no aliens, not a rom-com.)

You can read “The Bottom of the Sky” trilogy on October 22.

Check THIS out too, on Amazon UK-CA-US:

Hint: I’ve got a story in it!

allfornow friends,
Mitch
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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


allfornow friends,

Mitch
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Life in the Noireal Forest

I am so far in, I’m out again.

Here, deep in the rotting guts of my novel WIP, “Mulholland”, it’s winter. This place is cold and isolated. It’s fearfully unforgiving. I’ve killed one already — a boy — and I’m laying the groundwork to take another life. Meanwhile, my main character is festering; his will to do good snapping like a frozen twig along the trail.

Centipedes, weevils, and maggots follow me around. Crows perch on the sundeck railing like it was a gallows, gossiping loudly in Hitchcock voices about my murderous intent. Snapping turtles have roused from their rock-hard winter sleep, yawning hungrily and awaiting fresh carrion.

My hands already blooded, I can’t go back and I reach for the black-hearted keyboard…

Mulholland drove on, thinking hateful thoughts. He was out of sorts. The sky was cloudless. Blue as a package of Black Cat cigarettes; clear and cold. The red needle on the temperature gauge sagged below the equator into the COLD half of the register. He knew tonight would be bitter, the stars out and bright, but providing no heat – only suggesting that somewhere, far away, it was warm.

Phew! Good thing a diminutive Mennonite named Hardbar (he’s a Friesen) arrives soon to lighten the mood. In Friedensdorf, a town full of Friesens, Hardbar is one of seven sons with six paternal uncles and a dog named… what else? Friesen.


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.

Episodic Moi and LingoBites

I recently had a short story accepted by a new start-up in the “Learn a Language Online” business. Given the amount of refugeeism in the world today – not to be confused with refugee-whiz-ism (in short supply, I’m afraid) – there must be a lot of newly relocated people in Canada and other places who would like to speak English.

A company called Alsina Publishing is creating a platform for language learning – English and many others – and one of the central tools they use is the short story. It’s intuitive to imagine a language student, who, when provided with a story produced in both their native tongue and their target language, uses this resource to flip back and forth. They will read the story and learn new words, syntax, and more from the narrative. Furthermore, they can discover the subtleties of conversation through the story’s dialogue. I’m no linguist, but this must be a proven method, I’m sure.

My personal experience confirms this too. I don’t speak much French, but thanks to similar duplicate, bilingual formatting on Canadian cereal boxes and shampoo bottles, etc., phrases like “bien agiter” and “servez froid” are not just letter jumbles to me. I learned them via repetition, without trying, because the material was at hand in front of me at the breakfast table, in the restaurant, or in the tub. (High-concept stuff, wot? Eh? Si?)

The new platform Alsina Publishing has created is called LingoBites and it is in the final stages of development and will launch soon. My story, “The Light Pool” will be one of the first literary works that learners will use to climb the Tower of Babble.

LingoBites refines that basic cereal box concept – with more method and less mirth – and offers it to those who want to learn a new language. Here’s how they describe it at http://www.lingobites.com/:

LingoBites gives you what you’ve been looking for: a way to practice language through creative short stories tailored to your level and interest. Read or listen anywhere on your phone. Support authors from all over the world make a living from their craft and enjoy learning, all at the same time. We are currently in startup stealth mode, but sign up to be the first to hear about our launch plans!

Please follow this link for an interesting third-party description of the LingoBites app from contributor Patricia Duffaud:

http://www.patriciaduffaud.co.uk/lingobites-app-languages-stories/

It’s always great to be accepted for publication but in this case, my work will be a part of the process of – OMFGliteracy! That is a security clearance I seldom achieve, although I guess LingoBites might just as often be used by leathery travellers from Pittsburgh or Shaughnessy, or maybe Haywards Heath to polish up their “eye-tie” before a trip to the Continent. That’s okay with me – I’ll take readers of all stripes.

“Vi prego di mettere più whisky nel mio             cameriere di bevande!”

And, lucky me, LingoBites has accepted a second submission of mine – one I wrote expressly for them. My editor at the publication suggested that serialized stories were a perfect fit because they allowed readers to establish and reuse a knowledge base of words, names, characters and settings developed while reading earlier instalments. My three-part story, “Of a Forest Silent” will also be appearing in LingoBites, after some editing.

Tune in next week cap

It’s interesting to me how closely the publication works with the writer to ensure that the story is appropriate for learners. Within flexible boundaries, the editors strive to keep sentences short, to restrict the vocabulary and to keep cliches, local slang, and regional references out of the stories. I was afraid this might “dumb down” the prose, but instead, I find it clean and readable. (Many are nodding knowingly now – I can feel it!)

LingoBites offers three FREE stories per month and the subscription fee – for full rights to the site – is nominal. It’s a great value for language learners or those just looking to find great new stories and writers.

voice over

One more COOL THING: Stories will be converted into audio recordings presented by professional voice actors.

The LingoBites site is running in Beta now (July 22).

allfornow – Mitch

https://www.facebook.com/lingobite/

https://twicopy.org/LingoBites/

 

 

 

South of Oromocto Depths

I’m happy and grateful to have a reprint of my maple syrup imbued, tres Canadien, playoff beard of a short story, “South of Oromocto Depths”, appear in Toronto’s CommuterLit. Editor Nancy Kay Clark has been generous with her coveted space once again and this will be my eighth appearance in this respected (and entertaining) literary ezine.

The short fiction, which first appeared in Literally Stories, will appear this Thursday, July 6, in CommuterLit. It follows previous publications of:

“Encountered on the Shore”– reprinted by Occulum (previously called Fair Folk)

“A Vile Insinuation”

“Without Reason”

(The three stories above comprise “The Red River Valley Trilogy”)

“Gather by the River” Part One (“Zero to Sixty”)

“Gather by the River” Part Two (“The Margin of the River”) – reprinted in riverbabble

“The Rothmans Job”– reprinted in SickLit

“Winter Eve at Walker Creek”

“South of Oromocto Depths” – first published in Literally StoriesVisit CommuterLit commencing July 6 to see this story in its latest incarnation.

We let the motor warm up. It idled in baritone, gurgling as gray smoke rose up out of bubbles that popped on the surface behind the big white motor. Every half-minute or so it ran slightly faster, then vibrated, shuddering back down to the lower idle speed, sometimes coughing unexpectedly.

35 chryco obscure

Every Picture Tells a Storgy

A lot of things in life can be streaky. The leading scorer in the league – pick your sport – gets to the playoffs and goes. Ice. Cold.

When it happens to you, you think, “I’ve lost it.  Or maybe I never had it, maybe it was all a massive fluke.” You kick the dog, get bitchy with your friends and co-workers, lock your keys in the car, get the shopping cart that eats your coin – or you think it did, until a lady with a walker comes over and pulls on the handle and the cart pops free. Easy as pie. And she explains that there is no coin required; that you just shoved a dollar into a crack in the plastic grip.

Stupid Home Depot.

Then it turns and while no one really knows what it is… we all know exactly what it feels like when it comes or goes.

But, really, I brought it on myself. I dared it to leave. “How?” you ask?

I took on topics that were harder to write: race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and age. Plus, I submitted to unfamiliar sites and journals with big league reps. So, if I went a little cold, I have no one to blame but the crusty old bugger in the mirror.

Stupid old guy.

Anyway, today I received an email from Anthony Self, Head of Film and Co-Director @ Storgy.com. They liked my story. They are going to publish it.

storgy

It’s back, mother****er, it’s back!

“The Log Boom” will be presented on Storgy.com on May 19.

allfornow – Mitch

P.S. – Thank you, Storgy!

The Rothmans Job

My noirish crime fiction, “The Rothmans Job”, has earned a reprint in SickLit Magazine. Readers seem to like the characters in this story. Me too.

SickLit is an online zine with the tagline, “Bringing the real. Keeping the weird.” I suppose that this twisted tale fits that mandate. Thanks to SickLit for picking me up on such a cold, dark night. Thanks too, to CommuterLit, who ran the story originally.

Like ‘Rella, in the story, I remain optimistic. “Against all odds”, is not such a bad place – at least you know where you stand. If you like this story – please share it. If you hate it – hit me in the face a few times and I promise not to counter-punch or argue. I’ll just get back up and keep trudging until I disappear in a flurry of snow.

bb48de0d4e107d2f3c9922b13a254df5 pegasus

allfornow – Mitch

@Mitchell_Toews

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