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

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The Top Sixty Over Sixty

ON BEHALF OF CPP EARLY ADOPTERS everywhere, please be advised that the Top 60 Over 60 Contest is now underway at Jessica Lake.

“Why is it always the top 40 under 40, or younger? Life’s not a sprint — or, at least, I hope it isn’t.”        – Myron Feeblecorn, contest aspirant and pickerel fisher

SIDEBAR: You know, I wouldn’t mind being of a certain, dignified age if I was a reckless transgressive writer of high calibre; or a gracefully aging female with nice Clairol ad gray hair; or maybe a rugged, outdoorsy man’s man with a toni saltnpepper coiffure and a washboard belly – gay to the nads. They just seem more interesting – not to the table of old guys at Tim Horton’s maybe – but in the current pop culture geist, where I swim my literary laps.

More news on the contest later. No, not after my nap, you mewling pipsqueak! I’m just going to rest my eyes.

Anyway, to gauge the quality of the field, please submit an eight-year-old, professionally photoshopped head shot, a 140-character bio*, and a recent dental record. Myron’s is in and lemme tell ya, he’s pretty swert. (He might even be, you know, fishin’ with two lines…)

* Comic sans, triple space, indent paragraphs, colored 14 or greater font and pictures of your grandchildren.

– allfornow – Mitch

The Blog Post I Always Wanted to Write

As a high-functioning anonymist, I sent this note to two of my low-brow friends. OK, I am low-brow; they are actually quite cultured. I liked it and wanted to share it with other friends — any brow will do — and so, here it is.

“Hey,

Greetings from the most beautiful place on earth. Jan and I love life, BUT, we are old and we are working too hard. We are almost done — then we can revert to being lazy sloths!

Cheers to slothdom.

So…you two and various cousins and friends from the Stein (for whom I have no email addresses) are my imaginary audience when I write my shitty little stories. (Oh no — am I over-selling?) Anyway, I have a blog.

Highly writerly. Although there is little ennui. A definite lack of ennui. Some angst. A bit of introspection. But mostly Mennonite guys blowing stuff up and putting it on YouTube.

You, as my imaginary audience, should be my literal audience, I reckon. If you don’t like it, you can revert to the imaginary.

My Blog is called Flies in the Outhouse. NO, WAIT — that’s my soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture life story.

My blog is just called Mitchell Toews. http://bit.ly/MitchellToewsBLOG

Snip: I recently registered mitchellaneous.com

I have nine stories accepted to lit journals; eight published and one undergoing some edits. <he spits, derisively>

In other news, we had wieners & beans last night. I had three wieners and no regrets. THAT is the kinda guy I have become, Goddammit! Writerly like crazy.

We should have a fall event. Daaaaave?

allfornow – m

P.S. – I admit I had to look up how to spell ennui. BTW, I hope Satan is not bothering you too much, now that you have the gays in Steinbach.

Yours, in ennui,

which is rather risky,

Sincerely,

Mitchy”

 (Always close with a poem. Tres writerly.)

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

Red River Valley – Stories 2 & 3

THE SECOND STORY in the Red River Valley Trilogy takes place within a year of the first. It is set in Manitoba in the early Seventies.

A Vile Insinuation  At a bordertown baseball tournament, several young Canadians meet a ballplayer from the States. The issue of the Vietnam war and the draft comes up. The boys, from Hartplatz, a largely Mennonite village not far from the border, speculate on how life could have changed had their forefathers chosen to re-settle in the USA instead of Canada.

“So, it’s a low draft number. I’m going to Vietnam, unless the war ends, ya know,” Marty finished the thought, and his beer. “They are already in the eighties now. I’ll be called up almost right away after my birthday. You betcha’.”

.

We were quiet for a minute. “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple drifted across the beer garden from a boom box near the bar.

.

“What song is that?” said Marty.

.

“You said your Mom was a Menno from Winkler, right?” Cornie asked, ignoring Marty’s question.

#

The last installment of the Red River Valley Trilogy takes place in the present. The characters from the ball tournament have aged. (Or, they may have aged.) One of them is facing a situation he had hoped to avoid.

In Without Reason, the concepts explored in the preceding stories are tested and re-evaluated.

He loved that old truck. Dietrich had it just the way he wanted it. His one prideful excess – Lord knows he could afford it – was the retro Cragar chrome mags. There were two other customizations: he had one handle from a favourite pair of ski poles as the knob on the stick shift lever. Also, the kids had given him a Reggie Jackson autographed number 44 Louisville Slugger bat. He had mounted a gun rack in the rear window for the lovely wood bat to reside, riding shotgun with him on the still streets of Hartplatz.

I hope you enjoy these stories and I would love to hear your thoughts. Your perspective may be entirely different than mine and there may be things about the incidents that you can refocus. I welcome critical comment. (Honest!)

Even if these stories are not your bowl of borscht, CommuterLit is a wonderful – free – resource for readers. Give it a try!

In the future, if my stories pass this ezine’s strict editorial scrutiny, I hope to have more work published on CommuterLit! For a linked list of my published pieces:  http://en.gravatar.com/mitchtoews

…allfornow – Mitch

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

 

 

The Red River Valley Trilogy

I started submitting to literary journals, both print and online, in February of 2016. It was while we were on a vacation in Curacao and I concentrated on writing, windsurfing and Heineken. The first time my fiction was published online was when Editor Nancy Kay Clark accepted my three-part trilogy, “The Red River Valley Trilogy” for inclusion on Toronto-based CommuterLit.

CommuterLit.com is a literary ezine for readers on the go. It delivers to readers a new story or poem each work day that can be read on their mobile devices.

Here are a few author’s notes on the three interrelated stories that ran on consecutive days on CommuterLit this July.

encountered-pic
“Encountered on the Shore” Following a reckless youth, with more than my portion of a false sense of indestructibility, I have come to wonder about the presence of guardian angels. So often, catastrophes were avoided – no matter how foolish my actions were in bringing them on in the first place. In fact, it almost seems that bad news is a harbinger of good news, if you can just hold fast and not lose your nerve as you round the cape of bad fortune.

“Where, here quiet, awaits my guardian angel?”  from Encountered on the Shore

I did some research on the various beliefs concerning guardian angels and some of this went into this story, which was based on a true occurrence from my past. I don’t know if there was an angel interceding back then, on Portage Avenue, but I like to think there was.

The idea of guardian angels is ancient and widespread and is present in many religions and cultures. Guardian angels are often associated with telltales like: birds, bright colours, double digits and the ringing of bells, à la Jimmy Stewart. These heavenly agents are said to assume very beautiful or very unusual and physically powerful mortal forms.

Wings, of course, are a big part of the Christian doctrine concerning guardian angels.

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20090123_060010844597-were-sorry

“Jackpot on Page Fifty-Five”  In this tale of unintended consequences, the protagonist is a struggling writer named Chap Buque. In desperation, on the heels of the bottom half of a bottle of Jack, Chap sends a rambling, late night email/rant to her publisher. In it, she describes a plan to include a coupon entitling the bearer to a $10 mail-in REBATE on the cost of the book. “It works for Benjamin Moore and Home Depot,” she reasons drunkenly, taking examples from the never-ending home renovation project that consumes her day & night, pulling her away from writing.

Communications fail and the coupon is bound into the book. Well, the promotion takes off like a summertime comic book movie and Chap and her hapless publisher are left holding the bag, seeing as the book ends up selling for $7.50 CAD on Amazon. (HINT: An Arts Council Grant may come to the rescue.)

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Huh? In truth dear reader – and I do mean dear! – this is just a tease to see if anyone is actually reading this blog. Like Chap’s home reno, I am taking time away from “real” writing to produce this humble web log, so is it worth it? Is my blog busting through the literary clutter of the titanic internet and the million-or-so other blogs out there?

Does my guardian angel read my blog?

Is Chap not a great name for a woman?

Sorry… to be clear, “Jackpot on Page Fifty-Five” IS NOT part of the trilogy. A bit disrespectful to you who have read this far — but I wanted to see if anyone was actually, you know, out there. So, I made up this storyline as a kind of “read herring”. To tell you the truth, I now find the premise kind of interesting and want to write it! (The Adventures of Ms Buque!)

I will sign off right now and return with more about the other two, REAL instalments of the trilogy. Be sure to read them, and many other wonderful stories and poems from around the world, on CommuterLit!

  1. Encountered on the Shore 1,425 words – the kindness of strangers
  2. A Vile Insinuation 1,665 words – a call to arms
  3. Without Reason 1,389 words – do things really happen for a reason?

…allfornow – Mitch

 

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

 

 

 

 

The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine

My story, “The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine” appears today (Sept 19, 2016) on Literally Stories.

The story is an imagined adventure. It takes disparate ingredients like my Toews Grandparents’ personalities and my knowledge of downtown Winnipeg and combines them; setting the elements loose in a stressful situation.

Allowing this hybridization of fact and fiction is why (I think) authors talk about characters taking on a life of their own. The overall direction of the story is plotted but the step-by-step pathway is extemporaneous. Storylines jump off course and pinball through obstacles and perceptions that are themselves fluid and may not have been fully realized when the story began.

At least, for me they do. That could be part of the reason why I have to re-write so much as I collect disintegrated bits that are flying off into space in a most Kryptonian way.

This story, originally titled Complex Pacifism, came into being when I saw a faded yellow sign painted on weather worn bricks. I saw the Crown Zellerbach sign from my comfy chair in Chilliwack. Google Images transported me back to Winnipeg, as I researched a different story online.

zellerbach-paper-300
A familiar name

The Zellerbach name leapt out at me – it was familiar from countless cardboard boxes of supplies in Steinbach Bakery, a place in which I grew up and where I had my first job. The bakery is a receptacle for many honey-glazed memories.

Grandpa’s quiet stoicism and subtle humour together with Grandma’s Annie Oakley style of directness came together in the exchange district of Winnipeg. The area was my territory as a “cub reporter” with Dun & Bradstreet in the late Seventies and I spent many hours in my little Datsun, trying to find businesses in the hodge-podge of mossy brick and decrepit alleyways.

Bakery ingredients; the feel of a late fall evening in Winnipeg; how to throw a punch — these are things I experienced but I never imagined that they could be combined to create a story.

 

My Grandma Rose Toews (nee Zilkie) was a Steinbach institution and she lives large in my memories. A favourite story is told by my out-of-town, female cousins who boarded with her while going to school in Steinbach. Grandma, strict and direct, might ask the pretty girls upon their late-night return from a date, “Did you let?”

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Years later, when Grandma remarried in her eighties following Grandpa’s passing a decade before, one of her Grand-daughters pulled her aside at the Sunday after-wedding  faspa, the day following the octogenarian wedding.

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“Grandma,” my cousin – then in her thirties – whispered conspiratorially, did you LET?”

Literally Stories is an outstanding online journal — it is a great site for writer and readers alike. Try it when you want a quick story to read – there are some gems here on this UK-based site! The header image above is from the LS website where the story is posted

I hope you enjoy The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine and invite you to share your comments below or on the Literally Stories website!

…allfornow – Mitch

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

Henderson has Scored for Canada!

Paul Henderson scored his first NHL goal on January 29, 1964, against the Chicago Black Hawks. According to Wikipedia, “it came late in the game against goaltender Glenn Hall and resulted in a 2–2 tie.”

You probably did not know this.

But if you were born north of the 49th parallel between the Atlantic and the Pacific, you likely know about another of Henderson’s goals – one that came later in his career. (Americans who are drawing a blank can find plenty of appropriate, alternate sports references: from Bobby Thompson to The Miracle on Ice. Brits might conjure up Roger Bannister.)

Unforgettable moments – “against all odds” – are a staple of sports. Just ask Jesse Owens, or maybe better yet, Kevin Costner.

As an “emerging” writer (more often submerging) I had a Henderson moment recently when I received a copy of Rhubarb Magazine Issue 39. Looking at the cover, I saw a credit; my name, Mitchell Toews. I may have raised my arms. Just a little — my chewed-up rotator cuffs only allow for a limited joyous celebration. Besides, as my friend Dave sometimes reminds me, too much gesticulation is off-putting.

Anyway. My little story is not on a par with THE GOAL, but it was kinda cool. Por moi.

And the little town slept.

#

Here is an excerpt from, “A Fisherman’s Story”, which is in this issue of Rhubarb:

The birds flew without effort, in trail formation, gliding into the wind with their wingtips inches away from the curling edge of a breaking wave. They suddenly banked up and out toward the dim, salt-misted far shore of the bay, snaking around in a circle and landing clumsily behind the wave. Rising and falling on the swell, the birds floated quietly until a big male took off, flapped twice, then dropped to scoop a fish. The pelican nodded strenuously to reposition the quarry in his large bill pouch while his wingmen watched the water around him with unblinking eyes.

“Pescadooooo!” Jose had said, flashing his bright smile.

Find more published works, here: http://en.gravatar.com/mitchtoews

…allfornow – Mitch

 

P.S. – The photo is of my dad, Norman “Chuck” Toews. Early Sixties here — he might have been just a bit better than Henderson.

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016