Excerpt from Pinching Zwieback: Made Up Stories from the Darp. (Reprinted with permission of the author.) Mitchell’s debut short story collection Pinching Zwieback (2023, At Bay Press) is available now!
Fast and Steep. A young couple builds a toboggan slide for their son.
Hart’s breath hangs in the air around his head. The sunshine makes the tiny splinters of floating ice into glinting flashes, gone in an instant and replaced by fresh volunteers, a radiant halo. His long woollen scarf, creased canvas parka and red toque are all hoary with frost. Heavy leather work mitts, wet and steaming, cover his hands.
After first laying out a winding trail in the snow and marking its course with twigs, he sets to stamping and packing the snow into a shallow concave chute about two feet wide. With the course laid and the top layer of snow warmed by the sun, he drops to all fours to shape it with palm and balled fist. The toboggan run begins on the steps of his small house, continues over the yard, across a rutted, ice-filled road and down into the nearby creek bed.
Following two afternoons of work, Hart is satisfied with his effort. A new garden hose uncoils reluctantly, its rubber memory stubbornly retaining a corkscrew pattern in the raw cold until hot water persuades it to relax. With a thumb over the sputtering end, he mists the run, glazing the surface with new ice. It vaporizes on contact, shrouding the slide in a white cloud. He drags the hose through the snow to soak the run’s entire length, his face a frown of concentration.
“Hey, Lord of the Slides! How’m I ’sposed to do dishes and laundry?” Justy calls from the kitchen window to her young husband. “No hot water!”
He grins and waves a non-answer back to her. Hunching to light a smoke, Hart thinks hard about the physics of momentum, if there will be enough to slide his son and the wooden toboggan up the far incline and let them stop gently on the other side of Old Tom Creek.
That evening, Justy asks, “Won’t it be dangerous to have Matthew slide across the road like that?”
“There’s no traffic because they only plow the road on the far side of the creek. This side stays plugged. No one but old man Funk and his tractor use it, and I asked him not to drive over the run.” “Okay.” Justy thinks about the parallel road on the far side, but trusts Hart.
“Funk, eh? I thought he was blind. Thought you two didn’t get along?” she says with a wink.
“As an umpire, yes, no question. Blind Jake. But he does okay driving that old cornbinder tractor of his. Sees better in the clear winter air, I figure.”
“If you say so. I’ll have some coffee if you’re getting up, please.”
“Man-oh-man, yer really playing for serious!” Funk says to Hart from the road where he stands, hands in pockets.
“Don’t wanna launch my little guy offa that far bank,” Hart says without looking up.
“About that…” Funk shuffles down the embankment and holds out a worn silver hard hat from his past employer, the feed mill. There are several paper egg cartons compressed into its hollow crown. “That’s for padding…” A red lightning bolt is freshly painted on each side. “And that’s for speed.”
On Sunday, Justy and Hart dress the boy in his parka, snow pants, mittens and boots. Hart’s red scarf hangs down Matthew’s back to the floor. The lightning bolts on the helmet seem to quiver with impatience; they point with electric vitality at the door as the boy waits to get outside, knees jouncing rhythmically.
“He looks like a lawn ornament,” Justy comments, tapping her knuckles on the shiny helmet. Hart has already broomed the snow off the run. The little boy jumps up and down, suspended between his parents’ hands. Hart kneels down to tug on the chinstrap of the feed mill hard hat.
“I waxed the bottom of the toboggan,” Hart says, running his bare hand over the blonde staves. “You hold on here, to the rope, and put your feet under here…”
“Yep, right under the front part, where it bends up,” adds Justy. “Rear back a little when you first start going…”
“And lean into the curves,” says Hart, starting to feel jumpy.
“Are you going too?” Matthew asks, looking back and forth between them as he sits holding the braided rope.
“Sure, but this first time is just for you,” Hart says. “We want to watch you go!” Hart and Justy look up and down the roads that parallel the creek. The smooth surface glistens white in the sun. No tire tracks. Tall, furrowed piles of graded snow block the roadway entrances at each end.
“I see our neighbour has taken a sporting interest.” Justy nods at the freshly plowed windrow blockades just as Funk himself comes towards them, walking, legs stiff, from his house. She waves at him and he gives her a thumbs-up.
“Ready?” Hart asks a minute later. The boy’s lips press together and he hunkers down like an Olympian.
“Go!” he yells through the red wool scarf, “Go!”
Hart and Justy, one on each side, give him a slight pull back and then shove him down the stairway precipice. Matthew looks so vulnerable, but it’s already too late to reconsider. The toboggan skims across the yard and patters wood-on-ice across the road and around the first bend. Then the boy’s helmeted head drops out of sight as he plunges down the embankment. A second later—like the crack of a whip——he shoots out of the chicane, the toboggan loose in a skid. Just as it seems sure to tumble off the course, gravity regains its hold. Finally, the toboggan rises up the bank and comes to a crunching halt on the far side.
Funk cheers from his post at the top of the creek. Knees bent and one arm waving, the old man jangles a cowbell, raising a din and hollering. Hart does not breathe until he sees the boy wriggling out sideways, kicking his booted feet free of the curled sled nose. Roly-poly in his snow gear, he scrambles up and runs back to the house, shouting and tugging the toboggan behind him, his short legs churning. Justy and Hart watch transfixed, tears welling in smiling eyes.
“I love you, Hart,” she wants to say, just like that. She wants to tell him that and how their little family is everything for her now, even the prairie winter and Funk’s noisy damn tractor. “All of this. Now and forever,” she’d tell him, but she knows that’s no good, that he’d just stiffen up and crowd her out. Give him time, she thinks. Hart is still just a boy, really. Mom says these years go by the quickest, but I’ve got to let him get used to it at his own pace. Look at Funk. His wife died inside of a year after they were married. Her and the baby both gone, and her just seventeen.
She sucks air in through her teeth and it seems like they might crack from the cold. Looking at Hart, she can feel him through her winter clothing—no need for words. She senses his pleasure in her and in their son. It’s there like a cat purring in her lap. Even if she found herself, a lifetime later, pushing a walker, hair in a grey bun, and with Hart long gone to his man’s grave and beside her no more, at least she would have had this. Petal, leaf, and stem growing as one. It’s more than most and today is mine forever, she thinks. Come what may. Come what may.
Justy hears Hart pull in a breath—halfway between a laugh and a sob—as Matty clambers up the porch steps. She sees her son as if in a home movie—like the ones the missionaries showed in the church basement; the people’s rigid movements in fast-motion and energetic.
Everyone is talking at once, all bright eyes and Funk’s bell clamours from the road. It is they who remember, not the remembered, who get to decide history, Justy thinks. I hope our little Matthew remembers this day, our joy, his part in it, for as long as he lives.
“This year, I wish it wouldn’t melt,” Hart says, voice thick. Arms and bliss encircle jacketed waists as the young parents hug. Justy bends to kiss her little boy, his cheek as cold on her lips as an apple from the cellar.
From the top branches of the leafless poplar beyond the creek, two crows call to each other as if by name. Their voices ring clear in the frozen air. Justy is reminded of her Oma, bundled in a chair, her skin fragile and transparent as wax paper.
“When the blackbird is singing, bad weather is bringing,” she counselled, her accent thick and beautiful.
“But Oma,” Justy had wanted to say, “they sing every day.”
Mitchell Toews lives and writes lakeside in Manitoba. His work appears in print and online, in places near and far. He debut collection of short stories Pinching Zwieback was just launched this fall by Winnipeg’s At Bay Press.
Armin Wiebe says: “Mitchell Toews’s stories add more layers to the world that has given us Patrick Friesen, Lynnette (Dueck) D’anna, Miriam Toews, and Andrew Unger. Racism, class conflict, economic, and religious snobbery form the background for the sometimes comic, sometimes excruciating human dramas experienced by four generations of the Zehen family.”