Piece of My Heart
By: Mitchell Toews
On a still fall day, I walk through the woods near the river. The sun is out and this makes the birch bark shine in white vertical swipes on a background of dun and green. The river is every shade of blue, capped with white horses beneath a sky of mare’s tails.
My bad knee is behaving and I work up a sweat under my Mackinaw. The wind chills my neck and reaches down inside my shirt. I veer off the trail into the understory, pushing aside whippet branches; a nervous crowd, alder red and aspen quaking. I come across an old campsite. A rusted stove—white enamel peeled to reveal black steel beneath. Tin cans in a pile. There is a jackknife folded and set with care on a cushion of moss, a beard of grey corrosion betraying its age.
It’s generations old, this place. The smell here is fetid and wild—no longer the stench of settlers and the way we lay to waste and tame. We think we tame. Nature has reclaimed this antiquity with a bearhug of fresh growth and decay. Inevitability sits on its haunches near the long-cold fire pit.
But so too, this is the crude home where people like me and mine endured—fresh from a steamer ride across the brutish North Atlantic. My people, here in a sod-hut sanctuary where parents fed hungry children. Where families huddled, awe-filled under a black-out sky. Some evenings—and I can hear it and feel it, still present in today’s silent hum—voices startle the quiet of the bush. Hymns sung with a fervour born of nothing left to lose. Eyes shine with hope in the glint of a midnight fire. There’s the hollow, rhythmic clank of a spoon on a metal cup: “Winter soon, winter soon…”
And the generations drew down and on, babies bawling, some dying as they emerged, mothers staying teenagers forever. And slowly the black suits gave way to shiny belt buckles and plaid guffaws and soon TV antennas stood guard over prairie bungalows—their sin of worldliness now forgiven. “Billy Graham said so, Opa.”
Now the politics and the lunatics are all together on the dance floor. If only I could go back to the sod hut, or before that, I think, a sip from my water bottle cool. Just to see what it was like.
I pick up a can, its label forty years gone, and it crumbles to red dust in my hand. Delicate fragments drop to the ground with the lightness of lace.
Reverent, I kneel and try to reconstitute the remnants, collecting them in a cupped palm. I make a sticky paste, adding dry grass and the blue of the sky and tears and a little bit of my heart.
“Come on, come on, come on…” I sing to myself, reminded of days hot with life, set on repeat in my mind. The woods echo Janis’s howling refrain and I smell the fresh plastic signature of the shiny black LP, held like a jewel in my hands, fragile and new and loud in my parents’ suburban basement. Stereophonic. Hi-fidelity. Hit parade.
“Best go back and get some damn work done, ” I say. “It’s late and I still have so much to do.”
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.”
“An Evening with the Authors” Mennonite Heritage Village, Tuesday, May 9, 7 p.m. with memoirists Faith Eidse and Charity Schellenberg and author Mitchell Toews reading from the forthcoming “Pinching Zwieback” collection of short stories. Discussion and refreshments to follow. Or you can join from anywhere via Zoom: ID: 4781849323 Passcode: 31mGwk