On a still fall day, I walk through the woods near the river. My knee is behaving and I work up a sweat under my Mackinaw. I come across an old campsite. A rusted stove—white enamel peeling. Tin cans in a pile. There is a blackened jackknife folded and set with care on a cushion of moss.
It’s generations old, this place. The smell here is fetid and wild—no longer the stench of humans 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.
And the generations drew down and on, babies coming, 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’ 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.”
“Piece of My Heart” first appeared in PULP Literature, 2020.
IMAGE: Tom Thomson ‘The Artist’s Camp, Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park’, 1915 (Oil on Wood), 21.9 x 27 cm (8 5:8 x 10 5:8 in.) Art Gallery of Ontario, AGO, Toronto
Mitchell Toews is a 66-year-old emerging writer. Working from his home in the Manitoba boreal, he has published stories in over 90 literary journals and anthologies since beginning his fiction-writing career in 2015. He is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist in The Writers’ Union of Canada prose competition. Connect with Mitch at Mitchellaneous.com.