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Read an Excerpt from Gregory Koop's The Donkey Cutter, a Gritty, Moving Tale of Early 20th Century Canada

Black banner image with the cover from Gregory Koop's the Donkey Cutter and text reading "Excerpt from The Donkey Cutter by Gregory Koop. "I didn’t love you. I was supposed to be a mother. But I was scared.""

In Gregory Koop's The Donkey Cutter (Guernica Editions), Mareika Doerksen and her distant father are Mennonite in name only. Both mourning the loss of Mareika's mother, they bide their time until Mareika can leave home and seek the education that until recently, was impossible for women in Canada at the turn of the 20th century.

But things change when a Doomsday-obsessed preacher arrive in town and Mareika, conflicted already about who she is and what she wants, falls under his charismatic spell. As the 1910 arrival of Halley's Comet approaches, the local Bishop sets up a rivalry between himself and the preacher that puts Mareika in the middle and puts everything her father has hoped for her in peril. 

Set in the turbulent early days of the 20th century, The Donkey Cutter explores grief, faith, loss, and hope through memorable characters against a backdrop of the rough and unforgiving reality of early Canada. We're sharing an excerpt from this arresting debut today, courtesy of Guernica Editions, in which we get a glimpse into Koop's vivid and evocative storytelling and the gritty intimacy of Makeika's life.

content warning: death, loss of a parent

Excerpt from The Donkey Cutter by Gregory Koop:

Monday, January 28, 1907

Wapos County

Author Gregory Koop

Author Gregory Koop

“No. I’m sorry. I should not curse Foda. He’s good. Mareika, believe me. He is a good man. Foda’s out there every night, and you have to be in the corner of that room with me.

“Did you know that the pantry was supposed to be your room? It’s small—I know—but it was for you. We broke up the crib for kindling one winter. And I made him build me shelves, drawers, coat hooks. In this place, this beautiful house with you growing in my belly, your foda waited for real hope. Maybe a family. Did you know he helped me give birth to you right on our bed.”

I watched her feet drag and shuffle, keep up to the weight of her shoulders. I slid my other arm behind her back and eased us into our room. Mutta crawled to the far side of the bed.

“It’s cooler over here.” She pulled a pillow between her knees before she pulled the corner of another under her chin.

I lifted the sheets over her.

“Don’t cover me all the way up, just to my kidneys.”

“Okay.” I watched her eyelids fall closed. I sniffled. It felt like watching a person die. It kept me awake dreaming of my parents dying. Me alone.

“It’s okay, Mareika, I only have a flu. I’ll be better in the morning. I promise that I’ll be better.”

“Did you want a mustard plaster?”

“No... I said my skin hurts.”

I retreated from her fever. The doorknob felt nice and cool.

“Did you hear me when I told you that you were born in this house? Foda delivered you?” Her eyes opened, looked through the wall of her bedroom into the pantry.

“Yes.”

“Well, it’s all true. But I didn’t love you. I was supposed to be a mother. But I was scared and thought you had taken my life. From out of my body, where I felt you growing from nothing into a tiny person, you came covered in blood and screaming. He tried to put you in my arms, and you were screaming. Your little voice froze all my joints. I curled up like a page burning inside a stove. I couldn’t open my arms to take you. I couldn’t even look at you. Instead I drowned in tears. For days, for weeks, for months I floated away from you. Foda fetched books, he sought out a Zurechmacherin, and he learned how to nourish you. For over a year it was only his arms that you knew. In the pantry he slept with you, and in here I wept. Then one day I stopped crying. You were almost one. It was autumn. About the time the snow flew. I got out of bed. And I walked into your room. I took you from your father’s arms. You never cried. I was ready to love you, so I asked Foda to destroy your bedroom. I told him you must sleep with me. I wanted that time back. That’s when he began sleeping on the couch. Real husbands and wives sleep in the same bed. They share a bed. It is not right that I gave his bed away.”

Mutta let her eyes fall closed again. She rolled onto her back. She reached her hand to me. “I’m sorry it took me so long to love you. I’m sorry.” Then she fell quiet.

I backed from the room. I took up the scuttle, led it to the front door. The wind shoved the heavy fir boards open. The snow did not fall but seemed to be pitched from the sky. The slant of the blizzard flakes sliced at my eyes and pores, a million pinpricks. When my feet found the end of the porch, I shook the pail empty. The ash, caught by the wind, swirled up around me. I waved my arms as I backed into the house.

Inside the kitchen I swiped at my face. The sick and ash felt pasted to my skin. My cheeks stung even from half a minute in that cold. I poured myself three cups of tea, each with an extra spoonful of honey, before I could return to our bedroom. 

***

In the night I rose to moans in the dark. I lit a candle. Mutta lay spread-eagled on the bed. Her right foot kicked. Her nightgown had risen, and Mutta’s hands rode over her writhing body to hold and rub at the dark, curly hair between her legs over her other parts. I turned the candle away from her. The moans moved nearer my neck. I hunched away towards the door. Mutta’s cough sounded wet. So I turned back towards the darkness. I turned back and washed her in candlelight and shadows. She shoved a pillow between her naked thighs. Her hips swayed and ground up against the hand pressing the pillow to her other parts.

“Sarah...” Mutta bit her own thumb. She rolled to her back, and her body arched, her stomach reaching towards the ceiling. She wailed.

I snatched away a pillow and quilt to escape. I tossed them onto the sofa and scurried into the kitchen to the stove. I jammed four logs inside. The winter howled across the chimney pipe, threatening to burst inside the walls. I ran to the couch as if something in the darkness snapped at my heels. I felt as if it could have had snapping sharp teeth. I leapt onto the couch, twisted the blanket over my head, pulled it taut over my ears, chin, and eyes, and kept only my nose outside the covers. I rolled my back to the door of our room. When my breath calmed and no longer huffed past my lips into the quilt, I noticed the tinge of pine needles on the surface of the couch cushions.

I pressed my nose into the aroma and took in the memories of Foda. Right now, it could have been spring, any day after he was done in the woodpile. Every winter we needed at least five cords of firewood split and stacked. At the end of those days, I would sit beside him on the couch while he read, especially after he’d split the pine or fir. The room would be fresh with the blush of the forest after a summer rain. I’d sit with a book of my own, usually an atlas, and take small samples of the forest sitting next to me. After an hour or so, he would tap my shoulder, hand me his book, which he’d marked with a long slip of cloth Mutta had cut and stitched, and pointed to the shelf where he got it. I would rise and put his reading away and retreat to Mutta’s room where I slept on a cot in the corner closest the kitchen.

This wasn’t the first night I had retreated for the couch, but the first I could sense Foda. I breathed softly, ignoring the wind rattling the windows, let my head get heavier and heavier as the night’s darkness swallowed my cries.

***

When I arose, I did not find Mutta in bed. And her coat, her chore boots, her scarf, her hat stayed at the door. The wind had stopped. The snow now only fluttered to the ground. I opened the front door. Snow drifted onto the porch. There were dimples scarring the rolling mounds of snow. The dimples held blue shadows compared to the blazing white snow, leading across the banks towards the outhouse.

I closed the door and took to the stove. I patted my fingertips against the coil of steel around the handle. I felt warm. I opened the stove. Then I whistled a breath over the ash. The white and grey flakes whipped up away from six small embers. I used some tinder to poke and corral the embers together, then I cracked splinters of wood and tented them over the coals like Foda had shown me. The blonde wood blackened, and wisps of grey clouds spiralled up towards the stack. I puffed a tiny breath over my lips. The black embers smiled an orange radiance. I added more splinters and more wisps of breath. The wood smouldered and cracked. I got on my palms and knees and with long deep breaths blew the coals. A blizzard of ash rose, some escaping and taking to my hair and pajama collar. Then the twigs and splinters ignited. I added handfuls of tinder, larger tinder, careful not to knock over the teepee of flames. I added branches, the wood crackling from the flames wrapping, weaving themselves amongst the fuel. With a fire burning over again, I stood, listened to the stove hinges screech.

I stepped into the bedroom and put on a pair of Foda’s overalls, tucked my nightgown down one leg. I put on my coat, hat, mittens, boots. I pulled open the front door and stared into the blue dimples chasing across the snow. A crack in the clouds poured some morning sun over our pasture. The brightness smoothed the drifting snow.

A scattering of snow blew from off the roof across the yard. I walked through it as the cold snow fell down my collar. I lifted my heavy boots and plunged them into the blue dimples. I followed the path to the outhouse. I wondered if I could pee beside the red wooden shed, do it without dribbling and doing it quickly enough that I wouldn’t freeze. The soft snow slipping over the tops of my boots pushed me to the outhouse door. I stomped the drifted snow down and away from the door. I pulled the door half open.

“Sorry!”

I slammed the door. Mutta said nothing back.

“Sorry, Mutta.”

I stepped around the side of the outhouse away from the wind. I squatted and leaned. I hummed, not any song or melody. I just hummed to show Mutta I could wait. I stopped. “Mutta? Are you okay?” I knocked on the walls. “Mutta.” Knock knock. “Mutta.” Knock knock. “Mutta.”

Chickadees chirped and hopped around the Saskatoon berry bush, to snip the frozen, wrinkled purple berries for their bellies.

“Mutta?”

I stretched around the outhouse corner and wedged my fingers behind the door, opening it enough to peep inside. Mutta’s head lay rested upon her knees pulled up into her chest, her nightgown tented over them. I saw her bare feet, her toes poking out the bottom. The tips were crimson haloed about the knuckles by a hint of blue. I yanked the door open through the drifted snow.

“Mutta!”

I stepped inside and tried to peek under Mutta’s arm and see her eyes.

“Mutta.” I poked at her arm. She felt stiff. I pushed on her, but her forehead seemed frozen to her knees.

My mittens slipped off her shoulder. I saw her hair tucked behind her ears. Her ears looked like the colour of Saskatoon berries. I bit at a mitt, pulled it off and touched at Mutta’s fever. She felt as cold as the snow. I grabbed Mutta’s cheeks, but I could not lift her face.

“Mutta!”

I pushed and shook her shoulder. She was hard and solid.

“Mutta!”

I took off my coat and threw it over her shoulders, tucked it around her sides. Then I stopped and looked her over. I held my breath. Mutta’s chest held still, never rising, never falling.

My eyes burned. But the winter stole all their warmth before the wetness seared my cheeks.

I ran from the outhouse, pulled my knees high through the snow drifts. I slammed the front door, kicked and threw my winter clothes off behind me over the floor before I dove under the covers and pillow upon the sofa. I huffed and sucked on the pine memories lingering inside the cushions, trying to trade Mutta for Foda from inside my eyes.

______________________________________________

Excerpt from The Donkey Cutter by Gregory Koop, published by Guernica Editions. Copyright 2023 by Gregory Koop. Reprinted with permission.

Gregory Koop grew up on the border of central Alberta and Saskatchewan. Living the life of Garp, Gregory cares for his daughter, practices Muay Thai, and writes. A finalist for a 2010 Alberta Literary Award, Gregory has also been a resident of The Banff Centre’s Writing Studio. His work has been featured widely in literary journals. The Donkey Cutter is his first novel. He lives in Beaver County, AB.

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The Donkey Cutter

Years after the death of her mother, Mareika Doerksen moves through her adolescence with feelings of loss, confusion, and isolation as she seems somewhere between not being a child and not being a complete woman. Her father, a Mennonite only ethnically and socially, and a long-time atheist, has always been distant but pragmatic as he prepared her for the day he expects her to abandon their homestead on the Canadian Prairies for an education once impossible for women of their time. They move day to day avoiding the tragedies, traumas, and social expectations they rebel against in their Mennonite community during the infancy of Canada. But with the looming arrival of the 1910 Halley’s Comet, so too comes a handsome, charismatic Doomsday preacher. He captivates Mareika as he offers her solace and his ear. Meanwhile the local Bishop with a troubling and violent past sewn to the Doerksens, too, becomes obsessed with the maturing Mareika and sets out with the goal of saving her from the chiliast stranger and her atheist father.

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