From ‘The Wittenbergs’


Wittenbergs coverBy Sarah Klassen 

A girl sits astride a fallen tree trunk halfway down the bank of the Red River. The weathered trunk lies angled diagonally across the steep slope, its root end pointing to the top of the bank, what’s left of its branches almost at the water’s edge. The girl, who should be at school, has taken a book from her backpack and alternates between reading and staring out across the water. When she reads she is completely engrossed: her brown hair falls forward concealing her face, her mouth is slightly open, both hands grasp the book. A novel. She is oblivious to the roar of motorboats racing north to the lake or south through the city. When she lifts her face from the page to the river traffic, she sees the large Paddlewheel Princess rounding the bend on its way downriver, its flag whipped by a stiff wind, its railing crowded with seniors enjoying a pleasant autumn cruise. When they wave, the girl waves back and watches the paddlewheeler continue north. It’s late afternoon and already the sun is still well above the trees and buildings on the opposite bank. Grey gulls circle above the water.

The girl slides farther down the tree trunk as if intending to get close to the water so she can dangle her feet in it. Below her, half-embedded rocks protrude invitingly from the riverbank and she inches down lower on her tree until she is even with one of them, gets up, pulls herself onto the rock, manoeuvres her body into a squatting position, then straightens cautiously, until she is upright, a figure on a pedestal. The rock is smooth and she is tense. But after standing still for a few minutes, her limbs relax, she breathes deeply, gazes out over the water and raising both arms shouts across the river:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings.

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

She laughs out loud, perhaps with pleasure at the words. Or at the audacity of Ozymandias. Or her own.

She glances down and sees that the book she left balanced precariously on the tree trunk has fallen and is wedged between two stones further down from where she was sitting. She jumps from her rock and lands too hard on the sloped stony ground, jarring her body. Her hand reaches down for balance, finds the tree trunk. She grabs it, moves her hand along the bare, rough wood and a splinter drives deep into her palm. She gasps and lets go.

Moments pass before she can bear to look down at the inch of splinter protruding from her hand. Horrified, she sits down beside the trunk, brings her hand close to her face so she can clamp her teeth around the stub of the splinter. She squeezes her eyes shut, pulls hard until the whole thing grinds out accompanied by searing pain. There is blood on her hand. The girl sits frozen, staring at the blood, not much more than a dribble, but as the pain flares a sickening sensation settles in her stomach. She lets herself slump against the tree trunk. She is on the steepest part of the slope and must guard against sliding further down. She tries to dig her heels into the hard ground.

The book, a novel by Jane Austen, lies below her, beyond reach. Slowly, like a turtle coming to life, her body moves forward, still in sitting position. Gritting her teeth, she begins to wiggle herself down in the direction of the book.

At the top of the riverbank voices become audible. A gang of boys has arrived, AWOL from school like the girl. They are riding their bikes on the bumpy trail that runs through the trees along the river. Their shouts and raucous laughter roll down the riverbank.

Unwilling to place her injured hand on wood or stone, the girl makes slow progress on her mission to retrieve her book. She is afraid to stand up, but grasping whatever she can get hold of with her good hand, she brings herself to her knees. Her awkward position causes her to fall forward and she braces with both hands. The pain in her injured one triggers an unstoppable cry.

Her cry summons the raucous boys, who leave their bikes and storm down, a ragtag army that halts when they are still well above the girl.


It’s a sucky girl!

Hey, sucky girl, you sick down there?

She’s freaking out.

Whatcha doin’?

You friggin’ hiding down there?

She’s crying.

Hey, you. Hey, crybaby!

The girl, handicapped as she is, appears frightened at first, but as if galvanized by the rowdy boys she tries again to get up on her knees, succeeds, and moving forward that way, retrieves the book and shoves it into the waistband of her shorts. Then, using both hands for support, she turns herself around and with clenched lips scrambles on all fours slowly up the rough riverbank. Her action is cause for derisive laughter.

Hey, crybaby! Better learn to walk.

Looks like a water rat.

Nah, she’s a friggin’ pig.

When the girl reaches the waiting boys, the slope less steep here, she stands up to face them. They are younger than she is, but have the advantage of numbers as they form a ragged semicircle around her, a barrier they are daring her to breach. Pulling herself tall, shoulders back, she narrows her eyes and glares at the boys. A gust of wind whips her hair into a wild halo.

Her voice a feral growl, she says, Let’s just see who’s a crybaby. Let’s see who’s the pig here. She fists her good hand, holds the bleeding one close to her chest, and lowering her head charges forward, shoulders a boy to her left, then one to her right. Every impact a solid, satisfying thud. Forcing her way through the barrier, she reaches the abandoned bikes and stomping on spokes and tires makes her way up the riverbank.

Whether it’s the blood on her hand or the fierceness in her eyes or the tears running down her cheeks, no one touches her, no one gives chase. Crowding around the damaged bikes, the boys untangle their own, lead them toward the path that disappears among the trees.

When the girl reaches the park at the top of the riverbank, she stops to brush the twigs and mud from her clothes, examines the book for damage, her hand for blood, then following a gravel path she starts walking slowly, gains speed and by the time she gets to Kildonan Drive she is running.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher from The Wittenbergs, by Sarah Klassen, Turnstone Press, 2013.

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Sarah Klassen

In addition to her new novel, The Wittenbergs, Sarah Klassen has published two books of short stories and five books of poetry. She has won national and regional awards for her writing, including the Gerald Lampert Award and a Gold National Magazine Award. Klassen lives in Winnipeg.