WHEN MEMORIES REMAIN
CHAPTER ONE - July 1998
"Did you kill Mike Kalanza?"
Even though David was expecting the question, the immensity of the words were shocking.
He tried to hide his alarm.
“Did you kill Mike Kalanza?” the officer asked again. “Are you comfortable answering this question?”
David nodded that he was.
“Are you sure?” the officer asked.
Sergeant Robert McMillan was relieved that the suspect had finally calmed down. As an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for more than 20 years, Robert McMillan had interviewed many suspects. He’d worked as a plainclothes investigator for three years and in the Regina Drug Unit for six. He’d spent eight years in three different detachments in Saskatchewan before training as a polygraph examiner at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa the year before. Now he handled all cases in rural Manitoba. Tonight he was in Ashern, a town of 800 people, situated 180 kilometers north of Winnipeg. He was eliminating suspects in a 12-year-old murder investigation and it was his job to determine if David Pischke was telling the truth.
“Are you comfortable with all of the questions we’ve reviewed?” he asked. “Remember, I’m not here to find you guilty.”
“S-sure you’re not,” David scoffed. “If that’s t-true then why did you read me my rights?”
McMillan hesitated. He’d explained this already. He wasn’t sure if Pischke had misunderstood or was baiting him for another argument. Maybe Pischke was stalling. Or maybe it was an effort to intimidate. Either way, he couldn’t let the suspect take control of the interview. Men like him were exhausting to deal with. In fact, David was one of the most difficult suspects McMillan had ever put through the rigors of polygraph questioning.
People who agreed to take the test usually exhibited some degree of anger, fear and annoyance at the procedure. But this man was different. He was downright belligerent and his anger seemed to originate from somewhere beyond the Ashern RCMP detachment. McMillan had learned a bit about David from his twin brother Dennis who’d been in to take the test seven months earlier. He was also difficult, but not as angry as David.
“While the result of the polygraph machine is not admissible in court, whatever you say in this room is,” McMillan explained, using a different analogy this time. “Let’s say you tell me that no, you didn’t kill Mike, but that you killed somebody else. We need to make it clear that what you say to me can be used in a court of law. There is no client privilege here, not like when talking to a lawyer. While I am a polygraph examiner, I am also a peace officer and any confession of a punishable crime will be taken seriously. Do you understand?”
“Do you trust me?” McMillan asked. “Do you believe that I’m not trying to trick you?”
“No,” he replied. “I don’t t-trust n-none of you guys.”
“Well then we have a problem. We can’t do the test until we establish a level of trust.”
David shrugged. “How am I s-supposed to t-trust you?”
McMillan was curious. “Why don’t you?”
David laughed, shaking his head. “Because you guys have done n-nothin’ but accuse us our whole lives! An’ the assholes around here did n-nothin’ to help us w-when we was kids, n-nothin’!”
“Well, why did you come in here then?” McMillan asked. “If you don’t want to be here—there’s the door.”
David exhaled. “I got no choice.”
“Yes, you do,” he said softly. “You don’t have to be here.”
David laughed. “I gotta take the test to clear my n-name. Otherwise, everyone’s gonna say I’m a killer.”
McMillan raised his eyebrows. “Well, then it’s up to you, isn’t it?”
An inconclusive result on tonight’s test would mean that McMillan would have to come back to Ashern for a retest. This was one suspect he didn’t want to test again. It was important that David be calm, rational and comfortable with the questions before being connected to the polygraph machine to avoid an inconclusive result.
“Okay,” the officer began. “I’m going to leave the room and I’ll come back in 10 minutes. You think about it and when I get back, we’ll decide if you’re ready to proceed.”
David looked away.
This is going to be a challenge, McMillan thought as he got up from the desk. He stepped out of the room and quietly closed the door behind him.
David glanced at his watch. He’d been there answering questions for more than two hours. The officer had called them “background”questions. David still couldn’t understand why they needed to know so much personal information. It was embarrassing and seemed to make no sense.
“Just hook me up an’ ask me what you need to know,” David said as soon as he walked in.
The officer tried to explain that it didn’t work that way.
“W-why do you have to ask me all that s-stuff?” David hollered. The cop . . . what was his name? He’d said something about determining if he was physically and psychologically able to take the test. He’d mentioned something about “safety valve” questions, too. They were the bad ones—the ones David didn’t want to answer. That interrogation made him feel lower than he’d ever felt before.
An’ that’s pretty low, David thought.
One of the first things David had to tell the officer was that his dad died when he was only three-years-old.
“And so who raised you?” the officer asked.
“You mean who beat the hell out of us,” he corrected.
* * *David recalled one of the last summers that he and his twin, Dennis, had been together on the grain and cattle farm where they grew up. It was a typical July afternoon in Manitoba—the sky was deep blue and cloudless. The warm southeast wind carried dust through the air and it stuck to their sweat-soaked skin. The breeze smelled of the freshly mown hay that lay curing under the hot sun.
In February of that year, the twins celebrated their 13th birthdays at a neighbours’ home on the other side of the small lake that separated the two farms. The boys had fled into the bushes the previous night, with gunfire overhead. In a fit of anger, their stepfather, Boleslaw “Bob” Domko, had tried to shoot them. Too afraid to go home and thankful for a place to stay, David and Dennis lived with Leon and Anna Koch for nearly two weeks. The Kochs were kind people who were as generous as their modest circumstances would allow.
When the twins’ mother Caroline arrived to pick them up, they were delighted to discover that their stepfather, who everyone called “Domko,” had been taken by the RCMP to a mental hospital more than 100 miles away. To them it was like he’d been transported to the other side of the earth—they rejoiced!
The twins, along with older sister Eunice and younger sister Rosie, worked their mother’s tiny, isolated farm without complaint. The boys, who were hard workers, became the men of the house. They began attending school regularly, slept without fear and the family began eating together again. Half-siblings, eight-year-old Kathy and three-year-old Raymond, missed their father who was always kind to them, but soon became accustomed to his absence and the relaxed atmosphere at home.
Then, one day in the middle of June, Domko returned. Their mother had gone to the nearby town of Moosehorn to pick him up at the bus station. He’d been discharged from the mental hospital.
For the first few weeks, the twins noticed that his temperament had improved. Unfortunately, little Raymond thought his father’s pills were candy and he ate some, then spilled the rest on the floor. Domko refused to buy more medication and soon he returned to his old ways of overworking, starving and beating his stepchildren. He also derived great pleasure from pitting little Raymond against the twins. This fostered a mutual hatred and competition between the three.
But on this particular July afternoon, the twins received some respite. They met on the path between two adjoining fields as their horse teams greeted one another with a whinny then fell into a side-by-side trot. The boys had been out cutting hay for winter feed.
“Look!” Dennis said with a cheer as he pointed towards home. “Domko’s gone!”
David squinted in the direction of the farmyard, a good half mile away. He couldn’t see their stepfather’s car which was normally parked beside the house. This meant that he and their mother had gone to town.
Dennis stood recklessly holding the reins as the hay mower clanged behind him. He held back the team, skinny arms straining with effort. His T-shirt was too big and dirty from wear while his pants were too short—exposing tanned ankles and bare, calloused feet. The bruise on his upper cheek had faded from deep purple to a sickly yellow. David knew that once a few more days passed, the physical reminder of the beathing would be gone.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” Dennis smirked.
“Oh nothin’,” David said, forcing a smile. It seemed that he was always feeling guilty about something and it pained him to watch his skinny twin bounce over the hard ground, grinning like that. It was the first time Dennis had been relaxed in days.
The week before they’d been out raking hay when Dennis stopped to pick Saskatoon berries growing in the bush at the edge of the field. David continued raking, glancing over his shoulder at his brother who was happily gathering the ripe, purple berries in a basket he’d made by folding up the bottom hem of his shirt. Domko forbade them from picking berries, especially when there was work to be done, but the starving children couldn’t resist. Dennis popped every second handful into his mouth, and put the remainder in his cupped shirt.
The wind was blowing hard, muffling their hearing. Seagulls squawked hungrily overhead as they waited patiently just out of reach. David’s rake turned the windrow and he watched a gull swoop down and grab a mouse revealed by the turn of the rake. Another bird grabbed the rodent’s back end and in a tug-of-war, it was ripped in half. More gulls joined in the squawking fight.
Most of the time David felt like a hungry gull. So little food was given to the Pischke children that they went to bed most nights with nothing in their stomachs but a dull ache. It made David wonder what a mouse tasted like. He shuddered. Thoughts of the juicy berries that Dennis was daring to take made his mouth water. He hoped the ones saved in the shirt were for him.
Glancing over his shoulder, his stomach lurched as he noticed their stepfather quietly approaching Dennis from behind. Naively, his brother continued to pick berries, jamming handfuls into his mouth. David had to quickly decide whether or not to shout a warning. He knew from experience he’d be putting himself in danger. Domko had no tolerance for loyalty, especially between the twins who he believed were conspiring against him. It was frustrating that he couldn’t turn them against one another.
Turn around, Dennis! David silently implored.
And then, as if his brother could read his mind, Dennis suddenly turned to look over his shoulder—but it was too late. Domko delivered a blow that caught the boy in the head, knocking him backwards against the bushes. The impact sent the berries flying into the air, then scattered them on the ground beside the youngster. Instinctively, Dennis’ arms came up over his head and his knees curled towards his chest.
David was thankful for the strong wind that muffled Dennis’ cries. His heart beat heavy and fast in his chest and the strange sensation of time halting overtook him—the same feeling he got each time one of his siblings received a beating. This unnerved David who counted the blows silently to the beat of the blood pounding in his head. Three, four, five . . . David dared to look again and was relieved to see that Domko was slowing—six, seven and then one more unmerciful kick to Dennis’ back. He then took a step back and ordered the boy to get up.
Scrambling to his feet, Dennis limped towards the waiting horse and mower. Domko lunged at him once more, but the teenager avoided the kick by veering to one side. He then jumped on the mower seat and slapped the reins hard against the horses’ backs. The animals, always tense in Domko’s presence, bolted. Domko stood at the edge of the field for awhile watching the twins work until he became bored. He then walked back to his tractor which was concealed behind a nearby brush pile. He’d administered his “daily beating,” so the rest of the children would be safe for another day—unless they did something seriously wrong. David was thankful it hadn’t been his turn. Tomorrow he might not be so lucky.
“Where’s Eunice?” Dennis called out. The question brought David out of his trance.
“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head gently. The horses began to slow as they approached the yard fence. “She’s prob’ly ’round here somewhere.”
The twins jumped off the mower seats and led the horses into the yard, halting them by the chicken coop. The cows would need to be milked later on, but for now the boys were free to do whatever they wanted.
Picking up the glass sealer he carried on the mower, David dropped the reins across the drawbar. They strolled to the well and took turns pumping water from the well onto the ground. The cold, clear water cascaded onto their bare feet. They slipped off their shirts and splashed each other with the water, a welcome relief to their overheated bodies. As they filled their jars, a little dog ran into the yard and began barking. Looking up, David recognized the mongrel that Domko had brought to the farm a few weeks before. The dog had absolutely no farm sense and David was surprised that the animal hadn’t been shot by Domko like so many others that he’d stolen from unsuspecting owners in town. David speculated that little Raymond’s attachment to the dog might have bought it extra time.
The dog scampered towards the twins who ignored the animal’s pleas for attention. David watched as Eunice and Raymond strolled into the yard, each carrying a pail of berries. Two years older than the twins, their sister was a tall, thin, attractive girl with dark blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Usually friendly and talkative, Eunice had been subdued lately. She told Raymond to stay outside as she took both buckets into the house.
The dog, looking for something to play with, ran towards the chicken house. He barked and yapped at the clucking hens that foraged in the dirt. The sudden appearance of the dog sent them into a frenzy which in turn startled the horses.
“Get away from there!” David scolded. The dog paid no attention. Like little boys, he seemed to believe that chickens were meant to be chased.
The horses whinnied and began backing up to get away from the yapping dog. Dennis’ team reared then took off in a trot towards the safety of the barn. David’s team, however, continued to back up. By the time he realized what was happening, the reins had become caught in the drawbar and tangled around one mower wheel. As the horses’ retreated, the reins wound tighter around the wheel, pulling their heads back even further. The animals were beginning to panic.
David dropped his jar and ran towards the team. Grabbing the reins, he tried to untie the knot but it wouldn’t budge. By now, the horses heads were pulled so far that their front feet were beginning to lift off the ground.
Getting behind the mower, David pressed his hip against the coop wall for leverage and tried to hold the implement so it wouldn’t roll any farther.
“Go get a knife!” he screamed to Dennis who immediately turned and ran into the house. The horses’ hind legs banged against the mower bar as the animals continued to resist the unknown force pulling their reins. David jammed his feet and legs against the wall, but could feel himself weakening from the strain. Suddenly, the horses reared together and the mower slammed back against his legs, causing him to slip part way to the ground. His chest was pinned to the coop and it looked as if the horses were going to fall back on top of him as the frothing animals stomped and fought to free themselves. David could feel the edge of the mower cutting into his chest and the poorly constructed building was giving way under the strain. Dennis arrived moments later carrying Domko’s butchering knife..
“C-cut the reins!” David screamed. “Hurry, Denny, they’re killin’ me.”
Dennis found what looked like a worn area on a rein, then sawed furiously. It took all his strength to keep the horses from crushing his brother while he cut a deep slash into the hardened leather.
David sobbed as Dennis worked.
“I got it!” Dennis panted as the knife broke through one rein, then the other. This freed one horse, whose first instinct was to run. This helped free the trapped teen as it dragged the other horse and mower away from the chicken coop as well.
David crawled a few feet across the grass then collapsed on the ground.
“You okay?” Dennis asked, panting as he dropped to his knees.
David laid face down on the grass for a long time before slowly turning over. “I almost got killed,” he choked. Then shading his eyes from the bright sun, he squinted them open enough to see chubby, dark-skinned Raymond standing over him. The boy’s lips and cheeks were stained purple with Saskatoon juice.
“I tell Ta-Ta,” he taunted, then turned and ran to the house.
David was too disoriented to care whether his little brother tattled or not. “Denny, let’s get outta here,” he said.
The brothers got up and Dennis helped David stagger into the safety of the bush just a short distance from the house. David thought that they should continue through the trees to where the St. Thomas Lutheran Church sat in a nearby clearing.
The building had been a sanctuary for the twins who’d spent many a winter’s night huddled on the floor wrapped in the minister’s robes. The thick, white candles used during Sunday church services threw just enough heat to keep them from freezing to death. For some reason, Domko wouldn’t come after them if they were hiding in that church.
But this was summer. The building would be too hot and stuffy and besides, members of the parish were irritated that the boys spent so much time there, and they didn’t want to be caught inside. Their kindly neighbours, Gus and Emma Harwart, had defended the twins on more than one occasion, saying that if it weren’t for the church, the twins would surely be dead. This shamed the less charitable parishioners into silence, but David knew that it wouldn’t take much of an excuse for them to lock the back window that was always mysteriously left open.
The boys lay under the shade of the poplar trees beside the ashes of one of their old campfires, chatting until David fell into a deep sleep. He awoke at dusk to find Dennis gone. He tried to sleep but couldn’t until Dennis returned.
David awoke early the next morning to the annoying buzz of mosquitoes near his face. He casually swatted the pests and listened to the sounds of morning. The rooster crowed and the chickens clucked happily, bragging that they’d just laid an egg. A chipmunk twittered to its mate high in a tree not too far away. The air was still and David sensed it was going to be another hot day.
Sitting up, his aching limbs protested as he recalled what had happened the day before. Still hidden, he could see the house, barnyard and the cows standing patiently at the far gate—waiting to be led into the barn for milking. He decided it would be best to wait until Eunice emerged from the house before limping to the barn to help.
Dennis stirred beside him. When he awoke, he explained that he had slipped into the yard and unharnessed, fed and watered the horses while David slept. He’d helped Eunice milk the cows, then hidden the cut reins so that Domko wouldn’t find them. He reported that Domko and their mother had arrived home late at night, so they wouldn’t have noticed that David was missing and that the haying wasn’t finished. Dennis sat cross-legged with his hands relaxed on his knees, as he waited patiently for David to thank him for his efforts.
The two could barely stand to be apart. The quieter of the two boys, Dennis’ mannerisms were gentle. The injustices of their lives weighed heavier on him, and his vulnerability showed. He was caught and beaten by their stepfather at least twice as often as David, who in contrast was gregarious and quick. He was the leader of the two, and because of this, felt it was his responsibility to keep them both alive.
Domko loved to beat Dennis, not only because the boy was easily fooled and would cry out in pain, but because the harder-to-catch twin would stand nearby and suffer as well. Domko knew it hurt David terribly to watch Dennis being beaten.
Now that they were in their early teens, the boys could endure the beatings with stoicism—unlike when Domko first came to the farm. Their father, Bill Pischke, had died of tuberculosis shortly before the twins’ third birthday. Bill had been an easygoing man, never spanking the children or losing his temper. Domko’s strictness and erratic behaviour came as a surprise to the children whose disobedience was no longer met with a firm word, but with a closed fist. It didn’t take long before the seven happy-go-lucky, mischievous children became fearful and withdrawn.
Self-preservation became a daily objective and it often came at the expense of the other children. Within a few years, the three older boys, Walter, Stephen and Norman, moved away given the first opportunity. That left only four young Pischke children to do all the work.
David watched from the bushes as the door opened and Eunice stepped out carrying three clean milking pails. At 15, she was tired of the family’s dismal living conditions and anxious to start her own life. Like the older boys, she was awaiting her chance.
Quietly, the twins emerged from hiding and Dennis ran ahead to get the cows. David fell into line beside his sister, then he pulled open the heavy barn door. Eunice didn’t even ask where he’d been. The boys had spent so many nights in the bush that she was accustomed to their absence.
They stepped into the dark building. The air was heavy with the pungent smell of livestock manure and urine. It took a few moments for their eyes to adjust as the bright sunshine filled the barn. A chorus of screeching and chirping came from overhead as their sudden appearance disrupted the peaceful existence of the barn swallows whose nests were built high in the rafters. A pair of adult birds swooped threateningly at the teens, a warning to ignore the nests filled with tiny chicks. Another pair of birds came from a different direction and did the same thing, then continued out the barn door. Soon they were back, and the children swung their arms overhead to fend off the birds, thoughts elsewhere.
The cows streamed in bellowing as they found their stalls. The children began working immediately to fill their buckets and then dump the warm, frothing milk into a large cream can near the door. It took nearly an hour to milk the dozen cows. Eunice and Dennis each took a handle of the heavy can then carried it to the house so the cream could be separated from the milk. David chased the cows out of the barn and back into the pasture. He returned to harness the horses that waited in larger stalls at the back of the barn. Their tails swished as they tried to brush away the annoying flies that buzzed around. They whinnied as David approached, anxious to be let outside.
The boy whispered a stream of meaningless, softly spoken words to the animals, hoping they would remain calm while he worked quickly to get the harnesses in place. Luckily he’d found an extra set of reins. Backing the animals out of their stalls, he emerged through the doorway, leading a horse in each hand. Suddenly he stopped.
Domko stood directly in front of the open door, the pair of cut reins hanging loosely at his side. He’d been watching David the entire time.
Domko was only five foot three inches, but what he lacked in height, he made up for in width. His broad shoulders were muscular and his stocky limbs powerful. He stood with legs spaced a shoulder’s width apart, and his muscles twitched with anger. He wore army boots, gray work pants and a dirty, plaid shirt. A week’s worth of butts were stashed in one pant cuff. A greasy cap sat atop his head, pushed far enough back that David could clearly see the four-inch scar that ran across his forehead. It was just below the hairline over his left eye where the metal plate had been inserted.
The stub of a hand-rolled cigarette was pinched in the corner of his thinly lipped mouth. He didn’t bathe or shave regularly and smelled of body odour and manure. When angry, his almond-shaped eyes flashed in a wicked way and he seemed to lose control of his senses. As he lashed out, he would yell obscenities in Polish and broken English, which revealed one gold tooth in the front of his mouth.
Some people claimed that Domko could be friendly and talkative—even helpful—but David only saw this when Domko was interacting with his own children or in the company of someone he was trying to impress.
His sheer intensity and aggressive demeanour caused people to fear him. A Polish war veteran, Domko had a hatred for German people. He bragged many times about killing, torturing and maiming prisoners during the Second World War. This terrified the children who’d spoke low-German at home when their father was alive.
At first it appeared that Domko was trying to beat the bloodlines out of them. Soon it appeared that the beatings had become a habit. Now, it looked like Domko was enjoying it.
Strong for his age and determined, David had grown taller than Domko over the past year, but he was still intimidated by the man who had used fear as a weapon for nearly a decade. David had never once considered fighting back.
Their eyes met and David realized today it was his turn.
“You soneebeech bastard,” Domko seethed, stepping forward, thrusting the reins towards the boy. “You’s be cuttink it some!”
Letting go of the horse, David tried to run, but Domko blocked the doorway knocking him to the ground.
“I’s be showink you bastard!” he screamed as he swung the leather reins at David, catching him on the bare back. The scrambling boy wailed as Domko thrashed him again.
“Sauger!” Dennis yelled.
David saw his twin hop over a fence and disappear into the bush. The secret word told him where Dennis would be hiding.
Instinctively, David covered his head with his arms. Each time the tip of the reins seared his bare back it felt like a razor slicing through his skin. His mind whirled as he remembered Raymond saying he would tell Ta-Ta. The boy likely followed Dennis when he hid the reins, then reported everything to his father who would have rewarded him with a chocolate bar.
David’s mind reeled. It was so unfair that his own father had died so young, but even worse that the brutality they suffered had erased most of the memories of what life was like before his father’s death.
David hated crying out, but knew that his screams pleased Domko. If he didn’t yell, the next whip of the reins was delivered more carefully, to be sure that it elicited the desired response. The pain across his back was excruciating and he writhed on the ground, but was careful not to turn over. He knew that a blow across the chest would hurt even more and across the face could be disfiguring. He felt himself scream again and again as the flogging continued.
Whipping was something that Domko had wanted to do for quite some time. David could sense the man was enjoying himself. He’d often bragged about how much pain he could inflict and grunted with the delivery of each lash.
When David felt like he just couldn’t take the pain any longer, an odd sensation came over him. He felt his mind float far away from the man who swore with the delivery of each blow. It was almost as if somebody else was taking the blows for him as his mind drifted to another place. He thought about the few people who cared about him. He could hear Emma’s voice repeating over and over again: “You’re a good boy.”
I should have put on my shirt, he scolded himself. Next time I’ll wear my shirt. He stared blankly at the ground less than an inch away and tried to focus on the dirt and pebbles. He knew that the circumstances of his life were wrong and unfair. He knew that not all children suffered as he did.
David lay on the ground fading in and out of consciousness for a long time before he realized that Domko had stopped whipping him. It took a few minutes for his mind to clear and comprehend that he was still alive. His back throbbed, gently at first, and then painful waves rippled from his shoulder blades to the back of his knees.
It had been his own carelessness that had caused the near-accident the day before. He knew it was his fault. But he also knew that what he’d just experienced was more than Domko punishing him for the cut reins. It was about control and power. It was about how much Domko enjoyed the pain, blood and fear he inflicted on the helpless children. It was about trying to break the spirit of boys who were growing into men. The trouble was, David refused to be broken.