Certainty
By Madeleine Thien
Published by Little, Brown & Co
March 2007; 0316834998; 320 pages

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1


Chaos


VANCOUVER, CANADA

In what was to have been the future, Ansel rolled towards her, half awake, half forgetful. He curved his body around hers and Gail’s warmth drew him back into sleep. Morning passed into afternoon, the rest of the world waited outside, but he and Gail were just rising from bed, they were fumbling into their clothes, they knew that the day was long.

Some of her work, the tapes and reel-to-reel, are in the house. Some in the attic of her parents’ house, and some in her former office. When Ansel listens to them, the finished and the unfinished work, the quality of the recording is fine, as if Gail is in the room herself, her voice preserved on a quarter-inch strip of tape.

There is a sunroom at the front of the house where Ansel drinks his coffee. Across the street, their neighbour is crouched on the ground, snipping the grass with a pair of scissors. Because of the noise, she says. A lawnmower makes far too much noise. She is in her mid-sixties and the wide brim of a sun hat shades her face. Gail, who had grown up in a house a block away, once told Ansel that she remembered this same woman snipping the grass when Gail herself was a child. “All the kids would come with their plastic scissors and help her out. It was a kind of neighbourhood haircut.” Every now and then, Mrs. Cho stands up and massages her lower back. She looks over at Ansel seated alone in the window, lifts her hand to him in greeting.

The coffee is warm and sweet. He closes his eyes and drinks it, and when he opens his eyes again, Gail is still there, a presence in the room, the undercurrent of his thoughts.

It is almost seven o’clock. The sun is up, and it pours a warm, golden light across the houses. Last night, he couldn’t sleep, and this morning his body feels hollow, a loose string that folds naturally over itself. On the table in front of him, a sheaf of papers: Gail’s radiology report, her EKG chart, the pages creased from too much handling. Outside, the branches of the sakura tree flutter in the wind. The tree blooms in March, and by April the blossoms are so heavy all the branches are weighted down. By May, the yard is a snowbank of petals.


Ansel and Gail bought this house ten years ago, in the early-1990s. He had just finished his residency, and Gail was working as a radio producer, making features and documentaries. The house is in Strathcona, the oldest neighbourhood in Vancouver. Even now, the Hastings Mill cabins, where workers lived a century ago, still stand. Past the bustle of Chinatown, the downtown core floats like a picture hung against the North Shore mountains. East, and the mills are visible, Ballentyne Pier, with its brightly coloured stacks of containers, and the tall freight elevators.

Theirs is a restored Queen Anne, gabled windows on the top floors. A solid, unremarkable house. On windy days, he imagines he can feel the wooden beams of the house swaying.

Previous homes together had been small apartments in basements or attics, the two of them tucked in amongst their belongings. Now there are books and records and an old piano. Gail’s hand-carved Indonesian box. Ansel’s antique microscope; once, they had spent the afternoon looking at odds and ends. He remembers an onion skin, elegant in its simplicity, the cells stacked together like brickwork.

There is the understanding that she is no longer here, that it was sudden and irrevocable, but this understanding is one moment spread over a thousand hours, a continuous thought that tries to forget itself. And then, when that fails, to bargain, to change everything, to fall asleep and go back to another point in time. “Time,” Gail had said once, as he fell asleep in her arms, “is the only thing we need.”

At Strathcona Elementary School, the Sunday morning tai chi class is already in motion. He can see them through the fence as he walks, grandparents in neon track suits, moving across the pavement in an ensemble, a fluid echo of cause and effect. Bird plucking a leaf from the tree. Hands separating heaven from earth. Gail had listed these off for him. Epic names for the smallest gestures. Together, they step purposefully across the chalk lines for hopscotch and four-square.

Ansel buys his breakfast at the New Town Bakery, where a woman wearing a blank name tag gives him a paper bag filled with warm bread. He continues through Chinatown, past the tanks of melancholy fish. Vegetables spill out from the markets, and the street lamps, recently painted a festive red, glow in the early morning.

After the service, the flowers had followed her across the city, from Hastings Street to 49th Avenue. The houses giving way to Central Park, giving way to the burial grounds. The workers arranged the tall flower stands in concentric circles around her grave, making a perfumed forest. He walked into it and in the centre he found her. Each night the rain knocked them down, the wind scattered the petals across the cemetery, and every day he set them up again. One afternoon, he arrived in the middle of a storm. He raised the flowers up onto their stands, and they collapsed on top of him. He hugged them to his body and lifted them up once more.

Half a year has gone by since then, but this morning, when he walks along the pebbled road beside False Creek, his thoughts return to that small plot of land and the flowers he laid there yesterday. His friend Ed Carney once spent an entire morning giving Ansel his thoughts on passing time. Time’s arrow pointing in both directions, the past flying into view as you stumble backwards into the future, Walter Benjamin’s angel of history. Ed had mused about scientists who experimented with their circadian rhythms, re-establishing themselves on a twenty-six-hour clock. “Mostly they had the police after them, wondering what trouble they were up to.” The conversation had ended there. Ed had gone back to mowing his lawn, and Ansel had continued walking.

Now he sits on the dock at the creek, the moored boats swaying with the current, and he eats his breakfast. Sunday morning and the city is still sleeping, but she is there beside him, running her feet through the water. That is another timeline, the morning of Gail’s last birthday, fall and not summer. Their last conversation was a telephone call, long distance. His memories struggle to stay afloat, time moves forward, and Ansel feels the divide in his body. One part of him carrying on, living moment to moment, the other part lost to him on the day she died.


In the afternoon, he walks down the street to Keefer and Princess, to the two-storey that belongs to Gail’s parents. Along the way he passes dry lawns, cascading sprinklers, crooked hopscotch drawings, an arrow drawn in chalk, pointing for an instant at his feet, with the words “Typical homo sapiens.” When he arrives, Gail’s parents are in the kitchen. Matthew is stooped in front of the sink and Clara is at the counter. Ansel leaves his sandals at the kitchen door and enters barefoot. Immediately, the soles of his feet are covered with flour.

“You’re early,” Clara says, pleased.

The counter is an avalanche of green vegetables. Something that smells sweet and tangy is simmering on the stove. He says, “I’ve come to help.”

Gail’s father turns, one hand still holding the cleaver. He looks panicked at the suggestion.

“Wonderful,” Clara says. “We still have plenty of time.” She gestures him towards the seat across from her.

In the decade that he has been with Gail, this house has not changed in any noticeable way. Even Matthew and Clara are standing at their usual places, the radio is on low, the room drifts in a comfortable quiet. Clara is making dumplings, and watching her, as Gail once said, is like watching a bird build a nest. Nothing much seems to be happening, and then suddenly structure appears.

He does what he can, constructing dumplings from the rounds of dough that dot the counter. Today is the six-month anniversary of Gail’s death.

As they work, Clara tells him about the restaurant that her father owned when she was a girl, and they talk about her four sisters, who are now scattered throughout the world. She brushes a strand of greying hair from her forehead, and her fingertips leave a faint trail of flour on her skin. On the fridge behind her, there’s a postcard, a snowflake photographed with a wide-angle lens, sent by her third sister, who is visiting St. Petersburg. He tells her that a snowflake is the perfect example of sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

“Sensitive what?” Matthew says, peering down at him through his bifocals.

Ansel says that the shape of a snowflake is the precise record of all the changing weather conditions it has experienced on its way towards the ground. Things like temperature, humidity, or impurities in the atmosphere. But mostly temperature.

“So,” he says, frowning. “People were right all along. No two are ever the same.”

Ansel nods, smiling. Each addition to the crystal is dependent on the exact second of its formation, and its place in the atmosphere. Even a difference as small as a breath, or a nudge, will give rise to another shape, another sequence of order and complexity. Matthew stops what he is doing, considering. Clara looks at Ansel now, nodding approval at the dumplings he has folded. “You have no idea how much food we’ve prepared,” she says, dusting flour from her hands. “Gail would have liked it, I think. Knowing we were here, together.”


The table is set for eight. Glyn Madden, an old friend and colleague of Gail’s at the radio station, sits beside Ansel. Since the funeral, he has seen her only a handful of times, to discuss the documentary that Gail was working on when she died. Opposite them is Ed Carney, whose son Scott is beside Mrs. Cho. Clara and Matthew sit side by side. The empty chair and place setting, intended for spirits departed, is to Ansel’s right. The food comes out all at once, a sweet-and-sour fish, spicy coconut soup, peanut noodles, and a half-dozen more dishes, and the table seems to buckle under the weight.

Ansel pours the wine, almost spilling it when Ed announces that he’s brought his banjo. “Is there anyone here who might accompany me?” he asks.

“You play the piano, don’t you, Glyn?”

“I do, but I’ve never played a duet with a banjo.”

The lenses of Matthew’s glasses begin to fog up from the warm food, and he takes them off and lays them, arms open, on the table. As the conversation drifts, Matthew remains silent, but to Ansel he looks relaxed, at ease in this gathering.

“So, Ed, what are you going to play for us?”

“No need to laugh. I have a very good repertoire. It passes the time.”

“It’s the banjo, Ed. What you need is a cello.”

“How about a hurdy gurdy? Not enough people are playing the hurdy gurdy these days.”

Arms reach across the table, passing plates, refilling glasses, and outside the sky is a pale and delicate amber. Ansel spoons some spiced beef into a lettuce leaf, drizzles sauce on it, and rolls the leaf into a small package. There are clams tossed in black bean sauce, a dish of prawns and snow peas. The food relaxes the nerves behind Ansel’s eyes.

Mrs. Cho is leaning forward with her glass. “So, Glyn, what are you working on now?”

Glyn puts down her chopsticks. “Something that Ed would be very interested in, I think.”

“Don’t get him started.”

“A feature documentary with an intriguing topic. To have a mind, to be a body,” she says. “That’s the gist of it anyway.”

“But,” Ed says, “gist is spirit.”

Glyn smiles. “Well the idea is to do a history of the mind, or at least what we know about it. Descartes thought there was a very small part of the brain through which the mind travelled into the body.” She turns to Ansel. “Ten points, doctor, if you can name it.”

“The glandula pinealis.”

She raises her glass to him in a toast. “Well done. Physics, quantum mechanics, those are often thought of as the frontier of science. But the other frontier might be study into the mind. How neurons and neurotransmitters make thought and feeling and imagination possible. Things that don’t seem like they could possibly come from a material thing, a physical entity.”

Ed smiles triumphantly. “Then maybe spirit was the right word.”

“In a sense.”

While the others talk, Gail is here beside him, laughing in delight at the spread of food. She hoists the wine bottle to make sure that every glass is full.

Ed leans back in his chair. “Now correct me if I’m wrong, but one of the reasons we have so much trouble studying the brain is because it’s sort of like a big crumpled piece of paper. Lots of surface area in a very small space, tucked away inside folds and such.”

 

“Like the lungs,” Ansel says, his attention returning to the table. “There’s more surface area there than on a tennis court.”

“Then,” Clara says, “I would imagine that the most important parts are in the centre. Less liable to damage?”

“Yes and no. Some parts, like the cerebral cortex, are on the surface. Others, like the thalamus or amygdala, are buried. So thought comes from these different regions working together, like a piece of music. Activity sweeps across the brain. Synapses are excited, connections are made. Up comes the lightbulb.”

Ed snaps his fingers and says, apropos of nothing, “Did you know, a catfish is basically a swimming tongue and nose?”

“Speaking of synapses,” Ansel says, “there’s a biologist who coined the phrase ‘I link therefore I am.’”

Glyn nods. “That sounds promising. I might have to use that.”

Their eyes meet briefly. Ansel says, the words coming before he has time to consider them, “And you’re finishing Gail’s documentary.”

Clara glances up from her plate, watching them.

“Yes, of course, but it was nearly finished. Gail had already written the script.” After a moment, she says, “This project meant something to her. She would have wanted it completed.”

There’s an awkward quiet at the table. Matthew picks up his glasses and gently folds the arms down. Mrs. Cho takes a sip of wine and says, “You’re very brave. That girl was such a perfectionist, I’d be afraid to mess it up. She’s the type who would come looking for you.”

“Spirits again!” says Ed. “Which reminds me, Ansel, I hope you’re minding your duties and keeping that plate full.” He points over at the place setting beside him.

Scott Carney stands, takes the wine bottle and begins refilling the glasses. “William Sullivan’s diary. That’s the documentary you mean?”

Glyn nods.

Clara picks up the serving spoon and begins to ladle more food onto Mrs. Cho’s plate. Ansel sees Matthew reach his hand out, rest it against Clara’s back, fingertips brushing her dress. Steadying her, or steadying himself, Ansel cannot tell.

Scott keeps pouring, concentrating on the task as he speaks. “The diary belonged to a friend of mine, a woman I had gone to school with, Kathleen Sullivan. All the pages were filled with numbers. She believed it was a diary because this is what her father had told her, decades ago. A diary he had begun in 1942, while serving with the Canadian army in Hong Kong.”

Glyn continues the story, telling how Sullivan had continued writing after Hong Kong fell, after he was taken prisoner by the Japanese, when the act of keeping a journal was punishable by summary execution. But by the 1960s, when Sullivan showed the diary to his family, he himself had forgotten the method of decryption. After his death, the diary had been carefully preserved by Kathleen. Eventually, she attempted to have it read, sending it to experts around the world. Gail had forwarded a copy of the book to Harry Jaarsma, a mathematician and a friend from her student days in the Netherlands, in the hope that he would be able to decipher it.

“I still remember telling Gail the story,” Scott says, turning to Ansel, “sitting on the front steps of your house.”

After the dishes are cleared away, they move out onto the back porch. Ed picks up his banjo and strums a few strings, then father and son do a duet: “Good Night” by the Beatles, but with the rhythm plucked up so they’re tapping their feet. The song goes from three minutes to about forty-five seconds. Ed waves off the applause and segues into “Never My Love.” Mrs. Cho creaks back and forth on the rocking chair, singing along, “Da da da da, da da. Never, my love.” She tells Ed, “I’m so glad you’re my age.” He puts his soul into the bass walk up.

“I never thought I’d enjoy this on the banjo.” Glyn is standing apart from the group, leaning her back against the house.

Scott turns to her. “You’d be surprised how many people say that. The weird thing is, Dad didn’t even pick it up until he was in his fifties. It’s not something from his childhood, or from his lost country roots. It’s a new thing for him.”

Ansel leans over the railing. From here, he can see his own house, where he has left the bedroom light on accidentally. In his red wine haze, it makes him think that someone is waiting up for him. That someone is reading in bed, and when he comes home, he will lift the open book off her chest and set it on the table. When he turns around, he sees that Matthew has already gone upstairs to rest. Clara and Mrs. Cho are having a conversation that moves from Cantonese into English and back again. Glyn, Ed and Scott have gone back to talking about the mind. Ed is saying, “At some point, when they’ve figured everything out, the new kind of human being may have to live without mystery. And I wonder where that will lead us.”

Glyn twirls the glass in her hand, then shakes out the last few drops of wine into the air. “That seems to be something that all the scientists can agree on. That the mind was never made to understand itself. Its first job was to collect information from the senses, find some way to unify that knowledge so that the body could escape danger.”

Ed shakes his head. “If I could live my life again, I’m not sure what I would do. The world is endlessly fascinating. When you get to my age, that’s the main reason for hanging on. Just to find out a little bit more.”

“You could join me in radio. The medium of the imagination.”

Ed looks at Ansel. “What about you, doctor? If you could start over again, what would you choose?”

He thinks for a short while but comes to no conclusions. There are too many doors and not enough time to open them. He shakes his head. “I’ve no idea. Some mysteries, I think, were never meant to be solved.”

The three of them laugh. Ed plays a decisive chord on the banjo, and the notes hang on the air for a long time before they are carried away down the block, slowly fading. There’s a moment when the sound will dissolve past the range of what Ansel is capable of hearing. One moment of separation. He closes his eyes and waits.


That night, after the dishes are done and the house is still, Clara goes into her sewing room. Above her, the skylight frames a handful of stars, a square of night.

On her cutting table, the newspaper is open to an article about the origins of empathy. She read the story this morning, and its contents have remained in her mind, a background to her thoughts. All acts of empathy, of compassion, the article says, arise out of needs of the individual, and, as such, no act is selfless. “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism,” says one scientist, “because we are born selfish.” Carefully, she clips this article and lays it on the table in front of her. So many things that we do, she thinks, so much in the name of those we love. In her own life, Clara has witnessed acts of selflessness, of empathy, whose motivations she does not doubt. She knows that a single act, a choice, can transform all that came before. Long ago, when she was young, she risked her future on this belief.

Clara stands at the cutting table, smoothing the paper pattern that she drew earlier in the day. She pins the pieces down, examining the weave of the cloth as she works. If she concentrates, she will be able to finish this gown before morning.

Across the hall, she can hear floorboards creaking, and she pictures her husband rising from bed, standing at the curtains, gazing out at this starlit night. When she first met him more than forty years ago, they had been drawn to one another because of their differences. On the surface, they had been north and south, light and dark. Back then, he had carried a hollow within himself, a grief that he could not share. To each other, they had seemed the way out, the path that leads along the river, finally opening on to the sea.

Nearby is the house where her daughter lived. Gail was a runner, and each day she would pass by Clara’s window. She would detour through the alley, into the garden, blowing a playful kiss to her mother as she passed. Clara would watch the easy movement of her daughter’s body until it disappeared around the corner.

She picks up the chalk, traces the pieces with a steady hand. The halogen lamp flickers and steadies itself again. In the alley, a stray cat walking between the houses sets the security lights off one by one. Lately, the strangest thought has settled in her mind. If she repeats her own actions on the morning that Gail died, she can pass between days, the way a pin passes through this piece of paper, leaving only the faintest trace. Time will bend backwards on itself and Clara will look out the window, see her daughter returning from her run. The way her dark hair sticks to her face, the same determined expression. Prince George, the hotel room, the suitcase of clothes all disintegrating. As clean as the opening of a seam.

She sits down at her sewing machine, replaces the bobbin and threads the needle. She has done this same work almost all her life. Her hands take over when her thoughts retreat.


In the bedroom, Matthew wakes hearing music, a song played on a phonograph, the rustle and scratch of air on the recording. When he opens his eyes, the dream and the music evaporate. The windows are open, and a cool breeze drifts through the room, holding the curtains aloft. Moonlight gleams off the roofs of the houses, and the leaves shift in the trees. He pushes the covers aside and sits up.

When he first arrived in Vancouver, Matthew felt free in this city. The buildings showed no wear, they seemed untouched by the passage of time. Indeed, it seemed as if once they reached a certain age, old buildings came down and new ones replaced them. The mountains, near and distant, the ocean, all these things changed from day to day, never quite the same. During the winters, it rained almost all the time, sheets of water like a brush coating everything, dimming the sounds to a quiet murmur.

When Matthew and his daughter walked together, along Keefer, then Pender, she used to whisper the street names under her breath. Matthew would tell her stories about his childhood before the war, about Sandakan, until he realized that she remembered so much. She wanted to hear everything, to know how the story continued. His words ran dry. She was half his height then; the crown of her head reached his waist. He remembers carrying his daughter, her hands clasped around his neck, feeling as if he held a treasure in his arms. He held her so tightly, careful of each step he made.

Six months ago, his daughter died suddenly in her sleep. She was away working in the north of the province. It was Matthew who received the phone call, who was the one to tell his wife. He knows that all one’s grief cannot stop the present, cannot change the way a life unfolds.

Now, when he walks through this neighbourhood, he loses track of the streets. In his mind, he hears his daughter singing the names to herself, Keefer, Pender, Adanac, but his sense of direction has become confused. When he looks around, nothing he sees is familiar. He has lived here for most of his life, but if he picked up a pencil, out of the small islands of memory he could draw the streets of his childhood, the town of Sandakan, Leila Road winding up into the hillside. In the months since his daughter died, things once lost have grown clearer, a flight that takes him from Vancouver to Sandakan, from Sandakan to Jakarta. He remembers how, from the air, the red roofs of the town had disappeared, given way to unbroken jungle, on a journey that began a lifetime ago, and that continues still.

Lately, Matthew’s knees have begun to give. A twinge of pain in the ligament, and then an ache centred in the bone. His wife had tenderly rubbed the curve of his knee with her hands. “No more marathons,” she had said, a teasing smile lighting her eyes. “Don’t despair. You’re only sixty-six, and age is a state of mind.”

She had learned to alter her pace, move patiently beside his slow shuffle. An old man takes an eternity to walk to the corner store. Their conversations became elongated, paced out from here to there, drawing to a close when they came in sight of the house. All these years, Clara has made most of his clothes. He finds pieces around the house, sleeves opened up on her table, starched collars like overgrown butterflies, one pant leg creased over a chair.

Outside, the stars are shining. Matthew stands at his window, lifts his arms above his head, bends at the waist, feels his body return to him. He remembers the gentleness of his mother’s hand in his hair, how when she stepped back from him, the imprint remained, a weight, a memory against his skin.

Copyright 2006 Madeleine Thien
Reprinted with permission.

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Madeleine ThienAuthorMadeleine Thien is the Canadian-born daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. She received the 2001 Canadian Authors Association Air Canada Award and the 1998 Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop Emerging Writer Award for fiction, and her collection Simple Recipes was named a notable book by the 2001 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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