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Fiction Psychological

Cities of Refuge

by (author) Michael Helm

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Apr 2011
Psychological, Literary, Political
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2011
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In Cities of Refuge, Michael Helm’s keenly anticipated new novel, a single act of violence resonates through several lives, connecting closeby fears to distant political terrors. At the story’s centre is the complex, intensely charged relationship between a 28-year-old woman and the father who abandoned her when she was young.

One summer night on a side street in downtown Toronto, Kim Lystrander is attacked by a stranger. Thrown deep into turmoil, in the weeks and months that follow, she confronts her fear by returning to the night, in writing, searching for harbingers of the incident, and clues to the identity of her assailant. The attack also torments Kim's father, Harold, an historian of Latin America. As he investigates the crime on his own, the darkest hours from his past revisit him, and he gradually begins to unravel. Entwined in their story are Kim’s ailing mother, Marian; Father André Rowe, whose mission to guide others involves him in a decision with troubling consequences; Rodrigo Cantero, a young Colombian man, living illegally in the city; and Rosemary Yates, a woman whose faith-based belief in the duty to give asylum to any who seek it, even those judged guilty, draws Harold to her, before a fateful choice changes the future for them all.

Cities of Refuge is a novel of profound moral tension and luminous prose. It weaves a web of incrimination and inquiry, where mysteries live within mysteries, and stories within stories, and the power to save or condemn rests in the forces of history, and in the realm of our deepest longings.

About the author


  • Nominated, Scotiabank Giller Prize
  • Short-listed, Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Contributor Notes

Michael Helm is the author of The Projectionist, a finalist for The Giller Prize, In the Place of Last Things, a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, and, most recently, Cities of Refuge. His writings on fiction, poetry, and photography have appeared in North American newspapers and magazines, including Brick, where he serves as editor. He teaches at York University, in Toronto.

Excerpt: Cities of Refuge (by (author) Michael Helm)


Before the shift that night she left dinner with her parents and biked south in darkness past her apartment building, along into her usual path. The afternoon storms had broken the heat and departed without trace. The air was drying, late-summer cool. On the side streets near campus were weakly haloed car headlights and shadowed figures waiting to be briefly illuminated. She passed in and out of semi-residential zones, moving now with half-naked teens on in-line skates past the thronging bars and restaurants and the clubs where made-up young women waited outside and men measured them whole in one glance. Down a side street she entered a dark little dead space that emptied back into the traffic and the noisebright streets, on past a long row of trailers and honeywagons, a bored officer on overtime, she stuttered across a dimpled steel ramp over bundled cables, past grips and gaffers with walkie-talkies, and a yellow-lit window full of pretend New York cops. She passed the Vietnamese convenience store always with the same child in diapers in the doorway chewing on a faded cardboard candy ad, past the crowded patio of the ice cream café, across the main arteries of downtown, riding faster, really breathing now, on her way to work.

Three or four minutes ahead of schedule, she slowed for the last few blocks. In a pocket of quiet she rode imagining her morning self in a kind of perpetual approach, cycling home at daybreak beneath traffic helicopters hanging in a pastel smog, then drifted to a stop and locked her bike to the stand outside the all-nite coffee shop, where she always left it with strangers in the window to watch over it, and bought the usual treats for the security crew. Later she would barely recall the others in the café. There were at least two young people working on laptops and a couple of others, maybe, together or not she couldn’t say. The freckled girl who served her was named Callie, they had each other’s life outlines, and as always she smiled to see Kim and had her order ready.

The rest of the route took her on foot down a cross street, past her father’s high-rise condo – he was staying at the house tonight – and she was thinking again of morning. As a girl she’d once spied him through sliding glass doors, weeping at a sunrise over Mexico City. He was standing on a balcony, waiting, and when it finally came he had nodded ever so slightly. Over the years it had developed in her mind that he’d simply been overwhelmed by this oldest of affirmations. Against the tribulations of the moment, there was always that, time ongoing as a sure thing each dawn no matter where you were. Except there was likely more to it, she now realized. Whatever had made Harold cry had been balled up in the new day.

She stopped before a bookstore window display, a gathering of titles without theme. A true-crime celebrity murder, something on Western conservatism, a handbook on Vermeer, an Australian novel, a speed-dating guide. She passed by a short block of closed shops and one bright one, a hair salon with a gospel choir, a church meeting, and going by the open doors she saw twenty or thirty swaying black people, Pentecostals, she supposed, and a tall, angular man leading the singing in front dressed in a dark suit with his hands raised slightly before him as if he were holding a calf up for sacrifice. And no sooner did she pass the door and leave them behind than she knew something had changed, some presence was trailing her in the wake of the music, its last strains and then the memory of it, and the image of the man in the suit, and as she walked on she isolated the feeling. It was the certainty that she was being stared at, with intent.

Or not certainty but a strong intuition. She focused on her walking. She kept a level step, tried to feel the rhythm she missed when cycling, and despite the tray of coffees she moved at a pace she could never sustain on her security rounds. Even for a young woman, she reminded herself, it was still possible to feel safe on foot almost anyplace in this city. And there was some magical deterrence of threat in simply walking like you meant it. She’d been followed once, in London. It was late at night, and she’d spent the day, like all the other days there, making wrong turns, mixing up east and west, and getting lost, so she moved a little uncertainly along the last blocks from the tube station to the hostel off Kensington High Street. He’d come from nowhere. As she crossed the park, thinking of a peacock that had led her out that morning, he had stepped in behind her, at a distance of ten or fifteen feet, and kept pace. To anyone but her he could have been mistaken for just another stroller in the park, but he was fixed on her, she knew it. When she turned and looked, he met her eye with a round, dull face, and held it. There were people nearby, and just as she spotted a group of young women to trail behind, wherever they were going, she was released of the feeling. As suddenly as he’d appeared, he was gone. Though she looked for him, expected him, in her last days there, she never saw him again.

The numbers on female victims indicated that the lone late-night attackers seldom just wanted your money or your life.

She stopped and turned. There was no one she could see. Down the street a young man emerged from a doorway and got into a parked car and when he started it the lights came up and there was no one. The car pulled out and passed by and the man glanced at her, and his car in the dark was maybe grey-silver, and then another car came by the opposite way and its lights revealed nothing, and she suddenly became aware of herself standing with her cardboard tray and paper bag, looking silly, and she walked on.

It was another block before the feeling was back in place. She couldn’t hear footsteps exactly, but had the sense rather that under her every footfall, each breath, were other sounds, not hers, the kind of perception you wouldn’t normally take note of in a city noisescape, except that this was a side street, admitting silences and distinctions. And then there was the feeling of being gazed upon. Like many women she was semi-used to the gaze, and thought little of it except when it came darkly, as it did now.

The question was whether to trust her intuition and take a longer, busier way to work, heading north and then west, then digressing south, or to stay the course. Or had the question to do with neurosis or sleep deprivation? Was she paranoid? She trusted her reason. And her wits – she should head for the traffic, join the conflux, risk nothing more than a jostle at the pedestrian lights. And yet when she came to the next intersection, she followed habit and turned down the darkest block on the route, most of it unlit next to a vast construction site.

When she entered the covered walkway that had been built over the sidewalk, with its ceiling and the long plywood wall papered in club dates and lost dogs, a shard of a dream returned to her. It was years old and she likely hadn’t thought of it since the morning she’d escaped it. She was on the downtown edge of a city that was open on one side to a lake that ran to the horizon, Toronto or Chicago, both and neither. She had her back to a wall, looking at the faces of people looking past her, at something out on the water, and thinking to herself that no matter how unlike one another the faces were, the horror in them looked the same. An old man with sunken cheeks. A fat woman in large tortoiseshell glasses. A tall young couple with dark, narrow, Spanish features. And now she wasn’t sure if these were the people of her dream, or the faces of others she’d seen elsewhere.

A few steps from a small break midway in the wall she saw the wire fence and the gate and noticed that it was slightly ajar so that when she heard the last two or three strides with which he closed the ground between them, she knew at once that she’d been stalked, and the gate seemed a trap, a metal device that opened and closed, and then he drove his shoulder into her and together they fell through the opening into the dark site.

She tried to scream but the breath had been knocked from her and now he was behind her, on the ground. She was face down. His legs were wrapped around her knees, his hands in her hair, pulling her back, exposing her neck. He locked her head up in the crook of his elbow and then she heard the tape and felt it pressed under one ear as it was pulled tight, over her mouth and around again and she felt him bend in close to her other ear and bite the roll free with a practised efficiency. A scent she couldn’t place. She couldn’t see him, his hands were up at his face, she thought, and it wasn’t clear what was happening except that she needed more breath through her nose than she was managing and something hot was on her forearm. When he turned her over she saw that he’d been affixing a nylon mask. He sat on top of her with his weight on her hips so that her legs were kicking in space, unable to dislodge him, and the heat was now wetness and it was the coffee, she’d spilled the coffee, a conclusion that mattered somehow so that her failure to smell it came upon a kind of despair at the half-sense of things. His hands were at her shoulders and he lifted her once slightly and slammed her back down, as if trying to hold her still so he could make a point there were no words for.

When she flailed at him, he caught a wrist in each hand, and it was then she felt hopeless, for he was impossibly strong and it seemed as if he would snap her bones. He squeezed until her hands were dead and she was choking on her stopped cries and so gave them up.

He said nothing. He held her still as if to let the fear become conscious of itself. He looked down at her through the mask, through his own featurelessness. She dreaded hearing his voice and, when she didn’t, dreaded its absence.

The only movement left to her was to turn her head. The site was huge. There were trailers far across, one of them lit, and parked trucks and tracked machines, cranes with lights along the top, sleeping high overhead with their arms over the dig. Near them were cages of gas tanks, jacks, low stacks of sheeting. Lamps at intervals made little cups of light along the verges with near dark and full dark between them. She thought about the pockets of dark until they seemed to belong to this force on her, until she sensed a kind of breathing like his inside them – the things they knew best, the two of them, they could never tell – and wondered if the lights were gapped on purpose to make a space for lives like his, and if so, then who it was who slivered the light.

She thought, he can’t put his mouth on me with the mask on, as if that was what she feared most, and then he leaned closer to her and she thought he would do just that, and still holding her wrists, from a short distance he butted his forehead into her face and for a minute or more she slackened utterly. When she came around there was something in her eyes she knew was blood, and her wrists were taped together. She wasn’t kicking but her knees were drawn up and she wondered why he hadn’t taped her feet together, and then she tried to stop wondering.

She focused on the lit trailer across the pit, the possibility there was someone inside with a night-shift job like hers. Only when the foreground moved did she realize she was being dragged by her wrists into one of the pockets of dark. She’d brought it on herself by thinking of the dark and then of the lit trailer. This thing on her was reading her mind.

But it didn’t know her. It never would. Reduced to her physical being, she sank into her physical history and then it was in her, or she was inside it, her younger self, the high school gymnast trained in taking poundings, in leverage and balance and explosive bursts. She thought, I’m stronger than he thinks. Then she thought, I’m stronger than he is. And she believed it in the moment when she drew up her knees and then shot out her legs and brought them down hard while thrusting her hips and pulling down her hands. When she broke free she knew there was no time to get to her feet so she rolled to the side and as he came down on his knees for her she was moving out of reach, so he half stood and then lunged just as she was turning belly up. She could do nothing but bring her elbows together, and when she kicked his feet out, the full weight of him came down hard onto her before he could brace himself, and her elbow caught him square in the throat.

He rolled off onto all fours, hacking a short note, then again, with his head swaying oddly, like that of a field animal, and now there was time to get up, though the blood was making it hard to see, and she couldn’t guess where the gate to the street was so she ran for the lit trailer. It seemed like a reasoned decision and now she didn’t have to think anymore, just to run on the ground she couldn’t see well enough to read, towards the light and shadows beneath the cranes and across to the trailer. And the image of the open gate came to her and then the thought that maybe the trailer was empty, that the man who worked there was her attacker, but she kept running, almost forgetting the edge of the dig, and then turning to run along it. She’d nearly made it to the far end when he tackled her. They fell hard, and she rolled free, and then she was falling. Something tore through her thigh as her ribs struck an edge and she spun into a final tumble and landed in a slack somersault at the bottom of the dig.

The pain kept her conscious and then it didn’t. She came to once sometime in the night and she couldn’t move. She isolated the many sources of pain, her head, her ribs, especially her leg, and realized she wasn’t paralyzed, but her thigh was wet and raw and she understood she would bleed to death. When she next gained consciousness it was because she couldn’t breathe and she snorted the snot or blood from her air passage. Faint nausea. If she vomited she would choke. The pain was not going away, but if she’d opened a main artery she would be dead by now, so she allowed herself to think she might make it until morning. Though she didn’t remember moving, she was now fetal. She looked up and saw above her a reaching thing, and lights along it, an arm against the heavens held over her. She searched for the name of the thing but could only think “arm.” She imagined saying it, imagined her mouth and tongue free and breathing the word, and in her imagined voice the longed-for breath turned the word into “harm,” and she tried it again and again it came out wrong, so that what might have been a comfort in its unsayability conferred a curse. The lights along the arm carried her eye to the vague stars. Now and then a jet plane moved through her field of vision and the sound of each one in approach seemed to pronounce time itself.

When the dark finally began to burn off she heard human sounds. A clacking. Voices. Then she heard the name of Jesus and saw a man in a yellow hard hat standing far above, looking down at her. She stayed awake as they came down. One of them kneeled close by and someone said not to touch her and the kneeler said he would cut away the tape and he put a hand on her head lightly and the moment the air hit her mouth she was sobbing. The man cut free her hands and then stood and stepped back. More men had gathered there but even when the ambulance attendants arrived and strapped her on a board, none came closer.

There’s a sound the earth makes in its transit, a streaming without music or echo, not coloured or pleasing or solemn or one thing so much like another. If god speaks to us in murmurs, she heard them.

There came hours when she thought the violence had involved her only by chance, and others when it seemed that she’d consciously placed herself in its path. As if it had been not a singular event but a kind of sounding within a slow pattern much older than she was. At first she could see no pattern, could not even put the past together in her mind, but she was full of a need to return, and what she returned to were the days before violence found her. The days made no sense at first, then built to sense and beyond it, to a near-unendurable clarity.

What she remembers.

The night of the attack, her visit home. It had been hot and close that afternoon until thunderstorms moved through and tore the smog down into the gutters and knocked out the power for minutes here or there. She’d biked up to the house around noon and she and her mother had cleaned the place together, laughing now and then at things like end tables and hassocks, objects they knew Harold would move to his preferred positions from long ago, and Donald would have to haul back again when he returned the next morning. Harold arrived around four with his usual greeting and gave Kim a hug that as usual was not fully returned. They’d not seen each other since April. He and Marian didn’t actually greet one another – they never did anymore. Marian simply asked if he’d remembered the fish and he said of course. He was dressed with his signature note of slight incoherence in dark blue cotton pants, a winter-weight mauve shirt with the sleeves rolled unevenly, and brown sandals. He’d made the effort to put his grey-brown hair into some order but there was a film of grime on his glasses. Everything he came with including the fish was wrapped separately inside a canvas bag he’d picked up at an academic conference long ago with the ghosts of words on the side and the outline of some equatorial country Kim didn’t recognize.

Now Marian was lying down in her room, Kim and Harold in the kitchen, their own old family kitchen, slicing peppers and preparing the sea bass for grilling.

There’d been a joke about her night-shift work at the museum. “My pretty, green-eyed daughter,” he said, “the security muscle.” He glanced at the digital clock on the stove and dropped everything, washed and dried his hands, and began fiddling with the radio. He left behind a jazz station Donald liked and dialed down the FM band, passing blues, hip hop, the news in French, and then on to the end of the lead story on the CBC. That the worst news of the day was a development in a government financial scandal was somehow quaint, even reassuring, given the times.

He resumed his position across the island from her and went back to work on the salsa as she consulted the printed-off recipe and patted dry the fish. The scents were coming up now in the travertine flesh. It was hard not to tell him that buying Chilean sea bass was a way of killing the planet.

“Have you read anything good lately?” His usual point, inserted bluntly. If she wasn’t finishing her doctorate, then she was letting her brain go to waste. “Don’t tell me. You’re too busy with, whatsitcalled – Group?”

“GROUND. The Group for the Undocumented. And okay, I won’t tell you.”

He cocked an eye at his mango, as if to signal to her that this was just sport for him. They both knew it was more than that.

“You can think and you can write. You have talent. Use it.”

“Remember my old rubber bath toy? You’d squeeze it and it sounded the same note every time.”

“Beloved duck. What was its name?”

“You named it Lawrence,” she said.

“He ended up a dog toy. He lost his toot.”

“I loved him more when he lost it.”

Harold nodded, or gave the sense of nodding.

“And I guess he didn’t seem such an idiot. Sorry, stranger.”

They sometimes called each other “stranger.” He used the term jokingly, Kim to draw a pinprick of blood, in reference to the day he returned to her life when she was sixteen. Or returned again – he’d disappeared for four months when she was thirteen, and then left Marian for good a year later – but on this second return her parents were promising the establishment of a new order. She had walked home from school with a friend, Alyssa, now long disappeared from her life, who’d confided that she’d just that weekend given a boy what she called “mouth sex,” and Kim was still unsettled by the secret as she entered and saw them there in the living room – Marian, Donald, and Harold, who she’d been told was on sabbatical in Mexico for the semester. They stood apart from one another, turning to her as she entered, each wholly occupied with her presence, as if the others weren’t there. Donald gave her a thin smile. Marian watched her reaction to seeing Harold with a delicate attention Kim could feel. And Harold stood rigidly, his eyes slightly wide, as if surprised by some change in her appearance, and then there came across his face something familiar to her, his regret at having missed yet another increment of her growing up. The three of them tried to fool her into thinking that Marian had forgiven Harold and they would all be better off if they just tried starting over again, with Donald as the live-in father and Harold as the ongoing presence who wanted to spend as much time with his daughter as she would allow. Kim stood just inside the door. She’d been trained to be physically confident, but now felt a little small, a little thin, and with the others looming there it was as if her size was being used against her. Marian had asked her to sit down but she’d not moved or spoken. Marian had said that they all understood Kim’s feelings, and Donald said in a rehearsed but concerned way that they respected her feelings. Kim unslung her knapsack and set it down on the floor. Then Harold said it was important that everyone not settle into “a ruinous estrangement.” And then, because he had never had a grasp of his daughter’s vocabulary, he defined “estrangement” for her – and Kim walked across the room and hit him in the face with the side of her fist.

It had been a stabbing motion. She hung in the sense memory, the flesh and knuckle of her hand meeting his nose and forehead, thirteen years ago. It must be by chance that she’d tangled up Harold in these small, violent connections before the attack.

Out on the back deck at the grill he was saying that history separates us. They sat drinking wine, looking out at the flower garden and the ivy on the brick of the neighbouring houses. The shaded leaves were still wet from the rain. It had been a very long time since they’d sat there together. Harold’s legs were stretched out and resting on another chair, his trimmed toes protruding from his sandals. He told her he’d just been invited to give a paper at a conference in London on recent popular upheavals in Latin America, and the explosion of evangelicalChristianity in the region in the void left by anti-Catholic movements in the nineties. He summed up the phenomenon for her with the image of New World peasants somehow swimming the Tiber.

“It’s an amazing part of the world, those lands below Mexico. I’d like to do more work on them.”

She said he hadn’t described it that way when she’d wanted to travel there a few years ago.

“You shouldn’t travel alone in some places. And I didn’t want you in that army of young, idealistic nortamericanos who go down to pick coffee beans and come back over-pronouncing Nicaragua.”

“So I shouldn’t be alone but I shouldn’t be with others.”

“I get waves of students who insist we’re all the same under the skin. We are not the same. History separates us. We celebrate skin and the surfaces of things in the well-to-do West. Culture is a difference-maker. And usually it fuels oppression and war. We like to pretend otherwise and pick beans and buy blankets and invite everyone to our house. And hide them in the basement if necessary.”

The argument against her volunteer work usually ran that she was in over her head and didn’t know it. She did in fact know it, but admitting doubt to him won her nothing. She had to seem sure of herself, not at all who she’d been in university. Long before quitting her Ph.D. there were signs she didn’t belong on her father’s career path. Her work lacked scholarly rigour. Her undergraduate history papers had admitted quite a lot of speculation. She’d even slipped into the voices of runaway slaves in the mountains of Jamaica and the last thoughts of Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit tortured to death by the Iroquois in the seventeenth century. The problem, as one of her profs had said, was that critical understanding didn’t interest her as much as empathy. “But you can empathize on your own time, Kim. On mine, you just need to play by the rules.” And so she had. She had played pretty well. But her heart was never in it.

Inside the house a band started up and along came Sarah Vaughan. Moments later Marian appeared in their midst with a glass of wine, already half-consumed. She was wearing one of her muumuus, the red one with white orchids. For Marian, this hour in the dead of winter was sober and solitary, often accompanied by Glenn Gould or a Schubert sonata, reading by the front window wrapped up in a Hudson’s Bay blanket. In summer the hour was for drinking.

Harold moved his feet for her and she angled the chair away from him and sat. Kim told her she hadn’t missed anything. They’d been recycling old arguments.

“Historians do that, don’t they?” They were all looking out at the ivy. “It’s why I ended up with Donald. Historians argue about religious wars. Mathematicians decode the language of creation.”

“You’re quoting him,” said Harold. “I’d rather be an historian who can cross-multiply than a mathematician who calls himself a ‘history buff.’ Dressing up for battle recreations. Eating gruel and sleeping on hay. Christ.”

Dinner moved along a little too quickly. Marian and Kim sat across from one another, Harold at the head. As always his hands traded the knife and fork repeatedly as he cut and ate, correcting himself when he noticed he was gripping them like gavels. His uncultured use of utensils was the one marker of his origins – poor, rural, and for some months in his boyhood, itinerant – that he’d chosen not to erase. It reminded them all that he’d had to make something of himself.

In the street beyond the dining-room window, a car thumped by in musical assault.

“Never work in a uniform,” said Harold. “I should have told you that as a kid.”

Marian looked up, paused. “A rare lapse in your fathering.”

“Oh, please, the both of you. I’m not an aimless child you need to blame each other for. I don’t like being wielded. Let’s not do this tired thing again, okay?”

“Yes, indeed,” said Harold. “I’m all for defeating cliché.”

He’d had more to drink than usual, Kim noted. She hadn’t yet worked through how Marian’s illness, returned from a long remission, had force in herself, let alone in him.

Harold proposed a toast. “To the war on cliché.”

“I’ve heard that one before,” said Marian flatly.

They toasted.

At some point Kim asked about Donald’s trip to Quebec City. He’d delivered a paper on the current focus of his interests, Kurt Gödel, that would allow him to use research money to be in town for a re-enactment of the battle on the Plains of Abraham.

“Apparently he wandered into the middle of a battlefield to correct the choreography.” Marian was smiling without complication. “But he was a good sport. He joined the French side and mimed a great death. Donald, as you may have noticed, likes to play the fool.”

“He’s not playing.”

“I know the real from the false, Harold. That’s news to you, but Donald knows that about me.”

Marian lifted her chin slightly. Kim understood it was the moment her mother most wanted to look beautiful. Her father missed it.

“Wandering onto a battlefield,” he muttered. “The man believes in observing codes, no matter what’s actually going on around him. Did you know that he asked my permission to take you to dinner?”

“When? What are you talking about?”

“Back in the beginning. He came to my office, of all places. Maybe he thought I wouldn’t blow up at him there. We were both junior faculty, watching our step in parallel wings of the building. He shows up as if I were your father and asks what I’d think about the idea. I assumed the scene was out of some old foreign novel he’d read. I’m surprised he didn’t want us both to drink from a chalice or something.”

“I think I’ll wait to hear his side of the story.”

“What did you say to him?” asked Kim.

“Nothing. I just stared at him until he left. Seems he interpreted this to mean I’d given him the all-clear.”

“You were never one for gallantry,” said Marian. “Quite the opposite.”

He pretended to ignore her. Here was a conversational place he wouldn’t be led, at least not in front of Kim. Whether it concerned Donald or some distant episode was not clear. In Marian’s exchanges with Harold, Kim saw something of the prize student her mother had once been. She’d practised criminal law at a small firm for three years before Kim was born. Since then she’d mothered and travelled with her husbands. But when drinking around either of her husbands, it was evident that the woman’s life had disappointed her. In recent months Kim saw that even the disappointment wasn’t real, but rather was a mask for a great dark despair. The mask hadn’t worked for some time now.

“At what point do I ask you to let up on the wine, Mom?”

“The wine makes me feel good. The drugs don’t. All the best things are contraindicated. But there’s something to be said for chalices.”

How does the past bear upon us?

Harold had once told Kim that the question mattered less than it might seem to. “The past belongs to itself first, and its value is the same whether an old war still turns heads on the nationalist holidays or it’s been completely forgotten.” He’d been driving her home from a high school gymnastics meet in which she’d sprained an ankle on the beam. It was the only competition he’d ever attended. She badly wanted to impress him, and when she’d fallen, it took great determination not to cry. She looked at him there in the stands, his mouth open, an “o” of concern she didn’t recognize, and waved to him, and he nodded and smiled and assured her afterwards that it was “all a good show,” as if he’d been watching a dance number. Beside him in the car with light snow falling on the windshield, Kim began telling him about a new trick she wanted to learn for her best apparatus, the floor, and he interjected that the tumbling had brought to his mind past Olympic Games, and Nadia Comaneci, a name he remembered, and then Romania and tyranny, and the whole destabilized, capitalizing world. Then the lesson about the uniform values of pasts.

The evening had ended with Marian back in bed and Kim and Harold in the living room. He sat in his favourite armchair, his hands palm down on his thighs as he stared out the front window.

“When it came apart for your mother and me, it felt inevitable. It felt right. Sad but right. But you don’t think about this state of things up ahead. You don’t think about illness. And when it comes, you see things are backwards.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean she has the wrong man looking after her.”

It was small of her not to relieve him of the self-punishing thought.

Kim knew the guest room had been prepared but she pretended to go check it. Harold would stay over until mid-morning, when Donald returned. Her three parents could have a late breakfast together, but wouldn’t. Sometime after Kim had made the bed that afternoon, she now saw, Marian had come in and placed on the night table Harold’s preferred night reading, books on architecture and art.

Just past eleven she changed into her uniform. Before leaving she woke Marian with a kiss on the forehead and told her she’d come around again in two days. For a minute she held her mother’s hand, her thumb in Marian’s palm as if pressing into it a lucky coin.

She went out and loaded up her saddlebags for the ride to work. The streetlights had taken up in the maple branches. Harold emerged and walked her to the sidewalk and along the block, feigning an interest in her bike. By now he’d have realized he’d said more than he should have inside. It was odd to see him out in open, public space. How could this ever have been his street? He seemed incomplete in it. She recalled, then and now, accidentally meeting him in a bookstore, one of his women friends standing by, waiting to be introduced.

“Is this volunteer work you’re doing dangerous? Be honest.”

And it was as if he’d struck the final note of a chord, and she felt it as a vibration. Was it then or later that she thought it wasn’t just worry in his voice, but a foreknowledge he couldn’t expel?

“How could it be dangerous?”

“These people you work with, the rejects, you don’t know them. There are reasons they get rejected.”

“We don’t hide torturers or terrorists. Haven’t we been through this?”

“But the truth is, you don’t know whether they’re dangerous or not. You can hardly take them at their word. It’s not enough to say it’s the price of living in an open society.”

“Sometimes it frightens me to think of you in front of a class.”

Down the block the little parkette sat bright and dead. In the playground, far below the lone vapour light, a small green whale smiled on its coiled spring.

“What sorts of people are they? Where do they come from? The ones you hide under your rug.”

She said if they had money they’d be immigrants. She said the usual something about the highest immigration rate in the world, three times higher than the U.S. He said pressure on screening mechanisms.

She said, “We screen by sending back the poorest unless they’re in danger, so we’re bound to make mistakes and send people off to their deaths. We already knowingly hand them over to torturers. It might do you good to get a little more involved in history instead of shuffling its footnotes. I work with real people, not national weaknesses or products of my misplaced idealism.”

“It’s the real people that worry me.”

“Well then come and meet some. I’ll call you this week. You can drop by the office and see who shows up. You can’t know these people and not want to help them. I’m not inviting you. I’m asking you please to come.”

The idea was sound, she must have thought. It had arrived before her as if out of its own integrity.

“Dangerous people are often attractive. Dangerous work is often noble.”

“I’m riding off now.”

She turned on her light.

“Think about what I’ve said, Kim.”

“I’ll call.”

She was gliding away from him. In forty-some minutes she’d be gagged, falling.

“Be careful,” he said.

Without looking back she waved with one hand and with the other shook the handlebars, tossed out a little wobble for effect, and the weak beam shivered before her, then steadied on its small spot of the world to come.

She drifted, looking for signs. Something she might have read in the flux, the weave of light street to street, face to face. Always she landed on the same hours, from four days before the attack, when she’d felt a foreignness pass into her that now seemed a kind of fate.

Just past sunrise she had left the museum in her blue and grey guard’s uniforms and pedalled onto campus, riding crouched across the playing field with her shadow running long before her in the shape of a huge keyhole on the grass, turning north and west along a strip of coffee shops just opening, the bakery smells mixing with the morning’s first blasts of exhaust, past a kid bent in a doorway with tattooed forearms and a mop of hair cutting straps from bundled weeklies, the city getting to its feet, these best hours when she felt that she was racing it, dodging delivery vans, a quick stop-and-go at the international newsstand, sweating in her polyester clothes in the fumes. She dipped away from a car door and swerved onto the sidewalk, rebalancing, to coast past produce vendors and people stooped over newspaper boxes, reading the stories above the fold. On into the west-end residential streets, still cool, with the light now tall on red-and burnt-yellow-brick houses, open doors, small pissing dogs, shoulder bags hitched up, wet-haired workers leaving their houses, patting their pockets, pointing remotes at car locks, tossing blind waves behind them, the morning emerging in each yard, until finally she arrived at her three-storey building, to begin the end of her day.

In the hallway she passed fumigation notices that conjured images of men in masks with metal wands in private spaces, uncovering all variety of secretings and abandonments, onward to her numbered door. She went in to find a handwritten message on the entryway stand: “gone out – Sadaf.” On the small desk Sadaf ’s laptop sat open, not yet dormant, with text on the screen, the blinking cursor stopped mid-sentence. She read the half-composed story and felt the little tremor in her core at the descriptions of events in the infamous prison in Tehran. The story was a version of Sadaf ’s own, altered to give to another refugee claimant in her world of local Iranians. A good story, without the fatal inconsistencies of the original. The other claimant had her own history to tell, but wanted a better one.

The screen went dark.

She stepped into the kitchen and stopped. There was something wrong she couldn’t place. She saw the phone reflected enormously in the toaster. Empty dish rack. Artwork fridge magnets, Kahlo, Mondrian. The tray of sunflower seeds on the counter. Someone, Sadaf, had run a finger through, dividing them into continents.

From her bag she took a two-week-old edition of the Asr-e Azadegan, what she understood to be a liberal Iranian newspaper, flipped it open, and tried to penetrate a page featuring a photo of someone she guessed was a government official and lines of lettering like slow handstrokes on tickertape. She put it down next to the phone, and there, out of place, was an onyx chess piece, a knight that she’d found on the lawn of the hospital at the time of her mother’s first surgery. It belonged on the teak side table. Sadaf must have picked it up and held it absently, while moving to the kitchen. Kim looked at the piece closely. Had she ever really seen it before? The horse’s bevelled neck, serrations along the mane.

She sat on the stool. Then she looked up and saw it.

An empty slot in the knife block. It was absent her one good long knife.

And the text had been fresh on the screen.

She stilled herself.

“Sadaf. It’s me.”

She started down the hallway and she knew now there was someone there. She stopped in the bedroom doorway and said again, “Sadaf, it’s just me, Kim.” She listened for movement, restrained breathing, and heard only her own. In the mirror mounted on the slightly ajar closet door was her believing face. Either there was someone there behind the cold mirror or there was no one.

Kim pictured her kneeling in the closet, the knife raised and ready. The image was movie-born, exotic, to be dismissed.

But there’d been kneeling and knives in the prison account, not to be dismissed.

Kim stepped forward and opened the door, and this was her closet in her place in her city and so there was nothing until, on delay, a sudden chill and weakness mixed with disappointment in herself. She went back to the kitchen and sat on a stool and wondered at her imaginings.

The referral from GROUND warned that Sadaf might be paranoid. She was convinced that the men who’d come to her apartment the week before weren’t removals guys from Immigration but assassins from her government. She’d been out, up in the north of the city, in so-called Tehranto, selling spices in a strip mall, and came home to a neighbour’s description of the men, and was now more or less on the run. And it was apparently true that the assassins existed, or had existed over the past decades in Western countries, killing dissidents. It just hadn’t happened in Canada yet, as far as anyone knew. But Sadaf was an unlikely target, despite her past. Three hours before collecting her, Kim had received the outlines of her story from the office. Sadaf ’s history was in the records, some of them in Iran, some filed with Canadian court documents. The verifiable facts were that her religious name was Zahara, her family was Shia, she’d studied Islamic law at the Something-or-other university in Tehran. What couldn’t be established for the Review Board’s satisfaction was that she had been arrested for writing human rights articles in a student paper and had had to leave the country because she caught the attention of a particular government official, or anything that had happened thereafter.

Even at GROUND Kim had never directly witnessed real fear. The dimensions were beyond her. She had no idea how to meet it, or even its retreat.

The knife must have just been misplaced. Of course, it would be in the utensil drawer, and she slid it open, and there it was.

And this is what she thought: that it made you suggestible, this business of helping survivors. What she didn’t think, only came to realize, is that when you work at the nexus of a thousand bad histories, you breathe something in, some essence of dire luck. Your body knows it before your mind, but the days slowly fill with seeming accidents, nicked fingers, bad timings, a general slippage in the works, as if you’ve been forgotten in the thoughts of loved ones. The signs are everywhere, you might even be able to mark them, but their meaning will not open until it’s too late.

Sadaf appeared at the door, wearing a rapoosh, was the word in Persian, unbuttoned for comfort and in the spirit of near emancipation. She’d been drawn out by the sunrise to walk and returned now with a steaming waxed paper cup of tea, and looked at Kim, a severe brow set into a dry, open face, round with thought. Kim felt herself focused upon, and she realized she was still wearing her security uniform. That first night she’d explained that no real authority attached to it, that the museum’s nighttime security guards were mostly musicians and artists who wore their uniforms somewhat ironically, but the point had been lost. Now, three days later, there was no way to recover it.

This boarding of illegals was still new to her. Sadaf was only the third woman to stay there. None had remained for more than a week. They’d all eventually found new apartments, new bad jobs, and resumed their newly undramatic, invisible lives.

They ate a breakfast of muffins together, sitting on the stools. Kim explained the concept of fumigation, that they’d have to vacate the apartment tomorrow afternoon. Sadaf nodded, as if at a timeless condition. She’d taken no interest in the newspaper. Out of politeness, to dispel the silence, Kim asked where she’d learned English.

“As a girl. At home.”

“Do you speak other languages?”

“I speak Persian, Arabic. French, a little. What are your languages?”

“French and Spanish. I’ve worked on Russian lately.”

“You learned in school?”

“They come from my father, mostly. He’s a professor of history. We lived in France and Mexico City when I was young.” Kim chose not to add that her stepfather was also a professor. But then Donald had never moved her to new countries, had never meant the world to her, so to speak, as Harold had.

She knew from their other conversations that Sadaf had also travelled with her father when she was young. This fact complicated her view of the woman. She was educated, cosmopolitan, but as a girl during Muharram she’d worn a shroud and marched to the religious monuments.

Kim needed sleep. She felt heavy and floating at once, dream-deprived, as if the dreams might from the sheer need to discharge themselves break through into her waking mind. Two mornings ago she’d skipped a day’s sleep, going straight from the museum to take the morning shift at GROUND, and found herself barely able to read. She couldn’t make sense of a letter presented to her by a woman named Rahel, who’d been sheltered by an Ethiopian evangelical church. She explained to Rahel that her application on humanitarian and compassionate grounds had been denied. The H&C had not been accompanied by persuasive, objective evidence that she would be in danger upon her return to Ethiopia. Kim had trouble grasping the words “lack of compelling risk material.” Because she spoke Spanish, Kim dealt most closely with the Latin Americans, but when explicating the subtleties of judgments or warrants without a common tongue, or when an interpreter’s English was incomprehensible, she felt worlds of desperation falling through her.

But Kim couldn’t remember whether she’d left a message for Marlene about Rahel. How could a person’s fate completely slip her mind? She’d been making mistakes recently, losing details, moments. Losing numbers and names, mixing up words. Checking her burners thrice. It terrified her to think what was riding on her memory. There were worlds kept alive through Post-it notes. She would call Marlene after breakfast.

The phone rang, too loudly. It was Sarah, the one volunteer doctor at GROUND. She had found an Iranian family to take Sadaf in for the indefinite future. Someone would come by around noon. Sadaf received the news without comment. Their few conversations ran with lurching assertions and half-statements. Kim was never entirely certain she’d made herself understood.

“Where is your mother when you are young?” Sadaf asked.

“She was with us. She raised me.”

Sadaf wasn’t much older than she was, and her voice was young, but age had taken up in her hands and eyes.

“And your father came home with the languages.”

“Yes. I wish I knew more of them, though. How do you say ‘home’ in Persian?”

“And your mother accepts the husband’s will?”

“She sort of accommodates him.”

Hearing herself, Kim wasn’t sure if she meant Harold or Donald.

“And does she accommodate God’s will?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Does your mother see God’s will is not the husband’s will?”

“I don’t think she sees God’s will at all, Sadaf. Our family doesn’t really have God.”

Again she evinced no response. There was a long silence.

Khona,” said Sadaf finally. “The word is khona. It can mean home, or the house of God. For Sufis, khona is the highest state of . . . I don’t know the word. In the mind.”


“Yes.” Were there words for what Sadaf had lost, and how she thought about her losses? “And boshgah means a place to be, a real place and a place beyond. And a place where travellers stay before carrying on with their journey.”

A distance then passed over her and she was closed.

Kim could only hope that she ran a good boshgah, here for this soul unexampled to her.

You couldn’t read the prison narrative and keep free of certain pictures. What happens to a woman after she has grieved for herself in fear? Lost to trauma, then to exile, is the old self locked away? But then memory wouldn’t allow it. And the body would always go cold at the opening of a door. And yet Sadaf had gone out alone simply to buy herself tea.

Kim knew next to nothing in her bones but she trusted her heart. Her heart was willing to imagine itself into the fears of others, but it was not always capable.

The men came at noon. Rather than let them in, Kim went into the hallway to discuss the arrangements. Sarah’s assistant from the clinic, Colin, introduced her to an unsmiling man named Ramin whose family Sadaf would be staying with. He was in his thirties, Kim guessed. He wore an ill-fitting brown suit and had an air of dramatic impenetrability, a serious man on serious business.

Kim left them in the hallway and closed the door.

“Sadaf, my friend Colin has brought the man whose family you’ll be living with for a little while. His name is Ramin.” She went to the kitchen for a pen and paper. “If you need me, call this number and I’ll come right away. Do you understand?”

She held out the number and detected a slight hesitation in Sadaf ’s decision to take it. She was from a world where the wrong number in your possession could get you killed or tortured, violated in front of your loved ones.

“Yes. Thank you.”

Kim opened the door and began the introductions, but Sadaf interrupted her.

“You know these men?” she asked.

“Never mind,” said Kim. She grabbed her keys from the table beside the door. “I’m coming with you.”

Two hours later she was home again. She closed the blinds against the day and got ready for bed. The ritual involved washing her face and applying a once-weekly brown mud mask that she let dry while clearing a day’s worth of phone and email messages. Donald had called to remind her he was leaving town for the weekend and thanked her for arranging dinner with her mother and Harold. Someone hung up. Her old friend Shenny called to make a lunch date, as if they hadn’t fallen away from one another. Someone hung up. The caller’s number was unavailable. The members of GROUND and its connected services had been sent two list-serv emails, the first about a proposed change in federal law that would increase the authority of Immigration investigators, the second a “vigilance alert” concerning the need not to volunteer confidential information to the police. Someone had slipped somewhere. Kim hoped it hadn’t been her.

Moving Sadaf had been uneventful. When Ramin ushered them into his apartment they were greeted by his sisters and brothers-in-law and their small children. Sadaf accepted their attentions patiently, with grace. Kim tried to read in her an undercurrent of wariness, but didn’t know her face well enough, and the inflections of her native language were impossible to construe. A smiling woman whom Kim took to be Ramin’s wife invited her to stay for coffee but she declined. At the door Kim took Sadaf ’s hand in hers and squeezed it, suppressing an urge to hug her, and reminded her to call if she needed anything. Sadaf nodded and turned back into the apartment, and seemed to forget her.

She had squeezed Sadaf ’s hand but the gesture was not returned. No expression of gratitude – she hadn’t wanted one, really, hadn’t expected one – but neither of much warmth. She told herself not to read too much into the goodbyes. The woman had some meaning for her that she hadn’t yet worked through, and letting go of her hand had touched off this feeling still in her, a small, necessary regret.

She felt what the skin-care tube called “ancient sea mud” beginning to pull at her pores and then because she was still punch-drunk tired the sound of the words “ancient sea” made her think “H&C” and she remembered Rahel and called the office to leave Marlene a message. The impossible complexity of this volunteer work, never knowing enough about histories and languages, religions and laws and social customs, the migrating politics of gender here, of personal space there, of scarification, headdresses, the entering of rooms, exposed skin. Until a claimant was landed, deported, or dead, the only clarity was muddle. Failing to see muddle was failing to see clearly.

She went to the kitchen and prepared chamomile tea. She opened the cupboard and found her Imovane. She shook out a blue oval pill.

With her tongue she lifted the pill inside and swallowed it with tea.

For no good reason she rechecked the phone for the dial tone. Then she unplugged it.

Through the window she heard cicadas buzzing in the trees like electrical wires and again she thought of the prison account. Sadaf had found a way to move past her sufferings, yet Kim felt them inside her now, a heaviness in her legs, call it dread, some chemical reaction to sharp understanding, to knowing you don’t know enough.

She set her tea down and went to the bathroom and stripped to her panties and weighed herself and washed her face again and brushed her teeth and didn’t floss and peed. She applied moisturizer to her face and arms, and put on a T-shirt and set her alarm clock and got into bed. It was 3:20 p.m.

In four days she’d have dinner at the house with her complicated parents.

These simple moments were the best part of the day. For ten minutes she read Under the Volcano, which she’d read before but more or less forgotten. Then she turned out the light and closed her eyes.

Next came the names. It was prayer or it wasn’t, she didn’t know the word for this offering-up. There was no god to receive the names, she knew, but she needed the old consolation of solemn address. She asserted that she had them in mind, the people she knew were in need. Tonight when she’d thought of Marian and then came to Harold’s name, as usual the offering got lost, and so she moved on, name by name, saying Sadaf and her new keepers and Rahel and Sarah and Maureen and everyone at GROUND, pausing with each one to try to truly hold them in mind, towards her own name at the end of the sequence. Sometimes she was asleep before she came to it, and sometimes, like today, she wasn’t, wishing now only for a long, untroubled sleep, and then tended to herself further, conjuring lovers, former ones and possible ones. Lately she thought of a lawyer with GROUND named Greg Etterly. He worked for free and was always on call. She’d seen him save lives with arguments and papers. He was long and muscular, though he didn’t dress to accentuate his body. He was rumoured to have had several lovers. Long ago, one of them had broken his heart. She thought of Greg and began to touch herself but he wasn’t quite there for her so she let it go and then she was floating over the city high enough that she could almost see it whole and there were the people, she could make them out, see their faces though she shouldn’t have been able to from this height, and she knew she’d found the secret to it all in a mistake of scale. She looked down with a satellite eye. When she was fourteen, after Harold had left the family, and then returned, he had taken her and Marian west to the Rockies. One night on the prairies he led them out behind a motel and found a place they could sleep under the night sky. He taught her to distinguish the stars from the satellites, and the satellites from the American B-52s carrying nuclear warheads, heading north to the last allowable mile. It was the summer she’d begun kissing boys. It would be years before she realized that the B-52s were simply Harold’s brand of fairy tale.

She’d lost her line of thought.

In another minute the voices in her head fell silent. Then she saw herself two places at once, as the girl under the Western sky, believing, and the city woman in her bed saying prayers to herself, and then both of her, the younger and the older, looking up through the same closed eyes, drifting north to the pole.

Editorial Reviews

"[A] stunning read..., gripping, thought-provoking, ultimately haunting.... Cities of Refuge may be the future of The Canadian Novel: intrinsically and internally varied, polyvalent, confident, contemporary and challenging. If this is the future, bring it on."
Edmonton Journal
"Michael Helm has never quite gained the acclaim his accomplished work merits. His new novel ... might just change that."
Globe and Mail
"[W]hat [Helm] shows in a remarkable display of multiple-perspective sympathy, is how, in a world where we’re all inter-connected as never before, guilt and innocence are all but impossible to apportion with finality.... Cities of Refuge establishes him as one of Canada’s most commanding writers."
Montreal Gazette
"Smart, soulful writers usually get noticed in Canada. So it’s a bit mystifying that Michael Helm, despite some major short list appearances, hasn’t already achieved star status. Cities of Refuge should get him the attention he deserves...."
Now magazine

"'Where is the Great Toronto Novel?'.... Hats off ... to Michael Helm for Cities of Refuge.... The novel's thematic breadth pushed Helm into the front ranks of Canadian novelists."
Quill and Quire
"[A] powerful...novel.... What is best ... is Helm's patient evocation of his deeply wounded characters."
Globe and Mail

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