About the Author

Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien (born 1974) is a Canadian short story writer and novelist. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, she was educated at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia. In 2001 she was awarded the Canadian Authors Association Air Canada Award for most promising Canadian writer under age 30. In 2008, she was invited to participate in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Books by this Author

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.

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing

On the 16th of December, 1990, Ma came home in a taxi with a new daughter who wore no coat, only a thick scarf, a woollen sweater, blue jeans and canvas shoes. I had never met a Chinese girl before, that is, one who, like my father, came from real mainland China. A pair of grey mittens dangled from a string around her neck and swayed in nervous rhythm against her legs. The fringed ends of her blue scarf fell one in front and one behind, like a scholar. The rain was falling hard, and she walked with her head down, holding a medium-sized suitcase that appeared to be empty. She was pale and her hair had the gleam of the sea.
   Casually I opened the door and widened my eyes as if I was not expecting visitors. 
   "Girl," Ma said. "Take the suitcase. Hurry up." 
   Ai-ming stepped inside and paused on the edge of the doormat. When I reached for the suitcase, my hand accidentally touched hers, but she didn’t draw back. Instead, her other hand reached out and lightly covered mine. She gazed right at me, with such openness and curiosity that, out of shyness, I closed my eyes.
   "Ai-ming," Ma was saying. "Let me introduce you. This is my Girl."
   I pulled away and opened my eyes again.
   Ma, taking off her coat, glanced first at me and then at the room. The brown sofa with its three camel-coloured stripes had seen better days, but I had spruced it up with all the flowery pillows and stuffed animals from my bed. I had also turned on the television in order to give this room the appearance of liveliness. Ma nodded vigorously at me. "Girl, greet your aunt."
   "Really, it’s okay if you call me Ai-ming. Please. I really, mmm, prefer it."
   To placate them both, I said, "Hello."
   Just as I suspected, the suitcase was very light. With my free hand, I moved to take Ai-ming’s coat, remembering too late she didn’t have one. My arm wavered in the air like a question mark. She reached out, grasped my hand and firmly shook it.
   She had a question in her eyes. Her hair, pinned back on one side, fell loosely on the other, so that she seemed forever in profile, about to turn towards me. Without letting go of my hand, she manoeuvred her shoes noiselessly off her feet, first one then the other. Pinpoints of rain glimmered on her scarf. Our lives had contracted to such a degree that I could not remember the last time a stranger had entered our home; Ai-ming’s presence made everything unfamiliar, as if the walls were crowding a few inches nearer to see her. The previous night, we had, at last, tidied Ba’s papers and notebooks, putting them into boxes and stacking the boxes under the kitchen table. Now I found the table’s surface deceitfully bare. I freed my hand, saying I would put the suitcase in her bedroom.
   Ma showed her around the apartment. I retreated to the sofa and pretended to watch the Weather Channel, which predicted rain for the rest of the week, the rest of 1990, the rest of the century, and even the remainder of all time. Their two voices ran one after the other like cable cars, interrupted now and then by silence. The intensity in the apartment crept inside me, and I had the sensation that the floor was made of paper, that there were words written everywhere I couldn’t read, and one unthinking gesture could crumple this whole place down.

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Dogs at the Perimeter

They sleep early and rise in the dark. It is winter now. The nights are long but outside, where the leaves have fallen from the branches, the snowed-inlight comes through. There is a cat who finds the puddles of sunshine. She was small when the boy was small, but then she grew up and left him behind. Still, at night, she hunkers down on Kiri’s bed, proprietorial. They were born just a few weeks apart, but now he is seven and she is forty-four.
My son is the beginning, the middle, and the end. When he was a baby, I used to follow him on my hands and knees, the two of us crawling over the wood floors, the cat threading between our legs. Hello, hello, my son would say. Hello, my good friend. How are you? He trundled along, an elephant, a chariot, a glorious madman.
It is twilight now, mid-February.
Tonight’s freezing rain has left the branches crystalline. Our home is on the second floor, west facing, reached by a twisting staircase, the white paint chipping off, rust burnishing the edges. Through the window, I can see my son. Kiri puts a record on, he shuffles it gingerly out of its cardboard sleeve, holding it lightly between his fingertips.
I know the one he always chooses. I know how he watches the needle lift and the mechanical arm move into place. I know the outside but not the quiet, not the way his thoughts rise up, always jostling, always various, not how they untangle from one another or how they fall so inevitably into place.
Kiri is in grade two. He has his father’s dark-brown hair, he has startling, beautiful eyes, the same colour as my own. His name, in Khmer, means “mountain.” I want to run up the stairs and turn my key in the lock, the door to my home swinging wide open.
When my fear outweighs my need – fear that Kiri will look out the window and see this familiar car, that my son will see me – I turn the ignition, steer myself from the sidewalk, and roll away down the empty street. In my head, ringing in my ears, the music persists, his body swaying like a bell to the melody. I remember him, crumpled on the floor, looking up at me, frightened. I try to cover this memory, to focus on the blurring lights, the icy pavement. My bed is not far away but a part of me wants to keep on driving, out of the city, down the highway straight as a needle. Instead, I circle and circle the residential streets. A space opens up in front of Hiroji’s apartment, where I have been sleeping these last few weeks, and I edge the car against the curb.
Tomorrow will come soon, I tell myself. Tomorrow I will see my son.
The wind swoops down, blowing free what little heat I have. I can barely lock the door and get upstairs fast enough. Inside, I pull off my boots but keep my coat and scarf on against the chill. Hiroji’s cat, Taka the Old, skips ahead of me, down the long hallway. On the answering machine, the message light is flashing and I hit the square button so hard the machine hiccups twice before complying.
Navin’s voice. “I saw the car,” my husband says. “Janie? Are you there?” He waits. In the background, my son is calling out. Their voices seem to echo. “No, Kiri. Hurry up, kiddo. Back to bed.” I hear footsteps, a door closing, and then Navin coming back. He says he wants to take Kiri to Vancouver for a few weeks, that the time, and distance, might help us. “We’ll stay at Lena’s place,” he says. I am nodding, agreeing with every word – Lena’s home has stood empty since she died last year – but a numb grief is flowing through me.
One last message follows. I hear a clicking on the line, then the beep of keys being pressed, once, twice, three times. The line goes dead.
The fridge is remarkably empty. I scan its gleaming insides, then do a quick inventory: old bread in the freezer and in the cupboard two cans of diced tomatoes, a tin of smoked mussels, and, heaven, three bottles of wine. I liberate the bread and the mussels, pour a glass of sparkling white, then stand at the counter until the toaster ejects my dinner. Gourmet. I peel back the lid of the can and eat the morsels one by one. The wine washes the bread down nicely. Everything is gone too soon but the bottle of wine that accompanies me to the sofa, where I turn the radio on. Music swells and dances through the apartment.
This bubbly wine is making me morose. I drink the bottle quickly in order to be rid of it. “Only bodies,” Hiroji once told me, “have pain.” He had been in my lab, watching me pull a motor neuron from Aplysia. Bodies, minds: to him they were the same, one could not be considered without the other.
Half past ten. It is too early to sleep but the dark makes me uneasy. I want to call Meng, my oldest friend, we have not spoken in more than two weeks, but it is the hour of the wolves in Paris. My limbs feel light and I trickle, wayward, through the rooms. On the far side of the apartment, in Hiroji’s small office, the windows are open and the curtains seem to move fretfully, wilfully. The desk has exploded, maybe it happened last week, maybe earlier, but now all the papers and books have settled into a more balanced state of nature. Still, the desk seems treacherous. Heaped all over, like a glacier colonizing the surface, are the pages I have been working on. Taka the Old has been here: the paper is crumpled and still faintly warm.
Since he disappeared, nearly three months ago now, I’ve had no contact with Hiroji. I’m trying to keep a record of the things he told me: the people he treated, the scientists he knew. This record fills sheet after sheet – one memory at a time, one place, one clue – so that every place and every thought won’t come at once, all together, like a deafening noise. On Hiroji’s desk is an old photograph showing him and his older brother standing apart, an emerald forest behind them. Hiroji, still a child, smiles wide. They wear no shoes, and Junichiro, or James, stands with one hand on his hip, chin lifted, challenging the camera. He has a bewitching, sad face.
Sometimes this apartment feels so crowded with loved ones, strangers, imagined people. They don’t accuse me or call me to account, but I am unable to part with them. In the beginning, I had feared the worst, that Hiroji had taken his own life. But I tell myself that if this had been a suicide, he would have left a note, he would have left something behind. Hiroji knew what it was to have the missing live on, unending, within us. They grow so large, and we so empty, that even the coldest winter nights won’t swallow them. I remember floating, a child on the sea, alone in the Gulf of Thailand. My brother is gone, but I am looking up at the white sky and I believe, somehow, that I can call him back. If only I am brave enough, or true enough. Countries, cities, families. Nothing need disappear. At Hiroji’s desk, I work quickly. My son’s voice is lodged in my head, but I have lost the ability to keep him safe. I know that no matter what I say, what I make, the things I have done can’t be forgiven. My own hands seem to mock me, they tell me the further I go to escape, the greater the distance I must travel back. You should never have left the reservoir, you should have stayed in the caves. Look around, we ended up back in the same place, didn’t we? The buildings across the street fall dark, yet the words keep coming, accumulating like snow, like dust, a fragile cover that blows away so easily.

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Unceasing Storm

Unceasing Storm

Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution
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Granta 141

Granta 141

edited by Madeleine Thien
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