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Authors: Madeleine Thien

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BOOK: Certainty
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Copyright © 2006 by Madeleine Thien

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Little, Brown and Company

Hachette Book Group USA

237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Visit our Web site at

First eBook Edition: March 2007

First published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart in 2006

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the British Columbia Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts.

ISBN: 978-0-7595-7235-5


Also by Madeleine Thien


Chapter 1: Chaos

Chapter 2: Pieces of Map

Chapter 3: A New Geometry

Chapter 4: Aloft

Chapter 5: The Bird Feather

Chapter 6: The Garden of Numbers

Chapter 7: The Island

Chapter 8: Certainty

Chapter 9: The Glass Jar

Notes and Acknowledgements

About the Author


Simple Recipes

For Willem

For we convinced physicists the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.

Albert Einstein, from a letter of condolence to the family of Michelangelo Besso

He said we could face the worst if we simply renounced our yearning for certainty. But who among us is capable of that renunciation?

Michael Ignatieff, from
The Needs of Strangers




n 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
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.”

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.

BOOK: Certainty
8.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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