After James

Michael Helm

September 23, 2016 
The following is from Michael Helm’s novel, After James. 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 Cities of Refuge. His writings on fiction, poetry, and photography have appeared in North American newspapers and magazines,

When the sun breached the hill that morning it caught for the first time since October the narrow edge of the streambed exposed by a break in the trees. By midmorning the haze had burned off and the light made lenses in the ice that melted themselves beneath the surface. The stream began moving and as the thaw took hold in the leaves clotted on the bank and the mud farther along, the water ran into the shade of birch and maples and coaxed snow into motion as, unexampled in memory, the late-winter warmth became a baking heat all in a day, effecting weeks of return in just hours.

The dog kept to the bed, where the vapours were strongest, crazed into the firstness of things. He had come a long way and had organized the scents as they recurred along the route until a new one came on the air and he found himself moving into the leaves. He was at the source and digging before he understood that the form set into the ground was human. The discovery confused him and he backed off the shape and barked and continued barking until the smell sent him forward again in a wonderment half-full of forgetting, and when he followed up from the human hand along the arm and then uncovered the muddy head, the discovery was new again and he ran up out of the trees barking and stopped and circled back down, then came up a second time and a third. At some point he lowered onto his belly and looked for a long while in the direction of the humanform until a shortened whimper escaped him, the sound sending him to his feet barking again, hearing the strangeness of his sounding in the air of this new place. Again he took the route down the bank and up, barking the whole time, and he stood high now and was about to go back down when the shot tore through him and sent him over the bank and into the creekbed as if even dead he could regard the humanform yet again and again find it a great mystery uncovered but not dispelled.

That night the dog’s body burned along with that of the human he’d found, and then burned again until its ashes were general with all else on the wind. They lifted on the heat and floated out under stars and over the country thawed and returning with a force beyond that of any since people first appeared. They drifted over the creek now run to a river, and a river run into the broken fields and roads and up into the lower slopes of hills, disturbing even the wet, heavy soil there and exposing shards of pottery and bone that hadn’t breathed in centuries and were now carried by water to greater waters and replaced into other muds with other sediments over them. The ashes fell thinly on the currents in greyblack flakes without distinction, and the knowing that was the dog moved there too, running inland to the heart of the wild returned from its dream to its last waking.  

*  *  *  *

She woke to some new slant of light. At the window she stood barefoot before her uncertain reflection, white pyjama bottoms, red T-shirt. These woods she pretended to be hers were already transforming, with changes to follow in the ash and beech trees, the maples along the creek, the light fixed harder in the runnelled bark of the black cherry and silvers in the sumacs on the hill. This was once the Carolinian zone, a fossilized designation. There were now wasps in the high arctic, a place with no native word for them.

The temperature had nosed above freezing at 7:33 and she thought thirty-three Fahrenheit in the seventh day of my residency, still making links with numbers.

Crooner stood in profile at the door, looking at her sidelong, unwilling to ask directly. She let him out and he made it five feet before peeing, then put his nose down and followed it off through the heavy snow. There was some mistake in the grand design ever to have worked up creatures more complicated than dogs.

She went about her morning. Putting on her jeans and old running shoes, building the fire, bringing in more wood from the side of the house. Bread and tea while staring out the glass back wall, the light really was different today. Yesterday afternoon from this chair she’d seen a red fox trotting through the snow on the hill across the ravine and he had seemed to disappear in the depths of it but then emerged in stride a few feet along and she knew she had just lost him in the flat light. This morning she could see every contour, every drift, even in places the trace of his passage on the white.

She went back outside and dipped the bamboo pole into the cistern and drew it up. She’d need a water delivery in two or three days. She stocked the feeders and then stood at ten paces in the dying cold and waited for the first bird to light. It was often a finch or junco, then cardinals. There were still a few whose names she didn’t know. Soon she’d give in to curiosity and consult her field guide but she liked the ones unknown to her. There were thousands of unknown creatures in the oceans. It was possible at a certain pitch of consciousness to feel the weight of these beings in the nightly draw of the earth through space. The force was likely exerted both ways, so that somewhere on the planet was an alien mind feeling her existence. Was it a bird? She didn’t think so.

No birds yet this morning. There was something new on the air.

It was all new every day. That was the idea. She was off the map, somewhere north of Georgia, south of the Canadian Shield. She thought, three hard snows in the first week and good luck finding me through weather systems. She thought, don’t even try.

There was real heat in the light now. The day was up.

*  *  *  *

The couple who owned this place, Stefan and Denise, the Dahls, had left post-it notes for her all around the house. Stefan’s tended to be in the furnace room or fuse box—“don’t run the dryer at the same time as the electric heater”—and were unsigned. Denise’s showed up in unlikely places. The utensils drawer (“this tips, be careful D”), tucked into the linen stack (“these look the same but arent so dont bother trying to match D”), on the radio (“this dial isnt accurate, too low D”). She’d labelled the spices in the rack, as if her city-woman tenant wouldn’t know them. Denise knew more or less nothing about her, they’d not even spoken by phone. One midmorning three weeks ago the Dahls posted their home with two pictures, and a half continent to the west Ali got out of bed, checked the new listings, and called them. Stefan answered. The arrangements were made within minutes. She directed him to her online bio at the Gilshey site but he asked no questions. She told him how she’d pay, when she’d arrive, that she had a car and a dog. He didn’t even ask about the dog. They’d signed on for a year of mission work, the Dahls, and flew off to French West Africa two days before she drove down the long gravel driveway and emerged for a first live look at her hideaway. It was low, set into a small depression, against high maples. She looked right through it, through the front windows to the back ones, with the trees beyond interrupted briefly by the roofline. She saw the ravine behind the house and the hill rising up the other side of it. The arresting effect of seeing through obstruction held her for a time until Crooner shot across her field of vision and set her back into motion. As described, the key was under the T formed by two cherry logs beside the woodpile. Then she opened the door and was home.

This morning’s note turned up in the phone book. The Dahls had dog-eared several yellow pages and circled listings. On the page for the water service, in the familiar hand, the note read, “look in the flour jar. important. D.” The ceramic jar marked “flour” was empty but for a folded plastic sandwich bag with something inside it like a bundle of vanilla beans. She held the bag up and saw a key drive. It was all wrong, not just the drive in the bag and the bag in the jar, not just that it had obviously been hidden for her, but that the distance between the Dahls and her had been compromised. She could choose not to open the drive, but that would involve pretending to ignore it. The thing was now a presence in her day, and she would have to accept it before she could fold it away.

At her desk she set it down on the papers beside her laptop. Every passing day promised a future further removed from human meaning. She had been putting off the thought of consequences, of what happened when a person loaded her dog into a car and drove thousands of miles away from her life. You could put off almost anything, it turned out, with chores and long walks and new kinds of findings, the blue shades of snow in deep woods, the patterns of burn marks on lightning-split trees. Two mornings ago she’d come across a kill site covered in deer fur, and eighty feet away by a stream, the carcass. Spine and pelvis, the legs gnawed white to a few inches from the hooves, the pelt piled beside, and coyote prints all around. Her being there in the aftermath did not feel like an intrusion.

She’d had a week to settle, to prepare herself. Now it was time to see who she might be.

*  *  *  *

An open letter. She would send it to a whistleblower site.

She wrote that until days ago she worked at a branch of an unnamed pharmaceutical company in Vancouver. For years the goal had been a memory aid, but an unintended breakthrough led to work on a wholly new designer drug. She wrote about DNA molecules and the data won from an in-house brain booster whose market name she didn’t use, but then worried she was being too technical and apologized and said it would all be there in the attachment for those who cared. But the idea, the way to think of it, this drug, was as a narcotic-free neuro enhancer of generative and lateral thought. A creativity pill.

She left the pharms race off the record, the millions in research failures, all trails cold, hypotheses busted. What mattered was much bigger. She was not a creative person herself but, and she almost skipped this part too, one cold November Monday in the lab, she’d been sitting at her station with a cup of green tea having gone straight to her bladder, when it came to her. She pictured a green, lucent fish, like a large S from an illuminated manuscript, swimming in an underground river. For a long time she just watched it, her eyes closed, until finally the dark river was the bloodstream. The fish-letter was a mystery, a certain molecule with a tail on it, not yet discovered, but she saw its chemical integrity and then remembered the coloured synteny graph she’d seen weeks ago that depicted the genetic evolution of a virus. The graph had begun to appear in her thoughts and on the walls of her dreams, like a grid painting with fine, curving lines running through it. From the lines she could imagine and so begin to create the fish-letter.

It wouldn’t have revealed itself to her, she decided not to write, if she hadn’t had to pee, without that slight urgency, which had somehow also triggered the intuition that Carl, team leader for Neuropharmaceutical Research, was sleeping with her research assistant, whom he privately liked to refer to by her salary as “your low-midlevel Joannie.” Ali herself had no romantic investments in the lab or outside it, but the change in the air, Carl’s sudden soft-eyed deference to a twenty-four-year-old, effected a kind of pole reversal that opened possibilities in her thoughts. Before the day ended she’d worked through the graphs of chemical compounds and the data on delivery systems and then mocked up a substance that over the weeks in the preclinical stage looked promising in toxicity measures and pharmacokinetic behaviour. In time it took form as a rectangular yellow pill with bevelled edges. She didn’t include the company’s name for the drug—Claritas .4—it would identify Gilshey (it would all come out in time, of course), and anyway it was the wrong name. The name that came to her was Alph. She designed the drug. It should have the name she gave it.

Five weeks ago she was sitting in her car, having pulled over to watch dozens of skaters on a great sunken pond, a scene out of Bruegel, when Carl called her cellphone. She hadn’t answered his calls for days but something in the moment, the sheer joyfulness of the scene, seemed reliable as a counter to whatever he might say. But they let her down, that scene, those skaters. She should have been picturing the clinical trial test subjects. They were mostly students, self-described artists, screenplay writers, animators, a poet. All but one loved Alph (the love was not entered into the data), composing work faster and, in their view (not entered), better than they ever had, despite the limiting factors imposed by the controlled conditions of the early trials. Most subjects reported nothing that wouldn’t pass oversight approval. Almost three-quarters of volunteers reported a “jump cut” feeling of having lost two or three seconds of time during composition. Many reported a sense of lucid dreaming while awake. The feeling was of some other agent authoring a part of their experience, their sense of self-command undermined by changing contexts, parallel realities. One described finishing his lab session, going to play tennis, and in the middle of a long rally (he eventually won the point) seeing himself in a staged swordfight against dozens of foes, as if in an old swashbuckler movie. In the lab they called this the Daffy effect, in reference to the Looney Tunes segment in which Daffy and his world are repeatedly redrawn by the animator midstory.

It turned out that the Daffy effect, the world turned over, could also be brought on without Alph, if your professional mission was betrayed. Emotional hurt erased any distinction between the objective and subjective. Her apartment, her miso soup, the very sound of her own voice, all were made strange. The person who had strung together the days, weeks, and years was suddenly exposed to an impossible truth, that she’d been misperceiving her world all along, and this truth, as far as it had been uncovered, meant she didn’t really know herself.

The betrayal was Carl’s. “You’re on speakerphone, Ali.” She watched a girl in black tights and white mittens cutting figures in the ice. “I’m here with Kalif Keady.” Kalif was one of the company’s lawyers. He explained her position and ended the call. Her position, simply put, was that she had to keep her mouth shut, whether she stayed with Gilshey or not. So the company was supporting Carl’s decision not to enter one other side effect into the data. He argued it didn’t exist. She knew it did and, there in her house in the woods, put it down in words. A few weeks after the trial ended, Subject 11, the poet, who by all evidence came into the trial a well-adjusted, talented young man full of level enthusiasms, jumped off the Lions Gate Bridge. In the suicide note he sent to the qualified investigator who oversaw the trial, he described himself as newly awake. In full control. He said he was making a choice. Since beginning the trial he had been presented a kind of knowledge, “‘a showing forth,’ is what my grandma used to call it,” he wrote. He said the drug had “torn the fabric of what we’re wrong to call reality” and revealed something beyond that there were no words for, though he felt ever closer to finding the words the longer he stayed in the trial. After his first doses of Alph he’d begun to imagine the drug’s maker, and to speculate about her and praise her in poems and prose he sent to the QI. They switched him off of the drug and gave him a placebo. The loss killed him.

Ali wrote it through, the events in order, conversations as she recalled them. She quoted Carl from the day when it seemed they’d made a breakthrough, “There’s nothing that can’t be imagined, nothing imagined that can’t now be made real. What we’re designing is an engine to accelerate the real.” “In the end,” Ali wrote, “the real accelerated toward Subject 11, rushing up in a sudden assertion, as is its nature.”

*  *  *  *

She placed a call to the water service. There was no answer, no option to leave a message. It was past noon. In the front room, Crooner’s bed. She opened the door and there, somehow, was another season, the sun hot on the snow, on her skin. She got into her boots and walked behind the house against a warm wind. At the bottom of the ravine a stream had formed and seemed to be gaining strength even as she watched it, a slurry of icy water and through-force. She walked clear around the house, looking for Crooner or his tracks, but the old tracks that had marked their passages of days ago had already melted, and when she came back around she saw that his prints from this morning had disappeared in the melt. She called his name. Every day she’d let him roam and he was sometimes gone for an hour or so. The snow tired him out, kept him from running too far, and covered the sorts of things that might get him in trouble—irresistible scents, dead animals. She headed up the approach and around the bend to the wetblack road. The ditches were filling with runoff. She called him again. There was no sign of him or of anything. For a minute or more she looked out at the sky where it rose in the west above the road. The clouds were lined with white shelves foreshortened by a blackness massing above them. She saw far off a car coming her way, and heard it. Then as it took shape it became an SUV and it was really flying. She took two steps farther off the road and the SUV shot past at a great speed and the driver, a woman in a headscarf, about her age, she guessed, turned and looked at Ali for a static moment with a face, though of a stranger, still somehow not itself.

She came down the road and set off to the east across the field where they walked at night. Crooner left trenches in the deeper snow in open fields, but now there were no trenches. He must have gone into the forest or down into the ravine. She veered left and passed into the turning woods where the light was weaker and moved along the edge of the creekbank where the snow thinned. Streams of melting water ran down the steepest falls. She called his name, stopped walking and listened, heard the water, called again. She kept walking and the place, now changing before her, was strange twice over. Her tracks were already dying into the general thaw, and she’d have to stay to the creek to find her way back. She walked at an angle out into the field to look for his passage but didn’t find it, and turned and continued along the edge of the ravine.

Just past the point where she told herself to turn back she discovered a print. Or it seemed a print, a single, canine step. But was it of coyote or Lab-shepherd cross? How could she not recognize her own dog’s track? She squatted. Up close the shape was a little too large, maybe. How could it have kept its neat integrity in such a rapid melt? It would have to be fresh but she had seen nothing, and Crooner would have come if he’d heard her call. Then, ahead, she saw a clump of snow fall from a branch and form a crater pattern. She looked up and saw above her a branch, a break in the ridge of snow it held. The print was false, she decided, an accident, a trick of the brain’s tendency to mistake nothing for something, related to the life-saving, god-imagining instinct called “agent detection.” We mistake rocks for bears, but never bears for rocks. Returning to the house with the shadows angled differently she passed dozens of small, soft, doubtful depressions. Tracks or not, he must have come through here, she reasoned, and so he could find his way back by following the bank.

Just as she made it to the door she thought she heard something, a distant barking maybe, but the wind covered it. She waited to hear it again but there was nothing. She called for him once more, waited, and went inside.

In the study she opened the window a few inches and for the first time in her stay a warm wind gained the house. She was approaching her desk when she heard something else, like a great branch snapping far away. She listened. It was a wind of phantom sounds, as if the limb had broken years ago.




From AFTER JAMES. Used with permission of Tin House. Copyright © 2016 by Michael Helm.

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