After James: An Excerpt

Michael Helm


One morning on a small harbor ferry heading to Granville Island she’d watched the boat taking its level with False Creek and felt a kind of weightlessness that seemed telling. Anja had asked if they could meet now, today, and as she’d taken the call Ali felt a flutter in her own voice. It would not be good news from the trial, of course, but that wasn’t what the voice and the weightlessness meant. They meant somehow that she was getting less sure of herself and generally less certain, not just to herself but to others, as if she’d become doubted by higher powers, harder to believe in. Her decision not to seek a pregnancy returned now and then in this way, eroding her supposed selfhood, something she anyway thought of only as a cluster of changing biological conditions. But even self-betrayal is betrayal, an ancient constant that never loses its effect.

They walked along the seawall. Anja’s news was that, switched to the placebo, through growing despair, Subject 11 had written less and less. The slowing made sense but she couldn’t tell him that his crisis of faith was chemical. Then last week, eighteen days before the trial was to end, he dropped out and disappeared. Anja needed to know that he hadn’t had a seizure, lost his memory or his mind, but he returned no calls or emails. When she went to the apartment he’d listed, she was told by a young landlady that he’d moved out, no forwarding address.

That morning at the clinic she’d received a small package in the mail, addressed to “Maker,” care of her. It was a box the size of a large basket of strawberries. They took a bench seat.

“What if he’s cut off his hand or something,” Anja said.

“He couldn’t have wrapped it so well with the other one. Maybe it’s fresh strawberries. It’s for me, I’ll open it.”

The box had weight but wasn’t metal-heavy, more fruit than cannonball. The hand-printed letters in the address looked sane, unhurried.

She opened it to find a glass ball the size of a grapefruit, inside of which was one of the plastic identity bracelets issued to test subjects, with bar-coded personal and vital information. He’d twisted the bracelet once and reattached it into a loop, then suspended the resulting möbius strip inside the clear ball.

It came with a typewritten note.



Are you there?

You’ve left me unfinished.

So I’ve left you and your pharma con.

I wanted, then needed what you were making of me.

But you weren’t up to the making.

This ball is all you get.

Take it and fuck off.

No other ending.



“That’s literally twisted,” said Anja. Her voice, though not yet her face, expressed relief. “But I practically expected a bomb.”

Ali held the object up against the water, the sky, the new ugly condos across the water. It maintained a sure beauty. Subject 11 had lost his faith, lost his sense of irony about their relative positions, lost his belief in her.

“He used to be charming,” said Anja. “You okay?”

That night Anja called her at home to say that when she’d quoted the note to her unemployed classicist husband, he’d found another twist.

“He says ‘pharma con’ is a pun on a Greek word.” Somewhere in Plato was a story about an Egyptian god who offers a king a remedy for forgetting, the pharmakon of writing, writing as a memory aid. The king turns down the offer, knowing it will have the opposite effect and cause forgetfulness. The king uses the same word, pharmakon, to mean poison. Remedy and poison. “One and both, so either, depending.”

The ball sat now on a small china plate on Ali’s dining table. Maybe mornings before work it would catch a little gray windowlight that might, in time, disarm it.

“So it isn’t just he thinks I conned him. He thinks I poisoned him.”

“I don’t know, Ali. I don’t see how.”

“Poisoned by loss. Withdrawn revelation. Before the trial he was happy knowing what he knew, seeing what he saw. Then he took the pills and saw more. Now he knows he’s blind to the real size and intricacy of things. He’s been poisoned with a knowledge of his blindness.”

“That sounds pretty grand, actually. You haven’t read the pages he sent me. He’s not some great visionary. He’s just a guy telling a story, and then we switched him to the placebo and he couldn’t finish it.”

When she asked Anja to describe the story, she said she’d put her husband on, said his name, Roland, who was better at these things.

“There’s nothing so original about it.” Ali remembered him now, his voice, a kind of high-snouted tone. “The usual horror themes and tropes. Violated Nature. Science and Art, fire and flood, madwomen and monsters. It clips along for a while but he never sent the ending.”

They forwarded the file that night. Ali read the first page. There was already a body, a gun going off, the usual dumb mystery, cheap violence. It settled her to know that the story was only an entertainment. If this was all the vision he’d had, all he’d lost, she’d done Subject 11 a favor, she thought. Four days later he was dead.

She went to Carl with the news. His house had a cedar porch that in damp weather smelled like a sauna. He invited her to sit on his fraying string chairs but she stayed on her feet. She couldn’t find the words at first and they ended up looking out at the neighbors’ lawns and houses in the soft focus. Even at plus two degrees the gray could get so thick you expected whales to float by. There hadn’t been sun for a week.

When she told him, he tried to come close but she held both palms out and took a step back.

“We have to stop the trial.”

“This has nothing to do with the trial. He wasn’t even on Alph.”

She knew the line was coming and had tried to prepare but she hit him anyway, slapped him hard. He actually bent over briefly and said fuck.

“Now we know who you are,” she said. “You’re the bad guy who plays the company angle.”

She hadn’t known she would slap him, and having done so felt it was dopey, not genuine, a mimicking behavior. Then she thought she should feel better but didn’t, especially. Maybe he wasn’t the bad guy but the guy who’d sampled the drug and was now a true believer. Either way he was dangerous. As she walked to her car he straightened but didn’t follow. He held one hand to his face where she’d reddened it, as if in thought.

“You’ve signed docs, Ali. Remember your legal position.”

Beside the steps was an unpruned rosebush. The drooped-headed blooms were chilled into, what, awkwardness? shame? Were they like kids staring at their feet? No, they were just blighted flowers. As she pictured them in memory now, a shadow grew over them and a whale passed by overhead.

Michael Helm is the author of the novels Cities of Refuge, a Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize finalist, a Giller Prize nominee, and a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year; The Projectionist, a finalist for the Giller Prize and the Trillium Book Award; and In the Place of Last Things, a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His writings on fiction, poetry, and the visual arts have appeared in several North American magazines, including Brick, where he’s an editor. He teaches at York University in Toronto and lives in semirural Ontario.