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Fiction: The Story of Canada

Alice Munro Country

Alice Munro Country

Sometimes, in the stories, it was called Walley, sometimes Tuppertown or Wawanash. But no matter its fictional name, the towns – Goderich, Wingham, Clinton – could be guessed. The salt mine or lake port or boot factory, some singular detail of the area, and the identity would slip through. Mina heard a rushing in her ears when, after reading and re-reading the words, she understood.

A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.

But maybe what she experienced was not understanding, simply a surge of relief. She herself had been called Sothea before, and a different name before that. During the war and the Pol Pot time, her mother, father, uncles and the boys had also chosen (or been forced to take) different names. All 11 of them had been resettled here, in a region known as Alice Munro Country. In the stories, the more the names changed (Walley, Tuppertown, Dalgleish), the more the towns seemed inalienably themselves. As if their birth certificates, too, had disappeared, and the towns shaped into composites, but the things they were underneath, at the core, could not be otherwise.

She had been a child when she arrived here, and it had been 1980. Her first winter.

The Prime Minister himself, the one with the bright red rose in his lapel, famous for his boyish pirouettes, had welcomed them in Ottawa. He had smelled of something she couldn't place, and now imagines was cologne mixed with the warm interior of a car on a December morning. After his initial greeting, the Sponsors took over the welcome. She was presented with a coat, scarf and woollen hat; also, a fuzzy blue sweater, soft as a kitten. She couldn't stop petting it, her right hand turning over the sleeve of her left.

The short plane ride and drive to Goderich passed in a dream. She remembers the car persevering through the heavy snow, the jovial patter of the Sponsors, the quiet affirmations of her father, and her mother's attempts at cheer. The weight of winter clothing on her shoulders felt peculiar, she had never experienced it before. All the windows were rolled up, which made it harder to breathe.

Mina was officially 10, but in truth she was nearer to 12 or 13. The landing card and refugee papers contradicted what she and her parents knew to be true, including her year of birth, the names of her original parents and other life particulars. She knew she must never say these things, only keep them silently in her head.

The fuzzy blue sweater and a pair of green corduroy pants became her favourite outfit. They made her look brand new. The grade five teacher, Miss Murray, organized a boisterous welcome from the whole school. Mina and the four boys were given books as well as a stack of cards made by their new classmates. Drawings of something called Dominion Day, and of a comical dirt-coloured helmet which turned out to be a Thanksgiving turkey. Bears with moose antlers, prehistoric fish, and beavers atop mountains. What was this place?

She had managed to stand very still as the gaze of her classmates – curiosity, mockery, diffidence, pity – passed through her. The teachers likely said something about the resettlement program and the arrival of boat people and plane people. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge, Nixon and Kissinger, two million dead. Mina might not have known the language but all the same she understood.

Kampuchea, Cambodia. How fragile a word. It could float out the roof of her mouth and disappear. Canada, then. Altogether different. Bright white paper held down by coloured pins. No-nonsense boots. Woollen hats with little pompoms. Snow as high as your hips. Goderich, Wingham, Clinton.

The Sponsors gave them a house that, people said, had gone all to rookery. Repair work kept them busy. Her mother, father and uncles worried over every decision. They discussed cars and driving licenses, English lessons, medical checks, potential jobs. Piecework, masonry, the salt mine, perhaps, to replace what they knew (timbering, planting, accountancy, filmmaking). They mentioned Thailand, California or Massachusetts, where others still waited or had been accepted. Mina and the boys ran endlessly through the yard, throwing snow.

The word Cambodia was, if not forbidden, very seldom used.

Overnight, it seemed, she was reading English. It came as naturally as shading her eyes, as blinking against the sun.

But after some time in Goderich, and despite her best efforts, she had failed in her greatest desire, to meet the famous writer. All she heard was talk – in the doughnut place and in the coffee shop, or the octagonal uptown called The Square. One November morning, three ladies stood together, bulky purses against their hips like small grenades. They were discussing the writer’s new book, the intimate secrets, scandalous details, there for all the world to see. The Moons of Jupiter.

“Down the road, in the Goderich library, that’s where she is. Looking up old issues of the Wingham Advance.”

“Whatever for?”

“A mutant lamb with seven legs and that kind of thing.”

“Seven legs!”

The library. Mina thought, standing behind them. Of course!

The next day, she went with her father, the two of them falling silent as they passed through the heavy doors.

Inside, the ceilings were tall and vaulted, as if leaving a path for its visitors to float away. Mina clung to a shelf. She stood behind a man hunched over a microfilm reader, canisters lined up at his wrist, scrolling across days and months. All the months quietly organized, every year safe in a silver box, but how could she formulate the only question she had?

No, Sothea. Don't make a sound. No, no.

“Who said that?”

Sothea.

Quiet in the library. Quiet.

Her father opened the newspaper and stared up at the sky.

Behind him, on the cover of a magazine, the writer watched her, a look of curiosity in her eyes. Mina approached, reached out and touched the glossy paper. She carried the magazine in both hands, as if it were a cake, to a quiet corner, which turned out to be the children’s section of the library. She sat down on the floor and began to read. The article was detailed and friendly. The writer was pictured sitting in the Bedford Hotel, which Mina had passed a thousand times. Alice Munro described the town’s river, referred to in her stories as the Maitland, the Meneseteung, and sometimes the Wawanash. “I am still partly convinced that this river – not even the whole river but this stretch of it – will provide whatever myths you want, whatever adventures.”

In the gaps between the shelved volumes, Mina could see a small boy lying on the carpet, his mother playfully balancing books on his stomach and one on his forehead, as if to hide him.

She went to the main desk and requested an application for a library card. As she wrote Mina in block letters, the word seemed like the cover of a book, holding all the other names.

Silently, her father pieced the newspaper back together. He smoothed it out, flattening any creases he had made.

Outside, they bought flowers for Mina’s mother, and chocolate ice cream for the two of them. They walked past the stately buildings, completing one circuit around the octagonal Square, which the Sponsors had told them was “to do a ringer.” Because the sun was shining and the air was fresh, they did a second turn.

Unexpectedly, Mina was caught by a memory. In Phnom Penh, she and Ma would circle the shrines at Wat Langka. Three times, Mina said now. It was always three times, praying or meditating as they walked. Ma had gone to the temple all through the war, until the Khmer Rouge came.

Her adopted father nodded. He said that it was tradition. To walk three times around a temple or a stupa, or anything you have a feeling for. Anything that has qualities that you dream of, or need, or desire. As he said this, he shifted the flowers from one arm to another.

“Maybe even a person?” Mina asked. She smiled to imagine it.

“A person. Or even an idea.”

They said nothing for many minutes after this, circling and thinking of others.

In Mina’s dreams, she was dragged into the rush of the Mekong River and forced to swim across. She kept swimming even when she wished to stop, to sink. The dream terrified her and she tried to banish it rationally. The writer, Mina thought, might describe those years as benighted, a complicated word Mina held onto like a treasure, an unknown thing. To obscure and cover in the darkness of night. The labour camps, Phnom Penh, her family. The things they did or failed to do, the people her adopted parents saved (Mina herself) and their own children, three sons and a girl, un-saveable. All of them – adopted parents, uncles, the four boys, Mina – are lucky. Together they have created a new kind of family, and no greater fortune is really imaginable to her.

A refuge in the circle of light. The tip of a match, needing to burn itself away.

The schoolteacher, Miss Murray, was in her late 30s, a year or two older than Mina's mother. She was one of the Sponsors, though not on the front lines of welcome.

She reminded Mina of someone, but who? Mina watched her in fascination. Miss Murray had wavy dark hair, immense and pretty eyes. She had a soft, melodic voice and she was beautiful.

At the very first Welcome Dinner, the teacher had helped to serve the roast. Mina's mother had exclaimed at the astounding size of the meat, and this appeared to charm the teacher. Miss Murray never left her side. The heavy smell in the kitchen, which clung to Mina's clothes and hair, turned out to be butter browning in a pan.

After supper, Miss Murray volunteered to drive them home; Third Uncle and the boys were taken in other cars. Pulling over in front of the house, she confused Mina’s parents by showing them a photograph. In it, Miss Murray was standing beside a man, a Chinese man, who wore a crisp white shirt and pressed trousers. How glamorous she looked in her miniskirt, blue as the sky, holding the man's hand, full of ardour.

Her mother blinked against the shine of the photo. That all-embracing tropical light, all knowing. No longer accessible to any of them.

“Will you have coffee with me?”

Mina’s father pretended he didn’t understand, but her mother smiled. Snow was gathering on the windshield, specks that covered the glass.

“Tomorrow?” Miss Murray said, hopeful.

Her mother accepted.

Their two hands lay folded together like waves. “And you must call me Vivien. Viv.”

The sound of Miss Murray’s voice made a pleasing ripple in Mina’s ears. In Khmer, there were over a dozen ways of referring to “you” and “I,” the language a complex, ever intimate structure. But wasn’t it possible, Mina thought, to learn all the rules of a language and still mistake the meaning? You. Tomorrow. Viv. I. For instance, tonight the Sponsors had promised that no refugees would ever be sent back, no matter what. But Mina feared errors and the unexpected. No papers in this life were certain, fireproof.

They opened the doors and climbed out. Her parents walked ahead, light-footed, as if carefree.

“Tobacco,” her father said, in English, plucking the word from the night. He turned to smile at her. “Corn,” he stated, as if it were an answer. This was a country, Mina realized, where her new parents had every intention of surviving.

Miss Murray came regularly to the house, always with gifts. A book for Mina, a beautiful dress or trinket for her mother.

The teacher was an endless river of words. She poured them onto the kitchen table, enchanting Mina with stories of Montréal, Hong Kong and London. She was otherworldly. Sometimes she talked late into the night, long after Third Uncle and the boys had gone to bed, and even her mother’s eyes were drooping. At last Miss Murray would stand up and say, “Okay, see you later,” leaving her mother to wonder if she might return momentarily.

The Chinese man, the one in the photograph, had been the son of a Shanghai banker.

Miss Murray had noticed him one night, at a party in Montréal, and sought him out. She’d been a year away from graduation. At the window, pointing in the direction of the Lachine Canal, she’d said, “The river to China. That’s what French explorers thought they’d found, a route to the Middle Kingdom.” And then she’d blushed, feeling like a fool, realizing the banker’s son must have heard this cliché a dozen times. She led him onto the balcony, where others were dancing. They drank to stay warm, and danced some more.

“I was determined to become someone else,” Miss Murray said, as Mina’s mother refilled the coffee. “To take a great risk.” At some point, when they were backed against a corner, the man lay a hand against her neck, moved in to kiss her but then, inexplicably, pulled back.

“And that was it. That movement away. I was hurt. Confused. I fell in love immediately.”

Around her, life was changing. Her friends quoted Sartre, de Beauvoir, Carmichael, Mao. Everyone was organizing. Protests, study groups, solidarity with Beijing and Saigon, solidarity against the old world.

“I didn’t want to read a book or study the Paris Commune,” Miss Murray said. “I wanted to travel and see everything for myself. My father only knew how to work, my brothers and I worked, we dragged ice off the lake, we froze. There I was in Montréal, twenty years old, out of my depth.”

She went to the study groups but felt ill at ease. Her fellow students read the same things, repeated the same phrases. There was so much money at the university. These students would elbow their way past the workers, men like her father who worked the swamplands, the steel furnaces and salt mines. The city people would push to the front, proclaiming their idealism all the while, and take charge. Business as usual. “That’s the world,” Miss Murray said, looking down. “Since the very beginning.”

One night, a few weeks before she graduated, the lovers fought. About envy, love. Something so wounding she can no longer recall it. She was crying but he kept reading a book as if she didn’t exist. He was the son of a rich man, but could you still be rich if the waitress at the restaurant wouldn’t serve you? If putting your arm around somebody made you guilty of something. Miscegenation, that was the word. She wanted to know why he kept the most important things, his desires, to himself. Miss Murray said all this tentatively, yet smoothly, as if the story was about a woman she used to know.

“I had never been so miserable,” she said, looking at Mina’s mother. “And I felt guilty for not being happy.” So many of her girlfriends felt the same. Even in the best conditions, they were let down. Something in the shape of the world was against them. But was that true? What if it was simpler than that?

“We can’t go on like this,” she told her lover. “I don’t know anymore. I don’t know.”

“About the state of the world. Or about me?”

She wanted to hang on to his arm for dear life. It was ridiculous. She tried to laugh. She put down her coat, which she had been clutching in her arms, and looked at him.

He said, “You could work in Hong Kong. In one of the schools. You could see things for yourself. Is that what you want? Nothing is closed to you, if that’s what you really want.”

It was a challenge, presented, she believed, out of love. “Of course that’s what I want,” she said. “I would go tomorrow. I would follow you. You don't have to ask twice.”

“And then I went,” Miss Murray said, putting her coffee cup down. She looked at Mina’s mother with a hopeless, embarrassed expression. “By the time I’d got myself settled in Hong Kong, he was already engaged to someone else. But I stayed there and I think I found my life.”

Mina went with her family to St. Thomas. It was summer, their second in Goderich. Third Uncle called the visit a reunion even though they had never met these Cambodian and Laotian and Vietnamese refugees before. Still, Mina thought, the word fit. They felt reunited.

Over lunch, a grandfather told the story of a local woman who traveled to China in 1977. In Beijing, people had stopped to touch her hair, it was bright red, a stunning red, and they were astounded by it. This young woman had longed to see China ever since she was a little girl, who knew why. She brought home treasures and trinkets. Jade and lacquer, art and silk. And then, just a few days go, back home in St. Thomas, her car went off the road. She died, in an instant, at the age of 34, leaving a daughter.

Mina felt a rush of feeling, of familiarity. A room full of items collected from elsewhere, the owner disappeared.

The conversation broke up. She floated on the voices, drifted through pieces of Khmer and French. “Every Sunday, down in Newmarket …” “My niece in Thailand sent word through a friend in Montréal. Saved.” “He ran away, terrified, from his Sponsors, turned up at the ESL school in Exeter. He was from Phonsavan …” A shrine in the corner held oranges, burned down incense, and food to offer the dead.

“Running all the way across the country …” “Next Saturday, we’ll go up to Toronto to buy supplies …” “Pol Pot, the whole group. Educated in Paris, every single one.” The last speaker was thin, his whole body folded up like a bird. He’d once been an engineer in Phnom Penh. “Kissinger, all the governments, they feel no shame and yet we do. And why? For living.” A tea cup shook in his hand, but he carried on. “Leftists in America and France call us liars. They say Pol Pot was a good revolutionary, that two million never died, that the Khmer Rouge are on the right side of history.”

The room seemed to tilt and fade, sliding away from Mina.

The man continued, without rancour, with a painful lightness in his voice, “Did we refugees make up our loved ones? I confess I must have imagined my children. I made up my own parents. So that I could come here, to the cold, without them.”

Mina closed her eyes to stop the room from spinning.

Had Miss Murray fallen in love with someone? Was that the reason she couldn’t stay away?

Mina had a joyful sensation of touching shore. A rushing in her ears.

It was Third Uncle, of course. He was handsome, worldly and attentive.

Years later, she would wonder what made her so certain. In fact, the truth had been plain to see from the very beginning.

Miss Murray’s attachment brought the family luck. She gave them an old Ford. She took Mina’s father for driving lessons across the railway tracks and into the surrounding land where things like sugar beets and tobacco lay in wait. She arranged piano lessons for Mina. Access to Miss Murray's personal library. A meal in a restaurant every Sunday. There were so many appetites to be met, so many needs for Miss Murray to fulfill. Would meeting these needs return something to her, something she didn’t know she desired?

“You’re a daughter to me, Mina,” Miss Murray once said. “You’re everything. My family.”

In the spare hours between other jobs, her father and uncles pick apples, cherries, peaches, take shifts at the salt mine, in food packing, in construction. When the boys are bullied and return home bleeding, the uncles lose their tempers. Miss Murray or one of the other Sponsors are called to help. The anger of the uncles is full of contradictions. Fight! they tell the boys. Grow up! Be proud! Disappear. Don’t shame us. Don’t be ashamed. Work hard. Flee.

For two years now, Mina has been top of the class. She is Miss Murray’s star pupil. She translates everything for the family, and for other refugees, too, who come into Goderich or London for medical visits or social services.

She reads with increasing desperation, like a ritual to stop time from flowing backwards. She has to think of so many things at once – Champlain and the Indians and the salt deep in the earth, but as well as the salt the money, the money-making intent brewing forever in heads like Jarvis Poulter’s. Also the brutal storms of winter and the clumsy and benighted deeds on Pearl Street. The changes of climate are often violent, and if you think about it there is no peace even in the stars.

Even in the stars, Mina repeats. She gets caught on the word “clumsy” and stuck, again, on the word “benighted.” Miss Murray told her that “meneseteung” is a Chippewa word, meaning “laughing water.” The river teasing and cracking over the rocks.

There are two languages inside her. One, English, clothes her. The other, Khmer, is her mother, father, water, rocks, sky and family, it is alive and completely beyond her reach.

She tells her father she wants to be born one last time, free of words, whole and complete.

He touches her forehead, worried she has a fever.

Slowly, and with determination, she will forget Khmer words.

It's okay, Miss Murray says, to forget a little.

Mina refuses tears.

You mustn’t be afraid, Miss Murray says, to grieve.

There had been American women in Phnom Penh, Mina remembered. They had come to observe the war. She had glimpsed them at cafe tables, dressed in khaki slacks and ivory blouses, a rush of fluttering scarves, small notebooks, and clicking ballpoint pens. When the Americans evacuated, they had all disappeared, as if slipping through a window they had kept hidden all that time.

She has an image in her head. Miss Murray is sitting on the shore of Lake Huron, The Moons of Jupiter in her hands. Mina is walking around her, three times, clockwise. It is a strange, almost mirthful dream. Mina is calling out, hoping her teacher will hear her, she calls for a long time, until her own call bewilders her. She confuses it for the response she is waiting for.

“I love you,” Miss Murray says, one evening, when Mina is so unhappy she cannot lift her head. “Won’t you talk to me, Mina? Won’t you let someone, anyone, help you?”

It is summer. At midnight, they park at the edge of the cemetery. Mina has been sick for weeks, an aching stomach and the same nightmares, and her parents are afraid to leave her alone in the house. She stays in the Ford, two doors flung open.

Her parents, Third Uncle, and the boys unload cans and bags and headlamps. Together they move towards the tombstones, winged angels, and solid plaques, their lights playing across the grass. They spread out across the cemetery.

Beloved. Sometimes, on the graves, the year of death is not yet written.

Her family works in the cemetery until morning, as late as 5 a.m. They tie the cans to their ankles, leaving their hands free to work. Step by step, the cans grow full and heavy. The boys are laughing, bragging to each other about the size of the worms they have dug up. The buyers can never get enough. Every thousand worms brings in as much as thirty dollars; with everyone working together, all spring and summer, they make a stunning fortune. Here and elsewhere in the province, the refugees have permits to dig for worms in the cemeteries, golf courses and public parks.

The lights make a confused pattern across the grounds.

Third Uncle stays nearby, and in her fatigue, Mina forgets herself and feels as if she moving along with his headlamp, that she is immaterial and made of light. Her uncle grew up in Battambang, and became a filmmaker. The Khmer Rouge sent him east, after the purges. He cut trees, planted rice, tended water buffalo, and even lived for a time in the caves. They made him fight when the Vietnamese invaded, but he ran away, back home, to find his wife and children. Even with the Pol Pot years over, and even though he waited months, no one returned to find him. He made his way to Thailand and the refugee camps, and along the way, adopted two of the boys. They walked, miraculously, across the fields of landmines. Survival takes all kinds of ingenuity.

Mina’s original father was an architect. Ma had been a teacher. They had endless ingenuity but no miracles.

The night smells good. Her parents pass close to the car and she can hear them murmuring in Khmer, small witticisms, irreverent remarks.

Her father keeps cellophane-wrapped caramels in the glove compartment. Mina climbs into the front seat, clicks it open, dips her hand inside. What she feels is the slippery gloss of a photograph. At first she is confused but then, for a moment, the world is bright, full of heat. Miss Murray in her sky blue miniskirt, standing beside the nameless Chinese lover. Miss Murray and her great passion.

When she turns it over, there is a line written in Khmer in blue ink. Whose handwriting? Mina can read it all without trying. It is her adopted father’s handwriting. The line, set down calmly, brutally, says, None of this is true.

The youngest boy materializes at her side, the empty canisters still tied to his ankles. He says, “Hey, sis.”

She drops the photograph back into the glove compartment. Closes it soundlessly.

He says he has picked two thousand worms at least. “I’m tired of digging potatoes,” he tells her.

The four boys do that, they call the worms potatoes. They call all sorts of things by other names. Sometimes he calls her Sothea instead of Mina, he forgets, or he believes the names are interchangeable. In the refugee camp, she used to correct him, but she doesn't anymore.

They put the cans away, and she sweeps all the earth from him before she lets him climb inside.

“Do you still feel bad?” he asks.

“In my head,” she answers.

“You shouldn’t think so much,” he says in Khmer. He is repeating someone else’s words. Third Uncle? Her mother? Or his own lost older sister.

“What should I do then?” she asks, because she loves him.

He thinks it over. “Run in the grass,” he concludes. “Swim in the lake. Forget the newspapers. Eat candy.”

They eat caramels and soon he is fast asleep, arms flung out.

None. True.

Later, Mina sits with bare feet outside, in the grass, the empty cellophane wrappers glowing in her lap. The graves strike her as remarkable, even innocent. The idea that the dead have a separate parcel of land, that you can know exactly where to find them, somehow the idea makes her first sad, and then angry.

She can still see the photograph, as if it’s stuck to her hands. Has Miss Murray stolen something away from them?

I want to go home, she thinks.

Miss Murray promised to take them to the Meneseteung Bridge, to the laughing water, but Mina is no longer sure she will. Her parents don’t want to return to Cambodia. Her father rushes out to shovel the snow, sometimes he shovels the whole block.

Mina remembers seeing a mortar coming towards her. Such a small object, but quickly growing. The Pol Pot years were ending, they were almost through. She had clung to her mother’s hand as they tried to escape. Ma’s long hair, her exhausted, watchful eyes. If only Mina’s own two feet, running, could have saved her.

She begins to notice things. The beautiful gifts Miss Murray has given them, all wrapped up and put away, and never used. Her mother rarely mentions Miss Murray’s name. One day, she overhears her father saying, “I don’t know what to say to her.”

Her mother’s voice is impatient. “She cares for Mina. And she can help. People mistake things for love all the time.”

She dreams Miss Murray tells her mother, “The Meneseteung Bridge. It swings and swings as if it wants to throw you over.”

Another time, Miss Murray is berating her mother, “You don’t understand. Why can’t you understand?”

Nothing adds up. It’s as if they are each a dozen people, with a hundred names, living in a world of paper.

One afternoon, when she is sitting in Miss Murray’s study, going over an essay, her teacher says, unexpectedly, “You’re free. Your life is your own. You must feel lucky to be here. To have choices as a young woman.”

Mina wants to shield her eyes, as one does on those bright winter days when the snow is blinding. How strange the word: lucky. A tree about to fall.

She admits to being lucky, as she knows Miss Murray hopes she will.

That night, she asks her mother, “Do you think I’m lucky?”

Her mother looks up from her sewing, confounded. If she was a different person, if she had been born here, she might take Mina in her arms. She might say, “Of course.” But she has survived to be another kind of person, more careful with emotion. She says, “Why does it matter?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re here,” her mother says, turning back to her needlework.

Mina leans against her mother, something curved against a wall.

At last her mother says, “You can’t save them, Mina. They’re gone, and they wanted you to live. So live.”

Years later, long after Mina has graduated with her PhD, she returns to Goderich for a visit. She sees Miss Murray at the bank, in a long blue dress, her dark hair shining, waiting in line for the teller. Miss Murray is with a friend. Even from where Mina stands, on the other side of the room, at an angle, she recognizes the former teacher right away. The ardour, the excess of passion, the way she clutches a woman’s hand, their hands folded together like waves.

The friend, beautiful, appears to be in her 60s. She wears khaki slacks and a soft blouse. A green scarf falls from her neck.

Mina stares. She has not seen Miss Murray in over a decade. She feels a rush of noise, an anger she has tried so hard to remove. She wants to rush up to Miss Murray, to ask her why she disappeared, so completely, from their lives. But it isn’t Miss Murray who wounds her. Mina is no longer a child. Other questions are on her mind, questions that no one will answer. She feels, for reasons that she can’t express, betrayed. All those boats lost on the sea, again and again, the proper rites still impossible, the mourning never done. Something goes on in the background, like white noise. You could hear all about it on the radio, if you cared to.

And then the bank, the fluorescent lights, the sound of voices, sharpens. Miss Murray turns to her friend and kisses her. Gently, faithfully. She hides her face in the woman’s hair and breathes.

Mina watches. She can hardly make sense of it. Had she really been mistaken all this time? She had studied all the evidence and still misread everything. None of this is true. Mina turns to leave. The bell on the door has a watery sound. Outside, the air smells of snow and ice, so reassuringly familiar. She breathes and waits for the rush of noise to subside, for her heart to stop pounding, to become herself again.

She is in the Square, and the boulevard is crowded, festive. It is a Saturday. She sees, or remembers, a father and daughter going by, hand in hand, bearing flowers, eating ice cream.

It is not fair, not possible, to compare the luck – of Ma, of Mina, of her mother, of Miss Murray – and the lives of all these women, because the word luck can never mean the same thing to all of them. Mina sometimes wakes in the dark, convinced she has finally caught hold of Ma’s hand. That long ago car ride to Goderich was meant to draw a line between then and now, but lines wrap around you. When her father wrote None of this is true, was he referring to themselves, Miss Murray, or some shared haven of theirs, because they had arrived here and tried to flourish, no matter what they had to pare away. If Mina cannot accept her luck, cannot live with the weight of it, must she do without?

The sun is fierce. She re-enters the bank and stands in line once more.

Miss Murray turns at the jingling of the bell. “Mina,” she says, rushing towards her. “How lovely you look! Come and meet my friend. Come and say hello. How is your mother, your father? Darling, Mina. Here you are at last.”

The tip of a match, burning as long as it can.

The book in her pocket that day keeps her afloat. It reads: They will be driven to find things out, even trivial things. They will put things together. You see them going around with notebooks, scraping the dirt off gravestones, reading microfilm, just in the hope of seeing this trickle in time, making a connection, rescuing one thing from the rubbish. And they may get it wrong, after all. I may have got it wrong. The problem was just the opposite of what she had expected. It was not that people had moved away and buildings were gone and had left no trace.

Yes, Mina will think, hearing the four boys, her parents and Third Uncle in the other room. It is just the opposite: people had arrived, people had left traces. I may have got it wrong. Miss Murray tried to love them, she had tried to become herself. She was the kind of woman the writer had observed, decade after decade, never quite knowing what would make her free. Had Miss Murray gone to London, Hong Kong, had she fallen in love with someone else entirely? Had this love been returned? Mina keeps the photograph tucked into the pages of The Moons of Jupiter. Here it is now, on her desk. Grief, but also these tangled, unreadable lines. Mina has been holding them tightly in her hand.

She is still trying to understand, has been trying ever since the moment the world fell apart. The softness of the blue sweater, the house gone to rookery, the Sponsors like Miss Murray who either disappeared from their lives, or the ones who became her beloved friends, her extended family. The boys coming home, bleeding, from fights. Day after day in the library. The smell of freshly mown grass in the cemetery. Cutting loose from life, again and again, in order to live.

Where do you come from, people often ask. Where do your parents come from?

She wants to say, Alice Munro Country.

One day she will say it. She will speak the words and leave them wondering.

Author’s Note: In 1980, a Cambodian family became the last of 60,000 Southeast Asian refugees, displaced by war and genocide, to arrive in Canada as part of the Trudeau government's two-year refugee resettlement program. The family was resettled in Goderich, a small town on Lake Huron, in a region often referred to as Alice Munro Country.

Madeleine Thien is the author of the short-story collection Simple Recipes and the novels Certainty, Dogs at the Perimeter and Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which won the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She lives in Montréal.

CREDITS: Illustrations by KA YOUNG LEE; Design and development by DANIELLE WEBB; Art direction by MING WONG