In a world just parallel to ours exists a mystical realm known only as the Gardens. It’s a place where feasts never end, games of croquet have devastating consequences, and teenagers are punished for growing up…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Karin Tidbeck’s engrossing new novel The Memory Theater—publishing February 16th with Pantheon.
In a world just parallel to ours exists a mystical realm known only as the Gardens. It’s a place where feasts never end, games of croquet have devastating consequences, and teenagers are punished for growing up. For a select group of Masters, it’s a decadent paradise where time stands still. But for those who serve them, it’s a slow torture where their lives can be ended in a blink.
In a bid to escape before their youth betrays them, Dora and Thistle–best friends and confidants–set out on a remarkable journey through time and space. Traveling between their world and ours, they hunt for the one person who can grant them freedom. Along the way, they encounter a mysterious traveler who trades in favors and never forgets debts, a crossroads at the center of the universe, our own world on the brink of war, and a traveling troupe of actors with the ability to unlock the fabric of reality.
Dora and Thistle spent the party hiding under a side table. The lords and ladies twirled between the marble statues on the dance floor, heels clattering on the cracked cobblestones to a rhythm that slid back and forth in uneven and hypnotic syncopation. One-two-three-four-five, one-two-three-four-five-six. Satin skirts brushed against brocade coats; playful eyes glittered in powdered faces. Lady Mnemosyne, resplendent in her laurel wreath and leafy dress, watched from her throne. It was like any other feast in this place, in eternal twilight, under a summer sky. At the edge of the dance floor, servants waited by buffet tables laden with cornucopias and drink.
Thistle sighed. “You’ve got grass all over your front.”
Dora blinked and peered down at her pinafore. It did have grass on it. The dress itself smelled sour and sat too tight over her chest and upper back, and the edges of the veil around her shoulders were frayed. She was not at all as clean and neat as Thistle, who sat with the coattails of his celadon livery neatly folded in his lap. His lips and cheeks were rouged, his hazel eyes rimmed with black, his cropped auburn curls slicked against his skull.
Dora reached out and rubbed the collar of Thistle’s coat between her fingers. The velvet felt like mouse fur. Thistle gently pried her hand off.
“You need to be more careful,” he said.
A loud crash made them jump, and Dora lifted the tablecloth to peek outside. One of the ladies had upended a buffet table and sprawled in the ruins of a cornucopia. She laughed and smeared fruit over her skirts. Thistle took Dora’s free hand and began to clean her nails with a small rosewood stick.
Heels clicked over the stones. A hoarse voice called out: “Servants! Servants!”
It was Lady Augusta, Thistle’s mistress. Dora dropped the tablecloth. Thistle quickly veiled Dora’s face and crawled away to find his lady. A shock of lily of the valley perfume stung Dora’s nose, and she tried to stifle a sneeze. There was a rustle and Thistle returned and settled down next to her. He folded the veil back again.
“It’s nothing. Nothing you have to worry about. Here, dry your nose.”
Thistle smiled at Dora and gave her a handkerchief. His face was pale under the rouge. He continued Dora’s manicure, and she gnawed on the cuticles of her other hand. Somewhere above them, Lady Mnemosyne’s voice boomed in the air: “Drink to eternal beauty, my friends! Revel in our glory. Now dance and kiss and be joyful!”
Dora let the noise of applause and shouts wash over her and relaxed into the good little pain of Thistle digging for dirt under her nails.
When she opened her eyes again, it was quiet.
“They’ve gone to sleep,” Thistle said. “We can go.”
They crawled out from under the table and picked their way across cobblestones littered with cups and crystal shards.
Thistle led Dora in an arc around the debris to where the dance floor ended and the path through the birch grove began. The black soil swallowed the sound of their footsteps, and Thistle let out a long breath. Dora took his hand as they walked between the trees in silence.
In the middle of the grove, Porla was asleep in her pool. She floated just under the surface, blond hair waving in the water like seaweed. Her greenish face looked innocent: you’d never know that her teeth were sharp and she kept the body of a dead servant under the roots of a tree that grew next to the water. She had been a lady; then she dived into the water and never left. She had tried to lure Dora and Thistle in for “tea” more than once. They gave the pool a wide berth.
A breeze wafted into the grove, thick with the smell of apples. Dora and Thistle stepped out from between the birch trees and into the orchard under the big ultramarine bowl of sky. The air bit into Dora’s lungs.
The orchard’s gnarled apple trees were planted in neat rows. You could stand in any spot and stretch out your arms and pre-tend that the trees streamed from your fingertips. The branches hung heavy with fruit: every other tree carried big red apples, and the rest juicy-looking green ones. Dora had compared most of the trees. They all looked the same, down to the smallest twig and fruit. The apples tasted the same, too: hard and tongue-shriveling sour for the green, mealy and sweet for the red. Dora sniffed an apple on the nearest tree, then bit into it. It smelled better than it tasted. Her feet made a swishing noise in the damp grass. Next to her, Thistle was quiet. She glanced at him. His steps were so light; he moved like a wading bird, like the lords and ladies. He looked so frail next to her, little stolen boy. Dora should be minding him instead of the other way around. She didn’t say this out loud, just stopped and held him close.
“What are you doing?” Thistle mumbled against her shoulder.
He had stopped speaking in the boy voice now that they were alone. Male servants with low voices were doomed. The lords and ladies hadn’t noticed because Thistle was short and good at shaving.
“You’re so small.”
He chuckled. “I can’t breathe.”
Dora let go again. Thistle looked up at her and smiled. The paint around his eyes was smudged.
“Come on, sister.” He took her hand.
At the edge of the orchard, the conservatory’s great cupola loomed against the wall of forest that surrounded the Gardens. It was the biggest structure in the realm, a complicated wooden lattice inlaid with glass panes that reflected the hues in the evening sky. In the conservatory, little orange trees stood in a circle around three divans, lit by flickering wax candles. Here rested the enormous Aunts, attended by their Nieces. The Aunts ate and ate until they could grow no bigger. Then they died, and their Nieces cut them open to reveal a new little Aunt nestled around the old Aunt’s heart. The old body was taken away to make food for the new little Aunt, who grew and grew, until she was done and the cycle repeated itself.
The lords and ladies didn’t come here. Neither did the other servants, who said that the Aunts were too strange. Whenever their masters slept, as they did between parties, this was a good place for Dora and Thistle to sit in peace. One of the apple trees grew close to the dome’s side, and that was where Dora had made a secret place: a little nest made of discarded pillows and blankets in the hollow between the tree and the wall.
Thistle sat down and leaned back against the tree trunk. Dora lay down next to him and rested her head in his lap. She took one of his hands and slid her fingers up inside his sleeve where the skin was warm. The ornate scars on his skin felt silky under her fingertips. Thistle flinched a little, then relaxed again.
“I saw something,” he said. “When Lady Augusta called for me.”
“Oh.” After a moment, Dora realized she should probably ask, “What did you see?”
Thistle shook his head. “I’m not sure.”
Dora waited. Thistle took so long that when he spoke again, she had stopped listening and had to ask him to repeat himself.
“My mistress looked at me and said, ‘How are you alive?’.” Thistle said.
His hand gripped Dora’s hair so hard it hurt.
“Ow,” Dora said.
Thistle didn’t seem to notice.
“She’s going to do something to me,” he said. “Or she thinks she’s done something. She might try it again.”
The lords and ladies didn’t move through time like others did. They lived through the same evening, over and over again. They rose from their beds, threw a party or organized a game, and reveled through the twilight until they fell asleep. Then they awoke from their stupor, and the party began anew. Their minds worked in loops; they would forget what they had done and remember things they hadn’t done yet.
Their servants, however, were children who had wandered into the surrounding forest from the outside, lured in by fairy lights and the noise of revels. The lords and ladies stole the children’s names, marking and binding each child to its new master, taking all but the faintest memories of their former lives away. But the children weren’t touched by the same ageless magic that surrounded their masters. They grew up, and the patterns that were carved into them became complete. When that happened, they were killed for sport and eaten.
“If I just had my true name back,” Thistle said, “I would be free from Augusta. We could run away from here before anything happens. And with my name I would remember where I came from and find a way back to my parents. You could live with us.”
“You’ve looked for your name everywhere,” Dora said. “You said it’s not written down, it’s not caught in a jar, it isn’t embroidered on a handkerchief.”
Thistle hung his head.
Dora pried Thistle’s fingers loose from where they were stroking her hair. “I won’t let her hurt you. Now tell my story.”
Thistle let out a shaky laugh. “How many times do you need to hear it?”
Dora smiled. “I like hearing it.”
“All right,” Thistle said. “Once upon a time there was a lonely lord called Walpurgis. He was rich and beautiful and comfortable, but he wanted a child. In this land, however, no one had children, for they had become timeless and forgotten how to make them.
“ ‘Oh, how I wish I had a child of my own,’ Lord Walpurgis would say, and put his head in his hands. ‘Someone who was part of me.’
“So it came to pass that a visitor arrived, a traveler who called herself Ghorbi, and she came from far away.
“Walpurgis sought her out, and said, ‘My good woman, will you help me? For I would like a child of my own.’
“ ‘I will help you,’ Ghorbi replied, ‘but you must know this: if you mistreat her, she will not be yours.’
“Still, Walpurgis insisted, and he paid Ghorbi in precious stones. She took a bottle of his seed and went away. Then she returned, and she wasn’t alone.
“ ‘Walpurgis, I have your daughter,’ Ghorbi said. ‘This is Dora.’
“She stepped aside, and lo! There was a girl. She was as tall as Walpurgis, her shoulders broad and strong, her eyes dark as the earth, and her hair like white feathers.
“ ‘Father,’ said the girl, and her voice was like the blackbird’s song.
“ ‘She was grown from your seed in the earth,’ Ghorbi said. ‘She is half of the mountain, and half of you.’
“But Walpurgis hesitated. ‘I thank you for this gift,’ he said. ‘But this creature is too precious. I am not worthy.’
“ ‘A bargain’s a bargain,’ Ghorbi replied. ‘I have delivered what you asked for.’
“And then she was gone.
“Walpurgis had a good heart, but even though he tried, he couldn’t take care of Dora. He was simply not very good at being a parent, since he couldn’t recall ever being a child. The court was angry with him and demoted him to chamberlain, for they had all sworn not to bear children of their own.
“Walpurgis found a friend for Dora, a boy called Thistle, who was a page to the lady Augusta.
“The lords and ladies said, ‘You can take care of her better than we. Let her be veiled, lest we are reminded of our failure.’
“Thistle was happy to care for Dora. They loved each other like brother and sister.”
Dora closed her eyes. Her favorite part was coming.
“Finally, after being a terrible father, Walpurgis began to understand,” Thistle continued. “He finally understood what love was, and that he must take care of Dora. And so he took her back, and he saw how well Thistle had cared for her. And he promised to love her and asked her forgiveness for his neglect.”
“Really?” Dora asked.
Thistle stroked her hair. “Really.”
Far away, someone blew a whistle. Thistle carefully lifted Dora’s head and stood up.
“There’s a croquet game,” he said. “I have to go.”
Dora watched him walk out into the orchard, then followed at a distance.
Excerpted from The Memory Theater, copyright © 2021 by Karin Tidbeck.