Karin Tidbeck’s “The Memory Theater” is this month’s Ballerina Book Club pick. The following excerpt is drawn from the very beginning of the book, when we meet our protagonists, Dora and Thistle. The scene is a party, during which the lords and ladies revel while the young servants tend to evening’s proceedings.
Enjoy the read and be sure to follow along here for updates.
Excerpt from “The Memory Theater” by Karin Tidbeck
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.
Excerpted from “The Memory Theater” by Karin Tidbeck. Copyright © 2021 by Karin Tidbeck. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Top Image: "The Memory Theater" by Karin Tidbeck.