When I am summoned to the king’s palace for the final time, the city seems on the verge of bursting, like a tick overfull with blood. Despite all of the king’s counselors’ efforts, it has continued to grow without bound.
As I walk through the city, stray dormer windows bloom from the cobblestones; bulbous tumors of brick protrude from tower walls; a clerestory rises from the middle of a fountain that throws droplets of water, golden with sunlight, across the square. Each week I take this path and mark the new chaotic architecture—the stele and spires sprouting from the earth; old columns that reach a little closer to the sun; small brass door knockers that bud from the stones like mushroom rings. These things grow the way trees, and love, and cancer do: too slow to see but constant.
Even my own home has suffered: new fireplaces open in the walls like long-hidden mouths. The building itself has nearly been swallowed by a fish market. Each time I step through my front door, I am greeted by the glassy eyes of giant tuna dangling from the rafters, the ring of cleaver against bone along tables that span what was my front garden.
I have wondered these past two years which of us would meet our end first—myself or the city. Though I still hope that the houses of ghoulish aristocrats and the palace walls will grow so high that they collapse upon themselves, I know that I will go first. Tomorrow, or the day after, I will die. My blood will be drained by a series of plungers and needles, drawn into vats suspended above me so that I can, while still briefly able, watch life leave, milliliter by milliliter. I have outlived my usefulness to the kingdom as a mnemosyne. No one tells me this, but it is clear in the mirrored halls of my memory. The tense bodies of palace messengers, the terseness of the summonses, the way the king’s counselor could not meet my eye. The more frequent blood-taking. I have seen all this before—some version of me, some version of this.
Despite it all, I enjoy my walk through the city. Made unrecognizable, its kaleidoscope familiarity nearly vanishes. Other people’s memories come to mind one by one rather than in their usual onslaught. Tiny glimpses of the history hidden inside me.
I see a corner where young lovers bathed in golden light shared a shwarma; a patch of road that once held the body of someone’s brother mangled beyond recognition; a sign for shoe repair, beneath which a woman waited on a long winter’s night for her lover to return from work. There is so much comfort in these mundanities; these quiet moments of personhood, of life. Gentler than the memories of generals, surgeons, and kings that I must so often consume and keep.
When I first explained this pleasure to Arras in our interstices at the Rain Dog, she didn’t understand the warmth I felt. “That isn’t you,” she said. “Those moments aren’t yours. You have no history attached to them.”
“On the contrary,” I said. “My only history is attached to them. They live within me. They change, and change me.” Arras looked away, wiped a spot of a lamplighter’s blood off the dark table. “What else is there?”
As I arrive at the palace, I pass five men with sledgehammers and saws taking apart a wall. An antechamber has grown from the garden archway since I was last here. Through the ornate windows I can see its furniture, oaken and plush red; its paneled walls hung with portraits of horses and ships. It blocks entrance to the garden, but even if it fit seamlessly into the existing architecture, the king’s men would destroy it. They believe if they cut the city back, it will stop; if they burn its new chambers, frames, and furniture to heat the baths of the king’s harem, if they shred its upholstery to confetti and toss it from the city walls, they believe they can ward away new growth.
The guards are visibly nervous even before I flash my black mnemosyne’s vial, which hangs from my neck like a locket. Do they, too, know the date of my exsanguination? Or is it fear for themselves in the city’s slow swallowing? One hears stories of men who stand still at their watch until stones grow to cover their feet, fating them to be severed at the ankles and consigned to a life of footless parade, praying the city might spare the rest of their bones.
Or perhaps they’re only scared of me. Afraid of the things I may know of them.
With no desire to reassure, I smile at the air between them. I climb the tower and find the king’s counselor in his chamber. He does not look from the window as I enter.
His clothes are loose and faded, the brassy epaulets gone dim. His beard grows brambly, unruly as the city he stares at. On the windowsill waits a blood-filled jar; his hand hangs near, stiff and twitching, as if he might push it out the window and into the world. Of course he won’t. I have in memory the sight of a thousand such jars—a constellation of ruby light—and such a thing has never happened.
“You made it,” he says, his mouth thin. Still he faces the window, the city. Far below, citizens build a ramp to cross an alley whose ordinary passage is blocked by brick walls and balustrades. From this vantage I can see the stairways and roads that corkscrew from the earth and terminate in dead air, twitching at their ends as they continue to grow. To my right hangs a mirror, and I avoid it; the sight of my own face confuses me.
“I’m blessed and honored to live near the palace, my lord. The city did not much block my way.”
The counselor turns to me. His eyes red and rheumy and aimed at my feet, his hands trembling where they hang.
“Themis,” he says.
All mnemosynes are called Themis. Nameless in our small plurality. I have not seen another in my lifetime; I only hold the memories of many—passed down the world’s long chain of history and blood.
I wait for him to say more. His hand strays to his belt, where there normally hangs a sword, searching for reassurance and finding none. “My lord?” I say.
He sighs and turns again to the window. Whatever hope or prophecy he might have authored, deflated. “The king grows worried.”
If he is only now worried, he is a bigger fool than I’d imagined. This is the third time I have been summoned for answers since the city began its growth. But because I have not assuaged the king’s fears, my blood—my memories—will be redistributed to other mnemosynes in hopes of revealing solutions. The king will not wait to see if whatever I offer on this occasion succeeds; there is no value in a mnemosyne themself.
“What can I do, my lord?”
“We tried the ropes. You likely saw.” I hadn’t, though I’d heard the soldiers’ application of them from my chambers, their calls and grunts as they strained daily against a building’s growth and motion. I had suggested, as Aethelbert the Second had supposedly done to his city of trees, that they pull the growing buildings outward, trestle them so they would not collide with each other. “It was a fine idea, Themis, but it didn’t work.”
“Apologies, my lord.” I had known that it wouldn’t.
“So,” says the counselor, shifting from foot to foot. “What else do you have for us?”
Nothing in memory could solve this. If anything can change the city’s state, it will be by chance alone. But such is my task, such is my lot for the remainder of this life. And so, grasping for even a plausible lie, I search the depths of memory.
Some time long ago it was decided we would keep our histories in people, not books. A living, breathing archive, one scholar claimed. A record you can ask questions of.
Thus began the mnemosynes.
By consuming blood treated with some obscure alchemy, we take on, in their entirety, the memories of generals, scientists, poets, doctors—any citizen marked great by the king’s council. We double the amount of knowing in the world. Their minds combine within us, and, when there is some catastrophe or upset, we synthesize new solutions; unveil the wisdom of older worlds.
There are, however, some flaws with this plan.
The first is that our recall is no better than a layperson’s. We are chosen to be adept at recognizing patterns and recovering details. But we are not libraries. We are not like circus performers who can, for drink or coin, recite from memory every rhyme of Erato’s great tragedies. Our memories are as prone to flaw as anyone’s.
Two, we are only as good as what we are given. The past buried deep within a subconscious is no less lost to us than it is to its giver. We cannot tell a general the forgotten name of his childhood friend, cannot sing to a dying poet the words of a lost lullaby. We have only the memories, not the things themselves.
(Whether or not the third flaw is indeed a flaw is a topic of some debate. Perhaps it is best thought of like a flaw in a gemstone: not a defect but a buried place where light catches.)
The third flaw is the question of self.
Somewhere within me must be memories I could call my own. But how am I to extricate them from the cacophony of other voices, other visions? Layered over the person I once was are a hundred thousand half-remembered dreams, stories, glories, losses. All the information passed into me when I took this role, when I was given the blood of another mnemosyne and that of countless more since. All the pieces that will be passed on again when I am dead; the secret history of my life stowed away in my blood’s enormous cargo.
There are, though, commonalities across mnemosynes’ memories by which I’m better able to understand my own history. Dark cells. Courtrooms full of dusty light pouring through small, high windows. Anxieties that food will vanish suddenly. Fear of freezing to death. The ten or so days after first being blooded, when our bodies are fire and ice and grass and thorn and no one can say if we will live or die. The ceremonial hanging of a black vial from our necks—like a medal, like a noose.
I do not linger in these worlds.
For though there is some revelation in their past, so too is there revelation in the image of a crystal-still pond broken by a diving child, droplets gemming his hair as he rises; in a desert wide as time where I watch heat lightning obscure the stars in fits as I take a lover’s hand in my own. These memories are as much a part of me as the past I have lived and far, far less painful.
“But don’t you want to know?” Arras asked once. “Can’t you find yourself in there somewhere?”
“And what would I do once I did?” My hand made a fist and relaxed in time with the beat of my heart. “Find my old house? Some person I once loved? Who would I be to them, and they to me?” The adrenal cold of new memories still seethed through me, a baker’s: recipes for bread and lamination methods for pastry. The truth is, of course I would like to know. But I have seen enough of history to understand that knowing would do no good.
One memory, however, haunts me above all others. In it, I am a woman dressed in black chiffon, a cloth mask dangling from one hand. In the doorway between bedroom and hall stands another woman, hair long and dark, face covered by a fox-shaped half-mask. Somewhere a cork pops—cheers, a volley of small jokes. Friends in the other room, who I do not want to come back, not yet. The woman smiles. Her eyes shine through her mask. A desperate happiness, a secret of some kind. I take her hand with my free fingers and lean in. Her lips are on mine for only a breath.
In that moment, in whatever lost world this happened, I know that joy is possible—the sort of joy that erases, however briefly, the chaos of life. I feel like a dead butterfly resurrected and unpinned. Her lips are on mine and there is no world and it is possible that miracles are real.
And then it’s done, and we part. She laughs and I smile, and we wait a moment, and then we join the others.
The counselor stands waiting, clears his throat. I must come up with something, or I will not leave the palace alive today. Will not get even the scant hours left to me; will not see Arras or take blood in the back of the Rain Dog. Were it not for these things, I might give myself up now.
In the recesses of memory I see hints of other intractable problems, unsolved by mnemosynes past: monsters with no weaknesses, unwinnable wars, economic collapse with no remedy save revolution. My predecessors, handled like blown glass until they weren’t. Pitied, then scorned, then bled dry. All I can do is hope that, in those who take my memories, some of my small joys endure.
I know the only way to save the city is to leave it. To spread its citizens across open lands to the north and east, to join with the rural clans as farmers and weavers and tanners. Only thus would its people survive and the city endure in their memories. Their songs and stories and foods would carry on its life.
But this will never happen. The future is clear: those who can afford to flee the city will do so, taking with them what few servants or secret slaves they can. The rest will be left to suffer beneath the slow municipal crush; the swell of walls and cobblestones. Nothing so large can last.
Even what memories of mine live on will not be enough to preserve this world—the smells of blackened fish, lanterns swaying in the breeze. All will vanish with time.
The floor groans beneath us as some new balcony or balustrade presses out of the tower wall. The counselor’s face goes green.
“In the king’s garden,” I say, “when errant seeds and spores invade the soil, how are they removed?”
“They’re cut free. The roots dug out and thrown to pigs.”
“And if the roots aren’t removed?”
“The weeds return.”
I nod with false sagacity. Another common error: belief mnemosymes cannot lie.
“So too do the buildings continue to grow because their roots reach deep. In the time of Pemnos the Bowed, mountains grew and threatened to obscure the sun. His soldiers mined deep caverns beneath and ripped free the veins of minerals that laced the earth. The mountains withered, and died, and created the southern plains.”
The counselor stares; nods in return. He no doubt heard some version of this legend in boyhood and forgot all but its merest scaffolding. It is rubbish.
“The king’s magisters must find a way to lift the buildings free of the earth. Have each soldier dig a pit no less than four meters deep, fill the pits with salt, and replace the buildings. They will die as flowers do, but you may still live within them.”
“Thank you, Themis.” The counselor pulls from his pocket a gold coin. I can tell he considers not giving it to me—what use has a dead mnemosyne for coin? He thinks of saying something and then thinks better. “Thank you,” he repeats, and drops the coin into my palm from a safe height.
“A duty and a pleasure, my lord.” I point to the jar of blood that gleams still on the windowsill. “I expect that’s not for decoration?”
“What? Oh, a joke. Yes. No.” The counselor squirms. He has never felt comfortable watching me perform my task, though he must. “Still warm from the king’s body.” Perhaps he thinks this is punishment—cruel, making me take on the king’s memories when I will not live to use them. But I know better. The king does not think of me. He would not punish me any more than he would a hammer.
I pour the blood from its jar to my vial. The black material reacts with the treated blood, and a thin mist rises. With my eyes locked on the counselor’s own, I drain every foul and salty drop, and this latest version of the king becomes a part of myself.
In days past, I absorbed our monarch’s memories annually. Now he gluts me with them weekly, blotting out all other knowledge with visions and revisions of his own loathsome life. It is by this, above all else, that I know I will soon die. I have come to be filled again and again, ten times these last two months. As was my predecessor, and theirs.
The king worries, too, that he will die suddenly; that his blood will be corrupted before it can be treated and consumed. This is a common mnemosyne legend: brethren driven mad by the blood of the recently dead, their minds filled with red skies and black stars; the fists of giants pounding the ground until skeletons fly skyward from their graves.
I must swallow. Let it fill my throat. Fill my head with its cold light.
I am only a body packed too full of memory. All that is left of me will carry on in someone else. As the king’s blood hits my stomach, I take comfort at the prospect of this eternal life.
If this is true, though, then countless monsters will be carried with me. Men whose genocides founded our city. Doctors who murdered servants to map the secret paths of the human body. The king and his incestuous lust.
Once, I saw the contraption that’s used for exsanguinating mnemosynes. All the chains; the needles and tubes sprawling, spiderly and sterile. Arras was appalled when I told her, and all the more so when I explained it was my choice to see it. “Why would you do that?”
“I needed to know,” I said. “A mnemosyne is not accustomed to not knowing.”
And, even then, I knew that one day I would be strapped to that wooden pallet, that I would watch my blood rise toward the heavens as creation grew fainter and fainter around me. I needed to see; to remember that I would have no more choice in how I died than in anything else.
My new memories are cold and bright, the king’s blood still thick on my tongue, his life obscuring the faint familiar glow of old happinesses. I remember the faces of bored harem women, the way his eyes trail his own daughter’s body. I have cravings for odd foods: the still-beating hearts of pigs; blind fish raised in sunless seas.
When I leave the tower, the guards do not remark at my passing. The counselor’s gold coin is heavy in my pocket, my vial still warm against my chest. I feel the low weight of hours ahead of me; the question of how many, precisely, are left. I do not want to die. But if I must, I will take with me all that I can.
I head straight for the Rain Dog.
As I pass archways leading nowhere and towering walls unsteady as waves, I slip again into the memory of the costume party. I do not know if it belongs to me more than any other; do not know if its residency in my head predates my life as a mnemosyne. But it is mine. I will not lose it. Will not let it fade beneath this torrent of tedious court songs, textures of cloak cloth, the heat of a courtier’s face as I slap it.
The doorway. The smile. Her hand. The kiss. Her skin, smelling of seabreeze and almonds. I do not search, now, for further memories of this woman. Her face is lost beneath her mask, beneath the screen of aristocrats’ gossip and nightmares. I have tried before to find her and only failed. Now, this is enough. I let it be enough.
Around me, what is left of the city folds in on itself. Buttresses extend to brace only air. Fences cage collapsing homes. Lamp posts stretch like skinny arms so high above the sidewalks that their light dilutes before it reaches the ground. Tonight I will take on more memories still—more, perhaps, than I can stand.
Again and again I return: doorway, smile, hand, kiss.
I have never known religion, but the rhythm becomes a kind of prayer. That this memory will rise to the conscious mind of at least one person who drinks my blood. That it, though it will be buried, will bloom.
I keep this hope at the forefront of my mind and close my eyes and walk on, no less lonely in this ingrown city.
When I arrive at the Rain Dog, Arras is polishing the counter. There is already a glass of milk waiting for me, which clears the salty threads of blood from my throat.
“Rough this time?” she asks.
“Rough every time.”
The tavern is thus far untouched by the city’s plague. Arras pours another glass, and I drain it too. I look to the darkened back of the tavern and see that there are already three people waiting near my usual table. There will be more soon.
“Who are they?”
Arras points. “She was displaced by the wars out west. The tall one was kicked out of the writers’ guild for indecency. And the pale one is a royal plumber.”
I slide her the gold coin, a stilled flame on the polished bar. Enough money to feed someone for a year. Arras spirits it away, replaces it with ten stacks of ten silver coins. I pass her one for the milk and she waves it away. I know better, by now, than to argue.
“Themis,” she says. “Are you sure you want this?” She doesn’t know why I’ve requested that she find so many people for today’s session—usually two or three leave me full of cold light and reeling, losing track of the king’s memories and everything else. But this is how it has to be.
I smile and hope it’s not too disconcerting. “A mnemosyne wants nothing but to serve.” I bow so that I needn’t see her frown.
My table is set with jars of thyme, coriander, salt, and aqua vitae. There is a candle and matches. Syringe, needles, vials. The method for treating blood is meant to be secret, but this, too, is a common thread across my mnemosyne memories.
I mix, I heat. On the floor is a cool jug of milk; I catch Arras’s eye, mouth a silent thanks.
One by one people sit before me. I take their blood, treat and drink it.I ask for their names and details of their lives and slide five silver pieces to them as payment. The plumber is particularly interesting to speak with. It seems the palace pipes have sprouted new pathways that spill sewage into a duke’s garden. I laugh, even as the familiar cold of new memories seethes through me.
I take in the deaths of beloved children; the losses of cherished homes. I see old lovers say things they wish they could take back. I see dancing children splash through the city’s puddle-pocked streets; smell fresh roasted corn from the market. I let all these blot out the king’s lusts and tantrums. Obscure his petty, miserable life. Whoever next drinks my blood will know that the dying words of a washerwoman’s grandmother were “God, isn’t this boring then?” They will know the names for different wrenches, the contours of a child’s ugly drawings, the rhymes of forbidden songs.
People come to me and tell me of things they’re proud of: the most elegant chair they ever made; a love poem they wrote for their wife; how clean they keep their home. I do not tell them that I have no control over which particular memories last; I hope they will forgive me that. All that matters is that something lasts—something more than the kingdom’s wretched memory.
Each new dose leaves me shivering and gasping. After each, I take a gulp of milk. After each, I think: doorway, smile, kiss. Fox mask. Laughter. Her hand in mine.
(I know as much of memory as anyone. I know that to remember is to corrupt, to rewrite. Whatever truth is hidden in this memory, I move further from it every time it repeats. I do not care. It is not truth I’m after.)
I steel myself. My legs shake. More people come. A violist whose wrists were broken by the king’s guards; he hums some of a concerto he’s written that he will never play again. A woman with a sick daughter, who needs the coin. A boy no older than twelve, whose memories are full of delight in the taste of fresh apples, in the miraculous change of leaves from green to red. These are wondrous as the northern auroras.
By the time I have run through my funds, the tavern is loud and full. I lean on the counter woozily and talk with Arras. She helps keep me in the present.
I do not let on what little time I have left. I do not feel good about this—that I will leave without saying goodbye. But what could I say?
Even so, perhaps she can tell. Perhaps I am not the first of my kind who has come through the Rain Dog.
“You should run,” she says. She knows that I cannot; that I am followed everywhere I go.
“What about you?” I say. “Surely one of the northern cities has need of another bar.”
“With the way northerners drink?” Arras snorts. “I could retire within the year.”
“So why stay?”
“It’s home. Even if it’s dying. You think other cities don’t have their problems?” Both excuses ring hollow.
I met Arras when the city was still stable. Overwhelmed by the memories of some long-gone high-ranking soldier, I had fallen into the gutter. Shivering, vomiting blood. (This did nothing to purge the memories, already lodged inside me.) Arras found me, cleaned me up. She suggested how I might counterbalance, might rally against the memories I was forced to carry, might preserve this world as it was—ordinary, wonderful. I think of her hands against me, the warm bath in her rooms, the softness of her towels. This memory is mine alone.
I watch the people whose memories I now share, their bodies integrated into the crowd. They laugh and dance, spinning beneath low lights to the sounds of mandolins. I wish I had something more to give them; wish I could help them flee the city in more than mere memory.
Would they, though? They, too, are attached by memory. The streets they ran through in childhood games. The eaves they made their livings under. The rooms where their children were birthed and their parents breathed their last breaths. The doorways that sheltered their secret kisses.
And perhaps the city will survive. Maybe whatever drives its growth will stop. Maybe the king’s magisters will lift the palace, and all the court will be crushed under its own weight. Anything might happen.
I take Arras’s hand in mine and spin her onto the open floor. We hang onto each other, stabilized against our own centripetal force. Swinging and twirling and kicking through a dance that is a hundred dances, a hundred lives lived and died before any person here was born.
Tomorrow, or the next day, I will die. But for a moment, that does not matter. For a moment, all those lives, all of the wretched false dreaming I have ever known, fades. This is a permanent thing. A still point in the unboundaried world. Arras is here, her hands in mine, eyes bewildered and full of joy—and mine, I think are the same.
I watch the skirts swirl and legs weave about each other. The familiar rhythm of images matches the steps of their waltz: doorway-smile-kiss, doorway-smile-kiss. This will live on. This and more.