The Memory Dresser – Nicholas M. Stillman

The Memory Dresser – Nicholas M. Stillman

Our parlor is small—tucked in a corner of Helm, folded between an empty Gassa stall and the home of a half-deaf mystic. For this reason, discretion numbers as one of our services. Not even the moon bears full witness, as Illsea, the largest Tower on the hill, shades us from the first few hours of evening light. Under our lamps, we shape the memories of the people of Helm, our people. Unlike the royals in Illsea, they are not looking for beauty. No shine-oil treatments or the newest configuration of knots and trellises. Our client’s memories are coated in the dirt that lines our streets and our teeth. They sit in my grandmother’s chair and weep at their reflections. Each length tracks the harrowing years of their lives in the dim lamps or beady sun: yesterday’s shame growing from their scalp, their unfortunate births dragged through the streets. My grandmother’s job is to make them feel well—to clean and wrap, braid and twist them into people who can walk back into their lives without shame dragging them down.

My own memories are unremarkable. Ordinary, frizzed, limp. My childhood must have been something to forget, because I all but have. There are a few years, though, that are different. Four finger lengths that hold the light like river rocks after rain. Memories that burst forth like the sweet juices of thin-fleshed berries, eclipsing all other flavor. My mother excited, touching my shoulder, pointing at the marigolds and the poppies not yet in bloom around the village pond. Fresh bread and cool paya juice as the fireworks erupt above the Towers during the New Sun dance. Then, below the shore rocks we clambered onto, the rich Oversea folk filing in and out of their boats—their strange memories gleaming in impenetrable designs, fractals upon fractals. Mother’s breath curling warmly in the cold night onto my scalp and tips of my ears, running her thin fingers through my memories while we watched the beautiful people glisten. One day, her voice sounds as if she were still beside me, you’ll have memories like that.

Whenever I felt the dull ache of boredom begin to blossom throughout my body, I would twine these strands between my fingers, feeling their health against my skin, or else tie the lengths around my forehead so that everyone who met me met the finest version.

“If your chin were any higher you’d break your neck,” said Grandmother, tugging at the steeple knot holding my best memories in view. “You want the world to think you’re better than them? Who are you to do that?” She would make me fold them beneath less pleasant memories. Dull evenings in the parlor. Sweaty days jostling through the market’s center. Father’s long trips dragging a net into salty water for exotic hues of sea life to be shipped and filleted and served to the people he despised most. My mother’s last year, bed-bound and shivering.

Grandmother was disdainful of the extravagant. She despised my secret yearnings for things I had seen: marigolds and poppies and beautiful memories rippling like the sea as the Oversea folk slipped onto boats. She preferred a meek life of quiet dignity, a healthy distrust of laughter.

One morning, before the clients lined out her door, she cut a sheet into strips with my father’s old gutting knife and, leaving one end intact and tied to the Dressing chair, she pressed the strips into my sweating palms. Grandmother turned the strands one by one—revealing the sheet’s bloodstain, oil spot, jagged edges, holes from ash. I nodded. I folded strips into one another, braided them, looped them, curled them with brass rollers. My fingers were small but eager as I worked a loose approximation of the Sargusoa style—limp and casual, with two elaborate loops. I made sure to hide each imperfection beneath the cleaner lengths. My memory Dressing would impress upon others the wearer’s connection to a rich childhood, as the brightest ends of sheet I bent at angles that would catch the sunlight. When I finished, I dabbed sweat from my forehead and smiled.

Grandmother slapped my cheek.

“Look what you’ve done.” She flipped over my knots, pointed to the blood, oil, jagged edges I’d disguised.

“It looks better this way,” I said, my voice faltering.

“So like your mother.” She said it as a curse. She pulled at my release thread and the Sargosa collapsed back into a tattered sheet. When she saw my eyes filling with anger, my fists balling, she cocked her head. “What, you want a village of pretenders? Whoever hides the best is the winner? You want your people to think they have to compete with each other, compete with the Towers? All they do is try to survive. Don’t take that from them.”

I bit back tears. I could not imagine letting a client walk out with their poverty, their abuses and vices and regrets plain in the sun for all to see. Surely there was a way to cover them? “Why should there always be something to hide? Not everyone is so miserable.”

“There will always be stains,” she said, cutting down the sheet and twisting the strands to be dipped in oil and used as lantern wicks. “These people are decent, Helm people. They don’t want to be glamorized like an oiled Tower empress. They want to be understood. That is why we do not hide pasts, but weave the hurt and joy together so that both catch the light. Our job is to frame their lives in such a way that others can see dignity, not glamor, not suffering. We cannot afford to play games with our memories Not here.” I followed her eyes to the dust whistling through the empty street, the sun already baking the walking boards stretched between the gutters. Illsea loomed over us, its shadow not yet cast.

Days in the parlor turned like the trapped figurine of a music box while my memories grew stale. The same clients to seat, well buckets to drag, lavender to pick, stones to heat, cloth to wash, rice to cook. I waited. I cut my sheets into strips. Practiced in the moonlight before the tower eclipsed the light. I snuck pamphlets of the latest Dressing styles from the market and slid them under my mattress. I exercised my fingers and wrists. I trained myself for a life I was better suited to.

Then, one night, after I had closed the doors and drawn the sunshade over the window, a confident knock rapped at the door. Then another.

“Oh, go on,” Grandmother sighed, no doubt preparing her speech—Your memories will still be there in the morning.

At the door, however, was not Ginja the mystic who wanted to sell us another memory-reading, but a stranger. She was tall and lean, her neck long and seamless. A dark cloak was draped over her shoulders and a dust wrap pleated neatly over her face so that her dark eyes and long lashes poked through like hermit crab antenna. She stepped through me as if I occupied no space at all.

Before Grandmother could speak, the woman flipped the cloak off of her shoulders, revealing a white silk tunic and her loose-wrapped memories shining like polished ore in the lamplight. A medallion of Illsea hung from her neck. I lost the ability to move.

She glided to the dressing chair in silence and seated herself. A chair that had, only minutes before, held Malik, who bathed once a week in the camel water trough. She crossed her legs and examined the shelves cluttered with abandoned dressing equipment—rusted iron clips and outdated bows. My cheeks burned.

Grandmother wiped her hands on her tunic. Wiped them again. She did not speak. Only stood like a low-cast shadow, clearing her throat to no avail.

The woman spoke without turning her head. “Girl, what’s your name?”

Grandmother opened her mouth to respond, but realized too late that she was not the girl.

“Mina,” I managed in a hoarse whisper.

“Do you live here?”

“My room is upstairs.”

“Mina, this is my daughter, Tengi.”

I turned, startled to find a small, dark girl standing just inside the door. She seemed to be everything her mother was not—short, wide-hipped with small eyes and a flat face. She was pretty in her own way, and prettier still than anyone I’d seen in the parlor besides her mother.

“Please take Tengi up to your room to play while I speak with the Dresser.”

Tengi made a face that indicated she would rather run with street dogs than climb the thin wooden staircase to my room. I searched Grandmother’s eyes for guidance, but found none. Her body was rigid, as if a wild animal had entered the room.

Tengi was already marching petulantly to the staircase. I followed. Her memories bounced before my eyes as we climbed. Her head was covered in a silken maroon cloth and a thick braid fell down and wrapped around her waist. The braid was deeper and richer than the silk covering, making the latter look cheap; the kind of cloth we would sell unfaithful spouses attempting to disguise their guilt. I marveled. It was as if Tengi’s entire life had been fireworks and fresh bread. With a start I realized Grandmother was wrong—not everyone had stains.

That first evening, and several after, Tengi refused to speak to me. We would sit in silence, Tengi’s hands clasped in her lap, face turned up to Illsea, as we waited for my grandmother to finish her secret work. Later, Tengi brought a book and read it when there was enough light. Finally, one night when Tengi’s eyes were wild with anger, her memory scattered about her shoulders, she spoke:

“You should apply a Barosa nut oil twice a day if you don’t want your memories to collect all that dust.”

I nodded. I felt that a critical gap had been bridged. I let loose all of my caged questions. About her purpose in my room, her mother in our shop, her bedroom in the Tower, her thick, syrupy memories. But my questions were like throwing stones at a circling hawk. Tengi watched them with interest before diving: Tell me, what’s it like being so poor?

Our words began to search out our differences, curiously prodding each other’s edges. Each revelation was like a flash river after a rain as we encouraged more questions. I surprised her with my knowledge of the latest Dressing styles, my love of the Oveasea fractal knots, my awareness of the various uses of poppies and marigolds. And she both surprised me and didn’t surprise me; every detail a revelation I could not have anticipated. The Tower competitions for memory shine, the strong-necked men tying their memories together and pulling like reluctant lovers until one buckled, the heartbreak of the smallest memory imperfections, the scandal of memory painting. “There are some who refuse to do anything but fuck and eat and travel before a dance,” she’d said, her language embarrassing me. “There are servants who shield them from crumbs. Some refuse to see their children in case the child cries or falls or misspeaks, and so taints their memories. The competition is shit. And yet if you don’t do those things, you stand alone at the dance and your memories get even weaker. There’s no way out.”

“And here you will be ridiculed for trying too hard,” I said, breathless. “If I try to clean Malik’s tangle or hide his embarrassment with a clip or cloth, Grandmother would call me a pretender. Nothing I do is allowed to be beautiful.”

Tengi and I spent our nights comparing our lives while the two women worked and the constellations did slow battle through the slats of my roof. Sometimes we would climb out my window and wander to the spice fields and rub Tougo into our teeth, sometimes we would chance a trip to the market when the sun was still up and hold hands and call each other beloved to watch the old men bend incline their heads at our parting. I knew that every week Tengi would arrive at my doorstep, and she did without fail. I had never met anyone like her and she, she confided one night, had never met anyone like me. Her presence textured my days and gave a shape to my daily life.

As the weeks wore on, there were more Dressings, which meant more Tengi in my life. Tengi did not tell me why her mother came so much often than other clients, but I knew the New Sun dance was approaching and I guessed there was some secret vanity, or problem that needed mending before the start. When I did glimpse her mother, mostly from my window as I watched Tengi leave, I saw that she looked vacant, her steps unnecessarily cautious. Tengi would guide her by the hand away from the shop to wherever the escorts had hidden the carriage.

One night, while the moths threw their bodies at my window, we touched memories. It was late—the women below us were working long, as usual. It was Tengi’s idea. To have me practice working with healthy memory, to prepare for the day she would bring me to the Towers as her personal Dresser. I asked her to show me what they did in Illsea, how the Dressers prepared. She swallowed as she loosened her tunic and dropped it down below her bare shoulders, shook her memories out of its braid. I listened to the tapping of moths trying to hurl themselves at my lamp.

We sat on our knees, facing each other, the flesh of our thighs touching.

Tengi’s memories were like ripples in water. So bright they felt like liquid glass, or something else I could not describe. My breath came in small gasps as her fingers danced along the hollow strands of my boredom and routine, clicking her tongue lightly. My eyes fluttered and the floor groaned as we delved deeper into each other’s lives. I felt something shift beneath my breastbone. A stirring.

I worked my fingers up her memory, then allowed my fingers to explore the hidden days and weeks beneath the maroon silk covering. Tengi screamed. Scrambled away from me, gathering spare bits of herself and pinning them behind her. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong.

Tengi reluctantly untied the maroon cloth, and I saw it. Falling just above the tip of her ear, was a section of memory that was white and hollow as a feather’s heart. The kind of loss I thought only those in Helm had experienced. I tracked the growth with practiced eyes. She had been carrying it silently since the week we’d met.

“Tengi, I—what happened?”

She smoothed the memory behind her, clipping them back. “I forgot. I’m sorry. I should have warned you.”

I stood, angry and frightened and still drunk off her touch. “What happened? Who did this?”

She shook her head.

“Why is your mother here? Why are you here? Please. You need to tell me.”

Tengi opened her mouth, closed it. She stood and went to the window, to look up at the Tower. Her Tower. “These memories are the same ones my mother has. The ones my mother is paying your grandmother to cut.”


Tengi slid open the window and the moths went in search of their flame. “They would kill her if anyone knew.”

“I—cut?” The thought churned in my stomach; a mutilation I had not considered. To cut memories was a heinous act, punishable by execution. Killing a person ended their life, but cutting them ended who they were. Who would choose to lose themselves?

“She wants to forget.” Tengi turned to look at me, her mouth clenched in a smile. “And now I am the only one who will remember.” She passed her face through the window, closed her eyes.

I didn’t know what to do, what to say. I had so many questions, knew so little. Silent, I walked behind her, closed my eyes, and joined her, our faces waiting for a breeze.

My grandmother and I took to standing like hungry cats by the door on the days we knew they would come. We turned away clients, as neither of us could focus until they arrived. They were our great secrets. Grandmother spoke less about my attraction to dreaminess, my selfishness, even as I lingered in front of the Dressing mirror turning my head to admire how my new memories seemed to brighten my eyes, add color to my cheeks. In my reflection I saw an open, bright person. Someone brimming with possibility.

Tengi snuck me Tower oil and ribbons and when Grandmother was not around I would walk into the market with my most recent memories oiled. I shimmered in the heat. In return, I said nothing to Grandmother about the cutting. She would stop her work if she thought I knew, and I could not risk losing Tengi.

Tengi was changing, too. Her memories were growing crooked. She took to hiding them with bows and expensive ribbon. She shrank from touch if I approached her too quickly, moved too quietly. Wind from the streets would cause her to spasm in fear and it would take me minutes of careful teasing to distract her. I never touched her recent growth and it pained me that we had becomes so different. I would try to find gaps in conversation to ask her about the white growth, what had happened to her, and how I could help. All I wanted to do was help. Tengi told me not to worry, nothing was my fault, it wasn’t me.

One evening, after Tengi and her mother had gone, father arrived. He greeted us without his right foot—a result of a rationing mistake on board his ship and several short straws drawn in a life of short straws. It had been years since he’d been home, and I barely recognized the man from my childhood. His memory was thick and clotted and smelled of fish viscera and left an oily trail like a slug.

After an awkward and stilted embrace, he sniffed my memories, and I became aware of the thick, nutty oil still seated there. His eyes wandered to Grandmother, who hid behind her the old gutting knife she used for cutting. At her feet lay the strands of two dead memories she had yet to sweep from the floor.

I felt his hand tighten around my shoulder. “This is what happens when I leave?” he spat. “I ought to turn you in for risking my wife’s parlor. My rightful parlor.”

“It’s not like that,” I said, unable to release myself from his grip. “They came from Illsea, they’re not like you think.”

He rounded on me. For a moment, while he had me pinched in his grip, I thought he would flay me like a fish, his muscles having formed the habit.

Seeing the terror in my eyes seemed to shift something in him.

He released me. Searched me for what felt like signs of someone else. Someone who was not me.

“I’m home now. For good,” he said as if reminding himself. “Illsea took my foot and then dropped me on the shore. So if either of you think you still want to play your Tower games, then maybe I’ll have to cut those memories from you myself.” His face crinkled in pain, his eyes darted to the memories of my childhood. “Your mother would never have wanted this. Never this.”

In the months that followed, I would often lie in bed, tracking the sun’s progress across my floor. Grandmother stopped promising to train me, and I stopped collecting pamphlets from market, stopped practicing on my sheets. I watched my father’s memories grow out white. Grandmother tried to clean them, to dress them lightly, but he refused her, preferring to wallow.

The few decent memories I had made with Tengi began to fade as dull, frizzed ones pushed them down my neck. I could no longer face the market, watch their eyes take in how far I had fallen. I became angry with Tengi for her ability to continue on with her life while I sat in the same room she’d found me in, waiting for her to return. I felt our lives together slipping further into my past and wondered if she felt that distance, too. If she even noticed.

The rains came. I grew hollow, forgetful. Grandmother covered my memories with a dashini so that I would have enough courage to leave the room. I refused to remove it, even at my grandmother’s pleading for memories to have light and air. In her mind, a little damage was better than hiding completely. But I knew she was wrong. The more you show the damage, the more of you it becomes, until it is all you are.

And then, on the eve of the New Sun dance, Tengi climbed through my window. She smelled of the red dirt from the back roads below the Towers. She must have ridden all day.

“Tengi?” I stood perfectly still, just as I had the day her mother first entered our parlor. “What…Why are you here?”

Tengi’s face was stretched tight, her memories frizzed and loose, dragging behind her. She pulled it through the window.

“Because I need help,” she said.

“Where have you been?” I felt my surprise leaking into bitterness. “Why didn’t you come back for me?”

Tengi shrugged past me. She cradled something heavy in her coat. “I am watched, my mother and me. When your grandmother sent word that she would no longer…” she lifted her head, thinking. “The message was discovered. Now I can’t piss without someone holding my hand.”

I did not know what to say, how to respond, what to do with the anger I had been holding for her—anger for abandoning me here, stranding me in a desert with my father.

“What do you want?”

Tengi placed a silken maroon bundle from her coat onto my bed. I recognized the cloth as the one that once covered her damage. “I want you to help me,” she said, staring at the cloth. “I am not going to the dance. There is not a skilled enough Dresser in the world to hide all of this.” She found my eyes with hers.

“You came to tell me that?”

“I am going on a boat. Oversea.”

I approached her as if she might, at any moment, collapse into nothing. I was still unsure of her, but my mind filled with new possibilities. Boats. Dances. I absently recalled those years with my mother, as I often did, the memories still burning brightly in my mind. “And how do you want me to help you?” I said coolly.

Tengi looked at me with what might have been hurt at my tone. Or sadness. “Oh,” she said. “I want you to come with me.”

My mouth dried. The room shifted slightly. “But I thought you wanted my help.”

“That’s part of it. I… I’m leaving whether or not you come. But I want you too.”

“Oh.” I could not think of what to say. I touched my dashini, recalling how much I’d changed. I felt weak at my inability to move on without her. I resented her for it.

“I need to show you something,” Tengi said as she kneeled and unwrapped the bundle. Beneath the maroon silk lay a dagger. A thin blade wide as my finger and long as my hand, with a handle of pearl. I stepped back, knocking a book from my shelf. It thudded to the floor, and I heard my father shifting in his bed beneath us. He rarely slept, and his temper was deep and treacherous in the middle of the night. I held my breath.

“I need you,” Tengi said, picking the blade up off of the bed and carrying it like a child to where I stood. “I need you to cut me. To let me start over.”

I took the blade, if only to stop her speaking. “I can’t do that, Tengi,” I whispered. “I couldn’t. Not to anyone.”

Tengi nodded but did not move. “I know how it sounds, but look at me. Look at what has become of me, Mina.” For the first time she looked at me closely, her eyes on my hidden memories. “Look what’s happened to you!” Her voice bounced around my room and I held my finger to her lips.

“My father,” I whispered.

She batted my hand like a fly. “We have been destroyed by the acts of others. Two people locked my door and held me down and made me remember something I want to forget. Why should I have to remember what they did? Why should you have to hide yourself when you’re alone?”

“But your mother!” I said, losing grip on my voice. “You always said she would regret this, that she was a pretender.”

Tengi nodded. “She was. She didn’t do it for herself. She did it so that others wouldn’t think less of her. She was a coward. I’m not afraid to let go.”

I stared at Tengi, her nostrils flaring, her eyes wide as a street cat. My heart swam in my ears. My grandmother would say it was cowardice, not bravery. “You aren’t serious,” I said. “You can’t be.”

Her fingers wrapped around my shoulders. Ropes of tendon sprung out on her neck. “We deserve something new. The dance is coming tomorrow. There will be so many boats lining the dock that slipping in to one will be easy. While everyone stares at the sky, their eyes filled with fireworks, we will move beneath them and climb onto the boat unseen. We’ll start our new lives without these,” Tengi shook her memories in her fists like they were chains, “weighing us down. It’s the New Sun. It’s the time of new beginnings.”

“Not for people like me,” I said. Memories of my mother flooded me. Fireworks above new-budded flowers, her breath on my scalp, her voice in my ear. Watching the lives of other people.

Tengi reached behind me, undid my knots, and I felt my memories crash around my shoulders. She found those four finger lengths, held them. They were the most precious things I possessed. Yet they were also nothing. They were not real. Not like Tengi. Not like the dagger in my hand. Not like the moon filtering through the cracks of my ceiling. Not like the cold air seeping through the floor. Not like my father dragging himself from the mattress, where I could hear him hobbling now beneath us.

Tengi placed her memory in my hand and closed her eyes. I held her and wondered which memories she would miss most. Her comfortable childhood, or the sweaty nights cramped in a room above a Helm parlor? Would she long for what she’d lost, even if she couldn’t remember? Be like my father, still reaching down to scratch his missing foot? Would she lose herself? Lose her interest in me?

And who would I be without my mother’s breath on my scalp, my grandmother’s slap against my cheek? I thought of the fireworks, the fractals, the poppies. One day you will have memories like that.

“Take all but right now,” said Tengi, her breath hot against my face. “I don’t want to remember anything but us and our plan for the boats. I’ve written down all we need to remember.”

I felt my body vibrate. I did not move.

“We can meet again. That will be our first memory.” And then Tengi pressed her lips against my scalp, my damage, so that they came to me like a memory and a moment all at once.

We are silent as we listen to my father’s halting steps beneath, hear his hoarse voice calling: “Mina?” It will take him some time to climb to my room. To find our spirits entwined. It will take him only moments to understand when he opens my door. To step his way into my room in the eclipsed moonlight, to find my past dead on the ground. Find my life spread out in tight curls at his feet. Find me taken up by a longed-for breeze, flying around the room. He will pass the moths heading for the flames through my open window, intent on breaking through the glass of the lamp to experience the moment they have lived for, that they will die for. He will hear familiar nervous laughter and confused footsteps pattering on the walking boards outside. He will peer out into the inky dark, the moon now lost behind the Tower, and will try to find me. He will see instead two strangers, their hands clasped, bouncing as if unmoored and drifting from a dock. Watch them feeling in the black for the way forward.

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