Augusta stood in the middle of the lawn with the croquet club in a two-handed grasp. She had been offered the honor of opening the game. Mnemosyne’s prized croquet balls were carved from bone, with inlaid enamel and gold. The ball at Augusta’s feet stared up at her with eyes of bright blue porcelain. An invitation to a croquet game in Mnemosyne’s court was a wonderful thing. It was something to brag about. Those who went to Mnemosyne’s games saw and were seen by the right people. Of course, they also risked utter humiliation and ridicule.
Augusta was sweating profusely. It trickled down between her breasts, eventually forming damp spots on the front of her shirt. She could feel a similar dampness spreading in the seat of her too-tight kneepants. More moisture ran down her temples, making tracks in the thick layers of powder. Her artful corkscrew curls were already wilting.
The other guests spread out across the lawn, waiting for her move. Everyone who meant something was here. Our Lady Mnemosyne sat under a lace umbrella on her usual podium. Her chamberlain Walpurgis lounged in the grass in his white surtout, watching Augusta with heavy-lidded eyes. At his side, the twin lovers Vergilia and Hermine shared a divan, embracing as usual. Today one of them was dressed in a crinoline adorned with leaves; the other wore a dress made of gray feathers. Their page, a changeling boy in garish makeup, stood behind them holding a tray of drinks. Further away, Augusta’s sister Azalea had grown tired of waiting. She had stripped naked next to a shrubbery, methodically plucking leaves off its branches. Everyone except Azalea was watching Augusta. The only sound was that of tearing leaves.
Augusta took a deep breath, raised her club and swung it with a grunt. The ball flew in a high arc, landing with a crunch in the face of the twins’ page, who dropped his tray and doubled over. The garden burst into cheers and applause. Mnemosyne smiled and nodded from her podium. Augusta had passed the test.
The game thus opened, the other guests threw themselves into play. In a series of magnificent hits, Walpurgis knocked out two pages who were carried off with crushed eyebrows, broken teeth, and bleeding noses. The twins were in unusually bad shape, mostly hitting balls instead of pages. Augusta played very carefully, focusing on not getting hit. There were a few breaks for cake, games, and flogging a servant. Finally Hermine and Vergilia, one hand each on the club, hit Augusta’s ball and it rolled well into the woods beyond the gardens. The hit was considered so stylish that Augusta was sent out of the game. She wandered in among the trees to find her ball.
Under one of the dog-rose bushes lay a human corpse: a man in a grey woolen suit. They sometimes wandered into the woods by mistake. This one had come unusually far. It was difficult to tell what had killed him. He had begun to putrefy; the swollen belly had burst his waistcoat open. A gold chain trailed from one of the pockets. Augusta bent forward, gingerly grasped the chain, and pulled it. A shiny locket emerged on the end of the chain, engraved with flowers. Augusta swung the locket up in the air and let it land in her palm. The touch sent a little chill along her arm, and for a moment she felt faint. She wrapped the locket in a handkerchief, put it in a pocket, and returned to the croquet green to announce that there was a new and interesting corpse.
Augusta returned to her rooms, a little medal pinned to her chest as thanks for her find. No one had noticed her taking the metal thing for herself. She shooed out her page and sat down on the bed to examine the thing further.
It seemed to be made of gold, engraved on both sides with flowery strands. It was heavy and cold in her palm. The vertigo gradually subsided, but the chills remained like an icy stream going from her hand to her neck. The chain attached to the locket by a little knob on the side. Another, almost invisible button sat across from it. She pressed it, and the locket sprung open to reveal a white disc painted with small lines. Three thin rods were attached to the centre. One of them moved around the disc in twitching movements, making a ticking noise like a mouse’s heart.
It was a machine. Augusta had seen things like it a few times, among the belongings of houses or humans who had been claimed by the gardens. They had always been broken, though. Mechanical things usually fell apart as soon as they came into the gardens’ domain. It was a mystery how this thing could still be in one piece and working.
The chills had become an almost pleasant sensation. Augusta watched the rod chasing around the disc until she fell asleep.
She woke up in the same position as she’d fallen asleep in, on her side with the little machine in her hand. It was still now. Augusta frowned and called on her page. There were a handful of pages in the family, most of them nameless changelings raised in servitude. For various reasons, only two of them could carry a conversation, should one be so inclined. Augusta’s page wasn’t one of them.
“Fetch Azalea’s page,” she told him when he arrived.
Augusta watched the machine until there was a scratch at her door and Azalea’s page stepped inside. He was a half-grown boy, with dark hair in oiled locks and eyes rimmed with kohl; a beautiful specimen that Azalea had insisted on taking into service despite his being too old to train properly. The boy stood in the middle of the room, having the audacity to stare directly at Augusta. She slapped him with the back of her hand. He shrunk back, turning his gaze to the floor. He walked over to the bed and started to remove his clothes.
“No, not now,” Augusta said.
The boy froze halfway out of his surtout. Augusta tossed him the little locket.
“You will tell me what this is,” she said.
“You don’t know?” he said. Augusta slapped him again.
“You will tell me what this is,” she repeated.
He sniffled. “It’s a watch.”
“And what does a watch do?”
“It measures time.”
He pointed at the different parts of the watch, explaining their functions. The rods were called hands, and chased around the clock face in step with time. The clock face indicated where in time one was located. It made Augusta shudder violently. Time was an abhorrent thing, a human thing. It didn’t belong here. It was that power which made flesh rot and dreams wither. The gardens were supposed to lie beyond the grasp of time, in constant twilight; the sun just under the horizon, the moon shining full over the trees. Augusta told the boy as much:
“Time doesn’t pass here. Not like that, not for us.”
The boy twisted the little bud on the side of the locket, and the longest hand started to move again.
“But look,” he said. “The hands are moving now. Time is passing now.”
“But does it know how time flows? Does it measure time, or does it just move forward and call that time?”
The changeling stared at her.
“Time is time,” he said.
Augusta cut his tongue out before she let him go. Azalea would be furious, but it was necessary.
She lay down on her bed again, but couldn’t seem to fall asleep. How could the hands on the watch keep moving here? The sun didn’t go up or down. Didn’t that mean time stood still here? It was common knowledge. Whenever one woke up, it was the same day as the day before. She sat at her writing desk, jotting down a few things on paper. It made her head calm down a little. Then she opened a flask of poppy wine and drank herself back to sleep.
When Augusta woke up, her page was scratching at the door with a set of clothes in his arms and an invitation card between his teeth. It was an invitation to croquet. With a vague feeling that there was something she ought to remember, Augusta let the page dress and powder her.
She returned with a bump in the back of her head and a terrific headache. It had been a fantastic game. There had been gorging, Walpurgis had demonstrated a new dance, and the twins had—sensationally—struck each other senseless. Augusta had been behind everyone else in the game, eventually having her ball sent into the woods again, needing to go fetch it just like that time she’d found something under the dog-rose bush . . . under the dog-rose bush. She looked at her writing desk, where a little silk bundle sat on a piece of paper. She moved the bundle out of the way and read:
A minute is sixty seconds. An hour is sixty minutes. A day is twelve hours. A day and a night is twenty-four hours.
Augusta opened the bundle and looked at the little locket. Some images appeared in her mind: Her first croquet game. The corpse in the grey suit. The watch. The page who told her about time. A thirst to know how it worked. What is time? she wrote under the first note. Is it here?
Augusta took the watch and left her room. She wandered down to the orangery, which was lit from inside. Tendrils of steam rose from the roof. Inside, three enormous mounds lay on couches. The Aunts were as always immersed in their holy task to fatten. Three girls hovered around them, tiny in comparison. The girls were servants and successors, keeping the Aunts fed until they eventually perished, and then taking their places to begin the process anew. Augusta opened the watch, peeking at the clock face. The longest hand moved slowly, almost imperceptibly.
She walked from the orangery to the outskirts of the apple orchard, and from there to Porla’s fen; then to the dog-rose shrubs in the woods outside Mnemosyne’s court. Everywhere, the hands on the clock face moved; sometimes forward, sometimes backward. Sometimes they lifted from the clock face, hitting the glass protecting it, as if trying to escape.
Augusta woke up in Azalea’s arms, under a canopy in Our Lady’s arbour. The orgy they were visiting was still going on; there were low cries and the sound of breaking glass. Augusta couldn’t remember what they had been doing, but she felt sore and bloated, and her sister was snoring very loudly. She was still wearing her shirt. Something rustled in her left breast pocket; she dug it out. It was a note. A little map, seemingly drawn in her own hand. Below the map was written a single sentence: The places float just like time. She had been wandering around, drawing maps and measuring distances. At some point. Mnemosyne’s garden had first been on the right-hand side from Augusta’s rooms. The next time she had found herself walking straight ahead to get there. The places floated. Augusta turned the note over. On the other side were the words: Why is there time here? Why does it flow differently in different places? And if the places float, what is the nature of the woods?
She returned to her rooms in a state of hangover. Papers were strewn everywhere it seemed: on and under the bed, on the dresser, in droves on the writing desk. Some of the notes were covered in dust. She couldn’t remember writing some of them. But every word was in her own handwriting.
There was a stranger in Mnemosyne’s court, towering over the other guests. She was dressed in simple robes, hooded and veiled, golden yellow eyes showing through a thin slit. They shone down on Walpurgis, who made a feeble attempt to offer her a croquet club. Everyone else gave the stranger a wide berth.
“It is a djinneya. She is visiting Mnemosyne to trade information,” the twins mumbled to Augusta.
“We wonder what information that is,” Vergilia added. “Those creatures know everything,” Hermine said. The djinneya sat by Mnemosyne’s side during the whole game, seemingly deep in conversation with her hostess. Neither the twin’s spectacular knock-out of Walpurgis nor Azalea’s attempt to throttle one of the pages caught her attention. Having been knocked out with a ball over her left knee, Augusta retreated to a couch where she wrote an invitation.
Augusta was woken at her writing desk by a knock at her door. A cloaked shape entered without asking permission. The djinneya seemed even taller indoors.
“Come in,” said Augusta.
The djinneya nodded, unfastening the veil. Her skin was the colour of fresh bruises. She grinned with a wide mouth, showing deep blue gums and long teeth filed into points.
“I thank you for your invitation, Augusta Prima.” She bent over Augusta’s bed, fluffing the pillows, and sat down. A scent of sweat and spice spread in the room. “You wanted to converse.”
Augusta straightened, looking at the papers and notes on her desk. She remembered what it was she wanted to ask.
“You and your sort, you travel everywhere. Even beyond the woods. You know things.”
The djinneya flashed her toothy smile. “That we do.”
“I would like to know the nature of time,” Augusta said. “I want to know why time can’t be measured properly here, and why everything moves around.”
The djinneya laughed. “Your kind doesn’t want to know about those things. You can’t bear it.”
“But I do. I want to know.”
The djinneya raised her thin eyebrows. “Normally, you are tedious creatures,” she said. “You only want trivial things. Is that person dead yet? Does this person still love that person? What did they wear at yesterday’s party? I know things that could destroy worlds, and all you wish to know is if Karhu from Jumala is still unmarried.”
She scratched her chin.
“I believe this is the first time one of your sort has asked me a good question. It’s an expensive one, but I shall give you the answer. If you really are sure.”
“I have to know,” said Augusta. “What is the nature of the world?”
The djinneya smiled with both rows of teeth. “Which one?”
Augusta woke up by the writing desk. The hangover throbbed behind her temples. She had fallen asleep with her head on an enormous stack of papers. She peered at it, leafing through the ones at the top. There are eight worlds, the first one said. They lie side by side, in degrees of perfection. This world is the most perfect one. Below these lines, written in a different ink, was: There is one single world, divided into three levels which are partitioned off from each other by greased membranes. Then in red ink: There are two worlds and they overlap. The first is the land of Day, which belongs to the humans. The second is the land of Twilight, which belongs to the free folk, and of which the woods is a little backwater part. Both lands must obey Time, but the Twilight is ruled by the Heart, whereas the Day is ruled by Thought. At the bottom of the page, large block letters proclaimed: ALL OF THIS IS TRUE.
It dawned on Augusta that she remembered very clearly. The endless parties, in detail. The finding of the corpse, the short periods of clarity, the notes. The djinneya bending down to whisper in her ear.
A sharp yellow light stung Augusta’s eyes. She was sitting at her writing desk in a very small room with wooden walls. A narrow bed with tattered sheets filled the rest of the space. The writing desk stood beneath a window. On the other side of the glass, the woods bathed in light.
There was a door next to the bed. Augusta opened it, finding herself in a narrow hallway with another door at the end. A full-length mirror hung on the opposite wall. It showed a woman dressed in what had once been a blue surtout and knee pants. The fabrics were heavily stained with dirt and greenish mold and in some places worn through. Concentric rings of sweat radiated from the armpits. The shirt front was stiff with red and brown stains. Augusta touched her face. White powder lay in cracked layers along her nose and cheeks. Deep lines ran between her nose and mouth; more lines spread from the corners of her eyes. A golden chain hung from her breast pocket. She pulled on it, swinging the locket into her hand. It was ticking in a steady rhythm.
Augusta opened the other door and stepped out onto a landing. An unbearably bright light flooded over her. She backed into the hallway again, slamming the door.
“I told you. Your kind can’t bear that question.”
The djinneya stood behind her in the hallway, shoulders and head hunched under the low ceiling.
“What did you do?” Augusta said.
“What did I do? No. What did you do, Augusta Prima?” She patted Augusta’s shoulder. “It started even before you invited me, Augusta Prima. You tried to measure time in a land that doesn’t want time. You tried to map a floating country.”
The djinneya smiled.
“The woods spit you out, Augusta. Now you’re in the land that measures time and draws maps.”
Augusta gripped the hand on her shoulder. “I want to go home. You have to take me home again.”
“So soon? Well. All you have to do is forget what you have learned.” The djinneya squeezed past Augusta and stepped out onto the porch, where she stretched to her full height with a sigh. “Goodbye, Augusta,” she said over her shoulder. “And do try to hurry if you want to make it back. You’re not getting any younger.”
© 2011 by Karin Tidbeck.
Originally published in Weird Tales.
Reprinted by permission of the author.