Read Forty Rooms Online

Authors: Olga Grushin

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life

Forty Rooms

BOOK: Forty Rooms
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The Line

The Dream Life of Sukhanov


Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons

Publishers Since 1838

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2016 by Olga Grushin

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

The author gratefully acknowledges permission to quote excerpts from Anna Akhmatova, “Requiem,” from
Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova
, translated by Judith Hemschemeyer, edited and introduced by Roberta Reeder. Copyright © 1989, 1992, 1997 by Judith Hemschemeyer. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Zephyr Press,

eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-98309-6

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.




Also by Olga Grushin

Title Page




Part One | Mythology

1. Bathroom
2. Mother’s Bedroom
3. Father’s Study
4. Kitchen
5. Dacha Bedroom
6. My Bedroom

Part Two | Past Perfect

7. Library Cubicle
8. Boyfriend’s Bedroom
9. My Dorm Room
10. Studio Room
11. Bathroom

Part Three | The Past

12. Kitchen
13. Guest Bedroom
14. Living Room
15. Bedroom
16. Covered Veranda
17. Kitchen
18. Nursery
19. Living Room
20. Bedroom

Part Four | The Present

21. Ballroom
22. Dining Room
23. Master Bathroom
24. Wine Cellar
25. Nursery
26. Guest Bedroom
27. Master Closet
28. Exercise Room
29. Laundry
30. Master Bedroom
31. Girls’ Room
32. Kitchen
33. Son’s Room
34. Living Room
35. Bar
36. Garage
37. Deck
38. Library
39. Home Theater
40. Entrance Hall

Part Five | The Future



And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made.
Genesis 8:6
Be thine own palace, or the world thy jail.
John Donne, “To Sir Henry Wotton”


Part One

1. Bathroom

The Tree at the Heart of the World

The bathroom is the first place to emerge from the haze of nonbeing. It is cramped and smells sweet and changes from time to time. When the world outside hardens with dark and cold, the sky-blue tiles grow icy and sting my naked soles, but the pipes vibrate in a low, comforting hum and the water is hot and delightful; I dive into it with a heedless splash, rushing to slide into soapsuds up to my chin before the prickle of goose bumps overtakes me. Then the world swells stuffy and bright, and now the coolness of the floor feels nice, but the pipes lie chilled and inert; I watch the stream from a just-boiled teakettle hit the cold water inside the plastic bucket before I climb gingerly into the empty tub and wait for the sponge to dribble lukewarm rivulets down my back.

Most evenings the hands that touch me are the ones I know best, light and gentle, with a delicate ring on one finger and
fingernails lovely and pink like flower petals. With the hands comes a voice, a soft, quiet voice that sings to me—though the songs themselves sound sad. Other times, the hands are harder, their fingers thick and blunt, the fingernails cut short, almost to the quick, one finger squeezed tight by a plain golden band that seems far too small for it; but these hands are never rough, and I like them just as much, not least because I am less used to them and I feel curious, and also because the voice of the blunter hands does not sing but tells jokes. The voice is firm at the edges, and the jokes are loud, large with mooing roosters and oinking cats, and a naughty gnome who comes only on Sundays to talk of messy meals and chamber pots and other things equally funny and gross, and I laugh and laugh until bubbles spurt out of my nose.

But sometimes, rarely, the hands are different—large, loose-skinned, and bony, smelling of smoke, their long fingers stiff, their joints like the bark of the old tree by the swing set in the courtyard. These hands move with an odd, crablike grace, barely touching the sponge, forgetting why they are there, emitting a faint clatter and jingle as they alight on the side of the tub; openmouthed with amazement, I watch a bracelet of pink oval stones slide up and down the withered wrist, each stone carved with a pale woman’s face, thin and elegant, glowing from within. And the voice, like the hands, is withered and straying; and it does not sing, and it does not laugh—it tells stories instead.

The passing of seasons, another winter giving way, another summer cresting, brings with it Grandmother’s yearly visit. I find myself waiting for the stories above all else.

They never have the same beginnings—no matter how much I beg for some half-remembered tale, Grandmother will not repeat
herself—but they all lead to the same place, a hidden kingdom of manifold marvels. The kingdom is reached in a hundred different ways, though few ever gain entrance to it. Some stumble upon it after a lifelong search, having wandered through treacherous forests and climbed snowy mountains, while others are plunged there headlong, without any warning, without expectation, having tasted of a strange drink or chased a chance shadow around the corner or stared for a moment too long into the mirror. (One little girl with the same name as mine arrives in the kingdom wet and wrapped in a towel: she is taking a bath when she gets swept down the drain.) The kingdom is home to amazing creatures and things—candle flames that have run away from their candles, warring armies of spoons and forks, flocks of traveling belfry bells, a beautiful blind fairy, a mouse who dreams only of dragons, a knight who has lost his horse—and all the creatures ceaselessly travel along the kingdom’s many paths, some straight and simple, others twisted and full of dark adventure, all winding their way toward the kingdom’s secret heart. There, at the center of the world, where all the paths converge, grows a wondrous tree whose branches touch the skies, and there, by its vast ancient roots, the creatures halt and wait—wait for the leaves to fall.

“And why do they want those leaves so much?” I ask, as I always do. “Are they made of gold?”

“They aren’t gold,” my grandmother answers, “but they are precious all the same. One side of each leaf bears a name, and only the person whose name it is can read the words on the leaf’s other side. And only one leaf on the tree has your name on it, so if you aren’t there waiting for it when it falls, you miss it forever.”

“And what words are they, Grandmother?”

“The most important words in the world,” she replies.

“Yes, but what do they

Her fingers click with impatience against the tub’s edge.

“They are different for every person, so I can’t tell you.”

I sink back in the bath. No matter how her tales begin, they always end this way: she will add nothing more. Whenever she starts, I hope that tonight will be different, that tonight she will tell me the rest. But she never does. She is a hundred years old, I think angrily to myself, and she is more stubborn than anyone I know; she likes to hoard her secrets. I sit in the bath willing myself not to cry, the skin of my fingers and toes puckered from being too long in the water. My grandmother has forgotten the sponge yet again; she is staring at the tiles above my head, and her pale red-rimmed eyes have that unseeing look I catch from time to time, like the blank eyes of the carved women on her old bracelet. And suddenly I think: Maybe she doesn’t even know how the story ends, maybe she arrived there too late to catch her own leaf.

All at once I feel terribly excited. I look at the drain. Suds are being sucked into its whirlpool, and I glimpse a slice of my pink scrubbed cheek, a corner of my brown eye reflected in its silver curve, and something else too, a tiny elfin face grinning at me, beckoning me closer with a hand like a twig before vanishing in a splash of foam. I decide that right away, without losing another minute, I too will slip down the drain, and ride the soapy waters to the mysterious depths of the hidden kingdom, and brave its crooked paths alongside dragons and spoons, and reach the tree at the heart of the world—and when my leaf falls, I will be there to read the words and tell everyone about it. But immediately I grow
sad as I remember that I’m only four years old—four years and three quarters—and I don’t yet know how to read.

My mother sticks her head in the door. I feel a draft of cold air.

“Time for her milk,” she says. “Mama, you’re sitting on her towel.”

My grandmother stands up with slow, injured dignity and sails out of the bathroom.

2. Mother’s Bedroom

The Jewelry Box

One evening in December, I enter my mother’s bedroom to wish her good night, but my mother is not there. A mermaid is sitting on her bed instead. I know she is a mermaid right away, even though I am unable to make out the tail under the folds of her narrow skirt of the faintest gray color, the color of morning mist above the waters of our dacha pond. She is bending, her tresses long and pale, over my mother’s jewelry box, which she holds open in her lap; I can see the silky fabric of her strange skirt stretched tight over her knees beneath the lacquered edge of the box.

I feel enchanted by the presence of the mermaid, but also deeply grieved. I love my mother’s jewelry box. It is made of shiny black wood, and on its lid two pearly girls with wide belts and sticks in their hair fan a third girl, while all around them tiny trees twinkle with rosy blossoms in a walled-in garden. It is the
one object in this room filled with wonders that I long to possess, but I am never allowed to touch it. On my last birthday, when I turned six, I begged and begged until, with a small, patient sigh, my mother pulled open a drawer, maneuvered the box from under the layers of folded nightgowns and stockings, and let me marvel at the princesslike sparkling for a brief minute; but she did not show me anything closely. It makes me sad to find a stranger—even if she is beautiful, even if she
a mermaid—handling that box as though she owns it.

BOOK: Forty Rooms
10.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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