Read Forty Rooms Online

Authors: Olga Grushin

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

Forty Rooms (4 page)

BOOK: Forty Rooms
14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
And not under the shelter of alien wings—
I was with my people then,
There, where my people, unfortunately, were . . .

I read.

A chair creaks, a cough sounds. Blearily, I look up.

A man is sitting across from me at the table.

“I’ve been watching you for the past ten minutes,” he says. “You have quite the ability to tune things out. This too may be of use to you—if, that is, you tune out the right things.”

The dazzling, terrifying, cleansing revelation of the poems releases me slowly.

I frown at the man before me. He is not someone I recognize, though I know my parents’ friends well. His face is handsome—the word “chiseled,” at which I snickered a year or two ago, during my brief Dumas obsession, makes gratifying sense at last—but he is not young, the age of my parents if not older, and the slight hints of heaviness in his jowls, of droopiness in his eyelids, of thinness in the blond hair that he wears too long, make his beauty seem disturbingly marred, unnatural somehow. Like a statue of a god with his nose lopped off, I think—or perhaps with his chin grown double, the marble gone weak and flaccid. All at once I realize I am staring, and I feel flustered.

“You were not here earlier,” I mumble.

“No, I just dropped in for a moment,” he replies, smiling. It is not a warm smile. “So, reading banned poetry in the kitchen in the wee hours of the morning, are we? You’re a poet yourself, are you not?”

“No,” I say curtly. He is studying me, his light eyes piercing. I am not in the habit of being rude to adults. I look down at the pages before me. “That is . . . I suppose I rhyme things once in a while. When I can’t sleep. Nothing like this.”

“Well, no, of course not,” he agrees, leaning back in his chair. “This kind of thing—it comes much later, and not to everyone.”

Idly he picks up a page from the table.

“I have so many things to do today:
I must murder the rest of my memory,
I must turn my soul to stone,
I must learn to live again.”

He recites the lines without once consulting the page before letting it fall back onto the stack. “This weightiness, it has to be earned, and the price is high. Not everyone, you know, is willing to pay the price of immortality.”

I should be in bed, not lingering in the kitchen in my nightgown, memorizing dangerous poetry and talking to strangers, but I speak without thinking, before I can excuse myself and leave. “I thought this hasn’t been published. How can it be immortal if no one can read it?”

“Perceptive but wrong, my dear child. It’s like that tree falling in the forest when no one is around. Rest assured, there are powers that see and hear everything happening in this world. And in any case, aren’t you reading it right now? Manuscripts do not burn, as another immortal once said—though you are probably too young to have read him just yet. How old are you, anyway?”

The jazz music of my parents’ party is coming from somewhere very far away.

“Thirteen.” I lick my dry lips. I realize that I never did get that cup of water. Battalions of smeared glasses have been abandoned
in careless disorder near the sink, and from where I sit, an arm’s length away—everything in our kitchen is only an arm’s length away—I can smell the half-honeyed, half-acrid scent of unfinished wine. “The age of Juliet,” I nearly add, but say instead, “I’ll turn fourteen this summer.”

“Oh, you have some time. Not too much time, mind you,” he says airily as he glances at the clock on the wall, and as if on cue the cuckoo creaks, bowing on its perch; it is three in the morning. “Time, you know, is the ultimate limitation placed on man, and you need to be supremely aware of your limitations if you desire to become a poet. Of all the different kinds of art, you see, poetry is the one most attuned to man’s condition, and therefore the most noble and the most demanding of them all. Just as men struggle to transcend the inherent limits of geography, history, and biology to find the meaning of life, so poets strive to transcend the inherent limits of language, meter, and structure to find beauty and truth. And just as life wouldn’t have meaning without death, so poetry wouldn’t have its sublime power outside the prison of its form.” He nods at the manuscript before me: “Which makes it even more powerful when you combine the limitations of language with the repressions of history. But the opposite is true as well. Poetry diminishes in times of plenty, loses its urgency and hunger, grows flabby. People of each age get just the poetry they deserve.”

As he continues to talk, I begin to feel dizzy with the sense of utter strangeness and, at the same time, a kind of novel, intoxicating freedom. The kitchen has ceased to be the familiar place where I eat rushed breakfasts on school mornings while my mother
waters her windowsill herbs and my father fumes at the day’s headlines. In this new place, at this unearthly, in-between hour, the chilled, crisp sweetness of an April night enters through the cracked window like some barely audible promise, and souls of banished words are resurrected in guilt-ridden whispers, in paling print, in a stranger’s languid, knowing drawl, to hang in the air, dark and light and eternal, mixing with the heady smell of spring, swelling my chest with some immense, nameless longing.

The man with the handsome face of a ruined god is watching me closely.

“Do you want to be immortal?” he asks.


“It’s a simple question and a simple matter. Do you want to be immortal?”

I want to say: I don’t know what you mean. I open my mouth.


He smiles again—a real, warm smile this time, though somehow cruel in spite of its warmth. All at once I think: If I lean forward ever so slightly, his breath will brush my face. I feel my skin growing hot. I do not lean forward.

The man stands, his movements fluid with loose, predatory grace. I am shocked to see bare feet protruding from the frayed cuffs of his pants.

“Well, time for a rude awakening,” he says. “I could take a dramatic leap off the windowsill, but something tells me you are not easily impressed with clichés, so let me make a more subtle exit. Time waits for no man,
memento mori
, and all that.”

The clock creaks on the wall, and as I look up, I see the cuckoo
taking its three bows, one left, one right, one straight, which seems impossible, since it was three o’clock some ten minutes ago, unless the hands have started going backward, and then the cuckoo calls out “Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” in the hoarse voice of my earliest childhood memories, and the man with the face of a thwarted angel jauntily sidesteps the bird and disappears inside the clock, which is when I know that I am asleep, just seconds before I know that I am awake because my father is shaking me.

“And what is the meaning of this?” my father asks with severity.

My head has fallen on the
typescript. I can hear Orlov roaring with laughter in the doorway.

5. Dacha Bedroom

Nineteenth-Century Porcelain, or The Meaning of Life

My fingers are still sooty from the bonfire, and as I pick up my cup, I watch them leave faint smudges on the trellised flowers. We use simple cups at the dacha as a rule, thick and earth-colored, which remain rattling in the cupboard after we return to the city; but this morning my mother packed her best porcelain into starched nests of napkins, to be brought to the country along with cold chicken cuts and her famed apple pie.

I notice Olga studying the cups as well.

“Pretty,” she says. “Are they old?”

I nod. “Nineteenth-century. Mama collects them.”

“It suits you, you know. Ballet dancers, gypsy ancestors, family jewels, old porcelain. You’ll be reading by candlelight next.”

I laugh. “Are you saying I’m anachronistic?”

“I was thinking romantic. But I suppose it comes to much the same thing.”

“I see what you mean. A seventeen-year-old maiden sitting on the balcony at dusk, drinking tea made with water drawn from the village well.”

“With a full moon rising,” she says.

“With a nightingale singing in the bushes,” I rejoin.

“With facilities in the yard,” she says.

“Oh, now you’ve gone and ruined it! That’s hardly romantic.”

“But true,” she says, laughing also.

“Which is my point precisely. Truth can’t be very romantic.”

“Well, in any case. Nice cups. Sorry about the fingerprints.”

For a while I sip the tea in silent contentment. I can feel the dacha’s peaceful darkness behind my back. After driving here in the morning, laden with provisions, my parents have gone back to the city, to return three days hence; this lull of solitude is my graduation present of sorts, a foretaste of adulthood, a short spell of freedom between two anxiety-ridden stretches of last-minute cramming: the high school exams ended last week, the university entrance exams will commence next month. The June evening is blue and clear, the roofs at the end of our unpaved street stand out with crisp precision against the pale breadth of fields merging with the pale depth of the sky, and the world feels marvelously light, and I feel marvelously light too, as if I might take off at any instant, sail away in the small boat of the balcony into that luminous distance, the sweet smells of grasses and clover, the exhilarating expanse of the never-ending horizon—and splash through the slight chill in the air as through the waters of some cool, delightful stream, and catch the bright yellow moon like a leaping fish in my hand . . . But the balcony is moored to the
rickety house by tenacious tendrils of ivy, my mother’s precious porcelain cup feels dangerously fragile in my fingers, and Olga is talking again.

“You know, I almost wish we hadn’t burned the old history notebooks. Chemistry is one thing, but all those transcriptions of Marx’s
, all those triumphs of the five-year plans—twenty years from now no one will believe it without the physical evidence.”

I can still smell the fire in the air. I planned it for a long time, for months, at first merely groaning in the school corridors between classes, thinking how good it would be to forget everything meaningless once and for all, wipe it all away, burn it to ashes—until slowly my futile frustration gave way to a secret purpose. This morning I stuffed my bag full to bursting with years’ worth of accumulated assignments, tests, compositions, a decade of dead knowledge, and later sat by the fire pit behind the house for nearly two hours. Olga joined me halfway through the destruction, and we took turns mockingly declaiming this or that sentence, crumpling this or that equation into a ball, laughing with theatrical abandon as we fed the flames. I had waited for the day to condense into evening, so the fire would blaze with fierceness against the sky. I had also waited for my parents to leave. I had not told them. My mother would have worried that a stray spark might burn down the house. My father would have disapproved on general principles: he believed in the preservation of history, personal or otherwise.

“No regrets on my part,” I say now, addressing my father’s reproachful voice in my head. “I avenged myself for all the time killed.”

“Still, they might have come in useful someday,” Olga interjects thoughtfully. “I don’t know, maybe I’ll write a book about it when I’m old—say, when I’m forty. My childhood in the dark Soviet times. Torments of an artistic soul in the period of oppression. That sort of thing.” She giggles. “Or not. At the very least I could have shown those horrors to my offspring: See, children, don’t complain, your life could have been so much worse!”

“Thinking rather ahead, are you not?”

“Well, children are a given, I guess. Or don’t you want them?”

After a decade of sharing dreams, fears, and long, bedbound stretches of illness, we frequently borrow each other’s quirks of speech and our facial expressions likewise often mirror each other’s, but Olga’s eyes appear more focused than mine, and there is more resolve, more ambitious drive, in her face, in the thin lips that she purses with firmness. She always knows just what she wants before I am even aware of the choices. I do not know whether or not I want children; the notion seems irrelevant to me, and I have not given it much consideration. What I do not want, I think with sudden ferocity, is a small life—a life of mundane concerns, of fulfilled expectations, of commonplaces and banalities, of children’s sore throats, of grandmother’s apple pies, of fussy nineteenth-century porcelain—a life within four walls. I set down my cup, carefully but quickly; the streaks of soot, I notice, have dimmed the gilt a little.

“I would like to go to other places,” I say with a vehemence that startles me. “New places. Strange places. Not to have a house anywhere but just travel from place to place, smell it, taste it, describe it, remember it all, then move on . . .”

“I want to go to America,” Olga announces. “I could work there when I get my journalism degree. Do you ever wonder where you’ll be at forty?”

I understand that one is expected to muse upon one’s future on this momentous threshold of adulthood, but all the same, this predictable question makes me feel vaguely depressed, as if casting into instant doubt the smoky, bright, liberating hour by the fire, robbing it of color and life, flattening it into some artificial rite of passage indulged in solely for the sake of future reminiscing:
Ah yes, I too was young once, I too was full of rebellion and revelry, I laughed free and wild by the fire, I dreamed of glory on a moonlit summer night . . .
For as I sit on my beloved dacha balcony, watching the translucent June light tiptoe deeper into shadows, listening to the whistle of a faraway train, breathing in the aroma of lindens, I catch myself cataloguing the world around me, coining it into pocket-size verbal snapshots (the “soft dusk”—the “melancholy train”—the “dizzying smells”), to be retrieved at a convenient future date as a prepackaged nostalgia exhibit, or worse, as well-worn currency for some insipid poem.

BOOK: Forty Rooms
14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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