In her latest novel, Forty Rooms, Potomac-based writer Olga Grushin presents a construct, that a modern woman will inhabit 40 rooms in her lifetime, and that these rooms form her biography. As a child, the protagonist knows the bathroom of her Moscow apartment; later rooms will be in America. Published by Marian Wood Books/Putnam, the book explores a woman’s identity and the choices that face her, as embodied in these rooms. You can find Forty Rooms at local booksellers and here and here.
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 tea- kettle 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 hand 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; open-mouthed 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, hav- ing 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 say?”
Her fingers click with impatience against the tub’s edge.
“They are different from 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 night 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.
From Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin, published in February by Marian Wood Books/Putnam, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Olga Grushin.