Excerpt from Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Forty Rooms

by Olga Grushin

Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin X
Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin
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  • Published:
    Feb 2016, 352 pages

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Poornima Apte
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"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 faint 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 long pale tresses over my mother's jewelry box, which she is holding 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 shimmer 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 princess-like 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 is a mermaid – handling that box as though she owns it.

Excerpted from Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin. Copyright © 2016 by Olga Grushin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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