This One Time, 36

This one time I was buried up to my knees in shaded, cold loam full of wriggling life, wrapped by green vines covered in tiny yellow flowers, with my face pressed into the flank of an antelope. Moments later I was face down on sunwarmed stone, one hand in a puddle of rose-scented laundry water, spitting from the taste of dry cactus bones. Then I was on my back, lying on air, adrift in a vapor of new cotton, sliced cucumbers, gin, old cigar tobacco, and rotted leather.

My grandmother’s first husband had been a perfumer. They had managed to escape Paris for Switzerland when the Germans came, though he managed to die from food poisoning within a month of their escape. They had somehow left Paris with a full trunk of bottled essences, which was possibly used as the excuse for their travel in the first place. I forget the story, but I remembered the trunk. And when my grandmother died, thirty years after the death of my father, it passed to me.

In transit the the US from Switzerland via Holland, with my father as a tiny child, the boat they traveled on encountered some rough weather. Or maybe it had even been fired upon by a submarine. No one had the story anymore. The research was beyond me. But nearly every bottle in the trunk had broken or come uncorked, and all of the essences and oils and resins had escaped into the wads of padding or into the case itself. The case was well sealed and waterproof. My grandmother had left it sealed for the most part and had opened it only once a year, and then only for the first five or six years, on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death.

And thanks to that trunk, I knew what it was like to be surrounded by snakes in a pit of damp sand, warmed by a lump of burning camphor. Or wearing a suit made of seaweed and strips of green birch with a lump of musky alabaster in my mouth.

The nose cheats. There is no other way to put it. You can be walking along, minding your own business, and then a whiff of something can yank you out of yourself and drop you forty years into your past into a recollection that has to be real just based on the strength of it, but otherwise would never have been revisited. Cinnamon-roasted almonds, diesel fumes and fish guts. Cherry blossoms raining from a snow-tainted sky. Mud from the back of a tortoise. A green-stained handful of shredded leaves and fresh bright blood from stripping a thorny vine through your fist. An elephant upwind, accompanied by fresh paint and cotton candy. Seared flesh and charcoal and lighter fluid and the smell of a young girl’s screams and tears. Dyed silk and formaldehyde and nail polish and the wrong shampoo.

But the nose cheats worse than that. It will take you to places you have never been, to impossible places that have never, that could never, exist.

I opened the trunk a whole inch and let it slip closed. And then I was in the presence of burning plastic wrapping lemon-soaked boiled eggs, put out by damp blankets of rabbit fur. Again: a mouthful of slivers of tin and dried beans and hair glued to porcelain dolls. Again: a head-to-toe shroud of lavender-laundered lace and a pillow of onionskin pages. Again: the warm glow of the inside of an old tube radio, burning dust and dessicated spiders and a hidden love note with a single pressed orchid. Again: a flurry of feathers and diaper-rash ointment and brilliant red magnolia seeds.

The fluttering light changed with every slam of the trunk lid. Outside the draperied window, the wind drove a flurry of heavy clouds past the sun, but the light brightened or darkened at the slamming of the lid, accompanying the whooshing of impossible years and incalculable, improbable distance. Distant power lines moaned and screeched at the strain on the boundaries of reality.

Breathless, finally breathless and wiping away tears, I put my head on the top of the trunk and breathed in the here-and-now scent of old wood, leather-wrapped brass hinges, old books, pipe ashes, dry-rotted quilts, death from long illness, and the discarded dander of many dozens of known and marked and dutifully buried years.

But I never forgot that escape was just on the other side of the lid.


February 5, 2011 · by xalieri · Posted in This One Time  


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