Friday, December 16, 2011

Past Matters

Hey everyone. So that Slate piece got me all riled up on Wednesday, so I postponed this week's publication to today. It's a short story titled Past Matters, and it's one that will fill all five senses, with a certain olfactory emphasis. It comes from Sabine Sur, a writer, a translator and a knitter, which in her words means "she knits narratives, writes from one culture into another and translates patterns into garments." Enjoy!

Past Matters
Sabine Sur

Today Carina could not smell a thing, even though she had just tried out a new perfume. She could merely make out a waft of pink berries. Forget about it, she thought. I’m glad I only got a sample. She had been told that she should wait about fifteen minutes until the head notes gave way to the heart note, where this fragrance really came into its own, but if it was so weak after a couple of spritzes there was no use hoping for more. She decided not to scrub it off her skin because she had no time this morning and she had been long enough in the bathroom already.

Carina was looking for a new fragrance; so she was collecting samples, disappointments and almost-but-not-quites. All the women of her family considered scent to be very important, and a daughter’s thirteenth birthday was the occasion to give her her first perfume bottle, chosen after a complex ritual of subtle questions about favourite smells, and character observation. Carina had been offered a scent of citrus, jasmine and oak-moss: a cheerful, obstinate scent, with so much presence some might have said it was invasive.

But Carina was no longer thirteen and after she had gone through a variety of fragrances—flirty gardenia, sedate and gourmand rose, distant iris sheltered in a secret garden—, she wanted to find a perfume with longevity and spice, but no sourness. She would have loved to wear her mother’s and her grandmother’s scent, a warm and comforting oriental, but her skin made it go awry. So she looked for a scent to the same effect and tried mainstream brands, designer brands, supermarket brands, niche brands, stopping by perfume shops she passed by or going out of her way ordering samples on obscure brand websites, but nothing had come of it so far.

Five minutes later, she had put on the clothes that she had laid out the night before and was making breakfast: hot chocolate for her daughter, tea for her, toasted bread and fresh butter; rich smells that made her forget today’s wispy perfume. She looked at the clock. Clearly her little darling had not heard the alarm and was oversleeping, again.

When she was about to open the door to her daughter’s room, standing in the corridor, she felt out of place. Something unknown was wrong and she felt a knot in her throat. She closed her eyes.

When she opened them again, she was a child and her mother was hugging her. Carina whispered a few words into her ear, and concluded by kissing her cheek. When Carina moved away she saw her grandmother sitting at the back of the room, gesturing her to come closer. She ran to her; her mother followed. The two women cuddled her and told her all sorts of niceties, as they always did: my beautiful, my sweet, my wonderful, words filled with motherly love, an ordinary, daily love that was bigger than themselves.

When they kissed her, some of their scent clung on to her clothes.

“This house is yours, explore it as you will,” her grandmother told her. “The scent will guide you. But be careful: you should only open the doors that it will lead you to.”

Carina felt their loving eyes as she left. She was at her grandmother’s, a wooden house by the sea that always smelled of salty air.

The scent directed her to specific places by wafting closer to her nose at times. At the beginning, when she had smelled it on them, it had seemed a bit too strong, but now it was delicious, a bit peppery but sweet, was it ambergris? It smelled like old ladies and clothes so worn they were more than comfortable. Weren’t her mother and her grandmother old ladies, imposing and fragile, tender giants whose smell was a reminder of their love?

As she opened the doors she had the joy of finding her toys scattered on the floor and the ancient furniture. She was dumbfounded when, rummaging in a chest of drawers, she found love letters written in violet ink on thin paper, dating from the last century. She tried to remember what is was that she had whispered to her mother. She had the feeling that it mattered, but it eluded her memory. The thought distracted her and she opened the wrong door.

She was in a hospital room. Her mother, looking tired, was sitting by the bed where her grandmother lay. There was an empty chair where Carina sat. The sick and exhausted body in the bed became her mother’s and she was holding her hand. Her mother’s lips moved and she got closer to her; she had to hear what her mother would say. The words she had been looking for came back to her then and the two women spoke them together.

“Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death...”

She was a grown woman helping her mother pass away, and she was a little girl on her mother’s lap; sitting so close, she could smell her scent, a faded smell, sweet with a hint of pungency, the smell of a mature woman, the trace of the fragrance applied yesterday, the one she had started to wear when her body was vibrant with health. The perfume covered the hospital smells. All that subsided between them was the memory of their shared years, Carina’s entire childhood.

“My daughter...”

Carina was surprised to hear her own voice. She was kneeling before her little darling’s bed and held her hand. On Carina’s arm, the perfume was exhaling its heart note, the magical note she had tried to find for so long.

Her little darling opened her eyes and Carina remembered with a shock that every woman in her family had the same green eyes. She remembered the day when her mother’s ashes had been scattered over the sea. Other traces of her, lying in her own genes, like her gestures, and her taste for spices, had been disseminated and thrived; and she was happy to have recovered by chance, with this scent, what she had missed so much: her smell and the memory of her love.


  1. This is beautiful. I love the blending of scents and family heritage. It feels very Eastern.