“The Nose of the World” * Fiction * Amber Burke

Because you are good to me, and because I pity you for all the things you do not know, and because I want you to understand me, I will tell you how the world smells. If you could know the truth of it, you would wake up the way I wake up, besieged, inveigled, incredulous, impatient, the iridescent scent of hummingbirds already burning my nostrils: the smells, the smells! I need you to open the door so I can throw myself into the rosemary dawn and breathe in the sun at its nectarine-sweetest, before it takes on its the straw-hat smell of midday, the coal engine smell of late afternoon. (Though it is true that the moon has a refreshing oyster smell, and if the moon is out during the day, its smell cools even the hottest sky.)

Let me try to explain. You might smell the doughy heat of the wet noodle you hold up for me to bite; I smell the beeswax hands of the noodle-maker, and the blubbery water the noodle boiled in, and the sweetpea metal of the pot that held the water, and the mossy pipes the water ran through, and the journey the water made, again and again, from the aloe of the upper atmosphere to the barnyard of the earth. I smell the needle heat of the stovetop, and in the stove’s metal, among countless other things, I smell its inventor, as I smell the inventors of all machines.  These are boring: genius and industry do not much matter to me. What matters: Does a person smell kind: like a bone, like a leash, like a ball?

When you go, I’m not alone: I’m here with the smells of the forest still in the floorboards, the great longing in the red oak for the shuddering leaps of flying squirrels. I can smell the gasoline sweat of the men who built these rooms and the puckering sweetness of apples they ate. I catch the almondine odor of daddy-long-legs in the corners, the paint under the paint on the walls: some layers smell like cigars, some pickle, some tin. I can smell in the walls the crumbs of the bones of long-dead mice. I will tell you a secret: living mice smell very much like cats, the two of them married by scent, bound up in a smell-union of predator and prey.

I smell my waiting for you: it smells like my leash.

I nap in my bed under my blanket that smells like plaid—all plaid smells like sweet potatoes and leeks—and my dreams of rabbits and of you. Then I nap in your bed. Even better than mine! It emanates your dusky sleep-smells, the faraway cobblestone smells of your dreams.

Time passes with its dusty-fanblade smell, and, the better to see your return through the window, I sit atop the table, which smells like all the meals that were ever on it, and me. I smell the window I’m looking out, waiting; the silkworm smell of the glass tinges all the smells that come through, the green incense wafting always from the trees and the leaves and the grass. I wish you could smell the clouds, just once, as I do: meringues of unrained rain, and no way to get them! Clouds tease. So do the birds in the trees: the heart-warmth of their muscles enrobed in a newborn smell of their deepest feathers, uncatchable!

It is a spring smell, this bird smell; it trills above the effervescence of the curled wings of insects still in eggs and leaves still in stems and sprouts still in the earth. How I await the shoe smell of summer! Winter. Winter smells like bells and snow. Snow! When it first falls, snow rings with the unbearably bright smell of ginger. Fall, fall is too much for me; fall smells like memories, which themselves smell like the undersides of ancient bricks and the packed-earth in colosseum basements.

At last, you’re back, as bedecked with scents as any merchant returned from the spice routes. You pick up my leash, which smells of my waiting for you and every walk we’ve ever taken: we’re going where we always go, where I always want to go, to the path that smells like yesterday, and the day before, each day distinct. It is a calendar and a map: in it I read the roving of all the dogs in the neighborhood, all the dogs who used to be in the neighborhood, and the dogs who visited the neighborhood once. Footprints tell me who travels alone and who has companions and who is loved by whom. I can smell the pungent presence of every raccoon, the skunks breathing softly under houses. I smell the birdseed smell of squirrels sleeping in the trees. I know when and where the stray coyote, my wild relative, trotted with its piss-and-carcass reek.

I put my nose to the dirt, and, under the pawprints, the shoeprints, I catch the violin-string smell of sleeping crickets, the licorice scent of the deepest tree roots and, down deeper, the warm-bear musk of the hulking planet itself. I catch, at times, the whiff of roundness of the earth, which has the round smell of all round things, of wheels, of nests, of my ball…

A new day, one that is special, not just because of the eclipse that I can smell coming like ocean wind through a sail, but because I am going somewhere with you. In the car, my ears can smell the air rushing with the celery smell of speed; then comes the pioneer smell of us on a hike somewhere new, a tent on your back. No, not new: under the footsteps of thousands, I discover your tracks and mine from when we were here years ago; those smell like then. In the stones, I sniff books, blood, sweet corn, the peppery steps of scuttling lizards, the metal-polish smell of snakebellies. Some stones smell like the eggs of prehistoric lizards, and some are made from sooty coughs of long-lost volcanoes.  I don’t have to look down to avoid the cacti: I can smell the iron of their thorns.

Tent pitched on a cool, wormy patch of earth, you throw my ball so I can bound in the sagebrush: my ball, my ball! I fetch it again and again, my ball whose far-off bounces fill me with the horsey smell of purpose! But all around me, the smell of the rabbits in the bushes and under fallen logs is ballooning into one great buffalo-hide smell of rabbits! They’re everywhere, but I can’t see them; I’m going mad with the smell of hidden rabbits. I have to run: Rabbits!

The rabbits lead me astray with their rabbit trickery, my ball joins the ranks of things lost forever, and you are calling me from afar with words I can’t understand, so addled am I by smells, so overmastered am I by smells, smells that make me forget about the rabbits, smells I’ve never smelled, the ecstasies, the rhapsodies, of new smells, smells without words yet, smells that will never have words…

The marine smell of the twilight falling is a relief; down mists the seashell smell of the stars in the blackening lagoon of the sky.  The Milky Way: a spume of seafoam. I’m alone in the night pretending to be a coyote, pretending I don’t smell of your love, watching the eclipse prow in with its new-ship scent. During the moon’s darkening, the constellations—which look like bones, like leashes, like balls–grow brighter and it is easier to smell the briny light of the stars behind the stars and the fishing net smell of the beginning of this old universe and, the huge, barnacled, bensnailed boats of the old, old universes before this one, universes that mean nothing to me because I wasn’t in them, and you weren’t.

The moon is coming back; I am coming back. My ball, a miracle: I take it in my mouth! I am running back to the tent that has you in front of it, by a fire; I can smell the fire. I can smell the future. I can smell my return to you, and the sweetness of that return, which is half of why I run away; I can smell my leash, which smells like my love for you, and like your love for me. I can smell the rest of my life. I can smell its end, and yours.

You don’t think I know what death is, but I do. I can smell the coffin satin already on old hands. I can smell our mortality in us, like our time is a fire and our deaths are coyotes in the dank batwings of the shadows beyond, and I know the time after our deaths is a scentless forest that goes on and on. But even when we’re gone, even when we’re long gone, some brave souls will put their brilliant noses to the earth and know by our intertwined scents that we were here on it, at the same time, traveling together, and that I loved you, and you loved me. In footprints that smell of then, they will read of the bygone days when I told you true stories of invisible riches, when I would have, for you, caught all the perfumes of Earth’s farthest reaches and brought them to you in a ball. How my heart would have smelled as I laid my world at your feet: like the leather breastplate of the proudest knight.

Where have you been? Where did you go?


—About Amber Burke—

I graduated from Yale and the Writing Seminars MFA Program at Johns Hopkins University Now I teach writing and yoga at UNM-Taos.  Some of my recent work has been published in magazines including The Sun, Michigan Quarterly Review, Flyway, X-R-A-Y, Quarterly West, The Gravity of the Thing, and Superstition Review. I’m also a regular contributor to Yoga International, which has published over 100 of my articles and the yoga ebook I co-authored, Yoga for Common Conditions. You can read some of my work at Amber Burke Writing.