The Smell

Sir Lewis wrinkled his nose and turned his head this way and that. It smelled of animal waste, neglect and something overripe. He was wearing evening clothes, on his way to a concert. Perfume hid the highest notes of the ripeness, the rancid smell of unwashed body. Sir Lewis always arrived late to avoid the throngs. He was approaching a string of concertgoers, well-clad, the tail-end of the audience. He headed toward his personal box to which he never invited anyone. He went for his own enjoyment and that did not include offensive body odors, small talk and insincere smiles. He wore his own brand of formal wear. To an untrained eye, Sir Lewis could have been mistaken for the maestro in his black coat and tails, but the white silk cravat and elegant pin were uniquely his own.

He settled in his box for the soiree, as the lights dimmed. The concert was about to start. To his dismay, the cloying smell hit his nostrils just as he was opening himself to the first notes. He started wondering if it was emanating from himself and checked the soles of his shoes. He was relieved to find them immaculate. Other boxes were full of white-haired patrons, the ladies in evening wear sporting high-powered binoculars they trailed on the guests in the other boxes. The music was incidental to their enjoyment of the evening.

He tried to relax into the music, but he could only taste the villainy of the smell. Ten minutes in, there was the discreet knock as a bottle of champagne in its iced bucket was quietly wheeled in. Uncharacteristically, he turned to catch the wait staff’s eye. They were well-trained both in avoidance tactics and reading body language. This was a senior gentleman, soberly dressed with an impressive mustache. One expected to see him wearing a monocle. He was rotound, like the Monopoly man, and dressed similarly. Sir Lewis motioned him near. “Dear man, can you smell this foul odour?” The man inhaled, then wrinkled his forehead and nose in alarm. “Oh dear,” he uttered and raised a gloved hand to his mouth in alarm. He was momentarily flustered, but thinking on his feet he said “I will return shortly.”

True to his word, the door opened again before long and in he came accompanied by a young man with shoulder-length hair and a borrowed jacket. The young man nodded to Sir Lewis and methodically searched the floor with a flashlight, finally whispering something to the older gentleman who had been standing motionless by the door. The waiter approached Sir Lewis and murmured, “We are quite certain the smell is coming from the adjoining box on the left. We will attend to this. In the meanwhile, the dignitaries would welcome you if you so desire.” Sir Lewis was a man of action. He nodded his thanks and followed the gentleman to the dignitaries’ box where he was indeed welcome. He knew most of the faces, if not personally, then by virtue of their standing. All this movement was done in semi-darkness as to not disturb the musicians or people’s enjoyment of the concert more than necessary. He was painfully aware of the other bodies around him.

To mask his unease, he grabbed a pair of binoculars adorning his seat. Every armchair was similarly endowed. He watched the box where the old man and the youth were performing their cleverly disguised search. They had wheeled in a small cart with an assortment of drinks which they proceeded to offer. An old woman in a splendid sequined gray dress with matching pearls and badly applied lipstick was escorted out. He thought he saw a large dark spot on her backside. A lady-in-waiting accompanied her. Without waiting to be fetched, he hurried out to intercept the pair. As soon as he turned the corner, the stench hit him. He looked into her unfocused eyes. They were the colour of a stormy sea, and the fog in her mind blanketed them. She was impeccably coiffed, but missing a diamond earring. She had stuck a diamond stud in its stead. He bowed and said, “Madam” as the lady-in-waiting, crimson from embarrassment, hurried past him.

The old lady was inching by and he could ascertain without doubt that she was indeed the source of the smell.  She was shaking her head and complaining, “But why do we need to leave? I want to stay for the concert.” She whirled her cane in wild arabesques. She had stopped her progress and stood transfixed, humming with the music. He started listening through her ears and felt her performing in Venice in its splendid opera house La Fenice. He had heard her as a boy, transfixed by her virtuosity. He approached the women and addressed the white-haired dean. “Lady Daniella, I am Sir Lewis, a long-time fan. Champagne is waiting for you in my humble box. I hope you will not be disappointed with the view. I am afraid the choice of location was based on the best place to hear, not to see.” He took her arm and walked her back to his seat, and handed her a flute of champagne. The old waiter had seen the development, and he came back with canapes and extra flutes.

Sir Lewis was a true gentleman, quick to remedy his faux pas. He blocked out the smell. At the intermission, the lady-in-waiting and Lady Daniella exited. On their return, lady Daniella exclaimed, “Can you believe it? I’m wearing a diaper.” She pointed her cane accusingly towards her companion. “She said I smelled!” When he didn’t answer, she added, “My hearing is still exquisite, but my other senses fail me.” They chatted until the lights dimmed again and the music started in earnest. His charge had fallen asleep, mismatched earrings and all.

The mushroom picker

Basket. Galoshes. Hat. Yesterday’s paper, cut in single pages. Small knife. Tired pocket guide. Basket. Oh, I said that. Well, it bears repeating. Kaito straightens his back and heads for the woods. He loves nothing more than these moist hunting days, before the sun rays get too insistent and desiccate the delicate spores. He heads for a shady spot where he’s been finding abundant crops this year. He is not alone in his obsession, yet few people wave or acknowledge each other. They have their noses to the ground, so to speak, intent on the pungent new life.

The basket is slowly filling up, each type of mushroom rolled up in a different page to keep them separate and dry. He has chosen the pages with care. No finances nor scandals. Affairs of the heart and environment news seemed appropriate company for his charges. The new light has a rich golden hue that gives the mushrooms an unusual glow. He picks a few, crumbles older ones to encourage new growth. The mushrooms are sons and daughters of the rain and soil. He breathes them in. He does not rely as much on his tired eyes for identification as he once did. Unless you count the fingers as antennas. His smell is still keen – a hint of humus, a hint of thyme, copious garlic.

He’s looking for light dots, firm and in groups. He sees pebbles, leaves, a mushroom past its prime. He’s way off the beaten track. He knows these woods by heart, has been picking mushrooms here before it was a fad. Like anything you do for a long time, there are patterns you repeat, and rules you abide by. Today, his heart is not at rest. Last night, the stray Riku did not come to his door. It’s the fourth night in a row where he hasn’t come. Kaito is concerned and a bit distracted. He was considering skipping mushroom picking today and walking around the neighborhood to see if he could spot him and make sure he’s all right. But the weather was so perfect, he reasoned with himself and went anyway. He just walked past a fine specimen, but he was looking further up, and in this way he’s not been too successful.

On top of a small hill, he sees a rare mushroom. His heart skips a beat. He slowly takes his field guide out of his pouch. Yes, yes, the soil on the mound must indeed be different. He looks around. He is alone. He picks up a stick for support and starts climbing. He stops to rest. It’s not much of a hill but he’s not much of a climber. He looks at what grows around the mushroom. It fits with the description. Knife in hand, he bends to gently cut it and… falls over. He doesn’t realize he’s down all at once. Eyes fixed on the mushroom, he cuts it and gently brushes the soil off its foot. He sniffs it. It’s got a pleasant shrimplike smell. He wraps it by itself and puts it in the basket with the others. He’s not sure why he fell but the ground is soft, and he needs to catch his breath. He’s not hurt, perhaps a bit dizzy. He didn’t have breakfast before leaving. He was hoping for a mushroom omelet on his return.

He looks around. This stretch of land looks foreign to him. He looks for the sun past the tall trees. The sky is overcast. He is feeling a bit cold. He should get moving but he’s suddenly not sure which direction he came from.

They find his body, days later, the mushrooms spoiled but a mycologist is able to identify the rare one. He makes the news. “A mushroom is not worth a life.” Still, they cannot find the spot from where the mushroom was picked. The man must have walked in circles, looking for the trail. His shoes were caked in mud. He was old, with no extra reserves of fat. A fine mushroom picker, nonetheless. His son is sad but proud. He keeps the clipping in his wallet and shows it to those who ask.


No Words

I scream but my cries are lost in the general mayhem. I listen and wait. I remember nightmares when I was a child. My screams would wake me up, but no one would come. I would scream again, with less conviction, and listen some more. Nobody stirred. Uneasily, I would fall back to sleep. I was a poor sleeper, in my early years. The family moved around the country, my father unable to settle down, and I would sleepwalk, fall out of bed, and generally have sleeping issues. Nevertheless, I was always full of whim and vigour when morning came, the night terrors forgotten, eager to face a new day.

These days, the dislocation is internal. I am not so much moved as unmoored from my familiar signposts. I scream to express my desire to be heard. If I don’t scream, how will they know I am alive? I remember getting Sparky from the kennel, his vocal cords all used up from the incessant barking. We never left him there after that traumatic experience. Will someone rescue me too? Will I have to stay in this hellhole? The noise is deafening, but it’s also a blessing. I am not alone in my fight. We are tied to the bed, not enough helpers for our lot.

I am wet. Wet and hungry. I can no longer talk, but I can still remember when my Marjorie was in hospital to get her tonsils out. She was so agitated that they had tied her down. I was shocked and had them untie my child. She cried in my arms as I fed her Jell-O. I hope I get green Jell-O. It’s my favourite. The nurses’ aid is changing my nappy. I don’t really care who sees my bottom. I only care to be dry. She tells me we will be fed soon and wipes the drool off my chin. What a mess.

The effort to eat is enough to tire me out. I fall asleep only to be woken up by screams. It is night, but you wouldn’t know it. The lights in the corridor are not even dimmed. They hurt my eyes. I close them again and will away the sound. When I was a young mother, I took meditation classes. We were shown how to integrate the ambient noise into our meditation. I have always found this approach the best one for me. If you can’t beat them, join them. The bars of the bed are raised, in effect preventing me from getting up and going to the bathroom. I press the red button for help but soil myself before the overworked aid arrives. He smiles to say he’s sorry, dries me gently and moves me around. I am getting bedsores.

It is morning. I hear distant cries. The person seems to be in pain. I feel okay this morning. My head is clear; I slept well without a sleeping aid. My nurse stops by, all smiles. I want to ask her about her new sweetheart. I smile what I hope is a conspirational smile. She only needs that nudge to spill out the beans. She shoves a ringed finger under my nose. “He proposed!” I beam at her. She beams back. “You’re the first one I’ve told. Here. I mean, outside of my family.” I love that she is so precise, so eager to be truthful. I touch my chest to show I am moved. She hugs me and tends to my needs. I hear whimpering. She stops in alarm. “Did I hurt you? Those bedsores are nasty. I will put a note on your chart, so you will be moved more often. Would you like to be wheeled to the common room?” I nod. She calls an aid and gives her order. “Move her to the common room an hour before lunch and wheel her by the window, will you? With a blanket because of the drafts. And feed her there if she is not too tired.” She winks at me and heads to her next charge. The aid grumbles but complies.

The mobile ones come to the common room, but the neglected ones stay in bed. The aid actually brushes my hair and changes my gown after bathing me. I feel alive. I watch the birds, their cries distant and joyous. I don’t feel like screaming today. I will give my vocal cords a rest. There is so much life out there, beyond the window. Cars, and clouds, and birds. People hurrying and people sitting. Someone speaking on the phone, another eating a sandwich. I eat too. They wheel me to a table with three other residents. We don’t look at each other. We are intent on not spilling the grub and getting it down our throats without choking. It’s a task that takes focus and determination. I am spent. I am wheeled back to my room for the afternoon. Marjorie comes while I am sleeping. The nurse says I’ve had a good day. I smile in my sleep and she leaves. Later, I see a bouquet of lilies of the valley, my favourites. I hope she comes back.