We were walking through my friend Rikki’s yard to the house, straight through garden beds crunchy with new-laid pine needles all warmed up in spring sun. I caught a big whiff of those pine needles. When that fragrance funnels up my nose, I imagine a forest in the high Sierras and my entire body goes into a melt, like when someone rubs my head.
I stopped right there and told Rikki this and she looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “What smell?” she said. I shrugged. Maybe not everyone likes that woody, sweetish scent that turns on in the heat; maybe where I’ve landed, in the deep South, it’s not special.
We went inside the house together—we were doing that again, post-vaccine—and I gave her that same look back. Everywhere was fragrance: a perfume of rushing waves saturated the laundry, pumpkin and cinnamon burned from tabletop candles, and tropical rain plug-ins showered the bathroom. And in the place where Rikki’s neck kissed her ear, fields of flowers left their bouquet. So much smell it almost hurt. Those pine needles never had a chance with her.
I didn’t understand it: why squander this gift of the nose? For some of us, smell went away during the sick. While it was gone, it turned out to be a bigger loss than we’d ever imagined.
Toast was burned, kitchens were set afire, babies sat in soaked diapers all day long. Worse, though, was that the world went a little flat; something was missing in every moment. Conjuring the fragrances in the mind—the coffee, the baking bread, the rain on pavement—didn’t always work. How do you remember a scent?
Rikki didn’t really lose her smell—it was just off for a day or two. For me, it was weeks. I practiced at it. Looked everywhere for the smells. I ground coffee beans, put those fresh grounds up to my nose and in my head repeated the word: “coffee, coffee, coffee.”
Cutting open an orange, I held the rind to my nostrils, opened my mouth to take in the fruit. “Orange, orange, orange,” I chanted like a mantra.
I poured out bourbon but didn’t drink it. Just swirled it in a glass, snorted those caramel fumes, touched the liquid to my lips to feel the burn. Said, “whiskey” in threes, like an incantation.
I put chocolate on my tongue—bitter chocolate, milk chocolate—and let it melt there, saying, “chocolate, chocolate, chocolate comes from cacao beans,” calling it back to me, like a spell.
And during that long year when it seemed I might never see the West, or my mountains again, I’d stand in piles of pine needles on a sunny day, and whisper to myself, “tree, tree, tree,” and then, “home, home, home.” I’d wait for those needles to heat up, and inhale. Deep.
Adrienne Pilon is a writer, editor and teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her family.