ow does this begin? With a smell that isn’t—the scent of myself, existing only to others. Hot blood: a visceral clash of its metallic echo with sterile instruments in the glaring room. The ozonic smell of oxygen-rich air exploring the freshness of new skin. I am a scent, but the world is still a cacophony—of senses yet unrecognisable, unravelled.
The wonder of skin and softness, olfactory impressions of biological emotion. A world of perfume mimics the memory of new tenderness. The gentle rhubarb and milk of Burberry Baby Touch, Nenuco Agua de Colonia’s Spanish citrus, the Royal Violets of Agustín Reyes, innumerable French creations—Guerlain Petit Guerlain, Bonpoint Eau de Senteur. Pistachio and honey, rose and lilac, neroli and orange blossom. To be laden, ripe with fruit, flowers, child: knowledge. Flora in Botticelli’s Primavera, unflinching in her gaze.
3. Omoide*, Keiko
Mother: the biology of her Japanese culture rendering her odour silent, something I will consider a fault later on in my adolescent body, loud in its pungency. There is no bodily scent to remember, even though my face once rested against her breasts; the taste of her milk had no smell to me. In its place, a persona of artificial olfactory puzzle-pieces, mostly Revlon—smooth rich ones of blue Moon Drops toner, liquid foundation, almost glutinous. The high-pitched black ink of eyeliner like her sumi-e** block, powdery-mineral ovals of eyeshadow. Red lipstick, the most perfumed of all with its rose and violets. She did not wear perfume, but years later confessed a love of Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps soap, which her older sister had sometimes bought for her. Decades later, when my father died, she would sniff from his collection of scents to bring him back for a moment or two.
Where there are omoide, there is always scent.
4. No. 3
Anosmia: the inability to smell or detect certain scents. How strange to be unaware of the beginning of one’s own existence, the most important time next to death in a life. To appear awash in a mother’s blood, but to smell nothing. The shock of presence, and perhaps absence: the womb vacated. For my mother, the same shock, overwhelming in its animal scent. To smell everything I cannot as we lie together for the first time—she in a red moment, I in its opposite, like Rothko’s painting No. 3 (1953).
5. I Am
Naked, but without Eve’s realisation, lying on a heavy, padded, silk kimono that covers a bed in my parents’ room. Having been bathed, I lie there in a shaft of bright sunlight, a window open next to me, a warm breeze blowing through the screen from the garden below. I can smell, but it is abstract, something that amazes me now: it was not something solid like flowers or grass that I recall, simply the all-encompassing yet nondescript scents of warmth, air, sunlight on silk. Moved by an interest for the first time not born of instinctual demand, like that for a breast or to be held. Something in that small self says I am, and this is the world.
Olfactory snapshots: Walter Benjamin, writing on Karl Blossfeldt’s photographs of plants, speaks of mutation, ‘ . . . one of the deepest, least fathomable forms of creativity . . . accommodating and assenting, pliant and something that finds no end, artful and pervasive.’ Of all the senses, smell embodies this the most, having the least tangible constraints. The origins of scents—chemical, biological—matter less than their interpretations, especially in childhood, where discovery must be allowed to journey ad astra. The balletic leap from molecules to mimesis, structure to story.
7. Three Fruits of a Tree
The sweet, dark wood and slightly curved metal tines of a kalimba—cleanly metallic, the scent clinging to my aching thumbs after playing it. It smells hollow and haunting, but this is my young mind conflating sound and scent. The soft flour of glossed cardboard Greek alphabet blocks: purple, periwinkle, yellow . . . Alpha, Beta, Upsilon, Chi, my father says. The homely camphor of small, patterned furoshiki beanbags, which my mother, laughing, juggles with ease—a remembrance from her own girlhood. These are some of my toys.
8. A Disruption
The zoo: an old, red-painted, iron 10-cent crank machine that spills out messy handfuls of grain for the animals, dry and golden, what the sun smells like. Standing on a low stone ledge that encloses the goats, held against my father’s body so I can watch them; they gaze back with lazy wisdom. Their scent—gamey, I am told laughingly—is unpleasant, but the way it disturbs my thoughts is not, for I think of it often without knowing why.
9. The Explorer
There is a garden, divided by light and shade. Redcurrants and strawberries thickly wrapped in the wine and jam scent of roses, bitter marigolds with their frilled saffron heads in the sun. The dark, however, is where I prefer to explore: evergreen bushes casting such heavy shadows that no grass grows, only dense and spongey moss. I cannot resist touching, breathing in, the scent of moist, black soil, fresh decay of oak and maple leaves blown under. A small arbour where leaves and vines have overrun, older spiral twigs that clench onto anything in its path like the hands of the dead. Elsewhere, green shoots reach out in quiet new invasions. Clusters of dusty-skinned, tart, purple grapes, which I extend my hands to, feeling the weight and curves of each bunch: sensuous harbingers. The wish to sit there for all time, inhaling, becoming—Daphne without the chase—its woody-sour scents, the high, bitter smell of buds and pips crushed between my teeth and fingers. Nearby, a haphazard carpet of buttery-sharp lilies-of-the-valley flanked by crisp, almost scentless Lamprocapnos spectabilis with their fleshy droplets—flowers resembling a medieval rendering of a heart. This odd paradise, with its strange juxtaposition of pleasures and poisons.
10. First Desire
Through the gate is a parade of tiger lilies—rush-like green leaves and speckled orange heads, forever covered in sticky, powdered pollen. These are uninteresting to me. Instead what lies across—forbidden—the plants I go to again and again: Solarum dulcamara, bittersweet nightshade with its star-shaped purple flowers, red and green berries on skeletal clusters. Its red fruits are tomato-like in scent, sweeter than the unripe green of their siblings, yet all medicinal and poisonous. It lives wrapped around heavy pipes on the outside of the house next door—when I gather the berries, my hands are invisibly, indelibly permeated with their metallic reek. I go to the hot cement steps and kneel down, crushing the fruit with rocks to release that curious tangy green bitterness—because I do not dare fulfill my secret wish to bite into them—the pavement stained with juice for days, as is my sated desire. There is no better smell to me in the cloudless heat of Midwestern summer, but I wipe my hands carefully in the grass afterwards so that no one else may know of my pleasure.
Shyness manifests not as a withdrawal but a new openness in the senses, which communicates as much as voice. To emanate scent is to speak; to smell, listen.
12. A Waft of Identity
Camphor and rice, the two scents that were almost non-existent in other houses when I was growing up, the ones that marked me as different. When I smelled then in the houses of two Korean families whose children I came to know, I understood other: that we were bound in an olfactory understanding that no one else shared. Rice, soaked overnight then boiled the next day, and camphor, present in the mothballs that once stored my mother’s kimonos, have a way of remaining in the air. Our cultures are redolent when we walk through the door.
13. A World of One’s Own
Like Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar, who loses himself similarly to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in the wonderful abyss of singular thoughts, childhood explorations always begin narrowly focused, then burst wide into other realisations—some logical, others nonsensical . . . but who is to say which is which? The delight in discovered aromatic connections is that the world seems to speak to me alone, in a language of our creation.
14. Perdu et Trouvé
In Japan, to spend the summer with my mother’s family. The waft of rice is in every home, a symbol of welcome. To suddenly be enveloped in the scents that once alienated me is now a sense of being like others, rather than the other. The comforting anonymity of understood identity are the things my nose identifies here; even the ones I do not are somehow innate. Tart umeboshi plums, different seaweeds—the umami of seasoned nori to the sea and salt of wakame, bright, yellow, dried, pickled takuan radishes with their sweet stink, reminding me of the times my mother pickled red radishes with sugar and mirin. A stall is pointed out to me from where a pancake-like warmth emanates. Slanted, ordered rows under heat lamps full of fresh taiyaki, golden-brown fish-shaped cakes filled with sweet anko, adzuki bean paste. All of these are pieces of my puzzle.
15. For Pascal Quignard
Is a smell only a smell if one is aware of it? If colour exists without eyes which to see them with, then scent, also. But where are the ones lost to me in that time between unknowing and knowing? Do they reside in corners of my memory like long-forgotten webs, dusty with their phantom fragrances?
16. Another Country
I realise early on that my love of such things like the grape arbour and nightshade are not understood: my neighbours’ favourite smells are the plastic and artificial vanilla or fruit of their toys and dolls because there are no gardens, only dull and manicured lawns, wafting the faint bitterness of chemical fertilizer. These are not part of my olfactory language—rather, they are like memories of a visited country, when I go to their houses to play. The things that fascinate me are food or reminiscent of it: Play-Doh, its thick, almond scent like cookie doughs my mother makes; the sugar-glittered marzipan fruits at Christmas that I am torn between gazing at for hours and devouring immediately; the kransekage—Danish tiered ring cake I sometimes have on my birthday. The height of edible luxury is easy to prepare, and I marvel at the things that are not made as much as brought into a kind of alchemical life when invited to lunch. Unnatural, coloured powders are poured, whisked, set with water or milk, then heated, chilled, or frozen. I recognise what they are meant to be, scent-wise: cheese, lime, chocolate, red berries, and the peculiar magic of this simulacra.
To paraphrase the philosopher Vilém Flusser: in my memory, there are scents from various perfumes—artificial—as well as from flora, fauna, and objects. They don’t mean the same things. Each scent possesses its own atmosphere, and as a result, is a universe in itself. Of course, being a child, I cannot yet express this beyond feeling: even the memories I understand are my past experiences I could only explain to you as photographs that I feel. What I smell is a picture, but what I am beginning to understand is that these pictures are part of a story.
In the shop which sells nothing but spices, the barrels which hold them are larger than my child’s body. I consider their contents like that of familiar sandboxes, shaping fragrant replicas of myself in my imagination. Selves of sharp, rich, clove bud, high cinnamon, hot nutmeg and peppers, medicinal oregano, the smoothness of turmeric and saffron, the dried, sweet leaves which also scent my father’s Bay Rum. These smells connect and detach and reconnect with each other according to whim and desire, an olfactory decadence not unlike the visual ones of tapestries and rugs, but also telling of temperament like medieval humours: fluid and changeable. At home I would perch on the kitchen counter for hours, a cabinet door open, pulling down bottle after bottle, fingering the rough barks of whole spice and carefully rubbing powdered ones onto my skin. This was the most sophisticated perfume, one that smelled of time past and future, age and possibility. I forgot that spice shop as I grew older, until the day I opened a bottle of Serge Lutens’ Arabie. Dusty and knowing, they reopened the childhood barrels and sandbox of my possible selves, overflowing with spice and memory.
A wood and glass vitrine in the living room. Panelled with Fragonard-esque pastoral images, it holds a collection of ivory netsuke figurines, elaborately wrought tarnished metal and bamboo kiseru, eggshell porcelain teacups, stacks of fans fit to delight Balzac’s Cousin Pons. It is the last that enchant me the most: each in lacquered or plain wooden boxes, hinged or instead with a sliding panel, padded inside with silk, satin, and cotton. It is the first time I discover such aromatic woods: rich ebony, dry cedar, heady Mysore sandalwood that makes my throat close with alarming luxuriance. My favourite is made of the latter—its carved, paper-thin slats looking like a single piece of lace when opened, the slightest movement wafting its perfume into the room, languid and warm. Years later, Millennium Eve, I would feel my throat close again in familiarity at the heavy sandalwood of Guerlain Samsara in a Guernsey perfumery. I bought it immediately at the behest of my childhood self, pretending to be a great lady. It was on that night I would first discover what it meant to not be of the same class: a quaint semi-colonial import in the midst of the wealthy and aristocratic, masked in scent to disguise myself. No Lady—not even woman—but a child again, hiding behind an imaginary fan.
There is blood again. Not the bright, clean red of my entrance into the world—almost black, although it, too, is a new arrival. Contradictory in its reluctant presence, it is also persistent. Scented before seen, but instinctually expected. Out of the recesses, sanguine Mnemosyne appears. That day at the zoo, with its hot strange smell. A Polaroid of my birth-face, smiling and sticky with fluids. The women of Primavera. Overlapping scents, images, memories. The development of a body that will mark others, places, and time with its unique scent. What I will become, to be discovered.
21. The Beginnings of Creation
The structure of scent whispers to our identity—a Proustian conversation between the past, present, and future relationships of parent and child, the self both known and unknown. One can also be nostalgic for what has not yet happened, but hoped for. The development of a perfume: first, base notes, the most fleeting, sparkling like the oils from a twist of citrus rind. Melting into air to make way for the mid, or heart notes at the peak of ripeness and bloom, which in their turn yield to base notes—experience and memories well-worn on skin, aged like woods and precious resins. Childhood, adolescence, adulthood. I am gathering scents to become a bespoke creation: one that will not be revealed in its fragrant entirety until I have reached the bottle’s last drops.
* Japanese for memories.
** A calligraphy set: contains a block of black ink to which water is added and a smaller stone block applied to create the mixture.
Tomoé Hill's work has appeared in such publications as Socrates on the Beach, The London Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, 3:AM Magazine, Music & Literature, Numéro Cinq, and Lapsus Lima, as well as the anthologies We'll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books), Azimuth (Sonic Art Research Unit at Oxford Brookes University), and Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health (Dodo Ink). Her Songs for Olympia is forthcoming from Sagging Meniscus (2023).