The smell of it roused her. Fiery. Burnt. It pulled Greta up from some dark part of sleep. Crept in through the open window. A cigarette, maybe, left to burn on the grass. The smoke from a bonfire somewhere down the street. It smelled beautiful. Ignited memories of long-distant happiness.
I remember. I remember we’d burn leaves in the fall. Stack them in crackling piles. One year Sienna would light the match, and then next I would strike it against the rock—draw out the sparks like Daddy taught us. We’d set the dead bits of summer ablaze, our hair smelling of burnt leaves. Daddy would call us his firecrackers.
Greta gasped at the beauty of it—the magic of watching Sienna’s hair catch the sun. The warm hands at their sides when Daddy picked them up, one under each arm, to carry them back to the cabin. She fell back to sleep somewhere between here and there. Sometime between then and now.
At the bakery the next morning it happened again. Brussels this time. Watching John try to climb the fence to Manneken Pis, his coattail caught in the spikes. It was the scent of baking bread that did it—the warm-oven smell of fresh rolls, baguettes. Tips burnt just the right shade of brown. It took her back to their honeymoon. The square. The—
—the waffles. Dipped in chocolate. John feeding me bits as I tried to walk the cobblestones in heels, tripping. Falling into his arms. His coat ripped and flapping, letting in the cold. But we were on fire, remember? I thought it would never go out. The waffles still warm in my pocket when we ran back to our room.
Greta bought a bottle of her mother’s perfume. Wrapped her pillow in Daddy’s old jacket, still smelling of diesel fuel. She tied John’s scarf around her neck, sweating in the heat of it. Smelling his linen scent. She remembered how it felt to be beautiful. To feel loved. She dreamt of catching fireflies on the porch. Hooking lake trout with mitten string. She woke up with the pressure of John’s hand imprinted on her palm.
She began to bake cherry pies. Cinnamon rolls. She filled the apartment with the scent of spices and Sunday mornings. Licked her fingertips—each one a new place. A different time.
Mother made pancakes one Christmas morning. Served maple syrup that was as much of a surprise as the gifts under the tree. I stuck my nose in the can. Smelled the rich butteriness of it. The boiled-down sweetness. My hair stuck against the side and I spent the morning sucking at the syrupy tips. Making it last.
John loved the cabin, too—loved the warmth at the table. Sitting by the fire with Daddy, talking about politics. Or the weather. Pointing out the window at the crops.
You could smell the corn, even in winter. Smell its maizey scent from the basement, seeping between layers of earth. John would bring us pretty pastries from the city—croissants and moon cakes and cannoli. Mother would put the kettle on the stove and steam the room, steep the tea until it swirled around us in bitter orange scents. Mix with the sugar and chocolate and cream from the cake box. And still. Still I could smell corn through the floorboards.
She set out for the cabin in the snow. Light at first. Dusty. But when she arrived it was thick and clingy. Covering everything. Greta stepped out of the car and breathed in deep. But there was nothing. Not the cedars. Not the barn. Not even the corn, long left to rot in the fields. The cold had burned through it all. Left ashes of snow.
Once inside her heart went cold. Winter had gotten in through the windows. Cracked the floorboards. It had been years since she’d come. Decades. Everything looked the same. Daddy’s boots in the corner. Mother’s teapot, still drying on the rack. And the potbelly stove, a black shadow in the darkness. She felt behind the stovepipe and pulled out the long matches. Struck one against the tabletop. Then reached in to light the log Daddy had left, years before.
For good luck, he’d said. And when he opened the oven door one last time I could smell the old ash—the burnt cinders of lifetimes. John helped Daddy pack the small things he wanted to keep—photo albums. Mother’s wedding ring. I went from room to room, closing drapes. Shutting lights. Catching faint smells of old sheets and mothballs and the mud from under Daddy’s boots. Saying goodbye.
Greta sat back in Daddy’s old chair. Watched the flames feed on the log. Lick the cold sides of the oven. The heat was warming the room. Waking the cabin. Soon she could smell again—the ash first. Then the grease from the stovetop. The pantry. She stretched out her legs, rubbed her hands. Happy to be home.
Just before she fell asleep she caught the scent—so slight and faded she almost missed it. So familiar she could hardly breathe.
John came back in to get me. Helped Daddy to the car and then walked back inside. Held my hand. Kissed my cheek. I could smell his aftershave under the sweat. The leathery musk of it. The spice. I wet a washcloth and wiped his forehead, his neck. Then I left the linen in the sink. Locked the door behind us.
It was still there. John’s scent. His essence. Even as she dreamed of cobblestones and warm bites of waffle, she could smell it. It was a fire that would never go out.
Tina Wayland is a freelance copywriter, full-time mother and writer-type wannabe. After the babe’s in bed and the work’s been done, she tries to write a little something nice now and then.
© 2013, Tina Wayland