by Christopher Smith
Editor's note: This short story, by the author of Salamanders of the Silk Road, began life as a tangent within the novel before spinning off into a stand-alone piece. Chris's novel can be purchased in our Bookstore, and he can be reached on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on his website, salamandersmilk.com.
In the mouth was a smell, bored and languid, waiting while easier currents of air made their way from the nose to sweet freedom. He could feel his cleaner brothers out there, cavorting with the elements, living free for seconds, even minutes on end while his was a life of routine: lifting off the bacterial mess at the back of the tongue made by a night of tobacco and skunk beer that culminated in the sudden motionlessness of sleep. And sleep brought birth.
His was a life of slow ebbing from tongue to hard palate. There and back again, quarter-second by quarter-second, for more minutes than he could count in journeys unaided by breath – merely a mingling, one atom at a time, with another stale flavor not discernibly different from the last.
The smell – when bored with the mingling – gathered itself around an ulcer in the cheek, not far off the wavering line of the teeth. The ulcer was no smell of her own. She had been there far longer than any smell, days even. Once, in a quarter-second of silence between the rumbles of the man’s breath on the other side of the palate, the ulcer called him closer.
“I have something for you,” she said.
The smell closed in, feeling the cool edges of the ulcer as he felt deeper toward her white surface.
There, on the lower side of the ulcer, just inside its rim, was a red spot.
“For me?” the smell asked.
“For you. You are the breath infused with beer and tobacco, but now you will be more.”
The drop of blood seeped closer, then slipped free and burst from its milky white womb in a rich flurry of new structures. Its notes were tiny – fragments – but they felt round and slippery among the smell’s stale bonds. He was more, but he was different. Stronger, more whole, but also unfamiliar. He wasn’t sure he liked it.
“It’s only a bit of blood,” the ulcer said. “You’ll get used to it.”
There were other permanents – the parts that remain: mostly bacterial clusters that had been with the mouth far longer than any smell could remember. They waited in cliques in pockets between the teeth or cowering around undigested bits of food in the cheek canals, busying themselves with rumors of change. “It’s coming,” they said. “Soon, very soon.” “It will happen again,” they prophesied.
The ulcer had no patience. “They talk of the change as if it means anything,” she said. “It’s merely release.”
“To the outside?” the smell said.
“Yes, to the outside. You can feel it, can’t you? On the other side, the other smells moving with the stronger breath. You’ll like that. You always do.”
The ulcer often spoke to him in terms of transcendence, as if the smell had always been and was always being and that in this way the ulcer knew him better than he knew himself. He felt it demeaning, and this more than any emptiness of flavor kept him from remaining in the ulcer’s presence.
The smell was hopeful of the change, but his long seconds of stillness tempered those hopes enough to keep him from flying apart or joining his more heady brothers in the concentrated moisture of spit.
“Now,” he felt. Then it came, a sudden brightness and a sound that rattled his structure to the outermost stretches of cohesion. He was sent hurtling away, into light, into space, into an outsideness that pulled at him, making him larger, weaker, thinner, but free. Free. That was the sense of it. In this ocean of air he tumbled, senseless, away from the body and back again. He held back, clinging to the like smells of sticky sweat and sour cologne, until he could get his bearings.
He existed at the borders of the body in an estuary of like smells and unlike. There was sight – dark shadow and brilliance, which had been hinted at before, by the ulcer who had no way to describe it beyond “not-dark,” which meant as much to him then as “not-is” or “not-time” would mean to him later. There was sound, too – the rumble of the man’s breath, coming now from his mouth, jettisoning pairings of his brothers into plumes of odor around him. Neck sweat, bruised perfume, drool in a too-long-unwashed pillow.
A brother smell approached, mingling with him and matching – note to note, underlay to underlay, but with more of the glands about him than consumption.
“Ready?” the brother asked.
“Too long in the mouth,” the glands smell muttered. “The chase for her smells.”
“Hers!” The brother smell pushed part of himself outward, and the smell reached out too, testing for something other but feeling cheated to feel nothing.
“Hunh,” he replied.
The brother smell moved out, into brighter light and dimmer sound, into a haze beyond. The odors grew thin, some now old odors from the dingy sheets below. He and his brother were alone now, multinote smells in an ocean of nothingness.
It felt good, not being alone. He sparingly shared notes of tobacco and beer with his brother, who gave back the acrid sour of semen and sharp urine. But they shared the muskiness of the man’s sweat, born in his unique bacterial soup. The smell was cautious about sharing his notes. He wanted to remain himself.
“Why?” his brother asked.
“I don’t know. I like the way I am.”
“But you could be more.”
“What if I don’t want to be more?”
They drifted in silence now, keeping their own notes, carried by the dying gust of the breath and an onrush of other brothers mingling in their wake, pushing them farther ahead even as they spread to the edges of all scent.
He began to sense it. Just as the light changed, to a near brilliance of whiteness, he felt the edges of new smells – sweet, flowery, strong but without musk, glandular and sharp, but then a lilt of powder.
“It’s hers,” the brother smell said. “You go around, then come to me when I say.”
The smell complied, unsure of any good reason not to.
He drifted across the edges, letting his atoms tickle along the outer thin aromas of her rose and beer and secretion. These had all converged toward his brother smell, and his brother welcomed them closer. The smell could feel the glands of one intersecting with another, and both seemed the lesser for it.
At the far end of the growing cloud of smells was a hint of her blood. The smell moved toward it. Blood was familiar to him now, with the note of the ulcer’s gift still strong inside him. This odor of blood was young, too, as his was. Small and frail, barely old enough to register as a smell itself. The smell wanted to take it in, to embrace it and make it part of him, but its tenderness was too beautiful to be changed.
“Now,” he felt his brother say.
He wanted to linger there with the smell of new blood, so round and isolated.
“Now!” his brother said.
Distracted by his fascination with the new blood, the smell complied, in instinct, without thought or conscious direction. He wedged himself in a concentrated spear toward his brother and smashed through powder and perfume, burned hair and tobacco, until stabbing headlong into his brother.
The smell felt himself expand, stretching the bonds of himself wider and thinner until gaps emerged in his structure. Into these gaps came the muskiness of his brother, excited and determined toward change, any change, of odors of glands and sweat – from him and from her – of beer off the breath of two bodies. Now one.
His bonds pulled tight now, consuming all smells, eating alive as an afterthought the single, pure scent of new blood.
He could no longer feel himself. He was gone. His terrified urge to scream was muffled by a sudden willingness to remain quiet, to be calm, to be nothing like he’d ever been before.
And nothingness returned the embrace.