The olfactory bulb feeds directly into the limbic system, the seat of both long-term memory and the emotions. The results of smelling are processed here, and loaded with associations, before they even reach the upper cortex, where language is composed.
NOTES ON SCENT
Adam Jasper and Nadia Wagner
Elizabeth Guttery, passed away suddenly at St. Margaret’s school for girls on Thursday, June 13, 1974, daughter of Mary and Frank, granddaughter of Sarah. A funeral service will be held at Lochead Crematorium, on Thursday, June 20, at 1 pm, to which all are welcome. Family flowers only please, donations may be made to X Blood Foundation.
I moved school three times and tried to smell like a dead girl, or what I thought a dead girl smelled like. Oily hair, stale armpits, discharge, brackish blood.
I was large and sweaty you see and when my knickers started to get sticky, I’d wait for days until the stickiness dried and hardened. I only sometimes washed myself with soap.
When I moved to the third school, I got my period. And I wasn’t scared, really I marvelled at the different smells my body made. All that dark, dead blood throbbing in my belly – it actually excited me. The first time I smelled it, I wrapped my knickers up with tissue and let it disintegrate for hours between my legs.
I barely washed the first week, though I took a bath to examine my blood clots in the water because I was intrigued. They looked like tiny jelly fish, dark floaters, mysterious.
At school, I decided to hide my bloody tissues everywhere. In cupboards, between radiators, in empty lockers near the canteen, I left little pieces of myself. It soothed me. I was dying all the time.
My body got bigger and my smell stronger, crazier. It scented classrooms long after I left. Even when I wasn’t bleeding, I started to believe I was something not quite living – a smell or a ghost – like a half-dream, blurry, unfeeling around the edges, unrecalled. For a couple of weeks, none of the girls at school touched me or spoke to me and all my anxiety about them sloughed away. I got a regular period, after I learnt what a period was – and I became repellent. I developed bad skin, rashes behind my knees and ears, dry nipples, spots on my chin. I didn’t wash but I itched everywhere. My shirt collar discoloured with sweat and grease, holes appeared in my tights, at my crotch and feet. But it felt powerful somehow, like my smell was so strong it could burn through anything.
I took more toilet breaks during the day because I was infatuated with the changes in my body. I’d sit in a cubicle and pull down my tights, wipe up the stickiness and stroke the curve my belly made over my thighs. Truthfully, I loved myself, needed myself, more than any of the other girls. But I guess it didn’t matter, they hated me all the same.
They had a smell that was nothing like mine. A very obvious girl smell – clammy feet, shampoo, sweet perfume – and some kind of acrid hostility – somewhere underneath, though never quite hidden.
I had just finished my period and still felt kind of dead when one of them walked right up to me. And said, with milky breath: I honestly don’t get it. I’m so sick of that smell. It’s like actually rotten.
I didn’t say anything, in fact I froze, but felt my nostrils flare right up. I’m dead I’m dead, I thought and she laughed a high-pitched, sharp, right up there laugh. It caught on with the rest of them at once. I had my smell, I didn’t have to speak. I teased my fingers through the greasy strands of my hair, and watched her eyes glare madly between peals of laughter.
Later on, in the toilets again, I was peeing and checking my knickers: no blood but still a scent of sweat and metal. I breathed in my flesh smell, and sighed, relaxed – then went back to class and stared the day out. Afterwards – nothing – none of the girls spoke to me and I was grateful for it.
You can become very familiar with your smells, you know. I barely noticed mine, except when I had my period because it was rank, putrid even. But there was something more to it than that. It was defensive, like a mask, it had meaning. More importantly, it gave me something none of the other girls had – a sense of myself.
On a particularly hot school day, I was finally discovered. The girls were restless, listlessly walking about the classroom on study break. The smell of everyone’s sweat touched, mingled, transformed into something quite hormonal, incomparable to my own.
The midday sun stuck out between slats of blinds and cast slices of shadows over our desks. The air was sultry. I leaned over my own desk and bent forward, resting my hard swollen breasts on it. I was having a heavy period and my thighs were sweating. I opened them slightly and let myself waft.
Hunched over like this, I watched the girls between my hair, in and out of view. Something was happening at the lockers. Everyone had gathered around, ponytails and school jumpers bobbing back and forth excitedly. Suddenly, a girl in the middle of it all, jerked her arms out, violently, and pushed up against everyone around her. She screamed as a pile of inky brown tissues flew up towards the ceiling, stuck together. A clod, a meteorite of my own making. I straightened myself and watched it hit the floor. My bloody tissue. Then more came, she had flung them out of her locker. The girls were laughing and shouting, roaring, squealing, squabbling over it, tossing about little pieces of my body like it was nothing at all.
I remained very still and with a gushing panicky feeling let go completely. A bitter smell shot up my nose and I felt it, threads of brown, watery blood running down my legs. Finally – I realised.
I was dead.
Rita Hynes is a bookseller, recently based in Dublin, now residing between Edinburgh and Aberdeen. “The Unrecalled” is a short piece of puberty horror/coming-of-age fiction about teenage smells and a ghost who only realises she’s a ghost when she’s menstruating – based loosely on an anecdote in An Angel at My Table where Janet Frame compulsively hides her sanitary pads, and Cesar Aira’s ghosts in Ghosts.
Image: Die Transzendenz und das Sein by matthias lueger (Creative Commons)