The History of Perfume

The history of perfume is the history of the origin of language.

In the beginning, words were scented. A soft “sleep” breathed on another’s face told him in nuances of milk or hay that it was bedtime. A “No” drove its point home with smoke and rotting kale. An argument became a carefully arranged scentscape, with debaters composing their positions like musical scores. They would sit very close to one another, in a circle with a judge who reasoned with nose and ears. The phrases might trigger memories in the listener inclining her to agree, or fill her with thoughts of dinner and dessert (sometimes, as a result, cutting the oration short in order to proceed to the midday meal), or bring her to the point of retching to convey repugnance. This took tremendous skill: sometimes the foulest of concepts had the most soothing of scents, and the best ideas could be the most revolting to endure.

In the beginning, naming a child was a weighty affair that would shape her relationships for the rest of her life.  Some names were sweet, iced with lemon sugar when called out. (Delicious in small doses, they could cloy over time.) Others were tea and dust or mango and fur.  A young girl might spend an afternoon murmuring her beloved’s name into a jar, catch some of the concentrated air in a locket, and wear it as a kind of pomander around her neck. Cinnamon names had to be careful whom they dated: some people were allergic.

In the beginning, a text was a pouring forth of odors coded in language. Opening a novel was sitting down to a symphony in smells. (Headaches were not uncommon – those readers tended to prefer short fiction.) Printing words onto clothing was outlawed, for a time, due to concerns with scent pollution.

Then one day it became very hot. The sun was unrelenting and no matter where they tried to hide, it melted parts of them and drew the liquid from their bodies. Not all of it – just enough that when they began to speak again, they realized that their words were scentless. When they began to write, they made only marks on a page. Language was wrested of its perfume. They had become children once again, in a way, and they learned to communicate anew.

After the sun had cooled down, the liquid stored in the clouds collected itself into drops and got heavy and fell once again to the ground. It slid off the skin of the people, but as it soaked the plants it scented them, and as it scented them it languaged them with all the words they had been unable to speak before. And so the people bent down to sniff their messages, or loosened phrases from them with liquors and spirits. They kept these words in bottles, and drew them out like ink to tell their stories.