by Kari Robertson
In the beginning it was everywhere
And we embraced it.
We reached out our arms and extended our fingers to hold the air.
We stole ambergris from beaches and musk from deer and rubbed it on our bodies not to mask but to emphasise our animalic odours.
We sniffed each other like dogs and navigated with our noses as much as our eyes.
We smelled for fear, for sex, for water.
We wanted to be breathed.
We slept outdoors in nests hairy and entwined for warmth where we emitted a collective odour so if all were still we couldn’t sniff where one body ended and another began.
And our dreams all smelled like moss.
But at some point we began to build an inside.
and as we noticed that our odours were different we preferred to sleep alone.
We sheltered, turned our backs against the breeze.
And got afraid of the smell of the outside
Decided it was dirty.
It came in on the night air
Suspended in the wind
Creeping off the swamp
From the sea
From the poor
Rising out of graves
and came through open windows and orifices
So by the time you smell it it’s already in your lungs.
We believed that it brought with it yellow fever, clymidia, syphilis, the black plague, cholera, amorality, poverty.
The monks identified the stench of adultery on amoral women.
4 People died from the smell of the prison as they walked by
from the stench of incarcerated sin.
We tried to use even fouler smells as scent gargoyles to scare off the miasmas.
We drained civet from otters.
We smoked cigarettes so the smoke made private clouds around our bodies. We sucked the air out of churches after worship and pumped it into brothels to remoralise the gases.
The local council made a shaded place in the park where we could safely dispose of miasma we had picked up involuntarily.
We held our breath as we walked past beggars, criminals or rag-pickers.
When this didn’t work then we started to fight it
We shot the breeze, fired canons at the swamp to try to kill the air itself.
We covered up our orifices against possibilities:
infection, impregnation, stagnation.
We drained the swamp, chlorinated the river and burned the boats because everyone knows that boats are just floating swamps.
We wore scented masks, built air conditioning and double-glazed windows.
We caught the the miasma in filters, shut it out and starved it.
We weaved our clothes out of lavender and perfumed our food and our lovers with Chanel no 5.
We used Listerine to remove the Miasma from our breath and dislodge it from our molars.
We declared baths immoral.
We rubbed ourselves all over with lard or Vaseline so the miasma couldn’t collect on the surface of our skin and enter through our pores.
We deodorised the proletariat and broke the union of the comrades in stench who worked with sweat and trash and sewage.
And apart from the artists and the philosophers everyone was pleasantly odourless.
And after some years we thought we had succeeded, the battle was over and the miasma was gone.
We declared a new war on Germs.
We could now breathe freely but we couldn’t touch or lick the sweet lead paint from the walls.
We developed a new vocabulary of plastic gloves, Tupperware, soap and sanitizer and showered daily.
The air lost its elasticity and when you stuck out your tongue you tasted nothing.
But through all these years the miasma waited in the recesses of the earth
The ground inhaled the fermentations from the surface and accumulated them in foul-smelling vaults and hollow sulfurous, fingers where we had mined for salt.
Bursts of air spewed forth under the gulf of Mexico and gathered forces in oil refineries, sink holes and sewers
Miasma breathed in by volcanoes was trapped in the hardened lava and waited to be fracked.
It lay evolving, waiting, bubbling.
Freshly watered lawns bubble.
In the peripheries of my nose one day I was aware of a smell of woodsmoke and burning sugars and suddenly I was a kid again toasting marshmallows my hands and face hot from the bonfire.
The next thing I knew I was leaving Walmart with a 14-person tent I purchased for 239 dollars before tax.
After this things get worse.
The Miasma is an invisible enemy.
It crawls inside our memories and mines for emotion.
Those who do not have their nostrils stuffed with tissues, spontaneously stop talking mid-sentence, stare into the distance and start to cry.
It manifests in the chemical combination of your grandfathers cigar smoke and aftershave, in the house you lived in before it got torn down, in the smell of your trauma.
The Miasma travels in on the highway of nasal nerves that circumnavigate the cerebrum.
It brings armies, weeping to their knees and makes angry police dogs roll over on their backs whimpering like puppies.
It grows stronger
Peaches give off the aroma of burned garlic
Freshly cut grass emits the scent of human sweat
Flowers start to smell like petroleum and babies heads produce a strong odour of flowers so bees land on and try to pollinate them.
The miasma grows so strong and omnipotent eggs stop being fertilized because sperm can’t smell them.
We close down our borders and declare a state of emergency but the gases blow over the walls, in through our ears, across the barbed wire, come from above and below.
We try to outsmart it, to breathe only bottled air.
We impart a travel ban on molecules but they just ignore it.
We realize we cannot win and try to surrender to the odours.
The miasma grows, in depth, in strength, in musk it reaches up our noses and shakes our olfactory nerves loose from their sockets.
And in the end all that we smell is the wet green scent of our brains.
In the end all that we smell is the wet green scent of our brains.