Editor’s letter—The smell

Text Museum Image

For Museum Issue 5, themed Noses.

Recently, a friend made an anomalous confession to me, one she professed to have only told her partner under duress. For more than a year, her nostrils have detected mashed potato in places mashed potato shouldn’t be: peppered through public parks, lingering near gum-smeared bitumen, wafting across train platforms. The potato is often buttery—as though whipped up in frenzy, made sloppy with milk—and she could swear that it’s right by her nose, heaped in some bowl or enormous silver saucepan. But, of course, it never is.

While fond of spuds prepared in various guises, my companion finds their persistence distressing. No one wants to be haunted by an odoriferous food-stuff—even one so seemingly inoffensive. For a while, she thought this invisible shadow might signal some precursor to death: you inhale mash, then you keel over with a stroke.

“Do you smell it?” she asked me, eyes mad with desperation. We were standing on an empty street, on an overcast Saturday afternoon. Her nose, upturned, moved from left to right and back again, swiveling with an almost canine sensitivity. “Ah-ah-ah! Can you sniff it right here? It’s very strong where I’m standing.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep, prolonged whiff. She was right. There was potato. We were surrounded by the stench, in a very un-villatic locale, a ten-minute drive from the city’s central business district. I directed her attention to potential sources—a window ajar, a corner pub three blocks away, but she shook her head.

“No. It’s everywhere. We’ll keep walking and you’ll see.”

“Is this the first time a smell has followed you around?”

My friend looked around us curiously, swivelling her head, as though a smell were something you could actually see, a thick sort of mist that hung about, partially obscuring buildings and other people. “I don’t know if my sense of smell is masterful, or if no one else is paying attention,” she responded. “I don’t know if it originates from my insane mind. This is the first time it’s happened, the very first. No other smell has been this persistent.”

Image is Jan Miense Molenaer’s ‘Smell,’ 1637, oil on panel.

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