The Nose Knows

Rattlesnake Wind

The rains have moved in. It smells like the cusp of autumn–cedars drinking deep after dusty drought, the dust itself breathing out spice before it turns to mud, summer-yellowed grass stirring and greening at the roots, leaves preparing to dry and drop. It’s one of the better olfactory landscapes, and one of my favorites.

It was an article of family catechism that I always had a runny nose; my caretakers–such as they were–dosed me with Sudafed on an almost daily basis because my sniffing irritated them. The only time I escaped it was when we lived in Wyoming; the air was so parched I couldn’t have mustered postnasal drip if I tried.

It’s strange. I can close my eyes and remember how every place my peripatetic family ever lived smelled, even when I was supposedly a sniffle-blocked child. I know smell is one of the more basic senses; often, that’s where I start when building a scene or a character.

Moving to western Washington after the dry altitude of Wyoming meant relentless, insulting “teasing” by the adults, centered on my nose. It was a comparatively small thing considering the level of other abuse I endured, but I found myself thinking about it yesterday while I stood on the deck and breathed deep of autumn.

I don’t think I had any more postnasal drip than any other child. I think that the so-called adults just picked something tiny to gaslight me about as part of a wider pattern, and medicated me with Sudafed (to the point that decongestants based on pseudoephedrine no longer work when I actually have a cold) in order to have one more reason to beat or harass me when I forgot my dose. I think that, contrary to their long-held beliefs and constant harping, I was actually quite normal but ended up getting into the habit of paying a great deal of attention to smell.

I also think, my gods, what a stupid, stupid thing to fixate on as a parent. I’m just glad it didn’t develop into Munchausen-by-proxy. Instead, they were far more prone to neglect when it came to my actual medical needs, which I never thought I’d be grateful for.

Anyway, I stood on the back deck for a while last night between rain squalls, inhaling deeply, and I thought about Wyoming. I thought about long grass, about dry membranes, about the taste of pseudoephedrine pills, about the niggling penny-ante parts of abuse, about rain and leaves and lightning.

My nose always told me the truth, unlike so-called parents. And I find myself, at forty-plus blessed years old, untangling yet another lie I was told so often I half believed it, and appreciating my faithful, wonderful sense of smell.

Freedom smells like a dry wind roaring through car windows when I was finally eighteen and driving away. It smells like the books I can leave wherever I like in my own damn house without fear of their being shredded or tossed in the rubbish, like the shampoo I can buy myself and use without fear of being screamed at for using too much, like my own bed in the middle of the night when I wake and realize there will be no heavy, stealthy footsteps creeping into my room while I lie rigid and anticipating pain.

And I realized a deep truth, painful like lancing a boil: Of all the varied smells that have passed through my life, I like freedom the best. And I wish you, my friends, a deep draft of whatever means “freedom” to you.