, , , ,

It’s a matter of memory. If you open a bottle filled with discrete (as in different) aromas you will have to imagine the place without visual clues like the dug up earth next to a mountain stream that means a black bear was there [see Note] or the paper shopping bag filled with pears when you sniff a not-quite-right smell and find, after carefully placing each glorious red-skinned pear on the countertop, one bad pear, half-browned and leaching into the bag-paper. The dry foetid stench of a dead mouse inside a wall must be identified by odor alone although perhaps clues come from recollecting another time or place, or story told.

In The Night Circus, a novel, the character Bailey slips through a side-opening into a tent filled with glass jars, bottles and bowls, finding himself among another person’s memories:

. . . [Bailey] picks one at random, a small round ceramic jar, glazed in black with a high shine and a lid topped with a round curl of a handle. He pulls the lid off and looks inside. A small wisp of smoke escapes, but other than that it is empty. As he peers inside he smells the smoke of a roaring fire, and a hint of snow and roasting chestnuts. Curious, he inhales deeply. There is the aroma of mulled wine and sugared candy, peppermint and pipe smoke. The crisp pine scent of a fir tree. The wax of dripping candles. He can almost feel the snow, the excitement, and the anticipation, the sugary taste of striped candy. It is dizzying and wonderful and disturbing. After a few moments, he replaces the lid and puts the jar carefully back on the table.”

The density of description helps me sink into the shifting scene, but the trick is to imagine the aromas along with the images when all you have is words. Bailey opens a jar and notices it is empty except for a wisp of escaping smoke but he continues to peer into the jar until he is engulfed in the scents (smoke, snow and roasting chestnuts). Smoke is a strong smell but snow is more ambience than aroma, at least in the vicinity of a bonfire. “Curious, he inhales deeply.” The deep breath moves Bailey to experience the more subtle fragrances associated with mulled wine, peppermints, and pipe smoke within an environment evoked by pine scent (even if from a fir tree), and dripping wax. The scents bring Bailey into the scene so that he feels the emotion—excitement and anticipation—of snow and how the candy would taste if it was real.

In this magical passage, Bailey encounters the memories of another person (Widget) that were stored in jars. We encounter Bailey moving through stages of recognition: first naming the aromas, then imagining the scenes that fit with the smells, and third the emotions or feelings, and anticipation. In the way of encountering an unexpected aroma or odor, this surprising passage may take a reader into their own memories of bonfires and piney-scented forests, hot candle wax, and peppermint candy.

To know a delectable and aromatic food you only need to taste it once. Sometimes my grandmother put out small bowls of hard candy. The pink and white striped pieces were the best.

Note: Hiking in the mountains in Alaska, it was a musty-ozonous smell and my curiosity that led me from the trail through the thick brush to a flat stream bank where the grass was ripped up in trenches, the moist black earth exposed.


Erin Morgenstern. The Night Circus, A Novel. New York: Doubleday, 2011 (pp 237-238).