Twenty-nine

THE CATASTROPHE was not an earthquake, nor a forest fire, nor an avalanche, nor a cave-in. It was not an external catastrophe at all, but an internal one, and as such particularly distressing, because it blocked Grenouille’s favorite means of escape. It happened in his sleep. Or better, in his dreams. Or better still, in a dream while he slept in the heart of his fantasies.

He lay on his sofa in the purple salon and slept, the empty bottles all about him. He had drunk an enormous amount, with two whole bottles of the scent of the red-haired girl for a nightcap. Apparently it had been too much; for his sleep, though deep as death itself, was not dreamless this time, but threaded with ghostly wisps of dreams. These wisps were clearly recognizable as scraps of odors. At first they merely floated in thin threads past Grenouille’s nose, but then they grew thicker, more cloudlike. And now it seemed as if he were standing in the middle of a moor from which fog was rising. The fog slowly climbed higher. Soon Grenouille was completely wrapped in fog, saturated with fog, and it seemed he could not get his breath for the foggy vapor. If he did not want to suffocate, he would have to breathe the fog in. And the fog was, as noted, an odor. And Grenouille knew what kind of odor. The fog was his own odor. His, Gre-nouille’s, own body odor was the fog.

And the awful thing was that Grenouille, although he knew that this odor was his odor, could not smell it. Virtually drowning in himself, he could not for the life of him smell himself!

As this became clear to him, he gave a scream as dreadful and loud as if he were being burned alive. The scream smashed through the walls of the purple salon, through the walls of the castle, and sped away from his heart across the ditches and swamps and deserts, hurtled across the nocturnal landscape of his soul like a fire storm, howled its way out of his mouth, down the winding tunnel, out into the world, and far across the high plains of Saint-Flour-as if the mountain itself were screaming. And Grenouille awoke at his own scream. In waking, he thrashed about as if he had to drive off the odorless fog trying to suffocate him. He was deathly afraid, his whole body shook with the raw fear of death. Had his scream not ripped open the fog, he would have drowned in himself-a gruesome death. He shuddered as he recalled it. And as he sat there shivering and trying to gather his confused, terrified thoughts, he knew one thing for sure: he would change his life, if only because he did not want to dream such a frightening dream a second time. He would not survive it a second time.

He threw his horse blanket over his shoulders and crept out into the open. It was already morning outside, a late February morning. The sun was shining. The earth smelled of moist stones, moss, and water. On the wind there already lay a light bouquet of anemones. He squatted on the ground before his cave. The sunlight warmed him. He breathed in the fresh air. Whenever he thought of the fog that he had escaped, a shudder would pass over him. And he shuddered, too, from the pleasure of the warmth he feit on his back. It was good, really, that this external world still existed, if only as a place of refuge. Nor could he bear the awful thought of how it would have been not to find a world at the entrance to the tunnel! No light, no odor, no nothing-only that ghastly fog inside, outside, everywhere…

Gradually the shock subsided. Gradually the grip of anxiety loosened, and Grenouille began to feel safer. Toward noon he was his old cold-blooded self. He laid the index and middle fingers of his left hand under his nose and breathed along the backs of his fingers. He smelled the moist spring air spiced with anemones. He did not smell anything of his fingers. He turned his hand over and sniffed at the palm. He sensed the warmth of his hand, but smelled nothing. Then he rolled up the ragged sleeve of his shirt, buried his nose in the crook of his elbow. He knew that this was the spot where all humans smell like themselves. But he could smell nothing. He could not smell anything in his armpits, nor on his feet, not around his genitals when he bent down to them as far as he possibly could. It was grotesque: he, Grenouille, who could smell other people miles away, was incapable of smelling his own genitals not a handspan away! Nevertheless, he did not panic, but considered it all coolly and spoke to himself as follows: “It is not that I do not smell, for everything smells. It is, rather, that I cannot smell that I smell, because I have smelled myself day in day out since my birth, and my nose is therefore dulled against my own smell. If I could separate my own smell, or at least a part of it, from me and then return to it after being weaned from it for a while, then I would most certainly be able to smell it-and therefore me.”

He laid the horse blanket aside and took off his clothes, or at least what remained of them-rags and tatters were what he took off. For seven years he had not removed them from his body. They had to be fully saturated with his own odor. He tossed them into a pile at the cave entrance and walked away. Then, for the first time in seven years, he once again climbed to the top of the mountain. There he stood on the same spot where he had stood on the day of his arrival, held his nose to the west, and let the wind whistle around his naked body. His intention was thoroughly to air himself, to be pumped so full of the west wind-and that meant with the odor of the sea and wet meadows -that this odor would counterbalance his own body odor, creating a gradient of odors between himself and his clothes, which he would then be in a position to smell. And to prevent his nose from taking in the least bit of his own odor, he bent his body forward, stretching his neck out as far as he could against the wind, with his arms stretched behind him. He looked like a swimmer just before he dives into the water.

He held this totally ridiculous pose for several hours, and even by such pale sunlight, his skin, maggot white from lack of sun, was turned a lobster red. Toward evening he climbed back down to the cave. From far off he could see his clothes lying in a pile. The last few yards, he held his nose closed and opened it again only when he had lowered it right down onto the pile. He made the sniffing test he had learned from Baldini, snatching up the air and then letting it out again in spurts. And to catch the odor, he used both hands to form a bell around his clothes, with his nose stuck into it as the clapper. He did everything possible to extract his own odor from his clothes. But there was no odor in them. It was most definitely not there. There were a thousand other odors: the odor of stone, sand, moss, resin, raven’s blood-even the odor of the sausage that he had bought years before near Sully was clearly perceptible. Those clothes contained an olfactory diary of the last seven, eight years. Only one odor was not there-his own odor, the odor of the person who had worn them continuously all that time.

And now he began to be truly alarmed. The sun had set. He was standing naked at the entrance to the tunnel, where he had lived in darkness for seven years. The wind blew cold, and he was freezing, but he did not notice that he was freezing, for within him was a counterfrost, fear. It was not the same fear that he had felt in his dream-the ghastly fear of suffocating on himself-which he had had to shake off and flee whatever the cost. What he now felt was the fear of not knowing much of anything about himself. It was the opposite pole of that other fear. He could not flee it, but had to move toward it. He had to know for certain-even if that knowledge proved too terrible— whether he had an odor or not. And he had to know now. At once.

He went back into the tunnel. Within a few yards he was fully engulfed in darkness, but he found his way as if by brightest daylight. He had gone down this path many thousands of times, knew every step and every turn, couid smell every low-hanging jut of rock and every tiny protruding stone. It was not hard to find the way. What was hard was fighting back the memory of the claustrophobic dream rising higher and higher within him like a flood tide with every step he took. But he was brave. That is to say, he fought the fear of knowing with the fear of not knowing, and he won the battle, because he knew he had no choice. When he had reached the end of the tunnel, there where the rock slide slanted upwards, both fears fell away from him. He felt calm, his mind was quite clear and his nose sharp as a scalpel. He squatted down, laid his hands over his eyes, and smelled. Here on this spot, in this remote stony grave, he had lain for seven years. There must be some smell of him here, if anywhere in this world. He breathed slowly. He analyzed exactly. He allowed himself time to come to a judgment. He squatted there for a quarter of an hour. His memory was infallible, and he knew precisely how this spot had smelled seven years before: stony and moist, salty, cool, and so pure that no living creature, man or beast, could ever have entered the place… which was exactly how it smelled now.

He continued to squat there for a while, quite calm, simply nodding his head gently. Then he turned around and walked, at first hunched down, but when the height of the tunnel allowed it, erect, out into the open air.

Outside he pulled on his rags (his shoes had rotted off him years before), threw the horse blanket over his shoulders, and that same night left the Plomb du Cantal, heading south.

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