In honor of Mother’s Day, an excerpt from a manuscript I’m currently working on.
When I am introduced to someone in Rwanda I learn their name and also their scent. They reach for my hand with two hands sticky and warm and evenly calloused so as to be smooth when they are clasped around mine. And when we embrace their clothes and skin are damp with the meaty smell of sweat. It clings to me as I am released. If we meet again I search my memory for their name and what I breathed of them. This sense of smell is a physical intimacy. A reminder of the connection we share through the common form we inhabit.
I wonder what they learn about me. If there is anything left after a bucket bath, scrubbing until my skin is red. Braving cups of cold water over my head, down my body, washing off the heat and dust. The water I send along the gutter is gray. My long hair loses its sheen and my skin is left cool and soft. Perhaps I lose something in this everyday purging. Body consciousness manifested as shame, insecurity, pride, stripping away layers of what makes me animal, alive, coexistent with all other human beings.
Here there is no hiding the olfactory evidence of life. The smoke saturated air of the cooking fire. Garbage composting under a tree next to the house. No relief from the odors of human and animal waste when the toilet is a hole in the backyard and cows and pigs are penned just outside the doorway. This is not to say the homes are unclean, only that there are daily realities that cannot be sanitized. But there is little furniture to dust and few dishes to wash. The dirt floors are packed smooth and the open windows let in the breeze off the hills.
Watching a single change of clothes drip as it dries in the sun I feel the clamminess of my shirt against my skin. It is damp from perspiration, my own and that of a woman I just met. Late morning sun has cleared the tonic fog of early day. Though it is October it is a summer day to me. I am flooded by memories of my newborn daughter. Days characterized by the pungency of wet, hot earth, the rain competing with the sun, plants overgrown and too ripe. How in the summer our scents mingled as I held her red body to my breast. Homey aromas of bathwater and witch hazel, bedsheets and lavender. And all the body scents that bond a mother to her child. Milk dribbled into the creases of my baby’s neck, sticky-thick and sour. Still how fresh and fragrant her mouth, two little lips opening like sweet pea blossoms. I held my nose close, intoxicated, inhaling deeply until I was dizzy. Like the air that surrounded us at her birth when we breathed something ancient and pure and open.
I felt the ache of my daughter’s love when she was a few years older, her arms tight around my neck. She stretched to clasp her baby sized hands together, her circle face tucked into the angular shadow between my shoulder and jaw. How she sighed, Oh, Mama, I like how you smell. Like bread. I remember the round flesh of her cheek against my collarbone and the scent of her breath hot and cold against my skin.