“Scent is how we mark our time,” her mother whispered, tucking a sprig of lavender beneath Cassie’s pillow. “Others might carve their pasts into eons, countdown to their futures in seconds, but we know there’s no more accurate metronome than fragrance. Crushed petals contain memories long since forgotten by textbooks, and dewdrops on flowers hold a clarity crystal balls can’t predict.”
“I don’t understand,” Cassie mumbled back, her face pressed down into the pillow.
“You will, someday. When all that’s left of your memories is scent, and scent is all you’ll need to relive the past, you’ll understand.”
Cassie awoke to the smell of lavender.
She’d placed a fresh stem under her pillow the day before. It was supposed to help her sleep, to soothe her into unconsciousness, but lately the flower just reminded her of funeral homes and poorly cloaked death.
Rolling out of bed, she hoped the smell wouldn’t cling to her nostrils for too long.
A dress was laid out on the armchair in the corner of the room: black, conservative, with a matching pair of equally modest heels. Cassie quickly clothed herself. The straps on the shoes were too tight. She leaned into the pain.
Long strides from the bedroom to the bathroom, her heels click click clicking on the tile like seconds on a clock, beats from a metronome. She stopped in front of the mirror, careful to avoid the heavy eyes regarding her, and swung the surface on its hinges to reveal a cabinet full of perfume.
Delicate glass bottles glinted at her from their places on the shelves, each one begging for her touch, pleading for her to make them useful again. She ignored most of them, focussing her attention on the top row of vials. These were her favorites, the scents that had once kept her coming back for more.
Cassie reached for the first bottle, pretending to ignore the thin layer of dust blanketing its top. It was pale yellow, piped with fine silver details and finished with a blush of pink near the base. A sunset masquerading as a faberge egg. She undid the stopper and let the fragrance waft into her nostrils: carnations, daffodils…
“Lemons,” the man murmured, nuzzling into her neck. “You smell like lemons.”
Cassie shifted in bed to face him, a soft smile gracing her lips. “There’s citrus in my perfume, as a top note. It’s meant to bring out the sweetness of the flowers.”
He hummed in agreement, reacquainting his nose with the hollow of her throat. “I wonder if I’ll be able to smell it on my pillows, once you’ve left.”
“Would you like that?”
Kind eyes met her own. “I think I would,” he said with a smile.
Cassie left the next morning before he awoke, slipping out the door once she was dressed, a fake phone number scribbled on a note she placed on the pillow.
His name was erased from her memory. His face, too, for the most part, though the warmth of his eyes refused to be forgotten. Cassie wondered if he remembered her, her lips, her touch, the hollow of her neck, the scent of her perfume trapped in his pillow.
The bottle was set back on the shelf.
She reached out to grab the next perfume, her fingers feeling light and distant as she caressed its crystalline form. Marigold, caressed like a feather swept up by the wind.
“More tea?” Mrs. Wilson didn’t wait for her response to fill her cup up with steaming liquid, a few stray leaves of bergamot swirling around the rim.
“ Thank you.” Cassie held the teacup away from her face, grinning a bit at how comically oversized it looked in her tiny hands. She liked the taste of Earl Grey, but its aroma overpowered all the other scents coming from the garden around them. It was their first tea party of the spring, and Cassie wanted to catalogue every smell her nose detected in the gentle breeze sweeping through the yard.
“Marigolds,” the older woman answered when she caught Cassie eyeing the orange flowers in a pot by the door.
Mrs. Wilson lead her back home after Cassie’s mother finished with her shift. Cassie told her about the marigolds, watched as her eyes lit up in understanding.
A week later, the perfume bottle sat on her bed, a simple bow wrapped around its neck.
Marigolds had a happy scent. They were buoyant, joyful. This was not a buoyant or joyful occasion, though, so Cassie put the bottle back.
Finally, Cassie picked up the last bottle, cradling it gently in her hands. Unlike the other two, this one was simply designed, crafted from red tinted glass, dull with age. It was her mother’s perfume, the only possession of hers they’d let Cassie keep.
“Everything else in the room has to go,” a man with shiny black shoes explained to her. “The body… well, the stench of it permeates.”
“Is she still in there? Can I see?”
The man shook his head sadly and lead Cassie outside.
The perfume smelled like roses and her mother. Cassie hoped there were roses at the ceremony today, so everyone else could be reminded of her mother and the way she smelled too. Lilies were more traditional, but roses were more intimate.
Cassie wondered if the funeral director knew that.
Could she wear this perfume today? Drip the oil down her neck, inhale the fragrance of her mother with every breath?
Would it be like she was still there, ready to offer Cassie a sprig of lavender to chase away her nightmares?
Cassie furrowed her eyebrows. Scent doesn’t bring back the dead, doesn’t restart the metronome. And yet…. Cassie pocketed the bottle. She could decide later, when she got there. She’d know to put it on if there weren’t roses by the casket.
Cassie closed the cabinet, met her eyes, and bared her neck to the world.