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, could 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.
He looked awful. His hair reached down to the hollows of his knees, his scraggly beard to his navel. His nails were like talons, and the skin on his arms and legs, where the rags no longer covered his body, was peeling off in shreds.
The first people he met, farmers in a field near the town of Pierrefort, ran off screaming at the sight of him. But in the town itself, he caused a sensation. By the hundreds people came running to gape at him. Many of them believed he was an escaped galley slave. Others said he was not really a human being, but some mixture of man and bear, some kind of forest creature. One fellow, who had been to sea, claimed that he looked like a member of a wild Indian tribe in Cayenne, which lay on the other side of the great ocean. They led him before the mayor. There, to the astonishment of the assembly, he produced his journeyman’s papers, opened his mouth, and related in a few gabbled but sufficiently comprehensible words—for these were the first words that he had uttered in seven years—how he had been attacked by robbers, dragged off, and held captive in a cave for seven years. He had seen neither daylight nor another human being during that time, had been fed by an invisible hand that let down a basket in the dark, and finally set free by a ladder—without his ever knowing why and without ever having seen his captors or his rescuer. He had thought this story up, since it seemed to him more believable than the truth; and so it was, for similar attacks by robbers occurred not infrequently in the mountains of the Auvergne and Languedoc, and in the Cévennes. At least the mayor recorded it all without protest and passed his report on to the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, liege lord of the town and member of parliament in Toulouse.
At the age of forty, the marquis had turned his back on life at the court of Versailles and retired to his estates, where he lived for science alone. From his pen had come an important work concerning dynamic political economy. In it he had proposed the abolition of all taxes on real estate and agricultural products, as well as the introduction of an upside-down progressive income tax, which would hit the poorest citizens the hardest and so force them to a more vigorous development of their economic activities. Encouraged by the success of his little book, he authored a tract on the raising of boys and girls between the ages of five and ten. Then he turned to experimental agriculture. By spreading the semen of bulls over various grasses, he attem
pted to produce a milk-yielding animal-vegetable hybrid, a sort of udder flower. After initial successes that enable him to produce a cheese from his milk grass—described by the Academy of Sciences of Lyon as “tasting of goat, though slightly bitter”—he had to abandon his experiments because of the enormous cost of spewing bull semen by the hundreds of quarts across his fields. In any case, his concern with matters agro-biological had awakened his interest not only in the plowed clod, so to speak, but in the earth in general and its relationship to the biosphere in particular.
He had barely concluded his work with the milk-yielding udder flower when he threw himself with great élan into unflagging research for a grand treatise on the relationship between proximity to the earth and vital energy. His thesis was that life could develop only at a certain distance from the earth, since the earth itself constantly emits a corrupting gas, a so-called fluidum letale, which lames vital energies and sooner or later totally extinguishes them. All living creatures therefore endeavor to distance themselves from the earth by growing—that is, they grow away from it and not, for instance, into it; which is why their most valuable parts are lifted heavenwards: the ears of grain, the blossoms of flowers, the head of man; and therefore, as they begin to bend and buckle back toward the earth in old age, they will inevitably fall victim to the lethal gas, into which they are in turn finally changed once they have decomposed after death.
When the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse received word that in Pierrefort an individual had been found who had dwelt in a cave for seven years—that is, completely encapsulated by the corrupting element of the earth—he was beside himself with delight and immediately had Grenouille brought to his laboratory, where he subjected him to a thorough examination. He found his theories confirmed most graphically: the fluidum letale had already so assaulted Grenouille that his twenty-five-year-old body clearly showed the marks of senile deterioration. All that had prevented his death, Taillade-Espinasse declared, was that during his imprisonment Grenouille had been given earth-removed plants, presumably bread and fruits, for nourishment. And now his former healthy condition could be restored only by the wholesale expulsion of the fluidum, using a vital ventilation machine, devised by Taillade-Espinasse himself. He had such an apparatus standing in his manor in Montpellier, and if Grenouille was willing to make himself available as the object of a scientific demonstration, he was willing not only to free him from hopeless contamination by earth gas, but he would also provide him with a handsome sum of money.…
Two hours later they were sitting in the carriage. Although the roads were in miserable condition, they traveled the sixty-four miles to Montpellier in just under two days, for despite his advanced age, the marquis would not be denied his right personally to whip both driver and horses and to lend a hand whenever, as frequently happened, an axle or spring broke—so excited was he by his find, so eager to present it to an educated audience as soon as possible. Grenouille, however, was not allowed to leave the carriage even once. He was forced to sit there all wrapped up in his rags and a blanket drenched with earth and clay. During the trip he was given raw vegetable roots to eat. The marquis hoped these procedures would preserve the contamination by earth’s fluidum in its ideal state for a while yet.
Upon their arrival in Montpellier, he had Grenouille taken at once to the cellar of his mansion, and sent out invitations to all the members of the medical faculty, the botanical association, the agricultural school, the chemophysical club, the Freemason lodge, and the other assorted learned societies, of which the city had no fewer than a dozen. And several days later—exactly one week after he had left his mountain solitude—Grenouille found himself on a dais in the great hall of the University of Montpellier and was presented as the scientific sensation of the year to a crowd of several hundred people.
In his lecture, Taillade-Espinasse described him as living proof for the validity of his theory of earth’s fluidum letale. While he stripped Grenouille of his rags piece by piece, he explained the devastating effect that the corruptive gas had perpetrated on Grenouille’s body: one could see the pustules and scars caused by the corrosive gas; there on his breast a giant, shiny-red gas cancer; a general disintegration of the skin; and even clear evidence of fluidal deformation of the bone structure, the visible indications being a clubfoot and a hunchback. The internal organs as well had been damaged by the gas—pancreas, liver, lungs, gallbladder, and intestinal tract—as the analysis of a stool sample (accessible to the public in a basin at the feet of the exhibit) had proved beyond doubt. In summary, it could be said that the paralysis of the vital energies caused by a seven-year contamination with fluidum letale Taillade had progressed so far that the exhibit—whose external appearance, by the way, already displayed significant molelike traits—could be described as a creature more disposed toward death than life. Nevertheless, the lecturer pledged that within eight days, using ventilation therapy in combination with a vital diet, he would restore this doomed creature to the point where the signs of a complete recovery would be self-evident to everyone, and he invited those present to return in one week to satisfy themselves of the success of this prognosis, which, of course, would then have to be seen as valid proof that his theory concerning earth’s fluidum was likewise correct.
The lecture was an immense success. The learned audience applauded the lecturer vigorously and lined up to pass the dais where Grenouille was standing. In his state of preserved deterioration and with all his old scars and deformities, he did indeed look so impressively dreadful that everyone considered him beyond recovery and already half decayed, although he himself felt quite healthy and robust. Many of the gentlemen tapped him up and down in a professional manner, measured him, looked into his mouth and eyes. Several of them addressed him directly and inquired about his life in the cave and his present state of health. But he kept strictly to the instructions the marquis had given him beforehand and answered all such questions with nothing more than a strained death rattle, making helpless gestures with his hands to his larynx, as if to indicate that that too was already rotted away by the fluidum letale Taillade.
At the end of the demonstration, Taillade-Espinasse packed him back up and transported him home to the storage room of his manor. There, in the presence of several selected doctors from the medical faculty, he locked Grenouille in his vital ventilation machine, a box made of tightly jointed pine boards, which by means of a suction flue extending far above the house roof could be flooded with air extracted from the higher regions, and thus free of lethal gas. The air could then escape through a leather flap-valve placed in the floor. The apparatus was kept in operation by a staff of servants who tended it day and night, so that the ventilators inside the flue never stopped pumping. And so, surrounded by the constant purifying stream of air, Grenouille was fed a diet of foods from earth-removed regions—dove bouillon, lark pie, ragout of wild duck, preserves of fruit picked from trees, bread made from a special wheat grown at high altitudes, wine from the Pyrenees, chamois milk, and frozen frothy meringue from hens kept in the attic of the mansion—all of which was presented at hourly intervals through the door of a double-walled air lock built into the side of the chamber.
This combined treatment of decontamination and revitalization lasted for five days. Then the marquis had the ventilators stopped and Grenouille brought to a washroom, where he was softened for several hours in baths of lukewarm rainwater and finally waxed from head to toe with nut-oil soap from Potosí in the Andes. His finger- and toenails were trimmed, his teeth cleaned with pulverized lime from the Dolomites, he was shaved, his hair cut and combed, coiffed and powdered. A tailor, a cobbler were sent for, and Grenouille was fitted out in a silk shirt, with white jabot and white ruffles at the cuffs, silk stockings, frock coat, trousers, and vest of blue velvet, and handsome buckled shoes of black leather, the right one cleverly elevated for his crippled foot. The marquis personally applied white talcum makeup to Grenouille’s scarred face, dabbed his lips and cheeks with crimson,
and gave a truly noble arch to his eyebrows with the aid of a soft stick of linden charcoal. Then he dusted him with his own personal perfume, a rather simple violet fragrance, took a few steps back, and took some time to find words for his delight.
“Monsieur,” he began at last, “I am thrilled with myself. I am overwhelmed at my own genius. I have, to be sure, never doubted the correctness of my fluidal theory; of course not; but to find it so gloriously confirmed by an applied therapy overwhelms me. You were a beast, and I have made a man of you. A veritable divine act. Do forgive me, I am so touched! —Stand in front of that mirror there and regard yourself. You will realize for the first time in your life that you are a human being; not a particularly extraordinary or in any fashion distinguished one, but nevertheless a perfectly acceptable human being. Go on, monsieur! Regard yourself and admire the miracle that I have accomplished with you!”
It was the first time that anyone had ever said “monsieur” to Grenouille.
He walked over to the mirror and looked into it. Before that day he had never seen himself in a mirror. He saw a gentleman in a handsome blue outfit, with a white shirt and silk stockings; and instinctively he ducked, as he had always ducked before such fine gentlemen. The fine gentleman, however, ducked as well, and when Grenouille stood up straight again, the fine gentleman did the same, and then they both stared straight into each other’s eyes.