Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Page 4

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That was in the year 1799. Thank God Madame had suspected nothing of the fate awaiting her as she walked home that day in 1746, leaving Grenouille and our story behind. She might possibly have lost her faith in justice and with it the only meaning that she could make of life.

6

From his first glance at Monsieur Grimal—no, from the first breath that sniffed in the odor enveloping Grimal—Grenouille knew that this man was capable of thrashing him to death for the least infraction. His life was worth precisely as much as the work he could accomplish and consisted only of whatever utility Grimal ascribed to it. And so, Grenouille came to heel, never once making an attempt to resist. With each new day, he would bottle up inside himself the energies of his defiance and contumacy and expend them solely to survive the impending ice age in his ticklike way. Tough, uncomplaining, inconspicuous, he tended the light of life’s hopes as a very small, but carefully nourished flame. He was a paragon of docility, frugality, and diligence in his work, obeyed implicitly, and appeared satisfied with every meal offered. In the evening, he meekly let himself be locked up in a closet off to one side of the tannery floor, where tools were kept and the raw, salted hides were hung. There he slept on the hard, bare earthen floor. During the day he worked as long as there was light—eight hours in winter, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen hours in summer. He scraped the meat from bestially stinking hides, watered them down, dehaired them, limed, bated, and fulled them, rubbed them down with pickling dung, chopped wood, stripped bark from birch and yew, climbed down into the tanning pits filled with caustic fumes, layered the hides and pelts just as the journeymen ordered him, spread them with smashed gallnuts, covered this ghastly funeral pyre with yew branches and earth. Years later, he would have to dig them up again and retrieve these mummified hide carcasses—now tanned leather—from their grave.

When he was not burying or digging up hides, he was hauling water. For months on end, he hauled water up from the river, always in two buckets, hundreds of bucketfuls a day, for tanning requires vast quantities of water, for soaking, for boiling, for dyeing. For months on end, the water hauling left him without a dry stitch on his body; by evening his clothes were dripping wet and his skin was cold and swollen like a soaked shammy.

After one year of an existence more animal than human, he contracted anthrax, a disease feared by tanners and usually fatal. Grimal had already written him off and was looking around for a replacement—not without regret, by the way, for he had never before had a more docile and productive worker than this Grenouille. But contrary to all expectation, Grenouille survived the illness. All he bore from it were scars from the large black carbuncles behind his ears and on his hands and cheeks, leaving him disfigured and even uglier than he had been before. It also left him immune to anthrax—an invaluable advantage—so that now he could strip the foulest hides with cut and bleeding hands and still run no danger of reinfection. This set him apart not only from the apprentices and journeymen, but also from his own potential successors. And because he could no longer be so easily replaced as before, the value of his work and thus the value of his life increased. Suddenly he no longer had to sleep on bare earth, but was allowed to build himself a plank bed in the closet, was given straw to scatter over it and a blanket of his own. He was no longer locked in at bedtime. His food was more adequate. Grimal no longer kept him as just any animal, but as a useful house pet.

When he was twelve, Grimal gave him half of Sunday off, and at thirteen he was even allowed to go out on weekend evenings for an hour after work and do whatever he liked. He had triumphed, for he was alive, and he possessed a small quantum of freedom sufficient for survival. The days of his hibernation were over. Grenouille the tick stirred again. He caught the scent of morning. He was seized with an urge to hunt. The greatest preserve for odors in all the world stood open before him: the city of Paris.

7

It was like living in utopia. The adjacent neighborhoods of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie and Saint-Eustache were a wonderland. In the narrow side streets off the rue Saint-Denis and the rue Saint-Martin, people lived so densely packed, each house so tightly pressed to the next, five, six stories high, that you could not see the sky, and the air at ground level formed damp canals where odors congealed. It was a mixture of human and animal smells, of water and stone and ashes and leather, of soap and fresh-baked bread and eggs boiled in vinegar, of noodles and smoothly polished brass, of sage and ale and tears, of grease and soggy straw and dry straw. Thousands upon thousands of odors formed an invisible gruel that filled the street ravines, only seldom evaporating above the rooftops and never from the ground below. The people who lived there no longer experienced this gruel as a special smell; it had arisen from them and they had been steeped in it over and over again; it was, after all, the very air they breathed and from which they lived, it was like clothes you have worn so long you no longer smell them or feel them against your skin. Grenouille, however, smelled it all as if for the first time. And he did not merely smell the mixture of odors in the aggregate, but he dissected it analytically into its smallest and most remote parts and pieces. His discerning nose unraveled the knot of vapor and stench into single strands of unitary odors that could not be unthreaded further. Unwinding and spinning out these threads gave him unspeakable joy.

He would often just stand there, leaning against a wall or crouching in a dark corner, his eyes closed, his mouth half open and nostrils flaring wide, quiet as a feeding pike in a great, dark, slowly moving current. And when at last a puff of air would toss a delicate thread of scent his way, he would lunge at it and not let go. Then he would smell at only this one odor, holding it tight, pulling it into himself and preserving it for all time. The odor might be an old acquaintance, or a variation on one; it could be a brand-new one as well, with hardly any similarity to anything he had ever smelled, let alone seen, till that moment: the odor of pressed silk, for example, the odor of a wild-thyme tea, the odor of brocade embroidered with silver thread, the odor of a cork from a bottle of vintage wine, the odor of a tortoiseshell comb. Grenouille was out to find such odors still unknown to him; he hunted them down with the passion and patience of an angler and stored them up inside him.

When he had smelled his fill of the thick gruel of the streets, he would go to airier terrain, where the odors were thinner, mixing with the wind as they unfurled, much as perfume does—to the market of Les Halles, for instance, where the odors of the day lived on into the evening, invisibly but ever so distinctly, as if the vendors still swarmed among the crowd, as if the baskets still stood there stuffed full of vegetables and eggs, or the casks full of wine and vinegar, the sacks with their spices and potatoes and flour, the crates of nails and screws, the meat tables, the tables full of cloth and dishes and shoe soles and all the hundreds of other things sold there during the day … the bustle of it all down to the smallest detail was still present in the air that had been left behind. Grenouille saw the whole market smelling, if it can be put that way. And he smelled it more precisely than many people could see it, for his perception was after the fact and thus of a higher order: an essence, a spirit of what had been, something undisturbed by the everyday accidents of the moment, like noise, glare, or the nauseating press of living human beings.

Or he would go to the spot where they had beheaded his mother, to the place de Grève, which stuck out to lick the river like a huge tongue. Here lay the ships, pulled up onto shore or moored to posts, and they smelled of coal and grain and hay and damp ropes.

And from the west, via this one passage cut through the city by the river, came a broad current of wind bringing with it the odors of the country, of the meadows around Neuilly, of the forests between Saint-Germain and Versailles, of far-off cities like Rouen or Caen and sometimes of the sea itself. The sea smelled like a sail whose billows had caught up water, salt, and a cold sun. It had a simple smell, the sea, but at the same time it smelled immense and unique, so much so that Grenouille hesitated to dissect the odors i

nto fishy, salty, watery, seaweedy, fresh-airy, and so on. He preferred to leave the smell of the sea blended together, preserving it as a unit in his memory, relishing it whole. The smell of the sea pleased him so much that he wanted one day to take it in, pure and unadulterated, in such quantities that he could get drunk on it. And later, when he learned from stories how large the sea is and that you can sail upon it in ships for days on end without ever seeing land, nothing pleased him more than the image of himself sitting high up in the crow’s nest of the foremost mast on such a ship, gliding on through the endless smell of the sea—which really was no smell, but a breath, an exhalation of breath, the end of all smells—dissolving with pleasure in that breath. But it was never to be, for Grenouille, who stood there on the riverbank at the place de Grève steadily breathing in and out the scraps of sea breeze that he could catch in his nose, would never in his life see the sea, the real sea, the immense ocean that lay to the west, and would never be able to mingle himself with its smell.

He had soon so thoroughly smelled out the quarter between Saint-Eustache and the Hôtel de Ville that he could find his way around in it by pitch-dark night. And so he expanded his hunting grounds, first westward to the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, then out along the rue Saint-Antoine to the Bastille, and finally across to the other bank of the river into the quarters of the Sorbonne and the Faubourg Saint-Germain where the rich people lived. Through the wrought-iron gates at their portals came the smells of coach leather and of the powder in the pages’ wigs, and over the high walls passed the garden odors of broom and roses and freshly trimmed hedges. It was here as well that Grenouille first smelled perfume in the literal sense of the word: a simple lavender or rose water, with which the fountains of the gardens were filled on gala occasions; but also the more complex, more costly scents, of tincture of musk mixed with oils of neroli and tuberose, jonquil, jasmine, or cinnamon, that floated behind the carriages like rich ribbons on the evening breeze. He made note of these scents, registering them just as he would profane odors, with curiosity, but without particular admiration. Of course he realized that the purpose of perfumes was to create an intoxicating and alluring effect, and he recognized the value of the individual essences that comprised them. But on the whole they seemed to him rather coarse and ponderous, more slapdashed together than composed, and he knew that he could produce entirely different fragrances if he only had the basic ingredients at his disposal.

He knew many of these ingredients already from the flower and spice stalls at the market; others were new to him, and he filtered them out from the aromatic mixture and kept them unnamed in his memory: ambergris, civet, patchouli, sandalwood, bergamot, vetiver, opopanax, benzoin, hop blossom, castor …

He was not particular about it. He did not differentiate between what is commonly considered a good and a bad smell, not yet. He was greedy. The goal of the hunt was simply to possess everything the world could offer in the way of odors, and his only condition was that the odors be new ones. The smell of a sweating horse meant just as much to him as the tender green bouquet of a bursting rosebud, the acrid stench of a bug was no less worthy than the aroma rising from a larded veal roast in an aristocrat’s kitchen. He devoured everything, everything, sucking it up into him. But there were no aesthetic principles governing the olfactory kitchen of his imagination, where he was forever synthesizing and concocting new aromatic combinations. He fashioned grotesqueries, only to destroy them again immediately, like a child playing with blocks—inventive and destructive, with no apparent norms for his creativity.

8

On September 1, 1753, the anniversary of the king’s coronation, the city of Paris set off fireworks at the Pont-Royal. The display was not as spectacular as the fireworks celebrating the king’s marriage, or as the legendary fireworks in honor of the dauphin’s birth, but it was impressive nevertheless. They had mounted golden sunwheels on the masts of the ships. From the bridge itself so-called fire bulls spewed showers of burning stars into the river. And while from every side came the deafening roar of petards exploding and of fire-crackers skipping across the cobblestones, rockets rose into the sky and painted white lilies against the black firmament. Thronging the bridge and the quays along both banks of the river, a crowd of many thousands accompanied the spectacle with ah’s and oh’s and even some “long live” ’s—although the king had ascended his throne more than thirty-eight years before and the high point of his popularity was long since behind him. Fireworks can do that.

Grenouille stood silent in the shadow of the Pavillon de Flore, across from the Pont-Neuf on the right bank. He did not stir a finger to applaud, did not even look up at the ascending rockets. He had come in hopes of getting a whiff of something new, but it soon became apparent that fireworks had nothing to offer in the way of odors. For all their extravagant variety as they glittered and gushed and crashed and whistled, they left behind a very monotonous mixture of smells: sulfur, oil, and saltpeter.

He was just about to leave this dreary exhibition and head homewards along the gallery of the Louvre when the wind brought him something, a tiny, hardly noticeable something, a crumb, an atom of scent; no, even less than that: it was more the premonition of a scent than the scent itself—and at the same time it was definitely a premonition of something he had never smelled before. He backed up against the wall, closed his eyes, and flared his nostrils. The scent was so exceptionally delicate and fine that he could not hold on to it; it continually eluded his perception, was masked by the powder smoke of the petards, blocked by the exudations of the crowd, fragmented and crushed by the thousands of other city odors. But then, suddenly, it was there again, a mere shred, the whiff of a magnificent premonition for only a second … and it vanished at once. Grenouille suffered agonies. For the first time, it was not just that his greedy nature was offended, but his very heart ached. He had the prescience of something extraordinary—this scent was the key for ordering all odors, one could understand nothing about odors if one did not understand this one scent, and his whole life would be bungled, if he, Grenouille, did not succeed in possessing it. He had to have it, not simply in order to possess it, but for his heart to be at peace.

He was almost sick with excitement. He had not yet even figured out what direction the scent was coming from. Sometimes there were intervals of several minutes before a shred was again wafted his way, and each time he was overcome by the horrible anxiety that he had lost it forever. He was finally rescued by a desperate conviction that the scent was coming from the other bank of the river, from somewhere to the southeast.

He moved away from the wall of the Pavillon de Flore, dived into the crowd, and made his way across the bridge. Every few strides he would stop and stand on tiptoe in order to take a sniff from above people’s heads, at first smelling nothing for pure excitement; then finally there was something, he smelled the scent, stronger than before, knew that he was on the right track, dived in again, burrowed through the throng of gapers and pyrotechnicians unremittingly setting torch to their rocket fuses, lost the scent in the acrid smoke of the powder, panicked, shoved and jostled his way through and burrowed onward, and after countless minutes reached the far bank, the Hôtel de Mailly, the Quai Mala-quest, the entrance to the rue de Seine.…

Here he stopped, gathering his forces, and smelled. He had it. He had hold of it tight. The odor came rolling down the rue de Seine like a ribbon, unmistakably clear, and yet as before very delicate and very fine. Grenouille felt his heart pounding, and he knew that it was not the exertion of running that had set it pounding, but rather his excited helplessness in the presence of this scent. He tried to recall something comparable, but had to discard all comparisons. This scent had a freshness, but not the freshness of limes or pomegranates, not the freshness of myrrh or cinnamon bark or curly mint or birch or camphor or pine needles, nor that of a May rain or a frosty wind or of well water … and at the same time it had warmth, but not as bergamot, cypress, or musk has, or jasmine or daffodils, not as rosewood

has or iris.… This scent was a blend of both, of evanescence and substance, not a blend, but a unity, although slight and frail as well, and yet solid and sustaining, like a piece of thin, shimmering silk … and yet again not like silk, but like pastry soaked in honey-sweet milk—and try as he would he couldn’t fit those two together: milk and silk! This scent was inconceivable, indescribable, could not be categorized in any way—it really ought not to exist at all. And yet there it was as plain and splendid as day. Grenouille followed it, his fearful heart pounding, for he suspected that it was not he who followed the scent, but the scent that had captured him and was drawing him irresistibly to it.

He walked up the rue de Seine. No one was on the street. The houses stood empty and still. The people were down by the river watching the fireworks. No hectic odor of humans disturbed him, no biting stench of gunpowder. The street smelled of its usual smells: water, feces, rats, and vegetable matter. But above it hovered the ribbon, delicate and clear, leading Grenouille on. After a few steps, what little light the night afforded was swallowed by the tall buildings, and Grenouille walked on in darkness. He did not need to see. The scent led him firmly.

Fifty yards farther, he turned off to the right up the rue des Marais, a narrow alley hardly a span wide and darker still—if that was possible. Strangely enough, the scent was not much stronger. It was only purer, and in its augmented purity, it took on an even greater power of attraction. Grenouille walked with no will of his own. At one point, the scent pulled him strongly to the right, straight through what seemed to be a wall. A low entryway opened up, leading into a back courtyard. Grenouille moved along the passage like a somnambulist, moved across the courtyard, turned a corner, entered a second, smaller courtyard, and here finally there was light—a space of only a few square feet. A wooden roof hung out from the wall. Beneath it, a table, a candle stuck atop it. A girl was sitting at the table cleaning yellow plums. With her left hand, she took the fruit from a basket, stemmed and pitted it with a knife, and dropped it into a bucket. She might have been thirteen, fourteen years old. Grenouille stood still. He recognized at once the source of the scent that he had followed from half a mile away on the other bank of the river: not this squalid courtyard, not the plums. The source was the girl.


Tags: Patrick Süskind Horror
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