When the smell of smoky, crisp, ash invades my nostrils, the transfer of smell to memory ventures to the depths of my brain, searching through filing cabinets of my past life until it lands on year eleven. This was in no way my first campfire, but forever the one each flame-flickering night relates back to. The night I spent in Arlington, Vermont with my family alongside the winding river that tossed chilled air to our campground and urged us to huddle beside the warmth of a fire. Since that night, I’ve grown to appreciate the way smoke stains clothes with memories of Reese cup S’mores and scary stories of ghosts in the woods. The way certain smells hold certain memories.
I always find myself willingly inhaling smoky, campfire air that burns the back of my nostrils, down to my throat just for a glimpse of my past life. I suppose this is what smell is really all about. Not to forewarn you of how delicious your upcoming meal may or may not be, but to grab you unexpectedly and toss you back into another time and place where you know you’ve experienced this before. It’s not just the way something smells, but how the way it smells creates a multitude of emotions within just one inhale. This is the power of smell.
The relation of my nose to memory is stronger than my own conscious mind can comprehend. This could possibly have to do with the fact that the olfactory nerve, our perception of smell, is located so closely to the hippocampus, which is in associate with memory. I recall times of aimless wandering that left me trailing behind a familiar fragrance that I couldn’t quite pin until a second or third whiff brought me back to the arms of an eighteen-year-old boy. I didn’t know what body spray, lotion, deodorant, or cologne that eighteen-year-old boy in my memory wore, but I knew that the familiarity of the smell that trailed from the stranger in front of me reminded me of snuggling up in his arms and burying my cold nose into his neck, breathing him in on a frosty February night.
Knowing that smell lingers so powerfully on the memories in my mind, I would deviously leave traces of myself for others to find. I’d coat fruity, sugary, fragrances of me from a blue perfume bottle onto love letters mailed from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Martinsville, Indiana sealed with a kiss and I miss you. Memories of me in citrus, floral form held in a circular pink perfume bottle, would seep into the pillows of my first love so he would smell, dream of and miss me. There was even a time I sent away an entire bottle of me to go overseas with a boy trying to find a purpose to survive, though it seemed he found a purpose in someone else. I was left inhaling every fiber of his USMC sweater, searching for one last trace of him, but all was lost to my own scent after many nights of falling asleep hugging the 50% cotton hoping I would wake up one day to a 100% real human.
I suppose I appreciate smell the most because it is the least confusing of all senses. I know that a specific pine scent will remind me of Christmas and the coziness of holidays. What I don’t know is how sound or sight will toy with me. I don’t know if what I remember seeing is how I really saw it, or if my vision deceives me. I stood once with the barrel of a gun pressed to my forehead, its owner’s finger restless against the trigger. I don’t remember the details of their faces, nor can I recall their voices. I remember the pressure of something cold, but what I remember most is that the smell of cinnamon rolling off a stranger’s breath will always frighten me.
I know that the smell of Black Walnut by Banana Republic will always throw me back to endless nights on an uncomfortable, broken futon, tucked with uncertainty into the arms of an equally broken boy. It will tug at my heart as a younger me breathes in his hair each night he’d take his place beside me after his nightly shower. What I don’t know is what memory will topple from my brain as Florence + the Machine ‘Only if for a Night’ dances from my car speakers and floats within my hungry ears. I don’t know if I will smile to the memories of when I first heard it with red-lipstick kisses in an old beat up truck. I don’t know if I will sing along, fighting back hot tears of passionate regret and shame as each words explodes against my windshield. This, I don’t know.
What I do know: Every fall my father and I collect leaves, stabbing them so they’re stacked on a stick like a shish kabob and bring them indoors so that our home can be filled with the smell of our of favorite season. When I’m away from home, living alone in my apartment at school, I can lift handfuls of crunchy fallen leaves and inhale the memories of my father; the memories of raking up leaves as our dog jumped through the piles, and the memories of my mother putting out Halloween decorations while drinking hot apple cider as the ghostly steam warms our noses.
When hot ashy air meets the memory strands in my head, gliding through the olfactory and stroking my hippocampus, I know what the smell is and what it means. Campfire. I know where it will take me. But if I close my eyes and bury my face in a pillow where the smell of smoke cannot find the filing cabinets in my brain, the crackling of the fire sounds like rain.
Arica Harrison was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is an undergraduate student at Ball State University, where she is studying English and Creative Writing. Aside from writing, she has a strong passion in photography and hopes to one day make a living combining the two arts.”