The faculty of scent is said to be rooted in that part of the brain where our most indelible memories are stored. I understood this the first time I sprayed a perfume on my wrist and saw a ghost.
The perfume was L'Artisan Perfumeur's Premier Figuier, and the ghost was that of my father's sister. To my knowledge, she is still among the living, but she hasn't spoken to any of us in decades, so I can't be certain. When I knew her, Premier Figuier did not yet exist. But somehow it brings her unerringly to mind, a hologram built out of random scraps of memory.
I remember her clearly: a young widow, tart-humored, her natural ebullience tinged by heavy and untimely sorrows. Her house was filled with velvet-upholstered antiques that smelled of lemon furniture polish and church frankincense. To me, it was a museum full of treasures; to her, it was a cage-- every paint chip and creaking floorboard a reminder of the husband she'd lost and the children she'd struggled to raise alone. She tried to escape its bars by moving cross-country, but everywhere she and her antiques went, so did the cage.
The day she realized that her cage was other people, she acted quickly to cut them all loose-- even going so far as to tell her grown children, You no longer have a mother; leave me alone. She retreated from the world of phone calls, family reunions, and messy relationships as a nun withdraws behind the cloister wall. To everyone else, her actions seemed incomprehensible-- a string of lunacies committed by a bitter, possibly even ill woman. But I know that she was as sane as a brick. And somehow, through this perfume, she is restored to me.
In this bottle, we're meant to find an entire fig tree: leaves, fruit, bark, sap. Instead, I find something much more suburban-- the scent of privet hedges in summer. Glossy dark leaves, tiny white blossoms humming with bees, a sickly, sap-green fragrance that only sweetens after several bitter minutes. Rather than be disappointed at the absence of promised exoticism, I am charmed at discovering a cherished smell from a childhood world.
Yet somehow I know that this was the very world that my aunt was anxious to escape. I envision her once again in the suburbs, chafed by the mundane, hemmed in by all the hedges, unable to bear fruit.
The word perfume stems from the Latin pro fumum, "through smoke". Through the smoke of burning incense, people could send prayers to heaven, encounter gods, seek prophecies, sanctify each breath, and experience visions of those long gone.
Scent Elements: Coconut milk, sandalwood, dried figs, fig leaf