The Monkshood – Excerpt


When the British archaeologists exhumed Tutankhamon from his tomb, from the inner and outer sarcophagi, the body, in its chrysalis of muslin, smelled of clove and agar. The boy emperor had been dead so long that any flesh-bound traces had completely evaporated; he was only scent and bone.

“I bet you’ve planned out your funeral the way other girls plan their weddings,” Stace said to me once. We must have been past the initial stage of our friendship, for I had been ranting about the floral arrangements at my great uncle Omar’s wake. If there’s ever a time for camillas, funerals are it, but Aunt Shahi had muffled the funeral parlour with calliopes. Calliopes, like we were at the Kentucky Derby, or something!

There’s a school of people who think the flowers at a funeral don’t matter. Fuck them. What you smell in the room with the casket — that’s your last scent memory of the dead. You might not think you’ll remember it, but you will.

When I die, I want each part of my body anointed with one of my perfumes. On my left knee, Dandelion in the Ziggurat, with its weedy adolescents. On my index finger, One Night in Melinda, for its twitchy evocations. On my nipples, I Dream of Jeanine. Along my spine, Crepuscular Baby. And in my cupped palms, All in the Family.

Oh, it gives me pleasure to imagine my fragile flesh succumbing to scent. The natural order of things subverted: gasses beating solids, air beating earth. Picture it: centuries hence, some crenellated being will exhume my grave. On the wefts of its breath, I’ll rise again, I and the dandelions and Jeanine and Melinda, though they scarcely matter, and Lynn, who matters very much. That’s the thing with perfume: it never dies; cover yourself in enough of it and you’re assured a resurrection.





Part 1: The Getaways

{1987 – 1997}


And so for nights
we waited, hoping to see
the heavy bud
break into flower.


–Robert Hayden, “The Night-Blooming Cereus”


Chapter 1


My father rolled onto my mother’s side of the bed and woke with a start, for it was cool. My mother usually rose when I did, around 7. But it was barely 5 and we were outside, my mother crouched at the 10’x10′ plot my father had turned over for her, a length of rope anchoring one of my chubby ankles to the lowest branch of the crab apple tree. Through the bedroom window, my father could see my mother’s narrow back curved like a thumb over her knees, the end of her black braid disappearing into the grass. From this angle, he could imagine her faint mouth had gathered into something like a smile. Perhaps it had.

I do not know how long he stood at the window, watching, before he saw me grab a clump of fallen crab apples. He thought I was going to put the tiny apples in my mouth and rushed outside to find me smashing them against my nostrils. Apparently I beamed as he approached and held the branch out to him. There were red beads around my nose where the thin skins had bled.

I beamed, and then I roared when he took the crab apples away.

“Give her back the fruits, Goesh,” my mother said. I doubt she looked up from what she was doing; she wanted to sow the seeds evenly, 10 to a hole, like it said on the packet.

My father probably corrected her. My mother was always using the general form of specific words, though she’d been in the States – northern New Jersey, first, and then western Massachusetts, for five years. Plenty of time, my father thought.

“Crab apples. Lena was smelling the crab apples,” he probably said.

He broke a fresh cluster off the tree and handed them to me.

I stopped crying.


At first it was my mother’s garden. Then it was ours. Eventually it was mine alone. It wasn’t the actions of gardening: the planting, the watering, the pruning and clipping, that drew me to crouch between rows of hummocky brown or just-fronding green. These I found no more pleasurable than my similarly repetitive chores: washing dishes, for example, or stuffing shirts into clear plastic sacks, which I did for my father on weekends. What drew me to the garden were the smells. “Bouquets,” I’d later learn to call them. There were good scents sprinkled about the house, but all of them, even my mother’s lamb pies and her baked fish, heavy with sumac – diminished in comparison to what I could find in the garden. With my nose in a rose or a sprig of rosemary or the feathery stem of a carrot, I became nothing, I became only an orb encircling a scent.


I made my first perfume in my friend Dee Andreessen’s kitchen. Dee’s aunt had given her a cookbook “for ages 8 and up,” – it said on the cover, in a font nearly as big as the title, which was “Fun in the Oven.” (We felt sneaky, as we were only 7). We elected to make a recipe called “Bye Golly Brownies,” and though the result was entirely golly-less, we managed to eat half the pan before Dee’s mother yelled at us to clean up our mess. Part of the mess was a bottle of vanilla extract.

Vanilla is a very common head note in perfume, but if the perfumer is smart, she’ll plow past the sweetness to get at the almost medicinal citrus and cedar underneath. At seven, I wanted to pull out those underlying notes. My first thought, after sticking the lip of the bottle nearly up my nose, was: heat. Heat concentrated; I had just eaten the product of that concentration. Applied to liquid, heat also causes lesser elements to boil off .

As it turns out, sugar is not a lesser element, not in vanilla anyhow. When heated, vanilla’s alcoholic wash evaporates first; what remains is a deeper sweetness, almost caramel. Not what I’d wanted, but Dee thought it smelled heavenly. She dabbed some behind her ears right away. It left deep brown stains that took weeks to fade.


Considering the direction my later perfumes would take, a vanilla origin does seem ironic. But in the beginning, it wasn’t ironic; it wasn’t directional at all; it was simply vanilla: eons deep and bronze and a catalyst to other deep, bronze kitchen scents: balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, quince paste. Yes, my parents’ small, single-countered kitchen was my first laboratory. I raided its cabinets and bottled the results in sippy cups, toting them to school until my classmates tired of smelling like sugar boils and Lebanese restaurants. When I had exhausted every last, dusty spice jar, every weed on our lawn, every nickel of the birthday money I’d received from my Juddeti, I began to take inspiration from perfume greats. Formulas for Henri Alméras’ Joy and Jean Carles Carven’s Ma Griffe covered my ceiling; at night I would gaze at them until my eyes burned (the gardenia in Ma Griffe was my first consumptive obsession; a full decade would pass before I composed a comparable note). And then, rather suddenly, it seemed, I was no longer seven but ten-going-on-eleven and my mother was in my room cradling the cordless phone like it was hot or else delicate.

“Do you know who was that?” she asked, shaking the arm that carried the phone.

I tried to gauge her mood; the slight slant of her mouth and width of her eyes suggested confusion more than anger. I rifled through the past few days, but found no noteworthy incidents, good or bad.


“Suzy Carol, from the Coffee with Carols show. Can you believe?” She shook her head, to illustrate that she could not.

But I did not know the Coffee with Carols show. My mother watched so many.

“You do not want to know why she calls?”


“Do not say this word.”



“Why did she call?”

“For you, my Lena bird. She calls for you.”

The previous weekend, Colleen Diggs’ mom had allowed me to share her booth at the Hampshire County Fair. Colleen’s mom sold mosaics made from sea glass. She called them Glass by Galina, though her name was Shauna.

The mosaics were all faces, most of them blue, with jags of green hair and white eyes. My favorite was a bearded man with a pink tear. That was the one Suzy Carol’s friend Denise Williams bought – plus two bottles of Ochre Mountain.

Denise bought my perfume for the novelty more than anything. A child vendor, hardly taller than the booth itself, jet hair in a tight french braid, fussing over apothecary bottles with the stern brow of precocity—who could resist? And, considering a child was responsible, Ochre Mountain was a complex, expressive perfume. It was made, primarily, with currants; the little deep red berries my mother jelled into kiisseli gave Ochre Mountain its color and vinous, tart top note. Denise Williams liked the top note – to me, she said that it reminded her of her grandmother’s cranberry sauce. I guess she ended up liking the middle (hazelnut) and base notes (black spruce) as well, for a day after the fair, she called Suzy Carol.

Suzy Carol was a tiny, burnished blonde lady – I knew this immediately, though I had never seen her show. Over the phone, she was equal parts sugary and brisk; her sentences came out sounding like there would be a big inhale at the end of them, but the inhale never came. She wanted me to make Ochre Mountain live, on a real burner in the fake living room of the Coffee with the Carols set. She would watch what I did and try to produce something that shared the same color. She was hopeless in the kitchen, she said, but she had a very hungry nose. I remember thinking that didn’t make sense—if she had a hungry nose, why would the color matter?

You can find the taping on Youtube, if you’re interested. I wore friendly pink taffeta and a discernible wrinkle across my forehead. After showing Suzy how to capture the essence of current in a double boiler, I was blindfolded and quizzed about the contents of various mixtures shoved under my nose. The mixtures were easy and silly: hot chocolate with chili, pear tree resin, orange peel and lemongrass. My seriousness, in identifying them, played well with Suzy’s reined-in froth. When I watch it now, what stands out to me is the sight of my mother, sitting in the first row of the packed theatre where Coffee was filmed, with her hair brushed and gleaming past her shoulders, wearing a green blouse so vivid it drew compliments from Suzy herself.

In the car on long drive back to Amherst, my mother kept muttering the phrase “super nose.”

“Super nose, super nose, what is that, Goesh?”

“She has a good nose, yes,” my father said, gently. “And I don’t give a fig if she did not,” said the smile he gave me from the rearview mirror.

But my mother’s lips rode super’s plosive like a guppy the whole ride home.

The next evening, there was Kraft Mac&Cheese (my — normally forbidden — favorite) and baklava cut in the shape of a nose. Across the table, my mother glittered.

“I have talked to Annika, you know, Kappo’s wife. The doctor. And she says less than one tenth of 100, no is it 1000? Ehh, it doesn’t matter. Almost no one, she says, has a super nose. It is very very rare.”

When he put his water glass down, my father looked very tired.

“Enough, Barika. You are making our daughter uncomfortable. Let her enjoy this super nose as she likes.”

I felt relieved, then, but that night, my mother’s words – or I suppose they were Annika’s, jumbled — echoed in my head. My nose donned wings, great purple monarch wings, and soared above the shingled roofs and solitary church tower of our little town.




Chapter 2


When I was nine, I flew. I had one leg on either side of my friend Matt Shanahan’s roof. I was supposed to have both legs on one side of the roof, and then I was supposed to roll down to the lip and fly into the pine trees in the back corner of Matt’s yard. When I told Matt I could fly, I believed it, but I was having misgivings. When I had flown in my dream, it had been night, for one thing, with a warm wind that had wrapped around me like a comforter. The real wind was boisterous and cold, and the clear daylight illuminated the vertical risks I faced if I were wrong. Matt’s face, beside me, was a skeptical challenge, but one that was ready to accept my acquiescence: he didn’t expect me to fly.

In my dream, I had flown among the stars, though they were not much bigger than they seemed on land. When I caught one, it jittered like a firefly in my hand.  Now the stars were hidden, all but the sun, and the sun didn’t seem like it’d take kindly to being captured. But maybe that was just appearances. “Oh, that’s just appearances,” was something I’d hear Georgia say on the phone, laughing the laugh that meant she didn’t really find it funny.

“I think I need to stand,” I said, to Matt. Rolling seemed illogical; Matt’s house was not that tall, and there would be limited time for me to switch from falling to flying. I would jump off the side, facing the road, I decided.

“Okay,” Matt said. He was starting to wonder if he should talk me out of this, I could tell. But he was the boy and I the girl, and if I wasn’t going to backpedal, then neither was he.

I got to my feet, turning them inwards for balance. The wind fretted and I pretended warmth into it. In my dream, I hadn’t started to fly; I had simply flown. In my dream, apart from the hand that clasped the firefly, I hadn’t had a body at all. Maybe that was the trick to flying, then: weightlessness.

“Hey–” Matt began, reaching out to grab my leg. I jerked it free and leapt.


People say that time is not itself in our integral moments: weddings and births blaze by, cars flip in slow motion, bullets full-stop above our hearts long enough for us to watch our highlight reels. When I flew, I felt myself sandwiched like icing between the snow and the sky, and there wasn’t really any time at all; I had always and never been sandwiched there. Right before I hurtled into the top of an apple tree, I saw Georgia. She wasn’t dressed like an angel, or anything: she was wearing her Saturday hostess clothes, leopard-print dress and slasher heels. She didn’t speak, just gave me one of her classic Georgia pouts, but the pretty kind, not the angry kind, and then she shimmered for a while, and then I was being pummeled by hundreds of tiny, icy branches.

I hung in the tree, panting, until the sound of Matt’s shouts punctured my daze. When I dropped down from the lowest branch, he was waiting, face winter-white, eyes starry.

“You weren’t lying,” he said. The apple tree was at least twenty feet from the house.

The second time I tried to fly, I broke my leg in three places. Why had it worked, the first time? Matt thought it magic, and maybe he was right, but after his family moved to San Diego, he wasn’t around to convince me. Left with only my own recollection, I decided it was a rare instance of the universe bending to my will; an act whose recurrence my shabby cast reminded me I could not depend upon. Which didn’t mean I stopped wanting to fly. That first flight had been about power, or sureity. You could even say it was an act of love. But as I grew older, flight came to represent escape, pure and simple. An escape tantalized; at times, it nearly blinded.


The first thing I wanted to escape was not the earth but my own body.  I had always been small for my age, but sturdy, like a fire hydrant. The height, presumably, came from my father, for Georgia was six feet in heels. The sturdiness was my own, or else it was Georgia condensed. But at twelve, I became soft almost overnight, my skin rising like a soufflé over its former edges.

For some girls, the softness was wanted, I know. In school, thin straps in hot pink and turquoise and lime green asserted dominance over bare shoulders. In the locker room, I was more ogled than teased. My transformation had been so sudden: my classmates saw me as their own funhouse mirror, almost unbelievable, but not quite. But their awe was worse than small comfort: I wanted my old speed back, my vanished surefootedness; I wanted to be invisible. That the boys whom I had stampeded in soccer, whom I had beaten in the pull-up and the push-up challenge, who had refused to follow the line of my backflip off the high dive now knew me only as a chest was humiliating and enraging and, ultimately, deflating (in all ways but one).

At first, I was moderate. I doubled, then tripled, my sports bras; I wore a hunting vest left behind by a old friend of Georgia’s everywhere. In gym class, I ran slowly, or not at all. I followed Georgia’s exhortations to diet, to subsist on grapefruit juice for a week, to lie on the floor of my bedroom and pump my arms in vigorous, small circles, like a hatchling. But nothing could contain me. I was twelve, and I felt like I was drowning.


Only at night, lying still in my bed, did I breathe freely. I removed the blind from my window so I could stare at the stars until I fell asleep, remembering when I had been light enough to fly among them.

Georgia minded my altered state almost as much as I did. The way she saw it, she had prayed for a knife, been given dough.[1]  As months went by with no change, her disapproval became more and more vociferous. Sometimes, she was angry, sometimes anguished, sometimes, resigned. The latter I minded the most, because it presupposed stasis. “I’ll figure it out,” I said. But I didn’t figure it out: she did. I was not quite fourteen when, in a moment of torment disguised as drunken largesse, she offered to pay for a reduction.

I found a surgeon in the Yellow Pages that same night, though when I told his quote to Georgia, she winced and said I’d need to cover half of it. I got a job bagging groceries at the Hi-Vee in Coventry. I wore a smock that made me look like one of those blow-up sumo wrestling dolls, and boys from Saint Joe’s clowned around in my line, knocking over magazines and tossing me receipts which, uncrumpled, contained requests to smuggle cigarettes and Snickers bars under my tits.

Gary was my scanning partner. (I wasn’t old enough to scan groceries—all I was legally allowed to do was bag them.) He was in his late fifties, and his autistic son Toby had just been put in a brand-new state facility, leaving Gary with a sudden surfeit of hours that had previously been devoted to feeding Toby and cleaning Toby and wrapping Toby’s knuckles with gauze and watching Toby watch The Georgiask of Zorro wearing the black towel that served as his cape. Maybe Gary had moments of wanting to lift up my smock, but mostly, he kept after me to quit.

“You have the rest of your life to make money, kiddo,” he would say, and I would give him a smile that was meant to say “drop it,” and but in retrospect looked more like “I’m working this job for a real reason; I can’t tell you what it is but it’s not a trip to the mall.” After a while, I tired of smiling. I’m saving up for a plane ticket to Hawaii, where my dad lives, I told him. (I felt guilty, but maybe it wasn’t such a lie. For all I knew, my father did live in Honolulu. If my mother caved and decided to cover the reduction on her own, maybe I would use the money to go see him.)

At first, I didn’t know what to do with the envelope I found in the pocket of my parka. The note was in rounded letters, like an elementary teacher’s, and they chirped around the four numbers on the accompanying check. Gary had gotten a bigger tax refund than he’d expected, and it was better off in my hands than his. Have fun in the sun, it said at the bottom.

I had fun in the dressing room of 365 Sun, admiring my diminished, bronzed profile. The following week, I stopped by the Hi-Vee to thank Gary, but the manager said he’d had to leave; there’d been some sort of accident with the son and he’d been transferred to a hospital down in Boston. If I’d tried, I might have been able to see him again, but I didn’t try. I was fourteen and newly camouflaged; maybe now, I thought, I wouldn’t need to fly.


The day I realized that on earth, I’d never be light enough, permanent flight caught in my mind like a jig hook. Top Gun was on and Georgia was talking over it, saying how if she were Kelly McGillis, she would never give a flash-in-the-pan toothpick like Maverick a second thought. Flying upside down … only a man would want to do something so uselessly stupid.

“Flying upside down?” I asked, and Georgia looked up at me.

“You’ve never seen this? Well, I guess you wouldn’t have.”

She gestured to the sofa.

“Want to watch?”

I sat. On screen, Maverick was frowning as an older officer berated him for reckless conduct.

“You see Maverick is a pilot because his daddy was a pilot, and he hates it because his daddy died flying and no one called him a hero for it. But he also loves it, because it makes him feel alive.”

I stared straight ahead.

“What?” Georgia asked, for I was smiling.

“Sounds like you don’t hate him as much as you thought,” I said, and she laughed, surprised.

“No, I guess not,” she said.

The next time Maverick flew upside down, Goose died. But I didn’t care about Goose; I cared about the freedom implied in defying gravity twice. Maverick mirrored the other pilots; he was their shadow selves. There was beauty in that that bordered on religious. In school the next day, when Ms. Campanello traced the trajectory our bottle rockets would take upon the chalkboard, I took notes instead of doodles. When she said “the same principle applies to airplanes,” I felt a ping of possessive pride.

So I had a flight plan, now. And it was funny that it came from Georgia, when it was she whom I was flying from.


It had always been Georgia and I, but we had never been close. Before I was born, Georgia had been an actress — Shakespeare, she said, Midsummer Night’s Dream, though it was hard to believe. Cambridge isn’t New York but she had been going places, working her way from extra to chorus to understudy to lead. Even after she had me, she continued to perform, as a musician. But her voice alone wasn’t enough, or maybe I was too much of a counterweight: the money dried up and we moved to Rhode Island. “Why Rhode Island?” I had asked once, and Georgia had glared at someone I couldn’t see. “Lies,” she said.

The trouble with Georgia was not that she was all bad, but that the badness was volatile. One minute, there’d be a smile, dazzling in its flesh-on-bone, its largess of lip and teeth. The next, a snarl, Medusa-like, freezing.Your hair looks nice down like that Lynnie/you should wear my Calvin Klein to your formal, the black one; the boys will be on their knees/I knew it wouldn’t fit you/you don’t take care of yourself/what would you do without me? You would literally fade away/you would disappear.

“You mean ‘figuratively,’” was my typical response, something so weakly perpendicular that Georgia dispensed with it as a boxer might a speed bag.

And if responses were weapons that did not replenish, confessions were even worse. In a moment of trust (or was it blindness?), I told Georgia that my biology teacher, Mr. Gerard, was at the top of every eighth grade girl’s TILF list. Yes, I admitted, biology was my favorite class. (Well it was. Cells, with their self-sufficient, singularly-driven microcosms, I found especially comforting.) Within a week of my admission, I was reassigned to Mrs. Pruitt’s class, and a week after that, Mr. Gerard was gone, leaving behind a cacophony of speculation around his departure.

I stopped confiding; largely, I avoided speaking to Georgia at all. I iced my cheeks and went to school in my regular sweatshirts and read Catch-22 and The Warbirds in the library so often the librarian gifted them to me (“nobody’s checked out Warbirds in four years; I think you’re safe.”). I made sure I was in my bedroom, with the lights out, when Georgia returned from shift drinks. On sheets of paper crumbled and tossed in her trash, so that Georgia would not find them interesting, I counted down the days until I could leave. 1600, 1572, 1499. Some numbers seemed close enough to wink at; others stretched into an unbearable distance.



Chapter 3


My mother started going to church in the fall of 1999, two years after my appearance on Coffee with the Carols,  and shortly after the release of Dandelion in the Ziggurat, my first commercial success The links between these bullets were not immediately clear to me. What was clear was that my mother had come alive again. She got out of bed more often, she began, with regularity, to cook, and then to shop for the ingredients that my harried father overlooked. And each Sunday, my mother swapped her greying bathrobe for something floaty and pretty — gauzy peasant dresses, circle skirts, that jade green blouse.

Most of my mother’s clothes were from before, but the jacket was new. I knew this because the tag was still on, and there was a receipt for it folded neatly in one of the front pockets. Four hundred dollars seemed like a lot of money to me; I couldn’t believe my father had allowed it. I didn’t dare try it on, but I did bury my head in its silky lining.

The leather was there, of course, horsey, with bits of straw. Incense lay further in, closer to the skin. Tendrilling around these masculine scents was an astonishment: the sultry cinnamon of the phalaenopsis violacea, the Sumatran orchid. At first, I disbelieved, for I had never known my mother to wear perfume. I had been told that her own mother, whom I never met, wore it liberally. The white shoulders, always the white shoulders, my mother would say, with a shudder. (My mother hated my grandmother; perhaps that was why she’d kept her shoulders brown.)

But enough on the existence of the perfume: the more I inhaled, the more my nose clamored for my brain’s attention. This combination, this leather/straw/incense/orchid, this was the sort of thing I wanted to create. The perfumes I’d been experimenting with up to that point suddenly struck me as childishly literal. Capturing my mother’s jacket would require both direct interpretation and metaphor — I would need to find the aromatics that smelled like leather and straw and kept those scents when introduced to incense and orchid. Too, I wanted to weave in bits of my mother herself, the bathrobe and the jade green blouse, the erstwhile gardener and the retreating napper and the newfound parishoner. Great perfume, when it makes contact with skin, is like a snowflake: different every time; My Mother’s Jacket, I decided, would need to feed the odd, juxtaposing bits of those who wore it.

From the time I moved into the high school chem lab to the time I got my first proper lab, when I was eighteen, I made all of my perfumes using old-fashioned methods: steam distillation on the Bunsen burners for the hardier stuff, and, for the delicate flowers, an old French technique called enfleurage. With enfleurage, the plant material is laid between glass sheets that have been thickly greased with tallow. The sheets are then racked on wooden frames, like a massive, inedible icebox cake. Each day, the greasy plants and their primordial ooze are swapped out for fresh material, until the grease has fully absorbed the scent, at which point it is scraped off the glass and soaked in ethyl alcohol. Voila: perfume. My Mother’s Jacket, with its sensuous florals and deep tannins, would be my first perfume to require both steam distillation and enfleurage, though I didn’t know that when I began creating it.

There was so much I did not know, before My Mother’s Jacket. To this day, there are areas I have little familiarity with (superficial fluid extraction, so beloved by Godard, remains a complete mystery), but Jacket was a seminal period in my development; it was my first adult perfume, and the first that portrayed multi-dimensional person, and moments in that person’s life.

Before she begins to create a perfume, the modern perfumer must make a choice: mostly natural or mostly synthetic or a blend of the two. It’s this perfumer’s opinion that in terms of pure depth and beauty, synthetics can’t touch naturals; in terms of price and access, naturals can’t touch synthetics. Natural scents are made with essential oils, mostly, as well as external plant material: bark, ash, petals. The depth of a plant’s scent profile depends on the weather, the seed stock, and the absence of harmful foreign bodies from its soil. If the plant does flourish, those essential oils have to be extracted — no easy feat if the plant in question is, say, a jasmine, and downright impossible if you’re looking to capture lily of the valley.

So, unless she has the upfront cash to purchase natural materials and the confidence she’ll make it back, the modern perfumer’s natural-vs-synthetics choice isn’t really a choice. But at thirteen, I didn’t know this. I didn’t know that the synthetic coumarin, derived from the tonka bean, smelled like freshly hacked straw, or that safraleine could give me the leather I so loved to burrow in. And I didn’t know then that I could buy ready-made vials of these aromatics; I set out to capture them myself, the expensive way, with plants.

I spent months on the leather note alone, steaming birch bark and spruce bark and even, in desperation, my father’s old wallet. The first attempts were more horse dung than horse saddle, the next round put me in mind of Mongol warriors. The other components came easier, but to my immense frustration, I kept recreating the original, when what I wanted to do was create my mother wearing the original.

Eventually, I put My Mother’s Jacket aside, focusing instead on a perfume about a dance I’d dance I’d snuck into at Saint Seb’s, the private all-boy’s school that served as a dumping ground for “troubled” (aka “unable to do his homework no matter how many rewards are dangled his way,” aka “the Ritalin’s not working, Doctor!,” aka “HOT and ready to grind the night away”) young demi-Catholics. Years later, the director of the Grasse Institute of Perfume would tell me that it was this scent, which I called Buckskin, that had landed me the all expenses-paid invite to the prestigious school, but to me, the note it expressed most clearly was not oxford-cloth sweat or libido but distraction.

Less than a week after I put the finishing touches on Buckskin, my mother moved out. It was a Saturday in March – the ides of March, perhaps – seasonably drizzly and unseasonably warm; the ground puffed mist as well as crocus. Saturdays were the dry clean’s busiest day; my father had already left for work. I suppose my parents had said their own goodbyes earlier, though I cannot be sure. To me, my mother was stiffly casual; she would see me soon; nothing important would change. I left the question of whether to believe her for future, solitary perusal: in the driveway, I wanted only for her not to crumple.

She had always had so little, but now she had nothing, I thought as I watched her car –an ancient green Buick, dented and scraped so it appeared to bleed gray — pull away. I imagined her pulling up to the new house – (she hadn’t gone far — just across town, to the more moneyed part, where she rented the carriage house of a church friend), tentatively turning the key, puzzling over chow mein in some dark, empty room. I couldn’t stand it.

When my father, that evening, asked me how I was doing, I burst into tears.

“Mommy doesn’t have any friends or any money. She’s all alone now. What is she going to do? She doesn’t even have furniture!”

My father removed his glasses and began, absently, to polish them on his shirttails.

“The Mondales are having a yard sale,” he said, eventually.

Before I went to bed, my mother called to wish me goodnight, and I told her about the Mondales’ yard sale. Maybe we could find some paintings to put up, and some furniture, I said, stressing the we.

“That is a nice idea, katkoota” she said, but she sounded amused, not grateful or relieved, as I’d expected.

I found out why when I biked over the next day. The carriage house consisted of a single, dormered room and a separate kitchen; it was radiantly clean, and the white walls were already broken up with several prints — a map of Finland, Hopper’s Nighthawks, a photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, sitting on a park bench wearing plastic bags on their heads. To this day, I do not know where she got any of them, nor the furniture—for she had that too, a low-slung platform bed, a pale, pebbled blue sofa, a small tiled table with wrought iron chairs. After years of depending on my father, it seemed my mother had acquired a new life overnight, and she wore it as though the old one had never been there.

I had thought we would eat dinner, takeout pizza off paper towels, hunched over the cardboard box so grease wouldn’t get on the bare floors. Instead we had nut biscuits and tea, loose leaf out of a glass orb that showed the leaves expanding, drifting on heat. The tea was bright amber, but it smelled like the pine embers, guttural and deeply resinous.

My Mother’s Jacket, when I completed it, was a mother runaway from home, sleeping by the embers of a campfire. The leather was in the Russian style, thick with birch tar. She carried a sachet of dried roses to scent her pillow, brook moss replaced the straw, and the wood smoke roared at the beginning, but left wet green pine at the finish. And I added Georgiaui sweet salt, for the mother in my story cried. Basenotes called it a cusping anti-perfume that rewards the wearer but trounces her companions. Elle said it was the most evocative perfume since Lutens’ Gris. Vogue found it entirely contradictory and overtly sentimental, but the vehemence of their review only pushed more people to buy a bottle, to see what all the fuss was about.

And as for my mother? She hated it too, and her hatred was, naturally, more personal and visceral than the Vogue reviewer’s. But I didn’t find this out until much later, for while she hated the scent and all it meant, she loved its spoils.


My Mother’s Jacket was the turning point for the House of Abramahim: it was one of the first perfumes to generate long, heated discussions on Fragantica and the reviews created a lot more demand than an eighth-grader could properly handle. Pre-Jacket, I was only selling my perfumes at a handful of department stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Two days post-launch, I had nearly 2,000 backorders and a number of angry voicemails from the inventory manager at Barneys Chestnut Hill. That evening, my mother returned to my father’s house for the first time since she’d left. It was a Tuesday, and my mother only had me on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but my father wouldn’t be home for hours, and I was only up to backorder no. 345. The boxes I used were simple, robin’s egg blue with a tiny a-frame house stamped on their flat tops; surrounded by flat stacks of them, I must have looked to my mother like a little hatchling breaking through.

Her fingers flashed over the boxes, folding and tucking in one continuous gesture. Immediately, she was finishing three or four to my one, and by sunrise, the dining room table was a robin’s egg metropolis and we were finished.

“I’ll make pancakes,” I offered, and my mother said no, silly, go sleep for a while, and when I woke, we would do the shipping labels. When I crept back downstairs, the shipping labels were already done, and my mother was at the stove, skimming fat off the stew meat she used to make moijakka. The sight — of the finished boxes, my mother still awake, cooking — made me say, tearily, something I’d never said before.

“Mummy, you’re the best.”

My mother didn’t turn from the stove.

“Have some breakfast, katkoota. There’s skyr in the fridge.”

While I was adding copious amounts of jam to my yogurt, my mother spoke again.

“You need help, Lena.”


“I will help you. You do the perfumes; I do the orders, the mailing. Maybe the promotions.”

The way she said it boded no argument, and besides, she was right. And so, my business became our business. I made the perfumes, and my mother, and the people she hired, did everything else.