When he first returned, we flocked to him like gulls to a fishing trawler. Even after those of us nearest had grown used to his celebrity in our midst, people traveled planet-wide in a never-ending pilgrimage to view the great explorer, and even more, to smell him.
He wore his scents like a badge of honour. The few rich enough to buy his rareties hoarded the oils and essences in their vaults and safes, guarding their investments as though they were prized objects to hide away, not sensory experiences to delight in. The only way most of us would ever know the aromas of long-extinct lilies, roses, and violets was by walking past him in the street or following in his wake as ducklings trail their mother.
I suppose we had forgotten the real reason for the journey that set off generations before, hoping to bring back the flowering plants that had died out after viruses attacked both them and the bees. The seed banks failed when the still-dormant virus attacked the new plants, too, so the mission was a last-ditch effort. Only a few really expected its return. If the crew made it to one of the distant colonies that had taken pockets of Earth to far-off solar systems, why would they turn back for the interminable journey home to people they had never known, their loved ones deep in their dusty graves?
For a long time, the Scented Man was as much an enigma to me as to everyone else. He had never publicly spoken of his expedition or what had happened to his comrades. His explanation for the mission’s ultimate fate was that the plants and seeds had died while the crew were in stasis.
But I suspected there was more to his story. As the months passed, his olfactory rainbow settled into the village, as much a feature as the cracked, barren plains or the great buoyed rings that surrounded the seaweed fields. He was part of us, yet not one of us. In the rare moments he could steal for himself, he would sit on the cliff-top alone, staring out at the sea’s expanse. It was there that I stumbled across him one day.
I climbed the steep cliff path, a basket of seaweed under my arm. The seaweed farmers often sold their crop at a reduced price if you were prepared to cart it up the cliff yourself, and I didn’t mind the exercise. I reached the summit and thumped the basket down, stopping for a moment to catch my breath and gaze at the crumbling city ruins on the horizon. A puff of sea breeze carried with it a scent of rose and lavender, and I turned with a start to find him gazing at me from his seat on the dry ground.
He smiled, but I noticed unshed tears brimming at his lower eyelids. All at once, I saw the man within the mysterious traveler, and my heart went out to him.
“Hello,” I said, returning his sad smile. “It’s a beautiful spot, isn’t it?”
“It is,” he nodded. “It was even lovelier when grasses grew here, and butterflies flitted amongst the wild flowers.”
The look of wonder must have shown on my face. He wiped a hand over his eyes and patted the ground beside him. “Will you sit for a moment?”
I didn’t hesitate. “You remember those days?” I asked.
“All too well.” His voice was wistful. “My friends and I played here as children. I stole my first kiss at this very spot. Just a few years later, they were all gone.”
I wasn’t sure whether he meant the butterflies or the people he had known. Either way, I sensed his heartbreak. It was too much to lose in one lifetime.
“Is that why you went?” I ventured. “To try and bring it all back?”
A wry laugh escaped him. “Bringing it all back was impossible. We hoped for a few dozen plant species. We put bees and caterpillars in stasis for the return flight. Adult butterflies are too fragile to withstand such treatment.”
A shiver went through me to hear him speak of them in the present, as though they still existed. “Are there still butterflies, then? Somewhere out there?” I looked up, as though the bright blue sky would reveal the stars behind it.
He smiled. “There are.”
“So what happened to the bees and caterpillars you brought with you?”
His expression dimmed again. “I never brought them out of stasis. I euthanised the little beauties when I realised there would be no flowers for them after all.”
I felt my throat tighten at the scale of the tragedy, for him and for us. “So it was all for nothing, then? Everything you went through? All the people you’ve lost…”
“Not for nothing,” he whispered. “I brought all the oils the colony could spare and distilled what flower essences I could in the weeks before I entered stasis. Little did I know at the time that they were all I’d be bringing back. But at least their scents can live on a little longer. If I close my eyes, I can pretend I’m standing in the middle of a garden in bloom.”
I couldn’t even imagine such a wonder. I’d seen holograms and images, the same as everyone else, but they were the things of legend. To be in the midst of such colour and scent—such life!—was something I hardly believed possible. But here I sat beside a man who appeared my age, yet had experienced such things and longed for them, not as magical stories, but as bittersweet memories of something he would never again have.
A fly buzzed around my basket of seaweed. I had to get it to refrigeration before it started to smell. Fresh seaweed was delicious and full of nutrients. Damp seaweed left sitting in a warm basket soon became unpleasant.
“I have to get this home.” I gestured at the basket.
“Yes, of course. I didn’t mean to keep you.”
“Oh, you haven’t! I’ve enjoyed sitting with you.” I paused. “Would you… like to join me for some supper?”
He turned to me and I noticed his eyes were a deep green. “I would love to. Another time.”
“All right.” I stood to leave, certain he was just being polite. “I’ll see you another time, then. My name’s Millie.”
“I’m Stefan,” he replied.
Several weeks passed before I spoke to him again. I saw him frequently, but always with groups of people clustering around or following him as he went about his daily business. I imagined how tired he must get of them, but also wondered if they helped mask his loneliness.
Then as I was browsing the market one day, buying clams, fresh-picked samphire and a bottle of fabricated pepper sauce, I heard his familiar voice.
I turned to the aromas of jasmine and cherry blossom. In that instant, I was a small child clutching my grandmother’s skirts. Had she worn jasmine? I thought I could only identify Stefan’s scents from the synthetic versions which bore but the crudest resemblance to them. But perhaps some had been real, a long time ago.
“Stefan!” I shook off the memory to greet him, noticing the young couple eyeing him a few feet away and the mother pointing him out to her two children. I felt a foolish pride that he singled me out.
“I’ve been hoping to bump into you,” he said. “I didn’t want you to think me rude, having not taken up your offer of supper. Perhaps we could arrange an evening?”
The clam trader stifled a gasp as she bagged up her wares for another customer.
“I’d love to.” I tried to keep the colour from my cheeks, aware everyone was watching. “What about this evening?”
“Perfect! I’ll supply drinks.”
We exchanged details, and a few hours later he was standing on my doorstep. He brought a sweet cordial flavoured with a delicate floral essence.
“What is this?” I asked as the first sip awoke my tastebuds. It was perfume, earthiness, subtly sharp.
“Elderflower,” he said. “Isn’t it lovely?” I’d heard of it, but had no notion of how it smelled or tasted.
“Surely this is too priceless to drink?” I looked at the pale liquid and wondered if I was the first person to taste elderflower in a hundred years.
“It’s here to be enjoyed. What’s the point, otherwise?” He clinked his glass to mine and we drank as I prepared the clams for dinner.
That evening, we shared food, drink, and an easy rapport. He had lived so much longer than I had, travelled across the galaxy and back, seen wonders I’d only read about. It struck me that he was as much a traveler of time as of space. But even so, he seemed relaxed in my company and treated me as his equal, even though it took me most of the evening to start feeling I was.
It wasn’t until dinner was over and he had poured the last drops of elderflower cordial that I asked him the question that had been on the edge of my lips since the cliff-top.
“What happened to the others? The ones you traveled with?”
He dropped his gaze to his glass and fiddled with the stem.
“They’re long dead,” he said after a while.
I waited for him to elaborate, wondering if he would when several minutes passed.
“Joseph and Ilana… they stayed behind.” He kept his gaze averted as he spoke. “Bea and I didn’t blame them. They’d grown close in the weeks to either end of our stasis, and New Europe had everything Earth had lost. It was green, lush, its ecosystems intact and its people prosperous and settled. Such forests and pastures and flowering meadows! The thought of leaving that to return to a further degraded Earth was painful for all of us. We only had each other; no one was waiting for us at home. Bea and I thought of staying too… she was so torn.”
His voice dropped as if pained. “We argued over it, and in the end I convinced her to return with me. We knew we were Earth’s sole hope to ever again resemble the natural beauty we saw around us. Even if that was one chance in a million, we had to try. So we left.” He paused and the silence seemed to reach into every nook and corner of my kitchen.
“For the first ten years, everything was fine. The seeds were in refrigeration, and hydroponic units kept the few live plants in a kind of suspended animation of their own. They only needed maintenance every couple of months. We scheduled our chambers to wake one of us every two months, taking turns to adjust the storage units and check the ship’s systems. We’d leave each other notes. Bea would make jokes or leave me riddles to solve. Then one day I awoke for my turn. I knew something was wrong as soon as I saw Bea, lying in stasis next to me.” Tears glistened in the corners of his eyes now. I longed to reach a hand to him in sympathy, but something held me back.
“She’d been dead for months. Her chamber’s respiratory system had malfunctioned and she’d suffocated in her sleep. My note to her from four months earlier still lay on the table in the common area. She died before her last scheduled turn and never saw it.” He let his tears fall without shame. “It wasn’t till I’d jettisoned her body and started to recover from the shock that I thought to check on the storage units. They hadn’t been maintained since my last turn. Moisture buildup in the refrigeration units had made the environment too humid and a fungus had taken hold, ruining all of the seeds. The hydroponic units were almost dry. Most of the plants were already dead, and the few remaining barely clung to life. I stayed awake for the next two weeks, desperate to revive them. My efforts were in vain. All I could save were the essences I’d already extracted and the oils the colonists supplied. And I was the only one of us who came back.”
My own eyes were damp when he’d finished. I took his hand then. “I’m so sorry,” was all I could think of to say.
He breathed a sigh that suggested he’d shed a heavy burden. “I haven’t told anyone that before.”
I felt truly moved that I was the one he could share with.
He looked me in the eye. “You remind me of Bea, you know.”
My puzzled expression made him smile. “You look a bit like her. And you share her love of beautiful things.” He gestured around my little house, at my artwork, paints and easel, and the colourful fabrics that had always caught my eye.
He took his leave shortly after. There wasn’t much left to say that evening. I would have found a reason to keep him longer if I’d known I wouldn’t see him again.
Two days later, I opened my door to find a small bottle on the step. It was green glass, etched with opalescent swirls and stoppered with a piece of polished blue stone. I lifted the stopper and a waft of perfume escaped… jasmine—my grandmother’s smile—and citrus, and the hint of an exquisite floral essence I didn’t recognise. I gasped in wonder and looked up and down my lane, hoping to catch sight of him and express my awe and gratitude at his extravagant gift.
He was long gone. Some in the village claimed to have seen him leaving town, heading off along the inland road. Others later said he’d taken passage on a boat from the harbour. Either way, he never returned home.
I wondered if he felt free to leave now that he had shared his tale. Or if staying in his once-fertile home, near someone who reminded him of his final loss, was too painful. I felt I had to honour him. On the anniversary of his arrival, I wore his scent and stood on a crate in the middle of the market square to tell his story. People were moved—to tears, to anger—at all he and Bea had sacrificed trying to help us. So began the yearly remembrance of the Scented Man who left our humble village for the stars, returned to it, and left us again.
Yet I knew he was alive and well somewhere. Every so often, stories would reach us of a man who left beautiful aromas wherever he went, strewing the memories of flowers behind him.
ELEANOR R. WOOD’s stories have appeared in Bete Noire, Plasma Frequency Magazine, Bastion, Pseudopod, and Crossed Genres, among others. She writes and eats liquorice from the south coast of England, where she lives with her husband, two marvellous dogs, and enough tropical fish tanks to charge an entry fee.
Thank you for keeping the subltle tone throughout.
I kept thinking the twist was going to be that they brought the virus to the stars and the colonies’ plants died too. I was glad that did not happen.
Nice idea well done. Perhaps people learned to appreciate the scents of Earth they still had–those from the sea.
An excellent read. It reminded me of poetry.
Thanks for your lovely comments, chaps!