You see the shapely pink bloom of the moon flower and you know it has a smell. It's a nocturnal smell evolved to attract moths. You've read this. I've seen a fly inside and ants too. But where don't they go?
I'm attracted and I want to find the aroma. I walk over slowly so as not to diffuse the airborne chemicals. I take a deep smell. It's not weak and it's not strong. It's not sweet and it's not rancid. It's not sharp or hard. It's curved and softened. It's invisible, unregisterable. I must try it again.
I hold the ovary in my open palm gently and I concentrate, or try to, on the aroma. My concentration is broken by sensation. Sensation takes over and removes cognition. I can't find the smell. That is, I can find it (smell it) but I can't place it. Where does it belong and with what? I can't make sense of it. I can't place it in my endless encyclopedia of smells. I walk away.
I must try more because I know that smell is brand new to me and unique. Were I a moth I could register it immediately. Attractive. Intoxicating. Motivating. My human brain is equipped to smell the flower, but not to connect it to anything. The smell is there but it doesn't do anything to me because I can't do anything with it. I'm not intoxicated. I'm not motivated to release my tongue, unroll it, and drink deeply of nectar, accidentally becoming attached to pollen grains or a sticky stigma. I am motivated in one way though. To explore further. To smell more deeply.
Registering the aroma means classifying it, providing it with a context, finding the senses it awakens. It is an abstract smell, one that I struggle to interpret. Again I leave it.
But again I walk back. If this were an abstract painting it might become interpretable through study. Or I might find unintended figures or faces in its diffuse image. Were it a piece of music and I concentrated, I could, with work, distinguish rhythms, cadences, inflections, tonalities. This aroma, distinct as it is, cannot be distinguished, catalogued, compared. It leaves me floating or swimming or wafting in a wave of sensation, but it leaves me uncomprehending. And like a wave, not really moving.
This puzzle is puzzling. By defying recognition this aroma breaks boundaries, takes me out of my comfort zone, slightly astounds. I must go back to it.
"Smell this other one," Janet suggests, "it's stronger." But I get less. Untroubled, unruffled, untrammeled, the moonflower glows lightly in the warm damp air. This chemical producing organism, heavy and lush, bobs gently. It presents a question. But it doesn't provide an answer.
I try the aroma again and it seems to be picked up somewhere between the bridge of my nose and the top of my nose, almost right between the eyes. A strange place for an aroma I think, a place that's hidden, a place where the olfactory nerves sip and swerve and quiver in trying to define.
There is something slightly edible to the smell, something that is reproduced on my upper palette right behind my eye teeth. If you could bite down on a piece of air. The sinuses activated, I come in for a landing. This packet of air sending weak but steady impulses may become conquerable if I apply willpower and discipline and don't give up. Strange to be drawn like this and strange to be driven. Why decipher a mystery?
Clicking my tongue against the roof of my mouth for confirmation I assemble the conformation of this air-abstraction. I let my brain do the work, synthesizing, recreating, mixing. It comes close to a verdict but the decision is not fully satisfactory. The best place I can take this smell is somewhere close to a petunia.
But petunia is rank. This is refined. Petunia is common. This is rare. Petunia is made in the temperate zone. This is tropical.
Two or three days ago I was challenged with the knot of another aroma, just as hard to unravel. An aroma I never knew of and never suspected. A bit of agar wood oil was touched to my skin. I was intoxicated. The next morning a stick was lit as my host made his morning offering. He drew the smoking stick in front of me and the intoxication returned. There in Batapola at an essential oil maker's place, I knew what to do with the agar wood aroma. Hold onto it and never let it go. Find it, store it, live in it.
The moonflower didn't allow this. In its way it turned me into something mindlessly mindful, something like an insect that has to return and return, a slave to pheromonic molecules dripping from the flower. If I could understand the language of this flower it would tell me, "welcome to Sri Lanka. Submit."