The Cinnamon Peeler by Michael Ondaatje

I always have a nose for things. Mind you, I do not make a habit out of butting into other people’s personal lives — I’m not that kind of nosy. Rather, I always smell anything and everything. I think I am kind of obsessed with scents.

Today I did nothing but smell things like food and pillows and books. I was shopping with my mother, and we went to a perfume store where a tiny little bottle caught my eye. It was called, “that breathtaking moment when your heart stands still.” I can’t believe that something that smelled so wonderful could have a name so long and lovely. I stood in awe of this scent because it make me think of lying down on a soft, soft field of flowers, just watching the blue, blue sky above me. The sun isn’t shining so bright, and the breeze felt so cool that I’m half-asleep and floating.

When I came home, I smelled the following: coffee beans in the kitchen, an old musty literature book, a broken stick of cigarette, Clinique Happy, soiled clothes, my father’s aftershave, Jessica McClintock perfume, a black marker, newly-washed clothes, my dog’s fur coat, photocopied handouts, an apple, hot sauce, mint toothpaste, diced tomatoes, garlic, the family piano, my journal, a lit match, and my own hair.

It was fun just going around the house and smelling. I am reminded by something for each one. I think about how the coffee would smell even more delicious after it’s ground and boiled. How years and years of information is stored in that book, and how many minds gained more with each time they opened it – what they were thinking when they read it, what age they were, how the book came into my possession now. I think about the person who invented the cigarette, and if he somehow knew the impact that it would make and bring to the human psyche. I think about Clinique and wondered if it would really make you happy. The soiled clothes in the house – who wore it and what happened that day that made the fabric smell that way. How many women turn their heads at my father because of his scent. How many men will turn their heads because of my scent. How high I get out sniffing a marker. I think about the bluest sky because of the clean clothes, excitement and boredom because of my dog’s fur coat. How long the Xerox lady was standing all day trying to photocopy every handout every student gave her, how long the apple was clinging to the tree before it was taken, or has it dropped itself to the ground?

How my nose twitches at the smell of pepper, like I’m close to sneezing but then it suddenly disappears (I hate that). How I feel clean after I taste and feel the mint in my breath, how warm I feel inside at the scent of tomatoes. I think that frying garlic is one of the most wonderful smells in the world. I think about how many notes the old piano has played, remembering my regret at not knowing how to play. Remembering all I was feeling at every entry in my journal, how a lit match is the smell of dying. Remembering how I used to wash my hair for a long time because A. loved to smell it.

Such histories. So potent. And I am reminded of a poem, from long time ago:

The Cinnamon Peeler
Michael Ondaatje

If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
and leave the yellow bark dust
on your pillow.

Your breasts and shoulders would reek
you could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you. The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon.

Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbor to your hair
or the crease
that cuts your back. This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler’s wife.

I could hardly glance at you
before marriage
never touch you
— your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers…

When we swam once
I touched you in water
and our bodies remained free,
you could hold me and be blind of smell.
You climbed the bank and said

this is how you touch other women
the grasscutter’s wife, the lime burner’s daughter.
And you searched your arms
for the missing perfume.
and knew
what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in an act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of scar.

You touched
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
peeler’s wife. Smell me.

Updated on 28 November 2013. Thanks, K.

1 Comment

  1. The title noted for Ondaatje’s piece is incorrect. The piece is entitled “The Cinnamon Peeler,” not “The Cinnamon Peeler’s Wife.”

    The source I’m checking against here is the Oxford Press Canadian Literature anthology, which I’m relatively sure is right.

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