Nike is most beautiful at the moment in which she hesitates, right hand as beautiful as a command. She leans against the wind, but her wings tremble.
When I taught writing at a community college in Hamilton, Ontario, I enjoyed asking students to write down which of their five senses they would give up to save the other four. As this odd request often inspired superstitious dread, I promised my students that this loss would not necessarily come to pass.
The majority of students in every single class chose “to give up” their sense of smell.
For she sees a solitary youth walking along the ruts of a war chariot, along a grey path in a grey landscape of rocks and scarce juniper bushes.
I then told them about the power of the sense of smell to invoke memories and create emotional responses. We westerners are too dependent on our sense of sight, I said. We tend to overemphasize sight in our descriptions, and not pay enough attention to sound, touch, taste and smell.
That youth does not have long to live. Just now the scale holding his fate is falling violently to the ground.
So I would next ask my students to write a list of their ten favourite scents. After they had duly done so, I asked what they were and wrote them on the white board. And as I did so, I noticed them all nodding and smiling at the different choices. Many chose such holiday cooking smells as roasting turkey and baking pumpkin pie.
Nike has an enormous desire to go and kiss him on the forehead.
One woman transformed how I felt about the coming war by mention the scent of her grandfather’s rose garden in Iraq. It hadn’t occurred to me before that Iraq had rose gardens, and I had deeply loved the solitary rose vine of my childhood home. Another woman blushed deeply just after she said, “A clean shirt on a handsome man.”
But she is afraid that he who has not known the sweetness of caresses will, having learned about it, run away like the others during this battle.
So Nike hesitates, and in the end decides to stay in the position taught her by sculptors, very much ashamed of this moment of emotion.
But I did not myself realize the vastness of the power of smell to invoke memories until the September night I was welcomed into a very old house in Scotland. As I stepped over the threshold, I breathed in its damp, old-British-house smell and was transported thirty-five years into the past where as a very small child I lived near Cambridge University.
I have always associated that time with blissful, prelapsarian happiness, for although I was afraid of the dark and danger, I did not know about death. But whereas I connected that feeling of peace with the visual memory of the gardens, in reality it came running back with the smell of the old Scottish house.
She understands perfectly well that tomorrow at dawn that boy must be found with an open breast, closed eyes and the bitter coin of his motherland under his numb tongue.
When I awoke in the guest room the next day, greeted by a warmer, woolly version of the old British house smell, I felt perfectly happy–even after cracking my head on the low ceiling. I was so happy, in fact, that subsequently I never left the house for long. I married my then-host, its sole occupant, and I am writing in it now.
The verses are my translation of “Nike która się waha”, a poem by Zbigniew Herbert. Can you find evidence of all five senses?