Aqua Mirabilis

- by Stephanie Chan -

4550 Words


What does Mars smell like?

You’ve asked yourself this many times since they established the first Martian homesteads fifteen years ago. You considered it as you watched the shining silver ships spinning out of Earth’s blue embrace, racing toward a red star in the distance. You imagined it when tasting the back of your lover’s neck. You dreamed of it after that lover went away.

At work in the perfumery, you tried to recreate it with stems, blossoms, and thistles from the greenhouse, mixing this fragrance and that, holding your wrist to your nose while all around you the glass walls and ceiling fogged with the perspiration of thousands of captive plants. You alone, the planet turning slowly beneath your feet as a warm scent faded.

You imagined the faraway dust contained trace elements of the luxurious Tabac Rouge, a musky, honey-toned fragrance that clings and spills like a hot night. Or maybe it exuded Deep Red, with its prelude of blood orange and black currant, thrumming with an undercoat of sensual sandalwood.

The Martian crops and gardens would be teenaged by now, rebelling and rioting with gleeful botanical anarchy. The first of the colonists will be back soon. It’s all over the news, a constant drone of questions, speculations, and warm welcomes. There were so many questions after Earth lost radio and video communication with Mars. It happened within the first year, a mystery rendered acceptable only by the fact that the colonists’ life signs were still blinking on a screen, moving about their lives unseen and unheard.

But you don’t care about the failure of quartz-crystal instrument panels or whatever home cooking the crew misses or what they’ve been up to on a daily basis. You know she’s not coming back with this particular group of travellers. She won’t for a while yet, not for another ten years—if she doesn’t decide to stay on Mars forever.

So it’s the plants they’ll bring that make you buzz, it’s the plants you’ve decided to wait for. Your fingertips itch to feel the silk of leaves, to prick themselves on sharp thorns. Every time you feel the urge, a kind of green madness, you sink your hands into the soft steaming dirt of your garden and imagine you’re sifting through fine alien sand and not through her thick dark hair.

It’s late morning when your thoughts are interrupted by measured footsteps hushed by the fine carpet of oakmoss covering the garden path. You’re outside in the sun, or pretending to be. It’s been a while since any city has felt such direct warmth, the precious rays soaked up by canopies of solar panels draped across upper city limits. The panels shine, almost undulating, a glittering infinite waterfall hanging in the sky.

“We need you in the amphitheatre,” Georgia says.

You’ve worked at Interstellar Flavours and Fragrances nearly all your adult life, and lost count of the number of times you’ve been in the amphitheatre. It sits at the centre of the IFF compound, a hollow egg that’s part science classroom part stage. Outside the egg are cascading benches where those there to learn can sit and watch. Within the egg, master perfumers mix and measure their ephemeral dreams into sterile glass tubes and flasks that gleam like crystal in the single bright eye of the overhead spotlight.

Once, you attended a lecture by Dr. Herman Haebler, a chemist. His exceedingly capable hands depressed you.

“Zanthoxylum extract,” he said. “Seven percent benzyl octanoate. Citrus aurantium.”

And so on, he recited the list of ingredients. Once finished concocting his bloodless creation, he placed the vial carefully in a diffuser and a soft mist unfurled, spreading throughout the amphitheatre. You inhaled deep and the floor dropped out beneath you. In that moment, you were sure it was five minutes before dawn in the Pacific Northwest, an ocean of forest and frost below you, filling each breath with the deep warm glow of cedar. Magic, you thought. The kind wrought by a minor deity who, upon discovering the breadth of their powers, reclined in their golden dais and dozed with boredom.

When you arrive in the amphitheatre, it looks quite different. Under the flat white of the fluorescent lights, it appears almost ordinary, which itself is odd. Clearly, you are not here for the sake of performance.

In the centre of the circular room stands a man in uniform—a crisp, thin figure recalling starched linens and willow reeds. An image flickers through your mind’s eye: her hands, wringing out her Sunday dress in a cool stream.

The man introduces himself as Sergeant Patel, no first name. You recognize him as a military escort, the kind who only dabbles in domestic affairs. He is tough but not hardened, and wastes no words on beautiful things. “I have patients for you,” he says.

“I’m not that kind of doctor,” you say.

Your words chase his shadow as he leaves the room. You and Georgia have no choice but to follow.

“Patients?” you ask.

“The Martians,” Georgia says, meaning the colonists.

“What about them?”

“They can’t remember,” Georgia says.

The experiential laboratory has been converted into a makeshift observation room. Its sleek white floor and countertops are strewn with equipment, wires crisscrossing the walls. To the left and right, shelves of vials and essences sit untouched. Against the far wall sits a row of isolation chambers, five total. Normally, they provide an enclosed, neutral environment in which a fragrance can be fully experienced, piped in through a vent at the top. Each chamber, long columns of glass reaching from floor to ceiling, is large enough for only one person. Three of the five columns are now wrapped hastily in a thin dark fabric. The fabric is porous, the light from inside piercing through in pinpoints like stars.

Hunched over a nearby workbench is Jacques Roubard, one of the lab technicians. His hands flutter over a tray of decanters and vials without touching any of them. He seems relieved when he spots you and Georgia.

“I’ve tried a few different tinctures already,” he says, and counts them on his fingers: ozone with a hint of petrichor, to evoke soft artificial rains inside a glass globe; a bundle of dried vetiver grasses, redolent with a kind of woodsy smoke, to rouse the memory of burning through the earth’s atmosphere; astringent lemon, the stalwart scent of sterility.

“Nothing?” Georgia asks.

“Nothing,” Jacques says helplessly. He takes a decanter and spritzes it onto a mouillette, passes the long strip of paper to both of you to smell.

Chypre, warm earth, and dark forest corners mingling with the grey, cold scent of stone, and the tongue-bleedingly sharp bite of metal. When you close your eyes, you can picture the Martian farmers turning the earth with their sonic rakes, then walking out into the cold hydroponic bay where small seedlings starved for sunlight are lined up on a long steel table like death row prisoners. The walls are sloped and smooth save for one small window; outside, a dust storm howls, violently red.

Could the things you imagine about Mars really be so far from reality that this sparks no memory at all?

Patel’s crew has set up an intercom system, and below three blinking lights you see the patients’ designated numbers. Cameras above the lights show the patients fidgeting, sitting, daydreaming in their glass chambers. Even at a distance, you feel a pang of sympathy. You study them, trying to find some trace of the last fifteen years in the lines of their faces and silvery hair. Instead of recognition, they look lost and out of time, as though Olympus Mons is their own personal Catskills and they’ve awoken to find their trip to the stars has come and gone.

“Whenever you’re ready,” Georgia says.

Jacques has left his tray of decanters for you to use with the diffuser panel. There are natural essences as well as aromachemicals, manufactured and patented by IFF. Each manmade molecule distils into a single drop something as specific as a briny beach with more rock than sand, lit by a bonfire’s scattered embers on a blustery September day.

When you first began studying perfumery, someone told you it was just like playing the piano: the different notes and their corresponding accords; how they’re experienced like a strangely powerful undertow, sweeping you away, pressing you into the soft sands of someplace that reminds you maybe a little or maybe a lot of home.

You wonder if anyone will ever invent new notes for the piano the way they’ve invented new notes for perfumes—notes like “marine” and “ozone” and “paradisamide.” You run your fingers over the tops of the decanters.

“Let’s get started,” you say.

The first patient is a short, broad man with builder’s hands. He is bewildered often, and when he talks about his confusion he spreads his hands as though weighing the imaginary heft of his toolbox.

He talks for a little while about the houses he builds, mostly out of brick, mostly for the rich. No one builds anything out of brick anymore except for him, he says; everyone else opts for ultralight three-ply metal—the common sense solution. But that’s not good enough for people coming home from their multibillion-dollar energy jobs, deciding they want to sink a large amount of their wealth into custom homes with old brick walls, wrought iron fences, and winding stairs with ornate oak and gold banisters.

Someone once commissioned him to build a stairway to nowhere in the middle of a field. It stood ten metres high with a wide platform at the very top, and all around the base was a sea of purple grass. Why did they want him to build the stairs to the sky? He wasn’t sure.

With the flick of a switch, you send him the dusky scent of immutable bricks, the ground still warm to the touch after baking all day in the sun. The dust tastes like school chalk and unused basements and the first tooth lost during a short, startling childhood.

He breathes in the scent, then remembers: “They wanted to look at the stars.”

He spreads his hands. Having remembered why, it still makes no sense to him. He’d been to the moon and stars before, he says, and found nothing of note up there.

Georgia asks him about the moon. He was part of a construction crew out on the rim of Mare Moscoviense, he says. The regolith drills were tricky to use; you had to tune them to the vibration in the rock underfoot. It took seven months before the drill felt natural in his hands, and even then it was an unwieldy instrument that made the ugliest sounds: pitiful whines and horrible groaning and an endless grinding of metal teeth.

As he recalls the lunar fields, you press an arpeggio of vials into the diffuser. You remember when the first men on the moon returned they said it smelled like cement and ash and a damp fireplace. You watch the camera as those same scents fill the chamber. The patient pauses.

“Where did you go next, after the moon?” Georgia asks.

He hesitates.

Three more vials into the diffuser and you’ve sent him stale fabric, filtered oxygen, and the faint tang of metal catching fire as he holds his breath inside his helmet and waits for the ship to stop trembling at the peak of its ascension.

He wanders through his memories, picking them up and putting them down, feeling his way through a darkened room toward the light switch. He fumbles.

“I’m sorry,” he says after a few minutes. His voice crackles in the intercom. “I know what you want me to say, but I just can’t remember it.”

Scent punctures deep into the brain, sparking an electrical storm that lights up memories dimmed by time: a tomato stem, peppery and green, paints the edges of a childhood garden; rain-darkened leaves suggest scraped knees and a kitchen table argument; sweet jasmine awakens the ghost of a lover long lost. Sometimes all it takes is a hint, a trail that bloodhounds in your veins catch hold of and follow relentlessly.

But while others go to the greenhouse to remember, you often go to forget. You take in the honey-sweet scent of osmanthus, its petals sunset orange, and consider the many shades of violets that have crossed calm and violent oceans to reach you in this warm and humid place. This has always been your escape, this sanctuary of work, and it remains so even though you now avoid the jasmine.

Today, even that escape is impossible. You’re busy turning over the Martian puzzle in your head. You’re wondering if, once she returns, she’ll have forgotten all the years you’ve spent apart. You’re wondering if you would pick up where you left. You’re wondering if that’s preferable, or if you’d rather the life she left you for remain something tangible, solid—something she can wrap herself in and be satisfied.

There must be some step, some lost chapter of the story you are missing.

Memory is not sequential; it’s messy, a knot of yarn woven into something larger and more varied than its fraying strands.

The jasmine calls to you, its small white flowers spangling the dirt like so many constellations.

The second patient seems interested in her amnesia only from a distance. She floats above herself like a weather balloon, examining the cold front of her memories sweeping over the landscape of the last two decades of her life.

“How odd,” she says.

She speaks slowly, soldering her words together with a kind of finality that defies question. She’s a solar engineer. She assumes she went to Mars to help build their energy infrastructure. It’s remarkable that she doesn’t remember anything of the experience, she says. It’s remarkable, and a shame.

“Where were you before?” Georgia asks.

“I was on the beach,” the patient says. “I was on vacation. It was hot and I burned myself.”

“And before that?”

“I was in the mountain. That’s where I worked.”

In the mountain meant for the Air Force, which meant she refused to say anything more beyond that fact. She assumes that you and Georgia have at least enough clearance to know she worked there but also assumes that you should not be told what, exactly, it was that she did.

This time, you and Georgia have decided to try layering the scent memories instead of proceeding sequentially. You interlace cold concrete, jet fuel, and stale coffee with hot sun, sea salt, and tanning lotion. When the fragrance blooms inside the chamber, the patient cocks her head and considers it for a long moment.

“That’s interesting,” she comments. “But I wasn’t tanning. I was reading a book.”

You shuffle out one of the vials and soon the sea salt crystallizes the edges of a paperback half-buried in sand.

“Interesting,” the patient repeats.

“Please try to focus just on remembering,” Georgia says.

There was a baseball stadium, she recalls, that she once helped plan. The aqueducts for recycling used water, the solar panels along the top, even the synthetic turf that stayed evergreen and grew at a constant rate of 0.2 inches every two months. This was before they figured out how to lock in the yearly rainfall to its current optimal amount; back then it was easier to engineer plants than to tame the clouds.

She took her child to the baseball stadium on opening day, and as they watched the small shapes of the players run from base to base, they shared a bag of caramel popcorn and she tried to teach him the basics of thermodynamics.

Her words bid you to summon the spectre of burnt sugar, buttery kernels, crushed grass, and scorched rubber. Underneath the bright brassy notes of the ballgame, the ocean breeze and jet fuel linger and glow.

“What’s your child’s name?” Georgia asks.

“That’s not one of the things I forgot,” she says, her voice brittle.

In the chamber, the caramel and the jet fuel swirl together into a bitter brew, and the sea salt grinds the crushed grass into something curiously vegetal that scalds the back of the throat.

She frowns.

As that scent begins to fade, she appears to be reading the spines of books in the library of her memory. She touches some of them, the well-worn ones, and then pulls one out and finds an old story has become new again.

“I do remember one thing,” she says slowly. “A very bright blue.”

In 1998, back when the “I” in IFF stood for “International” and not “Interstellar,” a single small rose was sent into space. You know that it was enshrined in the high-tech Astroculture box, perfectly calibrated and optimized for nutrients and germination. But you always imagined it spinning in a glass cloche, shedding a petal to mourn each extraterrestrial mile it travelled from its flowerbed.

If you had sent that rose to Mars, and if it were able to write letters and sketch out exclamation marks of its own—perhaps by carefully wrapping its stem around a small quill made from a pine needle—those letters would have to travel at most 378 million kilometres to reach you. Each would take between four and twenty-two minutes to reach the other’s eyes; not that long when, for instance, you stand in line to receive a hot cup of tea, but an eternity when attempting to lessen the weight of waiting.

You would be impatient for the first letter, and when it came, it would be confusing and vague, necessitating a follow-up as you write back asking for clarification. The reply would reassure you and things would be fine for a while as you both rotated around the sun, and breathed and slept and dreamed about each other in parallel. Then the letters would stop coming and an ancient wellspring of anxiety would roil inside you. Then one night, after it had been particularly hot out and you’d seen a lot of slick skin out in the streets, young people laughing in a tangle of arms, you’d go home and write an angry letter.

You would regret that letter, but then you’d remember that, in the absence and loneliness, you had no choice, that the rose decided that without you, that it decided it didn’t want to put down roots, it didn’t need the same air and sun as you, it wanted to be free from Earth, from your life, from you. Then you would write letter after letter and not bother waiting to hear back.

After several months and many twenty-two minutes of silence later, the rose would write you at last, gently explaining that it needs space, and you would pounce on it immediately and write back asking why, and it would write back saying that there is so much out there, and you would write back saying that space is empty, and it would say that there’s no way you could know, and you would say that space is all you’ve given it, and it would write back saying that space was not yours to give to begin with, and you would write back saying that’s true, space will always be and has always been, and even after the two of you and all the flowers and plants and good things in the world are gone, there will always be space. The rose would not write back after that; it would spin quietly and find itself another orbit, another side of the sun from which to gather warmth. And though the two of you would be in the same galaxy, it would feel infinitely far away.

Later that same year, the rose returned and IFF conducted the usual experiments on it, examining it with solid-phase microextractors, analyzing its molecular volatility, studying its essential oils and eventually weaving its unique fragrance into a perfume called Zen.

After thinking for a long time about the colour blue—the sky on Earth, the burning Martian sunset, her eyes—you decide it’s perfect. After all, Zen requires the practice of meditation, of being in the present, of letting go of everything. They say that Zen is a finger pointing to the moon or, in your case, at another heavenly body, far beyond your reach.

Jacques has the idea to bookend each fragrance with recurring notes. Normally the top notes fade into the heart notes, which then go gently with a whisper until all that is left are base notes, tea leaves at the bottom of a cup once full. With patient number three, you decide to try this idea of an echo, of bringing back the beginning and the end, and creating a scent that would embody all of it at once. The motif will be a full circle—which, for you, brings to mind the faint peppery hint of a fragrance you once tried. Meteorite: A severe perfume that jolts the mind with tangerine and incense and, sitting above it all, a metallic note that hangs like a guillotine.

The third patient sits calmly in their chamber, though perhaps calm is not the right word for it. They seem to be constantly in the middle of a thought, as though they are doing some kind of complicated arithmetic, adding toward an infinite sum.

Where the first two were in construction and engineering, they are a chef. They say so with a quiet confidence and a slight shrug of their shoulders.

“A cook, really,” they say modestly. “Baking, mostly.”

“Baking is a sort of chemistry,” Georgia says. For some reason, she feels the need to raise a defence for the profession. You remember that her mother used to work at a bakery, waking before dawn and pinching her fingers in the soft dough sleeping in the small pans in which it was left to rise.

“I suppose so,” the patient says.

Sweets are what they’re good at. Tarts and éclairs; tall, frosted cakes and strudels; tiny chouquettes strewn with pearl sugar. They remember when they were small, in the kitchen of their childhood home, the view with the mountains in the distance and the smell of apple pie. Orange peel was the secret ingredient, they confess to you, along with good, tart apples grown in their own backyard.

The colonists had brought with them a garden of seeds, among which were dwarf apple trees. You know this, but lost in thought, the baker seems oblivious to their own satellite Eden floating out on the other side of the sun. They are thinking only of a kitchen from long ago with fluttering curtains and jars of fine-milled flour and soft butter nearly melting on the windowsill. This, at least, you can give them. You press the buttons to spin the sugar all around them, green apples spiced with warm cinnamon, a hot tin, and the slightly charred ends of well-used oven mitts.

Georgia asks them what they were doing fifteen years ago, and they touch their mouth with their hand, tasting the question.

“My father just passed,” they say calmly. “I visited his grave recently. The grass was all grown over it.”

Georgia darts a look at you. You are not sure if it’s appropriate, but after a moment, you wreathe the memory of their father’s grave with the scent of freshly cut flowers, daisies, and charcoal and heavy paper for rubbing the faces of angels and names as a keepsake.

The two of you watch the camera in complicit silence. The patient pauses and you see their brow furrow before smoothing once more with a kind of uncanny peace that makes you think of still water.

You find yourself holding your breath with guilt when once more you send them the scent of a warm kitchen. They close their eyes and dream a little, and then in the next moment they’re smiling. They look as though they’ve dived deep down and deeper still into an endless well, and retrieved a precious pebble.

“I had a kitchen out there as well,” they say, remembering in a slow and gentle way. “I missed him an awful lot the whole time.”

Patel is resigned by your findings. You realize you were not his first choice in stirring up the slumbering memories, but as you’ve failed you can’t begrudge him for that fact.

You’re fine with your failure and knowing that she is alive out there, because you know that as long as she is where she is, she’ll remember everything she needs to, and even if you can’t share that with her, just knowing those memories exist eases you in a way that the scent of jasmine might someday do again.

Once, before the solar canopies and the global climate control and the silver ships, the two of you travelled the world by passenger plane. The redeye flights were your favourites; her head on your shoulder, and outside the window, a thousand terrestrial stars winking in and out of existence.

It had occurred to you at one point that these were Earth’s own constellations, delineated and connected by highways and streets and sleepy cul-de-sacs filled with families telling mythologies to their children the same way people did thousands of years ago. The cities were always shaped and arranged in certain patterns, some more geometric than others, some brighter, some with a shining violet beacon and others a sea of yellow and orange.

On a clear, pitch-black night, the two of you crossed the ocean in a mostly empty plane, and you glimpsed the moonlight on the water below and thought that it was particularly lonely and murky, like the starlight was only reaching you with its message after the sender was long dead.

You joked that these trips were research. Even after all the advances in food science and fragrance development, somehow airplanes were a last holdout: hideous, bland, recycled air stinking of plastics and nylon.

“It’s the pressure,” you told your lover over your pre-packaged chicken Marsala. “You can’t smell or taste as acutely from ten thousand feet up in the air.”

“I thought they used all that space stuff now in most everything,” she said, poking you in the side with a clean fork. “Isn’t that why they pay you?”

“It doesn’t make a difference,” you said. “It’s not a problem with the food sending the message, the problem is with us receiving it.”

After dinner and a movie, everyone on the plane sat in their own incandescent islands, reading or playing some game or watching something on a screen that was too small. Those asleep were dark spots throughout the cabin; uncharted territory, thick with dreams.

“Hey,” she whispered from the darkness. Her eyes shimmered with their own kind of incandescence. “What about astronauts?”

Your hand found hers under the blanket. “What about them?”

“I mean they’re way higher up than ten thousand feet in the air. Can they even taste or smell anything?”

“I’m not sure,” you said.

“Maybe I’ll go up there sometime,” she said. She leaned against you, her hand warm in yours, and smiled. “Maybe I’ll tell you all about it when I come back.”


© 2017 by Stephanie Chan

Stephanie Chan works in the tech/media space in New York. In her spare time, she writes about games, interactive narrative, and speculative fiction. Her work has appeared in publications such as Strange Horizons, Outermode, and Kill Screen, and you can find her online at and @sweijuchan.