Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Experimental Perfume Class in Which I “Scent” the Folkloric Witch Baba Yaga
for Saskia Wilson-Brown, at the Institute of Art and Olfaction

I sniff the drop of beaver animalic
called castoreum on my blotter strip—

the musk my perfume teacher Saskia describes
as “old people smell” and makes me

think of vanilla ice cream threatened
by a nearby mothball. I’m trying to find

the right mix of scents for Baba Yaga,
the Slavic witch. In folktales she lives

in a woodland hut that walks on chicken feet
and she eats Russian children,

but only the bad ones. In most
versions of the story, she helps a little girl—

who’d gotten lost searching for turnips—return
to her family. Last week, my mom and dad

put a for-sale sign on my childhood house
and I wished for some magic

to stop it. Remodelers wrecked our kitchen’s
Spanish tile with granite, knocked out

a wall. Instead of riding an airborne broom,
Baba Yaga flies in a giant spice mortar that she rows

with an oar-like pestle. For the witch’s
iron teeth, Saskia suggests I try a drop of rose oxide

for the way the compound conjures
both flower petals and a whiff of metal—breath

that blooms iron and rose. I like those
middle floral notes but need an earthier base

to soften and anchor the raw fragrance, so Saskia
hands me an anonymous blotter strip. I sniff,

nearly gag on the rotten scent she tells me is civet:
extract from the anal glands of a Malayan wildcat

whose aroma evokes the smell of decaying bodies
or fecal matter yet when diluted for perfume adds

“warmth” and “shimmer” to a scent. Doesn’t have
to be pretty, Saskia says. We’re telling a story.

But I already love the tale: I can finally inhale
my favorite childhood witch

in the third dimension—olfaction wafting her
right off the page in her personal

animal bouquet. The fragrance I name
“Baba Yaga’s Kiss” and dribble from a pipette’s

glass stem onto my wrists will later derange
my two Siamese cats, who won’t stop

licking my skin. Before class ends, Saskia
shows me an alternative method to sniffing

coffee beans to “reset” a scent-swamped nose:
Smell your armpits—you are your own white noise.

With the rot of undiluted civet still hanging
in my nostrils, I think: No one alive

could smell like this. So I jam my nose
into my right pit for a sniff, flush out the dead

witch, return to my own body for a minute
and remix her. I stir my perfume until the civet

warms as it spreads—base note that will make
all of Baba Yaga shimmer.  

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