the smell of ants

by Zach Kincaid

NPR told me that ants smell each other to communicate. A scientist observed several ants discarding one of their own dead. "How do they know?" he asked himself, and began mixing concoctions until he could fake an ant's death. He placed a smelly substance that marked out death on the back of an ant and put her inside the colony. Immediately drone soldier ants came and carried her off. She crawled out of the heap and the lesson repeated itself: "You're dead; now stay that way!" The ant anxiously wiped off and wiped off and wiped off again the smell of death from her skin until finally the colony accepted her as "alive."

For us, there are also scents that are stronger than words. Smells that you just know, like an elderly woman bathed in perfume or the grade school cafeteria full of mopping- floor-fluid-and-boiled-canned-vegetables smell. The latter calls up the protective prisons of childhood only redeemed by the brownies Mom made when school let out. (She wears too much perfume now.) Then it was off to the Atari. Soon the metallic roasting of the cartridge would hint at a stopping point. Pitfall anyone? And here's another one sure to date me... the Apple II GS, fresh out of its package with tape drive beside it.

I remember the pop of the Doritos bag (they only had one flavor back then) as the chemically powdered cheese anchored my nose to my mouth... and the dry caked on taste of eating a whole bag as I worked to conquer the RISK world before my brothers did.

You can't ever get back the smell of a new car. It's all that molded plastic with a cool haze of NEW. But dust soon breaks the scent onto the stone of real living. Same with a baby. They lose the clean quick as diapers sausage out longer and longer and still waft the air demonstratively. Like throw-up which is a thief to your nose once satisfying it with a delightful plate of food and now demonically churned up with acidic gunk.

I was walking through our small Georgian downtown and essence of roasting pork from a local restaurant competed with the drive-by carbon dioxide that pickup trucks putted out. It hosted a rage of images in my head from running on busy roads behind bus fumes in St Louis, to my wasteland time in the town of Shawnee, Oklahoma, where barbecue offered the only remnants of grace left since everything else was belted around the Bible without sensuality or longing.

Sex has a seedy smell. You don't forget it; you don't want to forget it. It's naked with intimacy and cloaked in trust. It anchors love and pirates lust. And the breath of a lover changes in the act, to a sweetness that nostrils and mouth hang onto as if they were on a tightrope high above gravity.

Does church have a scent? There's a luring that Catholic and Orthodox believers have as the censer swings its charcoal and spice to invite congregants into another place, where Christ will reveal himself as the burnt offering and resurrected Messiah. There's a calm that collects as the smoke hangs around the altar, a tantalizing reminder that the Holy of Holies has dropped its curtain.

Protestants have none of that. Old people perfume and body lotions beat out a normalcy as if church was supposed to be this way - expected, regular, everyday. Ahh, but I think this returns us to the ant. Society has smeared the death scent on its worship centers. They reek with corporate antics that capture three points and no mystery, windows and no stained glass, air and no agni*; dead and without context.


*Agni is the God of fire in Hindu mythology. He carries the aroma of the sacrifice from the altar to the nostrils of the gods.