My little boy has a joke which he likes to tell over… and over and over again. It’s an old one – you’ll probably have heard it a hundred times before.
Person 1: My dog’s got no nose.
Person 2: Really? How does he smell?
Person 1: Terrible.
In my son’s defence, he’s only five, so I can expect to hear that joke at least another four hundred and eighty three times before he gets tired of it. At least.
Smell is an incredibly powerful sense. It can be tied so directly into our memories that all it takes is a single breath of a familiar scent to set us off. Clean laundry. Baking. A certain flower or perfume – everyone has their own personal trigger scents. I can still remember the way my father’s consulting room used to smell in the surgery where he worked as a doctor when I was little, and I wish I could describe the way the English classroom where I had my GCSE lessons smelled on a sunny afternoon in early July. I remember it, but I however hard I try I just can’t seem to find the right words for it. And I’m supposed to be good at the whole words thing.
The smell of an empty church always gets me: it’s stone and damp and incense and beeswax and… something else. A cathedral smell. The church where I got married smells like that – only with lilies too. (I hate lilies. They make me sneeze. This poses a problem, given that I like churches. Lose me in a church and I’m easy to find: I’m the one clinging to a pillar near the door, sneezing.) Fill a church – or any building – with people and you get a peopley sort of smell. Hairspray and perfume and deodorant and coffee and cigarettes and toothpaste and sweat and coats and warm bodies all jostling each other. You know it: you’ve caught it in crowds and on busy trains and buses. It’s not always nice.
But the smell of places… of things, that does something to us.
When I started writing the Blood and Feathers books, I split the angels into choirs. It’s not a new idea: the idea of regiments of angels divided into neat groups is as old as the idea of angels themselves. Each choir has its own particular gifts, and I gave them sigils to act as regimental badges and mottos – but I also gave them a scent. I liked the idea that an angel might try to hide or disguise themselves, but the way they smelled would always give them away.
What else would the Archangel Michael, the most powerful of all the angels and the leader of a choir associated with fire smell of if not wood smoke? Gabriel – with his gift for controlling electricity – smells like the air after a thunderstorm; of ozone and blue glass. The Archangel Zadkiel, introduced for the first time in Blood and Feathers: Rebellion, has an ability to manipulate memories – so it seemed only right that I gave him some of mine. He smells like the tomato leaves in my grandmother’s greenhouse, and of old books and poster paint and cut grass and hot tarmac. When I poked the Great Hive Mind that is Twitter and asked what scents reminded people of their childhoods, I was surprised how many of those same ideas came back at me. If memory really does have its own smell, I think we might have just crowd-sourced it.
We all know these smells – or most of them, at least. They push buttons we didn’t necessarily realise we had, telling us what we’re smelling without our even needing to see it.
Scents, however, have sharp double-edges. Has your heart ever skipped because you thought you smelled smoke? Have you ever been able to smell a storm coming when you’re out in the open and a long way from shelter?
Some smells make us nervous because they’re a warning. Something’s coming and you’re going to want to get out of its way. Fast.
Maybe the same can be said of angels…
Thanks to Michael Molcher for his help in setting this up.