Domestic Chaos

(Credit: Mouse by alsteele via flickr)

It stole the air, trading sweet oxygen for something grassy and ragged, with hints of skunk and rot and Venetian sewage. And it was wafting from a cabinet in the kitchen, which doubled the horror.

When repeated mentions of The Smell failed to rouse my husband, I returned to the kitchen with my face pressed against a hankie soaked in Twilly by Hermès.

“What are you doing?”

“This is how the Victorians dealt with Terrible Odors.”

He shrugged. “Just smells damp.”

Oh, no, it did not. Of that much I was certain.

Smell is primitive. It comes to us as vapor, and its invisible molecules are dabbed on the mucus that coats nerve fibers in the ickily-named olfactory bulb. Receptors zap the message straight to the brain’s limbic system, which is very, very old. It was present in the very first mammals, Triassic morganucodontids with long jaws and skinny tails. To this day, the limbic system remains a source of mood, emotion, behavioral cues, and psychosis, cheerfully ignoring the part of the brain we call rational.

In other words, there is no arguing with the limbic system.

It also seals memories, and I once spent a few days with crime-scene cleaners. I was now convinced that a corpse was disintegrating in our basement. How could we ever have people over?

I thought about this. Would it be worse if they thought we were oblivious to the smell, or if—no, this was definitely worse—they thought we just were not bothered enough to deal with it?

I ran down to the basement. No corpse. Andrew took everything out of the cabinet and shone a flashlight—and there they were, in the back corner. Half a dozen specks the color and shape of Tootsie rolls.

A sure sign of Mouse.

I shut down images of tiny paws scrabbling at the walls. It was the creature’s own fault for crawling behind the walls, right? We did not set out to live in a tomb.

Conscience appeased, I googled. Apparently we needed to rip out the cabinet and tear down the wall behind it.

I googled again, which is something like priest-shopping until you find one who thinks you have not sinned. This time around, a little sachet of activated charcoal was all we needed. That, and time.

My senses validated—I was not hallucinating or exaggerating, and I did not have a brain tumor—I found that the smell bothered me less. Andrew, on the other hand, was newly disgusted. “Whilst part of what we perceive comes through our senses,” William James wrote in The Principles of Psychology, “… another part (and it may be the larger part) always comes out of our own head.” And damp had sounded a whole lot better than decomposing.

Why does rotting flesh smell so bad anyway? So we find the body? To make sure we bury it, for purposes of hygiene, or commemorate it with ritual? (Elephants, chimpanzees, and possibly dogs have been seen burying their dead, and cows, dolphins, scrub jays, and magpies have what look like funeral rites. Mice, I am not sure.) Maybe the smell guarantees that other animals will not eat them. Or the flesh smells terrible because decomposing is a difficult process, and cells that have glommed together do not want to separate.

Yes, that is poetic nonsense. The smell comes from the gases that are released, and the process is not conscious.

On the other hand, who would have predicted mirror neurons? Cells are far from inert, after all; they invade, learn, reinvent themselves.

For example, after a few days, The Smell took on a cloying sweetness, a bit like pot. Cells resigning themselves to their separation? For my part, I would not be resigned until the odor was entirely gone, leaving only a tiny brittle skeleton in the walls.

Why was I still obsessing over a fast-fading smell? Because domestic chaos unsettles me. I can ignore dust like a Zen master, but this sort of rude surprise is an incursion of the outside world’s horrors. It destroys mental peace because it taints the sanctuary, the place of refuge.

We need to feel safe somewhere, sure we can eat and sleep without being harangued (or mocked by a dead mouse, or trapped inside a wall). I look at people who do not have homes, and who cozy up some chilly concrete corner of the world with found blankets and scraps. Sometimes they vehemently prefer the open air, claustrophobia’s panic outshouting even the most basic need for shelter. Other times, they have no better option.

And here I was, ensconced in a two-story brick farmhouse, fussing over fragrance. It was such a tiny reminder, a mouse-paw tap on the shoulder that says we are all here together, and we all die, and Martha Stewart cannot do a damned thing about it.

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!