by Alex Stein
Art by Kerri Menchaca
The clouds swirl above. Large and grey. Moving silently.
Wind steady and strong, pushes them along.
I smell something.
Not the rain. The rain has no smell.
And the rain’s not here. Not yet.
Still, organic matter breaks down as the world decays in silence around us.
And we go on, oblivious.
Earlier in my life, I didn’t notice this. I noticed changes in weather and season. But everything seemed new and I had no time for decay and death.
Only later did it change.
Which isn’t really right. It didn’t change. It was there all along.
I move slower and more deliberately these days. I’m deeply ingrained in the world instead of gliding above it.
Old ideas I clung to fell to the wayside. “Maybe someday I’ll run a marathon without training, just power through on sheer force of will,” I once thought. That now seems impossible. Still, didn’t I do other things that now seem impossible and untethered to this world?
Did I drive 18 hours straight from Los Angeles to Seattle without stopping except for gas and restrooms? Stay up three nights in a row finishing my thesis? Stand all night in subzero temperatures waiting for the return of an unfaithful girlfriend who lied to me and snuck off to sleep with my former best friend? Yes. I did all that. And more.
Even though it sometimes seems like these things must have happened to someone else.
Parked on the side of the road, I look out at a vast Texas landscape filled with iconic trees and mythical buttes that stretch out into the infinite.
Memories drift by like the clouds.
Until the air shifts. Humidity increases. A dryness permeates dirt and rock and organic matter down below where we hadn’t noticed it before.
Slow decay and rot provides a shifting foundation of our lives, making a lie of the myth we all live by that the world beneath is solid and unchanging. Thank geosmin, a small bacterium we safely ignore most of the time, a complex alcohol compound powered by deterioration, an integral part of the decline and fall of all things natural. The air moistens just before rain arrives. An otherwise imperceptible increase in humidity precedes the rain, causing geosmin to release tiny aerosols in the earth. As molecules shift, the human nose, inefficient in so many ways, picks up the scent.
We are all now as we always were: careening, albeit very slowly, towards chaos and disorder.
The center cannot hold. We cannot keep it all together. We are destined to see everything crumble.
Still, we hope to keep it all together. For a while.
This hope is grand and eloquent. And doomed to failure.
We smell it before we feel it. And feel it before we realize it.
Death, once a distant abstraction, makes its presence known.
It’s still far away (although uncertain perspectives make it difficult to tell exactly how far), but near enough to be part of our world and impossible to ignore.
The planet itself unleashes decay from below.
But we don’t look down. We lift our gaze skyward towards the coming rain, forgetting again the chaos underneath our feet.
The rain itself has no smell, but pushes out a distinctive fragrance just before it arrives.
Musky. Earthy. Primal.
Petrichor: a lovely name for an everyday chemical catastrophe that unifies horror and beauty.
Still, we rise up, look to the coming rain, and breathe in that powerful fusion of rot and renewal that tells us in one sniff everything it means to be human.
Alex M. Stein is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter, documentary filmmaker, and the winner of multiple Moth Story Slams. He is the author of the essay collection No, Mr. Bond, I Expect Your Dreams To Die and the short-story collection Tales From the Trail (Short Fiction About Dogs, Mushing, and Sled-Dog Races). This piece was inspired by a drive through the Big Bend region.
Kerri Menchaca paints primarily Texas landscapes from photographs that she takes while on road trips in a 1968 Early Bronco. Her paintings focus on the sensory aspects of nature, created with an attention to mood, color and light. Kerri attended the University of Texas in Austin where she graduated with degrees in Art and Art History and a minor in Geology.