Monday, February 7, 2011

The Smell

People expect me to say, ‘the first thing that hits you is the smell.’ There’s a perverse hunger for olfactory descriptions, how those catacombs smell like this or reek of that. Don’t get me wrong, the stench is… indescribable, really—awful—but I’d be a liar to say it’s the smell that gets you first.
The truth is, there’s been so much… I mean, you’ve heard the stories. Each tale wobbles on the slanted axis of foul smell. It’s the uncreative proliferation of these odiferous adjectives—doesn’t it all strike you as fiction? Look at it like this—there can’t be that many lowers who have been down into the catacomb. These stories are like insects—the bugs skittering everywhere these days—a million writhing creatures for every one of us.
So to actually be there, you expect so much—always the smell, the smell, the smell—the honest truth, and maybe this is my own personal experience of the catacomb, the smell is like an old friend. We talk to the smell, let it sit around the dinner fire, use it to teach our children about evil lurking in the world. When the vacuum doors whisshed open, it wasn’t the smell that hit me first. After all this talk of the smell—it was a non-entity.

The thing that hits you first, that hit me first—it was the utter plainness of the place! I had to lean on the doorway to keep from falling to my knees weeping. It’s just an old classroom. That’s all—four walls, a floor and the steel drums conveying from one room to the next. The catacomb is so clean! So well lit! It should be… I don’t know how to describe it—more… something. I’m not sure there’s a word for it. The ancients would say ‘holy’ or ‘sacred,’ but even now, saying those words seems terribly wrong.
I mean—the steel drums are the same ones we get water rations in! The injustice! So many lives, good deeds, crimes, loves, passions, vocations, workers—every damn thing gets boiled down and stewed together into plain steel drums.
There should have been silence. There should have been—all the machines, the chemical banks whirring and sloshing just out of sight—music, at least! Anything but the hum of machines. The din of steel and rubber that doesn’t give a shit. It’s not even that loud, no worse that the Patrol Pods that hover overhead at night—but it struck me straight to the center of my being, more than the smell—it needled into my stomach and stirred burning nausea.
I guess she must have seen it in my face—I was sweating even though they refrigerate those rooms—she nodded to the back corner and the barrels coming in from the sanitation chambers adjacent to us.
If you’re going to vomit, please do so into one of the open barrels. It’s a pain in the ass to clean this room, what with all the regulations governing chemical dissolvent, human remains, all that.
In the back corner the barrels sat on the conveyor, their lids still off, waiting for the slurry to make solids liquid. I’m ashamed. I wish I’d died on the spot and been packed in with the others—but I ran to the corner and got sick into the first open barrel I saw. I sullied lives past with my shame, my inability to hold my stomach. I closed my eyes—knew that seeing would be worst of all. It wasn’t until I was retching with my head under the lip of the drum—the slosh of dissolver sounding like food ration poured into our steel bowls—it wasn’t until I closed my eyes over that barrel that the smell hit me. If I hadn’t been getting sick already, the smell would have upset me for certain.
I ran from the open barrel as it slid under the rubber nipple which dispenses the dissolver. I couldn’t wipe the taste from my mouth—I still can’t. I don’t think I’ll ever be hungry again.
She asked if I wanted to leave—that there’s no shame in it—that most people never even make it into the room—that most, not that there’s been a lot, mind you, stand frozen just beyond the vacuum door until the security alarm chirps and then they have to run or she’ll lose her job.
She said, really, it’s no difference to me if you go on or turn back. My schedule of duties has to be completed at each time-mark regardless of your being with me or not. Just leave the way I brought you so I wont be punished for bringing a lower into the upper houses. No big deal. Whichever you want. I don’t care.
I envied and abhorred her cool demeanor. Envied because I felt so weak, so helpless, so utterly out of my depth. I abhorred her for the same reason. To not be sweating, heart racing, vomiting—it means she’d traded that compassionate humanity, her soul, and accepted the situation as it was. She was made of the same skin, hair and bone as I—but truly she’d lost her humanity. Or rather given it away.
It’s a square equation. A lower suffocates the best parts of themselves and is spared from the Toil. It’s exactly why—and I’m not exaggerating, the way my entire body rejected the mere idea of the place, death’s fingers squeezing me like a slow poison the longer I lingered... the grossness of swapping humanity for leisure—I knew I must go on.
I couldn’t even say it, only nodded and pointed to the door leading to the next chamber.

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