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The Smell of Him

Outport, Newfoundland, 1954

He smelled of fish and more fish, sharp as an unexpected slap. He smelled of today’s fish, yesterday’s, and last week’s, the fish of seasons, stretching back decades – his own few and those of his father and grandfather and some father before that. Fresh gurry or dried rot, it didn’t matter; it was still a smell that would make a flatlander’s stomach heave like a dory on a quartering wave. Layers of days and nights hauling, offloading, heading, gutting, scaling. He wore the stink of diesel and used engine oil, the sour muskiness of moldering hair and clothes long unwashed and crusted with salt, the smell of soot, tarry rope, and burned things.
To her, he smelled like a life she didn’t want. The smell of fish mingled with birthing blood and yeasty dough rising and baby vomit and trouble. The stink of her parents’ house mingled with the sweet and funky tang of woodsmoke as if there was something wild out there she might be able to have. She knew the odor of musky sex she had smelled on her mother as she put the pre-dawn kettle on for her husband’s tea before he left for the dock. She knew milk gone sour, curdling flesh wound, brothers’ sweat at the table, her own skin smelling the same as salt cod drying on the flake. She knew the sickening sweetness of mold and rot. Most of all, she knew the smell of poverty.
She didn’t want that life. She knew it stank. But still, the smell of him pulled her in. It hung around him like a wool blanket she might like to cover herself with. She stepped in closer, inches from his half-smile and hooded eyes, and took a good deep breath. Her nostrils flared as she said, “Hey, fisherman.”