O N E
“Beware, ye aromateur; lay your traps of love,
but do not yourself get caught.”
—Larkspur, Aromateur, 1698
MOST PEOPLE DON’T know that heartache smells like blueberries. It’s not the only scent, but it’s the main one, and if someone comes to us smelling like blueberry pie, Mother and I turn them away. The heartbroken need time to heal before we can work our magic.
According to Mother, today’s client does not smell like blueberries, which is why I’m in our workshop, crushing cinnamon for the client’s elixir—what the rest of the world calls a love potion—instead of doing my algebra homework. Under our new arrangement, I get to attend public high school instead of being homeschooled, as long as my duties as an aromateur don’t suffer. Unlike the mothers of most fifteen-year-old girls, mine doesn’t give a Turkish fig about homework.
The blue door of our workshop heaves open and Mother steps in, all five feet of her, looking like a blue fairy with her pixie cut, and her gardening uniform of denim shirt, jeans, and visor. She wears only blue, not because she’s sad, but because any other color distracts her nose. “Our three thirty just drove up. You ready? ”
“Uh, sure.” Why wouldn’t I be ready?
With a sigh, she rolls her SPF sleeves down her skinny arms. “Mimosa, we talked about this. You do the secondaries for the men from now on.”
“Oh, right.” So today’s client is male. Mother always does the initial intake but wants me to handle the secondary sniffs for the men, since their scentprints are not as complex as the women's. I don’t share that I haven’t read the client’s application yet. Juggling seven periods of classes and my work as an aromateur is proving trickier than I thought. If Mother knew I was falling behind, I could kiss high school good-bye, and I haven’t even made it to two months.
“Meet you in the courtyard in ten.” The door closes with a thud.
After a few more grinds with my mortar and pestle, cinnamon sings over all other scents in our perfumery. The only one the spicy aphrodisiac can’t muscle out is our crown jewel, the orchid Layla’s Sacrifice. As its bud unravels into three perfect petals, its marmalade scent becomes so strong, it drowns out everything else, even from behind its glass terrarium.
I drop my pulverized bark into a jar of ethanol, then shelve the tincture between cloves and cardamom on one of our apothecary shelves. Cardamom’s running low. I should do a complete inventory so Mother can plan her buying trip, but later. It’s already waited a month. It can sit tight for a little while longer.
Just outside the workshop lies a small courtyard shaded by a banana-sweet ylang-ylang tree and its buddy, an eggnog-scented nutmeg. Even plants that ordinarily wouldn’t grow in Northern California flourish in our garden, a three-acre parcel shaped like a painter’s palette. Our workshop sits where the thumbhole would be.
I plop down on one of our teakwood benches. The scent of our client tickles my nose, even before I see him. I close my eyes. It’s not a complete scentprint, more a slight change in the ambient notes that intensifies the closer he comes. The top notes whiz by first, grub lichen, caper, and pepita—an earthy, spice-filled scentprint that is oddly familiar.
My eyes pop open. Mr. Frederics, my algebra teacher?
I jump to my feet. Of the two million single eligible people who inhabit the Bay Area, population nearly seven and a half million, did it have to be him?
Mr. Frederics’s black and balding figure glides alongside Mother down the path that connects our house to the workshop. He’s wearing the same argyle cardigan he wore in class today, and his face is remarkably wrinkle-free like his pants, despite his fifty plus years.
By the time the pair step into the shade of the courtyard, I manage to stop gaping, though Mother can smell my shock. Her amber eyes become slits. She knows I didn’t read his application.
“Hi, Mr. Frederics,” I say brightly. “Won’t you sit down? ”
“Hullo there.” His voice has a rich timbre that makes it hard to dislike him.
He settles down on one of the benches. Mother and I share the one opposite him. He squeezes his finger joints, one at a time, the same way he did last week when he explained factoring polynomials. “Now, Mimosa, I don’t want this to be awkward, so if you’re not okay with it, I’ll understand.”
“Not at all, Mr. Frederics,” Mother answers before I can. My toes curl against the leather soles of my sandals. “We are delighted to have you as a client. And let me reassure you, Mimosa will not be taking advantage of the situation. You know we adhere to the highest standard of conduct.”
I scowl. Rule One of our ancient code of ethics states that “an aromateur’s nose shall never be employed in the creation of elixirs for personal gain, but for the betterment of society,” meaning we don’t charge for our services. However, the rule is vague, leaving the aromateur to decide what personal gain means in gray areas.
“We’ve decided Mimosa will be dropping algebra until the end of the semester.”
“Wh—? ” I get out before Mother shoots me a look that could cause my hair to catch fire. Three years I spent teaching myself enough math to qualify for algebra. Not to mention, Mr. Frederics is the only teacher who doesn’t jump every time he sees me.
I clamp my lips, but the scent of my anger, like burnt rubber tires, blackens the space around me.
Mr. Frederics pulls at his collar. “Oh, I wouldn’t feel right about that.”
“I assure you, Mimosa is as committed to our work as I am. Isn’t that right, Mim? ” Mother places a hand on my knee, which has started to bounce. “Mim has a very packed schedule, and she’s bright. I’m sure she can pick up with algebra next semester.”
Mr. Frederics casts me a worried gaze, and my smile starts to hurt. If Mother loses face because of me, there will definitely be no algebra. Better to play along for now. “It won’t be a problem.”
“Let’s move forward, shall we? ” Mother pans her face to me. “Mim? ”
“We’re happy you chose Sweetbriar Perfumes to be your relationship intermediaries.” I recite the spiel Mother wants us to use for all clients, never mind that we’re the only aromateurs on the planet, not including Aunt Bryony, who lost her nose when she was nineteen. “Everything we use in our elixirs is botanical, no synthetics. We grow what we can here in our garden. The rest comes from organic or wild sources.”
He nods. “Good, wonderful. You know I'm a big proponent of reducing our carbon footprint. I drive a Prius.”
“You’re not currently in a relationship, is that correct? ” I ask.
“No. I haven’t dated in seven years.”
Mother’s petite nose wiggles. This is a key part of the interview. A lie smells like pewter and sour grass with stale yellow undertones, rather like a sweaty palm that has been clutching dirty coins. Mother can detect a lie as easily as most people smell dead fish. My own nose—which looks like someone took pliers to Mother’s, tweaked it longer and a pinched a bump on the bridge to be funny—doesn’t detect a single wayward molecule, though Mother’s the expert.
She could have waited until next summer to take him on as a client. It’s not like we don’t have enough people on the waiting list—six hundred or so lonely hearts last time I checked.
Mother raises her thin eyebrows at me and ticks her head toward Mr. Frederics. Get on with the program.
“Could you tell us a little about, er—” I don’t know the target’s name.
“Sofia,” says Mother.
He beams. “I’d be happy to.” The grassy sweet smell of the flower heartsease drifts from under his collar, the telltale sign of a crush. He’s got it bad.
“As you probably know, she’s a bit of a neat freak, but I love her for it.”
But why would I know she’s a neat freak?
“She’s smart, as is obvious.” He looks at me, waiting for confirmation. A chill passes through me, the way the temperature drops when a cloud passes over the sun. I really should have reviewed the application. “Read all the books in our library, which, as you know, is considerable.”
Our library means the Santa Guadalupe High School library. “Ms. DiCarlo? ”
Mr. Frederics coughs and straightens his sweater cuffs. “Er, yes.”
I would never have put Mr. Frederics and the school librarian together. The math whiz listens to ethno jazz and his breath smacks of oats and honey. There’s a laidback vibe to him, despite his snazzy outfits. Ms. DiCarlo, a petite redhead, buys hand sanitizer in bulk, and probably goes to bed in business casual. But, it could work. Both are middle-aged, use words like juxtaposed, and have good posture. Most important, their scents don’t clash.
Mr. Frederics’s eyes shift to Mother’s. “Oh dear, I’m sorry, I thought—”
Mother’s cheeks flash pink, and her eyes become pestles, grinding into me. “There is absolutely nothing to be sorry about. Mim has not had time to read the file.” The smell of burnt tires drifts from under her collar, stinging my nostrils. The teakwood plank suddenly feels too hard under my bottom and I shift from side to side.
If the librarian is the target, what’s next? Is Mother going to ban me from checking out library books? Ridiculous.
“She is single, yes? ” Mother gets the interview back on track.
“Absolutely. Never married.” Mother taps my sandaled foot with the toe of her clog and discreetly points to her nose as she inhales. The vein across her forehead has begun to throb. She’s as annoyed with me as I am with her, but I have more to lose by showing it. So I focus on the task at hand: decoding Mr. Frederics’s scentprint. Mother can do it in one quick sniff—she’s that good—but I’m still learning. I take a deep inhale and unravel his unique combination of scents, layer by layer.
Besides the top notes of lichen, caper, and pepita I already detected, Mr. Frederics smells like candelabra and Guinea millet, not surprising given his African roots. All in all, at least eighty more notes play to my nose like a complicated chord.
Aromateurs perceive smells like most people see faces. A single glance can take in a thousand pieces of information, from the curve of the cheek to the exact shade of skin. It’s the same with our noses, only it’s easier to remember smells, since the olfactory bulb neighbors the limbic system, the area closely associated with memory and emotions in the brain.
“So what seems to be the problem? ” Mother takes charge.
Mr. Frederics blows out a breath and his chest collapses.“Thought everything was on the up and up. She let me buy her a granola bar at the vending machine. When I told her I’m the president of the Latin Hustle Club, she said she’d think about joining. Then over the summer, her rabbit died and she shut down.”
Still no lies. Mother nods empathetically, chin tilted to encourage him to go on.
“My mother wants to see me knotted up before the chariot swings lo for her.” Mr. Frederics adjusts his necktie. “She’s ninety-two. Thought Ms. DiCarlo would be the one. She favored me, too; I could tell by how she always processed my requests before the other teachers'. Polished my books nice and shiny.”
Probably deciding I am no longer fit to conduct this interview, Mother launches into a final set of questions about his background and criminal history. Unlike in the classroom where Mr. Frederics speaks with an easy confidence, now he stammers and sometimes blushes, though his answers are honest. The lovelorn are often self-conscious. Clients come to us when they’ve tried everything to woo the target but can’t get the fire going, whether due to shyness, insecurity, or even prejudice. Elixirs free the inhibitions. Coax the spark into a flame.
“Mim, the rules.” Both Mother and Mr. Frederics are looking at me.
“Right.” I clear my throat. “Our elixirs don’t guarantee a love match. They only breathe on the embers. No embers, no fire. If a fire comes to life, you must maintain it. We never rekindle.”
We can reignite love that has died as long an elixir was never used to form the original bond. Only one shot at the love apple. It’s in the Rulebook.
“Sure, I understand. How soon can it be ready? I’m in a bit of a hurry. My mother’s heart’s been acting up. Think it’s the stress of me not being married.”
“We’ll have to do some due diligence on Ms. DiCarlo,” says Mother, “but if everything checks out, we could have something for you by tomorrow.”
Great, a rush order.
“I appreciate what you’re doing here. I just hope I’m worthy of her.” Even in full shade, Mr. Frederics’s scalp is dotted with sweat. He tugs out a handkerchief from his sweater pocket and swabs his scalp.
“We wouldn’t be doing this if you weren’t,” says Mother smoothly. “Mim, I need you to get grub lichen from Arastradero. Go now before dinner while we finish up here.”
I groan. Arastradero Park is a good hour round trip on my bike. “I smelled some grub lichen growing on Parrot Hill Road. Can’t we use—”
“No.” Mother pastes on a smile.
She hates using roadside plants because of car pollution, but I wish she would make an exception just this once. I haven’t completed a homework assignment in days—not just algebra—and now with Mr. Frederics’s rush order, it looks like the truancy will continue.
Mother arches an eyebrow. We trade the annoyed smells of molded lemons for a moment, but I give in, as I always do.
“See you tomorrow, Mr. Frederics.” Hopefully from the third row of your classroom, if I can help it.
Clouds of crepe myrtle petals billow around my ankles as I trudge toward the courtyard with the wishing well just outside our kitchen. The aspens are getting ready to dump their fall plumage on me, too. At least my best and only friend, Kali, all six feet of her, will be helping me sweep this weekend. I collect my bike from the courtyard, then pedal down our long driveway.
Such is the lot of an aromateur, sacrificing our needs for the common good. We’re not even supposed to have needs. Our noses are like nun’s habits, cloistering us to a life colored by chlorophyll. We can’t afford the luxury of letting our hearts slip. Mother would faint if she knew I wasn’t going to high school just for the academics. That I had interests beyond the briar. That I wanted friends, more than just Kali. And that looking at boys was a nice change of scenery. Mother would lose her leaves over that one, for sure.
While there’s no explicit rule against romantic relationships, our colonial ancestor jinxed them in her Last Word: “Beware ye aromateur; lay your traps of love, but do not yourself get caught.” Fall in love and, like Aunt Bryony, lose your supersniffer. It’s why Mother chose my father from a list of donors she got in the mail like a Christmas catalogue. And why she named me after the flower mimosa, better known as touch-me-nots because their leaflets fold inward at the heat of a human hand.
Love witches can’t fall in love.