The Obsidian Butterfly

On a clear evening you nip out to the dustbin or call the cat and gaze up into the night sky at the glittering infinities of space. Worlds within worlds; burned out stars from millions of years ago shining out with a phantom light. The great constellations, abstract memorials of mortals abducted or rescued from Earth, are displayed in the heavens like skeletons of giant insects pinned to the cork board of the firmament. Or as the Egyptians saw it, the arched body of the goddess Nut roofing the world like a gigantic croquet hoop. The Evening Star, the radiant personification of Isis goddess of magic,still looms low in the sky and suddenly the unending vastness of the universe, the oppression and menace of it all (what IS out there? WHO is out there?) is overwhelming and you leg it for the sanctuary of a fugged-up kitchen. Five minutes contemplation of the stars puts everyday cares and worries into a very meagre perspective

I love the kind of stories where science fiction meets fantasy and mythology. Something along the lines of Rider Haggard’s She, with its themes of suspended time and eternal youth. Or Rudyard Kipling’s terrifying little black comedy which begins with the author’s teasing information that this is only one of 355 stories about King Solomon, “ is not the story of the Glass Pavement, or the Ruby with the Crooked Hole, or the Gold Bars of Balkis. It is the story of the Butterfly that Stamped”. It’s probably banned now, being somewhat misogynistic: Solomon’s 999 nagging wives (and the Butterfly’s shrewish mate) are taught a severe lesson when at a turn of the King’s ring, the whole golden palace and its seraglio are lifted into the outer darkness of space by Djinns and Afrits. Screams and shrieks fill the black void as the world temporarily whirls into nothingness until the ladies, Royal and Insect, learn to behave.

Pierre Guillaume’s bizarre and beautiful Naiviris is an uncanny but unconscious echo of this tale: Kipling lists the plants in Solomon’s gardens with incantatory relish – the tall iris, pink Egyptian lilies, hyssop, camphor trees, spotted bamboos, orange tree and ginger plants. Naiviris picks up this theme of oriental heat revolving around scarlet African iris (“so spikey and unfriendly” remarks Ann Todd in another context) and scented woods; a swoon of glowing red earth, dust and pollen. It is hypnotic and erotic, but at the same time weirdly metallic and withdrawn – a hot garden without earthly heat, torrid yet somehow inhuman with no animal sexuality, all sense of flesh or skin witheld: an alien interplanetary garden of the upper air. Fabulous and fantastic in every sense.

Plunge deeper among the stars, try Guerlain’s superbly named but appropriately hard to track down Vega; or Goutal’s Nuit Etoilee. L’Eau Guerriere evokes the sense of a pressurised cabin, the glittering clear air of the stratosphere, the purity of upper air and the blinding light of the sun. Cold metal, fitments, restricted oxygen levels, the exhilaration of soaring into space. Escape from this world: the smell of a perilous alien liberty

Image from user ADiamondFellFromTheSky on Flickr.

The Gathering Storm

Zeus, God of Thunder

Dedicated, with permission, to L.O. – a keener, fairer nose than mine.

Hundreds of years ago when I was young, I lived in dread of thunderstorms, a fear that was exacerbated by the horror stories then routinely fed to infants. The thunder was the Wrath of God seeking me out for telling fibs; mirrors and cutlery must be shrouded in cloths lest lightning strike and consume us all in the concomitant flames; the only way to be completely safe was to sit in the bath wearing gumboots; “your uncle Arthur was struck down mowing the lawn in a storm”. The litany was endless: I used to go to earth in the cupboard under the stairs;or seek refuge in my father’s surgery where the recklessly bright lights, reek of ether and the sense of urgent concentration as a dog was stitched up seemed to defy the elements.

Primeval fears! Remember the maiden Semele who asked her lover Zeus to appear before her in his full glory with lightning playing around his head and armed with thunderbolts? He warned her; she insisted. And was reduced to ashes on the spot. It was said at Versailles as a measure of her fearful pride, that Mme Sophie, Louis XV’s daughter was reduced to hysterical amiability only by an electric storm when her terror would drive her to hug perfect strangers, and chatter with the lowest of the low crowding the Hall of Mirrors.

Are you one of those who can detect within themselves the approach of a storm, either by scent or headache or a mounting sense of depression, oppression, high-strung tension?  The light becomes lurid, opaque; and the outlines of buildings,flowers and trees seem strangely crisp and distinct, as though emphasised by a black crayon. The landscape glows with eerie vibrancy. The senses are all on edge, colours are unnnaturally brilliant and clear; you smell the damp wash of the coming rain and the relief when the clouds burst is like the breaking down of years of inhibitions, an almost sexual release. Moody and magnificent, stressy and surreal: like the effects of a strange and cerebral perfume.

The master of scents of coruscating colour, polish and bizarre beauty, Pierre Guillaume conjures up an olfactory echo of electric turbulence in his Huitieme Art jewel Ciel d’Airain. A minimalist masterpiece of accords of pear, olive wood and amber this perfume opens with a sharp sweet keyed-up agitation of summer fruit, gradually relaxing and softening into powdery softness as the storms breaks from black and violet clouds over the Umbrian hills; the sun finally emerging to dry the steaming earth.

Caron‘s Royal Bain de Caron (alas! hard to find today) is like standing in a torrent of warm pink tropical rain; drenched in roses, wisteria and jasmine torn from their stems by the downpour. Pierre Guillaume’s Naivris is superbly sinister, a scarlet spicy African iris brooding and simmering in thick, hot, suffocating heat before the deluge opens and turns the red dust to a sea of crimson mud. If you’ve never read Louis Bromfield’s novel The Rains Came, try it while wearing this scent: a miasma of troubling sensuality. Cathartic and erotic. I leave it to you.

Image from