Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Meaning of Frankincense

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Hugo Fontaine snugged his violin and then his viola into their purple satin-lined cases, called out farewells to his bluegrass band’s other members and headed out the back way of the music building. It had been a good rehearsal for an upcoming wedding gig.

Though he loped along, all 6’3″ of him loose and lithe, his shoulders ached and by the end of the session, the strain got to him. He’d already spent all day at his small but rising gallery, working on an exhibition. The ceramic sculptures were heavy and pedestals had to be moved several times. Of course he might have directed his assistant, Gage, to labor for him but this was a winning show of an old friend’s work. It had to be fresh, right. Marie and he went way back to childhood. They sometimes had thought they should be together but any spark felt at 15 had long ago cooled. They trusted each other; that was a lot. At 38, he had gotten comfortable with his life. She was facing marriage number two.

He needed food but coffee aroma on the breeze struck his nostrils and he crossed the street to Duchamp’s Sip and Dip. It was one of the few places in New York where people could be found to speak French, the owner being French-born, but oddly Hugo seldom did. He had worked a long time to develop a passable American accent. This possibility had disturbed his father when Hugo left Montreal at 22 to complete his Masters degree at NYU, but it had only further propelled him to leave his past behind.

He pushed open the door and found himself enveloped in sharp and sweet odors, voices amiably swirling about as people sipped drinks and dipped biscotti and other baked treats in the mugs. It was warm shelter within a megalopolis rife with traffic, smog, people and many fascinating options. he relaxed.

“Mon ami! Monsieur Fontaine!” The barista, busy steaming milk, bathed him in a brilliant smile him.

He nodded at her and smiled politely. She always was thrilled to see him, and knew he spoke French fluently so tried to engage him. Much too young, flirtatious and deferential, Hugo appreciated that she was a good barista and liked his music (she had been at an event they’d played) but kept his distance. Okay, he knew he was good looking–this had been hammered into him since childhood–but he was shy by nature, not self-impressed.

Hugo’s order given, he moved to a corner near the entrance and waited. His ears were filled with nearby French conversations and he let them come and go in his mind, not interested in eavesdropping then. The violins pulled at his shoulders so he set them on an tiny empty table and sat on chair’s edge, anxious to go home. His hands pressed lightly on closed eyes; his breathing calmed. The opening was soon, the wedding performance was shortly after, and he was supposed to go to Montreal for his mother’s 68th birthday in about a week. He tallied up his tasks and slumped back into the chair, vision unfocused on the black and white tile floor.

And then it hit him: frankincense. He’d know it anywhere. Nose lifted, his body almost rose, too, as eyes searched. That spicy, woody, lemony, amber-toned ,smokey scent, those layers of tantalizing notes–they always got to him but seldom was found this pure. It reminded him of a specific, expensive perfume his father’s parfumerie carried–what was its name? He was instantly back in the store his family had owned for three generations. He had left; his sister had taken his place by their father. But he still respected and loved the art and science of making perfume, and sharing its beauty. Frankincense had become a favorite scent, mysterious, luxuriant, primal while spiritual: powerful scent of sap of the Boswellia sacra had been important for centuries, and still used in a myriad of ways.

Rarefied majesty of a scent, a natural perfection alone yet a greatly flexible note when blended with others, his father always said. And Hugo, often at odds with him (more so since choosing his own path), agreed on that.

He didn’t have to look far to find the carrier of the scent. She was a few feet away, shifting from one foot to another as she studied the hand painted menu board of offerings. Her dark hair was pulled into a sleek long ponytail so that her pale, prominent features and high forehead were exposed. A beige woolen cape encased her sturdy frame and she held red gloves in one hand. He inhaled deeply, then closed his eyes. His cares began to melt away. But his name was called and he stood.

Was the woman speaking French? No, it was the barista again, clumsily working over the language with another victim in line. The frankincense lady was heading toward back of the shop. Hugo slung one violin case with a shoulder strap over his shoulder, took his coffee in its “to-go” cup, then hesitated. He wanted to ask her what it was she wore. But one doesn’t just saunter up to a strange woman and speak what sounds like a very lame come-on line. Did he dare do it? His pointed awareness of her perfume might seem odd. He took a few steps when she appeared to look his way, and their eyes then met.

She smiled a brief lopsided smile and looked at her cell phone, then glanced up again as he stood, uncertain. He closed the gap and found himself before her.

“Forgive me–but my family owns a parfumerie. I know that fragrance but can’t name it.”

She frowned as she bit her lower lip and he felt it best to go so turned around.

“Black Tourmaline.”

She said it quietly, as if reluctant to reveal it. Hugo turned back around. It was a cloud he stood within, invisible yet dense, light and dark, rich and deep. He was beginning to feel better by the moment, if awkward. But that wasn’t it, not the perfume he thought he knew but since she had answered, he reciprocated.

“Ah. So many perfumes! It is hard to identify them, even with strong notes as this. This is not one I recall. But then, I don’t pay attention usually, it’s just frankincense, it is so distinctive, of course….very nice…”

He felt heat in his cheeks as he fumbled for a more specific response. Had he forgotten everything his father taught him, then? The perfume he once knew so well had evaporated from his memory, in any case. This was ridiculous, it was only fragrance, what else could he say? He gripped the handle on his instrument case, shifted the other violin case, prepared to go.

The woman nibbled on her biscotti and stared at his hands. “Two violins? You are ambidextrous to the extreme?”

He was baffled by her words, then exhaled in a nervous laugh, relieved to move on. Which he needed to do now. He bent to extend his hand; he was not an oaf, he knew how to be courteous if nothing else and better now than not at all.

“Hugo Fontaine. Yes, a violinist–and violist–more bluegrass than classical.”

“Gina Corelli.”

“You’re kidding–Corelli? As in Arcangelo Corelli, Italian violinist and Baroque composer?”

“Right. Not kidding. No relation that I know, but I have never researched my genealogy. I am not that interested, it might set up expectations!” She laughed, too, but softly, and indicated a chair. “Have a seat, Hugo?”

“Well, I need to get back to my gallery. There’s a big show coming up, but–” She was wearing frankincense, she knew something of music, perhaps, there was an empty seat. An invitation. He looked at his watch and sat.

Seated, he could see crinkling blue eyes and that dark mane of hair– it had a startling effect. She might pass him by any time and he wouldn’t notice her–the quietness of her bearing, bland paleness. A sort of gentle yet strong kind of loveliness that melded into anywhere, anytime…. He lifted his coffee and drank deeply as she eyes scanned his face. Bold despite her calm energy, he thought, but he could not stop looking at her, either. He inhaled her perfume without ceremony, fell under its spell. Perhaps she was used to this, men asking to speak with her, men following her down the street and her waving them off or more. It was her fragrance…or was it her?

As if reading his thoughts, she said, “Most people can’t always place the frankincense; they don’t always like it. It has a headiness, right? But more. I’ve worn it a couple of years and nothing else feels right somehow. It has a soothing effect though it perks up my senses. Maybe that is logical since it is your family’s business…In New York?”

“Montreal. But I live here, have since university. Yes, I get that.”

“Born and raised here, myself. That must have been interesting, perfume and Montreal.”

He shrugged. It sounded exotic but it was just his growing up life, as hers was New York, which seemed better to him. Freer, more cosmopolitan, energizing.

“You play something, also?” He suspected she might, knowing about violins and ambidexterity. Corelli.

She shrugged as if it was irrelevant. “I have. Oboe. Flute. I’m in the publishing business now. Educational materials publishing. Not so wonderful as an art gallery owner.” She took another drink and nibble. “What sort of art?”

His phone rang with a Mark O’Connor Band song, “Coming Home”. He was about to ignore it when he saw it was from Gage.

“I’m sorry, Gina, I have to get this. Maybe we’ll run into each other again sometime?”

“Sure, maybe!”

Her gaze followed him as he wove through the tables and lines. Then she pulled a slim book from her leather bag, opened it, smoothed the pages, at once lost in the tender words. “If when you rise in the blue and green mists of woods at dawn, go farther, seek the meadows and willows by running waters, forego the spell of sleep, of cares…”

He got up and took off with his instruments. But as he hailed a taxi, then arrived at the gallery and started back to work, the few facts he had accompanied him like a vapor, hanging on into night and the next days: Gina, frankincense, flute, blue eyes, dark hair, beige cape, good energy.

And then it got busier and he tied to push such nonsense aside.

******

“What are you doing with that?” Marie asked an hour before the opening of her show. “I thought it was to be in the center of the room!”

It was a mammoth piece, a curvaceous, green-glazed form, one Hugo privately thought of a part octopus, part sea siren. He may have been right but they rarely discussed what her work meant or might represent. Every artists had their own intentions but it was up to the viewers to ascribe meaning. He loved it, but he liked the smaller trio of pieces in the center better and so had moved it without consent.

He put a hand on her shoulder. “But see how these complement the space and lighting so well?A sort of relief after the opening genius of the big piece.”

“Oh, really Hugo, the lighting can be altered, the space is so large and it isn’t what we decided.” She looked at it all, crossed her arms, tapped her foot.

“It’s now stationed by the window, near the door, a draw for passersby and a very good spot overall.”

“It’s the draw of people off the street you think best, really!” She walked around the room and inspected once again.

“Not a bad thing,” Gage said under his breath. “The piece looks wonderful there. She might sell it….”

“Oh, well, opening night nerves,” Hugo reminded.

The food and table with colorful candles set into her ceramic holders were being readied by the caterer. They were all dressed and ready. Hugo poured wine for each; they drank quite indelicately. It wasn’t easy, running a gallery, supporting artists’ desires and hoping for a good profit. Marie knew all that. Her work was selling well now, in fact. It was as much for his Fontaine Contemporary Arts that she was showing there. Though he was rising closer to the top of the list, himself, the last five years.

Gina, frankincense, flute. He shook his head and drank again. He had manged to shut off the repetitive musings, mostly, the past few days, but it was like a song repeating ad infinitum.

“Hugo? Did you hear me? The pedestal on the east side needs adjusting, can you help me?”

Gage snapped his fingers near his right ear and Hugo came back to the present, growling a bit at his assistant.

“Stop that.”

“What is it with you lately?”

“I have wondered the same, maybe you need time off, head to the Bahamas of something,” Marie said and dusted her sculptures lightly with a batik napkin taken from the table.

“Or Montreal…” Gage suggested, bravely. He well knew that Hugo did not want to go to his hometown next week. Not only was he busy with more shows coming up but his father wasn’t lately well and his mother was feeling anxious. His sister seemed more in charge. She had demanded he come.

Hugo shot him a warning look. He did not want to think of all that, though he did suspect there’d be good moments to share, as well as stressful times with his father. There usually were, even with his mother’s constant refrain: why was he insisting on staying single? Now he had to worry about their aging.

The time came to unlock the doors and begin the formal opening of Marie Werther’s show. People began to fill the doorway; they were keen to see her imaginative ceramic works and he hoped, too, they wanted to own some. It was fine art but it was business, after all.

Outside, glancing in the window as she slowly passed was a woman in a voluminous cape, dark hair flying about her face, hands snugly gloved in red leather. She paused to get a closer look at the work, then searched the crowd, palms pressed against the glass a moment. There. Hugo stood among admirers, goblet in hand, chatting away. His eyes swept over the large gallery spaces and afraid he might see her, she hurried on. She could not go in. That was too close to a sort of stalking, wasn’t it? Yet, she had looked him up and found out about Fontaine Contemporary Arts. She had wondered about him enough that she felt she had to see if it was all real– the person, the place. Now she knew more. His family had long been perfumers, Hugo was from Montreal.

Hugo took a break from chatting. He could have sworn he saw her. Gina. She was a shadowy figure passing by, beyond his bright windows, so he rushed to the front and peered into dark of night. Snow was starting to drift down, glistening in streetlamp and headlights light, and people hurried on their way. He stepped into the fall of soft flakes, and almost believed her perfume settled about him, warming him in the icy air. He took in a long breath of tingling air. But she was not there, just–surprisingly, strangely–stuck in the depths of mind.

Somewhere in that city she was living a whole life. And he was not in it.

******

The wedding reception was generously festooned with blue and white flowers, a pair of doves in one gilded cage and bluebirds in another (Hugo worried they’d be let out, he didn’t care for birds swooping onto his head), hangings of silvery tulle and white satin (he was told), and tons of food, fried chicken being a primary choice. The guests were festive, the bride and groom were well on their way to married bliss after several rounds of drinks. It was a pretentious-leaning yet earthy affair and the band, Down Home Times, was playing hot and happy. He could play these tunes with little thought, and yet he appreciated every crowd’s dancing and cheering. It paid okay, but it was his main outlet for fun. He’d veered onto a different musical road as a teen when leaving classical training, but this gave him a different– more satisfying–thrill. And it was with relief that his parents liked it when they’d heard his first set on stage at 18.

At a break between his current sets, he and the guys usually went outside, some for a smoke, some for the relief of open air. Hugo was the last one to the door when he heard a voice behind him.

“Hello.”

He stopped to look over his shoulder, expecting a bluegrass admirer but there: the frankincense, spicy-citrus-amber-smokey-woods suffusing his nostrils, altering his state of mind, bringing him to a full stop.

Gina.

She stood before him with a tentative smile, bright eyes. “I know the bride, but her cousin much better so I tagged along for the night. I did not know it was going to be you up there, I swear. A shock, I have to say.”

“No way.” He offered his hand and she took it a moment, warmth against warmth.

“I knew of your bluegrass interest, and it was on your gallery site. Yes, I found that. I looked up a bit more. But I didn’t know you were playing here until I arrived.”

“Well, then.” He ruffled his sweaty hair and looked away. “Too much. In New York, this is a wedding you just came to, out of nowhere–too weird.”

“I know…kind of different, I agree.”

“Wait, you are here with out an escort?”

“Male? No, no date!” She chortled. “Just the bride’s cousin.”

“Do you want a drink?”

“No, I’m not such a drinker. I just wanted to say hello once more. “

“I’m getting water, I need hydration right now. Coming?”

So they got his water and talked a bit, her about work, how she needed a vacation, it had bogged her down all that fine print, boring statistics. She did not plan on taking his time up when he asked if she wanted to come by the gallery on her lunch hour sometime.

“I’ve been.”

He wanted to be cool, but his mouth fell open a bit. “It was you, then, during the opening of Marie’s exhibit–you walked by the gallery and I went outdoors to find you.”

“Yes. You did that? I didn’t expect you to see me, that wasn’t the plan. I was trying to slip by.” She put her hand on his forearm. They sat with her fingers firm but careful on his shirt sleeve, skin under the fabric tingling where those fingertips lay.

He shook his head. “None of this was the plan. But I keep thinking about you, anyway.”

“Yes. Me, too–you.”

His bandmates were jogging up the stage steps. Hugo jumped up to join them.

“Don’t move too far. Please.”

“Not likely, this has gotten interesting!”

And she laughed, head tilted so that he could see the silver of a filling and her hair bounce and gleam. He thought how wonderful it was to see her, to smell her, to talk a bit with her, and then he took a giant leap. He was embedded with her presence already and so far there was no serious resistance. He was going with it.

“Want to go to Montreal with me next week-end, by any chance? My mother turns 68 and I must attend the family party.” He made a mock-sad face and then left her there.

Hugo picked up his violin and put bow to strings, tapped his foot with the stand up bass rhythm line, dove right into the music. After a few bars the intoxicating Gina Corelli moved up to the stage and raised both arms, gave him two thumbs up. He sure hoped one of those was for a madcap trip to his hometown. He thought it likely. With frankincense in the mix, anything seemed possible to him, as it had for people all through time.

Destiny

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Slim thought she frankly wasn’t fit for an ordinary world. Not that she put it that way, exactly; that would have been her mother’s paraphrase. She tended to like things most kids didn’t. At eight years old, for example, Slim wanted to be an illustrator of books for children or an elocutionist “because I love that word, it sounds like electrocute but peaceful and pretty”. It was one of her mother’s words; she spoke in public often. Slim kept a notebook about differences in people, observing their manners (she had been instructed to do this), the sorts of things they talked about and those wordy pauses between thoughts (“uh” or “um” meant there was no more coming, whereas “you know” or “you see” meant there was lots more), or, sometimes, their choice in clothing. Especially odd prints and bright colors. Slim liked to draw, and preferred exotic or messy over commonplace. More fun to sketch.

The house was set above the beach. It was large, she supposed, although it was so full of visitors beginning spring that it felt as though it shrank. There were rooms left over so why not fill them, her mother said, and her father raised his eyebrows as though he disapproved but he didn’t, much. He liked five course dinners and fishing on his boat and casting about for the right book of poems to share with them by the fireplace or on the veranda swing, glass of whiskey in hand. Slim liked the smart, heavy glass but found the smell revolting. She always exited after one poem, to the beach or the third floor which was essentially one long playroom for kids and adults alike. It made for a great sleepover room, but that only happened once or twice a year. Mother felt it excessive for Slim to be that involved with the town girls. Going to the school was well and good now but that would change.

Slim didn’t ever want to leave Brimley Cove, at least not on good days. The bad days could go on and on during winter and then she told her mother to take her away, off to the boarding school back east but she could say that because it wasn’t to happen for at least three years. The other times she felt sea salt and horsetail waves and sunsets that spread like a ribbon of colors along the rim of the world were signs of something more. Slim felt everything held signs and she tried to read them in the tides, the foamy lather left behind, upturned seashells, jellyfish innards, snakey plants. The seagulls cleaned up much of what she wanted to see. She wondered what she missed, what sign would point her in what direction.

“You’re possibly meant to be a fisherwoman,” her father said as they strolled down the beach one day. “Or a diviner of some sort.”

“What’s a diviner?”

“Someone who can read the future in ordinary things. Tea leaves are traditional but I don’t put any stock in that business. But romantic enough.”

“Tea leaves! Irish Breakfast and Oolong have something to say? I’ll have a look next time.”

He laughed and patted her shoulder.

“If you don’t believe it why say that to me?”

“Because you’re a dreamer, a flibberdigibbit, and an angel all thrown together. I think it’s your departed Gran’s blood. You will either soar to great heights or fall terribly hard, my dear Slim.”

She took off galloping. “I was born to fly!” She jumped about until her legs got all wet in the waves she saw too late, then walked into the water, clothes streaming wet.

“Keep your face to the sea and your eyes open!” Her father called out the reminder. “You are not yet a mermaid but a mortal!”

“But look what I just found!” She held up a sand dollar, no chips or cracks.

He gave her a thumbs up.

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So, there were advantages to being in that place with those parents. She was happy often, but she knew that in school others thought her odd. They hated reading, doing math, making projects. She liked all that but especially art class (only weekly) and gym (twice a week), particularly when they climbed ropes or ran races. She was good enough in gym, to everyone’s surprise, and also art and they told her so sometimes. They ate lunch with her but said only the basic nice things, she noticed. And some rude things. She suspected it was because her family was from the city, had some money and had lived here only three years.

The twins, Herbie and his sister, Shelly, were her two good friends. They lived three houses down. Their parents were good friends of Slim’s. She thought Herbie and Shelly were interesting–they liked to make up plays with her–but bratty. She often had to stay as far away as possible from Shelly’s long, pink-glossed fingernails. Shelly had little fits, her mother said with a head shake and smile, trying to coax Slim’s sympathy. But Slim had left in a dead run more times than she had told her parents. She had to keep peace with the twins or she would be hopelessly alone, especially in summers.

Then one week before Slim’s ninth birthday, her parents threw a party. She thought it was for their anniversary which was also coming up.

“Not really. It’s more like a social, a good old fashioned social, but one that is also a welcome wagon of good will for our new neighbors.”

“Welcome wagon?”

Her mother laughed and she lifted her lipstick away from her mouth so as not to spoil the curve of coral. She was getting ready at her dressing table and Slim was sitting on her bed, fingering the pretty spring dress that lay beside her. She had already dressed in cropped turqouise pants and a white blouse. She had added a string of multicolored sea glass beads that she had made.

“And old term, dear, when people brought a basket of useful items to new arrivals in a community.”

“Oh, like housewarming gifts?”

Her mother finished application of the lipstick and then ran a brush through her long golden waves and smiled at Slim in the mirror.

“Yes, like that, Felicity Thompson-Harrier.” Her eyes caught Slim’s in the reflection. “When are you going to put some weight on? You’re eating lunch at school, right?”

Slim screwed up her face and slipped off the bed. “Yes, but I like when you make my lunches. I would rather eat rabbitty lettuce and radishes than those greasy hamburgers like Herbie, who eats mine, too.”

She sidled up to her mother and the mirror and posed this way and that, seeing what everyone else saw. She was long on bony limbs and shallow of chest and even her face was narrow. It meant she could run faster, hide places others could not, make herself scarce. But her hair, like her mother’s, fell over her shoulders in luxurious folds when she brushed it well at night. It was worth a few good ounces.

“You look fine, Slim. My little elf. My girl.” She hugged her close. “Now, off. I have things to do and people to meet soon.”

Her mother’s touch radiated through her blouse, warming her skin. How she wished her mother was home more but she was famous now, a motivational speaker and author. Only her father was around, but just after long hours in his home office where he was not to be disturbed. He wrote about scientific things, but was trying his hand at a novel, he sheepishly admitted. Her mother had said two writers were more than one family deserved, then kissed the top of his balding head. Slim thought that over but she also felt proud.

It was at top of the stairway where she liked to wait as people brought laughter and the swish and shine of colorful clothes. In a few minutes she would help place trays of tiny sandwiches on the table and make sure there was fresh ice in the punch, not because she had to but because there was little else to do but listen and watch. She leaned her chin on the railing.

The door swung open and two people entered who appeared to be giants, with two tallish children in tow. Slim had never seen them before. Maybe these were the welcome wagon people. There was a boy much older, perhaps fourteen, who was on his phone the minute after he shook hands with her parents. The girl, though…more her age. Slim came down a few steps.

“Slim!” her mother called. “Come meet Desiree!”

With a name like that Slim expected the girl to be wearing a long sweeping skirt and a jeweled barette in her fussy hair but instead she wore grey leggings and a loose violet and white t-shirt with shiny rivets on the shoulders. Hair was chin-length, straight, brown.

She held out her hand as taught. “Slim.”

Desiree gave a crooked smiled, showing big teeth that gleamed in the peachy light of setting sun. “Des. Can we get out of here or do we have to make small talk around the hors d’oeuvres as usual?”

“Follow me.”

Slim and Des took off for the beach at a good pace, Des moving faster due to those long legs. They scavenged the litter a high tide had left and talked about living in a beach town, Slim giving her tips, Des adamant it was only for week-ends if her mother could help it but her dad was sold on a “simpler, slower lifestyle.”

“Adults get weird ideas, you know? They say something like it’s a fact. Like how much I am going to love it here blah blah.”

Slim walked over to an unbroken, perfectly round, white sand dollar. It shone a little in the amber of dusk. She picked it up and felt how it filled her hand, light with a little grit, then took Des’ hand and put it in her palm.

“That’s so beautiful,” Des said tracing the delicate flowery design, then searched Slim’s face. “Can I keep it?”

“Second one this week. It’s yours, a welcome gift. It’s destiny, I think. It waited for you. You will love it here–we’ll see to that.”

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