A Bitter Orange Perfume

Edited by Dominik Parisien

Copyedited by Chelle Parker  | Selected by Julia Rios

February 2020

Listen to this story, narrated by Daniela Acitelli:

There were three women attending the perfumer’s funeral; others were nothing but colorless shadows. Maria Alberta was the first one — twenty-nine by then, the oldest of the Latorre sisters. Then came Maria Clarinda — twenty-six, short, sickly, and unwed. The last, Maria Gracinda, was twenty-three and the only of them dressed all in black.

Behind them loomed a white colonial ranch, a place known as Estancia Latorre.

“Now we have to decide what we’ll do with mother’s house,” said Maria Clarinda, watching the grave from above. The priest had left, and with him went the visitors.

Maria Gracinda sniffled. Her belly was round and heavy under the dark gown, and she left a pair of chrysanthemums on the tomb.

“We’ll sell it,” Maria Alberta said. The estancia was located between Santana do Livramento and Alegrete, near the Uruguayan border; someone would want to buy it for sure. “The problem is the perfumes….”

The perfumes, they all thought — hundreds of flasks containing all kinds of fragrances, from cedar to bergamot, sandalwood to jasmine, rose and ambergris, lavender and orange. Endless orange. Truly, the smell of it was unbearable inside the house, as if Joana Latorre da Costa had sprayed gallons of orange perfume on the walls, ceilings, and flooring, ruining the wooden boards.

“Clarinda, go to mother’s bedroom,” ordered Maria Alberta. “Gracinda, go to the dining room. I’ll check the cabinet.”

Maria Gracinda hugged her own belly, as if she could carry the unborn child in it with her bare hands. She looked at Alberta, wishing she could change her mind, but when her sister said nothing else, she scurried away.

“I will choose one for myself,” Maria Clarinda said before leaving as well. “You two should do the same.”

There were guest rooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, and two pantries on the way to the dining room. Clarinda remembered them all too well, even after years outside of that house. One was where she slept, the other where mother punished her, and the other her hiding place. It was almost supernatural, the way that woman knew every time she misbehaved. She not only hates me, Clarinda used to think, but she has eyes in her back.

“Here you are,” she smiled, her spindly fingers holding a glass bottle. Joana had been a famed perfumer in the region, and her products had been sold from Porto Alegre to Rio de Janeiro, but this hideous little bottle had to be the worst aroma she had ever created.

Rotten orange, that’s what it was — fetid and corrupt, slipping out of the bottle like a bronze-colored slime. The thing stretched until it sprouted fingers, crawling through her arm and leaving rancid spots on her blue dress. Clarinda tried to fight it, but the hand — mother’s hand — reached her chin and slapped her face, leaving her unconscious.

In the main bedroom, Maria Gracinda leaned against the wall, thinking of her sister’s words. The smell of perfume consumed the room, but it was sweet, too sweet. In fact, it was sickeningly sugary, making her head spin.

“Some people must like it,” she murmured, finding the source of it in an exquisite crystal flask. Hopefully, she would be back home soon with her husband, and her time at Estancia would be nothing but a nasty dream.

Gracinda remembered too well mother’s presence, like a gag about to suffocate her. You’re my most precious daughter, she would say, choosing her clothes, braiding her hair. As a child, it made her feel special, but the feeling soon vanished. You’ll do as I say, on one occasion. No, you’ll stay just a little longer, on another. Her body couldn’t take it any longer; she needed to leave, she was tired, she needed to….

Maria Gracinda opened the flask, and the liquid inside it shimmered with gold. Her knees were swollen and exhausted, and she needed to sit; her stomach twisted with the syrupy smell; and, like in that time, just like in that time…

Her water broke, and she didn’t remember anything else.

Far from the bedroom, in the cabinet, Maria Alberta couldn’t hear any of her sisters; in fact, she couldn’t even smell the perfume anymore. Around her were only oils, vials, decanters, scales, ingredients, and spoons. There was beeswax, rose water, a few funnels, and a container full of molded flower petals. Alberta held an ordinary flask in the air, staring at the pale liquid.

The perfume had no color and it had no odor, much like her. Its sight was to her like she must have been to mother: invisible, unwanted. Oh? You were there? Even her memories of Joana were lackluster. Walking side by side without talking. Taking care of her younger siblings. The tamest dresses, the dullest aromas.

“Even my name,” she said, uncorking the bottle. Alberta, after her father, unlike Clarinda, who was fair, and Gracinda, full of grace.

The perfume slithered through her arms, but it didn’t stain her mint dress. It fell on the floor, taking the shape of a person, a woman, a mother — hers. The viscous creature had a faint orange smell, and it walked across the cabinet, staring at the window. It sat, then laid down, as if it were in bed, and then ate. It repeated its own little routine, again and again. Mother seemed lonely without them.

Maria Alberta walked to the figure and, with a wave of her hand, the liquid fell on the carpet. She smelled the air, and the smell became stronger, richer, fresher.

“Farewell,” her mother said.

There were three sisters in the perfumer’s house, and they were nothing but colorless shadows. Maria Alberta, who took the reins and had a flask hidden in her pocket. Maria Clarinda, who helped her little sister to the cart that took them back to town. And Maria Gracinda, smelling like blood and orange, holding her newborn daughter in her arms.

Estancia Latorre disappeared behind their backs, becoming again just a farm.

© 2020 H. Pueyo

About the author

H. Pueyo is an Argentine-Brazilian writer of speculative fiction who occasionally dwells in the world of comics. Her work has appeared before in venues such as Clarkesworld Magazine, The Dark Magazine, and Sharp & Sugar Tooth: Women Up To No Good, among others. She currently lives in an antiquarium in the extreme south of Brazil, along with her husband and their interminable piles of work to do. Once in a blue moon you can find her on Twitter at @hachepueyo.