Out of a kind of smoke that dreams seem to conjure, the invisible kind that blurs people’s faces and names of places, I recall an incident, told by Grandmother. Told so many times, that I can almost remember myself. When one cold silent night, still bundled tight in a pink cotton blanket, I cried out and woke my sleeping family.
In one chapter of our lives in a small town of Pusan, Korea, my grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, aunt and uncle shared a one bedroom home. This home wasn’t your typical one bedroom with a separate living room, kitchen and bathroom. It was all in one single square room that we ate, slept, and entertained. Instead of beds, we slept on thick padded mats- folded and put away during the day. A small corner gas stove for a kitchen, and a basin for a sink. The toilet was in an outhouse several feet away and water was fetched from a well. I remember at five years old carrying a wooden bucket, a rope sling around my shoulder. My flip flops sucking at the wet morning dirt. I walked up a hill toward a grounded well pump. I immediately pair that moment to the earthly smell of rain and dirt.
Since I was born, my olfactory sense has been quite keen. In the heart of that night, when I woke my family, Grandmother, after failed attempts to put me back to sleep, realized the gas stove was accidentally left on. During that time, many families died from carbon monoxide. The town newspaper had a regular section listing the names of those taken by the deadly fume. This is the story Grandmother tells me years later, that if it wasn’t for my nose, my family’s names would’ve been on that list.
Sometime last year, I woke in the middle of the night with difficulty breathing and was afraid something had caught on fire. My eyes still cloudy from sleep saw that our apartment ceiling was brimming with grey smoke. But after checking that the windows were all closed and the stove was remained off, the room had suddenly become clear. I woke my husband, who claimed he didn’t smell anything and fell back asleep. For hours, I stayed awake with the burden of that smell. Come morning, there were news of arson at a construction site about a mile away. Firefighters claimed that it was set off during the night.
Til this day, sleep will not come if I smell food from a neighbor’s house. A trace of cat feces left in the litter box. Or the mere scent of my very own nostrils in the cold of winter. It can be a nuisance, but I must remember, it was at first a gift.