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Oakmoss and Ambergris

by Joe Koch

2835 words
Listen to this story, narrated by Rain Corbyn

Tearing open plastic baggies with a hotel pen, Laden laces the running bath with fragrant stolen compounds. Gem-like powders and fungal dusts sift downward through steam. Dark versus light, a paisley sparkle snake-fight spins on the surface of the water as substances clash and combine. A finger dip tests temperature. A long sip of the champagne Laden said yes to in the lobby. Another tug on the hot water faucet, forcing more heat. Laden’s ready to let it burn through every pore, and Taj can go to hell if he thinks they’re taking the fall when Stormtrash Irene comes back to find her stash is gone.

Acclimated after three years of service, Laden’s not immobilized by the potency of rich odors wafting up from the bath water. Laden counts themself lucky. They’ve worked with the best. Banned by the Interplanetary Fragrance Association, reminiscent of ancient Earth’s oakmoss and ambergris, the properties of these rare alien plant resins and invasive geological strains can’t be chemically synthesized with any accuracy on Earth. The depth of basenotes and longevity of their fixative properties resist simple duplication. Organic compounds of such complexity can only be hunted and harvested in the wild.

• • •

“Perfumery is an equal marriage of art and science,” Taj lectured Laden during their first encounter. His subtle hand-squeeze on the word marriage gave Laden a thrill. “Modern accords sacrifice the layered depth and sophisticated intricacy of ancient formulae for the sake of our coddled, bourgeois idea of safety, be it environmental or medical. The result is antiseptic. Our world grows poorer for it. Connoisseurs demand embodied fragrances, aromas that speak of culture and history. Life must be an adventure of the senses, don’t you agree? You’re very handsome. Tell me, do you enjoy space travel?”

Stuffing twin orifices with baggies of rare substances, Taj wipes Laden’s tears in calculated foreplay. His fingers come away sparkling. “You’ll take one more for me, won’t you?” Taj kisses their neck and inserts another packet. Laden sighs, or maybe whimpers.

“That’s my guy.” Taj sounds a little more possessive than Laden would like. “I knew you’d be into this. It doesn’t hurt too much, does it?”

It hurts, and it’s a weepingly exotic sensation of coming undone by gradual steps, and it’s an unwilling yet voluntary act under the terms Taj has implied and Laden’s continual acceptance. After all is said and done, Laden’s the type to do anything for love.

“I’m fine,” Laden says, hiding pain tinged with pleasure behind an arched arm.

“You’re a fiend for it, aren’t you?”

Laden tries not to think of words like sneer and scorn as they cringe at Taj’s imperceptible change in warmth. Laden says, “I want you.”

“One or two more.” Taj caresses Laden closer to climax, spreading them wide. He puts his serpent’s tongue to use in silence as he slicks and stuffs the last packet deep enough to hide it from a casual pat-down.

Laden’s periphery melts into an impossible confusion of warring impressions after Taj’s opening blast of smoked leather and oud. Masculine woody notes are followed by a soapy heart reminiscent of vetiver, and a topping off of potpourri florals with a hint of ash. Projection is poor. Later on in the spacecraft, as the sad reality of the situation settles on their skin, Laden will savor the drydown of resinous amber and underlying spice: leftovers of Taj’s fleeting attentions.

“The first time’s always the hardest,” Taj says with a perfunctory peck before boarding. Laden doesn’t know it’s the last time they’ll be alone with him for the next three years. “Don’t panic if it pinches a bit later, babe. That’s just me tickling your fancy the whole way there.” Those wicked eyes. Taj knows how to use them against all thought of protest.

A tolerance for strong, persistent odors made Laden an immediate asset, as well as their ability to evade detection at checkpoints. Three years taking it up the trunk from Pluto to Paris and back across the Kuiper Belt; Taj seduces Laden endlessly without sating.

• • •

Cool sweat on the empty champagne glass. Steam rises from the odorous, swirling bath. Humidity’s heavy insistence nudges every pore like the lingering suspicions Laden’s chosen to deny from the start. Stormtrash Irene’s business model doesn’t allow her favorite recruiter to indulge in ongoing intimacy, and Taj has the attention span of a clam. Irene needs mules to keep her product moving. Taj’s worth to her is magnified by the size of the holes he leaves behind.

Laden’s outlasted everyone else in the life. A dubious accolade; most quit with muscular and emotional boundaries intact. Taj is right about their fiendishness, Laden admits, right about everything except his own unspoken and elastic dominance. His latest love note to Laden curls from the air’s clinging dampness where it fell from their livid fingers and landed upside down in a small arc on the hotel nightstand. A cartoon frown.

Tucked into the strange bouquet of flowers—not really flowers, though, not in a hotel this far from the Sun, but multicolored polyanthemous lichen undulating on cultured stalks — was an invitation to deceive or be deceived:

Babe, it’s the motherlode. A whole six month’s stash. I know you can handle it, esp. now, ha ha. No one can carry like you. Meet me in Paris we’ll disappear. XXO-T.

Laden aches with the ghost of sillage past. They ache for Taj daily while riding the interplanetary transit lines, their body packed full of product, expanding pores overhydrated into hypoxia. The plastic baggies aren’t an impermeable barrier, not over the distances Laden travels. No quantity of extra water intake can mitigate the effects of uncanny compounds leeching through into Laden’s mucous membranes. Substances rare and untested accumulate like the Earth’s muddy yearnings. The chemical signature of unrequited love, the microbiological evolution of a new ecosystem within their organs and blood; whatever it is, Laden feels their body awakening.

Unique hungers require unique ways to feed.

Laden strips down to nothing in the hotel bathroom and pours the remainder of the champagne. They inhale aromatic steam across the transient bubbles. A benthic scent rising from the bathtub infiltrates their deepest marrow. Six months of product dissolves in the hot water. Six months of work swirls and then stills under the closed tap.

Laden steps into the fragrant steaming liquid. The surface is thick. Enhanced with the galaxy’s largest store of animal secretions and extruded tars, restricted stamens, barks, and fungal inoculated mineral ephemera, the sludge water parts around Laden’s toe and invites them in deeper, deeper.

Relaxing into the warm brew like lying down in the contours of a lover’s arms, quicksand sucks them under without argument. Laden’s never resisted the life. Without the dream of Taj, there’s even less to resist now. Laden allows invisible opercula to expand in their neck. Hidden gill slits seek a converse anaerobic essence as Laden transcends their breath. Fragrance pervades in tangible harmony, a physical presence imbuing each pore.

Laden’s orifices have grown more lush over the years, blossoming strange with rapacious pangs of desire on those long, lonely sprints across the solar system. How hollow their crammed parts wailed, weighted in the safety seat, craving the bastard’s touch. Deprived, an erotic mutation took place.

Unfolding a repetition of innards, hidden cetacean spaces adapting with willful girth and cavernous dignity, Laden further submerges. Breath is an unneeded luxury. Underneath the sludge, they absorb it all. Ondine seeks soul: no pretenders need apply. There’s a raw sensation of crying, yet somehow backwards, as if Laden ingests tears to invoke new, more elaborate losses.

Champagne forgotten, extremities cooling, Laden lifts an arm from the empty tub. Scales glimmer, crusting over the soft sponginess of Laden’s fresh thalassic flesh. There’s a knock on the hotel room door, and then another, and another. Someone’s been tapping for a while. Laden feels new when they try to move.

Standing is like swimming, walking a listing movement like a floating stroll. Laden clicks off the overhead lights, leaves one lamp on by the bedside. Draped in the plentiful hotel robe, the curved edges of their scales might read as shadows of arm hair and chest hair, optical illusions in the low light. They check the peephole. No surprise.

Laden opens the door and drifts backwards into shadow on the undertow of the air currents in the swampy room.

Sensations born of a sea-change, perceptive synesthesia: Laden smells Stormtrash Irene’s mood before the assault of her voice strikes home. “The honeymoon suite? Are you kidding me?”

Lichenoid flowers glow, curled notecard flutters; Laden tosses Taj’s love letter over to Irene. The corner ink smears where Laden’s damp fingers press a netted pattern of scales. “Not my idea. Recognize the signature?”

Irene glares and Laden marvels at her violent aroma of diesel and astringent. Over-sensitized, Laden follows the thoughts cycling through by tracking Irene’s changing fragrances. She smacks the card repeatedly against the palm of her half-open fist. Her downcast eyes cancel repressed tears while keeping close watch on her supposed antagonist. Laden gets a whiff of simmering smoke with a tinge of metal, the scent of an electrical fire.

Laden says, “We both know he’s not worth it.”

“None of them are. Not in this business.” Stormtrash Irene answers too quickly to be believable. She holds the card out to Laden, but not too far from her body. It’s a challenge or invitation to come closer. Ozone and asteroid ash, smoldering. Though she adopts a casual pose, Laden scents the weapon Irene hides in her belt.

Irene sounds genuine. “I can’t believe you begged me to come back from Triton early for this love triangle bullshit. I’m already over it. Stealing my product, though?” She shakes her head. “Man, he’s going to pay for that. Come on. Let’s load up the stash and get you home.”

Laden’s no longer denying the evidence of their senses. Camaraderie with an iron finish. A tangy note of blood. Laden glides backwards into dimmer and dimmer light, slippery and silent.

Irene flaps the love note. “What do you want, a cookie? Take your little memento and get moving.”

Laden wobbles their head back and forth slowly in undulating waves. They want to speak, but the words seep upwards in slow motion. Menacing spice prickles in Laden’s nostrils leaving a path of needles and pins. They see what’s coming clearly over the waves. With their new fins, they can’t dogpaddle fast enough to flee.

Lunging fast for the wrist, Irene wrenches Laden’s right forearm behind their back. She twists it around and holds it high between the shoulder blades. Brings the hidden blade to their belly trapping Laden’s left arm under a wiry bicep.

A pampered mule is no match for Irene, even if Irene’s six inches shorter in high heels. “I’ll cut it out of you if you don’t hand it over, I swear to god. That’s six months of my hard work stuffed in your cracks.”

“A trade,” Laden says, not yet claiming that immersion has made the necessity of an exchange a biological fact. “I have an offer. What would you give for a steady supply of oakmoss and ambergris?”

“There’s no such thing anymore. Not outside of a museum.”

“True, true; but imagine something better, more fragrant, more persistent and unique. Look in the mirror at me for a moment before you decide. Look, Stormy. Feel my skin.”

The robe has slipped in response to Irene’s violence. Laden’s torso glows undraped. With Irene pinning from behind, enough light emerges to show something large and twisted in the garment’s folds. A confusion of anatomy in the mirror: white plush versus pink ducts, pulsating tracts below Irene’s knife. She snaps her focus to the thickened arm in her grasp. The skin is blueish, wrapped in netting; no, she realizes, that’s not netting. The pattern is part of the layered, fish-like hide. Stormtrash Irene registers the texture of scales.

She shoves Laden away. “Fuck!”

Weapon raised, Irene flicks on the light switch. From a distance, she looks Laden up and down quickly, repeatedly. Billowing rubber aromas, biting scent of awestruck bile. “Jesus,” says Irene, “How long has it been? You should have quit the life years ago, you crazy fuck.”

“I can’t quit. I am the life.”

Laden allows the odors of horror and disdain to dissipate until they soften into peppery undertones. A touch of pine rises in Stormtrash Irene’s lively mind. She’s interested.

The dam breaks. Laden’s message flows. “Look at me. You won’t need a recruiter anymore. Taj is obsolete. He lied to you all along, like he lied to me. I can fix this imbalance. You won’t need sources or transport. People will come to you.”

“I’m listening.”

The robe drapes open. Laden leaves it hanging slack. Their unusual new organ stirs in the folds. Irene takes a step back. Laden says, “When whales on ancient earth had squid beaks stuck in their guts, their bodies made ambergris to isolate the waste. Before they went extinct, no one ever figured out if they vomited ambergris or passed it through the digestive tract. No one knew why a few whales made it but most didn’t. It’s still a mystery. No one can make it happen in a lab.”

“Is this a biology lesson? Get to the point.”

Laden’s not in a rush. “Do you know what that’s like, to have something stuck in your gut, something you want, something you gave up everything to get, but it only makes you hurt? It grinds and prods your insides day and night. It drives you ballistic. The worst possible itch. I wanted Taj. Sacrificed for him. He’ll never love me.”

“Don’t be so dramatic. That’s just how he is.”

“You’re going to give him to me.”

“Where the hell is my stash?”

“I ate your stash. Just like I’ll eat him.” Laden holds up an altered hand. “Watch.”

Laden’s embarrassed about being seen so exposed, but their hair-trigger response makes it quick after three years of frustrated longing. They close their eyes and reach down to explore their anomalous organ, feeding it a morsel from the room service tray. Pleasure spikes with a pure vetiver scent: the image of Taj’s tongue. A heavy sensation builds inside Laden’s abdomen. Pressure explodes like a seed sending out roots, splitting the hard shell in half, and bursting open with the first primal shoots of a robust plant. The smell is something new and green. Laden hatches a warm lump of grey waxy muck with a heave of erotic relief. An impossible fragrance pervades the hotel room.

Laden buoys on their webbed feet and sinks down on the bed as if drifting to the sea floor, dreaming of Taj’s lips, fingers, eyes. All the beautiful parts of him, eluding Laden’s gullet for so long.

They’d have been satisfied to have him as a lover, a husband. Their body won’t allow that now.

Stormtrash Irene sways, overwhelmed by the intoxicating fragrance. She touches the small pebble of aromatic substance, pressing a finger into the waxy surface. Accosted by a verdant haze, Irene’s olfactory glands flood her with happy memories, real or imagined. Endorphins trigger a complex positive neural response.

Irene emits the clean floral of easy greed. Laden is pleased. Weapon tossed aside, Irene bounces down onto the coverlet where Laden reclines. “Baby, are you saying you want to be my golden goose just to get a bite of that piece of shit Taj?”

Coy, Laden blinks twice.

Irene smacks the mattress with an auctioneer’s finality. “Done. I’ll serve him up to you myself, one bloody chunk at a time. I don’t give a fuck. Oh, hell yeah.”

The image of Taj’s tongue cut out. The savory morsel Laden craves. The hunger of elaborate internal organs engineered to digest intolerable oppression. Laden closes the white robe around their intuitive body, moisture vast as the ocean rising inside. Tides of desire and sadness give way to waves of delight in becoming an original and distinct species. Laden suppresses their smile before pressing the next important point. Their eyes open wide and pouty. “He won’t last forever, Stormy. What happens to me then?”

The fungal smell of extinction rises replete with the talcum wonder of a newborn. It’s a paradoxical accord, difficult for an unrefined palette to appreciate.

Well-versed in the silent language of fragrances, Irene grasps the solution in seconds. “There’s a whole galaxy full of beautiful liars. Believe me, they’re one species that’s never going to disappear, and I’ve got a real knack for rooting them out. You and me are in business.”

A galaxy once exploited will wash what Laden needs onto their shore and reward them for revenge on the invasive human species. They nurse hunger pangs that reek with the rot of multitudes, with newly decimated planets, with too much empty death, and they know their transformative alien organ will be fulfilled. Laden will never go hungry again.

Joe Koch (he/they) writes literary horror and surrealist trash. Joe is a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and the author of The Wingspan of Severed Hands, The Couvade, and Convulsive. They’ve had over fifty short stories published in books and journals like Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, The Book of Queer Saints, Not All Monsters, and Liminal Spaces. Find Joe online at horrorsong.blog and on Twitter @horrorsong.

Issue 35

March 2022

3LBE 35

Front & Back cover art by Rew X

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