Up until then, the only mole I had ever seen
was in a book, a star-nosed mole,
its many-fingered nose—a fan of proboscises
circling each nostril, each mini-snout interrogating the air.
A star-nosed mole can smell even under water,
can detect a single grain of salt in a sea of sand.
I loved its ugliness.
So it was a star mole I pictured as a child
when Mrs. Goodmanson first read Wind in Willows
to the class. My favorite chapter—Mole encountering a smell
he couldn’t properly name. So familiar, yet slippery,
he followed it and followed it
until he recognized it as the smell of home.
Mole was even my role model once,
in the Mojave Desert, when I was a child, lost.
I skipped school one third-grade day
in search of a gas station to buy candy bars
with my lunch money. There, in the dark, in the desert,
when sight failed me as it often did,
I thought maybe I could smell my way back
to the trailer where I lived. The States were still foreign
to me. No place felt like home.
Years later, speaking to my mother, I once asked,
“Why do you keep a list of what everyone owes you?”
She replied, “It’s only words.”
It was her birthday.
I was rummaging through her vanity
looking for an empty heart
locket and a notebook filled with a list
of offenses. I caught a scent and saw a cobalt bottle,
Evening in Paris, its bullet-tipped lid barely on.
“Your grandmother used to dab that behind your ears.”
My mother nodded at the blue bottle.
“She would take you walking for hours
around Taipei.” Suddenly, I am eating fruit
in my memory, faint yellow slivers of stars,
juice running through my fingers. I’m outside,
in a narrow alleyway, peering into an open door.
Chatter and noise—pans clanking?—all around.
Smell of something frying. A feeling—home
and foreign at the same time.
Nancy Chen Long is the author of Wider Than the Sky (Diode Editions, 2020) and Light into Bodies (University of Tampa Press, 2017). She is the grateful recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing fellowship. Her work was selected as the winner of the 2019 Poetry Society of America Robert H. Winner Award and featured in Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and Indiana Humanities. You’ll find her recent work in Copper Nickel, Poet Lore, The Cincinnati Review, The Southern Review, Smartish Pace, The Adroit Journal, Tar River Poetry, and elsewhere. She works at Indiana University in the Research Technologies division. website: https://www.nancychenlong.com/