I get lucky in Virginia and slip through the open window of a Winnebago waiting at a Hardee’s drive-through. A large male human in his mid-sixties drives through the night listening to conspiracy radio. He keeps the heat on high and the windows down so it’s warm up front and cool in the back. I burrow under a bathrobe left on a bench wedged in the kitchenette and wait to see how long the trip will last.
The man’s wife sleeps in a bunk above the cab. She smells strongly of alcohol and unwashed clothes and something else I can’t place. It’s a rich, strong smell. One thing I’ve never understood about you humans is your obsession with odor. A cat would no more be ashamed of its odor than a human would be ashamed of its signature. Our scent is our signature. It’s how we announce our presence. Why you humans have let your sense of smell atrophy is a great mystery to us.
Smell is the most honest of all the senses. Hearing is causal, seeing selective. Taste and feel are situational. You can’t trust your eyes. You can’t trust your ears. But you can trust your sense of smell. Smells linger and endure. They precede our arrival and remain after we’re gone. You can’t see something that isn’t there, but you can smell it, and if the scent is strong enough you can practically taste it. A strong scent has presence, history. It’s packed with information. It triggers the mind, unleashes memories. What the eye struggles to interpret the nose intuitively understands. Our sense of smell is tied not only to our notion of self, but to how we make sense of the world. For animals, scent is everything.
If you humans had a stronger sense of smell, you’d be able to recognize one another by your scent. But instead you hide it with perfumes, conceal it with unnatural fragrances. You’d rather smell like mangoes and coconuts, and not even real mangoes and coconuts, but chemicals concocted in a laboratory, which isn’t the same thing. Your own scent disgusts you. The notion that others can smell you fills you with shame. Why is that? Why be ashamed of who you truly are? Why are you so obsessed with how things seem?
As far as we’re concerned, once you abandoned your sense of smell, you ceased to be animals. That’s the moment you turned your back on your true selves and became something else. A part of the unnatural world.
The woman in the compartment above the cab certainly isn’t bashful about the way she smells. Her scent is eye-wateringly intense. Usually I acclimate to strong odors quickly, but this is different. This odor is getting worse.
I sneak up to the bunk above the cab to check on her. She is perfectly still. Her flesh doesn’t move when the Winnebago judders. She has dark skin. High cheekbones. Long black hair. Something’s not right. Now that I’m practically on top of her, her scent tells me what I need to know: this woman is dead and has been for some time. Now I understand why the man up front has the windows open and drives like something is chasing him.
When we pull into a truck stop, I leap from the window. Blue neon bleeds into the streets. Asphalt, rain and rock salt under my paws. The gas pumps are islands made out of light. Humans sleep walk from their vehicles to the convenience store. My mind fills with memories of a different time, when I had dreams of escaping to another kind of life. An ache washes over me: I want to be with my kittens, my wild gentle babies. There are times when I think this is all I will ever want from the world. I had it, but I let it slip away.
I leap into the tall grass behind the gas station, hoping to find something that doesn’t want to be found, any excuse to put my claws to use. The body inside the Winnebago has me spooked. I don’t feel badly for the woman; I pity the man. He’s running hard but yoked to what he’s running from. I wish I could tell him there is no getting away from the past. It’s not the thing in the rear-view we want to leave behind, but the mirror itself. There will be no respite from the horror he has wrought. The body is just a formality. You can’t outrun your thoughts.
It’s not my nature to dwell on the past. I don’t look back and wonder what might have been. That’s not to say that I don’t care, because I do; but when the memories come they bring vestiges of the old feelings with them and I am defenseless against this yearning. It lights up the big empty space inside me like a torch in a vast cave—just bright enough to let me know how much more darkness there is to come.
And it’s coming. It’s coming for you. It’s coming for me. It’s coming for all of us. You just don’t know it yet.