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And Pear Blossom goes to him quite willingly. Despite her tender age, her own social status as a slave girl in a great house, where other men have already begun eyeing her, has granted her the wisdom to realize that this arrangement might afford her more kindness, more gentleness than she might otherwise know. When Wang Lung suddenly becomes hesitant and has second thoughts about his desires for her (“Child,” he tells her, “I am an old man—a very old man”), Pear Blossom answers him in a way that assuages his doubts:
Under the Spell of a Cassia Flower
And she said, and her voice came out of the darkness like the very breath of the cassia tree,
“I like old men—I like old men—they are so kind—”
Recently I reread Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel she wrote in 1931 about rural China in the years of its last emperor, as seen through the eyes of a peasant-farmer named Wang Lung. Over the course of his life, through good times and absolutely desperate times, Wang Lung’s diligent care and governance of his land—not to mention his marriage to a selfless, hardworking woman—sets him on a winding path that leads from poverty to wealth. By the end of the novel he is a widowed lord presiding over the courts that make up his great house—courts where his single and married sons and their families, his aging concubine Lotus, and his many servants all live. But life presents challenges at every stage, regardless of poverty or wealth, and Wang Lung begins to feel drained by the constant feuding that take places in his bustling house. Ineffectual might be a better word because, not only is he unable to control the fractiousness of his household, his advanced age and social status now prevent him from returning to work in his beloved fields. And in this state, as the master whose influence has been diminished, Wang Lung experiences a brief period of lust for a young maid (a servant girl) whose innocence and demure manner is as much an attraction as her pale and lovely face:
March 6, 2009:
Une Fleur de Cassie, from Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, is sold online at Barneys.com, $150 for 50 ml.
†Excerpted from The Good Earth, copyright © 1931, 1958 by Pearl S. Buck (Washington Square Press, New York, NY, 2004, pp. 339-341)
Images: Reclining Nude by Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), is from Art.com.
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* * *
…he watched the maid incessantly as she came and went and without his knowing it the thought of her filled his mind and he doted on her. But he said nothing to anyone.
One night in the early summer of that year, at the time when the night air is thick and soft with the mists of warmth and fragrance, he sat at rest in his own court alone under a flowering cassia tree and the sweet heavy scent of the cassia flowers filled his nostrils and he sat there and his blood ran full and hot like the blood of a young man. Through the day he had felt his blood so and he had been half of a mind to walk out on his land and feel the good earth under his feet and take off his shoes and his stockings and feel it on his skin.
This he would have done but he was ashamed lest men see him, who was no longer held a farmer within the gates of the town, but a landowner and a rich man. So he wandered needlessly about the courts and he stayed away altogether from the court where Lotus sat in the shade and smoked her water pipe, because well she knew when a man was restless and she had sharp eyes to see what was amiss. He went alone, then, and he had no mind to see either of his two quarreling daughters-in-law, nor even his grandchildren, in whom was his frequent delight.
…When night came he was still alone and he sat in his court alone and there was not one in all his house to whom he could go as friend. And the night air was thick and soft and hot with the smell of the flowers of the cassia tree.
And as he sat there in the darkness under the tree one passed beside where he was sitting near the gate of his court where the tree stood, and he looked quickly and it was Pear Blossom.
“Pear Blossom!” he called, and his voice came in a whisper....
“Come here to me!” †
The way in which Pearl Buck wrote this small scene is captivating to me for a number of reasons. Buck had a simple and direct style of writing that was unsentimental yet powerful in delivering up the hearts and minds of her characters; yet there’s a sleight-of-hand complexity to her writing too, achieved not by language but by her deft use of details. In the interaction between Wang Lung and Pear Blossom, the flowering cassia tree is one such detail. The reader who has never smelled a cassia bloom (and here I include myself) nevertheless understands what its sweet, ripe fragrance is meant to evoke in these passages. Buck referenced the cassia tree not once but three times within the space of a few pages, and in doing so, it provides her a masterful, shorthand way of narrating the kind of sexual encounter that might easily have been viewed as too unseemly to write about in 1931.
But what further captivates me, and the reason I’m writing of this here, is the way this passage connects to my interest in perfume. While I have no way of knowing whether the flowering cassia tree that Buck refers to in her novel is that of Acacia farnesiana or Cinnamomum cassia, both of which grow in China, I’d like to think it is the former. The flowers of either tree are commonly referred to as cassia (or cassie) flowers, but only the Acacia tree’s blooms are used in perfumery—and nowhere do they bloom more sensuously than in the fragrance, Une Fleur de Cassie, by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. What a strange little flower fragrance, this one! It smells furred and kittenish; erotic and innocent. Une Fleur de Cassie is composed of mimosa, jasmine, cassie flower, and rose, along with carnation and a vanilla-and-sandalwood base; but in its initial stages, my nose detects cumin and musk rubbing up against these flowers, a commingling of sweet and animalic scents that recalls the downy underarm of a clean but unshaved woman. In other words, just a hint of the erotic: a bit of musky fur that hides in the hollowed underneath of a perfumed arm. (It also reminds me of dandelions: the tumbled-together smell of bitter and sweet elements.)
The kittenish part of the fragrance? Une Fleur de Cassie is a surprisingly petite perfume in many respects, with a much softer sillage than what you might expect. Its sexiness does not arrive with a growl, but (to steal a line from Carl Sandburg) on little cat feet. Quietly, persistently, Une Fleur de Cassie teases the senses until you are fully under its spell.