Like the Breath that Moves Us Forward:

August 7, 2008:

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Excerpted from Cold Mountain, copyright © 1997 by Charles Frazier (The Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, NY, 1997, page 186)

Image of actress Nicole Kidman playing Ada in the (2003) film version of Cold Mountain was stolen from the site; image of Cold Mountain book cover is from; and bottle image of L'Artisan Parfumeur Passage d'Enfer is from

The passage above is from Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier’s debut novel that won the National Book Award in 1997, about an odyssey that takes place in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the southern United States at the end of the Civil War.  A young confederate soldier named Inman has deserted his army-hospital bed to make the long walk home, through war-ravaged lands, to Cold Mountain, North Carolina, and the woman he loves.  Simultaneously, Ada, his beloved, is on her own journey: a monumental life transition that takes her from a naïve and formerly privileged young girl, whose role in life is largely ornamental, to a highly competent, fully independent woman—but not without a good deal of help from an unlikely mentor.  Through farming skills taught to her by an enterprising drifter named Ruby, Ada comes to know the worth of herself, of labor and stewardship, and of the land that is now her only inheritance of any real value.

I love this book so much that I re-read it year after year, usually in August, which is about the same time that Inman’s and Ada’s odysseys take place.  August, for me, is the transitional month when my animal instincts kick in and I begin to think about movement and migration; when my mind begins wrapping around the idea of a trip to someplace far away.  Even though there is at least a month and a half of summer still left, the stirrings of fall journeys have already begun in Pennsylvania.  When I take my daily walks through the fields, along green corridors of tall and stretchy bamboo-like corn, I notice the sumac trees turning red and the stray leaves of other trees that have fallen and are lying brown and curled up in the grass.  Monarch butterflies drift overhead in seemingly greater numbers, and I can’t help but wonder if they have started their migration south.

Today, as I ponder journeys and read Cold Mountain, I am wearing L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Passage d’Enfer, a diaphanous incense scent created in 1999 by Olivia Giacobetti, whose perfume creations are like gossamer butterfly wings: so wispy and delicate, you don’t realize at first that they are complex enough to entertain nuance, or strong enough to sustain lengthy flight.  And then you wear them a couple days, away from the fog of your big-sillage mindset and scents, and you realize just how far they can take you.

Passage d’Enfer is a confusing scent in terms of its name, which roughly translates to “passage through hell”—but it should be kept in mind that Passage d’Enfer is the name of a street in Paris where L’Artisan Parfumeur originally had its headquarters, which more likely accounts for the scent’s curious moniker.  And on carded samples of the fragrance, the company describes Passage d’Enfer as “a haze of light incense to carry you up to cloud nine,” a description I find pretty accurate, so my own inclination is to dismiss the hell-passage connotation.  (Although, considering the church-incense-and-cathedral-walls smell of this scent—and one’s feelings about religion—perhaps there is a wry, tongue-in-cheek reference here to the gates of hell.)  If I were one of the powers that be at L’Artisan, I would be tempted to shorten the name of this fragrance to Passage, because for me the sense of movement—from a lower spiritual plane to a higher one—is really what this scent is all about.

This cool and calm incense perfume is like the companionable breath that Ruby of Cold Mountain dispatches into the flanged nostrils of Ralph, the horse.  It is delicate, yes—as delicate and diffuse as that mountain morning, with “a color like that made on paper from a thin wash of lampblack.”  But oh, what strength there is in the companionable breath that moves us forward when we are white-eyed, with nerves in need of calming; when we are harnessed to a burden that seems too heavy or cumbersome to carry.  If Passage d’Enfer had a voice, it would be the voice of tranquility and reassurance, directing us to go within to gather our strength, and when we have found it, to make our ascent.  Such reassurance is no small thing.

The list of notes for Passage d’Enfer includes lily, incense, white musk, aloewood, and benzoin.  It starts off smelling like the cool stone walls of an ancient cathedral, but in a very short while, the balsamy incense notes spiral and swirl upward against the stones, and the fragrance undergoes a shift due to the contrast between the chill and lightly humid lily and the warm, dry incense.  This gives a nice balance to the wings of this scent, and with additional assistance from the white musk, it floats on the skin for a surprisingly long time—riding the thermals with the kind of amazing grace that inspires earthbound creatures to shoulder their burdens and press on.

Suzanne's Perfume Journal

The morning sky was featureless, a color like that made on paper from a thin wash of lampblack. Ralph stood stopped in the field, head down, blowing. He was harnessed to a sled load of locust fence rails, and they were heavy as a similar amount of stones. He seemed not to care to draw them one pace farther toward the edge of the creek along which Ruby intended to lay out the snake for a new pasture fence. Ada held the plaited carriage whip, and she popped Ralph’s back a time or two with the frizzled end of it to no effect.
            —He’s a carriage horse, she said to Ruby.
            Ruby said, He’s a horse.
            She went to Ralph’s head and took his chin in her hand and looked him in the eye. He put back his ears and showed her a rim of white at the tops of his eyeballs.
            Ruby pressed her lips to the velvet nose of the horse and then backed off an inch and opened her mouth wide and blew out a deep slow breath into its flanged nostrils. The dispatch sent by such a gesture, she believed, concerned an understanding between them. What it said was that she and Ralph were of like minds on the issue at hand. You settled horses’ thinking that way. They took it as a message to let down from their usual state of high nerves. You could calm white-eyed horses with such a companionable breath.