THE CLARIMONDE PROJECT
– a tale and a review of Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl’s ‘Immortal Mine’, inspired by ‘La Morte Amoureuse’ by Théophile Gautier
Such sadness in our village when Curé Romuald passed away and finally found his peace with God. You must understand how important he was, this gentle man, who seemed to live all his life under some impenetrable, black pall of melancholy and we never knew its cause, can perhaps even say, now that he is gone, that we knew him not at all.
So many of us had never known another curé, never known of a time when he had not somehow been present to comfort our ill, to ease our poor, to speed the dying onward to their heavenly reward, there to name a new soul into his flock, or to bless the union of some of us, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer.
I had myself been one of them, welcomed into his congregation as a babe, recited my dutiful Hail Marys at First Communion, been blessed by those heartrending eyes the day I wed my Pierre, only to bury him with our infant son a mere year later on a desolate winter day of wind and snow.
That day, I stood by the newly dug graves of both my loves, and I wept my bitter tears of loss, and that day, Curé Romuald offered me a purpose and a reason to drag my unwilling soul through the sorry remainder of my life, rather than hurl myself, my hate and my fury at God for my loss onto Pierre’s simple pinewood coffin and never rise again. It was not to be, said Curé Romuald, for God has his reasons we mortals could never know, and there he was without a housekeeper, and I without a home, a husband, a babe in my arms.
It came to pass that I, the widow Séverine, came to the presbytery and never truly left it since.
In all our years together, Curé tended his parish and his duties as our shepherd, and in all our years, he took very great pains to ensure all propriety was observed. He taught me my letters and to read in Latin as well, and when I had become certain enough of my new skill, I would often read to him from those few books he collected, stories from the greater world outside our village or fantastical tales of angels and demons, epics of lost empires, mellifluous poems that flowed like rivers of words, singing their songs of good and of evil.
I remained in this humble presbytery these ten years on, ten years of tending a man so utterly unassuming, so modest, he gave his small stipend to his parishioners rather than use it for himself. I cooked his meals, I darned his vestments as well as his socks, and on those long winter nights that stretched before us as endless as eternity itself, I would read to him those tales, those stories, and all the while, I never knew, never knew…
The Abbé would surely make some small provision for his belongings, so it came to pass that I sorted through his trunk of clothes, the black wool serge worn to a shiny finish, the countless darns of his shirts beginning to fray with age and use and laundering. I set them aside for the rag merchant, unless the Abbé wanted them returned, but surely, they were far too worn for that?
Strange, one of his coats was rather heavier than it should be, and as I unfolded it, I discovered a large box, made of some foreign, fragrant wood and exquisitely carved in a phantasmagorical, vine-like pattern on all sides, a pattern that seemed to play tricks on my eyes as I looked, one moment losing that flowery, fluid vine, and the next, there it would be, nearly vibrant and alive on that strange box, with neither lock nor key to open it.
Ten years of thorough house cleaning and tidying and laundering had made me believe he had no secrets for his housekeeper, yet this box I had never seen before. I pulled at the lid and it came off with a long-forgotten sigh and a whiff of perfumed wood.
Nestled inside was a length of dark red velvet, so sumptuous, so outrageously opulent in these poor surroundings, so rich, it glowed in the afternoon sun through the window like the ruby-tinted pelt of some otherworldly animal. I ran my fingers over it and they tingled with a newborn pleasure as I did. The velvet, too, seemed almost to breathe beneath my fingers, and nearly powerless to stop myself, I pushed the velvet aside and saw what it concealed, what secrets the box had kept all these many years.
A sheaf of papers written in the Curé’s hand, but with an intensity to the blackness of the lines and the haste with which his pen had formed the letters on the page I had never seen before.
If I could yet say I would come to regret that moment in time when my life changed so utterly and forever, there might yet be some redemption for my soul, but I had buried it with my husband and my son. I did what any woman would do. I sat down on that narrow bed, and I read the story on those fevered pages.
All these years, the Curé and I had shared this roof, and I had never guessed at the length and the breadth and the scope of the passion and the torment contained within those words. Yet they explained so much of his unrelenting melancholy state, his utter desolation at losing God and gaining a knowledge he had been better off without, a knowledge of pleasures and palaces, a knowledge of a woman – or a beloved monstrosity named Clarimonde.
Underneath them a flash of gold sparkled, a locket that contained a painted portrait of a woman, an eerie, strange beauty with hair much the same shade as my own, and below, a philter of clear glass, sealed with a blood red wax seal that dripped down its sides, stamped with a ‘C’. It was an oil of some kind, some sacred relic for a rite I could not imagine, a shade of dark amber no less magnificent than the velvet that concealed it. I opened it.
It was a perfume. I had no knowledge of such grand and costly things, owned none of my own apart from the Marseilles soap I used in the household over the Curé’s insistence that lye soap cost rather less. Yet I inhaled it, then with a compulsion I could neither comprehend nor articulate I applied a precious drop to my skin, and as it warmed to my skin and I breathed, I felt my heart and soul expand and my blood roil dizzying in my veins, I felt my heart beat in my chest as I had not these ten years past, I felt as I could imagine my poor Curé at the day of his ordination as he gazed upon Clarimonde, when all he knew and thought burned to cinders before his eyes, when all his old self fell away.
All my old life of these ten years past was torched in a moment in a roaring conflagration by this perfume that bloomed upon my skin. Was this her perfume, or was this her captured soul that once had lived and beat and flamed undying for my Curé in his youth?
In this philter made of glass were all the secrets of all women throughout time, women who loved and lived and laughed, women who dared dangerous, sinful, decadent things. The glories of the entire world were captured in its amber depths, orange blossom and jasmine in foreign garb, spices that sang their many different songs of a burning Oriental heat, herbs that now would grow fragrant forever more, precious, dark woods from mythical trees thought only to exist in fairy tales, a dragon’s kiss and a unicorn’s heart and all of it entire, all of it the sum of a desire which could scorch to ash in an instant.
This perfume exhaled that danger, that ruby-hued desire and its epic depth and everlasting dark, it whispered its secrets on my skin even as my old self, my half-dead self and all my half-lived life went up in flames. I rocked half-moaning on the Curé’s bed as I learned all I never knew in a single breath, as I knew what I would now be compelled to do, as I breathed in that long-lost soul of that unknown face in the locket.
This little philter in my hand and its contents on my skin could compel the world entire to do my bidding, and not one soul would realize the perils of that compulsion, would comprehend this magic to my hand, invisible, yet compelling, tangible yet untouchable, a cousin to the grief I still felt for my poor Curé. This philter contained a magic so perilous yet so masterful only a woman would know to harness its infinite power.
A woman had worn it. Very well, a woman would wear it still. As I carefully closed the philter and wrapped it carefully in the velvet in its costly box with the papers and closed it, I knew what task I had before me.
Clarimonde had died and the Curé had died with her, tormented all his life by what he knew. What I knew was that now, my time of mourning was over, my losses behind me like all my other, careworn life.
I should go to Paris, once the Curé’s affairs were settled, I thought. I thought many things as I went about my tasks in the days that followed, thought of a future I could now believe in thanks to a captured love in a small glass philter.
A man had lost eternity, all for a woman. He was gone, yet I remained, and I would go out into the world, and claim my own eternity back, all thanks to a philter most perilous, and the soul it contained, and sorrow could touch me nevermore.
Notes for ‘Immortal Mine’: Soil from an unmarked grave. One single drop of blood from a slayed Wyvern, the sweet elixor of dying jasmine and fading neroli. Amber found in ancient tombs of civilizations lost. Longing. Essence of smoke from the funeral pyre. A cut of material from Bela Lugosi’s cape, the dust from a bat’s wing. Wood resins gathered from the Forest of the Dead, myrrh scraped from the cliffs of the Dark Realm. Precious ouds unearthed from burning desert sands. Wax dripping from balck, white and pink candles, ashes of a Phoenix, words froma dead poet’s mouth. Rare herbs found in a cathedral’s forgotten garden. Desire.
‘Immortal Mine’ was made exclusively for the Clarimonde Project and is available in two sizes from Indie Scents and also from the House of Cherry Bomb /Aroma M studio in Brooklyn.
Disclosure: Sample was sent to me by Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl for review.
The Perfume Pharmer’s reviews of
Ayala Moriel’s Clarimonde
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ Paradise Lost
Deana Sidney’s post on Clarimonde, vampire lore and the perils of perfumed port
Indieperfumes’ reviews of
Ayala Moriel’s Clarimonde
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ Paradise Lost
Beth Gehring’s post for Perfume Smellin’ Things:
The Clarimonde Project
Painting: ‘Portrait of a young woman’ by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Photo: my iPhone.