The Courtesan, the Conjuror and the Cynic


– a review (and a tale) of Amouage “Ubar”

She would always come to his shop on the perfumer’s row in the late afternoon, when the worst heat of the day had dissipated to a shimmering golden haze above the streets and the ships in the harbor, when every sensation, every sound and every scent seemed to linger just a little longer than usual, when fine black lines delineated the shapes around the tools of his trade – the mortars, the oils and flasks and jars, the smaller boxes that held his secret treasures; resins and woods, precious myrrh and the white-gold tears of frankincense he hoarded and kept only for those trusted customers who paid promptly and in cash.

Like most everyone here in Alexandria, she obviously came from somewhere else. Her name he never learned, although he knew enough to see her for what she was, with her expensive shawls, the gleaming silks and linens dyed deep and vibrant colors, all the better to set off her remarkable amber-gold hair and that pale, milky skin that told tales of another, colder climate on the far northern edge of the sunlit world he knew.

She came accompanied only by a girl, so like her she could only be her daughter, and in all the many months he spent with her, the daughter would simply sit with a bit of embroidery in her lap listening, or else observing every item close by, the tiny cauldrons bubbling over the fire, his chopping boards and knives, the flower essences and bunches of herbs hanging in profusion on the walls, so heady in the summer heat customers had been known to grow dizzy and faint.

“I have an assignment for you,” the woman said that first afternoon. “I want you to make me a perfume. I will pay you well.” A fat and heavy purse of coins clanked on his counter top. “Consider this an advance.” She stood back and assessed him, as if to judge whether this were a task he were worthy of.

“Lady, I have many perfumes in my shop…the Susinon of one thousand lilies that Cleopatra herself perfumed her sails with these two hundred years ago, the Megaleion, I have the finest items from Callimarchos’ shop in Athens, I have Panathenaean, I have Royal Parthian perfumes, even, straight from the courts of the Parthian king…”

She did not let him finish. “No.” Such finality, such determination in that small and simple word. “I said,” she lifted an elegant hand and the gold of her bangles gleamed and flashed in an errant sunbeam from the door. “I want you to make me a perfume. For me. Not to sell to your customers or to smell on the whores in the harbor brothels…” her nose wrinkled in fastidious distaste. “A perfume just for me.”

“Then, dear lady, I shall need to know something of you first. What scents you like and dislike, where you might be challenged,, and what…”

Again, she did not let him finish. “I will come to your shop in the afternoons and tell you…stories. And when I am done, you will make a perfume just for me.” She inclined her head, and the pale and silent girl preceded her out into the street, already bustling after the afternoon’s siesta.
For years after, he would remember how he had stood that moment, transfixed in the sunbeams off the floor, wondering where to start. A perfume, just for her.

True to her word, she would come in the afternoons and tell of her adventures, of dancing for the Emperor at his palace in Rome so far away, of sunlit mornings on a rose-covered terrace in Rhodes, of the dust and heat of a faraway fabled city that grew rich off the trade in frankincense and the long and perilous journey she had undertaken once to India with a merchant who could not bear to be without her company. She told of the unexpected pleasure of finding patches of those tiny, bell-shaped flowers that she loved on cool, misty mornings in a shady forest. She told him of heartbreak and unexpected joy, tragedy and laughter, all the pains and pleasures of a life lived to the fullest extent of all her many passions.

For almost a year he toiled with her perfume, conjuring the memory of her life in his essences and oils, the animal hints of sensuality, the flowers and the fruity bite of the lemons that grew in his secret garden in the Delta. He chopped and brewed, he macerated and stored and applied every trick of this ancient land that he knew. He tried to capture the jeweled gleam of her hair, a double-spiraled errant curl at the base of her neck, the glint of a rosy ruby in a comb, the flash of wit he saw in her eyes. No question but she knew to enchant, and as she enthralled him with her stories, he enchanted the brew in his cauldron, committing the formula to memory and a secret, buried scroll.

Until the day came when he was done, and could do no more. He dreaded her visit, knowing he would now never see her again, or her silent, smiling daughter. He had been paid handsomely for his toil, and yet no payment was enough for the simple song of her voice, a silver tinkle of laughter as she remembered a detail, a place or a caress. This creation was his masterpiece. There was nothing throughout the Empire or far beyond even remotely like it.

“It is finished,” he forced himself to say when she came that afternoon. “There is nothing more I can do, nothing more I can add.”

She pulled at the stopper and inhaled deeply. Her eyes closed and for an instant, she seemed to swoon on her feet. Then, in a sudden shocking movement, she unfastened a brooch on her shoulder and pricked a fingertip. Two crimson drops, a dark, rosy red against the pallor of her skin, glistened in a sunbeam before they vanished into the vial.

“Now,” she said with that same stubborn finality he had heard that first afternoon, “now it is finished.” As she said the words, she fell to the floor as if she had fainted, and her daughter grabbed her and held her. She was dead.

He was speechless. “One thing only she left me,” her daughter said after a while. She took the golden vial from her mother and lifted it up. “She left me this.”

It was his masterpiece, his perfume, the memory of this storyteller in a bottle.

Down through the centuries swirled the memory of that woman and that perfume, through her daughter and her many descendants after her, until a damp and foggy day in a town on the edge of the old world found it again, the world the perfumer had known so many centuries ago.

This long-descended daughter was also a storyteller. In the warp and weft of her tales, she twisted yarns and fables, passions and music, and sometimes her memories of scents and sensations. She was convinced she had heard it all and tried it all, she had broken hearts on two continents and many countries, and there was little left to surprise her, not much to take her breath, her speech or even her words away.

Until a tiny bottle was opened, a tiny spray applied to her skin, and a ruby drop of blood-red rose, of a lemon grove in the Delta and a bouquet of lily-of-the-valley, of a memory of a woman and a life well-lived and well loved, a woman like herself, wrenched at her heart and made her cry that such a surfeit of beauty could exist and such powerful emotions could be felt.

Even by the cynic she thought she was.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Notes: Bergamot, lemon, lily-of-the-valley, rose Damascena, jasmine, civet, vanilla.

Amouage Ubar can be bought in many locations, including Luckyscent and First In Fragrance and Alla Violetta Boutique, although you might be required to take out a second mortgage on your house, take a second job or pawn your children if all else fails. Trust me, I’m thinking about it.

Image: Sir Frederik Leighton, Solitude (1901)