IT’S AMAZING HOW A smell can bring back such a vivid memory. A simple, familiar scent can trigger a sensation you didn’t even know you had, like a key to a door you didn’t know was locked.
For Lithia, the aroma of wet soil was home. It transported her back to simpler times. It brought back her childhood, when the world was new and vibrant. It was the smell of the first chilled breeze on a cool summer evening. It was the moment the sun dipped below the trees and began to wink away beyond the edge of the world. It was the perfume of satisfaction after a long day of helping her mother tend to the arboretum. Even after all this time, she could still remember the sound of the little dolphin wind chimes that hung from the porch.
The family arbor was always an adventure waiting to happen. Every plant and every flower was a character in a story. She remembered her mother telling her countless tales about each of them. Her mother told her why each flower was important and why it was unique.
Lithia had just picked up a shipment to bring back to her garden. It was no surprise that when she opened the shipping box, the fragrance was a trip back to a cool breeze on a warm summer evening. She was only seven Earth years old the day her mother told her the legend of the amaranth. Lithia had found her in the back of the family arboretum working on a patch of flowers. Lithia thought she had smelled, sneezed at, and picked the petals off every flower the universe had to offer; but she had never seen one like this before.
“What kind of flowers are those, Mommy?” Lithia asked, not knowing what to make of the crimson brushlike appearance of the plant. Lithia’s mother looked up from her work; her eyebrows were raised as a smile washed over her face. She remembered in brilliant detail how beautiful her mother’s smile was. She remembered how pregnant her mother was and that her smile could warm a cold room. It radiated all the goodness and happiness in the world. When her mother smiled like that, Lithia would forget her father was gone, sometimes for weeks at a time.
“If you come over here and help me, I will tell you a story about it.” Her mother beckoned to Lithia with a small trowel.
She loved her mother’s stories. They were nothing like her father’s, which were all about swashbucklers and cowboys. Her mother’s stories were like legends and fairy tales. Even today, if Lithia thought about it, she didn’t know whose stories she liked better.
Lithia ran over and hugged her as she let out a chuckle. She was so big, it was all Lithia could do to get her arms around the bulge in her stomach.
“Tell me the story, Mommy!” Lithia exclaimed.
“Not so fast,” her mother said. She held her at arm’s length for a moment and examined her face before letting her go. “You know… you’re beginning to look more like me every day. I wonder if your brother will look more like me or Daddy.”
Lithia wasted no time kneeling down in the dirt. She had been helping her mother since she got too big to do it comfortably on her own. She hastily flung dirt to the side, making a hole for the flower sitting in a large pot.
“These flowers look strange, Mommy. I’ve never seen anything like them before. What are they?”
Lithia had little interest in gardening, but as long as she could hear a story, she’d keep working. At least until the story was over.
“These… these are very special flowers.”
“They don’t look so special.” Lithia said.
“Looks can be deceiving. If I tell you a story, do you promise never to forget it?”
“Once upon a time, an amaranth and a rose grew side by side in a garden just like ours…”
“This is just a story about growing flowers? I thought it was going to be about magic!” Lithia exclaimed, jabbing the trowel into the dirt and standing up.
Looking back, Lithia remembered being an obstinate child. She was matched by her mother’s patience. She remembered her mother smiling and silencing her by pressing the flowerpot into her hand. “Remember what I said. These are special flowers.”
“They’re just flowers! They don’t look special.” Lithia whined.
Her mother struggled to her feet and smiled down at Lithia. “Would I tell you a story just about flowers? Lithia, you should know nothing’s that simple.”
Intrigued, Lithia looked up and cocked one of her eyebrows. Her mother had the upper hand. Lithia poked at the ground faster, making up for lost time.
“Once upon a time, an amaranth and rose blossomed side by side. The rose was beautiful, lush, and red. It was the color of love and passion. The amaranth felt plain in comparison. It was so jealous of the rose that one day the amaranth said in frustration, ‘You’re so beautiful and you smell so nice, no wonder you’re everyone’s favorite!’
“The rose was shocked. She looked at the amaranth and replied, ‘But my beauty is fleeting. My petals will fall, and my beauty will die… But your blossom never fades. You are everlasting.’”
“You mean amaranths never die... not even if you don’t water them?” Lithia asked as she finished planting the mysterious flower.
“No. You still have to water them, but they are a symbol of everlasting life. That which never fades, even after being cut.”
“I don’t get it… They live forever?”
“You’ll understand someday, Lithia. Just promise me you’ll never forget the story,” her mother said, pulling her daughter into an embrace.
Lithia pulled away, giggling. She buried her face in the freshly planted flower and inhaled. The cool, crisp aroma filled her lungs. It nourished a memory behind a tiny locked door in her heart. It was a memory to be relived every time she smelled an amaranth.
Lithia had to pull herself out of childhood and back to the real world. That’s when the memory of that warm summer afternoon so many years ago got fuzzy; blending into all the other magenta colored afternoons from her childhood. She found herself sliding back to the present, away from the family orchard and the habitation dome she grew up in. Snapping back to a cold metallic room, bathed in a soft cerulean glow, she felt a sudden longing for those warm fresh fragrant days back on Venus.
She could feel the weight of a few soft tears as the cargo control room she was standing in began to blur. She knew this trip was going to bring back memories like this and she had told herself she could handle it. That those warm, naive, childhood memories were far behind her and in a place that could no longer get to her. Of course things were different now as she stood in the cargo area of her vessel, surrounded by industrial loading equipment, and staring at a large stack of shipping crates marked; "Flora". She knew what was in these crates. She had ordered this particular batch of plants herself. Having both dreaded and waited for this moment, she took a few steps forward. Her boots echoed on the deck plate of her ship as she leaned down to open one of the smaller crates.
She keyed in a sequence on the crate’s safety lock and a split second later the lid yawned open, exhaling a soft mist from its depths. Inside was a single plant. It seemed to be reaching up to greet her with its burgundy brushlike bristles. The aroma of damp soil washed over her. It smelled so alive.
Lithia scooped up a handful of dirt from the inside of the crate. She moved it to her face and smelled it before letting the soil fall through her fingers. Part of her expected it to smell the same as Venusian dirt but there was something off about it. This wasn’t Venusian soil. These crates had come from Titan. The aroma was much less intense with a hint of something... something she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but it was still dirt none the less.
Lithia leaned her face toward the flower in the middle of the crate and inhaled. The cool, crisp aroma filled her lungs like it always had, but this time there was something different. Those warm, innocent memories all seemed more real for a few fleeting seconds, as sensations from simpler times washed over her before fading into smaller disjointed recollections. She could remember how tall the roof of the dome they lived in seemed to be and how the glass shimmered at night. She remembered leaning back on a hill behind her house wondering if the sky over other planets, like Earth, was as beautiful. She remembered that at the time she had no idea Terran’s didn’t live in domes like her family did on Venus.
She thought about how much her world had changed since those days as she leaned back from the crate and away from her flashbacks. The cargo room was now a soft shiny blur as a couple of tears streamed down her face.
If only time machines were real, maybe she could go back and tell herself never to forget those afternoons with her family. They would all be gone one day.
This is where she needed to draw the line and stop herself. When the impending dark cloud of the memories of her teenage years began to collect on the horizons of her mind. When the smell of freshly cut grass and curried chicken began to dissolve into the smell of ash and embers and the terrible things that took those wonderful, blissfully innocent days away.
Lithia found herself pushing those dark clouds away with the resolve of the present. She needed to seal up the crate and get back to the bridge and take control of her ship.
She dug around in her jacket pocket and pulled out a shiny metal earring, large enough to engulf a large portion of her ear. This was no ordinary earring. This wasn’t something she wore to impress anyone or to draw attention to herself. This was a device like any other of her time and it was mandatory throughout the worlds the Earth owned as well as the dust and voids between.
She cocked her head to the side, never losing sight of the amaranth sitting there in the crate. Snapping her earring into place, she ran her finger along the outside edge as it covered the length of her ear, finally coming to a loop at the base of her earlobe.
There was a split second tingle, like ice cold water running down her spine, as little twinkling lights in her field of view assembled into strings of numbers before arranging into a little computerized helix symbol. The word; "Connected" blinked below before they both faded away.
Lithia closed the crate before standing up and leaving the cargo hold. She considered washing her hands before returning to the cockpit but decided not to. She wanted to keep the richness of those memories with her as long as possible. Sometimes it brought her so much peace and comfort. The smell triggered it every time. Now it was hers to take back in the delivery ship she affectionately named the Amaranth to a place far away from where she grew up. A placed called San Francisco.