The Great Exchange

I sat in the dark on the edge of the basement cot counting, as my great-uncle Leonard had taught me, the lag between the thunder and lightning. The storm was only two miles away, and I was alone, but I was sure that the others would come down soon. The basement was the only safe place in the house.

If lightning struck it would come through the roof, I thought, or angle through the windows or the porch, along the path that sunbeams took as they slid into the house in the afternoon. I had already traced the entry points and trajectories the lightning would take. In my mind the house filled with virtual arrows slanting in from the sky, like a hive pierced with dozens of long thin needles. There was only one place free from penetration. The basement. Surely they knew that.

But no one came.

And now with the storm so close I was trapped. The basement stairs didn’t lead directly to the main floor but instead to a glass-enclosed porch and from there to the back door of the house. There were too many windows to risk on the way in, too many arrows to dodge.

I had put on my sneakers, though only out of habit. I no longer believed they’d save me. I knew a car was the place to be to if you were caught in a storm and for a few years I had believed it was because of the rubber tires. If I was wearing sneakers, I’d be grounded, too. But Leonard had recently explained that it was not the tires that would save me but the metal frame of the car—he called it a cage—which would channel the current to the ground.

I sat and waited as the sky blackened, blotting out what little light passed through the small ground-level windows along the kitchen wall. The basement became a field of shadows, briefly illuminated by spurts of white light. As the intervals between thunder and lightning shortened, my heart beat faster and harder, so hard I thought it would burst through my chest. I felt dizzy and weak, like the time I rode the Tilt-a-Whirl at the boardwalk.

And then Leonard came down.

He didn’t take me into his arms and tell me there was no reason to be afraid. Perhaps he sensed that if I was afraid, I had my reasons. Or perhaps he knew that if he did he would only alarm me further. He was not a man who touched others easily, even those he loved. The hugs he gave me on birthdays and Christmas were guided by genuine affection, of that I am certain, but the act itself was awkward, executed as if he were following a sequence of movements he had learned imperfectly and needed to recall. I was only slightly less self-conscious physically, at least with adults, and thus our hugs resembled the embrace of marionettes.

Taking me into his arms would have been an extraordinary measure for Leonard, the equivalent of a siren denoting a state of emergency rather than a means to comfort.

And so instead  he said, “It was smart of you to come down here. This is the safest place to be.”

“Upstairs is almost as safe, you know. It’s like the difference between 98 and 99, as long as you’re not on the phone or taking a bath, of course.”

He took the pole hook from the corner and went to one of the basement windows. “No one remembers these windows in a storm.”

But instead of closing it he took a deep noisy breath through his nose.  “Have you ever noticed it? The scent of a storm, I mean?” he said. “Well, maybe you can’t smell it. Not everyone can. Or if they do, they never notice.”

He breathed again through his nostrils. “I hope heaven doesn’t smell like this.”

I got off the cot and edged toward Leonard and the open window, and breathed the way he had. I smelled something.

It was like the smell from the pool at the swim club in the morning before the other families came, before the air filled with the aroma of coconut. It was like the smell, too, of the sparks of the bumper cars, but sharper. If metal could be air, this is what it would smell like, I thought.

I moved a little closer to the window and took a deeper breath, and then another. He called it ozone. The scent of the storm. And I could smell it, too. Maybe ozone was like kryptonite or the language of dolphins, something only a few people could perceive or understand, and Leonard and I were part of this elect.

He shut the windows and took one of the kerosene lamps he sometimes set out on the patio in the evenings. He lit it and placed it on the floor beside the cot, where we sat playing checkers as the cracks of thunder got louder and then faded, and the rain began to pelt the hatch door over the steps to the yard. As we played he explained to me in a way a ten-year-old could understand how lightning created ozone and how the wind then carried it down from the sky onto the land. A message from the sky. He talked about sparks and flows and waves of tiny, restless particles, but I suspect the science in his story would have been obvious to other adults.

Eventually the thunder stopped and later the rain, too, and Leonard got up to open the windows. He took another set of deep noisy breaths. “It smells different now,” he said.

I went up to the window. I knew the smell; it was grass after the rain and the scent of the soil when we dug deep for earthworms. It reminded me of the zoo and the red clay banks of the creek at the end of woods.

He told me how the rain had brought to life tiny germs of scent that lay like powder in the dry earth, and set them free to rise toward the sky. “It’s the earth’s message back to the sky. Everybody can smell it. But ozone. That’s special.”

Years later I would wonder if it had been an effort for Leonard to turn an account of physical phenomena into a story about the communion of the spheres and messages passed between heaven and earth. A story of the Great Exchange. He worked for a newspaper, and although he was in ads and not at the City Desk, he had the newspaperman’s reverence for fact and proper reporting. He was as precise in his language and thought as in the way he dressed and ate. Myth and fable were like the crusts of bread he neatly cut off his sandwiches, an expected but superfluous casing that was to be discarded.

Knowing about ozone should have made me more anxious, as I now had even greater advance notice of the storm. The pungent metallic scent was messenger and message alike, born of and foreshadowing the violence that was approaching.  But although the scent made the storm all the more physical, it also made it less capricious.

Leonard had said ozone was the way the storm revealed itself.

I knew the word from the Catechism. “Faith obliges us to make efforts to find out what God has revealed, to believe firmly what God has revealed and to profess our faith openly whenever necessary.” Revelation, I had concluded, was when someone tells you a very important secret plan you don’t really understand. Ozone meant there was an order to the storm, though I couldn’t yet see it. But it was there to be discovered.

I continued to be frightened of lightning after that day, but less so. I no longer needed to stand in the basement or the middle of the house, though I still veered away from the windows.  And I still wanted to be inside, but only after I smelled the ozone.

I now live in a city without summer storms. I brought very little with me when I moved here, just a suitcase of clothes and a wholly impractical wood-ribbed umbrella. I brought no mementos with me, no relics of my past life.

Priests who accompanied soldiers on Crusades and other travels to the East would carry with them a small portable stone altar so that they could celebrate the liturgy wherever they might find themselves. The Eastern priests had one, too, when they ventured to Venice and other centers of Renaissance learning, though theirs, the antimesion, was more practical—a rectangular cloth with a pouch containing a sacred relic.

Memory would be my antimesion; I had no need of relics, I thought.

Until one afternoon many months later when the sky darkened and a distant rumble of thunder made itself known and I went out to the terrace to take in the wash. And then to my great surprise I smelled it again, this message of the heavens. I never felt so far away from home.


Image: Approaching Thunder Storm, Martin Johnson Heade, 1859


7 responses to ‘The Great Exchange

  1. Reblogged this on Sparkling With All and commented:
    With any luck, this link will take you to the name of the smell of rain on parched land (yes, there is a name for it!) I loved the trip you took me on and have not forgotten it, as life continues… (Drat!)
    It didn’t work so I went to work, and found it: petricor
    Now we all know, but it doesn’t add much to the magic, the way I see it. “The petricor was intoxicating” just doesn’t do it for me… I love the way you weave the words into a cohesive vision that all can share!


  2. Yours is the first post I’ve read since joining the community and I cannot tell you the pleasure you have given me. Not only is the story nicely long, it is written with sensitivity and colourful detail. New words and old memories – I lost my sense of smell – new-mown grass is a thing of the past, as is the smell of the seashore and bubble-baths. But I remember ozone and it smells just as you described it, a metallic taste that almost makes the fillings in your teeth hurt. I remember the smell of the first drops of rain on hot summer earth, dying for a drink. Thank you. I’m looking forward to more!


    • Let me first thank you for commenting and welcome you to the WP community. It’s not my house, of course, so technically I’ve overstepped my bounds as a guest in doing so, but I suppose I’ve hung out here long enough to be forgiven (especially seeing that mine was the first blog you’ve read). I wish you good luck with your blog.

      I’m glad you liked the post, but sorry to hear that you’ve lost your sense of smell. Have you ever written about it (or considered writing about it)?


      • One of a plethora of topics that are to be touched on as things progress… So much of your post touched on interesting bits of my life. You’ll hear from me again! Man, do I have reading to do!


  3. Wonderful, wonderful! I think smell is the most difficult of the senses to write about and the one least attempted (Neruda is one of the few writers to try perhaps). How interesting about the ozone. I wonder if that is how my autistic son anticipates storms – perhaps he smells them? I’ve always wondered how he knows long before I do that a storm is coming. I love the sensory detail in this memory; as well as smell there is the delicate awkwardness of touch. It’s a delight. Thank you (and for antimesion which is new to me). x


    • Thank you, Liz! I think it’s likely your son knows a storm is coming before you do because he is able to smell its approach. Apparently there’s immense variation in olfactory sensitivity across individuals, even within the same families, even when certain smells, such as malt and apples and violets (and blue cheese, too) seem to have a strong genetic basis. Though from what I’ve read, ozone wasn’t one of the them 🙂

      You’re right, it is hard to write about smells. I don’t think I captured the scent of ozone very well. How much easier it would be if our vocabulary of odors had just a tenth of the words we have for colors. I found this lexical poverty puzzling at first, seeing that we can distinguish thousands of different odors. Shouldn’t there be a single word, for example, for the scent of overcooked cabbage or the first-six-weeks-fresh’n’milky-new-infant-smell? But then again, orange can describe a thousand things, what else smells like a baby? Thanks again, S./


      • I love this: ‘malt and apples and violets (and blue cheese, too’. I can feel a poem coming on 🙂

        I think you did ozone beautifully. It was at the back of my throat.

        One of my favourite writing prompts is my box of unlabelled glass phials of mystery substances. I am always amazed by what students associate them with (it is specifically a smell workshop so I choose things like white spirit, cough mixture etc) and how individual the writing is. But it always seems strange and challenging – as you say, there aren’t the words. Such a powerful way of writing though – I’ve had your story in my head today. Smell is great I think for the start and end of life so I’m not surprised by your milky infant!


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