Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Breathe Deeply

Breathe Deeply
Photograph via Unsplash by Regine Tholen.

Caroline and Peter were the type of people who wanted their house to smell good. Scented candles were out. Aromatherapy was out. Dog smell was certainly out. (After they’d euthanized the twins, Dorothy and Priscilla, each with separate terminal cancer, they’d said never again. Their miniature collars were bronzed and put on top of the piano.) No, there had to be a better way. Charcoal-activated air filters were a start, but they seemed outdated. There had to be … an enlightened way to go about it. A different method to freshen air. A new path.

Peter had read an article about a company that sold bottled air to citizens of Beijing. A person from Beijing would take a hit of clean air from a pressurized canister and feel better. That made sense. Breathing air without particulates meant not only fewer problems for the lungs, but fewer odor-causing bacteria. His mind’s lightbulb clicked on — cleaner air. He’d ask Caroline about it.

Caroline, it turned out, had been researching air as well. Not bottled air, but what country possessed the best air in general. There was some debate — Finland, Estonia, Brunei were all contenders — but it appeared that Iceland, with its emphasis on hydrogen and geothermal energy, had largely side-stepped fossil fuels and the pollutants that came with them. (Icelanders, Caroline read, were still owners of petrol-burning automobiles, but a person couldn’t drive very far in Iceland.) The idea of filling a home with Icelandic air struck Caroline. She rolled back in her office chair.

But what smelled best? Italian lemon? Black currant? Tonka beans? The stuff from inside sperm whales — ambergris? No, this was the world of fragrances. If they’d wanted to, Caroline and Peter could spritz perfume on their welcome mat. They didn’t want to. Then they discovered agarwood.

Caroline’s uncle was a deranged billionaire. He’d made his money from industries that defiled air, and when Caroline texted him about doing the opposite, the billionaire laughed (using the yellow face with a smile and tears) and then agreed. It would be a hoot. Now what was this — Iceland and a piece of wood? Who cared about that kind of — were they expensive? Were they rare? If the answer was yes, this was going to be fun.

Less than two percent of Aqualaria trees produce agarwood — they have to be infected by mold first. In response to infection, the tree creates a resin — oud, or agarwood — that when burned emits a strange and hallowed aroma. Caroline hadn’t smelled it. Neither had Peter. Neither had the billionaire. But he was going to.

When the FedEx triple trailer arrived, its contents were unveiled as a train of eight-foot tall transparent inflated cubes. While the air-filled polyhedrons weighed very little, their size and lack of handles made them cumbersome to transport. It was suggested that Caroline and Peter visit a bistro while in the interim a crew would unload the cubes, operate vacuum machinery inside the house, and prepare for the vessels to be unplugged. Just then an international overnight parcel arrived. Caroline signed for it: twelve marble-sized chunks of deep brown resin with a note from her uncle — From the oldest trees. Location a secret. Handled by monks!

The resin would be atomized by a doctoral student in physical engineering who had a penchant for explosions. The agarwood atoms would then mix freely with the Icelandic air, and the crew, suited in appropriate haz-mat wear, would exit the premises. That was just enough time to finish a latte.

When Caroline and Peter arrived back home, there was no sign of the business that had transpired just hours before. Caroline unlocked the door and stepped aside to let Peter be the first to enter. He moved in and inhaled deeply as Caroline promptly shut the door behind her. Peter turned around. Oh Cary — I knew I’d … and Peter’s eyeballs rolled into his head. He bent at the knees and gently crumpled over. Caroline stood in shock — was this a seizure of ecstasy? the air too pure? so this is what agarwood smelled like? — before bending down to care for her husband.