About the author: Patrick Suskind is a German author and screenwriter. A recluse, he lives in Munich and France.
About the storyteller: Dean Clarke is an English teacher in China. He is South African. He speaks in a neutral accent.
by Patrick Süskind
A FEW WEEKS later, the wet nurse Jeanne Bussie stood, market basket in hand, at the gates of the cloister of Saint--Merri, and the minute they were opened by a bald monk of about fifty with a light odour of vinegar about him--Father Terrier--she said "There!" and set her market basket down on the threshold.
"What's that?" asked Terrier, bending down over the basket and sniffing at it, in the hope that it was something edible.
"The bastard of that woman from the rue aux Fers who killed her babies!"
The monk poked about in the basket with his finger till he had exposed the face of the sleeping infant.
"He looks good. Rosy pink and well nourished."
"Because he's stuffed himself on me. Because he's pumped me dry down to the bones. But I've put a stop to that. Now you can feed him yourselves with goat's milk, with pap, with beet juice. He'll gobble up anything, that bastard will."
Father Terrier was an easygoing man. Among his duties was the administration of the cloister's charities, the distribution of its moneys to the poor and needy. And for that he expected a thank--you and that he not be bothered further. He despised technical details, because details meant difficulties and difficulties meant ruffling his composure, and he simply would not put up with that. He was upset that he had even opened the gate. He wished that this female would take her market basket and go home and let him alone with her suckling problems. Slowly he straightened up, and as he did he breathed the scent of milk and cheesy wool exuded by the wet nurse. It was a pleasant aroma.
"I don't understand what it is you want. I really don't understand what you're driving at. I can only presume that it would certainly do no harm to this infant if he were to spend a good while yet lying at your breast."
"None to him," the wet nurse snarled back, "but plenty to me. I've lost ten pounds and been eating like I was three women. And for what? For three francs a week!"
"Ah, I understand," said Terrier, almost relieved. "I catch your drift. Once again, it's a matter of money."
"No!" said the wet nurse.
"Of course it is! It's always a matter of money. When there's a knock at this gate, it's a matter of money. Just once I'd like to open it and find someone standing there for whom it was a matter of something else. Someone, for instance, with some little show of thoughtfulness. Fruit, perhaps, or a few nuts. After all, in autumn there are lots of things someone could come by with. Flowers maybe. Or if only someone would simply come and say a friendly word. 'God bless you, Father Terrier, I wish you a good day!'
But I'll probably never live to see it happen. If it isn't a beggar, it's a merchant, and if it isn't a merchant, it's a tradesman, and if it isn't alms he wants, then he presents me with a bill. I can't even go out into the street anymore. When I go out on the street, I can't take three steps before I'm hedged in by folks wanting money!"
"Not me," said the wet nurse.
"But I'll tell you this: you aren't the only wet nurse in the parish. There are hundreds of excellent foster mothers who would scramble for the chance of putting this charming babe to their breast for three francs a week, or to supply him with pap or juices or whatever nourishment..."
"Then give him to one of them!"
"... On the other hand, it's not good to pass a child around like that. Who knows if he would flourish as well on someone else's milk as on yours. He's used to the smell of your breast, as you surely know, and to the beat of your heart."
And once again he inhaled deeply of the warm vapours streaming from the wet nurse.
But then, noticing that his words had made no impression on her, he said, "Now take the child home with you! I'll speak to the prior about all this. I shall suggest to him that in the future you be given four francs a week."
"No," said the wet nurse.
"How much more do you want, then?" Terrier shouted at her. "Five francs is a pile of money for the menial task of feeding a baby."
"I don't want any money, period," said the wet nurse. "I want this bastard out of my house."
"But why, my good woman?" said Terrier, poking his finger in the basket again.
"He really is an adorable child. He's rosy pink, he doesn't cry, and he's been baptized."
"He's possessed by the devil."
Terrier quickly withdrew his finger from the basket.
"Impossible! It is absolutely impossible for an infant to be possessed by the devil. An infant is not yet a human being; it is a prehuman being and does not yet possess a fully developed soul.
Which is why it is of no interest to the devil. Can he talk already, perhaps? Does he twitch and jerk?
Does he move things about in the room?
Does some evil stench come from him?"
"He doesn't smell at all," said the wet nurse.
"And there you have it! That is a clear sign. If he were possessed by the devil, then he would have to stink."
And to soothe the wet nurse and to put his own courage to the test, Terrier lifted the basket and held it up to his nose.
"I smell absolutely nothing out of the ordinary," he said after he had sniffed for a while, "really nothing out of the ordinary. Though it does appear as if there's an odour coming from his nappies." And he held out the basket to her so that she could confirm his opinion.
"That's not what I mean,"--said the wet nurse peevishly, shoving the basket away. "I don't mean what's in the nappy. His soil smells, that's true enough. But it's the bastard himself, he doesn't smell."
"Because he's healthy," Terrier cried, "because he's healthy, that's why he doesn't smell! Only sick babies smell, everyone knows that. It's well known that a child with the pox smells like horse manure, and one with scarlet fever like old apples, and a consumptive child smells like onions. He is healthy, that's all that's wrong with him. Do you think he should stink? Do your own children stink?"
"No," said the wet nurse. "My children smell like human children ought to smell."
Terrier carefully placed the basket back on the ground, for he could sense rising within him the first waves of his anger at this obstinate female. It was possible that he would need to move both arms more freely as the debate progressed, and he didn't want the infant to be harmed in the process. But for the present, he knotted his hands behind his back, shoved his tapering belly toward the wet nurse, and asked sharply, "You maintain, then, that you know how a human child--which may I remind you, once it is baptised, is also a child of God--is supposed to smell?"
"Yes," said the wet nurse.
"And you further maintain that, if it does not smell the way you--you, the wet nurse Jeanne Bussie from the rue Saint--Denis!--think it ought to smell, it is therefore a child of the devil?"
He swung his left hand out from behind his back and menacingly held the question mark of his index finger in her face. The wet nurse thought it over. She was not happy that the conversation had all at once turned into a theological cross--examination, in which she could only be the loser.
"That's not what I meant to say," she answered evasively. "You priests will have to decide whether all this has anything to do with the devil or not, Father Terrier. That's not for such as me to say. I only know one thing: this baby makes my flesh creep because it doesn't smell the way children ought to smell."
"Aha," said Terrier with satisfaction, letting his arm swing away again. "You retract all that about the devil, do you? Good. But now be so kind as to tell me: what does a baby smell like when he smells the way you think he ought to smell? Well?"
"He smells good," said the wet nurse.
"What do you mean, 'good'?" Terrier bellowed at her. "Lots of things smell good. A bouquet of lavender smells good. Stew meat smells good. The gardens of Arabia smell good. But what does a baby smell like, is what I want to know."
The wet nurse hesitated. She knew very well how babies smell, she knew precisely--after all she had fed, tended, cradled, and kissed dozens of them.... She could find them at night with her nose. Why, right at that moment she bore that baby smell clearly in her nose. But never until now had she described it in words.
"Well?" barked Terrier, clicking his fingernails impatiently.
"Well it's--" the wet nurse began, "it's not all that easy to say, because... because they don't smell the same all over, although they smell good ail over, Father, you know what I mean? Their feet, for instance, they smell like a smooth, warm stone--or no, more like curds... or like butter, like fresh butter, that's it exactly. They smell like fresh butter. And their bodies smell like... like a griddle cake that's been soaked in milk. And their heads, up on top, at the back of the head, where the hair makes a cowlick, there, see where I mean, Father, there where you've got nothing left...." And she tapped the bald spot on the head of the monk, who, struck speechless for a moment by this flood of detailed inanity, had obediently bent his head down. "There, right there, is where they smell best of all. It smells like caramel, it smells so sweet, so wonderful, Father, you have no idea!
Once you've smelled them there, you love them whether they're your own or somebody else's. And that's how little children have to smell--and no other way. And if they don't smell like that, if they don't have any smell at all up there, even less than cold air does, like that little bastard there, then... You can explain it however you like, Father, but I"--and she crossed her arms resolutely beneath her bosom and cast a look of disgust toward the basket at her feet as if it contained toads--"I, Jeanne Bussie, will not take that thing back!"
Father Terrier slowly raised his lowered head and ran his fingers across his bald head a few tirnes as if hoping to put the hair in order, passed his finger beneath his nose as if by accident, and sniffed thoughtfully.
"Like caramel...?" he asked, attempting to find his stern tone again. "Caramel!
What do you know about caramel? Have you ever eaten any?"
"Not exactly," said the wet nurae. "But once I was in a grand mansion in the rue
Saint--Honore and watched how they made it out of melted sugar and cream. It smelled so good that I've never forgotten it."
"Yes, yes. All right," said Terrier and took his finger from his nose. "But please hold your tongue now! I find it quite exhausting to continue a conversation with you on such a level. I havedetermined that, for whatever reason, you refuse to nourish any longer the babe put under your care, Jean--Baptiste Grenouille, and are returning him herewith to his temporary guardian, the cloister of Saint--Merri. I find that distressing, but I apparently cannot alter the fact. You are discharged."
With that he grabbed the basket, took one last whiff of that fleeting woolly, warm milkiness, and slammed the door. Then he went to his office.