Martes, Agosto 5, 2008

"Suman" by Corinna Esperanza Nuqui

This story won Second Prize for Futuristic Fiction in English in the 2006 Palanca Awards.
Dirty scents excited her, the dirtier the better. When Alice announced this to the group of sense-photographers at the meeting for the new sensate advertising campaign, they all laughed. Who could have predicted that dirty things would bring in wealth? One of the men opened an illicit capsule of blue seal cigarette scent, and knuckles cracked audibly around the room, as the men shifted in their seats, remembering the gestures of smoking, the peculiar choreography of hand to mouth arguments over lay-outs, collaterals. Half a lifetime ago, the room would have been swathed in actual tobacco smoke. As the people in the room began to accommodate, to naturally lose the scent from the foreground of consciousness, she blew a raspberry at the group. Yes, broken wind is all the rage now, she said. It reminds us to cut through the crap that won’t leave! The photo team filed out, promising thumbnails and quenelles of scented wax samples for the next day.Alice pulled at the hem of her microfiber jacket, and adjusted the cuffs so that her skin would be protected from the cold. The sun had begun to set, casting parts of the room in reddish-gold, as Alice lowered window shades. She wore no perfumes, unless she was working with a particular scent or flavor that needed “living with.” Her feet tapped the lacquered mat under her brushed steel-topped desk as she reached over to the windows.It was a language of double entendres for industry insiders. If something smelled too clean, too perfect, it was doomed to fail, for it reminded folk of the propaganda era. No one would buy the harsh, single-note stridencies that were so fashionable at the end of the last century. Something stinky in the state of the nation? That was the latest catchphrase used to sell edible videoke anahaw fans that wafted ions into the air to remind one of less polluted times. That was the irony. The dirtier and more toxic the environment became, the more sophisticated the alphabets of flavors and scents in the laboratories and in the agencies. It was counter-intuitive that with the reductive approach, simple fluency slipped further and further away, the more difficult translation became. Flavor mappers had to work long shifts to identify each molecule and calibrate proportions to fuzzy acceptability.Marketers knew the politics of pleasing the aging populace hinged on maddeningly simple things. Something as homely as the flavor of bagoong alamang from the middle of the last century was now precious. The mutated shrimp fry in the oceans had concentrated toxins, as did many fish. Another popular facsimile on the convenience market was edible soy gel that was infused with chocolate notes mixed in with fish. Spooned over hothouse rice, it was the closest thing to champorado.Alice was the only one of five flavor mappers in the Philippines, hungry for the recreation of tastes that were vanished from current folkways. Why bother, she thought, as the dehumidifier-scubbers shuffled and coughed rhythmically from the window near her desk. Water, they were surrounded by water, one could see the ocean donning this and that archival blue as the beams of lightcraft hovered over portions of the bay. She could use a massage, from someone with fleshy hands, someone with sinew and patience to use only the slightest pressure, someone willing to disappear without comment when she began to cry, as she knew she would, each time someone actually touched her.It was easy to keep away from people these days, she would communicate via passive feeds that ran through the dark wall panelling in her room, or else use the antique wrist console she snapped to a sleeve. Why bother with this business of selling, she thought, when one could get away with stealing? That’s what the flavor business was about, to her mind, it wasn’t about concentrating a perfect profile, it was about power, manipulation, deceit. The flavor that was just so, that could carry an entire generation into useful nostalgia, for if they lived entirely to breathe in a past that didn’t exist anymore, they would be malleable and passive in the present as long as they had their flavor packets. She needed to maintain the correct humidity of sixty percent within her work room so that it would not be too difficult to fix a scent in her mind. Drier than that, she would get nosebleeds. If the humidity went up to eighty percent, she wouldn’t be able to clear her palate efficiently, ultimately fatiguing her senses with the attendant bouquets of each faux-distillate. From the build-up of fricative pressure when she sniffed through her modified nose, scents of certain molecular complexity could be assessed without resorting to old-fangled chromatography. What mattered in the end was that she cared beyond reason to keep her clients enthralled by the subtle backgrounds she created for them.Most people now lived via layers of avatars in hyperspace media, lived reclusive sedentary lives within small localities, pockets of family here and there. Nothing like the bad old days of extended families and social networks that allowed corruption. To keep a sense of connectedness, families traded balikbayan scent packets, wax quenelles that were melted to release volatiles into the air. It was a quick way to create an atmosphere that brought the mind back to the past without allowing the past to become too clear or too oppressive a reality.She was the only flavor mapper who advocated apprenticeships. She took in a young woman from the south, Silmah, who was willing to give up her life as a coir and leaf scent encoder, a lucrative trace industry in a world where usable plants did not grow outside the laboratory farms.The accretion of collective memory attached to scent, to flavor, that was what made up the wealth of the industry. Manila had become such an important hub for product development, not just for food, but for comfort rations. With scent and flavor libraries built up in the old districts of Diliman and Muntinlupa, Western nations continued to trade access to these archives for commodities. Hunger is what drove the generations of Filipinos into the diaspora, and it was flavor packets that helped anchor them to their present locales. It became important to keep this cash-flush elite happy, or else work would stop in sensitive telecommunications across the world. Ludicrous to think that a Filipino would be caught without his arsenal of scent packets, they dulled the quotidian pains like no other drugs.Decades ago, the important industry secret was that sex pheromones were infused into the most banal products to bolster interest. Now, the crowd wanted the food they couldn’t get anymore. No more bagoong, no more tinapa, no more suman. Eating, the memory of eating under trees, the memory of being fed by mothers, grandmothers, family, this is what made people stay in certain jobs without knowing that they were being manipulated by scent, by flavor facsimilies.Suman was Alice’s first project with Silmah, she had to comb through the archives of scent tapes to get a sketch of what Filipinos wanted in their comfort foods: a sense of fullness, the starchy gelatinous indefinable umami bliss. The flavor of lye-treated short grain rice, the better for saponification. Why did this matter so much?Silmah had a hankering after the real thing, it was clear by the way she lost sleep over a few stray molecules that remained unmapped in the suman profiles. There were several candidates for standardization, they were in demand because short grain rice had become an endangered crop, unresponsive to the tinkering of botanical geneticists when the inevitable crossover GMO DNA altered the flavor profiles. “How much are we going to be paid for this suman?” asked Silmah. She knew she was overstepping her bounds, as secrecy laws did not allow her boss to reveal what the bottom line was in these deals. “The last thing I want to talk about is money,” said Alice to Silmah. The younger woman shrugged. She wanted to talk about money because she could smell it, literally, when anyone talked about payday or even gift certificates for instant entrees at the vending machine. Silmah remembered what it was like to finger old money, to feel the clank and clatter of the old coins used as currency. She remembered what her hands smelled like after she counted the coins out on her grandmother’s bedspread.Silmah was a synaesthete, instantly tying up sensations with memory, attaching flavor to color, sound to texture, in all the permutations that would have maddened a less phlegmatic being. She dealt with people in a pleasant, offhand manner. Her husband joked that she had a default desktop setting that said “Mabuhay!” emitting the easygoing scents of pedestrian citrus and coffee.Alice had spread out part of her scent and flavor cache for this project. Together, they dipped paper slips into each console labeled with the names of the scents. The names were baffling to the novice mapper, who decried the sketchy labels like “Brown air” and dreamt of more complex caches of “Seared copra on sunburn,” “coconut leaf steam,” “Banana heart steamed.” Alice had chosen “Ashen coconut shell,” “virgin coconut oil,”and “toasted wheat flavor” with “banana leaf burnt” and ‘banana leaf steam,” “Glutinous rice34 steam,” and “Coconut ash lye2.” For now, they would ignore the caramel and sugar scents and try to round out a profile mixing coconut, ash, steam, and rice to make a suman facsimilie.They threw the slips of paper with each elemental scent into a collator and brought out inhalator tubes. They wafted the resulting mixes in micropercentages, working in simple permutations at first, guided by a mathematical algorithm sketched on Alice’s pad. In that way, Alica was old-fashioned. She collected paper and pencils from the last century so that she could use them to sketch in real life, instead of on the plasma screens. It was an indulgence that only mappers could afford, what with the steep prices of graphite and paper pulp in the markets.What are you doing? asked Silmah, as she watched Alice sink into her chair and hold her head in her hands, still clutching the inhalator tubes. Silmah took the tube from Alice. She breathed in the prescribed pattern in preparation for sniffing, three even breaths into a neutral tube, then one or two with the mixed sample. She held the tube to her nose and let the air circulate into her mouth, tickling her soft palate. She felt the ash on her hands and the sting of lye on her fingertips, imagining that open fire under a kettle with a steamer where suman would be cooked. She could almost feel the smooth ribs of banana leaf, fresh, almost plastic-like and put its harshness down to the nastiness of reductive chemistry that dominated the last century. What irked her finally was the central note of steamed rice starch. There was something missing, a syllable of scent, more than a syllable, a phrase.Alice was still holding her head in her hands. Silmah knew that Alice had Kapampangan roots, that her grandparents had been one of the last generations to enjoy the rice delicacy before greenhousing killed the outdoor crop industry. Was her boss having a meltdown?Alice held the inhalator to her nose. She too, knew of course, that something was missing. There was little cohesiveness between the notes, she could sense the banana leaf, the steam, the notes of ash and lye could be toned down, but with what? Her central note in the phrase was rice starch steamed. How can one believe that scent is glutinous? She wondered, as this scent had come all the way from an ancient file library in New Jersey. How could a scent specialist tag that scent in such a cold, dry place rife with effluents, even if that was over fifty years ago?“It’s over,” she told Silmah. “We’ve reached the end of our range. How do we round this out so that this scent story is believable?” A scent story that made perfect sense on the palate when applied in actual foodstuffs, that was key to keeping clients happy.“I know what it needs,” Silmah said. “It needs a body, a body that doesn’t exist anymore.” In between the notes of rice and starch and leaf steam, there should be the memory of actual labor, of peeling the sticky leaf off the central mass of glutinous joy, the feel of a bite of heat, plump nurturing gestures that made childhood in the last century a touchstone for the bereft in the next.Alice remembered her grandfather, telling her how the skin on his hands would sometimes peel after he mixed the lye with grains and spread them carefully out to dry. She would need human epithelials to round out this profile.Alice began to retch, a common side effect when inhaling nature-identical untempered notes. She spat into the dish reserved for this purpose. “It’s no use.” She said to Silmah. “We’ll need a pound of flesh for this, without shedding a drop of blood.”