The Essence of Emu

Bruce Hofkin gave me a big, beautiful emu egg (p. 11), which sat on a counter for a week before I decided it would be best to hollow it out. Bruce had warned that if the egg ever got damp, it would start to emit the most horrible smell imaginable and have to be disposed of far, far away.

So I drilled a hole in each end, thinking to blow out the contents. But the viscous gunk did not really want to leave home. As I drilled larger holes and shook up the slimy insides, an intense smell started to envelop the garage and attract a large number of flies. Finally I had to stab inside with a bamboo skewer to break up what felt like the yolk, and stood shaking calcified bits of green and yellow gunk into the sink amid an increasingly heady aroma that I could only describe as essence of emu.

That smell did not leave my head for at least 24 hours. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, indescribable except for the idea of this ancient, reptilian bird and its powerful will to survive. It got me thinking about how bereft of smells our world has become, how Americans will do anything to escape the smell of animal life—how we have grown ignorant about smells and any information they might contain.

Not so our canine companions, of course. My dogs relish the smell even of dead crickets and oil stains, not to mention poop of all kinds, some of which delights them so much that they dab it on their pulse points as a canine come-hither. It is said that dogs can “read” smells, such as the age and gender of the golden retriever I have been cheating on them with. Dogs, amazingly enough for us, have no prejudice regarding smells. They do not assign them a moral ranking—good, bad—but treat them as treasure troves of information. Probably the human need to distance ourselves from certain smells reflects a wish to rise above the animal part of our nature, from any reminder of death and decay. But anyone who has grown up on a farm, or who works in a zoo, can tell you that these smells are an unavoidable part of the environment.

A few weeks after I had set the egg outside to dry, I heard my dog Brisket whimpering from the living room. He has access to a doggie door, so I couldn’t see why he would be sitting at the glass doors, looking out and whimpering. I opened the door, and he ran immediately to the pieces of smashed emu egg, blown off a high shelf. He licked the pieces gravely, and all I could think about was the hour I had spent drilling, blowing, shaking, and washing that dumb egg. Now all that remained was the funky aroma in my head.

But how it persists! Smells seem so fleeting, yet they can last for years after a body is gone. The soul of that ancient bird worked its magic like an escaped genie, announcing its presence in a stab of awareness and capturing Brisket’s brief sympathy before vanishing. That smell, unlike the egg, cannot ever be blown away.


Keiko Ohnuma

Editor and publisher