Henna by Meena

The spicy scent of henna used to bring back memories of Eid, weddings, parties and all the happy occasions. Now, the only thing henna’s smell brings me is the image of my mother and me crouched in the far corner of the kitchen, crying. The smell of henna brings back anger and sorrow, a sense of helplessness and weakness.

Like many Kabul winter days, it was cold, dry and gray. The schools were off for the winter. My eldest aunt was visiting from Iran. My two younger sisters were sitting at the end of the room drawing, a habit they had adopted to avoid having to worry about my parents’ problems. Funny, whenever we had such problems they would always draw cartoons, animals, and dolls. But they would also often draw homes, safe and warm. The living room was large with tan walls that had been darkened from the smoke of the stove. The curtains, as usual, were closed so no man from outside could see us. My parents and aunt were in the men’s guest room. My mother had asked us not to come. And I knew something was wrong again.

I was sitting on the big red mattress. I got up. I could no longer take the silence or the suspense. I walked towards the door when I heard my sister calling after me “Do not go, remember what Mother jaan said.”

I answered without looking, “I am going to the kitchen only, don’t worry.” I went downstairs, walking slowly and looking at the black marble of the stairs as if I were reading something in the blackness. As I got closer to the hall, the smell of Shorwa-e-Tarkari, an Afghan dish made of meat with lots of vegetables, got stronger and reminded me of my mother feeding me with her soft, warm hands when I refused to eat the vegetables.

When I got to the small hall, I sat on the stairs and looked up, trying to find Allah to ask Him why? I could not find Him. Even He had left me alone. I got up and walked towards the small room at the end of the yard, often used as the men’s guest room. My fear of what I might hear made me walk slowly but the thought of my mother being there defenseless made me walk fast while folding my bare arms tightly. The room was much lower than the yard; I walked down the three stairs through a narrow, dark corridor. As I went towards the room, my father’s voice got louder. He said to my aunt, “You don’t know this slut; she is a slut, a whore. I never wanted to get married anyway, and you all forced me to and look at this mess now.”

My father had turned on my mother many times before, when he would leave the house and we would not see him for a month or two. Usually his sisters would come and they would talk. After they talked, our lives would get back to normal. But my siblings and I never knew what was said in those meetings. Until now. I was shocked as I heard my father using those words. I did not know what to feel, but I wanted to somehow undo it, somehow make the words go back.

I heard my mother’s voice crying and saying “Akbar, What I have done to you that you are making me go through all this? I have to stay in this marriage because of my children, because of my father’s honor.” She continued, “You are calling me a slut just because a corner of the stupid curtain was open and you think I did it in purpose so the men could see me.”

“Don’t you dare talk to me that way,” said my father. “I know you did it on purpose and you can go to your father’s house anytime you wish and live there.”

I heard my mother crying. I brought my hands to my face. I could smell the henna in the palms of my hands. It smelled so different, so strange. It smelled like a happiness I was not granted. I ran to the kitchen. I sat in the corner, folding my legs, with my face buried in my hands. The smell of henna took me back to the days when my mother, sitting on the floor just out of shower, her wet hair hanging down, would paint henna in my little palms. She looked so focused, frowning with her forehead and yet she looked so innocent you would want to protect her from everything, from life itself. I opened my eyes looked around the kitchen, remembered the times when I came back from school and found my mother standing in the kitchen with her back to me. I would often run to her and hug her from the back. She did use perfume, but the smell of perfume was nothing compared to her own smell. She smelled like a mother, warm and kind. She would always tell me: “Now stop bothering me; go and change. I will fix you some lunch.”

I was still sitting in the kitchen when my mother entered. She wore a black scarf draped on her head. Her face looked as if her soul was not present. Her eyes were a little red from crying. I stood up, turned and cleaned my tears, pretending I had heard nothing. I said, “I will go get some logs,” avoiding her face. When I came back with the logs, I found her sitting on the floor of the kitchen with her face in her hands, sobbing. I put down the logs and hurried towards her. I put my arms around her and held her. We both were crying uncontrollably while hugging each other and the smell of henna was all in the air. We did not exchange a word, but the silence said it all.

Whenever I smell henna, it takes me back to the winter of 2002, to that same corner of the kitchen where my mother and I were sitting and crying, holding each other to protect each other from the harsh winds of life.

By Meena


3 responses to “Henna by Meena

  1. Yes, culturally, henna normally depicts joy, happiness and new beginnings. And the fact that it doesn’t in your story really captured me. Also your ability to weave many different emotions into the story so easily, made it comfortable for me to read about the difficult subject matter that you are highlighting.

    Thanks for the story.

  2. You’ve done an expert job of writing this story — which is heart breaking and beautiful at the same time. I particularly liked “looking at the black marble of the stairs as if I were reading something in the blackness” and “It smelled like a happiness I was not granted” — powerful words and images. You are a wonderful writer!

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