I loved Asaf before I loved Hani. I think of him looking out at me from deep within his cold armor. His eyes beseech me. Rescue me, they say. Melt my prison, breathe on my fate, and release me with the heat of your forgiveness.
Auntie Aminah used to say that there were people who died as they lived, and others who did “quite the opposite.” She was referring to the lazy woman who died dancing, or the man with the energy of fire who lay on his deathbed like a snuffed-out ember. According to my aunt, such mismatched deaths left an imbalance for the angels to tinker with in the World to Come. Asaf’s death was like that. He was a boy on a thundering horse, a child of the hot northern dunes—yet he died a cold, still death, trapped like a bug in frozen amber. But Hani died as she lived, inscribed with henna. Her killer took a knife and used it to trace her intricate henna tattoos, carving through the skin on the soles of her feet, her shins, her palms, the backs of her hands, her forearms; slicing her into an elaborate, bloody decoration. She was tied up and left that way and must have bled to death. If such barbarity had happened in Qaraah, or in Sana’a or in Aden, we would have assumed that it was the family of one of the brides. When a marriage went wrong, or a first baby was born dead, the henna dyer was often blamed, as if the henna dyer’s art were more than art, as if it could really ward off or conjure evil. When I learned of Asaf’s and Hani’s deaths, I held my hands up to my face. I hadn’t worn henna for many years, but the old markings seemed to appear on my skin—my own ghostly lacery. The henna elements on my palms became letters, the letters spelled their names. And there it was. Their stories inscribed on my skin, their smiles and sorrows my own tattoos.
Now I spend my days surrounded by my children and grandchildren.
In their laughter, I discern codes and secrets. Sometimes I decipher what I hear. Sometimes, I am stumped. Life itself has become a puzzle to be translated, a curse or a blessing written in the language of henna.
* * *
It was my husband who suggested that I write this story. He said, “This story will submit to you, and to you alone.” His words made me wonder: Do stories submit to authors?
Or do authors submit to the tales that tangle up their guts? I confessed to him that if I were to write about Hani and Asaf, I would have to write a love story, “For I never stopped loving them,” I said shamefacedly to the man who had rescued me from their manifold betrayals.
He wasn’t cowed. “Love them,” my husband urged, “write them, and write yourself.”
I tried to begin, but my story came out in a voice I didn’t recognize. I tried again, and I failed again because my chapters were all told from a faulty perspective. Then I failed a third time. I finally realized that I was going about it all wrong. I didn’t need characters but ingredients. I didn’t need settings or scenes, I needed age-old herbal recipes passed down from mother to daughter, aunt to niece. I didn’t need plot or point of view, but symbols so old they were once swirling in the dust of creation. I didn’t need pen or paper, I needed stylus and skin. I am a woman of henna so I needed to rely upon the traditions and tools of my craft.
I began yet again, but writing in henna presented its own challenges. You see, the master henna dyers in my family always started elaborate applications in different places. Aunt Rahel always began with the palm of her subject’s right hand because of the psalm: “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, then let my right hand forget its cunning.” She liked to say that henna was prayer in color, and prayer was henna in words. My cousin Nogema favored the tips of the fingers. My cousin Edna always started by inscribing elaborate elements on the tops of her subjects’ feet, because her designs depended most of all on symmetry and balance. And my cousin Hani, whose story I had set out to tell? She never began in the same place. She was the first to admit that her haphazard approach wasn’t scientific and sometimes resulted in aesthetic disasters. But more often than not, Hani’s designs were the most beautiful of all. When I was well practiced in the henna craft, I preferred to start with
the underside of the forearm. My subject would stand before me with her arm raised, her hand on my shoulder. That way I could decorate the bottom of her bicep without smearing the top of the arm.
So you see, we all had our own tricks; the only thing you could say about all of our techniques is that in the end, the first line blended into the last like blood running through veins.
As for my story? Where should I begin? Should I ask my reader to extend an open palm so that I can inscribe my words in the warm gully of a branching life line, and our fates may mingle? Or should I ask her to recline on jasmine-scented pillows and let me begin with the tender soles of the feet, so that my story accompanies her wherever she goes, pressed into the earth, like footprints for posterity? Or should I demand my reader reveal her bosom, so that I may write these words upon her heart?
I have done a great deal of thinking about this matter. About where to begin a story that ends with blood and sacrifice. At last I have come to believe that my story begins on the day the Confiscator came to my father’s shop for the first time. This man, the monster of my childhood, the ghost who haunts my dreams, casts the same shadow as all the other predators who have hounded my people since the dawn of time. Different men, they are all descendants of the same ancient darkness.
* * *
I was just five years old when the Confiscator came. We lived in Qaraah, a day’s ride from the ancient city of Sana’a in the Kingdom of North Yemen. The year was 1923. Yes, this is where my story must begin. Many years have passed since I last sharpened my stylus, but I feel the old elements ready at my fingertips. Palm, soul, heart. If my hand is steady, the last line will blend into the first, and ends will embrace beginnings.
What was it that Aunt Rahel used to say to the girls and women whose limbs she would adorn with intricate and beautiful henna designs that marked the skin and pierced the heart? Whether they were there for a henna of solace or a henna of celebration, she treated them all with the utmost tenderness. She would beg them to relax, whisper soothing secrets in their ears, and comfort them with a blessing, a calming word. And then she would begin to draw . . .