Images in Henna
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The mélange of smells from within my shop wafted out to greet me when I opened the door. I breathed deep letting the damp smell of the city streets–a wet mixture of rain, exhaust and humanity–be washed away. As always the comforting scents of my shop reminded me of my home, my so far away home of Sikar. Specifically my Nani’s house, when the summer rains were heaviest and we would spend the day inside talking about her childhood and relatives so long ago passed away. Family that lived now only in her memories.
Turning on my small electric kettle, I let water heat for Assam tea. Then I turned on some soft music. It drowned out the sounds of the morning coming awake outside, and helped to add to the feeling of being back in India. That was the only thing about my shop I don’t care for, the sounds of passing traffic. At times it is intrusive.
Taking out two bowls from the heavily decorated cupboard, I looked at the brown paste under the plastic wrap. The work of a few hours it was a smooth greenish brown, and when I peeled back the plastic the wet herbal “hay scent” of my henna paste flooded me with even more memories.
Sadly, I was having a lot of those this morning.
Memoires of my older sister, the day before her wedding, her sitting with our mother and our nani, each woman working an arm. The intense concentration on my mother’s face as she tried to do half as well as the shaky brown-stained hands of her mother. A mehndi artist of legendary skill was my nani. Gathered around them like multiple colorful birds were my cousins and sisters, watching the two family matrons applying a traditional bridal design as eagerly as myself. More so, since some of them were closer to marriage age than I had been. I had simply enjoyed seeing the designs appearing on my sister Belindi’s hands and feet.
With practiced hands, I filled my henna cones; hands at work while my thoughts wandered down lost roads. Back to the times before … before …. Pushing those dark thoughts back into the shadows, I listened to the music. Sonam Kapoor’s silky voice making me smile and blink away a stray tear.
Outside, I heard a car pull up and the motor goes silent. With a momentary clinch of hands that wanted to shake and a deep breath to calm nerves, I tried to prepare myself for this day. Mentally. Why, oh why had I agreed to do this? And how was I going to make it through without giving myself away?
The smiling face on the other side of the glass door was my answer to those questions. For that smile, I would do anything.
Going to the door, I put on a happy smile to match hers. Not that I was feeling it.
“Morning, Ragini! I brought beignets.” Madeline spun into the room in her normal whirlwind. “I figured the ones waiting could do with something to snack on.”
The smell of fried dough tried to fight against the scents of my shop but incense, herbs, fragrant oils, spices and henna paste are tough opponents. France versus India, a history recreated in scent. I hid a chuckle at that thought as Madeline rambled on.
“Tasha said she would be here by 9:00. Jen said it will be noon before she can make it, and Angela should be here soon.” She sat the white box of pastry down, looked around my shop at the various things that must be so foreign to her and so homelike to me. “I love the changes you’ve made.”
“Thanks.” I looked her up and down. “Nervous?”
“Ah, yes. Extremely.” Madeline shook her head. “How could I have ever let Jim talk me into this madness?”
“Look on the bright side, a Nude Day wedding means you’re saving a fortune in tuxes and gowns.” I let my eyes drop to her feet and slowly back up to her eyes.
“Oh, god! I want to blush to my toes every time I even think about it.” She blushed just to prove that point.
I giggled at her even as I felt my heart flutter and my palms dampen at the imagined image she was going to present, both at her wedding and here in my shop in a few minutes.
“So this will really take all day?” she asked, putting her purse down on my counter. “All day?”
“Every bit of it.” I gave her an apologetic shrug. “The longer the paste stays on, undisturbed, the darker the final images will become.”
Her shoulders slumped a little. “Well, what’s one more day naked this week? Okay, I guess we can get started on me then. Um … do I need to be naked at first?”
“Might as well be.” Oh, how hard it was to hide my eagerness to see her naked behind a bored professionalism. “I don’t want to damage anything later trying to get your clothes off.”
She sighed. “Okay … um, bathroom?”
Smiling at her modesty, I pointed towards the back of the shop. While she bustled off, I finished the last of my henna paste applicator cones. Laying them out, one by one, on a glass topped tray that would not stain. A dozen wooden skewers and some large Q-tips, I use for blended shading, I placed close by. Then I sat waiting for Madeline to find her courage and come back out. casino oyna Not that I’m at all sure I would be any better if it was me who had to appear before her naked. In a situation like this. But then I’ll never be in a situation like this. Never. Never, ever. Never ever the nervous bride ….
A tap at the glass front door startled me. Angela was there, waving a Starbucks cup teasingly at me. I unlocked the door and let her in.
“Morning, lovely. I hoped I would get here first. Here you go.” She handed me the brown-sleeved cup.
Smiling, I took the coffee and inwardly sighed for my tea. “Your about ten minutes late then. Don’t worry it won’t take me too long.”
“Right. The blushing bride is going to be the tough one, right? She gets all the heavy henna. We silly bridesmaids get the decorative nipple hiding stuff.” Angela looked over my shop for a moment. “Let me guess, she went into the bathroom?”
I nodded, sharing a smile with the freckled redhead. She rolled her eyes.
“Maddy! Get your pale, pasty-looking body out here!” Angela walked to the bathroom door and tapped on it with one of her heavy rings hard enough to make me wince. “Some of us are not getting married this week.”
I giggled at the scared squeak from the other side of the door. When it opened, and Madeline gave Angela a nasty look, I couldn’t hide my smile. With her shirt covering her breasts and half-hiding her sex from my view, Madeline started to walk to the padded stool I was pointing too, then raced back into the bathroom when there was another tap on the glass front door.
Tasha was earlier than nine.
** ** ** ** ** ** **
If my afterlife was not already destined to be spent in Yama’s realm then the next few hours would have sent me there. Oh, it was with such hidden delight that I was soon the only woman in my shop with clothing on.
It took the combined efforts of Angela, Tasha, and myself to talk our reluctant friend out the shop’s bathroom.
I had to keep my eyes and mind on what I was doing once I started to lay down the patterns of henna. But my eyes would drift to the dark patch of hair she was trying to hide with the hand I was not working on. I looked over the top of my glasses, meeting her eyes and then glanced down. I gave her a look that was sympathetic and not at the same time. She took a deep breath and moved the hand out the way. My head down she could not see my dark eyes looking past my working hands to her bare belly, following the curves of her thighs inward to the unhidden mound and its haute couture tuft of hair I wanted to rub my face against. Oh, the wicked thoughts that rolled through my head as I held her hand and laid down arch after arch, dot after dot. I placed darker lines, heavy with the wet henna paste then cross-hatched a very traditional pattern down her wrist. I knew I wanted to do a slanted line across her palm with the fingertips covered and the ring finger all but blank so her ring will show more brightly.
That so hated ring.
When her left hand was finished I sat back, taking in the whole of her body. Madeline was looking at her hand in delight.
“And the whole of me is going to be like this?”
“Not so heavy, but yes.” I reached out and ran my hand along her shoulder. I hid how much I enjoyed the soft touch from my face. “Here I will place a design that will be more flowery, not so dense.”
“Can you cover my breasts this heavily, so they are not so–“
“Oh, for the sake of Christ on a crutch, Madeline! This is a nude wedding!” Angela walked over from the shelf of scented incense cones she was sniffing and stood before the bride to be. I had a delightful cross view of four breasts. One capped with pale pink cones, and freckles, the other … Madeline’s … a dark wine splash colored nipple. I looked at her breasts and wanted to taste those sultry tips and see if they indeed tasted like wine. “Prude. Get out the way and I’ll let Ragini work on me for a bit. You need to remember, that the people in this room, have no great desire to even see your naked ass, and the only people that will see it at the wedding will have already seen it.”
“Don’t touch the paste or anything with that hand. It will ruin the design.” I warned Madeline as she moved because Angelina all but bullied her out the seat. At her understanding nod, I looked at the woman now in front of me. The body differences were obvious. Angela was slightly heavier, with larger breasts to be sure and her skin was intensely freckled. I flinched back a bit as her arms went wide.
“Make me more beautiful than her …” She gave her chest a shake and her breasts rocked making my mouth salivate. “… so maybe one of those naked groomsmen will take an interest in me and want an after-wedding-reception, interview.”
“Interview?” asked Tasha, sitting behind my register with her dark hand white with beignets’ powdered sugar. “Never heard a one night stand called that before.”
Angela gave her a wink and canlı casino a grin. “I don’t do one-night stand, I give interviews. I can’t help it if I’ve not found anyone worth a call back yet.”
I joined in with the laughter but was at the same time trying to think up a reply if I was asked about my love life. I had to dodge their questions so often that it as growing to be a reflex. And of course, I had hardly begun to work on Angela’s arm when she looked at my eyes over my glasses and began to ask just such a question.
“So, Ragini … when will we get to see you with some Indian, Prince Charming?” She grinned at my rolled eyes. “I keep expecting one to come riding in on a flying carpet any day now and–”
A tap on the glass front door stopped the question before I could not answer it. Madeline squeaked and dove behind a gold and red dressing screen she had been lurking near. My hands full of henna cone and redhead, I gestured Tasha towards it when I saw it was Jennifer, making a face through the glass at us.
“He would be on an elephant, not a carpet,” said Tasha, as she got to the door. “Hey, Jen. Come on in and get naked, it’s all the rage.”
“Oh, goody. I love naked!” With zero hesitancy Jennifer began to come out her clothes. When her shirt and pants were in a pile she struck the Venus pudica pose. “Wherever is my modesty? I declare, I’m such a naughty minx. What would my dear saintly mother think?”
“Ah, let me think.” Angela placed a finger in front of her lips. “That her daughter had grown up just like her hippy mother?”
There was a general round of laughter that I didn’t quite understand, but joined in none the less. The cultural references, here in my adopted home, at times, pass me by. I try my best but I feel so often like the odd girl out, and I hate that feeling. It makes me always so aware that I am the odd girl. So odd that my mother no longer will acknowledge me. My own family disowned me, the Bandi of Sikar, which now tell people I was never really their daughter. That ….
“Ragini? Are you okay?”
Looking up at Jen, I plastered a smile on my face and nodded. “Just lost in thought. Let me get back to work, I’ll be fine.”
Ignoring the exchange of concerned looks passing among the nude women in my shop, I let my mind focus on patterns. Each had a meaning. Squares, to heal and protect. Lotus blossoms, to awaken the soul. As I work my memories drift back to those wonderful days when my older sisters were married. The gathering women, the happy days of plenty and love. When I was ….
“So, Ragini. This is what they call a Mehndi Rat?”
My jaw dropped open when I looked up at Jen. She was standing in front of Madeline, looking over her bare shoulder at me, waiting for her answer. I could see a twinkle in her eye for having surprised me.
“Yes. In a way, I guess it is,” I said.
“A what rat?” asked Angela. I started to answer her, but Jen beat me to it.
“I Googled it last night. The night before the wedding all the women gather to apply henna to the bride and to each other. They bring food, and listen to music and tell the bride what to expect in her marriage.”
“Hourly demands for sex and farting. Lots and lots of farting,” Angela quirky voice chimed in. Amid the laughter, I popped Angela’s hand when she started to move it. She looked down and grimaced. “Sorry.”
Feeling a sudden invasion of personal space, I looked sideways to find my face inches from Jen’s. I could not help but follow the line of her neck down to the small, dark-tipped breasts with the silver piercings through her nipples that made my own nipples hurt just looking at them.
“Can you show me how to do that?” she asked.
So many memories. Sitting in front of my nani, her old hands guiding mine as I lay down simple designs on my own left arm. Her voice roughened with time and the illness in the throat that took her from me. Rough, but kind with her youngest granddaughter. Gentle chiding when I took an easier pattern than the one she was hoping I would do.
“It takes time to get it perfect, but yes,” I smiled to match her smile. “I can show you how to start.”
“Good. Maybe … I can help with the easier designs?” The hope in her voice was a match for my own childhood memories. When I had pleaded with my mom and Nani to let me help them apply my sister’s bridal designs.
“Tasha, if you will sit here next to Angela.” I picked up a henna cone and held it out to Jennifer. “I want you to do a checkerboard pattern on her arms. Just squares. Then fill them with dots. Like this.”
Moving my cone to Angela’s arm I applied a little pressure and a line draped out to lie on her freckled skin. Then I put another, an inch away and then another next to that. Turning my wrist, I then crossed those lines making the checker pattern. Four dots. Four dots.
“Got it?” I asked.
Jen nodded and then with nervous hands began to try and copy what I had done. Her first line was too thick and kaçak casino I told her to be gentler squeezing the cone. The next one was better. And the next better still.
Going back to work on Angela, I smiled. The joy on Jen’s face was infectious.
** ** ** ** ** ** **
Around me, the other woman were now sitting and talking. Naked. Their bodies were covered with designs that, while pleasing to them, they did not know the meaning of. Longevity, love, peace, and luck. Enlightenment, healing, fertility and grace. A dozen simple things with such meaning … to me at least. Flowers, stars, animals, names, and symbols. All that I could pull from my memories.
Before me now was Madeline.
The small, intricate work on her hands was done. The bridal gift is given, even if she didn’t know the full significance. For weeks after the wedding, the design would remain. The less work she does the long they will stay beautiful. But now I was no longer concerned with hands. Not even hers.
I was kneeling on a pillow, my eyes on a level with the dark hair, my hand resting so very close to what I wanted to touch in much more an intimate way. I was placing small arches upon her left thigh completing a flower pattern that I was going to be mirroring on the other side soon. Madeline was blushing furiously that a friend of hers … had to be … so close to her most secret place. So close that I could breathe deep and even smell her, smell her sex. A sweet odor, so heavenly to me that I had given up on the life I had known, given up on all the shall not do’s I had been taught as a child, simply to luxuriate in. And here it was. Madeline, the first friend I had ever had in this country that I now called home.
The woman I had fallen for so quickly, thanks to her kindness.
I could not take my eyes from her perfectly shaved thick turf of hair. I wanted so badly to do here and now what I had done only once before in my life. To touch my mouth to another woman’s neither lips. To taste the wetness upon them and then to touch my tongue to it, not with the hesitancy of that first time but with a glutton’s desire. I even leaned in a bit closer as if I was concentrating on my designs.
“I’m so sorry,” said Madeline, softly. Barely a whisper so low only I would hear it.
Startled, I look up from staring at her sex out the corner of my eye.
“For what?” I asked back just as softly.
“That you have to be, well, that close to me … down there.” She gave me an apologetic look. “I don’t even like it when I get a bikini waxing and that’s a stranger seeing me.”
I smiled at Madeline. Then looking into her eyes and shook my head. “It’s okay. I’m not disturbed by it. It’s simply a part of my friend.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like it’s a part I normally share with the world.”
Going back to my henna, I shrugged. “My own culture doesn’t put our bodies on display naked in public either, but at home, among friends–certainly when they are all of the same genders–it’s not considered a big issue. Or an issue at all.” I casually ran a finger down the outside of her thigh, putting pressure on where I wanted her to turn to allow me to work. “I saw most of the women in my family naked before I was in my teens. Often. Within the home, there is a very carefreeness about nudity. Besides, you have nothing to be ashamed of. You’re beautiful, Madeline. Jim is going to be very happy to wake up next to you every morning.”
I know I certainly would. I so badly wanted to add that. It felt like a cold sliver of ice in my throat that lodged there when those words wanted to form. Blocking emotion, secrets, and hidden desires all in one. With a sigh that I hid in a deep breath, I moved to her other thigh. The dark brown lines flowed like magic from the end of the henna cone now. I could have laid down the most intricate patterns with no effort; my hand was now so attuned to what I was doing. It had been years since I had done this much henna in one day. Not since the last Hindu wedding, I helped with. A month before I was made to leave my home. Cast out in shame. Tossed like trash into the streets.
Proof of that, my hand began to cramp. Setting down the cone, I massaged my fingers.
“Ragini, take a break. You’ve been working for hours.” Jen left the others and came over to me. “Or at least let me finish this while you direct.”
Sitting back, I handed the cone to Jennifer. She had managed to do some very decent work. Simple patterns true, but decent.
“Just draw even loops.” I watched her hand do quickly an arch of loops over the line I had begun. When she looked at me, I nodded. “Alright, now put some pressure on the cone and put dots–that’s right space them every other loop–but draw them upward. Yes, like that.” Reaching over, I guided her hand down Melinda’s thigh. I then pointed to the design on the other leg. Jennifer understood and began to copy the other side. “Thicken that line more.”
Sitting back, I watch Jen working; a smile graced my lips that she had picked this art up this fast. She had a hand for it, and apparently a love of it.
My eyes slid onto Madeline. Taking her in, the glorious nude skin now draped lace-like in my art.
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