It's hard to be the Queen of Henna in Canada. The frigid climate is unforgiving for a tree meant to grow in temperate climates, yet here I am, in my dingy East Toronto apartment, proudly watering a henna tree I've raised from seed. She is the lone survivor of many. I look out the window at grey skies and sunless days (my henna's death squad), and instead of feeling angry, I feel like a million dollars.
My name is Awa. I did not earn the title, Queen of Henna, back home, where my family cultivated the best henna in all of Africa; I earned it in the rundown streets of Chinatown East, far from my beloved Senegal.
Born into a family of few means, our hovel had little: a dirt floor, a pit for the cooking fire and a family of four dressed in rags; however, it had flies and crawling insects galore. I was only three, but I remember being happy in our squalor. Then, the political situation changed in my country, and Father became a minister with the new government; that’s when we relocated from our dusty village to the presidential palace where I spent the rest of my childhood.
The move was like walking into a fairytale. We went from bug-infested rammed-earth hut to a real palace, full of golden walls and marble floors. It was so bright I had to squint the first time we walked in. Sister and I spent many magical years running up and down the long, elegant hallways, counting how many giant steps it took to get from one end to the next. Most halls were fifty-nine huge steps.
However, with time, I understood that our lifestyle was at the expense of others. Living in opulence was enviable in a country as poor as ours, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the people outside the palace. We were protected and empowered by a corrupt government that would rule our nation for over two decades. Growing up as part of the country's elite, I was well educated, and I learned how to think for myself, so by the time I entered adolescence, I realized that the way my family lived did not align with my beliefs. I couldn't do anything about this, however, because I was a girl.
In the palace, Mother taught Sister and me how to tend our henna plantation. As with the small plot we had before, Mother chose an area of the palace where the sun shone all day where we spent hours tending the fragrant plants. The only time we left the palace was when it was time to take our henna leaves to market. Mama, Sister and I walked under the hot Senegalese sun, carrying baskets of fresh henna leaves.
I recall Mama saying, “Awa, dear, you must pluck the leaves with care; this will improve their colour and quality. It’s a labour of love what we do, and you must follow in my footsteps when I’m gone.”
Mama never ceased telling Sister and me about the virtues of henna as we tended our garden and groomed the trees; after harvesting the henna leaves, she insisted in delivering the product to market herself, even when we could have hired anybody from the village to walk the four hours it took to go by foot. Going to market was the most exciting thing I did growing up. I was out of the presidential palace where I could see and maybe meet my fellow Senegalese.
When the henna leaves were ready to take to the market, Father always offered to send one of his ministry cars to take us.
“No,” Mother protested. “The leaves must be delivered by the hands that plucked them; it increases their power. This is why your daughters and I grow the best trees in all of Senegal…perhaps all of Africa.”
We walked over dusty dirt roads to Dakar; one basket under our arm and one on our head. Our cargo shielded our eyes from the sun, but not from the heat that baked every part of our body. Robbed our fluids. Dried our organs.
"The process is incomplete without this last step." Mama encouraged us to carry on, push through the heat, forget the unmistakable scratch in our eyes and throat, and keep walking until we reach the market.
“If you believe this sacrifice we make strengthens our leaves, and our souls, you will carry on my dears. Carry on."
After decades of ruthless leadership, when the political climate changed again, so did our status. As the natural pattern of greed and decay followed, the possessors lost all power, lost everything, and so did we. For my family, this fall from grace shouldn’t have been difficult as we lived in poverty before, but Father refused to give in, refused to lose control and became obsessed with regaining glory. He grumbled incessantly about our measly conditions and spent hours plotting fantastic ways of overthrowing the illegitimate regime, abandoning his family in the effort. Mother and I were forced to take on many of the tasks that were his until the unimaginable happened.
One day, when Mama and sister were crossing a busy street returning from an errand, a delirious driver lost control of his vehicle. He hit them, dragged and pinned them against a wall. They died instantly.
Every bone in my body felt the crash. I saw this unfold, second by second, from the safety of our hovel, but I felt as if I’d died with them. I turned to stone. I did not run or call for help. I stood frozen, uncomprehending. At the moment, my mind had blocked the scene that has replayed ever since.
For weeks a dark fog blanketed our home as Father, and I grappled with the tragedy. I became withdrawn, not caring what happened outside my sorrow, concentrating only on the gut-wrenching pain in my heart, but the loss of Mother toppled my father to the other side; he became violent, aggressive and took to drinking moonshine all day.
Just before our household crumbled completely, Mama’s voice came to me in a dream. She urged me to get up and take care of Father for he was too far gone to help himself. She told me to get a grip and carry on. Carry on, my dear.
Energized, late at night, I got up to clean the mess in our hovel, to put dirty dishes in soapy water, sweep the ashes from the cooking fire, swish away insects that had died and piled on the dirt floor. I took Father’s clothes and washed them by the well, although no amount of water could erase the stench of moonshine. They’d need detergent. I started the fire and prepared coffee and porridge for breakfast, but Father never got up that morning for the treat. The alcohol kept him in bed until late afternoon. That evening, he seemed nervous and quieter than usual at dinner. His head was stooped, his face unshaven, and his eyes looked like glassy mirrors. He did not say a word and he did not eat. Later that night, I heard him sneak out of the house after midnight. He was still in pyjamas. He was carrying a large bag in one hand and a machete in the other and, I knew in my heart, he was up to no good. I followed his silhouette walking down the street until the darkness swallowed him up. Minutes later, one, two, three shots were quickly followed by lights, sirens and silence again. My heart felt like a boulder over my chest. I couldn’t breathe, but I willed myself to sleep. I didn’t want to think about Father. I didn’t want to know. I dove into a dark void where I felt and thought nothing.
In the morning, my fears came to fruition when I learned Father had been murdered by the military police for plotting to take the King’s life. He was attempting to scale the palace’s iron gate when he was shot.
The death of a parent should hurt, ought to be one of the saddest events in one’s life, but all I could think of was my safety. I had survived his abuse, now I had to escape before the King’s men came after me. My life was in danger and I couldn’t stay in my home town any longer.
As soon as I was able to escape, I did. With a group of twenty refugees who had paid a guide to take us away, I walked from Dakar to Tripoli, a journey which took nearly a year to complete and was marked with strife. First, we walked to Burkina Faso. This thousand-mile stretch runs at the edge of the desert and was the easiest part of the journey. Our group settled into makeshift tents and we ran odd jobs, helping herders and farmers for a few weeks until we were able to replenish supplies for the next stretch.
We travelled north toward Niger, where the landscape became dotted with yellow-red clay minarets covered with sticks that jutted from the sand the towers were made of. Everywhere, walls and houses were built with the same clay, and this made the villages camouflage against the warm sand around them.
Our group moved as an entity, but we all walked alone with our past, mindful to follow our guide who communicated little. The longest stretch of our journey loomed, and tensions were high. As we got closer to Sabha, I thought we had landed in a world after a bomb had exploded. There were burnt out jeeps abandoned in the middle of the sand, far from any road. Men moved in groups, carrying machetes and machine guns, rounding up travellers and shoving them toward town.
“What’s happening?” I asked the guide. “Why are people being herded off? Where are they taking them?”
None of my questions were answered. We kept walking, eyes on the ground, head covered from the unfaltering sun. As the landscape became more chaotic, our guides changed more frequently. We’d arrive at a tent, and our guide would go in and another took his place. No matter how many times I asked, the answer was always the same. Silence.
The newest guide from Agadez to Sabha did not say a word during the entire trek. When we got to Sabha’s outskirts, the thin man threw his walking stick on the ground and pronounced, “Done.”
“What do you mean, done?” I asked. “We are nowhere. You are to take us to the next post.”
“Done.” He clapped his hands in opposite directions. “Job’s done once I take you to Sabha, but I don’t go into Sabha.”
From the top of the hill, I looked at the sprawling town below. Puffs of smoke billowed everywhere, dust engulfed it, and the stench could be smelled this far. The guide came to my side and quietly said, “If you don’t know someone there, you are entering a battle zone, but that is not my problem. I take you to Sabha and I’m done.”
When we got there, the guide announced we had to pay an extra fee, or our passports would not be returned.
“We were never told that," I shouted. "We agreed on a price before we left Dakar."
“That was someone else and it was the estimated price before the journey. It’s taken longer and the desert was hotter…there’s an extra fee for that.”
“I don’t have any more money!”
“That’s not my problem. Call your family to wire you funds.”
His words hit me like a ton of bricks that crushed my heart. “I don’t have a family.”
“That’s not my problem. Call friends, anybody. If not, we’ll find other ways a woman can pay.”
Others in the group scrambled to call family back home, or people they only had a number for in Tripoli, begging for the extra funds. I never felt more alone in this world than at that moment. I had nobody, owned nothing, and the only thing I had to my name I swore to protect with my life, even knowing that these barbarians wouldn’t understand. Before leaving Dakar, I had taken a plastic satchel full of henna seeds.
For months I had carried the tiny, triangular, golden-red dots hidden in the folds of my clothes, and when the clothes wore out, I hid them in my undergarments. I held on tight to that satchel throughout the journey. I felt the power of the seeds that Mother talked about, and I was certain it was the seeds that helped me get through the horrors of the journey.
“I don’t have money,” I repeated to the guard.
“You’ll come with me, then. Are you sixteen? Argh, doesn’t matter. I’m giving you a piece of free advice, only ‘cause you seem a smart one. Stay put and shut up. Do as you’re told. Follow my advice, and nobody’ll hurt you.”
“Hurt me? Where are you taking me?” His silent answer told me everything. I felt I couldn’t take another pace after walking for over a year. With every step I took, I was getting closer to sexual slavery. I held the henna seeds tightly in my fist to help me from crying.
“How will I get paid to pay you back? How much will I get?”
“Damn, you don’t stop, do you? You’ll get paid the going rate, do something special, you’ll get more.”
“I want three times the going rate my first time. I’m a virgin.” I squeezed the seeds harder hoping their guidance wouldn’t send me to the grave.
The guide looked at me and laughed. “I like your gumption. With that attitude, you’ll be outta here in no time. We’ll set up an auction. You’ll get half of what the client pays. Some think virgins are priceless.”
That didn’t make me feel better.
The man that paid handsomely for my virginity was the only gentle soul I met in this business. He was a foreigner, wealthy, educated and confessed he did not do ‘this type of thing’ often. Knowing I was a virgin, our meeting was more of a lesson than anything else. We spoke all night and, in the morning when it was time for him to leave, the foreigner tucked money under my pillow which belonged only to me. I never saw him again, an angel in a world of demons.
After him, the men came in droves with one goal in mind. When old men raped me, I held tight to my henna seeds, and when young men raped me, I held tight to my seeds to squeeze all thoughts from my head. I wanted to feel and think about nothing. I wanted to disappear. Once, I tried to escape through the bathroom louvres but was soon found and beaten so hard I nearly died. My sentence was increased to make up for the lost wages while my body healed from the torture I had received.
Because Sabha was under tribal law and no clan claimed ultimate authority, the place was run by criminals, who in turn were my clients. I never left the brothel as it was safer inside than out. I tried to adopt Mother’s serenity under the circumstances, closed my eyes and carried on.
Still, I held my head up high. Inside I was broken, but I would not show that weakness. I would not give my captors the pleasure of their sadistic tendencies. It took three miserable, dark months to pay my way back to freedom, but as soon as I could, I fled that hellhole and headed to Tripoli. I was travelling with a different group than the one I departed from home, but it was no different. We moved in silence wrapped in our own horrors and nightmares.
When we got to Tripoli, the cool sea breezes provided much-needed relief from the arid road we left behind. For the first time in many months, I felt a glimmer of hope. I allowed myself to think, when I get there, I’ll do this or that, it didn’t matter what. I was planning and allowed myself to dream.
We hopped on a makeshift raft and sailed toward Italy. My head floated with images of art and sculptures I had learned about in the palace as my body floated over the deadliest waters I’d ever seen. There was nowhere to hold on to but the ropes that tied the logs of the raft together. Dark, slate waves caved back into the raft, slashing us, feeling like whips cracking over our backs. I had never been more scared.
During shadowy nights, drifting in the open ocean, I shook like a leaf. I never thought it would be possible to experience anything more horrible than the brothel, but the hours of holding on to a rope while the mad ocean heaved and made the skin of my hands raw and my determination to survive weak.
The satchel of henna seeds remained protected in my undergarments, and the thought of them made me stronger. As if they were emanating power. In the dead of night, shivering with fear, I held tight to the tiny seeds like they were my saviors. I knew that once I’d reach Europe, the nightmare would end. In my mind, I saw cute cobblestoned streets, the aroma of espresso wafting over them, and ancient nonas beating their rugs over flower-potted balconies. This dream was the idealist in me; reality landed me in Canada. Italy was just another stop to our ultimate destination.
With help from a Canadian refugee organization, I found a small walk-up flat in Toronto’s Chinatown East. The only window in the flat faced a brick wall making the space resemble a large closet more than an apartment. The walls hadn't been painted in years. There was enough room for a single bed, a small table and two chairs, a hot plate, and an electric cooler if everything was tightly placed. I plopped myself on the hard foam bed and sighed; this was where I had to start.
Three weeks after arriving at my new home, I finally had a place to plant the tiny triangular seeds I had been carrying since I left Dakar. I was afraid that the plant, which grew so easily back home, might be nearly impossible to produce in Canada, but nothing was going to deter me.
I scattered two dozen henna seeds on the soil in a plastic tray and placed it on the window sill where dry paint bubbled like a chemistry experiment. The lack of sun that forced people to turn on the lights at noon; a blanket of clouds that painted the sky grey; a dullness that came with the bone-chilling Arctic air—these were the elements that would strangle the life out of my henna plants.
I had to wait a long time for my seedlings to yield the leaves I yearned for, so I was forced to purchase imported henna leaves at the Senegalese convenience store down the road, two blocks south on Pape. The leaves came stacked like old accordion pleats in a small plastic bag like the ones dealers used to sell drugs.
In Senegal, I picked the leaves from my backyard—swaddled in the fragrant air the colourful flowers provided—and I crushed the greyish-green leaves with all my might. I pounded, and I ground the pestle into the mortar until the seeds became a fine powder. To get the seeds, I had to look for spent flowers that had dropped their petals. Where the petals fell is where I found the henna fruit. The round brown fruit which you cannot eat is where the golden-red seeds to plant new trees live.
The leaves I purchased at the convenience store in Toronto were dry, making the pounding a simpler task, but this made the tincture weaker. With my henna leaves a fine powder, I added lemon juice to lighten the mixture, water, and a little molasses—my own unique trademark—and I blended the powder into a paste with the consistency of clay. I waited until the effects of the henna were thoroughly mixed before I started to apply the thick glue on my hand and arm.
At the Dollar Store, I bought sticky zig-zag tape used for Scrapbooking, and I used this as my pattern-maker. I pulled the tape across from my upper thumb to the top of my pinkie and placed two more glue strips next to this one. The thin space between the rows of tape is where I applied the henna to stain my skin. I rolled out five rows of zig-zag tape around my wrist to look like a bracelet, and one row on each finger to make it look like I had a gold ring on each one. For the henna on my left ring finger, I doubled the space between the zigzags.
I was celebrating my Newcoming. It had been six weeks after arriving in Canada, and it was the first time that I was applying henna in my new home. I still had not found a job, although I was taking care of my ninety-two-year-old Jamaican neighbour, a couple of hours a week. I would have liked to work longer for the old lady, but her daughter that paid me said this was already a stretch for her. The job with Mrs. Cann gave me only enough to pay the electric bill but, I enjoyed the old lady. If it wasn't for the goodwill of the charity that sponsored me in this country, I wouldn't have been able to survive.
Mrs. Cann was full of complaints, and today she was feistier than most days.
“Wha’ in God’s sweet Earth have you done to your hands, child?”
"Mrs. Cann. I'm twenty-four years old, I'm not a child, and I've decorated my hands with henna. I'm celebrating."
“Dontcha tell me you no child when you ah go celebratin’ putting mud on you hands. Rub that dirt outta your hands right away! Don’t want no dirty woman in me house lookin’ so.”
"It's henna, Mrs. Cann, not mud…dye!"
“You wishin’ I be dead, child? I gonna tell me daughter not to hire you no more if you want me dead!”
"No, Mrs. Cann." It was useless arguing with the old lady. For a woman who did not reach five foot and weighed less than one hundred pounds, she sure packed plenty of brimstone and spitfire into her soul.
"You'll soon be gone like all the others. Gone. Nobody stays long around me." Mrs. Cann said this with pride, without a drop of self-pity. "I just looking for the right moment to catch you doin’ something you deserve firing for.”
"Like what, Mrs. Cann? You know I'm always respectful and careful around you."
“Exactly! That be the problem right there, child. Why you being so nice? You lookin’ for me inheritance money?”
I was sure Mrs. Cann didn't have money to 'go after.' "Don't worry Mrs. Cann. You've got a loyal caretaker in me. I'll be here every Wednesday from 3 to 5 in the afternoon, no matter what."
I allowed the old lady to rant about her things while I read the newspaper on the kitchen table. My eyes were glued to the red-and-white ad that announced Dick Venna’s Business of Beauty Seminar to be held downtown, six months from now. Registration was free, but I had to act now, for spaces were limited and filling up fast. If using Mrs. Cann's landline to make a call was what I'd get fired for, the risk was well worth it. I called the number on the ad. I had to register in person, and the only time slot was in two Wednesdays between three and four p.m.
“Can it be any other time?” I said. “That is the only time I am busy.”
"Appointments are non-negotiable. The opportunity of a lifetime doesn't come with a precise timetable, miss. You coming, or do I give this spot to the next person on the line?"
“I’ll be there! I will.”
I approached Mrs. Cann in her rocking chair, with caution.
“There’s a conference in six weeks’ time I’d like to attend. Registration will be in two weeks’ time. The free seminar is for immigrant entrepreneurs interested in entering the world of cosmetic beauty.”
“You tryin’ to blind me with science, child? Speak plain English, woncha? What is it you wanna do?”
“I want to go to a meeting for people who want to start their own beauty business.”
“What’s a beauty business? Nothin’ beautiful ‘bout dirty business, child.”
“It is a regular business, Mrs. Cann, like a salon, or like making your own cosmetics, or being an aesthetician.”
“An ass what? You tryin’ to make an ass outta me? You sure have high hopes, child. What that seminar gotta do with me?”
“I must register for the seminar two Wednesdays from today between 3 and 4 p.m.”
“So you ain’t goin.”
"I thought we might be able to change my shift a little so I can register. It's just this one time."
“Talk to my daughter but be advised that I gonna talk with her too, and I gonna tell her to fire you lazy ass!”
All my life I dreamed of owning a beauty salon and this was my first chance. I was hoping that with my skilled henna designs, I would impress the right people at the conference and maybe help launch my dream to reality. I planned to talk to as many people as possible, to work the room, and to show what I was capable of doing, given the chance. I even dared to hope I may be able to find an investor, or two. I smiled at my rushing thoughts.
I only watered my henna plants three times since I planted them just under two months ago. Henna likes this: they have adapted to periods of drought followed by monsoon, so today, I drenched my saplings. Of all the seeds I planted, only twelve green plants popped and soon, a couple withered because the sides of the pot blocked the little light that seeped through the kitchen window. Villagers back home used to say that, before the leaves were picked and crushed, it was a curse to talk about henna while she was growing. The elders also said that the henna plant knew her powers over humans and delighted in making the harvest a nightmare. They used to say Henna was capricious; changing her mind from day to day. Sometimes you thought you had overwatered her and other times you were convinced it had not been enough and the plants were dehydrating. They used to say it was best to water plentifully and not to look or think about the plant until her next drenching.
I couldn't do that; my flat was too small. I couldn't help glancing at the long plastic tray where my seedlings grew, but I tried not to think about how many had survived because I wanted to allow fate to play its hand.
To distract me from thinking about the henna plants, I sat with my back to the window and filled out job applications. It was a disheartening process. A week ago, someone called:
May I speak to Ms Awa?
"This is Awa.” I couldn’t hide the tremble in my voice.
“I’m calling about the job you applied for—”
Without asking for details, I took the offer, but soon I discovered that the job was one step outside slavery. I had to work sixteen hours straight, with no break or, ‘there was always someone out there, who would be glad to take the job.’
I worked three days a week at a meat packaging company that never stopped. More and more food waited to be sealed, and the final tiers were slowing up production. The company needed more people to twist the wire sealers on the bags to ship the product. I worked a double shift tying paper-covered thin wires and then recuperated for twenty-four hours, for which I wasn’t paid. After my first shift, my fingers were cramped, my nails cracked, my hands disjointed, and I was supposed to be better in a day. This did not take into consideration my aching back, from sitting in the same position for an entire day, and the general malaise that happened when a person did not see the outdoors for extended periods.
After the third day, my body could not get up from the cot where I slept. It knew that I'd have to go to work and rip my body from the fingers down to the soul. I got up but didn't go to work. Instead, I started a search for another job. I almost looked forward to Wednesdays when I took care of Mrs. Cann. I gave myself a break from sending resumes on that day.
That week, I would visit her on Thursday. I spoke with her daughter about taking an hour off to register for the conference, and we decided to move my visit a day and mention nothing to her mother. She'd think she got her days confused.
There were hundreds of well-groomed women signing up for the conference, and I was glad I switched days because I had to queue three hours before I saw an organizer.
"Sign here, miss. Three weeks before the conference, you will be required to send in your fifty percent deposit and the other half is due a week before the event. If you are not fully paid, you won't be able to attend."
“I thought this was a free conference.”
"It's free to register, miss. The conference costs five hundred."
The earth rattled under my feet. Shock ran up my spine. I felt my temperature rise and my blood boil. The heat went to my face and hands. The sounds around me got louder. I felt lightning travel through my nerves. I felt had.
Feeling like lifting my arms to the sky and giving up, I asked myself, how could I ever save that kind of money taking care of Mrs. Cann? No matter how much I tried to convince myself to go back to the meat packing company, I couldn't. I would not be able to attend this conference, my only chance to climb out of poverty unless I turned this disappointment into a positive; I ramped up my job search. I was determined to find something that would allow me to attend the conference.
I took temporary jobs, and with each position I found, I prayed that this would be the one, the one job that allowed me to pay for the conference in six months' time. Each post turned out to be worse than the last. These were immigrant jobs where bosses took advantage of newcomers' enthusiasm and worked us to the ground. Those jobs never lasted. I became too weak to continue, and I was easily replaced by the next immigrant eager to take my shift. I learned to steer clear from those positions and concentrated on finding something in my trade.
For months, I shuffled between job-seeking and working at dead-end jobs where I had to forgo eating lunch in order to save money, but I found myself in a lull. I took out the little silk drawstring bag where I put my savings. Like the henna plants, I had avoided thinking about the amount, as if by some strange miracle I would get to my desired number by not thinking about the money in the bag. I pulled the bills and coins out and started to count. Without thinking, I checked on my henna plants. There were only five left, but they looked healthy, determined to make it. Three hundred and eighty…three hundred and ninety dollars. I was delighted! I drenched the plants, and they smiled back at me. I took this as a sign that things would go well for me at the conference. It was my only way out.
I got ready to put the henna paste on my hand and arms. I had hopes of letting the cone’s tip fly over my fingers, moving gracefully, to create an intricate filigree. I was so excited that I shook when I started to apply the thick henna paste on my hand. The smell of molasses wafted into the air. I laid the paste with care between the Scrapbooking zig-zag tape, but my brain was racing ahead of itself; it ran in circles dreaming of setting up my own business, the name I’d give it, what colours I would like on the walls. I thought of everything but the design I was staining on my hand.
I should have purchased special dispensing cones that delivered the henna in even thin bands, and I almost did for this conference, but Amazon dot Cee-Ay wanted twenty dollars for them. Instead, I made my own, using a paper drinking cup that I got for free at the pharmacy's watercooler. I needed something to hold the henna paste and a small hole below it where the paste would come out smoothly. I coated the paper drinking cone with plastic wrap and cut a tiny nib at the tip. I squeezed a little and the henna flowed freely.
The henna-filled paper cone I had rigged slipped and split open. The gooey dark copper-coloured paste covered my hand. It tainted it instantly. Soiled it. Ruined everything. My hand looked as if I had dipped it into the palpitating heart of a dying creature. I ran cool water over my hand and fingers to no avail. The lilac and mauve colour scheme I had conjured for my salon ran down the drain and, with it, my aspirations. How could I attend a beauty conference looking like a serial killer?
No amount of washing would fade newly stained skin. I was doomed. My hopes blended into the mess on the top of my hand, and I felt the life of me flowing down the drain. I looked. I stared. I saw the light and shadows of my kitchen cross my hand as the day turned into night and I hadn’t moved.
I squeezed a dry lemon into a small bowl and dipped a cotton swab into the juice. Lost in thought, I tapped and tapped with the Q-tip on my tainted hand. I tapped until I created a filigree design that snaked from my wrist down to the length of my middle finger. I tapped the swab, tapped, tapped, dipped, tapped, tapped, dipped. I didn’t need to wash my hand to see the effect the lemon juice had created. Instead of decorating with henna, I was decorating with lemon juice by bleaching the henna out. The reduction effect was unusual and alluring. Surely, this would distinguish me from all the others at the conference. I felt like a puffer fish, pride filled me like a balloon.
The animated man at the podium closes the conference with his wildest tone. “So, there you have it, my forward-looking entrepreneurs. You either buy into the dream NOW or, it will NEEEVER come to you, NEVER!”
Upon my arrival at the conference, I had asked to speak with the organizer of the event. The security men at the entrance had scoffed and rolled their eyes, but eventually one asked for my ticket. He had guided me to the front seating, but I preferred the top. In the shadows.
From my seat, I see how the man at the podium creates a wave of frenzy in the audience, people like me that come in search of a better way. His allure and charisma touch me. The man presents a simple way out of poverty. He speaks of riches I have never desired, although I laugh when I imagine myself driving a Mercedes Benz.
The man began wrapping up his spiel. “And, if you are not already itching to come on down here and sign this contract, if I haven't convinced you to the fullest, well then, I can see you stuck in your job, trapped in a job that has taken you NOWHERE. Never will! Remember, you are conditionally borrowing our products to sell at a profit FOR YOU! Moments like this don't often come. DO NOT LET…THIS…OPPORTUNITY pass you by! Come down and sign yourself out of poverty for good! Right now!”
I raise my hand.
“What if I conditionally borrow the products from your company, as you have described, and I try to sell them to my family and friends and convince them to sell to their families and friends, but nobody buys? What happens to my conditional investment?”
The man at the podium signals to the doors and looks in another direction, as if he has not heard me from the back of the hall, as if he has not seen me in the shadows.
“I have an investment opportunity for you, sir," I shout at the top of my lungs as I stand on my wobbly fold-up seat.
From behind, someone pulls my arm up my back, until my shoulder cracks.
We do not tolerate conference disruptions. Venna Ltd. offers investments of a lifetime. We are not looking for any new ventures, the bone cracker says, as if his voice has gone through a cheese grater, raspy and broken.
The man pulls me out of the conference, despite my kicks and cries.
“I paid for my entrance.” Nobody listens.
When he dumps me on the sidewalk, I run after him, rage gushing through my veins. “I paid for the right to attend this conference! I saved for months. Let me in!” The man keeps walking, walking away from my chance to do what I feel destined to do. “Don’t go. Listen to me.”
He leans into his earpiece and stops.
“You can come with me. Your golden second chance is here.”
When he takes me to the conference organizer, the organizer greets me with a radiant smile and dark sunglasses. He admonishes me for disrupting the conference: Who do I think I am, what makes me so unique anyway to offer HIM something—does it not look as if he already has all he wants?
But it is his last words that stay in my head: “Your feisty spirit impresses me, young entrepreneur. This is what Venna Ltd. needs in a salesperson—guts and balls.”
And, just like that, I’m in, but not before the organizer says, “Do something with your hand. I am not sure if that’s a disease or a design, but it’s unbecoming. I’m sure there are bleaching creams out there. This is not a warning or a suggestion. Do you understand, young entrepreneur?” He sounds like a drill sergeant.
With my hand in a bowl of lemon juice every night, slowly the henna fades.
I push Venna products on everyone I know. I sell the colourful bottles with the promise of a clean house, a breathable environment, and a product they can trust, but I spend a lot more time explaining the products to people who never end up buying. I am good at explaining; not so good at turning that education into sales.
Making a call to the Venna Ltd. partner support helpline takes over an hour to speak to a representative but, finally, someone answers the phone.
“Thank you for calling Venna International Products, Limited. My name is Phyllis, and I'll be delighted to be of assistance. Whom am I speaking with and how can I be of service to you today?"
I can hear her smile shine through each word, and this brightness puts me at ease. I explain I have plateaued in sales, as I have sold all the products my friends and family can buy, and I can't seem to reach beyond to new clientele. I still have over half the goods I conditionally borrowed and nobody to sell them to.
“Awa, I understand how you must feel. You have sold Venna products to everyone in your circle of family and friends, and now you are finding it hard to reach the next level; the one where you start selling to people outside your circles. Is that right? Yes, Awa, I hear you. It is sometimes difficult to….”
I’m swayed by Phyllis’ optimistic encouragement. She convinces me that I need the next level of membership so I can advertise on Venna’s website to attract new clients.
“Awa, I completely understand that, at first, nine dollars a month sounds a bit high, but when you consider the price of advertising, really, this is a bargain! You know that over a million unverified customers come to our site; you heard right, over a million visit us online! Small price to pay, right?”
I sign up for the next level. Back home, I glance at my five young henna plants. They have not seen sunlight in exactly three weeks but, by now, they seem to know that, as water comes plentiful and then evaporates, so does the sun in Canada. A pang of guilt rushes through my body because I should not have looked at the plants before they needed their drenching. I know this.
Some of the worries, tribulations, and hesitations I had going into the Venna Ltd. partnership resurface. Not only have I spent all my money buying Venna products to sell, now I have signed up to advertise my business with monthly payments I have no clue how I will pay for them. I know I am not thinking like a forward entrepreneur, but I have never tried to press the future. I know there’s a grander plan for me; I feel it in my bones, and I know I will succeed way beyond Venna Ltd.
Life spirals as I get involved in my community church and connect with different people. Instead of using them as new anchors to expand my selling circles, I don’t mention Venna products to them at all, because I’m lousy at sales; I’m more interested in their story than trying to sell cleaning products.
“There is your answer,” I’m surprised to hear Phyllis say when I call Venna’s customer service line. “You have allowed your life to get in the way of your Venna goals. Awa, stir that brain of yours back where it belongs. Bring it back to Venna, for your benefit and everyone else’s.”
Month after month I lose money, I don't move inventory, and the thought of talking anything Venna to anyone feels foreign and tired. I enjoy living lightly upon this Earth. Possessions weigh me down and lock my spirit in their midst, not allowing me to be free of losing them all, not allowing me to soar to new heights, to live a new life.
Flustered from the lack of sales, I sit in my tiny room, trying to figure out how I’ll be able to survive in this country.
Nearly three weeks have gone by since the conference and, after bleaching my hand, I have done nothing to try new designs using my ‘reduction method’. The lemon juice is something I may incorporate into my designs in the future, but for now, my skin remains a clean slate.
Weeks pass, and my depressed mood prevents me from getting anything done. I haven't watered my henna plants, haven't cleaned, cooked, washed or walloped the comforter. The plants expect drought but not total neglect. I rush to the window with a glass of water. Four plants are left, but only three stand at about a foot tall. One is stooped so low she shows the same signs as her predecessors who have left this land for lack of sun.
I am determined to bring her back to life. I pluck dying leaves off her branches to give her more exposure to the sun, and I bore holes in the soil so she can absorb the world around her better. I rub a little lemon juice on her branches to ward off aphids, and I am still unsure if this plant is dead or only temperamental.
Sometimes, I feel like this wilting henna plant, unsure of which world I want to inhabit. I shake my head. I know where I belong.
Despite my initial losses in Venna, I work hard and start to build a small clientele. My goal is to reach Preferred Associate status by the end of the year. It is spring, people are out again, and I am rearing to get going. I am still lousy at selling, but I am great at talking and explaining the benefits of the products I sell, and by promising people a picture-perfect life, the bottles fly off the shelves in my room. Soon, friends of friends want to sell Venna, and more people want to buy from me. I spend every waking moment doing something for Venna, and the hardship starts to pay off. I reach Preferred Associate status by mid-summer. I adjust my goal to reach Platinum Associate by the end of the year. This is ambitious; it's two levels up.
I feel bold. It’s been two weeks since I’ve seen my plants; I take a peek. The temperamental one is showing no signs of letting go, either of life or of her bad mood. She still wilts, tired of living but afraid to die. The plants don’t need water.
“What’s up?” I ask Ms. Temperamental. “Life’s not treating you well? I wish I could promise you days full of sunshine, love, but this is Canada.” I poke the dirt around her. “Do you know what your mother plans to do today? Something she has never dreamed of doing before. She’s taking the little money she has saved in the bank to buy Venna products in bulk, to maximize her earnings. I bet you never thought you'd hear your mother speak like such a wise businesswoman, right my dears?"
I had to tell somebody. Every nerve in my body warns against this rash move. I have always been prudent and, even at my poorest, I had a little something saved in case of an emergency. Today, I plan to spend all I have because to buy a crate of products, this is what I have to do. I bolster myself.
I get a certified check at the bank, and the teller looks concerned.
“Is everything ok? Mind you, it’s none of my business, but you’ve always been careful with your money. I hope everything is ok. You seem to work hard.”
The mousy teller peers over the ledge. “Everything is wonderful,” I say. “I am growing my business.” I put the check in an envelope. “I must hurry as I have to certify this letter too. See you.”
I’m concerned because I do not hear from Venna after sending the check. I track the letter, and it shows delivered two days ago. When I call, the phones keep ringing. I attempt to leave Phyllis a message, but her answering service must be down. I wait another day and still nothing. I call other Venna representatives who are having the same difficulty reaching headquarters. Slowly, the news piles up into the most plausible scenario; we’ve been scammed. Venna closed its doors and has disappeared. Everything is gone. Fly by night. Finito. Poof!
Desperation fills my heart. I sit at the kitchen table and watch the four henna plants, and I wonder where I will get money to pay the weekly rent. I feel waves of sadness as all my ambitions are crushed. My savings are gone. I want to hold on to one of Ms. Temperamental’s branches and take the leap into the netherworld. There is nothing here to sustain us. We need more.
“Let’s take the jump,” I cry out loud.
When it’s time to water my plants again, I see that Ms. Droopy has chosen sides. All her leaves have fallen, and her head stoops to the ground. I scratch a bit of bark off and see no green left.
It’s the final blow. I take Ms. Temperamental’s death as a personal accusation, as an assault on my ability to do anything right. I feel incapable of going on, of trying to survive in this country, on this planet. I cannot go back home, I’ll return to certain death. If I stay, I’ll remain a displaced person with no job, no community, no life.
I rot for weeks. Three weeks, precisely. Watering my three surviving henna plants is the only thing that forces me out of bed. My place is a mess. I have abandoned the dishes in the sink which has invited critters to feast on my crumbs. There are discarded clothes dotting the floor, and there is not a drop of fresh air that has come through the flat.
Flinging the window open, I grab brush and bucket and scrub my floor until it shines. I smile at the memory of my latest botched henna job. I have been experimenting with my reduction method. I have been careful about not letting the cup burst, but it has twice, leaving my hand a spoiled mess. I get angry at my innocence. A paper cup is not the instrument for the job. I start to think of new ways of applying the gooey henna paste.
I have no money left, but I brave the world and go to the dollar store searching for ideas. I find the perfect substitute. In the seasonal section, I see four tiny plastic condiment squirt bottles for a dollar fifty. I can cut the nozzles to fit my needs, but I don’t have a dollar fifty.
I leave the Dollar Store, not depressed but hopeful. I dream of one day buying the small plastic bottles and crushing henna leaves from my own trees and impressing a whole army of movers and shakers with what I have to offer. With a broad smile on my face and my mind far away, my eyes rest on a handwritten sign hanging from the window of a Chinese restaurant: “help required urgent.”
There is a small man, swaddled in a dirty white apron, smoking outside the door. He watches me read the sign. His eyebrows form perfect arches and motions with his head for me to enter the establishment. He drops the cigarette, rubs his hands as I open the door.
“Yes? Yes? You wach de diches? Yes?" He gives me a pair of rubber gloves that are ten sizes too big for my hands. Tentatively, I take them, and he points at a sink hiding under a mountain of pots. My brows mimic his perfect arches.
“Cash money.” The man waves two twenty-dollar bills. “When you finich. Yes?”
I look at the mountain and calculate I can have the pots cleaned in three hours tops and I dig in. The oversize gloves don’t allow me to hold the pots tightly and they slip from my hands in the soapy water. Three hours later, I am no closer to getting rid of the grease mountain. I rip the rubber gloves off. Not only can I handle the pots better, the lemony soap quickly fades the henna off my hands. Soon, I’ll be ready to try again, using the little plastic bottles from the Dollar store.
“Not done yet, miss? Hard work is good for you.” The little man with the dirty apron does not look pleased, his arms crossed high on his chest and his back arched. Behind his small eyes, he watches me sweat as I scrub the pots.
“I’ll get through them much faster without the gloves.”
“Hot today. Too hot. You must to work hard and fast to get de pay.”
The sound of money fuels my scrubbing. In the basement of the restaurant where I stand washing the dishes, the steam from the hot water rises to meet smells that waft around the dingy restaurant; some sweet and aromatic, others pungent and not pleasant. A faint aroma of rot, wet rug mixed with years of frying onions is the footnote to all the smells in the restaurant. I see the steam I create floating in and out of the blackened pots and pans that hang from every available pipe in the basement's ceiling. The steam marries the scent and they elope out the window where they will make someone's mouth water and someone else's face cringe. Down here, where I see no daylight, I know summer has started. It's muggy and steamy, but there are no signs of summer. Outside, the sun refuses to come out of hibernation; the sky remains grey, without character or charm. Grey without life. Grey with no inclination towards white or black, simply grey.
Despite the dinginess outside, a strange elation runs through my veins because I have a job. A job that is sticky, smelly, smashing and smouldering, but real as real can get and this makes me proud. I look at my hands; my fingers are wrinkled into small white worms and I can feel the moisture being sucked right out of my skin as I hang the last pot.
“You tek long to wach de diches…too long, too much water, too much soap. You improve better tomorrow fast.” He hands me only one of the twenty dollars I saw seven hours earlier.
“You said forty.”
“No! I never, ever say forty. I show you two twenty, but I never say forty.”
I grab the money out of his hand. “What time tomorrow?” I don’t look at him.
“Same time is good, but you must improve.”
I improve. By the end of the first week, it takes me five hours to complete the pile and by the end of the second week, I do it in four hours. This week, I am aiming for what I thought it would take when I first started.
Mr. Li has become more reasonable as he watches me improve. He had started to show his appreciation by giving me food to take home. He doesn’t know I live by myself, and I have no family to feed, but he also doesn’t know that every penny I can save is a lifesaver after the Venna disaster. Last week, he increased my pay to twenty-five dollars.
“Hard work requires hard recompense,” he said when he pulled the extra five out of his pocket. “You get more pay for better work.”
Three weeks have passed since Ms. Temperamental left this world to be compost, and I have not had time to look at her companions. I’m so busy trying to please Mr. Li that I’ve hardly been in my flat. The condiment plastic bottles I bought at the Dollar store with the first twenty dollars I earned stand nicely lined up near the window sill; ready to be what they were born to be or dreading what I might have in mind for them. Today is my first day off since I started with Mr. Li and I intend to look after things that please me.
“Oh no. What have we here?”
The henna plant furthest from my tiny window, the one that gets the least of the grey light that wafts into the sill of the flat for about two hours a week, has shed twenty leaves. I push my fingers into the soil and feel there is still moisture, so she’s not dehydrated. I bring a magnifying glass I bought at the Dollar store and, although it distorts everything in its path, I look for aphids on the bark and leaves—none. Maybe that is what she needs, a little vermin?
No, she needs vitamin D.
Her companion is healthy and, at nearly two feet tall, is reaching for the elusive canopy of light. I take the fallen leaves to lay them out to dry; it is time to test my condiment bottles. Back home, I would have placed the leaves on a blanket under the intense Senegalese sun and, in a day, they'd be ready to pummel into a paste. I'd have to wait a long time for that to happen here in Canada, so I put the leaves in the toaster oven I got from the Salvation Army and they are ready in half an hour.
The last time I tried to put a henna design on my hand, it did not go as expected, but it was not because I was using the watercooler cups instead of my condiment bottles. I am not sure if it was because of my dry hands, or a new diet in this country, but the henna bled beyond the fine lines I painted to form a perfect blotch. Luckily, these designs fade quickly because washing dishes make them disappear in a week. This is my opportunity to experiment, to draw beyond the known designs, and to try and stand out from the crowd. I feel like I can try anything because even if something doesn’t work out and it turns into another henna disaster, the design will disappear from my hands because of my job, so I can try, try, try again until I get exactly what I want.
I crush some of the dry henna leaves and I add my special ingredients, coconut oil and molasses. I mix and I whip, and I twirl until I get the right consistency. I cut the nozzle off the new condiment bottles and this fills me with hope because I can cut some thinner, others thicker, and some at an angle to get different line effects; this will add character to my designs. I have also found better Scrapbooking tape and in different shapes to add repetition to my creations.
I start with the thinnest nozzle to plan the overall design. I always draw from the tallest finger, down the hand and up the forearm a bit, to signal the movement towards the heart, the centre. The henna paste is smooth and flows with ease from the bottle. I'm able to create beautiful curves that move with the rhythm of my hand and I can create details I never thought possible.
With each line I draw on my fingers and hand, images of home flood my mind. Soon, I feel I’m in Dakar, joking around with my people, as we often did.
“Yaangi noos,” my neighbour would come up to me in the street, as we walked to market, asking if I was enjoying life.
“Waaw,” I’d answer, which is yes in our language, but I’d make it sound more like the American wow, to show I was enjoying life to the fullest, although the exact opposite was true. It had been years since my mother and sister passed away, but I still missed them every time I went to market. To distract me, the neighbour and I gossiped all the way to town, enjoying each other’s company.
These memories bring a smile; I can almost feel the African sun on my back, but I know it is just a daydream. I’m sitting alone in my dingy Canadian kitchen creating the most intricate henna design I have ever done before. When I stop to look, a filigree of many dimensions covers my fingers and hand. The design seems to pop right out of my hand. I am delighted with the results.
Because I can’t afford a cell phone yet, I’m unable to take a picture of my hand, so I have to draw the pattern on paper. The repetition is good for remembering the drawing because it will soon fade in Mr. Li’s bubbly lemony dish soap.
“Awa, you lose the water in your apartment this weekend?” Mr. Li squints his eyes and looks horrified.
“No. Why do you ask? Did you?”
Both his hands move in rapid circles and point to my hands. Soon, I start moving mine like he is, because I don’t know what he means, or wants.
“You no come to my restaurant with dirty hand! My Chinese customers no permit this behaviour, go home, come back clean. Bad enough you already brown—”
“My hands are not dirty, Mr. Li. Look! I’ve created a beautiful design with henna, a natural product from a small tree. From nature!” I study his eyes to gage a reaction. He’s thinking, not entirely convinced.
“It’s completely organic! I grew the trees myself.”
Mr. Li laughs. “You grow trees in your balcony?”
“I don’t have a balcony. Henna can grow into tall trees Mr. Li, but not here.”
As I scrub the pots, he stands by my side for a full hour, explaining why his customers will not appreciate an African woman entering his restaurant with a hand full of stained doodles.
“But what is the difference, Mr. Li? I’m downstairs in the basement where nobody can see me. How would they know about the henna on my hands?”
“Bad superstitions. Your hand touches plate and they eat from the plate, nobody know what kind of superstition comes out of it. Take it off by tomorrow.”
Mr. Li’s chest puffs and he shakes his head quickly. “You dare question your superior?” Beads of sweat form on his forehead.
“No disrespect, Mr. Li, but I’ve dyed the design on my hand. The good news is this soapy water is great for fading it. In less than a week, you won’t even see it anymore.”
“Wash today or don’t come tomorrow.”
Instead of scraping pots, I spend the next two hours trying to bleach the design out of my skin. I take a woolly pad and dip it in Clorox. I rub, rub, rub away, but the henna persists. The fresh leaves have made it stronger and, under normal circumstances, this would be a good thing, but in Mr. Li’s restaurant, it turns out to be a disaster.
I lose a day’s pay, my hands are raw, I smell like a public pool, but I am happy. I’ve learned many valuable things about the henna that I grow; it fades slowly, it’s malleable, and I can create designs by bleaching out rather than drawing in. I intend to make this knowledge help me crawl out of this life.
I spend my days off, experimenting on my hand. I use a very watered-down henna solution to play with the different nozzles and the line possibilities that each offers. I first draw a traditional pattern full of strokes swirling into a continuous arched pattern. Atop the line of tightly knit semicircles, I draw the same shape, larger. Lines of small dots run amok the side of the curvaceous stripes and on top of those, I close the design with its mirror image. Traditional designs are always stunning in their complexity.
With a new phone I purchased second-hand at the Salvation Army, I take a picture of my hand, then scrub it with a mixture of bleach and lemon juice until the pattern is gone. I start a new design, this time modern and of my own making. Long parallel lines run from my fingers up my arm, the crosslines are equally spaced, thicker and decorated with free-flowing swirls. In the empty spaces, I prepare a weaker solution of henna and, with a needle dipped in lemon juice, I scrape the most delicate of filigrees. I take another photograph and repeat the Clorox/lemon ritual until there is nearly no skin left on my hand.
Because of the condition of my hands, I have to use Mr. Li’s giant rubber gloves at work, and they slow me down. Soon, he comes around saying the privileges I’ve gained until now could be revoked if I slow down any more. As grateful as I am to have this job, I leave the restaurant that evening in a foul mood.
It is nearly nine o’clock at night, but there is still plenty of light in the summer sky, although there has been no sun at all. The same din grey that blanketed the city all summer persists. Not wanting to sit at home alone, I decide to walk back a different route, to avoid thinking too much about a better life. With my head in the heavy clouds, I stumble on the sign for a new business in the neighbourhood; my heart skips several beats. I catch my breath; a new beauty salon is about to open. I stare at the sign for a very long time: Coming Soon! Ms. Becky’s Salón de Beauty.
The glass door is covered with paper so I cannot peek to see if this is a fancy spot or a dive. The name doesn’t tell me much, other than it seems a little confused; not sure if it wants to sound French or Spanish. Still, the sign excites me. My head begins to fill with ideas of what I could achieve if I had a job in this salon. My henna expertise would be sought by all circles of society and business would be brisk. In time, I could branch into my own enterprise, where I’d be known as the Queen of Henna.
I rush home. I must work on my hands. I have to get them into shape and give myself a manicure. Stain a design on my hands and, chase my goals. I slather my coarse hands in coconut oil and wrap them in plastic to soften my leathery skin. As I dream up the design that will cover my supple hands, my eyes fall upon the henna trees. They are growing and it’s time to transplant them to larger pots; they need a good soaking.
The remaining two plants look strong, despite the lack of sun this summer, but fall will soon be here and who knows how these two will survive. They've managed up to now, so I feel confident—until I look out the window. Not a blue-grey, but a yellow-green grey buries the city today and there is no chance of a break in the sky.
I sigh. “What is going to happen when I transplant you two, eh? Your thorns are getting long and pointy. Are you going to prick me until I bleed?”
I stop myself; I don't want to sound as if I'm accusing my plants of not growing healthier. They do what they can under the dome of gloomy skies. I pick up the rubber gloves I brought from Mr. Li's restaurant and put them over my coconut oil-soaked hands. I take the plants out of their containers and put them into larger pots with very clumsy movements.
The hennas are about a half metre tall now, and I must be careful that the lower branches don’t prick my head. By the time the two plants are moved into their new living quarters, my hands have had a good soaking of oil; I am ready to design my life out of this flat for something a bit sunnier.
Mr. Li won't like it one bit if I use my own fresh leaves because the design would last weeks. I can't hide my hands from him that long. I decide to use dry leaves from the Senegalese convenience store down the road because the immediate effect will be equally strong, but the dye won't be as long-lasting.
For this design, I combine traditional and modern elements by trapping little swirls that swim in all directions into rigid zig-zag shapes that go one on top of the other. The lines appear to float above the arm because I've created a soft filigree design underneath with the lemon juice. I am impressed with my work. I must wait a couple of hours with the henna on my hands before I can wash the paste off, to be sure that the skin has stained deeply. Then, I’ll be ready to knock on Salón de Beauty’s door.
While I wait, I study my resume. Labour wasn’t documented or classified in my village where I worked in all aspects of female affairs, from aiding in birth to braiding a bride’s hair into a crown. It was always the henna I grew in my garden that guided me in the types of assistance I could offer.
Primarily, I used the henna leaves for decorating, and this is what I was known for, not only in my village but in most of southern Senegal. I decorated women’s palms and feet and my designs were so popular that I started creating on shoulders, arms and even small fingernails. I also used henna for curative purposes and to dye fabric.
The henna plant’s bark I crushed into a powder to treat liver disorders, the beautiful small flowers relieve headaches caused by the hot sun by applying them to the forehead, and the seeds seeped in hot water help with fever. For dying cloth, I used both the henna paste to create darker patterns and the subtler undertones I did with a watered-down henna seed tincture and a little coconut oil.
On my resume, it states I worked as a beautician and Ayurvedic homeopathic provider, a medical assistant and a textile designer. I am certain these skills will be useful in my upcoming job pursuit.
The henna design has taken. I rinse the paste off my hands and get into my most professional looking outfit, which is a skirt and blazer that nearly match to look as if they are a suit. I slip into my pumps and feel a little out of kilter after wearing sandals all summer. I straighten myself and head out to Salón de Beauty.
“Not looking for cleaners right now, hon.” A tall, slim, middle-aged woman wearing blue eye shadow, crowned by a redhead beehive, peeks from the glass door.
“I’m here to see if you need a beautician, madam. I have brought my resume.”
The woman’s cat-eye reading glasses twitch over her nose. “A beautician, eh?”
"Yes, madam. I have experience in many aspects, as my resume clearly points out." I hand her the paper which she looks up and down and then, for some reason, also stares at the blank back for a long time. Then, her green eyes move toward my hands and stay there. I cannot judge if she is as pleased as I am with the outcome. She shows no emotion, yet she does not stop staring at my hands as she holds my resume face down.
“A beau-ti-cian, right?” she speaks very slowly.
“And, what has happened to your hands, may I inquire?”
I extend both hands. “Original henna designs, madam, my speciality.”
The woman’s eyes dart left and right, she clears her throat, scrunches her nose and says, “Darling, I don’t want to sound prejudiced in any way, but my clientele would not trust their hair to a woman with mud on her hands, as pretty as it might look. They are just not used to this kind of thing, I hope you understand.” She gives me back the papers.
I am devastated. The work, the planning, the anticipation, just to be rejected and to be told I’m a girl with mud on her hands. Ignorant woman! I toss the papers on the street and run back to my flat; tears fly behind me, creating a watery veil of sorrow and pain.
I don’t get out of bed for three full days and I would have stayed longer had Mr. Li not ordered my building's management to break down the door, if necessary, to find out what has happened to his loyal employee. I thought that he would have sent the Chinese Mafia to fire me, or worse, for not attending to my duties. After the superintendent finds me alive, Mr. Li gives me the rest of the week off, unpaid of course, to recover from the malady that had taken a hold of me. He sends a variety of roots and leaves and wishes me fortitude, once again.
The word resonates in my brain like a cascade of ringing bells. Fortitude, the strength of mind to be able to face adversity with courage. Mr. Li wished me this once again as if I had possessed fortitude before. Although I have never thought of this, he is right. I do have strength and I am resilient. I always bounce back like a rubber band, and it is time to bounce myself back to life and to never stop trying to get ahead of myself, even when I stumble.
When it is time to drench my henna trees again, I see that moving to a larger pot has proven devastating for one of the plants because I find her drooped to the windowsill, her leaves scattered. I try not to think as I yank the dead plant out of the pot, shake the soil into a container and shove the bark into the trash can. Once the plant is dead, the bark is of no use, there is no life force running through it. I collect the leaves and spread them out to finish drying. The seed of a plan begins to take hold in my brain, and I bounce back.
On Monday at Mr. Li's, he hands me a contract. "Legal," he says. "You get fair pay from now on and a good health benefit." His wide smile threatens to swallow the rest of his head.
I don't want to legitimize my position here. I am better than this. I do not see myself slaving over dirty dishes for the rest of my life. I must refuse.
“Is very good for you,” Mr. Li insists. “For me, less money but better employee is worth it. You upstairs from now on. Front of the house, yes?”
“Yes, Mr. Li, thank you.”
When I water my only surviving tree, I see she has grown into a strong tree, her leaves shiny and green. Small little fruits are beginning to bubble out of the stems where flowers will soon bloom, and I will have my own new army of seeds to try again. For now, this tree has taken and has adapted to our new life and country.