'Stained' by Sara El Sayed
Ahmed put his fork down and looked at me across the dining table.
“Baba, why am I different?”
I told him everyone is different.
“You know what I mean. Why are we different? Why can’t we be the same as everyone else? I’m sick of being weird, looking different. It’s not fair. ”
He was right, we did look different. The first thing I noticed when my parents and I came to Australia was the way everyone wore hats and sunscreen. We didn’t need any of that - our skin was pretty sun-tolerant.
“You’re an Egyptian, you should be proud of that,” I told Ahmed.
“It’s hard to be proud of being different. I want to be Australian. ” I knew he would feel this way sooner or later. I was seven years old when I first felt it - different. My parents and I had just moved in to 5 York Street, in the Brisbane city suburb of Morningside.
Compared to the other houses on the street ours was small, but it was the biggest place I had ever stepped foot in. It even had a garden at the back. I couldn’t believe it. It was just like in the American movies. The ones where the boys would play football in their back yards with their friends, and when the sun went down they would run inside to their mothers for dinner. I could do that, and I would do that. I unpacked my clothes while my parents were in the living room speaking in increasingly louder and tenser voices. My mother came into my room.
“Khaled,” she said, “you know what I saw on the way here? A football field, just down the street. How about you go and see if there’s anyone to play with.”
My mother knew exactly how to distract me: talk about football. So I went to find the field.
I walked down the street and came to a small, white bridge with peeling paint that crossed over a creek. I could see the football field on the other side of the bridge. There was no one there. Looking down, I noticed strange-looking little fish swimming around in the creek. Funny country, Australia was. With funny fish.
“What are you doing?” said a voice behind me. I turned to see a girl standing on the bridge. She had the blondest, brightest hair I had ever seen. That was the first thing I noticed.
“What are you looking at?” she said. I stared a while before she raised her white eyebrows toward the creek.
“The fish. There’s funny fish in there.”
“Tadpoles,” said the girl, “baby frogs.”
“What’s your name?” she sat down on the edge of the bridge and dipped her feet in the water.
“Khaled,” I said.
“Car-led,” she repeated. She couldn’t pronounce the “kh”. “My name’s Hannah.”
“Hannah, is that like henna?” I asked. She looked at me blankly. “You know, henna. The paint that ladies put on their hands. ” She didn’t understand. How could she not know what henna was? I loved henna. Boys aren’t supposed to like girl things like that, and not many boys would care about things like that either, but I love the way it looked. I’d watched my mother many times painting it on her skin. I thought it was beautiful. I thought Hannah was beautiful. They must’ve meant the same thing. We sat in silence for a while, watching the tadpoles swim in circles.
“Mama has henna. She likes to paint it on her hands. She keeps it in her room. I can get some and show you,” I told her.
“Maybe tomorrow, I have to go, it’s dinner time.” She got up. Her straight hair swung with her movements. “See you tomorrow.”
I’d see her tomorrow. I couldn’t wait.
The next day I snuck into my mother’s room. She kept her henna in a small wooden box that looked a lot like a treasure chest. It sat on the top shelf in her wardrobe. I knew I’d get in trouble for taking it but I didn’t care. I needed to show Hannah. I climbed the shelves, grabbed the box, and opened it. The smell of earth filled the room.
Hannah was already there when I got to the field. She was wearing a white dress. I remember it because it almost matched her hair.
“I brought it,” I said, and opened the box.
“Smells funny,” she said. I picked up a twig and dipped it into the box. I painted a “H” on the back of my hand. “See,” I said “isn’t it cool?” Hannah looked at it, then held her hand out towards me. I dipped the twig back in the box and painted a “K” on hers. It stained her white skin in a way I’d never seen henna stain a hand before.
“Will it rub off? I don’t want to get my dress dirty,” she asked.
“It won’t rub off for a while.” I’d seen it last on my mother’s hands for weeks. Hannah got up to leave again.
“See you tomorrow,” she said
I’d see her tomorrow. I couldn’t wait.
I walked to the creek again. Hannah wasn’t there yet. So I sat on the edge of the bridge and dangled my legs over the side. I had brought the henna again, to show Hannah some more of the patterns I could draw. The “H” on my hand had dried into a dark mud colour, unlike what I imagined Hannah’s blood orange “K” would look like. I sat and waited for her to come.
After a while of watching the fish in the creek, I heard a laugh coming from the field. I looked up and saw Hannah, and there was a boy with her. He wore a hat, and I could see the sunscreen on his nose hadn’t been rubbed in properly. I hid the box of henna behind my leg.
I saw the “K” on Hannah’s hand. It had faded. More than faded. It looked as if she had tried to scrub it off. I looked at my “H”. I needed to get it off. I rubbed at it hard. I dunked my hand into the creek and rubbed it harder. But the colour wasn’t going anywhere.
“Baba?” said Ahmed. “Why?”
My son was still looking at me from across the dining table. I could see my reflection in his jet black eyes. I felt that “H” burn back into my skin.
“Be proud of who you are,” I said. “Always be proud.”