A Stain in the River
Autumn (Halloween) 2019
Moss coated the trees like thickly layered paint, wildflowers blooming sporadically nearby. The deep gurgles of the stream bellowed a slow symphony in the background.
Brown eyes shifted from the scene to a blank canvas stretched taut over wooden stakes, the sharp wrinkles pulling themselves tight against bone. Her hands, aged but steady, smeared a bead of blue onto the board, breaking the seemingly endless horizon of pure white.
A sky was born in a different world.
Where the stones laid buried in hunks of stiff mud and animal muck, she shuffled dark brown tones with a bristling brush, moving quickly while the paint was still wet. Dark hues, navy for the rising earth, breaths of white against the blue stretch of sky above her.
And those green, hulking trees, giants stumbling around the tiny creatures below them, blocking out the sky—they were decorated with yellow highlights and orange fruit, smeared with the scent of oak and syrup.
She stepped back to review her work.
It was a mess of color, of shifting wetness and dry pigment crusting over the edges, and she pursed her lips against the wave of dissatisfaction that roiled in her gut. There was something off, something that tugged at her like an anchor that longs for a taste of the black ocean.
It was all wrong.
A flash caught her eye.
The briefest speck of red glistened at the edge of the river, a stark contrast to the overlapping layers of brown paint it was buried in. She stepped closer, squinting skeptically down at the loose form. It must’ve been a stray hair on her brush, accidentally picking up the wrong pigments to form a poppy where poppies didn’t belong.
Yes, that’s what it was. A flower, merely out of place.
She scraped the speck from the canvas, wiped her stained brushes on a spare rag, and packed up her things.
“I really don’t see it.” Her sister cocked her head to the side with a frown. “It’s just . . . a forest.”
“That’s not it, Sarah,” She insisted. “The painting’s all off.” “Do you think it needs a subject?”
“No, I mean . . .” She huffed. “Something about it just seems wrong.”
“I don’t think I’m following you.” Sarah took a long drag of her cigarette, watching the smoke rise high above the balcony. The sun was sagging below the horizon, streaks of orange painted across the fading sky. “It honestly seems fine to me.”
The two rested on Eleanor’s balcony, sipping glasses of lemonade and watching the first shadows of night fall across the sky. The sisters hadn’t seen each other in four months, with Sarah focusing on new endeavors in soapmaking (which was, unfortunately, just as dull as it sounded) and Eleanor pushing herself to release another string of original paintings.
“So, how have things been?” Her sister’s voice was steady. Calm. “After . . . you know. Brian.”
You know. She didn’t have the courage to call it what it was—a murder.
“They still haven’t found him,” Eleanor replied. “His . . . body, I mean.”
“It must’ve been hard, losing your husband so unexpectedly. And especially in that way.”
That way. Eleanor’s blood pounded in her head, and she knew from the doting look on her sister’s face that the harsh lines were carved between her knit brows again, worn caverns appearing in seconds through skin. Sarah hated wrinkles, always kept her expressions tight and emotions clipped to avoid a single tear in her smooth, stark-white china face.
But Eleanor was the loose sister, the wild goose they kept locked away to avoid scaring the neighbors, or embarrassing the family, or attracting laughing, mocking boys in baseball caps and dirt-streaked navy shorts.
Being the family stain was hell, but at least she was allowed to have expressions.
“You’re allowed to say murder, Sarah,” She tried tiredly.
“I’m not made of glass, and I can certainly handle treating the situation as it is.”
“I haven’t seen you in months, and it’ll likely be more until we meet again. I don’t want to spend the little time we have left talking about the murder.”
Good riddance—the sister was quiet, and the two sat uncomfortably in silence once again.
Her eyes flitted back to the painting, lost in the folds of paint, of burnt sienna bark and titanium white clouds and the faintest traces of ochre in soft moss.
It should’ve been beautiful. It would’ve been beautiful, had it not been so wrong.
“Do you see that?”
Her sister raised a brow. “What, the painting again? You’ve made me review this thing about a dozen times today, and I’ve told you—there’s nothing wrong with it.”
But Eleanor was already creeping closer, a hand outstretched to caress the edges of the river, the canvas rough beneath her broken nails. There it was again—a stain of red in the water.
It wasn’t just a speck this time—somehow, she’d overlooked a gaping scar that bled deep into the river.
“There’s . . . there’s red.”
“In the water.”
Her sister sighed. “Why are you still going on about this? You and Father are the most stubborn perfectionists I’ve ever met, you hear?”
“I don’t want to talk about Father, Sarah.”
“He wasn’t nearly as bad as you make him out to be.” Eleanor let her fists curl but refused to swing them. What kind of sister was she, comparing Eleanor to him?
Nails dug bloody into palms. It occurred to her that she had been painting that day, too, when it happened.
Blood, blood, blood. Stains of red in the grass. Her tears in the dirt.
A fist, slamming over and over into her jaw.
Running, running, running—her dress hiked above ballet flats, his dark, hunched form chasing after her through the backyard. Both knew he’d catch her in seconds.
Blood, blood, blood.
Stains of red in the grass.
Eleanor swallowed. “You were always the favorite, weren’t you? He never beat you for a reason.”
“Don’t be so dramatic, El,” her sister scolded. “He hit you once or twice. It was never the end of the world.”
Eleanor sighed. Tore her eyes from the painting, although the blood-red was never washed completely from where it tainted her mind. “You’re right, I guess. It was never the end.”
She slept on the couch that night, relinquishing the only bed to her sister. Even without the extra space, even with the cushions pressing painfully against her back, her legs hanging off the edge, it felt noticeably empty, as if someone had carved the beating heart of the room out with a blade.
It was his absence, she knew. His bellowing laughter, cheek pressed against the phone, a hand on her waist as she craned her neck to listen. His footsteps late at night, barking orders, fingers curling around the last milk carton in the house.
Somehow she still missed his touch, despite the bruises it left on her body. She missed the lingering eyes he marked her with the first time he’d seen her, as if painting a target on her forehead. She missed the messy scrawl of his handwriting, the unreadable scribbles on the first note he ever left her.
832-284-0000. Call me sometime.
Was her grief a defect? Was she wrong to feel relieved that he was gone, yet still unhappy?
He was loud and clumsy and chaotic. Without him, the house was refined. Too quiet. Too clean.
And suddenly Eleanor was home again—not in the riverside cabin that she slept and worked in, but home, where the manor was never quiet with two little girls and a cat napping above the fireplace, soaking up the warmth of a hearth mid-October.
Father would be shouting at them to stop moving, stop screeching, stop playing, a cigar in his mouth as he eyed whatever documents were unlucky enough to be between his thick fingers that night. Sarah would obey, always. Eleanor would frown.
How could she still have affection for a place where her blood spilled on the dirt outside, where angry fists left bruises splattered over her eyes, and she’d have to sneak into Mother’s closet the following morning to fish through whatever makeup could obscure them?
But the thought always lingered in her mind—was she expected to resent it instead, the home she’d been given? The place where her mother danced, her sister wrote notes over the spruce piano, her paintings hung over the walls?
The answer had been too hard to figure out. Maybe that’s why she moved out into the backwoods, left the manor and the cat to Sarah. It was her home, but it was also her battlefield, and she’d been sick of fighting an endless war.
She just hadn’t realized that she’d only return to the field years later with a different opponent.
Somewhere in the midst of her thoughts, her back had begun aching, spine grating against the stone-hard cushions, and she pulled herself sluggishly up onto her feet. It was too late in the night to be awake, but far too early to begin the day’s work. She was a boat stranded between the end of one wind current, and the beginning of the next.
The world seemed static, empty, as she flitted through shifting shadows towards the kitchen. Silence gripped the room, begging to be interrupted by the churning of the coffee machine.
Her eyes slipped through the darkness again, flying back to the painting with magnetic energy as she waited for her coffee to pour. There was no doubt about it - the red stain in the river had grown again, this time seeping deep into the canvas and streaming through the water like poison.
She shuddered, gripped her mug until cold fingers turned white.
It was him. It had to be him.
Was she going insane? Had it finally happened, the years and the fists breaking through the delicate barrier of her mind? The house suddenly seemed emptier than she could’ve imagined, and Eleanor quickly reminded herself that Sarah was just above her, sleeping soundly in the bedroom upstairs.
He couldn’t hurt her anymore. His fists were ash and dirt, his voice lost to the wind. But it felt as if he never left—none of them had. It was as if she fought one opponent in different forms, from father to husband, husband to spirit.
She’d have to act soon. That night—it had to be the last she saw of them.
“I’m heading out.” Eleanor shoved a foot into her hiking boots, the painting wrapped in thick canvas and tucked under her armpit.
Sarah replied with only a grunt of acknowledgement, and with that, Eleanor closed the door behind her.
The walk through the forest was brief, the crisp Autumn air cutting into her cheeks like a blade. She remembered the first time she wandered down the now-familiar path that stretched before her.
Back when she was in the process of leaving the manor, the move to her cabin had been almost too rigid a change, switching from ballet flats to hiking boots, hardwood floors to moss carpets. But her desperation to leave her father’s mansion had been just enough to keep her in place—a wide-eyed young woman, her thoughts solely focused on escape.
It was so long ago. Had she really come so far? Some days, she felt like the same Eleanor, the little girl who flinched at curled fists and hid behind her canvas.
She heard the soft gurgling of the river seconds before it came into view behind a heavyset grandfather oak tree. It looked the same as she’d left it that first day her brush touched the canvas, although red stains now soaked the latter like a plague.
From the knapsack against her hip she pulled a cardboard box of matches and a gallon of gasoline, tossing the ruined painting on the ground before her.
The canvas wrap slipped off of it, exposing the vivid green of the leaves, the birdsong, the smell of pine, as if she was peering into the scene itself - the day the water ahead of her first tasted blood.
Blood, blood, blood. Stains of red in the river. Her tears in the dirt.
A fist, slamming over and over into her jaw.
Running, running, running - her dress hiked above her boots, his dark, hunched form chasing after her through trees and bramble. Both knew he’d catch her in seconds.
The knife in her hand, lifting up. Her husband’s cry of surprise. Blood, blood, blood.
Stains of red in the river.
She’d buried him where the red spot stretched over the painting, his knife tucked under his arm. Months later, young poppies were already spreading in droves over top, the body beneath forgotten by all but her.
The smell of gasoline lit her nostrils aflame as she opened the gallon tub and sprinkled liquid generously over the layers of paint she’d worked so hard to build, the world she’d captured in linseed oil and pigment.
The match was struck and dropped, and she waited with bated breath.
Flames turned to hellfire. The painting burned easily.
In the back of her mind, she imagined it as his cremation, his return to ashes and dirt and wind. It felt like an ending. It felt right.
She remembered the feeling of his arms around her, their sides pressed together, the taste of wine lingering on her lips as she leaned into his weight. She remembered his breath touching her lips, a gentle request to move closer.
She remembered the way he smiled, the way he laughed, the way he held her hand when she cried.
She remembered his quiet apologies in the morning, roses in hand, his fingers grazing over the bruises he’d left behind. She wondered if he loved her, after all that time. She wondered if, by some miracle, he’d been holding on because he’d missed a rose, missed one last apology, one last kiss, one
last love letter dropped on her desk.
But his eyes had blazed before they’d gone out, slick-black with primitive, animal rage. She remembered his fists crushing her cheekbones, slamming into her stomach, and swallowed back her pity.
The painting curled in on itself, black and brown and mottled like rot.
And she knew that he was gone.
She wasn’t sure if she believed in reincarnation, in an endless beginning and an unseeable end. But maybe one day, they’d meet again.
And she’d have her matches ready.
Sofia Pham is a junior at Seven Lakes High School in Katy, Texas. She is currently Vice President of Women Inspiring Social Harmony, a workshop dedicated to educating young girls in writing, STEM, and leadership. An avid reader and writer, Sofia also serves as an advertising manager for the Seven Lakes school magazine, The Torch. She enjoys making art, playing piano, and ravenously consuming bubble tea.