TUESDAY: Chiaroscuro


Copyright is held by the author.

I LOVE the smell of paint. The shine of morning sun through the windows of the studio, bare of curtains, dimmed by grime. Warmth of polished deal against my bare feet.

My studio, up in the attic of our house, overlooking the garden, is my safe haven. Here I can be wholly myself, beholden to no one. I can be whoever I like, run wildly across the fields of imagination. Canvas is my world, paint, my truth.

I ease the cotton off the easel slowly, with a lover’s touch. Not only for the tender passion I feel for painting; the subject of my current work is particularly dear to me.

Brushes. Palette. Turpentine. The apron. I reassemble the tools of my craft next to the canvas. I check for any unwelcome traces of dust on the drying paint. This shall be the final day of my labours, the work is almost done. I should hate having it spoiled by something so little, a speck of grit. With some other painting I would not care as much, but, as I said, this one is too precious to me.

It is a portrait of my big sister and I.

Looking at us, a stranger might be forgiven for mistaking us for mere friends. We look almost nothing alike. Mary is the beautiful one, she always has been — when we were little, I believed she was a fairy, or an angel. Luscious raven hair, full rosy lips; a curve of waist and hip that no eye can refuse to follow. Once, when I complimented her in these terms, she laughed. She ran her fingers through my hair, called me sweet-tongued. How happy her smile made me!

That was several years ago, when she was seventeen and I sixteen. She left a year after that.

I sigh, and shake my head, and fasten the strings of the apron. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, the saying goes — but I never knew how truthful it was until Mary left for college. It was overwhelming at first. A blunt, heavy, devouring feeling, I thought I should drown in it. — Yet the more I struggled, the more inexorable its pull was. So, I ceased to fight it. Do not misunderstand me, it’s not that I gave up; I merely gave in to what was meant to be, allowed the dark current to carry me. Now, even that pain is dear to me. Someday soon I might join my beloved sister; until then, I think it’s best to keep myself busy.

I mix the colours and oils, arrange my palette. The painting is, as I said, nearly finished; what work remains is mostly perfecting the lighting, tending to the fine details, hues and tints. The smallest brush will do, for now. I put the point of it, damp with dark paint, against the canvas, and glide.

So much of my art is a dance of bright and dark, light and shadow. I recall the play of shadows across Mary’s body in repose, slumped against the old chestnut down by the beck, as I lay with my head in her lap. She fell asleep, and I used the chance to watch her as closely as I liked. So serene she was, so lovely. A breeze twirled the whispering leaves above us, softening the crescendo of the cicadas, the gentle chiaroscuro caressing Mary’s ear, eyelash, lip. Restless though I often am, her presence never failed to calm me. She, too, ran from the dissonant murmur of the world into my embrace for a kernel of peace. As I said, we are so very different from one another — on the surface, that is. But beneath her sable locks and my straw-like tresses, our thoughts are alike. Selfsame hearts beat in our breasts. I believe this to be true.

I dip the brush into the can of turpentine. Its odour is pungent, and most people consider it disagreeable, but not I. The stark essence of it, its power, the thin line between pleasure and disgust — all these qualities are dear to me. And it takes away the stain, makes everything pure. Once the brush is clean, I set it neatly aside.


Though I strive to keep myself busy so as not to miss Mary, it seems everything turns my thoughts towards her. My choice of subject for this work was, perhaps, ill-advised. Certainly the disconnect between the movements of my hands and fingers, and the swirl of thoughts in my head — an alien issue to the artists who paint with words, I am sure — does not help. Nor does the necessity of washing my face clean when I rub paint all over my cheek by accident. The water pours and drips, cool against my hands. The paint muddles it.

I remember taking baths with Mary when the two of us were girls: how the water spluttered down her skin; her damp hair stuck to her neck. The easy way in which we tangled limbs. I always admired hers, plump and shapely, moving with grace. My own arms and legs are thin, too thin, and there is little grace to my steps and gestures. I often wished I could be more like her.

“Well I don’t want you to be like me,” she would chirp at my wistful self-deprecation. “I adore you just the way you are, Christina.”

She would say things like that all the time. Then I would blush, and turn, and splay her with bubbly water, until we would both cry and laugh, and make a great big mess of it all.

Drip, drip.

Cold water runs down my limp arms, wrists and fingers, and gathers on the deal floorboards. I stare at the widening damp stain in numb fascination.

As I turn back towards the easel, a flash of gold and shadow catches my eye.

There is an ancient mirror at the back of my studio, very tall and very wide, which I used to use for self-portraits, mostly as means of practising my anatomy and movement. But those days are years behind me, childish days of innocence and play. Now the glass is mostly covered with rags. I don’t do self-portraits anymore.

I hate mirrors.


How wildly my thoughts run today! If Mary were here, I know what she would say to me. She would say I ought to quit thinking about her, for once, and concentrate on my art. But how am I supposed to do that, when she is both my precious subject and the person who made me fall in love with painting in the first place? To be sure, music was her preferred form of artistry, but it is over drawing and painting that we bonded as children. When she put her fingers over mine, and pressed the pencil in my little hand for the first time, I knew it felt right.

Things were simple then. There was only the two of us, our art and games, and the blue of the clear summer sky. I wished things would stay that way forever. But childhood must end, and little girls grow into women, as surely as a chrysalis must leave its shell and become a butterfly.

Mary spread her glittering wings wide, with joy.

I remained in my shell.

What happens to a chrysalis if it cannot become an imago? Does it shrivel and die? Putrefies until it is broken down to its constituent atoms? Perhaps that is what would have happened to me, given enough time. As it was, I remained arrested, unfinished, looking through the holes in my shell at the splendid colours of my sister taking flight.

One day, shortly before she left for college, I saw her with a boy, under the old chestnut tree by the beck. I kept myself hidden from their sight, and watched. An unfamiliar, unwelcome heat settled in my belly and spread throughout my limbs. I thought I should be sick. She shamed herself in love, reduced to nothing but a plaything for the bees and butterflies. I imagined myself as she was, blooming sweetly in the cool shadows, delighted, dew-sprent. Neither of us gave any thought to the night.

I was angry. I was thrilled. I was a whirl of feeling.

“I know you were watching us,” Mary said to me the next day. She had a wicked smile on her face. I couldn’t tell if she was cross with me, or amused, or what.

“That is our tree,” I managed at last, softly. “You had no right taking him to our tree.”

Mary laughed. “Christina, sweet Christina — don’t tell me you’re jealous?”

I spat back something at her, I cannot recall what. A frown replaced her teasing smile.

“You can’t keep me all to yourself,” she said.

We threw words at one another then. Ugly words; shameful words. Words like slut, traitor, freak.

I hated her.


I dip the brush into paint again. Blue paint for Mary’s beautiful eyes, and green paint for mine.

Memory of that last conversation is unwelcome. I said things I shouldn’t have said; things which ought to have been kept in the deepest, darkest corner of my mind. She paid me back in kind. I never imagined how cruel she could be.

Strangely enough, I can’t seem to recall what exactly happened after our quarrel. Did I run away? Did she strike me? I am not certain. I do recall the tears, and the pain, and a damp feeling under my fingers. Why was she screaming at me? Tears were running from her red, wide-open eyes. Her cheeks were pale. Did I hurt her, after all? She shook me. She embraced me. Why were her limbs so cold? What did she do? What did I do?

After that she left, and we never spoke again.

Do you ever think of me, dearest sister? Do I come to you in your dreams? Or am I now all-forgotten, your smiles bestowed upon another? Yet you are in my thoughts always.


I put the brush down, fold my arms, and take a step back. The painting is finished. It is probably my best work yet. I wish I could show it to Mary. What would I say to her, if ever we met again? Would I ask her forgiveness? Demand an apology? Or simply collapse in tears, put my arms around her legs, happy to have my sweet sister again?

Mother’s footsteps sound in the hallway outside, followed by a knock. Tap-tap.

“Darling, it’s time for your medicine,” she says.

Her voice and her step are softer than I remember them; does she fear I am made of glass, and will shatter at the slightest noise? I shake my head, take the glass of medicine from her and drain it quickly. It is bitter. I make a face. Mother smiles, and takes my hand.

“Beautiful,” she whispers, nodding at the painting. “You’ve captured the colour of her eyes quite vividly.”

“They remind me of the summers we spent together as girls,” I say. “The sky was so blue in those days.”

There is a strange look in Mother’s eyes, which are like Mary’s, as she turns from the painting towards me. “Oh, darling…”

“What is it, Mother?”

Tears glisten in the corners of her eyes. “I know you miss Christina, but this is no way for you to live.”

I laugh; though she is scarcely forty, ever since Mary went away she seems to be losing herself. “Talk sense, Mother. Don’t you recognise your own daughter?” I put out my slender arms for her to see. I hand her a lock of my golden hair to touch. “It’s me, Mother.”

But she shakes her head and sighs. “When have you last looked into a mirror, darling?”

“You know I hate mirrors.”

“And why is that so?”

I cannot answer her. She sighs again, dries her eyes, and moves over to the glass in the far corner of the studio. She takes the dusty sheet down, and again I am blinded by a golden flash.

“Won’t you come?” she says.

At first I refuse, shaking my head. Mirrors spill secrets; I keep my own close to my breast. Should I obey, and look, anything might happen. Disaster looms dark and cold in my mind. — I don’t trust myself not to spoil everything. No, no; I won’t go. I shan’t. She cannot make me!

But when Mother says nothing, does not stir, only fixes me with a sad gaze, my defences are melted. Tatters of March snows blackened and nipped by the shower of the warm April sun.

I am exhausted. I relent, and approach the looking-glass.

It is a mistake.

“No!” I cry. “No, no, no! It is not true! I will not allow it!”

My hands are as sinewy as I know they ought to be, and my hair is of the right hue — but beneath the messy golden locks, dark at the roots, the eyes which look back at me are not green. They are blue.


I come to weeping, and scream and scream and scream. I fall to my knees. “Oh, God…”

Mother kneels down by my side and tries to take me into her arms, but I swat them away.

I leap to my feet, grab the paint knife from the table, take a step towards the traitorous glass.

I hate mirrors, because they show me what I truly am.

Blood fills my vision. Warm, dark, terrifying blood, running relentlessly from Christina’s unmoving body. The empty look in her eyes, like glass. The touch of black crepe when I laid her down into the coffin. What have I done? Why did I push her away, so cruelly? No, I didn’t mean to! Oh God, I take it back! I take it all back! I would gladly give all the years of my life, just for an hour of my sweet sister’s love. I would give anything, just to see you smile once again. Why hadn’t I seen it clearly sooner? Why must I never again gaze into those beloved green eyes?


I shatter the mirror with the butt-end of the knife. The broken pieces graze my arm, draw blood. Now my hateful eyes look at me from a thousand shards.

I take it all back.

I am sorry for scorning your love.

I wish you to live, dearest sister — even if I must die.

I go back to the painting, tears running down my burning cheeks. Mother reaches out, but I step past her. With a bloody hand, I erase our smiling faces. Only crimson remains. I have destroyed my best accomplishment.

Then I slump to the floor, broken, and weep and weep and weep.

Mother embraces me, strokes my hair, and whispers soothing words in my ear, just like she used to when I was a little girl. Back when I had my sweet Christina. At length, when I have cried all the tears in me, she helps me stand up. My knees are weak, and she holds me under the arm for support. We glance at the ruined painting one last time before leaving.

“Such a shame to destroy something so beautiful, Mary,” she whispers softly. Though there is no reproach in her face or voice, the words fill my eyes with tears once again.

She hushes me, strokes my cheek, and leads me from the studio, out for some fresh air. It is spring, she tells me. Please, come out of your coffin.

I shake my head, and say nothing.

How I hate the smell of paint.


Image of Victoria Lilly

Victoria Lilly (31) is a writer and a part-time news editor. She has completed degrees in Anthropology and Gender Studies. Her short stories have been published by the Austrian Tint Journal in their March 2024 issue, and by the UK-based West Avenue Publishing in their 2024 Frolic of Fairies anthology.

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