The River Comes Home

Shelves of antique cameras, a row of blind eyes, kept watch over Ina. The old photographic equipment and sepia images were all props, bits and odd pieces that Stefan had purchased for the photo studio to appear cultured and artistic. Ina looked back to her desktop. She didn’t have time for Stefan’s nonsense of missed deadlines and unfinished plans. Ina had started working at the studio to be a photographer and instead spent all her time as an overworked assistant. She massaged her temples, trying to push past the tiredness. She had to finish this restoration tonight. There was still the framing to do and Meemaw’s birthday party was Saturday afternoon.
Ina studied the old original photograph. On her screen she carefully manipulated the image removing age spots from its background. The woman in the photo was a relative, a family secret, a series of hushed whispers, Ina had heard since she was a child.
The woman—a girl really only 17 when this photo was taken—in the photograph worn a prim velvet suit, a rabbit fur muff, her head bare. Ina had researched Helen. From family whispers, Ina knew Helen as a hick, a jail bird, an escapee, a murderess. From bound newspapers and microfiche and a long afternoon with Uncle Alvin, Ina knew Helen was raised on the river, the White river in Arkansas. Pixel by pixel Ina transformed the image, bringing it to life. Helen was her grandmother’s aunt and scandal or no Meemaw loved Helen.
Ina knew the velvet suit was burgundy and paid for by the people on the river for Helen wear to court. Ina camouflaged a crack from the original and knew Helen had caught the rabbit herself and the fur muff held her pearl handled .23 caliber gun. Helen killed the man who murdered her daddy and assaulted and murdered her mother right in front of her. She killed the man who was about to be found innocent of murder because city folks didn’t much care about what happened on the river. She shot him in open court.
Ina looked at Helen’s tiny hands, the turn of her chin. In Helen’s face Ina could see the faces of all the people who lived on the river, lived off the river collecting mussels, hunting and fishing, taking care of each other on the river. Orphaned and banished from her only home, Helen fought her entire short life. She fought reporters who twisted the truth for a good story, bosses who took liberties, wardens who took everything. Ina looked at Helen’s photograph. Ina smiled with pride. The shop rear door opened and Stefan bustled in.
“Working late, school project?” Stefan brushed against Ina on his way to the light board. Ina hunched her shoulders.
“I finished the Wilson job and cleaned up the proofs for the dance school,” Ina said.
Stefan came up behind her chair, resting his large hands on her shoulders. “Thanks for finishing up for me. I left my laptop at home and I’ve been running behind all day. Let me take you out to dinner as a way to say thank you.”
Ina wriggled out his grasp. “Please Mr. Moray I need to finish up.”
“Ina you work too hard. You need to relax. Who’s the country bumpkin?” Replaced his hands on her shoulders and stroking down her arms, Stefan peered at the monitor.
In her mind the old cameras dripped water, river water. The sounds and smells of the White river filled the studio. Ina thought of the milky clay river that ran from Arkansas to Missouri and back home to Arkansas again. Ina reached for the letter opener and clenched it tight. She wrenched her shoulders from her boss’ hands.
“Watch your mouth, she’s my people.”

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