Helena worked in one of the many factories located along the river, a fast-flowing stream filled with waterfalls and whirlpools. Every single worker of the factories and the people from the town knew that it was very dangerous to play or stand near the river. But Helena always did, just right before work and just after it. She loved to see the big chunks of ice go down the river, fast, as if they had a rush to get the waterfalls lying only some kilometers further ahead.
What she loved about the river was that she felt strangely alive when looking at it. For her, it was almost as looking a group of children play ball or a market filled with buyers and sellers. Anyway, not much happened in town so when winter came and the river started its battle against the low temperatures, it was always entraining to see which one of the two won the match.
Helena’s post inside the factory was just next to one of the big windows. She had to stitch together two pieces of fabric in order to make underwear, which would be sold in many stores around the world. At least that was what they told all the women working there and, as most of them would have never had the money to pay for such nice clothes, they had no idea if they got only to the next town or a fancy store in Japan, or something.
Through the window next to her, Helena saw the river trying not to lose its power, its grace and insistence. People around her never understood her fascination with it but she had no need to tell them. After all, it was her thing and no one else’s so, she kept this particular enjoyment to herself.
One winter in particular, it was clear that the river would lose the battle. Helena lived upstream and many sections there were already frozen. It did look beautiful, she thought, but it was better when it was liquid and it could do everything, even if it got dangerous and often devastating. By the factory, some waterfalls had frozen over too and it was clear the river wasn’t going to hold much longer which was particularly bad for town.
The electric energy provided to the houses, the factories and so on, were generated by a dam upstream but if they reservoir froze over the electricity would stop arriving. And that’s exactly what happened on the third week of January, when the hum of electricity coming from various machines suddenly stop. The heating system in the factory failed too and they were told by their bosses to get to back home. If they received a call, it meant they wouldn’t need to come to work the next day. Helena knew there would be no call.
She walked home but first stopped by the baker. It was clear he was having problems to as they were trying, with his son, to turn on a generator that worked on gasoline. Not that gasoline wasn’t expensive but the baker couldn’t afford to lose the job of one day. So they turned the machine on and Helena took home a baguette and a couple chocolate croissants. She ate one as she walked towards home to make her heart feel warmer.
When she entered her small cottage, she looked through the window and saw how the river was almost entirely frozen. Only a small stream of water passed through the ice and it wasn’t enough to make the dam work; that was obvious. Helena left her bread in the kitchen and went up to change off her work clothes. She put on a thick sweater and loose pants, the kind you use to exercise. She went down to the kitchen and checked the time on a clock hanging over the oven: it was one o’clock.
Realizing they had really been let go rather early and wondering if this time the call would be real, she decided to make herself a proper lunch. She normally ate something like a sandwich in the factory’s cafeteria but the bread there was normally stale and the meat seemed to have seen better days. Helena decided she would take this chance to make herself something delicious to eat. So she checked the cupboards and the fridge, which wasn’t working anymore, and decided to make a nice fish on herbs and roasted potatoes to go with it.
She checked her oven and it did work. Thankfully, it worked on gas and not with electricity so she could cook her dinner there. In an hour, she was seating down to a small table by a window, the one from which she could see the frozen river. She started eating the fish, enjoying herself despite the cold. Then, for a moment, she stared again at the river but her expression was now pensive, almost sad. She seemed to scare the thoughts out of her head, in order to continue eating. But when she finished she was again looking at the window.
Several minutes passed until she stood up, washed the dishes and went to her room. Somehow, she didn’t really feel cold or tired. She just wanted to lie down and think. From her room, the river could be seen to but she deliberately lay with her back against the window. She didn’t want to look at it, at the water, anymore. She had tried hard to have a nice relationship with it but sometimes it got hard. It was as if winter made it harder on purpose, in order to make her remember.
It had happened in winter too, so maybe that was why. One day, Helena had been walking upstream with her, holding hands, looking at every animal remaining in the cold and at every plant that looked as if they were also fighting the winter, just like the river. They had stared at the beautiful shapes of a frozen waterfall and the silent and peaceful sound of the remaining water, sometimes underneath the thick layer of ice.
The next day, she woke up suddenly, like scared or as if her body was warning her of an incoming danger. And it did: she looked through the window just in time to see how her only daughter, age five, was taking a first step into the frozen water. She ran as fast as she could, in her pajamas, almost falling to the ground, getting mud and frost all over. But as she drew near she heard that horrible sound, the sound that she would never forget.
It was the ice cracking beneath the feet of her daughter. In that moment, she screamed, calling her. Nowadays, she wished she hadn’t. The little girls, got even more scared because of this and decided to walk back to shore but then the sound coming from the ice became louder and Helena saw how her daughter was engulfed by frozen water. When she got to the spot where her daughter had been, she realized the river was only superficially frozen. Underneath, water still moved fast.
She ran downstream, screaming for help and then falling mute, as she saw her daughter’s body floating face down underneath a thin layer of ice. She broke it with her fists, dragged the girl from the water and held her in her arms as people gathered around and saw what had happened. Her daughter was dead, in the blink of an eye. From that day on she respected the river but she hated it too because it had taken her life from her.
Her daughter, a bright young girl, was going to be such a better person that she had ever been. She was going to be someone amazing and outstanding, fearless and strong. Helena was going to help her do whatever she wanted to be the best of all. She would have the courage to leave town and really live the life she wanted for herself. And Helena would have been proud and happy for her, because her life dream would have come true.
But the river ended that. She ended that. She blamed herself, even if it was worthless to do it. During winter, she remembered her daughter almost every day and tried to be strong enough to keep living but sometimes it got extremely difficult, because Helena realized she was truly alone in the world. She fell asleep crying in silence, in her bed.
But the following morning she went, as usual, to work. The dam was still no working but they had to work anyway. She stopped by the river on her way to work and looked at it for a couple of minutes, paying her respects. She got hold a beautiful surviving twig, with some leaves on it, and threw it in the water. Then she moved on, to work and to the rest of her life.