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THE DAY THE RIVER FROZE by Stavros Christodoulou

“PUT YOUR hats on. The cold will make your ears drop off.”

The woman’s words had a hollow sound. They rose steeply as if from the foot of a cliff and then collapsed with a dull thud in that two-roomed apartment of fifty square metres into which she had squeezed her life. For a long time now, she had not cared what happened outside her door. For how many years, she could not remember. Perhaps five, perhaps fifteen, perhaps for ever.


“Perhaps from when his umbilical cord was cut?” she wondered in a whisper. But she stifled the words, as if ashamed of even thinking them.


Since the day when she had swallowed the fistful of pills, time no longer had the slightest consistency. Her son had been seven years old. Yes, that she remembered. A little devil who had greedily sucked up all the freshness of her youth. For seven years. Daily. From the moment, in fact, when the labour pains had ripped through her body. When she heard his crying for the first time, she had felt the tide going out, dragging her with it, far away. She had made a great effort to stand once more on dry land. To find her feet. To feed him, wash him, clean up his shit. Until she could put him to bed, feeling exhausted but alone at last, then slip a tablet under her tongue. She would hold it there a while, drawing strength from it, and then let it slide down her oesophagus slowly and comfortingly, releasing waves of warmth to heal her invisible wounds.


“Pull yourself together, or I’ll leave,” her husband threatened, when he saw her receding into the treacherous darkness of her mind. And he would fix her with that harsh look which once had melted her heart. That was then. Now he stood before her and she didn’t even look at him. She simply endured him. Stoically. The same as when he touched her. “Words! That’s all you’re good for, words as dead as the rotten meat you sell in the market, poor sap,” she returned scornfully.


The truth is she had never believed he would desert them. She didn’t think he had it in him. But as it turned out, she didn’t know him as well as she thought she did. On 18 June 1967, Sunday morning, the day after the boy’s birthday, he left. The memory of that day, although rooted in earth that was barren of every emotion, lived vividly inside her. She had had a slight headache on waking. She had dragged herself to the kitchen, made coffee and floated a spoonful of cream on top, to sweeten it. She took a sip and then smiled, seeing her reflection in the small mirror above the kitchen worktop. A fine white line covered her top lip.


“You look funny…” he said.


She had not realised he was there. How long had he been standing behind her? His voice was soft, with a hint of tenderness, provoking in her a slight shiver.


“I’m leaving,” he said matter-of-factly, and repeated it, to make sure she had heard him.


Translated from Greek by Susan Papas