What The River Did

Submitted into Contest #16 in response to: Write a rags-to-riches story.... view prompt

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The river was no longer a nice place to see, smell, and remember.

It had gone through different changes in a number of years. Alicia was a witness to these changes. Long ago, only her family lived in these parts. Now, she lived with other numerous families in different shabby houses alongside the riverbank.

She was the eldest of six kids--three girls and three boys--who were so stubborn and carefree. They never noticed the river or what’s left of it. All they did was survive through the long summer heat under the iron roofs of their houses. Each day, their mother wept, and each day, Alicia's siblings made lots of noises. They were so young, each child born in consecutive years. Their mother had no breaks to her natural career. 

Alicia was the only one who noticed.

Her father always came home late in the evening. He smelled either of cigarette smoke or alcohol. Sometimes both. Every day, he’d greet his wife by smacking her cheek with his fist and she would weep even harder. Sometimes, for no reason, he would pinch one of the kids on the ears or the arms, wherever he preferred. Since Alicia was the eldest, he took all his anger and frustration on her the most. Sometimes it was a pinch, a slap, or a punch, and Alicia found that the only way to avoid getting hurt was to avoid crossing paths with her father.

Alicia was the only one who noticed that like the river, her father changed from a caring man into a drunkard. Additionally, he became a compulsive gambler who cared more for his chickens in the coop than for his kids in the shelter. Whenever he won, he would drink. Whenever he lost, he would drink. Then he’d bring home another chicken to care for. 

Alicia had finally grown tired of it. She had grown tired of hearing her mother’s cries and her brothers’ and sisters’ wails. She was the eldest and as the eldest, she was the one who worked for the family. She had tried all sorts of jobs. She was good with cleaning the house, great with gardening, excellent with cooking, and adept with communicating the English language. She had further studied it in public school. She had enhanced it by practicing to herself in front of her reflection in that lonely river, even if it had slimmed to almost nothing because of the huge amounts of trash lying about. 

 However, the fact that more and more people were beginning to live near the river was becoming undeniable. Overtime, the government, with the church holding the reins, had become consumed by greed and corruption, grabbing money from poor people’s pockets and kicking them out of their stable houses. Now, these poor people lived alongside that river. But man’s discipline shouldn’t be blamed on the government or the church. It was man’s own. 

Alicia was the only one who noticed.

One fine afternoon after her day job, Alicia dropped by a bakery shop. Her dark hair was damp and her forehead was greasy. She bought a few loaves of bread and a piece of rainbow-colored bread. She retrieved her money from her pocket and handed it to the cashier. When she received her order, she realized that there was dirt underneath her fingernails. The cashier had noticed but never said a word. She didn’t even smile. 

At this, Alicia felt embarrassed. She was in a tough situation and she was grasping at straws. Sometimes literally. Alicia became furious. It was her birthday that day and the rainbow-colored bread was supposed to be her birthday cake. Whenever she passed by nearby shops that displayed expensive-looking cakes behind their windows, her eyes teared up.

“I’m a brave girl,” she said to herself, repeating the same sentence over and over again. She walked a few more blocks until she reached the river. She saw that the pollution was worse than before. There were lots of plastic, used sanitary items, machine parts, food… All surrounded with flies. Alicia gagged and held herself. Her fingers clenched tightly around the plastic bag. 

“Poor river,” she murmured. This was what broke her heart the most, the one thing that made the tears run down her cheeks even more. From the far side of the river, she couldn't help but notice a tall, young lady who had long, brown, wavy hair. The woman wore a white dress and she appeared graceful as she walked along the edge of the river barefoot. Alicia had never seen the woman before. Especially a woman with small, delicate wings that fluttered behind her back. Alicia couldn’t imagine seeing something like it. She approached the woman and the woman’s face lit up.

“Excuse me,” Alicia said to the woman, still glancing at the wings behind her. She wondered if it was just all part of a costume. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to walk barefoot. Besides, your feet are bleeding and full of dirt.”

The lady smiled and curtsied. Despite her strange actions, Alicia couldn’t help but feel envious of the woman’s beauty. Her skin was the color of porcelain and her eyes were strikingly blue and her cheeks were rosy pink. She was full of confidence and grace whenever she moved and she looked more like a fairy than an angel.

“The river is my home,” the woman said, giggling. Then she stared at the trash floating around. Her lips curled downwards. “Only, it’s been highly decorated. That must be what humans do.” 

“Are you a…” Alicia studied her wings one more time. They appeared more like whitish butterfly wings. “A Fairy?”

The woman smiled and said, “I suppose so. I prefer to be called a spirit though. It’s saddening to see my home get destroyed. I always loved to hear the rushing stream of water, but now, all I can hear is splish splash and the next thing I know, I’m already stepping on broken glass!” 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Alicia said, looking down at the plastic bag in her hand. The bread was going to get cold, but she took one anyway and handed it to the strange spirit. “I'm not sure if you eat food, but are you hungry?”

The woman took the bread without an answer and held it in between her palms. In a gentle voice, she spoke, “You’re still concerned even if I’m complaining.”

Alicia smiled back at the woman and said, “I empathize with you, River Spirit. I wish I could offer you a place to stay but my house isn’t pleasing to see either. I have siblings who fight and cry all the time, my mother doesn’t speak to anyone anymore, and my father loves his chicken and alcohol more than his friends and family. Well, I don’t even know if he has friends, but whatever. All that matters is we survive and we eat.”

“And you clean my house too,” the River Spirit said. “I am very thankful. I can hear what’s going on in your house. It is dreadful, I agree, and we have the same problem. And I’m glad you’re the only one who noticed me. The other people, they just look and leave. And throw their trash without a care for the world. One day, I’ll bring my wrath against them. They’ll see. They think I am powerless now, but one day, I swear it to the universe!” 

“That’s really sad to hear,” Alicia lips curled into a frown. “I hope nothing happens to us by then.”

The River Spirit giggled, a sudden change of her emotions. “I’m glad you mentioned it. Of course I wouldn’t want to hurt you or your family, which is why I’m going to give you all the riches you need to get the life you deserve.”

“Um, what are you talking about?” 

The River Spirit pointed towards the east, under the house foundation, just right on the edge of the riverbank. “Dig that up, and you’ll save your family from here. You will be the richest among the rich. But remember one thing: You or your family are not to brag about these riches. The person who brags will lose this gift and will find themselves in any kind of misfortune. I'm sure you'll keep that in mind. Consider this as my thank-you present.”

Alicia glanced at the riverbank, studying the spot once more. “Thank you,” she said and as she turned back to look at the River Spirit, the lady had already disappeared and Alicia tried to search the area in vain.

Finally, Alicia had given up and directly went home and placed the plastic bag on their bare table. Her brothers and sisters excitedly greeted her and helped themselves to the loaves of bread. Her two sisters were even fighting for the rainbow-colored one. Alicia glanced at her mother who waded aimlessly towards the table and took her own bread. Her mother never said a word but she ate. 

"Mom--" she tried to call out but her mother simply ignored her and went back to the room where she came from. There was no chance at all of trying to communicate with her. Alicia understood despite that.

From the back of their small house, she grabbed a shovel that her father failed to properly hide. She went back to the spot where the River Spirit pointed at and began to dig. She dug the rest of the afternoon until late evening. The hole was definitely deep and her muscles ached. Perhaps she had imagined the whole conversation with the River Spirit, but nevertheless, she pressed on, ignoring the doubt that tempted her to stop. Finally, the tip of the shovel hit something very hard. Alicia scrubbed off the soil with her feet and gazed in awe at the spectacular flash of gold.

“No way,” she murmured to herself as she heaved an ingot of gold. Not one, but five. They were heavy, but Alicia silently sorted them in an empty bag. She wasn’t going to have her family know. Not until she felt it was secure.

As soon as she got home, she had unfortunately come across her father. He was drunk as usual, and furthermore, it was evident from his actions that he was defeated from the cock fight again. The first thing he did was grab Alicia’s hair, pulling her downwards. Alicia struggled with the weight of the ingots and she immediately fell to the ground, some of the ingots halfway slipping out of the bag, enough for her father to notice.

“Gold?” her father said, an evil smile stretching up his face. “You brought me more money? And an even better one?”

“No!” Alicia pleaded as she struggled to pick up the ingots. Her father, albeit drunk, had the sense to shove her away. He was burly and fat and strong enough to push anyone out of his way. All the years of drinking had added more weight to his stomach. He was probably even heavier than the ingots. “Father, please! It’s my birthday. It was a gift from a friend!”

Her father laughed and said, “Well, I have a much better gift that’s suited for your age, my child. Take Cooper and you will be very happy with him.”

Alicia stared at her father in disbelief, “You mean your chicken?” 

He roared with laughter once more and said, “He’s a good chicken, but not the best. I was planning to make him our breakfast tomorrow, but you saved him. Oh, what a saint!”

“Father, give it back!” Alicia growled, but her father was raising up a finger across her lips.

“You don’t dare disobey me, child. Go to your room and sleep! By tomorrow, we’ll buy a new house, a car, and the best clothes in town. My treat.”

Alicia went to her room furious and distressed. She wept until morning, but her father kept to his word. He announced to the whole family about how he had discovered the gold underneath the soil that he dug up last night. What's worse was that her mother leaped in joy and kissed him on the cheek and she instantly became happy. Her brothers and sisters who didn’t know a thing about gold and riches simply nodded and smiled. They had never seen their father upbeat and happy like this. They must think it’s a miracle.

By late morning they were all dressed in the most normal clothes they owned and they went to the bank. Her father repeated the story to the bank and was bragging about how he had come up with the money. Soon, everything had been well-prepared and arranged. They started living in a mansion and had maids and servants, and the food was utterly delicious. Even though they were living the rich life, Alicia's father refused to pay for anything the kids wanted. He even kept all the money to himself. Her father stopped battering them, but he mainly bragged about his riches to everyone he would come across in town.

Alicia warned her brothers and sisters never to brag about the riches they have. Even if it wasn’t in her hands, Alicia still reminded herself of the River Spirit’s warning. A few weeks later, someone rang the door. Alicia attended to the caller and saw two policemen at the door, their caps held over their chests.

Alicia’s mother who was dressed in simple clothes peered out from the living room and joined them. One of the cops said, "Which one of you is Mrs. Ramos?"

"That's me," Alicia's mother spoke. Alicia still wasn't used to hearing her voice.

“I'm afraid your husband is in jail. He's been caught for public disturbance and attempted murder." 

"What?" Her face turned pale. "What exactly happened?"

"Caught in the act madam. If you could just pay a visit to the station to acquire his belongings, that would be great.”

Alicia and her mother accompanied them to jail. From there, Alicia saw the terrible state her father was in. She overheard one of the policeman say, "Heard the man raised a broken bottle of alcohol and attempted to stab the guy next to him. It all probably started because the other guy was not having any of what this man's saying. I mean, come on. Even in jail he runs his mouth about his wealth."

Alicia assumed they must be talking about her father. She saw him sitting glumly in his cell, hands under his jaw. When he saw his daughter and wife, his teeth bared and he lunged forward at them, but the cell bars were enough to keep Alicia and her mother safe. 

"You will not have my money!" He growled, but Alicia didn't say a word. Neither did her mother.

The police showed them the receipts of what happened and handed every object recovered from her father's pockets. Alicia's mother decided Alicia was to keep it.

For weeks, all was silent, but Alicia did well to her siblings. They were able to enroll themselves in prestigious schools and Alicia raised them well with dignity. Even Alicia's mother got herself to continue her education in high school.

 Alicia lay in her bed, wondering about the River Spirit, about all her efforts to feed her family and her hard work for getting those gold ingots. Eventually, the treasure led to her. Still, she was unsatisfied. She knew she needed to do something. One last thing.

She stared at the river, the trash lying about the bank and on the water. “Are you ready?” she asked the people in the nearby river and a few others. They said their approval. 

“Let’s begin,” she said as they went towards the river to pick up the trash. The cause that she had paid good amounts for began smoothly. She was able to persuade the people living nearby to clean up the river by offering them free housing. She was glad everyone was working together. 

In the middle of their clean-up, Alicia saw the River Spirit, with her white dress and white wings and bare feet which was already clean. The River Spirit smiled at her and mouthed the words, ‘Thank you’.

And Alicia was the only one who noticed.

November 22, 2019 21:48

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1 comment

Sheryl Saldivar
01:22 Nov 28, 2019

Great enjoyed the story.


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