There are cycles of life. They help make the world look better than it truly is. At some stage, both the old and the young write letters to an old man.

The young craft their letters with innocent enthusiasm, addressing them to Santa Claus, sharing their achievements, wishes, and the small wonders of their everyday lives. Meanwhile, the elderly, convinced of life’s vast experiences, boldly pen their thoughts directly to God. They write to their respective envisioned recipient as if to an old friend, imagining that they have a lot in common: everybody looks the same in their old age, or, after a hard day’s work, and even the Lord’s knees ache. The truth is that both the Lord in Heaven and the elderly residents of the Ukrainian village of Vorokhta experience profound loneliness.

The contents of the letter to Santa Claus or to God at any age are the same: behaved well throughout the year, didn’t lie, were polite, and so on. And at the end of these letters, both generations ask for something absurd. 

It is common now to call it “reflection”, but Stepan saw it in a simpler way, like the introduction to the Testament. And since he was always in good health, he didn’t have experience in writing those kinds of letters where he asked for something. He wrote from his heart:

Living Will                                           January 06, 2010

“Dear God,

My name is Stepan Dmytrovych and I want to tell You about my life.

When I was young, I was a strong, hardworking man, working 18 hours a day for as long as I can remember. I helped my neighbors, and loved my wife, Yevhenia, more than anything else on Earth.

If You please, I would like to complete my journey, now 78 years long. As is customary, every man has three duties around here. So, I’ve planted a tree and built a house, but I never had a son, and well, I can’t have one now. So, if You could please, I would like to hurry up and get to join my Yevhenia up there. She is a talkative woman and can’t be alone for a long time… And I have stayed here too long.

As for my property, I leave my garden, livestock, my house and everything that can be found within it to…”

The sky-blue eyes of the old man froze. He needed to write someone’s name, but his mind was blank! He could only think of names already sketched into tombstones. Tears flooded his eyes, making his pupils feel as if they were submerged in a deep pool.

The clock showed 05:30 p.m., the calendar flipped to December 24th. This was his ninth Christmas Eve alone. Any other day was just a day, but Christmas was his late Yevhenia’s favorite holiday, and with each passing year, it became harder for him to survive it.

That trickster… She slipped away from him so quickly into another world. They lived as one…

The funniest thing is that the old man always thought he was one step ahead of her when it came to death. In their cholesterol tournament, Stepan always lost, but when he found out about his diabetes, he completely relaxed. He believed he would be able to free up the house for his wife in his 60s, like a true gentleman. Then there was the stroke. And it wasn’t even his!

Yevhenia was afraid to be left alone, but she didn’t think about him. Who could she be, if not a trickster!

These thoughts slowly withered his festive mood, and Stepan had to somehow wriggle out of this dark space. It’s easier to do when you have nothing to lose. He dared to make a call, which he had been desperately thinking about for a long time.

 “Christ is born! Merry Christmas! Is this the fire department?” Stepan’s heart was pounding like a New Year’s fireworks show.  “May I sing a Christmas carol to you?”

“Merry Christmas. Sir! A Christmas carol? Bless your heart, but does the fire department need to block your number?” The pious woman tried to speak in an unusually nice tone. It was Christmas, after all.

“Ma’am, I would like some of your firefighters to come over for ten minutes, just to have a drink with me.  It’s Christmas, and I’ve set the table and everything… I’m an old man, and I’m not asking for much. “

“Sir, you’ve got to be joking!” the dispatcher snapped, hanging up the phone.

The old man looked out his window – the elderly are just like cats in many ways: from the number of hours they sleep per day, to the habit of peering out of the window at any chance they get (that is, basically every minute). Carolers dressed like shepherds, a devil, Judas, and chubby little angels passed by his house. They didn’t pay attention to Stepan’s house, as they knew that they wouldn’t get anything from this poor old man; neither money for the devil to collect, nor sweets for the full-cheeked angels. The nativity carolers moved along with their more lucrative strategy, and knocked on the doors of Stepan’s more prosperous neighbors.

After standing there for five minutes, Stepan closed the curtains with a heavy heart. The entertainment for the day had exhausted itself. In order to ease his yearning, he forced himself to take a nap (deep in his heart, he preferred it to be an eternal sleep).

Finally, he prayed, lit a candle for his wife, and went back to continue celebrating in his sleep.

Stepan slept like the dead.

And dead he would be if it were not for a remarkable concurrence of events that prevented the fire from spreading.

After all, a neighbor who had moved in on Christmas Eve stopped by with a bottle of homemade wine to get to know the old man. And how incredibly fortunate it was that, this time, the fire emergency dispatcher actually sent the firefighters to Stepan’s address!

Some might consider senility as the cause of the fire. A fire inspector will call it an ordinary violation of fire safety rules. A writer, as usual, will romanticize the adventure by calling it a Christmas miracle.

But the fact is that the candle that Stepan lit in honor of his wife with a wish to not spend Christmas alone and had forgotten, had fulfilled its purpose. Stepan spent that Christmas Eve, as well as all the subsequent family holidays from Epiphany, and Easter to Pentecost, with his neighbors.

10 years later, when he sat down to complete his will, he already knew whose names to write.

Why rush to the heavens when the earth holds those who can fill your life with meaning?


-Translated by Zachary Nelson

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Olha Zhuk

Olha Zhuk grew up in Chernivtsi, in the western part of Ukraine. Due to the war, Olha transferred to Hunter College in NYC and followed her mission of raising awareness about both the war and Ukrainian culture by holding different fundraising events. In December 2022 she published a selection of short essays "Third person plural," which includes 12 essays written from the perspective of 12 different main characters who have prototypes from real life—someone Olha met during her travelling or a person's biography she wanted to reveal. In June 2020, Olha finished the Creative Writing program at Litosvita, and in September 2022, Olha completed the ‘Crafting the Future" international writing program at IOWA, curated by Nina Murray.