“That was really not necessary,” the doctor tells Nadezda as he takes the box of assorted chocolates and places them on the side. She finds a certain dismissiveness in his gesture. They are past the Best Before date on the box, but he couldn’t have made that out so quickly.
“Thank you again for seeing me at such short notice,” she says, placing her hand on her heart.
He leans back in his seat. “Well, we had a cancellation. What seems to be the trouble?”
“I’m worried,” Nadezda says. “I’m getting tired easily. I can’t remember things.”
The doctor glances at the papers in front of him. He takes her blood pressure and shines a bright light into each of her eyes. His fingers are icy despite the rubber gloves he pulls on to poke at her. Nadezda complies, loosening her limbs like a rag doll to follow his demands.
“What day is it? What year is it? What did you have for breakfast?” he asks.
“It’s Thursday, September 25, 2003.” She checks her wristwatch. “The time is just gone half past ten. And I always have porridge.”
The doctor grins, but she cuts him off. “You don’t understand. The other day I forgot my Rybka had died…”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he says, staring at her funeral outfit. “Was Rybka a close family member?”
A shadow passes over his face as he realizes. “I see.”
“He was a good cat,” Nadezda says. “But it’s not only him. I’m worried I’m beginning to forget very important things. Like this woman back in my village—”
“Everyone forgets some things.” The doctor drums his pen against the table. “It’s a cause for concern if you can’t remember what happened yesterday or an hour ago. As to decades… To tell you the truth, I don’t remember much of my youth either.”
She stares at his largely unlined face, a bit of grey at the temples, the teeth still gleaming white.
“As for the tiredness, have you taken that iron supplement you were recommended?” he says. “From my point of view, you’re doing well. Do you know how many pills most people have to take? For their blood pressure, heart, thyroid, stomach…” He counts them off his fingers. “You, however, have a little bit of understandable weakness for someone in their eighties.”
“I’m a bit older than that,” Nadezda says. “It seems like it has been an entire century.”
The doctor looks down at his file and frowns. “This can’t be correct here? You were born in 1901?”
It’s not her real birth year, but it’s also none of the doctor’s business.
“You must be on some sort of register.” The doctor riffles through the pages in front of him. “We should have been alerted… I mean, it hasn’t been flagged.”
“What register?” Nadezda’s heart flails in her chest.
“You know, the presidential register. They go and congratulate people who have reached such a… venerable age on TV.”
“I don’t want to be on TV,” she says. This is how it begins: they take your information, then you’re on the file.
“Of course, if you don’t like that sort of thing, you don’t have to,” the doctor says, “Do you have much family left? Children?”
She shakes her head. She might as well be honest. “You know, I worry sometimes that my time will never come.”
“You’re worried about… not dying?” The doctor scratches his chin.
“I think perhaps I might be unable to. You see, we had this wise woman in our village—a sort of a healer, they said.”
The doctor’s eyebrows move higher, driving lines across his forehead.
“I know what you’re thinking, young man: she must be a deranged old woman. But this wise woman gave me these words for keeping. And now I’m worried because I can no longer remember what they were.” Nadezda feels a flutter underneath her ribs.
The doctor smiles. “There’s always time for dying. You, you can still live a little. For your age, you are in magnificent shape. There’s a lot we can learn from you actually...” He looks up at the large clock above the door. “I’m afraid our time is up for now. But do get in touch if anything else troubles you. I suggest regular check-ups. I will leave a note for the nurse to call and remind you.”
At the bus shelter, Nadezda observes other old people and wonders how many pills they take. But no—she already has too much to think about. Without the words, she might as well skip the funeral and walk home. Yet, something is keeping her rooted at the stop. Was dreaming about Mila simply her anxiety over the funeral or a good omen?
To get to the church, she has to change buses, inhale two different sets of humid air, a whiff of petroleum and a lingering combination of stale sweat and alcohol. She hasn’t set foot in a church for years, although she assures herself it’s more out of lack of need for a ceremony than a superstition.
There was a church in her village, named after Saint Ilya. It burned down the year she became Igor’s wife, the same year the Great War started. While many people ran toward the fire, either with pails of water from the lake or simply to gawk at it, she and Igor walked to the tip of the peninsula where they could see the flames’ flickering red reflected on the water’s dark surface. They stood side by side, and Igor, still looking like the rosy-cheeked boy who had always taunted her at the village swing, said something about fate calling to him, as his grey eyes took on a darker sheen.
Helen Harjak grew up in Estonia, studied literature and philosophy in Scotland and now lives in London, where she works as a freelance journalist and copy editor. Her fiction has been shortlisted for the Willesden Herald Short Story Prize, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize, and published in Okay Donkey, Fudoki Magazine, Visual Verse, and by Dahlia Books in the anthology Small Good Things. She’s currently working on her debut collection of short stories about girls and women who travel and emigrate, escape and disappear.