Matches

Originally published in New Tales of Old by Raven & Drake Publishing

This story is a dark(er) retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Match Girl

Night was falling, settling over the city like a veil of black ash. A poor little girl trudged alone down the street, her snow-dusted hair glittering faintly in the lamplight, her cheeks reddened and raw from the blistering cold. She moved unnoticed past top hats and petticoats, carriages and coachmen, her bare feet leaving long streaks in the snow behind her as she trudged weakly down the sidewalk towards her home.

She had been wearing shoes when she left the house – her mother’s shoes, far too big for a girl of her age – but she had lost them both over the course of the day: one to a puddle full of ice and sleet, the other to a starving dog drawn to the smell of wet leather. And so the girl limped on ice-deadened heels that felt wooden and numb, as if a pair of mannequin feet had been attached to her legs in place of her own.

In the deep pockets of her dress, she carried several boxes of matches, the same number with which she had left home at dawn’s first light. She hadn’t sold a single box. She hadn’t collected a cent. Her only accrual was misery and cold – in that, she had made a tidy profit.

As she passed the shimmering storefront windows, the smell of roast goose tightened cruel fingers around her empty stomach. It had been days since she had last eaten. What she would have given for a meal! Any meal would do, yes, but she especially yearned for a holiday feast: a crust of fresh-baked bread, a stew thick with beef and carrots, a generous slice of goose breast over a bed of roasted potatoes. It was New Year’s Eve, after all.

As a frigid wind gusted down the narrow lane, the girl side-stepped into an alley to avoid the chill. She sat down cross-legged on the cobblestone, drawing her feet into her folded knees to try and restore some feeling to her toes. She was freezing, but she dared not go home. Her father would be there, waiting, expectant. How many matches had she sold? How many pennies had she earned? None? The girl winced involuntarily at the crack of her father’s belt. She knew what was in store for her if she returned empty-handed.

Her home was scarcely better than the alley anyway, she told herself. There was no heat to speak of, and the roof was rotted through. The rags stuffed in the gaps did little to staunch the cold seeping in from outside. Meltwater dripped from the fissures in the ceiling during the day, then froze to needle-thin icicles at night. It was as cold and inhospitable a home as one could imagine.

The girl clenched her hands to her lips and blew warm air into her fists. She had no feeling in her digits, save for a spray of pin and needles that jabbed painfully into her fingertips. Oh, how she longed to strike a match, to feel the sharp heat of the flame cupped between her palms! She had several boxes of the things, each with dozens of identical matchsticks. Surely no one would notice a single missing match.

She drew a box from her pocket, then removed a match from it with trembling fingers. Scr-r-r-atch! She dragged the match along the coarse boards of the wood-framed building beside her. A bright, brilliant flame burst forth, illuminating her face with a golden glow. She stared into the flame, entranced. What a strange, wonderful light! She felt transported to another place, a  cosy living room in front of a great stone fireplace, the kind with a rack of wrought iron pokers beside it on the hearth. She saw herself stretched out on the carpet in front of the fire, her face blasted with heat from the blaze. Her father sat behind her in an overstuffed chair, glasses perched on the tip of his nose, reading a book by the firelight.

Then, the little flame from the match went out. The fireplace vanished. Only the charred stub of the matchstick clutched in her fingers remained.

Fumbling another match from the box, she struck it against the wall. The light flared brightly in the gloom. The girl was surprised to see that the wall beside her had become transparent, as if she was gazing through a window into a dining room. On the table, a glorious spread of food was set out. A pot of stew bubbled and steamed, its mouthwatering aroma wafting past her nose. Golden butter melted on thick slices of freshly-baked bread. A roast goose was set upon a silver platter decorated with sliced apples and candied cranberries. Her father carved a slice of goose breast and set it upon her plate.

“More, please,” she said.

Then the match went out, and the scene evaporated. She could see only the peeling paint of the soot-stained wooden wall again.

The girl lit another match, hoping to recapture the vision like a light sleeper grasping at the rapidly-fading wisps of an interrupted dream. In the light, she found herself sitting at the dining room table, her father glaring down at her.

“More?” he sneered. “What have you done to deserve more? Or any, for that matter?”

He snatched the plate away from her and dumped it on the floor. The starving dog – the one that had stolen her shoe – appeared from under the table and began greedily gobbling the spilt meal.

The girl felt tears welling in her eyes. A sob tightened her throat. She swallowed hard. It wasn’t fair. She didn’t deserve to be treated like that. She wished her mother was still alive, to stand up for her again as she had on the night that she died. But she wasn’t, and she never would be. The girl hated her father for that. It was a burning hatred, a hatred beyond measure.

The girl eyed the carving knife on the table. It was just within reach. As her fingers crept towards it …

The match went out. The scene disappeared, twisting and swirling into the night like the fog from her breath.

The girl snatched a trio of matches from the box and dragged them along the coarse wallboard. The wall became transparent once more in the triple-bright glow. The dining room was gone. The girl was in front of the fireplace again, standing this time. Her father was behind her, reading in the armchair. The girl’s fingers wrapped around a wrought-iron fireplace poker. The black metal was cool and heavy in her palm. It made a slight metallic scraping sound as she drew it from the rack. Her father didn’t appear to notice. The girl hid the poker behind her back as she feigned a yawn.

“Good night, father,” she said. “I’ll be heading to bed now.”

“Mmm,” he mumbled, ignoring her.

The girl circled behind her father’s chair. Her fingers tightened around the shaft of the poker. She raised the metal bar above her head, then brought it down with all her strength upon her father’s skull. The hook-like spike at the end of the staff plunged into the top of his scalp, caving it in slightly. The blow made a flat squelching sound, like a fist punching a rubber hot water bag. Her father sat bolt upright in the chair as if he was being electrocuted. A torrent of blood poured down his face from his hairline. More blood spilt from his ears. His mouth opened in a silent, airless scream.

The girl wrenched the poker free from his fractured skull, then raised it and brought it down again. And again. And again. A spray of blood whipped across her face, stippling it with crimson droplets.

Her father fell forward out of his chair and onto his hands and knees. He tried to climb to his feet, but stumbled forward and landed face-first in the fireplace. Flames consumed his head and set his hair and clothes ablaze. An avalanche of burning logs tumbled off the hearth and onto the carpet beside his body. Flames danced upwards as a spray of embers circled towards the ceiling like a swarm of tiny sprites. The sparks formed a shape in the air: a woman, with an outline of a familiar face.

“Mother!” cried the girl.

Again, the matches extinguished. Desperate, the girl threw the still-smoldering matchsticks to the ground, then emptied the remaining matches from the box into her palm and dragged them along the side of the building. They ignited with a sustained hushing sound, consuming the girl’s vision with their blinding brightness.

The girl’s mother stood luminescent in the glow, bathed in an angelic light. She was more beautiful than ever, more radiant than the girl had ever dreamed possible.

“Mother!” the girl exclaimed. “Please, take me with you. I know you’ll disappear when these matches burn out. I can’t bear to lose you again. Please.”

The girl’s mother smiled, then gathered the girl in her arms. The girl realized that they were no longer in the living room. Instead, they were flying through the night air, ascending skyward. They soared high above the Earth, rising towards the Sun, where there was no more cold, no more hunger, no more fear. There was only warmth and light and heat, forever.

But in the alley, leaning against the wall, sat the little girl with red cheeks and a smiling mouth, her ragged clothes ablaze. The flames reached into her pockets, finding the other boxes of matches and igniting them. Her lifeless body slumped sideways as it was consumed by flames. The inferno licked up the sides of the building, hungrily consuming the peeling paint and the dry, flammable wood beneath. It spread to the roof, then to the neighboring building, then to the one beside that. Eventually, it spread to the girl’s own apartment, where it found her father passed out in bed, an empty whiskey bottle on the floor by his dangling fingertips, the rags stuffed in the cracked ceiling dribbling ribbons of flame onto the bedsheets below.

“Poor girl,” the people said when her charred remains were found. “She was just trying to stay warm.”

They pitied her, but only because they didn’t know the wonderful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her mother into the light of the eternal sun.