“Matchstick Reveries” by Rajiv Moté

In the shack he shared with his daughter, Jacques toasted the New Year, early, often, and by himself. But not alone. Never alone. Jeanne hadn’t come back from her work–where was the brat?–but the shack teemed with ghosts. The shimmer of his daughter’s day-to-day was everywhere. Overlapping images of Jeanne crowded him. They tended the stove, slept on her pallet, paced the length of the tiny room, and pantomimed tidying up with spectral hands. It was like having a dozen identical, unsmiling daughters, each their mother in miniature, swarming like midges in a marsh. The ghosts of the living always outnumbered those of the dead.

Slouching on his pallet, shivering despite his drink, Jacques buried his face in a plain, green dress and inhaled. Hélène’s scent was long gone. Only the faintest glimmer of her remained anywhere in this home, where she had lived such a short time after the old one burned. He sometimes glimpsed her in the corner of his eye, nearly overwhelmed by his swarm of phantom daughters. In his visions, Hélène’s eyes were always the most vivid. Green eyes, surprised, staring up from the fence that skewered her when she fell. When she jumped. Everything else, even her once-fiery hair, had faded to gray. A ghost of a ghost.

Jacques saw ghosts as long as he could remember. People wore ruts into the world as they moved through it, back and forth, day after day. He was surprised to learn others couldn’t see the residue they left. People wore ruts into each other, too. Sometimes the ruts gaped like wounds. Sometimes it was an ugly pleasure to pick at them.

At last the faraway pealing of bells announced the New Year’s arrival. Jacques’s flask was empty, his vision was blurred, and the chill had wormed into his comfortable numbness. In the rigged-together stove, the embers glowed feebly.

“Jeanne!” he shouted. “Stoke the fire!”

His daughter’s ghosts roamed without heeding.

He didn’t remember seeing her–his actual daughter–return with the matches, or money. “Jeanne?” Where was that girl? “Are you there?”

Fear flickered in his sour gut, and reflexively twisted into the shape of anger.

Something moved on her pallet, wrapped in blankets, turning to face the wall. Good. He wouldn’t have to go out looking in this frozen night. Jacques wrapped himself tighter in his blanket and fell asleep.

*

A carriage barreled down the cobbled street in a spray of slush and snow. Jeanne crept from where she’d fled the hooves and wheels, slippers lost, feet red from the cold. Wrapped in her apron was a bundle of matches, and nothing more. Not a single farthing. Beggars were run off by the constables, but there were some in the posh districts, thinking on their souls’ salvation, who would trade a coin for a match. She’d learned the feel of their thoughts, soft and pitying, and she avoided the other sorts–the hardened, the jagged, and the hungry.

Though the streets were empty of those who might buy, the shack she called home was no warmer, and far from here. Her father resented laying brick and mortar here for the wealthy, among the ashes of his old home, while his family was pushed to the outskirts. Father took his resentments out on whomever was at hand. He would certainly beat her if she returned without coin. Sometimes, when her mind fled his wrath, she found herself seeing through his eyes as he loomed over her: bone-thin, matted red hair, and the green eyes that threw him into a rage. She could feel his anger, sorrow turned rancid, like old milk. Her mother had green eyes. That was his memory.

This wasn’t always a posh part of town. Once it was a warren of wooden shacks, dirt paths, and rubbish heaps, or so Father said. Once it was home. Now the Monument to the Great Fire stood at the center of a cobbled square, a great cube of stone inscribed with writing Jeanne couldn’t read, and bas-reliefs of men and women fleeing a fire that had consumed the home she didn’t remember. Beyond the fence-gate, now locked, a doorway in the cube led to a spiral stair, climbing nearly two hundred feet inside the Monument’s fluted column up to a platform overlooking the new square. Atop the platform was a gilded urn of fire frozen in copper, from which a sculpture of a golden bird took flight. That bird was from a story Mother had told her. The bird had died in a fire, only to be born again from the ash. In that way, it would live forever. “But was the bird that was born the same as the one who died?” she’d asked. Her mother had no answer to that.

When the square was once more silent and still, Jeanne crossed the street to the fence around the Monument. The spear-like tips of the wrought iron posts were hammered flat. A lazy half-measure, Father called it, but Mother was the last suicide to fall on those spikes. Jeanne knew the two posts that, when touched, gave her the strongest echo of her mother. Grasping them, Jeanne could almost sense her loose red hair, her staring green eyes, and her feeling of astonishment, like she had not expected to die at all. Father said she wasn’t right in the head after Jeanne was born. He said she took the coward’s way. The sinner’s way. Jeanne could never tell, even when she dared peek into his thoughts, if he loved Mother or hated her.

This late, the best shelters from the cold were already claimed. Jeanne had learned to reach her mind ahead, under bridges and into dark alleys. In every mind she touched, compassion and pity had wasted away like starved flesh. None sought grace there, only survival. Jeanne feared for her soul when she reached out with her mind. She knew it wasn’t natural to see through someone else’s eyes, and it made it hard to love her fellow man, as she must. People said witchcraft opened the door for the devil. Sometimes she even glimpsed something red when her mind stretched too far into the shadows.

Making a half-circuit of the Monument, she saw, not far down a lane, an empty corner where the walls blunted the wind. Across the street from it, behind windows of posh townhouses, families celebrated the New Year as though it might truly bring something new. It never had for Jeanne. Some of the street’s folk would die before winter’s end. Others might find a body frozen in a corner and exclaim, “Oh, the poor thing!” For the rest, only the seasons changed. In his cups, Father grumbled that there were only two ways to escape the rut of squalor: the coward’s way her mother took, or by burning it all down and starting anew. Otherwise, all anyone could do was endure.

Jeanne shivered in her corner as the dry snow danced eddies in front of her. She had a trick for desperate nights. She called it her “reverie.” She’d heard the word once in a song. She drew a match from the bundle and rolled it between her freezing fingers, staring at the little red head that, with a scratch, could flash into flame.

Some called them Lucifers. Jeanne would not. The chemists sold them 50 to a shilling, but on the street, a girl could trade one-for-one with a gentleman with a soft-heart or a lady on his arm. It was like minting coin, her father said. But as her cold fingers began to prickle with the splinter of wood rolling between them, she decided her beating would be no worse for an unsold match.

With trembling fingers, she struck one from her bundle against the wall. Cupping it from the wind, she stared through the flame, up, into a window. She found herself looking into the face of a man with gentle eyes. Her body was flush with heat, and her mouth tasted of something at once sour, spicy, and sweet.

“To us,” the man said. Their cups met, and chimed like a bell. She drank, and felt hot, rich tastes flood her mouth and warm her throat. His lips closed the distance from hers. Her head swam.

Flame singed Jeanne’s fingertips, and the match fell into the snow. She was back in the corner. Numbness had slippered her feet. The lust of others always felt shameful. Sinful. She was glad to break away.

She only wanted the warmth. Surely that was a small enough want.

She struck a second match.

She felt a drowsy contentment she had never before known. In her mouth was the taste of fat, and her nostrils filled with the aroma of roast goose.

“More?” an old woman asked, slicing golden skinned meat from a breast and arranging it with turnips, carrots, and peas. Jeanne nodded a head that wasn’t hers.

The table was covered with dishes and bowls. There was food Jeanne couldn’t even recognize. It looked like the people here had been feasting for hours. A white-bearded grandfather snored at the head of the table. Scraps the size of entire meals were pushed to the edges of plates.

As quickly as the last, the match hissed out, saving her from falling to greed and gluttony. Jeanne’s mouth watered, and hunger scooped her belly hollow. She stared with longing at the window. The idea of finding real people behind it, living her reveries, seemed incredible. Unbearable. Envy, too, was a sin, one of the Seven. The window casements rattled under her stare.

A third match.

Before her eyes the single flame became a dozen tiny lamps hanging from the branches of a Christmas tree. Its limbs were crisscrossed with garlands of dried berries and hung with baubles that sparkled with reflected light. She nestled in the warmest, softest imaginable bed. “Sleep now, darling,” said a woman’s hushed voice. How sweet it would be to surrender to the slothful comfort of the blankets. So sweet it must be wrong, even if she couldn’t quite say how.

Jeanne’s return to the frozen corner was so jarring, her sobs stuck in her throat. Her whole body prickled like a pincushion. A red feeling snaked through her head and circled, a caged beast, turning the night crimson every time it passed behind her eyes. Her soul felt imperiled by temptation. Over the whining of the wind, the church bell began ringing.

Jeanne’s fingers could still close on a match. It flared on the third try.

Before her stood a red haired woman in a beautiful green dress that matched her eyes. Her smile was as magnificent and warm as a scarlet sunrise. It kindled something in Jeanne, and she felt her cheeks flush in defiance of the cold.

“Mother,” cried Jeanne. “Take me with you!”

It was the coward’s way, the sinner’s way, but there was warmth that way too. It spread from her cheeks over her face, and down into her chest. The red feeling twisted in her mind, touching the things she couldn’t have: the near-kiss, the feast, the Christmas tree, the bed, the mother who tried to soar from the top of the Monument to the Great Fire.

Mother did not reply. She turned, and began walking down the lane, away from Jeanne.

The match went out, but Jeanne could still see her, a shimmer of red and green moving in the darkness as the church bell rang. Jeanne climbed to unsteady feet and lurched after her.

The last peal of midnight hung in the air as though frozen. The lock on the fence-gate was intact, but Mother was beyond it, standing in the doorway of the Monument. The red feeling beat against the inside of Jeanne’s skull. She seized it. In her grasp it wriggled like a slippery red fish but she held on and squeezed. Red exploded in her vision and she heard a great crack and a hiss. When she could see again, blackened pieces of the lock lay steaming in the snow. Mother disappeared up the winding stair, and Jeanne chased after her, red cinders flaring and dying behind her eyes. She climbed the stair on her hands and knees. Mother looked down at her from atop the urn of fire.

Jeanne struck her entire bundle of matches against the platform and held it out as an offering, opening her mind wide for the reverie to fill. “Take me with you,” she repeated. “I can’t lose you when it goes out!”

“Hush now, child,” her mother said, and her voice came as if she had whispered right in Jeanne’s ear. “What matter if matches go out? You are fire.”

The red feeling became heat, spreading through Jeanne’s frozen limbs. An orange light flickered somewhere.

“I wasn’t strong enough,” her mother said. “I couldn’t survive. But you… You are life.”

The chill air warped at Jeanne’s fingertips. The night turned scarlet. Jeanne’s eyes pierced every shadow. The platform, the urn, the golden bird–the world–hummed.

Her mother twisted and flickered like a flame in the wind until she became part of the wild redness that crackled everywhere. Through it, Jeanne felt the vibrations of the city around her. She touched it all with fingers of fire. “I am…” Floating. Like the dry snow on the wind. Like ash. She looked down at the urn, the monument, the cobbled square, the church steeple and its bell, the streets that radiated out like endlessly branching streams, the buildings among them, newer surrounded by older, fading into a patchwork that covered all the land. They were like toys, a town of dollhouses like the one Father had made her. Once, she had been a doll down there. Once, she looked at the other toys with envy, and feared red devils lurking in the shadows. That was when she was small. Now she was vast, there were no shadows, and the red she had feared was nothing but her own tiny doll-thoughts. She cast off the red like a cloak. It belonged down with the toys, and she didn’t need it for warmth. She was white-hot, and would never be cold again.

*

The practical folk of the street searched the blackened ruins of shops and townhouses for anything of value. Others came to stare. The destruction was terrible, but the rebuilding also promised work and wages. New fortunes would rise from these ashes. Every year, some of the poor folk fell to the cold. It was expected. Accepted. Carts made rounds just to haul bodies to the potter’s field. But when fire consumed the rich, people grasped to make sense of it. The stridently pious claimed God had willed the destruction, as He in his wrath was sometimes inclined. Others insisted God was merciful, and had spared those lost in the fire from the sufferings of this world. And a haunted-eyed few mumbled that God had no part in this; the world’s indifferent cruelty had merely overflowed its cup, splashing where it would. An oil lamp, tipped. A pile of rags.

Jacques wandered down the middle of the street, calling “Jeanne! Jeanne!” He wore no shoes. The stones were scorched black, and still warm. His visions when skin touched cobbles told him his daughter had passed this way. He pushed down the panic balling in his gut, and tried to turn it into something useful. Like anger. He thought she was home. Why hadn’t she come home? Why did she make him worry? His eyes searched the debris for a glimpse of red hair but her trail only took him deeper into the devastation. Jacques never expected justice or mercy from God in this life. If prayers for justice were answered, he would have burned for his stupidity. Not Jeanne. Never Jeanne.

As he searched, the cobbles grew warmer until he found himself in the remains of a square where the stones were blisteringly hot. The fence, the column, its carved base, and its gilded phoenix were all gone. Steam rose from pools of melted snow. He sat on the ground where the Monument once stood, knees drawn into his chest. Touching a place where his daughter had been, he could feel the jumbled residue of her misery, longing, and elation. He shook his head as his eyes began to sting. He wanted his girl to be strong! To face the world the way her mother could not.

Then, the color drained from his face. Something massive filled his mind’s eye, red, hot, and angrier than any fury he ever mustered to burn back despair. It was like a star falling up. Or a bird with enormous wings of fire climbing toward the heavens. The soles of his feet smoked, but he could not tear his eyes away from the sky, where the ascending sun blazed from red to white, heralding the first morning of the New Year.

THE END


BIO: Rajiv Moté is a writer and software engineering manager living in Chicago with his wife, daughter, and puppy. He seems to write a lot of stories about people rising up into the air, and the dreams in which he’s flying are the best he’s ever had. He’ll relax at parties if engaged about wine, comic books, epic fantasy, 80s music, human cognition, or by a friendly dog.

About this story: Rajiv Moté says, “The Hans Christian Andersen story “The Little Match Girl” horrified me since childhood, and is still tragically relevant as my country’s politicians argue whether or not basic survival needs are rights, or must be earned. The injustice of the beatific description of a horrifying end haunted me, and I imagined alternative endings. An African proverb came to mind: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” This story is a mix of those elements, with a dash of the myth of the phoenix, and the seven deadly sins.

Truancy 5, December 2018