‘“She wanted to warm herself,’ the people said.
No one imagined what beautiful things she had
seen, and how happily she had gone…”
—Hans Christian Andersen
On a cold winter’s evening, the last of the year, she finds herself wandering about the city barefoot, penniless. Only a handful of matches to sell. No one wants them, no one looks her way. She might as well be a ghost—invisible, dead to the world.
At the crossroads of the city, coaches and buggies mill about—those on foot brush past her as formless shadows, faces stripped of color. She calls out to each one, brandishes her meager wares, each time unnoticed. A living girl drifting in a world of dead things.
They might as well be ghosts…so…cold.
She shakes her head to clear it of the growing fear and continues on. She is searching for something: a soul to care, or perhaps a light to claim as her own.
Passing through a market street, she observes tilted faces and twisted homes and tries to find some small bright scrap of self in this, with which to fashion an image, an identity, an ideal. A shred of hope to cling to. But the lights are going out along the streets, and the darkness is so thick, swallowing her small figure in shadow.
The faint specks of light that remain are now so much harder to possess.
Still, she is unfazed—no longer hoping to sell her wares, she will use them for herself! One match struck, and a golden spark is lit—barely a flicker.
No, a flame. And in that flame a fairy dancing!
She burns through three more matches—and beholds the vision multiplied.
More golden dancers to entertain me! Ah, look—they are inviting me to be a part of their fun! The stars are kind, to have granted me the company of such dear friends in this dark. Tonight, I think I hold heaven in my hands.
Dancing through the soulless streets with matches blazing, ignoring the protests of her frozen feet, she becomes one light among many as the matches, yielding up their fire, lend their bodies to the dance. The dancers bend and break, crackle and split and sigh. They die out one by one, consumed by the ravenous night.
Match by match by match she goes along, already nothing more than a faint smudge of light wavering against the backdrop of gray houses—more spirit than girl.
Ten matches gone now, and still the cold penetrates deeper. It seeps into the hollow spaces of her spine, constricts her blood vessels to the breadth of poppy seeds. Still, her eyes burn with inner fire, celestial light. She doesn’t notice that all her wares have burned through, their charred corpses circling her fading figure in the dust of the street.
Body numb with cold, she curls up in the snow to sleep—mind aglow with flaming visions—the brightest night of her life.