There was to be no celebration in the house anyway. Being dirt poor meant there was hardly ever enough food on a daily basis, let alone on special occasions. What little money they occasionally had was gambled away by Papa, who always swore, “I have a good feeling about this one.”
When the girl was old enough to accompany her siblings to town to sell matches, she saw other girls her age whose smiling parents held their hands, and who wore velvet or silk pinafores. Her own parents certainly never held her hand or smiled at her. The only time her parents’ hands touched her at all was when they reprimanded her for not following orders quickly enough. And her pinafore was a hand-me down, fashioned from an old bed sheet.
Her grandmother had been the one good thing in her life, slipping her extra morsels of food, and brushing her hair with old, gnarled hand before bedtime. While caressing the little girl’s straw-colored curls, Oma would share some words of wisdom, such as “a bird in hand is worth eating quickly,” “it’s better to be ignored than to receive,” and “life is a dog, and then there’s death.” She never knew what Oma meant; she just kept quiet, contented to be loved.
But Oma died during the long, hard winter last year. A deep chest cold hit everyone in the family. With a draughty house and not enough food, Oma and the baby, the oldest and the youngest in the household, could not recover. They coughed up blood and their lives.
The little match girl trudged to the center of town, all the streets she was so familiar with during the day strangely aglow with gas lamps. She had never been out this late before, and if she weren’t numb with cold, she might appreciate the beauty of the frosty nightscape.
Laughter drifted out of houses, sounds of people enjoying their dinner parties. The smells of roasted meats and hot breads tantalized her along the way. Nobody wished the waif in torn clothing a Happy New Year. The people she passed by barely glanced at her as she gave them her most winsome smile and said, “Matches? Do you need some matches?”
When she became too tired to walk, she sat down against the wall of the tailor’s shop, tucking her legs beneath her as much as she could. She hadn’t had any food all day. Her stomach growled a reminder, as if she could forget.
Snowflakes began to fall, twinkling like falling stars among the backdrop of lamplight. The girl hugged herself, trying to fend off the cold that pricked her skin under her thin clothing.
What she wanted was the warmth a match could give her, even if temporarily. Her mother and father probably didn’t know how many matches were in her pocket so lighting one couldn’t hurt, could it?
She fought a shiver, pulled a single match out of her pocket and struck it against the wall.
Pshsssss! The match hissed before catching hold, steadfast and brilliant.
The girl stared at the flame; it seemed to fan out and fill a fireplace. The air about her felt warmer, and the light wind that had played with her apron was gone. As she continued to stare, she saw that the fireplace sported an ornate grating, with swirls and curls that she recognized as fine ironwork even though she had never seen the likes of it before. A dog lay on an oval braided rug in front of the fireplace, gazing at the fire. Then it turned its head to look at her. The match burned down to her finger. She gasped and dropped it.
The scene vanished. The chill returned to nip at her fingers and nose, and the wind tugged on her apron again.
Was it hunger or the cold that made her see the vision so clearly? It didn’t matter; what mattered was that she wanted to see it again, to feel warm and safe in the room with the roaring fire.
Surely she could light a second match. It’s only a second match. Her parents wouldn’t miss that one either.
She struck another match on the wall. As it sputtered and sizzled to life, the fireplace appeared before her once more. This time, the dog was not alone. Oma was next to it, smiling at the girl.
“Little one,” she said, holding out her hand. The dog stood up.
“Oma?” said the girl. “I have missed you.”
Oma walked toward her; the dog kept pace.
“I have missed you too,” said Oma.
“Is that your dog?” asked the girl, puzzled since they had never had a dog before.
“Yes, dear,” said Oma.
“What’s its name?”
“Her name is Life,” said Oma.
“Oh,” said the girl, and thought for a moment, remembering the sayings that her grandmother used to tell her. “Does this mean I’m going to die?”
Oma cocked her head. “Something needs to die,” she said and laughed. It sounded so odd; Oma never laughed when she was alive.
The dog came up to the girl and nudged her foot with its nose. She looked down at it, wondering what it wanted from her.
“Oma, why is your dog doing that?” she said, looking back up at her grandmother. But Oma wasn’t there anymore.
The dog nudged her foot again, harder this time.
“Hey,” it said.
The girl started.
She blinked and saw that it was not the dog, but a stranger, tapping at her foot with his cane.
“Are you selling matches or sleeping?” the stranger asked. His companion stifled a smile. They both smelled of wine, and maybe something harder.
She got to her feet. “Yes, sir. I am selling matches.”
“Well, good; the general store is closed and I would hate to run out of matches for my festen later this evening.”
“How many would you like, sir?” the girl asked.
“I’ll take the lot,” the man said.
She pulled all the matches from her pocket and placed them in the drawstring pouch the woman companion was holding out toward her.
The man put a number of coins into the girl’s hands in return.
“That’s mighty generous of you,” the woman said to the man.
“Don’t spend it all on candy now, little girl,” he said.
“As if spending it on dog racing is so much better,” said the woman with a smirk.
“Dog racing?” said the girl.
“Last run of the year!” said the man. “No finer way to finish off the old and ring in the new.” He pulled his lady friend close and they both laughed heartily at a joke the girl didn’t get.
As the couple went about their way, the girl stared at the coins in her hand. She thought of Oma and the dog. Dumping the money into her apron pocket, she hurried after the couple, but kept out of their sight.
The racetrack was well lit and glowed with a festive halo, as though God Himself approved of gambling.
The couple greeted their friends as they arrived. When their chatter faded after they entered the tracks and there was no one else about, the girl approached the hut by the gate. The man in the hut was muttering to himself and shuffling something in his hands. She cleared her throat. He didn’t notice.
“Excuse me, sir!” she said.
He looked up and didn’t see anyone. “Who’s there?” he asked.
“I’m down here,” she replied.
The man peered over the edge of the small window. “What’re you doing here, little girl? You should be home.” His voice was gruff as he glanced around. “I don’t want officers to see children loitering about.”
“I’ve not run into any officers of the law all evening,” she said. “They’re probably home celebrating.”
The man grunted. “That may be. That may be.”
“I would like to bet on the race,” she said.
He surveyed her tattered clothing. “You need money to bet.”
“I have money,” she said. She pulled out the coins from her apron pocket.
He raised his bushy brows.
“What dogs are in this race?” she asked.
The man shrugged and pointed to the piece of paper posted next to him. “Snowflake, Fjord, Tulip, Zephyr, Coal, and Life.”
The girl smiled. “I’ll bet everything on Life,” she said as she reached up and dumped all her coins on the ledge. “I have a good feeling about this one.”
Having grown up under the influence of Chinese and Western fairy tales, Teresa still believes, in her late 40s, that foxes turn into people and there are faeries hiding behind toadstools. She’s on Twitter as @INwriter.