June 27, 2012

Matches and Races, By Teresa Robeson

Editor's note: Teresa Robeson's take on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl," mashes up the chill of New Year's Eve with ... the dog track. The unlikely pairing is well worth a read.

Her parents slammed the door behind her with a decisive thunk. She was not to return until she had sold all the matches in her apron pocket. It didn’t matter that it was New Year’s Eve and the cruel chill of winter had a stranglehold on the town.

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.


A.L. Loveday said...

What a beautiful sentiment, a wonderful way to rework such a sad tale...

Robyn Campbell said...

Teresa, this is awesomely wonderful. The beginning sucked me in. And the descriptions made me feel like I was there watching the story unfold. My favorite paragraph: 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 lovely writing. Thanks for sharing it with our little group. *waves*

Unknown said...

A beautifully crafted story Teresa! I couldn't stop reading it until the end. Un-put-downable no less!!! :-) Congratulations too....
Yvette Carol

Sherry Hudson said...

Loved the story; I could picture every scene, feel the pain, and also the love. Very nicely done.

Sherry Hudson

Teresa Robeson said...

Thank you, everyone, for your kind words! :) I don't always need HEA endings, but I do prefer more hopeful endings to ones where the main character dies (especially when it's a child!).

Unknown said...

Great storytelling. This feels like a pre-WWII German story (expressionism?): a bit of faerie, a bit of modern grit, but respectful of ancestral norms. Bravo.

Laura B. said...

Well-written. The story pulled me in. The ending was particularly good.

Jeannette Jonic said...

As so many have said, I loved your descriptions. I think the one that touched me the most was describing the little girl's hair and how loving her grandmother was to her. So heartwarming. Did you have a particular time/place in mind for the setting as you were writing, or did you intentionally leave it somewhat ambiguous?

Carrie Garvin said...

Loved this piece- it warmed my heart from the beginning and kept me wanted to keep reading, and reading. I love Teresa's writing style- she's a "stand out" writer.

Teresa Robeson said...

More thank-you's are in order. :) I'm so pleased you like it!

JeannetteJ, I left it ambiguous intentionally. I envisioned it taking place any time between the era that Hans Christian Andersen set it in and the present, though the idea of selling matches probably makes it improbable to have the setting be in a time later than perhaps the early 19th century?

Adam B. said...

And so the family legacy of gambling continues. Even if that little girl does win, it doesn't solve the situation at all. I'm wondering if the grandmother had anything to do with starting papa's gambling problem as she did the little girl's. Not that I'm saying the little girl has a gambling problem, but it certainly gives her a start. This is a sad tale but a true one. Many Americans living in poverty spend their extra money on lottery tickets and then use their winnings to buy even more lottery tickets. I wonder what that little girl will do with her winnings? Will she turn around and bet on another dog? Or take it home with her? It would be just as bad to take it home with her because when papa gets a hold of it, he will gamble it all away. My question is, what should this girl do with all that money? Because if she doesn't know, then the money is lost and thus continues the family legacy.

Adam B.

Unknown said...

Once again the neglectful and abusive parents rear their ugly heads. I know they are only fictional, but it still makes me sad. I guess that is why we read these tales, in order to actually FEEL something.

Everyone who reads this can't help but wonder "what happens now"? Does the girl go back to her family with her earnings? I can't possibly imagine how her life would be any better. Her greedy parents would no doubt take all the money and leave her with nothing. Money can't possibly ensure her a new life filled with the affection that she was lacking before.

I keep trying to think of a scenario that would result in her "happily ever after". I guess money can't really buy happiness after all. Regardless, I enjoyed this new take on the "Little Match Girl". I am a sucker for twist endings, and unanswered questions that allow the reader to imagine their own endings.

tjpaj219 said...

I really enjoyed reading “Matches and Races”. I think that a lot of people will be able to relate to this story, especially with one of the family relationships that is mentioned. Although this seems to be set in a more modern time than most classic fairy tales, I still noticed some familiar occurrences. The little girl, like in so many other stories, is forced, out of either good will or pure necessity, to provide for her family. During what seems to be a possibly dangerous situation for the girl, freezing and starving to death on the street, turns out to have a meaningful hallucination or contact with the spiritual world. This is only after she uses two of the matches she was to sell, under the impression her parents wouldn’t notice. Although there doesn’t seem to be a test of the girl’s virtue and good intentions, other than her selling matchsticks alone at night, her patience is rewarded by strangers. I thought the ending was very clever and didn’t expect it to end as abruptly as it did but after reflecting back on the story I like the questions that it has left for me to fill in with my imagination.

Anonymous said...

Molly G.
This story is an amazing retelling of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Match Girl." I did not hate "The Little Match Girl" understanding that most stories Anderson wrote were all focused on suffering. I had mixed feelings at the end thinking that the little girl was probably most happy in heaven with her grandmother than with her father. While reading this version I thought it was going to be almost the same as Anderson's tale. Once she began to light the matches I could tell the story has going to be different, and it ended up a great difference than Anderson's story. I think it was amazing that she could see her grandmother and she led her in the right direction on that freezing cold night to know how to obtain more money. Although the story ends just as the girl was going to bet I hope that once she won she saved the money for herself and wouldn't let her father gamble it away and set her back to her where she started.

Timothy B. said...

This was an intriguing twist on the Little Match Girl story. Though I didn’t hate the original I was slightly disturbed by the fact that she dies at the end. This version offers something different, hope. This is obviously not a case of happily ever after though because of the ambiguous ending but it still provides the little girl with a chance of life. I like this ending better than the original because it is never fair for an innocent child to die. I really liked how you seamlessly blended the grandmother’s idiom “life is a dog, and then there’s death” into the hallucination of the grandma and the dog. It was a subtle interplay that later influenced the girl’s decision to bet all her earnings on “Life”. This entire story is a great metaphor for the importance of life and the potential power of positive thinking. One thing I disagree with about the story, however, is the use of a dog track and betting. Though the point was obviously for the coincidental ending I did not enjoy that the girl was taking part in betting at such an early age.

Anonymous said...

This story took a very interesting twist on the Little Match Girl for sure and is completely different from Hans Christian Anderson's version. I was not a fan of Anderson's version of the Little Match Girl just because of the ending that it had where she died. The ending of this story is much better than his where she actually has a chance to live which I thought added a lot more to the story. It was great to me that the grandmother led her in the direction that she needed to go to get her back on track in hopes that her father does not abuse it and gamble it away and she continues to stay away from gambling as well. Going off of Tim's comment, I had gotten the same reaction as he did that this is a great metaphor on the importance of life. It is something that I believe she realizes toward the end of the story after she had seen her grandmother. Great twist on the Little Match Girl! T.R.