Featured Prose: The Match-Seller

This story here is not exactly an original. It’s the one which I heard from grandparents ages ago and would like to share with you. It has been modified in many ways and the writing is mine but if anyone is familiar with the original story, feel free to share it.

She was walking gracefully on the stony platform. She was barefoot. She had a plaid green shawl thrown across her shoulders. She wore a long flowing skirt on which, at places there was some patchwork. She wore a dirty cashmere sweater with gaping holes in it. She had large, beautiful, expressive grey eyes that took me in completely when she asked me to buy a packet of matchsticks from her. Yes, she was a match-seller.

I was going to Petersburg to visit a friend of mine. At Volkan (I think, that was the name), a station just before Petersburg, I opened the window to let the fresh air pour in. I was grateful for the freshness despite the icy cold breeze. It was then that she came up to me with her large innocent eyes and asked me to buy a match box. I stared at her fixedly for half a minute and was wondering who would send their child in such frigid weather, barefoot? She seemed around twelve years old. She requested me in earnest and her eyes seemed to be pleading to buy a match and not drive her away as the rest did. I obliged. I rummaged in my cloak pocket for a rouble. I handed her the money and she gave me a couple of matchboxes. She smiled and said, “Spasibo bolshoe”. Her eyes lit, she went off in the other direction, selling matches. Her smile passed on to me and I retained it for the rest of my journey. Why, though? I do not know!

                                                        ***

Two days later, the cold became severe. The girl at the Volkan station was shivering uncontrollably. She had to sell her daily quota of matchsticks otherwise she be thrashed by her step-father. She remembered the last thrashing and winced involuntarily. The bruise on her elbow still hurt. She sighed deeply. The only one who ever loved her was her grandmother. She was the one who consoled her and made her feel worthwhile. She was the reason, the girl smiled. But apparently God needed her grandmother more and so he took her away about two months ago. After her demise, it was a miracle if she could manage her daily meals.

Waking from her reverie, she walked and walked, convinced that someone would buy her matches. Suddenly, snowfall started. She sat in the corner near the bookstall and observed the passengers. She could not discern their shapes in the dark so she decided to light a match which would keep her warm and would let her observe the people. But she had to be economical in her usage of matches, lest her father hit her.

She lit a match and a wave of warmth shot through her whole body. In its light, she caught a glimpse of a strong man with broad shoulders, dressed in a crisp, black business suit, a camel-skin overcoat, sleek and shiny leather boots and a grave looking briefcase. Seeing him, she remembered, as if from a past life, a period of prosperity when she was with her mother, grandma, and her stepfather. They lived in a large mansion with all the comforts and luxuries one could dream of. This was before her mother’s death. Afterwards, her stepfather, a drunkard, recklessly spent all their money in gambling and they became virtually beggars. The flame came very close to her hand. She couldn’t hold it any longer. She let the match drop. It extinguished, taking away all its light and all its warmth with it. She lit another match and in its light, she saw an old lady cajoling a five year old and she was forcibly reminded of her grandmother. The match again, became too hot to hold and she let it drop with a sigh. She felt a little dizzy so she leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes. The cold was intense. Her toes and fingers were all numb, her lips blue and her teeth were chattering continuously. She kept delaying on the lighting of the third match. She shivered, both from the cold and the fear of being flogged by her stepfather for wasting too many matches.

Ultimately, she had to give in. The cold was unbearable. She lit the third match and lo! She saw her grandma! She was pearly white and translucent. But she was her grandma, the person whom she had thought of the most that night. The girl grinned happily as her grandma spread her arms wide for the little match girl to hug her. There was warmth all around her grandmother and the girl welcomed it as she embraced her.

                                                     ***

Next morning, the train stopped at the station and I got out of my compartment in the expectation of seeing the match girl again. I couldn’t find her and was filled with a sense of foreboding. After much searching, I found her sleeping blissfully under the cover of a white blanket. On her face was an exuberant smile, her now no more bright eyes were open whilst the snowflakes rested on their lashes and beside her lay three matchsticks. She was dead. And I was sickened to the core.

I asked the owner of the nearby bookstall about her. He said the severe cold must have killed her. He added it was best for her as her father treated her like an animal. He said the authorities had been informed. I walked up to her, closed her laughing eyes which mocked the world and stood rooted to the spot until the final call for the train leaving registered in my brain and I ran for my compartment.

The image of the girl under the snowy blanket and her dazzling smile was now branded in my memory. I couldn’t shake it off. I couldn’t help but wonder what was the reason for that peaceful, serene smile of hers. She would have seen an apparition of sorts, I concluded. For who would smile so jovially when sent out to sell matches in this cruel cold? Yes, she would have seen an angel. But she would never say anything about this. I would never know…

 Khyati Agarwal

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