Cold Flames, by Anita Michalak

The girl sat on the windowsill, the heel of one numb and callused foot tapping an uneven rhythm against the cold brick of the wall. There was a tattered children’s book in her raw and frozen hands, while her eyes carried a wild, almost desperate look. Every so often she would glance up from her book and scan the crowded road, breaking her routine only to tuck a strand of dirty, wispy hair behind her ear. When she saw nothing other than the usual sight of carriages rattling against the cobblestone street and the clusters of townspeople rushing to get out of their way, she would exhale a puff of air into the cold night and settle back into the hollow of her low perch.

Every time the girl tried to turn a page of her book, the wind would get there before her hand. She would brace her ungloved fingers against the limp pages, gritting her teeth as the gusts of wind attacked her vulnerable and exposed skin. But she didn’t care; she had learned to fight off the cold long ago. All that mattered to her now was the preservation of her beloved book.

It had been a gift from her mother, before she had died two days before Christmas the previous year. Now that it was that time of year once again, the girl rarely parted with the only piece of her mother she had left. She knew the contents of the book by heart, of course; the only reason she bothered to page through it every day was the knowledge that her mother had once touched the very same pages.

The book was a simple one. It told the story of a poor little girl who sold matches on the street, until the warmth of them was no longer enough to keep her from dying of the cold. The cover of the book was worn and stained, but the girl didn’t need to read the title to know what the book was called―her mother had always reverently referred to it as “The Little Match Girl.”

In many ways, the girl thought, she was just like the Match Girl. Cold, hungry, poor, alone… and as good as abandoned. But there was something deep inside her that the girl wouldn’t dare to admit.

She was jealous. Jealous that the Match Girl had been reunited with her grandmother, while here she was, stripped of her own mother. Jealous that the Match Girl had been granted with a peaceful end to her troubles, while she had to endure the pains of poverty, alone on the windowsill of a post office.

But no, the girl reminded herself, she wasn’t entirely alone….

Suddenly, a body maneuvered itself around the corner of the post office and a hand painfully pinched her ear. The girl was wrenched from the windowsill, her hip grazing the corner of the brick wall, her mouth open in a cry of surprise and pain. The book remained in the sturdy grip of her hand.

The figure, dragging the girl by her ear, staggered into a nearby alley. He let go once he knew he had no audience and turned to face the girl. She, in turn, hugged the book to her chest and hunched her shoulders, wanting to make herself look as small as possible―wanting to disappear.

The man was dressed in what appeared to be dirty rags, his feet bare, just like the girl’s. He pointed an unsteady finger at the girl’s face.

“So you thinks you can keep runnin’ off like tha’, eh?” he slurred. “Me thoughts I warned you ‘bout sneakin’ off again, girly.”

The girl flinched. “I-I-I’m sorry, father,” she stammered. Her hold on the book tightened even more. “I was only―”

Her words were cut off as her father’s hand struck her face, hard. She reeled from the blow and staggered to her knees, the book toppling from her hands.

The girl watched in horror as her father bent to pick up the limp book, pinching it with two fingers as if worried it might contaminate him.

“Ah, tsk, tsk, girly. This wretched thing again? And ‘ere I thought we ‘ad worked out a nice deal,” the father said in a dangerously calm voice. “I didn’t raise you as none spoiled brat, girly. You don’t gets to read whenever you likes.” Suddenly he crouched down in front of the girl and roughly grabbed her chin. She was forced to look into his mad, drunk eyes. “’Tis only you and I left in this world, girly. We gots to be a team, you hear? And that means”―he roared as his calm façade broke― “you listen to what you’s told! You don’t do nothin’ ‘cept what I tells you, girly. You sit at home, you cook what measly thing I give you, and you do not go runnin’ off so I gots to go barrelin’ through the town lookin’ for ya!”

He released her chin abruptly, shoving her head backwards so hard she hit the wall behind her. The girl choked on a sob as her vision began to swim, but that didn’t stop her from seeing her father pick up the book and rip it in half. The two halves still in his hand, he stalked back to the girl.

“Now quit your whimperin’ and gets yourself up,” he sneered. “There’s a house tha’ needs cleanin’.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It wasn’t a house, not really; the girl and her father lived in the attic above a stable. The owner of the stable had given them four months to meet the rent quota, otherwise, he said, he “wouldn’t regret kicking ‘em out to the streets, filth as they were.”

The girl kept a little hand-drawn calendar next to her cot, and she would always count the days until she and her father were homeless once again. The girl never kept hope; she knew her father never came through with the money. They were well into their third month now, and a few weeks away from becoming nomads.

The girl’s father had left the attic soon after the two of them had staggered home from the alley. She didn’t know where he had wondered off to―although she was almost certain it was to go beg for beer―but he had been clear with the message that the house ought to be spotless when he came back.

Yet now that his prying and judging eyes were no longer on her, the girl was left hollow and emotionless. She knew that the proper reaction for her now should be to cry, and although she wanted to, the tears wouldn’t come. All she felt was a cold numbness, one that had nothing to do with the chill seeping through the floorboards.

Even as she ran her hand over the dried blood and matted hair where her head had struck the wall in the alley, or gingerly touched the already formed bruise on her cheek, the girl felt no pain, no brokenness.

All she felt now was anger.

Suddenly the air in the attic was too stifling for her, and the girl knew she had to leave. Leave where? She didn’t know. Go somewhere, anywhere, anywhere but here. The non-withstandable cold she had felt on the window sill of the post office was preferable to the memories that came with being holed up in the attic.

A determined set to her jaw, the girl swung her legs through the single attic window and jumped as she had done many times before. The impact of her landing sent a tremor up her legs, but she didn’t care, she was already running, running, running.

The girl didn’t know how long she ran, or how far, or where she had ended up, for that matter. All she knew was that when the fiery feeling inside her was extinguished, she was once again left a victim to the cold. She slowed her pace, her breath coming out in frosty clouds and a cramp forming in her ribs. As she took her bearings and looked around, she realized she had never been to this part of town before.

She was lost, but the worst part was that she didn’t want to be found.

It was darker now, and it had begun to snow. The unfamiliar townspeople were starting to return to the safety of their homes, until only a few lingered and remained. The girl found the silence and the darkness of the streets eerie but comforting. She continued to walk.

Eventually, she spotted a warm arc of light among the shadows of the night. As she approached, she saw that an elderly woman was sitting against a low ledge. The woman was wrapped in a frayed, shabby blanket. The sources of the light, the girl noticed, were the dozens of lit candles arranged on the ledge and on the ground surrounding the old woman. It was a strange sight, but one that struck the girl as very familiar. When the woman noticed the girl, a sly grin appeared on her face. She beckoned her closer.

I wonder why, the girl thought as she entered the circle of light, this poor woman is shivering in a blanket when she has so many candles to keep her warm.

As if in answer to the girl’s thoughts, the old woman smiled, revealing crooked and blackened teeth. “I sense you are filled with anger, dearie. Care to light a candle to cleanse your little body?” she croaked.

Confused by the woman’s cryptic words, the girl nodded, wanting, needing to feel the heat of a flame. She watched in fascination as the woman reached somewhere into the folds of her blanket and pulled out a red candle. She placed it and a box of matches into the girl’s hand, then sat back and caressed one of her own lit candles.

“Go ahead, dearie. A candle for the soul,” she crooned. The girl obliged, and lit the candle with cold and trembling fingers.

◊ ◊ ◊

The first thing the girl noticed was that the candle was not warm. Instead of the warmth she had expected from the flame, she was astounded to find that it was cold, colder even than the night air around her. Yet there was something mesmerizing about the aura of the little flame, something that called out to the girl’s very soul. A candle for the soul, the old woman had said, and―yes of course, the woman! She would know that there was something wrong with the girl’s candle; she would know why it held a cold flame. But when the girl looked up, her mouth open in question, the old woman and her candles were nowhere to be found. She was left alone with the shadows and her single candle.

One candle, yes, but the girl had multiple matches. Maybe it had been the fault of the match she had used. Maybe she would be warm if she blew out the candle and tried another match. Try she did, countless times, but the results were still the same: the flames remained cold.

With every new match that she lit, the girl grew more frustrated. Each cold flame taunted her with the warmth she could never have; each brought with it a new wave of anger. Anger at the cold, and the bitterness it set in the air. Anger at the pathetic attic she lived in, a home that couldn’t even keep her warm. Anger at her mother, for leaving her when she needed a mother most. Anger at the Little Match Girl, for giving her false hope of a happy ending.

Anger at her father, for being the reason she wanted to be the Match Girl.

The girl was starting to run out of matches, but the demons that haunted her soul kept coming, mostly in the shape of her father. With each match, the girl saw an image of everything her father had ever done to hurt her. Every word, every touch, every action used against her manifested itself into one of the writhing shadows surrounding the girl. The cold flame was the beacon that called to every hateful thought, every tortured memory the girl had. Each match extracted a demon from the girl’s soul. And then, finally, both she and the matches were spent.

As the candle wavered with the light of the last match, the girl felt as if a weight had been lifted off her chest. For the first time in her life, she felt at ease, as if nothing in the world could hurt her. The old woman had been right―her body was cleansed now. She felt dizzyingly free without her hatred and anger accompanying her. The girl’s father deserved every spiteful thing that came his way, but that didn’t mean she needed to be burdened with his consequences, did it? No, no of course not, she reassured herself. I am innocent. Then the candle flickered and went out, and every demon waiting at the edge of flame’s light rushed in. The shadows charged at the girl, circling, clawing, devouring.

In the end, the girl lay in a crumpled heap against the ledge, an array of matches scattered around her. She had finally become the Match Girl she had always wanted to be, but the one thing she regretted was allowing her rage and resentment to consume her.

◊ ◊ ◊

When the girl’s father came home the next morning, he was furious to see that the attic was just as he had left it, and his daughter nowhere to be found. He spent the entire day scavenging the town for her, looking in every alley and at every windowsill for a familiar figure. With the passing of every empty hour, the father’s anger dimmed, replaced by a newfound sense of urgency. He was panicked and confused, but mostly surprisingly of all, he was scared. There was a foreboding thought in the back of his mind, a thought he didn’t want to come to terms with. Instead he focused on his fear, and the crushing sensation of the guilt that was starting to build up inside him.

He finally found his daughter near a ledge in the most outcast part of town. Her body was cold, her face pale and ghostlike. Hundreds of matches were strewn around her, lifeless soldiers surrounding their lifeless master. There was a puddle of something red near the girl’s hand. Wax? Blood? It didn’t matter. The father fell to his knees among his little match girl’s soldiers and cried.

-Anita Michalak