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.


“Hey!”


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.

The Talking Skull, By Jennifer A. McGowan


Editor's note: This winning poem grabbed my attention in a big way. While based on a folk-tale rather than a fairy tale, it honors the fairy-tale tradition by having elements of wonder and transformation -- of a rather dark sort. Jennifer adapted it from a Nigerian folk tale.

A hunter
in search of food for his family
walked and walked
but found no prey.
The plains stretched on
and the sun beat
and even he was weary.

There was one tree
that stretched its branches
and he sat beneath it.
Propped his feet
on a white rock
and drank.
When he was rested, he noticed
the rock had two eye-holes
and teeth.  Alone
in the vast expanse
except for the sky,
he addressed the rock
in a casual fashion:
“What brought you here, my friend?”
Then he laughed,
grateful no one could hear him.

So perhaps it is to be forgiven
if the hunter jumped
when the skull fixed him
in its empty gaze and said,
“Talking brought me here!”

Food and family forgotten,
he ran to the king
to tell him of this wonder
and the king
and all his attendants
went in stately fashion
to see the talking skull.

The plains stretched on
and the sun beat
so it is perhaps to be forgiven
if the king was weary
and rather hot and bothered
when at last they reached the one tree
that stretched its branches.

The king ordered the hunter
to show him the wonder
and the hunter found the skull
and addressed it in a friendly fashion:
“Greetings again!  Please tell my king—
what brought you here!”

But the skull
was silent.

For a long time
the hunter pleaded and implored
questioned and queried
but the skull
might well have been
a white rock to prop his feet on
for all the good it did.

The king was angry.
He had come a long way
and had expected wisdom from beyond the grave
or at least a miracle
that befit his station.
He had his champion
lop off the hunter’s head
and began the long trip home.

Beyond the one tree
the plains stretched on.
Beneath the tree
the skull rolled grinning
over to the hunter’s head and asked,
“What brought you here, my friend?”
And the hunter’s head said sadly,
“Talking brought me here!”
And underneath the shaded earth
the other skulls set up a clattering.

Jennifer A. McGowan lives near Oxford, England, and has published widely on both sides of the Atlantic.  For more poetry, info about her first collection, and for samples of her medieval calligraphy, visit http://www.jenniferamcgowan.com

 

Dancing With the Devil (and Other Strategies for Fighting Evil), By Lissa Sloan

Editor's note: The Devil gets plenty of due in fairy tales, as Lissa Sloan adeptly points out in this guest post. The image here is not exactly a perfect fit, but is too darkly lovely to resist.

No one wants to run into the Devil, right? What with him leading people into temptation, and making bargains for their immortal souls, it’s just too risky. But it works out fine for Colonel Philip Lightfoot, an arrogant Colonial Virginian who is challenged to a dancing contest by Satan himself. His tale is recounted by Mary Quattlebaum in Sparks Fly High: The Legend of Dancing Point. Fortunately for Colonel Lightfoot, he realizes the error of his ways in time to mend them, and beats the Devil at his own game.


But what if you are not light-footed, but two-left-footed and you encounter the Prince of Darkness? As usual, fairy tales provide some useful suggestions. Number one: be clean (spiritually and physically). In The Handless Maiden, the maiden’s father promises his daughter to the Devil (in his defense, he thinks he’s giving up his old apple tree, not his daughter). When the Devil comes to claim the girl, he cannot, because she is not only morally clean, but has just bathed. She is forbidden to wash anymore, but when the Devil returns, her hands are still clean, because she has wept on them. It is then that her father is ordered to cut off her hands. (In his defense, the Devil does make him do it.) But even then, her tears keep her clean, and the Devil cannot touch her. He continues to plague her though, and it is because of her purity of soul that she always receives the help she needs.

Head of the Demon, by Mikhail Vrubel (1891)
Of course, we can’t all be pure and clean. A second possibility: be smart. In Bearskin, the Devil makes a deal with a soldier to provide him all the money he could want or need in return for a few things. The soldier cannot wash (about cleanliness, see above), or cut his hair. He must wear the skin of a bear, and he cannot pray. If Bearskin dies during the seven years of their bargain, his soul belongs to the Devil. If he survives, he is free. Bearskin knows he cannot pray that God spare his life, but he finds a loophole in the deal. He gives money to the poor, asking only that they pray on his behalf. Fortunately for Bearskin, it works.

But sometimes being clean and smart just isn’t enough. The third option: it’s not what you know, but who you know. In The Devil and His Grandmother, our hero, another soldier, confesses his situation to the Devil’s Grandmother. The obliging old lady takes pity on him and hides him while she ferrets out the answer to the riddle he must answer. In The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs, the Grandmother even risks her grandson’s ire by yanking out his golden hairs. So if you meet Old Scratch, take heart—there is hope. Be pure, be smart, or use your connections. Or maybe just brush up on your dancing.

Lissa has been a guest blogger on Enchanted Conversation, and contributed a poem to the Little Red Riding Hood issue. Despite many years of lessons, she would definitely not bet her soul on her dancing ability.