Her mother said, darling pie, your lips are made of sawdust, and on her tenth birthday her mother bought her matches to scrape across that skin, to keep her warm when a mother’s love is buried in the earth. The girls’ cheeks were made of wood. A flawed design, mommy said, but you make do with what you are given. In the matchbox there were only five sticks. Five matches for five lives, and as each one burns, the girl was to remember what she saw. Remember what she’d want to keep. If she chose right, maybe she will learn something. Maybe she will stay warm forever. Her mother, perhaps knowing she was a woman who had given birth in a fairy tale, had done her duty to the narrative and died, so sad, and took all the wisdom and snide humor in her veins with her.
Strike one – a scene of a little bird. Common. A sparrow? No, too big. It was one of those Starlings who carry the night sky on their backs. His feet were tied with fishing wire to a tree branch, beating his little wings as fast as the tap-tap-tap of his heart. Someone put him there, some creature with nimble fingers and a thumb. The bird is not alone, no, his little partner twits from one branch to another, unwilling to leave her lover. Perhaps she thinks if she shakes the branch hard enough with her body she will shake him down, and he will be with her in their nest again. Little bird brain. She didn’t know his legs are broken.
Sawdust-lips kicked the snow at her feet.
Strike two – a man stepped on an ant, and then he wept. He built a little mound to remember the ant, or perhaps to memorialize his carelessness, but it withered away with rain because he had built it out of sand. So he built a larger memorial, using fallen branches, but a large wind swept it away to sea one evening. When his friends asked him why he was weeping so often they too felt the loss of the little ant, and the guilt that they loved someone who had done something so cruel, so they petitioned the city to build a stone monument in the square, sculpted into legs and a long abdomen, and it was beautiful, for a time, but an earthquake ripped the ground in two, and the sculpture cracked. On and on, the whole town built a memory, and on and on it fell apart, until one day they constructed a steam tower to float over their heads with banners floating behind it, circling their homes and the courthouse. But they forgot to put enough grease in the engine and it collapsed in the middle of the city, and it crashed on the heads of eight children playing red rover, red rover, won’t you come over?
Wooden-cheeks curled her toes as they became numb.
Strike three – there was a girl who had just been ripped out of the belly of a wolf by a man with an oversize ax, but he’d nicked her face on one side, and on the other the acid in the belly marked her as half-digested. She ended up better than her grandmother, though, who came out without eyes, her jaw hinged off, and very, very dead. The woodsman brought home the bloody ax and the bloody girl, and because he once read that once you rescue a girl, she’s yours to keep, he placed her in his basement, which is like a belly in a way, but much colder, much drier, and so very dark.
Strike four – there was no image with this one, only a feeling that curdled in her belly like sour sausage, the sort of nausea one experiences when they have had nothing to eat for days, but they forget that a starving stomach must have only bland food to start, and they imagine lavish feasts of pudding and toffee and syrup dripping over the edge of stacked pancakes, the kind of food that settles like a stone in your gut, but there is no stone, there is only a hole, and no table exists for you to sit at, no fork for you to grasp. Your teeth have nothing to chew.
Ten-year-old growled. She, too, had not eaten in some time, and that was the sound her stomach made. None of these stories made her feel any warmer, or any safer. Only the matches as they sparked to fire near her eyes did that.
Strike five – last match. Last light. Last warmth. Poor girl’s fingers were too frozen by then to be careful, and she caught the edge of the match on the side of her wooden cheeks. By accident? By accident. She went up in flames – poor design! – but she was not unhappy, in those last moments when she was alight, because she forgot about the bird and its broken leg, and the man who cried for ants, and a woman with a broken face in a basement, and she forgot that she was hungry. All that she knew was her face felt so alight! So red! She was the brightest part of the world.
Her body crumbled to black soot in the snow.
And so it was that, some time later, a group of revelers on their evening walk came across the black stain of her body with five burnt-out matches beside it. Each felt a quick little agony in their heart as they shaped the black to the body of a girl in their mind, but by the last one they thought, well, this little thing succumbed to her pain, hasn’t she? Animal like, at the end. One by one, they walked away, and did not think of her ever again.
A.A. Balaskovits is the author of Magic For Unlucky Girls (SFWP). Her stories and essays have appeared in Story, The Missouri Review, Indiana Review, Okay Donkey and others. She is the Co-Editor-In-Chief of Cartridge Lit. On Twitter @aabalaskovits Image: Scan of illustration by Hans Tegner in Fairy Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Andersen (1900)