Contest #189 shortlist ⭐️

62 comments

Historical Fiction Sad

This story contains sensitive content

Part I: It was so terribly cold.


It had always been cold in Denmark, especially on New Year’s Eve.

The wintry winds brought a desperate chill to those unsettled and impoverished. Wars continued to ravage the land. Treaties were torn up as soon as they were signed. Industrialization poisoned Scandinavian cities and its people. 

The young moved west for better opportunities in warmer climes, leaving the rich, the poor, and the poor’s children on the streets of Copenhagen. The rich fared no worse—no matter how many people left the country. Wherever nations drew their boundaries or whose currency was exchanged, as long as gold lay in their coffers, the rich slept soundly. 

The Match Woman seldom slept at all. As for gold? The only gold she had was in the flecks in her eyes—dark eyes that missed nothing. 

Hunched over her rickety table at the Jensen & Sonderburg Factory, she dipped wooden splints into sulfur, a dozen or so at a time. She was forbidden to sit. A cloud of noxious gas hung about, giving her workshop its bluish-green glow and garlicky smell. Rashes had crusted over the calluses on her hands, as she artfully tipped each splint with a mixture of sugar and phosphorus for the “strike-anywhere” matches. They were enormously popular, and the only kind that sold well on the streets.

The Match Woman coughed into her handkerchief, careful to be quiet about it. If the mesters knew she was ill, they would have sacked her before she met her quota. She frowned at the blood in her hand, familiar with the signs of tuberculosis. People her mother’s age had called it consumption, as the disease consumed whomever it afflicted. It certainly had consumed her mother, bit by bit. 

At the end of her 12-hour shift, the Match Woman wrapped her aching jaw in a thin scarf, put on her hat, and walked home. She paused to retch in an alleyway. Leaning against an icy wall, she vomited up fluorescent emesis.


At first, no one noticed the Match Woman when she entered the boarding house. With the half a Danish Krone she earned each day, she rented a squalid room. It was quiet now that her husband had fled and her children had died. 

There were plenty of children from the other borders, returning from sweeping chimneys and cleaning mills. Unlike her own children, these others were churlish, bowed by rickets and scurvy. They often fought over the thin stew the udlejer served. The stew was watery, but at least it was warm. 

“What is that?” the udlejer asked, motioning to the Match Woman’s jaw.

The Match Woman did not reply to her landlady’s query.

“Phossy kæbe?” she spat, looking at the Match Woman more closely. “I won’t have phossy jaw in my establishment!”

“Bah!” another tenant exclaimed, moving away from the Match Woman, making the sign of the cross.

“Get your things and get out,” the udlejer ordered, clearing her bowl.

There was nothing to do but go and pack her few things. She silently left the dining hall and walked down the darkened corridor to her room. She pulled out her mother’s small trunk from under her bed. Then she pushed it back.

She was too tired to pack.

In the relative warmth of her room, the Match Woman kicked off her worn boots and sat on the lumpy mattress, stuffed with corn husks and straw, pondering her fate. She touched her swollen jaw. Her tongue felt a few of her remaining teeth, loosened by the phosphorus fumes. 

From her years at Jensen & Sonderburg, she knew what to expect. As the bone infection grew worse, her flesh would begin to reek, making her unwelcome in close quarters. Her teeth would fall out, one by one. Perhaps the rotting pus would spread to her eye sockets leaving her blind? She’d passed enough street beggars who suffered from the same fate, girls much younger than she. Eventually, the Match Woman would need money to pay for a surgeon to remove her jaw entirely, dividing it at the joint and dragging out the halves separately. 

Standing, she opened the small closet and began to fold her clothes, a tumble of shreds and patches. She had two pairs of socks. One of her mother’s Christmas ornaments. A baby shoe. A picture of her beloved grandmother. 

And a box of matches.

She tucked the picture of her grandmother into her bodice and took the matches.

Bareheaded and barefoot, she left her room for the last time, walked down the corridor, through the front parlor, and into the street. 


Part II: Snow was falling.  


As the icy flakes fell on her head, the Match Woman remembered how her thinning hair used to hang in pretty curls down her neck. Her grandmother had fashioned it into braids with pretty ribbons. You are an angel, her grandmother had said, slipping holiday treats into her hands. Her butter cookies had melted on the Match Woman’s tongue. 

“And stay out, you filthy leper!” the udlejer yelled at her before slamming the front door. 

The Match Woman stood still. There was nowhere for her to go. In time, she imagined the boarding house tenants singing, drinking gløgg, eating butter cookies, preparing for the New Year. 

As her hands were almost dead with cold, she decided to light one match to warm herself. 

R-r-ratch! 

The “strike-anywhere” match lived up to its name, quickly sparking into a bright flame. She sighed with pleasure at its warmth, a respite from the bitterly cold night. 

In its flickering light, she remembered her father teaching her brothers how to make a fire. If she closed her eyes, she could see her father setting the kindling just so to make a hearty blaze in their fireplace. But when he was drinking, he beat her. Her mother had sung in the kitchen, warming cider and baking tarts. But when her father left them, her mother had sickened and died. 

Lost in her reverie, the match burned out, singeing her fingers. She held the remains of the burnt match in her hand.

The udlejer had watched the Match Woman from a window, eating a thick slice of fruit loaf, washing it down with wassail. 

“You burned your hands! You idiot!” the landlady taunted her. “The phosphorus has eaten your brain. Move along. You are trespassing. Get out!”

The Match Woman stood silent in the snowdrift as the flakes fell.

With a harsh laugh, the udlejer called down curses on the Match Woman’s family before closing the window shutter.

The Match Woman approached the boarding house and lit another match. 

With match in hand, she reached up to light the thatched roof. 

The straw burned quickly and bright.


Part III: It was almost dark. 


It was close to midnight. All of Copenhagen seemed to be inside, feasting and drinking and preparing to usher in the New Year. 

All except for the Match Woman. 

As she passed by the street corners where she’d sold matches as a girl, she lit and flicked matches with reckless abandon. Each time a pile of rags or puddle of kerosene or bale of hay ignited, the gold in her eyes glittered. 

R-r-ratch! 

R-r-ratch! 

R-r-ratch! 

On her blue-gray feet, she walked through the frozen lanes and plumes of smoke, hearing cries of alarm and shrieks of terror behind her. 

As the fires of Copenhagen spread from structure to structure, the firemen could not find water with which to douse them. All had turned to ice. 

🜋 🜋 🜋

The Match Woman could have found her way to Jensen & Sonderburg with her eyes closed, as she had spent most of her life trudging back and forth. Down the lanes, through the side entrance, up the staircase to the factory floor. 

Taking her grandmother’s picture from her bodice, she kissed it once. 

“You promised to meet me at the end,” she said. “Bring me the butter cookies you used to make for the New Year.”

It took her a little while, but she eventually gathered all of the matchboxes, stacking them neatly by her workspace. Hunched over her rickety table, she poured out the white phosphorus, a dozen bottles or so at a time. 

Before she struck her last match, she considered how matches were such little things, disposable after being used up and burnt out.

Just like a match—she, too, was capable of both warming and burning. 

And the Match Woman felt it was time to burn.

R-r-ratch! 


March 12, 2023 16:28

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62 comments

Michał Przywara
02:59 Mar 15, 2023

Excellent. It starts with a woman beaten half to death by life, run absolutely ragged, and we see the end is nigh. But she still has a bit of fire in her, and instead of laying down and waiting, she goes out on her terms. An unhinged, maladjusted pyromaniac? Or a cautionary tale about grinding the little people into the ground? The parallels between this and The Little Match girl are many, and run from almost the same - the season, the matches, the grandmother - to starkly different. The little girl was someone we pitied, for she had bee...

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12:50 Mar 15, 2023

Michal, I can't tell you how much I love your commentary. You always give things an extraordinary perspective (and give me far too much credit, but I love it.) The brilliant William Blake (19th c., way ahead of his time) knew that innocence and experience cannot exist in the same realm. The Little Match Girl is beautiful because the main character tragically embodies a lovely childish naïveté. Her belief in god and man is solid (even though her father beats her. Which begs the question, if children obtain their view of a paternal god from...

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Michał Przywara
21:11 Mar 15, 2023

Ha! Little Claus and Big Claus is a fun story - thanks for the recommendation :) You're probably right about Disneyfication - there's value to stories where horrible things happen or are done, particularly if we can experience them vicariously. It's a way to explore darker topics without actually doing something reprehensible. And yeah - innocence vs. experience. That's a great way to summarize it :)

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Michelle Oliver
10:27 Mar 14, 2023

I loved the little match girl as a kid, I used to cry at the ending every time. This is the adult version, and so much more satisfying. If you have to go out, go out with a “bang” and do it in style. Revenge is so satisfying. I loved the way you broke the prompt into parts, so clever! -“disposable after being used up and burnt out. And just like a match—she, too, was capable of both warming and burning. And the Match Woman felt it was time to burn.” What an ending! The image of a match being disposable yet so powerfully destructive is ...

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12:25 Mar 14, 2023

Thanks for your wonderful comment, Michelle. The sectioning just happened, but it neatly fell into a tripartite story: the abuse, the recognition, the retribution. Just like you, I had always loved "The Little Match Girl" (I wonder why that sad tale resonates so deeply?) and I wept at the inequity (injustice?) of her life. Freezing to death while doing your job? No, thanks, Mr. Industrial Revolution. Thanks to writing, I can reimagine The Little Match Girl -- as a Joan of Arc, as a phoenix rising from the ashes, answering for the margin...

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Mary Bendickson
17:52 Mar 13, 2023

Wow! Such a range of talent. Just read one that made my eyes weep from laughter then this one has me crying out loud, for cryin' out loud!

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19:02 Mar 13, 2023

Thanks, Mary. "The Little Match Girl" was a story that traumatized me as a child...probably the first clue I had that life was patently unfair. I waited 50 years to write her revenge story. Felt pretty good :) Now to avenge Goldilocks...

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Wendy Kaminski
18:45 Mar 12, 2023

Wow, I really enjoyed this, Deidra! (If "enjoyed" is the proper term, when it's a tragedy.) An engrossing story with a satisfying revenge angle and a protagonist for whom I genuinely felt sorry. Excellently told, and I admired the splitting of the prompt aspects - thanks for sharing this!

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20:17 Mar 12, 2023

I love historical fiction but writing it takes a ton of time…fascinating though. The industrial revolution did the poor no favors. 😞 Charles Dickens captured the London cesspool quite well. Oliver Twist made me weep. “The Little Match Girl” was one of the first stories my Depression Era mother read to me. I still remember my jaw dropping at the end (so to speak.)

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Wendy Kaminski
20:23 Mar 12, 2023

Agreed (though, that line was kinda hilariously dark - I admire that! :).

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Philip Ebuluofor
11:29 Mar 30, 2023

Like your other works. Congrats.

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12:06 Mar 30, 2023

Like you dropping by :) Thanks for the read.

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Philip Ebuluofor
07:23 Apr 07, 2023

Welcome.

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Story Time
17:03 Mar 27, 2023

I thought about this particular prompt and couldn't come up with anything that felt fresh enough, and as soon as I read this I went "Oh! That's how you would do it." Just a great, brief but scorching read. (Yeah, I had to sneak in a fire pun.)

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18:42 Mar 27, 2023

Little Match Girl as played by Sigourney Weaver in 1986 :)

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Kerry Batchelder
07:27 Mar 25, 2023

Wow what a story! I was lost in it as I anticipated the Match Womans every move. Your description was excellent, so vivid I could see her in my minds eye as if I were there, this woman who must have been beautiful in her youth. How utterly sad what life had stolen from her: her family, her looks, her dignity and ultimately her life. The ending was a total shock with an unanticipated twist. I loved it!

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13:03 Mar 25, 2023

Thanks, Kerry! The Little Match Girl definitely needed an update, Quentin Tarantino-style. (Mwhahah)

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Laurel Hanson
16:53 Mar 24, 2023

Yes! So deserved. Congratulations.

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17:07 Mar 24, 2023

Woohoooo This story was a blast to write. Glad to see it landed.

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Amanda Lieser
17:28 Mar 21, 2023

Hey Deidra! This piece was breathtaking. And on a subject not always discussed in mainstream worlds. I loved the way you portrayed the match girl all grown up. I also like how you approached the prompt, taking pieces rather than the literal one word for word. This one was beautiful!

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18:43 Mar 21, 2023

What a comment, Amanda :) You make me feel like less of a hack. Thanks for the love. I had a blast avenging the Little Match Girl. High time :) Little Red Riding Hood is next.... haha

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Basil McCulloch
03:12 Mar 20, 2023

I absolutely adore your staccato-like prose! It lends the boon of intrigue to your writing, and I am hooked! Thank you for such brilliant writing!

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12:04 Mar 20, 2023

I am hooked on your lovely comment. :) Thanks for the read. Welcome to Reedsy!

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David Sweet
14:44 Mar 18, 2023

Fantastic use of the prompt in your structure. Character development is superb. Thanks for sharing this. I look forward to reading from your list of excellent stories.

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16:19 Mar 18, 2023

Thanks, David! I appreciate the read and solid commentary.

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Delbert Griffith
11:28 Mar 16, 2023

Had Dickens not been a Jedi author and had instead gone over to the dark side of The Force, this is the type of story he would have written. And your creative way to adhere to the prompt was nothing short of brilliant. I feel like you told this story exceptionally well. You told us of the actions of the Match Woman, but you didn't show us her emotions. This, I think, made the story more powerful. The reader is allowed to feel pity for the woman, to be horrified by her conditions, and to get that punch in the gut when the fires begin. The ...

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15:12 Mar 16, 2023

Hiya Del -- !! I'm sure you are not missing March at school. You remember the weeks before Spring Break, when the fights increase 300% and the students dig in their heels, prepared to learn less than nothing. Dickens was quite a contradiction. I do love Oliver Twist, though. Thanks for the analysis of this story. I have always loved "The Little Match Girl" but she really needed to burn some stuff down. As for emotion, I think life had sufficiently beat it out of her. Her last act was not to freeze alone in an alleyway, but literally go out...

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Delbert Griffith
16:28 Mar 16, 2023

Agreed! She deserves it for living the life she led and surviving. Feats every night!

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Mike Panasitti
20:36 Mar 14, 2023

Deidra, I'm not familiar with "The Little Match Girl," but your story stands powerfully on its own. It had me on the edge of my seat, ruminating about how good most of us in the contemporary developed world have it compared to the average inhabitant of a city during the Industrial Revolution. The descriptions of phossy jaw were horrifying. Although this is definitely not a tale for someone who wants to extrude their head from the darkness that abounds, it is one of this week's must reads for those who enjoy dystopias of the historically ...

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21:02 Mar 14, 2023

YES for Morris James. I always like to read your stuff. You are one of my all time favorites :) I've decided Cassidy will get her due (a nice long novel) after I finish The Medicine Woman & The Medicine Crone. (Cassidy earned an honorable mention in a recent contest -- off Reedsy site. :) This is Han Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl." It'll stay with you...I don't know why all the original fairy tales and such were so dark. Probably to elicit gratitude (or reflect their times??) "The Little Match Girl" It was so terribly co...

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Mike Panasitti
21:46 Mar 14, 2023

Thanks for sharing that. Yes. It will stay with me. So will your story where the photograph of the character's grandmother appears. The only picture set out in my living quarters for people to see is of my Sicilian grandmother, who was exposed to a UFO at a psychiatric hospital in Argentina where she worked as a nurse. For some reason I believe she just "knew" things about me she went to the grave with. She's the one person I most hope to commune with if there's anything like an afterlife.

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22:55 Mar 14, 2023

Grandmothers are pure magic :) I loved your story about Mr. James. You've spun quite world! WOW

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Lily Finch
19:04 Mar 12, 2023

Deidra, such a sullen tone to this story. As was her demise. LF6.

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20:38 Mar 12, 2023

Yep. OSHA a little negligent in the 1800s…

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Lily Finch
23:08 Mar 12, 2023

That's for sure. LF6.

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John K Adams
22:34 Mar 30, 2023

Wow! Pretty deep examination of the historical background of her story. Anger, unchanneled can be so destructive. Good stuff, Deidra!

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Sally Jupe
19:17 Mar 26, 2023

What a great story Deidra and throughout reading it I felt so 'terribly cold' both physically and metaphorically in many ways, so the prompt really hit home for me, even though there was so much sadness. Did you research the match factory processes and impact on workers or did you know about this? Because your descriptions had a big impact on me too. I'm always keen to know how writers research.

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15:00 Mar 27, 2023

Welcome to Reedsy, Sally! The Little Match Girl needed an update :) I do write historical fiction on occasion. It takes a lot of work, but I've taught British Literature for a decade and knew a lot of the repercussions from the Industrial Revolution. (Dickens did a decent job chronicling the income and social inequalities.)

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Sally Jupe
06:35 Mar 28, 2023

Thanks Deidra! That's so interesting. Its really great to be here and quench my thirst to write creative fiction and hopefully one day a memoir, after so many years of writing in the engineering, science and educational worlds. I have loads to learn and loads of reading to do now I have more time but this feels like a nice place to be to learn.

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Susan Catucci
23:53 Mar 21, 2023

A classic made anew, as this is fresh, new life you've created and breathed into this one here, Deidra. You have, single-handedly, turned Hans Christian Anderson into Stephen King and you are my hero, Ferris Bueller!

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Michele Duess
22:37 Mar 20, 2023

I can't make a comment that others haven't, except great story!

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Laurel Hanson
12:32 Mar 20, 2023

This is a great re-telling. First, it is fantastic historical fiction; you are bringing to life a very real-seeming place and time, and certainly a real injustice. The match woman (not girl! thank-you!) is so vivid, we understand and sympathize with her situation. Thus, we understand and sympathize with her solution. The "fairy tale" has become a protest against injustice in all its forms, as well as a cautionary tale. After all, injustice can only occur for so long before the oppressed rise up, and when they do, it will not be pretty. A apt...

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14:34 Mar 20, 2023

High praise, Laurel. Thanks for the read :) It does seem time for workers to unite, realizing the powers-that-be have little vested in their interest. The first industrial revolution did mankind few favors, and the current fourth revolution has brought even fewer. My mother read The Little Match Girl to me when I was little. I loved the character, but the inherent unfairness and resolution (wait until you die to be happy?) seemed odd. Work doesn't have to be drudgery. I admire the French for protesting moving the retirement age. I think A...

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Russell Mickler
15:04 Mar 19, 2023

Hi Deidra! A haunting story filled with specifics on place, time, and ailments; it is gruesome at times, but it rings true. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this story takes us to a destination where Hans conveniently exited in his original work, sending the little girl to heaven with her grandmother. This is Han's match girl without the benefit of early death, no? Living through the consequences of 19th industrialization? Provocative and extremely well done. R

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14:51 Mar 20, 2023

Hi Russell -- Yes, this is the Little Match Girl all grown up, and she has an ax to grind (and a match to light. ) I love how you phrased "without the benefit of an early death." Oy vey, that seems to be the case, especially in the 19th c. (Although the 14th c. seems to have been a good century to skip as well.) I appreciate your kind remarks. This story seems to be sadly timeless...workers of the world, unite :)

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Russell Mickler
16:04 Mar 20, 2023

Right on - Bravo on the work :) R

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