It is so cold, so very cold. I look to the sky and wish to God that the icy snow will stop falling, but still it comes, landing on the ground in tiny, unorganised patterns. I knew it would not work, Father says praying doesn't work like that, that God will not listen if we pray for selfish reasons. But still I look up, and I pray, and hope to the almighty that he does not think me selfish.
I stare at the sky for too long, and I can feel the thin layer of snow bearing into my skin. I look down at my hands instead, blue with the cold that New Years Eve brings, clutching at the boxes of matches Father has forced me outside to sell. No one will buy them now, it is too cold and too late, everyone will be asleep, but I cannot go home. My fear outweighs the cold, and I feel the crack of Fathers belt across my legs. The pain from the last time I came open empty handed is still fresh in my mind, the sound of my skin, a loud SLAP! then a second later my mind would register the hurt, and the stinging, fiery pain would come. Father had whipped my siblings with his belt long before he did me, and had it down to a fine art. He knew the exact amount of time it would take for the numbness of the pain to fade, but would strike again before any of the hurt faded. Like I said, he had it down to a fine art.
I will not go home, no I can't. I ask God to tell me why he makes Father hurt me, but God remains silent. Either he is not answering me tonight or his voice is whisked away by the biting wind and the noise of London as the gears and cogs whirr and spin into the night, keeping whatever they are doing alive even on such a celebrated evening.
I look down at the matches again, and bite my cracked lips. One match wouldn't hurt, would it? To feel warmth right now would be a blessing, even if it were only for a moment. But the wind is stopping me; the fire would be instantly blown out. I look to my left, and found I have wandered aimlessly to a church. The door are closed, cast in locked chains, but I wander round the building, and below the steps I find a nook covered in frosted ivy, adorned in stony figures of cherubs and the Lord Jesus Christ. I climb onto it, staring into the dead eyes of Christ himself, and reach into my apron and pull out a match.
I flip it through my numb, frozen fingers, savouring the very thought of warmth and strike it firmly against the robes of Jesus, and a flame flickers into life and I cover it from the wind with my free hand before it has the chance to die. I stare at it, this thing that is now powering the country, feeding off wood, coal, and bits of paper to do our bidding. It is beautiful, the fire changes shape too fast for me to register it happening, it feels alive in my hands. I stare into it, and see unearthly visions.
I look through a fogged window, into a warm house filled with people, sitting around a table, laughing, drinking and eating from the largest Christmas spread I have ever seen. I can feel myself drooling, and the window and the wall disappears, leaving me in front of the table that creaks with delicious food. I reach out and touch it, the plump chicken stuffed with smaller and smaller birds. As my fingers brush the skin, I reel backwards, the crisp skin having burnt me. The fire of the room dies, and I throw away the match as it singes my fingers.
How beautiful! The visions I saw were like only what I dreamed of, and I yearn to see it again. Another match, I think to myself, will not do any more harm than one. Father could not have counted them surely, and even if he did, two little matches are not enough to make him beat me any more than he will anyway. I pull another match from my apron, and strike it across Jesus Christ Our Lord's robes once more, the flame once again sparks life, and I find myself again lost in the visions of the fire. But I am not surrounded by food, not this time, but I am but a small child sat under the largest Christmas tree I have ever lain eyes on. I look up at the tree, a bright emerald green that radiates life, tiny candles attached to its branches and paper decorations hang from every limb. Sweet treats hang here and there, but atop this magnificent tree stands an angel with beauty that cannot be fathomed in this world, and she is adorned in gold befitting a Queen. Her hands are stretched out to me, her long pink fingers beckoning for me to come closer, to let her smother me in her warmth and love, and briefly, I see my mother. I can feel the tears on my cheeks, but why are they so cold?
A brisk wind wipes away the fire and the vision, and I am left here in this frozen nook with nothing but an apron of matches. I scrunch my toes under my dress, hoping that my thin form will bring them back to life. No, over the last few hours I have watched them go from bright red and full of needle prick like pain, to greying and a numbed pain, like they have fallen asleep. Now they are blue and purple, spreading to my ankles and I cannot feel them. My fingers are following, though slower now since I have lit the matches. I have already pulled out the match before my mind has argued over how Fathers temper will affect my legs, and strike it over Jesus' heart, and almost scream at the new Holy vision I see.
I think to cry for help, but recognise the face that has appeared before me.
"Grandmother? Is it you? Truly?"
She approaches me, getting closer and closer with every step, smiling. The rush of love and sadness overwhelms me, and I feel her stopping me as I go to run too her long missed form. She kisses me with her aged lips.
"Oh Grandmother, please don't leave! Do not disappear like the Christmas chicken; don't leave me like the angel and mother. Stay with me, please, or take me with you wherever you go."
Grandmother smiles at me, her toothless grin opening old memories that I thought were gone forever. I light match after match to keep this vision alive, to have her near to me. All but one is used when she shoots a wrinkled finger skyward, and the image of the Christmas tree and all its splendorous light waves before my vision as I see the stars, and disappears as one shoots across the night sky.
"Oh Grandmother, a shooting star. That means someone has just died, that's what you told me when I was a little girl. I remember everything you told me Grandmother."
"That is good child, I am glad you kept the tales of an old woman so close to your heart. Walk with me my dear, we shall talk some." She holds out her hand to me, and I take it, gripping her bony fingers as if I will never let go.
As I tread on the ground, the numbness is replaced by warmth, though no feeling. I do not shiver in the presence of my Grandmother, just look dead ahead, only allowing myself to smile.
"Grandmother," I ask eventually, when the silence has become too much for me to bear. "Have I died?"
"Yes child. Sometimes Death is better than living a life of pain."
"It is fine, I'm not sad. If I get to stay with you, I shall be happy. Are we going to heaven Grandmother?"
In the morning when my body is found, they sat I tried to keep warm by lighting the matches. But why would I choose to stay out here and perish from the cold rather than go home and sit by the fire? Not because Father would beat me, the pain I could have handled for the welcome embrace of warmth. Not because I was lost, or hiding or scared of anything, no, it was because the visions God gave me, of something better, of something more than mere living.