The Match Boy Always Hopes

He awoke gently, cuddled by darkness. Leaves had gathered over his cheek, he brushed them off. He got to his feet and stood still, listening.

Too quiet.

Where was the wind? The branches stroked by the breeze? Where were the birds?

He walked along a path not as familiar as it should have been, and lit by blades of yellow light that cut the shadows into ribbons. Some of the trees he recognised, saw the same old patterns streaking through the bark. But they seemed fewer in number than he remembered. Then he reached the edge of the forest, too soon, too soon.

A road cut across the path. It was grey and wide and obnoxiously straight. Across the other side sat squat, flat-roofed buildings of brick and iron. On top of one, the nearest, a metal pyre reached upwards, enveloped in flames that cast too-bright light and too-dark shadows upon all surroundings. The heat from the pyre felt thick and suffocating against his cheek, and he turned his back on it to let his face feel cooler air.

It was then that he noticed there was something else wrong. The sky was dark, much darker than it had any right to be. As if a heavy, thick blanket had been laid over the land, all light absorbed into its folds. To look up was to feel your soul drawn towards a void, to be assured that nothing looked down upon you, that all other living things left in this world would gaze up, shudder, and hastily turn their eyes to the ground. All light came from the pyre, no natural source from above.

He checked his pockets, and in the left one he found the old box. A shake resulted in a reassuring rattling sound. The matches were there. Yet he noticed, as he wrapped his fingers around the box to return it to his pocket, that the strip on the side had been worn smooth. No matches could be lit from it, he would need a new one.

He crossed the road and headed around the pyre building. By its entrance, a large man with a fat wooden club over his shoulder stood guard.

The matchbox came out from the pocket, a question was asked, a snarl answered and the club swung towards his head. A return to unconsciousness, quickly stuffing the matchbox back before it was taken.

 

He awoke far from gently. He shifted his head and at once it throbbed with pain. He levered himself upwards and looked around.

A cell. Brick walls, metal door. Barred window, no glass. Beyond, that oppressive sky.

Yet something had brought him from sleep. A whispering…

A hand reached through the barred window. A delicate hand, that of a young girl. Clutched between two fingers, worn rough and cut by thorns, was a strip of card, rough to the touch.

He took the card, and gasped with delight. Uttering thanks, he brought the matchbox from his pocket and held the new strip against the side. He withdrew a match, looked out and upwards at the sky, then carefully struck the match against the side of the box.

The flame sung to life, throwing dancing patterns against the walls. Then he flicked his fingers and let go. The match flew upwards, between the bars, then higher and higher, up and up, growing brighter yet remaining just a point of light. It came to rest against the heavens, hanging high, shining down.

He thanked the girl, kissed her fingers, and smiled as she laughed softly in return.

He took a second match from the box. Struck, flicked.

One by one, he lit the stars again.

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