Stories Tragedy

The Smoke of Her Burning

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 borders or which 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 on the streets.

The Match Woman coughed into her handkerchief, careful to be quiet about it. If the mesters thought 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 boarders, 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 melted on her tongue.

“And stay out, you filthy leper!” the udlejer yelled 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.


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 and the others. 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.




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

And the Match Woman felt it was time to burn.


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