‘Shadow Boy and the Little Match Girl’, C.A. Hawksmoor

Illustrations © 2013 Cécile Matthey

for Wraith

 [ Shadow Boy, © 2013 Cécile Matthey ] 21st September 1898

It has been almost a month, and every night the silence within me grows a little deeper. I will not be able to keep her job at the match factory for much longer. I am too clumsy. My mouth aches, and my hands are badly burned. I do not have her knack for the work, and do not know how we will survive this if she does not return. If anything happens to us, then it gives me a strange comfort to know that the truth of the matter will be written here. Words, at least, are more comfortable to my hands than phosphorus.

I do not know how to start. I have always been with her. The shadow that lies in the lee of her thoughts. I cannot tell you what it is like to grow up within a body that is not your own. I have never known another way.

Neither of us have ever fully understood what I am: a life that she has lived before, or one that has not yet come to pass. Whether something happened to her while she lay within her mother (or in years too distant into childhood to recall) to split her mind open like a gemstone with the Match Girl on one side, me on the other, and between nothing but a faceted surface full of stars. Perhaps she just dreamed me into being when she was very small, or found me one day in the park—nestled beneath the knotted brambles, in the coal-dust and very close to evening, shivering, and alone. Perhaps she made a home inside herself for me, because there was no other I could turn to.

However we came to pass, we are now as we are, and it cannot be undone.

It was always me that her father caught reading in a dark corner of the communal library on long and rainy afternoons. I looked at him with her eyes and he would tell me to go and play, which I quickly understood to mean that I should leave and give his daughter back to him.

It was easier with the other children: among the chimney-sweeps, piecers and hackers of the city’s howling factories and humming servers. They would laugh, and run away from me when I came into her body as though they were afraid, but then they glanced back and shouted:

“Hurry up, Shadow Boy!”

Their voices like struck metal as the evening glinted in waves of golden fire on the clouds. Against the hulls of the solar ships drifting vast and black above us. And I ran after them.

Some of them played at having little shadows of their own. For all I know, those faces-behind-faces were as real as I am now. But they are not here any more. They belong amongst the dead.

To ensure I did not join them, I learned exactly when and how to hide.

23rd September 1898

My enduring memories of our adolescence are of the inside of her room. The clematis that wended its way beneath her window: the smell of its blossoming in summer, and the dull creak of its branches as her father’s tabby tom cat climbed up through the tangled dark to curl beside me on her bed while I was at my reading.

Each night, she sat down at her worktable and breathed out deeply, banishing herself to the star-filled void between us and allowing me to come into her body. Each night, I opened that window to let the night air in over her skin. I sat down on her bed, opened my book, and waited for the cat to come calling somewhere after midnight.

From time to time, I dressed and crept out into the night instead. The gas lamps lit a path for me from the end of her street, all the way to the great shadow of the parkway. Skirting the liminal space between the carefully-mown lawns and the scuffling, wild darkness of the woods, I breathed in right down to the bottom of my belly. I began to forget about the strangeness of her body. I moved like a thing formed from the night itself, whilst the trees stood their silent vigils all around me: inverted creatures, wearing their lungs on the outside.

From the edge of the woodland you could see down rolling hillside all the way into the city, so long as the night was clear and the smog didn’t hang too low. These were the years when they were still building the Algonquin Tower. From my vantage point, it looked like a great, broken tooth protruding from the city: its lower floors all lit up glass and neon green, floodlights pouring from its crown and catching against the underbellies of the clouds. Men and women labouring through day and night amongst the jagged cranes of their barren, concrete landscape. I would stare down at that glowing spire nestled amongst the smokestacks, with the cold wind on my cheeks and nothing to break the silence but the occasional clatter of a carriage heading down the main street and into town.

Both she and I came to the park as children (her skirts all dirty around the hem, and me occupying a space beside her that only she could see), but now it had become my domain alone. I have never known where she goes when I am in her body, only that I never see her and hear her the way she does with me. Perhaps it’s simply that she rests silent, but I have always suspected that when I am here, she is not. That she goes to somewhere that I cannot perceive or understand.

Perhaps there are other creatures out there as I am, but she never speaks of it when she returns.

28th September 1898

She was a little over seventeen when she began writing letters to Zachary, whose name means ‘Our Lord remembers’. His parents went up to live in the first Lunar settlements years before he was even conceived, and all he had known of the our world was the earthshine. A distant curve of blue-green on the horizon, marked with the great, white swirls of slowly-moving weather. They were both so young. Enchanted to find an existence so completely alien from their own.

She understood from the beginning that he was sick. That some combination of his own biology, the Lunar gravity, and the strange networks of copper wire and silicon that the moonfolk graft into their brains and into their bodies, was killing him. But my Little Match Girl was too young not to hope, and so she would keep writing him her letters, and some nights I would put down my book and walk down to the airstrip to see the ships that whisked those letters up into her moon boy’s hands. The airfield was brighter than the day in the white and sulphurous light: the ships hanging motionless above the gravity engines, connected to the ground by long, thin thorns of twisted metal. They looked like black clouds, snagged straight out of the sky.

She grew sick with devotion. And, as she sickened, he grew well. It was as though she had drained the poison out of him, and he began to flourish beneath her grace. We spoke less, and simply continued to divide night and day between us as we had always done. But she spoke to him of me, and he even wrote me letters once or twice: physical things made of paper and ribbon and bearing my name on the front that sent a strange thrill through my entire body, as though they had made me into flesh and bone in a way that nothing else had ever done. I wrote back in my own quiet, cursive hand. I tried to explain how the letters made me feel, but I do not think he understood.

3rd October 1898

It is in the nature of all living things to die. The sick and old are drawn to it as into the dark centre of a star. Passing through the heart of creation, into eternity. Amen.

And so it was with Zachary, whose name means ‘Our Lord Remembers’. She loved him to the very limit of her being, but it was not enough to sustain him forever. The more she cried, the more silent he became. His letters came, shaky and infrequent, and then one day not at all.

She called to me then as a flame calls out to still, cold water. As she had not called out since we were children, and afraid. I was with her when she lit the white candle on her worktable, and over every night that followed I would see that it did not go out: trimming the wick, and passing the flame between the pooling wax of the old candle and the fresh ones that she brought home with her from the market.

I lay beside her in the dead still of the night, when I breathed out so deeply and allowed her to pass back into our body to sleep. She cried often, but even more than that she lay there in the dark, and stared up into nothing at all.

Eventually, one evening as I prepared to take her over and see to my evening rituals, she told me that she wanted me to stay. I understood her reasons. The world had become too hard. Too cold. Filled with no light but the tiny pool of liquid gold around the pale candle on our desk. A week, perhaps. Or maybe two. A little time immersed in the shadows and the stars of whatever place she visited when she was not within me. Then things would get better.

That was the end of August, and I have not heard her voice since. It does not seem to matter how hard that I call out to her.

12th October 1898

I thought it best to try and construct some kind of life here. I cannot sustain hers well enough on my own. I can only hope that when she comes back, the people and the things she cares about will come back to her, in turn.

Her clothes do not hang right, and I do not feel myself in them. I have no idea what will happen if I cease to be myself now she is not here, but I do not wish to find out. I bought some button-down shirts from a man in the market, and traded a few of the Match Girl’s little wooden carvings for an old frock coat and a pair of pressed, black trousers.

I have been wearing her hair loose about her shoulders as I do, and a barber’s boy from the city says that he can blacken it for me.

The streets are far busier in daylight, and I have tried to learn the subtle arts that people employ with one another as they go about their lives. I do not think that I have been very successful, although the situation is doubtless made harder by my unusual state of dress and strange way of speaking.

The working days are even worse, but I could only tell the master match maker that I was sick for so long. I need to survive here, so I must work.

The first day that I arrived dressed as I am, the match maker told me that she did not care who I was, or how I came to be. If I wanted to come into her workshop then I would wear a boned stay and an apron like the other girls. She gave me a bundle of clothes, and refused to let me work until I changed.

I must have struggled with the lacings for almost half an hour before Emily came back to see what was keeping me. She found me crying, angry, and humiliated. I should have found it simple. The other side of my mind had a hundred thousand tiny memories of how to do these things. But these memories belong to the Match Girl. They are not in my muscles or my fingers.

Emily helped me dress, and pinned my hair until I was not like myself at all. She did not understand why I would not stop crying, but she was kind with me. She calls on me each morning to help me dress, but I do not think that her kindness will matter for much longer. The memories of how to work with phosphorus and wood are as alien to my hands as the lacings of that dress.

The match maker shouts and corrects my work, and I burn my fingers often.

21st October 1898

I lost the job in the workshop, and have started an employment in one of the tiny noodle factories nestled beneath the eves of one of the housing towers on the north side of the city that has its highest reaches forever in the smog. It rains every day, and the only other things I notice as I go about my work are the rats that scurry through the corners of the room, and the slow dripping of cold water.

In the evenings, I prowl the cemetery grounds around the mausoleum just outside the south gate. I’m not sure what I am looking for.

I tried to ask the match maker if she would give my Match Girl her job back when I am no longer here. She did not answer. I do not think that she knew how.

31st October 1898

You can see the spire of the Algonquin Tower from the edges of the cemetery. It projects itself up into the night sky like a single note, held unwavering and forever in steel and green light. Perhaps I should not be coming here, but the park has become too loud and too close to the light to do the work that must be done within myself.

I cut between the leaning gravestones and the weathered angels: their edges all smoothed away, the faintest memory of wings still folded at their backs and the echo of hands clasped tight against their chest. The empty, rain-smoothed spaces where their eyes should be watching me. It is quicker to come this way, and meet the central avenue about a third of the way into the cemetery. There are long columns of two hundred year old oaks planted on either side of it, and by the time I reach avenue I cannot see the city through them. Not even the high peak of the Algonquin. I hear only the wrenching of the wind amidst the branches, and the slap of wet and amber leaves upon baked earth. The autumn drifts in heaps along that pale path, as it leads off between the trees straight into nothing at all.

It grows dark hours before I near the mausoleum gates, and by the time I see them looming up ahead there is no one for almost a mile around me. No one but the dead.

The gates have not been open in all the times that I have been there, and the old padlock chaining them together does not look as though it has seen use in centuries. I think the metalwork was white once, but time and rain and sootfall from the city has peeled paint from rusted metal and tarnished everything to lichen-green and chimney-black.

Beyond those gates, the great, granite pillars of the mausoleum seem to occupy eternity.

For years, people have come to this place to leave tokens for the dead. Maybe a few of them do it from some memory of whoever or whatever is buried in that awful place, but many more seem to come and remember those whose graves are far away, have been forgotten, or were never known to them. They tie ribbons bearing names, and weave bunches of dead flowers through the metal bars. They leave candles and offerings of perfume, bone and alcohol. Apples and pomegranates, poison mushrooms, and human hair. The foods and the things of the underworld.

 [ Bougie, © 2013 Cécile Matthey ] Sometimes, I stay right up until the moment that the bells of St. Michael’s chime the midnight hour, and I know I must go home and trim the wick of the white candle on her desk. See that the flame burns true.

I cannot allow it to burn out.

I read the names that are written on the ribbons, and listen to the gentle song of animal bones ringing against metal in the low wind. But most of all, I simply stare out into the void around the mausoleum. That close, it is a vast and pillared block against the sky: its thick, fluted columns wrapped in black and slapping ropes of ivy and echoes of graffiti decades old. The rabbits graze the grass around it low and soft, until it is like dew-covered velvet beneath the autumn moon. It looks as though you could sink into it for forever.

There are times when I think that I see her beyond those gates: running barefoot through that thick and moss-lined grass with her dress whipping at her heels. Laughing in a voice like the slow ringing of a bell. Skirting the shadows beneath the mausoleum as I once walked the narrow path between the parkland and the woods.

Every few steps, she turns around as though someone chases after her. But she never looks at me.

I do not know if she is coming back.

© 2013 C.A. Hawksmoor

Comment on the stories in this issue on the TFF Press blog.

Home Current Back Issues Guidelines Contact About Fiction Artists Non-fiction Support Links Reviews News