“I am always dying. I am never dying. I have died and died and died again, but I do not stay dead.”
When the lines between fairy tale and reality blur, identity becomes fluid, and compassion can have unexpected costs. In “Nell,” a short story inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl,” award-winning author Karen Hesse adds a haunting, supernatural twist to a classic tale.
“Nell” was originally published in What You Wish For, a collection of short stories and poems collected by the Book Wish Foundation. All proceeds from the book are used to fund libraries in Darfuri refugee camps in Chad. Learn more here.
Karen Hesse is the winner of the MacArthur “Genius” Award, and the acclaimed author of more than twenty books for children and young adults, including Brooklyn Bridge and Out of the Dust, a Newbery Medal Winner. Her next novel for young adults, Safekeeping, will be available on September 18th.
I am dying. I have been dying for a hundred years. I fear I will always be dying.
In the beginning it pleased me to be on the verge of death, always escaping at the last moment from one body to another. But now . . . now I wish I could stop. Always is a long time.
And I am always a child. Always twelve. I’ve told so many lies. I’ve taken the identities of so many children. But I think I was born once in the usual way to a man and a woman and the woman died and I was expected to die, too. But I didn’t. I don’t know why.
I survived to the age of twelve. It was a miserable life, that first one. If I can trust my memory at all, it was a life of hunger and pain, a lonely life, with a father who treated me like dung on the heel of his boot. Even before I could speak, he sent me out to beg. On the days I brought nothing home, he would beat me until I turned to fog and lifted out of my body. I think that’s how it began, how I learned to jump.
One winter night in my twelfth year, my father hit me and hit me and did not stop. Once again I felt myself transformed into mist, but this time, when the mist faded, I was inside another body. She had been ill, the girl whose body I now inhabited. But she was gone and I was there. What happened to her I don’t know. What happened to my first body I cannot say. But I learned quickly to adapt to a new life.
And I learned to prolong that life for months, though never for more than a year. And that’s how it continues. The children whose bodies I take are always twelve. I keep them alive as long as I can. But sometime during the year their bodies fail and I lift out of one and slip into another.
I am always dying. I am never dying. I have died and died and died again, but I do not stay dead.
Tonight another twelfth year ends. This time I am an only child, adored by my parents. Of all the parents I have known, these are the kindest. Over the years some could ill afford a sick child; others grew weary of caring for one. In public they feigned love but in private they lost patience. I regret that at times I, too, lost my temper with them.
This time is different. In the twelve months I have been here, these parents have never faltered in their devotion. Never have I longed to remain as I long to remain here. And it feels as if I could remain.
I am so much healthier than when I first woke in this body. And so beautifully cared for. I sleep on soft sheets in cloudlike comfort. My mother brings the scent of lilacs with her when she leans in to kiss me, which she does frequently. Her tenderness elicits such a response. It amazes me to feel myself rise to her love. And my father, he’s so kind. Every day he comes with a present in his pocket. They have spared no expense in finding a cure for me. They have thrown both their energies and their resources into meeting with anyone reputedly wise in the healing arts. Yet they’ve never subjected me to treatments that might cause undue pain.
I don’t know how they will bear this death.
I don’t know how I will bear it, either.
Shutting my door, I take from the shelf a book by the Danish storyteller. The fireplace in my bedroom radiates comfort. Embers make delicate sounds, like fine china splintering. This room, like a princess’s chamber, sparkles. The chandelier bends firelight and sends it dancing across the ceiling. There is a table set with buns and cocoa.
In my hands the book falls open to my favorite story. I make my way to the green silk couch with its soft pillows. Curling up, I pull the fur wrapper over my legs, and begin to read . . .
The Old Year had nearly exhausted itself.
It slept in a doorway in its worn rags.
The New Year struggled to be born, locked in the Old Year’s embrace.
Given the state of its decline, the Old Year held back the New with astonishing vigor.
Sounds of the living reach my ears. A group of holiday revelers, emboldened with drink, defy the storm, shouting to each other on the street beneath my window. My parents host a small dinner party below. I have already put in my appearance. Tomorrow the guests will be shocked to learn of my death.
“But she looked so well,” they will say.
“She seemed so much stronger.”
On this last day of the Old Year
every living thing bowed to the cold,
the cruel cold,
with its blue light,
with its white fangs.
The cold hovered over the town
like some prehistoric beast.
It beat its wings,
creating eddies of razor-sharp air.
I set the book gently aside, rise, and add more sticks to the fire to counter the cold buffeting the windows. I hear the clock strike eleven before I’ve settled back onto the couch again.
Snow swirled in the cold wind,
not gentle snow-globe snow
but harsh sandpaper snow,
leaving painful red marks on winter-thin skin.
In the gathering dark, snow sprang, brutish,
lashing out at travelers as they passed,
slicing at the gloom with its fierce claws.
How strange, how very strange to have the weather of this story so closely mirror the weather outside my windows. The wind roars like an enraged animal tonight. It reminds me of lions at the zoo.
How many times have these parents taken me to the zoo? In the summer we would go with a picnic hamper. Mother would make certain my straw hat, with its blue velvet ribbons, kept the sun off my face. I remember insisting I could run down the hill and then, halfway down, collapsing. I had been carrying a chocolate bun that flew from my hands. Father gathered me in his arms. I nestled into him. He smelled of cologne and freshly pressed cotton. His beard tickled my cheek. He bought me a new bun and held me as I ate it.
I remember watching that day the caged lions pacing in their enclosures. They stopped and studied me, scenting the air. Now it seems as if those lions have escaped. They pace outside my windows, rattling the panes with their deep growls.
One of those travelers, a small girl,
slipped almost invisibly through the masses.
She had no covering for her head.
People moved around her like
packs of lumbering bears wrapped in their brown furs.
I rise from the couch, cross the room to the front windows, and look down. It is hard to see anything through the heavy snow. Just a jostling of figures brown and black and bulky in their winter clothing. Bears. Yes, they look exactly like that. A sea of bears ebbing and flowing beneath my windows. But there is no small girl to be seen.
Of course there isn’t. What did I think? I sigh and go back to my seat, pull the fur blanket up. I have taken a chill from standing at the window, straining to see a girl who exists only in the pages of a book, only in my imagination.
The girl had neither hat, nor coat, nor gloves, nor even shoes for her small feet.
That morning she had stepped into her grandmother’s boots.
But while racing across a busy avenue
where a carriage steered menacingly toward her,
the girl had fallen and lost her boots.
One had been snatched by a boy who told her he would
use the boot as a sailing boat and go to sea in it.
He ran off laughing at the girl who stared at him, numb and blinking.
The other boot had been thrown into the air, landing
where the girl could not find it
no matter how she searched.
I have known boys like the one who took the match girl’s boot. Boys whose greatest pleasure arose from tormenting others. But not in this life. I have known no one like that in this life. These parents would not allow such a child near me.
The cold painted its colors on the girl’s bare skin.
Red, blue, white.
These colors dappled her thin arms and legs, but most vividly, they made a startling pattern on her feet.
Lifting the fur wrap, I stretch out my own foot. On it is a silk stocking and a white silk slipper. Slowly, I uncover my foot until it is bare. Holding it up before the firelight, it looks warm, pink, healthy. The scent of talcum fills my nostrils.
Her soiled apron had a pocket across the front, but the stitching had let go.
Anything placed inside the pocket instantly fell to the ground.
So the girl held her apron lifted in such a way as to cradle the matches she had for sale.
Stirring in my mind is this memory: I, too, had been sent out with no coat, no covering, no protection from the elements. I, too, had been careful not to lose my wares, the fragile flowers I had picked the summer before and hung upside down so they might retain some color when they dried. But who wanted such dead brown things? Only those who felt pity gave me money for my bouquets.
But there were days when no one felt charitable toward me and I would come home hungry and empty-handed and then my father, yes, I remember, my father would beat me. And I would have bruises that looked like the mottling of my skin from the cold so that you could not tell where my father’s cruelty left off and the cruelty of nature took over.
This had not been a good day for the girl.
The cold made people blindly plow past in their coats and shawls,
shoulders hunched, eyes squinted against the stinging flakes.
They did not see the girl with her apron folded up under her chin, trying to keep her matchsticks from escaping.
Or if they saw, they did not stop and fish out a coin for her.
I restore the stocking and slipper to my foot, pull the fur wrap up to my chin.
How she shivered.
How her mouth watered with longing when she passed a rosy-cheeked boy eating a bun,
soiling his mitten with bakery grease,
dropping crumbs and bits of raisins in his wake,
ignoring the admonitions of his father,
who held on tightly to keep the boy from running into the people around him.
The match girl stopped walking and stood where the bun-eater had stood and drew in a deep breath,
devouring the scent of the sweet roll that still lingered in the cold air.
I hear a cry from the street. It sounds more like a kitten mewling than a human voice, especially coming in the midst of bells jangling, horses clopping, winds whipping, voices calling out to each other. I hear a cry, a weak cry. “Matches,” it says. “Matches.” I must be imagining it from the book. But how real it sounds.
What a sight she made,
pale and trembling,
exposed to the rude manners of the cold.
Snow gathered in her hair, turning it from blond to white,
covering the long curls with a lacy snow scarf.
If someone had looked carefully at her, they might have thought
under the grime and misery
great beauty resided.
But no one looked carefully at her.
No one noticed her at all.
She was of no matter, not even to herself.
A powerful force lifts me to my feet. Gripping the book, I hurry to the window.
As she passed before the shops, yellow light spilled into the street.
Every kind of luxury could be found there.
Bright silken fabrics, a cobbler who made slippers of the softest leather, a cafe, a shop that sold fine silver.
On the second and third and fourth floors, above the shops, people moved in their lighted apartments.
The sound of music came softly through their windows, and laughter, and the heavenly aroma of roasted meat.
The girl looked up to see a child looking down at her from one of the upper stories.
For a moment their eyes met and the match girl felt herself being lifted.
But then an oafish man trod on her and the match girl felt with renewed pain the unbearable coldness of her feet.
And I see her. She exists. She is there below me, outside my window.
I want to bring her up out of the storm, to bring her into my bedroom where I can warm her.
A crowd of revelers passes the match girl, blocking her from my sight. When they move on, she has vanished. I am desperate to find her but she is gone.
Between the bookseller’s shop and the shop that sold confections, a recessed doorway offered shelter to the little match girl.
She pressed the thin bones of her back against the wood of the door and imagined the heat from inside the building.
Protected here, she could not be so fiercely bitten by the wind.
No one could see her and so she could make no sales,
but here at least the snow could not tear at her.
I scan the doorways, seeking her. Even though I have not seen her go, I suspect she, too, like the child in the story, has sought a doorway for shelter. And yes, there is movement in the shadows. As if a small animal circled and settled there, seeking comfort.
I must stop my trembling. If there is any chance of prolonging this life, I must tear myself from the bitter draft at the window. I carry the storybook to the hearth, and stand before the fire.
She would be content to stay here and never go home.
At home only her father waited, like a monster,
with his hot temper and his stinging blows.
She had not a single coin to give him and that would stir his anger to boiling.
He would beat her.
She knew that with certainty.
He would beat her savagely.
No, she would not go home.
She would sit in this sheltered doorway forever.
The fire warms me. I feel its soothing touch. The warmth enters my hands, toasts my face, raises the temperature of the book.
She peered out from her arch of protection.
Everywhere she saw the golden glow of the town.
She held her small hands up toward the lighted windows
but she was beyond the reach of their comfort.
I can’t leave her out there. I can’t let her go on that way. No matter what it costs me, I must bring her here, to me, bring her into this room, talk to her, warm her, comfort her.
The match girl sank down, drew herself into a ragged bundle.
Perhaps, tucked in like this, she was small enough to be warmed by the fire of one of her own matches.
If she lit it, she would be a penny poorer.
But if she lit it, she would have a penny’s worth of warmth.
I shut my eyes and concentrate. I know precisely what she needs, what she wants. I imagine her here in this room with me. I imagine a shaft of light guiding her, her path beginning at the arched doorway and ending just inside my bedroom. I will her to come here, to join me.
She scraped the match against the cold brick wall beside the door and a lick of fire sprang up at the stick’s end.
Now she had a tiny globe of golden light at her command.
She drank in the dancing blue-orange-white skirt of flame.
A ballet of fire.
She could feel its liquid warmth on her face.
She felt herself being lifted by it into a room where a fireplace burned brightly, giving off waves of soothing heat.
She could hear a voice speaking to her from somewhere in the room,
but she could not make out the words.
The voice did not sound cruel,
not like the boy who had stolen her boot.
It sounded surprised, breathless, welcoming.
“It’s all right,” I tell her. “Don’t be frightened. Let me help you.”
She turned toward the voice and just then the match burned itself out and
the girl felt the darkness and cold close back around her.
The tiny stub of a match dropped to the ground from her numb fingers.
I had her for a moment. I could see her hair dusted with snow, the blue of her ears, the threadbare fabric of her dress. I held her here for a moment, only a moment. And then she slipped back, back into the book, back outside my window. I must try harder, strain harder to bring her here again.
The cold felt like a stone weight on the match girl’s chest.
Struggling against the heaviness, she lit another match.
With a sudden spark, then a whisss, the match blossomed into life.
Holding up the lighted match, the girl could see through the walls surrounding her,
as if the match turned the brick and wood to glass.
She chose the apartment she wanted to enter, the one with the child who had looked down at her from above.
And there was the child. She stood in a beautiful bedroom in which a small table held court on its sturdy four legs, bearing on its white cloth back a perfectly polished silver tray of sweet buns and a sparkling pot of chocolate.
A delicate china bowl held an array of ripe fruit.
The smells thrilled the match girl’s nose and made her mouth fill eagerly with hope.
The child pulled out a chair and beckoned for the match girl to sit.
But then the flame from the match reached the girl’s fingertips, too cold to feel the singe before the flame died.
And once again she huddled deep into the recess of the doorway, in the hungry dark.
“Come back. Please come back. I can give this to you. I can give this all to you. You must help me, though. You must want it too. Concentrate. Come back.”
She struck a third match.
Instantly she was back inside the apartment with the child.
The match girl stands before me. Her eyes widen as she looks at the chandelier, the table laden with food, the enormous gilded mirror. Her eyes fix on the Christmas tree. It sparkles with glass baubles. Light from the fire dances the tree’s shadow up and down the wall. The boughs scent my room with the spicy aroma of pine.
The girl had never been inside a room like this.
A crystal chandelier twinkled like a constellation of stars.
The match girl smelled a dizzying perfume.
She moves awkwardly on her frozen feet, half teeter, half stumble. I go to her and hold her hand. She wants to touch the tree, to examine the decorations.
Paintings adorned the walls.
The child who had called her took her hand and they stood together.
And the third match reached its end.
When the girl looked up, the place where the chandelier had hung was filled with stars.
The snow had stopped falling and the sky had cleared.
The cold was the fiercest it had been all day.
But with her eyes turned upward, the girl saw a star shoot across the heavens.
It traced a path of light.
It was beautiful the way it made a bright bridge across the sky.
“A shooting star. Someone’s fortune will change.” That’s what I had been told about shooting stars. That when a star left a track of shimmering dust across the sky, someone’s fortune would change.
“Someone’s fortune will change,” the match girl thought,
her arms wrapped tightly around her shivering body.
the only person who had ever loved her,
had told her so. She had told her a shooting star was an
omen of change.
Often of death.
It is my fortune that will change. I know it with certainty. I can go on in this life. Or I can give this body, this life, to the match girl, by willingly taking her place. The match girl will die this night. I must will myself to enter her dead body and let her take this living one. I will take her death. I will give her this life, for I am certain now this body will go on.
All at once the girl scratched the remainder of her matches into life.
The glow filled the sheltered doorway and spilled out onto the street.
Coming toward her was that beloved child from the room above, that angel of comfort.
“What’s happening?” the match girl asks.
“Your name will be Nell,” I tell her.
A little crowd in hats and coats and boots
stood gaping at the small frozen body in the doorway
between the bookseller and the confectioner.
The snow around her held the match stubs that she’d lit the night before.
The last she had lit at midnight, as the Old Year finally released its grip and allowed the New Year to be born.
“It’s a wonder she didn’t set fire to the building,” a woman in a purple shawl said.
The match girl looks out from Nell’s eyes. She holds the hand of Nell’s mother and the hand of Nell’s father and they come close to the stiff, cold body, because the child says they must.
“We must see to her burial,” the match girl says.
“We must see that her body has every comfort it lacked while she lived.”
And the parents, who do not know they lost their daughter, their Nell, once, a year before, and once more, last night, look adoringly at this child who is alive, who is theirs, and say, “Of course. Of course. Of course.”
“Nell” © copyright Karen Hesse 2011