Sometimes the dreams she dreamed were too happy for her circumstances and when she awoke she would pinch herself to remember it wasn't real. The coldness of the hour and the beginning sunlight of the morning didn't match the warmth of her dreams.
She would see the tree today at the soup kitchen. At fourteen, she was tall and slender. Each day she would carefully walk with the crowds to Good Samaritan Social Hall where the homeless people got their only dependable meal of the day. If she was lucky, she could find something to take, something to sell. The hall was decorated for Christmas. It was a dazzling sight. The artificial limbs were green as grass and the bulbs shined as balls of silver, red and green the colors of Christmas not of plastic. The white lights were warm – warm like a house made out of wood, not a dumpster made from metal. Under the artificial tree was a well-worn stable with a plastic Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus. Hope smiled. Baby Jesus was poor like her. If God was poor, Hope thought there was no shame in being poor.
Today was the happiest she had been in a long time, since her Mom and Dad had died. Oh how she longed to see them again! Hope wiped away the tears. Then she noticed the matches. She glanced around to see if anybody would notice. Since nobody ever noticed her, she took the matches. Quickly she moved out of the hall. She felt that someone would buy them. She made her way through the thick crowds of people on the street, and a band was playing a Christmas song somewhere nearby for she could hear it. Many shoppers were descending on the shops that afternoon. Christmas day was very close.
Hope made her way down the alley were she slept. She didn’t like to go all the way down for some other homeless people were there. She crawled under the dumpster where she slept. She had a shoe box that was where she kept her most important things. It contained a picture of Mama and Daddy.
Hope took out the matches from her pocket and stared at them. The wooden sticks had slivers hanging out and the red top had a delicate feel. She carefully put the matches inside her coat pocket. Then she straightened her hair as best she could, and took her toothbrush out of another box, and brushed her teeth. She had to look good in order to sell the matches. Her clothes were old and well worn, and she was not clean. But she thought that someone was bound to buy the matches during the Christmas season. She was ready to go, and she walked quickly down the alley and then up the street a block to where the beautiful store fronts were. Hope would usually wait until early in the morning before everyone was up, so that she could walk up to the store windows and peer into the windows and look at the splendid dresses, fashionable hats, and sleek gloves. How she wished that she had a hat. It was cold outside with the elements lacking pity on a girl without a home.
Today she was looking in the same store windows during the rush of midday. She saw woman coming out of the store with mountains of packages. She spotted a mother with a child, and strengthened by her thought of her own mother, she approached the mother and child.
“Matches for sale, matches,” she found her voice saying. “Would you like to buy some matches?”
“What? No, I don’t want any.” The woman hurried off clutching her child.
Hope was disappointed, but there were lots of people to ask, and she continued to walk along the busy street. Then she spied a bell ringer in front of a beautiful store which had flags flying on top of the gray concrete roof. The bell rang in quick notes like a jumping spider which crawled out of the corner of a home because it felt vibrations of its occupants.
A grand tree graced the front of the store’s entrance. Its fresh piney flavor made her hungry and it would be hours before the soup kitchen would open. The decorations on the tree shined; reflecting the morning sun’s low angle on the shortest day of the year. She remembered how wonderful it was when she was very little and Mommy and Daddy were alive, and she opened presents with them on Christmas. Oh, how happy she was then.
Someone bumped into her, and she remembered the matches. The man was tall and she did not catch his eyes rather they looked past her as if she were not there. Then she was bumped again on the crowded corner, and she dropped her matches on the ground. She panicked. Frantically, she searched for the matches. They were all over the ground. She picked up one, then two and then as many as she could. She had picked up most of them, and she realized she had better try to sell them.
“Matches for sale!” She now was shouting out to anyone who might listen. “Matches!”
A woman walked by pushing a stroller. Hope straightened up like her Mother had told her girls should, and asked, “Will you buy my matches for a dollar?”
The woman, dressed in dark slacks, wool coat and black boots turned to her. The baby in the stroller was asleep with a warm blanket tucked around him. “Oh, no.”
Hope continued her quest. “Matches! Matches for sale!”
An elderly couple walked by.
“Won’t you buy my matches?”
They shook their heads no, staring at Hope and her shabby clothes. Another couple was in a hurry so they ran past her. A man crossed the street rather than have her ask him to buy a match. People walked by her. Bump, bump, bump she felt as the streets became crowded at the lunch hour. But nobody stopped.
“Please, Sir, please, will you buy a match?” Hope asked as a man as he bumped into her.
He didn’t stop. No one was interested in a girl selling a match. They wanted to adorn themselves in new sweaters and coats and things that were lovely. Hope walked to another street corner because she might have better luck. The anthem of “matches for sale” had no listeners. By now the day was gone and Hope had not sold any matches.
She headed to the dumpster. It was colder as the sun was setting. Hope was always frightened to go to back to the alley in the darkness. Deep purple hung against the clouds which rolled into the sky as the sun went sliding down to reach another side of the horizon. She felt a paralyzing fear reach across the alley and coax her to join it in the dumpster area. She rubbed her arms with her uncovered hands to warm herself and the fear fled down another dark spot and away from her. She crawled around the side of the dumpster and squeezed behind it as the wind blew a forceful gale around the alley.
After she crawled behind the dumpster, she lay curled up like a small animal; she was tired and cold that she thought only of sleep. She wished she had gloves and a hat. Hope put her hands in her pocket and her fingers felt the matches. She took out the matches and looked at it. The slender feel made her think of her Mother who was thin and tall. She thought of how warm it was to be against her Mother’s cheek. Hope had no one to hold her and no way to become warm. Then the thought of the match’s warmth delighted her. She used her numb fingers to strike the match against the box which had contained it. The smoke filtered up through the cold air as the strike lit the match. It was so warm, it startled her. Oh, it was so warm! The merry flame danced for her and she was warm and her eyes were filled with the enchantment of its light. How enjoyable was the minute she watched its light. It had burned the wood to her very fingers before she blew it out.
She was tempted to light another, but she remembered that in the morning she would need to sell something. She closed her eyes and fell asleep. Soon she entered into her dreams, and in them she saw her Mother. It seemed so real. Her Mother was tucking Hope into bed. Hope’s Mom gave her a sock puppet show that made her laugh and giggle. Her Mom was so funny. When her Mommy was done with the story, Hope begged for one more story, one more! Don’t leave Mommy! One more! Don’t leave! But her Mommy said it was time for sleep. Hope needed to sleep. Hope obeyed, and pulled the covers near her chin. It was warm and cozy. The morning light made her awake and Hope did not want her dream of her Mother to end. This morning was surprising, however. When Hope awoke, she found there was a blanket covering her. Hope couldn’t believe it was real. But truly it was a warm blanket. It smelled of newness not of a trash can and she delighted in the blanket, pulling it around her tightly. Soon her stomach made her willing to give up the blanket’s warmth for breakfast food. She folded the blanket and placed her shoe box on top.
After she had eaten at the soup kitchen, she went on looking to sell her matches.
“Matches for sale! Matches! Won’t anybody buy a match?”
The city was loud with cars rumbling down the boulevard and truck motors humming at the red lights as Hope watched them pass.
Hope walked up and down looking for someone to buy her matches. Nobody cared to buy a match. All of the walking made her very tired. The day was nearly done. She soon returned to the dumpster, and to her delight, the wool blanket was still there.
She lit a match, the utter warmth and grace of the teardrop of fire made her feel a complete happiness if only for the moment it burned. When the match burned out, she fell into a deep sleep.
The next day was similar to the last except the shelter had a roast beef dinner and Hope ate two helpings. The jovial atmosphere made her stare at the tree in its dress-up clothes of ornaments and tinsel.
As she left the shelter to walk to her dumpster, she felt chilled as she walked through the darkest night. She turned the corner of the main street and ran to her hiding spot. Hope fell asleep quickly thanks to the big meal. She dreamed a sweet dream of fire, matches, and Christmas.
The little girl in her dream was in a warm bed, and she could hear a garbage truck coming up the street. Oh how the girl wanted to see the garbage truck! How exciting to see the big truck rumble up the street! The girl ran out of her warm bed, down the cold hallway to look out the window to see the garbage truck. It was extremely cold out of bed, but she wanted to see the garbage truck. The truck would be big and the engine would ‘beep’ as it backed up to collect the garbage.
The sound floated from her dream into her ears. With a jolt, Hope woke up. She backed away from the truck in front of her. The dumpster was hanging above her and the garbage truck was very close to her. Fear took over, and Hope ran away, ran down the alley further, away from the truck. As she ran, matches fell out of her pocket. To her surprise, the alley was empty. There wasn’t even one more homeless person there. Hope had always avoided the deepest part of the alley. She felt safer under the dumpster. Hope realized that she had no blanket now. It was colder than Hope had ever remembered. The moon was high in the sky and the stars shone brightly. The North Star stood out among his brother stars; the proudest one of all. It was beautiful to behold. Hope shivered. The coldness wrapped around her and without her shield of the blanket, it mocked her frail flesh.
Maybe she should go to the shelter she thought. Hope knew that on very cold nights everyone went there. Once Hope went to the shelter and it scared her. Some people shouted at themselves. Some people fought and others drank out of a brown paper bag. She was frightened of the people there. The alley was empty. She was tired and groggy and she decided to go back to sleep. She sat in the middle of the alley. It was bitter cold. Maybe she should go the shelter but she was afraid. She was sleepy and yet she was too chilled to sleep.
Hope decided to go back to the pretty storefront on the mains street and sit there. Soon it would be morning and she might sell her matches. Her fingers were able to feel them in her pocket and when she shifted her weight, she could hardly feel her feet. She got up and moved down to the connecting street. Walking was painful now, and her fingers were very numb. Hope couldn’t feel her toes. As she walked, she put her fingers inside her pocket. Then she felt some matches. She was happy to find them. The buildings were sleeping she thought as she went passed them in the quiet night. Her breath was visible as she breathed. The bitter cold stung her cheeks and her long hair was no protection from its wrath. She still had a few matches. Hope took one out and lit it. The strike of the red chemicals against the box made her apprehensive for its warmth. Then she felt the fire of light against her skin. She felt its glow swallow her for the moment it burned. Even her feet felt warm while the match remained. Then the light died and she was cold again. Hope continued to walk.
She walked and remembered a Christmas morning when she raced from her bed to the tree in her apartment long ago and delighted in the presents she saw placed under it.
The memory made her sorrowful but the thought of her matches and their warmth made her long to light one. Her numb fingers fished one from her pocket. The strike of it against the wood produced a flurry of warmth. She carefully walked with her hands cupped around the match. Hope reached a store front, and the match had gone out. She sat down next to the window of the department store. Hope lit another match. Hope saw her Mommy and Daddy when she closed her eyes. She knew that they were in heaven with baby Jesus. They were with him and Hope was glad. Hope wanted to be with them. She lit another match to keep warm.
It was frigid; the coldest night Hope had ever felt. She pulled out of her pocket another match. Hope lit the match. How she wanted to be there now with them and to be safe and away from the coldness of life.
The match went out. Hope would light another. She looked for more matches, but they were all gone. Panic began to shake her. She looked in each of her pockets. No more matches. She got up and looked at the ground in case she dropped one. She ran; retracing her steps to see if there were any matches that she might have dropped on the ground. The snow was slippery when she reached the alley and she had to slow down. She looked at the now empty dumpster. There were no matches behind it anymore. Her shoe box was gone too and her picture of her family was taken away from her.
No matches were left. They had all been lit. She grew frantic as she emptied her pockets again to search again, hoping for another match. She had no more matches. No matches.
She wouldn’t be able to dream without her matches. She was tired though, too tired to even dream. She should be hungry, but the cold took away her hunger. She longed to go to sleep and forget the matches and forget the dream. Her fear left her and she was calm because she had no more fight left inside. By now Hope was too sleepy to walk. It was late and she couldn’t move. In her mind she was very scared.
Then she remembered something that her Mom had told her, that God loved her. Hope said a prayer that her parents taught her:
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
She felt very numb, but in her head, she heard her Mom and Dad tell her soon they would be together again. Hope felt somehow warmer now. Hope went to sleep.
The next morning came, and the town was deserted as it was Christmas morning. Some homeless people walked down the street and back to the alley were the invisible people lived. They discovered the lifeless body of a girl. It was Hope.
Shouts called the other homeless people to view the girl. One man made his way through the crowd of people. He cried bitterly.
He had watched over the girl from a distance. He had been the one who had put his blanket over her two nights ago in the cold of the night. The child was gone from them now and her light had gone out.
The others mumbled that someone should say a prayer. The old man wiped away the tears. His deep voice began to pray:
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.