In 1845 Hans Christian Anderson published The Little Match Girl; in 1876 Fyodor Dostoyevsky published The Heavenly Christmas Tree (A Little Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree), both stories were hugely popular in their time. While The Little Match Girl has endured slightly better, both stories were preoccupied with the suffering that poverty inflicted on children. What follows is a tribute to those two stories, in the form of a reimagining for the modern age, of this sad, but all too pertinent story of our own age.
It was early in the morning and the air was still stacked with the chill of winter, but the people were on the move. They were on the move like they had been since forever, or so it felt to the little boy. Everyday they walked. Everyday his sister talked about how much she hated walking, every day his mother found them food. Every day his father paid someone some money for something, and then sat worried and anxious as they ate. Would they have enough? How much further was it? How much would they need when the got to Europe? Every day the little boy cried and said he wanted to go home. His mother told him that home wasn’t home any more, that there were bombs, and there was fire and cruel people who wanted to hurt each other, and sometimes they wanted to hurt them too. Then the little boy would remember. He would remember the noise and the way the earth shook, and the fires and how his home fell down. He would remember how his mother had to fight through queues of people for food. He remembered the bullets, the bullets that pinged around the walls, the bullets that seemed to know where he was, seemed to seek him out, like they had the young men on the street and the old lady with her shopping. He remembered that he had come to fear the sky and what fell from it. The sky dropped noise and fire and his sister’s school fell down, and their house fell down. But here, here in the cold of an early spring, in a strange country, where no one spoke his language, here was cold and hard. The sky was clear, nothing fell, but rain and cold were always in his bones. Why couldn’t they go home?
He sometimes wondered what the other people had seen, the ones with the different languages and the different clothes. The ones who came from further away than he had, the young men, sometimes funny and full of hope, sometimes angry and just as afraid as he was; where did they come from? Had bullets and sky fall driven them away? He would ask his mother who they were, but she didn’t know. He thought she did though, sometimes he heard his father talking with the others, in a different language that he knew a bit. The little boy knew those people had run away too, was the whole world on fire? Would this place they were going to be any better? His father said that it would be, although it would always be cold. He promised, he promised, that as soon as it was safe, they would go home again. Whatever it was like, however hard it was, so long as it was safe they would go home again. The little boy liked that, home would be good, just no bombs, no bullets, it doesn’t have to be smart, doesn’t even have to have a TV, it just has to be home.
‘There’s chocolate’ his sister said. He liked chocolate, a nice man had given them some at a camp. ‘There will be chocolate eggs soon’ his sister went on.
He was confused. ‘Do chickens lay chocolate eggs in Europe?’ he asked. He wanted some chocolate now. ‘No silly’ she laughed. ‘They make great big eggs out of chocolate and sell them at Easter, in all the shops, we will be in our new home at Easter.’
Easter, he knew about Easter, that had something to do with God, but he wasn’t sure which one, or which one he was supposed to like, but he liked chocolate and the idea of chocolate eggs.
‘Here we go’ said his sister.
A man came and handed them something orange, his sister put it on over her head. ‘You’re too small. They haven’t got one for you, but I’ll look after you, just hold on to me, I’m a good swimmer.’
‘Are we going swimming?’
‘No’ said a stranger ‘We are definitely not going swimming.’ But now they got on a boat, sometimes that meant that you did go swimming.
It was fun at first, it had been a bit shouty when they got on the boat, some of the young men tried to push in, and the little boy’s father had had to pay some more money to get on, but now they were on the boat. There were lots of people on the boat, sitting on the planks, sitting on the edge. Then the boss man told the little boy’s father that he was to drive the boat and the little boy was very proud of his father, but his father did not look happy. The engine stuttered and started and they moved away. The waves rocked them, making them squeal and then laugh a little, but mainly people were quiet, waiting.
‘Look’ said his sister ‘there it is!’
‘What?’ said the little boy.
It looked just the same as where they had been. There were sandy cliffs rising out of the sea, a hint of beach; he could see people there waving to them, nice people. There were some white houses, some cars, a dog ran up and down by the shore, it barked. He could hear it, but there were no bombs, there didn’t seem to be any bombs. He snuggled closer to his sister, it was all going to be okay, there was going to be Europe and chocolate eggs, but it would be cold. And then the engine stopped, and then, because the boat slowed down, it rocked more wildly than before. Someone fell overboard, someone else screamed. Then everything got rocky, the big boys decided to swim for it, his father tried to stop them, but they jumped anyway. Then the boat tipped a bit and suddenly he felt cold, really cold. The water was on him, around him over him, in him. He heard his mother scream, he didn’t like that, and he heard splashes. He tried to reach out for his sister, but he didn’t know where she was. There was splashing, someone kicked him, he gasped and the water went up his nose and into his chest and he didn’t like it, but he couldn’t cry, it was all water.
Then he heard his sister’s voice ‘There’s chocolate’ she said ‘Eggs, chocolate eggs, it’s Easter.’ He looked around, he felt warm in his chest and he could see his sister was there, but she didn’t have her orange thing on, she was pointing. There was a house, it looked like their old house, it had a carpet and a television. ‘Europe’ he thought ‘it must be the same.’ Then he saw it, on the table, a great big chocolate egg, ready and waiting to be eaten. ‘It’s for you’ said a voice ‘all for you.’ It may have been God, but he didn’t know which one.
A little later that day, a kind man, was walking along the shoreline, contemplating Easter. He saw the little boy, all cold and still and washed up on the beach. He went to the child, hoping for resurrection, but his hope was lost as soon as he touched the body. Even so, when he picked him up, he thought he caught the faintest scent of chocolate.
Copyright © All rights reserved by Judith Gunn