The matchstick

Issue 1/1998 | Archives online, Children's books, Fiction

A fairy-tale, first published in the literary yearbook Svea (Stockholm) in 1879. Introduction by Esa Sironen

The matchstick lay for the first time in its new box on the factory table and thought about what had happened to it so far during its short life. It could still dimly remember how the big aspen tree had grown on the river bank, how it had been felled, sawed, and finally planed into many thousand small splinters of which the match was one. After that, it had been sorted into piles and rows with its friends, dipped in horrible melting pans, put out to dry, dipped again and finally placed in the box. This was not really a remarkable fate, nor a great heroic deed. But the match had acquired a burning desire to do something in the world. Its body was made from the timorous aspen, which is constantly a-quiver because it is afraid that the faint evening breeze might grow into a gale and tear it up by the roots. It so happened, however, that the match’s head had been dipped in stuff that makes one ambitious and want to shine in the world, and so a struggle developed, as it were, between body and head. When the inflammable head, fizzing in silence, cried: ‘Rush out now and do something!’ the cautious body always had an objection ready, and whispered: ‘No, wait a little, ask and find out if it’s time yet!’

As the match lay with its companions in the box, its head became hot, and it felt a curious hankering to catch fire. But the aspen wood inside it resisted, and the match asked the box’s striking panel: ‘Don’t you think it is time now?’ The striking panel replied: ‘I can see that you’re an inexperienced greenhorn, ready to go rushing outside. Be patient, and don’t do something stupid. In any case, you can’t do anything without me, as you are a safety match. Do you really think I would let you burn down the factory, which is the home of our birth, together with the young girl who has reared us and nurtured us?’

The match lay patiently in its box, and was stored along with millions of its companions in a big warehouse. As it lay there, dangerous ambition once again paid a visit to its inflammable head, but was stopped by the quivering aspen. ‘Is it time now?’ the match asked again. The striking panel replied: ‘It’s too dark in here, I can’t see anything, but try to have a little patience! Do you think I would let you burn down the warehouse and the whole of the great city?’

The match was taken aboard a ship to be sent to another part of the country. It was a dark night. The gale howled in the rigging and the ship fought with the waves far out on the open sea. ‘Is it time now?’ the match asked again. For it as very tempting to imagine what it would be like to light up a dark and stormy sea. The striking panel replied: ‘Wait a little! I will find out if the gale has had an order to make the ship founder.’

The gale replied that it had had no such order. ‘A little more patience,’ the striking panel whispered. The ship reached its destination safely, the match was taken ashore and soon lay in a shop, where it was sold with the other matches in the box. A poor girl bought the box, took it home and sat down by the stove to comb flax. The match saw the fine, soft bundles of flax, again felt the wicked thoughts approach, and asked: ‘It must be time now, mustn’t it?’ ‘Wait,’ replied the striking panel, ‘I will ask the fire in the stove if it has had an order to burn down the cottage.’ The fire replied that it could not do anything. It had had an order to sit still and see that the pot boiled. ‘Be patient,’ the striking panel said to the match.

The next day the girl went out with the people from the farm to make hay. At night she and her mother slept in the dry, fragrant hay in the barn. As she had to get up early the following morning to light the fire for the hay-makers, she had taken the box of matches with her in her bundle. The match smelt the fragrance of the hay, and said to the striking panel: ‘My dear, let me stroke my head against your side. It would be so nice to set fire to the hay!’ The striking panel replied: ‘I will ask the rain that is starting to patter on the barn roof now.’ The rain replied: ‘Don’t touch me, if you value your life, for I have had an order to protect the barn.’ ‘Patience, patience,’ said the striking panel to the match.

On the day after that, the girl’s brother, who was a sailor, arrived and said: ‘Farewell, mother! I must travel to Björneborg now, and then I am going on a long voyage, first to Vasa, and then to America. Have you a match you could lend me?’ The girl gave him the box of matches, and the sailor left and came to a place where the railway was being blasted through the rock. There he found lodging for the night with the rock blasters and lay with his head on a barrel full of gunpowder. ‘Now?’ asked the match, which could scarcely restrain itself from striking its head against the striking panel. But the striking panel scolded the match and said: ‘For shame, hothead! Can you not see that a small child is asleep on the other side of the barrel?’

Next morning the sailor went on his way, reached the town of Björneborg and there boarded the steamship Ostrobothnia, which was bound for Vasa. The next day the ship put to sea. It was around noon time, with bright sunshine and a fresh breeze. There were many people on board, and a full cargo. Now the striking panel said to the match: ‘How are you?’ The match replied: ‘I am waiting for the right moment. Never have I been so ready to do something as I am just now.’ ‘Then I will tell you a secret, ‘the striking panel whispered. ‘I heard the waves ask the wind if it had had an order, but the wind said it hadn’t. Then I heard the wind rush down to the fire under the ship’s boiler and ask the burning coals if they had had an order, and the coals said they hadn’t. And I heard the coals ask the plates of sheet iron in the ship’s side if they had had an order, and the plates of sheet iron said they hadn’t, just like all the rest. Then the coals talked among one another and said: “None of the four elements has had an order and yet it must happen.” Who will do it ?’

‘I,’ said the match.

‘That is not possible,’ said the striking panel, ‘for you are only the little messenger boy of the elements.’ The match felt like asking the striking panel if it was not true that David had once slain Goliath, but it said nothing, for it had now learned to wait.

The young sailor stood leaning carelessly against some bales of paper on the between-decks. He was easygoing and carefree like most young men of his age. He found that the time passed slowly, and took out a cigarette and the box of matches.

‘Now or never!’ said the match to the striking panel.

‘No,’ said the panel. ‘not yet, not yet! What harm have the beautiful ship, the expensive cargo and all those innocent people done to you? Do you want to set them between the devil and the deep blue sea? Not yet, not yet!’

But the match would listen no more. At that same moment it caught fire against the panel. A bright flame burned up, but no one noticed it in the even brighter sunshine. The sailor lit his cigarette and then carelessly threw the burning match away. Now all the elements had the secret order they had so long been waiting for. The wind blew the match against the bale of paper that had dried in the sun, the match clung tight and the bale caught fire. The water, which ought to have put out the fire, refused to do its job in the pumps, the iron, which could not burn, became red hot, and the wind made the fire burn even more strongly. Within a short time the ship was lost, and some of the passengers and crew were burned to death, while others drowned in the sea. A few fortunate people were rescued.

Not far from the burning wreck floated the tiny tip of a burnt match, and next to it the waterlogged striking panel of something that had once been a matchbox. ‘Unhappy match,’ said the panel, ‘what have you done? It would be better if you had never been cut from the aspen’s heart.’

The tiny charred stump of the match raised its sooty tip from the water, and replied:

‘I told you I would do something when my time came. Now I am famous, I have wrecked a great ship, the whole country is talking about me and no other match is as notable as I. But don’t be worried about me. I am pleased with my exploit. Now I am going to float ashore and have myself dipped again. Come with me! We shall do more notable things. I shall become a charity match. In the midst of the coldest winter I shall set alight a great forest to warm the poor. You will see me make many people happy.’

A great white-bearded wave that had risen behind the match heard this talk. ‘You wretched splinter of a great tree,’ said the wave. ‘What could you ever do except obey orders, of which you know nothing. Why, even the mighty elements, of which you are a mere speck of dust, can do nothing but wait and obey. Away with your ridiculous arrogance and your foolish plans for the future, away into the unknown depths!’

And the wave rolled forward like a snowy mountain and buried beneath it the sooty match and the dissolving striking panel. Seek the ambitious one far below, on the bottom of the sea. There it moulders, nameless and unwept.

Translated by David McDuff

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