Every December 14th for the past six (six!) years, I’ve re-written a holiday story through a queer lens, retelling it as a way to retroactively tell stories to my younger self that include people like me. The first year, I wrote “Dolph,” (a retelling of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). Then I wrote “Frost,” (a retelling of Frosty the Snow-Man), “Reflection,” (a retelling of “The Snow Queen”), “The Five Crowns and Colonel’s Sabre,” (a retelling of “The Nutcracker and Mouse King”), “The Doors of Penlyon” (a retelling of “The Christmas Hirelings”), and “A Day or Two Ago” (a retelling of “Jingle Bells”).
This gets harder and harder, in part because I’m running out of Christmas stories I know (or can think of ways to play with), but this year, my Husband said “you should do ‘The Little Match Girl.'” My reply, “But that’s so depressing!” was met with one of his raised-eyebrow looks that says so much, but I believe was meant to infer a reminder of the whole point of me doing these: to queer it up a notch and triumphantly so. It’s a re-telling. I get to change these stories. Seven times, now.
So. Here’s “The Future in Flame.” If you’ve read “Reflection” you’ll note a small cameo. Given I’m all about linking up short fiction, I imagine exactly none of you are surprised.
The Future in Flame
The first time I saw the future in flame, I was still a young boy. Old enough to help my mother in the kitchen with the simplest tasks—decidedly not old enough to be trusted with anything complicated, given how easily my mind wandered—I was often tasked the stirring, or the peeling, or (a particular favourite) arranging the cutlery around our table.
We had a large fireplace, and I would often sit in front of it with whatever task had been given to me, which on that day was to peel potatoes, and allow the heat to wash over me while I worked. I often made a game of it—trying to get the whole peel off in a single, thin curl—and considered some of the tales I’d heard of how young women might toss the peel over their shoulder and it would land and arrange itself into a symbol denoting the man they were to wed.
Somewhere between those thoughts—the act of throwing a peel, the notion of prophecy, the confusing unreliable concept ‘the future’ seemed to me—the fire snapped, and I looked up and saw.
As though the flames themselves were a window, the edges rimed with smoke instead of frost, I regarded two men, one a pale skinned man, lean and tall and barely possessing a beard (though what little appeared around his chin and upper lip was well-shaped), and the other a burlier, stockier sort, with bronze-brown skin, and an enviable beard. They seemed to live somewhere grand—behind them, I saw an odd room, with a large table covered in a snow-white cloth, laid out with many table settings, and lit with so many candles and…
Were the two men dancing?
With each other?
Despite their surroundings, neither dressed fine, but rather in what appeared to be work clothes—heavy aprons over plain shirts and breeches—and, yes, they were dancing. I watched as the burlier of the two spun the taller, leaner man, and for the first time, his features came into clear view through the odd window-effect of the fire in the fireplace and…
I gasped, and with a flare of heat, the fire was once again just a fire.
“Everything all right, pet?” My mother, in the kitchen, must have heard me.
“Yes,” I said, with an instinct I couldn’t quite name to hold what had just happened close to my own, now rapidly-tripping heart.
The man in the fireplace had my eyebrow. The eyebrow I’d split open a winter ago after a fall on slick ice cut my forehead and split the hair over my left eye, never to rejoin. The white mark of the scar was the first thing people noticed in me now. My father said it granted me a rough character. My brothers were less polite about it, though I secretly believed my eldest brother reluctantly thought it made me look quite dashing, like one of the heroes in the tales of adventure he enjoyed.
They all worked with my father at his candle-making, all proud workers with colza, braiding wicks and crafting candles as near to smokeless as one could imagine. I would start there soon myself, perhaps as early as the new year.
“Are you done peeling, then?” My mother had entered the room. She eyed me, and the slightest frown drew a line between her eyes. “You’re flushed. Have you been sitting too close to the fire?”
“No,” I said. I lifted the two bowls, one full of peelings, one full of newly bare potatoes. “I’m done.”
“Bring them in, then, pet,” she said.
I did, though I glanced back at the fire as I left. It remained a fire. Whatever window I had seen through, for the moment at least, had closed.
My moustache would never quite reach the hair that grew on my chin, and what fluff formed beneath my sideburns or along my jaw was best not spoken of, even in jest. But a moustache I did manage, and a tidied mark of hair beneath my mouth on my chin. It did little to compensate for a face most politely described “interesting” but I at least escaped the gangling awkwardness of my youth and found skill in my fingers and hands to work wax freely, as well as the more regular work of molds and dipping.
My eldest brother left my father’s business to be a Runner—he’d always had a head for adventure and justice, and believed this his path to both—and while my middle brother was a decent, hard-working sort, he didn’t have the head for the numbers the way I did, nor any real joy in the work.
That I would inherit the shop was a foregone conclusion to my whole family, alongside the unspoken promise that I would keep my remaining brother employed—and thus solvent—for his future as a husband and father. His inheritance was perhaps more practical than mine: the features from our parents blended in his face to something quite handsome, and so as he had a job, never drank to excess, and always smelled pleasant thanks to the waxes we shaped, he had a fair share of attention among the eligible women in the city and was soon engaged.
Since it afforded me an anonymity to have a brother so handsome, I didn’t even begrudge it of him, as by this point, my nature the flames had shown me in that one encounter of my youth by the hearth was starting to assert itself in earnest.
As was my way with fire itself.
It began simply enough—burning a candle to check the efficacy of my tight braid of a self-trimming wick, my thoughts focused on how long it might burn—but as I watched the candle burn, the small flame seemed to open. One moment it was a bright flame, the next it was as though it didn’t exist, and in the space where the flame had been, and I saw my father’s face, his eyes closing, and a long, slow exhale that was not followed by another inhalation.
The window was small—a candle’s flame—but I found I could move about the candle, so long as I kept my eyes on the spot where the flame should be, and through the window as one might look through a keyhole of a door, were one to keep their face at the hole as the door swung open.
He was in bed, beside my mother, and there was snow on the windowsill, and his glasses on the dresser and…
The window closed. I blinked a few times, trying to restore what strange opening I’d been able to peer through, but it had vanished, leaving only the bright flame, and a braided wick performing as it should.
As deaths go, a peaceful passing in slumber cannot likely be improved upon, and thanks to the candle’s warning, I had nearly three weeks’ time to say all the things a son might wish he’d said to a kind father but held off in other circumstances.
After he passed, the business became mine, and in time, I took a room of my own while my middle brother and his new wife joined my mother in our family home, starting their family there.
In my room, no one questioned if I peered into the fire, and so it was I gained practice.
The second time I saw the bearded dancing man was in a pub. I’d taken the habit of eating a meal out after closing the shop at the end of the week, rather than with my mother and my middle brother’s family, and on an evening that could have been any other evening in the city, I was greeted by those who knew me—many of whom owned shops along the same street as I, and who had first invited me to take up this weekly habit—and introduced to a new man, a carver and sculptor new to the city but already of some fame for his work.
He would be opening a store two doors down from me, where the childless furniture maker was to retire.
Though his name was Atticus, a youthful nickname of Atlas had chased him into adulthood, and at a glance, I knew I was seeing him still before my first glimpse through the fireplace window of my youth. He was broad and had certainly earned his nickname, but his beard had not yet reached the magnificent state I recalled it having in my glimpse.
It was a strange thing to see him, and to my surprise, I caught a similar shock in his own dark brown eyes.
“It is good to meet you, Atlas, was it?” I said, to cover our awkwardness in the eyes of the other clerks and store owners.
“It was,” he said, recovering. His voice was softer than I’d thought to expect, and we shook—a rush of warmth ran down my arm, and what returned was cool and of a different nature entirely, though not uncomfortable. “You’re the chandler?”
“I am.” We let go. Both of us glancing down at our hands, as though the sensation of my warmth exchanged for that cool calm had been apparent to him as well.
That was the sum of our conversation that first night. I was too taken aback to have finally met this man I’d seen so many years ago in my fireplace, and he—I would later learn, on a pillow confession—had been similarly tongue-tied for a different, though similar, reason; Atlas, as a young orphan, had been accosted one day by a man as he passed what Atlas called “a shop of mirror, glass, and silver.”
The man took Atlas inside, and asked him to name—with only one word—what he sought, and the man would show him where he might find it.
“Why would you help me?” Atlas had asked, intrinsically believing the man on a level he couldn’t explain.
“Because you can help others,” the man said. “Your hands can bring life to what you make, I think.”
Atlas, who didn’t understand, only shook his head, but the man waved it off. “It will come,” the man said. “Now. Your word, Atticus?”
Given he hadn’t told the man his name, Atlas should have been scared. But he wasn’t. Instead, he said his word.
This man had repeated the word for Atlas—home—spoken over a flat, silver mirror, and Atlas had seen not a place in the glass placed before him, but a face.
Mine, as it turned out.
My split eyebrow of particular note to him, Atlas had thereafter looked at every man’s eyebrows, wondering when he might find the person who, it seemed, could grant him a sense of home.
That first night, however, we did little more than glance at each other furtively, though I certainly dreamed of him that night, and the next, and the next. His beard, especially, favoured heavily in my thoughts, as I wondered at the texture it might have against my skin.
Three days later, I left my middle brother the reins of the store and brought a package of candles two doors down to the newly opened carver’s shop, which bore Atlas’s name on a beautifully smoothed wooden sign. Pushing open the door made a bell ring, and Atlas himself came out from the back room, wiping his hands on a rag, in an apron I’d seen before, though it currently looked less worn.
“I brought you candles,” I said, feeling both foolish and excited to be in his store with him. “As a welcome gift.” The words landed clumsily, but at least my skill with wax outstripped my tongue. I handed him the package, and he opened it.
“Thank you,” he said, pulling one of the long tapers free and smiling at the colour, which went from the pure white at the wick to a deep golden brown at the base.
Most of my stock and trade was made in simple and useful utility. But making candles as beautiful as they were useful brought me joy, even if they rarely sold beyond a wedding or during the holidays.
“I have just the holder,” he said, and placed the candle back into the box with a reverence that made my skin shiver—ridiculous, as he had not touched me, after all, but there it was—and he stepped once more into the rear of the store.
I took the moment to look around at his wares. He seemed to deal primarily in woods and stone, and the carved items were a mix of utility—walking sticks, stools, tables, candleholders—and beauty, such as frames and bowls and even some carved figurines, a few of which were dyed and painted, but most with the beauty of their own woodgrain left standing.
He returned, and I turned from a bowl full of wooden soldier Christmas ornaments to see he’d brought out a flared candlestick carved of a dark wood, with carved designs of robins around the flared base, brushed with only the faintest of red dyes on their breasts. He once again picked up the candle, and placed it into the holder and—
Two things happened at once.
The first was all of sensation; a flare of heat, much like when I shook Atlas’s hand in the pub, washed through me, though this time it was not a mere warmth but something akin to the heat of an open flame, and it lanced out from my chest, crossing the distance to where Atlas stood, no sooner gone than a responding coolness rushed forth from him that soothed my overheated skin in kind.
The second, though, there would be no way to deny; the tapered candle lit, as sure as if a match had been held to it, and from its flame, golden shapes emerged and flitted through the room. By the time I recovered from the dual sensation of heat-and-cool, I could see the creatures that danced from surface to surface.
Robins. Robins made entirely of light.
I swallowed, and turned to Atlas, sure I would see recrimination or fear or—worst of all—fury in the man’s eyes, but instead, there was only wonder.
“I’ve seen you before,” I said. “When I was a child. A vision in an open flame.”
Atlas’s slow smile grew even as the robins made of light faded, their soft twit-tweets and the patter of their feet tapping around us quieter and quieter until, with a last glimmer, they were gone.
His beard, I would learn that night, was indeed very soft against my skin.
Over evening meals and clandestine nights, we learned each other’s gifts, and now together it seemed both determined to grow. Finding the future in flame became almost second nature to me, and whatever thought I might have while I stared into fire steered the vision’s direction. But more than that, now I could bring the flame itself, and spark the life-giving heat elsewhere if I drew it from myself just so. When dipping or molding or braiding wicks, I found I could weave or shape purpose into the tapers.
This candle would bring hope. That candle would bring luck. Another, peace after loss.
Atlas showed me his creations, small birds carved of wood especially, which he could close his large rough hands around, and then, when he opened his wonderful fingers, would simply fly away from his open palm, as alive and real as any bird hatched from an egg.
“Do they come back?” I asked, one evening when we lay together in his bed, which was by need larger than mine, and in a small home above his shop. “Do they return to what they were, become wood again?”
“None I’ve ever seen,” he said. Birds, and mice, and anything tiny he could carve and hold inside his two closed hands he could bring to life. Fantastical things, too: elves and fairies, some of which would speak to him, and even stay and keep him company a while, before they felt a need to be elsewhere and would thank him for crafting them and granting them spirit before they’d head out to wherever they felt pulled to be—the woods, or an orphanage, or—he delighted in telling me of a pair of elves in particular, ones he’d carved from applewood—even a shoe-maker’s shop, but since we were together?
Even larger carvings held spirit in much the same way my candles now seemed to embody—things he couldn’t close his hands around, couldn’t bring completely to life, had qualities worked into them just the same.
A wash basin carved with mermaids cleaned away unearned shame as well as dirt. A walking stick with an eagle’s face lightened the step of its owner. Candlesticks decorated with suns and moons and stars brightened any candle they held—and were they one of mine, to near incandescence.
Joy lived in us, and through it, our businesses prospered all the more. The understanding of our clientele did not reach conscious awareness as rather a thing felt at the back of one’s mind, I believe. Customers would speak to us of their lives, and we could gently suggest a candle or a carving best suited to lightening their sorrows, and on some level, the connection was made.
When the Rooming House became available, my mother, middle-brother, and my eldest-brother all questioned how I could possibly run such a place and still maintain the Chandler Shop—even with Atlas also throwing his broad shoulders half into the joint venture—but I’d sent my gaze through the fireplace with my thoughts aligned with the needs of the business and found a pair of women, a cook and a former housemaid, both of whom were ready to retire from the grand house where they served—and, like Atlas and myself, secretly found their time together—and they would run the place, as well as live there, where they would have more freedom to be together than ever before.
I cast my gaze through the flame-windows for those who would rent rooms as well, and it was not long before The Candle and Robin had the half-dozen rooms filled in name, if not in evening’s practice; a teacher and his dockworker friend; two seamstresses who worked both in a dressmaker’s shop and for the theatre’s costumes; and two medical students who would one day, the fire showed me, save many lives.
We would often join them for meals, and one New Year’s Eve night, when the table was set and we’d arrived but not yet changed, I remarked upon the beauty of the table our cook had set, and the warmth that radiated from the great iron stove with shining brass fixtures. From upstairs we could hear the medical student playing his fiddle, and the seamstresses were singing, and Atlas pulled me in and danced me around the room.
I felt myself watching. It was a curious sensation, but not an unpleasant one, and then, as though through a new muscle once flexed a motion had been learned, I felt another pair of eyes, and ceased the dance.
“Someone…” I frowned, unsure.
“What’s wrong?” Atlas said.
I couldn’t find words akin to the sensation of… A view? A glimpse? A gaze, but like my own, but different. Smaller. Certainly not a fireplace, and perhaps not even a candle. No, the window that had fallen upon me had been…
What had it been?
“I need a match,” I said.
I struck a match.
She had no shoes.
Snow fell, a night full of cold and wind, and the girl wore no shoes.
It took every effort to turn my eyes away from her poor feet, to try and see where she was, where she might be going, but the window of a match was so narrow.
The child wore an apron, and in the pockets…
Matches. Boxes of matches. She held them out to people as they passed, but they did exactly that: they passed. None so much as glanced down at her, and though she asked if they might need matches, they did not reply and—
The match burned out.
The frustration of it left me at loose ends, and it was only Atlas’s hand upon my shoulder that stopped me from running out into the night to any and all streets, and—he knew, even if I in my state did not—to no avail.
“Try the fireplace,” he said, and he had the right of it. I’d seen her now, with the fireplace, I could find her future, and so I sat, brought the child’s near-hopeless face, her cheeks so red, her head so cruelly bare as snow fell, her feet, her poor, poor feet, and turned to the fire…
The window opened.
At first, all the window offered was a corner formed by two houses. The frustration returned, but then, nearly lost in the corner, leaning against the wall, there sat the little girl with the once-red cheeks, her mouth oddly smiling, frozen to death. A pale sun rose, casting a wan light now onto the tiny figure. The body, stiff and cold, held a bundle of matches, the whole of which was almost burned.
I rose from the chair, stepping back, and the window closed. She was like me, this child. I knew it. I had felt her gaze on us just now, and this was to be her future?
“Love?” Atlas took my shoulders in his strong hands, facing me, dark eyes holding my gaze and the gentle strength of him once again restored my thoughts.
“Sunlight,” I said. “There was sunlight on her body.”
“You saw a death, then?” Atlas said, drawing me in to a tight embrace.
“Yes,” I said, allowing myself only one breath in his arms. “But the fire shows me the future.” I pulled away. “It is the present we need concern ourselves with now. Whoever is meant to care for her does not—a little girl, Atlas, a near-broken little girl, barefoot and no hat on a night like tonight—and I will not allow it.” I shook my head, once again losing the words I needed. “It… offends, love. It offends.”
“What do you need from me?” asked the man, and I had never loved him more than in that moment.
“We need to find her,” I said. “But—”
My voice was stolen by the same sense of presence. “She’s looking again,” I said. “She is like me, she sees through the fire…” I turned around in a slow circle, until my gaze landed on the table, where the pure white cloth was spread, and the shining dinner service. Where soon Cook’s roast goose would steam gloriously, stuffed with apples and prunes…
I looked back through the small window her match made, and forced myself past attention on her frail little form, to the buildings behind her, but they might have been any building on any street, any corner…
The window closed again. I cried out, as near to physical pain was the helplessness I felt.
“You feel her?” Atlas said.
I could only nod.
“Come,” he said, and took my hand.
In the back of his store, Atlas moved about with purpose, and I stood, shaking with worry. We’d dashed to the place, luckily only a few blocks from The Candle and Robin, but now we were here and I was once again idle while he had purpose, the urgency and fear had risen again.
“Here,” Atlas said finally, placing the candleholder from the day of our first kiss on his workbench, the one with the robins. The one with the gold-hued candle I’d gifted him, still mostly intact. The one we’d named our rooming house for.
He wrapped his big hands around the base, covering the carvings of the robins, and nodded to me.
I exhaled, and with my exhalation, released every bit of the heat and flame inside me I could spare, my thought on one thing and one thing alone: that little girl selling matches in the street.
The candle bloomed, the light flaring so brightly in the workshop it rivalled a summer sun, and I heard my love whispering, a soft request he repeated three times before he lifted his hands.
The eight robins were creatures of brilliant, blazing gold, and they circled the room. Atlas held out his hands, and they landed.
“Please,” he said, repeating his words for the fourth time. “Take us to her.”
They flew from his palms into the store, trailing motes of golden-white light, their sharp twittering cries full of intent, shooting stars given wings and voices.
One by one, the robins winked out, and as each vanished with a final, sad twitter, I ached with the realization the magic we shared might not be enough. We tromped through the snow, running until our breaths barely had chance to catch in our chest before we needed another, and another robin vanished, and another, swallowed up by the cold and the dark…
Until finally, the last, beautiful golden robin twittered once, and drove between two buildings, flaring once before vanishing entirely.
Please, I thought, aiming a prayer to where I was not sure, as I had no beliefs worth merit. I stumbled into the corner formed by the two buildings and…
There she was.
I saw her inhale, crumpled there in the snow, and with her exhalation she said, “Gran… take me with you…” and in her hand, a bundle of matches smouldered, on the edge of going out.
“No.” I cried the word, for her exhalation was not followed by another breath, and I could feel the very heat of her, the being of her, begin to flee…
I conjured the heat and flame I possessed and pressed it into the little body in the snow, and she breathed again.
“You’ve done it,” Atlas said beside me, but I shook my head.
“I am doing it,” I said. “What life she has is borrowed.” Knowledge I barely understood was slipping through my fingers even as I tried to grip it. “There is death here, a death I saw, a fate with nowhere to go, her light…”
But still I fed the warmth in my heart toward her. I could grant her more moments. Minutes, perhaps.
So I would.
“Hold onto her, love, as long as you can,” Atlas’s soft voice held hope, but I couldn’t look away from the child and maintain the flow of all that I had. “Just as long as you can,” he said, his voice now further ahead of me, and to my left.
I longed to turn and see what he was doing—for the sounds were clear that my wonderful, gentle, bearded man was doing something—but as it was, the threads of heat and light I fed into the child were starting to dim, and I could feel a numbness and chill in my toes, my fingertips.
I could not do this forever. Her life, the braided wick of it, was woven like any other I might have fashioned in my shop: self-trimming, and little left of it.
When shivers began, I risked a glance, as I knew time ran short.
Beside me, Atlas had sculpted another girl from the snow and ice and frost itself. His gifted hands—now red and burning with the cold—had caught every curve of her, right down to the smile she bore from whatever last vision she’d glimpsed through her matches.
“Now, my love,” he said.
I understood. He could not grant life to something so large, only things that fit between his palms, but this sculpture? This thing he’d made?
He’d sculpted it to never have life.
From the little match girl, I unbraided the wick. My hands moved in front of me, as though working with strands physical, not of spirit, but the method remained the same. Those strands I pulled to the left now, and entangled into the body my Atlas had made of ice and snow and frost instead.
Before my eyes, ice became bone, and snow flesh, and frost skin—but no life was there in her.
In front of me, however, the weakest single breath.
“Hurry,” I said, and Atlas pulled the girl into his arms, wrapping her in his coat, and leading the way back to The Candle and Robin as fast as we might run in our nearly broken state.
Not long into New Year’s Day I learned a little match-selling girl was found frozen in the corner of the two buildings. The next morning, from customers at my chandler shop, I heard the same refrain so often it might become a new carol to be sung every season: “She wanted to warm herself, poor thing.” Then, from my eldest brother the Runner I learned of her father, a cruel and angry man who showed little remorse and made the course we must set all the more clearer.
She recovered in the kitchen of The Candle and Robin, the warmest room in the building, under the care of the two gentle students of medicine, and with the hearty food of the Cook. We introduced her as our own: the niece of my Atlas, left orphaned, but now in our care, and though none of the eight under the roof of our rooming house believed us, they all did the courtesy of pretending.
Indeed, one of the medical students procured for us the “proof” we needed of her birth.
She believes she saw Heaven itself, and her grandmother—though she herself said her grandmother had never been so grand nor beautiful.
She didn’t intend to see the future. That much, the people of the city had right.
She’d only wanted to warm herself.
We will keep her warm. Besides, it will take time, no doubt, to explain to her what she can do, though at least I’ve my own experiences to guide her. For, like me, I know the little match girl can see the future in flame, and like me, I believe she caught a glimpse through a match-flame window not of her late grandmother, but rather of someone she will herself one day be.
And as for the “Heaven” she saw?
I think her descriptions of tables and chairs and food and grand trees full of candles sounds much like the Christmases we celebrate here at the Candle and Robin. Heaven enough for me.
And, I expect, a tradition she will continue long after I and my Atlas have gone.