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Matchless: A Christmas Story

by Gregory Maguire
Dec 21, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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On an island so far north that it snowed from September to April, a boy named Frederik kept himself warm by keeping a secret.

Some mornings the top of the water in the kitchen jug had frozen into a disc of ice. Frederik had to smash it with a wooden spoon. He piled the pieces of ice in a saucer, reminded of the way that harbor ice broke up in a thaw. Small ice made musical clinking sounds; large ice groaned like his mother. "Not dawn, not yet!" she protested through her morning congestion. "The troubles of another day come to haunt me. Where are you, my sweet ginger biscuit?"

"I'm making your tea to warm you up," replied Frederik.

He hurried to light the kitchen fire. Money was scarce, and this was the last match until his mother could afford to buy more, so he struck it carefully. The warmth on his fingers made him want — quick — to use them to make something clever before they became stiff with cold again. His fingers were the only clever part of him.

"My useful child," said the widow Pedersen. "Tea on a cold morning: a reason to live. But this" — she grimaced — "pfaah! It's thin as rainwater. Have you made one scoop of leaves do for a whole pot?"

"The canister is nearly empty."

"It's Christmas Eve: I'm paid today. I'll buy some more."

"We need matches, too."

As Dame Pedersen and Frederik folded the bedding, their breath wisped in the chilly room. "Look, it's a pair of ghosts."

"That's all that'll be left of us, a pair of ghosts, unless you succeed today," said Dame Pedersen. "Make those seagulls pay for waking me with their jeering."

"We work as a team, the gulls and I," Frederik reminded her. His stomach muttering with hunger, Frederik kissed his mother and left.

The Pedersens lived in a couple of rooms tacked onto a herring smoke house on an island in the harbor. From their threshold Frederik looked across the water to the prosperous city on the mainland. The town was bedecked with necklaces of evergreen. Setting out across the low stone causeway that joined island to mainland, Frederik caught a whiff of a goose roasting for a holiday luncheon.

Usually he stayed near the docks, meeting the boats. As fishermen emptied their nets of herring or skrat or mackerel, gulls filched from the day's catch. If Frederik could startle a scavenger into dropping a fish, why, there was the beginning of supper. The fishermen didn't begrudge Frederik stealing from seagulls.

When fish were few, Frederik searched for bits of beautiful trash. Anything he might use for his secret.

His mother didn't suspect a thing. Every night when she came home from the palace — she was a seamstress for the Queen — Dame Pedersen fried the fish and then plunged under the warm coverlet to do her mending there. The Queen had a heavy foot and always stepped on her own hems, so every evening Frederik's mother reached for her basket of threads, all wrapped tightly on wooden spools. Even on Christmas Eve she plied her needle. Humming sentimental melodies of the season, she stitched while Frederik washed up. As soon as she nodded off over her scissors, Frederik scampered up the ladder to his attic.

The room reeked with the salt tang of the sea and the sweet rawness of the smokehouse. He didn't mind; this was his room, to which his mother in her exhaustion could never manage to climb. Here he was not fish-thief, but governor.

On the planks of the attic floor waited Frederik's secret: a town hunched on an island, a heap of netting that had washed into his path once when north winds drove the waves clear across the causeway. The houses were made of empty boxes that he'd lifted from merchants' rubbish bins. Frederik cut out windows and folded the cardboard: perfect hinged shutters. He built eaves out of slates that the wind had liberated from real roofs. He planted trees by poking sprigs of balsam into dollops of boat caulking. Best was the customs house: A gold-papered chocolate gift box sporting a porcelain dome — an upturned bowl of chipped blue china.

Frederik's town boasted only two residents — two threadless wooden spools with heads made out of acorns. They seemed eager to invite other people to their town, but Frederik didn't known where to find any. Until its thread was used up, Dame Pedersen wouldn't relinquish a spool to serve as company.

Frederik had decided that the residents should go sailing to hunt for more family. So he was building a harbor out of pebbles. Next he would need a boat.

When someone pounded at the door, his mother started from her nap — "Merciful angels! Have the seagulls grown fists?" Frederik reached the door first.

The visitor said to Dame Pedersen, "Our Queen has ripped her cloak on her way to the Christmas Eve ceremonies. She's to preside over prayers and feast and frolic of all varieties; so she demands you come with your supplies! She has sent her coach so I might hurry you along, but dress snug. Ice is even forming on the harbor."

"You would think the Queen has toes of lead," said Dame Pedersen. "She can't see a hem without stepping on it. Still, the hungry rarely get a holiday, so I will come."

"You're a good woman, to venture out in this cursed cold. Myself, I've had enough of the Queen's misadventures. On Christmas Eve I'd rather be home with my wife or my grog, or both. I intend to seek other employment in the new year."

But Dame Pedersen turned to Frederik. "Dear boy, I've never left you at night before. Will you be safe?"

Frederik nodded. So Dame Pedersen left, muttering to the coachman: "One of God's simples, that boy; can't find his way from soap to water. I hate to leave him alone on Christmas Eve." Frederik waited until the sound of hooves had faded, and then he wrapped himself in a scarf. His townspeople needed to sail to lonely souls and invite them to live on their island. So Frederik would locate a boat.

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As the year surged on, the Queen continued stamping on her hems. There were gowns to be mended every night.

The following Christmas Eve Frederik's mother decided to spend the night at the palace, leaving her new husband to keep the stove fire burning. She brought her needles and threads but, distracted by kissing her three children, she forget to take her supper. Frederik offered to carry the meal to his mother. "I can find my way," he promised his stepfather.

His delighted mother applauded his success at finding the palace, and in holiday spirits, the Queen lunged to hand three pieces of marzipan to Frederik, ripping a royal seam as she did.

Hurrying home that Christmas Eve, however, Frederik grew uncertain. An unseasonal thaw was wreathing the city in a clammy mist, disguising the landmarks on which Frederik relied. Tonight it seemed as if all the ghosts of all who had died since last year had risen one last time to see the holy day in.

Frederik wasn't frightened of ghosts, and though the world was masked with vapor, eventually he found the causeway. Starting across, he heard a belligerent sound. He recognized it as plates of ice jamming in the mouth of the harbor channel, grinding their cold edges against one another. With the outlet plugged, and the snow melting, the harbor was rising. Inches of seawater flooded the causeway.

He stood still. He couldn't see his way forward along the causeway, nor could he retrace his steps. A false step would drown him, and no boat in the shape of a mother's slipper would come sidling up to rescue him.

"Oh," he prayed aloud, "let me get home to my sisters! I have marzipan fruits for them!"

The water lapped higher as bells began to ring in the muffling fog. He blinked, and then he saw a little light, a momentary flare held out by an invisible hand. He reached toward it and the light went out. But, look, another! — several feet beyond, so he took a step forward. A third flame winked beyond that, and then a fourth. Small brief lights, but helpful as matches struck just in time.

Frederik followed the chain of evanescent stars across the dark water to safety. Some people know better than to announce if a little light has appeared to them.

Frederik didn't confide in his mother when she returned the next morning, with pastries and lingonberry jam. He wanted to tell his stepfather there were reasons not to be sad on this Christmas anniversary. But he didn't know how. Instead, he said to his sisters, "Eat up your marzipan. I have a surprise upstairs to show you."

Then he carried both girls up the ladder, to share with them his secret town, whose population had enjoyed a marked increase over the past year. His sisters clapped their hands, unaware that high above them, even in the daylight, exists a population of stars.

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