Merry Little Murderess

Nate Duff | 06/12/2019

Her name was Merry, but no one called her that, because she was never merry. They called her You, or It, or Urchin, or Brat. If they were feeling kind, they called her That Little Match Girl.

She looked rather like a matchstick, pale and scrawny with an unkempt ruddy mop that might have caught fire if brushed against a striking surface. Also, she sold matches on the city streets, carrying a basket of matchbooks under her arm. Passersby seldom gave her a sidelong glance, let alone a farthing.

Her father worked at the match factory, where he stole samples off the production line. While he sat in their flat and drank, she went out and earned her keep. When she didn’t sell enough, she didn’t get any bread. When she didn’t sell any, she got his belt.

Nobody was buying any matches tonight.

It was New Year’s Eve, chilly and snowy. Most people were home with their families.

Her bleeding feet were wrapped in rags. She’d gone out wearing her mother’s slippers, much too big for Merry, but lost them when she’d dodged a speeding carriage. One slipper had simply disappeared. A boy had run off with the other, saying he was going to use it as a cradle when he had his own children one day. Merry had said awful things to him. She’d meant every word.

Her bleeding feet took her to a little church, the same place her family used to go every Sunday. The tall stained-glass windows had iron bars to keep out thieves and vandals, undesirables like Merry. She peered inside. Somewhere in the congregation was her father, sweating in his shabby suit. Somewhere in the children’s choir, she thought she saw the boy who stole her slipper.

The last time Merry had been there was her grandmother’s funeral. Before that, her mother’s. Her father had driven her mother to an early grave, yelling and hitting and drinking, always drinking. Her mother often had bruises where her father had thought no one would see. They saw. On Sundays, everyone looked away. They knew, and looked away. They did the same for Merry.

She heard a noise. In the middle of the service, an altar boy sneaked outside to relieve himself in the bushes. Merry bribed him to let her into the vestibule. To keep him from telling on her, she did things with her mouth, things the vicar had shown her.

Back when her grandmother was alive and took her to confession, Merry had told the vicar she didn’t have any sins to confess. It wasn’t like she’d ever killed anybody. The vicar disagreed. There, in the darkness of the confessional booth, he’d taught her sin, taught her shame.

Her grandmother had never known. Merry had never told her. Her father had always been waiting for her in the chancel, swapping swigs of gin with the sexton. One night, when her father grew especially angry, Merry had tried the same things on him. Even drunk, he’d pushed her away and called her a wicked child and beaten her worse than ever. By morning, he’d forgotten.

The altar boy had to return to the service, so when they’d finished, he left Merry alone. It was dark and cold, even in the vestibule. The small room was all that separated the sanctuary and the outside world.

Merry hadn’t had anything to eat or drink the whole day, so she set down her basket of matches and went exploring. Under a table covered with a white cloth, she found a plate of bread crusts and a metal cruet of red wine. The elements of the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ.

She wolfed down the bread. It was dry and stale, unleavened and unfilling, but better than nothing. She even tried the wine, but gagged at the taste and spat it out. It stained the tablecloth.

Feeling slightly better, though perhaps a bit dizzy from the wine, she peeked through the double doors into the sanctuary. It was warm and bright, and everyone was singing together.

There was the vicar in his white vestments, speaking to everyone. Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the hungry, for they shall be filled. Blessed are those who weep, for they shall laugh. The congregation said amen, and the deacons passed the offering plate.

Merry was poor. She was still hungry. She cried every night, and she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d laughed. Blessed? What did that even mean?

She looked at the people. At her basket of matches. At her bleeding feet.

Merry shut the double doors. She put a crosier, a shepherd’s staff which the bishops carried, through the door handles. Now no one could get in or out. Then she went in search of the sexton’s jug of gin. It was hidden in the supply closet, amid the chasubles and chalices.

As the congregation rose for an anthem, she poured cheap liquor on the floor in the vestibule. From wall to wall, from door to door. The smell made her nose run and her eyes water. She didn’t stop until the jug was empty.

Then she picked up a book of matches. Struck one. It was too damp to light, and the head snapped off. She struck another. It made a spark, then guttered out.

The third one lit.

In the flame, she saw visions. Of her grandmother, who brought Merry to confession and invited the vicar to dinner. Of her mother, who whipped Merry with rosary beads and sang her to sleep every night. Of her father, who…

She dropped the match.

The fire spread much faster than she’d thought.

The congregation must have smelled the smoke. From the sanctuary, Merry heard running, screaming. The double doors rattled, but the crosier held them shut. They couldn’t escape through the windows, not through the iron bars.

She ran to the front door. It didn’t budge.

The altar boy. He’d locked her in. Had he planned to turn her over to the vicar?

She looked around. Flames filled the vestibule, floor to ceiling, and spread to the sanctuary. There was no way back, no way out.

Coughing, she lay down and waited for the end.

As the people in the sanctuary choked and screamed, Merry thought they sounded like geese. It made her think of her grandmother’s Sunday dinners. She could almost smell the roast in the oven.

Her basket of matches burned. It stank of sulfur, brimstone. Hellfire.

As hellfire consumed the church, she didn’t feel cold or hungry. At last, she was warmed and filled. She laughed.

On New Year’s Day, someone might find her body in the ashes. If anyone ever did, they’d find her smiling, but never know why. They’d never even know her name. Merry, the little murderess.

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