History of Matches
Angela Woodward

I stood in a friend's back door, one foot in the house, the rest of me still on the concrete. He didn't urge me in, and I didn't press, though we talked for a while about the business I had come over about, and about his wife, who was unhappy, and whose mother was ill. His own state of mind didn't come up. Around his shoulder, I saw the corner of a gleaming silver refrigerator, the kind that in its sullen sheen asserts the very essence of middle class success, what I always thought of as joyless comfort. I had no idea that my friend, who had always been as poor as me, or worse off, had at some point climbed to this stature, had burned money on upgrading what was already perfectly functional.

At that moment, I remembered a book he'd lent me years ago about the history of matches. At first, fire sprouted like gambler's luck, blasting from the heavens. Cruel old men learned how to conserve it in charcoal, and doled it out every evening to their parishioners in expensive doses. In other places, even little girls learned how to make the spark appear by rubbing dry sticks together. Their wrists showed off their skill, slim, quick, diligent. Old soldiers standing watch in a snowy forest conjured fire from their little tinder boxes. Sometimes their hands grew so stiff that they couldn't manipulate the flint. They stared at their stupid fingers, drained of the force that pulsed the stars, reduced to ignorant meat.

The Marquise Du Chatelet contended that fire did not have substance or weight. In secret, without permission from her husband, she wrote an essay explaining its nature. The essay began as a letter to a friend who had recently returned from Lapland. "I heard that you were almost consumed by flies," she wrote. She wished him well, and told him about another friend who was convalescing on her estate. Fire every moment defies the ability of our mind to grasp it, even though it is a part of ourselves, and of all the bodies that surround us. While light always acts in a straight line, heat insinuates itself into our bodies from all sorts of directions.

Soon, another gentleman developed chemical splints, which when rubbed on sandpaper, ignited a small fireball. The sparks often flew freely across the room, scorching the dog, the carpet. Madame's dress once flamed from her lap. Only the quick thinking of her eldest, who threw the water pitcher on her, saved her. Nevertheless, she was in bed for almost a month with burns on her thighs. The manufacture of lucifers began in earnest some years later, flame resistant wood dipped in a ball of white phosphorus. But the match makers succumbed to its mysterious bone-penetrating poison. Lovers who could not marry ate match heads, extinguishing their passion as their bodies slumped to the floor. So convenient, this flame that came when called, it scurried humbly to the striker, but left its sinful residue behind. Only later, with a change in formula, did the match become safe, everyday, unnoticeable, just another familiar mechanical servant.

"Good night," I called to my friend. "I'll be back to look after your cat. Don't worry. Have a safe trip." We hadn't spoken in months, and now I promised him this favor. The dim bulb over his back door flickered as I walked away, on its last legs perhaps, or not quite secure in its socket.

Angela Woodward is the author of a novel, END OF THE FIRE CULT, and a book of stories, THE HUMAN MIND, both from Ravenna Press.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Franco Folini.

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