by Zygmunt Frankel

It is dark inside a matchbox, but some light manages to penetrate between the edge of the drawer and the outer case.

There are about fifty matches to a box, and, upon closer inspection, no two are exactly alike. There is always a slight difference in the grain of the wood or in the size and shape of the head.

Once the box is put to use, there is always the tension: who will be next? So long as the box is full or almost full, it is bound to be someone from the top layer. Later, when the matches roll about, it becomes more of a chance, until only one is left, hoping that it will be overlooked and the box assumed empty and thrown away.

However smooth the movement when the box is picked up or taken out of a pocket, it is keenly felt inside. Sometimes a warning is provided by the conversation outside. "Will you have a cigarette?" or "I'll put the kettle on" spells the imminent end of another match, perhaps several in quick succession. The matches hate the superstition of not lighting a third cigarette with the same match, and the clumsiness of some housewives who need several matches to light a fire.

A matchbox can last a couple of days in the hands of a smoker, a week or so in the kitchen, and a long time if kept next to a box of candles for emergencies such as a power cut or a war. It is a matter of chance or destiny.

The matches have history and mythology of their own. There is the memory of tall forests, of the song of birds, of branches overhanging streams where trout and salmon jump and bears, otters and ospreys try to catch them. Destiny begins with the trees. Some lucky ones are felled for the masts of tall sailing ships, to cross the oceans and call at bustling ports and palm-shaded coral lagoons. Others are used for houses, carts, or children's swings. To become matches is no glory or fun. And yet, when the end comes, it is not slow rot or decay or woodworms; a match goes up in a bright flame and it is quickly over.

Is there life after death? In most cases, a match does not bum completely; there is a short charred stump left, comparable to a man's skeleton. and as useless. The smoke, a little charcoal and ash, and the stump itself do, it must be admitted, remain a part of the material world, and might eventually wind up as something else, but almost certainly without the memory of one's previous existence as a match.

The matches are proud of the hypnotising, almost magic, effect that their flames, or the flames initiated by them, have on the human race which manufactures them and then burns them one by one. Andersen's "Little Match Girl" figures prominently in the literary part of their tradition, together with "Let there be light", one of the first sentences of the human Bible, and Goethe's dying words: "Light; more light!" They too - however small, fragile, and humble - are the enemies of darkness. And when their turn comes, they burn brightly and bravely, thinking of Joan of Arc and Giordano Bruno.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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