Beatrice and François
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The Box of Matches

     In a little village in central Africa, a shaman said goodbye to Samuel, an eleven-year-old boy, who was leaving for Europe to study at a famous school there.

"You know, Samuel, when you live there, in that far-off country in Europe, sometimes you will be sad and glum. You won't see the beautiful African sun. You won't feel the heat of home anymore. You'll learn about rain, dark, grey days, snow and fog.

The shaman went on:

"So, look, Samuel. To help you live there happily, I'll entrust you with this.

The shaman held out his hand. Sitting in his palm was a box. It looked like a box of matches, maybe a little bigger than most. The outside was painted blue with a yellow star in the centre. He opened it.

“Look, here. Inside are five matches. Some sad day, some awful day, strike one of the matches, when you like. Make sure you burn it completely. Then, at sunset, and only at sunset, you can make your wish. It will come true.

The boy thanked him.

"The only thing is that, among the matches, there will be a bad one. And I don't know which one it is. I wish you good luck. I see your father is beckoning to you now ... have a good trip, my boy!"

Samuel hugged the shaman and left.


One week later, on a big boat, on one of the ships that pass along the European coast, Samuel leaned against the railing and looked at the seawall, the beaches, the dunes, the construction, all on the water's edge.

He held the box of matches tightly and was looking at it. Just then, his father walked up to him.

"What do you have there in your hand, big guy?"

"Er, nothing, Dad."

"What's that box?"

"The shaman gave it to me."

"Oh no," his dad said at once. "Get rid of it right away. Do you think that children can bring matches to school in their pencil case? You're moving to a new country. You're going to a good school. You'll learn a lot, become a serious student, and you want to play around with things from the shaman? You want them to kick you out? You'll end up back at the village taking care of the goats. You want that for your future, for your life? Throw the box into the ocean."

"But Dad!"

"Throw it away right away. Listen to me, Samuel."

And so the boy threw the box of matches into the ocean.


Three days later, on a Sunday, Beatrice woke up in a very good mood. She was heading out early to spend the day on the coast with her best friend, François. He had two little sisters, Olivia, five and a half, and Amandine, three and a half. François's parents had invited Beatrice to the great delight of the two little girls and their big brother.

It was a beautiful day. She had put on her swimsuit and, over that, she wore a pair of jean shorts. She tied the laces of her gym shoes and ran to catch up with her friends. They drove there quickly and the children spent the whole morning playing on the beach.

While they were building a sand castle on the beach, a wave dropped a little box at our friend's feet. It looked like a box of matches. The outside of the box was blue with a yellow start in the centre.

Beatrice thought it was pretty. She slid it into the pocket of her shorts. Then she kept playing with François and his little sisters.

After a picnic on the beach, the little sisters lay down and had a nap and the two older children went off and climbed to the top of the dunes.

When she sat down to watch the boats on the horizon, Beatrice felt the little box in her pocket. She showed it to her friend.

"Where did you find that?" François asked.

"A wave brought it to me. I thought it looked pretty," she said as she opened the box. "Look, it has five matches inside. I'm going to light one," our friend announced, "and I'm going to show you something that you won’t dare do."

She drew a match from the box.

"I'm going to burn it right to the end. Dad showed me how you have to hold it."

Beatrice struck the match and it lit right away. The flame slowly advanced towards our friend's fingers. She licked her fingers and then, with her wet fingers, she switched her hold to the other end of the match, to the burned part. If she didn't lick her fingers, it would have hurt. The match burned completely. The little girl put it back into the box because she didn't want to leave it on the ground and also to respect the dunes and the environment. Of course, our friend didn't know that she could make a wish.

You had immediately realized, I'm sure, that these were the matches from the shaman, the ones that Samuel threw into the ocean.

The afternoon went very well. Then, that evening, while they were driving back home along the highway, they watched the sun set on the horizon.

"What a good day!" François said.

Amandine was starting to fall asleep. The head of the little girl rested on her big brother’s shoulder.

"Oh, yes," Beatrice replied. "A very good day. "I wish," our friend added, "that tomorrow we could do it all again ... that tomorrow we didn't have to go back to school, that tomorrow, it would be another Sunday. That's really my dream," the girl repeated.

The sun sank behind the horizon.

"Yes, a nice dream, but it'll never happen," her friend agreed dreamily ...


The next day, Mom woke Beatrice up quite early.

"Come on darling! Get dressed quickly. Let's go: get your swimsuit on, with your jean shorts over them. And your gym shoes."

"My swimsuit and my old shorts? You want me to go to school like that, Mom?"

"You're not going to school today, come on, darling. It's Sunday. Did you lose track? You're going to the beach with François."

"I'm going to the beach with François … but yesterday I went to the beach with him ..."

"Now seriously, my darling, wake yourself up," Mom said. "Yesterday was Saturday. We went grocery shopping at the mall. Don't you remember? Then you walked Nicolas to the park."

Nicolas, our friend's little brother, was nearly a year old.

Beatrice was still quite astonished. She put on her swimsuit, her shorts and her gym shoes. She ran to her friend's house. He was ready to go to the beach. His two little sisters were already waiting in their parents' car.

"Hi, François. What did you do all day yesterday?"

"Yesterday?" the boy said, thinking. “Uh, I played in the yard with my sisters, then I helped Dad wash the car. We got groceries and then at night we had burgers for dinner."

"You didn't go to the beach yesterday?"

"No. 'Cause we're going today," François replied, very logically.

Beatrice thought about all of this as the car drove along the highway. She felt the box of matches in her pocket. She opened it. One of them was burned. It crossed her mind that there was something magical about the matches. They allowed her to make wishes.

After playing in the sand all morning, they had their picnic. While the little sisters had a nap, the two oldest children climbed to the top of the dunes to watch the boats on the horizon. Beatrice took a second match from the box, lit it and burned it completely.

"I think that these matches have magical powers," the girl explained.

"And I'm going to make a wish. I just saw a very pretty doll at the store, but Mom told me it was way too expensive. It was a doll with brown braids, yellow overalls, and nice cloth shoes. I wish to receive that doll. That's my wish."

The doll didn't appear. Beatrice wondered why all afternoon.

That evening, while they were driving home and the sun was setting on the horizon, François turned to his friend. His little sister, Amandine, was sleeping with her head resting on her big brother's shoulder.

"Do you know the poetry for tomorrow?"

"Oh my goodness," Beatrice said, worried, "I completely forgot to study it."

"Too bad, because the teacher always calls on you first. You recite it so well."

"Oh my goodness," the girl repeated. "Oh I really wish she wouldn't call on me. There, that's really my wish," Beatrice said firmly.

And on the horizon, the sun set.

That night, our friend tried to memorize the poetry, but without much luck. She felt too tired from her nice day at the beach.

The next day she started to wonder, because she still didn't see the doll...

Once she was in class, fear took over. She didn't know the poetry at all. Her heart was beating fast. Her hands trembled a bit. She didn't dare look at her teacher. The teacher came right up in front of her ... and asked another student. Then, again, someone else. And so on.

All the children in the class had their turn, except Beatrice.

So now the girl understood the magic power of the matches, but she also understood that the wish was only fulfilled if she said it just when the sun was setting.

She explained all of this to her friend during recess.

The next day, on Tuesday, François made a suggestion.

"Listen, you should try something big. Tonight, they're doing the draw for the lottery. It looks like it's going to be for about a million dollars. Wish that your parents win the money."

That evening, with her friend at her side, Beatrice took the third match from the box. But just as she was about to light it, François put his hand between hers and the box.

"Wait, can I light it myself? I bet you I can burn it completely, just like you."

He lit the match. He gazed at the flame. But when the flame licked his fingers, he dropped the match. As it fell, it went out so it didn't burn right to the end. The girl made her wish to win one million dollars in the lottery that night. The sun set.

The drawing for the lottery was broadcast live on TV after dinner.

"Mom, Dad, can I watch them do the draw for the lottery? Please?"

"Don't you worry about such things, Beatrice. You'd better go to bed."

"Please ... I'd really like to see it ... it won't take long."

"Okay, but just this once. You can watch with us if you like."

So our friend watched the draw for the lottery winner, seated between her parents, with baby Nicolas on her knees, because he also didn't want to go to sleep.

"Dad, did you buy a lottery ticket?"

"A lottery ticket?"

"Yes, a lottery ticket!"

"No," her dad answered.

"And what about you, Mom?"

"Me neither."

"Oh, but why not? You could win a million dollars, but you don't even have a ticket!"

"We never buy them," her dad explained.

"Actually," Mom remarked, "I think I saw something that looked like a lottery ticket on your desk, dear."

"A lottery ticket on my desk?" Dad repeated. "Weird. I didn't buy one."

He got up and went over to his desk. He returned with the little slip of paper. While he'd been doing this, the number seven was drawn. He read a seven among the numbers on his ticket. Then a 14 appeared and 22. 34 was next. All of these winning numbers were on Dad's ticket.

Becoming more and more enthusiastic, our friends couldn't take their eyes off the little television screen. Only three more numbers to go ... including the bonus number.

"Hey Dad," Beatrice asked, "if you win a million dollars, would you buy me a present?"

"Whatever you like. If I won money like that, we'd clean out the toy store."

The next number was drawn. They needed a 16 or a four or 21. 16 came up.

"Wow!" her parents shouted. "Fantastic! Go on, four, four ... or 21."

Their excitement was at its peak. The suspense was unbearable. The numbered balls of the lottery machine floated in the glass chamber. The four came out next.

Nicolas started to cry. Beatrice’s parents shouted at the TV in impatience. Now they just needed the 21. Beatrice trembled. The wheel of fortune turned. A glacial silence fell like a lead weight. And the 20 came out.

"Oh, no," Beatrice cried. "It's François's fault! He didn't burn the match completely. Oh this is so stupid!"

Her parents had no idea what she was talking about or why anything was François's fault. They were still happy to have won a few hundred dollars … and Beatrice had earned a very big ice cream to console herself.

The next day, sulking, the girl went up to François.

"Because of your klutziness last night when you wanted to burn the match but let it fall on the ground, you made us lose a million dollars."

The boy apologized. Then he suggested to his friend to try for something else that was really impossible. To test the magic powers of the matches.

Beatrice kept looking at him in silence so he told her his plan.

"So ... We could imagine that, the day after tomorrow, Friday, we could all go to Disneyland, the whole class. With our teacher. Wouldn't that be cool?"

"That sounds pretty impossible," Beatrice agreed. "Yeah, so it's totally impossible. Okay, I really want to ask if, after all this, these matches have powers..."

That Thursday, at dusk, the girl lit the fourth match and burned it completely. She asked that, the next day, they'd all visit Disneyland, the whole class. Then she went to bed, relaxed and confident.

It was still dark when her mother shook her awake.

"Beatrice, Beatrice!"

"Yes, Mom? Why are you waking me up so early?"

"Hurry up, my dear. It's five in the morning. You need to be at school by five thirty. That's in half an hour. Remember! You're going to Disneyland, with all your friends."

"It worked. How cool!" the girl smiled to herself.

And, sure enough, half an hour later, she was with all of her classmates in front of the school bus, gathered around their teacher. They would be spending the day at Disneyland.

Beatrice and François exchanged winks. The other students were very lucky and, without knowing it, owed it all to them. In any case, they had a wonderful day.

There was just one match left. Up until now, everything had gone very well ... that meant that the last one must have been the bad one. Once again, we have to remember that our friends didn't know that one out of the five was dodgy.

"For the last match," François suggested, "you should really ask for something that will last a long time."

"What do you mean by that, something that'll last a long time?"

Beatrice repeated.

"When you burn the last one, you might as well get something that'll stay around for a few weeks or a few months ..."

"For example?" our friend said.

"Oh, I don't know, just something that'll last a few months, years even. Maybe a box filled with candy that never runs out ..."

Beatrice's face lit up.

"You know what I want? I'd like to have a cat. But Mom and Dad don't want one."

"So, perfect, ask for a cat."

"Yes, it's a good idea," the girl smiled. "I'm going to ask for a cat."

First, she went to see where her mom was on this.

"So, Mom."

"Yes, Beatrice?"

"Could we get a cat?"

"My dear, you already know the answer to that. You ask that every month. I tell you no each time. A cat is very cute, but you have to take care of it. When you kids are at school, who's going to change the litter, who's going to end up driving it to the vet, who'll be the one to buy its kibble? That'll be Mom each time! You can have a cat later, when you have your own house, with your partner, and your kids."

"And then, of course, no cat when there's a baby living in the house. They say that the animals can smother newborns," Dad added.

"Okay, Mom ... Okay, Dad ... Too bad."

At nightfall, Beatrice took the last match. She lit it and burned it right to the end. And she wished for a little cat.

When she woke up the next morning, she had the feeling that someone was licking her cheek. She opened her eyes and saw a gorgeous little black cat. A few white spots decorated its neck.

"Oh, my little cat! The wish worked."

She took it in her arms. She went downstairs barefoot, in her pyjamas, a little nervous. Mom was making breakfast. What would she say ...

"Mom," the girl asked, full of hope, "look at this pretty little cat. Can we keep her?"

"Well, of course, my dear. What a cute little cat! It'll be the guardian of the house. And I'll take good care of it while you are at school. We'll keep each other company."

"And babies love cats," Dad added as he entered the kitchen. "These animals are very gentle with tots. What a nice cuddly animal for Nicolas!"

Beatrice thought that, quite clearly, the matches had extraordinary powers. She left for school full of joy.

Still, that afternoon, when she returned to the house, her mother was standing at the front door, her arms crossed. When Mom waited for her daughter standing in front of the door like this, our friend knew she was in trouble.

"What happened?" Beatrice asked, nervously.

"What happened?" Mom repeated. "Come look. Your cat! Come inside ..."

Beatrice saw the disaster. The curtains shredded, the chairs slashed, the carpet torn.

"And that's not all," Mom added. "It also did its business in our bed! You're going to teach your cat, tonight, to behave and to never again make like it's an angry tiger. Otherwise, tomorrow I'm taking it to the pound. We'll get rid of this little monster."

Beatrice had no way of knowing that the match was the bad one ... but she felt the consequences of it.

She took her cat in her arms. She caressed it tenderly and talked to it, but what good could that do?

The next day when she came back from school, it was even worse. It had torn the last of their curtains, knocked over two vases, scratched the fridge and the stove, did its business in the baby's crib ... in the end, the animal was a walking catastrophe.

"Enjoy your cat tonight," Mom declared, "because, tomorrow morning, while you're at school, I'm taking it to the pound. I'm done with it. I don't want any more animals in the house. I have enough to deal with, what with my two children."

Beatrice squeezed her little cat in her arms all night in her bed. She was sad, but what could she do?

She woke up in the middle of the night. The cat was mewing next to her. When she got up, it ran towards the door of her room.

Beatrice followed it.

"Where do you want to go? You want to go out?"

She opened her door. The cat slipped into the hallway. At two in the morning, it was pitch black. Our friend didn't dare turn on the light. Her parents were asleep. The cat put its paw softly on the door of the baby's room and scratched at it.

The girl opened the door and went in to see her little brother. She heard a strange breathing sound, like hoarse or laboured breathing. Nicolas seemed to be very sick. His hair was wet with sweat. He was burning up. He breathed with great difficulty.

Beatrice went into her parents' room. She entered without knocking.

"Dad! Mom! Wake up! Nicolas is very sick. Come see. Listen to him. He's hardly breathing.

Her parents hurried to the baby's bedside. They decided to drive it to the hospital right away.

"My dear, you're going to have to stay an hour or two in the house alone tonight. But you're a big girl. If you're afraid, you can take your quilt and your pillow and go sleep on the couch. Is that okay?"

"That's okay," Beatrice replied, bravely.

When her parents had left with her little brother, our friend took her things and went and lay down on the couch with her cat in her arms. She fell asleep.

When her parents returned, a full two hours later, they found her there, deep asleep. Nicolas was in his daddy's arms and was doing much better. He was breathing properly again.

"Should we tell her?"

"No, we can explain everything tomorrow," Dad replied. "Let her sleep."

The next morning, when she awoke, her parents heaped her with praise, saying that she was a true little mother to Nicolas. Luckily, she'd heard her brother's sniffing and rough breathing. If she hadn't, the doctors said that he would surely have died in the night.

"Mom, Dad, I had nothing to do with it. My cat woke me up in the night and started mewing. He led me to Nicolas's room. Otherwise, I wouldn't have heard anything. It's thanks to him that I woke you up."

"So the cat saved our baby?"

"Yes," Beatrice sighed.

"It's marvellous, this cat! We forgive it for all the mess it made. We'll keep it."

It never behaved badly again. It didn't scratch anything ever. From that day on, Beatrice had this little cat and loved it very much.


Translation : Andrew Gordon Middleton