Check-mates

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Neither of them knew where the board or the pieces came from. All he knew was that he had to win.

 

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Since that first morning, who knows how long ago, when the board first appeared, and subsequently with it his constant companion, he had lost at least a hundred games. Possibly much more.

 

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This was always the worst part. As per the usual rules, a move was considered for as long as it needed to be considered, but once a man took his fingers off the piece it was final.

 

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Then came the wait, that unbearable lacuna of doubt and inevitable regret.

 

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The same thing happened after every turn. That aforementioned limbo usually lasted for mere seconds, even if it never felt as though it did. Every move, no matter how aggressive or benign, resulted in the deadly capture of one of his pieces.

 

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It seemed absurdly hopeless. Yet another failure was not an option. For then, a hundred losses would turn to a hundred one!

 

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But how to proceed against a man so far out of his own league? How does one raise a fist to the heavens above? Why, he was sure he didn’t even know how to play the game until that fateful day his companion appeared along with the board. True, it was written that with faith a man can move even the mountains, but has that ever happened in fact? Can one point to a documented case of a man so full of faith that he said, mountain, I’d rather you were over there, and that mountain obeyed? Faith, then, it seems, can only get you so far.

 

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For now, though, best to ignore such thoughts. Regroup with the remaining men at his disposal and devise another stratagem. Perhaps it was time that his special lady the Queen, with so much power at her beck and call, were to at last announce her terrible intentions to her foes in white gathered against her.

 

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Yes, the time for dissembling had passed. It was now time to attack, and who better to lead the vanguard than that all-powerful lady of his? Meanwhile, little did his opponent know that lurking in the shadows was a rook, ready to pounce at the other king once he made the necessary evasive move from his Queen. There was no hesitation this time when he took his fingers off the piece…

 

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It was a blow indeed. The Queen had perished, and as far as attack he now he had a bare bishop left to his name. The irony was not lost on him that it was to be the clergy, who in the past had offered him so little succor against life’s ills, who would now take up his entire defense.

 

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Or did it? Maybe a continued assault wasn’t necessary? Maybe he could sue for peace?

 

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It wasn’t likely, true, that his companion would accept anything less than a one hundred and first total victory.

 

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And it was true, he himself had nothing much more to hope for than a Pyrrhic victory, which of course was to be preferred over a total defeat.

 

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But then a sudden boldness came over him. He could not wave the white flag and offer anything in return, because all he had, like his companion, was time. And with time came experience. No doubt this fellow made his bones with other skilled players in his days before the island, no doubt made the same clumsy errors he now found himself making. With time, and with enough games played, he could acquire the same such experience as his foe now wielded against him.

 

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In fact, with enough time there was very little he thought he could not do. There were possible motions of each piece in the millions available to a player in a given game. He remembered a time when his companion had mated him within mere minutes of the game, when not a single piece beforehand had been taken! Conversely, he was sure there was an opportunity for a mate even if he had only his lonely monarch left to him! With any luck he could even stumble upon that permutation of moves in this very game. With any luck, and time.

 

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He made his move, and for the first time in many years prayed heartily, prayed to the same God who he had accused of deafness to his prayers for all these years, prayed to the same God that his lone bishop was most likely praying to as well.

 

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He called for a temporary cessation of hostilities to rethink his strategy, but in the ensuing hours of calm he did little of that.

 

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Instead he contemplated his place on the board, and perhaps on the island with this sole companion of his, constantly at odds with him for the time being.

 

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Was this man even a man? His desperation finally led his turbulent mind to such thoughts. Was he rather a demon, who could read his thoughts many moves ahead? Was he a denizen of that dark circle who preferred torture by a thousand cuts? He certainly played the game that way.

 

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But as the hours passed him by, he started to notice the curious fact that his rival was in a steady state of repose. If he could hear his thoughts at this moment, he certainly did not indicate as such for quite some time. In fact… he may have even heard a few very faint… snores.

 

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A devious idea came to him, almost as devious as the profound iniquity he perceived his rival to be capable of in his own mind. He would make the move, and in the remaining time his companion was unconscious he would perform a false move or two on his “behalf.” Why, what else was I to do, he imagined himself placating him when he awoke, you were asleep for so long I thought we’d never finish! And if his current ability was any indication, any move he performed would certainly result in disastrous consequences, but for him this time! To keep up appearances though, he of course had to make his move. He did so, not even thinking about whether or not it was the best one, so savoring the delicious deception he…

 

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Still more time passed. He certainly had nothing in terms of a viable strategy to gain a legitimate victory, and it also seemed he was woefully incapable of subterfuge as well.

 

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Why not just offer the man yet another mate before the fact? Why go on? It was not lost on him that very often during his time on the island he asked himself the same question. Indeed, I often find myself asking the very same question. Why continue? Why indeed?

 

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Yes, you heard right. I, the narrator. Though I have omniscience, I am no more a free man than anyone on this godforsaken island. It is my lot to narrate all events that occur on this one lonely island, I have done so for countless years and I will continue to do so for countless more.

 

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You have to understand my position then. You see, though I am narrating the match between these hapless companions to you most likely for the first time, I have nonetheless been a witness to this match for countless years.

 

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It happens the same way every time. One man plays with the skill of years spent with the game, and another plays against the better man hopelessly outmatched, over and over again.

 

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This continues for days, and sometimes even years, until one moment, during the darkest night of the mediocre player’s soul, a random element happens to pass by when neither are aware.

 

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This fly in the ointment of their game, who it might be said has made a capricious appearance or two before, has no emotional investment in which specific man wins or loses, but just enough insight to catch a move one of them might have missed all along.

 

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The stranger of course helps himself to this move, but never lingers long enough to receive the credit he is due.

 

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And like clockwork, the poorer player rises from his slumber first…

 

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…only to discover that the wind is finally blowing in his favor.

 

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This has happened countless times before. I honestly can’t remember which of them first brought the game to the other, which one was first the skillful player, and which one was the poorer. I could even swear that there aren’t even legal moves between them anymore, though I’ve narrated this so often I honestly haven’t paid enough attention to be sure.

 

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But now the roles are reversed.

 

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Like Samson with his hair freshly sheared, it is now the former skilled winner who loses his confidence in an instant…

 

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…and it is now the former constant loser who in a remarkable moment of recall suddenly regains his immense talent for the game.

 

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It’s been hard for me. Even though I am omniscient, and bodiless, time moves neither faster nor slower for me as it does anyone else.

 

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The only solace I have is the unexpected differences in behavior that come up amid the otherwise identical games, and identical outcomes. It’s interesting to see the pitiable whimpers of regret the loser occasionally mutters as he reassures his companion he is not at all the slightest angry at his loss.
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And the former loser, so unaccustomed to victory, more often than not proves to be just as poor a winner.

 

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But even that is small succor. For on a long enough timeline even such variables as those will inevitably conform to predictability. And my timeline is infinite.

 

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I cannot convey to you precisely how lonely I’ve become on this island, constantly narrating these two companions. Indeed, I would have said before that this series of tales was meant to illuminate the plight of the young man here, but over time the island has increased its victims of unbearable ennui to include myself as well. In years past I maybe would have exhorted the reader to put me down, to simply stop reading me, in case that might immediately remove myself of the service I have to perform. But I soon abandoned such frivolous thoughts, figuring that even if one person were to read my narration, I would nonetheless exist in someone’s mind for all time, narrating everything that was and everything to come on the island. Maybe it were possible for someone to accompany me somehow, maybe bring a snack or a beverage, or just spend time with me while I narrate, just stoke my hair and tell me everything will be fine. But how? Do I even have a stomach to eat food that real people do, or a head to stroke my hair upon, a face to wipe tears away from? Do I even have a mouth to recite words? Am I simply pure recitation of events? Perhaps the single purpose of my existence is to provide time, time enough for both companions to master the art of the mate.

 

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But enough of this talk. It seems the events of this island have passed by my sad musings a long way off. Well, another game then?

 

 

 

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