The Immortal Game9 min read

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Death or dying

1. Pawn to E4

On Thursday nights, the Daisy slides into her favourite black dress—slightly flared with a pleated skirt—and unrolls her curlers, making sure her hair coils in tight waves, each the perfect size to slide onto a man’s ring finger.

2. Pawn to D4

She walks five blocks in high heels, taking her time, enjoying the night air; temperate, carrying the smell of hard-worked horses and the faintest hint of motor car fumes. Streetlights pool amber, paving the road to the club with golden bricks. Inside, it’s a raucous blend of music and blue smoke as the jumping jazz band hit their stride. Sometimes the Daisy spots a man. Sometimes the man spots her, eases his way through the crowd, putting his hands on the small of women’s backs and the dinner-jacketed biceps of businessmen with combed, slick hair.

3. Knight to C3

She can tell from a man’s shoes how fit he is; from a jacket, how rich. From a tie, how greedy.

4. Bishop to E3

Again, she can tell so much from how he phrases the question. May I buy you a drink? A good kisser, albeit a little prim. Can I buy you a drink? A little rough around the edges, but not malicious. A drink for the lady, my good man. Used to getting his own way. One to be observed, to be monitored, in case the tides of his temper begin to crest.

5. Queen to D2

He buys. She drinks. He buys. She drinks.

6. Pawn to F3

Subtly, the Daisy intimates that she’s flattered to receive this unexpected male attention. Again, it’s a careful negotiation—not a dance, like other young ladies might think, but a chess match. One pawn lost may look like a mistake, but it’s all part of a calculated strategy.

“Do you play chess, mister?” she’ll enquire.

He’ll say yes, regardless of whether he does or doesn’t. Men live and breathe with the confidence that they know enough, in the presence of a woman, regardless of the truth. He might follow it with some self-deprecating remark, depending on whether or not he thinks he’s a wit, but he will say yes.

7. Knight to E2

She’ll mention she has a board back at the hotel room. A traveling set, given to her by a favourite uncle. “Hotel, eh?” he’ll say. “Why, you’re not from around here?”

“No, sir,” she’ll reply, and then, depending on her mood, the man, and a dozen other small factors, she’ll pick a state, a city. Never a town. Never somewhere small enough to be pinned down.

“And are you here long?” Sometimes they ask because they’re hoping—if she bids them goodnight like a good girl—they might ask her out to dinner tomorrow. Sometimes they ask because a girl who lingers might cause trouble if discovered by a wife.

8. Bishop to H6

If she were older, or smarter, she would know better than to act this way. Scenting weakness, he moves in closer. When he offers to walk her back to her hotel, she accepts gratefully. He waits until they’ve reached the shadowed alcove—no bellboy or doorman in sight—and she’s staring up at him with wide, guileless eyes before swooping in for a kiss. He thinks he knows the hotel—has seen it before, perhaps on his walk to work. A decent building in a reasonable neighborhood, but a place where employees won’t look too hard at the clientele especially if there are a few extra bucks in it later. Somehow he manoeuvres an invite to walk her inside, right to her door.

It’s only polite, after all. It’s what a true gentleman would do.

9. Queen to H6

In the corridor, he’ll note the pristine walls, the lack of burns on the cream carpet runner, or sticky patches on the wooden floorboards. The doors are all the same, painted a rich, chocolate brown; very few men, in their drunken, anticipatory haze, will notice that none of the doors are numbered. In fact, each door opens into a different city, a different time. The Daisy may be here, in New York, but the Rose is dancing in Chicago while the Poppy is lurking in an alleyway outside a Memphis nightclub, waiting for some unsuspecting dandy to offer to light his cigarette.

10. Pawn to A3

“I’d love to see this chessboard of yours,” he says and angles his body to enter.

Coyly, she acquiesces. From hip height, the walls of the hotel room are covered with patterned wallpaper; strange birds, with long tails, twist themselves into odd shapes against a beige background. From the border downwards, the wall is painted a pretty burgundy, the colour of a good Merlot. Or perhaps blood beginning to dry.

11. Castling the King

She’ll pour him a drink from the minibar, their roles exchanged now in the comfort of assumed domesticity. The chessboard itself—already set up on a small table—is ornate, beautiful. Most of the black pieces are carved from a strange, lightweight material. Fragile. One or two are like the white pieces, which are all carved from something solid and cold. He doesn’t ask before he fingers them, stroking each piece, comparing it to the others.

“Marble?” he’ll ask.

“Marble,” she’ll confirm.

“And this?”

“Bone.” She’ll smile.

He’ll smile too until he realizes she isn’t joking. Some men like it. Some men will want to ask questions—sensible questions, like whose bones, and why carve some pieces from bones and some from marble when marble would do for all. Even if he asks, she won’t answer. Some people are made of marble, and some are made of bone. This is simply the way of the world.

12. King to B2

The man will seat himself; if he knows chess at all, he’ll pause, knowing that white goes first. If he’s a gentleman or a smooth talker, he’ll ask which she wants. Either way, he’ll seat himself. If he sits down at white, when he next looks away, he’ll find the pieces have switched. He’s just drunk enough to blink, stupidly, and wonder what just happened, but not sober enough to make a big deal out of it.

One or two men might wave off that last drink, but she’ll press it into their hands anyway. “I made it just for you,” she’ll say. “A special kinda way my momma taught me.”

This relaxes them. What could be more comforting than a mother’s recipe? “What else did your momma teach you?” some might add, grinning.

13. Knight to C1

They’ll play. She always loses the first game; in the early days, she’d always won the first game, to make sure they had something to try for. They didn’t like that. Some of them even became angry, but the room doesn’t like angry men. It likes happy, dazed men. So now, the Daisy always loses the first match.

They get cocky after that. Depending on how long she thinks she needs to wear them down, she’ll make a couple of obvious mistakes or help them along while making sure she looks for all the world as if she’s struggling to decide which piece to move next.

“Say, how about a little wager?” they’ll say, eventually.

She’ll play dumb. “Whatever do you mean, mister?”

“If you win, I take off my shirt. If I win, you take off that dress.”

She’ll blush and perform the usual fluttering well-I-really-oughtn’t-do-that-but-perhaps-just-this-once, after all, a young girl needs a little adventure in her life before she settles down, ain’t that so.

14. Knight to C3

“You must have a suitor or two back home, surely?” some will ask, watching her set up the board again.

Depending on the man, she’ll answer in one of three ways. Yes, no, or nothing at all. Funny how she gathered the pieces all together, scooping them into the soft, pale palms of her hands, and yet the pieces are back in their rightful places in the blink of an eye. Regardless, the men will down what’s left of their drink and sit forward, elbows balanced on their knees.

The challenge is real, now. Time to focus.

15. Rook to D4

She loses the next match and shimmies out of her dress. He makes to stand up, but she motions him to sit down. “You haven’t won everything yet, sir.”

“No?”

She’ll look down at her undergarments, batting her eyelashes demurely. “One more match, I should think.” When they hesitate, torn between lust and the urge to compete, to show off, she’ll add, “Besides, you’re so good at this.”

Puffed up, the men cannot resist a final chance to demonstrate their skills. “Lovemaking is a lot like chess, you know,” several will announce.

“Oh, is that so?” Wide, dark eyes. Lips parted, just a touch; the very tip of a white canine, surprisingly sharp, pressing into the red flesh.

They’ll smile, paternally. What could a young woman know of the world? Lacking their experience, their vices, their manly adventures? How could they ever impart what it means to be a man, to embody all that is protective and noble? It is an impossible task, but nevertheless, they will try.

16. Rook to D1

He talks. She listens. He brags. She listens.

17. Pawn to D3

As he considers his next move, he realizes that the board has grown bigger. Perhaps he’s drunker than he thought.

18. Knight to A5

The world beyond his peripheral vision blurs. The wallpaper in the hotel room looks a lot like a chessboard, now that he thinks about it. He thinks it was something else before, but can’t remember precisely what. His thoughts are muddled but never mind all that; a night of passion is at stake here, why, what would he tell the boys at the club if he lost? No, it’s out of the question. It’s do or die.

19. Bishop to H3

“Did you know that the bishop’s name isn’t necessarily anything to do with the church?” she says as he reaches for the piece.

He hesitates, fingers hovering. “What?”

“See the slash in the tip? It was originally designed as a war elephant, and that slash represents the opening in its trunk.” She’s smiling, but in a way he’s not sure he likes. Vulpine, cunning.

“Is that so?”

“Of course, it looks an awful lot like a bishop’s hat, doesn’t it? The French don’t call it a bishop, though.”

He lifts the piece, moves it, captures a pawn.

“They call it un fou,” she says. “The Fool.”

 He looks down at the bishop. The slash in its tip opens into a mouth and whispers one word; run.

20. Queen to F4

When the men stand up, they often upset the board; this one is no exception. Stumbling backwards, while black and white pieces rain around his ankles, he trips over his chair or his own feet or something unseen, snaking along the carpet. She’s a queen, slender and white, a crown atop her blonde ringlets, and she rises to her feet and towers over him like a giant, stretching into the vast white sky of the ceiling.

21. Rook to E1

 “Checkmate,” she announces, and the unseen entity grips him by the ankles, tugs hard. He hits the floor with a thud that punches the air from his lungs in a way that reminds him of school bullies, of being kicked by an errant cow on the farm, of his first real fight with another man at college. Some have never been hit before, and it shows in their shock, their red mouths yawing open to wail a protest of injustice as if there is anybody to hear them but the Daisy, as if the very same thing is not happening down the hall in a dozen other rooms at this very moment.

22. Kd5

He’s dragged against the wall where the paper folds around him, beige and liquid like molten skin. On the opposite wall, a chessboard opens and closes while red birds shriek and peck at his face. He flails, screaming, but there’s nothing to hit. The harder he fights, the faster he sinks.

23. Exd5, Rxd4, Re7, Qxd4

She’s setting up the board again as if nothing is happening to him, and he calls out to her once, twice, before realizing that he doesn’t know her name, has maybe never known her name.

24. Qc3 Ra7 Rxb7 Qxf6

His pelvic girdle melts, allowing his thigh bones to connect directly to his spine. His arms pull in tight to his cracking rib cage, each thin bone snapping and reforming until they’re nothing more than stubby wings, leaving a collared border around the single long fused bone of his body. Shrinking in a dwindling scream, purple shadows collapse into the stars behind what’s left of his consciousness until he’s nothing left but—

25. qxa6qa1qb2qxh8qa8

A single piece drops to the floor, hitting the carpet with a muted thunk, barely more than a whisper.

26. Queen to A7

“Almost a whole collection now,” she says and picks him up. She settles him where he belongs on the board—a black rook, made of bone, as light as the others—before sliding under the cool, crisp sheets. She needs a good night’s sleep after all that exertion. Soon, the Daisy will be permitted to play for her own freedom.

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