An impassioned “chess match” between Death and The Maker reveals a surprising truth about the nature, and spirit, of “pawns”…
by: Adam William Inglis
Death stalked the corridors of the decaying medical center, spinning a silver key around an extended fleshless finger, dowsing the route toward room forty-two like a rod seeking water.
If the insects crawling deep beneath the cracked linoleum tiles could provide an account of his presence, some would tell of him whistling. A dirge, most likely, rasping over ragged teeth and out a lipless skull, urged upon the dying world from a hollow, tongueless mouth.
To say the lord of all things lost was happy would be a gross underestimation of his ability to find joy. He was, after all, winning a game designed to last an eternity because his opponent’s pieces had an incredible flair for killing one another.
Perhaps the occupant of room forty-two knew this when he selected them. They were flawed, prone to suggestion, driven by greed, and spread like plague-rats. But he frequently spoke of their ability to love, and how that kept the game going all these years.
The silver key, no longer spinning, slid into the lock without so much as a whisper. The door swept open on the last occupied room.
Immaculately clean. Four walls, a bed, and a tall table painted on its top in the familiar pattern of chequered squares. No other equipment or meaningless medical clutter –– it was wasted on this patient.
Upon Death’s arrival, The Maker swung his legs to sit side-saddle on his bed, dangling his feet toward the floor, probing his toes towards discarded slippers. Finding them, he stood and greeted his guest like a brother. Arms spread, approaching with the vigourless gait of a man encumbered by his years.
“You are later than I expected, but no earlier than I hoped,” said The Maker.
“Nothing between this earth and it’s many heavens could ravage beauty so fast as time,” Death said. “You look quite weathered old friend.”
The Maker withdrew from their embrace and smiled, his hands lingering beneath the folds of his guests’ robe where an armpit might have been.
“It has been quite a while since we started this game, you and I.”
“The fifth passing of Ursa Major?” asked Death.
“Nonsense,” smiled The Maker. “I had you in check twice before Ursa.”
He stood aside to reveal a pair of stools beside the tall table, now littered with elaborate pieces. Some carved from the bones of a creature long forgotten. Others in a volcanic rock so dark that shape or form meant nothing.
“You had more to play with back then. Remind me, what happened here?” Death pointed the same fleshless finger toward a gathering of ejected white pieces, forced to watch as their allies battled on without them.
“Alekhine’s gun. Symbolic, you called it. The end of a difficult millennia.” The Maker paused, as though the recollection troubled him. “In truth, you earned the ground there. Every step forward earned me two steps of retreat.”
“You recovered. The trap did not completely spring. Besides, you made them that way. It was, as you always put it, their purest right.”
“Free will isn’t for everyone.”
“It is not,” Death replied. “And loss isn’t the same as failure. Do not let it move you, old friend. You gave them all, they took, and I took; precisely as designed.”
“You were a little too swift.”
“They were surprisingly ruthless.”
“And their love?”
“As you predicted, their love is why I am here later than expected.”
The Maker made no reply, lost in some distant memory.
“We are both here, though I’m all but victorious,” Death continued. The screams you hear on the wind are among the last. Free will dragged them to a pit they spent thousands of years digging, and before their sun blinks out, they will throw themselves in.”
The Maker nodded.
“You agree with me! So you have lost hope of winning?”
“I merely nod to provide you a response,” The Maker said. “I have no retort. If they lose, I will have failed. I will not linger.”
“You sound a little too like me,” Death quipped. “Let us make this interesting. You need focus; otherwise my victory will be as sour as this setting of yours — depressing.”
“What did you have in mind?” asked The Maker. “You’ve bet me once before. Do you recall?”
“No bet, just come with me.” Death pointed at the board. “Let me show you who she is”.
The Maker admired his last remaining pawn as though seeing her for the first time. “They are still capable of great surprise,” he added, before moving back to his bedside where he retrieved a book from beneath his pillow. The cover thickly bound in the hide of another forgotten creature. Pages protruding at angles here and there — a literal first edition. “If we are to see another one, I shall want to include it here.” He tapped the cover with a thick finger.
“Ready?” Death asked.
“Ready,” said The Maker.
Turning back toward the chequered board, the players took up their seats. They assessed their current position, and that of their opponent as the board became a blur of colour and shape. Within this newly created abyss, images formed.
A birth. An exasperated mother bringing her baby into the world. Nothing mattered beyond the cocoon of the moment, the hopelessness of the outside world barely able to penetrate the windows. Though it lurked, and before long that dread sunk in. Taking hold, drawing tears from a deep well. Precious and unbearable.
As images continued to form, and shift, the players began taking their turns, moving their pieces; watching, and planning. The Maker’s hands hesitated over the board as though repelled by some unseen magnetism.
“Keep watching,” Death said.
And he did.
The girl is older now and walking with her mother — hand in hand beneath quiet stars. What remains of a street passed beneath their feet without incident or fanfare. Soon they reach the sand and the daunting task of crossing its solemn vastness. Her mother speaks of the world she knew, a contrasting tale to the one surrounding them. She frames her words to reassure, but they are an education. She speaks of how its people found ruin through gross neglect of one another. She speaks of where the people are hiding and warns where never to be found. They pass a preacher, calling out but finding no ears for his sermon. He is withered and withdrawn, a wraith wearing a collar; all skin, bones, and faith. His belief bolsters him with the hope that something better awaits, something in the great beyond.
She speaks to urge them forward and away because that is all that she can do.
The game continues. Death, paying little attention to his pieces, or strategy, ejects a white bishop from the board. It’s all too easy. The Maker hardly notices. He has become his setting, slipping into the scene like a dreamless sleep. He is the patient, and this is his hospital.
The players take their turns; years pass. Our girl has grown as much as she ever will. She stands alone in a room without windows. She paces, arms folded, muttering words of strategy. Twenty-three years ago her mother crossed the desert to this township. They took care of them, and now her daughter owed them a great deal. Of this, she’d convinced herself without argument, because if not her, then who? Her mother long gone, the town became her family entire — a dozen weary faces, linked by a generation of struggle. The children of survivors dusted head to heel in the crosswind of still-warm ash. Coating everything, masking ethnicity as swift as sand filling footprints, staining their ragged clothes a harsh and mocking white. Like beacons; overt in the desert dark.
Our girl’s strategy; defined. Her movements; a defiant march toward the black horizon. The whitened faces of her township make their pleas for her to stay. They know a lost cause when they see it and voice the same. They cannot sway her, and she leaves them as she found them– hoping the effort is worth the cost.
“Where is she going?”
“I should ask you the same,” said Death, referring to the movement of his opponent’s lonely white pawn.
For the first time in a thousand years, The Maker begins moving his pieces with confidence and optimism. He watches the girl with wonder as she crosses the desert to stand defiant before the dangers lurking there.
He watches her tell them a tale of rebirth, of reconnection, and survival beyond the threatening abyss. She speaks of her mother, and those she lost along the way. How her road lined itself with the ashen-white faces she came to love. The girl challenged the darkness with her ephemeral glow. Where others met with weapons and fear, she faced them down with hope. Her only offensive move. The dirt no longer clinging to her ragged clothes, but glittering like stars upon her flesh. She tells them, only together could the game be reset, creating a new world, with a new beginning — a level playing field where those that burn, and those beneath the ash may thrive together.
“Checkmate,” The Maker said.
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