The cancellation of Melanie's class struck Julian as a rather curious
move. It accomplished little, other than inciting him to ask a rash of questionsall
of which "Ms." Zoe adroitly parried. "A minor setback"; "probably
nothing serious"; "just needs a bit of rest to set things right."
Contending with such platitudes had been worse than swallowing his pills (although he had not
swallowed his pills the entire day). Exactly what had happened? Why? How would it affect
The Game? The girl would be well guarded; chances would be slim for a direct line of
playso better to shift temporarily his attack.
The snow was brittle underfoot. It packed with squeaky crunches. Stiff
wind, bright sun, the sky a brilliant arctic blue. Stubborn scraps of rusty leaves still
clung among the treetops. The air felt dry. It inundated the lungs with frigid shocks,
purgative and invigorating. Julian's pace was brisk, and had carried him much farther than
he had ever hiked before. New territory. After so much institutional monotony, this change
of scene was blissful. No walls, no corridors, no antiseptic smells, no schedules, no
clocks, no female supervision.
The nuns were like a platoon of mothers. Their vigilance was getting on
his nerves. They watched, took notes, and submitted reports, until he felt his every act
was being surreptitiously transcribed. Yet home, he knew, would be far worse. There the
onus of his humiliation hovered like a thunderhead: the chess club. He had not returned.
Nor would he.
A gust of wind made the branches chatter.
Forfeit. A forfeiture was a defeat. His first and last, that
much he had determined. So why had he allowed himself to undertake another game, flirt
with the narcotic of his black-and-white addiction? To and fro, back and forth, attack
defend, advance retreat; an intercourse of mind that left the victor's ego satiated, the
vanquished foe's destroyed. Ego was the habit-former. How easy it had been to feign
transcendencehaving never lost.
The snow was shallow. He changed direction, heading toward a
Defeat was new, repugnant, even if he had never been outplayed. No, he
had never been outplayed. In fact, the last match had been his, not lost or drawna
clear-cut win. Perhaps his reputation, in his absence, had survived. The thought was like
a splint to a broken wing. Except the seizure had made him look ridiculouslying
prostrate, limbs askew, eyelids fluttering like a pair of spring-snapped window shades.
A bizarre appearance was one thing; he had cultivated that. Being a
laughingstock was quite another matter. No, he was not willing to go back there, even if
his gift were to return.
His gift. Of what had it consisted? Vanity? Winning? Had he
deceived the nun, deceived himself? Was crushing each opponent not the fundamental reason
for his play?
The exertion of the climb made him sweat, his glasses fogging up with
steam. He dared not take them off, for even filtered, sun on snow caused pain. Instead he
groped on, nearly blind, until he felt himself descending, sharply.
The wind had stopped. He stopped, too. His lenses slowly cleared. Below
him, in a spruce-lined glen, a weathered shack was nestled. Abandoned, surely. And yet,
from where he stood, the windows looked intact. No road. Unless he had walked in circles,
there could not be a road for miles. He scrambled down the leeward ridge. A makeshift
slough defined a frozen spring. With a cautiousness that bordered on absurdity, he
approached the cabin. The roof seemed sound. Its edges gleamed with jagged rows of
icicles. A woodpile wore its wintry coat unruffled. There was an outhouse down a path
whose boundaries showed as stiff, protruding weeds. He stepped up to the door.
He tried it. It opened.
The shack was but a single room, though it seemed larger than it looked
from outside. The hearth took up one corner, its stones and mortar charred. A wrought-iron
spit above the grate was rigged to be turned by a crank. From rusting nails in a mesquite
mantle, pots and kettles were hung. The bed was made of blankets laid on a crib of pine
needles. By the window stood a table and a pair of tree-stump chairs. A plate, a cup, and
some silverware were waiting. An open cupboard dominated the northern wallstocked
with canned goods, mostly. Bags of rice and flour, dishes. There were no decorations,
neither knickknacks, photographs, nor paintings. There was no clock. An hourglass by the
fireplace was the only monument to time.
He went out to fetch some wood.
Clouds were forming to the west. They were low, displaying a
snowstorm-laden gray, which soon might threaten flurries. Intending to retrace his
footprints, Julian was concerned. But the cabin's welcome promised such a cozy warmth, he
decided it was worth the risk. Maybe there was coffee. He could melt some snow and brew a
pot, drink it, then be on his way. He dug down into the stack of logs to find some drier
pieces, and, gathering an armload, went back inside.
He checked the shelves for matches. He found candles, lamp oil, a
meerschaum pipe, a row of paperback books. He found a wooden chess set, too, in a
checkered box that doubled as the board. He put it on the table, then proceeded with his
search. In a box of kindling beside the hearth he found what he was after.
The pinesap sizzled, giving off an incense-like aroma that mingled with
the smell of brewing coffee. He had found two canisters, each half full, along with others
stocked with tea. From a rack of mugs he chose one with a sculpted female face, its handle
formed by a looping braid of hair. With this, the chess set, and a blanket from the bed,
he settled himself in front of the crackling fire.
"He doesn't answer. I don't think he's here."
The nun came up behind her.
"Maybe when he heard your class was canceled he made other
"Didn't you tell him I was coming?"
"No; you didn't ask me to."
Exasperated, Melanie banged again. That she had solved the problem and
now could not boast about her triumph was infuriating. Where could he have gone? She
kicked the door.
"Melanie! That's enough. He obviously isn't in. Come on."
"Wait. I want to leave a note. Let me borrow your pen. And a sheet
Given them, she jotted down the three successive moves with Black's
replies. She secured the note between the door and molding.
"What's it supposed to mean?"
Gaunter versions of the chessmen stretched across the fire-lit board.
Their flickering shadows seemed to cast a paralytic spell. Julian sat before them like a
sphinx. He had taken off his glasses and, through irises devoid of color, the flames lent
his eyes a supernatural glow. They beamed a concentration laser-like in its intensity,
illuminating the ranks of occupied squares.
It came in a sudden flash of insight. Precipitate an exchange! Knight
for Knight, night for nightmareMs. Zoe's account of Melanie's relapse in return for
his description of his dream. The images that cursed his sleep came back to mind
begrudgingly. Not all. Not most. But just those few which, by force of will, he had
managed to retrieve, enough for him to trace them to their sourcewhich had to be the
file. Julian had suddenly come to a conclusion. The nightmare he had been having was a
variation on a theme, the theme derived from Melanie's case history. Of course what his
subconscious had projected was pure fiction, his imagination running wild with a few
suggestive facts. But if these dark extrapolations held at least a grain of truth, perhaps
they could be offered up in trade.
Yet what had he to offer, really? A smattering of reconstructed parts,
a general outline? Like sorting through the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, all he could
isolate were the edges of its frame. And even these fit imperfectly.
Nonetheless, the move was right; that was absolutely clear.
The fire exploded with a snap. He stirred. Flames flicked out through
the cremated logs like tongues from red-orange grins. The room was nearly dark. Hurriedly
he put the set away. Was it night already? Frosted windows cloaked the hour of day. He
wiped one with his sleeve. Outside it was snowing. Hard.
Her note was still there. After searching all the likely places,
Melanie had circled back to see if he had returned. She banged again on the door as if the
noise somehow could change the situation. She tried the knob. The paper dropped along the
molding like the blade of a guillotine. A strange excitement gripped her. She plucked up
the note and carried it inside.
The room was messywhich state, she guessed, was probably the
norm. She took this as a compliment, however. It meant that Julian made a special effort
twice a week for class, when everything was always clean and tidy. She looked around. An
open closet door revealed his wardrobea crowded row of whitewashed arms and
pant legs. Why, she wondered, did he have to call attention to himself that way? Sister Zoe
had told her he was famous. You had to know about chess, of course, but those who did knew
Julian. Maybe he thought of his clothes as a kind of costume. A heap of them lay in the
corner beside his bed. What a mess. He did not sleep well, she could tell. The sheets and
pillows looked like they had been strangled.
A row of snapshots caught her eye. She did not recall their being there
before. Girls. Two were portraits, wallet-sized, each changed in some sarcastic way. He
had used a felt-tipped pen to make the eyes go crossed on one, and had drawn a mustache on
the other. A little to the left there was a third. Naked! Melanie turned her eyes away,
embarrassed. The lady pictured was bending down, smiling, peeking around her shoulder, her
fingers spreading open her behind. In a bubble drawn above her head, "No Exit"
had been written. Melanie wanted to scratch the image from the wall, tear it into shreds.
She got up in a huff from the bed (where she had been kneeling), all primed to leave, but
once more her attention was arrested.
On the wall adjacent, two more bits of Julian's memorabilia were
affixed. She was half-afraid to look; there was another photograph. But this one was
un-defaced, its subject clotheda female, older, maybe forty, a handsome woman with
auburn hair, pink lips, and sea-green eyes. His mother? There was scarcely a resemblance.
Yet something in the features looked familiar, looked like Julianan aspect more than
Next to it was a clipping from a newspaper whose caption read:
|Chess Wiz Loses By Default
Melanie moved closer.
Local chess prodigy Julian
Papp, after playing brilliantly through forty-two moves in his exhibition match with
visiting Grandmaster Alexander Geokov, was forced to discontinue due to sudden illness,
thereby conceding defeat for the first time in his phenomenal career. Yesterday's
challenge marked the twelfth time Mr. Papp had taken on a world-ranked player. His
previously unbroken string of victories, in combination with his unorthodox play, was
Asked to comment on the
unexpectedly abrupt cessation of the contest, Mr. Geokov said, "The boy plays very
well for an amateur."
This last line had been
underscored with the felt-tipped pen three times.
Melanie, feeling a twinge of conscience at
having spied on his private things, hesitated at the door, listened, then slipped out.