A Lonely Game of Chess
I have not been writing as much as I wanted to the past half a year, but that’s going to change. I finally finished off a short story that took much longer than necessary, but I am trying to get back into the groove. Some stories I plan to submit to magazines, and others I will simply post here.
Without further ado, here is A Lonely Game of Chess:
Boredom from being the only person on the island had persuaded me to make a chess set. Why make a chess set which is meant for two people when I was only one? The curiosity made me scratch my matted beard. It had been so long since I had seen another soul.
I dragged myself from my shaded bed at my camp and shook the sand from what remained of my old clothes. I didn’t need to dress up for anyone, but it was nice to protect the few remaining untanned spots on my body from getting burned. I started walking inward to the center of the island before realizing I had forgotten my “knife.” Sighing, I turned around and tugged the warped metal scrap from the sand where I had drove it into ground before taking a nap. With my improvised knife swaying by my side, I set off in search of suitable wood to create the board and pieces.
I dragged a branch from the forest behind me, leaving a trail of agitated sand in my wake. The wood was like all the other wood on the island: oppressive. It reminded me of the “paradise” I was stuck in, and the ridged, brown exterior rubbed against my much-too calloused hands. I dropped next to the dormant fire pit at my camp and pulled the branch across my lap. Its weight rested comfortably on my lap, just like my children when we used to watch television together. I wished I could play chess against them or, better yet, just see them.
I shook my head to rid myself of the pointless memories. I glanced out beyond the beach, the edge of my prison, to the limitless ocean. I wasn’t ever going to see them again.
I grabbed my knife and started getting to work, sawing and hacking at the wood until I broke it into smaller chunks. I cut them smaller and smaller, assembling thirty-two small cylinders of wood that I could work with. The assembly of future pieces sat around me in a semicircle, looking upon me with anticipation. I picked up the nearest piece and started whittling it with the sharpest point I could find along my improvised tool. Not used to doing fine movements with my knife, it only took a few minutes until it slipped off the unfinished piece I was holding and sailed right across my finger.
“Damn it!” I grumbled as I dropped the pieces of wood I was working on.
I had forgotten about speaking; it had been so long. My laughter bellowed from the camp–another unfamiliar sound. How long had it been since I had last heard someone say anything? Weeks? Months? Years? To think that the first word I would hear from someone, including myself, after so much time would be a curse would have been the exact thing to make my wife roll her eyes at me. A throbbing in my finger drew my attention to the lazy volcano of blood oozing out of it. The sand between my feet was already marked with scarlet rainfall from my wound. I hadn’t observed my hands in a long time. I turned them over in the midday light, observing how much they had changed from the gentle, protected hands I used to have. Dark brown, thick, and dirty hands that were definitely not mine were what I was now seeing. My fingernails were long, ragged, and had a line of dirt and sand underneath them where the nail met the skin. I watched the fine stream of blood trickle across with my hand with bated interest. I would have killed for a shower and a band-aid at that moment to rid myself of these grimace-inducing hands. I wiped my hand on the rags that remained around my waist and resumed whittling my chess set after the flow of blood subsided.
After a few days, I looked upon the fruits of my labor with satisfaction. It wasn’t perfect, but not much was on this wild island. They were unrefined and coated with blemishes, but it was a small semblance of order. I reached into the fire pit and retrieved a small chunk of cinder. Like a paintbrush, I marked half the pieces and half the squares on the crude board with black residue.
They were turning into something resembling the world that I used to live in before being lost to my fate on this drop of anguish in the middle of a deep blue sea. It was beautiful and tame.
I moved a white pawn up two spaces. I didn’t want to play an entire game in one sitting, though. I wanted to savor this minor distraction from the mindlessness of living on the island. I picked up a nearby stone and colored one side of it with the cinder. I put the stone down with the black half faceup for when I returned so I would know whose turn it was.
I touched my stomach with a shaky hand as a growl informed me that it had been too long since I last ate. I picked up my knife and approached the towering coconut trees not far from my camp. Craning my neck as I shielded my eyes from the midday sun that I was looking directly into, I spied a batch of suitable coconuts. I looked around until I spotted the belt that I had fashioned from the wreckage and wrapped it around the tree. Using the belt to prevent me from sliding down, I shimmied up the tree. I paused near the top and took in my surroundings. The oppressively blue horizon stretched as far as I could see with no salvation in sight. A breath of salty wind pulled me out of my reverie and I grasped both ends of the belt with one hand while I sawed at the branches until six coconuts fell down to the sand like a small meteorite.
After cracking the shells open and picking at the coconut meat, I wandered back to the chess board. It was black’s turn, and I mimicked white’s move by advancing a pawn up two spaces.
A now satisfied and quiet stomach was starting to make my eyelids droop. That combined with a warm wind was lulling me off to my bed and I walked back to the layered leaves with a sleepy compliance. But not before turning the stone back over to indicate that next turn was white’s.
My eyes fluttered open. Another day in paradise… I rolled over on my mattress of leaves and saw the chessboard and decided I would do the next move before doing anything else after my brief nap. I rolled to my feet and I made my way over to the board. It was white’s turn and it was decided to move another pawn forward, but only one space this time. I flipped the stone over the black side and then decide that it would be a good time to relieve myself.
I went to the far side of the island which I had designated as the toilet area. By the time I got back to camp, enough time had passed that I went back to the chess board.
I scratched my chin through my beard while I debated my move. I removed my hand from my face and picked up another black pawn and moved it kitty-corner to the first white pawn that was moved. It was likely a sacrifice, but I wanted to keep pressure on white.
I pursed my lips, wondering if that was the best action as I flipped the turn marker over. Best not to worry about it and take a walk on the beach. I liked the muted feeling of the sand on the bottom of my calloused feet. The sun was beating down on me and I started to get a sharp feeling in my forehead like a bore. Maybe it would be best to get out of the sun.
I hurried back to my camp and took refuge underneath the shade of the coconut trees that had long since been robbed of the coconuts themselves. Expectedly, white took the black pawn that had moved up too far. The white pawn stood where, moments before, the black one had presided. It cast a long shadow across the board in unison with the other pieces. As I was flipping the turn marker over, a strong gust snaked through the trees, causing fireflies of sunlight to dance on the sand and chessboard as the breeze agitated the trees’ attempt to obstruct as much light from hitting the ground as possible. Almost masked by the wind, I swore I heard a twig snapping in the bushes near me. I had not seen anything bigger than a bird on the island and I froze in place fearing what could have caused that. I craned my head to hear anything more as the wind died down again, but the forest was again silent.
I inched my way to the bed where I had left my knife and held the warped metal in front of me like a fencer, dueling an unseen phantom. Despite the warm air, a chill slithered down my spine, leaving my hairs sticking out like icicles. The sun had noticeably shifted across the cloud-spotted sky before I got up the courage to move again. If anything else was on the island—or any other survivors—I would have surely ran across them by then.
I went into the woods to sate my curiosity. And my fear that something else was out there. This time, there were bushes and groves I swore I had never seen before. Unspoiled sites being discovered for the first time by me and my ludicrous worrying. The sun was dipping its toes into the horizon and it illuminated the few thin clouds above me with a brilliant orange glow. I saw no concerning signs while patrolling the forest and I felt confident that the noise was either imagined or from something innocent like a branch falling from one of the trees around my camp. The very camp that I was aiming to return to, but all the surroundings were somehow even more unfamiliar. It was impossible that I could not find my way on an island as small as the one I was on, yet I couldn’t seem to find any recognizable landmarks. The sun finally disappeared into the ocean like a coin being thrown into a fountain, and I wished myself good luck with it. The darkness was increasing and my hopes of finding my camp were fading along with the light.
Blind without the sun, I felt my way to a tree and sat down next to it. Leaning against the tree, I pulled my knees to my chest and held my knife in front of me to shield myself from the dangers of the unknown. My forehead found itself resting on my knees while my ears strained to hear anything around me in the unseen silence.
A touch on my back jolted me awake. I jumped up, whipping my knife behind me only to see that there was only the silvery tree I was previously leaning on, creaking back and forth in the wind, now bathed in moonlight. My heart pounded in my ears and I scanned my surroundings when I spotted a recognizable rock to my right. Still wary after being so rudely awakened, I sneaked over to the stone and knew it to be just a few minutes’ walk from my camp. With the moon to illuminate the path, I made my way back to my camp, my pulse drumming in my ear the entire way.
The moonlight cast a different sort of shadow over my camp that night. The sort of shadow that hides things best not dwelled upon. I inspected every bush, every edge of a tree, to see if anything was there with me but I was alone. I didn’t like the idea of having an open bed and decided that I should build a small cabin to protect myself. I reluctantly started making my way to my bed until I glanced at the chessboard. The moonlight cast an eerie, silvery glow of the undarkened pieces.
I glared at the board and the white piece that had so ruthlessly taken my pawn earlier.
“Damn that white pawn,” I grumbled as I advanced my queen across the board to remove the offending invader.
I stared at my queen for a few moments before flipping the turn marker over so white was face up.
The leaves rustled as I got comfortable on my bed, but my mind was still racing. As I stilled, the crinkling of my bed was replaced by the whispers of the breeze shuffling through the trees. I had never noticed how the trees whisper at night right before one falls asleep.
I wake up feeling like I had never gotten such little sleep. It’s hard to open my eyes and it feels like there are stones keeping them shut. I try to remove the weight and rub the sleep from my eyes. I inadvertently get sand in one of my eyes from my finger and it tears up. That’s certainly one way of waking up.
The pain convinces me to get up as I now rub the sleep, sand, and tears from one eye. I should probably go to the stream and wash out my eye. Maybe get some breakfast. No, my clear eye spots the chess board. I need to make white’s move. I fumble my way over without the aid of one eye and stumble over a small rock, slightly tweaking my ankle. I grumbled under my breath as I hoist myself back to my feet and limp the last few steps to the board.
Something is wrong.
A white pawn was not directly in front of my black queen last night, and yet, there one is–moved up from its side of the board. I take a step back and the turn marker sneaks into view. That, too, is not how I left it as it now shows the black side.
It is black’s turn.
I spin around, spotting shapes in every shadow.
Did I do this without remembering?
Is someone else here?
Is something else here?
The breeze picks up and the trees sing out in a chorus of whispers. Bushes around me start to dance, and I hope it’s just from the wind.