The Fiction of Philip Kaveny
Grace by Philip Kaveny
As I stared across the chess board into his dark, seductive, and sardonic eyes, I tried to recall how it was that he came to hold my soul in his hands. The flame from the lamp cast long shadows across the board and I remembered. In a drunken bet we had tried to show our youthful contempt for it all by playing chess for souls. It was simple, literal, and brutal. If we valued nothing then let’s collect souls.
He had won mine some years before and I wanted it back. He was like a rapier, spring steel in his hands and arms and not one ounce of pity in his eyes. And yet, years before, he may have loved me in a way that I could not comprehend. I was not the kind of man that read those sorts of signs. I simply chose not to. He shared with my first lover a flickering madness in the eyes. Perhaps they loved and hated the same thing in me.
He held my soul before me as a hypnotist might swing a charm back and forth in front my eyes. My fortunes slipped as his soared. At 26 he was a major. I was busted to private three times and then discharged. He seemed to keep in contact only to take pleasure in my misfortune, coming in to haunt me in whatever dive I chose to linger.
This was the last time he would see me, for he was off to a command school in a great city. He chose to taunt me one last time. He knew the only way to make the pain real was to give me a last chance and watch me lose it. He knew it was my curse to wander the neighborhood always looking for that small deal that would keep me alive. Perhaps it was only the memory of distant nobility that kept me alive.
If his hands and arms were spring steel, then mine were wet clay. He moved with easy grace and I with the leaden feet of a man slogging through a nightmare.
And then he said “Fat man, you move first and we will play chess for your soul.” The light flickered and rose again. As fat from the lamp popped and exploded in the flame, the table seemed to move. I saw that his own terrible flame burned in his eyes. I, who worshiped no gods, was sure he would take my soul back to hell with him. If he was fire, what chance did I have?
Love and youth flashed back into my mind. Drunken laughter, wenches we had stolen; all of the places we had fought our way out of merged into a heavy image of this place we were in now. I remembered how we had boxed to exhaustion. But then I speculated on the eternal void after death.
“Philip,” he said, “I bet you cannot drink this long yard in a draft.”
“William,” I said, “Two for your one.”
Now we were back in the present and he would drag me into hell.
I had never seen him relent when we had taunted the weakness in others that we hated in ourselves. We were young and cruel, and I was to be humbled far more by failure than he would ever know. Lost ventures, failed investment and broken dreams and imaginary castles were swept away along with my illusions of redemption. I had become that which we hated; what we gave no quarter to be I had become. I was to carry this burden heavily for years as I stumbled in the void.
”Your move fat man.”
The lamp crackled, the fire popped and I moved my king’s pawn two squares.
He had a burn scar on his right hand. It was old and red and ugly. I had the same on my right. We had twice twisted arms with lamps on each side. He stood the burning smell of his own flesh. I could not and released him. He did not release me until I screamed in pain. And yet in a drunken moment had I held this large man’s hand as we reveled down the street. I had his woman once and he seemed to enjoy in it.
He moved the black Queen’s Bishop Pawn Two in a defense hundreds of years old.
“The Sicilian Defense and the last chance for your soul, fat man, its mine and I shall have it forever. We play for it this one the last time.”
He was fire and spring steel for me to answer only once. Our eyes met. I held his gaze and saw only blackness in his soul. His god was fire, but mine had become ice.
It was over in 11 moves. No chance for him, no mistakes by me. We did not play chess. I simply killed his king on Bishop’s Three. I was free and he was empty.
I had my soul back and never played for it again. He went to the city and became famous. I stayed and did not.
“I once loved you fat man,” he said, as he left.
I thought only of the size and strength of the hand of this man whose hand I once held in mine, a man I once called friend. My souls held by him for ransom was now redeemed.