Saturday, September 27, 2014

A rook is not a castle. That is true. It is also true what it says in this story about the number of possible configurations of a chess board, but that does not become important until the end. (Short Stories With Long Titles)

As with all my longer short stories, this is available as a free download to read offline. Click here to get the hard copy of this story.  I posted this once before on this blog, but that was nearly two years ago, so here it is again.

There is nothing more shameful than being taken off the board as a result of a mistake.

No matter how many times Rook tried to tell himself that it wasn't even his fault, that the other pieces were being mean, that he couldn't help it who got to play his side and that anyway, they didn't know the strategy so how did they know if he was sacrificed or outsmarted or merely a dumb move, no matter all those things, Rook stood off to the side of the board, lonesome, humiliated, and wondering why, at the least, Queen's Rook wouldn't side with him?

The worst was the time that he'd been the first piece taken, some sort of weird opening that had left him hopeful,  Rook was, that this time the Person who'd chosen to play his side knew what he was doing, was going to play with skill and style, use some maneuvers that would leave Rook on the board long into the game, staring down White Knight and weaving amongst pawns, getting closer to check and then checkmate, maybe: the piece that clinched it, that moving into position would tell the other side, White, that they were done and it was over, so over.

That was the dream.

But it had not worked out that way.  His Pawn had been moved out first, clearing the way.  Then Rook, leaping forward two spots, stopping, waiting his turn.   He'd felt breathless with anticipation, the leader, the one who was opening the attack, and what an attack, starting with Rook!

His Pawn had ignored him, of course, but Rook had been hopeful that would change, that after this, after...

... look, there are 1,327 standard openings in chess.  Some portion of those would have to happen with the Rook involved early on,  right? Even being first?

...after this, Rook felt, he would maybe be part of the crowd, maybe invited into the talks when they sat in the box night after night after night, awaiting a cold snowy night when there was nothing good on TV, or when they were found by kids bored at a dinner party, or perhaps brought along on a car trip to someone else's house to play.  Whatever, there were long days and nights when Rook would lay, and sigh, and wish he had someone to talk to, someone to compare games and moves with and talk about what might have been.

"I knew he wouldn't see you," Black Queen's Bishop would say to White King's Knight, off on the side of the box.  "I knew it. I could just feel it was over for me.  And yet, I was so close! Two checks..." and White King's Knight would chuckle and the two would talk about how they'd been worried, set so close to the fireplace, that their varnish might catch.

Rook wouldn't speak to them, because he knew he wasn't invited to do so.

When he was taken, even the People playing seemed to sense he was not part of the crowd, and he would be removed from the board and not jumbled in with other pieces, crowded around the edge watching who would prevail

(although no Person likely kept track, in this box, it was White 72, Black 65, a source of pride for White)

and wondering who would be next to lose, which gambit was being pursued, whether the Pawns were being properly utilized (they never were, really) and so on.

Rook would stand off to the edge, having been placed outside the group where he belonged but longed not to be.

... that one time, though, he'd slid away from his Pawn, to the center of the board, right in front of his Queen, across from White King, whose own Pawn had moved out already, and Rook had on his next turn swept up to stand directly in front of White King's Pawn and had almost quivered with anticipation, the entire Board held in thrall to him, to this daring bold opening that had him eye-to-eye, almost, with White King, who affected an air of nonchalance but nobody, nobody, really knew what was going on and so it was quite exciting and Rook felt this was it, he was on the edge, he was going to break on through and then Black Queen's Bishop had been slid onto his spot.

Black Queen's Bishop had been slid onto his spot.

Black Queen's Bishop had been slid onto his spot.

He'd been taken off the board, set over not even on the table over on the floor next to the table down by a shoe of the Person playing White and he couldn't even see.  He couldn't even see the strategy,  the next move, the outcome, but somehow, Rook knew:

It wasn't a Grand Design.

It was a mistake.


Rook didn't know it, but he looked like a castle.

And although he didn't know what a castle looked like, he looked like one, and although he didn't know it, despite looking like a castle Rook was actually a chariot,

And thus, Rook could move.


Move Rook did.

Unintentionally, at first.

After all, not all Rook moves are considered Rook moves. Sometimes, Rooks move but it's the King's fault.

Black King knew about Rook and felt bad for Rook and also, Black King was tired of losing, so Black King moved Rook.


Rook awoke in bright sunlight, surrounded by a hazy sweep of dust that swirled up and around, not stirred up by anything more than the heat, the sunlight pouring down lightly but with strength nonetheless, the strength perhaps of a ballerina or a shortstop, strong without seeming to be strong because of the grace and lithe capability they display.

The sunlight, whatever the source of its hidden strength, heated up the dirt and tiny little specks of dust around Rook rose up and swirled higher and higher until they cooled off and dropped back down, and Rook lay on his side and stared at them, entranced. He did not wonder where he was, or worry about whether he should be there.  He did not know what had happened, but he did not fret, either.  Being removed from an unhappy situation can have that effect on some people, and some things: sometimes, living an unhappy life may make one fear that every new situation will be more unhappiness, will be bad because the person, or thing, that has suffered all the bad days behind it has no reason to think the world has anything but more bad, more sad, in store: if every day you woke up and it was raining, would you wake up on the 3,756th day and expect anything but rain?


And if you were the type of person who had lived through 10-plus years of rain and yet awoke each day wondering if there could be something but rain, even though you personally did not know that such a thing existed, if you awoke each day to the dreary gloom of life at one of its worsts and despite that imagined, without knowing how to do so, that there could be a better day even if you couldn't, personally, picture it, if you are one of those type of people -- or things -- then you were like Rook, who had spent his whole life in a box with other chess pieces who would not give him the time of day, who had never been involved in a winning move or helped with a checkmate, who had been on the losing team more often than not and not involved when his side won, and who despite that felt that there was beauty in the world and happiness could await him.  

Rook hadn't known that it awaited him until that moment when he was suddenly lying in the dirt watching the dust granules heat up and cool off, fly up and float down, but when he saw it, he recognized it, and he loved it and thrilled to it.

I'm not off to the side anymore, Rook felt, and he laid there and waited for the next thing he should do.


 Back home, in the box, there were now two Black Kings.

Most of the time,  the Person playing Black just used the extra King as the missing Rook.  Nothing else of any import ever happened in that chess game again and it won't be mentioned after this.


Rook laid there watching the dust and seeing the sun roll lazily across the sky, starting over at this end and then being above him and then being over at that end, and Rook watched the leaves flicker and blow around in the wind and heard nearby traffic and voices and footsteps and sounds that were the sound of basketballs bouncing but he didn't know that, because Rook had never seen a basketball, let alone heard one bounce.

Around about almost evening, a boy came up and was walking along the path and he stopped, his foot near Rook, and then he picked Rook up and looked at him.

Rook looked at the boy, too, who was not realizing that Rook was looking back at him.  Rook wondered what kind of Person this was and figured it might as easily be a nice person as a mean one.

The boy shrugged and dropped Rook back onto the ground and walked on and Rook was about to change his opinion of the boy but then the boy turned around and picked up Rook and Rook ended up in the boy's pocket. rubbing against some change and a few keys and, Rook was pretty sure, a rock.

Rook stayed in the boy's pocket for a long time -- that night, he sat in the pocket and listened while the boy talked at dinner about a game, a basketball game and Rook tried to imagine what basketball could be, and listened to the clink of silverware and the sound of chewing and then the washing of dishes and then finally Rook heard a woman say to the boy that the boy had better go take his bath and get ready for bed and Rook then felt the pants sliding off the boy and he felt the pocket go slack around him.

Rook laid there all night long, in the dark, in the pocket.  He was pretty sure that something really amazing was going to happen to him.


It's not really clear if Rook sleeps or not, it should be pointed out.  He is just a chess piece, after all,  and why would a chess piece, even one with as hopeful an outlook as Rook has thus far demonstrated, need to sleep?

Then again, how else would Rook pass the time in between chess games when he was back home, and how else would Rook have whiled away hours sitting in a pocket of a pair of dirty blue jeans on the floor of a bathroom in a suburb somewhere?

So maybe Rook sleeps, and maybe Rook does not, but it is safe to assume that Rook has some way of spending uneventful hours without getting bored.


Rook felt the pocket lifting, and felt a hand reaching in and grabbing things out, accompanied by a tsking sound that Rook had previously only heard when a bad move was made.  Rook briefly felt the despair he'd used to feel when he was moved into danger that even he could see only to be shortly taken off the board, lost for a Pawn or a Bishop or nothing even, but Rook soldiered on even in the face of that feeling because this was a new place and after all, Rooks were originally not just chariots but chariots that were like roving armored castles filled with men, a terror on the battlefield, and plastic he may be, but Rook is descended from the proud tradition of Rooks and is a warrior born.

A gentle, hopeful warrior is still a warrior after all.

"What is this?" a woman said, and held Rook and the coins and the  keys and a rock -- it was a rock, Rook noted, now able to see it in the light.

The woman dropped the jeans into the hamper and called the boy, who came walking in and looked at the items held out in her hand.

"I dunno," he said.

"Where did you get it?' the woman asked.

Rook wondered which of the items was it.

"I found it," the boy answered.

"Where?" the woman asked.

"I dunno," the boy said.

"Tell me where," the woman said, and sounded as though she might cry.

"I dunno," the boy said, "By the basketball courts?"

"Take me there," the woman said.

Rook expected to be put onto a counter, or perhaps a shelf.  He was surprised that he was continued to be held in the woman's hand as she followed the boy down the stairs and through the kitchen where he recognized some of the smells from dinner last night.  He watched as the woman picked up the car keys off the counter and the boy said 

"What's the big deal?" but the woman didn't answer as she just urged the boy on with her hand on his shoulder, saying again to take her there.

Rook tagged along, of course, in her hand.  


She didn't let go of Rook even when she was down on her hands and knees, scouring around the dirt, rubbing her hands through leaves and twigs and trash and dirt, didn't let go of Rook even when she pulled her cell phone out from her purse and dialed some numbers, spoke into the phone, telling someone somewhere that she'd found something and maybe it was a clue.

Rook wondered what he was a clue, to.


Later that night, the woman sat back at the kitchen table. The smells of food were gone.  The people were all gone, too.  The lights were turned off except for one small light over the stove.  The woman sat at her chair, a cup of coffee near her hand, just off to the side of Rook.  She held her hands in front of her face, palms inward, pressing hard against her eyes even though it didn't seem they could cry anymore.

"Where did you go to?" she asked, and Rook was reasonably sure that she was not talking directly to him.

The woman left him sitting there, in the gloom of the kitchen, next to the cooling cup of coffee, and Rook began to seriously doubt that this was going to lead to something amazing or exciting.  Had the sunlight, the dust, the beautiful day's promise, been misleading? Was it like that long-ago opening?  Doomed to fail miserably?

The woman returned.  She had a box with her, a cardboard box.  Rook watched as the woman opened up the box, unfolded the plastic board, and began setting pieces on the board, lining up the Whites and the Blacks not all one team at a time, but as she reached for them.  She hesitated at times, not sure where to put some pieces and Rook noticed that she had White Queen's Bishop and White King's Bishop reversed but most people wouldn't notice such a thing and the Pieces, wherever they were, were used to such minor problems.

The board was missing a piece.

The woman picked Rook up, held him up, looked at him.

She put him down on the open spot on the board.

Rook looked around at the other Pieces, warily.  None of them said anything.

The woman picked him up again,  looking at him closely.

"It's not..." she said, and put him back down again, but not on the chess board.

Off to the side.

When she went to bed, and the kitchen was dark, Rook felt the expectancy of the other pieces weighing on him.  He felt he should say something.  He felt he should do something.

The silence grew longer and longer and finally, Rook said

"She's rightI'm not..." and he left, this time doing so on his own because Rooks don't always need kings to move, sometimes they just need the other pieces to get out of the way and they can go a long ways entirely of their own volition.


Rook paused on the front porch of the house.

Maybe I am, he thought.

Maybe I am, he thought again.

The moon was bright tonight and Rook took stock of his situation.  

1.  He hadn't known about castling up until now, up until he awoke in that dusty patch.

2.  How had she recognized him?

3.  Had she recognized him?

Rook knew that these were at best a series of disorganized thoughts but felt they were leading him somewhere, and he stood in the moonlight on the front porch of the house, the edge of his base reflecting the tiniest possible sliver of the nearly-full moon that hung in the sky off over the forest in the direction of the shortcut between the neighborhood and the basketball courts.

Maybe I am, he thought again.

Or maybe I could be.

And so he went back.

Maybe, thought Rook, this is what I was supposed to do with my life: serve as a clue, as hope.

Back on the kitchen table, the other Pieces stood, still, of course, and none said anything when he came back.

"Maybe I am," Rook told the other Pieces.

"And maybe I am not," he allowed, after a few minutes.

"But the thing is," Rook went on, when the silence had still not been broken, "The thing is this is how I see it: sometimes you don't know about an opening.  I mean, I have been spending my whole entire existence being broken down again and again.  I'm always the first one off the board, it seems.  I never win.  And even when my team wins, I'm usually off to the side."

Rook stopped talking.

The kitchen sat quiet in the gloom.  The coffee cup was still on the table, but now no heat rose off of its dark surface.
"There was this opening,  once..." Rook began again.


Rook knew the other pieces would never have understood, anyway.  You'd have to have walked in his path, followed his careening across the board into peril, waited patiently in the corner, never moving, until his King was taken.  You'd have to have been sitting at the edge of the board watching others cruise to victory, Bishops and Knights teaming up to corner White King, Black Queen imperiously striding across the board to cries of checkmate, while you sat unnoticed and long-sacrificed, not part of the victory, often blamed for the loss.

Rook knew the other pieces would not have done that, but they'd have to have to understand why he came back.  They'd have to have gone through that to understand why that one opening, once, had held such promise.  They'd have to have warrior's blood coursing through centuries of their existence, the rage of the battlefield storming around them in history, the tumult of war, pounding horses' hooves and clanging swords and thundering petards and whistling arrows, they'd have to have that in their background, too, and have that channeled into a piece that sat on the edge, waiting his turn.

They'd have to have all that, and have all that turn into so much failure and loss and misery and still somehow they'd have to, like Rook, know that some good thing was going to happen, some exciting thing was just around the corner, just ahead the next time the box opened, have to still believe in the possibilities that were good and that those possibilities outnumbered the bad even if all that had ever happened was bad, have to believe that in a world where everything came up tailsheads was still possible...

... to know why Rook came back.


There are more configurations to a chess board than there are atoms in the universe: It would be easier, that is to say,  to count from 1-until-the-end all the atoms in the universe than it would be to repeatedly lay out a chess board into all possible configurations of a match.

With that many possibilities,  who is to say what is or is not to be the next configuration?

And if you have run through all the bad? 

If every possible set-up so far has been bad?

Why,  then, that must mean you are in for a powerful lot of good configurations, right?


Rook did not get put back in the box.

The woman carried him with her.

Rooks do not have a good sense of time. Who knows if they even know about time, at all?  Or what their concept of time might be?  Who knows what a rook thinks?

Rook was optimistic that he was a clue.

He knew about all the configurations, for one thing.  That was in his blood.  His history.

Rook also knew that he, as a piece, was generally underestimated.  He was way off to the side and so most people felt he was not such a powerful piece. 

But Rook knew.

That was why he came back: because people kept underestimating him.


One day, the woman was crying and squeezing Rook and driving and driving and crying and squeezing Rook hard in her hand against the steering wheel of the car and she slammed on the brakes and opened the door and got out and ran and didn't even close the door behind her and then Rook was being squeezed in a fist that was hugging into the back of a little boy who was yelling Mommy.


And when you have run  through all the bad, you are in for a powerful lot of good configurations.

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