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The Sixth Dream

A Game of Chess




The board is laid into the stone of the peak, and the edges merge so seamlessly with the rock that it seems like it has always been here—an ordered geometric extrusion. Eight by eight as an oversized magic square. The pieces stand at attention around the edge of the board, with the extra pawns already on the board in the corners.

It has been many years since I played chess, but I find, like all secrets learned as a child, that the ordering of the squares comes back to me. The watchful pawns on the board stand at a2, h2, a7, and h7, forming a square within the square. This is one of the promises of geometry: the reflection below and above, the formulas that define the macro- and micro-egos.

The pawns are all bald, and their clothing is nothing more than a cone flaring down from their spherical heads. Their perpetual smiles have been washed into enigmatic winsomeness by years of spring rain. A leaf balances on the domed head of one of the white pawns, and the statue's smile seems to be both bemused and wondering: how did a leaf find its way up here, so far above the forest?

It is a maple leaf, tri-pointed and burnished coppery orange by the sunlight. I pluck it carefully from the pawn's head, lifting it by its narrow stem. Holding it between my thumb and forefinger, I spin it, and it becomes a monarch butterfly.

"From ash and dust comes life and love. Such a pretty transformation." He is standing behind me, at the top of the long stairs that lead up to the chess board on the mountain peak. The wind teases and plays with the ends of the colored silks that wrap his rusted body. He raises his hand, and the butterfly lands upon an outstretched finger. "The cold will kill it before it can reach the forest." His teeth are smeared with blood, the only organic thing about him.

"The cold is going to kill all of us," I say. "When the sun goes out."

"True," he nods. He lifts his hand with a wheeze of clockwork, and thrusts the butterfly aloft. "Goodbye, pretty light." The butterfly perambulates toward the edge of the cliff. "I wish you luck in the coming darkness."

He limps to the board, knees wheezing and gasping, and rests a hand on the narrow crown of the black king. "Shall we play?" he asks, my reconstructed doppelganger, my metallic dybbuk, my man of ribbons.

I say the words that wake the pieces, and they noisily assemble on the board. "e4," I say, and step out of the way as the white pawn glides forward two squares.

"e5," he replies with a smile. "Of course, the King's Pawn gambit."

"Queen to . . ." She begins to slide across the board, slipping through the opening in the rank of pawns. A simple band holds her white hair back from her narrow face, and she holds an open book—its pages blank—in her hands.

"Ah, you put her in play so soon," the Ribbon Man interrupts. "Such a rush to bloody her."

I frown, and second guess myself. " . . . f3."

My opponent shakes his head. "But you hold her back. Are you afraid of losing her, Harry?"

"Qf3," I reiterate, my voice burning in my throat.

He is quiet for a moment. Faintly, I hear the echo of a train whistle. "Very well," he says. "You leap to the scholar's opening, but resist committing yourself. So much to analyze there, Harry, so much for us to talk about. I wonder if you think I will be as reluctant to act?"

"I don't know," I admit. "Why don't you show me?"

It is his turn to hesitate, and he stares at the board a long time as if the positions of my queen and pawn are a diversion, an accident that disguises a more clever plan. Maybe they do, maybe there is some reflection of my inner turmoil revealed by these opening moves; maybe I am that transparent.

Or it is just that he thinks like you, and he's caught in the same snare?

"No," he murmurs. "This is a child's opening, made even more infantile by this abortive move with your queen. Nc6." The black knight snorts and leaps over the line of crouched pawns. It lands with a thump, dust rising from beneath its flat base. "That path is closed now. You must find another way."

"Bc4," I say. What other way do I know? If I am unwilling to risk my queen—as I unconsciously seem to be doing—what other choices do I have? Knights. Bishops. Rooks. The secondary players. How can I use them to beat my shadow?

"Nf6."

I bring out one of my own knights. "Ne2."

He responds with the sleek black shape of the bishop, moving it to c5. The bishop's miter is cut, and it gapes like a wound. A veil falls across his face. A fragment comes to me—his body hidden beneath silk and blood—one of my memories, or one of the dreams that have been planted in my brain?

I shake my head, trying to dispel the mirage of the other. I am having trouble breathing. The air is too thin up here; we are too close to Heaven. "a3," I wheeze, struggling to focus on the board. The white queen, waiting so patiently at f3, turns her head slightly, that disapproving glance as if to say . . .

As he wanders across the board, the Ribbon Man clicks his tongue, a metallic "chak!" like gears locking into position. "d6." Matching my pawn push with one of his own, he gives me a free pass, and I waste it by castling. "Bg4," he laughs, amused by my scattershot play. Clearly, the idea that I am playing an incredibly subtle game is no longer a viable consideration.

I rest my arms across the head of a pawn, and the smooth stone is cold against my hot skin. I am feverish, wracked with both hot flashes and pervasive chills. The sun is hot and heavy against my neck. I am perspiring; I can feel the sweat running down my sides.

"Should have brought a hat," the Ribbon Man offers.

"I should have done a lot of things," I reply. I feel like I am melting.

"True," he acknowledges. "A great deal of regret and dismay carved the steps that lead to this place." He gives me that bloody smile again. "Is this going to be your game then? A failure to act early on, and then nothing else but moping and self-recriminations as I methodically demolish your ranks? Hardly seems worth my effort." He stumps along the edge of the board and, holding on to the crenellated skull of his rook, he leans out to look down. "Maybe the view has something to offer. Ah, look. There. You can see the train."

I hear its whistle again, almost an exclamation point to his observation.

"Is that where you and I met?" I ask. "The first time, when we had lunch."

"Yes." The wind tugs at his silks, and a single bolt of yellow material snakes around his right bicep and escapes, fluttering off the edge of the mountain peak. It twists like a falling bird. "That was a very good lunch. Did you thank her for packing it?"

"Not yet."

"You should. Soon, I imagine. Time is running out."

"Isn't it always?"

He looks at me then, and a piece of cream silk brushes across his lips. A smear of blood, a frozen rictus of fear or sadness, hangs in front of his face as he pulls away from the cloying touch of the fabric.

"What do you get out of this?" I ask, meaning to indicate the board with the wave of my hand, but I keep opening the arc and include the sky and the valley as well. "When the end comes. What is your reward?"

"Mine? Nothing. My actions are entirely altruistic and their own reward."

"Bullshit."

"You mistake my intent, Harry, with suspicions of your own. I am both more and less than a mirror, just as she is both more and less than a window."

"More or less. Which is it? Or I am supposed to take that as a metaphor for the fucking dualities?"

"Yes," he says. "And no." He tries very hard not to laugh.

I want to slap him, and I put my hand to the bald head of a pawn instead. The sting of the contact refocuses my frustration, and ignoring the taunt of his bloody smile, I turn my attention back to the game. "Queen to d3," I say. Use her. Why else is she on the board?

He answers with his Knight—Kh5—and I reply with pushing a pawn to h3. As if the pressure of such an advance will actually cause him to retreat.

But we both know it won't. We think enough alike to know this is the move that forces the issue of first blood. Prior to this pawn, we were simply assessing the board and each other's relative strengths and weaknesses. But now, we have reached that liminal moment where the game turns, and the bloodletting begins.

Such a rush to bloody her. Was I? What made me change my mind, and hold back? What made me so passive? So afraid?

"Bishop to e2," he says, and the burnblack assassin glides onto the same square as my white knight. The horse rears back, and the bishop's miter fastens itself on the animal's neck like a serpent. Its smooth and shiny body undulates and wriggles as it gorges itself on whatever blood these chess pieces have, and my white horse—I have found the way—becomes a pale specter, fading—falling—into nothingness.

"Queen to e2." There isn't much satisfaction in blooding her—it takes a long time to grind the bishop's triangular head into paste, and the priest's cylindrical body thrashes a great deal—because I know the move is reactive and defensive. His sacrifice gives him control of the board.

"Nf4." Unsurprisingly, he challenges my red-footed queen.

"Qe1." She is sluggish in her retreat, reluctant to be pulled away from the fray. Reluctant to leave.

"Nd4."

"Bb3." Which brother sharpened the trowel? I blink away the images in my head. Someone else's dream. A falling rain of triangles.

"Nh3," he says. My impertinent pawn, the one that brought us to violence, is taken. His departure leaves me exposed. "Check." My castle, my sanctuary, violated. A fire raging through the southern wing.

"Kh2." Things are breaking up in my head, images like handfuls of Polaroids are being confused and reordered. The game seems so distant, so ephemeral.

"Qh4." His black queen travels halfway across the board in an instant, like Hecate slipping through the night.

"Just like that."

He shrugs, and wraps an errant strand of silk around his left wrist. "I don't have the same reluctance as you. A lack of history, I suppose. I'm not as wedded to her as you are to yours."

I try to focus on the pieces. With his queen threatening, what are my options? Have my king cower in the corner of the board at h1? No, knight to f2, checkmate. If I ignore the threat of his black queen, he'll move the knight anyway. Game still over. What can I do?

Counter. Stop being terrified. Block his bitch queen. "Pawn to g3," I say and, as the bald man slides forward, my queen stares at me again.

I have no choice.

"Knight to f3," he says. "Check."

"King to g2." I hold her gaze. I'm sorry.

"Knight to e1." His knights leaps, and explodes into a monstrosity of tentacles and spider legs. My queen shrieks, tries to protect herself with her stone robes, but the monster devours her anyway. It is a noisy and bloody death, made worse by the fact that—this time—it is not obscured by a flood of black water.

"You bastard." I am shaking so hard the words can barely fit through my chattering teeth.

"What? You expect original thought from a doppelganger?" he asks. "I'm actually somewhat disappointed in you, Harry. You know I get all my best stuff right from that spot you're afraid to face." Mirror, mirror, on the wall . . .

His knight can't quite get its shape right. A pair of tentacles still trail from its base. My rook, anticipating the obvious reactive move, is already sliding towards the alien horse, but I get there first. I grab the horse by its mane and pull it from the board. It howls, spitting bloody foam, and more tentacles erupt from its inclined base. I wrestle it to the edge of the cliff, and toss it off. It tries to form wings as it falls but, like my dybbuk said, it can't imagine what hasn't already been done, and so it falls in a writhing mass of tentacles and articulated legs.

I want to see it hit the ground.

"Such drama," the Ribbon Man says, watching the knight's fall as well. Mirror . . .

"I get tired of being reminded of my mistakes."

"Were they?" he asks.

"I should throw you off too. See if you can grow wings."

He is still looking after his knight and, while he turns his head slightly in my direction, he doesn't give me his full attention. "What would it matter if I did or did not? Your queen will still be dead. Do you think my death will alter that? Do you think killing me will reverse time?"

"No, but maybe time will stop looping on me. Maybe the past will stay dead for a change."

He looks at me now, feral grin on his face, liquid glint in his eye. "A lobotomy stops time pretty well. Why don't you slip a screwdriver up your nose?"

"I might slip and gouge out that spot in my brain you like so much."

"That would be a shame."

"Wouldn't it now? Whatever would you do to bait me then?"

"I could talk about how badly you play chess."

"As a metaphor for my life?"

"God, no. Just literally. Your play is atrocious."

"Humor me, then. Pretend for a second that you aren't being coy, that you aren't getting off on your double-speak, and let's call this what it is: a shitty metaphor for how my lack of initiative killed Nora. Tell me what I did wrong. Tell me how I could have played my pieces differently."

"It's the past, Harry. You can't replay it again and again until you get it right. You just have to accept that it has been done. God is the only one who gets a 'do over'; the rest of us simply act and react—creation and un-creation are not part of our toolsets."

"Bullshit. This is the Oneiroi. I can do anything here. I can insist that this game reset itself and force you to play me again."

"And you'll lose her again. Maybe not like this, but it will happen. At some point, you'll be forced to save your king, and you'll leave her exposed. It might be a knight or the other queen or a pawn even who takes her, it doesn't really matter. Each time you reset the game and we play again, you will lose your queen. It's part of the game, Harry, do you not see that? The point is to protect your king; all the other pieces are there to be sacrificed, if necessary."

"That's an unacceptable premise."

"Why are you such a dreamer?" He shakes his head. "So, we replay this game until you save your queen. Then what? You fixate on your bishops—can't lose them, oh no, not my priests—and so we play a dozen or so more times until you figure out a way to save them. Then it's your knights; next, your rooks; finally, every last one of your pawns. We play this game over and over and over until you figure out a way to not lose any piece."

"What's wrong with that?"

"Because it's a statistical impossibility, you fool. Because you can't win a game of chess without losing a few pieces. There is a measure of sacrifice to be weighed in every game: what are you willing to do in order to win, what are you willing to lose in the short term to realize the bigger picture."

"And what is the bigger picture?"

He almost answers, but catches himself at the last minute. He smiles, but his teeth are tightly clenched to keep the words in. He walks across the board and taps his queen lightly on the naked shoulder. Staring at me coquettishly, she sways one square to her right. Qg4. So tantalizingly out of reach, so impossible to touch.

I respond with pushing a pawn to d3, as if I could manage to sneak one of the bald scouts all the way to the far side where magic and desire could change him into my lost queen. Was this promise of transformation and resurrection built into the game as an equalizer? No matter how far you have fallen, all it takes was a single pawn. Just one, brave enough and daring enough to touch the far side. Was I this pawn? The unremarkable servant of my queen, starting a long and dangerous journey across the board. And then, was I just to switch places with Nora? Would that solve everything? Would that fix anything?

The Ribbon Man leaves this pawn alone for a moment, taking two others instead. Bishop to f2 for the first and, after I move my rook out of harm's way to h1, his winking queen takes one step forward to swallow the second. Check.

I tap my king on his shoulder and direct him away from the queen. "f1." He obliges, dragging his lame leg. He has already seen the endgame.

My pawn—my avatar—will never reach the other side. There are to be no reinforcements. Just the slow slide as darkness eats all of the pieces scattered at my end of the board.

"I could concede now," I say. "We can play another game."

"You could," he agrees, ignoring the latter half of my statement. "But you wouldn't get a chance to see which pieces I will take, or the order in which they fall."

"Why would I care about watching you decimate my ranks?"

"Because you might learn something."

About? "About your level of sadism? About chess technique?" About how you think, and why it is different from my thoughts? "About some philosophical point that you think will make me see some transcendental light?" What are you hiding from me, my shadow?

He shakes his head. "I am not here to browbeat you into enlightenment, Harry. I am not some fabrication of your imagination that offers you the tough love so you can learn something about yourself. I am not Virgil; I am not Socrates."

"No, you are just some Frankensteinian construct. I know how they made you."

"Yes, but do you know why? And, more importantly, do you know who TH3y are?"

TH3r3. Just one slip of his tongue. Just one. But it was enough.

"How long have I been infected?" I ask.

He considers pretending to not know what I am asking.

"How do TH3y distribute it?" I ask.

"It was easier than you think," he admits finally. "For all the combined paranoia of your friends, there's a commonality in what you believe. It's a small thing, but it is all TH3y needed."

"And the antidote? There is a cure, yes?"

"More or less."

And I finally understand. You might learn something. My eyes travel across the board, looking at the position of his pieces. Mine are irrelevant. Yes, I see it now. I know what my pieces represent; his are the unknown elements, the secrets to be discovered. "What is TH3ir next move?" I ask.

"Bishop to b4," he says. The veiled assassin slides back.

Yes, the bishop. The faceless priest. My king is going to fall, but not yet. I have a few moves left. One more chance.

"King to e2," I say, starting a slow crawl away from his dark queen. She pressures him—g2—and he slips back to the first row. She burnblackens my rook, and threatens his security. My king shrugs the loss off, shuffling to d2. She follows, and he flees to the back row again. e1.

"Knight to g1."

I am nearly done. My king is bound. In a moment, there will be no choices left for him. No routes. No paths.

But first, I make the necessary sacrifice.

"Knight to c3."

He can't resist. It helps close his trap. "Bishop takes knight," he says.

My bishop, who has waited so long, quivers at the sound of my voice. "Bishop takes bishop." One priest to take the place of another. Isn't that how it happened in the dream? My bishop, his face a blank mask, knocks the Ribbon Man's agent back, pushing it out of the square. The black bishop vibrates with a fatal urgency as I step onto the board. I grab its pointed head, holding it in place, and lift its veil.

Behind him, I hear the Ribbon Man make his final move. "Queen to e2," he says. "Checkmate."

It doesn't matter . . . descending the spiral stair into the four-chambered room. I've just seen the face of the Adversary.


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