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We never played with it. We weren’t allowed. The chess set stood, always ready for a game, and yet untouched, in a corner of my father’s library, on a wooden table just two inches wider, on each of its four sides, than the set itself. Just wide enough for a player, on taking his opponent’s piece, to place it off the board, the collected pieces, ebony and ivovy, telling the tale of the game.
But the story was never told, not by me. Not by my brother, not for years, not until a winter’s knight? – that is, a night – when the snows on the street kept the babysitter away, and left us to our own considerable devices.
Father and Mum had left the day before for warmer climates, Father the guest speaker at some conference in the Caymans, I think, Mum going along for the sun and the frozen drinks, and the chance to be waited on hand and foot by new servants. Not our old family retainers who knew about the bottles tucked between the silken underclothes in her antique dresser, the four-martini lunches with her friends, and the knights Father slept in the guest room. Nights. Sorry.
Matthew and I were three years apart in age, he the daring older brother and I his devoted follower, though still always concerned about the consequences, the effects of our adventures, particularly as they related to our getting caught. Our nanny, a stern British woman we called Mrs. Patterson – Mrs. Pat, occasionally, to each other, but never to her face, for fear of her heavy hand – had bustled out the front door a hour before full dark, off to sit with a dying friend whose lack of consideration on choosing such a snowy knight on which to die Mrs. Pat had bemoaned repeatedly as she pulled on her Wellies and wrapped herself in layers of tweed for the walk to the El. She’d called Missy Kirkland, a high school student who’d sat for us before on Mrs. Pat’s nights off, to fill in, and Missy agreed, only to call a scant ten minutes after Mrs. Pat left to say her parents had forbidden her to drive over. Matthew, who’d answered the phone, assured Missy that Mrs. Pat was still home, and would stay with us, not to worry.
He hung up the phone and turned to me, standing off to the side a few steps behind him, as always. “We’re on our own!”
I was less enthusiastic. “What? Missy’s not coming?” I’d always liked Missy, and her fantastic tales of public high school. She snuck Drake’s Coffee Cakes into our house, and Devil’s Dogs, delicious snack cakes Mrs. Pat would have tanned our hides for eating, desserts I longed for with every fiber of my ten-year-old being.
“Nope. We’re free. Come on!”
I never dreamed of reminding Robert of the cook in her tiny room off the kitchen, dozing in front of her television dramas, nor the chauffer who’d returned from driving Father and Mum to the airstrip and retreated to his rooms above the garage, to flip through magazines he made sure to keep from my Father’s sight, one of which Robert and I had stolen once from his garbage, only to peer silently at the various naked and barely dressed female forms that sprawled across its pages. The chauffer wouldn’t come into the house, not further than the kitchen, and the maids that cleaned up Mum’s empty bottles only came every other day when she was gone, and had been here yesterday to straighten up her rooms after her flurry of last-minute packing.
In a sense, then, Matthew was right, and as he pulled me along like a small boat bobbing after an ocean liner, streaming through the waters, I saw his intention.
The chess set. I shook my head as he sat in the green leather chair in front of the white pieces, and gestured to the empty chair across the table. “Robert! Come on!”
“We can’t. Father won’t let us.”
“Father’s not here, remember? How will he stop us?”
I still stood, uneasily eyeing the board, the pieces that stood on inlaid tiles of black and red – why not black and white? I wondered. Why not the same colors as the pieces?
“Robert! Come on! I can’t play by myself!”
I sighed, and sat in the chair, perched on the edge, my short legs dangling, still unwilling to touch the table or the chess set. “I don’t know how. You don’t know how, remember?”
He shrugged, and reached for a piece – a white knight – and moved it over the pawn in front of it, then sideways again to an empty square. “Maybe I do. It’s kind of like checkers.”
Still uneasy, I swallowed and wrapped my hand around a black piece on the front line of the board, making the same move – up two, over one.
“You can’t do that, lame brain. Only the knights can move like that. The pawn just moves forward one.”
I didn’t question him, just redid my move and sat back. I had no idea where he’d learned to play, and thinking back on the game years later, thinking back to that knight – that night – I wondered how much he did know, and how much he’d heard. How much someone told him.
Because it seemed, sometimes, and I was just a child, remember, and idolized my brother, but it seemed as if someone, something was talking to Matthew, whispering moves in his ear. I caught that peculiar tilt of his head to the side as he leaned his left ear in, slightly deaf from a childhood ear infection in his right ear. His fingers caressed the Knight, picking it up for every move he made, tapping the horse’s head against his small white teeth as he studied the board, then placing it down again, decisively, choosing to move another piece.
It wasn’t a long game. I didn’t know how to play, of course, and each time I moved a piece Matthew corrected me, all to his benefit. I’d move my bishop, or castle –“Rook,” Matthew called it – and in the next move, he’d claim it, and sweep it from the board. I was losing quickly, and any game play advice I received on one move was immediately forgotten on the next. Swiftly, my black pieces were off the board, and Matthew placed his Knight near my king. “Checkmate.” He smiled.
“Fine. Whatever.” He was overly pleased, I thought, and I reached for his favored Knight indulgently, curious.
“Don’t!” he cried, his voice far away in my ears as my head filled with the sound of battle, a giant, blood-splattered white horse between my armored legs, its hooves pawing at the muddied field, dead men lying all around us. My jaw opened, amazed, and I heard the hinge on my helm squeak. The horse reared, screaming a noise of triumph and blood lust, and I fell to my back on the grass below, the wind knocked out of me, hands grasping too late for something, and coming up bloodied from the dirt and the mud and the bodies. The destrier galloped forward towards a crowned man, on a collision course, and I saw the fear in the king’s eyes? though he held tight to his great sword…
And I felt Matthew’s hands shaking me, as I lay amidst the strewn pieces of the chess set on the Persian carpet in Father’s library. “Robert! Robert! Are you ok?”
I shook my head, still hearing the echo of that horse’s furious cry, still seeing the resignation in the face of the black king. “I’m fine. Let go.”
From the marbled hall, the cook’s low voice called out. “Boys? Is anything wrong?”
“No!” Matthew called back, then repeated himself, “No, everything’s fine. We’re fine. Go back to your show.”
She muttered something I didn’t understand, and then her footsteps headed back to the swinging door towards the kitchen and her television.
“We have to fix this,” Matthew said, and pulled me up to standing. Swiftly, he replaced the chess pieces on the red and black board, trying to recreate the formal parade we’d seen every day of our lives, yet had never touched before.
But it was wrong. The white knight was missing, and the black king was chipped, no doubt from the fall to the floor. Matthew turned the king so the chip faced the wall.
“What about the other knight?” I asked.
His eyes flew to my face, pale and serious. “I can’t find it,” he lied. His hand crept to his pocket, but he stopped himself before reaching in. “It must have rolled under something. I’ll look tomorrow. Come on,” he flung his arm around my shoulders and walked me from the library. “Let’s go watch cartoons.”
Father returned three days later, the snows on the street melted or manhandled into more manageable piles on the corners, and his voice echoed through the house from where he stood in the library. “Matthew!”
I played with a wooden gun I’d received for Christmas, as Matthew left our shared room and went to speak to our Father. The library door slammed, their voices muffled, and Matthew returned to our room some time later with the tracks of tears on his cheeks, and a welt on the side of his face. A week later, he went to boarding school.
I never saw him or the white knight again, though it was listed among his effects in a letter from his school four years later, sent to Father with abject apologies for the unfortunate death of his son and heir. When Matthew’s trunks arrived at our house, the knight was gone.