Chess Variants

By Paul Edward Costa


Living people stand in for chess pieces during a game already in progress. There’s no sign of the previously captured players.

The large stone chessboard has tiles of grey and black rock. It sits within a clearing inside a dense forest where weeds, vines, and numerous cracks grow on the life-sized chessboard. The people wear torn, deranged versions of everyday clothes coloured only in monochrome shades. They keep their eyes shut and they all constantly tremble as if afraid to open their eyes and see the darkness around them.

In a match that looks painfully near completion, the King, a Knight, and a Pawn from one side find themselves surrounded by their opponents. They face an opposing King, Queen, Rook, and two Bishops. The King and Rook remain in their starting places.

The latter team faces multiple possible paths through which they might achieve checkmate, but the immense forces that once controlled this game have long since died, fallen into catatonic insanity, or grown completely disinterested.
No human game piece has yet asserted itself enough to step up and deliver the final checkmate. They all quiver in their endgame positions. Some sob quietly.

Eventually, the Rook of the nearly victorious side breaks from his frenetic stillness and steps off his starting square. He opens his eyes, immediately drops to his knees, and pulls up the stone tile of his original corner position like a trap door. With a deep groan he lifts it forty-five degrees open and peers directly into whatever lies beneath the chessboard.

He gasps and his gasp grows smoothly into a scream that ascends unnaturally into a piercing, nerve-chilling shriek before he lets the square slab slam back down. It nearly catches and crushes his fingers. Still squatting, he holds his head as it sheds silent, shuddering tears before he falls over and rolls partway off the game board, but this becomes a grave mistake.

His left hand touches the ground. In the exact instant of contact, a hive of termites comes through the soil that’s covered with pine needles. Within seconds they devour all the flesh from his hand. The man playing the Rook scrambles back onto his starting square. He stands up and closes his eyes again. He instinctively uses the skeletal hand now emerging from his left sleeve to cover his weeping face, but the reality of his disfigurement soon settles in and he switches to using his undamaged right hand.

This pain from this mutilation makes it even harder for the Rook to stand still and maintain the game’s facade of dignity. He sways on his corner position with the forest floor on two sides of him. He fears he’ll lose consciousness, fall backwards to either of those sides and lose even more of himself to the termites when he touches the forest floor. He wonders, “Will I feel it if they eat my eyes?”

He looks to his King, who still stands on his starting square. The Rook desperately wishes to escape his corner position; he hopes the old ritual known as “castling” might be enacted between them so that they can switch positions. but the King avoids eye contact and keeps staring at the perpetual endgame as if he expects an imminent conclusion.
He reassures himself that his indifference is justified.

The King says to himself: It’s not my call to make… It’s not my call.

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