“Most gods throw dice, but Fate plays chess,
and you don’t find out til too late that he’s been playing with two queens all along.”
– Terry Pratchett
When I was young I watched an astounding film by the great Ingmar Bergman called “The Seventh Seal.”
The film tells the story of a medieval knight (Played by Max von Sydow from The Exorcist) and a game of chess he plays with Death, who has come to collect him.
Popular Culture has often depicted Death playing games for our lives, from Badminton to Twister or Battleship, Gin Rummy and of course, Chess. The Pale Rider enjoys a good game of Beer Pong as much as the rest of us.
I’ve always been fascinated by Chess, in particular Sans Voir – a form of blindfold chess – and have harboured the idea to write a story about a Blind Chess Master for a long time. Chess, however, unfortunately, makes for some pretty fucking boring literature… And then I remembered The Seventh Seal.
The result is “The Centennial Game,” inspired by, but not at all alike Bergman’s classic film – about a Blind Chess Master (aged at about one hundred and eighty years old) sitting down to play a one-hundredth game of chess with Death.
For Chess enthusiasts, the game between my blind anti-hero, Abidan Cointe and his terrible foe was based entirely on the 23rd of the 1892 World Championship in Havana, Cuba between Mikhail Chigorin and Wilhelm Steinitz – the one true “Blunder Game.”
By the time he was near a century old, Abidan Cointe had lost his eyesight completely.
Over the seemingly eternal years which then followed, he lived in a world assembled of fleeting shadow and deepest darkness. He had long forgotten the concept of colour and knew nothing of fiery sunsets or the gentle rise and fall of yellow sunflowers in a breeze.
He could not explain to those who cared to listen, the profound blue of the ocean, the clear azure of the vast skies above, or that space out on the horizon where the one melted into the other.
His words could do no justice to the beautiful, terrible autumn – how dead leaves drifted like burning embers – or the bitter whites of the winter snow. He could not tell of the lush greens which exploded from the earth beneath his feet, nor could he begin to fathom the timeless splendor of the stars as they burnt holes into the heavens above.
Abidan, aged at about one hundred and eighty years old, could remember of any of these things, but he knew the fading warmth of the setting sun as it crept over him.
He knew the ensuing loneliness.
He understood the weight and the waxy, bristly feel of a sunflower head resting in his hands.
He could smell and taste the salt in the air as he sat listening to the ceaseless roar of the ocean, and he could feel the roar calling out to his own weary heart.
He knew the scent of the dry autumn leaves, and the fine crunch as he trod them underfoot.
He knew the bite of the frost, and the rain, and the cold which rattled his body.
He enjoyed, often, the tickle of the grass against his wrinkly skin as he lay down on the lawn, listening to the buzzing of the insects and the deep, celestial sigh of the earth.
He knew all of this, and more, and there was no counting the amount he had forgotten over all these long years, for he was an old man, the oldest man amongst all old men he had ever known, and his mind had often felt like it could hold no more.
Eyesight, however, was of no importance in the Monastery, where the blind successfully led the blind and Abidan Cointe rode the waves of echoes and acoustics through ancient hallways – out into the Hodegetria Gardens.
For in these mysterious gardens, navigable only by the sightless, one did not require eyes to see, but only compassion.
The Hodegetria Gardens were astonishingly beautiful. Beauty, it seemed to some, which went entirely to waste. For the gardens had not been designed for the pale orange flowers of the Sweet Osmanthus, but for its fruity, exotic aroma. The old creators had not the whites and yellows and rare reds of the Jasmine in mind, or the enchanting purple and lilac of the Syringa.
These gardens had been built for the perfumes and textures and the sweet tastes which lingered and danced upon the tongue, and not for visual beauty. From the Wintersweet and White Cedar to the Magnolia. From the Dogwood to the Horse Chestnut. The Ginkgo, or the Japanese Fatsia. The gardens boasted an uncounted abundance of plants and flowers, more than half of which were labeled in Braille upon little plaques poking rigidly from the soil.
Three very different footpaths took you deep into the foliage, which was sealed almost entirely from the outside world, both visually and hermetically, by a thicket-like hedge of fresh-smelling Pine trees.
All three paths crossed one another at least once in an obscure clashing of sand, trampled grass and cobbles, respectively, which – to the bare foot – was a surprising assault upon the senses. These paths also crossed the tiny stream bubbling right through the middle of the gardens no less than three times. If you followed these paths, they would lead you into a little clearing in the very heart of the grounds.
In the early evening twilight, Abidan Cointe sat quietly in this clearing at a small table with two modest little chairs. Upon the stone table before him lay an ancient Rosewood chessboard with the pieces set neatly in their places.
The blind man cradled his fatigued head in his large, unusually aged hands and waited, listening.
The breeze rustled the Pine far overhead and whistled down the thick and scaly spiraling branches. The little stream gurgled by gently, amassing into a large round pond encircled with rock and Yellow Iris.
The pond was filled with the shiny, shimmering copper and silver of coins cast over the shoulders of men who still believed in wishes, and drifting a little above, the white and pink flowers of the Victoria were just beginning to open themselves up to the night.
Around him, his fellow blind tended the bordering gardens and loosed weeds from the soil with hand-held shovels and busy fingers. He listened to them now as they tore at the earth, turning Mother Nature upon her head in the tiniest of ways. Breathing hard and sweating, they panted like thirsty dogs in the humidity and slurped water from the stream.
The birds above sang their goodnight songs to the world as the sun slipped away beyond the faraway mountains in the West, and Abidan mourned what might come to pass as his final day alive in this beautiful world.
And he listened…
And he plucked thinning hair from his head in frustration.
And he listened…
And finally, all about him fell into a deep, ghostly silence. Garden tools came to a halt. The little stream had become a whisper in the dark. Mother Nature itself held her breath, every green leaf in the garden shivering with anticipation. Abidan sat waiting and listening, until at last he could hear the calculated, light footsteps coming firmly toward where he sat.
He lifted his head from his hands and looked up into the darkness, and not for the first time, a tremor ran down his spine as he heard the extraordinary voice sing from the night.
“The Centennial Game is upon us…”
The blind man smiled.
“Hello,” he whispered. “Old Friend.”