A Transient Visitors Very Tiny Tale by David O’Boyle
Uncle’s chess pieces were the first thing in my life I associated with the word beauty. Part of this likely derived from their hallowed origin story. As you know (as we ALL know), they were a gift from a Bedouin craftsman during Operation Desert Storm, making them, as he always said ‘not just game pieces, but military artifacts.’
The United States-led coalition were the white pieces. The Iraqis were the purple pieces. By means of masterful hammering and chiseling, each piece bore a striking resemblance to a main actor on either side of the war.
I learned chess fast, in part because of your teaching acumen, and in part because it became the obsession of my second-grade summer vacation. Believing it a better outlet than the video games my peers overused, you nurtured the obsession. We practiced endlessly- discussing strategies, reviewing tactics, replaying flawed maneuvers. In weeks, if not days, that endless practice paid off. By June I understood openings. By July I could manage middlegame. By late August I was comprehending the basic theories of endgame.
“Check” I remember saying to you for the first time. I played it cool with my delivery, but I had rehearsed the phrase to myself all summer, waiting eagerly for the opportunity to use it in practice.
I put my piece into its proper square. Then I rescanned the board. Even better than ‘check’, by my calculations, I was a move away from checkmate.
My calculations were wrong. I did not account for the defense of my purple king, which left him at the mercy of your white queen, a perfectly chiseled replica of United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher- the Iron Lady.
Of course, you knew all this before me. For the second I set my piece down and finished articulating the ‘-ck’ in check, you gave the slightest of smirks, detectable only to an observer who had seen this all before.
While I digested my reversal of fortune, you tied up the trash in the kitchen and took it down the hallway to dispose of out back. I controlled my anger until your exit. Then, with a strong toss against the fireplace mantel, I reduced the Iron Lady to rubble.
The regicide relieved my rage. Yet in its place came panic. I moved fast to conceal my wrongdoing, swiping the dust into my hand and then into the ash pit underneath a heap of charred logs. The few distinguishable calcite parts that remained of the Prime Minister went into my pocket.
“Whose turn is it?” you asked, re-entering the room from down the hallway.
Rather than answer your question, I posed an alternative one. I asked if we could settle our bout as a draw, because I wanted some time to play outside before sundown. You let me save face and accepted the counteroffer, no doubt in part because I promised to put everything back. Above competitive spirit, you were a sucker for good manners and a clean house.
So, with the Iron Lady’s remains rolling around in my pocket like a sack of marbles, I took the chess board with its incomplete set of pieces into the dining room and slid it back onto the shelf. In silence, I ran out the front door and headed towards the back. Midway there I stopped to drop the remains of the Iron Lady in the side yard storm drain.
The Iron Lady/Margaret Thatcher/the White Queen was not officially declared missing until Uncle returned from his tour in the Central African Republic a few months after all this occurred. During his tour, so many people had come in and out of your house (that infamous day included), that it was literally impossible to link anyone to the deed. Thus, the disappearance of the Iron Lady has become the stuff of family legend. Be it nieces and nephews or neighborhood kids, nobody has escaped my uncle’s accusations. Even the dog remains a suspect.
Consider this letter my confession. I am the perpetrator. I am responsible for the death and destruction of the Iron Lady. While what I enclose along with this letter cannot redeem the unredeemable, I hope if offers some consolation.
To be clear, I did not find Uncle’s desert Bedouin- though I did look for him. Yet for a pretty penny (it’s amazing how the Kuwaiti dinar trounces the dollar) I found a worthy substitute outside Al Abraq. With mere hammer and chisel, this worthy substitute has cloned the Iron Lady in calcite form, all from the same dunes that birthed the original.
Your letter had no return address. I guess I could have texted you and provided a more immediate response, but why let you have all the fun with snail mail. Plus, time isn’t really of the essence on the matters at hand. More important at the moment is that you are taking care of your skin in that Kuwaiti sun! You always burned easy. It’s why you enjoyed chess in the first place. You could play it indoors and in the shade without turning into a lobster. So wear your SPF 100!
More to the point. Apology accepted, even though none is needed. Truth is, I considered the Iron Lady’s disappearance a blessing all those years ago. Margaret Thatcher is far too conservative for my blood. Your uncle’s love for her drove me crazy- it still does. It’s why, when I received your ‘gift’, I couldn’t get myself to share it with him. In a weak moment, of which I have many, I disposed of it in the side yard storm drain.
Remember, whether it’s chess moves or nephews running out front doors toward the street, your dearest aunt was always watching- still is.
To our little secret(s).