Blackwyrm Books has excerpted this short story from the upcoming Michael Williams novel Trajan’s Arch for promotional purposes. Michael is best known as the author of the experimental fantasy novels Arcady and Allamanda as well as numerous Dragonlance novels, short fiction, and poems. Feel free to share, reproduce, or distribute this story in any way you desire. The complete book will be available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble Online, and directly from the publisher at www.blackwyrm.com in November of 2010.
It has been my distinct honor to work as the initial editor on Trajan's Arch. It's a sophisticated, subtle, and unique book that deserves to see print. The story of a failed fantasy author, it's kind of like a cross between October Skies and Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, only for fantasy geeks like myself. Michael calls the genre "fantasy realism." I just call it extremely well written.
A Story by Trajan Bell
He understood Alejandro Flores only when the boy was weeping for his lost knight.
They were all staying at the Midtown, there at the corner of Main and Winooski, in the desolation of a Burlington snowstorm. Not the best hotel in the city, of course, but even the best chess players in New England were used to shabbier accommodation, and the rooms were warm.
David Corydon’s room overlooked Main Street and the entrance to the hotel. Taxis coasted through the snow soundlessly, their headlights dim in the Vermont overcast. They were the only way to St. Michael’s, to the hall where the tournament was held, and so David found himself outside the warm room, propped against the side of the building, looking longingly in the window at the bald light and the steaming coffee of the diner, waiting in the early Thursday morning for the cab that would get him to his match on time.
He saw the boy, then, though he had no idea who it was beneath all the clothing. Same hotel, apparently, and bound for the same destination. Fur-lined hood on his parka. Bundled against the weather.
Corydon took it for a high-school kid. Which, of course it was, but taking the boy for that was taking him for less, or we wouldn’t have a story.
When the first cab arrived, David slipped in ahead of the boy. Who held back politely, even deferentially, then huddled against the diner window, his face obscured in the thick fur of the hood.
By Saturday evening, David would wonder if even this was part of the boy’s strategy, if he had somehow known who David was, even in the carefully orchestrated moments of that first and snowy encounter. If the kid was setting the trap even then. But of course he wasn’t thinking that now, as the taxi pulled away from the hotel and the hooded teenager shrank back beneath a snow-weighted awning.
Instead, David began imagining the string of matches before him, the Alejandro Flores that awaited him at St. Michael’s, as the real boy receded into the snow-struck streets behind him.
David Corydon was a good player, even when you measured him against the world at large. Twenty years in Middlebury College’s Starr Library, only thirty miles south of Burlington, had left him with little to do but master the depths of the game. His career in chess had been a circle: he dominated his competition at Middlebury from enrollment to graduation, then moved up the road to UVM, where he competed statewide, then regionally, as he studied for his masters in library science. The library position was waiting for him with the degree in hand, so after two years it was back to the alma mater with little or nothing ventured. He had followed the path of all but the most exceptional players: a quiet and cloistered job supplemented by his occasional prize money, not good enough for a sponsor or for international travel. Not good enough for anything beyond sporadic flashes of brilliance at state and regional tournaments. It added up to the kind of minor celebrity that gets you noticed at school auditoriums and rented union halls, by a handful of people who could not name a member of the Boston Red Sox or a single Beatles song, but people who knew other names—those of strange and solitary figures like Fischer and Petrosian, Botvinnik and Spassky and Tal.
It was not much to speak of, but it was all the fame David Corydon needed.
Over the last year, he had first heard the name Alejandro Flores. A Filipino prodigy — fourteen or fifteen-years-old — whose father was a Bennington professor. No doubt the Flores boy was a typical professor’s child, smart and sheltered and over-stimulated. David resented him from the beginning, when he began to hear of Alejandro’s brilliance in some matches down in Bennington and Marboro, how the kid was dismantling players twice and three times his age with a sort of cool and measured poise.
“The maddening thing about him, David, is not the boy himself,” Shepherd Frame had insisted in exasperation over the phone, when the boy had beaten him in a match down in Rutland. “Alejandro is actually quite silent and sweet. It’s the damned father’s exulting afterwards.”
Frame had a Class A FIDE ranking, so he was the kind of player whom Corydon could beat on a regular basis—a solid, occasionally intelligent player with no higher ambitions. Corydon himself had been an Expert for a decade, the Master title always dangling elusively out of his reach. He had yet to shake the greater hopes.
And here was this upstart, this Alejandro Flores, rising through the ranks like a young god in a tired pantheon. David knew that Frame, with his great fondness for young boys, would romanticize the kid into an abused and pressured figure, the father a tyrant, a dying king schooling the young prince for the throne like something out of a fertility myth.
It was just the kind of story that Frame would bask in, weepy and amorous, fit for the speaker of a bad Housman poem. David, on the other hand, had already imagined the boy as a little monster, some kind of braniac deprived of a childhood, with all the viciousness and sullenness of adolescence and none of its charm.
Or that was the image of menace David Corydon chose as he rode in the cab toward St. Michael’s in the rising snow. He was a competitor at heart: both also an observer. The observer in him resented all prodigies, those boys who complete and accomplish while the observers watch. But the competitor in him was wiser, and competitors know first what we all know eventually: it’s less complicated to prepare for menace. An opponent you render monstrous in your imagination is easier to face, can be taken down without remorse or second thought.
Corydon was listing the boy’s intolerable qualities as the cab turned off 89 into the St. Michael’s campus. It was inevitable that he and the Flores boy would meet, unless a terrible mistake cost one of them an early match. And it was easier to imagine Alejandro in simple, abstract colors, like the geometrical movements over the chessboard.
Because that’s the way a lot of chess players see the game. Their vision extends beyond the pieces.
Corydon had learned to anticipate five, six, sometimes seven moves ahead—not the clairvoyance of a Grand Master, probably not nearly as prophetic as the boy he would eventually face. But he had enough foresight, enough to know that chess is a better game when stripped of distracting emotion, when the pieces, mathematical and relentless, rise into diagrams, diagonals and verticals and angles above the wood or plastic of bishop or pawn.
It was like they left their bodies then. Like they rose and converged on a plane where they were energy, or where they were purified of the carved horses and the castles and the mitres that constrained them. They became like wizards, then, or Dante’s suicides freed by a strange act of grace, afloat over the bondage of the imprisoning trees.
David Corydon shook his head. It always made him laugh when poetry came on the scene. But it was no time for laughter. He descended into himself, watched the flick of the windshield wipers as the cab coasted on a patina of ice to the south of the awakening city.
The Herrouet Theater on the north campus of St. Michael’s College was prepared for the matches—tables, clocks and boards designed to give each pair of the sixteen invited players their own private audience. Corydon was guided to his table, where he took the light into account, then examined the board. He lifted the black Staunton knight to test its weight (always the black knight, his one concession to the world of superstition among chess players) and seated himself in each of the chairs.
It was good enough, this setting. Better than most. He felt the rising anticipation of the approaching match—a man about his own age with the impossible name of Dragon, whom he had bested on five occasions and expected to thrash again. Flores could be the next match, but Corydon tried not to look that many moves ahead. Instead, he urged himself to be content in the light, in the pleasant heft of the piece, in the diagrammatic board that hung on an easel behind the table, a grid-like abstraction of the chessboard, with “Mr. Corydon” above the white pieces and “Mr. Dragon” below the black.
He breathed in the smell of pine and polish, lit a cigarette, and headed for what the school called the hospitality table. “Tea, please,” he called out to the distracted college girl near a pair of battered percolators. She seemed entranced by a long-haired boy in a fatigue jacket, so David turned to the modest array of muffins and sticky buns, wondering which ones of them had not been placed out the night before by a lazy student volunteer.
“Here’s your tea, sir,” a soft voice beside him murmured, and Corydon turned to face a stunning Asian girl, her hair raggedly cropped at mid-ear and only the slightest hint of liner to enhance her dark eyes, a dusting of makeup (or perhaps only the flush of cold weather) to ruddy her flawless features.
“Thank you, my dear,” Corydon replied. His hand shook slightly as he took the cup from her. She was radiant, dressed boyishly, in the flannel shirt, baggy jeans, and brogans that were standard Vermont college issue. Around her neck a pendant—a pawn from a Japanese chess set, as far as Corydon could tell. A samurai archer, bow drawn and aimed into the air, into a celestial nothingness. Despite the setting, despite the fact that she was far too young, Corydon found himself staring at the pendant, how it hung precisely at the topmost button of the shirt, moving softly with each restrained exhalation.
Her stare was direct—honest, but not brazen—and he breathed again only when she turned away.
She looked over her shoulder to assure he was watching her leave. She was not disappointed, and her smile confirmed that Corydon would not be disappointed, either. In fact, he was incredulous that someone so dark and dazzling could award her attentions to a man over twice her age.
By Monday, he could not imagine how mistaken he had been. How he could have been fooled so completely by so little artifice.
By what, in fact, was probably no artifice at all.
He made short work of L.C. Dragon. Corydon felt like St. George as the little man across from him squinted and smoked, the air above the table blue with their coalescing fumes. Some of the more squeamish observers left the hazy room ten moves into the game—perhaps because of the smoke accumulating over three hours of play, but more likely because the game was over by then. A knight fork, two moves away, and little L.C. had missed it until it was inevitable, until the best he could do was trade Corydon’s knight for his rook.
L. C. Dragon tipped his king on the seventeenth move. Swore a little under his breath.
It was over.
Tomorrow Dragon would play white, and of course he would have the resultant advantage. But they both knew—everyone knew—it would not be enough. L.C. had reached a kind of ceiling to his game, that kind of mediocrity that passes for excellence in the larger world. But you know it for what it is when you see it over the tight, smoky boards of championships. It’s what happens to men in middle age—all but the luckiest of them, or the most persistent or rare. And there was luck indeed, Corydon figured, in having lasted this long, having reached your forties before your patches and unravelings were on display.
Corydon did not bother to size up his next opponent, although he overheard in conversation at the hospitality table that Alejandro Flores was dismantling someone over in the farthest room. So he relaxed in his victory, scanned the sparse crowd for a sign of that striking girl, but the room had reverted to a men’s club, as was often the case at chess tournaments. Slowly he sipped a second cup of tea and contemplated what to have for lunch after such an early conclusion to his day.
“Hush!” whispered someone beside him. “There he is!”
He knew instinctively that he was the subject, and strained his ears to eavesdrop. The conversation was at a distance, but between two elderly men, one of whom was hard of hearing, it seemed.
Flores, he heard the other man say. Flores and Corydon.
Corydon was suddenly tired. Not from the exertions to defeat L.C. Dragon as much as from the anticipation of what lay ahead of him—the tournament brackets that would lead him toward Alejandro Flores all too quickly and soon. It seemed unfair: they were clearly the best two players in the tournament, and you should save such pairings for the final days, so that the games could culminate like a good story, in the battle between hero and villain.
Not that the boy was a villain, mind you. He was merely exceptional. If there was a villain in the piece, Corydon decided, it was the evil father, who, like the stepmother of the fairy tales, held the child beneath some kind of enchantment.
He laughed at his own thought. Shepherd Frame, it seemed, was too romantic an influence.
But that night it was otherwise. Back at the hotel, poring over a second Scotch and a dog-eared paperback on the Sicilian Defense, Corydon’s thoughts drifted like ash from a bonfire, afloat to the floors above, where he knew that Alejandro was lodged for the night, probably over books of his own, plotting the course of his coming games.
Eventually, Corydon dog-eared the page in the book. Pouring a third stiff drink, the glass tilted in his right hand and a cigarette drooping ash in his left, he stepped out of his room into the glaring light of the corridor, leaving the door ajar. Almost furtively, he took the stairwell to the floor above, setting the Scotch on the landing and opening the door to the hall.
A solitary naked bulb sputtered over his head, and the path before him wavered in shadow. A voice spilled out of a room at the end of the hall, muted and indecipherable, as though he was hearing it underwater. Feeling a strange combination of excitement and prurience, like he was an inebriant spy in an old, flickering movie, he moved on tiptoe to the source of the sound.
Someone was scolding a child. The voice, domineering and harsh, hovered around the far door like smoke, its tone unmistakable though the language was unfamiliar. The child answered in English.
“I still won, didn’t I?”
A flurry of incomprehensible scolding, like an incantation, then the child:
“I’ll be ready. It’s hard. You don’t understand.”
Corydon leaned against the door, an uncanny heat rising to his forehead.
He understood. No matter the language, which he guessed was Tagalog, he understood the drama in the room.
Back to the landing he crept, the voice behind him sinking into wavering light. He picked up the glass and headed down the stairs, only half wondering that the ice in the Scotch had melted in the cold stairwell on this colder night. It was almost refuge to reach the room, the veiled interchange between the boy and his father drifting in his half-drunken imagination. Flinging open the door, halfway to the bed, still translating from the fierce, incomprehensible language, he brushed his foot against something on the floor.
He looked down, wobbled a little. His eyes focused.
An ivory chessman lay on the worn carpet, its carved bow pointing toward the window.
His sleep was fitful and erotic, peopled by unfathomable voices, dark eyes, and fleeting movements across a lamp-lit board. Once he woke with a start, imagining the wingbeats of some lost, disenfranchised bird, outside his window in the impossibly frigid night.
On the next day, Dragon went down like his namesake.
Sputtering and smoking, L.C. rose from the board by the fourth move. He began to circle the table. He lit another cigarette.
Corydon sipped a cup of tea, serene and smug as an English baron. The game was still young, but L.C. was already about the task of beating himself. It was only a matter of moves: Corydon could wait out the morning, let White bring an already crumbling attack against the firm battlements of Black’s Sicilian Defense.
This one was inevitable.
And it was all Corydon could do to stay with the board. Several times he reeled in his floating thoughts. It was too soon to think of Alejandro Flores. Come back to the here and now, he told himself.
And there it is, in a nutshell: the dilemma of any chess player in the wide, middle-range of gifts and insights. When do you look ahead, and when do you rest in the solidity of wood or marble?
By the twelfth move, the gallery began to fill. Younger people slipped into the chairs behind L.C. and Corydon. L.C. propped his chin in his hands, glared at his disadvantages.
Corydon, on the other hand, felt the low simmer of excitement. The match before him was over. Three, maybe even four moves down the road, it would be clear to L.C. Dragon that the advantage of first move had not availed him.
But the late arrivals in the gallery signaled the news. There was no doubt that this wave of young people had come from another match.
As L.C.’s hand hovered over a pawn, then withdrew, as the little man squinted and reached into his pocket for the pack of cigarettes, Corydon let his mind float into another room of the theater. He imagined it there: a young boy his thoughts had barely outlined, leaning back in a chair. Behind the kid loomed the shadow of the dark, protective father, but it wasn’t the old man’s moment, not by a long shot. As his opponent tipped the king and rose from the table, Alejandro Flores steepled his fingers and forgot to smile, the short work of the morning a prelude, a clearing of thoughts.
The signs were in the room and in the air. They were on for tomorrow.
Corydon returned to the hotel, spent the evening with Chess Review and the Thomas Mann Reader, an anthology suggested to him by Shep Frame. He wasn’t much of a reader: he claimed that a library who employs a bookworm is like a tavern that sets up its most regular drunk as a bartender, but he knew the comparison made no sense, or not much. It was a side effect of chess, he figured, that your thoughts broke free of your eyes in a search for patterns and tendencies, and after half an hour with this Mann fellow,
Corydon set up his board and played through one of young Fischer’s superb, incisive games—a King’s Indian Defense from the late 50s. His attention moved from notation to pieces, then back to notation with a rising amazement and respect. The game, like the work of any genius, he figured, made sense when you looked back at it: the growing pressure on Olafsson, the point at which the older player is simply doing numbers, counting pawns, thinking that a piece-for-piece exchange will balance it all out, forgetting that position is paramount…
That indeed position can be everything.
David Corydon set down the magazine, contemplated the end game. There was something about the pawn at K7—at the edge of the chessboard’s quiet chaos—that got his attention and kept him awake.
He lifted the piece closer, examined the dark purple blotches in the wood. He had ordered the set on impulse from an Oregon wood carver—one of the few excesses in a librarian’s austere life. Bay wood, myrtle… whatever you wanted to call it.
Mountain laurel was the name he preferred. Laurel, for the ornament of the victors.
He inhaled the sweet, residual odor of the pawn, his thoughts entangled in the approaching match.
Flores arrived late for the first game.
Corydon could not help but be amused at this oldest of strategies, intended to ruffle the opponent, to set off timing and temper.
Well, he had seen it before. Old theatre, like a comedy from Shakespeare.
He smiled, lit a cigarette. Just to let the spectators know that stagecraft could not harm David Corydon. That even though Alejandro Flores had a promising future, the future was not yet, was not this game.
That instead of the boy taking David Corydon to the theatre, David Corydon was about to take the boy to school.
Of course, even those who have paid only passing attention to the story so far know what is about to happen. For the last few days, the spectators had done what spectators always do, as readers of the last few pages must have glimpsed the second of Alejandro Flores’ strategies. In fact, at this point David Corydon is the only one vulnerable to surprise, and you must be asking yourself, not “what is about to happen?” but “how in the world could Corydon have avoided knowing it?”
For Alejandro Flores was the beautiful Asian girl of the previous days, a boy so lovely he had captured the heated imaginings of Shepherd Frame and, with the least of disguises—a disguise so spare it was probably not even intentional—had unsettled the thoughts of his opponent, who gaped at him now across the chessboard, the ash lengthening and bending on the end of his neglected cigarette.
“If you’d put that out, please, Mr. Corydon,” the boy recommended with a soft smile, moving his pawn to K4—an unexceptional opening to this most exceptional game.
Corydon was befuddled. He had not stopped to ask, those days ago at the courtesy table. There had been no need to ask, he had been sure of that. The boy had seemed so easily and comfortably feminine that they both had played to the illusion. For a moment the chess pieces were incomprehensible, carved pieces of wood on a geometric floor, and Corydon forgot how the bishops moved.
For a moment, he glimpsed what his own life was like—would continue to be like—outside this marginal game. The files and rows of the chessboard faded into the files and rows of the library—the institutional furniture and dust and fluorescent lights. The walk home to Weybridge Street in the desolate cold. And the cycle of days and years in which that had been (and would continue to be) not only familiar country, but the only country there was.
Corydon leaned back in his chair, snuffed his cigarette on the table to the distaste of his opponent, and collected himself.
But it was almost too late already. Alejandro’s pieces had seized the center of the board and, within the first eight moves, the boy was a pawn ahead—an advantage that generally spelled victory in a match at this level. Alejandro smiled at him across the table, long brown fingers poised over a knight, as if he might or might not move it.
What was his next intention?
Corydon caught himself guessing, anticipating three and four moves in advance, but the pathways were cloudy. He could not picture the pieces in those future positions.
There was tomorrow, Corydon told himself. A chance to start everything again. Only one game behind—steep, but not impossible odds.
So be it, he was about to say. His hand moved toward his king, his finger extended to topple the piece—the traditional gesture of resignation, or surrender.
But something widened in those dark, fathomless eyes across from him, which looked up, back to the board, and up again.
Corydon withdrew his hand, looked over his shoulder.
An Asian man of about his own age had entered the room.
The Bennington professor. The father in question.
Corydon fastened his eyes on his opponent. Whose move it was.
Alejandro rested his cheek upon his hand, turned suddenly sullen and fifteen, all of his radiance flying from him with some kind of spiritual centrifugal force. He was diminished, no longer girlish and beautiful. With a swift, almost undetectable movement of his fingers, Alejandro brushed his eyes, leaving a dark brown smear on his eyelids as though he had not slept for several nights. And his next move, an obvious attempt to create a knight fork and force Corydon to choose between queen or rook, was a tactic born of insomnia—a move that if, countered properly, would reverse the tide of the game entirely.
Corydon waited a while, inspected the board. Surely he was missing something. A rising murmur among the spectators told him that some of them had seen a mistake as well. But was it a mistake? Or was it a disguise—yet another layer in the boy’s exceptional calculations?
Remember that this was one of those players, after all, whose vision of the game had moved beyond the simple relations of pieces into fields of force, a sort of abstract understanding that was half geometry, half instinct. Alejandro, he knew, could glance at a board from across the room, see only the arrangements of black and white, and tell you within a second—a solitary second—who was going to win.
I was about to resign anyway, Corydon told himself. No doubt he has an ambush for me, something I’ll see a dozen moves up the road, if not sooner. I can resign then. What difference between last move and the next?
But it seemed apparent—unless Corydon was missing something and missing it grievously—that the mere entrance of Alejandro’s father had thrown the kid off game. How or why that would have happened this time was a mystery to Corydon: after all, the old man supposedly accompanied his son to every match, hovering over his shoulder like a boding bird.
The kind of thing that happens, he had heard, with promising boys who had difficult parents. But it seemed a special shame that a boy of Alejandro’s talent was about to lose like this. For his brilliance to come up against a child-devouring father, like some old myth that Corydon tried to remember for a moment, his eyes drifting away from the board to the downy curve of the boy’s jaw.
And no. Alejandro Flores had to learn the hard lessons, providing this was one of them. The cost of the game was everything, and he might be only fifteen, but he was old enough to know that.
Corydon brought his bishop slanting in from a far file, removed Alejandro’s fumbled knight. For a moment his stomach tightened at the possibility that there was some nuance he had missed. Then despite himself, contrary to all his charity and experience, Corydon looked up into his opponent’s eyes…
Which were brimming with tears, as Alejandro Flores examined his developed pawns, held his hand momentarily above his one freed castle…
Then moved to the king, tipped it over with a clatter, and stalked from the room, the Asian professor at his heels like some avenging ghost.
As you might expect David Corydon would go on to win the tournament. But that night, he mapped out a strategy for the next day.
Tomorrow Alejandro would play black, would be on the defensive. Corydon hovered between planning a gradual, stately offense—a giuoco piano, or ‘soft game’ as they called it—or moving to something swift and relentless, something to throw the boy back on his heels and to use his father to advantage.
He decided to walk around the Midtown Hotel to clear his mind, to plot the opening moves.
Burlington had fallen into the deepest cold. It was the kind of crisp, dry New England air in which your nose hairs freeze and bristle, so Corydon wrapped a scarf around his face. Three young people were seated on the stoop outside the diner, their parkas pulled tightly over their faces so that Corydon could not tell who or what they were.
College students, he supposed. From what he understood, while St. Michael’s hosted the chess tournament, the Byrds were up the road, in concert at the larger University of Vermont. He was glad that his pleasures were quiet, as the snow at the edge of the sidewalk creaked aridly beneath his boot.
Crossing Main Street, he headed for the storefronts that faced the hotel. The clouds had given way to clear skies and moonlight, and had it not been for that, David Corydon would have missed Alejandro Flores’ ascent to the roof of the Midtown Hotel. It was the boy’s shadow he noticed, after all.
Or he knew it was Alejandro, no matter how bundled the poor child was against a cold that, in moments, he had no intention of feeling. He recognized the parka as that of the considerate teenager from Thursday morning, but he knew it was Alejandro by the gentle curve of the boy’s leg, as graceful as a laurel branch, and as out of place in a world of winter.
It should have alarmed Corydon, to see the boy on high, but by this time he was less accustomed to thinking ahead. For a moment, a foolish passage of poetry drifted in and out of his memory…
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
It was stupid stuff. He would have to ask Shepherd Frame about it.
All the while, as he mulled over the sight of the boy above the fourth story windows, outlined against the northern sky, the words from the poem giving Alejandro Flores another shape and meaning, it did not occur to David Corydon that the boy intended to jump, than anything more than accident had brought him to that place and height.
A cold breeze lifted from somewhere in the southwest, borne no doubt off of Lake Champlain and slicing a frigid diagonal over the city. Alejandro leapt off the roof, into the embrace of the icy wind, and for a moment David Corydon lurched toward the sidewalk, cried out and extended his hand in an old gesture of resignation…
And just as suddenly, Alejandro Flores was carried aloft. Buoyed by the wind, he rose above the hotel, his thin arms constrained by the absurd bundling of his parka. Corydon lifted his hands to the spectacle, as the boy seemed to cartwheel in the night air and discover his bearings, now lying face down on the current of wind, which bore him northward: toward Montreal and a new language and freedom. Corydon watched from below, the faint sound of approaching sirens in his ear.