Sometimes a day arrives in which the thing to do is just see what it has in store for you. It’s a day free of obligations, a day book-ended by important affairs and thus inopportune for embarking on projects that must be finished once they’ve begun, a day on which taking stock means discovering how you really feel given the space to do so, a day for partaking of simple pleasures. I chose once, on such a day, to take a walk in the park.
A winter thaw had brought the air up to a humane temperature, and snow was melting in ways undetectable by the human eye– shrinking inch-wise, everywhere at once, in a creeping, parametric withdrawal from existence. Movements like these in the world around us– the subtle and unceasing workings of Nature– fly below the radar of our attention. When we finally catch on, we wonder how they could have escaped us. When we find that we are ourselves occupying an embodiment of the same phenomenon– have been ever since we were born– we become forlorn. We reevaluate, mistaking perpetual transformation as the prelude to a desultory ending. We crack apart. We turn to the advice of experts. We demand to know reasons why as well as the schedule of most probable outcomes when all that is asked for is our return to an endless, subtle knowing– to melt a little bit each day, like the snow.
No one played a trick on us. We’ve been sliding into this apocalypse of recognition all along.
* * * * *
The sky was gray and overcast, almost white, and crackled with the wet undersides of dormant tree limbs. The birds were sitting silent upon them, keeping their vigil, monitoring the receding snow. Other people must have had days more in keeping with the modern intention, because the trails were quiet and serene. The sounds of the city a few hundred yards away were the sounds of normalcy, though muffled and pixelated– droning cars, the patter of footfalls, a shrieking horn, a whistle, belts in need of tensioning, tires scrunching bits of windblown debris, flags rippling in the wind.
I was starting to think about the things a life is ultimately driving at, the questions about trying to become an absolute in a world of relatives, when I turned the corner and found myself confronted by a veritable crowd. In the summer this particular square was always sprinkled with chess players, but never quite like this. Just one table was in use, but it was enclosed by a deepening circle of curious patrons. The players themselves were hidden from view.
As I approached, two doves took flight from the center of the cluster, winging upwards into the sky amidst a sudden and collective intake of breath. It was as if the whole world had paused together, except for the doves’ flight. Their eyes were both distant and clear as they settled into the trajectories they sought, the ones they felt calling to them from the inside, and they flew with the urgency of holy messengers. The moment quickly melted as consciousness caught up with visceral understanding. As the doves disappeared into a foggy beyond composed of barren trees and snowy hills, the surprised silence was replaced by contagious applause, and a flurry of localized commentaries. I watched the two travelers shrink in my vision until I could no longer see them. I was profoundly curious about their sudden appearance, and turned back to the scene at hand, squeezing in close for a better view. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to see, but I found myself quite easily able to slip into a position with clear view of the proceedings.
Jesus was seated at an empty board, and opposite him, his friend Rumi. Their eyes were twinkling. They were smiling– jubilant– sighing as if they had just released their concentration from a feat of tremendous skill and dexterity.
“Shall we play again?” Jesus asked.
“You know I cannot resist your invitation,” Rumi replied.
“You want to be the Offering this time?”
“As a sun desires to rise.”
I was surprised to see the board was already set, and ready to go. I couldn’t help but raise my brow as Jesus slid all the dark pieces off of the board onto a pile in front of himself. Opposite, Rumi performed a similar maneuver with his small army of white figurines. Then Jesus asked the crowd for a volunteer.
A girl came forward and Jesus asked her to pick three pieces and set them on the board. One of them had to be the King. Then the girl came around and picked out three of Rumi’s, one of which was also the King.
Jesus went first, placing his first piece– a bishop– onto a black square near the center of the board. Rumi nodded and placed his pawn onto the board, just a few rows away from the board’s opposite edge. Jesus sat for a moment, stroking his chin, then set his rook down a few squares off to the side of his bishop. Rumi, who had never stopped nodding, who seemed to be standing along the border between two worlds, set a knight two squares down and one square over from the bishop. Jesus placed his King in a remote position at the near edge of the board, and then Rumi placed his own King into checkmate.
The fellow next to me whispered in my ear, “That was the Offering.”
I nodded silently.
* * * * *
Rumi went first, sliding his King out of checkmate.
“Pass me a rook, there, Friend,” Jesus said.
Rumi picked up the piece in question from his pile and handed it over. Jesus set it down in the location of his rook, and slid his own rook a few places to the side. Next Rumi called for the dark Queen, set her down in the location of his recently resurrected rook, and slid his miniature Christ to the near edge of the board. Jesus picked up his rook and set it down further back and out of the way, freeing the center of the board for an entirely new landscape of possibility.
Rumi winked, called for a representative from Jesus’ stack of pawns, slid his own pawn back and to the left, diagonally one square, and set Jesus’ down on the recently vacated spot. Piece by piece, move by move, the board was populated, working its way back to the Beginning. They never stopped once to think, never stopped bathing in ideas, never stopped surprising one another with the way one moment could build on the next, unexpectedly tumbling into place. They never ceased the back-and-forth exchange on which a world is built.
The game built on itself as each revelation made the next one possible, each gift paved the way for another. The complexity of the board multiplied turn over turn and quickly eclipsed my ability to trace. Then, just as the crowd was welling up with expectation, at a crucial moment, the play slowed, and I couldn’t see how a move could be made at all. The pair looked up and made eye contact. Jesus began to laugh. “It has found us again, my Friend,” he said.
“So it would seem,” Rumi replied, beaming.
Then Rumi swung his knight around and toppled Jesus’ bishop, taking a piece off the board. I was caught by a sudden and holy sense of recognition, but blinded to what I had glimpsed, as if my entire life had been a dream and I had just encountered the type of moment whose logical outcome, when it finally came, would be the forgetting that anything tenuous had ever seemed to happen.
I looked quizzically to the fellow next to me, who seemed to be familiar with these proceedings. “That was the redemptive move,” he explained. “Every game I’ve seen these two play has one, a moment when they can no longer proceed as they have, and the only right move is the one the game itself offers. It’s like the Game behind the game reveals itself. The trick is to know when this moment has come. Believe me, I know. If you miss it, the whole thing just fractures, but these guys never miss it. They recognize it every time, and they never question it. They’re insanely good at this– true masters. I could watch them all day…”
* * * * *
From there the Beginning was recovered quickly. We watched in amazement as the board came together, click-click-click, as if a tangled ball of dimensions had been unraveled right before us. As the last pawn slid back into position, we reached out with our hands to beat them together in applause, full of the most buoyant sensation, and the entire plaza erupted into a field of doves leaping into the air. Our hands became a sea of beating wings. We swirled around one another in a spiral tempest of pure motion, knowing perfectly well how to fly in a broadly choreographed pattern, how to sweep across a snowy field in formation, and the plaza was left quiet again– an abandoned patch of stone set amid the chill of winter.
Some days are like that. Holiness strikes and then disperses, leaving the type of emptiness you can only find by living in a world.
* * * * *
A brief acknowledgment… The phrase “redemptive move” was given to me by Ptero9 in a comment she made on her blog, while, little beknownst to her, I was thinking about this idea of using chess in reverse as a metaphor for the way Creation seems to build on itself, by giving to one another in ways whose true effects we can hardly fathom. The words when I received them sparkled in my mind, and linked quickly to this idea. It struck me as a great example… of thoughts linking up… of ideas flowing back and forth…