Beach is the wrong word, but we’re on a stretch of sand bordered by a large body of salty water. In the grandiose fashion typical of this scenario, my opponent sits in stony silence, veiled and garbed in black from head to toe. The gameboard rests heavy between our crossed legs. My right hand trudges solemnly from piece to piece as I contemplate the next move. I’m trying quite hard to strike a thoughtful, statuesque pose, befitting the gravity of the situation, by resting my chin atop my left fist. In reality, I’m holding my head up to keep awake, wits failing and eyelids drooping.
The beach, as I’ll noun it for simplicity, is perpetual and void of landmarks. Upon its blank, greying canvas our little game constitutes the only blotch. The water ripples to the steady rhythm of the breeze song, gentle and interminable. I glance inland toward the barely discernible brushstroke of dull greenery where the sand reluctantly relents. The sounds and sights of people and things beyond the distant green are memories and daydreams now.
I always imagined that it’d be louder. Chaotic even. Blasting sirens and an overcrowded hospital, a flash of broken glass and dirty tarmac, maybe even a blaze of selfless heroism. Everyone always prays for the calm and the silence, neglecting the true nature of that silence – protracted and weary. The comfort of family and friends by the bedside is often underpinned with trauma and regret.
My trudging right hand halts and forms a pincer, clamping the chosen piece between my thumb and forefinger. I make my move and I don’t know if it’s a good one or a bad one or if it even matters a single iota. Across the gameboard, my opponent is blank and expressionless as the sand beneath his feet. Sitting this close, I finally begin to understand the fascination and impossibility of the looming shadow, after all these years.
He’s quick and methodical as ever, playing his next piece immediately. The lack of regard or consideration isn’t ruthless or cold, it’s just business. The cumulative experience of eternity behind a flick of the wrist. Direct and urgent without even the merest hint of reckless bravado. The tension crawls all the way up my torso from the pit of my stomach to the back of my throat and the talons sink, likely for the last time. He’s not fazed.
Everyone plays the game and, in turn, reaches their last move eventually. An oft-repeated, and not even remotely comforting, mantra for the masses. The wind is strong and silent, the man in the dark garb too. I am silent. As he continues to play his moves with dull, routine certainty I grow further racked with doubt and indecision, temporarily halting the inevitable conclusion.
Victory is an abstract concept, an unattainable delusion. The odds of survival higher than the number of grains of sand on this dreary beach. I rest my hand flat on the ground, letting the displaced sand rise up between my fingers. It’s coarse and cold and I feel no attachment to the world or nature or anything around me other than the game. A strange affinity grows for the man-shaped void sitting across from me.
I’ve been slow and deliberate in my movements all this time, the game remaining fairly stable since my opponent opened up proceedings all those decades ago. I see now that I’ve been on the defensive side of things since the very first move. He strikes clean and true, while I cling desperately by calloused fingertips and fading will. The infantilisation of death in the context of a game is comforting really, a cyclical collapse back into the happy daze of childhood when all the nonsense of adulthood is said and done. To fight for one’s life is scary, to play is simple. Morbidity and absurdity walking off into the sunset hand-in-hand.
There aren’t many possible moves left now. I lift the biggest and boldest piece available to me, bright and red and garish. It’s oddly light and it feels warm in my hand. I’ve been all the moves up to this point and this move is the punctuation of all the moves before. When I was young they seemed infinite and I used them recklessly. With the late blooming of hindsight I see that the moves were only ever finite and I squandered a great many. I dwell on those that I did not squander before playing the final piece.
All those climactic encounters between life and death bear the same aesthetic, sombre old battles between black and white. The game isn’t so serious really. Indeed, I’ve found it to be quite the opposite. Colourful and absurd and full of random moves, in spite of our best efforts. Bracing myself for the climax, I take one last look around. The water is placid, the breeze gone and the sun long since disappeared over the smudge of green on the horizon. Meeting my opponent’s gaze directly for the first time, I place my final piece upon the mule’s overloaded back and Buckaroo’s legs shoot wildly into the air, claiming another soul.