Chess by Nick Stenning / Flickr
In the park, where voices are low and gathering in numbers, and the gaps of silence mean someone is straining to hear, Munch plays chess with a war veteran who helped take a desert city and wipe out any late afternoon mirages.
"Death was so hard on the eyes," he says, "and the accidental casualties we had to deny."
I'm sitting on a bench across from the two, taking small bites out of a Bavarian ham and cheese sandwich from the family-owned deli around the corner. Munch, his forehead creased with deep lines of concentration, his pockmarked skin around his cheeks oozing sweat, moves his bishop to take the old veteran's knight. In turn, Munch loses his bishop to the old veteran's queen. The old man looks up at Munch, shakes his head.
"The world will end in approximately fifteen days, no more than thirty. I read it in the stars."
"The stars?" says Munch, moving his last pawn and losing it. His queen is vulnerable to an attack.
"Yes," says the old man. "You can read everything in the stars if you understand their hieroglyphics and patterns, listen to their voices, very distant to be sure. The stars are not composed of inorganic matter, you know. They have a pulse and an intelligence, all their own. They've been watching us and memorizing our behaviors, our mistakes, our victories, our fallacies of thought. Shakespeare derived his storylines from stars. He often wrote by starlight. As did others and others." The old man moves his knight. "What do you think about the stars?" asks the old man.
"I don't think about them very often," says Munch.
"And death? Surely, it must bother you as it does so many."
Munch leans forward and studies the chessboard. A slight breeze blows against us; it feels like a woman's lips, if she were modest. "No," says Munch, "it doesn't bother me that much because it is always there in some way. If I cut myself shaving or trying to peel a fruit, the pain reminds me that we will not stay comfortable or healed forever. And then there is the night with all that darkness. It pushes down the day, a kind of death if you will, and it's a reminder that someday for all of us, it will stay dark and we will not rise again."
The old man says Checkmate and the two shake hands. I throw my sandwich wrappers into a nearby bin and wipe the crumbs from my clothes.
Now, looking back, it seems kind of funny, although not humorous. Within thirty days, Munch suspended himself from gravity for the last time. I like to think of it this way: he levitated toward the stars. He reached the nearest constellation by a rope. When I cut him down from the ceiling in our apartment, my favorite astronaut from a melancholy planet, so many mirages beyond the dried up valleys, fell to the floor. And I was now the one who woke up and shook at the prospect that I was all alone on this earth.
Out from the canyons, limestone on the rim, the girls walk single-file & zombie-eyed. Seep willow is their past; steam orchid is what passes for blood. Now they stand before me & hold hands.
They want to tell me what they saw at the bottom. The schist & the tree frog, the redbud that spoke in riddles & never shed a leaf. How the acacia & the salt cedar betrayed Proterozoic lovers. One girl cries exotic crystal tears.
& even though they are dead, they look like any other girl before a red sun, squeezing cacti in her hand, fire ants across the skin.
They will tell me that at the bottom of the creek, a cave wren sings in musical code that only love can save them. There is nothing more and nothing less. I know because I am the secret tourist who once walked behind them.
They keep trying, Lord knows how, to recruit me back into the life of blind limestone. It was love that killed us all.
Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey. He has been published in Elimae, Smokelong Quarterly, This Zine Will Change Your Life, Blaze Vox, Matchbook, and elsewhere. His latest collections of poetry/prose is Future Wars from Another New Calligraphy and Split Brain on Amazon Kindle. He loves 50s Sci-Fi movies, manga comics, and pre-punk garage bands of the 60s.