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Zugzwang

By Emil A. Draitser

Copyright by the Kenyon Review, 1999

 

Zugzwang--that's what they call it in chess. He had to make a move he didn't want to . . . .

Sometimes it happens that a queen, all-powerful and resplendent, whose mere appearance makes the pages swoon and the young knights turn pale with the turbulence of their love, and shoot themselves--because of position, solely because of position (the crowd of dim-witted pawns tripping over each other, the clumsiness of the rooks, the indecisiveness of the bishops), begins suddenly, surprising even herself, to look benevolently upon the aging man, under his heavy crown, watching her from across the board. And so the king--who all his life has moved cautiously, as befits a king, step by step, since to be trapped and perish would be as easy as falling off a log, in these unsentimental times--having seen the visage of the queen, fully, and face-to-face, is lost.

A couple of visiting Russian poets was giving an evening reading. A quiet Jewish boy with a large head, in a faded checkered shirt, every last button carefully fastened, looked more like a rural ledger clerk than a poet. A tall woman in a short haircut recited her work in a mellow bass voice. She had done time in a labor camp, and forever told it straight. When introduced, she had rapturously expressed her gratitude to God for this visit to America. Her listeners shuddered. The ledger clerk, in his turn, mumbled that had they told him six months ago that he would be reading his poems in New York, he'd have thought it some crazy practical joke. 

During the break, Mikhail Lvovich saw a professor he knew. She embraced him: "Oh-my-dear-so-glad-to-see-you!" At first the effusiveness of her greeting surprised him--they'd never been close. Then he remembered her husband had recently died--the loneliness must be killing her, she'd be happy to see any familiar face. She was sentimental, in the Russian way. Sometimes during her graduate literary seminars, when the discussion turned to the fate of Russian poets, she'd burst into tears before the students, somehow evoking in voice and appearance one of the great poetesses of the motherland.

Next to her stood Inge, her favorite student. She was no more than thirty, and Mikhail Lvovich immediately discounted her as too young. Later he understood: it wasn't so much her youth as her beauty. She was pensive and even shy, so her loveliness wasn't obvious at first glance. Inge stood by and listened while he and the professor exchanged pleasantries. The professor neglected to introduce them, and when she turned away for a minute, having seen another familiar face in the crowd, her head wobbling slightly with that affliction of the elderly, Mikhail Lvovich introduced himself. To his surprise Inge extended her hand with liveliness and pleasure.

She looked at him directly, with none of the coquetry that willingly or unwillingly appears on a woman's face during a conversation with a celebrity--if you could even call him that, since his renown was confined to the narrow circles of chess. He was a grandmaster, even an international grandmaster, though the height of his fame was a good forty or so years behind him. These days, while he enjoyed no special limelight, he had a solid reputation as a serious and thoughtful player. A tournament did not go by in which he didn't receive a prize for style, if not necessarily for victory. For a long time he hadn't been in the best physical shape. He was no match for the muscular young men of the new generation of grandmasters, who would jog every morning, swim kilometer after kilometer, preparing for their tournaments. The pressure of a protracted game, alas, could bring Mikhail Lvovich to the brink of collapse.He appeared in fewer and fewer tournaments. He served more often now as a coach and chess commentator than active competitor. But the elegance of his play continued to thrill chess enthusiasts, and his analyses were published in America and several European countries. Still, that was it. Frankly, not very impressive firepower on the battlefield for the hearts of women....

Mikhail Lvovich was taken aback by Inge's gaze. She had slowly turned her head to look straight at him with dark gray, wide-set eyes.Her light hair, a sort of golden brown, was too lovely to have been tinted. Anyway, such fairness came naturally to a Swede.

The grandmaster had had his share of affairs. He himself never sought them. If a woman made the first move, sometimes he would just go along. The affairs were light, not serious, never amounting to much. Mikhail Lvovich's life was chiefly occupied with the sixty-four black and white squares, whose rules were generally useless on the sixty-fifth. It always bewildered him when a woman could suddenly blow up over such trifles as a word that wasn't just right, or when he'd call as promised immediately after a game, but would have forgotten to explain the end might not be until the following evening, or even a day later, if the game had been adjourned. 

He owed a lot to chess.Self-control, steadfastness, the ability to summon up his will at the right moment. And not least, optimism. As long as even an iota of strength remained on the board, there was always hope. How many times had it happened--despite heavy losses, he'd hang on till the end, and then, look!--he'd be in luck. His opponent, sensing easy prey, would get sloppy, make mistakes.... It had long been his habit, in life also, to calculate several moves ahead. And now he considered whether to call Inge. What could come of it? What were the possible variations? Anxiety kept him from calmly thinking through this essentially ordinary, everyday move. This was a bad sign. He was convinced that it's the same in life as at the board --as soon as you lose control of your emotions, you're in trouble. When your mind is in turmoil, you're unlikely to get out unharmed, let alone to win.

Of course he desired Inge. Yet the more he thought about her, the less intimacy with her, in itself, meant for him. The grandmaster from time to time was amazed at how, the moment you meet a woman of unusual attractiveness, your physical desire for her becomes of secondary importance. Of course it's still there. But it makes itself known only indirectly, like the midday sun through a dense haze.

In any case, here there was hardly any mystery. Wasn't it the beauty of the game, above all else, that drew him to chess? What could be more aesthetically perfect than an attack launched according to an orderly, meticulously thought-out plan? Elegant and quick, several short thrusts of the sword, a combination that would make his opponent gasp in astonishment, as if the marble floor he'd been waltzing along had suddenly shattered beneath him.

The grandmaster knew his preference for elegant play at any cost--sometimes even against the logic of a position--was why he'd not become world champion, as many fans in his homeland, who'd by now forgotten him, had once predicted. 

He was an experienced fighter. But if an opponent played clumsily or, even worse, "yawned"--that is, completely loosened his concentration and lost a piece through an oversight--then, instead of joy, he'd feel annoyance at his enemy's blunder. Winning should come only through a precise thrust of the rapier into the heart. Let other, more practical players, allow themselves vulgar blows to the gut. For them, nothing could be simpler: for a split second your rival's belly is exposed, you lunge forward for all you're worth and voilà!--the duel is over, the game is yours. You immediately get up from your chair, stretch your cramped legs, and casually wave a hand to your seconds. "You may remove the body," your gesture says, "hand it over to his fans and relatives." Such victories always revolted the grandmaster. Accumulating points gave him little pleasure, but beauty still drew him to itself irresistibly. And now this young woman.... 

The sober part of his mind, with which he weighed each tournament invitation, told him he shouldn't try to see Inge. Nothing good would come of it. Much too young. Much too beautiful.... But her face hovered in the air right next to him, almost before his eyes. No matter how much he tried to push it away, it stuck with him everywhere. Even when, tired, with no time to sleep, he closed his eyes for half an hour to refresh his brain, Inge was there. Her face was so close he could see the down on her upper lip. 

So it continued for two weeks. His inability to brush away the vision of Inge amazed and exasperated the grandmaster. The picture of those blond bangs over dark gray eyes was indelible, and he felt that... Well, he himself didn't know what he felt. Only that the thought of her brought a tenderness like a light, warm little cloud.

After wasting a whole damned day alone analyzing the most complicated game in the current championship match, the grandmaster felt that special weariness--more than overworked, he was exhausted. Suddenly it didn't matter to him whether or not Inge remembered him, whether she would offer the usual polite pleasantries or engage him with the warmth he had felt during their introduction. He would call, but in his weary state expected little more than a final, lackluster chat--and then good-bye, farewell forever! The Swedish game would come to an end.... It was a familiar situation. It happened rather frequently in the final rounds of big tournaments. After just a dozen opening moves, the exhausted players called a quick draw and shake hands in gratitude for playing along, for sparing each other needless trouble.

At the last moment, already reaching for the phone, he felt alarm. He couldn't understand why. After all, what was the worst that could happen? Why not get on with it?

As soon as he heard Inge's low voice on the phone, something miraculous happened: his weariness and melancholy vanished. She was happy he called, and he surprised himself with animation and even cheerfulness that came from God knows where.

"Well, we had our talk," he said to himself an hour later, willfully suppressing his excitement. "Now I have to just forget about her."

Two days passed, and he called Inge again. Then he called another time. And another. He noticed with pleasure that life on the days when he was able to reach her was easier and more full of light. And even when she was out, just her warm and endearing voice on the answering machine could excite him.

The grandmaster couldn't bring himself to ask for a date. He limited himself to light conversation, interspersed with compliments. They often took the form of two- and three-move combinations.

"I got home and listened to the message on the machine," he said once. "There was your voice. Good thing it's not summer now and that my room overlooks a gas station, not a garden. Otherwise it'd be full of bees."

"Why?" she laughed, understanding that something flattering would follow.

"Your voice could attract them."

So it went for two more weeks. Mikhail Lvovich mastered his anxiety enough for a few telephone calls, pleasant conversations with a light tone of flirtation, and nothing more. Finally, one day, he gave in to the kind of impulse he'd sometimes feel at the chessboard in a moment of inspiration, when he'd make a move based not on calculation but solely on instinct, the sense that something good would surely come of it--like picking up that ridiculous-looking little horse and unexpectedly advancing it closer to those idle, owl-eyed guards scattered around the king. He invited Inge to the theater. 

Inge responded with a sincere eagerness that showed how long she'd waited for him to make the first move:

"That would be marvelous!" 

Encouraged, he immediately invited her for coffee after the theater. Whether he wanted it or not, it had happened--they had made a date, per all the rules of New York romantic etiquette.

Mikhail Lvovich hung up. For a moment he felt not quite himself, the same as when he'd decided to call her for the first time. He concluded he was simply fear-stricken. She was young and beautiful, and he was an aging man of sixty-six, poor and not in the best health. What could he offer her?

But the move had been made. The chess clock had been punched, the minute hand had begun its circle. The scarlet flag--unremarkable, innocent, a spot of color existing solely to enliven the black and white face of the clock--hung calmly, waiting to meet it, between the dangerously sharpened spears of the number"eleven". Mikhail Lvovich decided to continue the game. After all, in love, as in chess, you had to follow the game's iron rule: you touch, you move!

The date was set for Saturday, and during the next few days he was overcome several times by panic. What if she suddenly called and canceled? How would he react? Was he becoming a masochist, was that what was happening? He was annoyed at himself. Why should a woman need to spell it out for him? The whole explanation was right there in the rejection. It spoke for itself.

Mikhail Lvovich was more excited before meeting Inge than before the deciding game of a tournament. Before a match he knew that all he needed was to be in good form, and to leave the rest to luck.Here, such a simple approach didn't help. Among other things, he imagined that soon after their last conversation Inge had met some brilliant, fabulously eligible young man, of whom she had dreamed her whole life. Now she would hardly want to waste her time on an old chess master. Why didn't she just call and tell him?

What nonsense! He immediately cut off such thoughts. Why wound himself further? She hadn't called, she hadn't broken their date. Everything was as before, as agreed. He seemed to have completely lost his mind over the Swedish beauty.

Days went by, and the telephone was silent. There was nothing from Inge about breaking the date. Out of nowhere, Mikhail Lvovich suddenly thought of canceling it himself. He looked for an excuse: a last-minute invitation to a tournament abroad... the publication of some of his games with commentaries.... The main thing was to get out of it, it didn't matter how. He couldn't figure out what attracted her to him. A woman like Inge belonged with a tall handsome gentleman, a corporate board member with an Aspen ski tan, a frequent flyer on his company's private jet.

The day of their meeting arrived. Inge hadn't called to break the date, and he, in turn, hadn't found the resolve to call it off himself.

There was nothing to be done. The grandmaster drove to her building in his old Buick. He was embarrassed that door on the passenger side only opened from the inside.

Mikhail Lvovich rode the elevator to Inge's apartment, listening to its kindhearted hum. He thought that what Inge really deserved was a stretch limousine as shiny as new galoshes, with a uniformed chauffeur and a basket of flowers. But the grandmaster was poor. Although used to living modestly, for the first time he truly regretted that he hadn't succeeded like some of his colleagues. Well, what could he do, he figured; at least he'd be spending one evening with her, even if it was the only one.

He wasn't even surprised that Inge's smile on opening her door seemed directed not at him, but at some thought of her own. The grandmaster missed the usual uplift of "You're expected." He was disappointed, but at the same time felt relief: his low expectations had merely been confirmed. In the course of his long chess life he had gotten used to surviving defeat. Of course, each loss would upset him, but he'd soon take himself in hand. When you confront at the chessboard an outstanding player, a legend, and know long before the clock starts that you're going to lose, the loss doesn't seem so tragic. 

Mikhail Lvovich handed Inge a long-stemmed rose, wrapped in a carefully rolled-up cone of paper; its bud, a deep shade of burgundy, was like a skillfully folded scrap of heavy silk. The color of the rose now seemed daring for a first date. He should have looked for something paler, but the neighborhood around NYU, where Inge lived in a graduate student dormitory, was unfamiliar, and he decided not to risk being late. Such details meant nothing, really. He didn't count on seeing her again, in any case.

Inge accepted the rose with no particular show of pleasure. The grandmaster's heart sank. Well, apparently she was accustomed to the attention of men. A rose would hardly impress her. 

Inge offered him something to drink. For some reason Mikhail Lvovich was afraid of alcohol and asked for coffee. There was an uncomfortable silence. Conversation always came hard for him, especially with young and beautiful women.

"I hope this silly music doesn't bother you," Inge said, entering the kitchen. Mikhail Lvovich noticed only then the soft melody quietly floating in the air.

"No, no, of course not! It's OK--keep it on." 

"I'm waiting for a little song I really love," Inge called out. "Italian. It's silly, but for some reason I like it."

"I don't speak Italian." 

"The song--it's nothing special, but the last verse, you know... Something about the image at the end I find touching, for some reason."

"Translate it for me." 

She appeared in the kitchen doorway, looked at him, smiled and turned away. 

"The song reveals too much about me."

"Even so..." Though it was clear he shouldn't, he continued to prod her. He sensed in her tone nothing out of the ordinary, nothing promising, but he was nervous, afraid to lose the thread of the conversation. 

"Well, I'll tell you, then," she answered, as if to imply, You asked for it. "It's a song about a she-wolf. The last verse is about how she sees herself surrounded by a heap of her cubs."

Inge gently gestured in the air around her, palms downward, as if patting the large-domed heads of the wolf cubs. Of course, she was saying a lot about herself.Just the fact that she was confiding in him revealed much more than her words themselves. Such private matters are talked about either with very close friends or with those people who don't count at all. It was clear he was among the latter. After all, they were seeing each other for only the second time.He understood he'd never father those future offspring longed for by this Swedish she-wolf. Yes, there was something of the wild animal in her beauty. Maybe it was the calm and direct gaze of the wide-set eyes and the grace with which she turned her head to talk with him. Inge's face was serene, sure of itself, healthy and strong like an untamed beast's.

She brought out the coffee. For atmosphere, she placed a short candle in a small brass candlestick on a low table and turned off the overhead light, leaving the wall lamps on. It occurred to him that she had performed this simple ritual many times. Legions of others must have been in this graduate student's apartment, a whole crowd of Vikings, and maybe even uncrowned princes--from so-called good families, the elite young of an elite university. How could he measure up to them? Still, by some miracle he was there....

The little candle began to burn and immediately went out. Inge smiled, barely noticeably.

"Do you believe in omens?" she said, and calmly looked into his face. 

What should he do? Whatever he answered would bring an abrupt end to this romance that had never even had a chance to bloom. To say "yes" to her question would admit to the dimness and hopelessness of his visit. A "no" would be terribly conceited--at the board an opponent would only smile ironically at such pretension. He was horrified at how quickly he'd fallen into a bad position. "White began to experience difficulty as early as the very first moves of the opening"--formed clearly in his head. Could he really have been caught in that elementary trap, the four-move "Scholar's Mate"? Such foolishness hadn't happened to him since he was six, and just learning to play. A mate like that was disgraceful, even humiliating.

Mikhail Lvovich was ready to lose, but had expected it much later, at the end of a long evening of complicated maneuvering.He felt as empty as the box they shovel the chess pieces into after a game. It served him right! What on earth had he been thinking?On his head, instead of a crown, there had turned out to be a dunce's cap. The queen, just for fun, was slapping the poor balding king's mouth with a jester's toy--that ball made of bull's intestine, with a pea foolishly rattling around inside. A noise started in his ears: the sound of the queen's guard approaching, the clopping of the horses' hoofbeats. The hooves of the horse rearing on "F6" flashed in the air; the horseshoes glinted in his eyes, so close he could see the grids on the embedded nail heads. The sharp odor of horse sweat stung his nostrils. Another minute and the grandmaster would be picked up under the armpits and dragged out in disgrace.He'd find himself back in his messy little room with three bookcases of chess tomes, in Flushing, in a distant area of the city. This evening's smell of freshly cut rose and a clean feminine room would give way to the stink of yesterday's slightly burnt coffee. 

Early that morning, half asleep, still in his pajamas, he'd hastily warmed up the leftover grounds, although he'd long known that any caffeine was bad for his heart. But he'd needed to ponder the Catalan Opening from the last game of the world championship. His analysis had to be ready for the newspaper that very day, and he'd hurried to get it out of his hands to free up the evening. If you could call this free! He thought with shame that his years had taught him little prudence. He should have wised up by now! But, no--he'd given in to an impulse, been monstrously presumptuous, and gone to Inge's. It occurred to him to excuse himself and leave without explanation.

Just like at the board when he sensed defeat closing in, he now felt his heart muscle contract, briefly and painfully.Alone, completely alone....His wife had left him years before. A schoolteacher, she spent the evenings tiring herself with her students' papers and regarded his chess business with indifference. When he'd return home from a tournament after two or even three weeks of separation, she'd often forget even to ask the dutiful question: "How did you do?"Sometimes it seemed she imagined him a traveling salesman.

He was lost in such thoughts but then he suddenly heard himself speaking, with a faint note of bravura:

"You know, Inge, 'omens' and I--we're very close. Sometimes I give them a good talking to, and they think it over and change their minds."

She looked at him affectionately, or at least kindly. She appreciated his wit. By some miracle he'd hung on to the edge of an abyss unexpectedly opened up under him.

The trembling in his knees that he felt during this early brush with defeat reoccurred several times in the evening. He experienced that strange yearning familiar to everyone who's come close to perishing--despite himself, he kept returning to the place where fate had tested him: to the episode with the candle. It was as if he were reminding Inge of his escape from the elegant trap she'd laid for him at the very beginning.

The candle resurfaced at least twice. First, during the play, when the hero began to light the candelabra, Mikhail Lvovich waited for it start to burn (that is, for the lighting operator in the wings to move the lever of the rheostat), leaned over to Inge, and whispered: "He was luckier."

She smiled.

Then, after the theater, in a small Greenwich Village café, the waiter, a short pigtail down his back and seven elegant silver rings in his right ear, placed in front of them a stubby candle in a small pot-bellied vessel made of dark cherry-colored glass. While the flame settled down, light Bordeaux shadows--the color of diluted blood--flickered on Inge's lips and cheeks. The grandmaster said with a simper that today he was certainly being harassed by candles. Inge smiled and after a pause calmly said:

"Of course, I could have exchanged it, but for some reason I didn't want to."

And she looked at him.

Her smile kept him from feeling the blow immediately. She "didn't want to"--so what was all the rest of this about? Why, then, was she here, with him? Ah, youth--so careless, so unaware of its own strength, striking out blindly, casually, certain that the whole world is as infinitely strong as itself, convinced that surely it couldn't harm that world seriously?

The grandmaster hadn't felt so humiliated since his first two junior tournaments, when his opponents, dominating the board and tasting a fast checkmate, had openly sneered and barely bothered to capture a piece--not even a pawn or a knight. Each time he had remarkably salvaged a draw. But now?

He was sure that today there would be no draw and no prisoners taken. The suffocating smell of defeat swirled around him, taunted him again and again. Why was he there? What now? Stand up and offer to take her home?

A minute later he again pulled himself together and decided it would never be too late to resign. The question was, what were his chances for a draw? To save some dignity in defeat--that would be good enough, now that his position was in a shambles. At least he'd have learned something--but what a lesson!

He mustered up his courage and raised his head to look into Inge's face. The eyes of the Swedish beauty, whose gaze he had avoided for so long, looked at him with sincere interest.

"Where do you see yourself in ten years, Mikhail Lvovich?" she asked, smiling.

(Go for it, my distant relative, poor little orphan on the vertical "H"!)

"In Paris," he said intuitively, and immediately saw he had guessed right. Inge smiled even wider. She'd thought so. He would be in Paris. She would also be there in ten years. Where else was there? Not only she felt it, she knew it....

Having advanced the pawn, Mikhail Lvovich calmed down. He looked into Inge's eyes, no longer fearing her answering gaze. She leaned over to him, touched his hand and said with surprise and laughter:

"You know, Mikhail Lvovich, there's something of the magician in you."

Oh how happily the little pawn stepped forward again, the modest little fool of the infantry! The smell of a morning meadow came to the grandmaster, fresh-cut grass, a light smell of mint--oh, yes, that must have been what was in the salad. A light wind began to ruffle the white and pale-blue plumes on the nodding heads of the officers dozing on their mounts. The officers came to life, tightened the straps of the horses' bridles. On the fortress towers brooms scratched and scraped the stone; a quick tidying up began. The sleepy watchmen jumped up as if cold water had been splashed behind their collars, down the backs of their long overcoats. Gasping from their sudden wakening, they gripped their muskets as hard as they could and shouted to each other from post to post: "Hey, you there--look sharp!" There was something in the air, an excitement building; it wasn't clear from where, but a distant rumble of the earth could be felt approaching--step by step, an inexorable, unknown force. 

 

They left the café.It was unseasonably warm. The grandmaster took Inge's arm. She accepted the gesture happily, and even pressed closer against his shoulder. Their faces turned away from the headlights of passing automobiles, they walked along the narrow streets of Greenwich Village, which reminded him of the provincial Southern city of his early youth. They talked as good friends, like people who were close. This made Mikhail Lvovich happy, but he was also a bit alarmed. He didn't want just a friendship with Inge. He wanted her love. Love--and nothing less. Anything less would mean nothing. 

As they said good-bye in the car, in front of the entrance to her building, Mikhail Lvovich extended his hand to Inge. All evening he'd wanted to caress her, but hadn't brought himself to do it. Here was the excuse--parting.

"You have a good hand," he said. He pressed his palm against hers. "Warm and strong."

He felt unable to let Inge's hand go. Another moment and this would be too long for just a good-bye embrace. He was already beginning to let go when he realized it was Inge who was clutching his hand between her palms. She leaned over to him and said again, looking intently into his face and laughing softly:

"There's something magical in you. Could it be that you're really a wizard?"

Still holding him, she led the grandmaster from the car. The beans of the streetlights flashed from above. The key grated in the lock of the outer door. The cold white lights of the vestibule blazed from the ceiling. With a measured, strained hum, the elevator took them up to the third floor and clicked with a flourish on arrival, as if in satisfaction with its precise work.

A dry, sauna-like heat seized Mikhail Lvovich's body. In the quick flashes of light and dark he saw only Inge's flickering face, rocking next to his. For the first time he understood what Russians meant by "all eyes." Sensing his unusual excitement, her eyes glistening, Inge whispered in his ear:

"This is really what they call life, isn't it, grandmaster?"

They floated into the apartment, the soles of their shoes barely touching the crewcut synthetic rug. Inge sank onto the narrow couch, leaving on her short coat of gray, black-tipped fur, which for a moment seemed to Mikhail Lvovich like that of a she-wolf. She gently pulled the grandmaster down next to her. Her eyes completely changed. In them was no longer a beauty that could frighten mere mortals, but the simple warmth and domestic familiarity of a soul mate. In another moment she'd cease being a woman, feminine, full of unbearable charm, and she'd say directly, without coquetry or distraction, that she understood--that yes, now it was okay for that faraway, lonely, stubborn pawn on "H" to break through to its goal. She began to speak with a warm, loving voice, so much like his mother's in his childhood, when she would place him before her, press him against her knees, and brush his hair away from his forehead with her enchanting fingers to kiss him. How his heart would pound at her smell of perfume!

Mikhail Lvovich saw something that, before this moment, he'd never even given a thought to. He realized that for as long as he could remember he had pushed the carved wooden pieces on the lacquered black and white squares for the sake of just this moment, for this look of his soul mate. No woman, since his mother, had ever gazed at him like this, once. It was so clear, so simple. He knew that all along, unknown even to himself, the goal of his whole strange life in this ancient game invented by some genius of a shaman had been the hand that flashed in the moonlight--the hand that, without realizing it, he'd begun to kiss. Miraculously, it wasn't his mother, but another astonishingly beautiful woman, who was kissing his hand in response, gently rubbing her cheek against his and looking at him, into him alone. 

With no less clarity he felt, as well, that for the first time he had lost the ability to analyze. But this didn't alarm him. He saw suddenly that for him this woman was the only, the final prize. He no longer valued life for what it was, the giver of breath. If Inge embraced him, gave herself to him, his life would hold no further goal, no other meaning. This young woman had been and was now the goal, the meaning, and the substance of his life.

And meanwhile Inge had embraced him with her uncommonly warm hands and bent her face, tormented by desire, over him. She said what he'd so hoped to hear from her: "My dear." She kissed him, at first gently, barely touching his lips with hers, then harder and harder. The little pawn, he sighed, had crawled as a modest caterpillar to the last square, and become a queen. The caterpillar flew up from the earth not as a butterfly, but as a hunting falcon.

But the time was up. The red flag wavered, barely noticeably, just before finally coming unhooked from the hand propping it up. It dropped downwards, to the base of"eleven," to its flat feet, then swung one more time before being suspended--forever!--motionless. In an instant the darkness descended, and with the remainder of his fading consciousness the grandmaster understood at last who Inge was, and what had drawn him so irresistibly to her. Well, of course, how in God's name hadn't he realized it right away!

"Yes, yes, how could it be otherwise!" he tried in vain to say through parched lips. "Why didn't I see it at once! It's so simple."

Inge's hand, meanwhile, slid to his chest through the opening of his shirt. Barely touching the skin, it penetrated inside. Her fingers became burning cold, with an unwomanly strength--with one movement they gripped his whole heart all at once, and forever ended its beat.

 

Translated by Melissa Bowen Rubin and Robert Glasser

 

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