THE CHESS PLAYER
by Henrichs, Bertina

Queen's Quarterly
Fall 2006
Pg. 461 Vol. 113 No. 3 ISSN: 0033-6041

IT WAS the beginning of the summer. As usual, Eleni climbed the small
hill that separated the Hotel Dionysus from the town centre at the
hour when the sun was just appearing over the horizon.

The hill, a sandy and pockmarked scrubland, offered an exceptional
view over the Mediterranean and the gate of the Temple of Apollo.

That remnant of antiquity, perhaps conceived on too grand a scale,
had remained unfinished. And so its gigantic gate, at the top of a
tiny promontory attached to Naxos, opened only onto the sea and the
sky. In the evenings, rather than offering shelter to Apollo, it
welcomed god for god - the setting sun, adored by dazzled travellers.

Apollo, more discreet in his earthly manifestations, would no
doubt have called only a select few initiates to his presence. The
imperfection of the temple was thus not a matter for regret, but
instead conferred a strange air of mystery upon this stern land laid
down in the Aegean.

Eleni had no time for the spectacle playing itself out behind her.

She knew it only too well. Her whole life had been regimented by the
free display, by its changing audience, an incessant flux of nomads,
coming from far away, returning to distant places.

That morning the hill was especially silent. The wind, which had risen
during the night, blew hard and covered up the little morning sounds
coming from the town. Eleni only heard the crunch of pebbles under
her feet, and the panting of a wandering dog, sniffing here and there
in hopes of unearthing its breakfast. Finds were scarce, and it wore
a sulky look, which made Eleni smile. She promised herself that she
would bring it a bit of bread that she would gather from the hotel's
breakfast scraps.

ELENI arrived in the lobby of the Dionysus at ten past six, greeted
with a cheerful "Kalimera, Eleni. Ti kanis?" The polite little formula
was uttered in a strong voice and with such sincerity that a naïve
observer might have taken the meeting as a warm reunion after a long
absence. But Maria, the proprietor, a woman in her sixties of engaging
character, simply had the habit of greeting her acquaintances that
way, straining the good humour a little. Thus from the first she
swept away any suggestion of grumpiness, which she tolerated only in
her customers. And even then, she pretended not to notice, suddenly
speaking English much less fluently than usual. Hard work under a
crushing sun in a sulky mood was a vice for which she felt too old. As
usual, she offered Eleni a coffee before the latter's rounds through
the string of rooms, dressed in her pistachio green work blouse.

Eleni knew all the movements by heart and performed them mechanically,
one after the other, in their immutable order. Twenty rooms, forty
beds, eighty white towels; the ashtrays to empty varied in number.

Eleni had become a chambermaid as others become waitresses or
cashiers. The daughter of poor peasants from the mountainous Halki
region, she had left school at fifteen and taken the first job in
town she had been offered. It was, by chance, as a chambermaid. Three
years later she had married Panis, the elder by five years, who worked
at his father's garage on the outskirts of town. That marriage had
been her hour of glory. Every girl on Naxos had envied her the boy
with the thick hair and deep gaze. They had two children, Dimitria
and Yannis. Even after she became a mother Eleni had carried on with
her job, because she liked the work that allowed her to daydream and
make contact with the wider world.

Over the years she had picked up a good knowledge of the clientele.

She could easily guess the tourists' nationality by their style of
dress. Sometimes she entertained herself by assigning the rooms she
took care of to the guests eating breakfast in the dining room. She
would sometimes bet an ouzo or a glass of white wine. She was seldom
wrong.

Room nineteen done, she moved on to seventeen. The rooms needed to be
tidied according to the rhythm of the morning departures. She therefore
had to watch for doors opening while giving the illusion that she
scarcely noticed the comings and goings of the guests, emperors for
a day or a week. Eleni was well versed in the art of appearing in the
hallways like a perky ghost, whose existence was forgotten the moment
she was out of sight. She seemed to be a member of a ballet troupe
in a garish costume, handling her awkward tools gracefully. This
power of suggestion was all the more remarkable because for many
years her appearance had had nothing of the athletic. Too much rich
food, two pregnancies and the boredom of island winters had made of
her a 42-year-old woman with no particular sparkle, neither old nor
young. She had reached that moment in life that some are pleased to
call the flower of age, for want of anything better or perhaps as
encouragement. The age squeezed between aging parents and adolescent
children, the floating age at which men no longer look back on its
passing and women no longer envied it anything. But Eleni was not a
woman to lament facts over which she had no control.

She had a sort of instinctive wisdom, gathered in the innumerable
rooms whose virginity she had restored. The traces of life in all its
guises she prudishly erased. Spatters of blood, semen, wine and urine
disappeared under her sober care. She did not attach words to the
things she saw appear and disappear. She did not seriously believe in
the magical power of enunciation, of evocation and speculation. For
her, terms, however precise, had never changed anything in the
immutable order of the world. She thought of them as a pastime, at
most. On Naxos, words came and went with travellers and the sea in
eternal flux.

Early on, Eleni had reconciled herself to the idea that nothing really
belonged to her, neither things nor beings. Even Panis, her husband,
belonged to her as much as to the men he met in cafes, to backgammon
and to the women he desired from time to time. It was the secret law
of things. Only the mad would venture to fight the ebb and flow of
the sea, she often thought.

Since the previous evening, number seventeen had been occupied by a
French couple. Eleni had seen them arrive: joyful thirty-somethings,
wearing exuberant and colourful clothes.

Stepping into the sun-drenched room, she smiled. People from the North,
delighted by the clarity of daylight, never thought of closing the
shutters. They knew no tight and constant relationship with heat.

During their stay on the island they would soak up their fill, which
left them panting in the hotel lobby, stunned but happy lobsters.

Some pushed their intoxicating worship to the point of losing
consciousness, a wild trance nearer to obscure cults than to the
regimented world from which they came.

Eleni had learned from her youth that the luminous body was not a
playful god, but rather a master over life and death just as much as
the sea and the reefs, destiny and fate.

After a quick glance to size up the amount of work, she moved toward
the bathroom. She cleaned the sink, the shower, the floor, and emptied
the waste bin. She straightened up and remained motionless for a
while to catch her breath. Then she threw the dirty towels into a
big basket where they joined their moist companions.

Eleni lovingly lined up the beauty products with misty names in the
language she liked above all others that slipped onto the island:
French. A little bottle on the shelf caught her attention. She
took it in her hand, allowed herself to open it and breathed in the
peppery fragrance that emerged. She smiled as she carefully closed
the tiny bottle.

She only knew three expressions in French - bonjour, merci, and au
revoir- which were enough for the uses she put them to.

Her linguistic approach was exclusively based on sound. Sometimes
she listened to the murmur in the dining room. It seemed to her that
that language, and indeed this was its main attraction, was utterly
lacking in seriousness. To Eleni's ears, it had to anchor in the
earth. Its words danced across a polished floor, performing little
arabesques and curtsies, bowing to each other, raising invisible hats
amid a rustle of satin and tulle. The soft slides must indeed have
precise meanings, designate real things, as Eleni acknowledged, and
it was precisely that paradox that seemed so wonderful to her. Such
a winged deployment of opera dancers to ask for salt or the time -
isn't that the height of luxury?

On television she had seen several programs about Paris, and each time
she had felt a sort of tightening at the heart. A slightly painful
region in the chest, brought about by a rendezvous made long ago but
never kept, for fear of the outcome.

Eleni was not given to such longings. But Paris was an exception. Her
dreamy passion had indeed remained completely unavowed. It was her
secret garden.

As she followed the course of her thought, she stepped into the room.

She emptied the ashtrays and picked up bits of paper before sweeping
her broom amid the luggage and things spread about.

She had finished her sweeping and made the bed when a thought crossed
her mind. She would send a little salute to the Parisians. She took the
young woman's embroidered nightdress, tightly gathered in the waist,
and laid it out delicately on the bed. Thus displayed, it recovered
its look of desirable merchandise, worthy of the suggested mannequin
that would wear it.

ELENI spent the evening with her daughter Dimitria, who helped her
prepare a meal and do the dishes. Panis ate with them as he told them
of his day, and then went out to meet his friends at the cafe. Yannis
had phoned to say that he would be eating out with friends. It happened
often. At sixteen, his life was already snared by the outside. Dimitria
went to bed early, and Eleni remained sitting for a while in front
of the television, distractedly watching a dramatic movie that she
didn't understand, having missed the beginning.

The next morning she rose before the others, and after making coffee
for her family she went off to work.

The wind blew more gently. The sea had swallowed its whitecaps, which
foretold a very hot day to come. She had thought to bring a bit of
bread for the stray dog she had met the day before, but it wasn't
there to meet her. Eleni laid her offering down in full sight on a
little rock. As usual, she arrived at ten past six, greeted by the
owner's morning chirpings.

She had already made her way through a dozen rooms when she saw the
French couple emerge a little before ten. They headed toward the
dining room with eager looks.

Eleni decided to wait until they had definitely left the hotel. She
didn't like having her work interrupted by the sudden arrival of
clients leaving breakfast and pacing outside the room. Others'
embarrassment always put her ill at ease. They sometimes felt
obliged to launch into a conversation in English, which Eleni did
not understand, but of which she grasped the essentials because it
always dealt with the weather. And so, even at the risk of throwing
off her timetable, she preferred to wait for a clear field before
stepping into the den of intimacy.

At ten-thirty, she could finally enter room seventeen. She set to work,
rehearsing exactly the same gestures as on the previous day.

But as she swept, she knocked something over behind her. Leaning to
pick it up she saw that it was a little wooden Figurine. She turned
and saw a chess board on which little black and white pieces were
deployed. A game in progress had been interrupted.

Eleni looked more closely at the piece she held in her hand. It was a
little black pawn. She hesitated and tried to put it back in its place,
but she did not know from where it had come. There were identical
pieces dotted all over. She stood there a moment, pawn in hand,
staring at the board, seeking out a logic. Finally she gave up, put
the figurine beside the wooden board and finished tidying. She felt
sorry for having destroyed the game in progress, and then consoled
herself by thinking that it must only be a minor piece since there
were so many alike. Perhaps it was not very important.

Before leaving she composed her little nightdress salute in a gesture
of apology. The rest of her working day unfolded without incident.

ARRIVING in town in the early afternoon, she saw Panis at Armenaki's
terrace, a little tavern overlooking the harbour. She stopped for a
moment to chat with her husband and the owner, a short, stocky man
a few years older than she, who had lived on Naxos his whole life
but whom everyone continued to call "the Armenian" by virtue of his
roots. She accepted the little glass of ouzo he offered her and drank
it in the company of the two men. Though the season had only just
begun, the sun was already burning.

On the shady terrace, Eleni relished the brief moment of repose. She
took off her shoes, stretched her swollen legs and closed her eyes.

She listened to the rustle of conversation and the song of the yellow
canaries the Armenian kept in two little cages hung over the tables.

They uttered sharp notes, calling from one prison to another, as though
they were participating in a Conservatory competition. The restaurant
owner had a third bird to which he afforded the same open-air life
and which he treated with just as much care, but which refused to
sing. The Armenian had made the mistake of calling it Tarzan, which
had perhaps perturbed its perception of the world.

She heard the dry clicking of wooden pieces knocking against each
other and knew that the Armenian had taken out his backgammon set.

The men were beginning a game. Panis's raucous voice commenting on the
game drifted to her in fragments, followed by the Armenian's higher
pitched voice. After a few minutes, the voices flagged and the two
men played silently, ensnared by their felted universe.

Suddenly Eleni recalled the little wooden soldier that she had knocked
over in the French couple's room, thus preventing it from retaking
its place among the ranks. She saw it alone beside the chess board,
as though banished for some wrongdoing. For some reason she could
not explain, the vision troubled her.

"Eleeeni!"

She must have dozed off, because only the third call drifted into
her ears. She started and looked around, a little disoriented by the
distant waves that had carried her off. Her friend Katharina stood
across the street, near the jetty, gesturing toward her.

"Eleeeni! Don't forget to come see me later. I've made baklava."

Eleni nodded, unfolded her numbed legs, rose and took her leave of
the two men still bent over their game. They responded with grunts
without raising their heads.

Katharine's apartment was plunged in semi-darkness, the only way
of keeping cool. Her friend busied herself around the gas ring,
watching over the coffee she had put on the burner. A big dish filled
with baklava, dripping honey, was placed on the table; the table was
covered with a lace tablecloth. Tablecloths were Katharina's pride.

She thought they conferred upon her modest interior the soft touch
of a more prosperous household.

The two women sat and chatted a while as they sipped the sweet
coffee. From time to time they helped themselves to another little
portion of the sticky amber cake, which gradually shrank as their
conversation went on.

They had known each other since childhood. Nothing that happened in
the streets of the capital of Naxos escaped Katharina's attention;
she had made the spreading of more or less accurate information an
article of her faith. Indeed she had the time to devote herself to
it heart and soul, since she had neither husband nor children to lay
claim to either one or the other.

A few hours passed in enlightened commentary on the lives of so-and-so
and such-and-such, in conjecture on burgeoning relationships. Eleni
listened more than she spoke. She appreciated the afternoons spent
with her old friend for their restful vacuity, which was otherwise
completely absent from her routine.

Toward eight o'clock, Eleni suddenly looked at her watch, gathered
her things and left Katharina. She headed toward the main street
where she needed to run a few quick errands for dinner.

WALKING DOWN a little cobbled side street leading from the Kastro -
the upper part of the town majestically overlooking the port - to
the lower town, Eleni heard the boat's siren. She quickened her pace.

Panis didn't like her serving the meal too late. Waiting with pangs
of hunger put him in a bad mood.

She gladly bowed to these little masculine foibles, transmitted from
father to son. She was used to them. Her father also had been very
insistent on the meal times that punctuated his working day. For the
men in her life, the absolute regularity of feeding was a rampart
against the vagaries of existence. As though death could not carry
out its dirty business if one ate every night at nine sharp. Men and
women did not share the same superstitions; Eleni knew it. With men,
such comforting beliefs were called intimate convictions, which
changed nothing in their nature.

Suddenly Eleni stopped dead in the middle of the street. A bold
thought had suddenly struck her. "I'll give Panis a chess set for
his birthday. We can learn to play together."

The idea brushed her like a satin evening gown sliding onto the naked
shoulder of a dancer under the sparkling light of a chandelier. She
would not stroll down the Champs-Elysees at twilight; she would
not drink coffee on the great boulevards or learn that enchanting
language. But she would play chess with her husband just as elegant
Parisian women do.

It was the boldest and maddest project Eleni had ever conceived. It
took her breath away.

BERTINA HENRICHS was born in Frankfurt and has lived in France for
many years. This story is an excerpt translated from her new novel
La joueuse d'echecs (Liana Levi).

--Boundary_(ID_1U6ABR5hGYTKW3DEU9EB8Q)--

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress