27. cxd6 e.p.
I curse, and crumple the letter. En passant, indeed.
“He who plays chess with the Devil should re-read the rulebook,” I mutter.
I nudge my adversary’s pawn one square diagonally. Raindrops hammer against the french windows, and a log fire crackles in the grate. A March evening at home, with a glass of ’69 Pinot Noir at my elbow, and Igor Stravinsky on the radio. Perfect for correspondence chess. If only I were better at it. Biting my lip, I consider my options. I can hunt the pawn down with my rook. But that weakens my defences elsewhere. Maybe I ought to continue the Queenside attack. Or …
Damn the inventor of en passant. Damn him to the darkest pit of Tartarus.
I lean back in my armchair, and sip the wine until my surly mood passes. From this vantage point, the board forms an elegant tableau. A ritual of sacrifice, never to be repeated. I pause, and savour the silky taste of the Pinot on my tongue. A generation raised on plastic and cardboard chess sets can have no appreciation for true aesthetics, but I am different. I notice things others do not. Why, the shimmer of the firelight on the white pawns–rendered as erect satyrs–sends my heart aflutter.
The pieces are real ivory, you know. Carved by my grandfather from a bush elephant he shot himself, in his East Tanganyika days. Interesting chap, my grandfather: started out in the Western Isles of Scotland, and cut a swathe from the savannahs of darkest Africa to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. They do not make the likes of him any more, thank goodness. He left a coded diary too, leatherbound with gold lettering. I alone have read it. It made me the man I am today, snow-white hair at thirty and all.
I finish the wine, and mouth a silent prayer to the antelope head over the fireplace. There is time enough for games later. For now, a hot bath awaits.
Eyes shut, I let the water envelop my body. The heat soothes my muscles and washes away the tension of the day. The aroma of incense candles fills my nostrils. I still hear the patter of rain against the bathroom window. It calls to me, somehow, though I do not know why.
At length, I sit up, and pour myself another glass of Pinot. My dog-eared copy of Homer–in the original Greek, of course–lies on the bathroom chair, tempting me with its siren song. I towel off my hands, and reach for it with bath-wrinkled fingers…
My heart beats faster. It is him, standing in the door-frame, with his delicate hands on his hips.
I bow my head. “My lord.”
To the untrained eye, he is an effeminate youth with ram horns and furrowed brow, naked as the day of his birth. But I know better. This is Dionysus himself, son of Zeus, god of wine and madness. I worship him, as did my grandfather before me, in the old way. I alone of modern men have tasted the sweet bestial frenzy of his mysteries.
“Thomas, I grow impatient. It has been long since your last offering, and Anthesteria is here.”
“I apologise, my lord. But the police still hunt me.”
“Would you deny my divinity?”
I frown. “No, my lord.”
“Then what is the will of mortals beside the will of a god?”
“As nothing, my lord.”
His eyes gleam with an unworldly light. “Excellent. I shall return when my marriage is complete. For now, rejoice at the Opening of the Jars.”
A shudder passes through me. I down the glass of Pinot and laugh until my throat is sore.
The violence of Stravinsky ringing in my ears, I dance a tattoo upon the bathroom mat. Oh, that the bathwater beading on my chest and legs were blood. I splash wine over my arms, and lick it off, like a cat. The beast within purrs.
Before I leave, I tear pages from Homer, and scatter them in the bathtub. It serves him right. He never did mention sweet Dionysus.
Fools. The people of this town do not even smear their doors with tar, to ward off that which is coming. No matter, I reflect. They shall learn their error soon enough, and they cannot say I did not warn them.
I turn a corner. It is dark now, and I have other business to attend to.
The cell door clangs shut, and the key turns in the lock. Wrapping myself in the available woollen blanket, I seat myself on the cold floor — so white, so austere, so lacking in life — and curse in Greek.
“Sleep it off,” snaps the policeman. He is a bigger man than I. Fearsome, with thick curly hair on his head and hands, his sinews are as steel. Me … I am an aesthete, not a wrestler. My bruises are legion, and my knees are encrusted with dried blood. Thankfully, my wrists are too slender to have been marked by the handcuffs.
The door opposite opens, and a second policeman appears.
“Ted”, says the newcomer. This one is shorter and thinner, but carries himself as though his uniform were a size too small. Beneath the hat, he sports a narrow face, and his nose forms a kingly beak.
Adrian studies me through the bars, a twinge of disgust darkening his otherwise fine features. “This is the chicken-botherer, I take it.”
Ted nods. “Not just that. He was going door to door all across Ivy Lane, shouting warnings about tar. In the altogether.”
“Quite the piece of work. Should we fetch him some clothes? That blanket’s a bit threadbare.”
Ted shakes his head. “He’ll just tear them off again. We know about about this one round here. Guy’s a lunatic.”
“Back in Eastcress we’ve got a handful just like him. Padded cell and leather straps then?”
“Nah,” says Ted. “The Boss says he’s got friends in high places. Old money. Lives off his inheritance.”
I shiver. It is not the cold, though the police cell is drafty as my attic. I no longer feel cold, only the excitement of serving my lord. I rise, painfully, to my feet, and fasten the woollen blanket around my waist.
“Bring me wine,” I bark at them. “Just a cup, officers. Piety and Lord Dionysus demands it!”
Adrian smiles. “Not a drop for you, my fine fellow, this side of Church.”
“Don’t think he goes to Church,” says Ted. “Leastways, not a normal one.”
“I am in Church now,” I say. I grip the bars. “Would you deny me my faith?”
“After what you’ve done?” Ted asks. “I think I bloody-well might. Besides, we don’t keep alcohol on the premises.”
“Do you chew the whitethorn leaf?”
Ted knits his brows. “The what?”
I laugh. “No whitethorn. No tar upon your door. You court your doom!” I shake my head. Such as these are to be pitied, not scorned. “Why do you hate life so?”
“Life?” Ted shrugged. “I’ve nothing against it. But I do have something against naked drunks scaring little old ladies up and down the street. It was ten o’clock, man. What unholy thing were you doing in that chicken coup?”
“An offering. Death brings rebirth.”
“You needed eggs to make an omelette?”
I tear off the blanket, and stand before them naked. I am erect as a satyr, and my phallus rubs against the bars.
“My lord has found his bride.”
A cacophony of beeping. Ted backs away, and pulls a cellphone from his pocket.
“Hello, Pentheus Street Station. What? Where?” Moments pass. I watch as the blood drains from the big policeman’s face. “Right there.” He hangs up, shaking his head.
“There’s a riot,” he explains. “Or something, down on the corner of Vintage and Cemetery Roads. Talk of lost souls, the undead. Hauntings…”
Adrian frowns. “University students? Romero-cosplayers? But it’s early March, not late October!”
“Alex says it’s all hands on deck. Whatever it is, it’s scarier than a nude loon in a chicken coup.”
They leave me alone in the cell. I am too driven to sleep, so I drape the blanket over my body like a toga, and pace the cold concrete floor. My brain is consumed with failure: I could not so much as provide a simple chicken to mark my lord’s wedding. The mighty Cult of Dionysus, reduced to farce, and Euripides’ ancient tragedy culminating in modern bathos. I am a vandal, a barbarian, and that which walks tonight might as well take me too.
I shake my head. I will not panic, I will not despair. Dionysus has been good to me, and I have given him loyal service. Perhaps I may yet receive a second chance.
I stop pacing, and peer through the bars. It is him. I tense. But Dionysus does not frown. He grins. It is the wild, wholesome grin of a newly-wed bridegroom.
“My lord.” I kneel. “The blood shall yet flow. Your nuptials this Anthesteria shall yet be recognised!”
“They have, my dear Thomas.” There is no trace of anger in his voice, only joy. My heart skips a beat. Dare I hope …
Dionysus lifts his arm, and I see his meaning. Fingers curling into thick black hair, my lord clutches the severed head of Ted. The dead man’s eyes are wide open, his tongue hangs out, and his face is contorted with terror. Blood drips from the neck onto the police station carpet.
But the carpet has vanished. Replaced with lush green grass, and dandelions, and buttercups.
“We have triumphed, Thomas.” A monarch butterfly settles upon his shoulder. “After all these long and lonely centuries, we have triumphed.”
Tears run down my cheeks. “Thank you, my lord.”
“No,” he says. “Thank you. You, who followed me at my lowest ebb… rejoice, and partake in this new age of freedom. From now on, you shall never leave my side. For it is my world now.”
Then he is gone. The cell bars have turned into hanging strands of ivy. I push through them, and stumble out, towards the music of flutes.
The chains are broken. The old world dies. A new world is born. Naked, I am that new world, and none may touch me. I lick my wine-dark lips, and throw the empty Pinot bottle at the wind-shield of a burning police car. The dead walk tonight, and few now remember the tar and whitethorn.
I smell blood. Time to dance in the rain, upon the abandoned drug-store car park where the weeds now grow.
I have found the winning move: overturn the board. Burn the rule-book. There is no place for en passant in Dionysus’ garden. The next day, I set my grandfather’s satyr-pawns free amid the cabbage patch. Let Nicholas wail and gnash his teeth as he awaits the postman in the Underworld.
Overlooking what was once my house, my prison, there stands a lone fig tree. I have often visited this place, when I am in need. Today, the spirits of the dead are there too. I can feel them, even in the noonday sun, twisting and turning around the tree-trunk.
I sit naked and cross-legged beneath the tree’s branches. My feet are coated with mud, and the wind whips though my vines of hair. I laugh at all and none, and even the tomcats shun me.
“My lord,” I shout, over and over again, as I reach blood-stained fingers to the clouded sky. “Your will is done.”
And in the rustles of leaves, he answers me.
[Daniel Stride has a lifelong interest in literature in general, and speculative fiction in particular. He writes both short stories and poetry; his first novel, Wise Phuul, was published in November 2016 by small UK press, Inspired Quill. He also spends a fair amount of time on the internet, and can be found blogging about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (among other things) at Phuulish Fellow. Daniel lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.]