A shack overlooks a river. In the middle of summer, the river runs almost dry, and the shack then overlooks a flatland of baking mud. At the edge, tall grass grows. There’s a path from the shack to the water, and a single woven chair at the edge of the water – at least when there is water. Anthea sits here at any time of year, reading.
The scooter is now black, and there are no ribbons. She gets on it and slaps on a white helmet. Elbows bent, eyes narrowed against the tremendous speed of the scooter, she whips down the lane and onto the gravel road, kicking up a dust storm behind her. She yells to warn off people who may come into her path, owing to her horn being broken. Sometimes, she yells at cows.
“The first sex change is from the game of chess,” she says at the grocery store.
The lady at the check-out bags her peas. “That so?”
Anthea nods. “You see, the pawns were originally promoted to queens when they reached the eighth rank. You imagine that? Take eight steps on a board and suddenly you’re not a many anymore. You’re a woman. A queen. That’s the first time anyone ever heard of a sex change in recorded history.”
The woman nods and gives her a receipt. At the front doors, Anthea gets a distinct feeling in her, like that time someone called her a nigger-lover. She puts the groceries in the scooter basket.
At home, she cooks beans and takes them outside the shack, down the path to the river, the river that isn’t running, that hasn’t run in months, all that baked mud and floppy mush. She sits on her chair and thinks about her mother, her family. It’s been sixteen years. There’s been phone calls, attempted visits, letters, electronic communications too, all sent back and rebuffed like they’re boats on the vanished river, snagged by whirlpools and buried under the sediment. I would like to see you just once, Anthea says to the river. I would like a return, like a river that has come back, to liven up the world and making growing things grow again. She imagines her brothers and sisters, six of them in total, all younger than her and so sweet in and of themselves, but none that had been as sweet as she. Are you still sweet, she wonders?
She opens a book. In it, a history tells her of the first switch in gender, the pawns that became queens, and she wonders for a moment if she wasn’t meant to be in a body other than the one in which she finds herself, thirty-two years old at the end of a lane, alone by a river that won’t flow.
“Marilyn, I want to tell you to take back that move,” says Anthea to her friend. “You see, in ancient times, the queen was not a female at all. The queen was a male counsellor. The reasons for the change were to allow the king to have a female consort. You know what a consort is?”
“A whore,” says Marilyn, nevertheless slipping her fingers off her knight. She grabs her bottle of vodka and takes a large gulp.
“Don’t use such words,” says Anthea, sliding her bishop over to a check position. Marilyn groans. “A king needs a consort, a woman. But lately I’ve been thinking about that, and maybe it’s not so. Maybe it never was. But we have a history we’re bound to, don’t we?”
“You want a drink?” asks Marilyn, as she considers the growing concern unravelling on the chess board.
“I don’t drink, Marilyn.”
The older woman with the blond curls nods and makes her best attempt to push off her friend’s advance. It’s no use, though. Five moves later, it’s check-mate, and Marilyn is chugging from the bottle. “Let’s go sit by the river.”
“What for?” asks Anthea.
“So you can tell me about your history of whores, what else? Listen darling, tell me truthfully. Have you ever lost a game before? Huh? You haven’t, have you? What does that say about you, lonely girl that you are? I sit here and drink and then ask you to the river. It’s not like I’m sweet on you. I got a man, and he’s a relatively good man with recently a half-decent job to provide for me. So if you’re hinting that I’m a consort – or a whore – maybe you have that right, but it’s your own life you should be worried about.”
At the edge of the river, the evening has come and they slip off their shoes and walk into the mud. It sucks them down and doesn’t want to let them go, like the river is still there, just under the mud – a river of sucking power, carrying underground boats on a current that flows to the never-seen sea. “This game came from India,” says Anthea, giggling in the mud. “That’s a far-off country in the mountains. They have rivers that run all year round. I guess when you have so much water, you have to do something with all that swishing noise. Maybe you sit back and invent a game.”
Marilyn has her pants hiked up. “This is the stupidest thing that we do all the time.”
“It’s only stupid because we do it all the time,” returns Anthea.
In the middle of the river, the mud is up to their knees. The river, such as it is, tickles their feet. It wiggles between their toes.
After Marilyn is gone, walked home to her husband Peter, Anthea cooks beans. She eats them on the porch of her shack. She’s still hungry, so makes herself some bacon. Drinks coffee.
The sun is setting now. Before she knows what she’s doing, she slips on her white bike helmet and gets on her scooter. She’s down her lane and out on the gravel road, yelling at the cows. Telling everyone to get out of her way, because she doesn’t want to hurt them – no, she doesn’t even so much as want to kick up a stone to hit a wayward person, concerned about the harm she could do on her speeding scooter. And the yelling at the cows? It’s more like singing, though Anthea never could sing, never did develop the talent.
When asphalt gets under her, she’s glad of it. She bends her elbows and narrows her eyes, speeding so fast. Cars overtake her. One person yells something at her, but she can’t hear them. Today, she’s put on a pair of goggles, an item she reserves when she’s going the fastest. The sun is setting, and then it drops behind the neverending plain of an endless forest, stretching hereabouts and all around, maybe to the end of the world, possibly even to India, and the mountains that start there, touching themselves against the arc of the moon. I could feel that air, she thinks. I could whisper my breath into shapes in the wind, cold as it might be.
The house of her family is the same as she remembers it. One light is active at the porch. Inside, several more lights are on. She’s not sure how many kids have moved out now. Laura and Teddy are likely living somewhere else. But the rest are likely in there.
She parks the scooter across the road and walks to the lawn. She’s still got on her helmet and goggles, like she might need to speed away. The place is familiar, though once there was a tree on the lawn, with a tire hanging from it. But the tire is gone, because the tree is too, and in its place, a stump worn down by the feet of kids who tread upon it often. She thinks back to the river, as she and Marilyn waded into the mud – whatever steps she left out there, presently they’re gone. There’s no sign of her, no weathering of the land that’s been made due to her presence, not like this stump where every step degrades the wood a little bit more, and leaves a mark forever.
The porch creaks under her, and she imagines that the door will fly open and people will invite her inside, make her coffee, feed her biscuits. But the door remains closed, and the porch keeps groaning, there in the evening. She leans against the wood of the house, looking across the lawn at her scooter. Go visit your daddy, a voice tells her. He misses you, as much as you miss him – but she’s not that bold. Instead, she takes a pad out of her jacket and writes a note there in the gloom, as the world prepares for a reset, a new game that will start in just a few hours.
“Sit down,” says Marilyn, on the phone.
“I’m sitting,” returns Anthea.
“Stay sitting,” she says, and hangs up.
Anthea stays seated. She moves a piece on the chess board, a black piece, and then moves a white one, too. She’s heard that in the history of chess, the white side wins about fifty-five percent of the time. Used to be that black moved first, but that got changed a couple of hundred years ago. In her little shack, as he plays both sides, she’s recorded every game, and figures it’s about even, who wins. Besides, she thinks, there was a time when it wasn’t black and white, but green and red that fought across the board.
There’s a knock at the door. Marilyn walks in, eyes wide.
“You drunk?” asks Anthea.
“I’m not the one that plays against myself. No, not drunk. Peter is, though. Got fired today.”
Marilyn takes a breath. “Just told you, he got drunk. This time, before work. So they let him go.”
“Do you want me to see if I can get him a job at the factory?” asks Anthea, and although she likes Peter, she can never picture him working in a marble factory, hammering at rock all day long the way she does.
“Never mind Peter!” cries Marilyn. “You stay sitting. Stay sitting, because I found someone. You don’t know what that means, or if you do, you’re just wrong. So I got a drunk husband. I’m a drunk too – that’s what you’re thinking. That’s what’s going on behind your eyes. I walk with you down to your lonely smelly river all the time, because you’re lonely too, and no one pines for a river just the way you do. But I got some things to say!”
“Do you want to sit down, Marilyn?”
“Hell no! And I don’t want to play your chess. I don’t want to hear about Persians or monarchs or anything like that. I want you to think high of me. Because I’m your friend, Anthea. I am.”
“I know that. And I’m grateful.”
“You’re grateful for a friend, are you?” she scowls. “A friend like me? Because I’m so swell with my hands all gunked up with my toilet cleaning duties and laid out on account of alcoholism… that right? How come you never say it? That I’m a fucking alcoholic. Why don’t you call your friend out on that?”
Anthea wants to go to her, but she’s rigid with her feeling now. “Because,” she says instead, “I’m grateful for my friend.”
“Well, I found someone,” Marilyn says, and it’s like a release. There’s wetness in her eyes now. “I found someone and brought them here. I’m going to open the door now. You understand?”
“I understand,” she says, but she doesn’t, and then Marilyn open the door and bring in her someone.
Anthea expected it to be Peter, all drunk and looking for some kind of forgiveness, or maybe just a job at the marble factory, but it’s not thin, hairy Peter. No, it’s a big strong black man with a bald head, wearing a sweater in the heat, tight blue jeans with a beat up black belt. It’s not Peter at all, thinks Anthea, glad that she’s sitting down. It’s her husband.
I don’t even know why I wrote this story. I just did. This is the mystery. Nothing in this is near to my personal experience. Nothing. But here it is. Will post more over next couple of days, two more parts I figure.