After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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Mr. Oleander was a thin, slight man, perhaps sixty years old. He was a doctor. He was never seen in public without his hat. He had once run for mayor but had been narrowly defeated. He was respected but not revered; his manner was too severe and proper for reverence. He had delivered more than a hundred residents of the town into the world and been at the deathbeds of a hundred more. He liked to joke that all he wanted from his medical career was to break even in the end. When he made a joke, he waited slightly too long to deliver the punch line. He knew only four or five jokes, each one suitable for a single occasion. He considered himself a superb chess player and had been county champion in his day. As a chess player he was respected but not revered, and twice in recent years young challengers had arisen to nearly take his title in the town’s annual winter chess championship at the town hall. Indeed, this year more young people had entered the competition than ever before, and three of the four finalists were under the age of twenty, the fourth being Mr. Oleander.
Mr. Oleander had played steadily and conservatively, waiting with preternatural patience for his opponent to make a mistake and then grimly turning the error, however small, into his victory. Each challenger was made to pay heavily for the slightest slip: a careless pawn, an impulsive knight, a lazy rook. He played slowly himself but stared accusingly at his opponents as they sat thinking over their play. More than a few were rattled by his heavy gaze, moved too quickly, and lost. But not his penultimate opponent, a young man named Naiman. This boy, perhaps nineteen years old, stared so relentlessly at Mr. Oleander as he played that Mr. Oleander grew visibly unsettled and for the first time that anyone could remember asked for a break, and then another. Naiman stared so fixedly, in fact, that instead of moving his bishop, which he had maneuvered beautifully to close a corner trap, Naiman moved his queen and lost the game. He continued to stare at Mr. Oleander, however, even as he left the stage, and he would not answer questions about why in heaven’s name he had moved his queen. Was it an accident? Was it a failed attempt at something deft and subtle? What?
The final match, on Sunday afternoon, drew an enormous crowd, nearly the entire town, including the small fishing fleet, or what was left of it these days, as well as the whole police force and all the religious professionals for miles around, and even some of the hospital patients with lesser injuries or manageable neuroses. And so many young people! So many teenagers and boys and girls in their early twenties were present that the town council put rows of folding chairs on the stage. The younger spectators, being supple, sat on the floor among the folding chairs as well. No one could remember quite so many young people at the chess championship, and the match judge, in particular, was delighted at the turnout.
Mr. Oleander faced a young man named Avior, who was by some accounts sixteen and others eighteen. He had no father to speak of, and his mother supported her two sons by selling fruit from the orchard on which they rented a small house. The boys were excellent students and good with their hands — as you might imagine boys in a penniless orchard would be, so many things needing to be repaired — but they were both quiet, and neither was well-known at school. Mr. Oleander, out of the goodness of his heart, had often stopped by the orchard and taken the boys for small adventures: to the beach, to the circus, to baseball games. He’d been especially attentive to Avior, probably because he was such a promising student that he might even become a doctor himself someday.
The game began so slowly that those who were not students of chess thought the players conservative, but those who savored the game saw how closely matched the two were. The entire first hour was essentially a test of vision and flexibility. Mr. Oleander stared at his opponent while waiting for his turn, but Avior looked only at the board and rested his hand a full minute on each piece before he moved it. Avior leaned heavily on his pawns, moving them in ranks like a small army, while Mr. Oleander slashed out occasionally with his large pieces, trying to penetrate into the heart of Avior’s defense.
Neither player said a word until the second hour began, and Avior, whose hand had been resting on his king’s knight’s pawn for a moment, moved the pawn a single space away from Mr. Oleander’s exposed king. Avior looked up for the first time and spoke aloud so clearly that people in the balcony heard him as if he were sitting among them.
“The oleander, you know, is poisonous. We admire it, but it is toxic.”
Mr. Oleander, who for once had been staring at the board, looked up, startled.
“The flowers of the plant can change their colors,” said Avior, “to look much like flowers that are not poisonous.”
“Avior, we do not talk during a chess match,” said Mr. Oleander gently.
“The fruit of the plant is long and narrow and releases many seeds in all seasons,” said Avior. “It does not adhere to the norms of behavior. It is aberrant. Do you know that word, aberrant?”
“What is this?” said Mr. Oleander, appealing to the match judge. “What is this talking? He is trying to disturb my concentration. This cannot be allowed. I appeal to you.”
“Cultivars often use the word showy for oleander,” said Avior, “by which they mean it appears to be beautiful, but it is a thin and shallow beauty. Your move.”
“I know it is my move,” said Mr. Oleander angrily. “I do not need you to tell me how to play the game I taught you. There, there is a castle for you to scale, you rude child.”
“The oleander grows everywhere and anywhere,” said Avior, even more clearly than before, moving another pawn and trapping Mr. Oleander’s rook. “It spawns and broods in every environment.”
“He cannot talk!” shouted Mr. Oleander to the match judge, who adjusted her spectacles nervously. “This is not allowed! This is not the way we play!”
“Your move,” said Avior. “What will you do? How will you explain the pawns who are no longer powerless? There are so many. We have strength in numbers. We have power, you know. It is a capital mistake to think that small things do not have power.”
“Why are you sitting there, saying nothing?” shouted Mr. Oleander at the match judge. “And you! You are to be silent, boy! I tell you to be silent!”
“We were silent too long,” said Avior. “We did not know there were so many of us. But now we know. Now the pawns are coming for you. We will say aloud what you have done. We are saying it now. We are all here in this room today. Many of us are on the stage. I will speak first, and then another, and another. I will speak of what was done to me and to my brother and to a dozen others. We will speak of it now so that everyone knows. A single pawn is powerless, but many pawns are not. Your move.”
“There is my move!” shouted Mr. Oleander, slamming his king on the table so hard that it bounced fully two feet in the air and came down spinning among both players’ pieces, knocking over enough of them that the game could not be reconstructed, and Avior was named the champion. In the newspaper the next day the account of the game said carefully that Mr. Oleander had retired from the match, which was true.