A game of checkers has life-and-death consequences in this short story by Ada Rémy and Yves Rémy.
General Arthur Shine-Levis tells his friends he fought eight battles during the campaign of Winter ’44 to Spring ’45. Eight times over, he emerged victorious. “Because I’m a solid checkers player,” he adds. He is entreated to explain himself. He obliges.
“It was the eve of my first battle. A quiet night. Not a whisper in camp, just the footfalls of the soldiers on watch. I sat, contemplative, in my tent. A man in a black cape and top hat lifted the flap and entered. ‘Guards!’ I cried. The man shrugged, the guards came bursting in, I ordered them to arrest the intruder. ‘What intruder?’ they replied. I pointed at the man. I was met with contrived expressions, fatuous smiles. ‘Well? What are you waiting for? Carry out my orders!’
“‘It must have been a dream, sir,’ a soldier ventured.
A storm lantern burns atop a crate, casting a pale but satisfactory glow.
“‘Don’t insist. You alone can see and hear me.’
“The man wasn’t lying. I dismissed the guards, after passing it off as the foolishness of someone still half-asleep. A general who has dreams, that much they’d put up with, but a general who sees ghosts? A general never sees ghosts.
“The man in the cape took out a set of checkers. His face was so severe, his eyes so imperious, that I did his bidding without question. He was a first-rate player. He was wily and blocked my moves. At long last, I took a nasty piece of his that had been giving me a lot of trouble. An hour later, the game was over; I emerged victorious. He vanished. Outside, dawn was aquiver. Shortly thereafter, the enemy troops neared; I was heavy with fatigue. The battle began; it lasted all day. Toward evening, I captured a hill and demolished some nasty artillery that had been keeping me pinned down. An hour later, the enemy broke off and beat a retreat, leaving behind on the field weapons and baggage, the wounded and the dead.”
General Arthur Shine-Levis opens a pouch of tobacco and sniffs a few pinches. With a single slender white hand, he sweeps the scattered shavings from his frock coat.
“Eight days later, we took up a position at Prast de Cambo. I’d set up headquarters in an old house, in a large room with a mezzanine. On the table, a map of the region. I studied it alone one last time: my second eve of battle. A dry little cough made me look up. Above me, leaning over the balcony railing, stood the man in the black cape. He came down, swept the map disdainfully aside, set the checkers game down, and ordered me to begin the game. Not as crafty as during our first encounter, he let himself be cornered; I stole his men away and crushed him in under an hour.
“The next day, I crushed the Muelno’s naval infantry forces just as easily.”
General Arthur Shine-Levis stylishly purports to be boring his friends. Exclamations of protest. With a modest wave, he assures them an old soldier like himself can only exasperate his youthful company with rumpled memories that reek of regimental leather and horse lather.
“And so, suffice it to say that the eve of every battle saw the arrival of the man in the top hat and black cape. He would slip mysteriously into my quarters, wherever they were, and invite me to play a game of checkers, lose it, then vanish. The next day, I would emerge victorious. In this way, we came to the eighth battle.
“I had fallen back to the hinterland: my men were weary. I thought to stay there for a fortnight. One evening, I was readying for bed when my visitor appeared and began our game. It was long and difficult. I was distracted, wondering if his visit did not perhaps presage some surprise for the next day; at long last I gained the upper hand and, late that night, took his men from him one by one. Furious, he left me as abruptly as he appeared.
“When the sun rose, I ordered the regiment to remain at the ready. Surprised, my officers requested an explanation. I knew not what to tell them. I was ill at ease; I feared an attack. Those nocturnal visits, always on the eve of a battle . . . I sent out patrols to scout the countryside, ordered defenses to be raised. Finally, at three o’clock in the afternoon, there was an explosion: Cortez’s troops, which we believed forty leagues distant, came clambering down the mountain to fall upon our rear. A hard-won battle, heavy losses on either side, but our attackers gave up.
“There you have it,” Arthur Shine-Levis says courteously, enveloped in an exquisite and exotic aroma of essence of citron.
“Was there no ninth battle, General?”
The speaker a young man, tall and spindly as a heron but all in all a likeable sort.
“There was indeed,” Shine-Levis replies, “but just on the checkerboard. It was a draw.
“The next day, I hesitated: before me, Cortez’s assembled forces, outnumbering us. Four hours’ march behind them, in Taransca, a regiment from Laërne. I must be cautious about committing my companies, to give our forces time to fall upon Cortez from the rear. The tie game from the night before left me worried. I feared not defeat, but a rout. What was the point of losing men, weakening my forces, if not to win? I ordered us to steal away. I was met with sharp reproach: a chance like this would not soon come again. Worse yet, were we to let the men of Laërne clash with Cortez at full strength? I ordered a retreat. You know what happened to the regiment from Laërne; they never reached Cortez’s men.
“How many escaped to Oliveiro during that unaccountable massacre in Taransca? Ten, twenty men, half a company? I could have been left waiting a long time for their help had I attacked Cortez.
“There you have it,” Arthur Shine-Levis says once more, savoring a cup of tea.
“Have you never met this visitor again, Arthur?”
The speaker a rosy old man the general’s age.
“Yes, Matthew, I think I have. When I came back to Libemoth, my service complete, I passed him in the hallway of my family home, and recognized him: he was myself, the way I look in the charcoal portrait a painter made of me when I was thirty.”
“Come now! What’s the meaning of all this? You were fighting against yourself?” A sturdy sort rankles. In the prime of his life, full of confidence.
“I might reply, Edward, that a general always fights against himself and only triumphs over the enemy after vanquishing his own fears, doubts, preconceptions, and good sense.”
“Was this story then no more than an allegory?” A young woman, her pinky finger gracefully lifted.
“Not in the least, Margaret. To defeat my visitor, I had to improvise a different strategy each time, and specific maneuvers. These maneuvers, these strategies, I then applied the next day in the field—without always realizing it, true, but always to my great satisfaction.”
“Then it was a kind of disguised revelation?”
“I believe so.”
His friends withdraw. Arthur Shine-Levis pours himself a wee snifter of brandy; his doctor has forbidden him, but he vows not to have another. A knock at the door. A visitor? Is his manservant William not on call? Shine-Levis bids his guest enter.
It is a man wearing a black cape and a top hat. Thirty-odd years of age. The spitting image of the general’s portrait that adorns the foyer, the vision of a realist painter almost forty years ago. He sets the game of checkers down on a gueridon.
Arthur Shine-Levis feels his heart falter.
“I was just speaking of you.”
“I’m well aware. Come closer, Arthur.”
Shine-Levis’s voice falls to a whisper. “You’ll not have me believe I’ve a battle to fight tomorrow.”
“You haven’t aged . . . ” he hesitated. “You’re me, at thirty.”
“But I’m only a retired general now.”
“Will you not fight one more battle, Arthur?”
“My hands are trembling. I can surmise the stakes.”
“Set out your men, Arthur.”
“Allow me to call you Arthur, in turn: I may, may I not?”
“Is it possible, Arthur, that you are my own executioner, my youth?”
“Set out your men, Arthur.”
“What are the stakes, Arthur?”
“The same as ever.”
Arthur Shine-Levis topples his pieces to the floor, so feeble is his hand.
“What are you trying to say?"
“You were wrong to impute good intentions on my part. Never have I attempted to reveal the enemy’s maneuvers. I have always applied the tactic your adversaries chose the next day, which was in theory to lead to your death. By finding an effective counter and applying it on the battlefield, you saved your life and the lives of your men, hence your victories.”
“You are contemptible, Arthur.”
“Arthur, consider tomorrow’s battle from a strictly military point of view.”
It seems, to the old man, that his own youth is mocking him.
“If I win the game . . . ” he says.
He loses. The next day, he dies.
“Who are you?” they ask the young man in a black cape and top hat following the funeral procession. He straightens up and doffs his hat. A scream; and horror engulfs them. No face. Just a checkerboard.
© Ada Rémy and Yves Rémy. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2019 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.