|Rectification of Names
Author: Guede Mazaka
One man plays chess. Sometimes he leaves for a little while and comes back with a tiny thread unraveling from his sleeve and the stain of persimmon on his lips and the scent of musk on his clothes. Sometimes he leaves and comes back with a tiny nick in the hem of his robes and blood dripping through the cover of his spearhead. It sits guard beside him, lying easy as a loving woman along the stones as he rakes his markers through the studied, crystalline war of the board.
Another man comes to watch. Always he speaks a little with the master of the chesshouse, walks carefully around the building and then stops under one eave that runs water into his collar when it rains. His eyes waver in the brief distortions of the light passing through the rain, and when he turns, a long wet mark soaks down his spine and splits to follow his hips.
Sky is named for the way his spear strikes lightning and hums thunder. He is named for his implacable ever-presence in the face of defiance against Ch’in. He is named for his most powerful and skillful strike, which comes like a dragon out of the air.
It does not matter what he is named; he is so, and he knows so. He is the one playing chess.
His partners change, shift like patterns of ripples in the river, like the curves of sand dunes. Once he had equals, comrades who moved with him and shared his cold contemplation of pure strategy, which is not a matter of blood and flesh but one of fluid lines that turn to fit the circumstances. But they’ve retreated, submerged themselves in the draining waters of their homeland while life concentrates itself around them. He is left to walk among the starkness of Ch’in, matching the game of the king against his own. In truth, Sky has one enemy and no partners.
This is a border town, where the divisions of man do not cut as cleanly as the slash of ink across a map. Sky comes here because he can stare out the back gate of the chesshouse and see his homeland, to which he will not go until he has seen to the end of Ch’in.
It has been years now.
When he returns, the placeholder sitting across from him has been replaced with the watching man. He knows who the man is, but he does not have traffic with lowly prefects when the king of Ch’in is generous enough to send the best of his Imperial guards to fall under Sky’s feet.
“I have no business with you.” His spear hangs loose in his hand, its song seeping through the thick leather cover, and his toes curl against the dampness of his shoes.
“What about a match?” The prefect’s eyes are calm and black as the midnight summer heavens, and his robes rustle their dryness as he lays his sword aside.
Sky sweeps his sleeves back and lets the air billow from them across the board, so everything ripples except the man. Then, frowning, he sits down and lays his spear across his lap.
He wins the first game, and the second and the third. Then they have a draw, and then the man politely excuses himself to see to important matters. When he walks away, Sky pauses to see how the prefect shifts his weight from his heels to the balls of his feet, to note how the man handles his sheathed sword and to remember how the man’s calluses scratched across the time-worn dips in the chess markers.
They play often together, and Sky wins more or less times, but the last game is always a draw. He begins to make inquiries among the many disaffected that seethe beneath the armor of Ch’in.
The next time, he greets the man with a name, and the man reacts but does not respond. As the markers drop clinking onto their starting spaces, the prefect picks up one of Sky’s and carefully sets it in place. “I am not a man of Ch’in,” he says, low under the sound of the incipient storm that prickles the air.
Sky folds his hands on the edge of the table and silently looks at the cut of the man’s clothes, the symbols of his rank.
“I was born in your land, and taken here as an infant. I did not know the truth until several years ago.” Age has begun to wear the softness from the man’s skin, engrave lines along the planes of his face, but his hands move with the graceful quickness of youth. And then they blur and still, so subtle in their shift that Sky knows only he has glimpsed the spark of lightning.
“But up until then, you lived as a man of Ch’in.” The wood scrapes a dull, fragmentary counterpoint to the keening of the wind in the rafters.
The man nods and keeps his eyes fixed on the moving counter. After the marker has settled into place, he spends a long, long time studying the lay of the board before he makes a response. “One must cultivate oneself first of all. Without making the roots strong, the tree cannot grow.”
“And have you not grown well in Ch’in?” Already Sky can see the phantom stone chips marching and countermarching over the grid, doubling back and charging forward to seize victory from amid the mass of the opposing forces. He picks one stone and lays the burden of success upon it, then sends it out alone into the man’s markers.
“Ch’in has grown. It has given me everything and thus left me with nothing of my own.” As the man lifts his head to match a clear, calm gaze against Sky’s own, his fingers flick one marker so it skips over the rest and lands squarely on the prize. “I lack even my name.”
Where Sky receives his demonstration of the man’s skill is a damp, deserted riverbank that in better times, was the border of his land with Ch’in. The rich earth here has drunk up the blood of many armies, and Sky doubts that, should this meeting turn sour, it will refuse the blood of one more man.
Then he throws a handful of ivory markers in the air, and cannot see the single ebony delicacy pierced through with unforgiving steel. His eyes only catch the drift of shattered shards around the solid outline of the nameless one, and the slow crumble into gray that veins through the air as it shivers into place. “You have a swift hand. And an accurate one as well.”
Nameless lowers his sword and, curiously, turns toward the river. He sheathes his blade as he shuffles the rocks of the bank with his toe. It takes him several minutes, rejecting one likely candidate after another, before he finds the perfect one.
The waters are wide and the currents are strong here, but the stone skips easily over the surface of the river to strike hard against a sparrow. At first, Sky believes the bird is dead, but a frantic flutter of wings soon proves him wrong. On the water, a single small feather floats for an instant before being engulfed.
“There are nineteen different ways of writing the character for ‘sword,’ but there is only one object to which we give that name,” Nameless says. “There is only one end, though there are many paths to it.”
“Your plan has many presumptions. First, you believe that I will trust you. Second, you believe that Flying Snow and Broken Sword will trust you, based on even less than what I know. Third, you believe you know us well enough to tell us how to conduct our battles, which are not yours.” Where it rests on Sky’s shoulder, his spear begins to gain weight and press down into his bones, heavy with the deaths of so many Ch’in. He sees the water flowing toward his land and he thinks on the desirability of joining it. But all the stone here has not been worn down to nothing yet, and it is still capable of bruising him.
The other man keeps both hands on the hilt of his sword, but lets it swing loosely downwards so he doesn’t appear as a threat. “I only believe that you will see what you see. You have been fighting for years and you have not stopped Ch’in; this country is like an enraged bull and you the goad.”
Sky knots his fingers around the haft of his spear till he can feel it merge with the flesh of his palm. It vibrates with the slightest movement of the air, telling him many things about the flavors of the atmosphere: actions, emotions, spirits.
When he points it at Nameless, it does not speak to him.
The man does not move, but only watches.
In the end, Sky returns his weapon to its quiescent place on his shoulder and waves for Nameless to precede him. The mud beneath their feet clings and drags, imbuing their every step with a reminder of earthly finality. “Come. We’ve a match to play out.”
Herbs bitter the air and coat the back of Sky’s throat when he wakes, swathed in ache and sweat. His chest is wrapped thick with bandages that are still too thin to dull the pain whenever he moves, and his head is clotted with disbelief.
Nameless is kneeling by the mattress. When the other man sees that Sky is awake, he offers tea. When he sees that Sky cannot yet sit up, he puts an arm around Sky’s shoulders and assists. “Thank you for trusting in me.”
“You should wait until after the victory is certain to give thanks.” The tea is strong, biting deep into Sky’s blood as he slowly pulls himself to waking. He presses the empty cup back into Nameless’ fingers, and then he catches a glimpse of the small wooden board beside the other man.
Following his gaze, Nameless almost seems to smile. “I thought one last game would be appropriate. In the morning, I leave; my servants are reliable and will see to your recovery.”
Before he answers, Sky weighs his words on his tongue and tastes the lead that is seeping from him into them. He feels his head beginning its inevitable slide off the light support of Nameless’ shoulder and he reaches out for the other man’s knee, trying to prevent that from happening. But it takes Nameless to resettle him there, and then to free his fingers from their vicious, useless grip on Nameless’ knee.
“Chess used to be an art of subterfuge, of knowing one’s opponent and of knowing oneself. In the era of Ch’in, it has become a blind pursuit of power.” The effort it takes to speak wears on Sky, and he closes his eyes while what remains of his strength gathers. “There is no need to play, when the outcome is already definite. You would win.”
Then Sky opens his eyes to see the knowledge and the consequences sink deep into Nameless’ eyes, which are bottomless enough for now to engulf it all without a trace. It will rise again, but at the moment, it is Sky that is falling.
Nameless is still holding Sky’s hand, and he continues to do so as he adjusts a blanket there, a pillow here to make Sky more comfortable. Irritated with the man’s acceptance, Sky uses his free hand to push at Nameless till he stops and looks more closely.
The other man reaches behind him and pulls out the beheaded shaft of Sky’s spear, which he places into Sky’s hand and curls Sky’s fingers around it as tenderly as he would hand a baby to its mother. His fingertips drift across the inside of Sky’s wrist as he does so, and then trace one long scar up to Sky’s shoulder.
Losing to Nameless this time is less harsh, less jolting, but no less painful. Sky locks his hand around the spear shaft so the nails nip at his own flesh and digs the nails of his other hand into the thick black hair Nameless had hidden beneath the cap of his office. He shudders as the storm swirls from all parts of him, surges and then breaks over the other man, who never makes a sound.
He supposes that he will have to make another name for himself now—Sky was not the name of his birth, and now it is not the name of his life, either. That honor drops unspoken, but as deeply felt as the cold of winter, into the hollow of the hand that briefly touches his cheek in the very earliest beams of the morning haze.
Nameless and he will not meet again, he knows, and some small, nearly withered part of him cries out against that as the snapped pole in his hand cries for its missing head. The burgeoning horizon foretells little triumph as well, so he both wonders and dreads at what he has accomplished. When he thinks on Flying Snow and Broken Sword, it is with an unfamiliar edge of desperation to his hope.
When he is able to once more, he leaves the house of the nameless prefect and he goes not to the river, but to the yellow wastes where the war is currently being contested. There he burns incense and offers cool fresh water to the parched sands for Nameless.
He waits for the day when he can do the same with his keening broken spear and steaming blood on Nameless’ grave.
1. rén: man
2. wŏ: I, me, us
3. nĭ: you (singular or plural)
4. míng tzu: name
5. tŭ: earth
6. tian: sky
7. wú míng: without name (ref. to Taoism concept of the Tao)