by Dietrich Balsbaugh
I found a dusty old chessboard in the closet,
and placed it carefully on the coffee table.
The dull wooden squares and once-lacquered pieces
tapped and rolled in disarray as I poured them out.
Four Knights Game was what my father knew,
teaching me to control the center squares
but always having a few tricks up his sleeve.
Queen’s pawn—1. d4 d5 2. c4 and he had me.
I loved the intricate possibilities, fantasized
of an en passant, hoped for a queenside castle,
worked always for a back rank checkmate,
and rejoiced at a revealed check to a queen-rook fork.
But pawn promotion captured my young imagination.
March your meagre pawn to the end and it transforms
to a queen, or if you wanted, a rook or a bishop,
or a knight. (Who wouldn’t want a queen?)
Perhaps it was the blatant impossibility,
the dull, doomed march to the back rank—
always blocked by other pawns, victimized
by the rooks and bishops—that drew me in.
Or perhaps it was their weakness
before the advancing foe. Forever bowing to knights
and obstructing the opening. Fodder in the endgame.
Throwaway moves for more powerful lords.
Then I found it one day, a white pawn in the 7th rank
standing alone like a child on an open street.
The black king cloistered in a three walled castle
seemed strangely indifferent to the transcendent pawn.
How many times had this pawn been poured out
on this wooden board? Set in place only to fall,
expendable to his commander? Swept. Placed again
and trapped by the advances of another malicious mind.
How many times had this pawn dreamed to be the one
to deliver the final blow? Speak the last word. h8Q#.
That unlettered presence, once measured only by place,
now, for a moment, measured with the gift of final judgement.
Dietrich Balsbaugh is a mathematician and aspiring writer. When he is not trying to solve a new physics problem, he spends his spare time reading with his lovely wife, talking about fractals, or camping next to a river.
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