Story: CHESS AND LIANA
By: Gaither Stewart
Lead weighed heavy on his eyeballs. Countless espressos worn off, their absence dragging him from the peak of his matinal inspiration downwards toward oblivion. Toward non-existence. Noonday light filtered through the jungle turned blue. He tried to be rational while the jungle surrounding him beat against his ears. It beat and throbbed. Beat and throbbed. In the shrinking circles of his mind he searched for a hold against the liana. Liana was encircling and enveloping and blanketing and cloaking the van, occupying his world. Liana popped around his head and into his deadened mind. Liana omnipresent. Carnivorous liana engulfing and devouring him, too. Breath abandoned his lungs, his eyes lost their vision, rivulets of his sweat ran down his neck, time faded and seemed to end.
I had always thought Pier Paolo’s corporal space too confining for his spirit. His body was simply too small to contain him. He needed more living space. From the portico I watched his dusty ramshackle van battle its way through the wild vegetation encroaching on the gully-ridden dirt roadway leading to the door of the country house. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, we called it. Branches of spontaneous trees and unidentifiable bushes and thickets and vines slapped against the windshield, and then gradually slid away. Framed between his two hands clutching the steering wheel, his reddened swollen face emerged from the August heat and his internal agitation. At the moment he broke free of the jungle assault his bulging burning eyes briefly met my Roman eyes, concealing as best he could his Tuscan derision and irony toward life.
Pier Paolo climbed down from the van slowly, slightly bent, his belly drooping over the tight belt holding up his jeans covering skinny bowed legs. Unsmiling he waved a hand at me. He lit a cigarette and as always he stopped to stare down the valley toward Florence as if measuring the distance he had just covered. He turned back to me, wiped his forehead, pulled at his scraggly chin beard, slapped at his neck spuriously, inhaled deeply and still straight-faced, and said disinterestedly:
“Qual é la situazione zanzare oggi?” What’s the mosquito situation today?
“They’re all resting after their last attack early this morning,” I said, fixing on the red veins crossing the bulbs of his eyeballs. Suspended precariously over red rims his eyes were in fiery contrast with the perennial black circles under them. I thought his blood pressure must have been hovering at around 300.
“Paranoico!” he grunted.
Mosquitoes never touched Pier Paolo. As far as he was concerned there were ‘only a few’ in all of Fiesole. For him the mosquitoes infesting the bushes and woods around the country house, incubating in the pools of stagnant water remaining from forgotten rains and waiting in ambush in the dry fields of olive orchards, were nonexistent. No, mosquitoes never touched him. Or if they did he ignored them as he did most of nature. Though he claimed to love dogs and cats and occasionally stopped to pet one or the other, he seemed in general impervious to the flora and the fauna.
As far as he was concerned, I thought, the spontaneous jungle from which he had just emerged did not exist.
While Pier Paolo put on the water for pasta, I poured the Chianti and began setting up the chessboard under the portico. On the days he returned to his house on the hill for lunch we would start the game while the water boiled. Afterwards, he would need very few of his lightning moves to checkmate me. He had held the Fiesole championship for the last three years. Losing, I hoped to absorb some of his mastery.
After two years in a commune and three years working with spastics, this summer Pier Paolo had returned to carpentry. He shared a workshop with a friend down in Florence in the workers’ district of San Frediano where they made on order country style, manually operated spinning wheels. Nights, he was working on a complex invention of a keyboard with which spastics could type on their computers with their feet.
“Shall I slice the tomatoes?” I asked, knowing his answer in advance.
“I’ll do it.” He didn’t trust my Roman-style cut. Not that Pier Paolo was a great cook but his summer specialty of fresh tomatoes, sliced just so, spread over the spaghetti, was my favorite dish. We ate it every second day that summer while our wives spent their days at a swimming pool complex in the hills in the direction of Bologna.
His grunts and curt answers were deceptive. He didn’t make the drive up the Fiesole hill just because I was a summer guest from Rome. He felt no obligation toward me his brother-in-law. Not at all. Some days he didn’t come at all. I knew where he was those days too. But Pier Paolo welcomed the chance to eat pasta and drink wine and play chess under the portico without the presence of his wife who always seemed a reminder of his failure as a husband and provider, of his shortcomings in day-to-day life.
Though they adored him, his parents and his wife expected more of him. His friends expected more of him. You expected more expressions of his genius. And more rewards, too.
No matter how you looked at his situation, Pier Paolo just didn’t live up to expectations.
By normal standards Pier Paolo could be considered a failure in life. A law school drop-out. A list of abandoned jobs and firings behind him. A life of quick enthusiasms and sudden apathy. A reluctant husband—he’d only married to satisfy his parents. No children, and according to my sister-in-law, Lalla, he had little interest in sex.
Lacking any sense at all of possession of anything or anyone, Pier Paolo was at the same time a total egoist. He was both totally generous and totally egocentric. His head was elsewhere. In the clouds, one said. A dreamer. For us Romans, a Tuscan sort of thing. His inventions of things already invented were legion. He had devoted weeks to making by hand a special wooden airplane, an upside down plane, wings in the back and tail fins in the front, a blue yellow red purple airplane never seen before—it was hanging from the kitchen ceiling. Meanwhile he was an unstoppable talker, polemical on every possible subject, banal or otherwise—Was the pasta al dente or overdone? Was Bologna or Arezzo closer to Florence? Did the city of Florence really care about its disabled youth? Was Italy’s government a democracy or a dictatorship?—in any discussion he was capable of unbridled fits of anger that then sputtered and ended as suddenly as they had exploded.
Pier Paolo was, how can I say it? he was both loveable and unbearable. Sometimes you just had to get up and leave and try to put him behind you. Not as easy as it sounds for he was somehow always present, either his expansive physical self or his invasive spirit—if he was not physically present in the country house on the hill of Fiesole, he was certainly the chief topic of conversation.
“This is the life,” I said, as we ate his pasta al pomodoro.
These were good days. My favorite escape from hectic Rome. No mad autostrade for us. No packed beaches and Apennine mountain paths as crowded as Central Park on Sunday morning.
Pier Paolo was silent.
The cloudless sky rose borderless, limitless, endless. The hills around spread like a spider’s web, rolling down to Firenze below, another chain climbing toward the north to Settignano, Montebeni and Vincigliata, speckled by white and pastel villas with red tile roofs and olive and fruit orchards on their flanks and pines and cypresses on their crests. The sudden barking of dogs and the multiple responses echoing through the hills, the sound of a flute from across the highroad, the rasping of a motorcycle, the audible sagging of vines under the weight of ripened grapes hanging from the roof, the chatter of rabbits from behind the barn, and again dead silence before a single shot shattered the hillside peace.
“The women at the pool and we on top of the world’s most beautiful hill,” I insisted. “The people who’ve always lived up here know a thing or two. Some people just seem to know how to live … That we in Rome have forgotten.”
“Fortunate the man who doesn’t have to learn to live,” Pier Paolo muttered, lighting a cigarette even before finishing the pasta. “Spoiled as I was once, my parents thought everything was arranged for me.”
“You’re lucky. That left you more time for real things.”
“No, no!” he said, his wild eyes bulging from their sockets, his face still on fire. He puffed at his cigarette and inhaled deeply. “I even had to learn to despair … like an autistic child.”
“You learned well,” I said facetiously. “Look at you now!”
“They wanted me to be at ease. Carefree. It was their serenity that was so frustrating, their sincerity toward life. Early on I was at ease … but dissatisfied. I was just my father’s son. I didn’t love. Until one day … well, until everything changed. And I came to want desperation.”
“Still, it seems you always do the right things.” I pushed aside the plates and positioned the chessboard between us, at the same time thinking ‘dubious Romans, pragmatic Florentines’. It was my turn to play with white.
“You’re dead wrong. My life is a calvary. My only hope is to die young,” he said, the familiar faraway look in his suddenly calmed eyes. “I’ll die from my obsessions.”
“Absurd,” I said and opened as always with the king’s pawn. I looked up at him and in that moment I seemed to see straight into his life as never before.
“That might be,” he said, and moved his king’s knight to threaten my pawn, which constituted the substance of the rest of the game—his black pieces threatening my white wherever they might be. That was his winning system. “They asked me again to join them. Fulvio … and the others. They want to resurrect what died years ago.”
“You mean his gang of would-be terrorists?”
I moved my pawn forward, foolishly trying to menace him. Without a thought he flipped his knight to the side where it would sit like a hawk ready to swoop down on any enemy pawns venturing into his territory.
“I said no just as I did fifteen years ago. I still wonder if I did wrong. The Arno is still polluted. We’re producing garbage faster than they can find secret places in the south to dump it. The Fascists run things. Rome gives the city no money for social problems. And now, what with the whole town occupied year round by tourists—they’re even up here in Fiesole—a little bit of home-made terrorism might chase them away.”
“Beccati questo!” Take this, I said and moved my king’s bishop to threaten his knight. Without blanching he brought out his queen’s knight and looked at me expectantly. I didn’t know what to do then … his power was already advancing … he had two devious knights ready to pounce … I had nothing.
Pier Paolo once told me he loved chess because it was so different from life. In chess one false move ruins you. In life the hardest part is knowing exactly where you went wrong. Can you ever look back and pinpoint the moment you erred? Can you see clearly where you took the wrong turn? It’s difficult enough to discern starting points but impossible to establish turning points. Yet he still wondered if there was not always one great error, some misdeed, where we go wrong? An error that then conditions our lives? That then never releases us? And in retrospect are we not aware that it might have been otherwise? He said it was not mere rhetoric but a matter of conscience. The conscience of human beings that separates us from animal beings. And that makes us need to be extraordinary. His aim was to leave his mark. And the thought of failure in that, too, was his terror and his torment.
Meanwhile, the surreptitious move of a pawn here, the unexpected dash of a rook the length of the board, and he suddenly had all his power up front—both knights, his bishops posed strategically as diagonal threats, and his queen waiting patiently to strike. I viewed my muddled army—troops disorganized, chaotic, here one pawn behind the other, there a bishop blocked behind my own knight, all like my own city of Rome, I thought helplessly. Casually Pier Paolo began picking off my pawns, the other knight, an unawares rook. In the end he checked me simultaneously with both his queen and a bishop.
“Bobby Fisher,” he muttered … and named Fischer’s Russian opponent.
Where was it? The right word. No, not the word! The right action. The right thing. The right color. Shards of colored lights were glittering and glimmering and shimmering. The green of human vision. The celeste of the sky. The white of innocence. Like her eyes glittering in the lamplight. She wanted more of life. Why not more? Why couldn’t he give more? She didn’t understand the liana when he told her. She could never understand the threat. Or his fear. Liana on Fiesole, everyone asked? Liana on Fiesole? Man-eating liana in his mind. The Fiesole sounds he heard too. The sound of the gate. Clack, clack, clack. The gate he’d built for the dogs. In and out, in and out of the barn. The hinges rusted. It was the dogs. It was the breeze. Light breezes from the hills of the Via Bolognese. Cypresses waving. Breezes calling across the hills. Olive orchards, villas, the old highway … and the woman. She was calling, calling, calling. From the hills of the Via Bolognese, she was calling.
Fulvio had said, ‘Join us!’ He said, no! To political activists today, he said, no! To the movements, he said, no! Now he only talked a life. But he had his dreams. Night and day he dreamed. He passed easily from dream to dream. Dreams of words and action and power and violence and colors and lights … and her eyes.
Pier Paolo was staring across the hills. I knew where he was looking. I knew what it meant. Her name was Isabel. Peruvian. An artist who painted graceful children. Isabel lived on the Via Bolognese. He had told me that she was usually half nude. Topless, he said. She showed off her breasts. Her brown brown breasts. Pier Paolo said it was her insecurity and her maternal instinct. She liked to hear that. He said her topless life style was her art; she painted graceful children, full of grace and innocence.
Fulvio had told me Isabel was very active sexually, with or without him—she drove him to the limits. And to desperation. We all thought that was the reason Pier Paolo was crazed. Apparently, at first he had treated her like a daughter—she came to their house in Fiesole, he and Lalla talked about her freely, she was like one of the family.
That was until one day when they were all lunching under the portico she insisted on taking off her shirt. Then it became incest. He was obsessed. His incestuous obsession, Pier Paolo called it.
I stared at Pier Paolo staring toward the Via Bolognese. He was again ablaze. His face reminded me of the time some years back at Saturnia. We were all burned that day at the hot mineral springs—the August sun and the sulphur waters. Pier Paolo who avoids the sun like the plague that day was on fire, his eyes white, his lips purple. After drinks in the village café, he started across the street, stopped in the middle and held his hand to his heart, a stricken look of terror on his flaming face. I rushed to him with a chair from the café. I can still see him sitting there in the middle of the street, an occasional car passing us in both directions—burned by sun and sulphur, immobile, terrorized, his hand posed on his pounding breast, he is looking up at me as if to ask if his time is already up. It was surprising because of his usual scorn for death—he didn’t care, he said, his two plus packs of filterless cigarettes each day, his high blood pressure, his defiance of doctors.
“You thinking of going to Bologna?” I said, trying to disguise any unintentional irony in my voice. “You keep looking that way.”
“Se tu solo sapessi! If you only knew! But then you’re a Roman. But I can’t. I can’t. Just look at me!” His ballooned eyes white, he took a long drink of wine, threw away his cigarette and lit another. ‘And to do what?’
None of this story was secret. Everybody in the household on Fiesole knew about his fixation on Isabel. Pier Paolo’s parents knew. His mother-in-law, that is, Lalla’s and my wife’s mother, or, la nonna as we all called her, knew. We all knew about Pier Paolo and Isabel. We knew the ups and downs. We knew about his hang-ups. And he knew we knew. There were no more secrets about Isabel than about the man Pier Paolo called Lalla’s fiancé. There was no embarrassment when Pier Paolo answered the phone and called Lalla—“It’s your fiancé!” he would say, not only without irony but with no attempt to mask the joy he felt that she had someone.
Telephones were important in the house on the hill of Fiesole. The howling dogs and screeching cats and rumbling motorcycles on the highroad, and the rustling of the expanding and swelling and lengthening liana on the Ho Chi Minh trail. And the telephone calls from and to their respective fiancés.
La nonna, who detested Pier Paolo for what he was and for taking away her Lalla, said he was a frocio, that is, a queer. She was convinced that Fulvio was his lover. So if she answered the phone and it was Fulvio, she would call out to Pier Paolo: “It’s your fiancé.”
Liana is a parasite incapable of supporting its own weight. It roots in the ground and creeps around tree trunks and branches. With little seed reserves of its own, liana develops great stalk extensions. Thread-like and weak, to survive it has to cling to other plants with its almost extraneous roots or its organs of connection or its long branches. Liana has an exceptional capacity for lengthening. Its stalks and stems and tentacles take on odd forms and shapes, like tapes or spirals, corresponding to the anomalies in its whole anatomic structure—its twisting and its torsions within its impenetrable mass. Its habitat is the rain forest. So what is it doing here, Pier Paolo wondered? He remembered that unlike other plants liana is half uprooted. It does not want to stay in one place. It wants more. Nature, he thought, is the antithesis of man. The divine is in man, not in nature which is neither good nor evil—or is it? The divine in man is in a battle with nature, against its meaninglessness. Man—ever searching for meaning. Is man’s mission to destroy unfeeling nature?
Early the next morning from under my window I heard the chainsaw and the sounds of thrashing and hacking and cutting mixed with grunts and oaths. A rush of the saw and his muttered ‘porca Madonna’ that la Nonna detested and for which she condemned Pier Paolo to hellfire. I knew it was him.
Marisa next to me was in the dead of her night. The household was quiet. I crept to the window and looked down at him. Bare to the waist, Pier Paolo was surrounded by piles of hacked and torn and uprooted vines and creepers and stalks and tree branches; yet he seemed to have advanced no more than about a meter in his attack on the Ho Chi Minh trail. His arm holding the chain saw was pointed toward a spontaneous tree engulfed by liana hanging over the roadway. He looked up at me, his face flushed and a crazed smile on his purple lips.
“Porca Madonna!” he said. “Nature is winning. It has eyes … it’s watching me. Its mouth is watering.”
“I’ll come down and help,” I said softly.
“No need,” he said. “Mi arrendo. I surrender.”
He turned the saw on anyway and waved it half-heartedly toward the tree victim before dropping his arm and walking away from the battle scene, the saw still whirring away.
Shortly afterwards I heard him on the downstairs phone.
“Who is it?” Lalla called from the next room.
“His fiancé,” la nonna said from down the hall.
“I’m not coming to work,” Pier Paolo was saying. “I’m too sick.”
Lalla groaned, “Not again!”
Everyone knew what that meant. Pier Paolo was again taking to bed as he did every three or four months. Sometimes for days and weeks he lived in pajamas. Lying in his upstairs room or on the couch in the living room watching TV around the clock. He would watch everything with equal interest, as if he were a just arrived New Guinean aborigine. He watched quiz shows, talk shows, reality shows, cooking and gardening shows, travelogues about Zanzibar or the Caribbean he loved, soap operas, and all the advertising spots and TV sales, the vilest, the very worst, the dark pit of television. And all the while smoking and waiting to be served his meals. Then, all of a sudden, it would end—he would get up, take a shower, dress, and drive down to Florence to see his mother.
“What’s up?” I asked when that afternoon I found him stretched out on the couch, a cigarette in his hand and an overflowing ashtray and the wireless phone on his stomach. He was following a women’s talk show about lovers, jealousy and separation.
“Il male non esiste. Evil does not exist,” he said, just like that, matter-of-factly, without taking his eyes off the screen.
“Why do you say that?”
“Those dogs howling out there aren’t evil. Nor are people evil, deep-down. They’re just misled … or they forget they’re good.”
“Do you want to play chess?” I said, trying to change the subject.
“I’m dissatisfied but I’m not unhappy. So I try to create a little evil around me so someone will get mad … and then I can be unhappy.”
He looked up at me standing over him and asked, “Does sex disturb you?”
When I said sometimes, he said that it gnawed away at him, that it was always there.
That same evening just before dinner we were pleasantly surprised when he rose from the couch, took his usual post-illness shower, dressed and left—we all knew, for the Via Bolognese.
“Thank God!” Lalla said.
“Off to his fiancé,” la Nonna said.
Where to go? Images, visions, shadows and reflections flashed for an instant across his eyes and in one bolt vanished, he knew irretrievable and absolute. Briefly they existed … as reality. Oh, to be able to decelerate the tempo, the march of time, to reach out and pluck the images and reflections like fruit. To have a season. Oh, the torment of images! A day of his time. A winter’s day of time. A muffled horn from the highroad in the early morning. A light flickering in the fog. The rush through the moaning liana. The blue neon at the bar in San Domenico where he breakfasted. The old woman selling chestnuts on Piazza della Signoria. The apartment houses along the Arno south of Ponte Vecchio. His own reflection in the rain-splattered window of the shop in San Frediano. And then: the stillness of the room when she sleeps. In the evening snow falling on Fiesole. The valley before the Via Bolognese. A day of time. The images were his. Beauty, romance and mystery. Sadness, pain and fear.
It was the fear. The fear in his guts. Trembling fears. Pier Paolo held up a hand to the windshield to observe his trembling. It ran up his arm to his shoulders and down his spine. It was alive. Fear was an animal. So uncontrollably animal-like, anti-human. He knew he was right not to trust nature.
But instinct, he wondered? Can I not trust instinct as always? As in chess where instinct seldom betrayed him. He twisted his hand and clenched and unclenched a fist and recalled the tournament years before when he first won the championship. It was the decisive move—to sacrifice his knight or his bishop? The dilemma. Reason told him to give up the knight in case his plan backfired. His instinct said sacrifice the bishop and strike home for the checkmate. His instinct was right.
Now Pier Paolo observed his trembling hand and knew instinct had deserted him.
Isabel was waiting on the rear terrace facing Fiesole. The scene was so familiar. Isabel—tanned, long-legged, a purple flower in her long hair, barefoot, topless. On her easel, a nude girl child with a purple flower in her hair, a chain of small white flowers around her neck, long tanned legs.
She put down her brush, wiped her hands, stood up and took him by the hand.
“Come,” she said.
Stretched out beside Isabel on the wide multi-colored couch in the living room facing the terrace looking out to the valley toward Fiesole, Pier Paolo felt the chaos pressing at his throat like the tentacles of liana. It was the hills of oppressive nature. A confrontation. Fiesole on one hill looking toward the Via Bolognese. The Via Bolognese on another hill looking at the hill of Fiesole. Was that all? Was it all the same? With one hand he stroked her breasts but he felt only the bright Peruvian colors under them. And around them. The colors assailed his senses. When Isabel pushed at his pants he thought of the carnivorous liana. Sweat rolled down from under his armpits. He felt himself shrinking.
“Isabel!” Pier Paolo said.
“Again!” Isabel said.
He stood up and pulled her to her feet.
She started to put on a shirt. He stopped her.
Though it was dark he drove without lights. Down the hill from the Via Bolognese, up and down several lower hills, before initiating the final climb up to San Domenico and Fiesole. The heat pressed around them. Lightning bugs flittered in the bush when they turned off the highroad onto the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Bats rose from scattered roofs here and there. Both van windows were open when they entered the bush.
The night was hot and humid, the hottest in decades, perhaps in centuries. TV weathermen spoke of an exceptional heat wave from North Africa. I turned on the fans, closed hermetically doors and windows, sprayed and put on various anti-mosquito apparatuses. All evening meteorologists continued explaining the dramatic changes in world climate. Hotter summers, colder winters. Sweltering days and nights in Scandinavia and Scotland and Ireland. The glaciers were melting, sea levels rising. Palms and other tropical plants were reported in Milan in the north, and in the Tessin in southern Switzerland, and were beginning their ascent upwards toward the Inn valley. One felt the jungle pressing.
La Nonna shrugged and said she was cold anyway. Lalla and my wife were gradually stripping while I huddled near the electric anti-mosquito appliance pumping its noxious fumes into the living room. The noise of the electric fans, the TV and the usual chatter blotted out everything else and isolated us from the dangerous world outside.
In a bizarre atmosphere of threat and foreboding the whole household retired. Pier Paolo had not returned. No one really expected him. When I looked out our bedroom window, an out-of-season misty rain was falling. Humidity must have been one hundred per cent.
The early morning sky was a heavy leaden gray. When I opened the window the air felt like Panama City in the afternoon. Automatically I looked toward the Ho Chi Minh Trail as if expecting Pier Paolo to arrive at any moment. For a moment I thought I saw a movement in the bush. Or a light trying to penetrate through the green. Or it was a reflection. Like a neon sign blinking on and off, faintly, faintly, but a beacon, a call. I don’t know why but I read a Morse SOS.
I crept down the stairs and outside. Silence reigned. Not even the dogs were awake. No movement on the highroad. I felt the strange living presence of the jungle. It seemed to have advanced since yesterday. The branches and tentacles Pier Paolo had cut had vanished.
I stopped at the wall of the green mass. What I had seen as a reflection had become a mere shadow. I seemed to hear a rattle, and a rush inside the bush, on the trail, among the liana. Hesitantly I parted the first tentacles that during the night had enveloped the road in its clutch. Little by little I advanced against raw nature.
The reflection or the light that had become a shadow soon transformed into a solid object. The earth was mushy beneath my feet. Mosquitoes swarmed over me. A bulk began materializing before me. Stems and branches and tentacles of crazily convoluted liana wound round and round it. At knee level a light shone faintly. I was now standing in water. I knew. I leaned forward and saw bits of windows. I knew what it was. I knew what I would find inside. I ripped and pulled at the liana. It resisted. I became frantic and yanked and jerked at the tenacious vines. When the side of the van was cleared, I pressed my face into the gaping hole of the window and peered into the darkened interior.
Liana tentacles had invaded the interior. The two figures too were convoluted together with nature. One was atop the other, wrapped into one package. Pier Paolo had always said that liana is deceptive. A carnivorous species tends to first cling to its object as if in adoration, and then devours it.
As my eyes adjusted to the near darkness, I could barely make out only the exposed form of a female breast.