Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Miracle Chess Kitties

Agnes always played white, because that was the color of her fur and she got confused when she tried to play as black. This fact alone will likely give you some clue as to how good a chess player Agnes was.

Of course, there are those who would say a cat playing chess at all is remarkable, even if she did do it poorly. Her sister Gertrude couldn’t play. But the third of the litter, the long haired black cat named Augusta, could beat most non-ranked humans, so clearly felines can do better than poor Agnes.

Martha was never certain how either cat learned to play chess. She hadn't taught them; she barely understood the game herself. She only owned the chess board because it came in a set of games she bought to entertain her brother's grandchildren when their mother brought them to visit over the Thanksgiving break. The kids opened everything, played once, and then ignored it all in favor of handheld video games.

The following week, Martha woke up one morning to find the chessboard laid out on her kitchen table and two of her cats staring at it. As Augusta nudged a knight up one and over two, Martha poured herself a cup of coffee and wondered if she’d set the board up in her sleep. It was only after she watched Augusta’s queen swoop across the board to capture Agnes’s bishop that she started to wonder if the cats were actually playing the game rather than simply playing with the pieces. And it took Agnes hanging her head in shame over her king getting captured in check mate for Martha to fully understand what she was watching.

While the cats sat the board up for another game, Martha went to the box and opened up the booklet that explained the rules. At this point, she was expecting to have a laugh at her credulity that she could share with her coworkers in the church office, but as she read the rules, she realized the cats were playing by them.

“Mother Mary,” Martha whispered, crossing herself.

When she told Father Fishbourne that she was worried her cats might be possessed, he listened patiently. In his years in the priesthood, he had heard many claims of possession though he had never actually witnessed an occurrence of it. He was fairly confident that demonic possession wasn’t a thing that actually happened, but felt duty bound to respond to situations like this one as though seriously considering the possibility that a denizen of hell had taken over the mind of housepet.

When Father Fishbourne entered Martha’s kitchen, he saw nothing that led him to question his default assumption that Martha had simply seen her cats batting chess pieces about in mockery of human play and misinterpreted the situation, but as soon as he sat down beside the prepared gameboard, Augusta jumped onto the table and gave him a very solemn nod.

“She wants you play,” Martha said. Then she shook her head and muttered under her breath, “I knew I shouldn’t have taken the black one.”

“That’s a myth,” said the Father. “That black cats are evil. They’re no more of less so than any other cat.” Although the expression the cat appeared to wear as he said this made him less certain of the truth of this than he had been in the past.

The good Father’s eyes widened considerably as Augusta craned over the white pieces before her to take the king’s knight into her mouth and jump it over the row of pawns. He countered by mirroring the move, which earned him a slanted look from the cat, who then moved a pawn.

After ten minutes, Father Fishbourne realized he was in check mate. To a cat.

He leaned back and studied the animal. “I’m going to have to do some research.”

Thus began a week of the Father coming over every afternoon to play chess with Augusta. Occasionally he won, but it was clear the feline was the superior player. To salve his ego some, he also played against Agnes, who he typically beat. It was, he considered, a sign of her good nature that she continued to play the game when she so seldom won at it.

He ruled out demonic possession fairly early on with the easy test of blessing the water in their bowl and watching as they drank. The water had no effect, which it should have if demons were involved. What he couldn’t figure out was what was left. Could they be possessed by angels? What would be God’s motivation in arranging that?

The very next Thursday, the Father was given a possible answer to that question when the first major snowstorm of the season hit. The roof of the church-run homeless shelter valiantly held off the snow, but was powerless when half a frozen tree crashed through it. The shelter now had a massive hole in the roof right when the unfortunate souls who relied on its embrace needed it the most.

As the shelter’s board of operations frantically brainstormed how to raise money for a new roof, someone mentioned strange fundraisers they’d seen. “One time, this professional chess player did a fundraiser were he held a series of games where people could pay him to play against them. They built like an entire soup kitchen or something.”

Clarity struck Father Fishbourne and Martha at the same instant. “Augusta!” they exclaimed.

“No… I think he was Russian.”

Father Fishbourne shook his head. “No, Brother Wallie. Not the chess player. Or not the human one. Martha has a cat who plays chess. Well, two of them. But one of them plays well. Do you think people would pay to play against a cat?”

Brother Wallie stared. “I think they’d pay to watch someone play the cat.”

“Playing the cat would be better,” said Sister Teresa, the head of the Sunday School program. “That way they’d know it was responding to them and wasn’t just trained.” She blinked. “Wait. The cat can play chess. Really?”

It wound up being a good thing that Augusta was the better chess player, because when the cats were brought into the church the night of the fundraiser, Agnes flipped out and spent the entire evening hiding behind the refrigerator in the kitchen of the Fellowship Hall. Augusta, however, sat proudly before the provided chessboard, a much nicer one than she had at home, and faced every challenger with dignity.

No one beat her that evening, even though enough people played her to raise over half of the needed funds in the one night.

Two days later, she was invited onto the local newscast were a reporter played against her and lost while his colleagues told him all the moves they would have made in his stead. They were invited to try their hands against her at the second night of fundraising that Friday.

By Sunday morning, Father Fishbourne was able to announce that they had sufficient funds to not only rebuild the roof, but add an annex to the building so that it could house more people.

As she prayed her thanks, Martha realized that while God may have given her this blessing to save the homeless shelter, He probably didn’t want things to stop there. The cats could, after all, still play chess. So she started Miracle Chess Kitty Charities and now tours the country raising money for nonprofits with the help of Augusta and Agnes, who eventually grew less terrified of people and provided a good opponent to the type of person who doesn’t want to say they lost a game of chess to a cat.

If you’re interested in booking a match against Augusta, you can contact her scheduling agent at (555) 555-5267. And should you lose to her, you may be interested in commemorating the event with an official “I Lost to Augusta the Miracle Chess Kitty” t-shirt, available in her traveling gift shop after every event.

The above image is by Augusta Agnes Talboys, an artist who painted a lot of cats in the early twentieth century. You can learn more about her at The Great Cat.

It was given as a writing prompt by my Wording Wednesday project. Other responses can be found in the comments on that site.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Defender of Earth

Terra Alexis Duncan sat by herself at Chang’s Famous Buffet. She had come here hoping for some interesting people-watching. Usually a mid-afternoon meal at Chang’s allowed her to view at least one elderly couple who would argue about whether the egg rolls were better here or at China Haven, discuss how the weather is crazier now than it ever has been, and maybe get into an argument about whether the news anchor on the TV in the corner needed to wear less makeup or not. This day there was no such couple, just a pair of dude-bros talking about the babes in their office building.

Dude-bros were moderately interesting to Terra Alexis, though less so than old people. Old people had strange opinions derived at from years of experiences foriegn to Terra Alexis’s own. Dude-bros, on the other hand, had strange opinions brought about by looking at the same world Terra Alexis was born into but with a perspective she was certain was flawed. It was odd that they seemed to believe every woman working into their company was put there to be judged by them, but it wasn’t odd in a fun way. It was more odd in an infuriating way that made Terra Alexis half-hope that the crab legs there were eating and she wasn’t would give them food poisoning. They didn’t seem to care that she could hear everything they were saying, though she had no idea if that was because they figured women’s opinions on their conversation were irrelevant, had deemed her too young to worry about, or just didn’t think geeky teenagers with ponytails and chunky glasses were worth noticing.

The news wasn’t any better. Even without sound, it was depressing. Someone had killed someone, which the analysts were likely saying was going to plunge the world into even greater violence. The leader of her country was possibly going to be removed from office, though probably not. Koalas were on fire in Australia because humans had super-heated the planet. And then the ad break commenced and she was told she needed to buy a new car right this second.

Terra Alexis sighed as she pulled out her phone and opened one of the more mindless games on it. With one hand, she shoved chow mein into her mouth with a pair of splintery chopsticks while the other drew lines through matching fuzzballs on the screen to remove them and rake up points.

When the door opened, Terra Alexis glanced up to see what looked like a third dude-bro. She assumed he was joining the others, so looked back to her phone. However, she looked up again when she noticed he was standing by her table.

He blinked at her and suddenly she realized this was no dude-bro. This wasn’t even a human. Human eyes blink up-and-down, but this person had just blinked side-to-side, like automatic doors opening and shutting at the grocery store.

Figuring a nonhuman at her table was more interesting than her game, Terra Alexis switched her phone screen off and gave the newcomer her full attention.

“Terra Alexis Duncan?” he asked, reading the name off of what looked like a standard seven inch tablet. The hand holding the tablet, Terra Alexis couldn’t fail to notice, had one less finger on it than humans typically possessed. The individual focused on her with an expression that clearly communicated he expected a quick confirmation and for the conversation to move on without her mentioning his obvious status as a nonhuman.

Being creeped out that he knew her name warred with Terra Alexis’s innate curiosity. She glanced around the restaurant. No one else seemed to notice the individual before her. Did that mean they wouldn’t notice if she started yelling for help? She wasn’t sure. “No?”

The individual blinked again. It was even weirder the second time as Terra Alexis realized he hadn’t blinked since that first time on arrival. It was a slow blink, a deliberate blink. His eyes dropped to the tablet and he pressed something on it. Then he looked back at her. “You are Terra Alexis Duncan of Greenrock Village. I am certain of this.”

Terra Alexis stares. Greenrock Village wasn’t the name of her town but of her subdivision. Knowing her address wouldn’t tell you she lived there unless you actually knew the neighborhood. “Who are you?” she asked.


“Uh-huh. And were are you from, Bob?”

“Vancouver, Canada,” he responded in a flat tone.

Somehow Terra Alexis failed to believe either that he was named Bob or that he came from anywhere in British Columbia, let alone Vancouver. “If I tell you that I actually am Terra Alexis Duncan, will you tell me who you actually are?”

The individual gave a nod that sent some of his blond hair flopping into his face. As he moved brushed the hair back into place, he added the word, “Yes.”

“Alright then.” Terra Alexis leaned back in her chair. “I am Terra Alexis Duncan of Greenrock Village. Have a seat and tell me who the heck you are.”

Complying, the nonhuman pulled out a chair and sat down in it. “I’m Ernafhero Eakreian Zhoeho. Please call me Erna. I’m from a planet called Eenren. And I’m here to offer you the chance to save your homeworld.”

Well, that was interesting. Terra Alexis tilted her head to the side as she studied the alien. He blinked at her for what was only the third time and she wondered if blinking conveyed something in his culture or if maybe he only needed to do it once a minute or so. She then wondered if she was using the correct pronoun. Yes, the alien looked like a dude-bro, but maybe all the women on Eenren did. “Are you a male or a female alien, Erna?” she asked.

Erna stiffened, making Terra Alexis realize that probably hadn’t been the most polite way to phrase what she had just asked. She rushed to rephrase. “I mean, which pronouns do you prefer? He/him? She/her?”

“It/it,” Erna said. “You may refer to me as it.”

Terra Alexis smiled a little. “Most people don’t like that one. Most non-binary people tend to like something like ‘they’ or a new word like ‘zhe’ rather than being ‘it’. ‘It’ has a connotation of being a thing, and people don’t like being things.”

“I’m not people,” Erna responded. “At least not human people. Also, I feel I should point out that your planet is going to be destroyed in ten minutes if you don’t agree to come with me before then, so you may want to hurry things along.”

“Oh?” Terra Alexis raised her eyebrows. “Why is my planet going to be destroyed?”

Erna blinked a fourth time. “Because my superiors will destroy it. With a big gun, like in that movie series you have about the political insurrections in space.”

“Star Wars?”

It shrugged. “Maybe? I don’t remember. It’s very long though.”

Nodding, Terra Alexis said, “Yeah, sounds like Star Wars…” Leaning forward on her elbows, she thought for a moment before going on. “So, just to be clear… An alien spaceship somewhat akin to the Death Star will destroy my planet ten minutes from now unless I agree to be kidnapped by you?”

“It’s not a kidnapping. You have been named Champion of Earth. When you agree to accept the title, you will be escorted my homeworld, where you will be trained to battle against the representatives of seven other worlds for the right for your planet to enter the Galactic Union. Three of you will succeed. The other five will, sadly, see their planets destroyed.”

“Battle? Like physical fighting or like playing strategy games?”

Erna waved its hand through the hair like this question was inconsequential. “A series of events that will include both challenges of physical and mental might.”

“Okay…” Terra Alexis nibbled her lip as she thought about this. “Why me? I’m not a warrior.”

“Your name. Terra means Earth. Alexis means defender. And Duncan means warrior. Thus you are Earth Defending Warrior.”

“I see. So I’ll be battling against someone who’s name means Mars Defending Soldier or something?”

Erna shook its head. “No. There are no intelligent beings on Mars.”

Terra Alexis gave him a flat look. “Is everyone from your planet as much of a smart ass as you?”

“Yes.” Erna’s lips ticked up in a smile.

Against her better judgement, Terra Alexis found herself almost liking this alien. Still, she didn’t think she liked it enough to leave the planet with it. “Then I don’t think I want to go there.”

Erna’s smile dropped. “You have to. If you don’t, then Earth will be destroyed.”

Terra Alexis shrugged. “Sounds to me like if everyone in your little game is evenly matched, then Earth would still have a five in eight shot at getting destroyed anyway. And what are the odds that we’re evenly matched? I’m seventeen, untrained, and weigh all of one hundred and five pounds. Are other species really pathetic enough that I have a chance at beating them in physical combat? Are they houseplants, maybe?”

“You would be the smallest contestant this cycle,” Erna admitted. “But there will be training. And also, you are the most intelligent of the contestants judging by what I've seen thus far.”

That provoked a snort. “If humans are the smartest people out there, then the universe is royally hosed, dude.”

“But Earth would not be.”

Thinking about this, Terra Alexis allowed her eyes to drift to the TV. If it hadn’t been there, who knows what conclusion she would have drawn. But it was there, showing her images of a building that was fine yesterday but was now rubble. A lot of people would have seen that and thought they didn’t want their planet to likewise be destroyed. But not Terra Alexis. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I’m not going.”

Erna blinked. “You can’t be serious.”

“I am.” Terra Alexis stood up. “I’m not going to spend my last months torturing myself to learn how to fight for people who don’t deserve it. Let one of the the other planets live instead. I’m going to hit the dessert bar. The coconut pudding here is excellent and I'm down to something like five minutes to enjoy it in.”

As it stared at the human girl walking up to the buffet's selection of sweets, Erna couldn’t help but feel it could have done a better job at picking a representative for Earth. Then it glanced at the TV and wondered if maybe the entire species was selfish enough that it really couldn’t have done better.

With a final blink of its eyes, Erna stood up, loaded the app that would summon a transport beam, and returned to his office to file a report explaining to its superiors why there would only be seven planets in this cycle’s games.

The above image is Chinese Food by Leon Zernitsky. You can order a print of it on Fine Art America.

The story was prompted by a text conversation with my teenaged son. He had gone to a Chinese buffet by himself and was reading the news while listening to some dude-bro types. I texted him back that according to the Hero's Journey he was about to get a Call to Action. He responded that I could use the situation as a writing prompt.