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The Chess Set of Ivory
Chess appealed to my father's delight in quietude, his repressed rage, his trust in institutions, models, and measured behavior. Chess justifled what Father liked best: thinking about thinking. He called it: battling mind.
Father dwelled in a space of such disembodied quietness his Egyptian students called him His Airship, I believe with affection. Chess allowed Father to make decisions that would in no way influence the greater worldbeyond his grasp anywayand to engage in conflict without doing violence to others or to himself. (Father's fear of thuggery suggested clairvoyance when in a later decade he would find himself undone by a handful of classroom Maoists who called him Gasbag to his face. If clearly they intended to hurt him, they were, admittedly, responding to that disembodied quality of his already evident in Egypt, and to his pedantrya quality rooted in timidity.)
Father was a closet warrior, a mild man and an intellectual, a dreamer of reason in a world he feared was chronically, terminally unreasonable. And he was a parsimonious conversationalist. His favorite quote was from Wittgenstein: "What we cannot speak of we must be silent about." When Father did speak, he spoke so softly that even those who knew him well had to ask him to repeat himself. Once, during his Fulbright year in Egypt, when several of his students had discovered a crate of brass hearing trumpets for sale in the bazaar, they had carried these to class toat a prearranged signallift them simultaneously to their ears. (Yet, in sleep, Father ground his teeth so loudly my mother nightly dreamed of industry: gravel pits, cement factories, brickworks.)
I could add that Father was fastidious, sometimes changing his clothes two or three times a day. He ate little and dressed soberlyif with a specific, outdated flair: on formal occasions he wore a cummerbund. I took after him, played quietly by myself behind closed doors. And if Motherand she was a big, beautiful Icelanderwas a noisemaker, she made her noise out in the worldthe Officers Club, for example.
Father once admitted to me that chess saved him from losing his mindand this was said after he had lost his heart. When he played he became disembodieda mind on a stalk in a chair, invisibleand if he could keep ahead of his adversary, impalpable, too. In life as in chess, Father did not want to be touched, to be moved, to be seized; he was unwilling to be pinned down or cornered. He jumped from one discourse to another, embracing peculiar and obscure concepts and ideologies about which no one else knew anything; meaningful conversation with him proved an impossibility. In those years chess became the sole vehicle by which he could be reached, or rather, engagedfor he could never be reachedthe navigable airspace in which he functioned was invariably at the absolute altitude of his choosing. When he embraced the cryptic vocabulary of Coptic Gnosticism, he lost his few remaining friends because it was impossible to follow the direction of his thoughts, and that was exactly what he wanted.
In Cairo Father played chess blindfolded and invariably he won. The positions of the pieces on the board were sharper in his mind's eye than the furniture of his own living room (where he was constantly scraping his shins and knocking over chairs).
But I keep digressing. What I wish to write about is a brief period of time in Egypt, one year, and above all, one summer that seems to stretch to infinity, a time of disquiet and loneliness. That year, and that summer, were a paradoxboth intensely felt and numbing. The world passed before my eyes like an animated stagedistant, colorful, unattainableand I, in my own chair, looked on, watchful and amazed, frightened, enchanted, and disembodied, too.
In Egypt, Father had taken to wearing a fez to wander as unobtrusively as possible. He looked Egyptianwe both didso that Cairo embraced us unquestioningly, my father's limited but convincing Arabic sufficing during brief encounters with beggars and merchants and dragomen; and he spoke French.
One winter's day on an excursion to the Mouski, we passed the window of an ivory carver's shop that contained any number of charming miniatures: gazelles, tigers, monkeys, elephants, and the like. As he gazed at the animalsand I supposed he might elect to buy me oneFather began to cough and hum in a familiar way that meant he was about to make a brilliant move, or was excited by an idea. At that instant a small boy invited us into the shop, and offered us two little chairs on which to sit. The carver appeared then, beaming, and sent the boy off to fetch coffee. The tray set before us, the mystery of Father's excitement was revealed: If Father provided the drawings, could the carver make for him a chess set in which the goddesses and gods of the Egyptians and the Romans met face-to-face? Isis and Osiris, Horus and Amon Ra battling Juno and Jupiter and Neptune and Mars? Might sacred bulls confront elephants? He imagined the Egyptian pawns as ibises and the Roman pawns as archers.
This conversation took place in a boil of English, Arabic, and French; already the coffee tray was cluttered with sketches and ivory elephantsexamples of sizes and styles. As the ivory carver and my father discussed the set's price and the time necessary for its completion, I sipped sherbet and explored the shadows. I found a stack of tusks as tall as myself and two pails: one contained ivory bracelets soaking to scarlet in henna and the other ivory animals soaking to the color of wild honey in black tea. As I looked the boy came over and with a flat stick stirred the carvings gently, all the while gazing at me with curiosity.
The shop was very old and smelled unlike any place I had ever been; I suppose it was the ivory dust on the airall that old bonethe henna, the coffee, and the tea. It was a wonderful smell and soothing, so that for several instants I closed my eyes and slept.
When I awoke, the boy had vanished, leaving ajar a little door that opened onto the back alley. The alley led to a quarter entirely devoted to leather slippers stained green, and farther down an antiques seller's where I had seen a figure of hawkheaded Horus, the god of the rising sun, made of Egyptian paste and the size of a thumb. It had come from a tomb near Luxor.
The little figure had spoken to me with such urgency that, for the first time in my life, I had dared ask my father that he buy it. He did not take my request seriously. How could a thirteen-year-old possibly fathom the value of such a thing? Not that it was impossibly expensivefor in those days such pieces were still to be found easily enough on the market. But it was three thousand years old, and Father imagined a troubling eccentricity of character: my request seemed excessive. Had I inherited an immodest desire for luxury from my mother, who at that moment was having the hair removed from her armpits with hot caramel? (His own delight in luxury he did not question because compared to hers it was so tame: a collection of chess sets, a few articles of elegant clothing.)
Mother's extravagance and acute blondness were striking anywhere, but above all in Egypt. When in gold lamé she arrived late at a reception at the University Club, a hush descended upon the room. She preferred officers and had befriended a number of the Egyptian brass (including the young Nasser)handsome men flourishing thick mustaches.
I was learning Arabic. To my delight I discovered if I said egg'ga I got an omelet, and salata, a salad. Father owned a charming little pocket dictionary with words in French, English, and Arabic, and incongruous illustrations of disparate objects. One page showed a Victorian piano, a British bobby, a sarcophagus, two sorts of cannon, a hula dancer, a radio singer, a caged tiger, a man singing in black-face, an airplane, a hand holding a pen, a pearl necklace, a salted ham, a taxicab, a star, a cobra, and a hat.
Each week my father and I returned to the ivory carver's shop, where the finished pieces accumulated. The Roman castles were Pompeian elephants decked out exactly as in an old print Father had hunted down in the university library; the print was based on a bas-relief uncovered in Pompeii. The little elephants had tusks that ended in spheres the size of small peas. These might be gilded and if they were: Should Isis wear a gold necklace and Amon Ra a gold sun? No. Father was after simplicity. The Egyptians should be soaked in tea to darken them and this was all.
As he spoke my father fingered an Osiris four inches tall and completed that morning. He had the lithe body of a young, athletic man and the noble head of a falcon. In the guise of a crown he wore the solar disc encircled by a serpent, and in his hand he carried the Key of Life. Father said to me: "When Osiris was torn to pieces and his body tossed to the four winds, Isis, his beloved, searched the world until she found every part but the phallus, because it had been swallowed by a fish. She made him anotherof precious wood or alabaster, no one knows. Then she laid his broken body on a perfumed bed and embraced him until he was whole again. And here he is!"
Smiling, Father raised the little figure to the sun that in its passage across the sky had suddenly filled the shop with light. Then, under his breath, he said with a bitterness so unique, so unexpected, that I was profoundly startled: A thing that would not have occurred to your mother.
Alone on my balcony in the afternoon, I would gaze out over the courtyard below, where Bedouins often camped. I could smell baking bread and hear the children singing. I loved to see the women suckle their little ones, and when the girls danced fearlessly I danced too, for in that quiet air the sound of their flutes and drums readily reached me.
They came because of the public water fountain and an ancient sycamore tree that kept the courtyard shady and cool. At its roots the Bedouins had nested their goallah or water pots, and I thought the word wonderful because it contained their word for God. I found a picture of a goall in the Dracoman, in a series including the sugarloaf-shaped hat of a dervish and a head of lettuce.
I would also gaze at the beautiful balconies across the courtyard, all pierced with patterns of stars. Sometimes a wood panel slid back and the small face of a child might appear, or that of a woman unveiled, her face impossibly pale, her eyes like the eyes of a caged animal, her throat and wrists circled in silver.
I had left all my toys behind but for a small box of glass and porcelain animals, and a green cloth I pretended was a vast meadow. But I was swiftly outgrowing these things. They paled beside the demands of my own slight body, awakeningI did not know to what, except that when each night I found pleasure beneath my small fingers, pleasure detonating like some sudden star, I imagined a blue man beside me, a blue man with the beautiful face of a bird of prey.
Today when we arrive to see the finished Osiris, the ivory carver is full of news. Just this morning in Alley of Old Time, a dervish sliced his belly open and revealed his entrails. A large number of people had gathered beside the carver's shop to throw coins at the dervish's feet and cry: Allah is great! Praise Allah! But even more extraordinary, the dervish had spontaneously taken his guts in both his hands and lifted them as though for the carver's inspection, before asking for a needle and thread to sew himself up again. After, he had limped away to die or to recover"God," the carver says, "alone knows." The bloodand there was very little of itwas not washed away because the spot was considered by some to be holy ground. The ivory carver is eager to show us the blood, but Father at his most imperious says: "L'extase ne m'interesse point."
The next hour is characterized by silence, Father examining the new piece with extreme attention, the carver bent over his workJupiterwith exemplary intensity. Later on, as we are making our way back to Sharia el-Geish to hail a cab, we turn off too soon and, wandering in an unfamiliar maze of streets, find ourselves among the butchers' stalls, where Father bumps into a table piled high with several dozen skinned heads of sheep, shining with oil and ready for roasting.
Suddenly I see my father's fez rolling along the street and then Father bent in two and vomiting, spattering the knees of his white linen suit with filth. He vomits violently, in spasms, as little boys looking solemn gather in droves and one stunning man in a white turban offers my father a handkerchief moistened with orange-blossom water. Panting, Father grabs this to mop his face, and I see a wild look in his eyes, the look of the woman at the window of stars. Then, somehow, we are in a taxi speeding home, the generous man whom we will never see again diminishing like a genie behind us.
Throughout the ride Father's face remains plunged in the scented handkerchief. When we arrive at our building's gate, Father raises his eyes and I see that he is still terrifled. He needs help counting change. For a moment he opens his mouth as if to apologize but says nothing, as though speaking demands too great an effort. To this day I cannot smell orange-blossom water without thinking of a cobbled street, a spoiled fez, my father's stained knees.
Father was ill for two months. A fever pinned him down so that he could barely move. When he was delirious, he raved that the head of gravity lay upon his heart and that it was made of oiled lead. He imagined that the Colossi of Memni had fallen onto his bed and were crushing him, that his own temple was filling with sand. In the fall we had seen stray dogs worrying the corpse of a camel. Father believed he was that camel.
He said he was being pulverized by Timehe spoke as if Time and Gravity were divine beings who despised him because he was merely mortal and made of frangible clay; those were his words: frangible clay. Finallyand this happened in Mayhis fever broke, his mind cleared, his mood lightened. Father began to mend. Within days we were able to walk to his chamber's balcony, which overlooked the street, to stand together cracking melon seeds between our teeth and tossing sweets to the organ grinder's monkey, who, when the music was over, pulled a tin plate from his pants, and a fork.