Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Ties that Bind - Part III

Chapter 3 – Better Days
In which our intrepid young hero plays a chess tournament, meets the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, and begins to fulfill his destiny.
A few weeks later...

Juldeh desperately tried to fight off the exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm him. He was getting bored of the chess tournaments, but he knew the alternative would be worse. He’d managed to make it all the way to the final, and so far, he hadn’t really been given much of a challenge. He’d even used the four move checkmate on one his opponents, a sure sign he was dealing with rank amateurs. He studied his opponent carefully, as she prepared to make her move. She was definitely older than him, and pretty, but he didn’t really feel like prolonging the game any longer. Regardless of what move she made, she would lose in his next move, she just didn’t know it yet. He’d been toying with her, like a Lioness stalking a wounded Zebra. She was concentrating intently, and as she finally made her move, he tried hard to stifle a yawn. Like Sisyphus before her, all her endeavour was in vain.

“Pawn to C3 – checkmate,” he smirked. She looked crestfallen as the realization dawned on her. She’d been checkmated with a pawn. Truthfully, he felt sorry for her, knowing she’d never live down the ignominy of such a defeat. The fact that he was younger wouldn’t help, but Chess was a game where age didn’t really matter. It was one of the things he liked most about it. The audience burst into applause, but Juldeh was unaffected by this. He didn’t live for the adulation of the crowd. Crowds were fickle. The only thing they loved more than a hero was to see a hero fall, to fail, to come up short. One loss is all it would take for the crowds to turn against him. They’d find themselves a new hero soon and the sordid process would repeat itself. At that unguarded moment, his thoughts turned to his mother. She had been his first and only instructor, and almost everything he knew about the game he’d learned from her. After her tragic death, along with his father in a car accident, he’d kept playing as a way to honor her memory.

He offered his opponent a handshake.

“Good game, Mai,” he said only half-seriously. “I suppose you’ll never recover from the ashes of your defeat, huh.”

“Don’t patronize me, little boy,” she replied with feeling, quickly hurrying away leaving him with his hand in the air.

Juldeh was used to that by now. No one liked losing, especially to a self taught 16 year old, prodigy or not. He’d played 40 year olds who’d almost turned violent after the game. He couldn’t control people’s reactions, and he didn’t plan to. All he could do was play to the best of his ability and try his best to have a little fun along the way. He shrugged his shoulders wearily as a few stragglers swarmed around him, ostensibly to discuss his moves. Somehow, his reticence to discuss his “chess philosophy” had given him a reputation for being cold and aloof. The first time he’d been asked what his chess philosophy was, he’d been puzzled when everyone had laughed at his innocent answer: “To win.” His mother had taught him that far beyond aesthetics, the purpose of a chess match was to win, and to do so as efficiently as possible. It had made sense to him then, and it still did.

He had to get back to the orphanage, or he’d miss dinner, and so he finally managed to excuse himself. He had barely walked two steps before he was stopped in his tracks by a smartly dressed man in a dark blue pinstriped suit. He was darker than anyone Juldeh had ever seen and he had to be at least 6 and a half feet tall. He smiled broadly, showing a perfect set of teeth. He slapped Juldeh on the back and gave him a wink with his one good eye. In place of the other was a glass eye that shimmered and sparkled in the dim light.

“That was some game m’boy,” he boomed. “That final checkmate was a thing of beauty. Like I always tell my daughter, even a pawn can checkmate a king.” He chuckled softly to himself, and continued. “Pardon my manners, son, I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Rutherford Smart, but everyone calls me Mr. Wednesday, and as for you Mr. Holland, I know more about you than you might think.”

Juldeh was taken aback by Mr. Wednesday’s strange manner, but he quickly regained his composure. How did this man whom he’d never met know anything at all about him?

“I’m sure we’ve never met sir, and if you don’t mind, I really must be going.” What Mr. Wednesday said next stopped him dead in his tracks, and would change the trajectory of his life in innumerable ways.

“I knew your parents, Juldeh. I heard what happened to them. I’m really sorry. They were good people. But it seems like my knowledge is incomplete. If you can, I’d like you to fill in the gaps for me.”

So Juldeh did. As concisely as possible, while not leaving out any important details, he shared the story of the last two years of his life. He told him about the death of his parents, about the refusal of all their friends to act as guardians to him and his brothers, about the painful choice he’d had to make, his pain at losing his brothers, having to live in an orphanage and being forced to play chess tournaments to earn money for the orphanage, while any chance of being adopted were constantly sabotaged because he was too valuable, and being segregated from the other orphans because of their anger at his preferential treatment. By the end, Juldeh’s voice had turned hard, bitter and cynical. He was almost spitting the words out, so white-hot was his fury. Being forced to put in words what he’d been put through gave him a true appreciation for the horrors. “My only sanity is the certainty that Adeyemi and Bosco are at least in a better place. If I had to, I’d do it all again.”

Mr. Wednesday’s eyes blazed with anger and he began pacing in an agitated manner as Juldeh finished his story. “This is unacceptable. Nobody should have to go through what you have, and certainly not the son of Anthony and Isabella Holland. Not if I have anything to do with it. , We’ll go to the orphanage, and see if we can’t get you out of there.”

A mixture of fear and hope coursed through Juldeh’s veins. He’d given into despair around the time Nella left. She’d asked him to accompany her to the airport, but he didn’t have the stomach for it. She’d been hurt, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. His luck had been so terrible in the past two years, and he had scarcely believed it could ever change. Now that his situation seemed to be improving, a nagging question gnawed at him.

“Not that I’m not grateful, sir, but I have to ask, why? Why are you doing this?”

Mr. Wednesday smiled at that. He asked Juldeh to follow him to his car, and as they did, he said, “I will, but first, let me tell you a story. When I was not much older than you, I was in even worse situation than you. My parents died when I was 8, and I moved constantly between foster homes. I fell in with the wrong crowd, became a delinquent, stole, and performed a myriad of other social ills. I was gladly walking the path to my own destruction, but that all changed when I met your mother. She was barely older than I was, but she helped me when nobody else would. When no one believed I could amount to anything, she did. Her parents took me in off the streets, helped me finish my education and got me a job after I did. All that I am I owe to them. You’re different than I was. You’ve been smart enough to keep yourself out of trouble. I owe it to the memory of your parents and now fate has made me find you in an act of great providence.”

Mr. Wednesday fished something out of his wallet and handed it to Juldeh. “Here,” he said, “I think you should have this.” Juldeh looked intently at it, and tears sprang to his eyes. It was a picture of his parents, in their younger days. They were obviously very much in love and incredibly happy. The caption at the bottom simply said: To Wednesday – Friends Forever

“Tony and Izzy were never anything other than kind to me, and if you’ll allow it, I’ll do my best to take care of you.”

Juldeh nodded his assent as they exited the great hall. They drove in silence for a while in Wednesday’s Toyota Highlander electric car. It was one of the few in Accra and Wednesday was inordinately proud of it.

“Accra has changed a lot in the years I’ve been away,” Wednesday said with a hint of sadness in his voice. “The city seems to have lost its soul. I mean, how many high rise buildings is enough? I remember the street vendors used to line the roads, hawking their wares. Those were simpler times, and now we’re rushing headlong into the abyss of western style land development. Do you know the city government has started using eminent domain to seize the land belonging to innocent hard working men and women? What a uniquely American thing to do, don’t you agree?”

Juldeh thought Wednesday had a rather romantic view of the past, but he wasn’t going to say that out loud. Instead, he simply said “There’s a difference between the world as we would like it to be and the world as it actually is, Sir.”

“You’re wise beyond your years, Juldeh. I’m sure you’ve got a bright future ahead of you.” Neither man said another word for the duration of the trip.

The sun was going down in a blaze of glory as they reached the building that housed the orphanage. The rickety gate flopped on its hinges as it twisted in the wind and the crooked building loomed like a dark lighthouse, luring ships to naught but their doom. For reasons he wasn’t quite sure, Juldeh felt like a convicted inmate taking his last walk to his fate. If all went well, he’d never have to see this place again.

It took two weeks, and a lot of sweat, blood, toil, tears, and bribes, but Wednesday was able to formally, and legally become Juldeh’s guardian. Juldeh was glad to see the last of the orphanage. Wednesday had sent his driver to pick him up, and he’d packed his few and meagre belongings into the trunk of the car. He said nothing as they drove to Medina, where Wednesday lived. He wasn’t sure what the future held, but he was ready to face it. He felt that his faith in god had been vindicated, and his heart was calm. Regardless of what happened, he would survive, but he still remembered the promises he’d made both to his brothers and Nella. He would never forget them, and if it took him till the end of time, he would see them again. It was his destiny.

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