Cairin pulled his red sweater from the moving carton and looked up at his mother, Mary. She took it from him and folded it and smoothed the rows of cables and laid it on his bed. He touched the shirts and pants that were laid out in small piles.

“Where are my other things?” he asked. He picked up the sweater again and looked at it and not his mother.

“I’m sorry, Cairin,” she said.
He sat on the floor beside the bed and stroked the soft wool as if he were comforting an injured bird. Mary watched him. When he did not look up, she went out of the bedroom and into the central room of the cottage where boxes were stacked in the cool morning shadows between piles of books and crumpled packing paper. One of the empty boxes, a tall one for hanging clothes, shook and began skidding across the slate floor, emanating a kind of stuttering screeching that one might imagine to be the cry of an over-stimulated owl.

Cairin came to the bedroom door and stood there, smiling. When the box stopped moving, he walked to it and stood before it silently. The box moved a few inches, a scratching sound on the slate. Cairin stayed still. He said nothing. Mary thought he might be holding his breath so that he would not be heard. She steadied herself with one hand on the pine breakfast table. The first morning sunlight on the side of her face made her feel warm and cold at the same time. Her shoulders shuddered, a little involuntary shiver, as she watched her sons.

Cairin brushed one hand over the cardboard in a way that made a dry whispering sound, a kind of comforting shush. The box jumped sharply to one side and Cairin threw his arms around it and began slapping it with his palms, leaning into the box as he did until he fell upon it and crushed it under him. Mischa’s foot kicked out of the open bottom. With Cairin still drumming the cardboard, Mischa scooted out, squealing and laughing. Mary shook her head and forced her mouth into something like a smile.

The boys’ father, Noam, came in from outside carrying a box, ducking slightly under the arched doorway. He saw Mischa squirming on the floor and he set the box down and knelt beside him and lifted him over his head and then slung him over one shoulder. He reached over and squeezed Cairin’s leg above the knee until Cairin laughed and thrashed and kicked Mischa’s box across the floor. Mischa wrapped himself around his father’s shoulders like a shawl and Noam laughed and looked up at Mary.

“Nothing has changed for these two,” he said.

Cairin sat up cross-legged, his eyes quiet again.

“Where are my things, Dad?”

“We all had to make sacrifices,” Noam said. “We talked about that. Remember?”

Noam wanted to show the boys the town square. Mary said they should to go on without her, that she still had to find the bed sheets so they would have beds to sleep in. She cupped Mischa’s face in her hands and kissed him on his forehead and promised she would not throw out his box.

They walked along the yellow dirt road between rows of cypress bent by winter winds. It had rained that morning and the air stirred lazily now and the black faces of sunflowers swayed in the fields and the leaves rustled on the grape vines laid out in rows over the hillsides. At the edge of the village the dirt road gave way to a cobblestone way running in shadow between stout stucco buildings that might have been plastered with the yellow dirt. The boys twisted their feet on the grey cobbles and squished their shoes in puddles where stones were missing. Noam lifted Mischa onto his shoulders and Mischa sang “Frère Jacques” as he rode. Noam said he would teach him the words in Czech.

The cobbled alleyway spilled into an open square with a cafe on one side and a gift shop under the shadow of a faded green awning across the square. A post office was stuck off in a corner. A man in black pants and a white undershirt wiped off one of the two tables in front of the cafe. He rubbed his cloth in slow circles, glancing now and then toward the gift shop where a thin young man stood on the porch behind an older woman in a rocking chair. The young man leaned near the woman and as she spoke he lifted a shawl of deep red up over her shoulders and the back of her head.

Noam squatted beside one of the cafe tables and Mischa slid off him onto a cane-bottomed chair shaded by an umbrella. Cairin scooted onto the same chair and they tunneled into each other until Mischa slid off the seat, complaining but laughing. Noam sat across from them and told them about the town. He said he had chosen it for them, for himself, because of its past, because its past was its present, something he needed to help him write his stories, something they needed to help them grow.

Mischa said he was thirsty and Noam went inside the cafe, where the barman was wiping the tin bar, and asked for three sodas. Behind the bar, a wooden chess board lay on a shelf under a crockery pitcher. Noam asked the barman if he played. The man shrugged as he set the sodas on the bar, then turned and lifted the pitcher and handed the board to Noam, along with a lumpy grey bag tied with a braided gold rope.

Cairin and Mischa were batting a stick back and forth across the table. Noam set the chess board on the table and put the bag of pieces beside it. The barman brought their sodas, ginger ales. He put them on red paper napkins.

Noam began setting up the chess pieces, which were carved of jade green and alabaster marble. “They play here in my country as we watch television and play video games in America.”

“We don’t have a television,” Cairin said.

Mischa stuck his fingers into his ginger ale, fishing for the cherry that was bleeding into the top of the drink.

“Do you want to learn?” Noam asked.

Cairin said nothing.

Noam took the pieces off the board, leaving only the pawns. He pushed the board in front of Mischa. “Here’s how we’ll start,” he said to Mischa. “It’s called the pawn game.”

Noam showed Mischa how the pawns moved, how they marched straight across the board but captured to the side, the way medieval pikemen speared their adversaries with their long pikes stuck out from behind their shields. After a while he began putting the pieces back on the board one at a time—knights, bishops, rooks, queens, kings—patiently showing Mischa how each moved.

Cairin sat back in his chair, watching quietly at first, then getting up and standing beside the table, nearer the chess board. When Noam paused at one point in what he was saying, Cairin picked up a jade knight and rubbed it between his fingers and held it close to his face, as though looking into the horse’s eyes. He glanced at his father, who was watching him now, and set the knight back on the board and moved it twice, jumping other pieces in the knight’s L-shaped moving pattern. On the second move, the knight landed on Noam’s white king.

Mischa stuck his whole hand into his ginger ale and pulled out an ice cube with a hole in the middle. He put the ice in his mouth and pushed his tongue through the hole, a pink eel peeking out. He blew the ice at Cairin and, laughing, slid off his chair, tensing for the chase, but Cairin was setting up the chess pieces.

In bed that night Cairin pulled the bed covers tight up under his chin and listened in the darkness to Mischa snoring lightly and to his father and mother talking in the kitchen.

“Cairin seems better now,” Noam said.

Mary didn’t answer, or she spoke so softly Cairin could not hear.

“He’ll be fine when school starts,” Noam said. “He’ll make friends.”

An unintelligible murmur from Mary.

“He has Mischa,” Noam said.


During the week Noam walked off every morning with his brown suede backpack stuffed with his notebooks. He wrote in the hills near the vineyards, in the cafe, in the church graveyard down the road from the cafe, where he sat on a pitted granite bench with his feet on a child’s grave marker. He left each morning smiling, but when he returned at suppertime, he sat silently at the meal and drank the ordinary red wine he brought back from the village. Mary would ask him how his day had been, how his writing was going, and sometimes he would say “fine” in an unconvincing flat tone and sometimes he would just shrug and look away.

On Saturday mornings he took Cairin and Mischa to the cafe and had coffee while they had sodas. Cairin would go into the bar and return with the chess set and loose the gold braid on the bag of pieces and he and Noam would play. Mischa would watch for a while and when he was bored he would go off looking for the barman who gave him bowls of cherries that made his lips as red as silk.

The woman was usually on the porch at the gift shop, rocking, with her shawl up over her head, even when the weather was hot, waiting to greet customers, it seemed, even though none ever came. Now and then the young man they had seen rocking her that first day came out to check on her. The square was not busy, no cars, and Noam let Mischa wander around as he and Cairin played chess. When Mischa went near the gift shop, the woman sat forward in her rocker and watched him as if hoping he would come up the steps and keep her company.

It was hot and the heat shimmered over the cobbles in the square on the day Mischa finally climbed the steps up to the porch where the woman sat quietly. He sat in the shade on the top step, watching the woman rock. Noam could see that she was smiling at him. He thought they might be talking to each other. Perhaps she had asked him about his family, about where they were from, why they were visiting her tiny village. Old women were as openly curious as children. They were well suited to one another.

Cairin moved his knight and Noam studied the board for a long time before making his own move; when he looked up again, he did not see Mischa. The rocking chair was empty too. He thought Mischa and the woman must have gone inside the shop. He should go fetch him, or send Cairin. They were in the endgame, and Cairin was attacking. He moved his knight again, more aggressively, recklessly. Noam shook his head and smiled and moved a rook to defend his king. Cairin watched him seriously. Noam was about to say his son had made a good move, a clever move, but that it might get him into trouble, when he saw Mischa come down the steps and start across the square holding the hand of the young man they had seen with the woman. His face was pale, as if he never came into the sun, and his spiky hair looked less like it had been cut than bitten short. As they neared the table his eyes colored from black to the jade of Cairin’s chessmen.

Mischa climbed up on the chair beside Noam, still holding the young man’s hand. “This is Pety,” Mischa said.

Noam stuck out his hand, and the young man took it and said, “Petrovic.”

From across the table, Cairin said “Checkmate.” Noam looked at him as if he had forgotten they were playing, as if there should have been a period of grace, of mercy, while they greeted Mischa’s new friend. Cairin got out of his chair and walked to the other table.

Pety sat in Cairin’s chair. Mischa got up on his knees in the chair beside him, leaning on the table, rocking it with his weight. Pety picked up the white queen and rubbed the base of it along Mischa’s bare forearm. “Do you play?”

Mischa smiled and pointed to Cairin. Pety turned to see Cairin watching him.

Noam began setting up the pieces. Pety glanced at Cairin, as if seeking his permission to take his place. As they played, Mischa squirmed on the tabletop, only his toes in his chair, his face close to Pety’s. Before each move, Pety asked Mischa what he should do. “If the Queen comes out too early,” Pety said, “she will be in danger of being caught.” Cairin came silently to the table and stood beside them, and Pety began speaking to both boys. “Let’s exchange our knight for his bishop. It is a good exchange. The knight is weaker in the endgame.”

Near the end of the game, when Pety had chased Noam’s king into a corner, no longer a king, now, more like a small, trapped animal, Pety let Cairin use his queen and king to move in for checkmate. Noam kept slipping out of the trap, but Pety only watched as Cairin struggled, watching the way a mother cat watches her kittens learn to bite the neck of the mouse she has brought them, knowing the first few mice will escape before her babies learn to kill.


Noam opened a second bottle of red wine after dinner and waited at the kitchen table while Mary put the boys to bed. Cairin watched his mother, her back to him as she bent over Mischa and sang a lullaby, a song about going home to a place where your heart is. She remained on the edge of Mischa’s bed for a moment after she had finished the song and then rose quietly and came to Cairin. He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. She kissed his eyelids and whispered goodnight.

He waited for the click of her heels on the slate, the door thudding against its jamb, then creaking open a crack. He thought his mother and father would talk about him. He didn’t mind if they did, but he had nothing to say to them. They had brought to this lonely place. He did not think it mattered to them how he felt about it. They were the king and queen. He was the pawn. Sometimes he felt as cold as the marble from which they all might be carved.

“The wine makes you tired, Noam,” he heard his mother say.

“Leave me alone.”

“We have to talk about Cairin.”

“Does no one want his writing either?”

“Stop it, Noam.”

Neither spoke again for a while. In the darkness, Cairin heard the neck of the wine bottle hit dully against the side of his father’s heavy glass and the splash of the wine as it was poured. He heard the sound of the empty bottle knocked over on the table and waited to hear it hit the slate, but the music of breaking glass never came.

“I can’t get him to talk to me about how he feels,” Mary said.

Noam said nothing.

“Before we left, he told me every day how he felt, how he would miss his friends but would make new ones. How he’d learn a new language, his father’s language. How it would be an adventure.”

A glass banged on the table and a chair scooted heavily over the slate. The cottage door opened.

“You can’t run away from this, Noam. You brought us here.”

“Let him play in the village,” Noam said.

From outside, through the open doorway, came the clatter of a diesel truck passing by on the dirt road.

“He can’t be alone,” Mary said. “We’ve talked about that. We don’t know these people. That child is still missing.”

The front door slammed shut.


At the cafe on Saturday Noam brought the boys ginger ales and left them at the outside table with the chess board. He leaned on the tin bar in the dim room and took a glass of beer from the barman.

“Who are those people at the gift shop?” he asked.

“Odd lot,” the barman said. “I don’t imagine they’ll last long. There’s not much in that shop worth buying. Incense, talismen, superstitious crap, like some kind of carnival show. The dolls are nice, though, I’ll say that. They have hair like real children.”

While he waited, Cairn placed each piece on the chess board exactly in the center of its square. When Pety came out of the gift shop and walked to the cafe and sat down, Cairin looked up at him without speaking and moved his white king’s pawn out two spaces. Mischa squirmed into Pety’s lap as Pety moved his black bishop’s pawn. “The Dragon,” Pety whispered theatrically to Mischa, and as he played he told Mischa, in a voice meant for Cairin, each step of the Dragon defense. Cairin attacked the center of the board with his knights and bishops and Pety clucked his tongue and nudged Mischa in his ribs, making him laugh, and said they saw through Cairin’s plans, didn’t they? Cairin sat forward on the edge of his chair and then got out of his chair altogether and stood with his stomach pressed against the table, attacking.

They were into their third game by the time Noam came out of the bar and stood over the table. “Time to go, boys.”

Cairin did not look up.

“Awh, Dad,” Mischa said.

“I can bring them home when we’re finished,” Pety said.

Noam looked at the boys and then back at Pety. “We’re just down the road.”

“I know,” Pety said.

Noam shuffled off toward the alleyway, his boots catching on the uneven cobbles.

The next week, Mary travelled to Vienna to visit her old ballet company, which was touring there. She had changed her mind about going a half-dozen times, worried about leaving the boys, worried about Noam. She knew he was unhappy, but she didn’t know how to help him. He told her he was fine. He said he would be sad indeed if she missed such a fine trip on his account. And Cairin did seem happier, there was that. Or, perhaps not so much happier as more engaged. She wasn’t sure chess gave him joy, but she could see that it consumed him, that it stirred his imagination and something like passion, or what would pass for passion in a twelve year old boy.

When Noam and the boys were next in the village, the gift shop looked dark, as if it might be closed. Or that might just have been the way the shadows fell and made the windows look dark. The old woman wasn’t on the porch, and Noam began to wonder whether they had stolen away in the night. The barman would say he wasn’t a bit surprised.

After a while, though, Pety did come down the steps and start across the square. Noam didn’t want to talk to him. He wasn’t even sure why. Maybe he was ashamed of the uncharitable thoughts he was having. Maybe he just didn’t feel like being sociable. He got up and told the boys he was going to call their mother and, before they could ask if they could come, he walked off toward the post office where he knew there was a pay phone.

He told Mary everything was fine. Cairin was getting very good at chess, he said, knowing that would please her. Mischa was happy. He seemed to adore Pety. Both boys did, although Cairin had a funny way of showing it. He seemed to want to beat Pety the way most boys that age want to beat their father’s at some game. He supposed it was natural, since there were no games he and Cairin played together, not even chess now. He couldn’t even see that he was needed. Mary sounded alarmed at this and he said he was just joking. Of course he was joking. She should stay in Vienna as long as she wanted. Her boys were all fine.

When he had finished talking to her, he stood there holding the phone in his hand, looking at it as though it had something else to tell him that he might see rather than hear. When finally he came out of the post office, he caught Pety’s eye at the cafe and gestured down the alleyway and walked off toward the cottage.

Cairin did not notice his father passing by. He was only a few moves from being checkmated, but he refused to resign. Instead, he pulled his king back into a corner where Pety might make a mistake and give stalemate, a draw. In three moves, Pety finished it. Still Cairin did not take his eyes off the pieces until Pety gently moved the board aside and said he wanted to show the boys something.

With the board tucked under his arm and Cairin carrying the bag of pieces, Pety led them away from their cottage. They stopped in front of a stone chapel a short distance from the square. On one side of the church, the small cemetery where Noam sometimes wrote lay open and bare, its grave markers nearly black. On the other side, a round-topped wooden gate hung partially open in the middle of a high stucco wall.

Pety took them through the gate into a garden of red roses. Their shoes crunched on the white pebbles of the path as they walked between the rose bushes to the center of the garden, where a fountain sprayed up from a circular stone tub, splashing in the tub’s pool and on its broad, rounded sides. The path flared around the fountain, giving room for a low marble bench with no back. Behind the fountain, the pebble walkway ran to another, smaller gate in the back wall, overgrown with wisteria vines, their lavender clusters hanging close over the roses, as if to smother the roses’ fragile fragrance under their heavy sweetness.

Mischa splashed his hands in the fountain while Pety and Cairin sat astride the bench, the chess board between them. Pety set up the pieces in the positions in which they had been in the middlegame of their last game. He pointed at Cairin’s queen.

“Here you must make a sacrifice,” he said.

Cairin looked away.

“Do you know about sacrifice?”

“When you give up something.”

“Not just give up something,” Pety said. “When you make a sacrifice, you must gain something better.” He moved Cairin’s black queen into harm’s way---an easy capture for the white bishop.

Cairin shook his head and reached for his queen, but Pety put his hand over Cairin’s.

“Wait.” He lifted Cairin’s hand and captured Cairin’s queen with the bishop. “Now, what do you see?”

Mischa laughed as he splashed water at a bee buzzing over the roses.

Cairin studied the board. The bishop that had taken his queen had been defending a square on the back rank, where the white king was hemmed in behind his own pawns. Cairin moved his rook to the now-undefended square. Checkmate.

Pety smiled and got up off the bench and walked over to where Mischa was playing. “We must go.” He smoothed Mischa’s damp hair. “Your father will miss you.”


Noam wrote at the kitchen table while Mary was gone and in the afternoons he took the boys to the cafe and called Mary from the post office. Pety was there every day, waiting for them in the cafe. The rocking chair was gone from the porch of the gift shop. The late sun shone on the cobbles in the square, separating each stone from the others with deep shadows.

On the fifth day, Pety was not waiting for them. Noam said he thought perhaps Pety had moved away. Both boys looked like he had said their mother had died. Go see for yourselves, he told them. 
The front door of the shop was locked. Through the glass, Cairin could see that the things that had been sold there, the cloths and trinkets and pictures, were all gone. He thought he could see someone in the back of the store, though, and he knocked on the glass. No one came and he knocked again. He knocked a third time, harder, and this time the woman came to the door and opened it slightly. She looked at him without speaking.

“We’re looking for Pety,” Cairin said.

“He has gone,” she said.

Misha called out, “Pety,” as if calling for him from a long way away. The old woman started to close the door, but Pety came out from the back room. He put his hand on her arm and she looked at him and pulled her shawl up over her head and walked away.

As they walked over to the cafe, Mischa clung to Pety’s hand and hung from his grip like a rag doll, spinning and turning and laughing. His feet dragged over the stones. They sat down at the table and Cairin began setting up the chess board.

“Today,” he said.

Pety hoisted Mischa onto his lap. “Your brother thinks he is ready for me,” he said, wrapping Mischa in a bear hug.

Mischa wiggled free and slid between Pety’s legs and landed hard on the grey cobbles. He crawled under the table and stood beside Cairin, touching his arm, but Cairin did not look up from the chess board.


In bed that night Cairin studied the stripe of yellow light that fell through the crack in the bedroom door and cut across Mischa’s face. Mischa’s mouth was open; he breathed softly on the thumb that had slipped onto his pillow. From beyond the door, at the kitchen table, Cairin heard Noam’s chair scrape on the slate.

Cairin sat up and traced a square on his sheet and saw the chess board, saw the game he had played with Pety that afternoon. He had been so close, his queen attacking Pety’s king from one side, his rook from the other. He imagined the pieces on the board, studied them as he listened to Mischa’s breathing and to Noam’s heavy movements and struggled to understand what had gone wrong.


When Mary returned from Vienna, Noam left again during the day and at night drank his red wine while Mischa slept and Cairin sat in the light from the cracked door playing chess on his bare sheet. Noam’s and Mary’s voices floated in and out of Cairin’s games—Noam’s dull, low tones mixed with the clinking of the wine bottle against his glass, Mary’s high-pitched voice, like Mischa’s laugh, but without joy.

“I want to think Cairin is happy,” Mary said.

Noam did not answer.

“He looks so tired,” she said. “Do you think this obsession with chess is good for him?”

There was a long silence.

“Another child is missing, Noam.”

“They’re running away,” Noam said.


Cairin heard his father’s boots clomping across the slate and the front door opening and slamming shut.

He saw his father sitting in the cemetery among the late-afternoon shadows, head bowed, notebook clenched in the big hands. Noam did not look up at him, did not even seem to know he was there. He led Mischa into the garden on the other side of the chapel, where Pety had set up the chess board on the marble bench. Mischa walked around the fountain, his feet gently grinding the gravel.

He paced back and forth as he and Pety played. Late in the game, his knight forked Pety’s king and queen, and Pety’s queen was lost. Pety smiled. The knight was less valuable than the bishop, Pety had said, but not in Cairin’s hands. It was as if Cairin became the knight. It was Cairin on the board, not just a piece of marble. And he had learned to kill.

Pety moved his king, but not away from the attack, into it. Three moves later, Cairin fell into the trap.

“Stalemate,” Pety said. The mouse had escaped again.

Cairin looked at the board, then at Pety, his eyes picking up the cool light from the fountain. “I want to beat you.”

Pety smiled and watched Mischa climb the wisteria vine on the back wall.

“Soon,” he said.

“Now,” Cairin said.

“You must be patient.”

Cairin looked away.

Mischa had climbed almost to the top of the wall now, as if trying to escape.

“I must go,” Pety said.

“Tomorrow, then,” Cairin said, and he began putting the chess pieces in the grey bag.

“Away,” Pety said.



The fountain splashed and the wisteria rustled under Mischa’s weight. A snow of lavender petals covered the red roses under the vine.

Cairin pressed his lips together, forcing the blood from them. He jerked the gold lace tight around the neck of the bag.

“I can’t stay,” Pety said.

Cairin set the bag in his lap, stroking it softly, his face relaxing, showing nothing. He looked into Pety’s eyes as if he were looking at his chess pieces, studying them.

Pety shook his head and stood. He walked around the fountain, trailing one hand in the water, then came back to Cairin and stood before him, so close to him that Cairin had to lean back to look up at him.

Mischa was standing on top of the wall, his arms spread wide, laughing. Pety watched Mischa for a long while before meeting Cairin’s gaze.

“You would have to make a sacrifice.”

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