Li brushed the snow off of the Buddha statues that covered the steps outside of Yue’s house. The clouds hung heavy in the sky, and Li was sure that it would snow again soon. But Yue would make the most hideous gurgles and whistling breaths if she did not brush the snow off of the smooth round heads. Their serene gazes and jolly bellies radiated peace and joy.
The idea of the Buddha statues was perverted by the presence of Yue, visible through the window, a lump of what was once human, his decaying rolls of fat rippling over the edge of the lounger that served as seat, bed, and podium. His flat, frantic eyes followed Li and she tried to ignore him.
Li had been brushing off the statues for so long, she had almost stopped minding. It was just another chore, another necessary part of life. She imagined her mother brushing off the statues, and her mother’s mother, and her mother before that, for as long as her family could remember. Her imagination wandered further, and she could see a different little girl, and another after that, their tiny bodies shivering in the light of a hundred future snowfalls. A pit grew in her stomach, and now instead she saw herself, withered and deformed, trapped in the endless repetition by Yue’s need for a caretaker and her own inability to imagine a world, past or future, without him.
She wished Yue would die, but knew that his demise was not so simple as wishing. The Dark Man had explained Yue’s predicament to her.
“He has no attachment to life, but he has no attachment to death,” the Dark Man said the last time she stopped him on these same snowy steps, begging him not to go without Yue. “He cannot leave one form of existence when he does not recognize any form. He has no attachments to any world, or any person. But he will never be free, he will never escape his grotesque form, as long as he is attached to the rules of the game.”
The chessboard was always out in front of Yue. Li did not understand all the rules of chess. The only game she ever played was the clean-up game of housework. Li followed Yue’s straining movement as she guided his arm around the board, moving the pawns and rooks. It ended when the Dark Man tipped over his own black king in defeat.
Sometimes Li thought that he lost on purpose, enjoying the eternal suffering of Yue and his family. But Li had a feeling that he respected the rules of the game too, even if he was not as attached to them as Yue.
Every year, Yue and Li waited for him, and every year he came to play for Yue’s last thread of attachment that kept him in this world of appearances. And his time had come again.
Li saw the Dark Man’s form appear at the foot of their driveway. She stopped brushing off the Buddhas, triggering Yue’s indignant blubbering and sputters until he also saw the Dark Man, which triggered excited blubbering and sputters.
“How are you doing, Li?” the Dark Man asked as she led him inside.
“Not great,” said Li. “Play better this time.”
The Dark Man sat across the board from Yue and chuckled, and Li was reminded of dry leaves cracking in an autumn wind. Li took her place beside Yue and picked up his arm, guiding the dead limb to the pawn he desired to move. Limp fingers pushed the white piece forward and the game began.
Li watched as they played, observing the dance of the pieces that always ended in disappointment. Though she held such a great stake in the outcome, she could still appreciate the beauty in the logic, the rhythm of each changing turn. She could understand how Yue could accept the nonexistence of the world, hold no attachment to life or death, the statues outside or even Li, his ever-present puppeteer, while still failing to see the nonexistence of the rules of the game.
Because in truth, there were no rules.
If there was no world, no life, no death, no people, no forms, then why were they all respecting this impermanent idea, this unnecessary attachment?
Yue wanted to reach for the bishop. Li did not let him.
A whine began deep in his throat, hissing through cracks and holes in the skin of his neck. The Dark Man smiled, broad and deep, the smile of a skull.
Li guided Yue’s hand to his own white king, and tipped it over. A surrender.
Was she allowed to do it? Li did not care. Neither did the Dark Man. Yue’s flat eyes filled with rage, then understanding. The Dark Man nodded a farewell to Li and both men were gone.
Li was alone in the small room. She brushed the chess pieces off the board and watched them fall to the floor, meaningless outside of their purpose in the game.
Outside, it began to snow. Li watched the white flakes stick on the heads of the enlightened stone men, a less grotesque immortality decorating what were now her own steps.
When it stopped snowing, she would go outside and brush them off once more. Yue was not here to make her do it now, but it was still a necessary chore. And Li did not really mind the activity anymore.
In fact, she had grown rather attached to it.
Alexandra Grunberg is a New York City based author and actress and recent graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her work has appeared in multiple e-zines, magazines, and anthologies, including Daily Science Fiction, Desolation: 21 Tales for Tails, and the Future Embodied Anthology. Her story “Any Ending” won third place in a Fiction Vortex monthly contest, and her story “Finale in Blue” won third place in their horror contest. She is the screenwriter of the new webseries HOUSED (housedthewebseries.com), premiering this Halloween 2014, in which she also appears as a lead character. Links to her stories can be found at her website, alexandragrunberg.weebly.com.
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