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Shifting Strategy

The best part of chaos was its predictability. It came out of order, making sense of the non-order, cleaning the whole place up bit. Chaos theory states that out of collective rationale, a moment of insanity topples administration momentarily. A moment was all that mattered.

El didn’t know what he thought of chaos, but at the moment, he had it contained neatly inside the game board he’d spread across the table.

A nondescript man with a thinning blond comb-over and wearing a loose-fitting green polo shirt, he sat with his back to a canopied wall on Garam utca. The Budapest breezes, thin but refreshing, brushed through the heavily pedestrianed utca overlooking the Duma. As his colorless eyes observed the street bustle, people streamed by.

El knew every single one of them. Where they lived, what they did, what motivated them, who they loved, and where they’d be tomorrow.

Along with seven foreign newspapers, white tea, and a hodgepodge platter of food, he carefully and meticulously angled each game piece into the exact spot they’d been in before he set them down like fine bone china. Perfect.

El fingered a flier drumming up support for a new fingerprinting service. Most things were worth trying. Some were a wash-out and a few were a loss before they’d been mentioned. Fingerprinting. Could be a wash. He flung the flier aside as a furry, borderline feline serpent with eyes deep as jungle roots slithered up, hissing, “I’m late, I’ll bet. There was a fight on Bessenyei. Highly entertaining.”

“Sss’pan.” El folded the last of his newspapers.

El pushed the game forward so Sss’pan could catch a glimpse at the game about to begin. The pieces, blue and red, weren’t in their columned rows the way they were set up when a typical game began. This game had been going on a while, long before the actual board and pieces were produced. The last round had been played in Shenzhen. It had been far hotter in southern China, but the tea had been far better. El smiled in recollection. He made a good move when he was there. Taken a four. He opened his palm and looked at the red pawn imprinted on his flesh.

The numbered pieces were scattered about the board. Just as many blues had fallen as reds. Nines were deadlocked together. Fours annihilated sixes and sevens. Eights ran from threes. The one stood alone, protected by unknown barriers, impenetrable in their obscurity.

“Your move,” El told Sss’pan. He leaned back to stretch his arms behind him, blanketing himself in a dreamy gaze. His eyes never left the board. Sss’pan’s eyes reacquainted themselves with the lineup. He pondered.

El wasn’t one for games or strategy. He was the dreaming type. Sss’pan was the one who took those dreams and spun them into something unimaginable. The two of them got together once every seven years, alternating who made a move. The world wouldn’t be able to handle more than one at a time. Sometimes it didn’t handle it at all.

Three times they’d nearly destroyed everything. Three little pigs, three Billy Goats Gruff, three bears, three knights, three wishes, three dreams, three gods, three people, three chances. El lost his one to Sss’pan three thousand years before and gave up a stronghold. End of a civilization. Fourteen hundred years later, Sss’pan slipped up and lost his flag to El’s sliding nine. Anything and everything Sss’pan had a hold on had to go. Sss’pan had a hold on a lot.

“Where’d you get the cuisine?” Sss’pan puzzled, eyes scanning the chocolate-filled buttered rolls, cheesy croissants, and apricot tarts.

“Auchan. It’s just like those hypermarkets in Calais.”

“I took a seven in Calais,” Sss’pan recalled. “Good champagne.”

“I’m more interested in what you’re going to do today.”

“I’d like to phone a friend. Thoar, perhaps. Superior strategist.”

“No help or you forfeit. Man’s spoken. It comes down to the two of us, in the end. If there’s an end.”

Sss’pan nodded. There’d been other players over time. Some floated meekly by, waving their presence away, while others boomed their presence like clashing cymbals and were gone as soon as the reverberation lapsed. Sss’pan’s own strength came and went as names and different forms were tested out on him like some cut-out paper doll without fold-on clothing, but he’d been having a pretty good past thousand years. Nice to be loved. Loathed. It didn’t really matter. He had been remembered.

Sss’pan finally slid his three over a space and connected with an unknown blue. He turned it around after his hit and bit his lip. A bomb. He took the bomb and tossed a stunned El the three.

Sss’pan gazed at the water. El focused on his teabag, sighing. “Man spoke too soon. We can’t go this alone anymore. Even I didn’t see this coming.”

“They’re in it to the end,” Sss’pan added, torn. People always complicated things for him; they were harder to manipulate than El was, being of a closer mindset. He wasn’t sure if he was dismayed or pleased with himself, but the move had been made. The game was still in play.

Three layers to humanity, levels of consciousness, modes of life, and planes of existence. Crone, mother, maiden. Body, mind, soul. Heart, hand, and head. Sword, spear, and scepter. King, crown, and country. Memory of the mind, earth, and collective.

El, appetite waned, dropped his plate and grabbed the used bomb chip up in his hand. Fixed on his fingertips that were not flesh, he left Sss’pan, board forgotten.


In a place out of time, space, and memory, El walked alone. His form shifted once he broke free of gravity’s restraints and people’s expectations. He gained height, hair, and his eyes colored over from blue to brown. He wasn’t, even here, free to be himself, whatever that was.

People. He couldn’t be more concerned. He’d never planned on caring as much as he did. He hadn’t predicted he’d wind up relying upon them for so much. He felt like a failure of a parent asking his kids for a loan when they all knew it would be an irrevocable borrow.

He took his right hand out of the pocket it was hiding in. In this place, the fingers webbed, intertwined. The ring finger curved awkwardly into the middle and the pointer was shortened beyond function.

Hand of power? To foresee what will be is to walk right into it, unquestioning. To see before entangled with after is to lose a firm grasp on the now. To feel everything is to numb the self to the emotive. He wept.

His tears solidified into misty forms; ideas of what could be. An idea, a thought, once made, never disappeared. Man didn’t take responsibility for all the half-formed and forgotten things they made, but El did. He took responsibility for what he made and what they made because he’d made them. Made them to fill an emptiness inside himself.

No child has the power to pick up and show the parent the missing self; the child, rather, steers him/her further away from that self. Giving up on the self, living through the child. When that child grows, what then?

Humanity grew and left him millennia ago. He could send them money but the message was clear—back off. Money, fame, glory wouldn’t help them. What a disappointment he’d be setting them up for the day they finally had it all, went to bed, turned off the lights, and realized everything in the world wasn’t enough to keep the self away. Everyone else’s opinions didn’t stack up to an iota of self-definition. A kingdom of a thousand kings.

The ideas solidifying beside him gathered up in rows, forming seven half-circles around him. The oldest ideas sat up front in chairs that had appeared before them—Light, Truth, Love, Authority, Prowess, etc. The younger ones—Justice, Freedom, Identity, etc.—stood behind, gathering together and whispering like partitioned gaggles of high school cliques.

El watched and counted them all. 1,000,000,000,000,007. A small turnout, as far as spirits went. Every person who ever existed created thousands of them over a lifetime. Many of them overlapped in small ways that didn’t really matter but made conversations friendlier. For example, one man’s idea of Oprah was slightly altered from another, and was quite a bit different than a woman’s perception. It didn’t matter if the idea was alive or not, or if the idea had ever been seen or heard of before.

There were billions of Oprah spirits. Each person formed his/her own, of course, but as they aged, and she aged, ideas changed and more spirits added themselves to the pile. All amassed together, they may preserve the essence of what had been real, but Reality, as well, was an ever-changing, personal idea.

There weren’t so many Oprahs as The-Person-I-Wish-I-Was,  The-Parents-I-Wish-I-Had,   The-Place-I-Want-To-Live,  The-Person-I-Think-I-Am,  The-Girl/Guy-I-Want-to-Marry,  and The-Person-I-Hope-To-Be-Remembered-As,  but certainly more than Joe-Who-Lived-Next-Door-with-the-Bitchy-Wife,  Jane-Who-Lost-Her-House-To-That-Bastard,  and That-Guy-At-That-Restaurant-Who-Winked-At-Me-I-Think.

“Thank you for coming.” He meant it. Spirits weren’t under his control. Spirits, people’s ideas, floated where their cores came from.

“There’s been a complication.” El grabbed a piece of paper that solidified on a table before him that hadn’t been there. He took the sheet up in his fist, smashed it together, rolled it in a ball, and chucked it behind him.

Justice (Sally Henderson’s idea of it in Cincinnati, 1973) cleared his throat to speak. “We already discussed this.”

“Before we ever got here,” Justice (Sally Henderson’s idea of it in Cincinnati, 1970) affirmed.

“Past wrongs are quickly stacking up on a collision course with the impending future. The present,” El stopped talking as he rubbed his eye. “Well, I blinked and it passed. It’s boiling over, this dialogue. Mixed messages: enable, able. Table. Stable. Fable, label. Babel. Babble. Rebel, rabble. Tower, power. Shower. You know what I’m referring to.”

“It’s the hour,” Elvis-Siting-in-Nova-Scotia-December-1996 assessed. “How can we help?”

“Witnesses. Seven humans. They must be able to tap into the collective unconscious, feeling more than and less than themselves. They must—”

El paced between file boxes that sprang up out of ungrounded earth. He was supposed to know so much. Every minute, a little more slipped away. Struggling to grab hold again, he flipped through the tightly-bound folders from Armageddon Auguries to Zonal Zounds. Frustrated, he flung it away. “If you’re going to help me find them, don’t look for them!”

As El toppled out of the ground, the spirits sank back into the sea of chaos. He planned his next move.

Copyright © 2008 by Karen Aschenbrenner


Karen Aschenbrenner

Karen writes:
Throughout my life, I’ve had several medical complications that made me realize, from my first memory, that we live in a world where doing things defines our beings, but being is the only thing worth doing. I love to think about the overlapping principles in international creation myths and what they mean. The act of creation as a writer pales to the act of living in this world, but I believe we are more than our bodies and our own memories, and that act of creating connects us all. For the longest time, I thought I would love nothing more than to write all my life. This hope intensified as challenges kept creeping up, not least of which is writing one-handed without special equipment. The labor involved makes me love it more. My dreams haven’t come true yet, but I’ve realized it’s the dreaming that’s the blessing. Because of this, I set down to write this concept of responsible creationism. Every idea we have we either cultivate or brush aside, but it’s still there, hanging out in a universe of its own. Maybe someone else will find it. Maybe we’ll go back to it. Maybe it will sit there, out of reach, as eternal reminder that we as humans do things in relative isolation, but exist in communion that can be called up when needed.

Karen Aschenbrenner, a graduate fellow at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee studying medieval myth, literary disability, and the posthuman classroom, proves everything can connect after obsessive analysis. “Shifting Strategy” is an excerpt from The Voices Through Time trilogy, which will be published when she manages to network outside the Midwest. Karen’s work appears or is forthcoming in A Fly in Amber, Halfway Down the Stairs, Mirrordance, and Wising Up Anthologies.

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