Playing With Graves

Henry woke up with a start. Where am I?

He looked around. Black, black, black. He groped the blackness with one hand, and felt something crumble in his fingers. Dirt, dirt, dirt.

Henry looked up. A longish area of dark blue, speckled with tiny points of light.

It hit him. This was the hole he was digging for the Parsons. The old man had just died last week.

Henry scratched his head. I must have fallen asleep and fell in, he decided. Where’s my spade? He groped around the floor of the soon-to-be grave of the late Reverend William Parsons, esteemed clergy of the town. Grope, grope, grope. Henry couldn’t see anything farther than the tip of his nose.

“Hello. What are you doing here?”

His heart jumped. “What are you doing here?” he exclaimed. “This is my grave I’m digging!”

“Wrong,” the unseen man said. “This is supposed to be the grave of Reverend Parsons, the esteemed clergy of your town.”

“Don’t you come from this town?”

“I just came to visit.” The stranger paused. Henry imagined him scratching his head. “Anyway, I was walking in the cemetery when I fell into this hole. I was looking at the stars, you see. The Dog Star was out tonight,” the man concluded philosophically.

“What?”

“Forget I said that. It tends to baffle the layman. Now,” the man continued, “I think it would be extremely impolite if I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Lewis.”

Henry suspected that Lewis, as he was called, had extended his hand to shake. It would be extremely rude not to take it. His hand wandered in the darkness, and he was relieved when his hand managed to grasp another. He gave it an unsteady shake, and retracted.

“By the way, I have your spade,” Lewis said offhandedly. “I found it on the floor when I fell in. I was going to climb out with it when I heard the scrabbling, and found out there was another human being in this hole. I don’t usually believe in ghosts, but I was going to make an exception.”

“I thought you were a ghost.” Henry muttered. Then he realised, quite slowly, where his spade had gone. “You!” he pointed a finger into the darkness. “You took my spade!”

“Yes,” the other man replied. “You took rather long to comprehend. And,” he continued, “You’re not going to get it back until I climb out. You shouldn’t be sleeping here anyhow.”

“It’s…my…spade!” Henry shouted, the already minute ounce of cordiality towards Lewis disappearing. A wolf howled. “How do I know you won’t leave me here to die? Do you want me to wrestle it out of your dead hands?” he threatened.

“Now, now, now’s not the time for blackmail.” Henry heard some slight movement; it seemed to him that he was sitting up. “I’ve got a proposition.”

Henry was angry, but he was also curious. “Go on.”

“Where I come from, the people like to play Reversi. Have you heard of it?” Henry’s ears perked up at the mention of the board game.

“We play it quite a lot around here too. It’s quite popular,” Henry said, his initial fury dissipating. He didn’t mention that he had won every single game he played with the townsfolk. He, an ordinary gravedigger, the town’s unofficial Reversi ‘champion’! But no, he felt, it wasn’t the time to brag.

Lewis continued, “This spade I hold, and which you claim to be yours, shall be the stake in a game of Reversi. We’ll play one game. And whoever wins that game gets the spade.”

Henry protested, “You have no right to wager my spade in a Reversi game!”

“If you don’t want to let it be a stake, I can always hit you on the head with it,” Lewis said mildly. Henry thought he saw the thin moonlight glance of a shiny surface.

“Okay, we’ll play,” he said shakily. A soft ‘thud’ echoed in the hole.

“But how will we play? We haven’t got a board.”

Henry heard some scratching on the grave’s floor.
“What are you doing?”
“Here’s draw the eight times eight grid here.”
Henry saw a finger making grooves in the soil. “I didn’t know that it was eight times eight,” he commented.

Henry finished drawing out the board on the ground with Lewis. The former could feel the dirt clinging to the underside of his nails.
“We’ll play it this way. I’ll make a mound if it’s mine, and you’ll dig a small hole if it’s your seed.”

“Okay,” Henry agreed, silently reluctant at getting his fingers dirtier.

They scratched out the starting position of four seeds in a checkered arrangement. “You first,” Lewis said. “Black is supposed to start.”

Henry slowly dug out an adjacent square next to a mound, and pushed away the soil from it too to form a second hole.

“Usual first move. Let’s begin.”

They played in the darkness. Henry digging out the squares, Lewis filling them. Henry felt like he was digging the graves for a million tiny people as he played, and Lewis filling the graves before people could be put inside them.

Playing Reversi, and still a gravedigger, Henry thought, as he converted six other mounds into holes in a single move.

“Good move.”

In his next move, Lewis filled in seven holes.

“You too.”

The sandy board changed from mountain ranges to valleys in turns. Henry was having a hard time. Lewis was stronger than any of the townsfolk he had played against. This was more than a game to Henry. In the midst of his fierce concentration, he still remembered his spade.

The ground looked like a dissonant ripple, spreading from the centre where the original two mounds and two holes were placed. And Henry continued to dig more graves.

“Why did you choose to play Reversi?” He asked Lewis, an attempt to initiate friendly conversation.

“Do you know that Reversi is also called Othello?”

Henry shook his head. Then remembering that such a gesture was invisible in the blackness, he called out, “No.”

“Othello has always intrigued me. The binaries of good and evil, light and darkness, white and black. They never cease to amaze me.”

“What?”

“I meant the Shakespearean play the name is based on.”

“Who’s Shakespeare?”

“A master writer. You should read his works.”

“I can’t read.”

The grave fell into silence once more as Henry pushed another grubby finger into a square. By then, all the fingers on his left hand were layered with dirt. He switched to his right.

They were reaching the climax of the game.

The cock crowed.

Lewis had forty-three squares, Henry thirty-five. Three more squares to go.

Henry dug a hole in one of them, transforming eight mounds into graves.

A mound was made. Nine holes were filled.

There was one square left. But as in every game of Reversi, by the last move, both players will be fully aware of who is the victor.
Henry dug the last square, and dug the four more graves he had won.

He had won by one square.

The cock crowed a second time. Henry looked up at the sky. It was a lighter shade of blue than before, and the stars were gone.

“Thanks for the game.”

“You’re good. Here’s your spade.”

He saw the silhouette of his spade fly towards the dirt wall next to it, hitting it and dropping to the floor.

Henry looked back, and wanted to ask Lewis how he gotten so good at Reversi.

There was no answer.

A sliver of dawn pierced the darkness in the grave, illuminating the place where the stranger was supposed to be. The space was empty to his unbelieving eyes.

Evidence of their game in darkness lay on the floor of the grave; a square area of dishevelled dirt, made into forty-one little graves here and forty little mounds there.

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