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Featured Story • September 2015

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Sophia’s Legacy

 

Barbara Krasnoff

 
 

“Do you remember what we told you about your great-grandmother’s earrings?” asks Rachel’s Aunt Susan.

Rachel just shrugs. She’s irritable because she’s been pulled away from her weekly chess club match. But when Rachel’s mother came to the school that afternoon, she didn’t accept any excuses—she waited until Rachel had exhausted her arsenal of arguments and then just said, “This is important,” with that note in her voice that meant no more talking, get your stuff, we’re going home.

Now Aunt Susan opens her right hand and shows Rachel a pair of earrings with long, teardrop-shaped green jewels dangling from small gold wires. Rachel puts out a finger and touches them gingerly.

“We’re going on a small expedition,” Aunt Susan says. “To the park. And you get to wear the earrings.”

She hands them to Rachel, who has forgotten her pique in the wonder of owning such a lovely (and grown-up) pair of earrings. “But they’re screw-ons,” she says, a bit dismayed.

“We can have them converted to pierced later,” her mother says. “Meanwhile, just put them on the way they are.”

“Here, let me help,” says Aunt Susan. She carefully removes Rachel’s small gold hoops and screws the earrings on. “There.”

Rachel moves her head slightly; the earrings feel heavy and elegant as they swing against her cheeks. “Why am I wearing these to the park?” she asks. “And why are we going there, anyway?”

And then she stops, struck by a sudden, breathtaking thought. She asks in an excited whisper, “Are we going to do a Seeing? Am I old enough? Will we…”

“Never mind,” says her mother, but she smiles as she says it. “We’ll tell you when we get there. Put a sweater on; it’s getting chilly.”

The bus ride to the park takes only half an hour. Once they get there, Aunt Susan leads the way past the large lake where a few children feed the ducks and geese, into a grove of trees off the main path and finally to a small pond, dense with moss and surrounded by tall reeds.

Several blackbirds squawk and flap away as they approach. Aunt Susan pulls a thin cloth from her backpack and spreads it out at the edge of the pond, and they all sit. They eat chicken salad sandwiches and drink flavored ice tea; Rachel’s mother gives her a brownie for desert while she and Aunt Susan share a small thermos of strong coffee. They put all the garbage into a plastic bag and stuff it into the backpack.

Then they just sit, the adults chatting casually about work and salaries and the rising cost of theater seats while a reddening sun slowly edges toward the horizon and a harvest moon pushes up against the darkening sky. Rachel’s a little nervous; although she’s pretty sure her mother and aunt know what they’re doing, she has never been in the park after dark, and her friends have told her all sorts of stories about the drug dealers, thieves, rapists and other human monsters that prowl there after everyone has gone home.

And then Aunt Susan suddenly looks at the sky and announces, “I count three stars.” She immediately pulls a thick candle in a large white glass out of her bag and places it in the damp earth by the pond, twisting it slightly to make sure it is secure.

“Rachel,” she says, and hands her a book of matches.

It takes three tries, but Rachel finally gets one lit and touches it to the wick. “We light this candle,” murmurs Aunt Susan, so quietly that Rachel can hardly hear her, “to bring peace to the soul of Sophia, daughter of Rokhl and mother of Isabeau.” The flame flutters in the night breeze like a tiny, incandescent banner.

Meanwhile, Rachel’s mother drags her right hand through the grass until she comes up with a long, slim twig. She begins to pull long strips of bark from it, revealing the smooth blonde heart of the wood.

“Listen, Rachel,” Aunt Susan begins, in the way that she began stories when Rachel was a little girl. “Every evening, after dinner was over and the children were put to bed, your great-grandmother Sophia would have the servants light the fire in her sitting room, pour two glasses of sherry, and set up the chess board.”

Aunt Susan’s eyes drift from Rachel’s face to the surface of the water, so Rachel stares into the pond as well, letting its small eddies and currents pull at the corner of her vision.

“Your great-grandfather Meyer would have gone into his study after dinner, presumably to read the evening paper, but actually to take a short nap. When Sophia was ready, she would send a servant to the study in order to bank the fire, and Meyer would wake up, put the paper away, and join Sophia. He loved to play chess with her in the quiet hours just before bed, and on their first anniversary, he gave her a carved chess set with pieces in the style of French and English Napoleonic soldiers.”

Rachel’s mother bends forward and dips the end of the twig into the water, clearing away the moss. When she sits back up, the water still ripples slightly; Rachel watches as they resolve into the wavy lines of her great-grandmother’s dark blue dress, heavy and rich with embroidery and tiny pearl buttons.

Sophia sat at a small mahogany table, carefully placing small, brightly painted figures in their places on the chessboard. Her dark auburn hair was neatly braided on top of her head. Her earrings glinted in the firelight. On the painted squares, the kings, queens and bishops were dressed in elaborate court costumes; all the other pieces were wearing blue or red uniforms and carried long, black rifles. It was a beautiful chess set.

She looked up from the board and smiled. “I’m ready,” she said.

From the other side of the table came a puff of gray smoke.

“My great-grandfather smoked cigars?” Rachel asks, shuddering slightly. “Ugh! How could she sit in the same room with those great smelly cigars?”

“Women put up with a lot of things in those days,” says Aunt Susan. “Cigar smoke was the least of it. And according to family stories, your great-grandmother liked the scent of cigar smoke. She said that it made her feel that she was at home, and that everybody was safe.”

Rachel privately doubts it. She looks at the woman playing chess, and watches how her nose wrinkles slightly when the smoke drifts her way.

“The interesting thing is,” says Rachel’s mother, “that however much your great-grandmother played chess, she only won against her husband once. And it happened exactly 100 years ago tonight.”

“Only once?” asks Rachel, annoyed, although she isn’t sure why. “Was he that good at it?”

“Yes,” says Aunt Susan. “He was. He also liked winning. And his wife knew it. Oh, hell!”

A Canada goose swims directly into the cleared area of the pond; he stares haughtily at the three visitors, simultaneously annoyed at their intrusion and hopeful that they’ll toss him some food.

“Shoo!” says Aunt Susan. “Go away!”

Rachel’s mother tosses a small rock in the bird’s direction, careful to miss it by several feet. The plunk of the stone hitting water sends the goose skittering back, squawking. He examines the place where the rock went in to make sure it wasn’t a particularly heavy piece of bread; disappointed, he pokes through his back feathers a few times to prove he is master of his own fate and then slowly swims away.

The ripples caused by his passing gradually subside.

Disturbed, Sophia looked up, a slight frown making her forehead wrinkle.

“Something the matter?” asked a male voice, deep and a little impatient.

“Not at all,” said Sophia. She held out two hands, both closed into fists. Her husband lightly tapped the left fist; it opened to reveal a small red-coated soldier. “Your move first,” said Sophia, putting the two soldiers in their places and moving the board so that the British soldiers were on her husband’s side.

“Can’t I see him as well?” asks Rachel.

“Not this way,” says her mother. “But you can get a glimpse.”

She dips the twig in the water and revolves it as though she’s mixing cake batter. “Close your eyes,” she says, and touches her daughter’s eyelids with the twig, one after the other, so that a drop of water creeps through the closed eyelids and into her eyes.

She (Sophia/Rachel) set the scene very carefully. A well-stocked fire created shadows that danced around the room (although they had a modern coal-fire furnace, she knew that firelight set her looks off well), the bottle of sherry was well within reach in case a refill was called for, and the servants were warned not to interrupt unless for an emergency.

She looked across the table at her husband. Meyer was pulling slightly at his beard, staring at the board. The beard was just starting to gray slightly, but his hair, about which he was rather vain, was still a deep brown. He wore the same dark gray suit that he changed into for dinner; his only concession to informality was his unbuttoned jacket and slightly loosened tie. Rachel finds him a bit frightening, but Sophia looked at him with fondness and understanding. He reached out and moved a pawn two spaces.

Rachel opens her eyes and looks at her mother and aunt. There is a slight mist in the night air; it has begun to bead in her aunt’s hair, moistening her forehead.

“This is how they spent their evenings?” asks Rachel doubtfully. “It seems boring. And unromantic.”

“Your idea of romance is a bit different than theirs,” says Aunt Susan, smiling. “But listen—here comes the important part.” They all bend over the pond.

Sophia moved a bishop. “I had tea with the Mitburgs yesterday. They are sending their oldest daughter to a rather nice school in Paris. She’s learning French and English, and making some excellent connections.” Her tone was casual, her eyes were on the chessboard, but there was a tension in the hand that smoothed the silk folds of her skirt.

“And,” says Rachel’s mother, “she was learning to think. Because that school in Paris was a real school, run by people who wanted educated daughters, and not just a finishing school for fashionable nitwits.”

Rachel giggles.

Meyer’s hand reached over and placed the lit cigar on a small silver humidor next to the chess table. His hand rested loosely on the side of the chessboard. “Yes,” he said. “So?”

“Isabeau is getting to be of school age. I would like her to go away to school as well,” said Sophia.

A pause. “You told me,” Meyer said, “that you loved this town. Why can’t our daughter simply go to the local Volksschule like all her friends?” There was a bit of irritation in his voice.

Sophia reached across the table and put her hand gently on his. “Of course,” she said. “I love it here. But Isabeau is a very bright little girl. In the Volksschule, she will learn just enough to keep the household accounts and read a recipe. In Paris, she will learn both scholarship and refinement.”

Meyer pushed a pawn forward. “It is too expensive,” he said decisively.

As Sophia reached toward a knight, he added, “Besides, Wilhelm is doing well in school and will attend the Gymnasium eventually, which will take money. Isabeau will do fine right here.”

Aunt Susan takes Rachel’s hand.

“Listen carefully,” she says. “Your grandmother loved going to school in Paris. She especially loved the arts, and as she got older—about your age, in fact—she began to associate with painters and actors. So when things became dangerous, her friends smuggled her out of the country, at great risk to themselves. Eventually, she found her way to Canada and then to America.”

“So?” asks Rachel.

“There was another possibility,” says her mother, “one that could have happened if your great-grandmother lost the chess game. Your grandmother could have gone to the local elementary school, married a neighbor’s son, and lived in the same town as her parents. Until the Nazis came to power.”

Sophia’s husband finally made his move; the cigar was now gone from the humidor and there was smoke drifting over the board. Sophia studied the board. One hand drifted over her ear; she tucked a stray lock of hair back into place.

“I will make you a wager,” she said.

Her husband laughed. “A wager? Our games have become so boring to you that you feel you need to add the excitement of gambling?”

She laughed as well. “Not at all,” she said. “But I thought you might enjoy it. Just to add a bit of interest to the game.”

He took a sip of sherry. “And what is the wager?”

“If I win,” she said, “I would like Isabeau to attend the Paris school.” She stretched out a hand and moved a piece.

There is dampness against Rachel’s cheek. The mist has become thick, swirling about them in heavy white tendrils. The three women seem to be alone in a world made up of clouds and candlelight.

Rachel looks at her aunt. “Aunt Susan?” she says hesitantly. “That wasn’t a good move she made just now.”

“That is why you are here,” her aunt tells her. “To complete the story that your great-grandmother Sophia told your grandmother Isabeau, who in turn told it to your mother. To make sure that she wins this game. Because she can’t do it alone. She needs somebody who can play chess well and who has the knowledge and the ability to help. Somebody like you.”

For a moment, Rachel can’t breathe, terrified at the responsibility. What if she makes a mistake? What if she can’t figure out the right move?

Aunt Susan presses her lips gently against Rachel’s forehead. “Don’t worry,” she says. “You’ll do fine. Just watch.”

“And if I win the game?” asked Meyer, sitting back in his chair. “What do I get out of this wager?”

Sophia smiled and raised an eyebrow.

“Well,” said Meyer. He moved a knight and stared at his wife with fond confidence. “Your move.”

Rachel looks down into the lake. She can see the board without effort—it is so plain, so real, that she almost reaches down to move a piece. And she knows exactly what to do. “It’s easy,” she says, in a wave of relief. “He’s following a very old, classic pattern. One move will do it.”

“Tell her,” says her mother.

Rachel bites her lip. “How?” she asks.

“You are wearing her earrings,” says Aunt Susan. “Look at her closely. Concentrate. Whisper to her. She will hear you.”

Rachel bends down until her lips almost touch the water. “Queen to Queen’s Rook 5,” she whispers. “Mate in three moves.” Her breath creates ripples that dance outward, downward and backward.

Sophia smiled, reached out and moved her queen. “Check,” she said. “Mate in three moves.”

A pause. A chair scraped back. “Where did you learn to play like that?” asked Meyer, a bit annoyed.

“By watching you,” said Sophia. “How else could I learn it?” He shook his head doubtfully and stood.

Sophia stood too, and as her husband passed, she put out a hand and stopped him. “If Isabeau goes to an elite school in Paris,” said Sophia, “she will not only get a good education, but she will make friends with other girls whose families have influence. That alone will be worth the tuition.”

“True,” said her husband. “That is an aspect of the case I hadn’t contemplated. But won’t you miss her?”

“Yes,” his wife said quietly, “I will miss her. So much so, that I could find it distracting.” She smiled at him and raised her hand to stroke his cheek. “Highly distracting. My game may be affected.”

He reached up and covered her hand with his. “Obviously, my game already has.” There is a pause. “This is important to you,” said Meyer.

“It is important to Isabeau,” said Sophia. She waited.

Rachel and her aunt and her mother wait.

“Very well,” said Meyer. “Far be it from me to renege on a wager. I will contact the school and find out whether there are any openings.”

The night is clear; overhead, a half moon burns gently over the park. Rachel straightens, and looks at her aunt. “So everything turned out the way it needed to,” she says. “Grandmother Isabeau went to school in Paris and then came here. But what happened to great-grandmother Sophia and great-grandfather Meyer?”

“Your granduncle William looked for them for years, but never found them,” Rachel’s aunt says. “Your grandmother Isabeau said that she knew they hadn’t survived, but never explained how. Even to me.”

Rachel’s mother bends forward, but Rachel puts out her hand. “Let me,” she says, and takes the twig.

Rachel carefully stirs the pond until her great-grandmother disappears.

Husband and wife walked sedately up the stairs toward the bedroom. On the way, Sophia pulled off her earrings and cupped them in one hand. “I think I will give Isabeau these to take with her to Paris,” she said with satisfaction.

“And perhaps,” her husband said contently, “they will teach her chess.”

 
 

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bk2Barbara Krasnoff’s short stories have appeared in a wide variety of print and online publications, including Space and Time, Apex, Cosmos, Crossed Genres, Electric Velocipede, Weird Tales, Sybil’s Garage, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Amazing Stories, among others. Anthologies include Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction, Subversion, Broken Time Blues: Fantastic Tales in the Roaring 20s, Clockwork Phoenix 2, Clockwork Phoenix 4, Such A Pretty Face: Tales of Power & Abundance and Memories and Visions: Women’s Fantasy and Science Fiction. A complete listing can be found on her website BrooklynWriter.com. She is currently preparing a collection of her stories entitled Lost Connections.

She says, “‘Sophia’s Legacy’ sprouts from a story that my grandmother told me about my great-grandmother, who would play chess with her husband regularly—and she would always lose. At one point, my great-grandmother hired a tutor to teach her French, and when her husband decided it was not proper for her to be alone with the tutor and forbade it, she suddenly started winning—until he agreed to reinstate the tutor. I have no idea whether that story is true or not, but I always loved it.”

 

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