The Mobile Resting Place
I’ve been learning how to play chess.
Most nights, after my nightmares have had their say, I rise five hours before the sun and meet the Goblin who rents my living room.
He’s a ruthless and masterful player. He claims that, for every time he beats me, I owe him another first-born child
“It doesn’t have to be your first born child,” he clarifies.
I don’t think he plans to collect, though. I think he’s glad for the company.
He certainly doesn’t get tired of winning.
Sometimes he’ll draw the victory out. He’ll lean his plump little body back in his chair, and stroke the spider legs that make up his beard, and consider which triumphant scenario he’ll enjoy most. When he finally mates my king, his face will glow so wickedly that it will sometimes catch fire, and his beard will writhe in horrific agony, until he pats out the flames impatiently with his own hand.
Then he’ll look down at the chess pieces and order them to “show how else I coulda done it!”
The pieces will dutifully reorder themselves and play out the many other ways he could have beaten me at any time.
It’s a really good way to learn chess.
The pieces themselves are all monstrous little demon-sprites, indentured to the Goblin for centuries to come. Ironically, each of the sprites fell into the Goblin’s service after betting they could beat him at chess.
One night, the Goblin had already won five games and was looking forward to a sixth, when we were interrupted by what sounded like the cry of a rooster.
I hadn’t realized it was dawn already. Nor had I known there was a rooster in the area.
“There ain’t no rooster,” the Goblin snapped. “And the sun ain’t back yet.” He rubbed his bald and orange scalp, irritably. “If you hear something like a cock crow,” he said, “that probably means the crypt’s come in.”
I was about to ask what that meant, when the floor started to shake. The shaking grew violent. I thought for sure it was an earthquake. The tremors knocked the living room table over. The chess pieces sprouted little bat’s wings just in time, and hovered in mid-air.
Then the shaking stopped, and a deathly silence filled the room.
Far more deathly than I thought necessary.
“Come on,” said the Goblin. “We’d better pay our respects.”
He rose from his chair, told his chess pieces to stay “the fuck” where they were, and led me down to the cellar.
My cellar seemed to be in decent shape, despite the quake. The furnace was still okay, and my washer and dryer hadn’t traveled too far.
The Goblin walked to the center of the room, and spit on the stone floor. His spit sizzled, and steam rose. He dipped his toe into the boiling bodily fluid, and drew a circle with it. Then he yanked me by the arm so that we both stood in the circle.
An elevator chime sounded.
A dark and disembodied voice declared that we were “Going Down.”
The circle beneath our feet began to sink, and we descended gradually through a cylindrical shaft, surrounded by solid rock.
The shaft was narrow and I am claustrophobic. Etched into the rock were statements like, “Trapped and dying – not that you asked.” It was a long trip.
Finally, we reached an opening. The sinking circle came to a halt and we stepped out.
We were on a subway platform.
Subway stations have a somewhat morbid feel at the best of times.
This subway station looked like it had been modeled on the Paris catacombs. The structure was mortar and bone. But the bones were not human. They were too small and brittle.
“Rats,” the Goblin explained. “Rats from other subways. Everyone pays their dues eventually.”
The train that had pulled in, and caused all the shaking above, was now at a halt. It was several cars long. Each car was made of grey stone, and Angel-of-Death statues adorned each roof. Facing us, on the side of each car, were sliding doors.
Once the doors were sure that they had our attention, they slid open. No one came out.
“Hope you feel like mourning,” said the Goblin and pulled me into the nearest car.
All the seats were full. Each one was occupied by a separate pile of disconnected bones. I grabbed onto a handrail. The train began to move.
We rode for a few minutes. The Goblin tapped his feet impatiently. Neither of us said anything. The atmosphere was terribly awkward. Much like a regular subway ride.
Finally the Goblin sighed and looked at me, as if by way of commiseration. Then he addressed the car in general.
“So…” he began, in a dutiful tone. “How’s everyone doing?”
The bones assembled themselves.
Incomplete skeletons sat in every seat. Some were missing ribs, some were missing arms, and some were just torsos stacked directly on feet.
“Oh, you know,” said one of the passengers who only had half a jaw, “can’t complain.”
“Looks pretty full in here,” observed the Goblin.
“You need a seat?” said the skeleton.
“Nah,” said the Goblin. “Be gettin’ off soon.”
“Ah,” said the skeleton, looking a bit downcast.
The Goblin looked embarrassed – almost guilty. “Thanks, though,” he added.
“Sure thing,” said the skeleton.
More awkward silence as the train drove on.
Eventually, another bunch of mortal remains spoke up.
“Say,” it said to me, in what might have been the voice of an old lady. “Are you human?”
“That’s nice. It’s nice to see a human down here. I’m glad some of you still do this.”
“Sure thing,” I said, not at all sure what it was I was doing. “Of course.”
“May it be a long, long time before you end up on one of these trains,” said the mortal remains.
“You’re a good boy.”
We all fell silent again.
An eternity passed.
Then another one of the dead spoke up. He chatted briefly with the Goblin about what the subway had been like a few generations ago.
Then we were all silent again.
And another eternity passed.
I don’t know how long we rode. But after every awkward, eternal silence, the Goblin and I would get engaged in a brief, painfully polite conversation with one of the passengers. Then we’d fall into another endless pause. Then we’d have another short conversation.
Eventually, the Goblin and I had chatted at least once with every passenger on the train.
And then the doors opened up.
“Well,” said the Goblin. “See ya, guys.”
“Take care,” said some of the bones.
We stepped through the doors, and the train pulled away.
All the discomfort and humanity that had dwelled so uncharacteristically on the Goblin’s face now disappeared. “Come on, worm meat,” he snarled. “Tombsday’s over. But your chess lesson ain’t. I’m gonna win me another first-born before sun up.”
On our trip back up through the shaft, the Goblin explained to me that the passengers had been crowded out of their original tombs by succeeding generations of corpses.
“Stubborn old bastards,” he said. “No one remembers them, and they still think they got a claim to space and time. Ain’t no part of the universe wants to be your home forever.”
He told me that, eventually, the traveling crypt would get too crowded, and the bones would have to move on again. Ultimately, they would have to accept that their final rest was over - and so were they. They would turn to dust, and the atoms that made up the dust would get sick of belonging to the remains of some long dead person. They’d move on, and shack up with something more interesting. Maybe a living person. Maybe a mountain. Maybe a moon.
“Ain’t no such thing as an eternal resting space,” he told me. “You got particles in you that used to belong to kings and queens, you know that? Used to belong to artists and warriors and saints. And to beasts and cliffs and oceans. And to things you ain’t never heard about, nor never will. You think those particles wanna be stuck with you forever? You think that you are what they’re all about? Hell no. They move on, and you disappear. Those piles of bones down there ain’t accepted that yet. But you, my mortal little peon, had better get yourself ready for it.”
We reached the level of my cellar, and made our way back upstairs.
“I don’t ever wanna catch you on one of those trains, boy, you got me? Cuz I won’t make no small talk with you. Not after all the lessons I gave you. I see you on one of those trains, all I’m gonna say is, ‘Didn’t you learn anything? Didn’t you learn anything at all?'”