by Anselmo J. Alliegro
The shadow of the stranger above haunted Professor Bisenius. A long-silenced memory brought discord into his meticulously ordered universe. Was it murder?
As a seven-year-old, the chambers of Bisenius’ coastal residence were dark and chilled by the wintry sea. His father, a sea merchant, met his fate among the waves, and left a widow to raise the children. Bisenius longed for his mother’s warmth amid the cold loneliness. However, his fraternal twin brother received most of her affection.
Jagged rocks lined the shore. Young Bisenius stood high above, on a granite ledge and stared seaward. His brother joined him on that forlorn day.
Playing on the rocks is forbidden, warned his brother. He threatened to report Bisenius’ misconduct.
“I see a mermaid,” cried Bisenius, looking down from the ledge.
“No you don’t,” said his brother.
“There on the rocks, combing her hair,” insisted Bisenius.
Bisenius watched as his brother approached the precipice. The boy leaned over the gorge. Bisenius gave him a tug and his brother tumbled from the ledge. Bisenius saw his brother’s head smashed by the solid granite below.
Consequently, as Professor Bisenius now nervously recalled, he – or that frightened, alienated, aloof child he once had been – pushed the other off the ledge. In retrospect the boy’s life did not terminate altogether. It continued as revealed in his grief-stricken mother. Also, and most subtle of all, it found expression in Bisenius himself. Oftentimes, as the years passed, he imagined his brother growing along with him. Bisenius literally walked in his brother’s shoes, played chess allowing the other victory, and when he hugged his mother he felt as two.
His mother dissociated herself, becoming cold and unreceptive, and intimating blame toward her remaining son. The presence of an all-seeing eye, perhaps his brother’s vengeful soul, filled his life prescribing rituals of atonement.
Biblical scripture inspired a short-lived interest. He found the theology illogical. For example, God has created beasts before man on Genesis (1:26), “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air …” Conversely, on Genesis (2:19) God creates man in the form of Adam before the beasts: “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them …” Why would God contradict himself?
The Bible, upheld against science and analysis, crumbles on its own assertions. Accordingly, mathematics and its proofs became a solid foundation for Bisenius’ intellect. Rationalist philosophers like Spinoza and Descartes further imbued his life with meaning, giving him a coherent identity. And Descartes’ need for certainty paralleled his own. The philosopher steps from doubt to certainty by doubting and proceeding to consider doubt as the act of an ego; hence came the philosopher’s famous formula: “I think, therefore I am.” Spinoza’s clear thought on his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect gave much consolation. “I realized,” writes Spinoza, “that all the things which were the source and object of my anxiety held nothing of good or evil in themselves …”
Professor Bisenius saw the mocking shadow, cast onto the spacious wall of the building facing his window. The actions of the tenant upstairs were observable by means of light projected from his window. Only recently Bisenius had been pacing back and forth. He attempted to trick the shadow with a sudden, irregular motion, and affirm the shadow belonged to another, for it had unaccountably imitated his movements with precision.
He must be mad, thought Bisenius. Then he felt ice burning behind his neck, and his heart pounded deeply and face turned cold. He doubted his senses and questioned his sanity. At last he dismissed it as a fallacy. “You’re a very sick man, whoever you are,” he addressed the shadow, which stepped out of view.
Footsteps thundered across the ceiling, the light shut off, and the occupant’s door slammed as he entered the corridor. Bisenius heard the stranger descending the stairs. Angry feet advanced, portentously down the corridor toward his room. Closer and closer they came and finally stopped outside his door.
Silence followed, at which point Bisenius stood very still, hardly breathing as he listened. Then he jerked back, terror-stricken at the sudden loud knocking. What have I done? thought Bisenius.
“Dr. Bisenius,” solicited the stranger.
He waited, hesitant to respond.
“Dr. Bisenius, it’s Professor Coshenza. Your substitute, physics.”
He opened the door and stared suspiciously at the stranger. His face, grotesquely familiar, disturbed Bisenius and compelled him to take a few steps back. The other’s malicious smile and discerning eyes – yes he had looked, he noted fleetingly, into those grudging eyes before – were the features of one he dared not recall.
“Professor what?” asked Bisenius, casting a piercing glare.
“Coshenza, your substitute. I’m keeping house while you’re on sabbatical leave.”
“You live above me? In the room upstairs, that room?” questioned Bisenius agitated, pointing at the ceiling.
“Yes. Funny isn’t it.”
Bisenius frowned viciously. He began ruminating over motives, conspiracies, and the possible sinister design behind the other’s deceptive mask.
“I’m b-busy Professor Co-Coshen … whatever your name is,” barked Bisenius, and shut the door on his face.
From the opposite side of the door, “I’m here concerning Ellen, Dr. Bisenius.”
“What happened?” replied Bisenius suddenly.
“Inside,” suggested the other.
Bisenius stepped aside and the other entered boldly, intrusively pushing the door. He paced about the small apartment that was cramped with books. By the window, through which Bisenius had seen the frolicking shadow, stood a table with a chessboard on it.
“People are saying nasty things about you,” revealed Coshenza.
“Why don’t you get to the point, Professor?”
“You must stop pursuing Ellen,” clarified Coshenza.
“That’s absurd; Ellen’s my student.”
“She’s more than that.”
“She doesn’t love you, and has a proper suitor.”
“Who told you this?”
“C’mon, Dr. Bisenius, you’re hurting the girl. She doesn’t belong with –”
“Get out!” shouted Bisenius, shaking with rage.
The other appeared indifferent to the outburst. Calmly he divulged loathsome details about Bisenius’ previous teaching post. He reminded him of a former student whom he pursued and stalked until his arrest and subsequent expulsion from the university. If necessary, he informed Bisenius, he would gladly report such deplorable and pernicious transgressions to the dean.
Bisenius stepped back dumbfounded, consumed by contempt, and collided with the chessboard by the window. Some pieces toppled upon the board. The black king dropped to the floor and broke his crown. Bisenius bent down to take the fractured marble king. The piece wore a menacing expression; its gargoyle-like face appeared enraged over the nick on its marble crown.
“We’ll decide the issue over a game of chess. If I win, you set her free,” posed Coshenza.
A welcome test of judgment, thought Bisenius.
“This means war!” exclaimed Bisenius, arisen with the king clutched tightly in a fist.
The other approached the table self-assured and took a seat. Bisenius did likewise, confident of victory, playing a familiar arena with no losses, even against masters of the game.
“This will remove any doubts about my judgment,” declared Bisenius. His white pieces were ready to attack.
“The advantage of a first move is yours,” said the other.
Bisenius commenced, bent upon victory. He delayed attacking until he could complete his development. Loss of time in the opening can lead to a quick catastrophe. Bringing out the knights and bishops was imperative, and posting the queen safe from danger. Although when he moved the bishop, it was taken by a pawn, which came as a terrible shock. On the other hand, his pawns could be sacrificed to open lines for the infiltration of pieces. But his bigger pieces required the utmost attention. Indeed the game of chess demands a player’s deepest scrutiny. Now Bisenius let his knight gallop to the fore and rest on square three of the queen’s rook (Kt-QR3). The vulnerable knight could be taken by the king’s bishop on square one (KB1), far across the board. Pensively, with a hand pressed beneath his chin, Bisenius continued his assault.
“You’re a determinist, aren’t you, Professor?” broke in Coshenza.
Bisenius kept busy, staring at the board; the hand still supporting his chin.
“The power of choice goes out the window,” continued the other. “No choice no blame. Exempt of moral responsibility.”
Bisenius looked away from the board to the other. Professor Coshenza also had a hand beneath his chin – exactly, noted Bisenius, as himself at that very moment.
“No, no one is exempt,” he returned, observing the other’s hand and not moving his own. “The rational man naturally seeks peace and harmony.”
“Discord, with all due respect, follows you everywhere. Your actions have resulted in chaos and suffering. Are you a rational man, Dr. Bisenius?”
Bisenius acquired a sinister and contemptuous expression, which he displayed blatantly. His hand, like that of his opponent, was still stubbornly fixed beneath his chin.
“My actions are justifiable,” explained Bisenius.
“Perhaps it’s best to take no action at all.”
“No more moves? You’d like me to call it a draw.”
“I’d like you to stop making errors in judgement.”
“Given the circumstances –” began Bisenius.
“Oh, a victim of circumstances. Of course, determinists are never free – they are pawns following the rules of the game, and can never be held accountable.”
“Is this a chess game or an ethics lesson?” replied Bisenius. “You’re trying to sway my concentration.”
Bisenius ventured his eighth move, placing the king’s knight on king’s rook three (KKt-KR3), and leaving two empty spaces on his back row. In a triangular formation, the enemy bishops (KB1&QB1) could now take his knights. By now black had control of the center. The black, vengeful king with the broken crown stood jeering at him. He perspired and anxiously studied the unprecedented disaster. His hand remained under his chin, for the other continued likewise. He observed that everything was at stake, not just the outcome of a game but his whole identity. He felt irrevocably trapped in a causal chain, as if he were the marble king, stifled by the mechanical limitations of the game.
“Anyhow, quantum mechanics,” began the other, “has rejected causal determinism.”
The kind of indeterminism involved in quantum mechanics, however, is randomness. If his fist randomly swings and strikes someone he could not be held morally accountable. Still, what if he chose to hurt someone? Certainly one cannot choose evil. One merely seeks advantages. Although choice, thought Bisenius, denotes freedom. This fleeting thought, in turn, disturbed him and roused his heart, and the dark days of his childhood returned and his mother’s grief at her loss.
The game wore down his faculties. A panicky, oppressive feeling threatened to overwhelm him. The other, across the table, became a nightmare personified. His sole aim, he now realized, was to subjugate and humiliate, to take over his being and replace him completely! He too is in love with Ellen, imagined Bisenius. Why else would he care?
“Quantum mechanics has its limitations,” started Bisenius, in response to the other. “Even randomness, I believe, drifts in a sea of certainty. God does not play dice, more likely he plays chess.”
Bisenius’ king was under siege from all sides. The king, wounded, doomed and on the run, was chased about the board; and “Check” and “Check” and “Check …” Meanwhile, and unique in his long history of opponents, black pawns began to land on his first row. Then as he watched, nauseated by the massacre, the white king was checkmated by the black queen.
The hand beneath his chin, numb by now, swung down and came crashing to the table. The other merely watched, impassive as always.
“What’s happening to me?” uttered Bisenius, in a voice shaking with despair.
The other’s stubborn arm finally changed position. I am the originator, thought Bisenius; the other a mere imitator of my actions. Clearly, the elusive Professor Coshenza was correct to point out his freedom and the great responsibilities thereof.
“You let me win,” stated Professor Coshenza very bluntly.
“Nonsense! No, I tried … I didn’t let you win,” rambled Bisenius.
The other rose and started towards the door. Bisenius sat in disbelief. Before stepping out, Coshenza told him, “Set her free.”
Bisenius walked in circles inside his room. Meanwhile the shadow continued its mimicry, as it also paced within its frame of light. Bisenius wrestled with the shadow late into the evening. His obsession turned to exhaustion and despair. He sat staring at the shadow, without budging in the least, until it faded with the rising sun. When he tried to rise he could not move. He tried moving his legs but they were stiff. His hands rested immovable on his lap, and his fingers would not even twitch. Fear struck him like a thundering wave, gently ebbing, at last, into tranquility. He cannot win, thought Professor Bisenius, staring, in his paralysis, at the sunlit wall. Stalemate!
Anselmo J. Alliegro has been published in The Paumanok Review, Contraposition Literary Magazine, Bewildering Stories, and The William and Mary Review, among other publications.