The boy wandered the carnival alone, his parents occupied with a sister who was too young not to be watched and a brother who was too old to be trusted. He went round about the carnival, walking through it, and in time his wanderings led him to a tent, large and dark and forgotten in a long row of tents much like it such that one could not at a glance hope to tell them apart.
A girl stood before this particular tent, old enough to taunt boys like him with her burgeoning sexuality, young enough to tempt the men at the carnival with the last vestiges of her innocence. Come, she said. Look and behold. The game master awaits you, if you’re brave enough.
Bravery did not enter into it. He was young and confused and angry, as all boys of his age are, and he was confused by this girl before him, this girl who tempted and terrified him with her soft features, smooth legs in ragged shorts, the twin swells of her chest and her hips beckoning to him like sirens speaking a language he barely understood. But he would not let her see his fear, his uncertainty. What’s the game this guy’s supposed to be the master of, he asked the girl. She just smiled at him, her teeth a few shades to yellow to be called white. She pulled aside the curtain that served as the tent’s door. Come and see.
It was dim inside the tent, lit only by a single flickering bulb of antiquated design. The boy could see the outline of a figure sitting at a table inside. There were crude wooden shelves behind the figure, and jars full of strange liquids and boxes fitted with locks sat atop them. The figure shifted, the head moving up, and the boy felt the eyes of some terrible judge upon him. A voice spoke, coming to him across the distance like a tremor rumbling up from the bowels of the earth. Come in, child. Come in and play.
The boy entered, and sat at the table across from the game master, a board of light and dark squares and light and dark pieces separating them. He looked over his shoulder to see if the girl was watching, but she was gone, the curtain drawn behind her, leaving him in this dark space. There was only the game master and the game now, and the game master regarded the boy with eyes that glittered like jewels in the dark of the tent. The figure slid a tattered and yellowed sheet across the table to the boy. The rules. Read them and understand. The boy read, and when he felt that he understood, he pushed the sheet back. The game master smiled. Let’s begin.
The boy went first. He carefully considered the placement of each piece. He looked down on the board like a god shaping the world, and he looked at the pieces he had moved, and he thought that it was good. But on the game master’s turn, the boy’s pieces were removed one by one.
The boy frowned. I don’t understand why I lost.
Few do. Shall we play again?
And they did, but the boy lost that game too. The boy lost almost every game he played, but he won enough that he was compelled to keep laying. The hour grew later and later and still he played until at last the game master slid the board away from him and spoke.
If you are going to keep playing, then the game must be played for stakes.
The game master nodded. All games are played for stakes, boy, and the higher the stakes, the more important the game. You have learned how to play through passive observation, through active learning, and now you have come to this point of reckoning. The game master chuckled. What was once nothing more than a child’s trifling has become a thing of men. If you are to keep playing then you must play for stakes.
The boy sat in silence. He stared at the figure of the game master, at gleaming eyes and a gleaming mouth. The game master watched quietly, and finally the boy pulled his wallet from his pocket and removed a few of the bills that he had there. He set them on the table, and the game master nodded. The game master turned and removed a box from the shelves, placed the money inside, and returned the box to its appointed spot. Another round, then, the game master asked.
The boy lost. And again. And again. The boy gave up more and more, money flowing from his wallet into the boxes the game master kept on the shelves, boxes that never seemed any fuller even as his wallet grew emptier and emptier. At last the game master asked, Another round, and the boy was forced to say, I don’t have any more money.
The game master leaned back in the chair, hands folded neatly on the table. Another round?
I don’t have anything left to bet.
There is always something left to wager. As long as you draw breath, there is always something that can be put at hazard. The boy’s eyes drifted upwards, to the shelves behind the game master, to the boxes and jars there. Boxes that would not betray their secrets. Jars holding things the boy had no name for. Another round?
The boy was silent for what felt like a long time. The game master was silent as well, still as a statue of some ancient and unknowable god. Implacable. Ineffable. A god that existed only to preside over a world of its own creation. In the perpetual dusk of the tent, there was nothing else. The girl was gone. The money was gone. Time passed, but the board and the pieces remained, whispering promises of glory and redemption to the lucky and the quick-witted.
The game master grinned, white teeth shining like stars a thousand years dead in the night sky.