by Kerry Hamilton Lawless
When the world was young, powerful spirits populated the earth. They swam through seas of vital force that had been accumulating drop-by-drop, life-by-life, since the beginning of time. All the world's great mountains were as islands thrusting up from this mighty ocean, which filled valleys and blanketed hills.
The dark Oak stood apart, as if its neighbors had pulled away in awe and trepidation from the ancient giant that towered over the rest of the primeval forest. Millennia of growth had hardened the forest colossus so much that countless generations of beetles had given up trying to burrow into it. Separating herself from the tree's essence the dryad emerged from its massive trunk, yawning and stretching as she came. The night wind ebbed as the coming dawn extinguished the starry night, and the wild wood hushed, awaiting a new day.
As early morning spring light streamed into forest glades revealing sweet smelling carpets of flowers, the dryad moved lightly through the miasma of life energy covering her antediluvian forest. Every so often she would stop to strengthen an ailing tree or quarantine filaments of infectious mold as great colorful insects fluttered by. Abruptly she stopped, sensing, like a spider in its web, an alarm rippling through the interconnected root systems. Following vibrations in the life force, her whirlwind passage left leafy eddies in her wake as she appeared before the desperate and terrified boar. Easing its panic, she waited for his pursuer near the forest's edge.
Ares, the god of war, seemed to materialize from motes of dappled forest light. He saw his prey kneeling at a woman's feet, and for a few seconds gazed in puzzled surprise at the boar before lowering his bow and raising his eyes. Breath caught in his throat as he beheld her tall slender form, wrapped in white and gold. His bow fell to the ground... unnoticed, as her raven-haired beauty and dark penetrating eyes pierced his heart. As she waited for him to speak, her impatience grew. Finally, unwilling to contain her displeasure any longer, she asked, "Noble sir, pray, why have you invaded my forest with your hunt?"
Hastily collecting himself, he temporized, "T'was your beauty that drew me here. I could not stay away." A look of haughty disdain settled on her face as he continued to gaze upon her. Persisting he said, "Would you be so kind as to tell me your name, fair dryad? I would have us be friends" Thinking that it might soften her, he added apologetically, "I am very sorry that I allowed the boar to endanger your trees."
Her incipient anger evaporated while she covertly searched his face. She returned, "Sir, I am called Caissa. I know who you are and I would be sensible to your feelings, if they were true. But, I feel they are not. As for friendship, you may have it if you would but take your boar and leave this forest." Flashing the faintest hint of a smile, she added, "And forget not your bow!" With a brief nod she turned away and vanished in a swirl of pine needles and damp leaves. Bemused, the god retrieved his bow, lifted the struggling animal and bore it to the edge of the forest, where it scrambled away.
Sometime later, without quite remembering how he got there, he found himself upon the banks of a large stream. His lovelorn sighs soon brought a curious nymph up from its mossy depths. Quietly, she observed him reclining on a low flat rock, while nearby; his bow and quiver were lying carelessly in the grass. After studying his face awhile, she advised, "Honorable sir, why do you delay your hearts desire with useless sighs? To succeed with your lady, you must prove your esteem by presenting her with a gift that could only come from you."
In the midday heat, as dragonflies flitted and darted to and fro, he pondered over her suggestion. After a time, his mind began to function again with plans and strategies to woo Caissa. Thoughtfully, he turned and said, "I thank you, good naiad. I am very grateful for your insight. Please let me extend my favor to ensure that your streams will always have balmy winds, gentle rains and plentiful flowers." Their gaze met as he got up, "Now, I must away."
Soon after, he made his way to the sandy shores of Paphos, where the Cyprian temple of Euphron stood. Addressing Euphron, he asked courteously, "Fair youth, would you aid me in creating a martial game that is the embodiment of the art of war... a gift worthy of Caissa, my Thracian maid?"
"Your wish is my command, Sire! The fulfillment of your desire is close at hand," said the god of sport. After outlining his ideas to Ares, they began by taking a large tablet of shimmering lapis lazuli and inlaying it with squares of sparkling white diamond and lustrous dark red ruby. Finally, thirty-two gold and silver nuggets were carefully pounded into game pieces. Together they created a game of kings and great moving armies... a game unlike any before it.
Standing before Caissa's great Oak in the midmorning light, Ares stopped to compose himself as the lazy buzz of Cicada and trill of songbirds filled the air. Finally he called, "Caissa, I have brought you a token of my esteem; a game created in your honor. It is called chess." There was a momentary hush, before the forest mistress appeared before him. He bowed and set it down in front of her.
Stunned by the beauty of the chess set, she couldn't help but feel grateful that he would go to such lengths to impress her. Kneeling down, she tentatively picked up one of the dark pieces. It fit her hand and felt so right that she didn't want to put it down. "What is this called?" she queried cautiously. Later, after he had gone over piece movement and game strategy, she marveled on how patient he was with her incessant questions. Thinking about it, she realized that she felt very comfortable with him.
As they set the pieces up for a first game, their hands touched and when she looked up into his eyes, she realized that he really did care for her. Tension settled in between her shoulder blades as she contemplated her first move. Breathlessly, she advanced one of her pawns into the center of the board. As the game progressed, her tenseness dissipated as the feeling of being connected to her opponent grew. Finally, after a series of long intense skirmishes the battle wound down to a drawn position with kings and knights. Suddenly, feeling the passage of time, she rose to her feet and looking up, saw the twinkling stars. Before parting, as they bowed and shook hands with each other, happiness filled her as she realized that she was in love.
Day by day, as their love continued to grow, they spent countless hours enjoying each other's company. During the long lazy days of summer they conversed at great length or simply gazed at one another, but mostly they played chess. To her, chess seemed like an ideal form of communication. When she played with him, she felt a bond of perfect understanding between them, which only broke when the game ended. Her love for him and chess melded, especially in her dreams. Sometimes she stalked boldly through patches of light and darkness looking for him and at other times cowered in tiny little rooms dreading his coming. Swirling clouds of identity would make her king one day and a pawn the next.
Amid falling leaves and shorter days, her persistent curiosity about chess increased. She found herself waking to starlight trying to understand the intricacies of his maneuvers. One night as she went through the day's games on her clear mental chess set, she realized that he hadn't managed to win or even draw a game in days. As her skill increased, their games had taken on a one-sidedness that, looking back, now surprised her. With a shiver of apprehension, she realized she'd been blind to his increasing frustration and chagrin, as her string of victories had mounted. The shiver deepened to chill as she contemplated Ares' duel identity of ardent admirer and master military strategist. The dawn was breaking before she felt that she had figured out a way to restore his regard. She would turn their chess contest into a discourse of chess discovery.
Late morning found her still sitting down in front on the board, awaiting his coming. As the sun passed its zenith, and the shadows began to lengthen, dark despair began to swirl around her. She thought, "I am too late." A silent tear trickled down her cheek. As the twilight deepened, her figure, still bowed before the chess set, disappeared into the gloom. Despair became absolute. Winter had come.
A feeble early morning sun edged over the treetops, bringing with it, a flurry of ice crystals. Board, pieces and player were soon completely enveloped in snow. Without her protection, furtive shadows began slipping into her forests, leaving behind white powdery footprints. Without her spark, forests lost their cohesiveness and became groves. Groves, in turn, lost their identity and became solitary trees. Besieged with cold and predators, the tree sap became more and more sluggish. The trees were dying.
Gaia, the earth goddess, mother of the gods, was quite aware of Caissa's sorrow and the reason for it. Of all her children, earth nymphs were closest to her heart. With each passing day the earth mother felt the dying forests and knew that when the great Oak died, Caissa would soon follow. Finally, fearing that she might have already waited too long, she called to the dryad, "Child, get up and come to me on Mount Olympus. I would speak with you." Struggling against deep despair, Caissa rose and wiped away her frozen tears as new ones took their place.
Her connection to the sea of life force surrounding the mountain was severed as she emerged to step on the Olympian summit. She stopped, momentarily shocked by the sudden profound inner silence. The cold mountain light seemed to intensify and deepen her newfound crystal clarity of vision. At last she made her way to the celestial cave, where Gaia gently placed a question before her: "Caissa, do you weep because you have lost his love or because you think you will never play chess again?" Tears dried, as a look of wonder suffused her face. With bowed head she stood silently, endeavoring to resolve her conflicted feelings.
Finally, Caissa responded, "Mother, I still love him, but I believe it will pass. I experience such great joy in just sitting down at the board that the thought of never moving another piece is more than I can bear. When I play... chess and I are one." The tears started flowing again as she cried, "How can I live without chess?"
"Child, take your gift to mankind and teach them its delights. In time, they will teach you. Men will call you the muse or goddess of chess, but I name you ChessDryad."
The darkness lifted from her heart; her smile grew brighter and brighter. A bubble of laughter escaped as she was filled with a shining joy, which soon spread from tree to tree as greenery once again enveloped the forests. Descending the mountain, Caissa re-entered the effervescent sea of life and traveled forth into the world of men to spread the precepts of chess.
Today, she is still among us. Every time a chess piece is moved, Caissa knows! She will continue to exist as long as chess is played. Some people call her a muse or goddess, but she is ChessDryad.
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