OK, so what on earth is a zugzwang? If you take the time to read my story, all will be revealed. I hope you enjoy this bit of fiction!
Funny how certain events will bring other ones to mind. Events in your life that on first blush, seem to have no relationship to each other, but the more the memory intrudes, the more you realize how closely related they are. Such a remembrance has recently taken residence in my mind.
When I was a little girl, one of my best friends was a boy named Mike Collins. He was a wonderful friend, and his being a boy, and my being a girl seemed not to interfere with our enjoyment of one another. Sometimes it even helped. We filled our play with make-believe, and often re-enacted or created new scenes mimicking our favorite television programs. Having a representative of both genders made our plays much more real to us, especially when it came to wedding scenes. I specifically remember pinning a bath towel to my hair to serve as a wedding veil when we played a marriage scene from “The Edge of Night.” It was only years later that I stopped to think how odd it was that two eight-year-olds would have even the slightest idea what “The Edge of Night” was, let alone be familiar with a television soap opera.
The memory of that wedding scene came suddenly, unbidden, to my mind as I stood by the new grave of our dearly loved companion, guardian, and friend, our dog Elvira. The air was redolent with the rich scents of morning, scents heightened by the moisture in the air lingering from recent rains.
I was startled at the remembrance of Mike intruding on my meditation of Elvira. It was hard to fathom the connection, but I felt compelled to find it, and began to try to bridge the gaps that eroded my memory. The smells in the air helped to refresh my mind, and a specific scene from my life started to coalesce. It wasn’t the “wedding,” or my dog’s burial, it was Mike, and something else. I had loved them both, yes, but it was more than that– and then I knew.
The sight and scent of freshly turned dirt at my feet had somehow transported me to a place from my childhood. It was the property that surrounded the church building where my family, and Mike’s were members. The two of us were outside playing while our mothers were in the fellowship hall setting up for the Wednesday evening potluck dinner. Our church was located in a large clump of piney woods and other than the parking lot and driveway, was completely undeveloped. Recent rain had not yet been absorbed by the already overly sodden ground, and there were a number of muddy pools scattered over the adjoining acreage. To most eight-year-old children, this seemed like an open invitation to fun. We were exactly like most eight-year olds.
“I know what we can do!” Mike exclaimed as he ran to the first standing pool. “I have some twine in my pocket. Let’s go catch some crawdaddies!”
“OK!” I shouted as I ran to catch up. I stopped short and called out, “Whadda we use for bait?”
“I dunno. Why don’t you see if there is anything in the church kitchen? While you get it, I’ll look for some crawdad holes.”
“All right,” I answered and hurried back to the building where our mothers were busy. It occurred to me that our planned activity might not be what our moms had in mind for us to do when they gave us permission to play outside, as long as we “didn’t get all dirty, or make a mess.” So, after seeing our mothers busy in the fellowship hall, I quietly slipped into the kitchen and began to look for something Mike and I could use for bait. My eyes fell upon a loaf of sliced bread, newly opened. I grabbed the heel of the loaf, stuffed it into my skirt pocket, and calmly exited the building, then ran to Mike. I gave him the bread slice, and he tore off a piece, then rolled it between his thumb and index finger to create a ball of gluey dough.
This practiced bit of play routine had been performed countless times, and my job to find a small twig around which to shape the bait-bread was quickly done. Mike took the twig and tied his length of string around it. “Have you found a good hole to try?” I asked Mike, and he answered by grabbing my hand and saying, “I think we should check over this way!”
There was a fairly big clearing in which were a number of deeper pools. Mike pulled me toward one of them, which had a felled tree spanning over a part of it. I pulled my hand from his as he attempted to lead me up on the trunk. “What’s the matter?” he asked. For as long as I could remember, my big brothers had instilled in me a deep fear of snakes, most especially cotton mouth water moccasins. According to them, those snakes lurked in every stand of water just waiting to bite me with their poisonous fangs. “You’d be dead before we could slice your skin and suck out the poison,” they had solemnly told me. I never considered that they could have been exaggerating, either about the dangers of snake bite, or the prevalence of water moccasins. After all, both my brothers were Boy Scouts!
“There might be snakes in there!” I said, and saw a ripple of anxiety cross his face before Mike masked it with a tremulous show of macho bravado. “Nah! There’s no snakes here. And besides, we’re not going wading. We’re going across the water on this old tree,” he bragged, and grabbed my hand again to lead me across. “But Mike, the tree don’t go all the way across!” “”Yeah, but looks to me like there’s just a little ways to jump at the end. If we don’t go across this way, the path around this pool is so muddy we would get our shoes all caked up. This way is cleaner, and I bet there’s a big mess of crawdads over on that side!” and Mike’s tone of voice convinced me this was so.
The lower part of the tree trunk was fairly broad and my own confidence began to build as I gingerly followed my friend across the stretch of dark muddy water. Our trek was going well until it came time to jump. The distance from here to there might as well have been a mile. I saw no possible way I could manage a jump over such a lengthy span of muddy, dark, snake-filled water. And judging by the sudden halting of Mike’s pace, he didn’t either. “Well, aren’t you gonna jump?” I asked, in hopes he would tell me that my imagination had enlarged the size of the gulf. “Uh, maybe we, er, you better not try it. I’ll take you back and we can find another way,” he said, and as he turned to face me his face blanched white. Blocking our way off the other end of the log there now stood a pole cat. At that point, it did not seem to be aware of our presence, but we knew we couldn’t be too careful. In fact, we probably couldn’t be careful enough. The stink of a startled pole cat was not something we wanted to reckon with. Let alone the disapproval (to put it mildly) of our mothers.
Mike enjoined me not to move, which was no problem for me. I wasn’t going anywhere. The level of the sun’s rays had evidently surprised this basically nocturnal animal. Evening had already settled in around his burrow, and he was not expecting the sun to hinder him in his evening food forage. Blinded by the sun, he had as yet failed to notice us, his companions on the log bridge. We had no intentions of cueing him in to our presence, at least not on purpose.
With a squeak of a whisper, I asked Mike, “What are we gonna do?” He was clearly as worried and frightened as I was as he croaked back, “I dunno! I think maybe your gonna have to jump over to the bank like we were gonna do.” I realized, as the sun was setting, that our “playtime” was rapidly running down, and we would soon be expected back at the church, and spic ‘n’ span to boot. Well, at least spic…
I had recently heard my brothers playing a game of chess, and became acquainted with a word new to me, “zugzwang.” They took the word quite seriously, even though I giggled every time I heard it. The boys said it meant being forced to make a move, even though you know a move in any direction would spell harm, or a disastrous checkmate. It dawned on me, even at that tender age, that I and Mike were now facing our very own zugzwang, and the boys were right: it wasn’t at all funny! We faced certain punishment whatever we chose to do, and that dang skunk wasn’t going anywhere except closer to us.
Slowly, I turned to Mike and said, “Let’s try the jump. Maybe the worst that’ll happen is we get wet. Maybe there aren’t any snakes. Besides, I think I’d rather get snake bit than be sprayed by a pole cat.” After briefly pondering our choices, Mike agreed, and we quietly and carefully started back over the log bridge.
With rising hope, I was silently praying that I had exaggerated the width of the gap between log and dry ground. On closer inspection, it appeared I had way underestimated the size. This was no gap, it was an ocean, a ravine, chasm! There was no way on God’s green earth we were going to avoid trouble. Staring at that enormous expanse of water, I knew that at the very least, my mother’s hand print on my backside was in my foreseeable future. Maybe snake bite wouldn’t be so bad after all. If I managed to live through it, they’d probably let me sit down, anyway. Spanking disallowed that for a while.
“It’s now or never. I’ll try it first,” and Mike took a mighty leap. He made it. All the way over, and with just the smallest splat of mud on the top of his shoes and the cuff of his jeans. “I might get out of this alive,” I thought, took one more glance back at the ever nearing skunk, crossed my fingers and jumped.
Though I likely spent only a second or two at most in the air, I was aloft for an eternity, my own life unthreading like a spool of film before my eyes, various scenes of my mischief being highlighted in technicolor. Keeping my eyes on the prize of dry ground, I waited for the sound of the slap of my shoes on the earth.
What I heard was not as important as what I felt. My right foot was soaking wet, all the way up to my ankle. A cry of dismay escaped my lips when I caught my first glance of submerged foot. My left foot had managed to strike dry ground, but the other foot pulled me off balance. I shouted to Mike for help before I fell into the muddy pool, but he had his eye on the skunk, which was steadily advancing on our position, its tail raised ominously in the air. My Daddy had always told me they were more afraid of people than we are of them. Didn’t seem like this skunk got that memo.
While trying to catch my balance, the act of checking the skunk’s progress made me lose whatever chance I might have had of remaining upright. With a grandiose scream, I fell into the muddy hole, bottom first. There would be no hiding this from my Mom. There would be no hiding this from anybody, because my scream startled the skunk, which suddenly turned tail and sent a mist of his special defense cologne in our general direction. I knew it was coming when I saw the peculiar shake of its tail, so I shouted at Mike to help me get up. He leaned over, trying to keep his feet dry, to offer his hand. I latched on and ended up pulling him toward me. We both hit the mud, I was all in again, and Mike was as wet on his front as I was on the back. The odor of skunk was nauseating and inescapable as we both scrambled to get up and away before we were hit with the pungent scent.
As we ran away from the scene of disaster we both took a quick look to see if Gigantor the Monster Skunk was chasing after us. To our surprise, he sat at the edge of the log bridge. Turns out he didn’t want to risk snake bite either. After enlarging the distance between us and the creature, we stopped and began the process of damage assessment. Our worst fears had been realized. We were goners.
“All I can smell is pole cat!” Mike moaned. “Do you think he hit us with his stuff?” I was pretty sure we had escaped a direct hit, but the amount of time we had spent in the general area of the assault had been enough for the smell to permeate our clothes and skin. We knew we were in for it, and began to formulate the story we would relate when we got back to the church.
As fate would have it, we realized that the path back to the church was almost completely dry on this side of the pool, and if we had taken the time to plot our course earlier, we could easily have avoided the trouble. That did not make us feel any better. Our pace slowed dramatically as we neared the church building. We both decided it was best to throw ourselves on the mercy of the court. Mike opened the door and we both squared our shoulders and walked inside.
Though a bit early for the meal, there was still a sizable crowd of folks gathered in the large multipurpose room, clustered together in small groups, discussing whatever is was grownups discussed. We had not yet spotted our mothers when we noticed several of the people sticking their noses in the air, seeking the source of the rapidly building smell wafting toward them. Eventually, all of them, including our mothers, who had come in from the kitchen, were quietly staring at Mike and me. It wasn’t quiet for long.
Simultaneously our mothers shouted our names, and ran toward us across the rapidly widening space between the crowd and us. Mrs. Collins ran to the door and my Mom pushed both of us out of it, then let it slam shut behind them. I had started to cry, which had sometimes been a useful tool for escaping serious punishment (especially when employed with my father). I even heard some sniffling from Mike, as the reality of our situation sank in.
“We are both very interested to know what happened to you, but first things first. We have to get you out of those clothes immediately!” my Mom barked at us. Mrs. Collins then asked my Mom if we had anything for us to put on. Mom said she didn’t, but I could practically see the light bulb pop on over her head as she snapped her fingers, turned, and ran back into the church building. She called back over her shoulder that she would be back right away.
When she returned, less than a minute later, she was holding in her arms two large rolls of white paper used at the church to cover the tables for our potluck dinners. She handed one to Mike’s Mom, and then motioned for me to follow her around to another side of the building. There she stripped me down to my underwear and then proceeded to wrap me in paper, my arms pinned to my sides. Poking a hole with her fingers she managed to make enough room for me to put my arms through, freeing them and making me feel less like a sausage.
We walked back to where Mike, now similarly packaged, and his Mom were standing. “Our cars are parked next to each other. Tell you what– I’ll spread some of this paper on the car seats of both cars. While I am doing that, why don’t you take these rolls back inside and tell the folks that we’re taking these two home and probably won’t be back,” Mom said calmly, and Mrs. Collins agreed, gathered up the two rolls and hurried back to the church to make her report. Mike and I stood, miserable, awaiting the trip to our homes. Noting the firm set of her lips, and the accompanying silence, I was certain the coming trip would not be pleasant.
“Try not to touch anything in the car,” Mom ordered, and opened the passenger door for me to climb carefully inside. After stuffing my paper-wrapped clothes under the bars of our car’s rooftop luggage rack, she got in behind the wheel, and jamming the key into the ignition, she started the car, turned her face to me and said, simply, “OK, now. Spill.”
As I started to blubber out the whole tale, I noticed a quiver in my Mom’s lips. I could hardly believe it, but it looked like my Mom was starting to laugh. Sure enough, her shoulders shaking, tears running down her face, peals of laughter poured out of her as I explained the whole sorry mess. I was still a little scared, but began to relax, as it appeared that severe punishment was not in the works. As a matter of fact, I found myself warming up to the story and started to embellish it with creative adjectives and adverbs. We arrived at our house as I was finishing up my performance. Mom told me to sit still, then she got out and went around the car to help me do the same. She reminded me to try not to touch anything, and then she ushered me over near the hose in the back yard. She reached down to turn the spigot and helped me unwrap myself before turning the hose on me, full blast.
I threw my arms up to shield myself from the cold water cascading about me; however, after that initial shock abated, I got into the whole experience and eagerly twirled myself around to allow the water to sluice as much of the mud and stink off my body as possible. “Now, inside for a long soak in the tub!” Mom said, and walked with me inside. “We can use some of the bubble bath oil I got last Christmas. Maybe that will at least hide whatever skunk smell might be left on you. But, I am going to have to burn your clothes!” And, as she gazed at me with amusement and love in her eyes, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and happiness. This day did not end at all like I thought it would. I followed my Mom into the house and to the bathroom. After setting me to soak, she started to laugh again, and just before leaving me alone she shook her head and said, “Mud, skunks, and crawdads! Crawdads?” The sound of her laughter echoed down the hall.
Hope you all have a wonderful weekend, and manage to avoid getting into a zugzwang! And, as always, I wish you enough. . .