Friday, January 31, 2014


Bobby Derie

A knight, with a face of old walrus ivory, a veritable fang with the barest scrimschaw suggestion of helm and horse and sword, looked obliquely at the two bishops it threatened; venerable dark-skinned fellows carved of teak wood. Above the board, on another plane from that terrible decision and yet apiece with it, Israel and Genbas sat in contemplation of their fate. The board was propped on a stack of fat bibles, and perhaps the gilt on the covers might had piqued the interest of some savvy scavenger, but at that moment Israel would not have sold them for a talent of gold: they supported the board.

Time passed, and Genbas cleared his throat. Israel stirred.

"Ah, a thousand pardons my friend. My mind was not on the game." said Israel.

Genbas raised an eyebrow.

"A city, my friend. In my mind I saw a city. I have, I think, been seeking it for many years, finding it here or there in books, but it never wore a name except lightly. Yet today, today while we have played, I think I have found the name of that city. Blackglass."

Genbas nodded, and Israel considered the board. He stretched out a finger almost to touch a pawn--a little man of teakwood, who stood next to another of ivory, who stood before... Genbas cleared his throat again.

"And what was that nature of this city, that so captured your imagination?"

Israel removed his finger.

"Ah, it was an old city, my friend. Among the oldest. There was...I will call it a tribe, though that is not what it was. Not as we know tribes today. Not as the Romans knew them. It was long ago, and perhaps we do not have the name for it, but it was sophisticated for its time. Why should it not have been? They had been as they were for a long time, and had greatly refined their way of life. There was division of labor. Some men hunted, perhaps women too. Traps were set, entire herds tracked and stampeded off cliffs. There were skin scrapers, and perhaps smokers for the meat. They were many, and they were efficient at what they did, but for this they required tools and tool-makers. They needed places to smoke the meat, hunting camps where perhaps they stayed for a season rather than a week or a month, places where they could hide hard seeds and dig them back up when they returned. Tell me, have you ever scraped a hide?"

Gerbas shook his head.

"In my youth, my uncle took me hunting. I killed a little rabbit with my gun, and I scraped the hide clean with his knife. How much work it was! But they had no steel knives. Perhaps not even copper. No, sharp stones. The sharpest stones. Obsidian. Blackglass. So this tribe, if I may call them that, this people, they knew where to get the blackglass. A deposit, a mine, men or women chipping away with hard rock, breaking pieces off, taking them to the masters to chip into knives and tools."

"This people," said Gerbas. "They had a name?"

"In their own language, they were only the people. Human beings. You know how it was, in the old days. Perhaps we shall call them the Nanni. That would do."

"The Nanni," Gerbas said. "The founded a city?"

"Not at first. Not near the mine. They were not alone you see. They hunted, and they moved, all of them at once, decamping from season to season, following the herds. But there were others. They met them from time to time, the strange people. They would have known them. They would eat different foods, drink different. Maybe make war on them. Take their meat, their women. How different could they be? Perhaps not very much at all, as we knew them. Perhaps in the past they had been one tribe, and had grown too large. Perhaps they could still understand each other, if they spoke, at least a little. Maybe they did not always fight, if they met, for many of them might meet accidentally. As I said, they were not simple people. Their technology was not our technology, their civilization not our civilization, and no-one wishes to risk being killed if they can help it."

"So, in addition to the Nanni, there were others." Gerbas said.

"Many others. The O-Dassi hugged the coasts and rivers, living off shell fish and following the fish back to their spawning; perhaps they knew of salt, though I think not. The Ganni were close kin to the Nanni, and had ties of kinship. The I-Bassi were outcasts from the other tribes, mutts of their ancient world, perhaps untouchables if such a thing could be back then, gatherers of seeds--ah, but maybe they knew how to brew beer. Though I think, given how long they had all been around each other, perhaps each knew something of brewing. It is not a hard thing, if one has some very basic materials and knowledge."

"So, that is four. Is four enough?"

"Enough for Blackglass. As I said, they were not all on bad terms. They would meet peacefully now and again, I think. Perhaps they traded. Yes, I would say they definitely traded. More than that, perhaps, they might have shared festivals, occasions to let new blood into each other's tribe...but, I get away from myself. For the Nanni, their great thing was obsidian. I think they had a trading camp, a place where the others would come to trade for this, because certainly the Ganni and O-Dassi would like the sharp obsidian knives for themselves. This would be the seed of the city."

"Hmm." said Gerbas. "Hmm."

"You do not agree." said Israel.

"It is only that I have heard--only heard, mind you--that before cities, there came farming."

Israel nodded. "So some believe. So? You think Blackglass cannot exist without farms? Why do you think that farming came first?"

"I had heard, I think, that so many people required much food. You said yourself, the Ganni split off from the Nanni, when the tribe grew too large."

"This is true, I said that." Israel said, and he laid a finger on a pawn. "And I have heard some say they think farming came from a desire for brewing. I do not know if I believe that." He pushed the piece of teak forward, and knocked a piece of ivory off the board.

A one-eyed teak bishop was blindsided by the scrimshaw knight, and Genbas lifted the holy man off the board.

"Why do you not believe that?"

"I have read--ah, you see what I say, how I glimpsed my Blackglass in so many books!--I have read many ways to brew beer. There are some which do not require settlement, or pottery, quite as we understand it. An empty gourd, some berries and water, a few weeks see what I mean? That is perhaps not a sophisticated way to go about it, but as I have said, I think these were a sophisticated people, even if they did not have the technology we have today."

An ivory queen died. A teak king found himself in a canyon, his bishop too far away to be of help.

Gerbas broke the silence. "I like your idea. Though I do not think we got very far talking of the city of Blackglass."

"Tomorrow, perhaps, I will tell you more." Israel said. "For now, let us reset the board. I have a feeling we have played this game before."


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