Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Game of Cards

The man was seated in the back of one of the wagons. I met him during one of the caravan's many stops. We were passing through an area of the Desert where we frequently came across massive shards of pottery littering the sand - a wagon-sized hand here, half a gargantuan nose there, jagged spikes of ceramic sticking out of the sand all around. It was as if a giant terra cotta army had shattered where it stood.

The gafl could have climbed over these areas, but they were strangely reluctant to go into them, and the wagons were somewhat less maneuverable. We didn't try to cross the shards. When we came across a patch of them, Tirakhai simply stopped the caravan and had everyone look the other direction until it went away.

It was during one of these interludes, with everyone facing resolutely toward the back of the caravan, that I got out to stretch my legs and came across the man in the back of the wagon. He was seated on a rickety wooden chair, leaning his shirtsleeved arms on a large trunk as if it was a table. Another chair stood, unoccupied, on the other side of the trunk. He tipped his hat to me as I walked by.

"Good day to you."

He spoke perfect English, with a rough, inward-turned accent that I couldn't quite identify. When he found that I spoke the same language, he beamed from ear to pointed ear and set a small wooden box on the table.

"Would you care for a game of cards?"

As a rule, I avoid gambling; I am not a professional, and if I have a desperate need to rid myself of money, I know more rewarding ways of doing so. The man was quick to assure me that he felt much the same way. He simply wanted someone to play with. The game he had was a complex one, and it was rare to find someone who knew the rules or was willing to learn them.

That was enough to catch my interest. I took the other chair, and he dealt the cards.

The deck had eight suits: hearts, diamonds, moons, spoons, arrows, horseshoes, gears, and frogs. Each suit had numbers up to 12, plus a few face cards - which were different in each suit. Hearts was the only one with the Jack-Queen-King arrangement with which I'm familiar. Spoons had Chef, Scullery, and Dog; Moons had Comet, Deer, and Flute; Gears had Golem, Gremlin, and Grapplemouse, whatever that is. Overall, there were slightly more than twice as many cards as in the deck I'm used to.

We started with only four spots on the table where we could put cards - House, Yard, Oubliette, and Forecastle - but these grew steadily more complex as we started using pairs and quartets of cards, flipping cards upside-down to reverse their effects, adding little satellite clusters and linking them together with more cards still. The table soon grew to look like some sort of strange mechanical diagram.

Some cards we left face-down and never revealed. These were called Turnips - possibly based on the Desert legend that one turnip in a million is filled with gemstones - and they gained effects of their own based on the very uncertainty of what they were.

The man kept introducing more rules. Every time I thought I understood the entire game, something new would show up. Many of the rules seemed to be based on songs and rhymes and obscure poetry.

"Five threes." He laid down a handful of threes and turned them sideways, so that the numbers looked - if you were generous - like birds in flight. "Five ravens. Five is for silver, or sickness if you use the other rhyme, so if I have the Physician" - he did; it was one of the face cards for the Horseshoes suit - "I can rescue a card from my Oubliette."

I have no idea whether he was telling me existing rules or simply making them up as he went. I didn't particularly care. The reasoning behind them was fascinating and poetic - and as I've said before, regardless of whether I win or lose, I always enjoy a well-played game.

To no one's surprise, the man eventually won. Laying down a final trio of aces (three houses, which formed a village and completed the road between his Yard and Forecastle), he demonstrated the line of numerically ordered cards he'd formed across his side of the table, stretching from the single two in his House to the Miser of Diamonds ensconced in his Forecastle. I was so surprised that I actually applauded. I had begun to doubt that either of us would be able to complete the Procession; of the six or seven possible ways of winning, it sounded like one of the most challenging.

I congratulated the man on his victory and, perhaps somewhat late, introduced myself. He said he couldn't tell me his name. The last time he'd let it out, it had bitten three people and stolen an entire set of silverware before he caught it again.

This was far from the most unusual introduction I've heard, and I assured him that I didn't mind. We thanked each other warmly for the game. The sun was setting by then, and we were surrounded by the creaks of wagons and the soft, thumping shuffle of the gafl. I hadn't noticed when the caravan had started moving again.

During all my time with the caravan, that was the only time I ever saw the man with the cards. I wish I had thought to ask him the name of the game. I'd like to look it up sometime and find out if it exists anywhere but in that little wooden box.

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