A Game has been Played – and is still being Played
Long ago and just yesterday, at a distant port and down the road, on a waterfront thick with the scent of brine, a game has been played and is still being played. One player wore a uniform and another was in chains. One sold sex and another bought books. Castaways and outcasts, pirates and caretakers, profitless businessmen and politicians without constituents.
Standing there, uncertain, you recognized some of the cards from a variety of half-remembered games. The rules appeared to shift and change like the moods of the ocean. You’ve seen a game like this played in airports, too, by travelers and workers. You couldn’t tell if you were an insider or an outsider, but a strange courage took you by the hand and you sat down on an empty crate on the pier as the tide teased the shore and the gulls cried to hold back the storm.
You won and you lost and you heard this story: that once, long ago there was a nation underneath all nations. Its anthem was the chuckle of the bluff. Its proud flag was any hair or scarf or sail snapping in the stiff sea breeze. Its national cuisine was any meal shared between people who couldn’t speak one another’s language.
One of the players, a harbour pilot, told you that this scattered nation, your nation, was like a mycelium, threading its silent way through the decay of empires, that when two tendrils met it formed a fungal fruit that could heal or could poison.
No! the youngest one at the table interrupted, before any city there was always the port; before any territory there were always the communal seas and skies. Our home is not a state but the supple dream from which all stiff nations are woven. That’s why they hate us.
Cards were the first technology, mumbles a lithe pearl-diver. We used to cast sticks to tell the future, and our sticks widened and flattened into money and games. They all nodded, remembering, and you remember too, in a way. Before the book there were cards.
The banter plays on, over the play of the unending, unrepeatable game; the evening’s calm gives way to brisker winds, carrying the hard-wrought pollen of the flowers improbably growing uninvited between bricks and cobblestones. The grim Patroller, slouching along the shore, sneezing, seems not to see you and your companions, as if you were part of the landscape or seascape.
At sunset, the odd family of fishers (could they possibly share the same blood, with faces and colours so riotously different?), return with the ocean’s gifts. They serve you shiny fish from their boat, the grill hissing as fat drips on the flames. The scent brings the cormorants and terns. The old matriarch of the family—a retired pirate some say (do pirates ever truly retire?)—eyes you with clouded eyes: Every port is the same port, and different too.
We have been playing games on these docks since before there were docks. Our games open portals between our homelands.
So are we the source of all of what they call ‘culture’? You ask, but the tide is ebbing and she doesn’t answer. Stray dogs salute the sun’s retreat from the breakwater.
The whole history of what they call civilization, she says, is the tragic attempt of the children of the port to control it. What do you think all this is for?
Her gesture encompasses the banal chainlink, the vengeful razor wire, the looming security cameras, the bored men in glass boxes who trade cards with travelers, the damp serrated menace of rusting borders.
It’s night now and the wind is up. The ghostly shape of the oil silos press on the horizon and, out at sea, huge, tired empty tankers grumble on the waves. Behind us, beyond the wall, the standardized containers, like a pack of cards, nestle close, soldiers who even dream in formation. Out there, there is a small prison island, on the other side of the fabled ruined resort, though it too, for all its luxuries, was a prison for some.
Now you are in a tavern whose entrance you have never seen before though you’ve passed it perhaps every night of your life. Here the games continue. The players shift and change, the cards and game pieces seem to be thrown onto the table at random from a thousand different sets. Here is the five of hearts, there is the tarot’s Fool, now a domino, now an odd-shaped die, now a seashell, now a knife, a flatbread, a compact disc, a faded photograph, a microscope plate. Credit cards, Pokemon cards, plane tickets, ID cards: all are in play. The only rule seems to be to keep playing.
Now you are smoking on the pier with a bureaucrat from a ruined empire:
I hear from the shore people that the world is moving too fast, his voice wheezes.
The moon is thick and waxing.
In fact, he continues, pedantic, as anyone with the least familiarity with the sea knows, the times today are becalmed. No, don’t hear me wrong, he warns, coughing. This is a time of terrors, and in the name of their security our people are more endangered than ever. What I mean is that, when no wind blows a ship turns in on itself, each mind revolts, the crew scatters in spirit but remains together in body… his eyes are fixed on the horizon. This slow time is the most dangerous time.
He flips a coin. Somehow the game is continuing, just between the two of you. The same game that, back at the tavern, has become raucous and ribald is here pensive and gentle.
Now, in the moonlight, the port’s infrastructure reveals the skeletons of war. The docks and piers are made from the infilled rubble of bombed buildings, and probably bones too. Past the new dock, the remnants of a weapons laboratory, its once-devastating children now retired to museums as newer horrors inherit the earth.
Is today’s empire of trade any less deadly than those empires that, for centuries, set their warships to sail from these rich waters? Each regimented 40-foot container stacked on the shore is like a sealed crypt. What small and jagged warfare extracted the minerals and commodities inside? This city itself has been beseiged by these steel Supermax titans that bring the fruits of the world’s cheapened labour to nations of consumers.
They forgot money is just a game, sighs the croupier, who joins you on the dock. She claims to have worked in every port around the world. She looks at your cards and tells your fortune:
You will never be at home, if you’re lucky.
Now dawn begins to roll over the mountains and the sun’s first stream of light glints off the sleek, spherical expanse of the rusting starliner, aimed heavenwards in prayer. Built aeons ago it was never launched, it’s optimistic brutalism a monument to a foreclosed public optimism. These days, the refugees and many of the city’s youth–and youth from the places, too–have claimed it, building homes in the scaffolding like puffins or swifts, nesting in the cliffs. There is a debate among them if they should repair it and take to the stars or if this was what it was always meant to be: land-locked, a kind of second earth, an eternal port, aimed like cupid’s arrow at a moon that pulls the tides.