Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I'm obsessed with the idea of hidden messages. Secret communication. Codes and secret societies.



I spent my mornings for a month, playing chess against an unknown opponent through encrypted messages in the personal ads like we were Victorian lovers. It started with a simple monoalphabetic cipher, an opening chess move, repeated day after day until I stumbled upon it. I have no idea how long that message had been repeating, but I found it and I answered in kind, with a move of my own. Then it was “hello,” and the second move. We played for a week, and at first I treated it as just another cryptoquote, just another daily puzzle. I’d heard that Cryptoquotes and crossword puzzles help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, and so I couldn’t open the newspaper without finishing the puzzles. Alzheimer’s disease is death before death, and I’m terrified of it. But this wasn’t just a cryptoquote. I soon found that it was magic, this secret correspondence, that I was falling in love with this unknown player. It was like writing letters to dead relatives, and having them answered. I came home from work on Friday night, and I felt like I was really coming home, for the first time since my wife passed on. I fell asleep without feeling as though my bed were half empty. I felt alive, solving those private puzzles. The following Monday the cipher changed. There were homophones, now, and nulls. Frequency analysis wasn’t enough. I worked harder to solve the puzzle, and once unearthed it was still chess moves, and little private messages. Fragments of messages, the thought never completed, each day the beginning of a new fragment. Monday was “I am pleased”, Tuesday “I was hoping you would”, Wednesday “there is so much to,” and Thursday “under my clothes I” The Monday after that, the move came in a more complicated form, modelled after a military code from World War Two. I could still solve it, (“your lips are so”) but it was harder. Already I could see where things were going. Already I could see the end of the line. And so on Tuesday I placed an ad in the paper, in the latest cipher. Not my next move, but “Please,” and “There’s only one end to this.” My life had been empty, and now I had this game. I was paralysed with the fear that it was going to advance beyond my means. What cipher would come next? If it was DES encryption, I could crack it with the help of a computer and some time. But then? After that I would be lost. I found I couldn’t sleep again, worrying. I knew that I should just enjoy the time I had left with this game, that I was ruining everything. The response came Wednesday, in monoalphabetic cipher. It was an opening move. An invitation to another player.

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