He was a boy, a baby really, not more than a few months old, still in diapers, a pacifier dangling from his mouth.
She was wearing a baseball cap that collected in its palm a bundle of blond curls with some red highlights.
He stood at the plate, legs apart and knees slightly bent, his bare toes solidly sinking into the drenched dirt.
The rain fell in puddles, there were no boys left in the field. She stood in the center of the mound ready to sink to the bottom of a river to throw him a ball. The sweat and dirt on the girl’s knuckles were eating away at the already beaten leather of the baseball. The ball was dry at its core, heat-dried from the girl’s touch. She was fired up but bathed in the pouring rain. Her bare toes tore away at the earth beneath.
Poised on his tiptoes, the boy balanced a very large wooden bat.
The bat had a history. His dad and great grandads had used it. It was there in the beginning when baseball was still played with a random piece of wood and the ball was made of loose yarn and tightened leather and the game was played in an open field where some oddly distanced posts and players were sprayed out in an angled square. This bat was first used when the early settlers were taking a short break from fighting a revolution. It had been carved and rounded from a rifle’s handle.
In the center of this ancient battlefield, where the rain was now soaking away the playing field, generals and soldiers had seriously but leisurely debated rules and inches that would turn this war-time passion into a national obsession.
Words would pass from player to player and from generation to generation. “Get a good pitch to hit”, “See the white of their eyes”, “You’ve got to live or die with what you do your turn at bat”.
The boy had heard all this. It was a drill. White of the ball, red of its threads, its spin and path. The boy’s judgement of a moving ball was pitch perfect, a national anthem.
He was also a dancer at the plate. He would kind of twitch and lean backwards, twist his upper body to face the catcher. He would then extend his front leg out and shift his body forward, curling his front foot in to stay back. He would then pause for the final pivot, ready to unleash a bloody surge.
More often than not, he would remain poised as such and simply follow the ball into the catcher’s mitt, a blank expression on his face.
But sometimes a ball would stop a few inches from his hands, offering itself. And then he would snap into action. His left front toes would suddenly dive out and downward and his whole person would kind of leap forward, his hips twisting, his arms and bat following in a blur, and the sound of wood against hard leather would fill the entire ballpark, the sound and ball both carrying deep into the forest and beyond, traveling as far as the town’s border wherein existed everything the boy and girl would ever know.
The girl. He never thought to look in her direction. He never looked at the pitchers, those boys – always boys – who would place the ball gently into his path.
He didn’t notice – or did he? – the few blond strands that escaped from beneath the cap that rested wet against her soft skin.
He stood there in the mud, a statue, no shoes or socks, bare feet and ankles sinking deeper and deeper into the goo.
She then delivered a ball that went faster than what physics and legend could generate in his swing. The boy swung and raised his eyebrows, looking nowhere and at nothing in particular, just listening for the familiar sound of a hard hit ball. But there was no sound except raindrops on puddles.
She came from another part of town but she had heard all about the boy. He was a small boy, definitely the smallest boy in the village, a baby really, but he was already a hero, a baseball kind of hero.
She threw a second ball that all but crawled to him. He was too busy swinging to notice. The ball dropped several feet in front of him.
The ball, the boy, lodged in the mud.
The girl returned to the center of the mound.