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 a bundle of blond curls with some red highlights.
He stood at the plate, legs apart and knees slightly bent, his bare toes sinking into the drenched dirt.
The rain fell in puddles. There were no more boys left in the field, just her, in the center of the mound, ready to sink to the bottom of a river to throw him another ball. Sweat and dirt on the girl’s knuckles ate away at the beaten leather of the baseball. The ball, drenched to its core, heat-dried at the girl’s touch. Fired up but bathed in the pouring rain, her bare toes tore away at the earth beneath.
The boy, poised on his tiptoes, balanced a very large wooden bat.
His bat had a history. It was there at 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 in an open field where four oddly distanced posts and men sprayed out in an angled square. This bat was first used while the early settlers took short breaks from fighting a revolution. It had been carved and rounded from a rifle’s handle. His dad and great grandads handed it to the boy.
The boy and girl faced off In the center of this ancient battlefield, where generals and soldiers had seriously but leisurely debated rules and inches that would turn this wartime 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 at the plate”.
The boy had heard all this. It was a drill. The white of the ball, the red of its threads; watch its spin and path under the blue sky. The boy’s judgment of a moving ball became pitch-perfect, a national anthem.
He’d dance at the plate, twitching and leaning back, and twisting so far that he faced the catcher. He’d extend his front leg out and shift his body forward, curling his front foot to stay back. Then he’d pause for the final pivot, ready to unleash a bloody surge.
But more often than not, he’d remain poised as such and his eyes would 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 he’d snap into action, his left front toes diving out, his whole person leaping forward, his hips twisting, and his arms and bat swinging in a blur. The sound of wood against hard leather would fill the entire ballpark, the sound following the ball 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 handed him the ball so gently.
He didn’t notice the few blond strands that escaped from beneath the cap that rested wet against her soft skin.
He stood there in the mud like a statue, no shoes or socks, bare feet and ankles sinking deeper and deeper into the wet goo, while she delivered a ball that went faster than what physics and legend could muster from the boy’s swing. The boy 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 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.