Saga of song, witches, and sweet potato.
That thick fat summer sweet smell of the ball field, tan clouds rising up off the dirt like smoky hippos. The thwack and smack and back-to-back delicious screams as the pea soars into the raw freely-bleeding palm of a leaping boy. The crows screaming “Yah!” and the spit. The mean, sweat-drippin’ snakey eyes of the pitcher from the hill before he throws you a yakker, then the symphonic crack like a broken bone as you hit that wilson right on the screws. No Lord, there is nothing like it.
I’m Catfish. I’m the best goddamn batter in the goddamn Ash Lands. I’m the second oldest and the third tallest of all of us. They call me Catfish because once down by Dog River after a pale shadow caught my eye I plunged my left paw into the spicy black chemical water and yanked out a dead catfish, the king of catfish—my hand searing and crimson from the evil river. Stomach tight and numb from weeks of protein squares and canned corn, I bit its head right off and spit out the spongy bones. I gave everyone else a bite, too. Most delicious meal we’d had in months, even though our bellies and chests stung for hours afterward from the chemicals in the fish and we couldn’t play baseball that day on account of our thunderous headaches. But it was worth it. Before that I was just Lefty.
Critter was crouching behind my legs—he’s permanent catcher. He’s a shaggy little kid from Tennessee who doesn’t talk much—just murmurs and growls like a pup most the time. He’s the only one who’ll ever play catcher.
Over on second, I can see Smokey Pete. He’s bald as a fruit bat. “Heybattabatta, heybattabattaaa… ” He’s already starting.
Way behind him, I spot Gizmo, our goggled outfielder, who we’ve always gotta holler at during games because she’s fiddling with radio parts and floppy disks and old eye-phones instead of catching fly balls. Jelly’s also outfielder, poised probably too close to Gizmo. We call him Jelly because he wears a dirty old jellyfish hat he got from who- knows-where. Windmill Wendy can read and told us the label says “Sea World.” When you try to take off his jellyfish hat, he screams.
So anyhow I’ve named Critter, Gizmo, and Jelly. Then there’s Goliath, Baby, Windmill, Cyclone, Wild Joe, Dynamite, Worm-o, and Drone. (None of us even remembers why we call him Drone, but every time a drone flies over up in the clouds we whistle at him and he does The Monkey.) I won’t say much more about any of them now except that Worm-o is my brother.
Then of course there’s the King. The King calls the shots. Her eyes are angry and black like a Great White Shark’s, and she’s got a long scar running down her chin and throat. Says a specter did it to her when she was a kid—tells the story sometimes and we all listen to it with wide white eyes and are silent for once. We ain’t afraid of specters or nothing but the ways she tells it you gotta shut up and listen. Once Jelly hollered out “BullSHIT!” while she was telling us about killing the witch with a stick. The King went quiet, jaw twitching, then clocked Jelly on the mouth, knocking him down. She leaped on top of him and clamped her hand hard on Jelly’s tiny Adam’s apple and whispered in his ear for a while things we couldn’t hear. You don’t cross the King. She hammers on her chest and when she does that we hammer our chests too. When you look in her eyes she threatens to eat you. You don’t cross the King. She’s taller and older than all of us, with ropy muscles and long chin hairs. Don’t. Cross. The King.
We stick together. We stay up late in the hot nights, racing around the scorched ground of the Ash Lands, galloping around in the warm, dead breeze, and then stand at Heaven Cliff and howl up at the big yellow moon. We hurl ancient bottles and plastic pieces into the Void. We howl and whistle and moan, together with all the starved hounds in Ohio.
We fight off night-ghasts when our games go past dusk and the foul stringy things come loping around our field with their veils and long fingers. We share protein squares and gamble with spider parts and sometimes even find squirrels to cook. We fight and knock each other down and bite and scratch; we sing, we talk dirt, we spit, we mash tongues. I’m telling you it for hell sure gets real hard in the unholy breathless industrial landscape of the Ash Lands, this godforsaken depopulated city ridden with witches and parasites and vultures and ghasts. There’s even a Cyclops that lives in the I-K-E-A. We poke around warehouses sometimes looking for food cans and wilsons and such and one time Windmill Wendy went to I-K-E-A wanting some wood and saw it through the shelves by the toilets. She said it was eleven foot tall at least, head was all wrapped up in soggy bandages but she caught a bit of its bleary red eye glaring through. You can bet she ran faster than a jet plane away from that thing.
But anyhow, we got baseball. Jesus God we got baseball. And when we’re playing rough and wild under the angel-pink pollution sky, wilsons snapped and cracked and caught searing hot in our calloused hands, kids whooping and screaming and hurling their bodies in a gleeful dance, we’re made electric by the Cuyahoga Holy Ghost, the sore and lovely spirit of the crying Today, the heat, the hunger. The Floods. The craziness everywhere in the streets and skies and shadows, the craziness in our bones. When we play baseball, mighty and burnt on the cracked-dry diamond, we’re gods, baby. Even though we’re skinny, even though we’re kids, even though Smokey Pete has worms.
The King just sent me two mean curve balls. One strike CRUD. Two strikes DOUBLE CRUD. Third pitch, I smack that wilson right where it hurts and it goes hollering for its mama as it zooms toward outer space—it goes past Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, the Sun! That was what’s called a homer, good folks. A tape measure blast. I go jogging to first base backwards, a wide smile on my face.
“That’s a tater!” murmurs Baby.
“A real moon shot!” says Windmill. She leans back and whistles long and slow.
Finally I arrive still trotting backwards onto home plate and do a little dance, singing “Yippee who-oo! Yippee yoo!”
It’s not easy to remove the poison from things
we found them their leg was broken shivering
in the humid dusk The air around them stung
and all around them we could see their spirit
stinging sprawled out on the forest floor we
carried them to camp and our medics set their
leg the poor kid shook and growled and yelled
their leg bound we washed them with rosewater
and rosemary amaranth and thyme We burned
rosemary as well prayed and Dan played her guitar
We massaged the kid’s arms and neck and gave
them teas and stew their eyes were salmon colored
one time they woke up and said are you witches
So here’s what’s going on: Nobody’s seen Critter in three days.
We’ve never gone so long without seeing one of the boys. And so we’ve been without a catcher. Wild Joe’s been substitute, but he never catches the wilsons, just lays on his side and eats dirt most of the time. After our game at noon we went over to sit down in the Taco Pete parking lot and mull things over.
“Maybe it’s the witches that got him,” said Baby.
We shuddered, all having heard some pretty awful stories about the witches and what they do—capturing kids and melting them, turning them to trees, takin’ out their eyes, even turning the suckers to witches themselves. Maybe they were all just tales but that’s what we’ve heard.
“What if he’s lying in a ditch somewhere? What if he’s dead and he’s got mice in his arms and crickets laying eggs in his noggin?” Drone piped up. “What if—”
“Shut up, Drone.”
Wild Joe was praying. Worm-o, my kid brother, was real still, looking at his hands. He was scared and pale. I decided to speak up.
“Y’all quit talking like that. Critter’s fine. Probably just constipated and hiding by the river ‘til he feels better,” I said.
“You’re constipated, Catfish!” called Cyclone. I leaned over and yanked on his hair. He cried out then shut up.
“Critter’s fine,” I said.
“No, he’s not,” the King murmured, and we all looked at her. “The Government took him, and now they’re using him in experiments.” She looked stern and serious, laying on her back with her hands under her head, cobalt blue sunglasses. I wanted to tell her it was a lie, mostly for Worm-o’s sake, but the King would clock me.
Then a drone flew overhead. We whistled, and Drone hopped up and down like a flea, waving his hands around and kicking. He did The Monkey. We hollered and snapped, and when he landed, he turned his eyelids inside out with his fingers.
Today we gave them sweet potato they turned
it around in their mouth and said are you witches
or is this heaven We laughed and said what’s your
name they said CRITTER and my legs hurts we gave
them root to chew on How did you hurt your leg I
was climbing a tree We said you were trying to catch
a dragonfly they looked scared were you watching
me No but we can see the past sometimes they said
you’re witches all right get me out of here KING
CATFISH WINDMILL HELP we said are those your
friends they said they’ll come rescue me we said we’ll
let you go as soon as we can but your leg is healing and
you would not be able to run from the night ghasts
We went into town and knocked on Jaden and Louisa’s door to ask them about Critter because sometimes he sleeps on their living room floor. They have a big store with shelves and shelves of cans and water and firewood and hooch. Always have guns strapped about them but love us kids—one time even slipped us a packet of jerky I’m telling you that was the closest we ever came to having Christmas.
Louisa answered the door, “How can we help you, little roaches?”
Louisa always wore these blue dangly earrings and has a gold tooth. Today she had a cut her eye—we asked her about it, but she shook her head. Jaden came down too.
“We can’t find Critter. Have you seen him?”
“He hasn’t been by here for a while. Did you look by the creek?”
“Did you check the Mall?”
“Is he at his mom’s?”
“Have you asked Rod?”
We went over on Rugby Street to Rodney’s shop. Rodney does haircuts and exorcisms in his shop, styling and snipping during the day and in the after hours casting out demons and elves from people’s souls. A lot of them are on powder or glue. Sometimes we hang around outside his place to listen to the screams as he purifies. He’s a public figure and gets around, so we figured he might have heard some news about Critter.
We swung open the screen door of his shop and filed in. Rodney was cutting his nails in a wheely chair, his feet on the counter. The King got straight to the point.
“Rodney! You seen Critter?”
Rodney eyed us for a moment.
“That boy with the scab nose hardly ever says a word? Dog boy?”
“Nah I haven’t seen him. Not in a while. He could use a haircut. Doesn’t look like he’s ever gotten one. You bring him in when you find him. I’m handing out coupons. Twenty-five percent off on shaves. Can’t beat that deal.” He held out the coupons.
Baby took one.
“You keep an eye out, Rod. We need our catcher.”
Rodney looked at each of us in turn and ran his hands over his hair. He leaned back in his chair then continued cutting his nails.
“Try the Bird,” he said.
The Bird Man always seems to be popping up everywhere, to be everywhere at once. He’s a wild old man all dressed up like a huge black bird with dark rags, feathers, trash bags, and oil drawn out in spooky designs on his skin. He doesn’t speak human words unless you give him potato bread. Thankfully, Baby still had a sack from the last distribution.
Anyhow we found old Bird Man way far up in a tree. He was rubbing his feet and was rather still, looking off. His knitting hung from the branches around him like Spanish moss, long scrolls of twine and straw.
Baby tossed up the sack of potato bread and yelled, “Cover up your ding-a-ling, pervo-birdo! We wanna talk!”
The sack went up, up, and fell back down. The Bird did not move to grab it. Just moved his head a little toward us then back at the sky. He looked like a gargoyle, half erasered, a smudge in the nest of tree capillaries.
“What’s eatin’ ya Bird Man?”
“Bird Man have you seen Critter?”
“Did the angels get him Bird Man?”
“Bird Man, speak!”
He seemed sorrowful today. We looked at each other.
“Anyway just tell us if you see him.”
5:40 PM Dear diary the witches gave you to me said
you’re a tape recorder and showed me how to speak
into you and tell my story so here’s my story I was
climbing a tree and saw a green wasp and then
my leg hurt my head hurt and I was saved by the
witches they let me listen to their CD player and I
heard the song johnny b goode the witches are not
like we thought they shine they sing they paint
themselves decorate their tents with drawings
and herbs One of them has a gun and another has
no legs so they carry him I don’t know how many
there are my favorite one is Isabela she says she is
from Down South too and calls me holy one
We slept all together tonight. Have not played ball for days, just been looking for our compatriot. Usually we spread out into our favorite nooks and crannies all over the Ash Lands, two of us maybe under the overpass, three or four up in the trees by the river maybe, one or two in somebody’s apartment here or there. But tonight we were all huddled together in the old Dairy Queen on Main, cheered up just a little, giggling and spooning on the grimy floor as the moonlight streamed in and the moths high-fived the windows. Gizmo brought an old battery lamp and put it in the center of us all, and we cheered up even more—sprinkling dirt in the ears of the little ones when they fell asleep, Jelly and Joe kept yanking up each other’s shirts and purple nurpling one another to kingdom come. The King was off to the side in her old hammock she’d tied up between the beams, smoking her clumsy cigarillos. Smokey Pete told the story about the time he kissed tongues with his cousin Angela. We hooted and yapped.
When Gizmo flipped off the light, though, we were all thinking about Critter. And about witches, and angels, creek goblins, ghasts, dogs, tuna people, mosquito clouds, and cannibals. Just to name a few of the night mares trotting around behind our eyes. We had barred the doors shut and hung garlic from the windows outside, but every once and awhile you’d still hear a night-ghast thumping up against a window in the darkness.
After an hour or so, Windmill and I caught one another’s eyes and knew neither of us could sleep. We crept out and headed for Heaven Cliff, not saying much. We raced to the old familiar spot and leaned against the Void and groaned, exhausted by all the being-afraid. We gazed up at the thick dark sky and I thought about how Louisa said once there used to be many more stars you could see. Tonight I counted seven. Then we screamed. Damn hell, we screamed until our throats burned and the tears flowed free down our cheeks like fresh hot blood from a wound. Where once we had howled and sung and beat our chests, we now screeched and wept like blind baby animals, scared for Critter. We leaned on each other as the darkness stared at us, unblinking and dense. Poison pulsed in the earth, and our stomachs seized up, and our hearts rang like hand bells, looking into the giant stunned face of the world.
“Damn you, Critter!” Windmill yelled. “Damn you!”
Today we told Critter some about who we are we
said Critter we are a people trying to become whole
we are Insects doing quiet repair Critter we’re
learning to pray to the day and ask for things from
the ground and battle together The world has not been
killed yet we are growing and may even save ourselves
We see bits of the future going by like comets but are
not very good yet at reading it we told Critter about the
god Sun the god Now the god Ground we stay hidden here
because you people kill witches you kill angels that is
why we stay here with our gardens and fire and lipstick
our crosses our dances love and rage If you want you can stay
with us here there’s plenty of sweet potato and planning to do
Days had passed and we figured Critter was dead. We had a funeral for him and buried a dog leg we found in the gutter. Nobody said much—we just buried the dog leg and the King socked anyone who cried too much. We placed a glittery rock over Critter’s grave, and Windmill Wendy wrote “Critter” in the dirt. That was the end of it.
Today’s the first time we’ve played in what feels like a long long while now. The Sun is up in the sky frowning like a huge mean baby dumping down white light and heat. We’re playing slow motion and dumb, throats dry and noggins aching—there hasn’t been much water. A drone flies over us way high up in the sky. We stop to watch.
Everyone’s been striking out more often than not, but finally Cyclone hits one and the wilson shoots off like a furious bird. We watch, panting, from the ground as it streams away from the world.
I turn, tired and stupid, to where Gizmo is pointing. There, shimmering through the heat, is Critter.
There are antlers twisting out from Critter’s shaggy head. His skin seems to shine and sparkle, and he’s wearing clothes I’ve never seen before. Critter walks toward us, then breaks into a run, smiling and weeping, stirring up clouds of dirt. The wilson lands somewhere behind him and we barely notice it.
He stops, bends back, and unleashes a howl. Slowly, we begin to whoop and race toward him, surround him, hug and grab him, sweep him up, clobber him, shake him.
Where’d you get those antlers?
We thought you were dead, Critter!
We had a funeral for you!
Well, spit it out, Critter! Where you been?