The trees of Alabama were the stadium. The center field fence was an irrigation ditch, long unused, slowly eroding back to even ground. The dugouts were tucked under chinaberries; the boys waited in the shade for their turn at bat. The wind was the roar of the crowd, a reverse echo drifting in from the future when fans would one day lean out of the Polo Grounds, their cries ornamenting the crack of wood against ball and the slap of ball against leather glove.
Willie Mays was only thirteen years old, but already center field was his private domain. His mitt seemed to have radar installed in it, registering the trajectory and velocity of the ball. All Willie had to do was glide into place, flip out his glove, and the ball would land there, trapped in leather. Nothing had ever gotten past Willie till that windy April afternoon in 1945, two weeks before V-E Day, when a lean fourteen-year-old boy with an orange cap pulled low over one eye hit a fast ball farther than anyone on that field had ever seen a ball go.
The boys lounging under the chinaberries immediately stood, as if the drive of the ball were pulling them up with an invisible string. Willie, barefoot and dressed in blue overalls, turned his back to home base and ran as fast as he could, prefiguring that famous run after the ball hit by Carl Furillo in July of ’51. Willie glanced once over his shoulder and saw that white dot streaking across the sky. He kept running and stuck out his glove as far as he could but it was hopeless: the ball had no intention of ever getting caught. It flew and flew and flew, over the irrigation ditch, over the burrow where the black rabbit hid, over the gas furnace cracked in half and abandoned in the weeds to rust, over the footprints his mother had made at the edge of the field that morning on her way to Mason’s Store, over the tallest cedar which stood beyond center field like a light tower, each leaf an electric bulb shooting off beams of green light.
It was one long ball and all Willie could do was chase it. He saw it flash through the leaves as the lean slugger rounded third and cried out, “It’s in the next county and I be a man!” Willie’s feet tore at the humus, leaves scattered, and the black rabbit stuck his head out of his burrow, the long ears like antennae attuned to the slightest acoustical variations of the forest floor.
Willie heard the boys shout out congratulations as the orange-capped batter crossed the dusty piece of cardboard that served as home plate. He saw the baseball trace a white line down from the sky and into some distant bushes, vanishing in a blaze of green leaves. He was running so hard it felt as if his heart would burst through his rib cage and flood his body with blood, all the way down to the tips of his toes. The rhythm of his breath and his feet moving forward punctured the air, turning the forest into a giant pad against which Willie played the beat of his body.
He jumped over a rock and landed in water. The stream curved around him as he thrashed across it; rocks turned under his feet, and the water stained his overalls midnight blue. As Willie came up on the far bank he spotted the baseball swerving past the claws of a crow. The crow squawked and shoveled its wings up and down until it swooped over Willie’s head. Willie looked straight into the eyes of the crow and for an instant thought he saw a white circle streak across the bird’s dark eyes.
Willie kept running, wet feet making dark prints on the dusty path. He couldn’t remember life without this trail: it was the pathway to the world, the road his mother followed when she had a friend to visit or a shelf that needed to be filled; it was the highway his friends and he traveled to Mason’s Store, to the licorice and fudge that gleamed and glimmered behind the display window. (The only thing that ever opened that impenetrable window was a precious buffalo-head nickel pushed across the counter into Mason’s pasty white hands.)
So it took Willie a good minute to realize that the path was altered, the surroundings somehow off. It was another thirty seconds before he understood it was the flock of black birds that was shading everything in a different color, swooping along ten feet to the right of his head, as if in accompaniment to his flight through the woods. There were fourteen birds in all, diving up and down, curving above and below an invisible line stretched like a guideline into the green depths of the forest.
He caught a glimpse of the baseball rolling down the side of a rock, white running over gray. A squirrel skittered from branch to branch above him, bushy tail dipping up and down, eyes like beads of brown sweat.
Red was the first thing Willie saw, blood twisting through the air, and then the flash of white bone. Next was the crunch of teeth, squirrel bones snapped between the incisors of the gray fox. Then Willie heard the screech as the squirrel went down dying. Willie figured he should stop and save the squirrel from the fox, or at least bury the thing. But then the ball bounced off gray rock and rolled down the path, kicking up a trail of dust. It was his job to get the ball.
Willie couldn’t believe how hard the lean boy had hit the ball. There couldn’t have been another ball in history that had ever been hit that hard before. But it didn’t matter to Willie — as far as the ball went he would go. Nothing would stop him — not a dying animal, not the deep forest, not the lungs heaving in his chest. Nothing would stop his fingers from curling around the seams of that baseball.
Then there was the cry: it was Roscoe the Short Man, sitting in a tree.
Willie knew the sound from the earliest roots of memory: his mother standing in the doorway of their house on a hot afternoon, hot enough to make the trees sweat and groan; his mother gazing out the door with her wistful smile (the smile that made him realize she had a life all her own, secrets and histories and dreams he knew nothing about). Then her words: “That’s him. That’s Roscoe the Short Man.” The name was enough to send a boy’s mind into a perfect funk: Roscoe the Short Man! As soon as the words had floated out beyond his mother’s smile, a sound had come in through the open door: a high-pitched, laughing cry, a bit of mockery twisted around it, as if the Short Man were laughing at all who were fool enough to take this life to be their own.
“Keep on goin’, little boy. Follow the ball till the sun come bustin’ out of your mind!”
Willie looked up and Roscoe the Short Man was laughing, almost cackling, a weird sputter of a laugh that seemed to spiral up his body from the soles of his black boots to the tufts of gray hair curling out of his ears. His grin revealed a mouth without teeth, a dark cavity leading into the world of Roscoe the Short Man, a realm where nothing was sacred, where the most poignant moment could be torn to shreds by a sly giggle or a rude fart.
“And when that sun does come bustin’ on out, make sure you keep a few beams for me.” He rocked on his branch, laughter tipping him to and fro. “I don’t want to be without my sunshine!”
Willie was gawking at the dwarf, and the black birds were twirling above their heads, but the ball was still rolling along, as if it had a destination and a need to arrive there, fast. Willie looked from Roscoe the Short Man to the ball. He knew the ball had to be stopped, cupped in his glove, held there and wondered at, but he also knew Roscoe could be mean: he’d as likely take you in his arms and rock you as pick up a rock and crush in your skull, then spoon up your brains and eat them raw.
Roscoe the Short Man helped Willie with the decision: “Move, boy! You grab that ball or eternal darkness will engulf us all!” The dwarf pointed his forefinger up to the darkening sky. “Mark it, Willie. She’s black if that ball continues its roll.”
Willie was gone, the birds sweeping up over his head, flapping ahead of him, leading him on. The baseball had vanished, and it suddenly occurred to Willie that there wasn’t any ball at all. Maybe the white thing continually edging out of sight was a piece of cotton floating through the breeze; maybe it was a movable mirage, gliding through the forest greens. Perhaps it was a white circle scooped up out of a dream, and that’s why it had no center, no edge, no beginning or middle, no end. Maybe he was chasing air — white oxygen rolled up in a ball.
Then he spotted the ball again, hopping pebbles, scooting around curves, following the path of least resistance, the lean boy’s homer traveling on. It was as real as the skin stretched across Willie’s skull. It was right there in front of him, rolling along. It wasn’t going to stop until Willie reached out his glove and terminated its progress. That was his task as a ballplayer and he was going to get it done.
The birds were pressing forward, flying over the ball in a V, the point of the formation directly above the ball. The trail rounded a sharp corner, curled over a desiccated log, veered past a shed, then ran under a curtain of Spanish moss that hung from an oak tree like a raggedy beard taped to a dime-store Santa. The sky was getting darker and the woods were getting thicker. Willie imagined owls hooting among the branches; their calls always seemed to emanate from the bottom of dead souls.
No doubt about it: Willie was gaining on the lean boy’s ball. Or was the ball merely slowing down? Either way, Willie and the baseball were getting closer and closer. What had been a ten-foot distance became five feet, then four, then three, two, one, then Willie leaned down, reached out his hand, and tried to grasp the ball.
That’s when the black boot came down on the ball. “You didn’t get it, so the sun won’t shine.” Roscoe the Short Man was smiling, crinkling his crooked mouth in a thin line.
Though Willie had halted in his tracks, his hand was still stretched out, like the hand of a baby reaching for a bottle. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Willie asked. The black birds circled above, making loops in the air.
“Means an owl’s gonna fly up your spine.”
Willie shuddered: he could feel beak and claw ripping out vertebra after vertebra. “Lift your foot up and give me that ball.” His voice quivered in the dark air.
Willie scooted his fingers under the ball, but Roscoe the Short Man was fast: he gave the ball a swipe with the side of his foot and it zoomed off into the woods. “You gotta keep going till you get to the source, boy,” he said.
“What you talkin’ about? What source?”
“The source who keeps the sun from burstin’ across my brain,” Roscoe said, rising up on his toes, cocking his head to the side, and smiling slyly.
Willie looked past Roscoe at the dark space where the ball had disappeared. “I’m gonna get it!” Willie cried, taking off again.
“You damn well better get it!” Roscoe the Short Man cried. A soft chuckle rolled across his words: “Else you’ll be wailin’ all the way to heaven’s door.”
But Willie was already off in pursuit of the ball, so he missed Roscoe’s warning, as well as the cackle that followed, and an enormous fart.
The black birds had come down to roost on Willie; all fourteen of them perched up and down Willie: on his arms, across his shoulders, on top of his head, and one bird strapped to each wrist. Willie hardly noticed them, so intent was he on the lean boy’s ball. It bounced across a creek, grazing a frog’s head; it shimmied up the opposite bank, swept past an abandoned still — pipes and troughs and barrels collapsing into the earth; and then it commenced a slow descent down a long slope.
Willie and the birds kept coming, the boy’s legs churning across the ground, the birds shoving their wings up and down, as if their locomotion might lift Willie into the sky.
Which is exactly what happened.
As he rose up into the air, black wings flapping all around him, Earth spinning below, all Willie could think about was that phrase his mother liked to use: a bird’s eye view. So this was what that was! The tops of trees and the ground below blended into one flat shape, and the little white ball turned into a speck, a dot dancing across the dark greens of the forest floor.
The claws of the black birds dug into his skin; he could feel the blood popping out of his body. But it didn’t hurt — it was the same delicious agony he felt when he played ball all day long, the ache of his body throbbing wonderfully as he sat at the table, said grace, and ate his supper.
It didn’t feel strange, flying. The only strange thing about it was that it wasn’t strange at all. Matter of fact, it was the most normal feeling he had ever had, as if air were his natural element and the ground below an exotic habitat for which he was quite unsuited.
The black birds kept lifting him higher and higher until the curvature of the Earth appeared, circling off into the horizon. The sun swerved around his head. Hot streams of light swept across the sky. Willie could see individual beams of sunlight; he wanted to reach out and grab them, rub light into his palms. Just as he stretched out his fingers, the birds changed course and swooped down in a ferocious descent, the ground spinning below them, switching colors.
Willie Mays looked down at the earth surging up to meet him, and he opened his mouth to howl. But nothing would come out: his mouth was just a silent hole where there were supposed to be words and teeth and screams. He was falling so fast his skin was turning inside out and blasts of air were shooting into his mouth, filling up his body, hooking the bones of his feet, and ripping his body right out his mouth, the insides of his toes flying through first.
At least it felt that way. So it came as a shock when everything downshifted into slow-motion, and the black birds stopped his fall as they lifted their wings wide, preparing for the landing.
The actual earth was a comforting thing. Hitting it, Willie rolled over, as grass and sky flitted by like pictures zooming through the lens of a tumbling slide projector.
The old brown shoe was what stopped him.
“Here she is, boy.”
The grass was flat and the ball was round. It sat there as if it had been there forever, waiting for Willie’s arrival. “She’s yours, Mr. Mays,” Tic Tac Toe said, lifting his foot off the small of Willie’s back.
Looking up, Willie saw the flock of birds flying in a counterclockwise circle over Tic Tac Toe’s head. Then he saw Tic Tac himself, the cardboard crown tucked into his frizzy gray hair, the bloodshot eyes balanced precariously over the broken nose, the lopsided grin, the enormous ears, the voluminous blue robe that couldn’t conceal the gargantuan belly, the gnarled hands glittering with rings of jade, ebony, and pearl; and finally the old brown shoes — one laced up with silver cords, the other with gold.
“You Tic Tac Toe?”
“That’s right, Willie.” The old man grinned, shooting off wrinkles to the crown of his head and the bottom of his neck.
“I heard all about you,” Willie Mays said, still lying there on the ground, staring up at the legendary figure of the Alabama woods. Tic Tac Toe was someone he’d hoped never to see. He was the magic man of the forest. Rumor had it he’d been hijacked by spirits from his tenant farm and hauled off to the woods to learn the ways of the Devil. There were those who said he was a good man and knew the ancient healing powers of Mother Nature: the herbs that could drive out the beasts lodged within a shattered heart; the ointments that could soothe the soul tortured by Satan’s relentless whip. There were others, though, who wouldn’t take one step into the woods for fear that they might tread in Tic Tac’s path and be turned into a blind toad with only one leg, and that one cut off at the knee.
“What you heard ain’t nothing compared to what I am,” Tic Tac Toe replied.
Willie looked up at the cardboard crown, the huge, twisted nose with the wart bubbling on its tip, the eyes crisscrossed with lines of blood. “So then what are you, Mr. Tic Tac Toe?”
“I’m the one kept this ball rolling along.” The old man turned from the ball to the birds hovering above them. “And I’m the one taught these birds how to spread their wings and fly.”
The flight reeled through Willie’s head: the earth turning below, the wings pounding air, the claws ripping into his skin. He inspected his skin. There wasn’t a scratch anywhere; maybe the trip through the sky happened only in his mind.
Tic Tac Toe plucked the thought out of Willie’s skull: “Oh yes indeed, it surely did happen, Willie my boy. You flew up there like a cloud gone wild.” The old man’s smile hung in the twilight like a quarter moon coming up over the Gulf of Mexico.
Willie hesitated, trying to decide whether to grab the ball and try to outrun the birds, or sit at Tic Tac’s feet and ask him if it was true that the stars were the scattered seed of Jonah’s whale.
A shadow passed over Tic Tac’s face as the birds flew over the light of the rising moon. “Well, you should get along, Willie Mays,” he said.
“That’s it?” Willie asked, disappointed. He couldn’t believe it: there weren’t going to be any lightning bolts emanating from Tic Tac Toe’s bony fingers, no multicolored snakes slithering out of his mouth.
Tic Tac’s laughter shook the birds from the sky, bringing back the light of the moon. “What you expect?!” the old man roared. “Crazy hands shaking off my arms and monkeys dancing out of the sky? Magic show with rabbits popping out of my ears?” The old brown shoe kicked the lean boy’s home run down the trail. “Get your ball and run on home.”
Tic Tac Toe scowled at the boy, the birds scattered across the gray sky, and the moon seemed to hesitate, as if it might decide to turn tail and return to the darkness on the other side of night.
Willie walked to the ball and picked it up. He took a long look at the old man and then turned up the path and started walking home.
It was the light that made him pivot around — lightning dividing the sky. Then smoke hid everything, the old man a vague shape covered in grays. The fourteen black birds sailed by his right ear, one by one, their wings fluttering against his cheek.
“Here it is, Willie,” Tic Tac Toe said, a hand and a piece of cloth looming out of the smoke. “The thing you were chasing.”
Willie touched the shirt and Tic Tac Toe disappeared. There was a strange sucking sound like the pull of a mule’s hoof lifting out of a mudhole, and then there was nothing. Just the white cloth, the black letters, and the number: 24. That, and the name on the front: New York Giants.
Soon as Willie got home, he snuck into his room and tucked the jersey beneath his pillow. His mother called him in and didn’t even scold him. She just put the chicken, peas, biscuits, and gravy on his plate, then said, “So, Willie boy, say hey.”