At age ten or eleven, summer is a time of ritual, of ceremonies handed down before adolescence can encroach on the sacred and claim it for oblivion. For the boys of Bratton Road, no precinct was more sacred than the field, no ritual more holy than laying out the baseball diamond. Distances were paced off, bases improvised from the winter's casual litter. The one constant was home plate, a flat-topped rock embedded in the red clay near the center of the field. No one knew how it got there, or when, its surface, scratched by the pebbles rubbed against it during innumerable slides, appearing like an ancient rune no longer readable by modern eyes. By tradition, Bratton Road ran along the third base side, Colbert Drive, nothing more than a short gravel road, along the first base side. To straightaway center stood the tall grass, buckling ground, and crumbling tombstones of the tiny cemetery behind Church of the Mount, a single-room frame building that served an ever-dwindling congregation that now stood at no more than a dozen, all of whom felt, at this point in their lives, several steps closer to God than to the things of this world.
Once play began, ground rules were observed more out of superstition than practicality. Any ball hit into the cemetery was a double, cemeteries being places one did not charge into in unconsidered, sacrilegious haste. Stopping play at the appearance of the first firefly might seem a function of failing daylight, but for these boys, the tiny, silent light was more like an annunciation, a small but stern warning that the day was now ended and the time for ghosts had arrived. Play would be suspended immediately, without protest or appeal.
At eleven years and eight months, Johnny Staxx was the oldest of the boys this particular summer. Not one of the brash ones, Johnny was a natural leader by way of quiet example and confident action. As a veteran of several summers at the field, he was intimately acquainted with the intricacies of baseball as it was played here, with the rhythms of the long hot days, timed by the cycling of innings and the ebb and swell of buzzing insects. The games unfolded each day with endless variations on a handful of actions: little Jesse Tappett, swinging and missing mightily, having to chase after every pitch because there was no catcher; Stony Thurow, third baseman, allowing every fourth grounder hit his way to go through his legs; Chance Harper, stuck out in right field, kicking rocks and daydreaming because every player was a right-handed pull hitter; and Johnny Staxx, whose reputation was such that he served as umpire, despite his vested interest in the success of his own team.
The days went by, thick with humidity and joy. Soon, late July settled onto the ball field, and afternoon thunderheads boiled up from the south, with the promise, usually unkept, of relief from the red dust drifting through the daily game. On one such day, Matty Kirkwood hit a rare first base-side foul ball. A drowsy and bored Chance Harper broke late, and the ball drifted toward the middle of Colbert Drive, where it glanced off a large chunk of gravel and ended up hitting the door frame of Mrs. Pike's house across the street from the field. So seldom were foul balls hit in that direction that none of the boys quite knew what the protocol was for such a situation. It fell, naturally, to Johnny Staxx to go and retrieve the wayward baseball.
To the boys, there was something truly ancient about Mrs. Pike. No one knew her first name anymore, though the bare-footed children whose play sometimes spilled over into her well-swept yard called her either “Mammy” or “Granny”. Though there were rumors of a son, long since gone to no one knew where, she lived alone, with only an occasional visitor, usually her pastor or some other member of her church, bringing with them a covered dish or bag of fresh peaches. As Johnny approached the sagging porch, the dilapidated screen door opened and out stepped Mrs. Pike, slow and heavy. Seeing the baseball on her doormat, she bent down, ponderous and arthritic, and picked it up.
“This belong to you, child?” she asked in a voice as slow and weary as everything else about her.
“Yes ma'am,” Johnny replied, “I'm sorry to bother you. I don't think we broke nothing.”
A smile came to the old woman's face. She held the ball out to Johnny, who took it with a deferential, downward glance and a muttered, “Thank you, ma'am.”
As he turned to go, Johnny heard Mrs. Pike say, quite clearly, “Potter's Field.”
“Ma'am?” he asked, turning back.
“Potter's Field,” she repeated, “like in the Bible. Where ya'll play ball. Clay out there red as blood. Red with blood some say.”
Johnny, visibly nervous, shifted his weight from one foot to the other and back again. Mrs. Pike went on, talking out over his head, as if to someone above and behind him, some entity of the trees or sky with which she had to come to terms.
“Potter's clay...red...bought with blood money...sold the one he loved down the river, he did...boy had the Devil in him...body don't rise up if you don't roll the stone away, sure enough. Yessir, they's deals to be made in graveyards at night.”
Johnny, not sure what she was saying, or if she was even speaking to him, said uncomfortably, “Yes ma'am.”
“Dark soon,” Mrs. Pike said, suddenly speaking to him directly, “better get on home. Spirits gone be walking soon.”
With that, she took a long look toward the middle of the field, where a half dozen boys stood motionless, then turned abruptly and went inside. As Johnny jogged back across the street, the first firefly blinked in the cemetery.
Note: This story won second place in the Mythos and Moss Flash Fiction Contest and was posted on Facebook May 5, 2011. At this point, I don't remember who ran the contest or whose Facebook page it appeared on, and I don't feel like tracking down that information. It has long since been removed and, as far as I am aware, is not available anywhere else on the Web.