They always played together. They made their own teams. He’d played since he could remember, before he even had a bat. They’d throw stones and piles of dung at each other and attempt to hit them with sticks or limbs. It was one of the simplest things and everyone took part. They played without rules, without bases, without keeping score. Their own version of the creator’s game played with dozens of tiny fawn hands.
Moses remembered one time a white fellow had thought that he wanted to play with them; he couldn’t keep up. He swung hard his first time trying to hit a home run. Ben Stumblingbear took four long running strides, glanced back, and caught the ball with ease. With a lot of cussing, hocking, and spiting, the man took to the dugout.
His next time at bat, he hit a grounder that barely slipped by the short stop. He took first base, stole second and third. “Pitcher, pitcher. Throws like a bitch, sir!” The brown pitcher turned to glare at the white. He patted his mouth mockingly and pretended to wave a lasso over his head. The fact that Moses had served his country during WWI made no difference. It was still a joke to see a savage playing a sport like a man.
Moses sighed heavily, shook his arms by his sides, and turned back to the game. He drew a breath of the hot Oklahoma air deep into his lungs: the scent of manure and popcorn mixed into a nauseating concoction that served only to heighten his anxiety. Moses tossed the ball into the air, waiting on his catcher to signal the right pitch. He pulled the ball to his chest and released it with such force that he let out a sound that resembled something between a grunt and a growl.
The pale face had broken off for the plate before the windup had even finished. The batter crushed the backdoor slider. The ball hopped right past the first baseman. The right fielder scooped it up and threw it home. In an instant, the white man was stuck between third and home.
Back and forth. Back and forth. The catcher and third baseman threw the ball. The white field rabbit ran between the two coyotes surrounding and closing in on him. The catcher’s teeth gleamed, now free from the leather facemask. He crept towards the third baseman step by step. Eventually, the snowman realized his only choice was to run toward home and hope the catcher dropped the ball.
He took off at full speed. His white face turned blood red and his brow shed great drops of salty sweat. The catcher braced himself for the impact and tucked his right shoulder down. The man tried to run through him, but as soon as they collided he learned that braves can be as strong and stable as mountains. He fell to his back between third and home. The catcher stretched his mighty frame, and the Native baseball teams roared with laughter. The man stalked off, fuming with anger.
Moses Poolaw played baseball his entire life. It was the serenity of the open field, the calmness of the swaying breeze, and the camaraderie that kept him going back. To play baseball was to enjoy life in the moment without worrying incessantly about what was to come. So it was natural for him to leap at the opportunity to play in the bush leagues. Not because it was profitable. Lord, it was not profitable. But it was constructive. It was entertaining. Something he could be proud of and showcase his talents.
Between 1920 and 1924, Moses played with three teams. He was happy to be closer to home this season, even if it meant living in the small town of Ardmore and being referred to as a Bearcat. Still, he longed for a place, a remembered place, a place he had once known and delighted in. A place he dreamed of when alone. A place brimming with faces he had known since youth and long-since memorized.
Though he didn’t notice her at his first game playing for the Ardmore Bearcats, she had been there. It was when she became a reoccurring fixture that he finally saw her: a statuesque goddess fixed on the top left corner of the ratty, repurposed wood bleachers.
Jennie Titchywy sat still, alone, head held high, gazing out over the field. The feathers so carefully woven into her thick ebony hair would flint and flicker in the wind, even as she sat motionless. She was beautiful in the long store-brand skirts that she embellished with thin horizontal strips of Pendleton fabric.
She showed no particular preference to any player; in fact, it seemed many times that she was not there courting at all but had a deep fascination with the game itself. When they scored, her demeanor would change. She’d stand in the bleachers and scream out in Comanche. God forbid she felt the umpire made a bad or prejudicial call. She’d curse and yell her grievances. If that didn’t work, she’d storm down from her perch at the top of the bleachers towards home plate. Her powerful rage darkened the sky and rattled the Earth. Once she reached the fence, she’d curse and torment the poor umpire. She’d even once been removed from the game for spitting in his direction.
That was the day Moses met Jennie. They were up by more than a few stones, which had made her outburst even more comical, so he left the dugout to escort her personally to her brother’s pickup. He’d known Jennie growing up, even attended school with her, but this was the first time he’d been near her since his time away from home and his enlistment in the military.
“I got her,” Moses told the umpire, who was wiping the spit from his shoe while steam bellowed from his ears. He slid his arm around the small of her back and began leading her to the grassy area that served as the parking lot during games.
“What do you mean you got me? Do I look like I need help?” She threw his arm off her and glared at him coldly with eyes the color of sand.
“I know you don’t.”
“You’re damn right, I don’t. That’s bullshit. And that shortstop you have on your team? Come on! That guy couldn’t catch a cold.”
“Oh, and you could do better?”
“You bet your shitty curve ball I can.”
He laughed to himself. He’d seen her play. She’d kept up with the boys in grade school. She was usually the last to be picked because she was a girl, but she’d dive for the ball and hit line drives. She could throw from center field to home plate. She’d go home with skinned knees and torn stockings from sliding everyday despite being scolded.
“Aw, quit your bench jockeying… Look, I see you here all the time. I know that umpire is a dick—and you’re right, he’s making bad calls on purpose—but there’s no way those guys are going to win. We’re going to cream them. I mean, seriously, it would take a miracle or… something.” He stood rocking forwards and backwards on his heels. From a distance, she was the silhouette of what a perfect modern Native woman should be, but from a foot away she was dainty, sensuous, and nervous.
Years later, he still played baseball. There were no teams anymore, no bases. In many ways, baseball reverted back to what it had once been. His and Jennie’s son, Horace, was now the age Moses had been when he first started to play the game that resembled baseball. Moses would toss the ball, and the boy would attempt to catch it in his tiny gloved hand. He’d miss often and chase the ball, cursing the sun for being in his eyes with the bad words of childhood.
Though he and Jennie had no other children, their home and marriage was full. They relished each other and doted on the boy. Their home swarmed with the buzzing sounds of children in the summer when their beloved Kiomanche nieces and nephews visited. He’d sit out on the lawn or the front steps of the porch and sing aloud the songs of his youth. He’d sing in Kiowa because the songs weren’t the same otherwise. The songs radiated through him and he at once felt their warmth and humbleness. He was encompassed by the love that he had felt as he learned these songs. He passed it to each one of the children as they gathered around him.
At night, they’d all surround the fire pit. The kids would crowd around, drenched in moonlight. They captured lighting bugs in mason jars to use as night lights later when they would line the floor of the living room. Their home was a place of reunion and the sound of giggling that cut through the blackness was a welcomed one. He’d begin by banging the hand drum intermittently. No particular rhythm, per se. The buckskin pulled and stretched over the surface was stained with the oils of a hundred hands and powwow circles. The drum was old, older than Moses. The underside was tied; the leather cords pulled together into what resembled a snowflake or a distant star pattern. When he was young, it had had a fading sun shape painted onto the buckskin. He watched the paint flake off, sparks of yellow and orange and red floating up and through the air before drifting down onto the ground.
He’d slide his hand through the openings and begin to play. Jennie would drown the remaining dishes in the sink and look out the screen door at the flickering light of the fire. She’d wait for him to find his rhythm, his beat, as unique to him as the sound of his heart, recognizable to her from any distance. She’d walk out, careful not to let the screen door slam behind her, and find her way through the darkness, attracted to the light of the fire like a late summer moth. She sat upon her spot, an old tree stump, directly across the fire from Moses. She’d watch him, his eyes closed in concentration before she shut her own and began to sing along.
In this way, their spirits mingled. Once their melodies intertwined into picturesque harmonies, their spirits drifted out of their bodies and above the flames. Elongated clouds in a human-figured mirage floated and swayed in the purple twilight, the deepest cerulean sea, the thickest green timber. It wasn’t the man or the woman that sat slumped and rattling beneath, but rather their personification somewhere between how they saw themselves in their minds’ eyes and the extravagance in which they were created.
Though their bodily eyes were sealed, the eyes of their spirits were wide and they’d seen each other clearly, perfectly. They’d seen each other’s hopes, dreams, ambitions, desires. Their life and future together.
Their life played before them in a white haze of flashing images: the baseball games, the courting, the wedding, the child, her death, then his. They echoed each other. The forms twisted and curled so tightly, so passionately woven that they were eternally bound. Above the flames their soul danced, each movement in flawless accord. They’d open their eyes to the children dancing wildly in the glow of the fire.
Originally published in This Land: Fall 2015