The Ball

Appeared in The Leitrim Guardian

Winner of the 2016 M J MacManus Award

The ref walked over to the dugout. “Will you do the line?” he asked the man beside Johnny and Rick. “Go on, you will,” he continued, throwing the flag at the reluctant volunteer. “And this fella’ll do umpire,” he went on, nodding at Johnny.
            “Ah now, he’s only twelve.”
            “Fair size of a buck for twelve. You should tog him out.”
            “We might have to.”
            The ref continued down the line on his quest for umpires and eventually the posts were filled and the ball was thrown in.
A fat man cantered to the line, glancing over his shoulder. “Hurry up, Walsh,” shouted the linesman. “You’ll be trampled.”
            Walsh stood beside Johnny and Rick. “Well boys,” he said, nodding at the bottles in their hands. “You have the water.”
            “You were hiding in the dressing room, y’hoor ya,” the linesman said. “Afraid of getting a job.”
            “If I got the job I’d do it right. You should be following the play.”
            “Following the play, me arse,” said the linesman as he took a few steps in the direction of the action. “It won’t be too hard keep up with this lot. Even you’d manage it.”
            The wing forward took the ball on the forty and launched it into the air. “Jesus,” said Walsh, as the ball sailed so far wide it missed the net behind the goal and disappeared amongst the trees. “That’s some effort.”
            The linesman turned quickly to Johnny and Rick. “Will ye go after that, lads?” he asked as another ball was kicked onto the field.
            “Don’t bother. Let them get it,” said Walsh, indicating the opposition.
            “It’s our ball.”
            “Is it! Oh lads, ye better get it.”
Johnny and Rick ducked through a gap in the chain-link fence and ran along the riverside. They could see the ball twisting slowly in the water. As they closed in, it was taken by the current and was off. Johnny got the strange impression it had been waiting for them to appear.
            Although the river was shallow, it moved quickly and the boys had to work hard to keep up. Strong twisted grass and thorny briers made navigation of the bank difficult in places. And still the ball retreated. Sometimes it teased them by getting caught in low-lying branches that reached out into the stream, only to free itself when they were almost within reach. But the boys didn’t mind. It was a game, a challenge as they pushed against each other, laughing as one tried to hold the other back.
            With the river curving to the right, the ball was continuously disappearing from view. Finally it reappeared stationary, held captive between two rocks. They both made a dash. As they closed in on the leather, Johnny nudged Rick with his shoulder. He only meant to knock him over, but Rick slid down the bank and into the water.
            Johnny laughed, despite his feelings of guilt. “You might as well get the ball now that you’re in there.”
            “You bollocks! I’m soaked.” Rick stood up slowly, gathered the ball and climbed back onto the bank. He tried pushing the larger boy into the river, but he might as well have tried to move a bullock. Fighting off a tremble in his lip, he slammed the ball to the ground. For one awful moment he feared he might actually cry.
            Johnny gave him a light thump on the shoulder. “Sorry about that. I didn’t mean for you to go in the water.” He bent down and picked up the ball. “We better head back and you can get changed.”
            “Into what?”
            “Well, someone will have something.”
            Rick sighed. He couldn’t see how that made any sense. The only thing was to get out onto the road and head home. “We’ll go straight through the trees,” he decided. “Faster.”
            “I don’t know about that.”
            “Come on!”
For what must have been hours, they negotiated the trees and the thick undergrowth, thankful for the full moon rising in the clear sky. Even so, they had both tripped across roots and briars and slipped on the damp leaves more than once. Johnny’s left ankle stung after he had walked through a bunch of nettles. “I’m freezing,” Rick complained, his clothes clinging to his shivering body. And his feet squelched inside his plastic runners. He hated having wet feet. “Fuck you anyway for pushing me in the water!”
            “Well you’re the bollocks that decided to come this way. We should’ve gone back along the river.” In a temper, he kicked the ball into the trees. “I wish they hadn’t sent us after the fucking thing!”
            Following the flight of the ball, Rick’s eyes landed on a strange sight. “Look,” he said, pointing to the right. “Isn’t that weird.” A small calf was tied to a tree. It backed away as far as the rope would allow as the boys approached. “Why would anyone leave the poor thing here in the middle of nowhere?” Both accustomed to dealing with farm animals, Johnny held the frightened calf about the neck and shoulders while Rick pulled the rope across its head. As soon as Johnny let go, the calf bounded away and was quickly lost in the gloom.
            “He’ll be better able to find his way out of here than us,” remarked Johnny sadly.
            “Have you ever been in this forest before?”
            “No. Well, never this deep.”
            “Me neither.”
            Suddenly Johnny grabbed his friend’s arm. Before them stood a small and dilapidated house. Sinister black windows peered out from either side of a narrow door. The boys were shocked and strangely disquieted at finding such in the middle of the forest. Tentatively, they stepped closer. The house was surrounded by bushes and briars, its cut-stone walls crumbling at the corners. There was no glass in the windows and the door was rotting at the bottom. From behind, two large trees reached across the galvanised roof. To Johnny it seemed as if the trees and bushes were hugging the house to themselves, protecting it.
            A narrow path led from the door, disappearing amongst the briars round to the left. Johnny pulled Rick’s arm. “Come on.” But just as they headed for the path, they heard something coming. Something big. Together they backed up and crouched down amongst the bushes as a snort betrayed the creature’s nature. A huge black horse came round from the side of the house and stopped at the door. Its rider slid from its back and landed heavily on the grass. He wore a long grey coat, almost to his ankles, a wide dark hat that kept his face in shadow. Instinctively, the boys backed even further away, neither of them noticing how unusual their reaction was. They grew up in a rural community where adults, even strangers, were to be trusted. The older people looked after children, so the boys should have been delighted by this man’s arrival. They should have been running up to him, relieved to have been found. But they weren’t. They remained hidden.
            The man walked up to the door and threw his shoulder against it. The wood screeched as it was propelled out of the jam and the hinges complained loudly as they were woken from slumber. The man disappeared into the darkness. A moment later, there was light, the flickering yellow light of a fire. Johnny and Rick watched the light dance in the windows and round the door, listened to the timber crackle and spit and wondered how the man could have got such a substantial blaze going so quickly.
            The man reappeared, bent slightly so as to let something heavy fall from his shoulder. A pig. A dead pig. The pungent smell of decay reached across the small clearing as, to the boys’ horror and amazement, the horse buried its snout in the pig’s guts and began to eat. “Horses don’t eat meat,” Rick pointed out.
Johnny elbowed him in the ribs. “Ssh.”
The boys tensed as the man walked towards them, his heavy boots sinking into the damp soil. With the moon so bright, they were sure he would see them. But he veered off to the left and into the trees. As he passed by, Johnny noticed a flash of red from his left eye, beneath the wide-brimmed hat. He got the impression it wasn’t a reflection.
            “He’s going for the calf,” Rick whispered.
            “He won’t find it.”
            “Will you shut up!”
            For a moment there was no sound but for the crackling of the fire and the horse’s mastication. It might have been a pleasant scene, if the boys could have ignored the fact it was pork instead of hay between those molars.
            “Let’s go,” Johnny whispered.
            “Down the path. Where do you think?”
            “Past that thing? You must be joking.”
            “You want to wait for the Creeper to come back?” Rick didn’t answer.
            Johnny nudged him as he partially stood up. “Come on.” Rick didn’t move. Johnny looked over at the horse. The animal raised its head, the left eye flashed. It stomped the ground, snorted. Johnny was sure the horse could see him. He went back down on his hunkers.
They waited. The horse stared. Again there was a flash of red from the left eye.
            “What the hell is that?” Rick asked.
            “Ah quit making jokes.”
            “I’m not.” The horse seemed to lose interest and returned to his meal. “Come on,” said Johnny with a forced determination. He stood up. Rick grabbed his arm. Johnny looked at him. “We can’t stay here. He’ll be back any second.”
            “Let’s go the other way. We’ll never get passed that.”
            “We have to follow the path.”
            The whispered argument was brought to a halt by a shuffling noise within the house. Johnny and Rick held their breath as something emerged. A hunched and shrouded figure, it slowly shuffled through the door and stood before the horse. The horse looked up. The newcomer spoke. It was an old woman’s voice, harsh and cracked. There was no kindness in it.
            “Irish,” Rick whispered.
            “That’s not Irish. I don’t know what the hell it is, but it’s not Irish.”
            The woman spoke again. The horse looked at her a moment longer before dropping its head to the pig once more. The boys got the feeling it understood her perfectly but was choosing to ignore her.
            The woman grunted, then turned back to the house. In the moonlight they could see her hair. Long and red. Flame red, despite the gloom.
She called out. The response from within was more shuffling, more hard voices, indecipherable, infernal. They came through the door, pushing against each other.
            “Jesus,” Rick whimpered, “more of them.”
            “Three,” Johnny stated, as if he could have expected no other number. The story of Cúchulainn’s last days popped into his head. “Three sisters.”
            “Sisters? How can you know?”
            “I don’t know. Maybe not.”
            The sisters bent over the pig. One of them kicked it. The horse raised its head, shook its mane, snorted. The sisters yelled back. Another kicked the pig.
            Johnny and Rick jumped at a sound close by in the bushes. Creeper strode into the clearing. The sisters turned to him, arms out. Nothing could be seen within the hoods but the lustrous red hair. Creeper gestured to the trees, said something. The women wailed. Two of them turned back to the horse, shouldering him in the flanks, pushing him off the pig. They were surprisingly strong.
            Creeper let forth a shout. The women stopped, turned to him, snarled. It could be described as nothing but a snarl. The horse stepped around them and up to Creeper. Johnny and Rick were horrified to hear it speak, speak the same foul language. The horse addressed Creeper but looked past him, over his shoulder, straight at the boys.
            The wind stuck in their chests. They backed further into the trees, hearts pounding, fear crawling over their skin.
            Creeper turned around slowly, the red in his eye holding longer this time. He marched towards them. Johnny ran. Rick whimpered, his legs refusing to move. Johnny stopped, turned back. “Come on!” He grabbed Rick by the collar of the still wet shirt, pulled him around in a wide arc and pushed him on ahead, the sound of boots and the wails of the women growing louder at their backs.
            The boys fought their way through a thick and mangled forest that seemed determined to hold them back, as if it had decided to join in the game on the side of the bully. Creeper crashed through the undergrowth and was upon them in seconds. He grabbed Johnny by the collar and pulled him off his feet. Johnny yelled. Rick, expecting the other great hand to seize him at any moment, staggered onwards, his whole body shaking. He tripped on his own feet and fell. He turned over and there was Creeper, looking down at him. The giant held Johnny against his hip with one huge arm, like he was carrying a sack of meal. Johnny swung his legs about ineffectually and thumped at his captor’s chest and stomach with pudgy fists. Creeper didn’t seem to notice. He eyed Rick, turning his head slowly. Back in the clearing, the women cried. Rick almost didn’t notice the piss filling his underwear.
            Rick stared as Creeper turned and walked back to the hungry sisters, Johnny wriggling like a landed fish.
Walsh was the one who found Rick the next morning, staggering along the riverbank, his arms about the ball like a teddy. “Jesus!” said Walsh. “Where the hell were you?” He frowned when he got no response. “We’ve been looking for you all night.” He reached out and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. Rick cried out, jumped back, like he hadn’t noticed Walsh until then. “What’s the matter with you? Where’s Johnny?”
Rick whimpered. He looked at Walsh, his mouth opened slowly. Words formed but were knocked aside by the scream as something crashed through the trees.
            It was the calf, on its way to the river for a drink.