(This short story appears in the January 2022 edition of “Pen in Hand” The Literary Journal of the Maryland Writers Association. It was printed without my introduction, which is unfortunate. Because behind the whimsical and seemingly inconsequential title is a somber fable about something that has grown out of control in the age of mass media: The phenomenon of people living in alternate realities, making decisions based only on their own limited frame of reference.
Whenever a synagogue is defaced or some centuries-old Buddhist shrine is blown up the question arises: Why can’t all people just “live and let live”? Why do a few find it so hard to co-exist with those who think differently than themselves? To me it seems clear that the ones whose revered artifacts are destroyed and those doing the destruction inhabit mutually exclusive worlds. This short story was a way to illustrate the dichotomy within a pop-culture framework.The iconic vampire who sleeps during the day and a sports game that until recently couldn’t be played after dark illustrated the idea of living in alternate realities. The troubles intensify when people mistake the external symbols of their neighbors’ “difference” for the root of the problem. Distrust leads to fear and ultimately to demonizing and desecration.
Copies of “Pen in Hand” are available here. Thanks for reading. -JWH)
In a distant, unknown valley—so hidden from the world that not even power companies had discovered it—lived a vampire boy named Russell who had never heard of baseball.
Russell, like all vampires, slept during the daylight hours, and since there was no electricity for outdoor lights, all baseball games were called at dusk. Russell had existed through the changing of many moons without ever once hearing the word “baseball.”
When the last slice of sun dropped like a teabag into the mountain tops all the candles would be lit so that spiders could spin their webs. Russell would then join his family in the castle parlor before they went flying off to work.
Russell did not really want to know what his father and the other adults did in town. But it bothered him that he was not considered an equal. “Papa, the almanac says tonight there will be a full moon. Can I go with you and see what you do?”
Russell’s father was one of the undead, but he was not aging well. He had trouble keeping his hair slicked back, for one thing, and even his cape didn’t hang with the panache it had in the old home movies.
“In time, my son,” answered the father. “You must gain more experience first.”
It was the usual brush-off. How did he expect Russell to gain experience if he was never permitted to come along?
“Just stay here and feed the children. Clean up the bat droppings and tend to your studies. We will discuss this later.”
But this night everything felt different somehow. Russell knew he must do something if he wished anything to change. When the castle was silent and the wolves were fed, he strapped on his black cape and climbed out on the window ledge:.
“So, I cannot go into town with them,” he muttered to the cobwebs. “But Papa didn’t say I couldn’t go off into the northern woods.”
And with a rustling of the window sash, Russell was gone.
The moon hung close and bright above him tonight. Way below began a straggling forest, the lonely trees casting long, finger-like shadows that seemed to wag at him and warn him to go no farther. But Russell was determined to prove his father wrong.
He glided over the dark forest. Off in the distance were the tiny glowing windows of forest cabins. The hillside dwellers would be there behind their locked doors, staying safe and warm by their fireplaces.
A wide gap opened in the tree tops and Russell saw something on the ground he had never seen before. Sketched out in the flat dirt was the chalk outline of a plot roughly the shape of a large meat cleaver. If any crop was planted there it was not being irrigated.
Russell circled around again and again, daring to drop a bit closer each time. At each point of the cleaver he saw a burlap-colored cushion. Where a handle should have been were two squares backed by a chainlink fence.
It did not seem safe to fly any lower. Perhaps it was some sort of vampire trap set by the hillsiders. So Russell decided it best to return to his castle until someone could explain what he found.
“It’s called a diamond,” said Russell’s Uncle Linus, who had overslept and was only now deciding on which cape to wear into town. “There was nothing like it when I was your age. I’d say they’ve only happened along in the last decade or so.”
“Such a big diamond—it must be worth a lot of gold,” said Russell.
“It’s not that type of diamond.”
“What use is it?”
“If I wanted to guess, I’d say it’s a human game.”
A human game? marveled Russell. Since when did humans play games, or have fun, or do anything but shriek and run in terror at sundown when they saw his relatives spraying from the top balcony window?
Russell loved his family, but he was not proud that they made the village boys and girls all tremble and run away. It bothered him to see how they feared getting caught outside when night swept the valley.
All the next day, Russell was so eager to have another look at the strange diamond that he could hardly wait for dark. Luckily, the season was changing and night settled swiftly. It must have caught the villagers by surprise, too, because they had dropped what they were doing and went scurrying hither and yon.
Russell saw the diamond was deserted and felt it was safe for him to land.
All over the field lay the most curious array of items. There were fat sticks as tall as Russell himself, and large oven mitts with webbings made of leather. Russell wandered back toward the chainlink fence and picked up a scary face mask with a wire grid that covered the mouth.
“Give me a hand, will you?” came a voice from the dark.
Russell jumped and his impulse was to take to the sky. But the calm, matter-of-fact tone of the voice was not threatening at all. In truth, Russell was too curious to leave.
“A hand with what?” he asked.
“Packing up all this stuff,” came the reply.
“Who’s it belong to?”
“That will have to be sorted out tomorrow, won’t it?” A young human boy could be seen in the murk, picking up discarded items and shoving them into a long canvas sack. “They don’t deserve it, though, if you ask me—not if this is the way they treat their things.”
He was about Russell’s height, only rounder at the belly and stuffed into a hand-knit sweater and a visored cap.
“I have some time to waste, if you’re asking for help.”
“You daft?” blurted the stranger, clearly appalled. “This can hardly be construed as a waste of time.”
“What is all this stuff?”
“The stuff of dreams is what it is, make no mistake. It’s gear. For the game.”
“What do you call this game?”
The chubby boy stopped to gaze at Russell and his face screwed up. “You new here?”
“Come closer. I can’t make you out.”
“I see you fine.”
“Charles is my name. Charles Avery Lindenauer.”
“Here, catch,” barked the boy, and with a flick of his wrist came a stitched ball the size of an apple. It struck the front of Russell’s cape and slipped down through its folds to land with a thud at his feet.
“I thought you saw me fine,” said Charles.
“Why’d you throw that at me?”
“I pitch, you catch. Get it? Or you pitch and I catch. Toss it back.”
“Why? No why. It’s baseball.”
The word had a nice sound to it. But Russell was feeling annoyed. Clearly this Charles Avery Lindenauer had a rather lofty opinion of himself.
He watched the boy shrug and go back to scooping up the scattered items.
“Where’s the other players?”
“Aw, they’re just a lot of superstitious ninnies. All they talk about is witches and ghosts and vampires.”
“That doesn’t scare you?”
“Foolishness and nonsense.”
“That’s most enlightened, Charles. What’s your part in this game?”
“I’m a centerfielder. At least, that’s what I’m hoping. At the moment, I don’t measure up. That’s what they say. Next year, though. Till then I’m just trying to be the best bat boy I can be.”
“Me too,” said Russell.
“Toss me that catcher’s mask, will you?”
“Why must the catcher wear a mask?”
“You want him taking a tip to the noggin? That’s a pretty hard ball you just dropped, if you didn’t notice.”
“That’s why he also wears the oven mitt?”
“Catcher’s mitt,” corrected Charles. “But, yeah.”
“This catcher must be a special person.”
“That’s for sure.”
“Where do you catchers come from?”
“That’s just part of the great mystery of baseball, my friend. One day a fellow shows up and puts on the mask. And if you’re lucky, your team has got itself a catcher.”
“Interesting. What’s the meaning of these white lines?”
“That’s our infield. … I mean, it’s not Ebbetts Field or Yankee Sty. But it gets the job done.”
“Someone told me it’s known as a diamond.”
“Same diff. … Man, you sure you didn’t just drop in from another planet?”
Russell did not enjoy being made to feel inferior by someone no taller than he was. Charles was having fun at his expense, making out it was his fault for not understanding.
“You’re just making all this up,” responded the vampire boy. “Admit it. Masks and sticks and a few meaningless lines in the dirt —”
“Wait a minute, hold on,” interrupted Charles. “Sticks? I’m starting to get the idea you really never played baseball.”
“So you say.”
“Listen, pal, baseball’s the greatest thing in life. I mean, it’s the ultimate. There’s nothing better, understand? Picture this. You got two teams, nine players on each team, and each one chooses a pitcher and assigns positions like first base and center field, and if you’re the umpire, you yell ‘Batter up!’ and the excitement begins.”
“What did you say about a vampire?”
“Umpire, dummy. He calls the plays and makes sure everyone follows the rules.”
“Go ahead and pull my leg. See what it gets you.”
It suddenly grew very quiet on the field. Russell never really believed the young human was pulling his leg. He didn’t seem to be deriving any pleasure from Russell’s gullibility. In fact, the chubby boy appeared to look on him with pity.
“You never played baseball, so how could you know?” said Charles. He shook his head until a smile broke through. “Hey! How about I round up the fellows tomorrow, and you come by and give it a try?”
“Tomorrow? What time?”
“Right after school. Three-thirty’s good. Straight on till dark.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“Sure you can.”
“No, I can’t. It’s not possible.”
“What have you got to do that’s better than baseball? I tell you, this will change your outlook on being alive. You’ll be looking at things in a whole new light.”
Russell liked the idea of looking at things in a new way. The thought of spending eternity in a castle with just his family night after night, doing the same lame things, telling the same jokes, cleaning up the usual piles of bat droppings—it was all so dreary and pointless. And then there was the matter of the guilt he felt for making the villagers cower in fear.
“How do I know you’re telling me the truth?”
Charles looked into his canvas sack and rummaged around a minute before pulling out a padded glove. “You see this?”
“That mitt,” said Russell. “What about it?”
“This is not any mitt. It’s very special. Goose Goslin used this very model to clinch the 1919 pennant for the Valkyries. Snatched a high fly out of the sun when it was on its way over the stadium wall. It’s like he flew up in the air. That’s how he got the name ‘Goose.’ I tell you, it was nothing short of a miracle.”
“A miracle? May I hold it?”
“Sure, take it. Feel the power?”
“It’s soft. Good dead skin. I sense its ancestors and its strength.”
“Take it home. Go on. We got others. Just bring it back with you when you come.”
Russell tucked the Goslin glove under his shirt and hurried away before Charles could change his mind. Indeed, the vampire boy was so excited about his treasure that he completely forgot himself. It wasn’t until he had left the diamond and was on the edge of the dark woods that he remembered he could fly.
One family legend at the castle had long obsessed Russell. An ancestor from centuries before was known to have magically transformed himself back into a mortal human being. He no longer had to go flying through the night in search of sustenance. He did not have to bite the necks of silly ladies and careless men who left their bed chambers unsecured.
Russell’s reformed ancestor was actually able to walk in sunlight again. He mixed with villagers and was said to have found love with a living woman and eventually sired six healthy human children.
Could the Goslin mitt contain the magic to help Russell make such a transformation? Could it reverse his condition and allow him to escape the fate of being a “child of the night” till the end of days?
As he glided on into the winds Russell thrust his hand inside the glove to feel its warmth. He stretched his arm out high toward the moon and imagined catching that lunar orb in his leathered palm. This miracle glove made Russell think it was possible to play baseball in the stars.
Back in his own room, Russell put aside his usual hobbies to concentrate on unlocking the secret of the glove’s power. He lit candles around it like a shrine, and babbled incantations over it that he found written in the Roget Book of Spells.
Too excited to sleep, Russell sat watching his glove until he heard his father and cousins returning, then reluctantly closed the lid on himself. He would not be transformed that night, so, sadly, there would be no baseball for him the next afternoon. Sorry, Charles.
Through the whole next day and beyond, Russell returned often to the problem of unleashing the magic of the glove. He tried incantations, coatings, rubbings, chants, crystals—nothing worked. In desperation he lit small fires around the webbed fingers and bathed the cowhide palm in rare white eagle’s blood.
By the third night Russell might have been ready to fly into a rage but he didn’t have to. He was already there. The magical mitt was just another myth, a sham. Everything Charles had told him about baseball had to be a hoax as well.
He gathered up matches and paper and when the castle was dark and deserted, Russell headed out one last time to visit the baseball diamond.
With a bushy bough snapped from the top of a tree, Russell began by wiping out the chalk lines in the dirt. In a storage chest he found the canvas sack full of baseball gear and built a bonfire by the chainlink fence. When the flames reached high enough he heaved the sack into the middle of the sticks and watched the canvas turn brown and blister.
“Holy moley!” cried a voice. Charles came running out from the darkness, struggling with his belt buckle. “What happened?”
“See the result of your lies.”
“Are you crazy? What lies?”
“The Goslin glove—it was not magical. It couldn’t cure anything. It didn’t hold special powers, not at all. And your fanciful stories! If there is a thing known as baseball it is not what you say it is.”
“What happened to you? We waited for you, pal. We all hoped you would join the team, experience it for yourself.”
“I don’t believe there are teams or catchers or umpires. If there are any games, you make up the rules as you go. It’s all a web of lies designed to hoodwink the weak-minded. Measures need to be taken to stop you from preying on others.”
“Listen, Russell. I don’t know what you expected. These things you threw in the fire—they aren’t baseball. They’re just the … trappings. Baseball is bigger than that. You can’t burn it. You haven’t stopped anything.”
For Russell, it was the last insult. In a flash he was holding Charles by the head, bending his neck in such a way that the red reflections of the bonfire danced up and down his pale, exposed flesh. Luckily at that moment a cloud passed in front of the moon, preventing innocent eyes from witnessing what happened next.
Russell sat for a half-hour or more with the body of his peer and countryman lying at his knees. He knew that he had turned a page. He no longer felt belittled or demoralized. He welcomed the inner glow of vindication. It was the transformation he had been seeking all along.
He returned to the castle just as his father and Uncle Linus and the others of his clan were getting in. His father came to give him a hug and took a long, hard look in Russell’s face, as if he could see the change that had taken place.
“Russell, I have been thinking things over. It is time for you to join us on our forages after all,” he said.
“Thank you, Father. What made you change your mind?”
“You worried me, my boy. I admit it. I could see you entertained false hopes. I waited to see a sign that you accepted your part in the natural order. I think you are ready now.”
“I used to feel bad about what we do. I don’t remember why exactly. But I’ve come to see there’s nothing out there for me, Father. It would be foolish to look for anything to change.”
Russell’s eyes lifted and his lips parted in a smile that showed a fresh rosiness to his gums and just a trace of his pink-stained fangs.
“Tomorrow, my son, we go together, right after …” His words stopped and he waited to see if Russell would take the bait.
“After what, Father?”
“Right after you have fed the wolves and swept up the bat droppings, of course.” And then they chuckled together and went off to tell the others.
(c) 2022 John W. Harding