“The fabled men and the noonday sun are much more than just yarns of their days.”
–Roy Harper, “When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease”
The tale of how I became part metal begins with pain. Pain all around me. Emanating. Blunting all thought. Every jolt and shimmy of the old ambulance an astonishment of new agony. No time but the felt present. No future but itself.
Bald, round-faced paramedic, requesting I attempt to sit up a little so he can do something—adjust the IV or one of my football pads perhaps.
Me, noting a swaying object hanging from the ceiling, something I take to be an aid for raising oneself.
"Will that thing hold me if I grab ahold to it?"
"That thing hanging from the ceiling."
He follows my gaze then looks at the skinny volunteer paramedic crouched on the other side of my stretcher. "I think he's going into shock."
Before either of them can restrain me I lunge at the phantom object, torso swiveling upward, movement wrenching an animal grunt from my throat—a response I cannot control, like the tears streaming suddenly from my eyes.
First paramedic's hand on my chest, holding me down, restraining me. "Better hit him up again."
Second. "It doesn't seem to be working."
"Give him another dose."
"The great art of life is the sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain."
Hospital Emergency Room. Pain worse than ever, breathing hard, skin sticky with the mingling of sweat old and new, gasping as two nurses peel off my equipment, crisp clips of the heavy steel scissors shearing my pants and jersey away from my body. Going to work next on the shoulder pads, unbuckling one side then slicing through the stuck canvas straps of the other with a round-blade motorized saw, cold shower of tiny white plastic granules cascading onto my chest when the wheel nicks the breastplate.
Wincing as the last of the equipment and my damp sleeveless undershirt are removed. Then they slip a thin green hospital gown over me, the taller nurse brushing wet strands of hair from my eyes with her fingers. The other one moving my jockstrap while tying my gown.
“Careful down there,” I say, somehow managing a smile through the ceaseless haze of discomfort.
She smiles back at me. “We’re going to see if we can make you more comfortable.”
“That’d be nice.”
“Do you know why the morphine doesn't seem to be making you comfortable?”
Shake of the head.
She pats the back of my hand and hurries away.
Deprived of my bulky uniform trappings, I expect the pain to subside, but instead it deepens, as if the straps and buckles had served somehow to hold it at bay, keep it in place. Now it intensifies from numbing regular waves to a relentless torrent, moving up my left leg as though searching for an opening other than my eyes and mouth by which to escape the mangled shell that houses it. I turn my face toward the wall to hide the new tears forming in my eyes.
Yet in moving my head I become aware of a slow pressure building inside it, different from a headache or a sinus cold, lower and deeper in the skull and far more condensed—like some buried ball-sized knot suddenly taken to swelling. Steadily it grows as though tightening and expanding at once, seeking to reach beyond itself. A light bursts suddenly behind my eyes. My entire frame shakes and I wonder if I am going into shock, the great current of pain flowing up me joined now, confronted, by an alternate power journeying downward from my head. I clench my fists and groan. My breath stops and catches again. When my dry lips part it is only to utter a weak sob.
But then, just as of a sudden, as if sucked into a vacuum, as if vanished into black, the pain is gone. Something has stopped, extracted, it—something I am unaware of yet come from me: a manner of salve other than medicine.
“If you are distressed by anything external,” wrote Marcus Aurelius, “the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
I blink my eyes and swivel my head uncertainly, wonderingly, at the ongoing mystery of myself.
“I don’t need anything now,” I say to the nurse when she returns.
“We’re giving you something anyway,” she says, sweet condescending smile on her lips, hands busy. “Something stronger than morphine.”
“I think I really like you,” I hear my voice saying from afar, rest of me trailing away from it.
Heaviness, blackness, descent. Alternately aware and then not. In and out of consciousness, pain returned but recognized only at a great distance, present yet faraway. Perpetual sense of liquid slipperiness and the powerful odors of chemicals surrounding me.
Then I am a little boy again, listening to one of my grandmother's frightening old Tidewater tales about Grace Sherwood, “the Witch of Gisburne,” in Princess Anne County.
“They say she lived beneath the ground,” says grandmother, rocking in her chair, eyes shining, hands busy with her knitting, “in the muck where it’s cold and wet.”
“And they say she had webbing in her armpits like a fish,” she continues, dropping a needle and leaning forward to poke my armpit with a bony forefinger. “The better to slide through the mud. It opened like a lady’s fan when she raised her arm—so thin you could almost see through it.”
Me, giggling. “She wasn’t like normal people, was she?”
Grandmother, erect in her chair, maintaining an air of mock-severity, suppressing a smile. “She most certainly was not.”
“And her fins helped her swim,” I add with enthusiasm. “She swam with the Devil in the water, didn’t she?”
“That’s right. They say she would frolic with the Devil out in the Chesapeake Bay on moonlit nights. The witch and the Devil would swim and dive and play like newlyweds on their honeymoon.”
“They were happy together.”
“Yes,” she says, fingers slowing, peering out into the dark woods beyond the porch. “I suppose they were. Boatmen spied them way out among the whitecaps and hunters glimpsed them in lonely tangled inlets when the tide was going out. They rode on the current, you see; it carried them with it. And the winter that Caucus Bay froze over one old fisherman even saw them dancing on the ice in the predawn—just dancing away like a couple of lusty young lovers.”
Me, looking up at grandmother, smiling.
But then she is gone, abandoning me to my maimed self, only I cannot see, the blind space around me shrinking and fading to pitch as though seeking to enclose my body—to become its tomb. My sweat-soaked skin clings to something. Sheets? My gown? Strange conceits and whimsicalities press in around me, gnawing steadily at the edges of my brain like worms, bizarre faraway voices whispering to each other in a language I do not comprehend.
Then a girl my age, joining me, pressing against me. Unable to make out her face as she writhes and moves. Twisting in the dimness, her body begins to change, to alter in a blur, to ceaselessly transform, so that I hold by turns a lioness, a serpent, a great reptilian bird. She wraps her arms about me, fins scraping my shoulders, nails digging into my back like barbed wire. When she is gone I am left alone with my exhaustion, the blackness of this place, and the far off echo of something slowly dripping.
Surfacing then to voices and an incessant electronic beeping, eyes and mouth too heavy to open.
A woman speaking to someone else. “In addition to the rare blood-type his body chemistry's all wrong.”
“What is that?” says a man.
Then a voice I recognize, Mama’s voice, reassuring. “Consulting with the gentlemen who will be arriving shortly from the medical college will provide his medical history and allay any concerns.”
Her voice grows warmer, louder, as though she has turned toward me. “There’s no need to worry about him.”
I sink again, drifting downward, away from the sounds of all things.
Post-surgery. Pain yet again. Body fighting tooth and nail the concoctions meant to afford it comfort.
Teeth clenched, shaking the stretcher rails with my arms as a stubby orderly hurries me down a hallway. I peer up into his face, noting his unease. Turning a corner the stretcher jolts against the wall and my body contorts in agony. Left arm braced against the side rail, I press, slowly bending it outward.
“Holy Shit!” exclaims the orderly when he notices and grabs my wrist with both hands, trying to break my grip.
Rotating onto my left side, I swing my other arm up and around, hand clenched into a fist, but he sees it coming and stumbles back, wide-eyed. The roundhouse punch misses.
Then he is lying on my chest, trying to keep me pinned: a panicked fat man desperately yelling for help.
Others arrive, but by the time they put the first strap across me I am unconscious once more.
More narcotic stupor then, dreams mingling with my waking reality in a manner conspiring to make existence less like a road along which it is possible to mark one’s time and progress, and more like a great endless meadow or prairie upon which distance is dubious and days run together.
Nocturnal rain tapping against the window of my hospital room, the darkness shaping itself into figures possessed of fearful forms. I shut my eyes tightly, squeezing of the muscles above my cheekbones, and the shadow beings depart. I lie there listening silently to the slight tapping of drops against the window panes, dreaming of escape-- imagining myself following the water as it works its way jaggedly down the outside walls of the hospital and gradually seeps into the ground, accompanying its descent until at last we reach the place where lie the bodies of the dead: their arms, their feet, their eyes. Seeing in my mind the tiny scavengers of the earth stripping their bones, gnawing at their tongues, burrowing through their decaying bellies.
At last I sleep, but in my slumber there emerges a low chorus of male voices, varying in depth but all possessed of some manner of English accent—each a distinct dialect from some vale or hamlet of that tiny Atlantic isle. Meaning, though, remains but a tangle: words a confused murmured jumble with only fragments of comprehension emerging here and there—spit up like miscellaneous debris from a frigid Nor'easter whirlpool. Something of great consequence is near, the general tenor informs me, but not yet fully present. It holds back, the chorus insinuates, somewhere round the edges.
Then the voices peel away, layers of sound retiring in pairs or ones, dropping in frequency below my ability to discern them, until at last there is but a single one, repeating over and over again two words in clipped tones.
“White willow,” it says. “White willow.”
It goes on for some time in the darkness, by turns raspy and clear, diminishing in volume or loudening until at last the words trail away, fade. Then an image materializing out of the dimness into which the words have vanished: a man of indeterminate age with bushy sideburns clad all in white--short-sleeved button-up shirt and britches of cotton over which there are strapped leggings of grooved white padding, not unlike those of a baseball catcher of old. In his left hand at his side he holds an oblong piece of wood resembling a large paddle—something that would have been a club were it not possessed of a long flat body, rounding and narrowing only where the hands are meant to grasp it.
Assembled behind him are his fellows, dressed in like manner but only partly visible. They watch in deference, as though having agreed previously to elect the figure in front of them as their speaker. He stands before them then in relief, motionless, gaze boring into me, piercing my flesh like the frost of dawn. Stones would have been more feeling than those eyes, predatory beasts less unpitying. I become aware of a slow, terrible aching cold permeating my body and know in my mind it is come from him. Yet with it there arrives an association: I am not the same as any one of them—these half-visible forms—though something unspoken maintains we are alike.
Strange thoughts come forth from him—this white-clad man in the foreground of my mind's eye: monotonous, humorless mental utterances I can scarce make out. Small and indistinct they are, like microbes swimming in a globule of blood. I squint my eyes and strain my ears—all to no avail.
When at last he speaks, however, his voice is clear and close, almost as if his lips are at my ear. "We who live here," it says in tones shaped by some corner of that old island, "stand outside the doors of the world."
Then, even as the last word is spoken, we are enveloped in a dark mist, smokiness billowing around me, filling and burning my eye sockets, permeating all space as though fed by the very cauldrons of hell. Dream collapsing now into slumber and obscurity, though even as it does I know in my heart these images, these visitors, who have formed in my mind will never be fully dissolved from it.
Stabbing white light of morning, awakening in a sweat, inexplicable odors of rotting flesh and gunpowder deep inside my nostrils. Conscious long enough to view my face in a little bedside hand mirror, to remark its leaden hue, lusterless eyes peering out from it.
When I am awake again the sun shafts, deepened now in color from silver to gold, have wandered almost to the end of the bed. Mama at bedside, writing on her legal pad, books stacked on a lunch cart otherwise untouched. I move each limb tentatively—each save the leg suspended above the bed which does not seem part of me. Indeed, my entire self feels foreign as though vacated from where it once was--housed now within a stranger's body. When I bring the little mirror before me again it is a stranger who greets me: a being possessed of luminous eyes and long stringy hair--young in years but old in experience, grown ancient in his suffering.
“The science of the mind,” wrote my fellow Virginian Poe, “will one day reveal that a man may die, for all intensive purposes, while alive. If and when he comes to live again, he is, in effect, a different man.”
Doctor arriving with x-rays, holding them up for me to see, smiling and pointing at what he has added to the pictures—to my leg.
"You're part-metal now," he says. "Once you heal you'll basically be unbreakable, at least from the knee down."
"You'll have a special plane pass, too," he continues, "for when you set off the airport metal detectors. Pretty neat, huh?"
Ignoring him, I turn my attention to Mama. "What did the doctors from the medical college say?"
Perplexed look. "What do you mean, honey? There weren't any doctors here from Richmond."
Me, closing my eyes. “I want you all to leave me alone.”
Dozing lightly, somewhere between sleep and wakeful misery, vaguely aware of heavy, shuffling footsteps in the hallway, pausing at my door.
Rough, gravely throat-clearing and I flounder into consciousness, wondering, "What new evil is this?"
Bleary eyes focusing on an old man whose form fills the space of the doorway: bullish, top-heavy, one eye slightly askew. His broad red face considers me, mouth just parted, left hand at his side twitching slightly as though dancing to a silent tune.
I recognize him: Gordon Bragg, the school's legendary football coach, long-retired though still much about. A fixture at all the varsity home games and occasionally popping up, unannounced, never really looked for, at some of our empty-bleachered junior varsity affairs--standing solitary in the cold, the rain, the sun, opposite the western endzone behind the waist-high chain-link fence, like some lonely sentinel.
Gordon Bragg was of the old order. Whether watching alone at one of our junior team games or leaning against the same fence, flanked by his former players, on crowded Friday nights when the stadium named in his honor roared, he seemed without fail somehow out of place. Something about him spoke of other times, or insinuated that perhaps he even was those times—their walking remnant. The current football coach, whoever he was, old or young, great hulk of a man or slight wisp of a bespectacled fellow, always appeared to dim and grow smaller, to fade and diminish somehow, whenever Mr. Bragg drew near. But then how does one stand next to a living legend? How does one live up to a near-impossible legacy? For his part, Mr. Bragg seemed always to keep his distance from the current coach, attempting in small ways to support and encourage the man from afar. Yet every coach who followed him at the school left or was fired after only a handful of seasons. Some smothering shadow--a presence, a pressure--lay across their lives, reducing all their achievements to ash.
Football was Mr. Bragg's life and vocation, coaches and players his family. He had less patience for lesser beings. It was known widely that he was a churchgoer, silent and uninvolved in most congregational matters by all accounts--except for the issue of sermon duration during football season. Snoring quietly through much of the service--and on to the very end of it if the time of year was any other than autumn--Mr. Bragg always became conscious and keenly observant toward the close of the worship hour during the months of September through December. Broadcasting for professional football promptly began at noon over the course of those months, and any pastor who tarried in his benediction much beyond ten-til would find the sanctuary accosted by loud throat-clearing and the spectacle of a broad, red, aged face—tangles of short white hair sprouting from hoary nose and ears--positioned almost directly beneath his pulpit, turning ever redder, penetrating black eyes glaring out from beneath white wisps of eyebrow like shiny orbs of coal set among brimstone.
Women did not like him. Girls were afraid of him and tried to keep their distance on those rare occasions he filled in for an ailing or otherwise absent gym teacher at the school.
"Yall need to do something!" he would bark from his chair, addressing some group of shorts-clad freshman girls standing off to the side of a field or court, chattering among themselves.
If they ignored him, he would hurl a volleyball into their midst or threaten them with failure or suspension unless they logged four laps around the track—the space of a mile—before the conclusion of class.
"I'm terrified of that awful old bastard," a girl invariably would declare later that day, safely indoors, clad now in her carefully selected garments of choice.
"He was a great coach," I would say.
"Whatever. He's an evil old asshole now," was the usual reply.
One day in particular, lunchtime, seated at a table populated almost entirely by girls, Mr. Bragg the topic of discussion.
"His eyes are so mean," one of them says. "I've never seen eyes like that on anyone."
"Tell me about it," says another. "It's so scary. It's like he's looking through you."
"They say one time a long time ago he punched a kid for sassing him. Just knocked him out cold with his fist in the middle of class."
"He gives me the creeps," chimes yet another girl.
"What?" I snap angrily, glaring around at them, irritated. "I don't get it. What's so scary about him?"
"I don't think we know," says the first girl in a quiet voice and the others nod in agreement. "We just know we're afraid of him."
Gordon Bragg, lumbering forward a couple of paces into the room. “How are we doing, boy?”
Me. “It smarts some.”
“Good,” he says shortly, gesturing at the silent television bolted into the wall just below the ceiling. “Gives you something to think about while you’re lying on your ass other than that idiot tube.”
He laughs abruptly before shuffling over to the end of the bed, legs almost touching it, then leaning over, studying my suspended leg and its trappings.
"Amazing what they can do nowadays," he mutters. "In my day they wouldn't have bothered with all this. They'd just tell you you're a cripple and be done with it!"
He glances at me and laughs again, a violent cascading sound like that of a load of crushed limestone deposited by a dump truck.
Me, uncertain what to say.
"I'd say it's probable you'll never play football again," he continues, abstractly. "Or even walk right, maybe. A shame. No more junior varsity games for me this season."
"Because I came mostly to watch you, boy. To see how you were coming along."
"I didn't know—"
"I liked the way you played," he snaps, cutting me off, continuing as though he hadn't heard me. "Not overly big for a football player, but fast and smart and a vicious hitter."
"Thank you, Mr. Br--"
"And tough," he barks, interrupting me again. "Remember that play two games back when you led with your head and got knocked silly by those two big linemen?"
Me, nodding. "The doctor told me I had a concussion at halftime."
"But you didn't miss a play, did you? You just kept playing."
"It didn't occur to me to come out."
"I know it didn't, boy," he says, smiling. "That's something I rarely see anymore. You're what I call a throwback."
Me, silent, thinking he'll probably only interrupt me again if I try to say anything.
Silence from both of us instead and his coal-like eyes—deep, shiny, black, ignitable—consider me closely, studying my face.
“Got nothing to say?" he asks at last. "What’s the trouble, boy? Worried you're going to wind up a cripple?”
And again the laugh: harsh, deep, raspy. "Come on, tell me what's on your mind. I'll likely not much a give a damn anyway, so you might as well go ahead and say what it is."
Me, deep breath, then, "I was thinking of a vision I had coming out of surgery."
"You mean a dream from the drugs they had you on?"
"No sir. A vision. Like when you get hit hard in the head and see bright lights and smell strange odors."
"Like having your bell rung, huh?"
"Yes sir, like that."
"Well," he says, "What was it? Let's have it."
And Me, telling him about the figures in white and their voices and all that had transpired in their presence. And rather than the dismissive hard laughter I expect, Mr. Bragg is silent, musing, nodding occasionally at a minute description.
When I stop talking he tilts his head back and squints, staring up and off into space in that peculiar absent manner the aged have of appearing to contemplate nothing. What was he thinking about? Antiquated defensive schemes? His old Virginia coaching nemesis, Vince Bradford? The sound of a packed stadium outraged or fawning at some game-changing decision?
Then, as if remembering where he is, he looks around behind him, seizes a chair, and pulls it up to the bed.
He considers me again before speaking, voice strangely solemn, though still somewhat matter-of-fact. "I am a bastard, boy, as many a good coach is. Bastards and sons of bitches is what coaches find themselves being called more often than not. But I'll have you know I was a bastard long before I ever was coach. I grew up in an orphanage, you see, and in that kind of place all that you had, you fought for: food, clothes, a coin here and there.
"A boy needed those things to live and there wasn't much of anything to go around. This was the beginning of the Depression. So I took what I needed to live, but what I lived for—what all the boys lived for back then—was baseball: the games we played among ourselves in the streets or the ones we were allowed to listen to sometimes on the old radio in the big drafty recreation room. It's what we looked forward to—one of the few things: maybe the only thing. We had no parents, we had practically nothing, but we had that game--and it had us.
"Now there was a little boy in the orphanage named Toby who became very sick. There was no money to pay a doctor. The city didn't support the orphanage and the people who used to had lost their money. So this boy became very ill and just got sicker and sicker, until all he could do was lie in his bunk in the long cold room where we all slept.
"But as he got worse something very curious began to happen to him. When he slept at night he would be visited in his dreams by long-dead baseball players. They would talk to him. We couldn't hear them, mind you, but we heard him say their names and ask them questions and, before they left, thank them for visiting him—for taking the time to talk to a little sick boy.
"The rest of us got so we would gather around his bunk at night to listen to the conversations—to his side of them anyway. Sometimes one of us would tell Toby to ask the visiting player a question, and he would.
"The men beyond the fields is what we came to call them. The men beyond the fields. After little Toby died one of the lads who was musical wrote a rhyme in his honor which an older boy carved into the headboard of the bunk where he used to sleep:
Lighter than ghosts,
Stronger than steel,
The men beyond the fields.
Mr. Braggs leans back in his chair, appraising me. "The game and the country was different, but that is what you saw, boy. The men beyond the fields."
Me. "What game was it?"
"Those were Brits you saw," he says. "I learned something of their game and ways during the war. Cricket, it's called. They play it with bats--like baseball."
Me. "Who are the men? Where do they come from?"
Mr. Bragg, sighing, shaking his head. “I don't know. I didn't think about them or Toby for the longest time, but I catch myself recalling them more and more the older I get. It bothers me. I've never been a man who believed in ghosts but I think it must be something like that. As near as I can guess or tell, it has something to do with the notion that when a game is over it’s never really over. It lives on somewhere.
"And I don't mean in here," he continues, planting a crooked thumb in his heart. "I mean somewhere out there," pointing now at the window with his gnarled forefinger, on the other side of which lies dusk. "Somewhere beyond the world, beyond any of us."
"Something along those lines is what you brushed up against, my boy. You should be grateful for it. Consider it an honor.”
He rises abruptly, nearly knocking over his chair, and turns awkwardly to depart. At the door, however, he glances back.
"One more thing, boy, and I don't say this very often: you could have played on any of my teams."
"Sir, it would ha--"
"I mean it, boy," cutting me off again. "Anyof them."
“Thank you, Mr. Bragg.”
But he is already gone.
When the nurse comes I tell her I won't be taking any more pain medicine.
"But you're less than twenty-four hours out of surgery," she exclaims.
"I'll report it to the doctor," she says.
When a doctor comes, it is a different one than before. Standing at the end of my bed, he glances down at my file, weak smile set above an even weaker chin. When he looks up his expression is an imploring one--a look I take is intended to project an attitude of caring.
"Let's talk a little bit about the process of healing," he says. "First, it's alright to be hurt. Pain is natural and it's cool to respond to it openly and emotionally."
He looks down at my file again and smiles, holding up an x-ray. "Look: your leg's part-metal now. That's pretty cool. And you get to have a special airplane pass too for the metal detectors. I'm so jealous. I wish I had one of those."
Then his countenance turns somber. "In the meantime, though, there are going to be some ups and downs, and you have to embrace those swings and know that it's OK to be down. When the time is right, we'll get you out of that cast, but until then you'll just need to listen to us and accept some limitations. OK?"
I smile at him, thinking of the old cast-iron headless nail the hacksaw hangs from on the farm at home.
He smiles back and flips my folder shut. "You’re a pretty quiet guy," he says. "Anything else for me?"
And me, thinking of Mr. Bragg, smile growing larger, eyes boring into the doctor as he beams at me idiotically.
"I'll saw this thing off whenever I feel like it, fucker."
Years later I would encounter a poem called "Hurt Hawks," which reminded me of myself at that time, so utterly disabled yet so completely unaccepting of the fact. The maimed hawk in the poem:
[S]tands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in dream, the dawn ruins it.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
Though I did not recognize it at the time, it was the knowledge of what I once had been able to do which was my primary malady. "The pain of the mind," wrote the Roman thinker Publilius Syrus, "is worse than the pain of the body." Yet so long as it does not break us, such pain teaches and toughens—it molds us into harder stuff. In a sense, then, it is a precious resource: something to be used, to be thankful for.
"We cannot learn without pain," Aristotle observed.
I have learned a lot in my life.
When the cast came off five weeks ahead of schedule, I smashed the crutches into pieces with an axe before I was even sure I could walk regularly in the air cast.
"Why on earth did you destroy those crutches?" Mama asked.
"I don't aim to use them again," I said. "Don't worry, Mama. They'll go in the woodstove. They won't go to waste."
Running, or limping rather, in the air cast around the school's dirt track, more or less dragging the injured leg, needles in my lungs after only one lap, frigid February breeze exacting gasps from mouth, numbing my fingers.
Then Mr. Bragg's harsh laugh in my mind. Afraid you might wind up a cripple? And I am running again.
Later, naked in the whirlpool, alone in a dark empty locker room, lapsing into a doze amid the warm pressure of the water and the machinery's low hum.
Cupping a handful of bubbling water, I run it through my hair, eyes closed-- marveling amid that comfort at the gift pain brings us, wondering who I might one day appear to.
About the Author
Casey Clabough is the author of the travel memoir The Warrior's Path: Reflections Along an Ancient Route as well as four scholarly books about contemporary writers. He serves as editor of the literature section of Encyclopedia Virginia and as general editor of the James Dickey Review. His first novel, Confederado, will appear in 2012, as will his fifth scholarly book, Inhabiting Contemporary Southern & Appalachian Literature: Region & Place in the 21st Century.
Published: April 10, 2011