November 10th – The Festival of Harvesting the Appointed Limb

The greatest sport in Buentoille is undoubtedly Streetball, but it is not all-encompassing; there is also flipflop and volleyball, charge and all manner of races and endurance sports. Catchout is a curious mix between an endurance and a ball sport, played in the summer months when the light lives longer, on large grassy areas like greens and well-mown fields. As such, the season is now over, and it won’t be played much except for perhaps in shorter form by overenthusiastic children. If they were to play catchout properly, they could be there for days.

Yet despite the lack of organised matches, for the catchout community today is a big day, a day of honouring past heroes and making new ones. Catchout can be, at times, something of a spiritual experience for its players, who in the latter stages of a game will inevitably be suffering from extreme exhaustion and possibly hallucinations, helped along by the chewing of coortool roots. These starchy roots aren’t actively hallucinogenic, but they do have plenty of sugar and a mild stimulant in them that keeps most of the body active but has less effect on the brain, meaning that players are often pushed past normal fatigue boundaries into a place where hallucinations and altered sleep states are more common. With the players often venturing into this more suggestible, possibly spiritual, state of mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that there certain aspects to catchout and its associated traditions that border on religious ceremony.

Today’s festival is a prime example of the pseudo-religious characteristics of the community surrounding catchout. It centres around the historic, heroic figure of Yattam Ongolae, the fabled catchout paddler, who famously won every match he played through skill and sheer endurance. He was only ever caught out twice in thirty matches; in all other instances he either helped to beat the final score of the opposing team, or kept playing until they all passed out. Besides his winning streak, Ongolae is so famed because he personally won the longest ever catchout game, remaining in the post of paddler for just over half of the eight days of continuous play, a tremendous feat of self-control and athleticism.

There are six ‘rounds’ to catchout, where the ‘pitcher’ stands precisely three metres away from the ‘paddler’ (so called because they use a short wooden rowing paddle to hit the ball) and throws the ball to them, which is then thwacked (this is the technical term) as far away as possible. For every second it takes the ‘catchers’ (comprised of seventeen players, the entirety of the opposing team) to bring the ball back to the basket next to the pitcher, the paddling team scores a point. Making the job of ‘catching out’ the paddler more difficult are the ‘jostlers’, the rest of the paddling team besides the paddler and pitcher (who work together), who push around the catchers but are not allowed to touch the ball or to use their arms, which are tied behind their backs. Once the paddler is ‘caught out’ they and the pitcher rotate for another team member, until all seventeen players have paddled, and then the teams switch sides and the round is over. There is no other way (besides passing out from exhaustion, or simply leaving the grounds) for the paddler to be deemed ‘out’.

It is for the high bar to ‘catching out’ a player that the matches tend to continue on for so long. Every year there seems to be a new movement within the sport that advocates for the rules to be changed, or another form of the sport started, which has timed rounds, or that players are deemed ‘out’ when other conditions are fulfilled (such as committing too many ‘faults’ such as missing the pitched ball), arguing that the extreme levels of endurance required put off new players to the sport, which remains somewhat niche as a result. So far, however, the traditionalists have always won these arguments, and the game has remained somewhat ascetic, although some concessions have been made; there is now a maximum score from any one ‘hit’ of three hundred points (five minutes), for cases of lost balls, and the ball is now coated in a glow-in-the-dark substance to enable better location during the night.

As it turned out, the longest ever game was also the final game for Ongolae. Generally, because of the sleep deprivation endured, the first thing catchout players do when finishing a match is to go straight to bed, assuming that they have not already passed out and been carried off the grounds on a stretcher. When Ongolae finished that longest ever match on July 24th 1672, he turned to the gathered crowds who, having been rested themselves, cheered tremendously as he bowed. He then walked out of the grounds and went on a walk, ending up on a small grassy piece of open ground called Barrowman’s Hill. At the top of this small hill he allegedly planted his paddle deep into the ground so that it stood upright, and lay down to go to sleep. Unfortunately for Ongolae and his fans, he never woke up again, falling into a deep coma.

It’s generally believed that the coma may have been worsened by the sleep deprivation that Ongolae endured, but not caused by it outright; there was presumably some other illness at play. Whatever the reason, he remained in this state for many months, force fed each day through a tube. Finally, on this day, November 10th, the legendary player died, and his mother, Trittine Ongolae, went walking to visit the place they had found him lying. Nobody had ever bothered to take his paddle with them; it was wedged deep and they had more pressing concerns to attend to. Now, when she came across it in the cold November air, she saw that it had miraculously sprouted small shoots.

Whilst this story maybe somewhat apocryphal, given that plants tend not to sprout in the autumn, it is nevertheless believed by a great many catchout players, who will today walk up the hill in their best clothes, a kind of pilgrimage or procession. The willow tree, for that is now what it is all these years later, that stands atop the hill is protected by law, and its use is governed by the Trust of Yattam Ongolae. This is because the wood of the tree is said to create legendary catchout paddles, imbued with the strength and endurance of the man who accidentally planted it. Every year a limb of the tree is assessed for severance to create a few of these paddles, but, despite the festival’s name, it is unlikely that it will actually be cut; this generally tends to only happen about once every fifty years. Instead, measurements will be taken, along with some willow whips which are wound around player’s paddle handles for good luck. The players will also pour a small quantity of coortoolee, a drink made from a solution of powdered coortool root, around the base of the tree, as a mark of respect but also in the belief that it helps the plant grow.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of Semantic Tomfoolery
  • Wood Pigeons are Fantastic Day
  • The Festival of the Immovable Boulder