by Shannon Baker
For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?
~ Mark 8:36
Out beyond the sycamore tree is where the men would go to lose their souls. There was no specific place, no marking—not even an upturned clod of grass along the banks of the river or a fossilized boot print in the deep, red clay—nothing, nothing at all that would give a passing sojourner pause, that would make them think, here, here is where it happened. Here is where the men beat the odds and lost it all.
Like the earth, the river is quiet. The sycamore, too. It stands tall and old, mottled bark peeling in places, leaves broad and canopied, casting shade on the river grasses. The wind passes through the green, whooshing, but the tree stays silent. What happened is done; what more can be said? Volition is a terrible, beautiful thing.
Once or twice, a man was on his way to out beyond the sycamore but stopped. Instead, he climbed the sycamore to see better. His feet scraped the red-and-white bark of the sycamore, which hoisted him up to the highest branches. The leaves danced in soft breezes that day, joining the chatter of passing crowds. Branches were broken in the man’s hasty descent, but the sycamore only felt the promise of renewal. Those days were good, when it was climbed, when its branches shed both bark and wisdom and it was more than just a monument to things of old. When it was climbed for truth and not passed for profit.
As time went by, however, fewer and fewer stopped to climb the sycamore. Their hands would graze its peeling trunk, brushing the red-and-white wood with wistful fingers, almost as if their souls knew what they were about to do before they did. Which, in most cases, was quite true—and the sycamore always felt a tremor through its trunk, passed along by their touch: the internal war of the soul versus the man. But volition is a terrible, beautiful thing, and it is Man’s, not Nature’s, to decide what to do with.
It started with a hunger, or rather, an absence. An absence of satisfaction. If a man wasn’t satisfied, he was hungry, and though he might pretend otherwise, his chief priority in life was quelling that hunger. The hunger would come. Without fail it would come—what he had was not enough, though it was never supposed to be. But instead of treating his hunger as proof of this fact, the man treated it like a beast—and a beast it would become. It would grow, slowly, steadily, until it consumed the man’s thoughts with its gaping, vacant expression: Feed me. And so, he would look for ways to feed this “appetite”—to quiet it—to make room for other appetites. Because that was the thing about feeding appetites: when one was dethroned, another inevitably took its place. It might be of a different sort, with a different voice, a different drive, with a different recipe for satiation. But whatever the appetite was, there was one consistent truth about the next appetite in line: It was always bigger.
He would build for the appetite an empire, thinking he was protecting it, thinking he was reeling it in, making it a home, keeping it happy, so that it wouldn’t destroy him. But over time, the appetite lodged itself somewhere he could not see, and it would carve its dwelling slowly, embedding deeper and deeper, making for itself a home in the real estate of his soul.
The hunger was never the problem. The hunger was good. But the men took what was good and made it a beast, and the beasts dug holes, and the men tried to fill them. They poured fixes into the yawning, creaturely mouths of their appetites, gorging the beasts but starving themselves.
And as time went by, the sycamore began to notice: The crowds of men that went out beyond it were of a certain way, and the ones that stopped to climb—fewer and farther between, yes, but there was the occasional man—were of another way. All the men looked different, and at first glance, you could not tell one from the other—those who would choose to stop and those who would continue out beyond—but there was something distinct when they brushed by the sycamore’s trunk, something internal, something visible to the constant, patient gaze that only Nature could manage. It was difficult to put into words—and Nature did not—but it came down to something of an awareness. An awareness of emptiness. It could be seen in the eyes of the men who stopped: They stumbled over branches and roots until they reached the sycamore, and then they paused, eyes wide and searching, sensitive to the tug within. The emptiness was there in the black wells of their pupils, but it vibrated. It had been found out, and it was being given up. And for those that climbed the sycamore, it was handed over. Having handed over their emptiness, the men would climb back down, eyes shining, and the sycamore would shudder, passing what was handed over down through its trunk, flushing it by its root system, and the water that coursed in the river would swirl and eddy and dissolve it all. Gone. And the men who were once empty would be full, turning back to their life and clasping their souls tight to their chests.
The crowds of men that went out beyond the sycamore felt the tug in their souls the same way, but their yearning fingers grazed the bark of the tree only for a moment before they flung themselves forward and out beyond. Their eyes held the same emptiness as the other men’s, but the difference was this: They did not notice they were empty. It could be better said in this way: The men that stopped at the sycamore had a full, dizzying emptiness, and they knew it. The men that went out beyond had a dizzying, empty fullness, and they did not know it. They held loosely to their souls as they jostled past the sycamore, putting themselves up as collateral for the game that lay ahead.
The game that lay ahead. It was a ruthless game—enticing and unforgiving, and the more they played, the more they lost, though it didn’t feel like losing in the moment. But the sycamore knew better. Of the men that went out beyond, very few of them came back. There was the occasional man, the man who played the game and saw that he was losing, and, at the last moment, snatched his soul from the creaturely mouths of other men’s appetites and hugged it to his chest. Turning on his heel, he struggled to ignore the voices that grasped at him—that tried to pull him back—but something else was stronger now, and he pushed past other greedy bodies and flailing souls and ran, ran, ran back the way he had come. Sometimes it took a painfully long time—he’d forgotten the way—but the Something Else was resilient, and nose to the wind, feet stumbling and catching, he followed the scent carried on the wind from the old tree by the river. When the sycamore saw him barreling over the hill and along the banks of the river towards it, chest heaving, eyes red and frantic, the sycamore waved its branches, the wind whooshed through its gaps, and it bent towards the man, tremors rippling down its trunk, stilling only when the man collapsed at its base and pressed his palm to the bark with the relief of return, his quivering soul quieting within him.
The wind frequently followed the course of the river and over the hill to out beyond, letting its fragrance turn the heads of the many men whose Something Else still quivered, even buried deep within after years of playing the game. The wind would tickle lightly, and some men would respond, but those whose appetites were so engorged often did not glance at the stirring grasses that played at their feet. Instead, they set the sights of their appetites on other men’s souls, and there they cast their lots.
The men playing the game did not look different from any other man. They were simply more: their edges were often crisper, their mouths often wider, their eyes often sharper. Their voices were louder, fueled by the growling of their appetites, though these stayed hidden as they burrowed deeper, deeper, deeper into the men’s souls. The men with larger appetites preyed on the men with smaller appetites, and when a man first went to the out beyond, it took some time for him to learn who to play with. He first played with the men he arrived with, whose appetites were also yet juvenile and untrained. One appetite would surge and lash out, and the other, unsure how to defend itself, would fall injured. Snarling and retreating to its corner, it would take a piece of the man’s soul and hand it over. The other man’s appetite would feast—nothing tasted quite so good as another man’s potential—and it would grow, already looking for the next round.
Looking on the carnage, it was easy to assume that the man whose appetite feasted had won. He became more…more, and this was all anyone wanted in the out beyond, never realizing that if more was the goal, it couldn’t possibly be reached. At the end of the game, there would be no winners, but even in the moment, onlookers would have been mistaken: The men who lay broken and bleeding, having just handed over a piece of their eviscerated soul, still had appetites, and these raged and howled and picked the men up again so that they could throw themselves back into the game, limping, wincing, eyes slanted and dark and bent once again on more. Meanwhile, the appetite of the man who had feasted licked its gluttonous lips, buried itself more deeply into the man’s soul, held on tighter and, never satisfied for long, craftily set its sights on new arrivals.
The game space was quite a sight. A battleground, any onlooker would say (though, of course, out beyond, there were none, only players). Appetites prowled while souls cowered, doing their best to hide in the open expanse while they nursed their wounds. But a dying soul was vulnerable, and the men would not shield them, not even their own—their eyes were so set on the beasts. And so, when a soul was finished, the potential vanquished, there was nothing left but the husk of the man who realized too late his mistake. And the ground burned in indignation, a smoke signal rising to the sky, but of course, no one paid it any attention.
Fires ravaged the plains, beasts stalked souls, men egged them on. Everything was desolate, but if an onlooker fixed his gaze on the men who were more, the ones whose appetites gorged freely, he might have forgotten the charred rocks and blood-streaked dirt. He might have done away with the image of the fallen on the grass, whose souls flitted in desperation over their disillusioned eyes, trying to distract them from their own appetite that growled within, alive and well. For the men who were more were captivating, even to the fallen, with their crowns and their winnings draped across their shoulders—shiny, resplendent things that beckoned new arrivals in droves—this, this is what we’re playing for. An onlooker would be mesmerized too, until the winds blew again from the sycamore, and, guiding their eyes upwards, reminded them that the crowns were smoking, too.
And so it went. The men played, casting their lots in a game they were already bound to lose, consuming one another and being consumed themselves. But though the sycamore sent its wild, knowing wind and rustled the grasses at their feet, the men kept on. They became more, even as their buried souls yearned, even as their bleeding faces turned back towards the river and the tree that they had passed. Still the wind blew, sometimes in wisps and sometimes in gusts: In the worst case, it still alleviated Nature from the burning towers of fire that scorched the face of the plains; in the best case, it lifted the eyes and nose of one man among thousands, a man whose weary, beaten soul was still open to the Something Else that churned within him, beckoning him home.
The return—the sycamore was old and tired, but oh, it lived for the return. In the return, after stumbling through the plains and following the wind, the man would tremble against the tree, shaking not so much from the fatigue of his journey but from the good newness of the cool red-and-white bark against his cheek. For as he rested against the solid trunk, the horrors of the game he had played seemed to pass through his mind and into the sycamore, which accepted them, flushing them out through its roots and into the river below. The man did not forget the game itself—it was necessary to remember—but gradually his soul breathed evenly again, no longer tormented by the appetites that had relentlessly sought its life. And when the man became strong enough, as he learned to climb the tree, he found that he did not miss the empty fullness he had left behind.
There is much more that could be said about the game, and the men of more, and their smoldering crowns. But at the end of it all, what more should be said? The same thing that allowed the burning of the plains also allowed the heeding of the wind and the climbing of the tree. Should it not have been so? And if not, what then? A more sinister fate, surely, than volition—that terrible and beautiful thing.
No one can quite say what ended the game once and for all, but like the river, the earth is quiet now. Beasts do not prowl the plains and souls do not cower in fear. New grasses have grown over the ravaged land of before. Clay that was once imprinted with the shapes of fallen men has been smoothed over by many seasons of rain, the stench of the air fumigated by ever-passing gusts. Yes—the only sound out beyond the sycamore is that of the wind, which still whispers and blows, stirring the grasses, taking the few remaining memories of the horror they endured and carrying them back on the breeze, back to the swirling eddies of the river and the cleansing roots of the sycamore, which stands there still, quietly healing, at the gate to the out beyond.
Having grown up along the North Shore of Lake Superior, Shannon Baker has always felt most at home in the outdoors. Now, living in central Iowa, she still draws inspiration from the wild spaces around her to create stories and poetry bent on transmitting messages of hope, joy, and redemption that is ever-present in the natural world. Her other poems and stories appear in Plain China: National Anthology of the Best Undergraduate Writing and elsewhere. You can read more of Shannon’s stories and poetry here.