The commoners of the Greek empire turned to mythos to explain the natural processes that befuddled them. So they asked Sloppamedes, the village elder who carried the full freight of their oral tradition, yet another question: “Wise and sagacious Sloppamedes, why does Fernandus of Rodney wander the forests forevermore?”
Sloppamedes stroked his beard, which was the length and color of a buried femur. “Ah, yes, Fernandus of Rodney. The base ball-ist. Like the rest of us, you have spied him trundling without purpose among the quaking aspens. There is a tale here.”
The commoners huddled about him, and Sloppamedes began.
One afternoon a few or perhaps hundreds of years ago, manager Fergal Motherbuckles took the ball from Fernandus of Rodney after the pitcher had methodically imperiled a three run lead versus Rome. “Give me the blasted ball and get the hell off my mound,” Motherbuckles hissed and then began to conjure up unexampled combinations of profanity.
“This — this toil — I can do,” said Fernandus of Rodney. “I require only the faith of my overseer. Shall you place in me the faith to consummate what I have begun to author?”
“Give me the blasted ball and get the hell off my mound,” Motherbuckles said.
“The game is not lost, merely endangered,” said Fernandus of Rodney. “I beseech you: At long last, after all these numberless indignities spread across the years, give me the faith I need to fulfill what has been asked of me. Leave this ball in my hands and allow me to prove my mettle, which you persist in doubting with scant cause.”
“Away with you,” Motherbuckles shouted.
With a sigh deep enough to part intrepid waters, Fernandus of Rodney at last did as asked and began puttering toward the dugout. “Negator,” said the manager. “No dugout for you, not after that. Yonder’s where you’ll go, moundsman.”
Motherbuckles leveled his gnarled and splotchy finger at the woods beyond the outfield fence. “Yonder,” he said. “To thine wilderness ordeal.”
Fernandus of Rodney’s father told him two truths — that “seek” and “commune” are one’s guiding verbs and that when one is reading fiction one should should feel free to skip italicized passages — and, he was sure, one lie. It was the lie he thought about as he slouched his way toward the forest.
Once there, he followed a game trail. He dragged his spikes along the ground, towing with him piles of conifer straw. Grandfather Chestnut, the emperor tree of this swath of woods, regarded him from atop a nearby knoll. “You there,” thundered Grandfather Chestnut. “No one should be disconsolate in the woods. This is a place to seek and commune. This is the third heaven of which the apostle Paul will eventually write.”
“I’m sorry,” Fernandus of Rodney said to Grandfather Chestnut. He stared for a moment at the finger-like fronds hanging from Grandfather Chestnut’s high thin limbs, at the alligator-skin grooves encasing his sturdy, thumping trunk — the color of scorched umber. It was a wide trunk that seemed to pillar the sky. He thought again of the lie his father told him. “May I ask you something?”
“Yes,” said Grandfather Chestnut.
“My father once told me that trees grow from the top down. That leaves give way to buds, which yield stems and and branches and limbs, which grow into the trunk, which finally reaches the ground, and the roots fan out last. He said forests begin from the canopy. I do not believe him because no one else says this. Science does not say this.”
“Hmm, yes,” said Grandfather Chestnut. “And what do you think? Do you think we grow toward the sun or the beating heart of the earth?”
“I don’t know. I believe I do not believe him.” said Fernandus of Rodney. “May I rest and think about it?”
“Of course,” said Grandfather Chestnut. “You know, I can see the field from here. Pitcher’s pitch, that last one. He just hit it. Don’t blame yourself. Motherbuckles knows not whereof he speaks. You may stay among Grandfather Chestnut’s woods as long as you require.”
“Thank you, Grandfather Chestnut. My name is –”
“I know who you are, Fernandus of Rodney. And I knew your father.”
Fernandus of Rodney’s sleep replenished him. He waved goodbye to Grandfather Chestnut, who towered above his copse in astute silence, and took the long way back to the field. The leaves of the giggling, companionable saplings whispered against the sleeves of his jersey as he made his own trail through the woods. He at last emerged into the sun field and walked determinedly to the dugout, even though he still felt the tug of the trees he’d left behind. Motherbuckles fired tobacco juice between his front teeth at the cleated feet of Fernandus of Rodney. “Last chance for you,” he said. “Get warmed up.”
Staked to a five-run lead in the ninth, Fernandus of Rodney was summoned from the bullpen and handed the ball by a glowering Motherbuckles. “Easy work to earn hard work,” he said to Fernandus of Rodney. “Herein fail not.”
Command of his slider eluded him, and on seven pitches Fernandus of Rodney struck seven batters. Cleanup hitter Rocky Beethoven, Rome’s finest batsman, stalked to the batter’s box, and Motherbuckles climbed the steps and advanced toward the mound.
Many fathoms away, Grandfather Chestnut thought — at many times the rate of human thinking — back upon the time when Fernandus of Rodney’s father slipped into the woods in the darkest moments of a night many years ago and disabled the sleeping bulldozers with a scimitar into their tires, crippling porridge into their fuel tanks, and ladles of molten steel onto the joints of the blade lift cylinders. “You there,” Grandfather Chestnut said. “Why do you do this?”
Ulisus of Rodney stood up, his hat cocked sidelong by his efforts. “Like you,” said Ulisus of Rodney, “I stay in one place — albeit not precisely yoked to the ground as you are — wish to be left alone, and am mostly water.”
“And because of that, you risk saving us.”
“Would you have me do nothing? The fields of baseball should conform to what came before them, not the other way around.”
“How can we chestnuts repay you?”
“I doubt you will ever have the chance,” said Ulisus of Rodney. “And for that I am glad.”
It was then that Ulisus of Rodney was momentarily distracted by the distant scream of a snowshoe hare felled by a hungry lynx. Because Ulisus of Rodney was not in the moment, his next words came out italicized and this did not penetrate Grandfather Chestnut’s fixity of purpose. “Repayment when there is no debt upsets an essential balance,” Ulisus of Rodney said while still listening for the squeals of the hare. “This is both wisdom and warning.”
“Hmm, yes, whatever you just said,” said Grandfather Chestnut. “Recall that I am rooted to the earth. I don’t mind that insofar as it goes, but it does make me difficult to persuade.”
“Then it is good that you surely shall never have the chance to repay me,” said Ulisus of Rodney.
“Well, well, well,” Motherbuckles, fists on hips, said to Fernandus of Rodney. “Got yourself in the rat patch once again. Gimme the ball.”
Watching on from the forest beyond the outfield, Grandfather Chestnut closed his eyes and summoned up a rumbling from deep within the innermost tissues of his heart. “Burgeon, my children,” he whispered in arboreal sanskrit.
A high ring of chestnut seedlings began to wreathe the mound. In seconds, they flowered into leaves, which begat spindly twigs, which begat limbs, from which descended a sentry of shoulder-to-shoulder trunks — all beneath an emerald thunderhead of leaves. “What in tarnation hellfire,” gasped Motherbuckles.
“My father told me of this,” said Fernandus of Rodney.
“Yes, ignore the italicized passages when reading fiction” said Motherbuckles.
“No,” said Fernandus of Rodney. “This is something I took to be a lie until now. The ground beneath us is the terminus for the tree, not the origin. The boffins among us would have us believe otherwise.”
Fernandus of Rodney was by then fully surrounded by chestnuts on the mound, with not room enough for not even a ribbon of sunlight between the trunks. Back in the forest, Grandfather Chestnut intoned, “Assemble, my occasionally harmful allies.”
A descent of 32 woodpeckers, one from every point on the compass, swarmed the chestnut trunk facing home plate as though pulled there by an ancient lodestone. They pecked with awful purpose until a full front-through-back knothole large enough for a slider to pass through confronted Fernandus of Rodney.
“Bless you, my Chestnuts,” said Fernandus of Rodney. “At last I shall be allowed to finish my toil.”
In their haste, the commissioned woodpeckers had not accounted for Fernandus of Rodney’s rather high arm slot. He dropped to low three-quarters in order to finesse his offering through the knothole and as such did not throw it true. Instead of his finest slider he threw a pitch as fat and sore as an unmilked cow.
At the plate, Rocky Beethoven, who had been coiled in his stance for several minutes while all of this carried on, untwined himself upon that pitch with a ferocity not seen before on that or any other diamond. Back in the forest, the starlings mistook the blast for a war drum and rose in a wave. Grandfather Chestnut’s smile escaped — the only thing about him capable of escaping — as the baseball rose toward him. A Greek chorus in the stands readied the crowd for the lamentations that would soon be necessary. Deep within the loam and humus of stinking infinitide, Ulisus of Rodney roused from his earned rest long enough to say, “Grandfather Chestnut, I admonished you not to repay me.”
As the ball advanced toward Grandfather Chestnut he began to warn his retinue of lesser chestnuts to flee, but in his last instant he remembered that, yes, of course we are trees and are tethered to the earth, of course we cannot flee. Rocky Beethoven’s home run thundered Grandfather Chestnut between his widened eyes.
Deep in the furthest eukaryotes of Grandfather Chestnut, a malady pent up for centuries was loosened by the force of the ball. It coursed up from the tendrils of his roots into this trunk and limbs and then leaves. As he died he gasped and released the blight into the forest air. It fell to the ground and wormed its way into the roots of the other Chestnuts. Within moments they too succumbed.
The wind that had aided Rocky Beethoven’s homer changed course and carried the blight onto the trees that surrounded Fernandus of Rodney on the mound. As the Romans continued to celebrate Rocky Beethoven’s home run, those trees died and receded. Motherbuckles from the top step pointed to the woods yet again, and Fernandus of Rodney knew this time his banishment was an everlasting one.
In the forest, he found the husks of hundreds of dead chestnut trees — so skeletal that it seemed winter had suddenly descended. Black and orange grasshoppers that looked like fetal vampires crawled over the corpse of Grandfather Chestnut. “Grandfather Chestnut,” said Fernandus of Rodney. “I am truly sorry.”
“You are no longer welcome to seek and commune here,” said a voice behind him.
He turned and saw a council of quaking aspens eyeing him warily. “But I have been banished here,” said Fernandus of Rodney.
“Your hubris has killed Grandfather Chestnut and all lesser chestnuts.”
“Yes,” said Fernandus of Rodney as he stared at the dead sentries about him. “I suppose it has.”
“Let us caucus,” said one quaking aspen.
After a few moments, they turned to him from their huddle. “You may remain, only because Grandfather Chestnut so admired your father,” their leader said.
“Thank you, gracious aspens.”
“But you may not stand still here. We trees stand still because we must — we are rooted to the earth, as Grandfather Chestnut used to say — and while you are among us, you are not of us. You must forever tread these paths, never stopping to seek and commune, never rooting yourself to this earth. The moment your footfalls cease, the place of banishment shall also banish you. You shall walk among the dead chestnuts until the history of history has been written.”
“This is not merciful,” said Fernandus of Rodney. “Yet it is just.”
So Fernandus of Rodney began his eternal journey among the trees that remained beyond the outfield wall.
Yet by that faraway point in the tale, no one was listening to Sloppamedes any longer.