A GLASS DARKLY
How will the Future reckon with this man?
How answer his brute question?
― Edwin Markham, “The Man with the Hoe”
Earth could not answer.
― Edward Fitzgerald, “The Rubaiyat”
―SCOTLAND, THE HIGHLANDS, 1941
Like the teeth of some
great mythological beast, the sharp peaks of the hills and mountains bit into
the morning sky. Puffs of mist and fog blew about against the ominous red of the
sun in the morning chill.
Cold blue eyes sparkled behind the calibrated lenses of the
precision-made Steiner binoculars. Lieutenant Mark Chisolm focused upon the
gradually evolving detail of the land, animating it with the starkness of his
gaze. Reddish-brown hair and a complexion that still radiated the heat of summer
sun enveloped a strikingly mannish face with a straight nose, intelligent brow,
firm jaw line, and soft lips.
Perched upon a Munro overlooking the valley that separated him from the
opposite sequence of the skeltonic teeth of the horizon, he enacted the motion
of a great bird of prey. He scanned the valley below, piercing its morning mist
to illuminate its hidden spaces. The binoculars, a gift from his father at the
age of seventeen, four years earlier, were superior to any made in the United
States or Britain, and had accompanied him on his hunting forays into the
Montana wilderness and now into the military exercises across the commando
In a disciplined survey, he glassed the foreground of the valley hundreds
of feet below him, which extended for several miles in either direction. From
left to right and then back again, Chisolm gradually and systematically
reconnoitered the entire field, slowly and progressively moving his sights
toward the distant Munros. Only one road lay within his vision, passing by an
old inn that had only a year earlier been converted into a command center for
high-ranking British officers.
As he spied the mountains and their various undulations and outcroppings,
he noticed sheep on a distant height. This was nothing peculiar in and of itself
here in the Highlands. But it was in this particular region since the Crown had
forcibly removed or bought out all the land owners and sheep herders in the
area. This land was now used for military training only. This had caused some
resentment among the locals, who referred to this compulsory selling of their
land to the Crown as a second Clearing of the Highlands, an event of the
eighteenth century in which thousands of Scots had been forcibly removed from
the countryside and their means of livelihood in hopes of quelling the prospect
of any further rebellions against English rule.
Standing on the Munro, high up, memories of home and his father crept up
on him. Stretch the sinew and snap the brain; one you do smoothly, the other in
pain. Maybe his father was right, but he could never tell which was done
smoothly and which in pain. Physical accomplishments were exacting and often
done in distressingly unforgiving country, and the idea of a brain snapping into
quick thinking didn’t always comfort him with quiet reassurance.
Snap it like a whip, boy. The brain did not snap—too much in life required reflection. Still, his
father’s teachings forced him to confront the moment and respond and not duck
the occasions of living forcefully and excitedly.
Having been born and reared on a cattle ranch for Black Angus at over six
thousand feet, he found the training in the Highlands easier than the other
soldiers. The thin air of the Highlands seemed downright fat compared to the
thin air of the much higher Rockies. As he surveyed the surrounding terrain, the
voice of his father, now dead, spoke to him in ways that were as demanding as
they were consoling. He knew too that his father’s stealth in the woods came
from his own hunting days in the Highlands. He had violated Scottish law by
tracking and then killing red deer in retribution for the Crown having sent an
Englishman to be the local game warden. In two instances over a period of years,
his father claimed to have killed deer by stalking them with his knife, since a
gunshot was likely to attract unwanted attention. Moreover, even in his
father’s youth, guns were a rarity, except among the few with wealth enough to
spare. Venison was a delight that he and his family shared and about which they
could keep quiet.
Could a man really stalk a deer with a knife and bring it down? If
properly camouflaged and if the wind were blowing in the right direction, it
could be done. Chisolm had done it once as a sixteen-year-old, when going after
mule deer. Delicate, soft feet and sensitive muscle control had put him next to
a resting buck that ignored his crouched and incrementally moving body until it
was too late.
As he dropped his binoculars to his side, he involuntarily tensed
slightly in resentment at his father’s discipline and ruggedness. He thought
that his father might have been just fine had it not been for his heritage. He
had come from a clan known for their rascals and the fear among family members
was that father and son were still too much like their untamed ancestors. These
were kin who fought nobly at the Haughs of Cromdell and ignobly at Culloden, on
both the English and Scottish side. They had also thought that a distillery was
for selling their whiskey, not for paying the king’s taxes. It was a custom
maintained by his ancestors in Appalachia and, to a lesser extent, by his father
He snapped from this reverie and again held up his binoculars to survey
the mountains of Arran, when he noticed white dots high up on Ben Nevis: three
grazing sheep, stationary like painted clouds or lingering mist. His eyes went
past them as he surveyed the territory to their left and then back again as he
watched admiringly at their surefootedness as they then descended to a kind of
plateau that jutted out from the side of the mountain.
On a level outcropping stood the stone ruins of an ancient church.
Perhaps something abandoned during the Clearing of the eighteenth century. The
roof was completely gone, but the masonry of the edifice was firm, quietly
reassuring in its permanence and blending with the countryside. The stones that
made the walls were the color of the terrain from which they were taken:
quarries chiseled into the mountainside.
He scanned the mountain again, left to right, up and down. No sheep.
Where there had been three moments ago, there were now none.
Life in Montana had taught him sheep don’t just fly away. And even in
the mist of the Highlands, sheep don’t just disappear. Everything had to be
somewhere. But where were the sheep?
Unless, he thought comically to himself, these were specially trained
sheep that carried weapons and fell upon unsuspecting soldiers. What would they
be called? he wondered. The Woolen Warriors? The Mutton Marauders? The Lamb
Choppers? Or what about the Unshorn Shearers? His mind moved whimsically as he
hummed “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Maybe Mary was really a British commando
and she lurked in the Highlands, falling upon those who wore wool.
X X X X X
While he continued to scan the terrain, looking in the areas where the sheep had just been, another soldier with dark green eyes trained his binoculars on Chisolm from behind. Where he thought that Chisolm had been looking, he too focused. He watched as Chisolm climbed down into the glen and began his excursion toward the heights and to the ruins. Perhaps, he reflected, he might someday be on the next team selected in the punishing guerrilla warrior games in which Chisolm had already distinguished himself. If he were to do so, he would be Chisolm’s enemy, but not necessarily just another one of the six designated by the command. Chisolm had bothered him, perhaps because he realized that he bothered Chisolm. Moreover, Chisolm’s cordiality and linguistic virtuosity were a cause for envy. He got along too well with too many, and his gift of tongues elicited fires of resentment in the green eyes of this fellow soldier. Smoldering behind his binoculars, his eyes pierced Chisolm’s back like steel daggers.
Web Design by Mark C. Wentz | Copyright © Eric John Wentz 2009
Military photos courtesy of SSgt. Daniel Kozar (Ret.), United States Marine Corps