Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Surveying the Sacred

May 11, 2023

Christina Brown

I squinted as I looked across the field. Barren. Pocked with holes and ditches of war. Crusty blood and ash mixed with the mud. It groaned. (At least, I thought maybe it did. Inaudible, but the soul-sound? I thought I could hear it.) 

The field stretched out and touched the trees, bare against the cold, gray sky. I shivered. Closing my eyes, I took a steadying breath. The cold pierced my nostrils. Hugging my clipboard into my armpit, I leaned down to shift the soil with my rough-hewn pencil. SO MUCH SOOT. I made a note. 

I peered up at the ashen sky – was it going to rain? Maybe the old battlefield made the sky feel grayer – like the drizzle of heaven’s tears were always ready to fall. A crow cawed in the distance. (Why was I shivering so much?)

I began walking gingerly across the field. I came upon crater after crater – it would take a lot of soil to fill these holes. I made a note. As the afternoon wore on, I felt an increasing pressure to vacate the field. Once I lost my balance to a chunk of unstable gravel on the edge of a particularly large hole I was attempting to measure. Why does this field feel like it wants to swallow me up? I felt like a trespasser – and yet, I had a right to be here – it was my job, after all. Why had I taken this job to begin with? I never saw myself as a surveyor… Dumb question, Bobby. “The war to end all wars.” We all took what we could get, even if it meant staying in France. It’s just a job. Besides, I was lucky to get it.

I looked up from a particularly pebbly stretch of soil to peer at the sky. Was it darker?

Time was hard to measure in this place. Like the shell craters. It was unnerving. Just a job. I jotted down some notes about acidity levels and continued walking. 

Who would want to build something in this place? Too many ghosts – it felt like the wounds of the whole world were festering in this field; it was better suited to a monument to honor the past than a factory where the self-serving shoe soles of profit-seekers trampled the hallowed ground of souls who bled out beneath them. If it wasn’t such a creepy thought, I would have smirked at the clever homophone. I didn’t. I shuddered, instead.

The further I walked, the more unsettled I felt. I wasn’t just a trespasser, I was a participant. My soul stung with the wounds of evil. 

Normally I wasn’t one to be saddled with other people’s problems. (Though it felt horribly irreverent to even refer to the battle here as ‘other people’s problems.’). But this was different. It wasn’t just an injustice; as I walked, I felt like I was both attacker and attacked – I had violated, and I was violated.

I shook my head vehemently to clear it of these strange thoughts. Time to finish up and leave this place. I’m not coming back here. If the buyer wants more information, I’m handing this gigue off to Johnny. He’ll cover for me. He’s a good guy.

I finished my work and left.

I think it was the dream – a nightmare of a kind I’ve never experienced. I had fallen into one of the ditches – I screamed and clawed at the earth, but the more I tried to clamber out the more gravel crumbled under my fingers and cascaded into the hole, covering my boots. I screamed for help, but I knew no one was coming. 

I was desperate, I was terrified, and suddenly a deep loneliness – of a kind I’d never experienced -overwhelmed me. And it hurt – it hurt so badly my heart ached with its weight, and I almost wanted to die in the ditch to escape it. I never knew that loneliness was coupled with hopelessness. Until now. Who knew what courage actually was, anymore? What did the soldiers feel, who battled above me and died beneath me after their bodies toppled into this ditch? How many pallid faces – horror glossed over their lifeless eyes — lay here at my feet before their corpses were recovered? How long was it before their loved ones could even grieve their loss? Were they grieved? All these thoughts ran through my head at once in nightmarish fashion – that subconscious space between rest and sleep where reason is only felt as heartsickness. 

And then the builders came. They couldn’t hear my screams as they began to level the land and the soil fell, smothering me – blinding me – and as I tried to scream, my mouth filled with soot and then… I suffocated. I died, and I felt it.

I don’t know if I fell back to sleep that night, but what followed my nightmare was a dream so vivid it seemed more vision than dream. It felt… realer than a dream, yet, clearly hadn’t happened.

The second dream – vision – whatever it was, went like this:

I opened my eyes – (from what was either my nightmarish death or a lifetime of blindness — I could not tell – but I felt my lids lift). And upon that opening, I was greeted by that same stretch of field. But I was no longer trapped in one of its pits, but standing on the edge of the field, once again, surveying its length. 

And I saw, (oh, what I saw!) was undoubtedly the soul-salve of the world – of all the soldiers who bled and died in this field, and others whose blood spilled out in seeming futility across the ages. 

Groves of orange trees with billows of cloud-like blossoms peppered the landscape, their roots filling the trenches with limbs of life. I couldn’t see it, but I knew their roots pulsed in the ash-strewn soil and wound through the blood-soaked holes in renewal. There was joy wafting through the air – a palpable joy! At first I thought it was the scent of the orange blossoms – but no, it was the nectar of joy, if such a scent could be described. I inhaled the succulence so deeply I thought I’d die of delight. And nothing sounded better, but I couldn’t stop gazing at the captivating landscape before me.

Elms, cypress trees, oaks, and a rivulet of clear water, tossing its sparkles into the sunlight, laughed to my left. (Yes, laughed. I heard it.) Everything was green – no, emerald – for it was glowing. And between the blades of grass grew sprigs of wildflowers, smiling up at the heavens. (Yes, smiles – I could tell. They were smiling.) And ahead at the edge of the field, at the far side of my sight, grew a garden – cultivated in profound fashion – and though I could not see the composition of the garden walls from where I stood, somehow I knew that the low stone wall threading across its entrance was built with the very pebbles and shrapnel of the explosions that had scattered their scars across this same landscape. I started. How could it be?

I hadn’t noticed until now, but the trees at the edge of that field were bigger than I remembered – ten times bigger – and stood beyond the garden. And at first I didn’t see it, but when I did, it filled my vision and it was the only thing I saw: 

It was a low wooden gate, centered in the middle of the stone wall, and it was open.

Beyond it, a path of lush moss led away into the forest like a carpet in the court of a king.

Scarlet pimpernel flowers grew along its edge.

It was then that I heard the call. My name was spoken, and yet, it was not a name I recognized. But somehow, I knew it was mine. Without hesitation, I strode boldly into that field. I walked towards that gate – I could focus on nothing else, though somehow I knew the trees, the stream, the flowers and the grass were singing me forward. When I got to that gate, my heart was pounding. Never had a thrill so deep or a longing so fervent filled my chest. But I stopped. I don’t know why. I peered into the forest, and saw a light begin to grow. So soft, so warm, so beautiful that my senses were dazzled. But as it grew, its brightness swelled. Suddenly I felt my eyes burning – I squinted, then shaded them with my cupped palm until the light grew so bright I was forced to squeeze them shut and look away. Then I heard a voice – impalpable – a soul-sound. 

My eyelids flew open in answer, but when they did, I saw only the confines of my room. The basin of water, cracked by my little brother ten years ago when it toppled off the table, sat cold and stony on my dresser. The thin curtains covering my window bled the red light of early morning through their threadbare sheen. I always hated red – red, the color of blood, of war, of hate… but as I gazed at it I couldn’t imagine what was so distasteful about it. The light through the cloth glowed like embers, and I felt warm in the chilly room. Fixing my eyes upon that window, I watched the dawn break through. And when the light penetrated the cloth in a soft pink I remembered – I remembered everything.

I leapt up and threw on my clothes, splashing the frigid water from the basin over my face. There was still hope. I had to talk to my boss before it was too late. The client was wrong, that field was sacred! Whatever was destined to be built upon that field, it was NOT about to be desecrated in avaricious ambitions if I had anything to do with it! I don’t put stock in dreams. But this one? It was different. 

I grabbed my clipboard, my stubby pencil, and left.

The featured image, “Stone Wall and Road,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.


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