Arrived in the dark last night at a castle near a port town on the southwest coast of Scotland, woke to the sound of an owl stirring by our window so close it sounded like it could be in the house, in the walls, or human. When it was morning and we could see where we were I raced from window to window looking out each of the rooms, with bands of blue, pink and grey in the sky: the moon going down one side, the sun coming up the other, lochs on either side of us, one called Black Loch, the other one White – a clock on the stone archway stuck on quarter to five that didn’t seem right.
The tap water tastes like it had fish in it at one time and probably did. There’s more firewood than we could ever burn here but we’ll try. I drive to town for food, to survey what they have for Thanksgiving – greens called Cavalo Nero, unsmoked Gammon ham joint – and get blown off course driving home, trying to rely on instinct, spool off a roundabout the wrong way by the sea on a road I didn’t remember coming in on, blasts of ocean rain blowing through the street lamps turning umbrellas into cocktail toys, everyone wincing, bent against it; the navigator draws a purple arrow with me in a little white car and guides me back to London Road, estimates my return time in four minutes, and I can watch myself move through time and space just like I’m on a screen in a plane going home, counting the miles and minutes until we land.
And after the coarse language of drunks that starts outside our window around one every night in Edinburgh, I lay in bed in this old stone flat in the middle of nowhere marvelling in the silence, the brilliance of our plan to come here a few days for that bucolic calm you can only find in the country — and just as I’m feeling smug about the quiet the owl starts, and it’s a sharp, exaggerated, in-and-out breathing like he’s going to climax but never will, just keeps going, almost a braying sound, or a whinnying like he’s dying, or crying for attention, trapped in the walls, giving birth: and I go in and out of dreams with the owl, now a roomful of them with me in the centre, a kind of trial scene, and then I’m in a theatre in a conference centre for a Starbucks ceremony of some kind where everyone’s talking about the company, how long they’ve been there, crying and hugging – and wake to remember the busts of owls in an exhibit somewhere near Crater Lake in Oregon where you press a button to hear the sound different ones make and my kids do it like it’s a video game, and the sounds are just like the ones in our back yard back home, they kill by puncturing the vital organs of their prey we read – and outside Stirling castle they let us touch the marks in the wood on the castle door from the 16th century white witches who made symbols there to ward off evil, and they look like marks made by a claw or talon, and we rub them because they’re real.
And I think about my memoir, what to put in or leave out, the ultimate cropping exercise, how much is real or distorted – and the story of the mason’s apprentice at the church we stopped at earlier today, the Apprentice Pillar: the same chapel visited by Dan Brown, inspiring The DaVinci Code, the intricate crossroads of history, religion, mysticism and lore: the story of a pillar the mason was commissioned to construct but didn’t feel he was ready, he needed to go abroad for inspiration, and while he was gone his apprentice, barely a teenager, dreamed the design for the pillar and asked permission to do it himself and did, and it was so beautiful and perfect that when the mason finally returned home from his travels ready to start his work and saw it had been done by this boy so effortlessly, who “dreamed it,” a sign from God they thought, the mason flew into a rage and struck the boy dead with his mallet in a single blow. And he was hanged for his crime, with his face carved into a corner of the chapel ceiling to look upon the apprentice’s pillar as a kind of eternal punishment to remind him of what he’d done, with the visage of the apprentice in the other corner, smiling.
And when they began to restore Rosslyn Chapel the glass windows were gone and the interior over-run with moss and vines, and our guide says they truly couldn’t tell the difference between where the carved, ornate vines in the stone had ended and the real vines from nature had begun, they were intertwined. The story of the mason’s apprentice, the fact that all that art and vision was inside him, the same as the scenes played out around the insides of the chapel depicting all man’s virtues and sins, all we’re capable of. How the past is like that too, how we depict it ourselves when the glass is blown out and the building looks to be crumbling: the stories we create by piecing together what’s inside everyone of us, what’s real, made up, or somewhere far away.