The story of the mason’s apprentice, portrait or landscape

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.

DSC_0007And 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.

Categories: travel, writing

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11 replies

  1. Rosslyn Chapel – surely a place to conjure in, with and by. And a lesson in creative envy too. Your journey is amazing me. I’m no sooner thinking you are in one place, than you’re somewhere else. Keep wishing you a benign following wind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lovely wishes Tish – thank you for them. Yes, what a place: could have lingered there a lot longer, will resonate in memory…and good images, the fact with masonry one can look at a block of stone and see such wondrous things, inspiring. Cheers my friend. – Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What an awesome metaphor for the imagination/memory, a sculpture so real you can’t tell the difference between stone and flesh.


    • It is good stuff, I’m glad for the story. A lot to chew on there, a place you can wander through and just let it fill you up with its vibe, and all that. Hope your holiday was nice my friend, and let the snow gods sprinkle good fortune upon you in the days to come. – Bill


  3. The pillar story reminds me so much of the old Scottish ballads, which were sewn through with those threads of “history, religion, mysticism and lore.” Someone ought to put this tale to music!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You should! Do you write your own songs? Probably feels like you’re busking again, here on the self-published station. I’m glad for you and think it’s good, for what that’s worth. REM sounded so much better when they really wanted to be heard, needed to. That’s a leap, but I’ll put it out there — we’re leaving Scotland tomorrow for Belfast, and 30 days in Ireland, hoping for some good writing and lore-gathering there. Thanks for reading Kevin and enjoy your weekend. – Bill


      • Funny you should ask. Why yes, I do write a song every now and then. Check out Canciones Originales on the front page of the blog. You guys might like “Halfway to Heaven,” since you’re on a long journey now…

        Most of them sound best on headphones, and, PS, I always say up front that I’m no singer, but the songs have words so I sung ’em. 😝

        Hope the float to Ireland went well!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. i love this story so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad! We were lucky we could visit. It’s about 40 minutes outside of Edinburgh; I had no idea what to expect and just plain loved it. Thanks for reading Beth and hope you had a nice holiday! – Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The thing is, I feel sympathy for the mason.

    Liked by 1 person

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