We have returned to Castle Wheaton. Here’s a story about a different castle.



screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-9-14-38-amDriving on the left side of the road was nerve wracking as hell. The roads in Scotland seem to be much more narrow than the roads I’m used to, and Anne kept telling me that I was veering close to the left shoulder, almost letting the wheels go off the road.

It took me nearly two full days of driving, but I did get used to it, and I even figured out the proper way to navigate a roundabout, which was not the victory it may sound like, because it was the final roundabout I used before we returned the rental car.

Scotland was the most beautiful place I’ve been that wasn’t in the South Pacific. The highlands were just breathtaking, and for some reason we got perfectly clear skies and sunshine the whole time we were there. The thing I wasn’t prepared for at all, though, was how dark it got at night. There weren’t any streetlights. Now, Americans, let me be clear: I don’t mean that there weren’t a lot of streetlights, or that the streetlights were dim. I mean that there were literally zero streetlights. When we drove back to the house we were staying in after dinner in Portree one night, I could only see as far as my car’s headlights, which wasn’t even 30 feet, before the darkness swallowed up the light.

“I keep imagining what it must have been like to live here a thousand years ago,” I told Anne, as we drove slowly through the absolute pitch black of the moonless night, “like to be a spy, or to be a bandit, and to be just moving across these fields and trying to not get lost.”

“It was probably the same as it was a hundred years ago, or ten years ago … or like right now,” she said.

We had GPS on the car, which is the only way I was able to drive around without feeling massively stressed out and constantly in fear of getting lost.

We got back to the house, and got ready for bed. The house is like 800 years old and allegedly haunted (there’s no such thing as ghosts, people) so walking through it in the dark was fun for my imagination.

In fact, just being in Scotland was fun for my imagination, but that’s not what this is about.

This is about how Anne woke me up in the middle of the night and said, “I just looked outside and there are a billion stars!”

I got out of bed and we walked outside, stepping as lightly as we could on sharp stones that made up the driveway. I looked up, and saw, as promised, a billion stars. The Milky Way ran straight over our heads, and the air was so clear and still I felt like I could reach out and grab a handful of stars to take home with me.

“This is unreal,” I said.

“It’s like we’re on another planet,” she said.

“Except the stars are exactly the same as they are on Earth because if we were on another planet the stars would be in a different position,” I said.

Then: “Sorry. Pedantic. It’s a nerd thing.”

“I know.”

We stayed outside for several minutes, then went back to bed.

The next day, we went to look for the ruins of a castle our friend had told us about. The ruins aren’t on a map, he told us, so we were to go to a house, introduce ourselves to the owner as friends of his, and ask for directions.

So we drove down tiny, winding roads that made their way across low, rolling hills, dividing sheep pastures, stopping for the occasional herd of cows to make its way across. Around the time I was certain we’d gotten lost, we saw the little house he’d told us to find. There was a dog in front, and a man standing on his porch, drinking out of a mug.

I parked the car, and as I opened the door, congratulated myself on getting as far out of my comfort zone as I’d ever gotten. That part of my imagination that Scotland woke up? It was busy telling me that this guy had a cellar full of ancient spirits who demanded the souls of tourists in exchange for the lifeforce they’d been giving him for two centuries.

We got out of the car and introduced ourselves. “I’m Wil,” I said.

“I’m also Will!” He said with a smile. We shook hands. His was huge and soft where it wasn’t calloused.

“May I say hello to your dog?” I asked.

“Aye,” he said, “she’s a good dog.”

I reached down and let her smell my hand, avoiding eye contact so she knew I wasn’t a threat. She sniffed me and then began wagging her entire body before she licked my hand and crashed her head into my leg, just like Marlowe does when I come home.

“I think she likes you,” he said. It came out: Ah tank she lakes ye.

“We were hoping to walk up to the castle ruins?” Anne said.

“Ah, ’tis nothin but four walls,” he said. “It’s just a wee thing.” Et’s jest ah wee tang.

“We’re easily impressed,” I said. “Being from America, and the young part of America, at that.”

He laughed. “Okay. Go to that road and follow it for about twenty minutes. You’ll see it. But it’s just four walls.”

“Thank you,” I said. I realized that I’d been speaking as slowly as I could, and wondered if my accent sounded as thick and inscrutable to him as he sounded to me.

“Yeah, thank you,” Anne said.

I pet his dog again and she looked at me like she was going to go with us on a walk. That would have been fine by me, but he called her into the house. When he got to the door, he said something to us, but the distance and the thickness of his accent made it impossible for me to understand. But he said it with a smile and a wave, so I imagined that it wasn’t, “when the spirits rise from the bog to eat your souls, try to face North so it goes quickly.”

screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-9-13-16-amAnne and I walked up the road, and followed it across and around and over some small hills. There were sheep everywhere, and these short, stone walls that could have been hundreds of years old. We were close to the sea, and the smell of the salt was heavy in the air.

After about twenty minutes, we came up the castle. It was, as described, just four walls, a small square not even twenty feet tall, sort of like something you’d build to survive your first night in Minecraft. It was across a field, about two hundred yards, from where we were.

“Do you want to walk over to see it up close?” I asked Anne.

“Yeah,” she said, “it seems a little dumb to come all the way here and stop this close to it.”

So we started across the field, and that’s when my foot sank into the bog.

It happened slowly, then all at once, as the saying goes. My foot came down on some grass, it squished underneath me, and then in a sporp of mud and a splash of water, it sank.

“AHH!” I shouted, convinced that I was going to sink into the bog and drown. I planted my other foot and yanked my foot out of the mud, jumping back in one motion that I’d like to describe as fluid, but was anything but.

Around this time, Anne was sinking into the bog a few feet away from me.

“Shit shit shitshitshit!” She shouted, dancing her way out of the mud in a manner that I am confident was more graceful and elegant than mine.

“Are you okay?” I said.

“Yeah. My shoe is soaked, though.”

We looked at each other. Each of us had one mud-soaked shoe, and we were out in the middle of this field that, in my imagination, was the dead marshes from Lord of the Rings. The sheep all around us were laughing at us.

“What do we do?” Anne said.

“Well, we can go back the way we came,” I said.

“No, let’s just find a way across that’s dry.”

“And watch out for the ROUSes.” I said.

img_1409We looked around and saw that maybe we weren’t in the middle of a bog, but were on the edge of some soft ground that was covered with slowly running water. We saw that there was a fence to our right, and we could walk along it, as it was in ground that was slightly raised and at least looked dry. So we did, and in short time got to the castle ruins, which was just four stone walls, each not more than thirty feet to a side. It didn’t look like a castle as much as it looked like a small fort, probably to look out onto the sea, but it was older than the oldest thing in my entire country, and I could put my hands on it, and that made it worth the whole muddy bog thing.

We walked around it, took a bunch of pictures, and then noticed that there was an entirely dry field, full of sheep, that we could walk through to go back to the road.

“I can’t believe we didn’t see this on the way here,” Anne said, as we walked through it.

“Counterpoint,” I offered, “we did get to walk through a bog to see the ruins of a castle, and that’s a story we get to tell for the rest of our lives.”

“I don’t know if stepping into mud actually qualifies as walking through a bog,” she said.

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” I said.