At the castle no one was royal. They dragged along their common provenances, hometowns banging around on the cobblestones behind them like oxygen tanks keeping them all alive. In front of me an American woman blathered on about history to the cashier, a Scottish man who looked like he had fought in both World Wars and developed all of his wrinkles by falling asleep face first on presidential biographies.
“We don’t have castles in America, because that’s when the Native Americans were there,” she said, word for word, in a baby voice.
She suggested that he really should make time to visit the northern seaside, and named a town there that she had liked in the way an aristocrat might say Cartier to the homeless. He gave her a scathing look, as though pounding waves of his battle-spilled ancestral blood had carved the very contours of the Scottish coastline, and handed her a ticket.
It was my turn. He asked me where I was from.
“Canada,” I lied, so as not to be associated by a commonality as thin as nationality with the woman who preceded me.
The tickets were about $30 USD. At least it’s free to visit the White House. We have some things going for us.
Beyond the ticket gate the grey stones of Edinburgh Castle were rain-soaked to black. The other tourists and I became zombies at the behest of our individual audio tours, wandering around the grounds glassy-eyed, bits of history lost on our daydreaming, foreign minds. A group of unruly schoolchildren sat on the ground eating oranges. Citrus disagreeably robbed the air of its earthiness, its wet stones, dirt and gunpowder. When it was time for a lesson the children fled, leaving their modern trash behind: fruit juice bottles, orange peels and plastic shopping bags crinkling in the wind. The base of the only remaining segment of the twelfth century castle looked like a littered patch of Interstate 405.
I found the American woman from the ticket line, now with her husband, at an overlook on the far side of the castle. The sheer rock faces of the Salisbury Crags angled skyward like a drawn knife over the grasses of Holyrood Park. Gothic spires formed the black peaks of Edinburgh’s jagged old skyline.
“They have castles poppin’ up outta nowhere!” cried the husband. He wore a knit Denver Broncos ski hat, shifted his weight in basketball shoes, and jingled the coins in his pocket. He gave the impression that he was agitated about missing a football game. At the time it was 3:00am in Denver, and a Tuesday at that.
“Fhak. That’s fhaking beautiful. I could live heah. I could live heah no problem,” said another man taking in the view. He had a big pink face wet with sweat. He pulled off a fleece sweatshirt and revealed a Red Sox t-shirt with Yastrzemski printed on the back. His friend was in a MIT Campus police sweatshirt. They wore their hometown like house keys on cords around the necks of little boys. Everything about them said that they belonged to somewhere else. They would never fall through the cracks of this or that ancient city. They would always be pointed home.
All of the tourists gathered around a fancily dressed solider giving an inaudible speech in front of a cannon. They held up digital cameras, iPads and phones and littered the space with the garbage of beep-beeps and misappropriated flashes illuminating nothing.
He fired the cannon. An explosion burst forth and its burned debris floated softly in the wind, like gentle little murderers. We all gasped and screamed. The sexy girl next to me jumped a mile and swore in some foreign language. She had an underfed waist and overinflated breasts. She wore tight, cheaply embroidered jeans and wobbled on the cobblestones in leopard print high heels. She looked around uneasily, like an alligator in a pit of marshmallows, looking for purchase for her assets, and found none.
We dragged each other back to the places that possessed us. The black castle left no mark. Its glitter and prestige did not dull our nationalities. It did not obliterate the ways our countries teach us to behave.
We don’t have castles in America.
To us castles are cartoons, the candy-colored settings of fairy tales. I wanted an abandoned glass slipper on the steps. I wanted three drops of blood in the freshly fallen snow. I would never have expected that kind of magic from the White House. I was trapped in the Disney tower of my American girlhood, just as obviously from my own country as everyone else.
On my way out, the field-tripping children were running around the tiny rooms of the oldest, darkest part of the castle. The cried out ghost sounds and giggled in delight at the creepy echoes of their own voices, bouncing off the walls of dirt and stone, returning right back to them.