The Dream of Angus

by Patrick Cotter

The undreamt life is not worth living.

Witness Angus, desolate and isolated,

although all loved him, a favourite son,

cherished for beauty, kindness, wit.

One glimpse of delight near stubbed him out.

He dreamt he washed slowly and carefully

in a river of molten silver

and clambered out, dripping moon–reflections.

Reflected also was the moon in a girl’s eyes,

in the glow on her breasts.

Her hair was so bright, it was a mystery:

was it a source of light like a flame

or a sharer of light, like gold?

Her breaking smile wiped clean his brain;

a smiling girl, so slender, so beautiful,

sitting beside the shadow of a yew.

How she stared.

Her eyes had an appetite which said:

"Oh how I like what I see, handsome man.

How wonderful your presence.

How peaceful your strength.

How strong your silence."

When he startled awake,

one small white feather

shuddered on his chest.

It was only a dream,

but it recurred, nightly, without mercy.

All his waking hours he vainly charged

his wits to draft an image of the girl

as vivid as in his sleep.

He rode each day, hopelessly,

in all directions, as far as his horse

could carry him, to meet her, to touch.

Soon the grief, grumbling

in the pit of himself,

blent with the writhings of hunger:

honeyed oatcakes

and mead-dipped venison

greened foul as his body wasted.

All he could do was lie still in bed

thinking on her and her smile,

feeling the flesh drip from his bones

like pig’s fat on a roasting spit.

Each morning a white feather

was plucked from his chest.

He told no one of his dream.

His wasting was a mystery.

Druids intoned incantations.

They fingered his body from scalp

to heel, searching for growths

and the wartings of revengeful spirits.

Nothing deterred his wasting.

In his dreams he was still a strong

and purposeful man, striding

out of the waters in front of her,

while awake he had not the power

to roll from his own cot.

Ferne, the physician of Coud was called.

He with the gift of scrutinizing a settlement’s

stream and deducing how many were ailing.

A mere glimpse of a man’s face

revealed to him the root of his disease.

He knew men morbid with love

for their brother’s wife,

or even their stepmother.

He insisted on speaking to Angus alone.

"Who is this woman you love?"

Angus spilt his story like milk from a goat’s teat:

the stream, the yew, the girl, the feathers.

Ferne knew, as sure as his own heart–beat,

this girl had to be.

No pure dream wasted men.

I have no time to tell

how Ferne found the girl,

not enough breath to tell the lengthy tales of bloodlettings

or of the trickery that stood between Angus and the girl

whose name was Cáer.

Cáer was daughter of Ethal, Ethal Anbuail.

Only after three score of his men

had heads hacked from their shoulders,

only after Ailil and Medbh of Connacht

threatened to unravel his own neck

to ragged sinews, did Ethal

confess how she was not his

for the giving, how he was powerless

over his own self–willed daughter.

She would be amenable to a man

just before altering herself

to the form of a white bird.

In this form she stayed all year

every second year.

Angus was told to greet her on the first day

of the following Samhain

when Cáer would change.

At Loch Bel Dracon Cáer was there,

looking as she did in his dreams:

a tall sinuous girl of delicate breasts

with hair of water–falling gold,

and skin so pale, so like vellum,

it glowed with the redness

of her own blood.

When the sight of him filled her eyes

her face was as rapt as in his dreams.

"Come and sit with me Cáer." he called.

"And what is your name brazen man?"

"Angus."

There was not one stirring of real distrust.

"I will only come to you if you let me

return afterwards to the water."

He knew her enchantments were strong:

he could never win her by trickery

or force. In truth she was his already.

She came to him.

For three days and three nights they lay

by the lakeside in a swan’s wide nest;

their wreathings, echoing

the bird’s rush–work.

After the third night they went to the water

and altered into swans,

spans broad as an army’s flank.

Cáer clung to Angus thereafter.

The rest of their lives they spent

changing from swans to gods and back,

They stayed forever enthralled

and never grew tired of the sight,

or touch, or taste of each other.