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:
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?"
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.