“She sighed for Agnes’ dreams, the sweetest of the year.”
-Keats, “The Eve of St. Agnes”
Stuffed sparrows. Roasted capons. A lamb glistening over a spit. Armor and tapestries line the castle walls. A lute plays, and candlelight flickers. Outside a blizzard howls. I glide in a dress with flowing, lacy sleeves. A man takes my hand. We rush out into a sea of white, and he’s so familiar, so….
I bolt up in bed. Darkness. I blink to get my bearings. Morning. January. I switch on my lamp, but the images linger.
It was a dream, Courtney. A dream, I tell myself. But it was so real, another part of me answers. Too, too real.
I hop out of bed and pull open the blinds. Snow. Thick flakes fall onto the backyard topiary that’s Mom’s masterpiece. About five inches on the elephant’s head. Not enough to call off school. I slip past my parents’ door to the kitchen and grind my organic Kenyan coffee beans. Wonderful, everyday normalcy.
My cell chimes as I’m steaming milk for my latte. At this hour it can be only one person. Trevor.
“I’ve decided what to wear to Winterlude,” she says.
Winterlude. The formal junior dance that’s the highlight of winter. I snagged Trevor ages ago.
“It’s about time,” I say as I froth my perfect foam. “It’s on Saturday.”
“I know, I know,” Steffi says. “I couldn’t decide. Blue or lavender.”
“Black. Sean, too.”
“Cool. You guys will contrast with my white. We’ll be like yin and yang.”
“Never mind.” That’s what I love about Steffi. She doesn’t clutter her mind with philosophical references.
“It’s on hold at Nordstrom’s. Go with me after school?”
I check my mental calendar. Thursday. “Can’t. I’m meeting with Ms. Schaefer after last period. Remember, Fundamentals of Advertising?”
“Ugh. Not with the Wart.”
“Who else?” By some drastic bad luck I was paired with Florian Warta to create an ad for Kickin’ Chickin’, a fictional chain of restaurants serving dead poultry fried in saturated oil. Bad enough that I’m a vegetarian. I begged for retail clothing, but Ms. Schaefer held firm. So far all we have is the theme song—“It’s delickin’! Kickin’ Chickin’!”—sung by a chorus line of pimply, rubber birds. Sort of like “Cats” without fur.
The thought of the Wart, especially after my dream, is making me ill. “See you soon, Steff.” I gulp my high-octane latte, fortifying myself for the day.
As I steer down snowy suburban streets, details from the dream push forward. The party in the castle was a wedding. My wedding. And he took my hand. The Wart. Wearing velvet pantaloons. A frilled ruff circled his neck, and his eyes bulged with lust. Florian Warta was the groom. And I, Courtney Chandler, was the bride. I had married the Wart.
I swing into the school parking lot and click off the engine. My armpits are damp, even on a frigid morning. Gross. Leaning back against the seat, I shut my eyes.
There’s more to the dream. And it gets worse.
After the wedding, the Wart led me to a red cushioned seat, caressed me, and kissed me in a way Trevor never had. Florian Warta was a dynamite kisser.
Sweat trickles down my sides. How can I face the Wart this afternoon? Not only that, he’s in my first period English class. I really, really don’t want to see him.
Tap tap. “Court?”
My eyelids flutter open. Trevor. I sit up and lower the window.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
My armpits are a soggy mess. “Um, nothing?”
“Let’s go. We’ll be late for English.”
English. Where the Wart sits directly to my right. Maybe he’ll be sick. Maybe his bus will break down. But no, there he is in his usual seat as I enter the classroom, his plaid shirt clashing with his striped pants, which are smudged with dirt. He glances at me, and my eyes go to his lips. Surprise. They aren’t totally horrible. Not too full, not too thin. Not too—
Trevor touches my arm. Solid Trevor, receiver for the Roseville High Rams. We’ve been together since fall. “See you after class,” he says heading to the back.
I nod dumbly and sit next to the Wart. After a while I realize Mr. Alden is speaking. “Let’s try to decipher this poem by Keats.”
Keats. Yeats. I can never keep those guys straight. I plan to major in marketing. Have to be well-rounded for college apps, though, so I turn to the correct page.
“The Eve of St. Agnes,” Mr. Alden reads aloud.
St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold.
Mr. Alden has a nice voice. Tweedy, like his clothes. Why do people dress according to stereotype? Mr. Alden in his tweeds, Trevor in his jock jerseys, the Wart in his mismatched shirt and pants? Don’t think about the Wart. But I’m helpless. With Mr. Alden’s voice as background, my thoughts stir back to the castle, the red cushioned seat, the caress. The kiss. THE KISS.
“Courtney? Would you continue?”
Oh, God. Luckily my cashmere sweater hides my sweat. What if I smell?
I flip through the pages. “Um, where were we?”
Chuckles from the class.
“Stanza six. ‘They told her how…’”
I clear my throat.
They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honeyed middle of the night,
Nervous chuckles now. My cheeks flame like the neon exit sign. I don’t dare look at Florian. Somehow I finish the stanza.
“Excellent,” Mr. Alden pronounces. “Diana, next please.”
As Diana Stark reads, I lean back and lecture myself. Courtney, you’re seventeen. You can say “virgin” and “visions of delight” without blushing like a sixth grader. Still, what is this poem? I flick through the pages. John Keats. English. 1795 to 1821. Hmmmm. How does a dead white guy know about “soft adorings” and “the honeyed middle of the night?”
Diana stops reading, and I regard with envy the perfect chestnut hair that cascades down her back. Diana’s job at Roseville High is to keep the rest of us on our toes. Guys don’t even ask her out. That’s how gorgeous she is. The fact that she’s super nice doesn’t matter.
“Florian?” Mr. Alden says. “Continue, please.”
I make my brain do calculus problems. But as the Wart drones on, one line jumps across the aisle.
“‘She sighed for Agnes’ dreams, the sweetest of the year,’” he reads.
Dreams? Did he say dreams? The bell rings and Trevor’s at my side before I can gather my thoughts.
Somehow I get through Chemistry and French. At lunch, my panini sandwich tastes like two slabs of sawdust. While Steffi chatters about Winterlude, I peek at Florian sitting with the Literary Club in a corner. The Wart likes literature? Fundamentals of Advertising looms before me, starring Florian Warta as the Groom and Courtney Chandler—young virgin—as the Bride.
In the restroom I feel my forehead and inspect my throat. I’m the picture of health. Where’s a sick day when I need one? Even my hair is shiny, thanks to my Jeune Organiques conditioner. There’s no avoiding it. I have to face the Wart.
The last bell rings. At my locker Trevor gives me a quick kiss—not even a distant relative of THE KISS. He tucks my hair behind my ears. The dream inches forward, and my face flames again. I’m using up extra red blood cells today.
“You’re blushing,” Trevor says.
“Am I? Must be hot in here.”
“In the hall?” Drafts of cold air rush through the open doors, and Trevor coughs. “Actually, I don’t feel that great,” he says.
His cheeks and forehead are blotchy. Poor Trevor.
“Go home and drink lots of orange juice,” I say, “and don’t forget the Echinacea. You have to be well for Winterlude.” I zip up his jacket like a kindergartner. “Call you tonight.”
I take a long, deep breath, fan my face, and head toward the media room.
Ms. Schaefer and the Wart are waiting.
“Ah,” Ms. Schaefer says. She frowns, not a good sign. The Wart stands beside her, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down.
She sighed for Agnes’ dreams, the sweetest of the year. Stop it, Courtney.
Ms. Schaefer chews on her pencil and studies the sketches for our chicken chorus line. “Well,” she says, “it’s a bit derivative. Reminds me of ‘Cats.’”
“Really?” I say.
Chew, chew, chew. The pencil has little teeth marks, like a beaver’s.
“The theme is catchy,” she acknowledges. “It’s delickin’! Kickin’ Chickin’! But the chorus line…I think you two can come up with something more original.”
The Wart and I exchange looks. Back to the drawing board? Not if I can help it.
“But Ms. Schaefer,” I plead. “The chorus line may be overused as an advertising vehicle, but, but….” What was that line from our history teacher? “But there’s something to be said for tradition, isn’t there?”
“Monday,” Ms. Schaefer says. “Your final presentation is due next Monday.” She tucks her beaver pencil behind her ear and leaves.
I cross my arms. The chorus line was the Wart’s stupid idea. Let him figure it out. True, I agreed to it. Also true, he did most of the work. But, still. I have Winterlude to think about this weekend, not a stupid chicken ad. And now Trevor may be sick. I stomp toward the door.
I flash around.
The Wart takes a step forward. “Did you like the poem in English this morning?”
I give him my iciest stare, which is difficult because I’m suddenly aware of his deep brown eyes. Like dark pools of espresso. “Why do you ask?” I manage.
“Well, I like poetry and….”
An image of Trevor pops into my head. Safe, solid Trevor. All-Star Athlete. Part of my Personal Marketing Plan. Florian Warta definitely doesn’t fit into that. “Gotta run,” I say. Forget the poem. Forget the dream. Concentrate on Winterlude.
That’s the end of that.
Or so I think. All evening, while I conjugate French verbs, while Trevor coughs and sneezes on the phone, “The Eve of St. Agnes” darts through my head. How does the poem go?
After hanging up, I find the pages and turn to the scene where Madeline, the heroine, awakens in her dim room where “shone the wintry moon.” She sees Porphyro, the hero:
He ceased—she panted quick—and suddenly
Her blue affrayed eyes wide open shone.
Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone.
Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep—
“Don’t stay up too late.” Mom’s head appears in the doorway. She comes into the room and smoothes my Winterlude dress. “All ready for the big dance?”
Mom loves to recall her girlish days in the seventies. Disco, platform shoes, strobe lights—the whole package.
I nod. “I’ve got a lot of homework.”
“What are you reading?”
“Nothing. A poem.”
“Who’s it by?”
“Oh, the Romantics.” Her eyes get all glassy. “What’s it about?”
“Well—” This poem is getting under my skin. Madeline. Porphyro. St. Agnes. Dreams. My dream. THE KISS. They’re connected somehow. I have to talk to someone, but not Mom. I can’t even tell Steffi. “Not sure yet,” I say.
“Sleep well,” Mom says. The door closes behind her. I go to bed afraid to dream. Or am I hopeful?
On Friday morning, I arrive at school early and bound toward Mr. Alden’s homeroom. He’s the only one who might know more about the poem and what it has to do with dreaming.
“An early bird,” Mr. Alden says, using the sort of cliché he tells us to avoid.
“I was wondering about this poem,” I blurt.
Mr. Alden’s irises light up. His brain waves are practically visible. Marketing student discovers the joys of poetry. Success!
“The Eve of St. Agnes?” he prompts.
“Right. You said something in class yesterday.” Yesterday when I wasn’t paying attention. “About how this poem connects to dreams?”
“Yes, yes.” He flies off his chair to pull a large volume off the shelf. “‘The Eve of St. Agnes,’” he reads out loud. “‘The night of January 20th, when, according to medieval legend, a young woman will dream of her future husband.’”
He looks up. “Madeline dreams of Porphyro on the feast of St. Agnes, and of course he shows up and they escape into the snowy night. ‘And they are gone, ay, ages long ago, these lovers fled away into the storm.’”
“What did you say?”
“‘And they are gone—’”
“No, no. January what?”
“The twenty second,” I repeat. “So yesterday was the twenty first.”
“And Wednesday night was January 20th. The Eve of St. Agnes.” The night I dreamed about Florian. The night a young woman will dream of her future husband.
“That’s why we read the poem,” Mr. Alden says. “I explained all that in class.”
“Did you?” My pulse is skittering all over the place. “You said it’s a medieval legend, right? That’s centuries ago. No one has dreams like that anymore.”
Mr. Alden taps the page. “We can’t discount legends so easily.”
“We can’t?” I feel faint. “So it’s possible that a girl can dream about who—whom—she marries? Like it’s fate, or a death sentence?”
He laughs. “I wouldn’t call it a death sentence, unless the young woman despised the man in the dream.”
Do I despise Florian Warta? Not exactly. But marry him? I have college. Grad school. My Personal Marketing Plan. I can’t be tied down with little Wartas tugging at my apron strings. If anyone still wears aprons.
Still, there’s THE KISS. No ignoring that.
“Why these questions?” Mr. Alden asks.
There’s no one else to talk to. “I have this friend….”
He raises his eyebrows.
“Okay, it’s me. I had this dream. On the Eve of St. Agnes.”
“Go on.” He leans forward.
I give him the short version. The castle. The wedding. The music. The dress. Then I come to the groom. I can’t tell Mr. Alden about the Wart.
He forms a steeple with his fingers. “Have you heard the term ‘negative capability?’” he asks with little hope in his voice.
I picture Dad scowling at the bills. “Is that like zero financing?”
“No. Keats again. It’s about accepting mystery and doubt.”
“So I should accept that I’m going to marry Fl—the guy in my dream?”
“No. Accept the mystery. That’s all. As Keats said, “‘When man is capable of being in uncertainties.’” Mr. Alden smiles. “Or woman, we’d add in our times.”
Uncertainties. That’s exactly why I can’t be a liberal arts major. Some people love mystery, doubt, and uncertainty. Like Steffi. But I’m not one of them. I’m a business-plan, bottom-line person, and so is Trevor. As Steffi says, we’re the Practical Couple.
Mr. Alden’s head hovers over the old book. “By any chance, in your dream you didn’t stick a row of pins in your sleeve and recite a paternoster as you pulled them out?”
“It’s the Lord’s Prayer in Latin. In 1696, John Aubrey wrote that pins and paternosters helped stir up the dreams.”
“I bet they did.”
“How about fasting the night before?” he asks.
Fasting? I think back. “Well, Mom made a gross lamb stew and I’m a veg—”
“Did you say lamb?”
“What about it?”
“Lambs are the symbol of St. Agnes. She was beheaded in 304 for refusing to marry. A mythology grew up around her in the Middle Ages. Keats immortalized her in poetry.” His fingers form another steeple. “The word ‘Agnus’ is Latin for lamb.”
“Are you sure it’s not Latin for loony?” I mumble. Thank God I didn’t tell him about the lamb glistening at the medieval feast. This is weird. Lambs, pins, beheadings?
I thank Mr. Alden, but I doubt I’ll confide in my English teacher again. Concentrate on important things. Winterlude and Trevor. Let the Wart worry about Kickin’ Chickin’.
In the doorway I bump into—guess who? The dark espresso pools are deeper today. I focus on the muddy smudge on his shirt. “You have a stain,” I say.
Florian glimpses down. “Oh, that. I walk homeless dogs from the shelter before school.” He rubs the smudge, making it worse. “I have to talk to Mr. Alden.”
“I hope you understand Latin.”
“I do.” His forehead crinkles. “Why?”
Latin. Literary Club. Homeless dogs. The Wart is a mix of surprises. Interesting surprises.
“No reason,” I say. I hurry off.
I wake up late on Saturday morning. Snowflakes sift down like crystallized sugar. The lion, elephant, and kangaroo topiary in our yard—at least there isn’t a lamb—are sparkly mounds. I lie back and stretch. Snow. How romantic for Winterlude. Perfect for my white dress.
I better check on Trevor. The Echinacea must have worked by now.
My cell rings before I can reach for it. Trevor’s number.
“Winter Wonderland,” I chirp.
“Courtney, bad news.” His mom. “Trevor’s got the flu.”
I struggle to process the rest. Cocooned in quilts. Can’t talk. So sorry.
“But…but….” I sputter. I’m sorry, too. For Trevor and for me. I’m dateless for the biggest event of winter. Way too late to find someone else. Unless…. No, impossible.
I stare out the window. Am I truly disappointed about Trevor? We’re a couple, but what does that mean? Is Trevor more than an item to check off on my Personal Marketing Plan?
I call Steffi, who asks me to join her and Sean.
“Sure,” I agree. Better than staying home thinking about lambs and chickens.
By the time I’m dressed, the snow’s formed into solid sheets. Giant flakes hurl themselves against the windows. Brittle tree branches sway. Dad’s worry lines deepen and he insists on driving Steffi, Sean, and me.
When we step into the school gym, I almost trip on my strappy sandals.
Medieval armor. Tapestries lining the walls.
The gym’s been transformed. Steffi and Sean rush to join the dancers, and I sink into the nearest folding chair.
What? It can’t be.
“Fl-Florian?” The Wart at Winterlude means that someone agreed to go out with him. Wait. Who’s that gorgeous girl hanging onto his arm, the one with cascading chestnut hair?
“Hi,” Diana Stark says.
“Hi,” I squeak.
“Great dress,” she says. “Like a bride’s.”
“A b-bride?” How did I not notice? The flowing, lacy sleeves.
“Are you okay?” the Wart asks. “You look pale.”
Pale as smooth-sculptured stone.
Diana places her hand on my forehead. “We heard about Trevor’s flu. Maybe you caught it. Come on.”
I trail behind the goddess of Roseville High to the restroom.
“Diana!” A million girls descend at once. “What are you doing with the Wart?”
My question exactly.
“I asked him,” she says simply.
She pulls out her little bag and touches up her perfect smiling lips. End of discussion.
I soar back to my dream. The red cushioned seat. The caress. THE KISS. Oh God, THE KISS. I pat my neck with cold water, then somehow tear my sleeve on the paper towel dispenser.
“Great,” I say.
“Not to worry.” Diana whips a sewing kit out of her bag. Of course. Who else carries around a sewing kit? She screws up her face. “Only dark thread. How about if I pin it?”
“Pins?” My voice raises an octave.
“Don’t worry, it won’t hurt.” She tucks three small pins into the lace. “You can’t even notice.”
I find myself back in the gym. Mr. Alden is flapping his arms on the dance floor. Steffi and Sean stroll my way.
“Having fun?” Steffi says. As she and Sean kiss, a boulder of self-pity settles on me. “Okay by yourself?” Steffi asks after she unglues her lips from Sean’s.
I shuffle toward the wall, touching the pins in my sleeve. How do you say “wallflower” in Latin? The only word I know is paternoster. Above the tapestry decorations, a painting of our school’s mascot, the Ram, butts its head against a window. Outside, snow batters against the streetlights. A gust of wind wrenches off a branch.
Ram. Isn’t that a male, grown-up lamb?
“Would you like to dance?”
Two deep espresso eyes contemplate mine.
“Where’s Diana?” I stammer.
“She feels sorry for you, Trevor being sick and all,” Florian says.
“So this is a mission of mercy?”
“Just shut up and dance, okay?”
At least the band isn’t playing lutes. Naturally it’s a slow song. I move stiffly with Florian’s arms around me. Mr. Alden waves.
Then the room plunges into darkness. Thick silence fills my ears. Someone screams.
“It’s the storm,” a voice says.
Small lights began to flicker around the room. Candlelight flickers.
Florian takes my hand. “Wow,” he says. “Just like the dream.”
This can’t be happening. “D-dream?”
“The Eve of St. Agnes.”
“You mean the poem? When Madeline dreams about Porphyro?”
“No,” Florian says. “I mean the dream.”
“How do you know about that?”
“I talked to Mr. Alden.”
I yank my hand away. “He didn’t—”
“Don’t worry, he didn’t mention you. I had a hunch. When I ran into you in the hall. The same dream came to me. On January 20th. Apparently I’m the first documented male to dream of his future bride on the Eve of St. Agnes.”
“Future bride?” My sandals slide from under me. Florian catches me by the elbow. Does he know about the cushioned seat and the caress? Does he know about—
“Florian,” I say.
“You don’t believe in that stuff, do you?”
“You know. Dreams and lambs and…future brides?”
“Courtney,” Florian says, putting his arm around me. “Remember what Mr. Alden says? Mystery and doubt. Life isn’t all marketing plans.”
“It isn’t?” My head pulses with heat. Maybe I do have the flu. Florian’s arm is starting to feel very, very good.
“‘And they are gone,’” Florian quotes. “‘Ay, ages long ago, these lovers fled away into the storm.’”
“Wanna go? We can fight our way through the snow for hot chocolate. I’ll tell you my idea for Kickin’ Chickin’. It’s due Monday, remember?”
Kickin’ Chickin’. I totally forgot.
Florian grins. “Here’s a hint. Picture a medieval banquet.”
“What about Diana? You can’t leave your date.”
He gestures to the dance floor. Diana Stark is swaying with Craig Jensen, class president, in their own private ballet. She winks at us and gives Florian a thumbs-up.
“She knew no one would ask me,” Florian says.
I blush in the candlelight, this time from shame. Did I really call him the Wart?
“Well?” Florian asks.
Do I want to flee into the storm with Florian? What about Trevor?
“I’ll be right back.”
I glide to the main double doors and push them open. A group of smokers huddles near the entrance. I step beyond them into a sea of white. Snow swirls around the dark trees. An owl hoots. The world is quiet and cold and beautiful, like smooth-sculptured stone.
Thoughts tumble through my head. Trevor, Florian, Keats.
Am I ready for mystery in my life? A line from the poem echoes through the stillness. I say the words out loud, my voice as strong and as soft as snow. “‘Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be.’”
If I’m going to be fearless, I need the help of St. Agnes. I shut my eyes, letting my mind become a slate. What did Mr. Alden say about stirring up the dream?
“Paternoster,” I whisper. Slowly I remove the pins from my sleeve.