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What does it mean when the bridegroom arrives in the middle of the night? Was he tarrying at the wedding feast? And where is the bride? I don’t know, one of the girls says, I thought she was here. Her place would be here, with us to wait on her. Yet she couldn’t be here without one of us knowing. She is still with her parents, perhaps. The groom has forgotten something, perhaps the ring? He has returned here in a great hurry and is anxious to get the thing and return to the house of the bride’s parents. No need then to turn the house upside down. One of us can light him to whatever room he needs to go to to get the thing. Other female attendants will be helping the bride to celebrate the wedding at her parents’ house; they will help her to pass the time while he is absent, a short time in all likelihood; don’t they live in the neighborhood. Yet even an absence of five minutes can seem like an eternity to one in her situation. That is why in addition to the attendants there will be musicians and jugglers and so on to help her forget the passing minutes. For us there is still time to catch a few more winks. You, Kristin or Laura or Lucile can unbar the door when he knocks and show him to his quarters.

And already the others are sinking into the pathetic attitudes of sleep where they were before they awakened and began to puzzle out their predicament. Two are wallowing on a mattress behind the great stove. Others are slumped on the kitchen chairs and one is even on the table. One of course, Lucile or Laura, is dozing in the porter’s chair in the front hall, a mug of beer and a crust of bread within easy reach. The valets are snoring profoundly under the eaves in the attic; they, in any case are not on call; it is the girls who must answer the master’s summons.

Why, though? Aren’t they part of this whole household picture? Couldn’t they see to it that there are reserves of oil in the house, so that the foolish virgins, when the master arrives, won’t have to go out stumbling through the deserted town, trying frantically to find a shop that is open, pounding on metal shutters to no avail, crying and sobbing in the streets? They are, after all, not as “foolish” as the legend has it; they had trimmed their lamps, which is essential for their proper functioning. The oil business was unfortunate. But did it merit their being shut out of the house in the dead of night, their being told by the master that he doesn’t know them? After all, he had seen them that very afternoon, when they were helping him get ready for the evening festivities. True, he was scarcely on intimate terms with them, and never addressed them by name. But from that to “not knowing them”? It seems more than a bit harsh, at least until further circumstances surrounding the incident are brought to light.

His return was unexpected. But aren’t we all taught from earliest infancy to expect the unexpected? Even the “foolish” know that. Well, some learn their lessons well and some do not. Even such an elemental lesson as this can appear enigmatic and remote sometimes to someone studying with great attention. The words can suddenly turn to vapor or stones. They have a way of wriggling out of our grasp just when we thought to touch them. This can happen to the wise as well as to the foolish.

But there is a further extenuating circumstance for the silly girls. The bridegroom’s itinerary was unclear from the start. Was he returning alone at midnight from the home of the bride’s parents, with the intention of picking up something and going back, then returning with her and the rest of the wedding party? Or was he coming to collect the ten maidservants to go with him to the home of the bride’s parents, after which all would return to celebrate the ceremony at the house of the bridegroom? This is possible; though they had prepared nothing special in the way of food that day, it might have been that the meal would be transported from the home of the bride’s parents; it would be customary for them to provide the wedding reception. But no one had been specific about this, therefore the foolish ones, Deirdre and Agatha and the others, would have seen no reason to lay in an extra supply of oil; they might have thought they would merely be going out on the doorstep to light the master in, not traveling several blocks to the bride’s house and then returning home and providing extra light for the banquet. They were then not really so silly but confused, confused about the timetable and the logistics of the feast, and about what their master, always disinclined to spell things out, might have been expecting from them. He, so imperious and in a way so selfish, who never bothered to pass the time of day with them and now claims never to have known them. Doesn’t everyone have an unalienable right to be momentarily confused at times, or at least to be excused for it?





This title was also used for a poem in Your Name Here (2000). Danses sacrée et profane (1904) is a work for harp and strings by Claude Debussy.

—Emily Skillings


To read further, see Skillings’s introduction to this work.



John Ashbery (1927–2017) was a poet, art writer, collagist, and translator from the French. His many collections include Breezeway, A Worldly Country (both from Ecco), and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Viking/Penguin), which received a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, and National Book Award. President Obama presented him with a National Humanities Medal in 2012.




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