The Centaur's Wife
There is no wilderness to speak of anymore, save for the mountains where the wolves and centaurs live. No humans are allowed up there. A few years ago a child got lost, or was taken there, and the wolves ripped her apart. Now no one goes beyond the barricades.
It’s for safety, the city councilors say. You should be grateful that we’ve managed to keep you alive. Haven’t you heard the stories? Aren’t you glad that you have a home here, that we are functioning? Organic vegetables! No air pollution! A city that feels like the country, all mossed-over and green. Gardens that are tended. Children that are loved in spite of fear.
You should be grateful. The world that you know is over, and somehow you’re still here.
They come every other day, these men and women in their grungy council jackets. They stand in the centre of your open-plan office and remind everyone how it feels to be lucky. You’re alive. You have a job. We built the gardens and the greenhouses and raised office buildings in the sun again. Be grateful.
You ignore them, and wait instead for the centaur.
The centaur delivers flowers to your office on Mondays and Wednesdays, and sometimes Fridays too, if your boss has remembered to get tulips for his wife. Sometimes he gets swapped out for one of the other deliverymen — blonde ones usually, a little younger, a little skinnier, with tails that thrash in golden fury and politeness. Palominos. They are finer-boned and better able to navigate the office hallways, but they are also eager and too proud. It tends to make the people nervous.
Your centaur is taller, and broader, and has hair the deep blue-black of a lonely mountain sky. His eyes are blue. His torso leads down into chestnut brown muscle. Blackened forelegs, blackened feet. You imagine that he spends the rest of the week making other deliveries much the same — telegrams for the post office down on 18th, daisies for the women who work in the grunge cafeteria across from your office building. You’ve only eaten there once, despite the fact that communist chic is the latest trend. You watched one worker spoon out your gourmet mashed potatoes, your artisanal okra and black-eyed pea hash, and by the time she finished you were so small in the face of her flick-wristed rage that you left the tray of food uneaten at your blocked out end of the table. You imagine that the centaur brings the daisies to this one worker especially, wrapped in yellow paper and tied with purple ribbon. The daisies are what make the mashed potatoes bearable. The daisies strengthen the tired loop of her wrist, make her excited for the day that he trots into the room with his cart.
On other days, maybe, he delivers telegrams that sing. He might dress up for these ones. Wear a crisp unbuttoned shirt, plait the black silky strands of his tail. The centaurs are at their best when they mix their own untrammelled wildness with the boxy trod-on boredom of the city — it ramps up the exotic, makes them seem even more like some old forgotten magic. You would feel guilty about this if you didn’t also know that they’re aware. They are, after all, the shrewdest businessmen you now have in the city. When the post-apocalypse gridlock got so bad that even bicycle messengers couldn’t get through — they slipped up too many times, misplaced packages, got flustered in the heat — the city found itself nearly in ruins. So when the centaurs came down from the mountain and offered themselves up as couriers, with their lightning feet and supple ways, your council turned the bicycle boys and rickshaw riders away and signed contracts with the centaurs instead. It will do the people good, the councilors whispered close together, to see that magic still exists.
The city pays the centaurs handsomely, and the people tip them even more. Twenty dollars if he smiles at you; thirty dollars for a word. They take the tips and smile gently but somewhere, you know they’re laughing. Everyone works to pay the centaurs now, in one way or another.
Your husband grumbles — lots of people grumble — that the money could go elsewhere. We need roads again, the grumblers say. We should be doing more. But no one says this and actually expects anything to change. The world has already ended — the only thing to do now is take your small joys where you can. No one knows when the next asteroid will come. The centaurs will end in fire too, just like everyone else.
It might take them a little longer. They run hot. At night, you imagine that they gather up beneath the mountain trees and pray for rain.
You’ve worked at the office for three years now. Sometimes you still can’t believe it. Your husband has been unemployed for so long you can’t remember what it was like when you were both away from the house at the same time. He walks the children to school. He walks them back. He makes peanut butter and sliced apple sandwiches and tucks chocolate milk into their lunchboxes even though he knows that you hate it when he does this.
“You’re going to rot out their teeth,” you tell him, over and over. He doesn’t listen, or he doesn’t care.
The girls have red hair, like your husband. You aren’t sure about the baby, yet, but sometimes he kicks and you can tell that he’ll be made of darker things. Like you. Maybe he’ll be round like you as well — roly-poly, quick to trust, slow to an anger that won’t go away. Calm and ease that lead to bitterness, eight years down the road.
The girls were born the day before the world ended. You had eighteen hours of bliss and then the satellites went out, and with them the systems that sent news around the world. An asteroid, you heard people say. Huddled in your darkened hospital bed, your daughter’s mouths so pink and empty. Like birds. One asteroid and then another, and another, and then so many more that no one could keep track. They pounded into the oceans and the hills. The shaking made the earthquakes come, and from them, the volcanoes. The oceans rose. The clouds that came in the wake of the asteroids were thick and hard, studded with cosmic ash.
You managed to creep out of the hospital, you and your husband, dazed and terrified. Bent like broken soldiers over your swaddled, newborn other-selves. Greta and Jilly. Jilly and Greta. The asteroids had not yet hit your city but the sirens were wailing anyway. You walked the short few blocks to your apartment and locked yourselves inside.
On the third day, your husband ignored your pleas, left you alone with the babies, and went down to the supermarket. The world might end, but people still had to eat. You half expected that he wouldn’t come back. You spent the entire time terrified that you’d smother both babies with a dishtowel. When your husband came home with enough cans of tuna to stock your kitchen and your closets, you were hysterical, incandescent, almost blind with fury. Don’t do that, you screamed at him. Don’t leave me alone with them ever again. You’d loved being pregnant. You couldn’t wait to be a mom.
Your husband packed the groceries away and then fed the babies, crying, one by one, while you sat by the window and watched the second shower approach. Lights that flamed and screeched and exploded against the ground. One of them hit the apartment building next to yours. You felt the heat burn through your walls.
In the years that came after, when the survivors of your starred-out cities had managed to build tiny metropolises again, the doctors would discover that you weren’t the first mother to turn. Lots of women did it. They called it the ending sickness. Mothers who loved their children but stayed emotionally detached. Mothers who stayed in the home but left their sons and their daughters to be raised by someone else. Mothers who did smother tiny faces at night. Mothers who drowned their children in the river. Other mothers who took their children into the mountains and left them for the wolves.
It was always the mothers.
Your husband remained patient through all of this — patient, and handy, and so good with the girls you could cry. But you don’t cry anymore, so instead he held you at night and whispered things into your ear until you wanted to scream, or suffocate.
When the girls were three, the city blocked off all the roads and said that no one could leave. It was too dangerous. Looting, and murder, and rape beyond the barricades. So people grew greenhouse organic gardens in the city, instead, and in another year or so the gas ran out. People rode their bikes everywhere, or brought rickshaws out from their garages. The city smelled of sweat and shit and worry. Even people who relaxed couldn’t stop looking at the sky.
Your husband extended his leave year after year to take care of the girls, to take care of you. But when the girls were five you saw an ad on one of the buildings downtown — a typist, someone to sit in one of the almost-abandoned office buildings and punch words down onto paper. You walked into the building and went up to the floor. It was only two flights of stairs because nothing was built that high anymore, just in case, and the top halves of the larger office buildings all sat empty. The man who would become your boss looked at your shabby skirt and your trembling knees and the way that the buttons strained on your blouse, and gave you a job.
Six months into your time at the office, the centaurs came down from the mountain.
On the bad days, when the boredom threatens to choke you, you fantasize about your centaur, clipping council heads beneath his hooves. Marching across them like cobblestoned streets. You’ve never seen him be anything but gentle but the rage is there too. It flickers in his eyes like some kind of electric storm. When he places a bouquet of roses on your desk each Monday morning — from your husband, without fail — you look up into his face and wait for him to smile. He never does. He wears a thick gold band around his left wrist and a drawstring bag around his right. You’ve never heard it jingle. You think that if you tried to tip him, he’d just walk right out of the room.
Take me back with you, you want to say. Take me away from here. I’ll do anything you want.
But he doesn’t, and you don’t, and each Friday that comes without his visit is a disappointment. The weekends are torture. You stroke your daughters’ hair and listen to their stories and let them hold their ears against your stomach. Their brother, the post-apocalyptic child. You count each minute like a lifetime.
“I’m grateful for your job,” your husband whispers, late at night, “because it brought you back to me.”
You hold a hand against his face, the other against your belly, and wish hard for another asteroid to come crash through your window and take you away.
You were twelve years old the year your father took you into the mountains. The centaurs weren’t real then, only magic. You’d heard the stories but no one was afraid. Still — even then, the city wanted order. Manicured lawns and gardens held in boxes. Stories about people and fables that made sense. The tortoise and the hare.
Your father had been an arborist in another life. He longed for the trees and the unleashed, unbroken green. The day you went climbing, he packed you each a knapsack filled with food, slung a wolf whistle around your neck, and made sure that your boots wouldn’t squish your toes. Secretly, you hoped to come back long after dark. The stars were only stars then, bright and far away.
The climb into the mountains took you well into the afternoon. Your father told stories and sang as you climbed higher — little ditties, ribald songs. He was wild up here, just like you. Your blood felt different. You wanted to tear off your backpack and rush into the trees, slurp mountain streams, scratch your hands against the rocks.
The centaur surprised you both. You’d stopped for lunch, perched on rocks that lined the sloping path that led up to the mountaintop. Someone had carved it into the mountainside long ago. Your father was singing and broke off mid-word; when you followed the line of his eyes you saw the centaur, half exposed, half hidden behind the trees. Another palomino, though you wouldn’t find the word for years to come. Golden hair and bright blue eyes and arms so sleek and muscled. She took one step out from the trees, and then another, until she stood in front of both of you, her white feet delicate and sturdy against the rocks. She looked to be the same age as you, maybe a little older. Her chest was lithe and flat and bare — you had just begun to grow then, and your arms went up around your breasts, ashamed already.
“Hello,” your father said. He was not a religious man but the way that he spoke just then made you think of church.
The centaur didn’t say anything. There was a golden band around her left wrist too. Beside her you felt small and frumpy but also electric. When you looked over at your father you could tell that he thought the same thing. He was closer to the centaur and he took another step, reached out his hand.
He touched one strand of her hair, maybe. She shied away from him and you heard a roar like the mountain, opened up. Then a black-red-chestnut blur exploded out from the trees and caught your father up, spun him round, tossed him down the mountainside. You didn’t have time to scream. You watched him bounce down the mountain scree like a rag doll, his head striking rocks and trees. When he finally came to rest, he was so far down the slope you couldn’t see him anymore.
You opened your mouth and no sound came out. You turned back to the centaurs, finally, with no air lodged between your lungs. The black-red centaur stared hard but did not move. You were frozen — you couldn’t be scared. You stared at them with your mouth open until they turned as one and swished back into the trees.
After another long moment, you picked up your backpack and began the climb back down to the city. You stumbled into the city late that night without even glancing at the stars.
The wolves found him first. This is what everyone assumes. When the search parties went up the next day, they combed the mountainside and found nothing. Not even clothing scraps. In the years to come, your mother hid her grief by telling anyone who would listen that he’d run off with an office harlot from the building next to where he worked.
“Not even a goodbye,” she said. “I can’t believe I ever loved a man like that.”
By the time the centaurs came down she’d been dead for seven years. But enough of the city remembered — you, stumbling down the mountain. You, babbling about fables come to life. During those first few months of having the centaurs carry messages to and fro, you caught people looking at you in the hallways, at the gardens, on the street. As though the wildness in you had suddenly been given light, and space to breathe.
It isn’t the same, though, this freedom to be right in the midst of your city gardens and rubbled walls. When your husband reads bedtime stories to your daughters, you listen to him talk about where the wild things are and fight to keep from screaming. There are no wild things anymore, you want to tell them. Not here. We gave up on that a long time ago
Every Monday morning, though, brings you hope that bursts anew.
Before he was thrown, your father told you how the centaurs came to be.
“A woman fell in love with a horse,” he said. “She left the city of her birth and went with him, into the mountains. That’s where they’ve been ever since.”
“But how did they have a baby?” you asked. “I don’t believe you. That makes no sense.”
Your father just laughed. “It makes sense somewhere.” A short while after this, you saw the female palomino in the trees.
It makes sense to you now. Somehow. Take me, you want to whisper, each day when he drops off the flowers that your husband sends you as thanks. Thank you for being so strong, for giving me my girls, for being with me at the world’s end. Love B.
Take me, you scream, over the voice of your husband. Take me up into the mountains. Give me a golden band. Give me back a wild life. Teach me to run so hard and fast that my breasts disappear. Love me in a way that makes no sense.
But the centaur doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t even smile. He brings you roses every Monday, wrapped in paper, tied with string. They look like hundreds of other bouquets that he delivers around the city. They are not special, even if he places them so gently. And still, you want to reach for him. To close your hand around that arm and let the magic wash your life away.
I know, you want to say to him. I know who you are.