Centaurs

I can remember the time when the centaurs still used to come down to the market. They were shy creatures, ill at ease among crowds, and thus used to set out their wares at the very edge of the market, on the patch of waste ground beside the railway. The market was held weekly but one could never be sure of finding the centaurs; sometimes they came two weeks running, at other times a couple of months might pass without any sign of them. I went with my mother to buy blankets from them for my dowry when I was ten. “It’s always wise to start getting things together in good time,” she said, “it’s more manageable when you spread it over several years.” And, “These will last you a lifetime if you look after them.” I chose four blankets. We carried them home and put them in the chest with sprigs of wormwood (also sold by the centaurs) to keep them safe from moths. Everyone knew that the centaurs wove the very best blankets, the warmest and most durable, so that all careful mothers tried to make sure their daughters had at least a couple of them. They were dark red or ochre or nutmeg-coloured. Mine were a deep rich crimson.
 
I was a curious child and asked a lot of questions about the centaurs. Where did they come from? How did they live? Were there centaur women? What were baby centaurs like? And why were they different from us? No one could enlighten me much. They were different from us because God made them that way. They lived up in the hills but nobody knew quite where. Since those who came down to the market were all adult males, no one had ever seen their womenfolk or their children.
 
I grew older and went to the high school in the next town. I went to the cinema with a boy for the first time, something that had to be done discreetly and required many precautions. I had other things on my mind and failed to notice that the centaurs’ visits were becoming rarer and rarer. I didn’t give them a passing thought until one day when I was eighteen and happened to be taking a short cut across the waste ground on a winter afternoon; I’d just carefully wiped off my lipstick before going home and thought I’d rub my face with a handful of snow for good measure – suddenly I realised that I hadn’t seen any of those characteristic round hoof-prints for some time. My mother, when I asked her, said, “Oh they never come now, it’s a good job we bought your blankets when we did.”
 
“Do you remember them?” I asked my husband when I was expecting our first child and lay cuddled in his arms under my comforting centaur-blanket. “Vaguely,” he replied. “You ought to ask my grandfather if you want to know about the centaurs, he knows as much as anyone.” I did just this a few weeks later, when the almond blossom was falling, the quinces were in bud and all the spring flowers were beginning to appear on the hillsides though there was still snow on the high mountains.
 
“They were good people,” he told me musingly. (In what followed I noticed that he always referred to them as ‘people’, never ‘creatures’.) “You see me now, barely managing to get about with a stick, but if it hadn’t been for the centaurs I’d have been on crutches from the age of twenty-five.” (A long pause as he remembered.) “I slipped on the mountain and fell ten metres, I don’t know, twelve metres, broke both my legs, my left shoulder too and got a nasty great gash on the back of my head. It was a disaster, you understand, I was the only son and if I couldn’t work… My father carried me to the centaurs and begged them to help… Everyone’s forgotten now but they were healers… there was only one doctor in the town in those days and he was drunk more often than not…” (I’d always thought of the centaurs as weavers but with the old man’s words I suddenly recalled the wormwood we’d bought from them, and the little bags of dried herbs and the mysterious pastes wrapped in leaves that they set out on the ground.) “Well, they agreed to help me, they made a litter and strapped it between two of them and took me to a cave in the hills. They wouldn’t let my father come. They were secret people – I never saw the main caves they lived in, and by the time I was feeling well enough to be curious I knew better than to ask… They set my bones straight and put some kind of moss into the wound on my head, they rubbed my body with strange pastes, they gave me a drink that made me sleep or half-sleep for days, I don’t know how many days, and they sang to me… They were quiet people but they sang to me.”
 
The old man had closed his eyes and I thought he’d fallen asleep. Perhaps I should tiptoe away. Then, with his eyes still shut, he continued. “I did ask them one thing though. As I began to recover they carried me out of the cave to lie on a blanket in the sun each day, and there were flowers among the rocks all round, beautiful flowers, irises like no others you’ve ever seen, browns and creams and dark, dark reds, with feathery markings like birds’ breasts… I said ‘You love flowers, don’t you?’ And the centaur who was looking after me that morning, a very old centaur, replied, ‘We love beauty.’ Something half-remembered from my days of semi-sleep made me say, ‘The irises are from your past, you sing your past.’ Instantly I felt I shouldn’t have said this, that I was trespassing on something private, but the centaur didn’t seem offended, he simply smiled and said ‘Yes’. When I could walk again one of the younger centaurs carried me on his back to within sight of the town. Before saying goodbye I laid my head against his chest and he put his arms around me. Centaurs have a sweet horsy smell that for a moment brought tears to my eyes. Then I turned and walked off back to my own people, and he slipped away into the morning mist as only centaurs can.”
 
The old man fell silent. I went and made coffee for him. Then he said, “After that I used to go to see the centaurs whenever they came to market. I’d bring them presents, whatever we had, quinces or apricots or pomegranates. I’d sit on the ground with them without talking, that was their way, you see… And then little by little they stopped coming, and I grieved that I’d never said goodbye properly… I searched for years all over the hills but I never found those magical irises again… And then one night just as I was going to sleep, I remembered the songs they’d sung so long ago, their history songs. They used an old form of the language, but it seemed to me they’d told of how their lands once stretched far to the east, how wild asses had gradually moved into their territory and disturbed them, had eaten or trampled their irises and smelt too strong and brayed too loud and generally thrown their weight around – well, you know what donkeys are like – so that gradually they gave up their lands. Well, well, well, maybe I’m imagining it but I think that was the gist… Centaurs are people who startle easily, they don’t like noise…  I’m afraid that’s how we drove them away too, the noise and stink of all the traffic… No one had cars when I was young… The Church didn’t like them since they weren’t Christian and the authorities made laws so that you had to have a permit to trade in the market… There was no place for them any more.”
 
I was glad to have heard the old man’s story for he died later that year. We named our elder son after him. Now I am almost as old as he was then. After my husband’s death my sons bought me a flat in one of the apartment blocks built on what used to be the waste land – the railway has long gone. Most people have duvets on their beds these days but I am old-fashioned and still sleep warm and safe under my crimson blankets. I look up at the mountains and wonder. I believe I must be the last person to remember the centaurs; my grandchildren think they’re a myth.
 
© Petrie Harbouri 2015

 

Centaurs

I can remember the time when the centaurs still used to come down to the market. They were shy creatures, ill at ease among crowds, and thus used to set out their wares at the very edge of the market, on the patch of waste ground beside the railway. The market was held weekly but one could never be sure of finding the centaurs; sometimes they came two weeks running, at other times a couple of months might pass without any sign of them. I went with my mother to buy blankets from them for my dowry when I was ten. “It’s always wise to start getting things together in good time,” she said, “it’s more manageable when you spread it over several years.” And, “These will last you a lifetime if you look after them.” I chose four blankets. We carried them home and put them in the chest with sprigs of wormwood (also sold by the centaurs) to keep them safe from moths. Everyone knew that the centaurs wove the very best blankets, the warmest and most durable, so that all careful mothers tried to make sure their daughters had at least a couple of them. They were dark red or ochre or nutmeg-coloured. Mine were a deep rich crimson.
 
I was a curious child and asked a lot of questions about the centaurs. Where did they come from? How did they live? Were there centaur women? What were baby centaurs like? And why were they different from us? No one could enlighten me much. They were different from us because God made them that way. They lived up in the hills but nobody knew quite where. Since those who came down to the market were all adult males, no one had ever seen their womenfolk or their children.
 
I grew older and went to the high school in the next town. I went to the cinema with a boy for the first time, something that had to be done discreetly and required many precautions. I had other things on my mind and failed to notice that the centaurs’ visits were becoming rarer and rarer. I didn’t give them a passing thought until one day when I was eighteen and happened to be taking a short cut across the waste ground on a winter afternoon; I’d just carefully wiped off my lipstick before going home and thought I’d rub my face with a handful of snow for good measure – suddenly I realised that I hadn’t seen any of those characteristic round hoof-prints for some time. My mother, when I asked her, said, “Oh they never come now, it’s a good job we bought your blankets when we did.”
 
“Do you remember them?” I asked my husband when I was expecting our first child and lay cuddled in his arms under my comforting centaur-blanket. “Vaguely,” he replied. “You ought to ask my grandfather if you want to know about the centaurs, he knows as much as anyone.” I did just this a few weeks later, when the almond blossom was falling, the quinces were in bud and all the spring flowers were beginning to appear on the hillsides though there was still snow on the high mountains.
 
“They were good people,” he told me musingly. (In what followed I noticed that he always referred to them as ‘people’, never ‘creatures’.) “You see me now, barely managing to get about with a stick, but if it hadn’t been for the centaurs I’d have been on crutches from the age of twenty-five.” (A long pause as he remembered.) “I slipped on the mountain and fell ten metres, I don’t know, twelve metres, broke both my legs, my left shoulder too and got a nasty great gash on the back of my head. It was a disaster, you understand, I was the only son and if I couldn’t work… My father carried me to the centaurs and begged them to help… Everyone’s forgotten now but they were healers… there was only one doctor in the town in those days and he was drunk more often than not…” (I’d always thought of the centaurs as weavers but with the old man’s words I suddenly recalled the wormwood we’d bought from them, and the little bags of dried herbs and the mysterious pastes wrapped in leaves that they set out on the ground.) “Well, they agreed to help me, they made a litter and strapped it between two of them and took me to a cave in the hills. They wouldn’t let my father come. They were secret people – I never saw the main caves they lived in, and by the time I was feeling well enough to be curious I knew better than to ask… They set my bones straight and put some kind of moss into the wound on my head, they rubbed my body with strange pastes, they gave me a drink that made me sleep or half-sleep for days, I don’t know how many days, and they sang to me… They were quiet people but they sang to me.”
 
The old man had closed his eyes and I thought he’d fallen asleep. Perhaps I should tiptoe away. Then, with his eyes still shut, he continued. “I did ask them one thing though. As I began to recover they carried me out of the cave to lie on a blanket in the sun each day, and there were flowers among the rocks all round, beautiful flowers, irises like no others you’ve ever seen, browns and creams and dark, dark reds, with feathery markings like birds’ breasts… I said ‘You love flowers, don’t you?’ And the centaur who was looking after me that morning, a very old centaur, replied, ‘We love beauty.’ Something half-remembered from my days of semi-sleep made me say, ‘The irises are from your past, you sing your past.’ Instantly I felt I shouldn’t have said this, that I was trespassing on something private, but the centaur didn’t seem offended, he simply smiled and said ‘Yes’. When I could walk again one of the younger centaurs carried me on his back to within sight of the town. Before saying goodbye I laid my head against his chest and he put his arms around me. Centaurs have a sweet horsy smell that for a moment brought tears to my eyes. Then I turned and walked off back to my own people, and he slipped away into the morning mist as only centaurs can.”
 
The old man fell silent. I went and made coffee for him. Then he said, “After that I used to go to see the centaurs whenever they came to market. I’d bring them presents, whatever we had, quinces or apricots or pomegranates. I’d sit on the ground with them without talking, that was their way, you see… And then little by little they stopped coming, and I grieved that I’d never said goodbye properly… I searched for years all over the hills but I never found those magical irises again… And then one night just as I was going to sleep, I remembered the songs they’d sung so long ago, their history songs. They used an old form of the language, but it seemed to me they’d told of how their lands once stretched far to the east, how wild asses had gradually moved into their territory and disturbed them, had eaten or trampled their irises and smelt too strong and brayed too loud and generally thrown their weight around – well, you know what donkeys are like – so that gradually they gave up their lands. Well, well, well, maybe I’m imagining it but I think that was the gist… Centaurs are people who startle easily, they don’t like noise…  I’m afraid that’s how we drove them away too, the noise and stink of all the traffic… No one had cars when I was young… The Church didn’t like them since they weren’t Christian and the authorities made laws so that you had to have a permit to trade in the market… There was no place for them any more.”
 
I was glad to have heard the old man’s story for he died later that year. We named our elder son after him. Now I am almost as old as he was then. After my husband’s death my sons bought me a flat in one of the apartment blocks built on what used to be the waste land – the railway has long gone. Most people have duvets on their beds these days but I am old-fashioned and still sleep warm and safe under my crimson blankets. I look up at the mountains and wonder. I believe I must be the last person to remember the centaurs; my grandchildren think they’re a myth.
 
© Petrie Harbouri 2015

 

POST RECITAL

Talk Icon

TALK

BR: Petrie, what inspired you to write a story about centaurs?
 
TN:  Who are you talking to? You know, Petrie couldn't make it today.
 
BR: I know that, but I thought we should really just conduct the interview anyway. Who knows what new ideas an absent author might provide?
 
TN: That's clever. We should do more of that - interviewing people who aren't there. It reminds me of that character in Catch 22. Major Major wasn't it? You could only visit him when he was out.
 
BR: Yeah. But let's get back to Centaurs. What inspired the story?
 
TN: Well, obviously, there's that mythological strand. Myths are so ancient, they're beyond truth and falsehood. But in this case they seem to run into the present.
 
BR: I think you might be on to something. It seems to me that she's exploring the idea where the distinction between myth and mundane reality is blurred. She buys blankets from centaurs in a market.
 
TN: What do you think Petrie?
 
BR: Hmm. Is silence an affirmation or a negation?
 
TN:  We'll never know, will we? It's probably neither, like myth.
 
BR: Maybe the centaurs are a metaphor for everything that's been lost. She might have encountered gentle tribal cultures and wanted to lament their disappearance under the onslaught of modern civilization.
 
TN: Yeah, yeah. You have a point there. Though to me, it is more about memory than a literal encounter. You could think of a memory as a segment of time that doesn't move, like a photo with the addition of emotion, sound and smell. The memory stands still but time moves on, leaving some kind of emotion, maybe nostalgia, in its wake. That differentiation between dynamism and stasis might describe the metaphor you mentioned. What do you think Petrie, did you have any such thoughts when writing Centaurs?
 
TN: Well this time I'll take that as a 'no'. But it doesn't really matter either way. My thoughts are those of a reader, and one can always find purpose or meaning that wasn't intended by an author. That's why reading is as creative as writing, theoretically at least. The author writes the book, the reader finishes it.
 
BR: Sounds reasonable. Let me ask her something else. One of the most powerful aspects of this story is the large sweep of time it covers for such a short piece. The feeling of generations passing is palpable. Did that approach come intuitively or was it somehow calculated or difficult?
 
TN: I doubt it was so difficult, and I bet that it was written intuitively. It's just impossible to know under these circumstances, isn't it?
 
BR: Well... maybe she would say it all came to her at once. You know, one of those bursts of creative inspiration that seem to come out of the ether.
 
TN: Yeah, most likely. But you know....That tension between what is planned and what springs from the subconscious, is pretty much ubiquitous in any kind of artistic venture. Marcel Duchamp neatly expressed it with his idea of 'The Art Quotient'.
 
BR: What's that?
 
TN: It's the ratio between what is intended at the inception, and what is unintended upon completion, of a work of art. How you could put a number on that beats me. But you could try. Delightfully absurd. Sometimes I think of him as a psychic mentor.
 
BR: Yes, maybe it all arrived in a dream. Somehow I like that better than the idea of a calculated strategy for effective story-telling, you know what I mean?
 
TN: Indeed.
 
BR: The story has a great deal of heart, it's poignant. And much of that emotion comes from the old man -- the story-within-a-story about his healing by the centaurs. Was this connected to a real relationship in your life, perhaps a grandfather?
 
TN: Well, I imagine she might say "yes and no." Because caring for others, tending to their wounds - healing them, is such an elemental part of life. It might be one of the greatest facets of humanity. At least if you don't charge up the keister for your services. It counters all the killing we do. But does this healing pertain to a specific person? Who knows?
 
BR: I also really loved the circular construction. As an old woman, the narrator lives in a flat, built on the very same land where the centaurs once sold their wares.
 
TN: And she mentions the wild irises, trampled or eaten by donkeys. That's a pivotal metaphor I think. Those irises only grow in remote areas. The kind of places where centaurs might exist. The destruction of their habitat means the disappearance of the centaurs. That could be a comment on where we all find ourselves now, especially in Greece.
 
BR: Yes. And what a great last phrase, metaphorically saying so much about the truth and tragedy of so-called progress: "my grandchildren think they're a myth."
 
BR: Well thank you Petrie for not being present today. I hope we were able to come up with something you might agree with.
 
TN: And thank you for your story Petrie. It's a good one.

BR: Petrie, what inspired you to write a story about centaurs?
 
TN:  Who are you talking to? You know, Petrie couldn't make it today.
 
BR: I know that, but I thought we should really just conduct the interview anyway. Who knows what new ideas an absent author might provide?
 
TN: That's clever. We should do more of that - interviewing people who aren't there. It reminds me of that character in Catch 22. Major Major wasn't it? You could only visit him when he was out.
 
BR: Yeah. But let's get back to Centaurs. What inspired the story?
 
TN: Well, obviously, there's that mythological strand. Myths are so ancient, they're beyond truth and falsehood. But in this case they seem to run into the present.
 
BR: I think you might be on to something. It seems to me that she's exploring the idea where the distinction between myth and mundane reality is blurred. She buys blankets from centaurs in a market.
 
TN: What do you think Petrie?
 
BR: Hmm. Is silence an affirmation or a negation?
 
TN:  We'll never know, will we? It's probably neither, like myth.
 
BR: Maybe the centaurs are a metaphor for everything that's been lost. She might have encountered gentle tribal cultures and wanted to lament their disappearance under the onslaught of modern civilization.
 
TN: Yeah, yeah. You have a point there. Though to me, it is more about memory than a literal encounter. You could think of a memory as a segment of time that doesn't move, like a photo with the addition of emotion, sound and smell. The memory stands still but time moves on, leaving some kind of emotion, maybe nostalgia, in its wake. That differentiation between dynamism and stasis might describe the metaphor you mentioned. What do you think Petrie, did you have any such thoughts when writing Centaurs?
 
TN: Well this time I'll take that as a 'no'. But it doesn't really matter either way. My thoughts are those of a reader, and one can always find purpose or meaning that wasn't intended by an author. That's why reading is as creative as writing, theoretically at least. The author writes the book, the reader finishes it.
 
BR: Sounds reasonable. Let me ask her something else. One of the most powerful aspects of this story is the large sweep of time it covers for such a short piece. The feeling of generations passing is palpable. Did that approach come intuitively or was it somehow calculated or difficult?
 
TN: I doubt it was so difficult, and I bet that it was written intuitively. It's just impossible to know under these circumstances, isn't it?
 
BR: Well... maybe she would say it all came to her at once. You know, one of those bursts of creative inspiration that seem to come out of the ether.
 
TN: Yeah, most likely. But you know....That tension between what is planned and what springs from the subconscious, is pretty much ubiquitous in any kind of artistic venture. Marcel Duchamp neatly expressed it with his idea of 'The Art Quotient'.
 
BR: What's that?
 
TN: It's the ratio between what is intended at the inception, and what is unintended upon completion, of a work of art. How you could put a number on that beats me. But you could try. Delightfully absurd. Sometimes I think of him as a psychic mentor.
 
BR: Yes, maybe it all arrived in a dream. Somehow I like that better than the idea of a calculated strategy for effective story-telling, you know what I mean?
 
TN: Indeed.
 
BR: The story has a great deal of heart, it's poignant. And much of that emotion comes from the old man -- the story-within-a-story about his healing by the centaurs. Was this connected to a real relationship in your life, perhaps a grandfather?
 
TN: Well, I imagine she might say "yes and no." Because caring for others, tending to their wounds - healing them, is such an elemental part of life. It might be one of the greatest facets of humanity. At least if you don't charge up the keister for your services. It counters all the killing we do. But does this healing pertain to a specific person? Who knows?
 
BR: I also really loved the circular construction. As an old woman, the narrator lives in a flat, built on the very same land where the centaurs once sold their wares.
 
TN: And she mentions the wild irises, trampled or eaten by donkeys. That's a pivotal metaphor I think. Those irises only grow in remote areas. The kind of places where centaurs might exist. The destruction of their habitat means the disappearance of the centaurs. That could be a comment on where we all find ourselves now, especially in Greece.
 
BR: Yes. And what a great last phrase, metaphorically saying so much about the truth and tragedy of so-called progress: "my grandchildren think they're a myth."
 
BR: Well thank you Petrie for not being present today. I hope we were able to come up with something you might agree with.
 
TN: And thank you for your story Petrie. It's a good one.

The music on this episode is by Boris Todorovic, on the kaval, recorded by Tomlija, and used here under the license CC 3.0. Many thanks.

THE STRANGE RECITAL

episode 16091

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δέδυκε μὲν ὰ Σελάννα
καὶ Πληίαδες, μέσαι δὲ
νύκτες, παρὰ δ’ ἔρχεται ὤρα,
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.