The first time my little sister Sammy heard Gran’s centaur story was the last time I heard it. Sammy was having some tough times in sixth grade like I did at her age and I thought the story might give her something else to think about. Plus, you could never tell when Gran was going to tell her story, so I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. That’s a phrase Chuck used, but when he said it, it usually involved something not as good as hearing a crazy story, more like cheating on an algebra test or kissing Stacey Pringle when she was drunk. Gran’s story would erupt unpredictably like a musty volcano. Once she began when I was on the toilet.
Wouldn’t Chuck love to hear about that. The fact was this: When Gran decided it was time, it was time. I grabbed Sammy by her skinny tan arm and pulled her into the living room.
When Gran told the story, it was always the same, which was weird in itself. Gran could never get her socks to match and she would call me all the names of her own children and pets, living and dead, before settling on my actual name, but her centaur story was water tight, like a crab’s ass (another Chuck phrase). The details never varied and she never forgot a scene.
That day, after I saw Gran preparing to tell her story, I made Sammy sit next to me, cross-legged on the floor in front of Gran in her faded Laz-E-Boy. When Gran got ready to tell her centaur story, she looked at the back wall of the living room as if we were in some sort of auditorium, with an audience of thousands in front of her. Also, she clutched her mug of tea delicately with both hands like it was a beating heart. She opened her thin lips and the tip of her tongue would come to the corner of her mouth, then retreat, like it was assessing the weather conditions.
Then she started, as always, like this: “No one knew where he came from.”
I should also mention that whenever Gran began her story, the cluttered, wood-paneled living room in our shared home was always empty save for me and the ticking coo-coo clock on the davenport that was forever an hour behind. But, unerringly at some later point, I would find Grandpops settled somewhere in the back of the room. He would always interrupt the story, peppering it with his own barked comments, staring at Gran with his one eye, which was always cloudy and usually runny. According to Gran, that’s where Sammy got hers.
The day of my last hearing, Gran continued as usual. “He just showed up one day coming from the north. Walked right down Main Street in broad daylight, just rags hanging from his torso. Didn’t seem to know where he was and no one could get a word out of him. ’Course, no one approached him right away, neither. A half-naked horse-man walking down Main Street? This town’s seen some odd things, but this took the cake. People were skittish and ol’ Father Percy declared End of Days right then and there, standing on the stone steps of the church as the centaur clopped by, pointin’ and declarin’ instead of helping the poor thing. Hmpf.”
Gran didn’t like Father Percy. I didn’t either. After Chuck had been in town a month or so, he released some crickets in the confessional. He said he was asking for forgiveness while he was doing it, so it canceled out. A few stayed in there for weeks, chirping, occasionally leaping into old women’s hair, and driving Father crazy. I’ll admit, it was hilarious.
I told Gran about the prank, as a way of introduction to my new school acquaintance Chuck, but she only gave me this unsettling, thin smile in return—this wasn’t a happy smile, it was a warning. She used that same smile when we would talk late at night at the kitchen table, with a pot of tea under a glowing red lamp about why I hadn’t uncovered what my tell was yet. I had a shadow; I had two eyes. There weren’t many options left. I could become an undead, always the lesser of the tells, although no one in town outright admitted it. Gran’s warning smile said only that time will determine all. It frightened me a little. No. It frightened me a lot.
The centaur story from there built steam. Gran said, “Even though he was in rags, you could tell he was a beautiful creature. His coat was chocolate brown and us women loved his dark tail, so long and full. Although his torso was human, there was still an equine element to his facial expressions. His big, dark eyes would go wide with fright and roll around in his head when he got nervous, which was often. He would look at things sideways and cock his head. He would snort. But he didn’t talk. Never uttered a word the entire time he was here. No one ever knew if it was because he couldn’t or if he wouldn’t. Both the physician and the vet had a look at him a few days after he arrived. They both agreed he seemed healthy—had some worms but who don’t—but you see, that was the start of the problem. He didn’t belong nowhere. Always stuck in between.”
After my third time hearing this story, I started to wonder if, in a way, that’s what Chuck’s problem was, too. Teachers at school told us not to pay attention to him, it only encouraged his outbursts and crazy stunts. I began to think that maybe he did the things he did because otherwise, who would pay attention to him? He was purposefully moved to our town, instead of being born here or a wanderer. He was brought in to live with his aunt because his mom was sick. His aunt was the type who didn’t cast a shadow. Chuck had a shadow. He had everything. He was normal.
“I’m not sure where the centaur spent the first few nights. Probably an empty garage somewhere on the outskirts,” continued Gran. “Someone’s barn, maybe. But every morning, sure as the sun rises, he was out walking Main Street. His hooves would echo off the cobblestones with a satisfying staccato I could hear from this very kitchen.
“After the initial shock of his arrival, folks started interacting with him. Sayin’ good morning, smiling, being polite because we’re good people here despite what outsiders may say. Maybe that’s why he came here. Thought he might find a place where he was accepted.”
Gran always shook her head at this point. “It was clear as day that creature was starving. So the council held an emergency meeting. At that time, the council only held men. No women allowed. And only certain men—even then, there were prejudices. Nothing’s changed, really. Men with birds in their beards weren’t allowed. No undeads.” Gran shrugged her shoulders. Every time she got to this part, she shrugged.
“Didn’t matter. While the stuffy men locked themselves up to secretly decide this creature’s life, the rest of us gathered in the street to introduce ourselves and welcome him to our town. Ms. Louisa brought him one of her husband’s old work shirts to replace his rags, and Ms. Cleo put together a large basket of food—apples, carrots, oat muffins. Charlie May was getting ready to show him to his barn where he said he had a spare stall below the hay loft when those giant oak doors of the town hall opened and the council came out looking very proud of themselves and declared that the centaur would stay in Barn 4 of the fairgrounds and be given an allotment of grain and hay equivalent to that of the workhorses. They decreed he would be expected to find employment within one week because they didn’t want to encourage loafing, never mind that half the members of the council were professional loafers themselves.”
“But Gran, where did he come from?” Sammy piped up. I expected this interruption, since it was Sammy’s first time hearing the story. Sammy didn’t know yet that Gran never answered questions about her stories. It was Sammy’s nature to ask a lot of questions. I was that way at her age, too.
Gran hardly paused, totally ignoring Sammy, which made Sammy indignant, her one eye squinting hard at Gran. I gave Sammy a warning look to shut her mouth. I was afraid if Gran were sufficiently interrupted, she would shut down and never tell the story again. Then again, Grandpops sometimes made some pretty big interruptions and Gran never minded. Maybe it was because he was there, too. At that point, I could hear Grandpops in the back of the room, shifting his weight and breathing his shallow, raspy breaths.
“So the centaur went to Barn 4 at the fairgrounds, which we all knew was drafty and housed a large extended family of ornery, vindictive rats, but he seemed grateful. Meanwhile, we all talked about where he could work. Some unkind man actually suggested he be harnessed to the trolley so we could get transport up and down Main Street again, since the trolley sat motionless after the pair of oxen broke away in that storm a few years prior. We were aghast at this proposal, arguing he wasn’t a beast of burden, he was just like the rest of us and some of the undead in the group cheered the loudest, but then again, they always had the most at stake in any discussion.
“Someone else said we should race him in the steeplechase coming up, and again there was a roar of dissent. Then old Doc Tally the dentist stood up and said he was looking for an assistant. Everyone thought that was a decent, upstanding career for anyone, so the next day at eight in the morning while the roosters were announcing daybreak and the bakery filled the entire town with that wonderful smell of fresh biscuits, the centaur trotted smartly down to Doc Tally’s office for his first day of work, dressed in Ms. Louisa’s husband’s old shirt. At this point, most of us had really taken a liking to him.”
“O’ course you did! All the women loved him!” Grandpops hollered from the back of the room. Sammy jumped. She forgot he was there. I knew this was coming. I had heard it before. “He had balls like a bull!”
My newfound knowledge of balls at the time, courtesy of Chuck, caused me to blush. Sammy giggled. I wondered what exactly my baby sister knew of balls.
Gran continued without so much a glance toward Grandpops. “Naturally the first few days of the centaur’s employment were tough, but we all knew Doc Tally to be a patient man and the centaur seemed smart and earnest. He learned how to clean Doc’s tools and hand him the right drills when he was workin’ on someone, but the main problem was the centaur just took up all the space in the exam room with his four legs and all, barely leaving any room left for the patients!
“Doc seemed willing to re-arrange some things—I told you he was patient—but really the last straw was one afternoon during the second week. Doc asked the centaur to fetch him a replacement bit for his drill, stored in a corner cabinet. To this day, I don’t know if it was the word bit, that hateful metal piece on a horse’s bridle, that spooked the centaur or the fact that he somehow got wedged in the corner of the room and panicked because he thought he was trapped, but there was a mighty explosion and the centaur leapt over old Dreyfus, who was in the exam chair at the time with his mouth wide open and filled with gauze, and galloped out of the building, hooves flying.
“There was some damage to the exam room in the wake of the centaur’s hasty retreat and for that, Doc Tally was upset. We couldn’t blame him. But we felt most sorry for the centaur, for it seemed he was unemployable.”
“Professional loafer!” Grandpops exclaimed. Sammy jumped again. Grandpops leaned against the back wall near the chesterfield. He sounded angry, but that was no different than he always sounded, like when he asked for more soup at dinner or for me to read him the newspaper. His one eye was soft, however, and he examined Gran thoughtfully. He ran a large, gnarled knuckle under his eyelid to catch some loose tears. Cyclops get rheumy eyes as they get older. Sammy would have to watch out for that.
Suddenly, something rattled against the window in the kitchen. I got up to look as Gran continued. Peering out the single pane, I spotted Chuck below, throwing gravel and chunks of mud at the house.
“Why don’t you ever just knock at the door?” I hissed, after I opened the window a crack. I was sorely conscious of missing Gran’s story.
“Cuz your grand-dad creeps me out,” Chuck smirked, standing directly below the window with his neck bent back like he was crowing at the moon. “Wanna hang out?”
I shook my head. “Busy.”
“Busy doing what?”
“None of your dang business,” I replied, trying not to let on that I was irritated. If Chuck sensed that, he would purposefully set out to annoy me all night. Gran used to say that you know a boy likes you when he bothers you all the time. I suspected Chuck bothered everyone, though.
I had considered telling Chuck about Gran’s story before, but decided against it. I felt very protective of the story, like it was a family secret, especially since no one else in town would really talk about it other than provide vague nods when I asked if they remembered the centaur. Also, I thought Chuck would make fun of the whole thing. I wasn’t convinced he had learned his lesson about living in town even after the first day of school when he made fun of Martha’s mother—who, after Martha, gave birth to rabbits—and the entire class beat the snot out of him out of respect for Martha’s mother who made the most amazing blisterberry scones and was a really sweet lady.
Mostly, though, I felt Chuck didn’t deserve to hear the story. He wasn’t from our town and there was the expectation that when his mom got better, his aunt would ship him back home, back to wherever he came. At the time, I hadn’t run all these reasons by Gran yet, and although she wasn’t as spiteful as me, I had no doubt she’d agree.
I could hear Grandpops in the front room interrupting again. I had to get back.
“Look here, I gotta go help Grandpops.” I tossed the lie easily enough out the window. A trick I learned from Chuck.
“He says he can’t read the directions in the cookbook.”
Chuck let out a dramatic sigh. “Fine. Later.”
“Later.” I closed the window and hurried back to Gran.
The room was not as I had left it. I entered and immediately saw Sammy curled in Gran’s lap, wailing, and
Grandpops morose in the corner, dabbing his eye.
“I hate this place!” Sammy yelled between sobs. “It’s not fair! I hate them!”
I had never seen Sammy this despondent. Gran’s story was sad, sure, but not tragic.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, running over to Gran and Sammy. Sammy, who was frankly a little too big to be curled on Gran’s frail lap, was sliding to the ground, the pile of afghan blankets coming with her in an avalanche of checkered color. “Did you finish the story?”
“You said I should hear this story!” Sammy yelled at me. “Why did you make me listen?”
“Wait—” I stammered, confused. “I mean, he just leaves. His own choice, right Gran? He moved on after Doc Tally let him go?” I softly touched Sammy’s shoulder. “He might still be out there, Sammy.”
When I was much younger and heard the story for the first time, I balked at this consideration—the thought of a hungry, perhaps vengeful centaur lurking in the woods at the edge of town frightened me. But as I grew older, I caught myself sometimes staring into the dark, thick forest behind the house in hopes of glimpsing a retreating tail flagging in the wind or a hoof print—any sign suggesting he was making do on his own.
“They killed him!” Sammy yelled again.
“Who?” I asked, startled at this suggestion. Only, Sammy wasn’t suggesting.
Gran turned to me and raised her cloudy, soft eyes to mine. Her tea mug was listing dangerously to the side. Gray hairs had fallen out of her bun and danced around her mouth. “This is Sammy’s version, now. Her time to hear what she’s ready for, not you.”
I was taken aback. “What do you mean, Sammy’s version?” Panic danced at the back of my throat. “Gran? Your story never changes.”
Gran nodded—peaceful, accommodating. “For you it stays the same. For someone else, it’s different.”
“But it happened!” I insisted. “The story doesn’t change. What happened is what happened.”
Gran bent over to gather her afghans, which sat in a pile on the floor. She had finished talking. She was done.
I grabbed Sammy’s arm and shook her roughly. How dare she change the story? “Sammy, what happened to the centaur?”
Sammy’s eye focused on me with alarming clarity, and I lost myself for a moment in its cool green color, a woodland pool in which I almost fell. She spoke suddenly with a maturity that surpassed both of us at the time. “The council chased him out of town. Pitchforks. Burned Barn 4 down.”
“An immodest beast!” shouted Grandpops from the back. But even his familiar holler, scratchy like sandpaper, had a dullness about it now. Softer.
“He broke his leg running into the woods to escape.” She wiped her eye, a motion that mimicked Grandpops. Then, a declaration: “So they shot him.”
I was shocked and without reply. This is not Gran’s centaur story, my centaur story, where every detail remained reliably steadfast, like the rising sun. The story was clockwork. Now Gran had gone and changed the time for someone else. What was so different about Sammy that she has another version?
I burst out of the front door, desperate for fresh air and space. I was crying. I was confused, perhaps hysterical. I was hurt, I thought even maybe mortally wounded. I saw Chuck leaning up against the lamppost across the street. Had he been standing there the whole evening?
I plopped down in the grass in the front yard. Crickets chirped and a busy insect buzz ended abruptly when I moved my hand over the seed heads that stood watch over the lawn.
“Fight?” Chuck asked, sitting down beside me.
I shook my head and quickly tried to wipe the tears from my face. I wasn’t typically a crying kind of girl. Neither was Sammy.
He shrugged. I could hear his nasally breathing, the reason he said he never won races. Adenoids.
“Well, want to make out?”
My breath caught in my throat. Chuck was not my boyfriend. I didn’t even want a boyfriend. I wanted Gran’s story back the way I knew it. I wanted Sammy to know it that way, open and with hope. Not that mangled version with death, the ultimate definitive ending.
Suddenly I realized I actually didn’t know how old Chuck was. Maybe he was a lot older than me. Maybe he was just slow and that was why he was in my grade. He was definitely bigger than me. And another thing—he was never clear about where he actually came from and exactly what was wrong with his mom.
There quickly became too many things I wasn’t sure about. My guts felt icy and the black road in front of the house appeared to move like a snake. I turned and grabbed Chuck’s arm and in something akin to desperation, I kissed him forcefully on the lips. He was there, I was there, sitting in the grass in the humid night. I was pretty sure Chuck would never change, even though I knew nothing about him. Gran changed, and I thought I knew everything about her.
“Whoa!” he said, breaking free. The grin on his face made me want to puke. I started to stand up and he grabbed my arm. “Wait! Where are you going?”
I roughly shook away and ran down the street. I had two legs, two eyes. I was alive. Maybe I would have rabbits instead of babies when I got married. Maybe I wouldn’t. Only time would tell; that was what Gran’s smile said. How could I believe her now? I kept running, watching my shadow in the sodium glow of the street lamps, both wishing I didn’t have one and relieved that I saw it at the same time.
Anna O’Brien is a freelance writer and veterinarian in Maryland. She is a contributing editor for the magazine Horse Illustrated and has had fiction published in The Reject Pile, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Cease, Cows. She is a reader for The Indianola Review. She likes fat, slow dogs and fast bicycles. She has one of each.
Image Credit: Laura Bernhardt