The Centaur

We have a centaur in our garden, the one my daughter and I planted together last summer, dropping marbles in the soil, setting glass globes atop old fence posts. The centaur has a piece of prime real estate beneath the climbing rose bush, his human head visible, his horse’s hindquarters hidden in leaves, pocked with petals when they fall. At six years of age Clara liked seeing the old man’s furrowed face, but at seven — an avid if novice rider — Clara’s preferences have changed, and so has the centaur—the statue roundly reversed (by her), so he stares into shadows while his equine hind side claims center stage, his rump seeking the sun, seemingly aquiver with the thrill of his position at the very ledge of human life, but not quite. I have seen my daughter stare and stare at our centaur, her eyes slitted, her hands gripping the railing of our deck, the railing gnawed to softness by powder post beetles and the plain old plain old passing of time.

 It is January, 2009 on the East Coast, the centaur’s first summer with us long gone now. Today, the snow falls steadily, and the only sounds are the occasional kunks of shovels and the crisp snap of branches breaking off. Lights flicker as the storm comes down in shreds. From my study window I can discern my daughter in her snow suit twice as pink for the blankness of the background. She hurls her body through our backyard drifts and, with one mittened hand, swipes the snow from our statue’s plumed tail. She then steps back and watches his perpetual impish kick while what seems like a universe of stars fall down around her.

Time and time and time. Soon, we will move from our yardam to yardam city home —fifteen years here and the narrow walls well-loved— for space and space and space. Thirty two acres of it, to be precise. We want room to roam, and also room to ride the horses we will buy. Seven years ago I would never have predicted I’d consider any place other than a city as a suitable backdrop for living my life, but back then I was not who I am now—half my way to fifty. Back then, the polar ice caps had not yet shrunk from a size sixteen to a size six — the earth’s twin berets too small now, slipping into the sea. Back then, the towers still stood. Back then, I’d barely begun to know the barely- born daughter for whom I now want all the greatest gifts I know how to give. And yet, what precisely is this equine gift I wish to pass on? And why to my daughter but not to my equally cherished son, four years younger than his sister, and in so many ways more similar to me than she? Knowledge, it seems, can never be confidently claimed, even that which exists in the present tense. Here, in the present the present tense provides for me — all gift wrapped and impervious to tappings and ear-pressed rattlings — is my daughter as viewed through my study window, in a snowstorm, her fire-pink snow suit at once slick and burning in the rapidly darkening day. And yet I can still make out her form as she bends down and, once again, sweeps the centaur clean before stepping back to ponder him, again and again. And why not, this bizarre merging of man and beast, this statue that states it might be possible to swap our cones of chromosomes and triumph over Lineeuses’s boxes that have bound our beings for hundreds of years.

Of course, I’m only guessing. I don’t know what my daughter sees when she stares at what was once our newly acquired piece of garden art, bought on a lark and with no idea of the weight he would acquire. I don’t know if she senses his form suggests the ultimate taboo: this sprightly woodland creature on the back end, this bilious grumpy philosopher on the front. I think I’d disappoint her if I told her that there has never been, in all the many myths and stories featuring our garden creature as hero, sage, magician, a female centaur, even though this is true. In one thousand years of Hellenistic literature, the mythic centaur has only and always been male, in most stories his ethics as fragile as the y that comprises his comparatively friable — and oh-so-short-stemmed— male chromosome.

I find these contradictions laughable, although not exactly funny. And in a bizarre kind of coincidence, suddenly, from beyond my study window, I hear my daughter laugh too, as though in tune with me, as through our minds are merged. She keeps laughing and laughing, and I keep listening and listening, the sound coming to me as if from many miles away, and because its dark now, it is hard to see the real source – a series of snowballs I eventually detect, lobbed in her direction, from her brother I’d guess, my son; he is probably standing with the babysitter on the deck, not interested enough in our statue to venture into the drifts. We could trash our piece of plaster tomorrow and he would never know it was missing, whereas she would, immediately, and hunt high and low.

“Stop it!” my daughter now cries, still laughing. “Stop it!” she says again. It’s hard not to turn all this storm and shadow and mandate into some sort of symbolism (pasted upon symbolism, for I’m writing about a statue, after all). It’s hard not to feel my daughter’s words are somehow cosmically meant for me, if not actually aimed AT me — (alas, halfway to fifty is no guarantee that one is even halfway free of the ever-present I and the vortex of self centeredness that proud pillar presents) — while also aimed at the history of horses, their use and misuse, the gender prejudices men have so continuously heaped upon the backs of these incredible creatures called now but not always equine calibus. It is bad enough that females are denied in western literature the freedom and wisdom and bawdy rebelliousness of every mythic centaur ever created; far worse is that at least since the rise of psychoanalysis, women’s real life love of horses has been reduced to penis envy or a misplaced heterosexual eroticism. After all, it seems everyone knows — whether they’ve ever cracked the cover of a relevant book or the pages of a pamphlet on the subject — that a girl’s “obsession” with ponies is a mere pause, and excellent practice, for what will become fully fledged sexual activity, preferably in the nuptial bed. More on that later.

 Meanwhile, my daughter keeps laughing. The snowballs keep coming. My daughter doesn’t fight back but instead just stands there, letting it all pelt her, seeming to think this onslaught is glorious, and maybe it is, such surrender. Maybe, so long as I’m on the self centered route, I should see in her stance some symbolic suggestion for yours truly: stop now. Or maybe I should go go whole hog and anthropomorphize the entire storm itself, reading (why not?) into the snow a directive, for its falling ever faster now, inching past 5 pm, the last of the light long gone, the centaur getting buried anew, from the street a stat icky surreal announcement coming, a strobe light streaking my walls: SNOW EMERGENCY. A STATE OF EMERGENCY HAS BEEN DECLARED.

Stop now.

 I am in agreement with that. And as long as we’re playing with symbols, I think it’s fair to say that in this state of emergency we’re all in fact living in and with—the weather gone off track, thousands of animals each day going extinct before their time (in general species live three million years before their light bulbs burst), many too small to see, their size in inverse proportion to their effects on our planet, in life and in death—the snow seems to have gone insane, lost its last bit of restraint or even basic etiquette, its flakes no longer in any reasonable shape, instead just pouring pell mell and huge, each one ripped as though in a rage, some massive shredded manuscript coming from the sky; and god puts down his pencil. His novel is a failure— yet again. The truth is — and if anyone knows the truth it’s god – his universal epic, the one he’s been trying to tell since the goddamn big bang if not before (it’s been so long he’s lost track of time) — that ultimately relevant opus that would illuminate the blackest of black holes and eradiate all dark matter— is as impossible to scribe as is that inane word infinity isto conceptualize, a word god had the cockiness to create he was just a boy and believed without restraint or skepticism in his personal powers. As boys often do. And now god puts down his pen.

But not me. I don’t put down my pen, despite the familiar dread that comes when trying to write my way towards an answer declawed from a legitimate or even clear question, or knowing my “opus” will never be worthy of the world. One rides on though, and while doing so one hopes for the horse -sense and stubbornness that keeps one’s questions forefront, despite the doubts.

Speaking of, yesterday when I brought my dog in, the on-call veterinarian said in answer to my now frequent query “you’re writing about that? But Lauren, everyone knows why girls love horses.” I know Freud started it. I also know it was actually his daughter, Anna, who wrote the definitive statement, “a little girl’s horse-craze betrays either her primitive autoerotic desires (in the rhythmic movement of the horse)….or her penis envy (if she identifies with the animal and sees it as an addition to her own body); or her phallic sublimations.” Start from there and it’s not hard to find follow up’s in such phrases as those written by…tk tk, or t.k tk. The list goes on, as long winded as it is narrow minded. Surely there must be some alternative suggestions, but well before this snow started I’d been searching for literature that might offer a revision of the girl/ horse story that’s been on the books for decades now, but, aside from the cliché and the anti cliché —“(it’s not sex a girl wants; its power,” ho hum {for one need not have read Foucault to understand that sex is power and power is sex and clichés cannot be nixed with the swapping of one simple statement for another})— I kept coming came up empty, than as well as now.

So why do I insist on such an unpleasant task, one that requires hammering out some new girl/horse narrative when the old one arouses minimal interest and seems so perfectly serviceable to so many people anyway? I have as a basic policy, one in fact I learned from riding horses, that when facing dread ( what I feel as I make my way in this chapter) it is best (if you can) to assume a stance that is neither fight nor flight, but something in- between, essential, unnamed. Something akin to wait and watch, if that helps. And for another, the latter more significant than the former, I don’t believe the currently and widely accepted girl/horse theories, be they the cliché or the anti cliché, are serviceable, or even acceptable, as they either imply or explicitly explain to girls-growing-into-women that their complex love of horses is some merely misplaced formulaic this or that, especially when the articles of speech in question —this or that — are as loaded as they are empty. True, there have been theorists – all women I believe — who have woven into the standard gender-ized horse story some interesting trangresssive elements, but the outcome, for me, fails to satisfactorily transform the type of tale I, for one, would like to tell my daughter. Writes artist Deborah Bright in her essay “Horse-Crazed” that accompanied her 2004 gallery show of stunning and frankly erotic photographs of girls in various equine activities: “Here I must confess my own desires, too, as a former horse-girl turned artist. I daydreamed a nation of horse-girls who shared this obsession, a fierce army of horse-girl warriors impervious to male mockery. Flouting the social consensus that they should have moved from horses to boys, these rebellious applicants were signaling their membership in a subversive sisterhood.”

That would be lovely, yes, except the sisterhood of which Bright writes is in too many ways for me a mere reversal of the conventional pair bond and its heterosexual affiliates. Bright goes on to suggest that girls are indeed drawn to horses as a way of expressing deep libidinous impulses. Her re-visioning is in large part the suggestion that such impulses might legitimately be aimed towards women instead of men. And indeed, that gynocentric angle may free Bright, but it doesn’t free me, because here I stand, still trapped in the capital sinuous snake-shaped syburrus omnipresent SSSSSS that stands for sex and into whose misaligned curvature of the spine horses and girls are nearly always jammed, no matter which way their bodies seem to serpentine.

And here I must confess my own desires too, as a former horse-girl turned writer who does not and never has seen sex as the center of her existence or as even a deeply defining activity. And here I must confess that even as I, at thirteen, fourteen, daydreamed a nation of horse girls with whom I could canter side by side, sharing this obsession, I also wondered why I could never consistently care about kissing — male or female — even when I later learned to do it (male), and found it pleasurable, but only to a point. What drew me and always has is not making love but making art, or fortes, or fun. What drew me, and always has, is the possibility for connection beyond the boundary of human skin, for if that is possible, than we humans are made of miracles indeed, and exist in a universe of invisible but spectacular bridges: show me. Yes, I said show me these bridges beyond the body of man, of woman, this potential path to paradise. I have spent my life, my libido, looking. And so I grew up loving –in a way unlike any other kind of love — all creatures great and small, my choices boundaried only by availability, thus my small ones mostly dogs (plus a rabbit, a cat, a coterie of many mice and a beautiful moody raccoon), my great ones horses —these massive majestics with names that suggest to me almost everything EXCEPT the erotic. Oh, those names! Sometimes still today, having long left horses behind (and now, unlike Bright, leaving my city behind and in the adolescent-like upheaval of my middle age hoping to reclaim the horse for my old self and new self), I still sneak off to shows, just so I can hear the judges announce the winners from their obstinately old fashioned horns – “And the blue goes to….And the red goes too….”

Smokey Raindrops. Pride’s Starlight Tanya. A.M White Night. Praise Be. World Peace. Lay Me Down. Amen. And my favorite: Sweet Revenge. Set aside whatever high brow opinion you may have of the poetic value embedded in designations such as these. It is entirely beside the point.Mystical, melodramatic, labile, adolescent, they are also saturated with grandeur. Saturated. But lest you think the Freudians have won, let me say that what is wet is not necessarily sexual. Tears come immediately to mind.

The new home we bought is in Westminster, Massachusetts, a small plain saltbox that sits in 32 acres of rough land. The prior owner stripped the loam from his cleared fields and sold it off for a fine fee, so what we have left for a pasture is sandy on top, and just inches below the surface chunked with shale and granite. Still, far down the hill (where the owner didn’t touch), and then six paces to your left, spurts a year round underground spring with water so pure the spray is packed with prisms in the sunshine, and the old growth forest sports massive trees with tendons that break the rich loose earth that suggests to us all the possibilities for that pasture we will try to restore.

Westminster is a horse town, and nearly every home has a barn. Ours is modest and red, with three empty stalls and slung over one stall door a saddle. Who knows for how long that saddle’s been there,—perhaps for centuries. Our barn, on its foundation of fieldstone, is so very old that the saddle has been accumulating dust upon dust as the centaur right now, and despite my daughter’s best efforts, is accumulating snow upon snow.

I rode for seven intense years of my childhood, and thus had seven years to experience, observe and absorb the complex inner states that fuel and forge this fantastic bond between a girl and her mount. And because, for me, horseback riding was as social as it was solitary, I had dozens of cohorts who ranged in age from seven to seventeen and with whom I whispered and posted and groomed and and galloped my way through childhood, listening sometimes deep into those camp-fire nights – (the horses sleeping on their feet as they often do, us girls zipped in our bags while watching the embers stutter) – to what it was my friends felt and feared and hoped for in this long gone world. My theories come, thus, from my past, and, thus, are as rocky as any remembrance, so take them with the salt of the sweat that had to do, it seems to me, with almost everything except sex as we mounted our mounts, legs spread. This will be, I know, a hard road to hoe. Sometimes symbolism works. Sometimes it conspires against you.

 Speaking of, I still have my snow. I still have my centaur. I still have my god, sitting now, elbows propped upon a cliff of clouds, chin in hands, his face gloomy, the expression all too familiar to those of us cocky or desperate enough to try and tell a tale. Don’t worry, god. Your tale need not offer an ultimate explanation, so long as your effort has rigor and a topic sentence or two. All of my effort, and most of my topic sentences, come from a place personal, driven, and imaginative, and I will consider my essay —and any theories therein— successful simply if they stir that cauldron called your head, Clara. Make sure, please, to always wear a hard hat, even at the slowest speeds. Take good care of your horses’ hooves, for despite the hard horns encasing them, and then the u-shaped shoe of iron, the feet of a horse are actually exceedingly soft, prone to gout, packed with nerves; the feet of horses need, each day, a disciplined cleaning. You will learn a lot, I believe, from this sort of slow hard daily labor, as well as from the speed, the competition, the outlandish leaps, and of course the love between two species exceedingly social, their radically different alphabets that nevertheless, somehow, intersect.

And now, it is time to pause, to come in from the cold, from the cliff that every introduction is. It is time to take off our sopping shoes and rest on a real rug, and leave the symbolic in the snow, where he shall have good company in our centaur, who has one up on the other sorts of symbols created here, for our centaur is both a being of measurable weight and immeasurable imagination, at the same time. He should get a prize for that, you think? But please, let’s cease the metaphysics if we can, that homo sapien hallmark. The police car strobes keep slashing their red seams across my dark wall, the stat icky announcement coming now close, now far: SNOW EMERGENCY: A STATE OF EMERGENCY HAS BEEN DECLARED, and now the cat is here, circling my ankles, for, emergency or not, it is dinner time. Your brother has tired of his snowball antics, and is right now crashing around downstairs on the scooter he is not supposed to ride inside, but who can really blame him in the snow, in the city? Your slick pink suit is still visible to me, even in this dense dark-white evening. I rap on the window, three hard, definitive mother-raps, and I think I see the pink sphere that is your hat tilt up towards my sound. And then, yes, I am right, for now you heed me, turn, and start to step in my direction.

And I know, as you walk, you are counting down the days to your next riding lesson, for why else head home? I know your teacher, Kim — (and so was my teacher called Kim- a woman as ferocious as your Kim is kind, but more on that later) — told you next time you’ll do a posting trot, and soon enough, a canter! Your job, Clara, is to master the gait, keep your seat, steady your fear. My job is to watch you, standing on the side of the indoor ring like all the other mothers, one eye on you, the other on something you can’t even see. This story. Because here I am, all tacked up, ready to ride my plot points and do my verbal dressage, but it occurs to me, dread aside, well accepted theory notwithstanding, it occurs to me I have a very big and until this moment unconsidered hurdle here, some striped cantilever bars set slightly too high for my taste. Sure, I can say, in my fierce, ferocious defensive call-it-what-you-will opinion, what horses and girls DON’T mean (sex, eroticism, penis envy, power, practice for later love) but as it turns out, my not is a serious knot I need to unravel before I can really ride this remembrance home. I don’t want, believe me, to write, or ride, or live, a minus sign, otherwise known as beating a dead horse.

And now, downstairs, I hear the kind of crash that startles me from my absorption and your brother starts to scream, and it takes me just a nanosecond to decipher his sound: not pain, but anger. A relief, Clara. Come in now, Clara. Come home. For some reason you’ve stopped and are standing still in the snow. Three more sharp raps on the glass, and then, the briefest beat of a pause, and a fourth rap, sharper still, and you resume, your form now no more than a smudge out there. You trot towards me as best you can in this unrestrained pouring of talc. And I am just about to turn from my window and head downstairs to meet you, and comfort your brother, and free the babysitter, when I see you pause once again, mid stride, and swerve — every child’s right, I suppose. I sigh. You swivel back towards the centaur, for just a second, and bend down yet again, lips formed in what must be a kiss, because now, and despite the oncoming night, I think I can discern a spray of snow fan from the rump of our statue. I know that you’d prefer his company a little longer. But no worries, Clara. Soon, very soon, this statue will lose much of its meaning for you. In fact, despite his cost, and obvious ornamental beauty, I doubt we’ll even take this statue with us when we move. After all, when we move, we’ll have a real red barn, and breathing piebald ponies of our own. When we move, we will no longer need our centaur, because we will have become him, or now — in this myth called living our lives —her.

About the Author

Lauren Slater

Lauren Slater is a psychotherapist and writer. She has received awards including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and a Knight Science Journalism fellowship at MIT; her work has also appeared in The Best American Essays.

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