by Cezarija Abartis
THE CENTAUR'S DAUGHTER
HER FATHER WAS A horseman, a traveler, but he settled in the village and married Chariclo. He left the band of raiders, reformed or maybe, in his heart, was never completely one of them.
His youngest daughter was said to have the gift of prophecy, but really it was intuition and wisdom, the understanding of consequences, of cause and effect, which most people blithely ignore. She had learned from a sailor how to predict rain. She studied horses to predict their diseases. She looked at the crops to predict their yield. Some of these predictions were useful.
She watched the old people of the village die and knew this would happen to her, but before that, to her parents and first to her father, who was the older parent. He knew, too, but being wise, did not talk about it.
She was jealous of her father’s love for the foster children in his care. He said she had his love. “Daughters are better.” She did not have to fear her place in his heart.
“You are perfect as water,” he said to her when she was a child. “Look at how the water flows swiftly. It is beautiful and beyond time.”
“What is time?” she asked.
He shrugged and looked downstream and up, at the tall sedge and grasses on the blurred riverbanks, and to the neat rows of distant olive trees, Athena’s gift to humans.
When his daughter stared at the green surface of the stream, she saw her father’s face reflected back. She saw his square bones and wide mouth, but not his amusement with the world.
He said he wanted to see her marry and have children. Laughing, she said there were no heroes in the village. She was willing to wait. Her mother was mute on the topic, though she stroked her daughter’s arm when she saw anguish in her eyes. Her three foster brothers kept off the rowdies of the village.
“I’m happy here,” she said. “Why would I want to move to another house?”
As a child, she thought hers was the handsomest father alive, and then she located flaws—his outbursts of temper, his loud and long laugh. When she grew up, she learned he caused her older sister, who was pregnant, to run away. There was much to forgive, and he asked forgiveness, but she despised him then.
Her father was interested in toxins and diseases, which interested her brother Asklepias, too. Was the disease in the bad air? The bad thoughts? The purchased curse? The bad water? They were never completely certain (only the Fates are), but they speculated it was in diseased atoms.
“My darling daughter,” he said to her, “come here and I’ll show you how to make a poultice for a wound, how to brew a medicine for heartache, an antidote for poison.”
He taught Jason to shoot a bow and arrow; Achilles to play the lyre; and Asklepias to brew medicine. As all sons do, they would defy him and run away but remember him with love.
Sitting on a stool under the kind, shadowing porch roof, he watched his three sons playing soldier. With his wooden sword, Achilles rushed at Jason and Asklepias.
“What great effort we expend raising our sons,” her father said, “and then we send them into battle to be killed.”
He tore off a piece of bread. The breeze lifted his graying hair. The late sun glittered in his eyes. She brought him wine, but still, she would not forgive him for driving away her sister.
“Daughters are better. They take care of us in our old age.”
“Daughters are better. They do not rebel.”
“Daughters are better. They do not despise us.”
“Daughters are better. They forgive us.”
“Daughters are better. They know everything.”
The burden of knowing everything, of being a perfect daughter.
SHE COULD HAVE HAD the world in her hand. Correction: she did have the world in her hand. Enrollments at Tower University had increased eight percent since she became academic vice president. She loved young people—she had said at the job interview—though she greatly valued non-traditional students, too. “Our country demands an educated workforce.” “Students are our future.” “Our very freedoms depend on educated citizens.” Blah, blah, blah.
She got the job. Not bad for a country girl from the hills of western Pennsylvania. She had promised she would turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse and spin straw into gold. She laughed about that.
But to herself, she promised a similar transformation, and it was mostly accomplished. She soon became president of an Ivy League school. Why then did she feel a train running inside her chest, a shaking along her spine?
She made the bargain with the little man on the board of trustees, and he had given her his vote. He had never asked for anything else after his cousin’s bid for the sports center. The building brought in students, but now she felt a hollow ache inside, as if she already had delivered her best self to him. She called him Rumpelstiltskin to her husband, because he was a homely little man with bad skin and one leg shorter than the other. Nevertheless, he wore a dapper vest and had his gray hair styled to frame his face.
There was a time when she herself was a student and adored going to Dr. Griffin’s class on educational statistics; he made the harmony of numbers evident. She had probably had a crush on him. He died of a heart attack. Where was the harmony in that?
On the wall was her framed diploma, next to it a photograph of the Taj Mahal, which she and her husband visited for their 15th anniversary, and next to that a photograph of a family reunion with his relatives, scads and scads of them. A beam of sunlight slashed the photograph. A cold wind blew across her heart.
Her secretary, Mrs. Jones, knocked tentatively. She hated that kind of tentativeness. “Grow some balls,” she wanted to say.
“Dr. Sikkink, it’s your husband. A car accident, I think. You need to be at the hospital.”
“Where is he? What hospital?”
She would have to cancel her meeting with the trustees and drive to the hospital. Okay, she could do that. She swept her hand across her desk, and the papers fluttered to the floor. Let Jonesie pick them up. She was a single mother with three kids and must be used to that. The ache feathered up her left side. She put on her camel hair coat but still felt cold. She belted her coat tighter and got into her BMW.
That car would’ve been her father’s choice. Her mother, however, used to ask for grandchildren. When were she and Lawrence going to have babies? She told her mother they forgot to have babies.
And now it was too late. She touched her stomach; it rumbled and felt unsettled. She had a dream the night before. One of the Greek goddesses came to her, the goddess of childbirth, and promised her a child if she would give up her position and go back to being a faculty member. What an odd dream. What do gods dream of—humans building temples? She laughed. She was perfectly contented being an administrator. She could not bear the thought of going back to the classroom. Nauseating. The train in her chest burned. She would request a treadmill test at her next physical.
Her life was perfectly … perfect. She smiled and got out of the car in the hospital parking lot. She doubled over for a second as the pain tore through her.
She knew they called her names behind her back, but little people were always jealous. She, on the other hand, was happy, happy, happy. If she didn’t have a child, well, that was a small price to pay for her power and her future.
CEZARIJA ABARTIS' Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Brain Harvest, Underground Voices, Slush Pile Magazine, Story Quarterly, and New York Tyrant (which also gave her story The Lidano Fiction Award). Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University.