Amanda Leduc's brilliant new novel, woven with fairy tales of her own devising and replete with both catastrophe and magic, is a vision of what happens when we ignore the natural world and the darker parts of our own natures.
Heather is sleeping peacefully after the birth of her twin daughters when the sound of the world ending jolts her awake. Stumbling outside with her babies and her new husband, Brendan, she finds that their city has been destroyed by falling meteors and that her little family are among only a few who survived.
But the mountain that looms over the city is still green--somehow it has been spared the destruction that has brought humanity to the brink of extinction. Heather is one of the few who know the mountain, a place city-dwellers have always been forbidden to go. Her dad took her up the mountain when she was a child on a misguided quest to heal her legs, damaged at birth. The tragedy that resulted has shaped her life, bringing her both great sorrow and an undying connection to the deep magic of the mountain, made real by the beings she and her dad encountered that day: Estajfan, a centaur born of sorrow and of an ancient, impossible love, and his two siblings, marooned between the magical and the human world. Even as those in the city around her--led by Tasha, a charismatic doctor who fled to the city from the coast with her wife and other refugees--struggle to keep everyone alive, Heather constantly looks to the mountain, drawn by love, by fear, by the desire for rescue. She is torn in two by her awareness of what unleashed the meteor shower and what is coming for the few survivors, once the green and living earth makes a final reckoning of the usefulness of human life and finds it wanting.
At times devastating, but ultimately redemptive, Amanda Leduc's fable for our uncertain times reminds us that the most important things in life aren't things at all, but rather the people we want by our side at the end of the world.
About the author
Amanda Leduc’s essays and stories have appeared in publications across Canada, the US, and the UK. She is the author of the novels The Miracles of Ordinary Men and the forthcoming The Centaur’s Wife. She has cerebral palsy and lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where she works as the Communications Coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), Canada’s first festival for diverse authors and stories.
Excerpt: The Centaur's Wife (by (author) Amanda Leduc)
In the beginning, a horse fell in love with a woman. Because magic was strong in the ground there, the horse dug himself a grave on his mountain and slept in it, buried in the dirt, on the one night a year when the stars are at their brightest. In the morning, he climbed out of the dirt as a man and made his way down the mountain. He stole clothes from a line when no one was looking and learned human language by watching men and women in the market square. The mountain’s magic was still with him, so he learned quickly, and by the time he reached the woman’s village you would never have guessed that he still had the heart of a stallion.
He’d been beautiful as a horse—black-maned and black-skinned, a white star in the centre of his forehead—and he was beautiful as a man, black-skinned and tall, a shock of white in his dark hair. The woman fell in love with him almost right away. He seemed wild to her but also familiar—she sensed a power in him that she wanted for herself, a different set of eyes with which to view the world. They courted and were married before the moon changed. The entire village came out to the wedding. After the music and the dancing were over, the villagers left them in the wedding tent—bright-eyed and flushed, two very-nearly strangers who were surprised to find themselves alone.
The woman was so beautiful he was afraid to touch her. She had lilies in her soft blonde hair and designs painted up and down her arms. The designs asked for happiness, health, children, an ever-loving husband—all of the good things anyone might wish a bride. The husband felt the symbols reach out and touch his stallion’s heart for the smallest of instants—felt them know, and pull away. A draft blew through the room, then the air cleared again.
In less than a month, the woman was pregnant. The pregnancy was hard but not unbearable, and the husband was so besotted with his wife, so fearful for her safety, that he carried her almost everywhere they went. In time she grew so big the villagers began to prepare for triplets. A neighbour fashioned a cart like a rickshaw, so when his wife became too big for him to carry, the husband could pull her around like a queen. Sometimes he gave the village children rides when they asked. Sometimes, when his wife was in pain, he did not.
She was pregnant for longer than usual. As her belly grew enormous, the rest of her became a shadow. When her time finally came, the panic in her blue eyes made the village midwives nervous, and so the elders sent for one of the doctors who travelled the countryside. Sometimes women left when children came into the world, and they weren’t about to let that happen. The doctor was also a woman. She was kind and gentle, with hands that were as strong as those of any man in the village, except perhaps the wife’s own husband.
The wife had gone into labour in the morning and struggled all that day and into the next. You could see the babies in her belly, trying to break through this last membrane, their sharp little fists and heels making bumps beneath her skin. But try as she might, she couldn’t push them out. After the second morning, the doctor placed a hand inside the wife and felt legs where a baby’s head needed to be.
“The first is breech,” she said, “and I can’t turn it. I’ll have to operate.”
No one in the village had ever seen an operation of any kind, and people crowded around the door and the windows. Everyone was worried. Would the babies survive? Would the wife? No one could bear to look at the anguish in the husband’s face.
But the doctor was the best, or so they’d been told, and she did not seem worried. She numbed the wife with drugs as best she could, then took her scalpel and made the first incision, quick and clean. Blood beaded up and ran down the wife’s belly.
As she worked, the doctor hummed a wordless song to calm the wife. “Three cuts,” she said, and smiled. “Three doors into the world for three special babies.” Her second incision pierced the fascia. The crowd had gone quiet, the only noise the doctor’s humming and the soft sounds of tissue giving way.
At the third cut, her scalpel gently slit the uterine wall. She did not stop humming. She set down her knife, pressed down and pushed in and scooped out the first baby.
The house went still for the smallest of moments. And then the screaming started.
The babies—and there were three of them—were red and squalling, one darker, two pale, all with the wife’s blue eyes and a perfect, plump little torso atop the body of a tiny horse. Each leg, slick with mucus, ended in a dark little hoof. A tiny girl, two tiny boys. The midwives all ran for the door. Monsters! they cried as they fell outside. They are monsters! Heaven help us. Get them away! When the villagers tried to rush inside, the husband roared with fury and blocked the way.
The doctor—whose hands didn’t shake, even now—laid each baby on the table, one by one. Then she turned back to the wife, still humming, and stitched up her wound as though nothing had happened. The wife, whose eyes were wide with terror, looked from the doctor to the babies and back, over and over. She didn’t look at her husband, who stood silent by the closed door. When she tried to speak, the doctor hushed her.
“You’ve been through so much,” the doctor said. She paused in her stitching and laid a hand against the wife’s cheek. “I think you should sleep now.” Perhaps the words were magic, perhaps it was the touch of her hand, but the wife fell asleep almost right away. When her breathing was untroubled and her stitches were done and the wound bandaged, the doctor moved to the crying babies and checked them over. They had strong lungs, she saw, and two hearts—one above, and one below—beating in sync.
“Lies will always come out,” the doctor said. “Even lies with the best of intentions.” She didn’t look up from the babies.
The husband didn’t say a word.
“You’ll have to leave,” the doctor said, “with the children. They won’t let you stay here.”
The husband swallowed hard. The doctor raised her head and watched him as the things he couldn’t say caught in his throat. “You aren’t from here,” she said. “You should take the children back to your old life.”
“My wife,” he said, finally. “What about my wife?”
The doctor, whose own mother had once been called a witch, knew of ground magic and could guess what had happened. She checked the babies over a last time—they’d all fallen silent—and considered a moment before she spoke. “Your wife won’t come.”
The husband shook his head. “No, she will come.” She loved him. Wasn’t he still a man, despite his stallion’s heart?
The doctor looked at the babies again—they were beautiful, in their strange, ungodly way—and sighed. Life and death went everywhere with her in her travels, hand in bloody hand. “If you do not leave tonight,” she said, “the villagers will kill them.” She’d seen enough of this to know—a deformed limb, a child born without a face. A child with no arms who’d been left outside to die in the snow. “They will kill you, too, if you fight them. If you love your children, you need to take them away.”
She could hear the pounding of his heart now, like a drum announcing its own end. He said, “I won’t leave without her.”
But when the wife woke up and saw the babies, she screamed with rage and hit the husband with her fists. “Kill them,” she told the doctor. “What monsters are these?” Who was he, this man she’d called her husband? He looked like a man but he wasn’t. She’d been deceived. Everything she’d
known was a lie. She had no husband now. “Get them away from me,” she said, and she covered her eyes in terror and disgust. “Get them away.”
When they heard her scream, the villagers began to pummel the house with shovels and sticks. The doctor swaddled the children as best she could, and when she placed them in the husband’s arms, he gathered each child numbly to his chest. He could barely understand what was happening. The doctor put goat’s milk in a couple of bottles, tucked them in her own satchel along with her provisions, and slung it over his shoulder. “It’s not a lot of food,” she said, “enough for a day, maybe two. Protect their heads,” she added, and then she swung open the door and stepped outside.
Such was her power—even now, after delivering these monster children—that the villagers fell quiet.
“They are leaving,” the doctor said, pitching her voice to reach all of the crowd. “They will not bother you anymore. Let them go.”
“They’re monsters!” someone cried. Inside the house, the wife began to wail. “We don’t want them here!”
“They are going and will not come back,” the doctor said, and the husband slipped out into the space that her words made. The villagers looked at the bundles in his arms and shrank back, and they let him walk past them and vanish into the darkness beyond their fires.
The man headed back to the mountain from which he’d come, grief and anger struggling in his heart. He fed the children the goat’s milk and soothed them when they cried, then found and milked more goats. When they reached his mountain, he climbed as far as he could, to where the magic of the mountain was the strongest, and he dug them a grave there, in the reddish-brown dirt beneath three weeping willows. It was not a night bright with stars, but he hoped the magic would still save them. The mountain—his home for so long—would save them. The magic of the trees around them, the roots that they pressed into the soil—all of these things had brought him to his love once, and they would do so again. They would make his children whole and human.
When the night deepened, he lowered the babies into the grave and, when they began to wail, settled himself in beside them and held them close. He pulled enough dirt over them to bury them almost but not quite. The babies, comforted by the closeness of his heartbeat, went silent. When he slept, they slept too. In his dreams, he stood beneath the sky and begged the mountain and the ground: Make them like me. Give them what you gave to me. In the dream he saw them all, two-legged and free, running in the village with the other girls and boys. Their mother smiled at them
as they played—everyone whole now, everyone happy.
In the morning, though, when the father pushed aside some of the dirt, he saw that the babies were unchanged. And when he stood up and looked down at himself, he saw his old black stallion chest and legs, though his arms were still the arms of a man and his human head still ached with
grief. Because, as the mountain knew, he had a stallion’s heart but a man’s love and longing. Like the babies, he belonged neither to one world nor the other, but somewhere in between. He wept then, for the first time. When he was done weeping, he woke the children, who’d grown bigger
overnight, and they crawled out of the hole to him. They stood on spindly legs and looked around at the morning, as though they had new eyes.
So it came to pass that the father and his children spent the rest of their days on the mountain. After a while the father stopped dreaming about his two-legged children running in the village, and eventually—long years later—he dreamed less of his wife. His children grew happy and strong; they’d known no other life. Though sometimes a rage would break in them and the father would be reminded of his wife, his human love, whose anger had erupted like a volcano, whose rage still burned bright at his betrayal. Other times, the fierceness of their anger would remind the father of himself, and the dark things he harboured, the grief that never went away. He tried to be gentle with them when they raged, but the children grew wary of their own anger, the same way they grew wary of their father’s love for them and the way he so jealously guarded their home.
When their father died, after many more years, they buried him beneath the three willows and wept over his grave, then slept there, sprawled beneath the stars. The next morning, when the sun came up, new beings pulled themselves out of the dirt where their father had been, beings that also had
the heads and arms of humans and the strong bodies of horses. When the children looked at all of these new siblings, they saw the mountain’s own glimmering anger in their deep and darkened eyes, and understood that though the mountain had taken their father back and given the children
companions so that they would not be alone, it had also not forgotten their father’s betrayal in leaving the mountain so long ago. It had given them a gift, but also a warning.
And that is how the centaurs came to be.
“Stunning. . . . Stories are rarely as powerful or as skilfully crafted as The Centaur’s Wife. The novel is as grand a book as you are likely to read this year, a story of impossibilities delivered with a calm, steady confidence. The reader knows from the opening lines they are in the hands of a master storyteller; Leduc never lets them down.” —Quill & Quire (starred review)
“Amanda Leduc has created an exquisite magical world, perfectly rendered, for her dark and wonderful story about the dream life of outsiders and the disabled. And through it, she has scattered her own collection of fairy tales that rival Grimm and Anderson in their provocative beauty.” —Heather O’Neill, author of The Lonely Hearts Hotel and Lullabies for Little Criminals
“Mythological mayhem and the chaos of our times converge in this delicately told tale. Imaginative at every turn, author Amanda Leduc explores the supernatural and superhuman paths we take toward the mirage of family, identity and belonging.” —Catherine Hernandez, award-winning author of Scarborough and Crosshairs
“[The Centaur’s Wife] looks at the fairy tale tradition, rips it apart and audaciously reassembles it. . . . [T]hough it enters the realm of the mysterious and inexplicable, it is anchored to a persuasive naturalism in chronicling the drama of a small group of people fighting for survival in the wake of planetary disaster. . . . [R]eaders will be hooked immediately.” —Calgary Herald