“Quaestio De Centauris” is from a collection of short stories I translated by Levi entitled Natural Histories. This, and another collection I translated entitled Flaw of Form, will be included in THE COMPLETE WORKS OF PRIMO LEVI edited by Ann Goldstein and with an introduction by Toni Morrison forthcoming from W.W. Norton in September 2015. Quaestio is an odd story–as so many of Levi’s stories are–and has at its heart a deep, droll questioning of “authority” be it political, cultural, academic, or mythological. He is very probably riffing on Dante’s Quaestio de aqua et terra, a speech addressing a problem in medieval cosmology the poet wrote and gave in Verona in 1320. I left Levi’s title in Latin as his use of Latin and the legal term “quaestio” meaning inquiry or investigation, usually into a criminal matter, is at once serious and ironic and intended to immediately destabilize the reader.
QUAESTIO DE CENTAURIS
My father kept him in a stall, because he didn’t know where else to keep him. He had been given to my father by a friend, a sea captain, who said that he had bought him in Salonika; however, I learned from him directly that he was born in Colophon.
I had been strictly forbidden to go anywhere near him, because, I was told, he was easily angered and would kick. But from my personal experience I can confirm that this was an old superstition, and from the time I was an adolescent I never paid much attention to the prohibition and in fact spent many memorable hours with him, especially in winter, and wonderful times in summer, too, when Trachi (that was his name) with his own hands put me on his back and took off at a mad gallop toward the woods on the hills.
He had learned our language fairly easily, but retained a slight Levantine accent. Despite his two hundred and sixty years, his appearance was youthful, in both his human and his equine aspects. What I will relate here is the fruit of our long conversations.
The centaurs’ origins are legendary, but the legends that they pass down among themselves are very different from the classical tales we know.
Remarkably, their traditions also refer to a Noah-like inventor and savior, a highly intelligent man they call Cutnofeset. But there were no centaurs on Cutnofeset’s ark. Nor, by the way, were there “seven pairs of every species of clean beast, and a pair of every species of the beasts that are not clean.” The centaurian tradition is more rational than the Biblical, holding that only the archetypal animals, the key species, were saved: man but not the monkey; the horse but not the donkey or the wild ass; the rooster and the crow but not the vulture or the hoopoe or the gyrfalcon.
How, then, did these species come about? Immediately afterward, the legend says. When the waters retreated, a deep layer of warm mud covered the earth. Now, this mud, which harbored in its decay all the enzymes from what had perished in the flood, was extraordinarily fertile: as soon as it was touched by the sun, it was covered with shoots from which grasses and plants of every type sprang forth; and, further, its soft, moist bosom was host to the marriages of all the species saved in the ark. It was a time, never to be repeated, of wild, ecstatic fecundity, in which the entire universe felt love, so intensely that it nearly returned to chaos.
Those were the days when the earth itself fornicated with the sky, when everything germinated and everything was fruitful. Not only every marriage but every union, every contact, every encounter, even fleeting, even between different species, even between beasts and stones, even between plants and stones, was fertile, and produced offspring not in a few months but in a few days. The sea of warm mud, which concealed the earth’s cold, prudish face, was one boundless nuptial bed, all its recesses boiling over with desire and teeming with jubilant germs.
This second creation was the true creation, because, according to what is passed down among the centaurs, there is no other way to explain certain similarities, certain convergences observed by all. Why is the dolphin similar to the fish, and yet gives birth and nurses its offspring? Because it’s the child of a tuna and a cow. Where do butterflies get their delicate colors and their ability to fly? They are the children of a flower and a fly. Tortoises are the children of a frog and a rock. Bats of an owl and a mouse. Conchs of a snail and a polished pebble. Hippopotami of a horse and a river. Vultures of a worm and an owl. And the big whales, the leviathans—how to explain their immense mass? Their wooden bones, their black and oily skin, and their fiery breath are living testimony to a venerable union in which—even when the end of all flesh had been decreed—that same primordial mud got greedy hold of the ark’s feminine keel, made of gopher wood and covered inside and out with shiny pitch.
Such was the origin of every form, whether living today or extinct: dragons and chameleons, chimeras and harpies, crocodiles and minotaurs, elephants and giants, whose petrified bones are still found today, to our amazement, in the heart of the mountains. And so it was for the centaurs themselves, since in this festival of origins, in this panspermia, the few survivors of the human family also participated.
Notably, Cam, the profligate son, participated: the first generation of centaurs originated in his wild passion for a Thessalian horse. From the beginning, these progeny were noble and strong, preserving the best of both equine and human nature. They were at once wise and courageous, generous and shrewd, good at hunting and at singing, at waging war and at observing the heavens. It seemed, in fact, as happens with the most felicitous unions, that the virtues of the parents were magnified in their offspring, since, at least in the beginning, they were more powerful and faster racers than their Thessalian mothers, and a good deal wiser and more cunning than black Cam and their other human fathers. This would also explain, according to some, their longevity, though others have attributed it to their eating habits, which I will come to in a moment. Or their longevity could simply be a projection across time of their great vitality, and this I, too, believe resolutely (and the story I am about to tell attests to it): that in hereditary terms the herbivore power of the horse counts less than the red blindness of the bloody and forbidden spasm, the moment of human-feral fullness in which the centaurs were conceived.
Whatever we may think of this, anyone who has carefully considered the centaurs’ classical traditions cannot help noticing that centauresses are never mentioned. As I learned from Trachi, they do not in fact exist.
The man-mare union, very seldom fertile today, produces and has produced only male centaurs, for which there must be a fundamental reason, though at present it eludes us. As for the inverse, the union between stallions and women, this has scarcely ever occurred, and comes about through the solicitation of dissolute women, who by nature are not particularly inclined to procreate.
In the exceptional cases in which fertilization is successful in these rare unions, a dualistic female offspring is produced, her two natures, however, inversely assembled. The creatures have the head, neck, and front feet of a horse, but their back and belly are those of a human female, and the hind legs are human.
During his long life Trachi had encountered very few of them, and he assured me that he felt no attraction to these squalid monsters. They were not “proud and nimble” but insufficiently vital; they were infertile, idle, and transient; they did not become familiar with man or learn to obey his commands but lived miserably in the densest forests, not in herds but in rural solitude. They fed on grass and berries, and when they were surprised by a man they had the curious habit of always presenting themselves to him head first, as if embarrassed by their human half.
Trachi was born in Colophon of a secret union between a man and one of the numerous Thessalian horses that are still wild on the island. I am afraid that among the readers of these notes are some who may refuse to believe these assertions, since official science, permeated as it still is today with Aristotelianism, denies the possibility of a fertile union between different species. But official science often lacks humility: such unions are, indeed, generally infertile, but how often has evidence been sought? No more than a few dozen times. And has it been sought among all the innumerable possible couplings? Certainly not. Since I have no reason to doubt what Trachi has told me about himself, I must therefore encourage the incredulous to consider that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy.
He lived mostly in solitude, left to himself, which was the common destiny of those like him. He slept in the open, standing on all four hooves, with his head on his arms, which he would lean against a low branch or a rock. He grazed in the island’s fields and glades, or gathered fruit from branches; on the hottest days he would go down to one of the deserted beaches, and there he would bathe, swimming like a horse, chest and head erect, and then he would gallop for a long while, violently churning up the wet sand.
But the bulk of his time, in every season, was devoted to food: in fact, during the forays that Trachi in the vigor of his youth frequently undertook among the barren cliffs and gorges of his native island, he always, following an instinct for prudence, brought along, tucked under his arms, two big bundles of grass or foliage, gathered in times of rest.
Although centaurs are limited to a strictly vegetarian diet by their predominantly equine constitution, it must be remembered that they have a torso and a head like a man’s, which obliges them to introduce through a small human mouth the considerable quantity of grass, straw, or grain necessary to sustain their large bodies. These foods, notably of limited nutritional value, also require long mastication, since human teeth are not well adapted to the grinding of forage.
In conclusion, the nourishment of centaurs is a laborious process; by physical necessity, they are required to spend three-quarters of their time chewing. This fact is not lacking in authoritative testimonials, first and foremost that of Ucalegon of Samos (Dig. Phil., XXIV, II–8 and XLIII passim), who attributes the centaurs’ proverbial wisdom to their alimentary regimen, which consists of one continuous meal from dawn to dusk: this deters them from other vain or baleful activities, such as gossip or the pursuit of riches, and contributes to their usual self-restraint. Bede also mentions this in his “Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum.”
It is rather strange that the classical mythological tradition neglects this characteristic of centaurs. The truth of it rests on reliable evidence, and, as we have shown, it can be deduced by a simple consideration of natural philosophy.
To return to Trachi: his education was, by our criteria, fragmentary. He learned Greek from the island’s shepherds, whose company he occasionally sought out, despite his shy and taciturn nature. From his own observations, he learned many subtle and intimate things about grasses, plants, forest animals, water, clouds, stars, and planets; I myself noticed that, even after his capture, and under a foreign sky, he could feel the approach of a gale or the imminence of a snowstorm many hours before it actually arrived. Though I couldn’t say how, nor could he himself, he also felt the grain growing in the fields, he felt the pulse of water in underground streams, and he sensed the erosion of flooded rivers. When De Simone’s cow gave birth two hundred metres away from us, he felt a reflex in his own gut; the same thing happened when the tenant farmer’s daughter gave birth. In fact, on a spring evening he informed me that a birth was taking place and, more precisely, in a particular corner of the hayloft; we went there and found that a bat had just brought into the world six blind little monsters, and was feeding them minuscule portions of her milk.
All centaurs are made this way, he told me, feeling every germination, animal, human, or vegetable, as a wave of joy running through their veins. They also perceive, in the precordial region, and in the form of anxiety and tremulous tension, every desire and every sexual encounter that occurs in their vicinity; therefore, even though they are usually chaste, they enter into a state of vivid agitation during the season of love.
We lived together for a long time: in some ways, I can say that we grew up together. Despite his advanced age, he was actually a young creature in everything he said and did, and he learned things so easily that it seemed pointless (not to mention awkward) to send him to school. I educated him myself, almost inadvertently, passing on to him the knowledge that I learned from my teachers.
We kept him hidden as much as possible, partly because of his own explicit wish, partly because of a form of exclusive and jealous affection that we all felt for him, and partly because a combination of rationality and intuition advised us to shield him from unnecessary contact with our human world.
Naturally, word of his presence in our barn leaked out among the neighbors. At first, they asked a lot of questions, some rather intrusive, but then, as will happen, their curiosity diminished from lack of nourishment. A few of our intimate friends were allowed to see him, the first of whom were the De Simones, and they swiftly became his friends, too. Only once, when a horsefly bite provoked a painful abscess in his rump, did we require the skill of a veterinarian, but he was an understanding and discreet man, who most scrupulously promised to keep this professional secret and, as far as I know, kept his promise.
Things went differently with the blacksmith. Nowadays, blacksmiths are unfortunately rather scarce: we found one two hours away by foot, and he was a yokel, stupid and brutish. My father tried in vain to persuade him to maintain a certain reserve, in part by paying him tenfold for his services. It made no difference; every Sunday at the tavern he gathered a crowd around him and told the entire village about his strange client. Luckily, he liked his wine and was in the habit of telling tall tales when he was drunk, so he wasn’t taken too seriously.
I find it painful to write this story. It is a story from my youth, and I feel that in writing it I am expelling it from myself, and that later I will feel bereft of something strong and pure.
One summer Teresa De Simone, my childhood friend and cohort, returned to her parents’ house. She had gone to the city to study, and I hadn’t seen her for many years; I found her changed, and the change troubled me. Maybe I had fallen in love, but with little consciousness of it: what I mean is, I did not admit it to myself, not even hypothetically. She was quite lovely, shy, calm, and serene.
As I’ve already mentioned, the De Simones were among the few neighbors whom we saw with some regularity. They knew Trachi and loved him.
After Teresa’s return, we spent a long evening together, just the three of us. It was one of those unique, never-to-be-forgotten evenings: the moon, the crickets, the intense smell of hay, the air still and warm. We heard singing in the distance, and suddenly Trachi began to sing, without looking at us, as if in a dream. It was a long song, its rhythm bold and strong, with words I didn’t understand. A Greek song, Trachi said; but when we asked him to translate it he turned his head away and fell silent.
We were all silent for a long time; then Teresa went home. The following morning, Trachi drew me aside and said this: “Oh, my dearest friend, my hour has come. I have fallen in love. That woman has got inside of me, and possesses me. I desire to see her and hear her, perhaps even touch her, and nothing else; I therefore desire something impossible. I am reduced to one point: there is nothing left of me except this desire. I am changing, I have changed, I have become another.”
He told me other things as well, which I hesitate to write, because it’s unlikely that my words will do him justice. He told me that, since the previous night, he had become “a battlefield”; that he understood, as he never had before, the exploits of his violent ancestors, Nessus, Pholus; that his entire human half was crammed with dreams, with noble, courtly, and vain fantasies; that he wanted to accomplish reckless feats and fight for justice with the strength of his own arms, raze to the ground the densest forests with his vehemence, run to the ends of the earth, discover and conquer new lands, and create there the works of a fertile civilization. All of this, in a way that was obscure even to himself, he wanted to perform before the eyes of Teresa De Simone: to do it for her, to dedicate it to her. Finally, he told me, he realized the vanity of his dreams in the very act of dreaming them, and this was the content of the song of the previous evening, a song that he had learned long ago, during his adolescence in Colophon, and which he had never understood and never sung until now.
For many weeks, nothing else happened; we saw the De Simones every so often, but Trachi’s behavior revealed nothing of the storm that raged inside him. It was I, and no one else, who provoked the breakdown.
One October evening, Trachi was at the blacksmith’s. I met Teresa, and we went for a walk together in the woods. We talked, and of whom but Trachi? I didn’t betray my friend’s confidence, but I did worse.
I quickly understood that Teresa was not as shy as she initially appeared to be: she chose, as if by chance, a narrow path that led into the thickest part of the woods; I knew it was a dead end, and knew that Teresa knew. Where the path came to an end, she sat down on dry leaves and I did the same. The valley bell tower rang out seven times, and she pressed up against me in a way that rid me of all doubt. By the time we got home, night had fallen, but Trachi hadn’t yet returned.
I immediately realized that I had behaved badly; in fact, I realized it during the act itself, and still today it pains me. Yet I also know that the fault was not all mine, nor was it Teresa’s. Trachi was with us: we had immersed ourselves in his aura, we had gravitated into his field. I know this because I myself had seen that wherever he passed flowers bloomed before their time, and their pollen flew in his wake as he ran.
Trachi didn’t return. Over the following days, we laboriously reconstructed the rest of his story based upon witnesses’ accounts and his tracks.
After a night of anxious waiting for all of us, and of secret torment for me, I went to look for him myself at the blacksmith’s. The blacksmith wasn’t at home: he was in the hospital with a cracked skull, and unable to speak. I found his assistant. He told me that Trachi had come at about six o’clock to get shoed. He was silent and sad, but tranquil. Without showing any impatience, he let himself be chained as usual (the uncivilized practice of this particular blacksmith, who, years earlier, had had a bad experience with a skittish horse; we had tried, in vain, to convince him that this precaution was in every way absurd with regard to Trachi). Three of his hooves had already been shoed when a long and violent shudder coursed through him. The blacksmith turned on him with that harsh tone often used on horses; as Trachi’s agitation seemed to increase, the blacksmith struck him with a whip.
Trachi appeared to calm down, “but his eyes were rolling around as if he were mad, and he seemed to be hearing voices.” Suddenly, with a furious tug, he pulled the chains from their wall mounts, and the end of one hit the blacksmith in the head, sending him to the floor in a faint. Trachi then threw himself against the door with all his might, head first, arms crossed over his head, and galloped off toward the hills while the four chains, still constricting his legs, whirled around, wounding him repeatedly.
“What time did that happen?” I asked, with a disturbing presentiment.
The assistant hesitated: it was not yet night, but he couldn’t say precisely. Well, yes, now he remembered: just a few seconds before Trachi pulled the chains from the wall, the time had rung from the bell tower, and the boss had said to him, in dialect so that Trachi wouldn’t understand, “It’s already seven o’clock! If all my clients were as currish as this one . . .”
It wasn’t difficult, unfortunately, to follow Trachi’s furious flight; even if no one had seen him, there were conspicuous traces of the blood he had lost, of the scrapes the chains had inflicted on tree trunks and rocks by the side of the road. He hadn’t headed toward home, or toward the De Simones’: he had cleared the two-metre wooden fence that surrounded the Chiapasso property, and crossed straight through the vineyards in a blind fury, knocking down stakes and vines, breaking the thick iron wires that supported the vine shoots.
He reached the barnyard and found the barn door bolted shut from the outside. He could have opened it easily with his hands; instead, he picked up an old thresher, weighing well over fifty kilos, and hurled it at the door, reducing it to splinters. Only six cows, a calf, some chickens and rabbits were in the barn. Trachi left immediately and, still at a mad gallop, headed toward Baron Caglieris’s estate.
It was at least six and a half kilometres away, on the other side of the valley, but Trachi got there in a matter of minutes. He looked for the stable: he found it not with his first blow but only after he had used his hooves and shoulders to knock down several doors. What he did in the stable we know from an eyewitness, a stableboy, who, at the sound of the door shattering, had had the good sense to hide in the hay and from there had seen everything.
Trachi hesitated for a moment on the threshold, panting and bloody. The horses, unsettled, tossed their heads, tugging on their halters. Trachi pounced on a three-year-old white mare; in one stroke he severed the chain that bound her to the trough, and dragging her by that chain led her outside. The mare didn’t put up any resistance, which was strange, the stableboy told me, since she had a rather skittish and reluctant character, and was not in heat.
They galloped together as far as the river: here Trachi was seen to stop, cup his hands, dip them into the water, and drink repeatedly. They then proceeded side by side into the woods. Yes, I followed their tracks: into those same woods, along that same path, to that same place where Teresa had asked me to take her.
And it was right there, for that entire night, that Trachi must have celebrated his monstrous nuptials. I found the ground dug up, broken branches, brown and white horsehair, human hair, and more blood. Not far away, drawn by the sound of her troubled breathing, I found the mare. She lay on her side on the ground, gasping, her noble coat covered with dirt and grass. Hearing my footsteps she lifted her head a little, and followed me with the terrible stare of a spooked horse. She was not wounded but worn out. She gave birth eight months later to a foal: in every way normal, I was told.
Here Trachi’s direct traces vanish. But, as some may perhaps remember, over the following days the newspapers reported a strange series of horse-rustlings, all perpetrated with the same technique: a door knocked down, the halter undone or ripped off, the animal (always a mare, and always alone) led into a nearby wood, to be discovered there exhausted. Only once did the abductor seem to meet any resistance: his chance companion of that night was found dying, her neck broken.
There were six of these episodes, and they were reported in various places on the peninsula, occurring one after the other from north to south—in Voghera, in Lucca, near Lake Bracciano, in Sulmona, in Cerignola. The last happened near Lecce. Then nothing else. But perhaps this story is linked to a strange report made to the press by a fishing crew from Puglia: just off Corfu, they had come upon “a man riding a dolphin.” This odd apparition swam vigorously toward the east; the sailors shouted at it, at which point the man and the gray rump sank under the water, disappearing from view. ♦
(Translated, from the Italian, by Jenny McPhee.)
See story here at The New Yorker