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Authors: John Updike

The Centaur

Books by John Updike


The Carpentered Hen
(1958) •
Telephone Poles
(1963) •
(1969) •
Tossing and Turning
(1977) •
Facing Nature
(1985) •
Collected Poems 1953–1993
• Americana
• Endpoint


The Poorhouse Fair
• Rabbit, Run
• The Centaur
(1963) •
Of the Farm
• Couples
• Rabbit Redux
• A Month of Sundays
• Marry Me
• The Coup
• Rabbit Is Rich
• The Witches of Eastwick
• Roger’s Version
• S
. (1988)
• Rabbit at Rest
• Memories of the Ford Administration
• Brazil
• In the Beauty of the Lilies
(1996) •
Toward the End of Time
• Gertrude and Claudius
• Seek My Face
• Villages
• Terrorist
• The Widows of Eastwick


The Same Door
• Pigeon Feathers
• Olinger Stories
(a selection, 1964)
• The Music School
• Bech: A Book
(1970) •
Museums and Women
• Problems
• Too Far to Go
(a selection, 1979)
• Bech Is Back
• Trust Me
• The Afterlife
• Bech at Bay
• Licks of Love
• The Complete Henry Bech
• The Early Stories: 1953–1975
• My Father’s Tears
• The Maples Stories


Assorted Prose
• Picked-Up Pieces
• Hugging the Shore
• Just Looking
• Odd Jobs
• Golf Dreams
(1996) •
More Matter
• Still Looking
• Due Considerations
(2007) •
Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu
• Higher Gossip

Buchanan Dying


The Magic Flute
• The Ring
• A Child’s Calendar
(1965) •
Bottom’s Dream
• A Helpful Alphabet of Friendly Objects

The Centaur
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

2012 Random House Trade Paperbacks Edition

Copyright © 1962, 1963 by John Updike

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Random House Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, in 1962.

of this novel, in a somewhat different form, was first printed in
The New Yorker
under the title “On the Way to School.”

, slightly shortened, was first printed in
under the title “After the Storm.”

The lines by Karl Barth are from his
Dogmatics in Outline.
S.C.M. Press, London; Torch Books
Harper & Row
New York

eISBN: 978-0-679-64587-0



But it was still needful that a life should be given to expiate that ancient sin,—the theft of fire. It happened that Chiron, noblest of all the Centaurs (who are half horses and half men), was wandering the world in agony from a wound that he had received by strange mischance. For, at a certain wedding-feast among the Lapithæ of Thessaly, one of the turbulent Centaurs had attempted to steal away the bride. A fierce struggle followed, and in the general confusion, Chiron, blameless as he was, had been wounded by a poisoned arrow. Ever tormented with the hurt and never to be healed, the immortal Centaur longed for death, and begged that he might be accepted as an atonement for Prometheus. The gods heard his prayer and took away his pain and his immortality. He died like any wearied man, and Zeus set him as a shining archer among the stars.

—Old Greek Folk Stories Told Anew
Josephine Preston Peabody
, 1897


as he turned his ankle received an arrow. The class burst into laughter. The pain scaled the slender core of his shin, whirled in the complexities of his knee, and, swollen broader, more thunderous, mounted into his bowels. His eyes were forced upward to the blackboard, where he had chalked the number 5,000,000,000, the probable age in years of the universe. The laughter of the class, graduating from the first shrill bark of surprise into a deliberately aimed hooting, seemed to crowd against him, to crush the privacy that he so much desired, a privacy in which he could be alone with his pain, gauging its strength, estimating its duration, inspecting its anatomy. The pain extended a feeler into his head and unfolded its wet wings along the walls of his thorax, so that he felt, in his sudden scarlet blindness, to be himself a large bird waking from sleep. The blackboard, milky slate smeared with the traces of last night’s washing, clung to his consciousness like a membrane. The pain seemed to be displacing with its own hairy segments his heart and
lungs; as its grip swelled in his throat he felt he was holding his brain like a morsel on a platter high out of a hungry reach. Several of the boys in their bright shirts all colors of the rainbow had risen upright at their desks, leering and baying at their teacher, cocking their muddy shoes on the folding seats. The confusion became unbearable. Caldwell limped to the door and shut it behind him on the furious festal noise.

Out in the hall, the feather end of the arrow scraped on the floor with every step. The metallic scratch and stiff rustle mixed disagreeably. His stomach began to sway with nausea. The dim, long walls of the ochre hall wavered; the classroom doors, inset with square numbered panes of frosted glass, seemed experimental panels immersed in an activated liquid charged with children’s voices chanting French, singing anthems, discussing problems of Social Science.
Avez-vous une maison jolie?
j’ai une maison
jolie for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain throughout our history boys and girls
(this was the voice of Pholos),
the federal government has grown in prestige, power, and authority but we must not forget, boys and girls, that by origin we are a union of sovereign republics, the
God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood
—the beautiful song was blindly persisting in Caldwell’s brain.
To shining sea
. The old baloney. He had heard it first in Passaic. Since then, how strange he had grown! His top half felt all afloat in a starry firmament of ideals and young voices singing; the rest of his self was heavily sunk in a swamp where it must, eventually, drown. Each time the feathers brushed the floor, the shaft worked in his wound. He tried to keep that leg from touching the floor, but the jagged clatter of the three remaining hooves sounded so loud he was afraid one of the doors would snap open and another teacher emerge to bar his way. In this crisis
his fellow-teachers seemed herdsmen of terror, threatening to squeeze him back into the room with the students. His bowels weakly convulsed; on the glimmering varnished boards, right in front of the trophy case with its hundred silver eyes, he deposited, without breaking stride, a steaming dark spreading cone. His great gray-dappled flanks twitched with distaste, but like a figurehead on the prow of a foundering ship his head and torso pressed forward.

The faint watery blur above the side doors drew him on. Here, at the far end of the hall, through windows exteriorly screened against vandalism, light from outdoors entered the school and, unable to spread in the viscid, varnished atmosphere, remained captured, like water in oil, above the entrance. Toward this bluish bubble of light the moth inside him drove Caldwell’s high, handsome, compounded body. His viscera squirmed; a dusty antenna brushed the roof of his mouth. Yet also on his palate he eagerly tasted an anticipation of fresh air. The air brightened. He bucked the double doors whose dirty glass was reinforced with chicken wire. In a tumult of pain, the arrow battering the steel balusters, he threw himself down the short flight of steps to the concrete landing. In ascending these steps a child had hastily pencilled
on the darkly lustrous wall. Caldwell gripped the brass bar and, his mouth thin with determination beneath his pinched and frightened eyes, he pushed into the open.

His nostrils made two plumes of frost. It was January. The clear blue of the towering sky seemed forceful yet enigmatic. The immense level swath of the school’s side lawn, pointed at the corners by plantings of pines, was, though this was winter’s heart, green; but the color was frozen, paralyzed, vestigial, artificial. Beyond the school grounds, a trolley car, gently clanging, floated up the pike toward Ely. Virtually empty—
the time was eleven o’clock, the shoppers were all going the other way, into Alton—it swayed lightly on its tracks and the straw seats showered sparks of gold through the windows. Outdoors, in the face of spatial grandeur, his pain seemed abashed. Dwarfed, it retreated into his ankle, became hard and sullen and contemptible. Caldwell’s strange silhouette took on dignity; his shoulders—a little narrow for so large a creature—straightened, and he moved, if not at a prance, yet with such pressured stoic grace that the limp was enrolled in his stride. He took the paved walk between the frozen lawn and the brimming parking lot. Beneath his belly the grimacing grilles flashed in the white winter sun; the scratches in the chrome were iridescent as diamonds. The cold began to shorten his breath. Behind him in the salmon-brick hulk of the high school a buzzer sounded, dismissing the class he had abandoned. With a sluggish digestive rumble, the classes shifted.

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