Cindy Dodge, Aerialist, Fall
My father was a man who would point to spectacles and say, They just want your money. My mother was a woman who didn’t even like to pay a dollar to go to the drive-in theater; my father, when he did convince my mother to go, would fill a whole grocery store brown paper bag with popcorn so we wouldn’t have to buy theirs. I would never even think to ask my parents if we could go to the circus. I knew, even at eight, that the circus entailed what my father abhorred: crowds and spectacle and the giving away of his money just so he could fight with crowds. My mother never wanted to pay for spectacles: you couldn’t take a spectacle home, spectacles could not give you anything material in return, spectacles did not quell hunger or clothe or house you.
But this was the summer of spectacles. In the working-class neighborhood where I lived, the grass in the lawns of the bungalows shook and sparkled with the excitement of it. The scorching, cicada-churning air vibrated with a brightness when the circus commercials came on, and I would stand there, in our little living room, entranced by the dazzle and fanfare of it all. Then, upon realizing I would never go, I would become crestfallen, then withdrawn. The Living Unicorn was the marvel of the circus that summer, and my sister and I pined for both the circus and a sight of The Living Unicorn; however, we knew the obstacles we faced in our parents’ disavowal of such short-lived pleasures and wonder and did not feel safe enough to ask. We would never go to the circus.
Starla, however, had gone to the circus, and she had the souvenirs to prove it. She had seen The Living Unicorn. So my sister and I marveled at Starla’s keepsakes: the light-up tiger head, the sparkling baton glitter tube with pink tinsel on the ends, and the program that contained a pullout poster of The Living Unicorn.
Earlier that year, Starla and her family appeared at the green house in the cul-de-sac, a house that was let to renters who never stayed very long.
Starla’s mother let her wear makeup, and I could not. Starla wore a bra, and I did not yet need one. Starla had real brand-name clothes, and I
had flea-market knockoffs. Starla had all the boys, and I had none. Starla was popular, and I was not.
Starla had gone to the circus, and I had not.
At the flea market, where we used to go on weekends, her mother told us that she had overheard some boys talking about a “cute chick.” One boy said, Who? Her? He was pointing to me. The other boy said, Oh, no, not her. She’s ugly. The boy had meant Starla, and Starla’s mother wanted me to know that the cute chick was her daughter and not me. Never me. I was only eight, and my friend’s mother made it her duty to make sure that I knew I was ugly. That ugly lived deep in me, a black spot in my core. When I looked at myself in mirrors, my eyes saw the indelible smudge and bruise of it.
A star was born and her name was Starla. How could I ever hope to compete with a name like that, and she was allowed to have a haircut that started short at her left ear and slanted longer toward her right ear with a rat tail here and there. It was the year of Madonna and lace gloves and “Lucky Star,” and there was Starla in the glitter and wow and pop and metallic confetti of all of that. She even had the earrings to match.
Oh, no, not her. She’s ugly. I kept hearing that.
Starla had a cat. It was white—a tiny baby. One day, their pit bull Daisy took that kitten by its neck and shook out all that was left of it. There was nothing left of it so her stepfather took a gun and shot the little kitten in its cotton skull. There was nowhere to bury it, so no one buried it.
I had wanted that cat, soft and white, and when I spent a night in that house, I secretly let it smell my worn socks at night so that in the morning it might like me more.
Starla started her period. Her mother didn’t believe her. But she showed us the red stain on her bed. It was just a little nick of blood as if nothing was even hurt.
But she insisted.
My sister, who had already started her period, said that there should be more.
Starla couldn’t stay the night with us until there was substantial evidence that she had completed her chores. Look at the carpet, she told her stepfather. She told him that the way the carpet looked, with its unwalked-on vertical bars, meant that it’d been vacuumed, so could she please go and stay the night with us now?
Her stepfather always came in late. He was a newspaperman, always there when the morning edition began its run.
Starla said The Living Unicorn was real; she said it was beautiful; she said that its fur glittered with stars. The very air of her words was a new and sparkling kind of cotton candy.
That was when Starla still lived on our street; that was back when I was eight and going on nine. Starla moved soon after that. We tried to stay friends, but then I didn’t see Starla for a very long time.
One day, my sister had gone out shopping—she was older and could drive—and she saw Starla at the mall. Starla had given my sister her phone number. She was living with her grandpa, the same grandpa that her half brother had lived with. We went to see her. I was thirteen then and had dyed my hair pitch black. I didn’t want the sun. I was a dark thing that brooded on poetry and wanted to die, and still, no boys ever did like me.
When we saw her, she said to me, You’re so pretty now. But she must have read me, my reluctance to believe her.
She told us that she was living with her grandpa, because when she told her mother that her stepfather had been touching her, her mother didn’t believe her and told her to leave.
The phone rang. It was a boy calling for her, but it was the boy that her grandpa didn’t like, so she told him that he couldn’t call anymore.
It had continued, the thing that had started for her: the constant need for boys to need her. I saw the slow, sad drop of the phone, the reluctance to entirely let go.
Her stepfather had shot the cat in its little cotton skull. On the bed was just a little nick of stain as if nothing was even hurt.
But she insisted.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” insists that their Living Unicorn was real, and I suppose it could have been considered real if one realizes that many medieval images of unicorns portray beasts that are considerably more caprine than equine. Circus goers in 1985, perhaps expecting a beast that looked more like a horse or the images in Lisa Frank stickers and accessories, were disappointed by The Living Unicorn: they were disappointed because The Living Unicorn resembled a goat and not the sleek horse of their dreams.
The Living Unicorn had previously been employed in one of those medieval-themed restaurants where patrons feast on turkey legs while watching a joust. At the time, The Living Unicorn was named Lancelot. He would, along with three other unicorns, be rented to the circus and thereafter acquired the trademarked name of The Living Unicorn.
The Living Unicorn’s legend begins, like most legends and creation myths, in the middle. Supposedly, he just appeared. His past did not come with him. He just appeared in that most mythical of settings: Houston, Texas. In the summer of 1984, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had a show in Houston, and the unicorn happened to discover the circus. In that most unlikely of settings, in the absence of a mythical forest, The Living Unicorn arrived, merely wandering the Houston sprawlscape in his shimmery satin sheen of creamy curlicue mohair.
The Living Unicorn feeds on rose petals. His fur is frothy with milk and stars. He is the cleanest goat in the world, and all who meet him concur that the certain musky goat aroma is absent. He is a goat, undoubtedly, but if one were to try to pull off that certain unicorn prop, that golden singular horn from atop its head, one would find that it remains attached, steadfast, never to come off—the very sword in the stone. That was the curious thing about The Living Unicorn: its golden horn was actually growing and living.
The golden horn wasn’t something that was merely fused on. Animal cruelty groups needed to know just how the horn was stuck on, because how the horn was attached would determine whether the animal was mistreated; and if the animal were mistreated, then the show could not go on. The ASPCA guessed that a hole had been bored into the skull and that a bullhorn was inserted, but three separate vets, during the 1985 New York show, had examined The Living Unicorn, along with his
three “understudies,” and proclaimed that they were goats with living horns and that they could not see any signs of abuse or trauma. So the show went on.
The Living Unicorn was the creation of Oberon Zell-ravenheart, the self-proclaimed wizard and cofounder of the Church of All Worlds, who had become convinced that unicorns were once real. His research revealed that unicorns, as depicted in medieval tapestries and paintings, were all white, male goats. He set about finding a method to make his own unicorns, a method that involved anesthesia, surgery, and grooming. Apparently, Oberon Zell-ravenheart had a mohair goat farm specifically for the purpose of producing unicorns. The surgery, when successful, would also result in a temperament change in the goat due to changes in the brain caused by its altered skull. Oberon Zell-ravenheart believes his creations were, indeed, real unicorns. He claims that the animals themselves knew themselves to be unicorns and that unlike the goat-stock from which they were made, the unicorns, as a result of the unicorn-making process, were “amazingly charismatic” and also sported an “exalted physique.” Not all surgeries were successful, but enough unicorns were made that he was able to tour the animals at renaissance fairs and then officially rent four of them to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1985 to 1989. It’s unclear whether the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus employed all of the unicorns in their shows, rotated them in and out, or kept them as backups, but it’s clear that Lancelot was the star—he was The Living Unicorn.
The last unicorn died in 2005 at the age of seventeen. Oberon ZellRavenheart does not have Lancelot’s skull, but he does have the skull of Lancelot’s half-brother Bedivere.
The website Sideshow World, which interviewed Oberon Zell-ravenheart in 2007, dubs him as “ARTIST, AUTHOR, TEACHER, CREATER OF LIVING UNICORNS, WIZARD, SHOWMAN.” At the conclusion of the interview, Oberon Zell-ravenheart talks about his then-current project of writing a massive book on mythical beasts, setting up a wizardry school, writing an autobiography, and breeding a “Phoenix/ Firebird.” Oberon Zell-ravenheart was born in 1942 and earned a BA in psychology, a PHD in divinity, and a teaching certificate. He is a selfproclaimed wizard; early advocate of deep ecology; claims to have independently articulated the Gaia thesis; was influential in the polyamory movement; sculpted; co-founded “the Ecosophical Research Association in 1977, an organization that explores the truth behind myths”; founded
the Church of All Worlds; created and edited the neo-pagan magazine, Green Egg; is the founder and current headmaster of the Grey School of Wizardry; and is an active speaker and teacher.
In other words, he is a maker of spectacles, a spectacle himself, a man who hopes and dreams and lives within that dream.
This essay was supposed to be solely about The Living Unicorn, but I failed in that I could not think about The Living Unicorn without thinking about Starla. Try as I might, however, I could forge no real thematic or metaphorical link between fakery and Starla. The story of The Living Unicorn is merely a story about fantasy and the spectacle and the sale of that fantasy. That is what we must want from the circus, after all. The story about Starla is merely the story about a childhood friend whose life appeared to have been better than mine until I discovered otherwise.
I was researching The Living Unicorn, trying to ascertain the year and manner of his death, when I came across this entry in an index of circus articles: “Cindy Dodge, aerialist, fall.”
At first, it was the entry itself that wouldn’t leave me: Cindy Dodge, aerialist, fall. Then it was the trapeze, then it was falling to one’s death, then it was Cindy.
Cindy Dodge was an aerialist who performed from the dirt up. That is, she was not born into the circus and therefore was not what they call “circus royalty.” She was not born cast on the golden nets and sparkles of sashes and see-here calls. She was a girl who marveled, who hoped and dreamed, who felt the strong tug of the trapeze strings.
She was a sunny blonde from California who first auditioned as a showgirl, and then later, after she was in the circus, began training on the flying trapeze. Cindy Dodge performed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1982 until her death in 1984. I have to assume her start date, because I do not have much to go on. An ebay seller has a photograph of her taken in 1982. A blog entry, written by someone who knew her in the circus, says that she joined the circus two years before her death. The Living Unicorn joined the circus in the summer of 1984 but did not begin touring with the circus until 1985. Cindy and The Living Unicorn had most likely known each other, but they missed performing together by merely one season.
Cindy Dodge missed the end of the 1984 season by merely one performance. The circus was performing three shows on the last day of the season in Long Island. In between the second and last shows, Cindy was practicing her act, something that a lot of the circus performers did between shows. She was at a height of nineteen feet, which was less than the twenty feet that would have required the use of a safety net.
The trapeze instructor gives me instructions on what I will do when I’m airborne, but it’s happening too fast. I have never been one to keep orders in order, especially when those orders pertain to my body and how I must move my body. I was never good at sports or dance or even knowing my left from my right. You’re going to push your legs through your arms; you’re going to then hang upside down, she said. I don’t think I can, I said.
I don’t think I can: it has been a mantra that circles me, relentless in its urgency, a mad bird diving and spiraling to its end. I don’t think I can. My list of regrets. My guilts. My failures. My moments of self-sabotage. The ugly girl with the stain of it trying to conquer her dreams.
Cindy Dodge, unlike me, was a girl who could, who thought she could, who easily pushed her legs through her arms and hung upside down. Cindy Dodge was a girl who had a dream and who tried and had made it, but she was, nonetheless, a girl who died within that dream. She was a girl who had made it her life’s dream and her way of making a living by learning how to make it to the top and how to fall.
I have heard that the circus is timeless, of its ability to transport one to a mesmerizing place outside of place, to pin down the moment until the moment is the only moment. Perhaps it is owing to my lack of circus going, although I do not think that is the sole cause, but there is nothing in this world, spectacular or otherwise, that is capable of stopping time for me. If anything, I have invented ways of accelerating its rushed path—my children, for one. I know that for them, time is occurring as slowly as it ever will, while for me it increases with horrific intensity. Each week, I am startled by how the days—serious and astute trapeze flyers, contorting themselves and performing tricks that I can’t untangle—sweep past.
My fear of heights is nauseating, pinprick inducing, vertiginous; it jolts me into panic and shock. My older sister likes to remember how she once chased me and then produced a knife; when I saw the knife, she
says I froze. I do not remember it that way, but she insists that I froze in fear. Instead, I remember wanting a way out, trying to find that way out.
Cindy Dodge had a dream and had lived, however briefly, within that dream. She had been the greatest of the great. Despite not being circus royalty, she defied the odds and made it to the premier circus by way of audition. It was a dream that demanded that one not freeze, that one continuously see a way out. A trapeze artist, like a chess master, has to be able to see several moves into the future. However, unlike a chess player, the trapeze artist must continuously act: there is no pause, no minute clock to ticktock down the thinking seconds. A bad second, a second thought, a failure to accurately and firmly grasp could mean a fall.
I have had bad seconds. I have had second thoughts. I have had falls. I have failed to see several moves into the future. I have not been able to grasp. I have lived my life to its staunch and strict midpoint and have met it with fear. It is a brick wall at the end of the road. I have tried to see the way out. I have had ways out but failed to get there.
I am a bit older than I was yesterday; there is white in my hair. I have arrived at thirty-nine not as a shiny and brilliant star, but rather as a realization that what was once possible no longer is.
I have always been afraid of heights. I have had bad seconds. I have had second thoughts. I have had falls. I have thought about, but have not had, the self-worth or confidence or bravery or skill or whatever it takes to scale the brick wall. I am beginning to realize that it might have nothing to do with how hard I try or how bad I want it: it has to do with who I am and the fact that there is a wall.
I have tried to find Starla. I have been wanting to tell her about fears of mine, about how my sister and I, too, once walked that dark walk down that hallway to tell a parent a secret involving touch. My father nodded and said that certain man would never come over again, and that certain man never did come over again, but our fear was never something that was held and shook out. It closed up around us like a brick wall. My sister and I lived within that dark hallway, afraid all of our lives, afraid over and over again—afraid of the trepidation to ask, the trepidation to tell, the trepidation to act at all.
When I freeze, I’m really looking for a way out.
I have searched for her on the internet, on social media. I have varied her name. I have entered merely the smallest bits of information and then the city we grew up in. I have entered the names of her half brother and half sister. I have put in the names of her mother and stepfather. I have asked old elementary-school friends if they know anything about her. She had once been blazing and bright. I need to know if life thought enough to sweep her up and deliver her somewhere.
Cindy Dodge was twenty-three when she fell from her glorious height. When I read the articles on her fall and coma and death, I kept thinking that she had been someone’s daughter. I imagined that her father and mother had a terrible ache when making the decision to take her off life support. She had once been a little girl. On the blog I found, her mother commented how her daughter loved to sing and dance and perform as a child, and how she couldn’t believe it had been three decades since that irrevocable fall.
I do not know what drives someone to want to risk life for art, but I have often felt that I have given my life to art. It is a life that has, I feel, fallen short, and my relationship to my art is, for the most part, one-sided. That is, I give so much more than I feel I am given; that is, I feel that I would like to give more, but my life has not found me a way out of its toils and encumbrances. But I have seen others soar to great heights: I have seen them write spectacular books, I have lived within their amazement and awe, I have seen the glory of their prizes. And I go on. And no matter what it is I do, I remain the oh-no-not-her-she’s-ugly girl. Never the one shining bright; always the one to make the bright one brighter by way of my dullness.
With a résumé bulked with so many almost-but-not-quites, being not good enough is a lot in life that I have grown accustomed to, but one that nevertheless pains me. To have trained for the circus your whole life and not make it. To be competent nonetheless at the tricks of the trade but not worthy of the big top. For spectacle to exist, after all, someone has to fail. That is, danger must be more than abstraction. Someone has to fall.
Or, should I realize that the spectacle is the fall?
To disappear, to burn out, to remain tucked away and hidden within that dust cloud.
Would you have done so anyhow, if you knew that it would mean an untimely and tragic death?
My children often ask me if we can go to the circus, and I promise them that, yes, if the circus comes to town, I will take them. I tell them that their own mother has never gone and has always wanted to go to the circus, so, yes, the circus. The circus—notwithstanding the fact that it remains, for me, solely something to be seen—has an enormous grip on me. Despite my enthusiasm, however, I am feeling much like my parents these days: just as there was for them, there is now for me the inability to pay, the reluctance to, and the thought that the money is best spent on things that will help us survive.
I wish I could give my children spectacle; I wish I could give, however kitschy or commercial, the wonders and marvels of the world. I wish them to grow up unscathed, happy that they gave themselves to whatever they found themselves in love with. And I hope they succeed and are good at it. I wish them a life full of self-love, self-worth, and confidence. I want to spare them the pain of the almost, of the second thought and its subsequent fall.
In trapeze class, I was told to think of an imaginary hole into which I would fall. When the line person said hop, that would signal when I should go into that hole. I was called a flyer: it was my signal to start climbing to the top.
The climb to the top is twenty-three feet up. To climb the ladder to the top is in itself an almost impossible feat.
The first swing out is the worst, but it is not as bad as the letting go. That is, there’s a point before the hop when you let go of the world as you know it. You have ten toes perched off the edge of the flying trapeze board. You straighten yourself stiff and lean your hips out. You have your left hand clutched tight around a metal lattice. You clench the trapeze pole with the other. The board person tells me to let go and grab the pole with my left hand. I can’t. I can’t do this, I say. You can, she says. So I did. And there I was, leaning out into the void, on the precipice of my fall. And then the line person said hop. So I did. The first swing is the worst but not as bad as the letting go.
I did not think I could climb such a tall ladder, over two stories high. It helps if you just focus on one thing, I was told. So I focused on the illusory nature of it all. I could do this only if I could do it as if in a dream.
For me, there was no rush or thrill or bravery about it: I approached flying trapeze class the same way I approached giving birth. That is, as a joyous event that I had been planning and waiting for, but an event that nonetheless would be painful, terrifying, anxiety-ridden, and hard-won. I counted down the minutes to the end of class. When it was my turn to climb to the platform again, I scaled the ladder as if my life depended on it. This was not something I was born to do; this was not something I would ever be good at. I was and, despite my many turns on the flying trapeze, would always remain afraid.
The show went on despite Cindy’s fall. The last show of the season was on December 2, 1984, at the Nassau Coliseum in East Meadow, New York. Apparently, Cindy did not like her performance and wanted to right it; apparently, that is why she was practicing between shows. Witnesses say she appeared to have lost her grip, and that is why she plunged nineteen feet, landing her head on one of the metal circus rings. First, there was the critical condition. Then there was some responsiveness and therefore hope. Then the buildup of fluid on the brain sent her into a coma. The pressure had to be relieved with surgery. She did not regain consciousness after the fall. She went into a deeper coma. Scans showed a flat line. Scans showed a flat line again. A decision had been made to take her off her respirator. Her organs had been harvested. Her parents were at her bedside. Her parents had taken their time in making that decision. Cindy was only twenty-three, and she had suffered a great fall. She died on a Monday night, December 10, 1984.
I do not know why I wanted a go at the flying trapeze: I already knew I would fall.
That is how I once thought this essay would end, but up there, swinging at a terrifying height, facing not so much the terror of falling and heights but the worst that the world has recently given me, the safety lines did not exist nor did the safety net. Safety became an abstraction. Time also stopped. My past and future also became abstractions; I could only see the one sore spot. Time, indeed, does stop in that—if you are, like me, terrified—you begin to believe that the terror will never end. I went into this thinking that I would fall. I have always been the weakling, the underling, the one who could not throw far or hold on. I did
not know that falling would be what I really wanted. I craved the ground and its baseness, the shame and obscurity of it. I did not have it in me to conquer anything. I wished to be hidden, the black star, to fizzle out, to simply disappear and fade from it all.
Apparently, the trapeze is traditionally the last act of a circus; I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been.
But I have been in a room that I made into brick walls. I have let the water run in the shower until the world was nothing at all, until the voices of my children could not even call. I have clung to the means to an end and thought that, rather than being imperfect and unable, it would be better to not even be at all. I could only see the one sore spot. But I could not face that swing because I could not let go, I could not do what I needed to do when the line person said hop. I failed even to fall. I did not have it in me to conquer anything, but I wished sincerely to be hidden, the black star, to fizzle out, to simply disappear and fade from it all.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus proclaims that it is The Greatest Show on Earth, and I have thought about that proclamation and its veracity. It is a proclamation that rings differently for me, someone who has never gone to the circus, than other jingles or slogans. Mostly, I put no faith in anything; I do not believe that any commercial product can save me. Mostly, I profess what my father taught me: that is, I recognize fully that anyone selling anything only wants my money. I put much thought into whether or not this circus indeed could be The Greatest Show on Earth. It is a sweeping judgment, full of surety and amazement. Surely, if you go, you aren’t merely buying spectacle. Surely, if you go, you must be buying the greatest wonders that your eyes can behold.
“May All Your Days Be Circus Days” is another one of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s slogans. It is the last message, the takeaway of one’s time at the circus. It is a wish, a puff of dandelion, as ephemeral as a show itself. The life span of this wish is but a small wisp. It is the very stuff of magic and childhood: it is full of falsity, impracticality, and it is, after all, an impossible attainment. But like “The Greatest Show on Earth,” I have spent much time thinking about what “May All Your Days Be Circus Days” might mean. Although I never did go to the circus, I hunted down a copy of the program from 1985, the one that Starla had attended, the year in which The Living Unicorn had performed. At the end of this program is that haunting wish that all of our days might be circus days; it is a wish accompanied by a photograph of The Living Unicorn
himself, sporting a collar of white and pink rosettes. To the side are two child acrobats with the blondest-of-blonde hair and bluest-of-blue eyes, a reminder to my child self that I am not bright and beautiful, but boring and brown. The golden horn of the unicorn dazzles, its fur shimmers, and the sequins and gems on the child acrobats’ clothing sparkle. They are all—childhood, wonder, enchantment, grandeur, and awe—cast in a rosy glow. To me, it is a melancholy setting, a most nostalgic scene: children, 1985, The Living Unicorn, an outdated sentiment. For me, this page in the program, appropriately at the end, conveys only endings: that we all die, that we never stop growing older, that dreams are something stuffed into childhood and abandoned there, that all living passes into the disjunctive land of the curio, memento, artifact.
“May All Your Days Be Circus Days”: I have attempted to capture and pin down exactly what this phrase is meant to convey. I think it could mean one of two things: It could mean that all our days should be full of wonder and awe, that is, we should be perceptive spectators and enjoy a show that is, at its core, meant to instill magnificence. Or, it could mean that all our days should be full of performing, that is, we should live as the players in the greatest show, be the spectacle that wows and awes.
But I have lately come upon a third meaning, one that I acquiesce to, one that unsettles and does not glow. It may be fatalistic, but it is, for me, one that most fully solves the question: for those who fail despite how hard they try, the message must mean “may all of your days be full of things that you just can’t quite grasp, that send you to your inevitable fall.”
Addendum: Last summer, my daughter, seeing my circus research all about the house, asked if we could go to the circus. Yes, I said. Next time the circus comes to town, we will definitely go. I told her that I had yet to go to the circus, and I would love it if we could share that together. The circus was coming to town next June. But then, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that they were pulling down the big top for good in May. They claimed that without elephants, their ticket sales had dropped. Apparently, animal rights groups demanded that the circus remove elephants from their show. Without the elephants, it seemed, the show could not go on. Of course, it saddened me to know that I would never see this show, but I felt comforted in knowing that the elephants and other animals would enjoy the freedoms of retirement. The announcement helped me see the bright pinpoint of so much of life: that spectacle is cruelty and cruelty is spectacle.