The Dog and Pony Show

Magic is what happens when reality breaks.  That was always true, and a special joy of the circus has always been to see that happen, or almost happen; close enough to feel like magic. It’s what people came to see–tigers turned tame and people flying free of gravity’s relentless pull. Danger, too—the tiger’s teeth and the negative space of the fall.

When reality broke everywhere (let’s say shattered instead; there were deep cracks and missing spaces, along with chunks that remained relatively intact) that felt like magic to me too, tremendous and uncontained. I’m no authority; I don’t argue with people who say it was physics, or weaponry, or God.

But it reminded me of the circus. Suddenly we were all ten feet of the ground without a net. (Gravity stayed real and not everyone survived, I know to my own grief—please allow me the metaphor?) The reality-broken world was dangerous, with so many structures and safeguards failing, and so many people failed to manage themselves or cope or be kind in their new circumstances.

I had practiced circus arts for years, though never to the point of performance. I loved the feeling of wrapping myself in silk or rope, spinning and stretching and hanging upside down, and like anyone who puts on a red nose, clowning opened my heart. I was never strong or expressive or graceful, as artists go; I did it for fun, and that was all right. At the time these arts were available to anyone with a little time and money, at least in cities—there were aerial classes at community centers and clowning at old folks’ homes. You didn’t have to be born to it, and you didn’t need to get good. I showed up a few times a week and paid for my classes and that’s probably ninety per cent of anything ever, anyway. Circus had been my refuge, and it became my bridge.

Ermine, founder of the school where I practiced, sent out a vast group message — I was on a lot of lists, and telecommunications worked for awhile. I had a horse farm at the time, in a small backyard way, and I was able to ride to a kind of rescue. I hitched Stjarni and Sweetie to my biggest cart, the one for schoolchildren’s farm days and the occasional fancy wedding, packed up the ponies’ medications and my own, and drove to the studio. The building was intact, as was the bulk of the equipment. People huddled together inside, deciding what to do and with whom.

Everybody wanted to pet the ponies, which they appreciated, and there was much discussion of where I could go and who wanted to go with me. I ended up with four passengers—my teachers Ermine and Tsuto, plus Bett who was a painter as well as an aerialist, and Phil who was a juggler, a welder, and a rigger—and a lot of circus gear. The loaded cart was tremendously heavy, but the ponies did what I asked. We escaped the city without trouble, I think because horses always inspire goodwill even in the worst circumstances, and because the cart’s enormous wheels could handle very damaged roads.

Five days and maybe a hundred miles later, we were as safe as anyone could expect to be. The ponies munched grass at what had been a roadside, and Phil set up a fifteen-foot silks rig. We played on it, all of us, just to make ourselves feel good—the height and flight, the suspension and the drop. It felt like trust, and I for one needed that like air. What it looked like—I don’t know what I looked like, and it didn’t matter. Ermine embodied the sinuous, silky little animal of their name; Tsuto moved like lightning; Phil and Bett flew like a pair of eagles. We were a circus, for small but high values of that old word, and we could use an audience.

I brought my ponies and I’ve also got a loud voice. So the next day I rode around yelling and finding people—there were people were camped up and down that road for miles. I invited any and all, and twenty-one people showed up. I gave pony rides to start, and then the rest of us performed. Somebody with solar power played a Cirque du Soleil recording for a soundtrack, which I found beautiful and bitter by turns. I wasn’t sure we were going to be paid—we would have performed just for joy, as we had practiced. But we were given generous applause, and also food and water, soap and a big woolen blanket. Late that night I asked Ermine, “Was this your plan? Because it was a great one,” but they only laughed and told me to go to sleep. I wasn’t sleeping well—I never have—but it warmed my heart to hear.

So a tiny traveling circus is what we became. People seemed to like seeing us; maybe we were a safe space for them too, setting them at ease with an old kind of magic. I painted “Circus of Tenacious Joy” in blue letters on the cart, and Bett got us the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” album and a player, so that was our soundtrack. We didn’t have much, either for ourselves or as a show, as the history of circuses went. But most people didn’t, and we were a pleasant novelty in a difficult time. We never stayed anywhere more than one night. The arts seem like a luxury at the best of times, and none of us wanted to stand up before much scrutiny either. My ponies were strong—they were Icelandics, bred tough for war or food or any need in circumstances much more dire than what we faced. We kept going.

We took smallish roads, mostly southwest. That was Ermine and Phil’s decision; my job was to drive, not navigate. Sometimes when we’d stop the cart I’d ride ahead, and do my yelling if I found a town or a camp of refugees. Depending on the distance and their mood we’d either drive up later or I’d bring them back, a circus parade in reverse, for the show. If I’d led them, I climbed on horseback and escorted them back afterwards, carrying a burning torch for people to see. I had a little speech I gave, usually to final applause and sometimes a few more gifts or coins. Then I’d quench the light and return to the cart in the dark, trusting the pony’s eyes. Often I sang, too, just for myself and the rhythm of our ride.

One such night, under a full moon so bright I could see pretty well myself, I heard a wolf howl. It was high and thin and musical, and music was rare in those days. I opened my mouth and sang back, stopping my song to match the note and the quaver as well as I could with my human throat.

The night was dead silent after that. I felt like an idiot, which is a feeling I’m quite used to, but just then it made me sad. I coughed a little and drank some water. It’s possible I’d been hearing “Yellow Submarine” a little much, but this was a different Beatles song, “Norwegian Wood”. I’d played it in string quartet, in junior high, but now I sang out again with the words: “I once had a girl / or should I say / she once had me…”

There were no lights back at the circus cart, but it was bright enough for me to read the blue letters, black on silver by the moon. It was a warm night, and I saw everyone’s makeshift beds outside as well, and heard Tutso softly snore. I untacked Stjarni and let him go to graze with Sweetie, and then I felt a furry shape leaning up against my legs.

I jumped backwards, tripped, and did a perfect pratfall. I didn’t yell because people were sleeping, and that seemed more important than that I had maybe literally led a wolf among us. Were wolves still shy wild animals, or were they magic now, predators out of fairy tales? While I sat there on my butt, the animal lay down. I could make out the shape — wolf or a coyote or a big dog, I’m no authority and besides I know they interbreed — and I could feel the animal’s posture, cozying up to me.

I reached out and scratched it behind the ears. The fur was as thick as a pony’s mane, but softer. If it could purr, I thought, it would have. We sat together for awhile like that. I would never have said I was lonely in the circus before, with the ponies and the performers and the occasional audiences, but some kind of solitude ebbed away from me in the moonlight, through the warmth in my hands.

At length I noted that the ponies didn’t mind, and it was very late. I got to my feet, and said, “Come on,” to the animal. A bedroll awaited me, along with an apple and a hard-boiled egg and a bottle of water. I wrapped myself up and ate and drank, and gave the beast half of the egg. Then we curled up together, and I slept as well as I ever have.

Phil found us in the morning. Being Phil, he just sat down and waited for me to wake up, and didn’t even ask the question in words. “He’s my new dog,” I said, when I woke up and figured out I had to say something. “His name’s Sebastian.”

“He’s a girl,” said Phil. Sebastian had rolled over for tummy rubs, which Phil was providing.

“Don’t get gender prescriptive now,” I said, and Phil laughed and got up and walked away. He’d left me another apple and some bread for breakfast, and I heard him telling the story to everybody else as they brewed coffee.  They all laughed too, and Sebastian was a part of our troupe then, and nobody in the circus asked me to justify or explain.

The audiences were a different matter. Sebastian was big and strong and healthy, and even with as much slack as people cut us, they sometimes looked askance at our big silver-gray wolf. Their dogs growled or slunk away. Ermine made Sebastian a big gold-and-pink neck ruff with ribbons and pleats, and that helped with the people if not their pets. And someone—not me—persuaded Sebastian to sit beneath the aerial rig during performances, bowing or sitting up or tail-wagging, something like a clown. People loved that, and would sometimes try to pet Sebastian afterwards. The wolf never quite allowed it, arch-backed and smiling in her pink ruff. (I went to using “her” after Phil’s observation, though Phil maintained “he”, which I think was good manners.) When we reverse-paraded our audience back to their homes, Sebastian would trot by my stirrup all the way.

Often we sang together, in the dark on our way back to the circus. I missed having recordings that weren’t “Yellow Submarine”, but I guess recorded music was a brief blip on musicality anyway, and while I would have cringed at singing for others I enjoyed it for myself. Sebastian crooned — that’s the only word I can think of for it. Wordless, softer than howling, for our ears alone together. She grew quiet as we approached the cart, so I would too, and I felt as much peace as I ever have when we lay down together in the dark.

Then one night, our peace was broken.

We’d performed in a beautiful field all green and golden with the fall. Phil and Ermine had been working on duo handbalancing, and Tutso had to restart the long refrain of “All Together Now” before the two sprang apart, laughing and sweating and bowing to much applause. There were thirty-eight people in the audience — quite a crowd for us — and they gave us a huge picnic basket filled with cheese and cured meats and a few bottles of fizzy hard cider. We weren’t far from the farm buildings where the people lived, and I’m sure they would have made it home just fine without my escort. I rode with them because I felt like riding, and I felt like being with them for ten or fifteen minutes longer than the show. There was a half moon high in the clear sky, so I didn’t even bring my torch. The people were talking to each other, about our act and their own gossip, and I led them and listened and smiled to myself.

I left them at the big farmhouse porch, cheering and waving goodnight as Sebastian and I returned to the road. Two minutes later I was out of sight in the darkness. I had just started singing — “Eleanor Rigby”, of all things — and then I heard hoofbeats, galloping to me.

I shut up and we halted, Stjarni brave and cooperative as always. There were five of them, which struck me as absurd — I was one middle-aged woman on a pony, and they were five on five horses. The one in front held a burning torch, and I saw his face, his wild grin. “Get off,” he told me, voice loud to be heard over the crackle of its fire. I sat. “Get off,” he said again. “We don’t want any trouble.”

“This is trouble.” Argument always comes easy to me. Someone else laughed and rode me down.

His arms were out, reaching for me like a partner acrobat even as I flinched away. We sidled around, but another rider swung a fist into my face. My eye burned hot and white and my head snapped back with the force of it, and I would have fallen if Stjarni hadn’t twisted to keep me on. I clung to his mane with both hands, struggling for balance. Then Sebastian roared from my side and leapt up.

Stjarni reared beside the wolf, striking out with teeth and forelegs as I hung on — I was mostly a passenger then. They were all so much bigger than us, and I didn’t have so much as a whip as a weapon. But I had two animal allies, and I was angry as well as frightened and hurt, and I heard myself scream as we fought back.

One horse bolted away as its rider cursed.  Then Sebastian sank teeth into the arm that held the torch, and it fell like a meteor. Dry leaves by the roadside caught fire, and another horse spooked; a man landed hard on the road. Stjarni’s broad shoulder smacked a horse in the side, and I reached up to punch the rider’s face — that one tried to grab me back, but Stjarni and I stayed together. Stjarni wheeled away, running at the fallen man; he left the road to flee on foot, and I fought my pony to let him go. Then the rest were gone too, an arrhythmic rattling of hoofbeats on the road, leaving only the rustle and spark of leaves aflame.

All this took less time to happen than it’s taken me to write. (It has taken me, I admit, some time and effort.) I was shaking. The smell of burning leaves was both acrid and sweet. My throat was full of it, and sore from screaming, and I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. Stjarni was excited, prancing; he wanted to run after our attackers, and I wanted to just run, anywhere, away. But I said “Sorya, sorya” and my pony quieted as I asked. When he was still, I got down from his back to look for Sebastian.

There was no wolf. A woman lay at the side of the road, dark in the flickering firelight. She was naked except for a pink-and-gold ruff around her neck, and bleeding from the side of her mouth.

“Sebastian?” What a stupid question, I thought, even as I said the name. I knelt down; I had no water with me, but I dabbed at the blood with my shirt. I was afraid to touch her, and afraid not to, and shaking. I touched her hands, which felt hot; mine were icy cold. I peered into her face and her eyes opened and fixed on mine, wide and gold. Her pupils were even; no concussion, and I felt some relief for that. “Are you all right?”

She rolled away. Stjarni put his head head down by me, and I stroked under his jaw. Minutes passed, and I didn’t know what to do but wait. A low voice said, “All right.”

I had never been so glad of any words. “Do you want help?” I saw the answering nod, and as Sebastian came to her knees, I was beside her. She was heavy, but I was strong. At length, we got her onto Stjarni’s back, and left the fire to burn as I walked beside them back to our cart.

The circus had gone to bed, as usual, and I was just as glad. I helped Sebastian (was that her name? was that the right pronoun?) to dismount, and got water, and untacked Stjarni and let him graze. When I came back, Sebastian had taken off the ruff, crawled into my blankets, and curled up tight.

“Thanks for saving me,” I said, because it needed saying.

A rusty laugh replied. “Anytime.”

I sat on the ground next to the own bedroll, feeling like an idiot, which as I mentioned was familiar. “Do you want anything? Is there something you need?”

“Could you hold me, like you do?”

My heart broke, or something close to that. “Of course,” I said, and took off my boots and lay down. She was much bigger as a person, and it took a little arranging, especially since I was afraid of hurting her. But eventually we lay together in the blankets, both our heads on one pillow, my front to her back. “How’s this?

“Good.” We were quiet for a while. I had one arm over her middle, and the other curled between us, my hand on her shoulder. She was very warm, and I was less icy; it felt good. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” I said, though my eye still hurt. “Are you going to be okay? Are you going to be a wolf again?” Which struck me as rude and I was embarrassed as I said it, even though it was the most obvious of questions.

“I don’t know,” came the soft answer, and then even softer, “I hope so.”

I kissed her shoulder, as I had so often done to my wolf. I didn’t and still don’t know how that magic works, only what I’d seen and what she said. I said, “I hope so too,” and she sighed. At length adrenaline wore off into exhaustion, and we slept.

When I woke up there was a wolf in my arms, and so there has been every night since. I still call her Sebastian, and I still call her her.

For a long time I was inclined to blame the singing, which is to say I blamed myself. That’s an empowering perspective: I did this so that happened, and if I don’t, it won’t happen again. It also plays into what we’re taught about womanhood: you don’t go out alone at night, not even with your horse and your dog, and you certainly must not sing.

That is nonsense. It wasn’t my fault, or Stjarni’s or Sebastian’s or the circus’s. It’s tough to know you’re never really safe. But that’s what we learn from circus—to be in danger, and sometimes like magic to come through it and stand for applause. These are the things that allow me to go on, to survive and even enjoy: a wolf who is also a woman, and the way it feels to be upside down fifteen feet in the air, and not fall.