An excerpt from Moss-Haired Girl: The Confessions of a Circus Performer by Zara Zalinzi, by R.H. Slansky, the winning entry in the 2013 International 3-Day Novel-Writing Contest. Slansky’s winning novella was published by Anvil Press in summer 2014.
Many of Father’s friends and business acquaintances paid their respects upon his death, and I was moved to see the number of people who had admired and adored him. But the person I was most glad to see was the showman, who seemed genuinely aggrieved by my father’s passing. He confessed that his visit was two-fold: to offer his condolences and to extend an invitation to join a tour of Great Britain that he was in the final stages of planning.
After hiring a former museum worker to assist him, I left Father’s clerk in charge of the shop and packed my trunk. Soon I was travelling first class on a steamer bound for England, reunited with many of my dear friends. The Giantess was there along with a giant who the showman was billing as her mate (special quarters had been modified for their comfort),1 the Skeleton Man had brought his wife and the three hale and hearty boys he had sired that he was so proud of, my dear armless friend greeted me with kisses in lieu of an embrace, and of course there was the showman’s star attraction—his beloved midget. I smiled so with fondness at the sight of the Bearded Lady that she was momentarily disarmed. My errant husband, the Lion of Caernarfon, was also there, and took a moment alone with me to say that he had been a beast and would understand if I refused to resume our former act as a family and would make the matter clear to the showman if I so desired. Feeling this was the wisest course of action, I requested that he do so and he agreed to the terms with no sign of animosity.
At first sight of the Strong Man, I was at a loss. I found myself happier to see him now than I had ever been at the sight of the Lion. I had not laid eyes on him since he had rescued the baby and myself from the flames, and, despite the length of our acquaintance, words had never passed between us. But once again, as our eyes met, it seemed we didn’t need them.
The voyage was a merry one, full of remembrances and news of other performers who were not on the tour. The joy of being in the bosom of true friendship once again was almost unbearable. Even the Lion was on his best behaviour—the prettiest of passengers seemed enthralled by his thick auburn hair and fine dress, but not a single one seemed to turn his eye. At first I forbade him to see the baby, but there was such a pain in his eye whenever someone asked after him, or he spied me taking him for a walk on the deck, that I soon relented. The Lion was a perfect gentleman to me and made no advances. By voyage’s end, we were almost as good as a family again and I had reversed my position on our act. I did, however, require that we keep separate rooms on our travels. The Lion agreed that was for the best.
It was a grand tour. Between engagements it was quite easy for me to slip out unnoticed—all I had to do was twist my hair under a hat and don a modest outfit—and so I saw much of the country on foot. Of our many stops, perhaps the most memorable was the visit to the palace, where I was reunited with the very man whose entrance to the showman’s museum I had once barred and whom I had astonished by holding out my small hand in demand for a ticket. Once the showman had provided his introduction to our exotic musical family and we had performed “God Save the Queen” in perfect harmony, he and the princess applauded and he stepped forth. Like the regal sovereign of the mountains I was, I held out a hand, and he bent to kiss the back of it, pausing for a moment as he looked into my eyes with a half-remembered recognition, then shook it off. The royal visit was a smashing success, and the raves of the prince and princess ensured sold-out performances for the remainder of the tour. But there was one who could not seem to enjoy our acclaim. The Bearded Lady had been told by the prince, who had intended it as a compliment, that her facial growth was heartier than his own, and enviously so. Having felt her whiskers a plague ever since they appeared, this was another stab to the hidden tender heart beneath her haughty manner.
One night, I awoke to find her looming over my bed in the darkness, a pair of sharpened scissors gleaming in her hand. I heard the snip and felt the hair fall on my cheek. Screaming, I pushed her from me.
“Come sister,” she entreated me. “Allow me to cut it, then you may cut mine.”
I assured her I would do neither, nor should she, for our respective hairs were our source of livelihood. She began to weep and said she cared not, swore she could not live with it any longer. Holding the scissors out, she implored me to take them and free her of her whiskers. By now, those who had heard the screams were outside the door, calling out to be let in. The Bearded Lady’s eyes took on a frightening gleam. She charged at me, the scissors held out like a knife. I caught her by the wrist as she fell upon me, and we tumbled to the floor, struggling, as I cried out for help. The baby screamed from where he cowered in a corner. I was nicked by the blade more than once before I finally heard the sound of a frantic key scraping the lock.
The door opened at last. In came the Strong Man, who set to work prying the wild woman from me. When the Bearded Lady recognized my rescuer, she became even more enraged and turned her wrath upon him. Screams emanated from her that raised goose pimples all over my skin; the screams of an animal. It took four men to subdue her, and, in the fray, the Strong Man was also cut by the flashing scissors. In time, orderlies arrived from a local sanatorium to take her away.2
My wounds, which were thankfully superficial and would be covered when I was in costume, were dressed, as were those of the Strong Man, who required more attention, and we found ourselves alone in my room. The baby had cried himself to sleep in my arms. I looked to the man who had saved my life three times over, and could no longer be silent.
“Thank you,” I said, simply.
He smiled. The gloom lifted from his gaze. “De nada,” he replied.
The Siberian strong man was Spanish!3
We laughed a moment, then the mood turned serious once more. He took my hand in his and solemnly declared his love. My father had taught me enough Spanish that, between what I knew of his tongue and he knew of mine, we had no trouble understanding one another. Tears spilling from my eyes, I returned his declaration in kind, but remembered to him my wedding vows. He nodded, gently releasing my hand. Before withdrawing from the room, he tenderly caressed the baby’s brow and assured me that his heart had been true ever since I was a ticket girl at the showman’s first museum, and that it would always be so. As the door closed behind him I wept softly, understanding at last that I felt the same.
In the morning it was discovered that the Lion, having never returned to his room after stepping out for a walk in the night air, had missed the melodrama of the previous evening. When he was still missing at our next engagement, we all began to worry. By the second missed performance, the showman had put the word out to the police that he was missing.
He turned up again just in time for the next performance, drunk, dirty, with a terrible black eye and cut lip, steadying himself by the arm of a girl of questionable repute.4
The showman nearly fired him on the spot, but, fearing for the happiness of our child, I implored him to give the Lion a chance to shape up. Reluctantly, he allowed it, but made it clear to the Lion that there could be no more incidents. At that moment, it became just as clear to me that the Lion would never be the husband I desired. Still, I honoured our vows and was chaste in my interactions with the Strong Man.
1 Mabel Birch, the Giantess, and General Magnus, the giant, though life-long friends, were never a couple. It was not for lack of trying on his part, however. According to his autobiography, he proposed to her on a weekly basis right up to her death, and though he lived thirty years more, he never fell in love again.
2The breakdown that terminated Madame Anya’s (the Bearded Lady) stint on Putnam’s tour of Great Britain (and seemingly her career as a performer) is documented, though not in detail. Papers reported a variety of speculative stories as to what happened that night—some said she had gone after her own child, some said she had tried to kill herself over an unresponsive lover, and one even put forth the possibility that she was really a man and had finally cracked up over living a lie. Interestingly, all of the reports agreed on one thing—Anya had incurred some frighteningly bloody wounds herself, and witnesses in the crowd that had gathered outside the hotel were doubtful she would survive. It seems possible that either Zarah or Ivan fought back more fiercely than Zarah relates here.
Madame Anya disappears from the records for a long time before she shows up in the 1920 US census, curiously enough, married to a railroad engineer in Ohio. It is not known what became of the child, the side effect of whose birth was the impetus of her sideshow career.
3 Zara is the only source for Ivan the Great’s (the Strong Man) supposed true nationality. Because she never reveals his given name, and he is not referred to anywhere in print or memory as anything other than Ivan the Great (with the exception of his later incarnation as Prince Zoltan), his nationality, as well as his identity, remains a mystery.
4Write-ups in local British papers on three sequential performances of the tour mention Hughs’s (the Lion) absence due to “another engagement,” suggesting he had been on the bill but not been in attendance. If he was, indeed, reported missing and found to be just on a bender, it is a testament to Putnam’s relationship with the press that the incident does not appear in print.