There are times when, for some reason, a certain animal becomes wildly popular. Whether it is due to the political climate, some mass mindset or sunspots, suddenly, its image is everywhere, like gophers in Topanga.
As if overnight, the animal’s likeness appears on clothing, pajamas, appliques on purses, in jewelry, on lunchboxes, stickers, keychains, greeting cards, license plate holders, and even as cookie jars.
Although, it was a wee bit before my time, in 1902, the Teddy Bear came to major prominence. The stuffed animal was named in honor of Theodore Roosevelt, bless his heart, who, though certainty a hunter himself, defended bears against cruel and inhumane hunting practices. All America was delighted with the cute, cuddly stuffed bears. Hooray for the old Rough Rider! The music “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” was written in 1907, composed as a dance tune for the “Teddy Bear Two Step”, a fun ragtime ditty I’d be tempted to try, as it only has two steps.
The exotic cheetah was all the rage in the 1920s, especially as brooches and bracelets. Unfortunately, so was the cheetah’s coat. In the ‘30s, the elegant greyhound was the height of sophistication, appearing in Art Deco fashion illustrations, as porcelain collectables and frolicking through winter wonderlands on Christmas cards. Perhaps, due to the success of Bambi, in the 1940s (Oh, never could I watch the run to the thicket ever again), the image of the deer decked wallpaper, dresses, highball glasses, and garden statuary. I will regretfully share that my son, one Halloween, heartlessly dressed in a hunting cap with earflaps and plaid shirt, with a homemade medal round his neck that read, “I shot Bambi’s Mom.” Oh, the shame of it!
Of course, the King of the Animal Image wears not a crown but two big round ears. His rule has been long, beginning in the late ‘20s and coming to a fevered height, fueled by the coming of television, in the 1950s and ‘60s, from which he has never fallen. He dwells in rarefied air and is recognized internationally. In the future, he will no doubt expand his rule over new kingdoms established on other planets bearing the slogan heralding, “The Happiest Place Off Earth!” Not bad for a rodent.
Now and then, the might of Mickey Mouse has been challenged, and how appropriate that one such contender should be a cat. In the late 1970s, Hello Kitty, the cute girl kitty from Japan, wearing a big red bow, became an enormous media franchise success, second only to an odd, yellow animé, who is somewhat hard to place as an actual animal. What exactly is he? He resembles both a squirrel and a mouse and is described as an electric rodent in that he has a lightning-bolt tail. He is the irrepressible Pikachu, from the Pokémon franchise, and is known for his distinct little voice calling out his name, which sounds like he’s sneezing. Pik-achu! Bless you.
Recently, there have been a series of benign animals that have been popular for short bursts of time. We’ve seen the llama, the hedgehog, the narwhal, and the sloth come and go. Two non-animal contenders appeared in the marketplace, the cactus and the pineapple that had their prickles softened. They were given cute faces and smiles but it’s hard to compete with a sloth. Here in Topanga we celebrate our own flying pig. It is sort of our hometown mascot representing our whimsical Topanga spirit. It has not yet reached wide commercialization, although I’m sure its day is coming. Then we’ll have to share it with the world, for you just can’t keep a flying pig down.
Amongst those mentioned and numerous others, there is one creature that has arrived at the gleaming pinnacle of mythic status and justifiably so. Having been with us for centuries it has an iconic charm that is timeless. Don’t get me wrong, we love a dragon, but it is the unicorn that has traveled from that early 15th century tapestry all the way to 21st century kids’ backpacks, the true measure of success. In this time of political corruption what is more needed than something shining and true.
Usually pictured as pure white with a gleaming horn, it is both somehow humble and majestic. It stands for purity, something untouched by the baser things of our world, a thing rare and wondrous, seen only by a lucky few. Although, I like to claim to have invented the unicorn, I think it has existed always. Young girls are especially susceptible to its winsome charms and, while shopping in Trader Joe’s market, I conduct a random sampling of their opinions concerning the enchanted beast.
“Do you believe in unicorns?” I ask a little girl wearing silver shoes with unicorn horns attached. She answers, “Oh yes, I saw one!”
“Yeah, so did I,” announces her older brother.
“Where did you see it?” I ask.
The boy answers, “He was at that beach place, near the roller coaster, eating ice cream. You remember?”
“Yes, I remember,” I answer honored that he included me, as if I’d been there.
I ask a group of young unicorn believers at our local Children’s Corner Play School about where they think unicorns live. They answer, speaking over each other with complete conviction and enthusiasm: “On the moon.” “In rainbows!” “In pink clouds.” “At the unicorn farm.” “There’s one behind the swings.” Then they run off, scattering into the afternoon air, light and bright as if they had wings.
Of course, I know where unicorns live, and I’m sure you know it too. They live in the hearts of us. But I long to have a close encounter with the animal in its splendid, sparkling flesh. I long to look into its wise eyes and bow my head. Then I could leave this world, happy.
In Peter Beagle’s story, The Last Unicorn, there is a scene (how I wish I had written it) in which a unicorn does finally appear to a rather bedraggled, ageing woman of questionable morals; perhaps she even drinks wine.
“Where have you been?” she cried. “Damn you, where have you been?” She shrank before the whiteness and shining horn.
“I’m here now,” said the unicorn.
“Molly laughed. “And what good is that to me? Where were you twenty years ago? Ten years ago? How dare you come to me now.” She waves her hand summing up her barren face, desert eyes and yellowing old heart. “I wish you had never come.”
Tears slide down her face. She reaches up and lays her hand on the unicorn’s cheek but they both flinched a little, and the touch came to rest on the swift shivering place under the jaw.
And Molly said, “It’s alright. I forgive you.”
I ask my daughter, now twenty-one, if she still believes in unicorns?
“Sometimes,” she answers.
“And where do you think they live?”
Quick comes her reply. “In Kathie Gibboney’s head.”
So be it.
On unicorns and fairy wings,
Oh, take brave courageous flight!
Be not afraid, dear pure of heart, darkness only is the night.