Hall of Asian Mammals
we leave, I wonder if Ashley is at all aware of the absurdity of
this situation -- of me trying to teach her about the black
experience in New York. I want to ask her what she is thinking,
but I can't find the words. I am afraid that she is angry at me
for presuming to know what I can not possibly understand.
Sometimes Ashley and I do well together. Last month, she pulled
off my wool cap and started making tiny braids in my hair, which
is brown and straight and hangs halfway down my back. "It's
so soft," she said. "You should dye it blonde."
I told her that if she brought in enough rubber bands, she could
give me cornrows like hers. I had forgotten what it felt like to
have a little girl play with my hair, they way it tugs and tingles.
outside, we stamp our feet against the cold and blow on our fingers.
We still have 45 minutes before we have to meet the rest of the
Girls' Club at the subway station. "Hey," I say, "want
to check out the Museum of Natural History? It's on the next block."
We cross the street, climb the steps, and push through the heavy
revolving door. Inside we snake our way through the ticket line,
and I give the docent $1 for each of us. I ask Ashley what she wants
to see and she says she doesn't care. "You pick," she
tells me. I scan my museum map. I am searching for a way to reach
"Let's go in here," I say finally, pointing to the Hall
of Asian Mammals.
The room is dim and dusty, shadowed like a basement, and not at
all like I remembered. When I was a little girl, my father used
to bring me to the Museum of Natural History to see the monkeys
and tigers. I thought they looked like the most special stuffed
animals. I wished that I could pat their delicate heads and scratch
behind their ears.
Now I feel as if I am standing in a shrine to taxidermy. The animals
have grown older. Or maybe it is just me. The displays seem somehow
dated, as if the replicated environments have gone out of style.
Someone needs to open the cases up and let the animals breathe,
brush their coats, and change their grass.
In the center of the room are two Asian elephants. I skim the plaque
and tell Ashley that while obviously impressive, they are smaller
than their African counterparts. They eat leaves and shrubs and
live mainly in tropical forests. She isn't listening. Instead she
is staring at the elephants' long trunks, their flapping ears, and
hulking, leathery backs.
And then I think that maybe I don't have to teach her anything.
Maybe she will learn from me anyway. I used to point the animals
out to my father. "This one?" I would ask, and he would
answer in general terms, "mouse," if it was a badger or
a chinchilla, "cat," even if it was a lion or a jaguar.
It didn't matter. The facts were not the point.
I look at Ashley. "How awesome would it be to ride one?"
She turns, and then she smiles. "I think they need to be ironed."
We move from window to window, past the water buffalo and the rhinoceros,
the guar and the spotted leopard. We pause in front of the tiny
barking deer, and all of a sudden it doesn't matter that its fur
is patchy and thinning, or that its glass eyes are foggy and obviously
blind, because Ashley is holding my hand.
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