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The Hall of Asian Mammals
By Lucy Baker

As 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.

Back 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." She shrugs.

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 her.

"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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