FRESH YARN presents:

The Hall of Asian Mammals
By Lucy Baker

I am at an empty Mexican restaurant on Columbus and 84th with my 11-year-old little sister, Ashley. Ashley is not my real little sister. She is black, and lives in the projects on Avenue C. I am white, and I grew up in the suburbs of Boston. Ashley is my little sister from the East Village Girls' Club. As her big sister, on the first Saturday of every month I take her out to lunch and then to a museum.

I am commenting on the restaurant's decor -- there is a paper maché chili pepper lamp hanging from the ceiling, a sombrero on the wall, and a plastic cactus in the corner -- because I don't know what else to say. Ashley is not much of a talker, and I've already asked her about school, books, and her friends. She stares at me vacantly until the waitress saves us with a basket of chips and a bowl of sour cream.

After we finish eating, Ashley and I head south on Central Park West. We are going to the New York Historical Society on 77th. The early December wind is blowing our coats out like sails, and Ashley is trying to light a match from a book she picked up by the restaurant door. She can't get it to spark, so I show her how to fold the top of the book over the back and pinch the match between the two flaps.

"Now pull it out fast," I say.

It works, and as we walk Ashley lights the matches one by one and drops them onto the ground. By the time we get to the Historical Society she has burned through them all. I imagine her going home and telling her mother that today, her big sister taught her how to start fires.

Inside the museum, the only noise is the clattering of shoes on the marble floor. It sounds like a shuffled tap dance. At the information desk we collect our clip-on pins and a few pamphlets. We are here to see the "Slavery in New York" exhibit, but Ashley is more interested in checking out the gift shop.

"Come on," I say, steering her away from a rack of postcards, "This is supposed to be really cool."

The exhibit is crowded and it is difficult to get close to anything on display. Impeccably dressed old ladies slither past us and pop up to block our view. I try to get Ashley to read me some of the plaques. She sighs and sounds them out slowly. She skips all of the difficult words without trying.

After a while I take over and start reading them to her. "Wow," I say, "Almost 12 million people were taken out of Africa and forced into slavery. If you spread it out, that's like 80 people a day for 400 years. Crazy, right?"

"I dunno." She walks away from me.

I follow her to a makeshift well in the center of the room. There are voices coming from inside. We rest our elbows on the rim and peer over the edge. At the bottom, the faces of female slaves flicker up at us from a movie screen. They are talking and laughing as they haul buckets of water. Behind their heads is a cloudless blue sky. I look at Ashley and wonder if she is looking at her reflection.

"This is amazing," I say hopefully.

"Yeah," she replies flatly.

We wander through the rest of the exhibit. At first, I gesture enthusiastically at things -- a peeling photograph of a slave who lived to be 115 years old, a reproduction of the Emancipation Proclamation -- but by the end I have given up. Ashley is fiddling with the zipper on her coat, and she has folded her print-out of the Historical Society's floor plan into a paper airplane.

In the last room, there is a little stall with a velvet curtain, like a photo booth. Ashley goes inside and sits down on the wooden bench. I wait for her, peeking through the space where the curtain does not quite meet the frame. She touches a screen and an automated voice begins to ask her questions.

"What part of the show did you find most interesting?"

"Umm..." she mumbles. "All of it, I guess."

"Now that you have seen the exhibit, what do you think about slavery in New York?"

Ashley pulls at her bottom lip with her fingers. Then she blurts, "It was cool."

For a split-second I close my eyes. I feel like I have failed her.

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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