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by Amy Locke

At the Museum of Natural History, we got lost in the Iowa Hall. The low lighting and the charcoal-gray floors and walls had us stupefied. The giant sloth exhibit was the first thing we saw, and the last thing we were sure of. It loomed before us like some gargantuan, fur-matted troll guarding its treasure-packed cave.

We regarded it for some time, staring up into its eyes, black and shiny like hunks of onyx. It seemed to give us its blessing — it would allow us to pass. We slunk by and started down the curving pathway.

As we went, the lights seemed to grow even dimmer; the air, more chill. We felt we were tunneling down into the earth. When we came to a lit exhibit, at last, we flocked to it like small-brained moths. We counted the arrowheads, the beads, the bits of bones.

The jawbone of a dog made us sob. We wondered if the dog had had a good life. Did dogs have good lives a thousand years ago? We didn’t know. We bashed our shoulders against the glass case until it splintered under the weight. Brushing aside the glimmering shards, we picked up the jawbone. We cut our hands on the glass.

Farther down the twisting path, we came to an exhibit of Native American families hunting, cooking, living. They all had eyes like the sloth’s, but smaller — little chips of onyx. Their skin was dusty brown and papery to our touch. Their mouths were stern. We stepped across the railings and poured into their homes. We wanted to shake their hands and smooth their hair.

We heard a woman’s voice, coming from somewhere.

“Shelby, let’s go in here.”

There was a child’s reluctant whimper.

“What’s so scary?” the woman said. Her pressing voice pinged off the walls around us. “What don’t you like? Is it the people? They’re just dolls. Nothing to be scared of.”

“They are not dolls,” the child said. “Not like my dolls.”

“I’ll hold your hand,” the woman said.

We looked at the Native American figures amongst us. They were not like dolls. They had sadness in their shiny eyes, and a heavy look about their shoulders, as if they were all very tired. We wanted to shake them into animation and cheer them up. We wanted to show them the jawbone we were clutching; if they could speak, they would tell us a story about it, we were sure.

A woman and child came around a corner, appearing out of the grayness like phantoms. The little girl was pale with gray-blonde hair split into two braids. Her face was scrunched with dread. The woman, with the same hair as the girl, smiled at us. They were holding hands. They came near to the exhibit, watching at a distance.

“Who are they?” the little girl asked, pointing at us.

“Rule breakers,” the woman said.

“What are you doing in there?” the little girl asked us.

“We don’t know,” we answered. “We’re lost.”

“You should get out of there,” the woman said.

“I told you it was scary in here, Mommy,” the little girl said, giving the woman an I-told-you-so look.

She turned back to us. “Come on. You can hold my hand. We’ll get you unlost.”

We put the jawbone beside a Native American boy, hunched over some firewood that wasn’t really firewood. We told him to take care of it for us; we smoothed his synthetic black hair. He didn’t seem quite as unhappy as the rest. We told them all goodbye and climbed out of their world. The little girl took our hand and tugged us along. We were thankful for the company.

Copyright © 2011 by Amy Locke

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