Late at night in New York’s Museum of Natural History, time comes to a stop. The dust settles slowly on the dioramas and displays, and nothing stirs it. Not a muscle shifts: The head of a sperm whale is wrapped in the tentacles of a giant squid, forever. The grin of an ichthyosaur, embedded in a slab of stone these 80 million years, does not change. The tyrannosaur skeleton stands unnaturally upright, its huge brown bones straining invisibly beneath their own weight. The African elephants stand poised in endless midstep. The “Indian of the Amazon” has raised a blowpipe, but will never fire it. The mountain gorilla, fists on chest, roars silently from among dark green, glossy leaves. Antelopes stare, ready to spring away, but never do. The cougars look down from their rocky ledge to the river far below. Two bull moose are locked in ancient conflict, froth dripping but never falling from their lips. Nothing changes here except the viewers. They stream past, first with parents, then with girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, and husbands, then with their own children, and finally white-haired and alone; then they come no more. But in the museum time is caught and displayed like a snowflake on velvet.
As a child I loved viewing those frozen moments of stealth or passion or fury or grace. My imagination was nourished by the unyielding permanence of each archetypal tableau. Each visit, I felt as if something — moths, ghosts — brushed my head, touched the corners of my eyes, and I returned home exhausted to dream of animals.
In one of the last photographs I have of my parents together, they are standing before the skeleton of triceratops in the museum’s Jurassic Hall. The light was dim and I had no flash, but I must have held the camera steady enough, for the picture is clear: My father’s face is calm, resigned, but his eyes betray his pain, born of a thwarted desire to comfort my mother. He is big boned, but wishes he were bigger — big enough to hold off what must come. My mother, in the midst of chemotherapy, is painfully thin, her long hair cut short. But her face is brave, the cheekbones high and unyielding; her face gives the photograph its light. The fossilized bones behind her are dark as wet earth.
One night, about a year after my mother died — two years after that picture was taken — my father and I went back to the museum together for the first time. I had been invited to tell stories at midnight in the Hall of Ocean Life for children of museum members.
That hall is huge, cavernous as a cathedral, except no hand of Adam reaches out to touch the hand of God overhead. This is a primal, nonhuman world where all is sacred. Here, the fin of God touches the tooth of God. A life-size blue whale dives from the vault of the vast ceiling. A long-tentacled giant squid hangs suspended over the entrance. King crabs guard the narrow way. Sharks swim around the great rotunda. One darkened diorama looks empty until you draw near enough to make out, in the blackness of the sea below all light, the blunt head of a sperm whale entwined in the sinuous tentacles of a giant squid. Along every wall, orcas solemnly raise their heads, dolphins leap, penguins dive, elephant seals rear up — all without movement, sound, or smell: a glistening, molded-skin-and-plastic frieze. Even when the hall echoes with the sound of human voices and footsteps, it is filled by the sea, all its creatures and hidden worlds.
I had always wanted to walk in a museum at night, in the strange quiet and aloneness that must envelop the abandoned exhibits. We had some time yet — the children were still watching a movie in the theater — so I led my father out of the Hall of Ocean Life, past the king crabs and the squid, and down to the Northwest Coast exhibit, a dark, rectangular hall with massive totem poles and beams and somber murals of Native American peoples. I wanted to look at the masks —Octopus, Raven, Bear, Orca, Wolf — and the woven capes that opened into thunderbirds. I wanted to be near these things in the semidark, in the quiet, at night.
My father seemed uncomfortable. As we walked from glass case to glass case, carved pole to carved pole, I tried to put him at ease by talking about old times, asking if he remembered bringing me here when I was young. “Did I bring you in here?” he responded.
“These people didn’t feel separate from nature,” I said, pointing to one of the masks. “See, under the Raven face is a human face. Look, in the Octopus mask: the tiny head of a woman. They really felt the interconnection of all living things. One consciousness, of which they were part, looked out from all eyes.”
Outside lay the city night’s darkness and cool rain. Inside with us were the forest and the sea. My father sat down on a bench, his plaid wool scarf around his neck, his suede jacket draped over his arm, the smell of pipe tobacco about him — just as it had been when I’d first entered this place as a child.
I walked alone to the far end of the hall. Once there, I thought I heard my father’s footsteps behind me, thought I felt the presence of someone nearby — but, when I looked up to say something, he was still where I’d left him, a tiny figure at the end of the vast, darkened hall.
Puzzled, I returned my gaze to the exhibits, and that was when I saw her: beside one of the carved wooden beams, a woman, beautiful and slender, running silently across the polished floor. She passed beneath a yellow spotlight, like a dying flame, and I almost lost my balance and cried out at the sight. She was covered with dark fur that glowed like a soft halo around her in the light. As I grabbed the edge of the nearest display case to steady myself, she disappeared into an unlit corridor. Taking a deep breath, I hurried after her.
In the corridor it was too dark to see, but I thought I heard faint breathing and soft footfalls, and perhaps caught a hint of musk in the air, a scent of forest and dry leaves and cool streams. And something more. The faint shadows on the walls shuddered like leafed branches moving in a wind. Hands out and heart pounding, I groped my way along the wall until I came to a locked door. The metal handle seemed to bear a faint trace of warmth, the smooth residue of a body’s oil.
I had seen this woman before. Thirty years back, Rose and I had lived for several weeks in a shelter of driftwood and tarp on a deserted beach of Vancouver Island, where the rocks pulsed with thousands of red and purple starfish. Walking at twilight one evening in the wiry forest that backed up to the beach, I’d thought I’d seen something upright — a bear? a human? a sasquatch? Recklessly, I had pushed into the undergrowth, ignoring the scratch of branches and twigs, and caught a glimpse of a woman, naked and veiled in fur. For a moment she’d stood barely illuminated in the soft, fading light. Then she’d disappeared into the trees. In the salt tang I had smelled a musk like that now lingering in the air.
Or so I recalled. Perhaps I was mixing things up again as I sometimes did, confusing memories with scenes from old stories: Bear Woman skirts the village where the forest meets the sea, rising up on her hind legs and sniffing the air in search of a human husband.
I stumbled, sweating from exertion, back out of the dark corridor and into the great, dim hall. My father had risen from the bench and was walking around, peering down into glass cases and up at darkened murals. He looked like a traveler whose directions were uncertain: anxious, but still determined to make the trip. He had been a navigator in World War II, flying the Himalayas — over the dreaded “Hump,” said to be the worst flying of the war — on intelligence and rescue missions, a man always precise and clear and careful with his maps. Now his brow was creased and furrowed like a map folded and unfolded too many times. I was breathing hard, but he didn’t seem to notice. “I think we should go,” he said, looking at his watch. “Won’t they be looking for you?”
“What? No, we’re OK. There’s still a little time,” I assured him. “Dad, uh, did you see anyone — a woman, maybe — in here?”
His brows were heavy, the eyes sunk in shadow. “She comes to me,” he said. “She sits at the table and I plead with her to return. But she’s not coming back to stay, no matter how I plead. The Man Upstairs is not right in the head: he takes good people like her — who did she ever harm? — and twists them with pain, while monsters like that Nazi in Brazil, Mengele, he lets live long, healthy lives! It’s been a year and I still wake up expecting she’ll be beside me. She’s part of me — where could she go? I’ll see her again, I know it, but not in this world.”
Raucous children’s voices echoed from the Hall of Ocean Life.
“You didn’t notice anything strange in here?” I asked. “Anything at all?”
“You’re young,” he answered. “How can you know how strange life really is?”