The floorboards, worn by generations of feet, lay before me along the aisles dividing showcases filled with articles of the past. I ran through the open doors. My feet were answered by heavy squeaks from the ancient boards beneath them. I looked inside eagerly. A couple of people were at the back of the building pointing and murmering undistinguishable words. My eyes darted left, then right. Where to start?
"So tall," he said.
"Yeah," I said. "Let's get inside and see the mummy."
"Yeah, the mummy," he said.
My mother pushed the stroller over the threshold and we entered a silent world interrupted by echoes of soft voices gathered around showcases. The air was alive with the dust of ages, moats in sunbeams, as we broke into this bastion of time honored relics. Above us floated the bones of a whale killed off the coast of Charleston. Held together by wire we saw the frame of the behemoth aloft. We moved slowly beheath, eyes riveted upon each rib and spinal bone. Such a creature, so big, once a living being swimming in the depths of the ocean which lapped the shores of our beaches. We both ambled below in complete awe.
"How heavy do you s'pose it is?" asked my cousin.
"Coupla tons," I said.
"Think we better get out from under it?" he asked my mother who controlled his mobility.
"Well, where do you want to start?" she asked not hearing his anxiety.
He relaxed once we were out from under the whale's skeleton.
We strolled past the patrons and their displeasure at our youthful exuberance. My mother offered an apology as we walked by them. Seen and not heard, that was the rule when we were children. We obeyed as best we could but at times our child's enthusiasm overcame the rules.
The huge aisle separated glass cases on either side. On view behind the glass was a diorama painted on the wall behind whatever might be on display. Stuffed animals were placed in front of the painted backgrounds to place them in their habitat. Below outside the glass were placques with information about each specimen. We would take more time with those on the way back to the entrance. First we had to reach the Egyptian room at the back.
Onthe back wall was a new sign. There was a dark alley way leading deep into the rear of the museum. It was lined with glass cages. The sign at the opening said "LIVE SNAKES." It wasn't there on our last visit.
"Can I go see?" I yelled. My voice was once again reverberated throughout the huge open space of the building. Once more looks of disapproval turned to me.
"Shhh. Yes, go, look." I had forgotten my cousin. He wasn't able to see them since he was confined to his stroller and too heavy for my mother to lift and hold for long. My enthusiasm for live snakes knocked all else from my mind. A board about a foot above the floor ran along the wall allowing short people, kids because all kids love snakes, to step up to see more closely. Up I went. There they were amongst the leaves and branches placed in the spaces to give some semblance to their habitat. Slowly sliding along the branch was a black snake tongue flitting out as his head slowly turned to eye me. He froze. I moved on to the next. Amongst the brown of leaves I saw nothing but watched a while. Of a sudden, movement caught my eye and a copperhead slithered slowly from beneath a pile of parting leaves. His tongue darted toward me and I jumped back and fell with a loud thump.
"Are you alright?" yelled my cousin.
"Yeah, scared me! It's a copperhead and he rushed out at me! Good thing that glass is between us."
"How big is he?"
That's when I remembered he wouldn't be able to see these live specimens. "He's big. And scary," I added.
"What else is there? Can you tell me about them?"
"I'll try," I said stepping up on the platform again. I side stepped along the rail. At each one I read the information on the placque as best I could.
"I don't know what that means," he said.
"How about we look 'em up in the 'cyclopedia when we get home? I think I can remember what they look like so's we can see pictures of 'em."
"OK. I like that."
I continued around telling him what the inside of the glass cages looked like. He was wrapped up in my words as he pictured the reptiles in his mind. The poisonous ones held our attention more than the garden variety. I heard one year that one of them escaped and they closed down the live exhibit of snakes, dangerous and nondangerous, after that.
My tour of the snakes over I jumped down to the floor and we continued on to the area housing the Egyptian mummy. An old dried form in grey bandages, deeply aged, lay beneath a glass encasement. A portion of the bandages was cut away revealing teeth protruding from old leather stretched tight across hills and valleys of cheek and jawbone. The eyelids were sunken into the eye sockets. Days earlier we had watched the Boris Karloff movie, THE MUMMY, which infused itself into the spectre before us. I saw it, then my cousin saw it. Those dry shrunken eyelids began to move in closed time. We looked at each other then my mother who was looking on with indifference. My cousin and I could not believe she was not aware of the transformation before us. We were paralyzed, hopelessly rooted to the spot, while beneath the glass eyelids shriveled back revealing cavernous sockets in a leatherbound skull turning in rhythm to our heart beats. Our hearts began to beat so loud and so fast the echoes in the great hall had all heads turning toward us with looks of anger at our filling their day with more noise. The mummy lurched ever so slowly to a sitting position. The other museum patrons turned slowly with eyes burning red in anger. We looked at each other, screams clawing upward inside our bodies roaring to be let loose in unison.
"You boys finished looking at the mummy," asked my mother.
"Huh?" we said. Inside the case the mummy lay still as it had for a thousand years. Looking around the other visitors were casually strolling between the displays paying us no mind. Their talk was low and respectful of the collections all around.
"Um, mommy, please, could we go?" I asked. My voice was shakey as leaned on the glass case for support. Realizing whose case it was I jumped back.
"What? Already? You boys always love this place. We've barely begun."
"I know but I'm ready to leave."
"Me too," said my cousin looking at the dessicated form below the glass. "I'm ready too."
"That's awfully strange," she said. "I've never known you two to come here for less than two hours. OK. If that's what you want."
"We do!" we shouted together.
As we hurried to the front entrance I could have sworn I heard movemnt behind me. A step then a dragging sound, a step, drag... I hurried my pace looking back. There was nothing but sunlight streaming through the windows with the dust of ages floating within. The whale carcass overhead went unnoticed as we hurried out into the fresh air of a sunny day.
"Can we get ice cream?" we both asked.
"Of course," my mother said.