Audrey Niffenegger's dazzling debut is the story of Clare, a beautiful, strong-minded art student, and Henry, an adventuresome librarian, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was ...(more)
"Would you like some cookies? I always like to eat cookies while I look around museums. It makes it more multi-sensory." I offer him the package of Oreos. He hesitates, unsure if it's all right, hungry but unsure how many he can take without being rude. "Take as many as you want. I've already eaten ten, so you have some catching up to do." He takes three. "Is there anything you'd like to see first?" He shakes his head. "Tell you what. Let's go up to the third floor; that's where they keep all the stuff that isn't on display. Okay?"
We walk through darkness, up the stairs. He isn't moving very fast, so I climb slowly with him. "Where's Mom?"
"She's at home, sleeping. This is a special tour, only for you, because it's your birthday. Besides, grown-ups don't do this sort of thing."
"Aren't you a grown-up?"
"I'm an extremely unusual grown-up. My job is to have adventures. So naturally when I heard that you wanted to come back to the Field Museum right away, I jumped at the chance to show you around."
"But how did I get here?" He stops at the top of the stairs and looks at me with total confusion.
"Well, that's a secret. If I tell you, you have to swear not to say anything to anyone."
"Because they wouldn't believe you. You can tell Mom, or Kimy if you want, but that's it. Okay?"
I kneel in front of him, my innocent self, look him in the eyes. "Cross your heart and hope to die?"
"Okay. Here's how it is: you time traveled. You were in your bedroom, and all of a sudden, poof! you are here, and it's a little earlier in the evening, so we have plenty of time to look at everything before you have to go home." He is silent and quizzical. "Does that make sense?"
"Well, I haven't figured that out yet. I'll let you know when I do. In the meantime, we should be moving along. Cookie?"
He takes one and we walk slowly down the corridor. I decide to experiment. "Let's try this one." I slide the bookmark along a door marked 306 and open it. When I flick on the lights there are pumpkin-sized rocks all over the floor, whole and halved, craggy on the outside and streaked with veins of metal inside. "Ooh, look, Henry. Meteorites."
"Rocks that fall from outer space." He looks at me as though I'm from outer space. "Shall we try another door?" He nods. I close the meteorite room and try the door across the corridor. This room is full of birds. Birds in simulated flight, birds perched eternally on branches, bird heads, bird skins. I open one of the hundreds of drawers; it contains a dozen glass tubes, each holding a tiny gold and black bird with its name wrapped around a foot. Henry's eyes are the size of saucers. "Do you want to touch one?"
I remove the cotton wadding from the mouth of a tube and shake a goldfinch onto my palm. It remains tube-shaped. Henry strokes its small head, lovingly. "It's sleeping?"
"More or less." He looks at me sharply, distrusting my equivocation. I insert the finch gently back into the tube, replace the cotton, replace the tube, shut the drawer. I am so tired. Even the word sleep is a lure, a seduction. I lead the way out into the hall, and suddenly I recollect what it was I loved about this night when I was little.
"Hey, Henry. Let's go to the library." He shrugs. I walk, quickly now, and he runs to keep up. The library is on the third floor, at the east end of the building. When we get there, I stand for a minute, contemplating the locks. Henry looks at me, as though to say, Well, that's that. I feel in my pockets, and find the letter opener. I wiggle the wooden handle off, and lo, there's a nice long thin metal prong in there. I stick one half of it into the lock and feel around. I can hear the tumblers springing, and when I'm all the way back I stick in the other half, use my bookmark on the other lock and presto, Open Sesame! At last, my companion is suitably impressed. "How'd you do that?"
"It's not that hard. I'll teach you another time. Entrez!" I hold open the door and he walks in. I flip on the lights and the Reading Room springs into being; heavy wooden tables and chairs, maroon carpet, forbidding enormous Reference Desk. The Field Museum's Library is not designed to appeal to five-year-olds. It's a closed-stacks library, used by scientists and scholars. There are bookcases lining the room, but they hold mostly leather-bound Victorian science periodicals. The book I'm after is in a huge glass and oak case by itself in the center of the room. I spring the lock with my bobby pin and open the glass door. Really, the Field ought to get more serious about security. I don't feel too terrible about doing this; after all, I'm a bona fide librarian, I do Show and Tells at the Newberry all the time. I walk behind the Reference Desk and find a piece of felt and some support pads, and lay them out on the nearest table. Then I close and carefully lift the book out of its case and onto the felt. I pull out a chair. "Here, stand on this so you can see better." He climbs up, and I open the book. It's Audubon's Birds of America, the deluxe, wonderful double-elephant folio that's almost as tall as my young self. This copy is the finest in existence, and I have spent many rainy afternoons admiring it. I open it to the first plate, and Henry smiles, and looks at me. " 'Common Loon"' he reads. "It looks like a duck."
"Yeah, it does. I bet I can guess your favorite bird."
He shakes his head and smiles.
"What'll you bet?"
He looks down at himself in the T-Rex T-shirt and shrugs. I know the feeling.
"How about this: if I guess you get to eat a cookie, and if I can't guess you get to eat a cookie?"
He thinks it over and decides this would be a safe bet. I open the book to Flamingo. Henry laughs.
"Am I right?" "Yes!"
It's easy to be omniscient when you've done it all before. "Okay, here's your cookie. And I get one for being right. But we have to save them 'til we're done looking at the book; we wouldn't want to get crumbs all over the bluebirds, right?"
"Right!" He sets the Oreo on the arm of the chair and we begin again at the beginning and page slowly through the birds, so much more alive than the real thing in glass tubes down the hall.
"Here's a Great Blue Heron. He's really big, bigger than a flamingo. Have you ever seen a hummingbird? I saw some today!"
"Here in the museum?"
"Wait 'til you see one outside--they're like tiny helicopters, their wings go so fast you just see a blur...." Turning each page is like making a bed, an enormous expanse of paper slowly rises up and over. Henry stands attentively, waits each time for the new wonder, emits small noises of pleasure for each Sandhill Crane, American Coot, Great Auk, Pileated Woodpecker. When we come to the last plate, Snow Bunting, he leans down and touches the page, delicately stroking the engraving. I look at him, look at the book, remember, this book, this moment, the first book I loved, remember wanting to crawl into it and sleep.
"Should we go?" Okay. I close Birds of America, return it to its glass home, open it to Flamingo, shut the case, lock it. Henry jumps off the chair and eats his Oreo. I return the felt to the desk and push the chair in. Henry turns out the light, and we leave the library. We wander, chattering amiably of things that fly and things that slither, and eating our Oreos. Henry tells me about Mom and Dad and Mrs. Kim, who is teaching him to make lasagna, and Brenda, whom I had forgotten about, my best pal when I was little until her family moved to Tampa, Florida, about three months from now. We are standing in front of Bushman, the legendary silverback gorilla, whose stuffed magnificence glowers at us from his little marble stand in a first floor hallway, when Henry cries out, and staggers forward, reaching urgently for me, and I grab him, and he's gone. The T-shirt is warm empty cloth in my hands. I sigh, and walk upstairs to ponder the mummies for a while by myself. My young self will be home now, climbing into bed. I remember, I remember. I woke up in the morning and it was all a wonderful dream. Mom laughed and said that time travel sounded fun, and she wanted to try it, too. That was the first time.