WE'RE fortunate to have a small nature museum within a short distance of home. Our grandsons accompanied us on visits there years back, and got to know it well enough to consider it ``old hat.'' They observed honeybees coming and going through a slot in the south wall. They handled guinea pigs and garter snakes - even the huge boa constrictor named ``Queenie.'' With my young charge Victor, however, it's a whole new ballgame. New and old, but never dull. The formidable stuffed alligator overlooking the staircase in the old mansion-turned-museum sends delicious shivers along his spine on entering. The little saw-whet owls sit side by side in their enclosure, blinking and clicking their beaks. They appear not to be real - except when Victor gets too near for comfort. Then they move closer, lifting and setting down their feet nervously, and emitting warnings that he defers to.
The bird displays, the butterflies and moths in all stages of development - especially the great cecropia - fascinate him every time, though he greets them with familiarity. The tiny deer mice scurry on white feet, elderberry eyes glittering, long tails swishing. They are compact efficiency as they burrow into their bedding or nibble at grain.
There's a tarantula to be respectfully examined, and a tankful of catfish and turtles - not to mention the variety of smaller denizens of our local waters. Crayfish and frogs, and pollywogs in season. The entire panorama of seasons, for that matter, from the surrounding forests of spring, and on through to the next unfailing renaissance.
So there's much to enjoy while learning. Victor absorbs it as naturally as the leaves do rain. Sometimes we take my 10-year-old neighbor, Julie, along. With her in tow, Victor runs eagerly to the touch-and-confirm boards, calling: ``See, Julie, how about this? It's a bluejay. Here's an oriole. Now where's that crow?''
He fumbles a moment with the wires dangling from the board. Touch the right bird (or flower, or insect) with one, and its proper name with the other and a buzzer goes off, or a light flickers. (I suspect he has several of the pairings memorized.)
Julie, being older, if often maternalistic. ``So what's this, Peanut?'' she asks indulgently.
``A turkey vulture'' is the prompt reply. ``And right next to him is a bulb eagle.''
``Bald eagle,'' she corrects. ``And what's this?''
``I never saw-d that'' Victor marvels. ``What's it?'' he asks me. Obviously Julie doesn't know, either. Something new has been added since our last visit. ``A possom,'' I decide. ``The only marsupial in America.''
Julie takes over. ``That means the young are carried in a pouch - like kangaroos.''
``Neat!'' Victor wants to look closer, but the creature backs off to a corner and hides its face. (The director tells us later that this one's being cared for till a damaged leg heals. Then he'll be returned to the wild.) Victor is anxious to see the babies, and is momentarily disappointed to learn the specimen is a male.
He leads us importantly to the last stop of the day - we call it ``snake alley.'' Julie wanders off, pretending aloofness. She's presently into minerals, and secludes herself inside a curtained booth where lights bring out some amazing colors. Victor recognizes his glassed-in friends, the black and king snakes, the garter and rattler, and the handsome boa constrictors coiled, dozing lazily under a warm light bulb.
There's something so innocent in his admiration that I must look long and hard, borrowing his child-vision to see beauty in these creatures. (I recall how the old Queenie felt that day years ago when I held her for a few moments, while the cages were being cleaned. She was cool and dry - not cold, not slippery. When she touched me exploringly with her tongue I scarcely felt it.) So it must have been in that first Eden when all creatures great and small dwelt together in peace.
As we were about to leave I watched Victor saying goodbye to a warty little toad in its own little aquarium. He pressed his mouth against the glass and whispered: ``So long, prince in disguise.''
The toad blinked, backed up a few inches, then shot out a long tongue to strike against the transparent surface. And there wasn't an insect-morsel anywhere in sight. My real-life prince groped for my hand. ``Don't worry,'' he reassured me. ``That's just his special way of saying `Come again.'''