The air inside the mask is stifling; it is getting hard to breathe. The nose of the costume is the only place through which I can see what goes on outside, where my heavy feet will thud next.
Walking is another issue. My feet are now twice their normal length, and at least three times as wide – encased and disguised as humongous paws. They drag along the floor as I hold my arms out in front of me, making sure the wall or doorframe leading out of the back room does not plan on bumping into me.
And my head. Oh, my head! The “mask” is actually a head, placed over my own, and attached with a very uncomfortable head brace that keeps sliding over my hair. I have to stand up straight so it will not fall off, even though it is also strapped to the back of my neck with straps connecting to the rest of my costume. Which, depending on what animal I am, looks either dark brown, bright red, or a light, hazelnut brown.
Sweat starts slipping down my legs, arms, and face as a librarian takes my arm and leads me the rest of the way, from behind the front desk, down the main room a little ways, and around the corner…
…Where a large group of little kids eagerly await my arrival. I grin as they jump up from the floor, and I long to laugh as a flow of giggles ensues from their little bodies. The librarian in charge tells them to hush, that “their visitor” – me – is going to help tell a story and dance to a song.
The first time I put on a costume, I was Smokey the Bear: complete with very dark brown fur, blue overalls, and a huge snout. The second time, I was Clifford, big, red, obviously a dog – and with another large snout. My tail dragged a little behind me, and the paws sometimes fell off. This third time, my last time, I appear to the kids as Brother Bear from the little children’s book series and TV shows, the Berenstain Bears. In my wake is Sister Bear, in whom is the librarian’s younger sister.
We listen patiently as the librarian finishes reading a story about the Berenstain Bears, and then hands us egg shakers filled with tiny beans. Music plays, and Sister Bear and I dance and shake until the music cuts off, then we freeze. The children, laughing and shrieking, follow our lead, continuing when the music starts again and suddenly holding still when it stops.
Then, my favorite part comes: it is time to say goodbye, and the children are given the option of giving us high-fives, hugs, or just waving at us. To my infinite delight, most opt for the hugs. Silently I squeeze them back, trying not to crush them with my hardhead, longing to laugh with them but knowing that I cannot. (“You can’t speak, because each child imagines what your voice sounds like. If you talk, you spoil the image in his head,” the librarian explained.)
Finally the time comes to say goodbye. Sister Bear and I wave our large paws at the kids, who gather together in circles or bunches on the ground, their disappointed faces staring at us as they wave regretfully. And there are also those mischievous yet adorable little children who take hold of Sister Bear’s and my hands, grinning up at us and hoping to go wherever we are heading. These the librarians gently extract, but how I wish they could come with us! Not into the back room to change from our costumes, but to the child’s world of imagination, where Brother Bear and Sister Bear, and Clifford, and all those other favorite animals are very alive, and where fun abounds and never ends.
Huh. Sounds kind of like Neverland…