Monday, July 15, 2013

King Mai excerpt by Edmond Manning

In this excerpt from King Mai by Edmond Manning, the sequel to King Perry, Illinois farmer, Mai Kearns, has accepted an invitation from garage mechanic, Vin Vanbly, to participate in one of Vin’s unique King Weekends.  Mai will spend forty hours following every single demand from Vin, the master of sexual (and non-sexual) manipulation.  Vin promises that by the end of the weekend, Mai will “remember the man he was always meant to be.”

This scene takes place Saturday morning.  Mai and Vin have spent Friday night elsewhere and now return to Mai’s farm around 10:00 AM. As the first-person narrator, Vin has been whispering his unique love into Mai’s heart and soul through stories about a land filled with kings…

King Mai
Pickwick Ink Publications (July 15, 2013)


I nudge my truck into his driveway, the Kearns’ farmhouse down there on the left, the dilapidated barns bashfully hiding behind it. No suspicious cars in the driveway or yard, I’m delighted to see. Or not see. Flattened grass, but it’s subtle. He won’t notice that. I pull into the grass and park a good distance from the house. He doesn’t even ask why I don’t pull in further. Instead, he pleads his case for easier treasure hunt clues. The laminated map of DeKalb corn fields sits between us on the front seat. I should stash this in my back pocket when he’s distracted. We may need this later.

As he argues, I allow my gaze to cross beyond him, and I frown, staring hard. After a minute he recognizes I’m not listening and turns to peer over his right shoulder, his gaze chasing mine.

Staring at the dead tree right off the cornfield where I emerged last night, I ask, “Are those wasps?”

He stares for a moment, uncertain.

“What the fuck?” He wedges open the passenger door handle.

By the time he slams the truck door shut, he’s already striding hard down the driveway and I race to catch his lead. I need to be at his side as he discovers the truth.

My God. It’s beautiful.

The fluttering, bulky clouds of insects buzzing the dead tree are too large to be wasps; that’s evident immediately. Kearns walks hard toward them without knowing anything more. Oh God, I love this moment. I can’t tell if he’s angry or if this is his fierce curiosity. Those two pugilists stand eye to eye, poised to strike across an invisible but critical line. His head snaps toward the house, then the barns, scanning everything in view. Where’s his mom? His dad? How are they not out here?

We arrive.

He stops abruptly to gape, slack-jawed. I grin madly at the perfect outdoor colors: the sky paints thick blue everywhere, the corn glows a primal green, and the fat August sun polishes everything with a cheerful, vibrant shine. In the foreground, our new friends’ orange and black wings fold incessantly upon themselves—orange and black, orange and black, orange and black.

“Monarchs,” Mai says, his voice wavering. “Holy shit, holy shit. These…hundreds.”

He turns to me and tears pour from him instantly, brain censors still jogging to catch up with his astonished delight. “Thousands, I think there must be…” he says, the words vanishing like ghosts.

I gaze into the intangible orange and black webbing above us. They’re so beautiful. “Not thousands.”

Later I will share my estimates, but to his credit, it’s awfully hard to guess real numbers with the immense orange and black flittering and fluttering, maybe four hundred or more. This massive cloud creates autumnal foliage in an otherwise barren tree.

Mai stops his unconscious spinning while staring straight up. He levels his head at me and now that gravity applies again, more tears leap down his face. “I don’t understand.”

“Wait,” I say, gasping. “Is this a Butterfly Tree?”

“How?” He says the word almost painfully, like the mere idea of asking questions is physical and arduous.

Without words, I point to one of the three dozen watermelon wedges dangling from the tree, the best bribe to keep butterflies close until late-morning sunlight seduces them away. Within the next two hours, the numbers will halve, then halve again. But it’s early enough they’re not quite ready to explore the big world.

“Mom,” he says with a dazed confusion, looking toward the house. “Where is she? How can she not…”

He crouches to study a few trunk-loving butterflies who choose to ride the bark. Standing a moment or two later, he reaches into a lower-hanging branch to mildly push the nearest watermelon with his index finger, creating an amusement park ride for dozens of dizzy breakfast-eaters. He stares at the tree with intense concentration for a full minute. Without looking at me, he says, “You did this.”

I wait until he turns to me before I shrug. “You and I spent every minute together since 6:00 p.m. last night. But if I were to guess, this looks suspiciously like the work of the Butterfly King.”

He ignores me, walking around the tree, staring up into the dead branches, taking steps back to peer higher. “I don’t understand. I—I have to get my mom. She loves monarchs. I mean, really loves them.”

“I know. You told me.”

The words have the effect I had hoped. Mai turns to face me, noticing me as part of the landscape.

“When you were a kid, you and she agreed to help butterfly migration researchers at NIU. For three summers, you two logged how many butterflies you each witnessed every day, but she wouldn’t let you tag them as the researchers requested. She couldn’t stand the notion of humans tagging a creature so pure and full of grace.”

Mai doesn’t even flinch. “I told you that. I told you how I spent my summers as a kid.” He wipes his arm across his face. “Son of a bitch.”

Oddly there’s no anger to this, no real recrimination.

Mai reaches into a nearby rind and rubs his finger against the fruit, smearing it. He digs his nail into the red flesh until a gooey trail slicks his finger to the knuckle, allowing him to entice two butterflies onto his finger.

“I have to get my mom,” Mai says, pleading.

“Wait, aren’t you curious about the Butterfly King?”

Through tears, he shoots me an exasperated look—“why are you fucking with me?”—but the expression is replaced immediately with resignation. He looks down and touches a slowly folding black-outlined wing, the very definition of vulnerability married to intricacy.

“I have to get my folks, Vin,” he says without looking up. “Please. This is…please.”

“The butterflies will stick around for another hour or two. There’s time.”

I’m tempted to explain his parents have already seen this, but he’ll know soon enough.

I say, “The Butterfly King lives in New York City and teaches diversity classes for Fortune 100 corporations. At home back in Harlem, he patrols the night with a wooden baseball bat, protecting those who cannot defend themselves. When he protects what he loves, the Butterfly King is fierce and furious. Even in his righteous anger, he carries the grace of these gentle creatures. On patrol, he travels with other men who follow butterfly wisdom. They keep each other safe. Kearns, he knows how tough it is to lead an army.”

Mai flinches at this last line but he can’t stop his eyes from chasing the dazzling air show around us. The Halloween-themed flags twitter everywhere, graceful, jerky movements as they bring a dead thing back to life.

One lands on my shoulder. Welcome, little king. I even love the word butterfly. It possesses a meandering quality much like the creature it describes. But-ter-fly. But-ter-fly. On his finger, one glides away but a new one settles in, a twin to the one who left.

With his free hand, Mai wipes his eyes. “We were together all night. I woke up first.”

I remain quiet.

He asks, “Did he do this, the Butterfly King? Who’s helping you?”

I scrutinize the landscape, craning my neck to scan the cornfields and the house. “I don’t see the Butterfly King. Yet this looks like his work. Best not to get too attached to the outcome. Best to stay curious.”

“You just said it was him.”

“I said it might be him. May not have been him personally, but his followers. I wonder what love he’s sending you, Kearns, what assistance he wanted to give you this weekend.”

“So, he’s a real person?”

“Monday, use the Yahoo search engine and type these three words: butterfly plus king plus NYC. The New York Post mentioned him a year or so ago wondering if he’s a myth. People in Harlem know his true identity. But nobody shares his real name. He’s like Batman.”

Mai cringes and tears pop out again, a new rivulet pouring over the still-fresh steam already there. I believe he would give anything to have a secret identity, to be someone other than Mai Kearns, homosexual DeKalb farmer of Thai descent. I’m sure he resented this life trapped in cornfields right up until he realized he loved it, and what the fuck do you do when you hate the life you love? Or love the life you hate? Very confusing.

I stare up and he instinctively follows my gaze.

Orange and black. Orange and black. Orange and black.

“There’s an envelope up there,” he says.

A plain white envelope dangles from a branch but not low enough to jump and grab. Climbing is required, exactly what I instructed.

Mai glances from the envelope to the tree trunk, presumably plotting a route to the letter while avoiding dangling watermelon. I’m sure he wants to disturb as few monarchs as possible. He may kill animals when necessary as a farmer, but he loves life in all its forms. I know this is true. I listened to his stories, the ones where he did not realize all that he revealed.

He leaps and grabs a first-tier branch, yanking himself off the ground readily as if he climbs trees daily. A few extra butterflies dance harder, shaken free and circling around the space where he used to stand, like one of those cartoon clouds indicating speed. Mai’s a strong motherfucker, give him that. He hoists himself higher with unconscious confidence in his own strength. He cautiously brushes aside butterflies or waits for them to take flight before he occupies their space.

While he’s distracted, I move beyond his vision and motion toward the house with my full arms.

Come out. Come out!

The back door opens as Mai gets to the envelope. I instructed them to do so silently, and I’m sure Mr. Blattner conveyed my pleading letter to Mai’s mom when he and the crew appeared on her back porch early this morning. I am pleased to not hear the screen door creak open. I wonder if his parents even noticed someone replaced that old spring. I must mention that to Kearns tomorrow. We’ll laugh.

As he unties the string connecting the envelope to the branch, I make one final sweeping gesture to confirm this is exactly the moment: come meet the king.

I cross again to stand on the ground in Mai’s vision again. Gotta keep his back to the farmhouse.

I say, “Who is it addressed to? What is it?”

As his fingers unknot the string, he says, “Gimme a minute.”

“What’s it say? What do you suppose is inside? Is my name on the envelope too?”

“Shut up, Mary,” he cries. “Give me a minute to concentrate.”

I babble the entire time he climbs down, forcing him into constant conversation, sometimes warning him of nearby monarchs, saying, “Look, there’s one by your foot, see it? See it? Careful with your foot.”

He drops to the ground a moment later and I stand right before him to keep him focused on me, careful not to touch him too intimately. His mom and dad now perch on the picnic table in the yard, and I don’t want to embarrass Mai. Well, not any more than I already intend.

He opens the unaddressed envelope and unfolds the single sheet of paper.

“Read it,” I say.

He reads it to himself and passes the paper to me, but I refuse to take it. “Read it aloud.”

With a smirk, he does just that. “That which haunts us will always find a way out. The wound will not heal unless given witness. The shadow that follows us is the way in.”

I frown and nod when he finishes, stroking my chin with my thumb and index finger, the classic thinker.

Mai says, “Vin, this is what I’m talking about your treasure hunt being too hard. It’s too artsy, man. I don’t fucking know poetry.”

“How do you know this is a poem?”

“It’s centered and in italics,” he says, waving the paper at me. “Plus, I’ve read your AOL page. You’re fruity for poetry. Your whole Lost and Founds mythology reads like a fucking poem.”

“Ah, so you do know something about poetry. I think you might be right. This wisdom sounds like the thirteenth century mystical poet, Rumi. But why would the Butterfly King send a Rumi poem as a clue? Read it again.”

Mai frowns at the paper. “Seriously, I’m not good with poetry. It’s not one of my things.”

“Sure, sure. But I wonder what it means, this message.”

“Vin, I can’t—”

“The King of Curiosity would care,” I say in a relaxed manner.

Mai cringes and looks at the note again.

Nice—another good reveal. His constant refusal to engage, to choose frustration and outright anger as his reaction betrays another of his Lost King secrets. He’s afraid of trying and losing. Afraid he may not be good enough. I want to squeeze him right now and tell him he’ll always be good enough. However, I know that despite good intentions, pleasant affirmations can’t make that true for him if he doesn’t believe it first.

“I mean, the King of Curiosity wasn’t fascinated by everything in the world, but he did enjoy wondering about new things to see if they shed new light on what he cared for.”

“Is this really a poem from the Butterfly King? Did he come from New York to help you?”

“It might have been him.” I put my hands on his shoulders.

Before Mai can speak, I spin him hard to face the opposite direction. “Or maybe them.”

Mai wobbles from my spinning him and peers across the yard. I hear his audible gasp as he takes in the crowd, sees them, jumping back into me, falling in my arms. I stand him up, keeping my hands on his upper back to steady him.

Thirty-odd people stand in his back yard, clumped in groups of three or four, or spread out with their hands on their hips. I can’t see their individual expressions from this distance, but I would bet they are smiling.


I wonder if he recognizes any of them.

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Victor J. Banis said...

Edward Manning's work is like no one else's. Beautiful writing, mystical themes.

Anel Viz said...

King Perry was a wonderful and welcome change of pace. That I've put King Mai on my to-read list goes without saying. (But I've said it anyway.)

Lloyd Meeker said...

Yes! Another mystical, disorienting, exhilarating journey. Must go get my copy. Thanks, Edmond.