LEE LYNN & a KING WITHOUT CROWN
Lee Lynn was, to her admitted disappointment, disappointed with the city. Mightiest nation on Earth, she had thought there would be skyscrapers like in New York City but it was mostly Sprawl, save for the monuments tour. The tour guide seemed tired, crows’ feet beneath his eyes, but he continued speaking. Behind him columns such as those that might frame a living monarch, not pillars merely of stone; they were white granite pillars, columns reinforced by polished cement. The city was terraced by stonework, with snatches of leveled cement between stairways, many of them broad and long like the Black Wall. Lee Lynn had not understood the pictograms – she was a fluent English speaker, but at her age she still had trouble reading the letters. Her teacher Mrs. Oswald was quick to see to her when her hand was raised politely, walking over in that waddling fashion that made her so endearing. She looked at her feet, like an emperor penguin carrying an egg on its downy feet.
“What are these words?” Lee asked. “I am still learning …”
“Those are names,” Mrs. Oswald said.
Lee truly felt like the smallest child there but smiled. She was the youngest on that particular field trip as her friend Ashiya had remained at the dorms. How would she tell Ashiya of such things? She had never seen their like; not in her dads great photographs and tapestries; she had never seen such works of steel and marble, nor black granite columns and ornate domes, the eggs atop the House of Representatives were somehow, and she wondered if the layers were a part of the façade or if the cement had been dried while waving. Along the façade there were a litany of figures cast in statue, a watchful gallery atop the buildings, in costumes of Toga. Stef returned after a short stand-aside, having spoken to a young man who seemed to always make her snease, and she returned to hold Lee Lynn’s hand while Mrs. Oswald stood with the still nonchalant tourguide, as though his statue Kings were daily vandalised. Lee imagined that the statue kings cast in stone above, with one in the middle, bearded, surrounded on either side by men in noble robes, to his right the winged horse and further still a man in gladiatorial dress, and in the crease two workers piling stones. Beneath it, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, had been printed into the stone by chisel, while below the gables were topped with peeled steel, ran through with support beams.
Stef took her hand after talking briefly to Mrs. Oswald, promising her she would keep an eye on her, something Lee Lynn didn’t like the sound of, as she had hoped to visit the last memorial by herself, even though a chaperone wouldn’t be too far away. They visited the Tom, son of Jeff memorial, and Stef told her that it was designed by Soandso von from Somewhere, and gestured to the ceiling. The steps were circular and marble, and the portico and circular colonnade of columns beneath a shallow dome. The figure standing watch in the center of the colonnade wore a bronze longcoat and had an alabaster powdered wig atop his head, beneath his tricorne hat. His expression was less reassuring than the other king, for this figure had been a king, Lee Lynn knew, she knew – for, had they not been, the statue might not have, but unlike the galley, the features of the king in the bronze coat and the bearded statue were those of real men, while the watchmen on the palisades were never more than background figures, as they were still, watchmen for the statue king in his quiet hall.
With Stef still holding her hand, Lee Lynn regrouped with Mrs. Oswald, now standing at the head of a queue of Lee’s classmates, and she had begun to do her headcount before marching them back onto the bus to their hotel. She had enjoyed her first field trip, and, just as her father had sad, that it was astounding after the initial shock of its lack of large metro areas like Shanghai or Yangzhou along the river delta and New York City where she had only been once, finding it a sort of electric ladyland. Stef agreed to accompany her on the bus ride back, at Mrs. Oswald’s insistence, after she was told that it was nothing to worry about, the tape and the flyer stuffed into the bearded statue’s mouth, and she was glad that it hadn’t been unique to their visit.
“Just two weeks ago, the man says, they found something similar not far north of here, at a church, like the St. John’s church across the street, you see, where the cab has just pulled off from?”
“Yes, Mrs. Oswald,” Lee Lynn said. “I like the yellow building and the flags.”
“It’s just a meeting house now,” Mrs. Oswald said, “but it used to be a very exciting place. 12 Ashburton House, once home to British spies and diplomats who worked in America between … well, they had long worked there, since it was built and we know It was built in 1836 because the British Museum of Natural History has letters sent by former workers back to their wives in England, some to their mothers… And those were written in the mid-19th century, written by civil clerks, the first to work in this country after the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. That was in 1842.”
Lee Lynn didn’t mention young man she had seen Stef greet and hug tightly, or mention that she had left her while the tourguide and Mrs. Oswald went to get help, and the policeman who had attended to the beard of the statue king had left, taking the poster off with him in his white auto, with an ornate badge prominently displayed on the cardoor. Mrs. Oswald was still watching 12 Ashburton House, which drew Lee Lynn’s attention back to it. If it had been built in 1836, it must have been lately restored, as it looked near enough to a modern home, but kept the traces of age, the wood-mantled fireplaces and the floor-length marble columns and lintels above the front doorway, just above it the American flag and opposite the British flag. The ground floor had four tall windows, starting from just around the ankle and extending high above the door, much too high for Lee Lynn to reach. The top floor – she had misread, as there were of course three stories; but above the three stories was smaller cap to the building, with only three windows, smaller than the ones on the floors below, a wooden fireplace, that was all she could think about on the bus ride back to their hotel.
“It must have been so much more exciting then,” her chaperone said, the lovely young woman Stefani, as she held tight to her little hands. “International intrigue, handsome young man with secret missions, powerful figures behind closed doors playing the great game, with all their chips on the blue flag…”
Lee Lynn felt comfortable with her, as she was so tall and strong, tall but not slight. Lee Lynn was short, very short and a bit heavy, as her mother had so unkindly put it, but her father her Xiao jiaoz, my little dumpling, he would say, and she couldn’t wait to call him once she got back to her dorm, if she could help a little bit to get his new modem installed. They could chat face-to-face with the software she had at school, back in her two-bed room, where she could make a few clicks with her mouse and bring up her father’s face, who never seemed to do anything but smile his toothless smile and talk to her as though she were her sister, Lee Shei.
She had showed her chaperon how to use the video phone and since then she had said, call me Stef, Lee Lynn, for you are my friend, and she felt very much a friend to Lee Lynn on the bus ride, especially when the sun was going down and Stef held tight to those stubby little dumpling fingers. She could see his smiling, toothless face, eyes near shut, saying Zhow zhoo, my dumpling girl, how you are growing! Yes, father, she was asleep and sitting on the floor in her dorm room, dreaming with clarity as Lee Lynn often did. And Stef was there attempting to talk to the bearded statue, whose voice was muffled with the cruel bands of greytape gagging the crownless King. The other man was there, the man from the poster in old Abe’s mouth, and in his sash and wearing bronzed flowers as his gilded crown.
They passed around a dagger with a bone-handle, carved from that of a crow. They took turns spinning the dagger and, when the point came to a stop bearing down on someone, through bad luck or the weight of the dagger, it was their duty to open their wrists, the carved bone changing with each hand that held it. But instead of dying as the sharp blade cut across the surface of their skin, it flaked away like stone and the monarchs turned to butterflies while Stef turned to ash, a grey moth flying out of it. Instead of cutting or stabbing themselves, they each pealed away grey tape that had covered their mouths, loosing the adhesive and pulling it off in a long, agonizing squawk until the tape, loosed by the knives, fell away and out of the mouth of each knife-spinner came a monarch butterfly as each king turned to ash when they could speak, the numbers and letters somehow making sense as they talked among themselves as butterflies. And her father was there, not a butterfly but close, a caterpillar the color of pale chalk but he wore the flower crown and had his same, dumb, toothless smile wide in some caterpillar’s jape and those smiling eyes of his seemed to say, Xiao jiaoz, my little dumpling, you don’t need a crown. She remembered the great statue of Abraham, unblemished by the crude vandalism, mouth free to speak still in death having been briefly gagged on propaganda, as Mrs. Oswald had called it, something Lee Lynn had not understood.
She often dreamed of herself at court with animals, cuckoo birds who are a species of individuals, parakeets, incapable of saying something unless it’s said before; the crows were a lesser branch of the ravens’ family, the royalty among birds with elegant neck and impeccable memory. Another raven had found its way through the open window of her daydream and had perched atop the pretender crow’s royal perch. The bird looked much like Stef, thin, regal, thin eyebrows and a perpetual stoicism, the type of lethargy that kept her busy. The woman in the familiar of her noble raven was there to pluck the crown from the brow of another perched bird, the poor parakeet, but it was a monarch butterfly who passed on the crown to the raven, some representation perhaps, but she knew that raven, by its crows’ feathers, she had seen her before.
The monarch butterfly gave up the crown did so only to relieve its own burden of the jewel, too heavy for the poor butterfly’s strength to both keep the crown or keep to the air, and she gave it up for the air, unlike the raven, who chose to walk once crowned with black diamonds set in the gnarled tangle of her barbwire crown. This raven wore rubies and a black amethyst, a carbuncle the size of its head in the comfort of that feathery bosom. The caterpillar king mocked the birds, the parakeets, the crows, but especially the ravens, as he slowly went about the eating of a grape near twice his size. Lee Lynn had always remembered that, that from his pillow, a plush satin pillow, the caterpillar king with his toothless gape mocked the low flying butterflies from the safety of the ground while the raven perched itself above a pallid bust of Pilate just above her chamber door, the caterpillar king mocked the low flying butterflies from the comfort of a miniature plush pillow with a toothless smile and laughing eyes. Xiao jiaoz, my little dumpling…
When Lee Lynn woke up she found Mrs. Oswald sitting beside her on the bus, wearing a child’s meal crown from a Burger King, and, colder than it had been all December, she slid on a sweater, covered in butterflies, blue and orange and monarchs, which are symmetrical in the common breed, asymmetrical in the royal line of bird as each stately animal came in, some of them like the long memorial wall of names and numbers, written at the end of a knife into polished granite. She began to rouse, wondering if ever there were caterpillars, caterpillar kings like the prestigious raven in their gilded hall, columns shooting up as little lights for the greymoths to circle, and the bearded statue finally found its voice, the tape marks still outlined in red lines from where it had been ripped
In doing so the long lines of words and letters spilled out, none that she could recognized, and she imagined that none of them, the spirits of the ancestors as her grandfather told her, none of them had ever been butterflies, not in her family, not for long when it was; she imagined the standing statue of the bearded king, his cement tongue too heavy, though, to let him speak more clearly, reading from that bizarre poster on faded, near-brown, she had thought it beige when first looking, but in her dreams the flyer was printed on an old press, possibly a homemade one, and the long list of unidentifiable text let down the numbed barrier she had built along the monument of names but each came flooding back, caterpillars that had never become butterflies. Such foolish dreams, she thought, everyone knew that caterpillars couldn’t fly or be kings, nor statues speak in tongues; but she woke to find Stef quit of the seat beside her and a sleeping Mrs. Oswald in her place. Lee Lynn woke to find Mrs. Oswald carrying her, gently through the mess hall. The male and female students split there with the boys turning left down the long hallway and the girl students turning to the right, then climbing up a flight of stairs to the landing platform, a common room that led into individual rooms on the second floor.
The elevator refused to come down. Lee Lynn cursed beneath her, little dumpling, indeed, she thought, a caterpillar without wings, no crown fit to spare the wrath of ravens, Xiao jiaoz, said the voice, Xiao jiaox, she could hear her father calling, through the screen of her computer. She opened her arms to find herself held in Mrs. Oswald’s sturdy arms. She had carried Lee Lynn the whole way, pass the broken elevator, up the stairs, and onto the landing. She tucked her in and left by blowing out the last candle on the mantlepiece. She hadn’t slept well after that, waking during the night to what sounded like footsteps above her, then along the windowsill. She threw her covers off, annoyed with the bitterness of the air coming in, and closed the window, locking it with a switch of a golden hook. She returned back to bed, thinking of the day, and fell asleep again, only to find herself back in Caterpillar court, where the king japed with a wide-open, toothless mouth, Xiao jiaoz! The caterpillar cried, slinking over to her. Ow! She cried out, looking down to find the caterpillar king with teeth sunk into the fat of her arm with such force as to tilt its little cardboard crown to the side of its head as it bit down again, Ow! It’s crown was just as Mrs. Oswald’s had been from Burger King, as the Caterpillar King bit down on her again, only for her to take the bone-handled knife and stick it between its eyes with its lifeblood bursting beneath it like a stepped-on grape and a terrible psht.
She woke once more to what she thought was the window closing, but, finding it locked as it had been, returned to her cozy bed and pulled the covers above her head. For the longest time she could feel imaginary caterpillars crawling over her skin, looking for a soft spot where the little dumpling was just right for feeding.