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Chiang Mai’s Vulture’s Egg

The city of Ching Mai is made great by its least-known attraction. Erin followed for an hour its sparing signs and then passed it on to me in all its obscurity, giving it to me in my hands like the very last truffula seed of them all. It is quite possible, in fact, that the Chiang Mai Museum of Insects and Natural Wonders holds in its repertoire that Seussian prize; it would at least be a fine place to begin your search, excepting perhaps the deepest sealed vaults of the Vatican (The Truffula Code? Angels and Loraxes? I smell a best-seller…). The seed would surely feel at home, anyway, among the myriad specimens of the collection, even down to its spritely proprietor, who channels the effusive energy of the Lorax if not his abrasiveness. 

Mr. Manop wears a grin as loosely, easily, and ubiquitously as his dragonfly-embroidered ballcap, which reads across the forehead “Compassion.” His eyes are as indiscriminately bright as his smile, as if in childhood he swallowed a star and is still trying to diffuse its luminescence seventy years later by sharing it with every newly encountered specimen, be it human, animal, or beloved insect. He also shares his personal collection, although at considerably higher price than fifteen cents, a nail, and the recently devalued shell of a great, great, great grandfather snail. The museum is well worth the price of admission, however, if only to marvel at the peculiar radiance of the man whose self-proclaimed duties are:
1. Owner
2. Manager
3. Gardener
4. Floor-cleaner
5. Guard 

 It might also be enough to wander, mind agape, among the rows of incandescent butterflies, forearm-length ‘walking stick’ bugs, fossilized dinosaur embryos, a blackened, pockmarked rock whose caption reads ‘The Meteorite Came From Some Planet Just Want to Stay in This Museum.’ Stones from the Grand Canyon, the Sphinx, and Hiroshima – both before and after that great hot light swept unforgiving across the innocence of the city. Wooden bouquets of lilies and iris carved by termite artisans from the limbs of redwoods, great scarabs and centipedes, even greater prehistoric tortoise shells and mammoth tusks. Woven birds-nest gourds, seashells patterned just to make you suspect that art is but timid, self-conscious imitation of nature, especially so when it turns deliberately towards abstraction. It would be enough to see the collection’s first specimen and hear the story behind it, the story of Mr. Manop, the story of the Vulture’s Egg.  

In 1936 Mr. Manop was three years old. He was a moonfaced boy with big wondering eyes and a small, serious mouth. 

 In 1936 Manop’s great grandmother was ninety years old. Her hands were made of polished mahogany, and she had a smile that lived in her eyes; this was a gift she would pass on to her great grandson. 

In 1936 Manop’s parents took him to the only photographer in Chiang Mai to have his picture taken with the family matron, eighty-seven years his elder. Their three kilometer walk took them across the moat, along the inside of the city wall, past the Pratu Gate and its towering Lamnai trees. The moat and trees are still there today, along with crumbling sections of the original red brick wall. Absent, though, are those former denizens of the trees that so impressed the young naturalist-to-be: vultures, hundreds of them, drifting down lazy elliptical corkscrews, wings thrown out in flight catching the boy in curious, umbral embrace. 

Upon reaching the photographer’s shop young Manop was faced with another, more menacing specter: the black ghost. When the camera turned its abysmal eye on the boy, five legs protruding from under a deep dark hood, he could not contain himself and burst into tears. The second time the family visited the shop, the black ghost reappeared, and again the boy was too terrified to have his picture taken. 

On their third trip to the shop, their 15th kilometer sown beneath them, Manop was captivated by the sight of several fat male vultures perched upon the crown of a tree. His father told him that he would bring him close to those flesh-faced eaters of the dead, perhaps close enough to touch, if only he would endure quietly the stare of that malevolent cyclops, the black ghost. And so, sitting under the parasol canopy of a great tree while three-year-old Manop studied the vultures by his father’s side, the old woman watched, and thought. The boy’s reverie was broken by a peripheral movement. His great grandmother was bent low to the surface of a pond, washing something. He raced over and there, at the edge of the water, the shrewd mother of three generations presented to Manop the single specimen that would prove to be the wellspring of his life, faith, and inspiration: The Vulture’s Egg. This oblong rock, she confided, was in fact ‘a miracle vulture’s egg that had supernatural powers, it was God’s gift giving for a good boy.’ He begged her for it, begged her to give him the rare prize, and she acceded only on the condition that he would not cry at the appearance of the black ghost. The picture was taken, and from that day Manop kept always under his pillow the protective talisman. 

In 1943, Mr. Manop was ten years old and World War II was wrapped around him like a smothering blanket. Great numbers of Japanese soldiers took refuge in the temples of Chiang Mai, that ancient walled city of the north, and the Allies would attack them from the air. Through the confusion, the panic, the strafing gunfire, the scream of engines, the cries of the wounded, the dust and rubble, the rolling Guernica eyes, one ten-year-old boy stood in street, unafraid. He fixated on the rush of fighter planes, their shadows as sudden in their passing as the vultures’, seven years earlier, had been leisurely. Most of the people in Chiang Mai hung Buddha images from their neck and fled the furious assault of the planes; Manop, aided by a netted necklace woven by his father’s hands, wore the Vulture’s Egg and watched. He ignored the stone swinging rough aga inst skin and trusted in the magic of the egg, the magic of his great grandmother.

The Vulture’s Egg brought Mr. Manop through a deadly strain of malaria, a nearly incapacitating childhood accident, and a World War. He carried it to University of Thamasat in Bangkok, the Smithsonian, and on all of his many mosquito-collecting expiditions. It now sits on display, in Manop’s words ‘the first piece of my museum, my inspiration to share my collections with the world.’ Above it, framed, is an old photograph: a small moonfaced boy with big wondering eyes and a small, serious mouth stands beside an old woman, his left hand resting absently in her seated lap. Her hands are made of polished mahogany, and she has a smile that lives in her eyes. They are both looking straight at the camera, straight into the eye of the black ghost. The boy’s right hand clutches his jacket pocket, wrapped protectively around a private treasure.

Mr. Manop leans in towards me, looking up into my face.  

“That is not even the whole story,” he confides in an enthusiastic stage whisper. “That is only part of the story. Maybe some day I write it all down.”

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