Michael led the six onto white sand. Shore-side palm trees spread feathery fronds like frozen fireworks to welcome waves to the beach. The last time Jay had been outdoors was a winter Los Angeles morning, but now the southern hemisphere soaked him in sweat as he followed Michael’s flip-flops to his family restaurant.
Jay gasped when the automatic doors loosed a cold front of air-conditioning. Michael escorted the tour past chatting airport workers to a long table. At the bar, two men with Michael’s same shoulder-length haircut lounged over liquor. One was darker-skinned than Michael, the other lighter and blonde.
Michael hailed a dancing waitress in Sheridanian: “Anaita! Oran dora! [Tour of six today.]”
“Oran dora, Michael. [Don’t lose any this time.]”
“[I think four are American, one platter won’t be enough. Bring two, three if my brothers can cook quick enough.]”
“[On it.]” The waitress spun a dress-flaring curtsy for the tour group, whipping her long braid. “Welcome! If your tour leaves you hungry for more Sheridan, stay a night upstairs in my sisters’ apartment! Breakfast is complimentary.”
Jay sat across from the Chinese couple and the man in sunglasses. On Jay’s left, Eva helped her daughter read a children’s menu. Michael sat on Jay’s right and clapped his hands. “Let’s introduce ourselves! You know my name is Michael.” He gestured to the Chinese couple and flipped flawlessly between regional dialects. “[Any of those sound familiar? I learn lots of languages.]”
Zhang raised his eyebrows. “[I’m impressed, but English might be more accommodating.]”
The man in the Hawaiian shirt glared over his sunglasses. “What’re you two on about.”
Zhang pursed his lips. “My Chinese name is difficult for some to pronounce,” he said, “so please, just call me Craig.”
Li Ying closed the Atlas. “Call me Suzy,” she said. “My English is not as good as my husband’s, but I hope we can practice together.”
The man in sunglasses started: “My name’s Henry. This—”
The waitress brought two platters of pastries and placed one before Jay. “This is my lovely wife, Anaita,” said Michael. “Enjoy this authentic Sheridanian cuisine, cooked by seven of my brothers! Please, Henry, continue.”
While Henry pouted over his interrupted introduction, Jay photographed the platter of pastries. Each pastry was a crescent of crispy dough. He bit one in half. It was lined with crunchy green lettuce leaves, red goat-meat with black char, orange and purple boiled carrots, and a brown lump of grains. Shredded coconut added white, nutty sweetness. It was delicious, he wrote in his notepad. Craig and Suzy annotated their Atlas.
Only after Anaita placed the other platter before him did Henry deign to continue: “I’m Henry. This is my wife, Eva, and my step-daughter, Lilly.” He paused as if finished. When Jay opened his mouth, Henry cut him off: “My wife drags me here every year to look at birds, but we’ve never gone all the way to the main island. I wanna climb to the top, but the phrasebook says we stop like halfway up. How come?”
Michael smiled and nodded. Without turning from Henry, he spoke to Anaita in Sheridanian: “[The red one seeks to sneak under Sheridan’s shrouded peak.]”
“[Tell him we’d give his widow and orphan jobs waiting tables.]”
“What’d she say,” asked Henry.
Michael’s practiced customer-service smile stretched until his eyes closed. “She says the summit of the main island is sacred, and we may not trespass. But the view from where we stop along the trail is truly terrific.”
Jay waited to make sure Henry had finished. Then he pointedly waited longer to rub his patience in Henry’s nose. “My name’s Jadie Jackson. I’m a travel-writer and photographer, but I promise not to take pictures of birds.”
Michael’s crocodile smile melted into a slightly genuine one. “Thank you for reminding me: birds must not be photographed. You may photograph anything else, but if we notice a bird in the background of a shot, you will be asked to delete it. It is a religious matter of great importance to island natives, like myself.”
At the mention of religion Henry rolled his eyes so vigorously his head bobbed; the motion was not hidden behind his sunglasses as he probably intended. Jay rolled his own eyes at Henry, unabashedly.
“I must speak with my brothers, Gabe and Raphy.” Michael bowed to excuse himself from the table. “Please, call Anaita to order an entrée. Our restaurant accepts all currencies, but expect change in sand-dollars!”
Craig and Suzy chatted over their Atlas in Chinese, but Henry’s family barely spoke as they ate. Jay used his Sheridanian phrasebook to eavesdrop on nearby conversations. Local airport workers recommended the upstairs accommodations to pilots of passing flights; above the restaurant was an apartment run by seven of Michael’s sisters-in-law. Anaita and her other six sisters worked as waitresses serving food prepared by seven of Michael’s brothers. Michael and six more brothers including Gabe and Raphy herded tourists across the islands. Of the seven touring brothers, four would be away at any time. Each day, one would return and another would depart.
Jay wondered if this family of twenty-eight owned the airport as well. This island of a few acres no doubt held Sheridan’s whole economy in shady palms.
After a long, lazy lunch, Michael led the tour to a bazaar of colorful tents which smelled like bug-sticks. He instructed the group to meet him on the West side of the island before sunset. “There we board our overnight ferry. You may use any currency in the bazaar, but expect sand-dollars in change. They are the only currency accepted on Sheridan’s main island.”
Jay browsed the goods of two hundred islanders. Here as always in Sheridan, he noticed huge variety in the skin-colors and body-shapes of the native people. The tallest wrapped crickets in their wings for the shortest to sell. The slimmest sold shell necklaces next to the fattest threading bead bracelets. One booth sold candy eggs to young boys and girls. Another sold plush birds to elderly islanders as gifts for grandchildren.
“Huh.” Jay squeezed a plush bird. The craftsmanship was impeccable. He flipped through his phrasebook. “Um… Oran dora. [Why do you… sell them?]” The girl running the stall shook her head and leaned in to listen to Jay’s second attempt. He pointed to a Sheridanian phrase repeated often in the book: “[Do not take pictures of birds?]”
“Oh!” She laughed. “Not real bird! Okay to make!” She offered him another plush bird. “You want to buy? American cash okay!”
“[Two, please.]” Jay paid ten dollars and chose an orange fledgling and a white fledgling from the wide palette available. The merchant gave him twine threaded through sand-dollars in change. “[May I take a picture?]” The merchant nodded and Jay photographed the stall.
Eva and Lilly wandered by the plush birds. Lilly pointed to the back of the booth. “Mommy, look at that one!” The merchant pulled down the red, ostrich-sized bird. It had tail-feathers like a peacock’s downy dress. The merchant stuck her arm up its neck like a puppeteer. Lilly laughed at the dance she made it perform. “It’s funny!”
Eva seemed wary of the life-sized puppet. “Let’s buy a small one after the tour.”
“Good thinking,” said Jay. “It’d be tough to carry that big red guy on the hike.”
For the first time, Jay and Eva made eye contact. She was pretty, thought Jay, with thin pink lipstick. She gave him a sorry smile as if apologizing for her husband, who was conspicuously absent. “The smaller ones are cuter anyway.”
“Henry said you go bird-watching every year.” Jay shaded his eyes from the setting sun. He, Eva, and Lilly started West for the ferry. “What’s your favorite bird?”
“I’m not as interested in birds as Henry makes me out to be,” she said. “In fact, he’s the one who insists on our annual trip to Sheridan. He usually makes us turn back after visiting this market.”
“Daddy says I’m old enough to go to the big island!” said Lilly.
Jay wanted to ask more about Henry, but Michael ushered them aboard the ferry and into separate sleeping quarters. While the Chinese couple across the hall wrote in their Atlas, Jay studied Michael’s Sheridanian phrasebook. When he saw the waxing moon through a porthole, jet-lag caught up to him. He collapsed into his cot.