Jay penned Jango’s story in his notepad. Jango sniffed smoke from the brass burner before concluding: “Faith and Jango finished the cricket while walking to the monastery. ‘I think I’ve watched your brother’s anime,’ said Faith, ‘but I’m kinda hung up on the timeline here.’
“‘The Mountain sent you from the next eternity to the mortal plane,’ said Jango. ‘The concept of causality collapsed when you crossed.’ Jango climbed a rocky ledge. Faith leapt it like she was weightless. ‘Clearly our meeting in Wyoming has not yet occurred. Where do we find each other?’
“‘I suppose my pilgrimage is predestined by the Mountain,’ said Jango. ‘I’ll bring you a cricket. I owe you.’
“‘Centipede powder, too, please,’ said Faith. ‘My friend and I had lots of fun!’ So saying, steam rose from her tail. ‘Uh oh. I’m evaporating. How embarrassing.’
“‘You’re returning to the Mountain,’ said Jango. The fox watched her snow-torso bubble and pop. ‘Oran dora, Faith Featherway.’
“‘I was only here like twenty minutes,’ said Faith. ‘This sucks.’
“As quickly as she’d appeared, Faith disintegrated into mist.” Virgil Jango Skyy smiled at Jay. “Consider this story, students. I hope you sleep soundly.”
After the sermon Jango led Jay to the door. “Jay, we would love to let you spend the night.”
“I appreciate the offer, but my tour leaves in the morning.” Jay sloshed his lantern of oil. “Could you help me light this?”
“Of course, of course.” Jango pulled brown thread from his cane. He lit the thread on a candle, then dipped the flame in Jay’s lantern to light the oily wick. “Please, open this door. It’s heavy for me.”
Jay opened the door. He and Jango stepped onto flagstones flanked by fireflies. “I can’t thank you enough, Virgil Skyy. You have a beautiful monastery. Everyone will love the photos you’ve let me take.”
“Take one more for the road.” Jango posed and smiled. Jay crouched to capture the open door in the photo’s frame. Virgil Blue had not moved from the courtyard.
“Does Virgil Blue need help?”
“Virgil Blue’s constitution is not what it used to be,” said Jango, “but they’re okay.”
“They’ll retire to the cloudy peak someday.” Jay checked the photo. “Right?”
“After they appoint a successor,” said Jango.
“I like the sand-dollar walls. The flickering candles make them look like eyes.”
“That’s intentional,” said Jango. “The final judgement will occur in the House of Eyes. There, the Biggest Bird will scrutinize the sinful.”
“My friends Faith and Dan enjoy an anime like your little brother’s manga.” Jay scrolled through his camera’s photos. “In fact, I’ve had hallucinations a little like that anime.”
“Hallucinations come from the same place as everything else: the Biggest Bird. Her influence is seen in cultures worldwide.”
“I see. I guess it only makes sense there’d be some parallels.”
“There’s still time for questions.”
Jay thought. “Do you believe in… reincarnation?”
“Hm… When we die, we wake in the next eternity. If we meet the Mountain, we become a Zephyr. But if you miss the Mountain, the sand eats your soul—so you’re reborn, and you try again.”
“I don’t understand,” said Jay. “You’re reborn when your soul is destroyed?”
“Of course,” said Jango. “Otherwise everyone would remember past lives.”
“I guess that makes sense.” Jay wrote the quote in his notepad. “Could someone be reborn, uh… alongside their previous life?”
Jango shrugged. “That’s not for me to know.”
“Do you know anything about pulled chains or spinning wheels?”
“Hey.” The old man bent his cane at him. “I’m not dropping the meaning of life in your lap. If you want the monk treatment, be a monk.”
“I see. Thank you, Virgil Skyy.” They both bowed, and Jay helped Jango close the door behind him.
Jay circled the monastery to show Leo his lantern’s light. He occupied his time photographing nearby centipede bushes. The bushes had more thorns than leaves, protecting their centipedes from harvest. Jay settled for photos.
After an hour, Jay sighed and scanned the dark mountain. He did not see Leo’s red Hawaiian shirt. Maybe Leo had nabbed his centipedes and walked to the inn alone. Jay returned the way he came, hoping he had enough oil.
A night at the inn rejuvenated Jay. He ate a breakfast of coconut-meat and legumes while waiting for the others to wake. He thanked the innkeepers for loaning him the lantern and showed them photos of the monastery.
Eva sat beside Jay. “Jadie, did you see my husband last night? Henry didn’t come back to our room.”
“Oh, gosh. We met hiking to the monastery. I said I’d lead him back, but he didn’t want the help.”
“That sounds like Henry.”
“I assumed he returned without me. I’m really sorry. I hope he’s okay.”
“That makes one of you,” said Eva. Her daughter Lilly ate scrambled eggs without comment. “I’m sorry if he caused any trouble.”
“He seemed to want centipedes,” said Jay. “Maybe he’s still harvesting.”
After breakfast Michael led the tour to the river. He’d inflated inner-tubes and tied them to a bridge so they bobbed in the water. “The river will carry us to shore. Kids ride with a parent. Then we ferry to the airport. Hey, hey—we have an extra inner-tube.” Michael counted heads. “Where’s Henry?”
“I think he’s visiting the monastery,” said Eva. “He’s not answering his cellphone.”
Michael shook his head and climbed into an inner-tube. “When he decides to return to the inn, he can join whichever of my brothers is there that day.”
“Really? Could he?” Eva and Lilly shared an inner-tube. “Will Henry be imposing on them?”
“Sheridanians are always eager to help,” said Michael, “especially when the person in need is as kind and understanding as your husband.”
Jay chose an inner-tube beside Craig and Suzy. “[Zhang, Li Ying,]” he said in Mandarin, “[I’m glad to have journeyed with you.]”
“[We appreciated your company,]” said Craig.
“Oran dora,” said Suzy. “[We’re off to Easter Island next.]”
“Whee!” Lilly laughed and kicked when Michael cut her cord. Eva and Lilly floated down the river. Then Michael cut Craig’s cord, and Suzy’s, and Jay’s, and his own, leaving Leo’s inner-tube tied to the bridge. Jay’s tube spun clockwise until it brushed the left bank and spun counterclockwise.
“I hope your husband is okay,” Suzy said to Eva. “How long have you been married?”
Eva held her daughter’s hand. “Since I was pregnant with Lilly.”
“It’s good you travel as a family,” said Craig. “Have you ever been to China?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“There are beautiful birds near a lake where we live,” said Suzy. “Maybe you could visit on your next bird-watching trip.”
“My name is Zhang,” said Craig.
“I’m Li Ying,” said Suzy. “We’d love to host you for a weekend.”
The river bumped Jay’s inner-tube against Michael’s. Michael grabbed Jay’s tube to keep them together. “Oran dora, Jadie.”
“Hi, Michael. Thanks for the tour.”
“Did you deliver my letter?”
“I gave it to Virgil Jango Skyy,” said Jay. “But I wanted to ask about the bird-statue. Jango said it’s not a shrine at all, it’s the monastery’s mailbox. Did you know?”
Michael laughed. “I did, but tourists aren’t impressed by mailboxes. My brothers and I call it a shrine to get people interested. Eventually locals started burning incense and lighting candles inside. So, the mailbox is always full and contacting the monastery takes a trek. Thank you for delivering my letter.”
“Huh. No problem.”
Michael released Jay’s tube and the river carried them apart. Jay felt the water, clean and cool. Fish swam under him as he floated beneath bridges. Eventually the river became a timeless one, emptying into the infinite ocean.