Left and right were hallways of monks’ quarters cordoned with tapestries of solid color. Ahead opened a grassy courtyard. The young woman led Jay onto the grass, where a hundred silent monks sat cross-legged under the stars. Each wore a uniquely colored robe. All of them faced the back of the courtyard, where the monastery’s wings met and a bell-tower rose.
“[You brought enough for everyone.]” The woman opened Jay’s box of pastries. “[Right?]”
Jay handed a pastry to each monk. Their posture remained perfect and their eyes remained closed as they reached wordlessly for their pastry and put it in their lap. The monks increased in age as Jay approached the bell-tower. Many monks were bald, but some of the eldest had shaggy gray hair. Jay decided those must be Virgils.
The two monks closest to the bell-tower wore sky-blue and navy. The monk in navy had a heavy hood, a silver mask, and sat in a woven nest like those commemorating birds along the trail. Their body warmed porcelain eggs nestled around them.
When Jay held a sugar-powdered pastry for the sky-clad monk, the monk bopped Jay’s hand from below to toss the pastry in the air. He caught it in his mouth with his eyes closed. He giggled like a school-child and opened his eyes. He had one black pupil and one moon-like cataract, white as the pastry had been. “Oran dora,” he whispered.
“Oran dora,” whispered Jay. Jay held the last pastry to the monk in navy. They did not respond. Their silver mask depicted a bird’s face with buggy eyes.
“Virgil Blue cannot sense you,” said the sky-clad monk with the cataract. “Enjoy your pastry. You’ve hiked hard to get here.”
“I did,” said Jay, “because I have gifts for Virgil Jango Skyy.”
“Then sit beside him.” Jango Skyy pat the grass with age-veined fingers. “You must be weary from the elevation. The air’s thicker down here.”
Jay sat and unzipped his backpack. “A tour-guide named Michael gave me this letter.”
“It’s not addressed to me,” said Jango.
“I know, but I hoped you could deliver it to Michael’s children, nieces, and nephews.” Jay pulled Faith’s envelope from his backpack. “I’m afraid this one’s not addressed to you either.”
Jango admired the front of Faith’s holiday-card. He opened the card and inspected her hand-drawn fox. He turned her bug-stick. “Excellent wing-work.”
“My friend Faith Featherway said she owed you a bug-stick. Is that why you expected me?”
“I expected Faith, but an ambassador with her banner will suffice. The Mountain metes what means it may. Welcome to Virgil Blue’s courtyard. Did you climb here just to give gifts?”
“I’m a photographer.” Jay showed Jango his camera. “You gave Faith centipede-powder in Wyoming. She shared it with me, and I was intrigued. I had to meet the men behind the bugs. Before I left, Faith gave me that card and cricket. I know she’d be here if she could be.”
Jango took the camera and scrolled through photos. He had unbecoming digital-savvy for someone so old. “Wise to take such careful photos of Virgil Green’s congregation. They’re quite protective of their matriarch.” At the next photo, Jango flinched. The reaction made Jay flinch as well, but as Jango examined more photos, he laughed and punched Jay in the shoulder. “You had me worried with the mailbox.”
The old monk returned Jay’s camera, displaying the stone statue of a bird sheltering a toddler on a box of candles. “The mailbox. My vision isn’t as good as it used to be, and that’s a small screen. I thought it was a real bird.”
“Oh, no! I wouldn’t take photos if it were.”
“Why’s it filled with candles? I’m expecting a package.”
“Michael said it was a shrine to a bird who saved a child.”
“Eeeccht.” Jango hocked with disapproval. “Back when any-and-all bird-forgery was forbidden, Nemo, the first Virgil Blue, carved the statue to represent the Biggest Bird. Only his holy hands could depict it. That’s no child, it’s Nemo, full-grown, for scale. It’s a donation-box, but I use it as my address for incoming mail. I guess nowadays it’s a shrine to a bird who saved a child.” Jango stood, bracing himself against the bell-tower, and he walked leaning on a cane like a giant wing-wrapped cricket. “This reminds me of a story. What’s your name, fledgling?”
“Jay.” Jay hesitated to help the old monk, as he seemed able enough on his own.
“Jay, bring that brass incense-burner.” Jango unwrapped Faith’s bug-stick. Dan’s wing-work had preserved the odorous exoskeleton. Jay opened the brass burner and Jango stuck the cricket in it, butt-down. He shook one sleeve and a purple lighter fell into his hand. He lit the cricket’s eyes and Jay closed the burner. “Oran doran, doran dora. Virgils and students, tonight’s closing remarks will be in English to accommodate our visitor. Enjoy your pastries! Jay brought tonight’s dessert and tonight’s cricket.”
The crowd looked at Jay just as he chewed his pastry. Jay panicked and swallowed. “The cricket was wrapped by Virgil Orange,” he said, not really knowing why. The woman who had opened the door waved at him.
“Jay is a photographer. Everyone say cheese!” The monks all smiled until Jay took a photo. “Jay is friends with Faith Featherway, whom I’ve met twice before: once ten years ago in Wyoming, once ten years prior to that quite locally.”
Jay didn’t understand, but he wouldn’t interrupt. He prepared his notepad as Virgil Jango Skyy lectured to the congregation.
“Once, Virgil Skyy was sitting beside Virgil Blue on a misty morning,” said the old monk, in the third person. “Jango stood and pat dew from his robes. ‘Virgil Blue, have you considered retirement?’
“Virgil Blue said nothing.
” ‘You’ve said nothing for years,’ said Jango. ‘You’re stationary like a thorny centipede-bush. It might be time to choose a successor.’
“Virgil Blue said nothing.
“So Jango decided to take a walk. He left the monastery and stepped down steep cliffs—there were no carved steps so long ago, but Jango was spry enough to make do—and greeted birds hiking up. Oran dora!”
The students concurred: “Oran dora!”
“At each bridge, Jango drank from the river and bowed to Virgil Green’s island. He thanked Virgil Green for chasing snakes from Sheridan. Oran dora!”
“Jango came to a bird-statue shading a stone man with its wings. The bird and man stood on a stone box with a hinged panel. Jango bowed to it. Oran dora!”
Even Jay joined: “Oran dora!”
“Jango sat before the bird. He saw smoke seeping from the box’s hinged panel and said, ‘Someone lit incense in this shrine. I should sit and contemplate the Biggest Bird until the incense burns down and the smoke stops seeping.’
“So Jango sat and watched smoke seep from the box. Six silent minutes passed.
” ‘I’d like to see the incense directly,’ said Jango, ‘but I’m too old and achy to open the shrine’s hinged panel. I can only hope someone comes to help me, but if no one appears, I suppose it is not the Mountain’s whim.’
“No one appeared.
“After some time, Jango said: ‘If one of my students would miraculously open the shrine, I would be nothing but grateful.’
“Now the box opened and a monk-boy crawled out groveling for forgiveness. He wore red robes and held a lit cricket. ‘I’m sorry, Virgil Skyy! I know monks shouldn’t smoke outside ceremonies, so I found this hidden place to indulge. I didn’t know it was a shrine! I’ve spoilt holy ground!’
” ‘Don’t worry. This is just our mailbox. You’re my only postage in ages. Pass me your bug-stick.’ Jango traded the bug-stick for a pine-needle. ‘When I was young, but not young as you, I sought to smoke a bug-stick within the monastery. Before sunrise, I sat in the furnace so my smoke wafted up the flue. Then Virgil Blue woke to bring logs. They opened the furnace and I blew smoke right in their face, before they wore a mask. They could have disowned me, but instead they taught me this: when you want to smoke a bug-stick, eat a pine-needle first. This promotes moderation. Now, away!’ The monk-boy ran, chewing the pine-needle.
“When the monk-boy left, Jango put the cricket to his lips. It was burned to the stem, so the smoke was harsh and made Jango cough. The cough hung in the air like a cloud. The cloud snowed into a heap and the heap addressed him: ‘Jangster, it’s you!’
“Jango examined the smoldering cricket-butt. ‘I’ve lost my tolerance. I’m already having visions.’
” ‘Haha, I’m real, silly!’ The heap of snow shuddered and became a fox. Its tail was icy fog. ‘I’m Faith Featherway! Don’t you remember me?’
” ‘I can’t say I do, and I really think I would.’
” ‘We met in Wyoming! I told you my friend had a cat named Django? You said you owed me a bug-stick, and you taught me to smoke them? You gave me centipede-powder!’
” ‘I haven’t left the islands in decades. Why would I visit Wyoming? Why would I give you centipede-powder?’
” ‘You know, I meant to ask you the same questions,’ said Faith. ‘It was pretty puzzling. Here, take this!’ From behind her ear, she withdrew a cricket larger and more exquisitely wrapped than any earthly specimen. Jango knew its origin waited in the next eternity, the Mountain of the Dead. ‘The Heart of the Mountain told me to exchange it for a lesson from the Virgils.’
” ‘On this island there’s just me and Blue, and the Blue Virgil isn’t in a speaking mood.’ Jango shook a white lighter from his sleeve. ‘Allow me the honor of administering your lesson.’ Jango and Faith walked to the river and he lit the cricket. Without opposable thumbs, she adopted a peculiar manner of smoking, lying down to rest the cricket on her forearm. ‘As an emissary from the Mountain’s Heart, the Biggest Bird, you must be a Zephyr. Correct?’
” ‘Nah, you’ve gotta be properly inside the Mountain to be a Zephyr,’ said Faith. ‘I’m just a Will-o-Wisp.’
” ‘Let me tell you about the Zephyrs, then. I first met the Zephyrs when I visited my hometown in Kansas.’