Three monks lifted Virgil Blue from their wheelchair onto the podium. The silver mask’s bird-beak hardly moved with the ancient monk’s long breath. Under the mask and navy robes Faith saw not a single inch of skin. The suggestion of folded hands in their sleeves was her only clue someone sat beneath the cloth.
True to their introduction Virgil Blue remained silent. A murmur crept through the sparse audience. In the front rows the congregation crossed their legs and focused.
Faith shrugged. “That’s a cool mask. BeatBax would like it, she loves birds.”
“Quiet,” said her uncle. He squinted into the mask’s buggy eyes. “Are you getting this, Faith?”
“Huh?” Faith saw her uncle’s glassy stare. He was lost, now, in the bird. A hush blanketed the lecture-hall as the silver mask entranced the spectators. Faith sighed and clasped her hands on her knee. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”
Her uncle tried to shush her with a raised finger but couldn’t muster the effort. He just stared at the Blue Virgil.
Faith rocked in her chair. “I’ll wait for you outside. I wanna look at the trees.”
Outside the lecture-hall Faith kicked off her shoes and bounded to a fence by the cliff to enjoy the forest spread below her. Clouds cast drifting shadows on the treetops. Trees and clouds alike bent to the breeze.
Behind her the lecture-hall doors opened again. The elderly sky-clad monk pointed the spotted end of his cane to the summits of the Bighorn Mountains. “These peaks aren’t half bad,” he said. “Not bad at all.” Faith wasn’t sure how to react so she watched him amble to the fence. He saw through the mountains to a horizon only he could detect.
“I’m sorry I left your teacher’s lecture,” she said.
“It’s alright. Virgil Blue is an acquired taste.” The monk brushed his robes. “My name is Virgil Skyy. You can call me Jango.”
“Jango?” Faith smiled and curled white-blonde hair around her finger. “My friend Jilli has a cat named Django.”
“There are no coincidences. Such simultaneity is a message from the Mountain,” said Virgil Jango Skyy. “A similar message brought us here today. We live on the Islands of Sheridan so a trip to Sheridan, Wyoming was inevitable.”
Faith nodded but turned away. She watched a deer bounce over rivers and rocks. “I don’t want to burst your bubble but there are lots of Sheridans. It’s a common city-name, like Springfield.”
“Wyoming’s Sheridan has the highest elevation. Indeed, these mountains represent an admirable effort.” He stuck his cane in the grass. “But Virgil Blue’s monastery is on the main island of Sheridan and I swear it’s twice the height. You can’t see its peak.”
“Is that where the birds live?” Faith leaned on the fence and fished the brochure from her purse. She showed Jango the photo of the little flightless birds. “They’re adorable!”
Jango shivered and stuck a finger in his mouth.
Faith hid the brochure. “Is something wrong?”
“Those fledglings are sacred,” he said. “Their photography is forbidden. It’s not your fault—you didn’t take the picture, and it’s superstition in any case. But when tourists visit our islands we remind them to photograph anything but the birds.”
“Gosh, sorry. I just have this friend who loves birds. Why are they sacred?”
Jango’s lips found a sideways smile. “In Sheridan we tell a story: the Biggest Bird birthed the islands and taught her people to use the local herbs.”
“I like stories.” Faith smiled. “Tell me a story!”
“Do you think I came halfway across the planet to hand you the secrets of reality?” He bent his cane at her. “You want the monk treatment, be a monk!”
“Sheesh, alright,” said Faith. “Sorry Jangster.”
Jango shook his head and turned to the forest. “Young lady, is your name by chance Faith Featherway?”
“Um. Yes.” Faith checked her blouse for a name-tag. “How’d you know?”
“Look.” He pointed his cane over the fence at a white fox skulking a mountainside.
Faith almost hurled herself off the cliff. “Oh my gosh! It has cute little whiskers!”
“You’ve got better eyes than I do, Ms. Featherway.” Jango laughed. He had two black irises but one pupil held an island of gray plaque. “You won’t believe me, but we’ve met once before. You wouldn’t remember.”
“Hm?” Faith tilted her head at Jango without looking from the fox. “No, I don’t remember.”
“I owe you a favor.” Jango shook his sleeve and an object fell into his hand. “This should make us even. You wouldn’t believe how I got it through customs.”
“Oh! I always wanted to try one of these!” Faith took the cricket and spun it in her fingers. Its wings were tightly twisted around its body. The stem sticking from its abdomen acted as a natural filter. “A guy at my school sells these but his don’t look nearly as nice.”
Virgil Skyy pursed his lips. “On Sheridan crickets are revered as a link to the Biggest Bird meant only for the islands. I hesitated even to bring one for you. But if this man shows people the Mountain, so be it.” He shook his other sleeve and a white lighter fell into his hand. “Allow me the first puff. Cricket-eyes can overwhelm the uninitiated.”
Faith watched Jango put the stem in his mouth and light the ten beady eyes on fire. He puffed a cloud over the forest and passed the insect back to her. “You know, you speak great English for a native from an isolated South Pacific island.”
“I live on the Islands of Sheridan, but I was born in Kansas City.” Virgil Jango Skyy guided her inhalation with his hands like he was helping her parallel park. “I didn’t meet Virgil Blue until my mid-thirties. Back then you couldn’t get bug-sticks in America. Virgil Blue taught me to smoke them in person.”
“Whoa!” Faith coughed a cloud over the fence. After hacking and spitting she passed the cricket back. “You mean Virgil Blue smokes bug-sticks too? I figured they were like a thousand years old.”
“Older. Virgil Blue is a title stretching back to the Biggest Bird. Today’s Virgil Blue is two hundred years young. Only the Blue Virgil is holy enough to prepare centipede, which practiced laypeople consume to join the congregation.”
She watched him finish the cricket and tap the ash into a trashcan. “I’d never smoke centipede,” said Faith. “Too many legs—so creepy! Maybe someday.”
“I don’t suppose your friend with the sunglasses sells centipedes, too?”
“He says he wants to, but I wouldn’t call him a friend.”
Jango nodded. “It’s always a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Featherway. I hear Virgil Blue concluding their silent lesson, so I must retrieve them from the podium.” He passed her a red card-stock pamphlet. “I’m sure you and your friends will find this pamphlet enlightening.”
She took the pamphlet. On the front, a hand-drawn bird bigger than an ostrich sheltered fist-sized fledglings with its wings. Inside was taped a plastic-baggie of brown powder like coffee-grounds. “What’s this?”
Virgil Jango Skyy was gone.
Written in pen beside the baggie: ‘Powdered centipede isn’t so creepy, is it? An introduction to Sheridan from Virgils Skyy and Blue.’