(The first chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
The year is 2019.
In his Wyoming motel-room, Jango stabbed Jay a fortieth time. Jay sputtered his last. Jango sighed and wiped his bloody arthritic hands on his sky-colored robes. Had Jay seriously just promoted him to Virgil Blue? Was Dan destined to die in Sheridan’s white-walled monastery? Jango clenched his eyes shut. There were no coincidences!
Jango put one hand on his aching hips and the other hand on his tall cane. He’d smuggled bugs before, but he’d never had to cover up a murder. Returning to the Islands of Sheridan might be a challenge.
There was a knock at the door. In panic to hide Jay’s blood, Jango put on Virgil Blue’s navy robes and silver mask. He cracked the door just enough to see Dan standing outside. “Oh. Virgil Blue, right?”
“Oran dora,” said Virgil Blue. “Call me what you want.”
“I’m so sorry to bother you, sir—but it’s an honor to meet you, of course. Is Jay still here?”
Virgil Blue knocked the door open with his cane. “Jay and Jango left together! Tell me, Danny, have you ever wanted to visit a library full of books from the future?“
After three days sitting in airports or planes, Dan stood at the bow of a boat ferrying him to the second island of Sheridan. He’d never traveled like Jay, so he found the process draining, but the leap from winter hemisphere to summer hemisphere was much-needed rejuvenation after his long-lasting hangover; he felt like he was on another planet. Rather than admire the Sheridanian tropics, lit by early Edenic sunset casting light-fingers from behind the main island’s sparse cloud-cover, Dan flipped through Jay’s notepad of observations on the subject. Jay was an impeccable note-taker, and penned interesting sketches, but a few pages near the end of the notepad were torn out. On the next pages, Jay had doodled a cute white fox just like Faith used to paint. Dan had been spooked by a fox like that once, and never had the courage to ask Faith about them. He wished Jay had left those notes.
“Oran dora, Danny.” Virgil Blue poked Dan’s back with his cane, a curious object smooth along the shaft but with ten black spots encircling a gnarled tip. “On the second island, you’ll study under Virgil Green and his matriarch. It should take you a year to graduate from his preliminary summit to my monastery near the main island’s cloudy peak.”
“Um.” Dan put Jay’s notepad in his jeans-pocket. “I’m not joining your congregation, Virgil Blue. I just want to write about it for my PhD. Jay didn’t have to become a monk just to visit you, did he?”
“Danny, why do you care about religion?”
“Um.” Dan found talking to Virgil Blue quite difficult. By wearing his silver mask and hooded navy robes, the Virgil had given up his personhood to look like a sort of alien bird-thing. The silver mask had a squat beak, two long feathers on top, and bulging criss-crossed bug-eyes seen out of but not into. The only clue to his identity was his voice, that of an elderly man. “My dad studied religions from all over the planet,” said Dan. “Then he killed himself. I guess he really rubbed off on me.”
“Your father gave you his worms,” said Virgil Blue. Dan opened Jay’s notepad and pat his pockets looking for a pen, but couldn’t find one. Jay’s notes explained Sheridanians believed a person was a vessel of interconnected ‘worms.’ To Dan it sounded like the islanders had made a karmic image for the soul out of the brain’s neurons and the psyche’s ability to carry a memetic cultural genome alongside DNA, and he felt a desperate need to take more notes about it. “All consciousness everywhere is one pile of worms tangling and untangling to resolve cosmic disturbance. Your father’s worms influenced yours. This is how the worms of the dead are sifted through the sands of the next eternity into the new generation of vessels. Any religion is for accepting the inevitability of death—death at any moment! Without one, we worry. With a good one, every death has purpose, because there are no coincidences.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Dan bit his lip and looked out to Sheridan’s second island. It was bigger and more forested than the initial, barren, sandy one. “My friends Faith and Beatrice died recently—Beatrice about a month ago, Faith just last week.”
Jango nodded with solemn understanding. His silver mask almost fell off, but he held it on his face to remain Virgil Blue. He was careful to keep his hands covered with his navy robe’s sleeves. “Your friend Jay died just a few days ago, too.”
“What?” Dan squeezed Jay’s notepad. “You told me Jay and Jango went to your monastery!”
“I told you they left together!” Virgil Blue shook his cane. “Jay and Jango will see each other at the end of the next eternity. The Biggest Bird has plans for them!”
Dan covered his ears with his hands. His fingertips were already bitten by past anxieties. “I can’t hear this.” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “My whole life—it’s fallen apart! Jay was my closest friend! We had the same birthday for Christ’s sake!”
“Then Jay will surely help your worms climb the Biggest Bird’s Mountain in the next eternity.” The ferry bumped the second island. Virgil Blue escorted Dan onto the gravelly beach. “Take off your clothes.”
Dan hadn’t planned to participate in Sheridanian rituals, but suddenly felt like his life needed some meaning. He took off his T-shirt, which featured a giant orange space-robot from his favorite anime. “When you say ‘worms,’ do you mean worms like those?” He pointed under the pines, where a few earthworms crawled through the grass.
“I do,” said Virgil Blue.
“Then why doesn’t the Biggest Bird collect worms herself? That seems like a bird-like thing to do.”
“She wishes she could, but worms must prove themselves ready before she can reach out. This is your favorite color, isn’t it, Danny?” Virgil Blue bent achingly and picked up a long orange tail-feather. It must have come from a peacock bigger than an emu. “Collect enough of these and Virgil Green will fashion a skirt for you. You won’t get your own robe until you make it to my monastery.”
Dan worried (he was wont to worry, especially when nude) Virgil Blue wouldn’t be able to hike all the way up Sheridan’s second island. The steep path was rough dirt, the moon didn’t light the trail well, and Blue had an uneasy gait. Bewilderingly, however, two dozen bald and mostly-nude men and women with every skin-color imaginable appeared from behind the pine-trees and picked up the old man. “Oran dora!” they said. Carrying him uphill while dancing, they chanted Sheridanian.
Embarrassment tore Dan at every angle. He tried to cover his body with the long orange tail-feathers he’d collected, but found them an unsatisfying way to hide his nervous erection, especially because he was apparently expected to wear them as a scanty skirt like the mostly-nude dancers. Was he expected to immediately dance, too, and help carry Blue, or should he wait for his own scanty feather skirt and shaven head before joining? He felt a pink blush blooming on his cheeks. In consolation, besides the skirts, the dancers wore only anonymizing wooden masks like Virgil Blue’s silver bug-eyed bird-face. Together with baldness, the masks pronounced the slightly pointed heads of native Sheridanians. Dan wished he’d gotten his mask before stripping down so he could hide his blush. “What are they chanting, Virgil Blue?” Dan asked.
” ‘Virgil Blue walks!’ ” he translated. The dancers laughed and started another chant. ” ‘Virgil Blue speaks!‘ “
“Are you not known to walk or speak, Virgil Blue?”
“It depends,” said Virgil Blue. “Oran dora!” The dancers set him down atop the island in a clearing. He waved his cane at them to say good-bye, and the dancers disappeared behind the pines once more.
Dan squinted into the dark. “Where did they go?”
Virgil Blue held one silencing finger over his silver mask’s beak, carefully hiding the digit in his thick navy sleeves. “The dancers will retire for the night,” he whispered, “and after meeting Virgil Green, you’ll retire alongside them to dance for a few weeks. As practicing laymen, you and they haven’t yet been taught to sleep like the birds do, just a few minutes at a time, but many times a day.”
“I haven’t seen any of these giant flightless birds yet,” whispered Dan. He carried all his tail-feathers under his left elbow. “I’d love to meet one if I’ve gotta learn to sleep like that.” Virgil Blue pointed his cane. Dan recognized a pinkish shape in the middle of the clearing, barely visible by the full moon. Jay had sketched Sheridanian big-birds in his notepad, and once showed Dan photos of such a statue like a penguin taller than a tree. “But isn’t that a stat—” It wasn’t a statue. It opened its eyes, small as peas but reflecting starlight like saucers. It quivered, threatening to unfold its wings across the whole wide clearing.
A bald man with slightly pointed head emerged from behind the pink bird just like the dancers had popped out behind pines. He calmed the bird by reaching up to brush its neck with the back of his hand. Dan knew Sheridanians had a peculiar abundance of skin-colors, but he’d never met a man quite like Virgil Green, dark and cold as the night sky. His martini-olive robe and peppery beard were comparatively warm. “Virgil Blue? Walking? Oran dora!“
“And speaking. Oran dora,” replied Virgil Blue, with a slight bow.
“Oran dora,” Dan whispered. He wasn’t quite sure if he was supposed to say it or not. He had no idea what it meant, and was a little afraid to ask.
“I’ve got another fledgling for you, Green. He speaks English, not Sheridanian, but I’m sure you can show him the birds and the bugs.” Virgil Blue poked Dan’s back with his cane. “I need Danny ready for the end of the eternity.” Dan had never heard of an eternity ending, but it sounded like Judgement Day or Armageddon. What would it mean to be ready? Nude and bald?
Virgil Green approached to look him over, so Dan awkwardly showed him the orange tail-feathers he’d collected. “If you need him soon, Blue, maybe he should skip my island and just climb yours.”
“Hey, now!” Virgil Blue shook his cane. “Eternity doesn’t end tonight. He should follow the traditional path.”
Virgil Green took Dan’s orange tail-feathers. “Danny, isn’t it?”
“My students begin by dancing.” Virgil Green cracked the tail-feather’s bony shafts so he could weave them together. “Do you dance, Danny?”
“Not once in my life.”
“Hm. Well, you can learn.” Virgil Green snapped the tail-feathers together into a scanty orange skirt. “When a student is done dancing, the sitting-and-walking phase involves meditation while contemplating the Biggest Bird.” Dan had trouble imagining a bird any bigger than the pink one he was looking at, outside a hallucination. “Do you have any experience with such periods of theological consideration, Danny?”
“Kinda, I guess.” Dan stepped into the orange feather-skirt. It was more comfortable than he expected. “I read books as an undergrad while walking laps around the campus quad. I would read for a lap, then close the book and think about it for a lap, and then start reading again.”
Virgil Green turned to grin at Virgil Blue. Blue shook his head, waggling his silver mask, but Green’s smile grew and he nodded. “You sound like you know the rigmarole, Danny,” he said, turning back to face him. “What classes? What books?”
“I majored in Religious Studies. The Bible. The Torah. The Koran. The Vedas. The Lotus Sutra. Anthologies of creation myths. Dante’s Inferno. Paradise Lost. That sort of stuff.”
Virgil Green kept his eyes on Dan, but talked out the corner of his smile while stroking his peppery beard. “He might’ve read half your monastery’s library already, Blue.”
“Virgil Blue told me he has books from the future,” said Dan. “I’ve never read one of those before.”
“The Koran, The Lotus Sutra, and Dante’s Inferno were all once books from the future,” said Virgil Green. “Virgil Blue, Danny sounds like he was born for your monastery. Don’t you always say there are no coincidences? Don’t waste his time dancing; that’s just for tiring out energetic young fledglings.”
Virgil Blue’s exasperation showed through the silver mask as he threw his hands up under his robes. “Danny, do a dance!”
Dan squirmed. “Um.” He did a quick Charleston, trading his hands from one kneecap to the other when they knocked.
“Sit facing the matriarch!” Dan sat facing the big pink bird. “Now stand and circle around her nest!” Dan walked around the bird. In the dark, he hadn’t realized it was sitting on a nest of eggs big as his fist. “There, Danny!” said Virgil Blue. “You’ve done the express-edition of the second island’s traditional path.”
Virgil Green laughed. “Oran dora!” Dan was more confused by the phrase than ever. Was it ‘congratulations?’ ‘Thanks?’ ‘You’re welcome?’ ‘Hello?’ ‘Goodbye?’
“But your next step cannot be so rushed.” Virgil Blue poked Dan’s back with his cane to lead him across the clearing. They left Green behind with the bird and walked down another trail to a ferry waiting at the opposite shore. “Do you know how to swim?”
“Uh-huh.” Dan looked mournfully at the ferry. “Dare I ask why it matters?”
Virgil Blue waved his cane’s gnarled tip at the mountainous main island. Its silhouette was an isosceles right triangle with hypotenuse on the seafloor, so the island was surely a perfect cone. “It should take you six to fourteen hours to swim there, depending on how the water treats you.”
“Um. Wow.” Dan shaded his eyes from the moon, trying to gauge the distance. The main island was covered in tiny flowers of every possible color, a rainbow blur in the dark. “I don’t think I can swim that far.”
“The flightless birds do it,” said Virgil Blue. Dan could barely see Sheridanian big-birds splashing on the distant coast of the main island. “I did it, too. So did Green.”
“How many people drown making this swim?”
“Not as many as you might think. The water between these islands is almost shallow enough to tiptoe on the sand. When you crawl ashore the main island, you’ll then hike up to the monastery nude as the birds.”
Dan frowned. “I don’t even get to keep my skirt?”
“You’ll lose those feathers during the swim. It’s all metaphorical, accepting your worms for the Heart of the Mountain.”
“I get a robe eventually, right?” Dan remained on Sheridan’s second island’s coast, yet unable to touch the waves.
“I’ll dye one with orange flower-petals for you while I wait in the white-walled monastery.” Virgil Blue boarded the ferry without him. “So don’t be too quick about it!”
The year is 2020.
Dan, brown hair shaved bald and wearing an orange tail-feather skirt, spent eight months walking and sitting with Virgil Green’s students around the pink matriarch. Each night Dan joined the most fervent devotees to the Biggest Bird swimming laps around the second island until he finally felt firm enough to swim to the main one.
After climbing to the white-walled monastery, nude and waddling slowly as the birds did, Dan was rewarded egg-yolk orange robes and the first volume of his favorite manga: LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration. Its cover depicted a young woman on a noble balcony, ignoring a futuristic skyline of lit-up spires to gaze at the moon above. Virgil Blue told Dan his first assignment was annotating LuLu’s like he would annotate a textbook.
Dan assumed this was for him to demonstrate coherent annotation-ability before being allowed into the monastery’s sacred library under the bell-tower, but the door was actually open even to laymen. Only the books from the future, on the highest shelves, were still prohibited. Dan wasn’t quite convinced about the authenticity of these books from the future, but upon opening the manga, he saw LuLu’s anonymous author had signed their pseudonym, Tatsu, on the first page. Virgil Blue certainly had strange connections.
The year is 2021.
Dan’s cramped quarters were adorned with orange fabric just like his spotless robes. His room’s size limited him to a narrow mattress barely tall enough for such a man in his late twenties, but he still stacked books of every color in the corners. Monks usually returned their books to the sacred library under the bell-tower, but tonight, commemorating a full year here, Virgil Blue would give Dan the second volume of LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration to annotate privately. LuLu’s entered indefinite hiatus on a cliffhanger, so Dan would finish every volume printed by 2025 if he kept this annual pace, but he suspected Virgil Blue was secretly sitting on the final unpublished volumes from the future, waiting for him to be ready to read them.
Just before sunset, Virgil Blue opened Dan’s sliding paper door with the head of his cane. “Oran dora, Danny.”
“Oran dora, Virgil Blue.” No matter how much he studied Sheridanian, Dan still wasn’t quite sure what that phrase meant. It really depended on the inflection. He gave the Virgil his first annotated manga-volume. “Thanks for letting me annotate LuLu’s like this. This manga meant so much to me and Jay. Faith and Beatrice liked it, too.”
“It’s not manga, Danny, it’s philosophy presented through mass-produced sequential art. Although, you could be annotating anything.” It took Virgil Blue a minute to sit cross-legged, so achy were his knees. “The Biggest Bird can be found anywhere. There are no coincidences.”
“I know, I know, but LuLu’s is an especially interesting presentation of Sheridanian culture. All Virgil Green talked about was eggs, birds, worms, and, uh, centipedes. LuLu’s ties it all together.” Dan watched Virgil Blue flip the pages of the annotated first volume left-to-right. His ability to read through his silver mask gave the Virgil undeniable authority. “But… I notice none of the other monks are annotating,” said Dan. “They take notes about the library’s sacred texts, but… they told me only Virgils annotate them. Are you planning to promote me to Virgil Orange? Will I be allowed to read books which are still from the future?”
“This sequential art isn’t from the library. For you, Danny, it’s more than sacred. For you, Danny, it’s real.” Without revealing his hands, Virgil Blue tucked the first annotated volume up one navy sleeve, and, from the other sleeve, produced the second volume, fresh. Its cover showed a war-torn Earth partially hidden behind the moon. Between craters on the moon’s dark side was a chrome battle-station shaped like a sea-star. The Earth hid part of the sun, and the sun hid part of a massive black hole. The dark background of space was speckled red. “You’ll never read the story’s resolution. You’ll live it, Danny! You’ll understand by the end of the eternity. It should be any year now.”
Dan helped Virgil Blue stand again. The Virgil closed the sliding paper door with his cane, and Dan opened the manga. Sacred or not, LuLu’s was a wild read.
But in truth, he liked the anime better. Dan pulled his smartphone from under the mattress, solar-charged all day to play the corresponding episodes all night.