(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
The fourth loop up around the island took half an hour. The fifth loop up took half that, and the sixth loop up took half that. By the light of the lantern and the full moon, Jay hiked safely even as the trail hugged a steep drop on one side and a sheer cliff-face on the other. Uneven steps were carved into slick rocks lodged in the mountainside. Jay panted up such a flight to find it was the last, and now he had to hoist himself over the boulders unaided. He encountered the river for a final time as it flowed from its source-spring. There was no bridge, so he removed his shoes and socks to ford the current. He met no birds as he hiked. He still saw woven nests, but each nest held at most two porcelain eggs. Each egg here wore painted lacework marking former matriarchs of Virgil Green’s congregation. Jay took photos of each nest and bowed his head out of respect.
When a stone ledge blocked him, Jay hoisted up the lantern and the box of pastries and climbed to them on his hands and knees. Finally he found a wide, paved path to the white-walled monastery. Jay lay on cool flagstones and snuffed his lantern to conserve oil. Fireflies would light his way.
“Hey. Hey!” Jay sat up. Lio stood below the ledge and raised his backpack. Jay wondered how many scrapes he’d endured refusing to remove his sunglasses, as if the moon was too bright. Lio shook his backpack at him. “Take it!”
“I’m not gonna carry your backpack for you.”
“C’mon, I know you’re taller than I am. Don’t lord it over me. Just take it!”
Jay sighed and hefted Lio’s backpack onto the ledge. “Did you have trouble hiking in the dark?”
Lio tossed a glowing jar. Jay, already holding Lio’s backpack, barely caught the jar before it hit the ground. “Hey, careful with that!” Lio kicked the ledge as he struggled climbing to Jay. “Lilly caught ’em for me.”
The jar was filled with fireflies. They flapped madly against the glass, struggling for air and signaling for help with their taillights. Half had already died. “Need a hand?” asked Jay. “Or two?”
“I got it,” Lio wheezed. Sweat dripped down his face. “I got it. I got it.” He finally pulled himself onto the ledge. “See? I don’t need your charity.”
“Hmm.” Jay returned Lio’s backpack he’d lifted on his behalf. When Lio took it, Jay had a hand free to retrieve his lantern.
Lio smirked. “You needed a lantern, huh? I guess not all of us can be self-made men.” He smacked Jay on the back.
Jay pretended the smack made him stumble and he smashed Lio’s jar of fireflies on rocks beside the path. The survivors escaped, flashing thank-yous. “Whoops.”
“Ah, fuck! C’mon! Typical monkeying around.” Lio slung his backpack over his shoulders and started toward the monastery. “You owe me for that.”
“I’ll be sure to apologize to Lilly.” Jay picked up his sugar-powdered pastries and walked the path. The white-walled monastery was close enough to count candles in its windows. “I can’t imagine you followed me here to visit the monastery, did you?”
Lio scanned the island all the way to the cloudy peak. “You didn’t seriously pay two hundred bucks for a tour just to come all this way and meet some bums in a nursing home.”
“Did you seriously come all this way to smuggle some bugs?”
Lio looked over each shoulder, checking for surveillance, as if Jay was some lucky secret viewer. He pulled his backpack to one shoulder and unzipped it. He carried nothing but glass jars. Half were packed with bug-sticks. The rest were empty. “I know a bug-smuggler when I see one. Don’t pretend you’re really here to fuck with monks!”
“I’m really here to fuck with monks,” said Jay. Lio scoffed. “If you want centipede, maybe you should join me. Only Virgil Blue can properly prepare them.” Lio sniggered and smiled just to show his teeth. “I’ve heard, improperly prepared, the high is like being sliced by searing knives, or crawling through hot barbed wire.”
“You said you weren’t religious.”
Jay shrugged. “I’ve smoked centipede Virgil Blue prepared, and it’s not an experience I’d really recommend.”
“Yeah, I’ve smoked ’em too, and you’re right, they’re not worth the hype—it’s like being eaten alive! But because of the hype, the thick ones sell for a thousand bucks a pop! If you collect some I’ll forget the debt you owe me. You still owe me a favor for finding your passport, and for breaking my jar.”
The pair approached the monastery door. The white walls were tiled with thousands of sand-dollars. “I can’t believe you dragged your family along, just to pretend they dragged you.”
“That’s not the only reason! My dad’s rich,” said Lio. “Gotta show Lilly the ropes of running a business. I’m tryin’ to show you the ropes, too, but you don’t wanna learn to do a good day’s work. Guys like me gotta teach you a little thing called responsibility.”
Jay’s father was fairly wealthy, too, but brought Jay on business-trips abroad to teach him a completely different kind of responsibility than whatever Lio was offering. “Bleh. I’ve learned enough about your ropes seeing how you treat your wife and kid.” Jay photographed the monastery sans flash—the candlelight was perfect. “If I were you, I’d visit Virgil Blue. Maybe the Virgils could teach you to grow your own crickets so you can quit wasting time and money smuggling. You’d save on family-therapy, too, but I suspect not much.”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job!” Lio’s face was reddening like a Hurricane Planet. “I’m a free man, no one tells me what to do!”
“Sure, sure. Whatever you say.” Jay felt no obligation to help Lio, but would’ve felt wrong leaving him up here alone in the night. “When I’m done with the monastery, I’ll relight my lantern. You’ll see it if you don’t go too far. Then I’ll lead you through the dark back to the inn.”
“I didn’t ask for your help!”
“I didn’t ask for your company, but here you are. We’re both doing favors tonight.”
Lio raised a shaking fist and uncurled a finger to point at Jay. “You’re gonna collect centipedes and learn to be a free man.“
Jay blinked in disbelief. “What? To be a free man, I gotta follow your orders?”
“No! Don’t you get it? Everyone else is telling us both what to do, so you should listen to me!“
“I don’t think you know what freedom even is, let alone manliness. You make yourself the victim of everything you see because you can only justify your behavior by pretending to be oppressed. It’s puny, and I feel sorry for you.”
“I’m puny? I’m not my wife’s doormat, and that makes me puny?” He shoved Jay, but Jay didn’t even lean away. “I wanna teach you to be a real man, and that makes me puny? Compared to you, I’m an attack helicopter! You’re not a man at all!”
Jay just laughed. “Okay, okay, this might sound like I’m mimicking you, but I promise I’m coming from exactly the opposite direction.” Lio sputzed. “I’m a giant goddamn anime space-robot bigger than the fucking universe, and I don’t fit in your crab bucket!”
“Oh. You’re one of those, huh?” Jay didn’t ask what Lio meant, because Lio himself didn’t seem to know either. “What’s in your pants?”
“Another, bigger space-robot, waiting to surprise you!”
“Ugh! You ‘people’ are all the same.”
Jay narrowed his eyes. He heard Lio’s quote-unquote. “What do you mean, ‘you people?’ “
“See? Playing the race-card, like I knew you would.”
Jay looked left and right, dumbfounded. “We’re the only ones out here, Lio, and I never mentioned race.”
“Now you’re trying to make me look like a racist, so it’s totally obvious you’re the real racist!” The more Lio spoke, the redder and redder his face became.
Jay couldn’t resist throwing fuel on the fire. “You’re digging yourself deeper and deeper into that victim-complex you call a skull. I wish I could help you, but the help you need, you’d call an insult.”
Lio shoved Jay against the monastery wall. Jay wasn’t restrained by Lio’s arms so much as his belly. He guessed Lio weighed at least 350 pounds. It was frankly impressive his hubris alone had carried him all the way up here. “I know you came here to pick centipedes. If I don’t get those centipedes, well, I’m sure those egg-heads will understand what I had to do to protect their precious culture from you thugs!”
Jay was honestly confused by Lio’s convoluted threat, and by the implication he was somehow multiple thugs at once. “What will you have to do to me?”
Lio reached into his Hawaiian shirt’s breast pocket and pulled out a fucking knife. Jay’s heart beat like a drum. “Betcha wonder how I got this, huh?” Jay didn’t really care. The knife’s hilt was a cool-looking dragon which Jay might’ve appreciated under less dire circumstances. “It’s made of glass, so it’s a cinch to sneak onto airplanes. Betcha wish you’d thought of that, huh?” Jay squirmed. “What’s the matter? Why are you acting so scared? I’m just showing you the cool knife I’ll let you pick centipedes with!”
Lio’s bizarre mindset snapped something in Jay. He wasn’t sure where this confidence came from, but he felt like he’d seen death before and would gladly face it again before he played by Lio’s rules. “Martyr me, motherfucker!” Jay spat on Lio’s face. “I’ll show you how a free man dies!”
“You—You’re threatening me! You just threatened me! You’re making me do this to protect myself!” Lio jabbed the knife at Jay, pivoting to avoid stabbing his own stomach. The pivot gave Jay room to wriggle, so Lio snapped his knife against the monastery wall. It was even more fragile than Jay expected from a glass mall-knife. “Hey! You broke my knife! Apologize!”
Jay could hardly breathe under Lio’s flab. “Fuck off!”
“Apologize or I’ll beat the worms out of you like an egg-headed bird-worshipper, and chuck your corpse in the river!“
“I wouldn’t waste fear on a scrawny punk like you!”
Lio threw a punch. He telegraphed the strike early enough for Jay to lean just a little left. Lio’s fist cracked open on the monastery wall. “Aaugh!” He backed up, releasing Jay, shaking his bloody broken fist. His fingers were busted and misaligned. Shards of sand-dollar were lodged between his knuckles like shattered teeth. “You broke my hand! You did this to me on purpose! You—You’re forcing me to pick centipedes for you!“
“Leave, Lio! Go back to the inn!” Jay’s heart beat faster than it ever had before. “No one on our tour will care to help you, because they’ve met you before, but maybe the innkeepers will bandage you up to keep your blood off their floor!”
Lio swore and wiped Jay’s spit from his face. “I’ll get you your centipedes, you useless faggot.” He walked off the path, toward the centipede-bushes, cradling his broken fist. He stumbled on a rock and finally deigned to remove his sunglasses, which he hooked on the neck of his Hawaiian shirt. Still he struggled in the night. “You broke my firefly-jar! How can I find centipede-bushes for you in the dark like this?”
“Your daughter caught fireflies all on her own. Ask her to teach you, unless you’d feel emasculated. And for her sake, and Eva’s, don’t climb above the clouds. Michael told me—“
“Michael told me, Michael told me!” mimicked Lio. “Go ahead. Blow some monks! You’ll distract them for me. I’m stashing centipedes up your seashells, too.” He swiped an open jar over fireflies. When he caught none, he swore with language too colorful to print.
“Call me what you want,” muttered Jay. Lio continued to do so until his voice faded in the distance.
Finally alone, Jay wiped Lio’s blood off the monastery’s front wall with a sock from his backpack. Then he knocked on the heavy wooden gate. While his heart-rate settled, Jay realized he’d been right to introduce himself as Jadie. The fake name kept ephemeral armor around him, like he wore saran wrap. Lio didn’t even believe Jay was his real name. He knocked again and capped his camera. He wondered if he’d have the chance to photograph the monastery in daylight. Up close, the candles made the walls of sand-dollars look like scrutinizing eyes. Jay knocked a third time, vowing if no answer came, he would leave the monks alone.
Footsteps approached and the wooden gate popped ajar. A bald woman, about sixty years old with rosy skin and sea-foam robes, peeked through the crack. “Oran dora. [Can I help you?]”
“Oran dora.” Jay hoped he’d studied his phrasebook well enough. “[I’m Jay,]” he attempted. “[I have gifts.]”
“[We’ve already got enough sand-dollars.]” The woman’s skepticism melted when Jay showed her the box of pastries. “[Thank you! Please?]”
“[Please.]” Jay allowed her a pastry. She kept the doorway narrow. “[I also have a cricket for Virgil Jango Skyy.]”
“[Did you buy it locally?]”
“I’m sorry? [I don’t speak much.]”
The woman fought for English words. “Who gave you cricket?”
“[An American friend,]” said Jay. “Faith Featherway.”
“Faith Featherway? [You have good connections.]” The woman opened the gate. “[Come in! We’ve been expecting you.]”
Left and right, hallways of monks’ quarters were cordoned with tapestries of every solid color. The hallways curved around a grassy open-air courtyard, so the monastery was shaped like a donut. The woman led Jay onto the grass, where a hundred bald and silent monks sat cross-legged under the stars. No two monks shared both the color of their skin and the color of their robes. All of them faced the back of the courtyard, where the monastery’s wings reunited and a bell-tower rose. “[You brought enough for everyone.]” The woman opened Jay’s box of pastries. “[Right?]”
Jay felt compelled to count his fingers: ten. This was real as it was surreal. He 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 closer Jay approached the bell-tower in the back, the older the monks appeared. The last two monks wore sky-blue and navy, and while the sky-clad monk was doubtlessly the oldest man Jay had ever seen, with aged leathery hide, the monk in navy had a heavy hood and a silver mask, so Jay had no clue of their age, gender, or even skin-color. That navy monk sat in a woven nest like those commemorating birds along the trail, warming porcelain eggs nestled around.
Jay held a sugar-powdered pastry for the sky-clad monk. He bopped Jay’s hand from below to toss the pastry in the air. He caught it in his mouth without even looking, giggled like a schoolboy, and opened his eyes. He had one black pupil and one moon-like cataract, large and white as the pastry had been. “Oran dora,” he whispered.
“Oran dora,” whispered Jay. He held the last pastry to the monk in navy, but they didn’t respond. Their silver mask had a beak, bulbous eyes criss-crossed like a bug’s compound lenses, and two long, silver feathers on top.
“Virgil Blue cannot sense you,” said the sky-clad monk with the cataract. “Keep 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.” Virgil Jango Skyy pat the grass with age-veined fingers. “You must be weary from the elevation. The air’s thicker down here where I am.”
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 nieces and nephews.” Jay pulled Faith’s envelope from his backpack. “I’m afraid this one’s not addressed to you either. My friend Faith Featherway once told me she met you, and I never completely believed her until this very instant.”
Jango admired the front of Faith’s holiday-card. He opened the card and inspected her hand-drawn fox. He turned her cricket. “Excellent wing-work.”
“Faith grew it, and our friend Dan wrapped it. Faith said she owed you a bug-stick. Is that why you expected me?”
“I expected Faith, but an ambassador with her banner will suffice. There are no coincidences! Welcome to Virgil Blue’s courtyard. Did you climb here just to give gifts?”
“I’m a photographer.” Jay showed Jango his camera. “Faith said you gave her centipede-powder in Wyoming. She shared it with me, and I had to meet the monks behind the bugs. Before I left, Faith gave me that card and cricket. I know she’d be here if not for personal circumstances.”
Jango took the camera and scrolled through photos. He had unbecoming digital-savvy for someone so old. “Wise of you to skip pictures 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!”
Jango 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 what it used to be, and that’s a small screen. I thought it was a real bird.”
“Oh, no! I wouldn’t have taken 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 that statue to depict the Biggest Bird. Only his holy hands could craft 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 took a cane taller than himself leaning on the wall. The cane was like a giant wing-wrapped cricket, ten black spots around its gnarled tip. “This reminds me of a story. What’s your name, fledgling?”
“Jay.” Jay hesitated to help the old monk, because he seemed able enough on his own.
“Jay, bring me that brass incense-burner.” Jango unwrapped Faith’s cricket. 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 out. He used it to light the cricket’s ten black 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 bug-stick.”
The crowd looked at Jay just as he started to chew his pastry. He panicked and swallowed. “The bug-stick was wrapped by Virgil Orange,” he said, not really knowing why. The woman who opened the door smiled and 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 about five or six years ago in Wyoming, once ten years prior to that quite locally.” Jay couldn’t believe this—surely Faith would’ve remembered to mention it?—but he wouldn’t interrupt. He prepared his notepad and pen as Jango lectured to the congregation. “Once, Virgil Jango 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. You’re stationary like a thorny centipede-bush. It might be time to choose a successor.’ Still, 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 stone statue of a bird shading a 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!” The cricket in the brass burner and the repetition of foreign phrases made Jay feel a trance coming on. He stopped taking notes to count his fingers again: still ten.
“Jango sat before the statue. He saw smoke seeping from the box’s hinged panel. He 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, 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’s 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’ve delivered my first package in ages. Pass me your bug-stick.’ Jango traded the cricket for a pine-needle. ‘When I was young, but not young as you, I sought to smoke a bug-stick within the white-walled 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 the mask. They could’ve 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 almost 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!’ ” Jay couldn’t take notes quickly enough to keep up with this bizarre development. The congregation just smiled and nodded like they’d heard this story before, which only intrigued Jay further. The woman who let him into the monastery didn’t speak much English; was the congregation only pretending to understand, or had they heard the story enough times in Sheridanian to follow along?
“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 vibrated and morphed into 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!’ ” Jay was impressed with Jango’s impression of Faith. The old monk sounded just like her, a fifth of his age, and the stiffness in his joints evaporated when he played her part.
” ‘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 it came from the next eternity on the original sun. ‘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 for her. 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, I’m just a Will-o-Wisp,’ said Faith. ‘I’m not even sure what a Zephyr is.’
” ‘Let me tell you about the Zephyrs, then. My knowledge of Zephyrs dates back to my young adulthood, when I met Virgil Blue in Sheridan County, Kansas. My twin brother Jun Sakai and I were in our late twenties.’ Jango took the cricket and puffed it.” Jay turned to a fresh page in his notepad. He needed more space to make a timeline for this story-within-a-story.
” ‘Wait,’ said Faith, ‘Sakai? I thought your name was Skyy!’
” ‘It is! I was born Itou Sakai. Jun and I coped very differently with our nationality’s unpopularity in America: I lived with our mother in Kansas and introduced myself as Jango Skyy to take on ambiguous nationality; Jun spent most of the year in Japan with our father.’ Jango puffed again and returned the cricket to the fox.
” ‘Wow.’ Faith puffed. The white smoke she exhaled merged seamlessly with her cloudy tail. ‘That must’ve been rough!’
” ‘It was. When my father and Jun eventually moved permanently to Kansas, I knew next to nothing about my twin brother, so I tried relating to him with Japanese animation, which was popular on US TV at the time; try as I might, Jun found me only childish for this. But one day, walking with my brother through downtown, we encountered Virgil Blue lecturing on a soap-box. To everyone who would listen, they said ‘Oran dora!‘ ‘ “
“Oran dora!” Jay scribbled his drying pen to coax more writing out of it. Jango’s dialogue-within-dialogue demanded additional ink.
” ‘Virgil Blue explained how the Zephyrs exist outside the Wheel of life and death. The Zephyrs existed before the Wheel started spinning, and will continue existing even after the Wheel stops—but while the Wheel spins, we mortals must become Zephyrs ourselves to join the ongoing fight against the Hurricane, the Zephyr’s primordial egregiousness. When they dismounted their soapbox, they told me they came to Kansas because its Sheridan County is the Sheridan with the lowest elevation on Earth, and they knew some poor worms needed to hear about the Biggest Bird. I was those poor worms! The very same week, I joined Virgil Blue’s boat back to the Islands of Sheridan.’
” ‘You know,’ said Faith, ‘my friends and I have watched an anime which sounds an awful lot like you’re describing, with the Zephyrs and a Wheel and all.’
” ‘I’m getting to that,’ said Jango. ‘On the Islands of Sheridan, Virgil Blue sent me to study under Virgil Green. For many moons I danced with fledglings wearing only a wooden bird-mask and tail-feather skirt. I walked circles until my feet blistered and sat chanting until my pelvis ached. Virgil Green’s paradoxical questions pried my brain apart to show me the Biggest Bird. Winning Green’s approval, I swam to this main island. It took twelve hours. For six hours I swore I would drown, and for the other six I was drowning. When I crawled onto shore, a bird laid an egg in front of me and pierced the shell with its mate’s tail-feather. I drank the raw egg and it rejuvenated me. I hiked to the white-walled monastery in the manner of the birds, nude and sleeping in the road at night. At Virgil Blue’s monastery I earned this sky-blue robe, and I finally had the opportunity to send letters back home to Kansas. I sent my brother a letter every week for twenty years describing all I’d learned. He never responded.’
” ‘Aw. I’m sorry, Jangster!’
” ‘I didn’t mind. My attention was occupied by Virgil Blue’s library under the bell-tower there.’ Jango pointed to the bell-tower.” Jango pointed to the bell-tower. Jay felt buried in the story’s nesting. ” ‘The bell-tower holds books from around the world and from the past, present, and future. Books from the future are reserved for Virgils to annotate as their relation to the Biggest Bird becomes clear. As a monk, it was my duty to read the already-annotated books in chronological order to cultivate my understanding. After twenty years of studying texts with philosophical and religious merit, I was floored when Virgil Blue gave me the most modern texts I was allowed to read, only partly-annotated: a whole series of comic-books which looked just like a Japanese animation my brother chided so long ago. I told Virgil Blue I recognized the art, and they shook a sleeve to reveal a plastic figurine. Virgil Blue explained they’d traveled to Tokyo to meet the author while they wrote and illustrated the comic in order to gain insight for annotations. The author, seeing how Virgil Blue owned the full series before the final issues were even conceived, knew the Virgil was divine and gifted them the figurine. Virgil Blue gave it to me and insisted I pass it on to my brother.
” ‘I flew to Kansas and found my childhood home, but strangers lived there now. I visited the local post-office to learn Jun’s new address: I worried he’d returned to Japan, but he lived in a nearby motel. The motel’s owner explained Jun lived in the basement in return for janitorial duties. I knocked on his door, received no answer, and so opened it. The smell told me he wasn’t a very good janitor, but his cramped little room was filled with art! Art hanging on the walls, art taped to the ceiling, art stuffed under his dirty mattress! All of it depicted giant humanoid robots and their crews, shooting across space or leaping upon the surface of the moon. The art was sequential, divided into panels to tell a story.
” ‘Jun himself was hunched over his desk, aiming a spotlight at a pencil-sketch. He was pudgier than I had left him, and had a long, unwashed mane. He wasn’t happy to see me: when I told him I was a monk, not a Virgil, he remarked, ‘so you’re back after Mom and Dad are dead, and you’re not even enlightened yet!’ I felt so ashamed: I’d left my family behind! Trying to make up for it, I asked him how his comic was coming along. ‘Of course that’s what you ask! I knew the only way to break through to you was manga and anime.’ This caught me off-guard: Jun considered such things childish, but he apparently adopted them to communicate with me. I asked him about my favorite cartoon about combining dragon-robots fighting an alien menace.’
” ‘ ‘Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo. The Great Dragon’s Eternal Guardianship.’ At last Jun looked me in the eye. ‘You know, that title’s mistranslated; things are so much deeper than you realize! They probably thought the first word was dairyuu—‘ He wrote two symbols on scratch-paper: a star and a moon in a hat beside a serpent.’ ” Jay knew which characters Jango meant. He wrote them in his notepad: 大龍. ” ‘ ‘The great dragon. But actually, it was daitatsu—‘ More symbols: the same star and a foot stomping on a snake.’ ” Jay drew those, too: 大起. ” ‘ ‘Initiating political action; literally, to stand up. It’s a pun, because the word ‘dragon’ can be pronounced tatsu. All of humanity fights as one, represented by the fully-combined dragon-robot.’ ‘ “
” ‘ ‘This one?’ I gave him Virgil Blue’s plastic figurine and explained how I’d come to receive it. Jun turned the figurine over and over: it was a robot whose every limb was a different color, combined with mechanical seams. In the show each limb could separate into an independent fighting-machine, but they were strongest working together. Jun put it on his desk and tested the articulation. He was impressed by the figurine’s quality, and thanked me for bringing it, but didn’t believe my story for an instant. Why would this manga be so important as to appear in such a fantastical library before it was even written? I chewed my tongue. ‘When Virgil Green described the Biggest Bird with paradoxes, I wondered how one vessel could contain such contradictory aspects. Virgil Blue taught me the Biggest Bird is the Mountain’s messiah, hence her rarer name, the Heart of the Mountain. To me, this was worse! The Mountain contains all things, so I didn’t care that it contained contradictions. Shouldn’t the Biggest Bird, the Mountain’s messenger, be lesser, not equally complex? But when I saw Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo in the library, I understood. The fully-combined dragon-robot couldn’t be piloted by all of humanity at once because disparate parts will always be at opposition with one another. Instead, groups of nations each nominated a pilot who could put their differences aside to fight the alien menace, so the fully-combined dragon-robot represents all the Earth trimmed of fat and ready for battle. In the same way, we cannot comprehend the Mountain, but we can comprehend its Heart. So the Mountain paints its contrast in the Biggest Bird.’ ‘ “
There were plenty of unbelievable elements to this story, but to Jay, the least believable part was Faith letting Jango speak for so long without interruption. Maybe Jango was telling a longer version of the story for Jay than he told for Faith.
” ‘Jun doubtfully sucked his lips, but eventually shook his head in reluctant acceptance. ‘You asked about my manga, didn’t you, Jango? It’s inspired by Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo, but that’s not my only source of junk.’ He opened a desk-drawer. My heart burst when I saw he’d saved every letter I’d ever sent him! ‘Don’t hold this against me, brother, but I’m making this pathetic, useless manga out of spite. This is my way to make fun of your stupid stories about islands and Wheels and Zephyrs—just as mass-produced as any other doujin.‘ He showed me more pages of art, scenes of the Biggest Bird on the Islands of Sheridan exactly as I had described to him. ‘I stole your God and secularised them into a bumbling scientist with poor bedside manner. I stole your Zephyrs and reduced them to giant space-robots with laser-hearts. My goal was demoting and destroying what you loved and hoped to share.’
” ‘ ‘Brother!’ I hugged him. ‘It’s common-knowledge on the Islands of Sheridan that the Biggest Bird’s act of creation is reflected in art across the world. Tearing down her image and rebuilding it is itself an act of worship. I can’t read the cover; what’s the name of your manga?’
” ‘ ‘LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration. The LuLu comes from the names of two main characters: Lucille and Lucia. Transliterating to Japanese, LuLu is pronounced RuRu, so I use this kanji with the same pronunciation. To me it looks like a winged woman holding a chainsaw, the image of their largest robot, the Galaxy Zephyr, wielding the Wheel.’ ‘ ” Jay knew the kanji from many a manga-cover. He wrote it down: 縷々. The second kanji, like the pointed spike of a blooming flower, was shorthand for repeating the previous kanji once more. ” ‘ ‘RuRu means continuous and unbroken to a meticulous extent. To defeat the Hurricane, the Zephyrs must fight on behalf of life’s every aspect—even the ignorant, cowardly greed which the Hurricane represents. Its worms must be collected in the Wheel.’ ‘ “
” ‘I don’t get it,’ said Faith. ‘Why do the Zephyrs have to save anything about the Hurricane? Wouldn’t Earth be better off without them?’
” ‘The Hurricane is in all of us, and if we think we can get rid of it, we prove it’s all we ever were,’ said Jango. ‘But collecting the Hurricane’s worms is not approving of its flaws! Collecting the Hurricane’s worms is inoculation against those flaws. In fact, collecting the Hurricane’s worms gives the Zephyrs permission to overcome them. I’m sure it’s as true in LuLu’s as it is in Sheridanian culture. Anyway, my brother told me he never planned to publish his manga or even share it with anyone, but I encouraged him to do so. Bring it back to Japan! Animate it for everyone to enjoy! There are so many worms who should hear about the Biggest Bird! I told him I would soon request promotion to Virgil. I’d take the place of Virgil Green for a few years, helping laymen become monks, but then I’d be allowed to read library books from the future. If I found LuLu’s among them, I would demand to annotate it, and if I didn’t find LuLu’s, then when he finished the series, he’d have to send me a copy, because it belongs in the library.
” ‘Then I returned to Sheridan. I still write to my brother, and he sometimes writes back. His insights helped me finish annotating Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo for Virgil Blue.’ ” Jango sniffed smoke from the brass burner before concluding. “Faith and Jango finished the cricket while walking to the monastery. ‘I really like your brother’s anime,’ said Faith, ‘but I’m kinda hung up on the timeline here. Where do I fit in?’
” ‘The Heart of the Mountain sent you from the next eternity back to the mortal plane. Causality as we know it collapsed when you crossed.’ Jango climbed a rocky ledge. Faith leapt it like she was weightless. ‘Clearly our meeting in Wyoming hasn’t yet occurred. Where do we find each other?’
” ‘Sheridan Cliff-Side College.’
” ‘I suppose my pilgrimage is predestined by the Mountain,’ said Jango. ‘I’ll bring you a bug-stick. I owe you.’
” ‘Don’t forget the centipede!’ said Faith. ‘My friend and I had lots of fun. But powdered! I’d be creeped out by all the legs.’ Steam rose from her tail. ‘Uh oh. I’m evaporating. How embarrassing!’
” ‘You’re returning to the Mountain,’ said Jango. The fox’s snow-torso bubbled and popped. ‘Oran dora, Faith Featherway.’
” ‘I was only here for, like, twenty minutes,’ said Faith. ‘This sucks.’
“As quickly as she’d appeared, Faith disintegrated into mist.” Virgil Jango Skyy smiled at Jay, penning the last of the story in his notepad. “Consider this story, my students. I hope you all sleep soundly.”