(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
The year is 2022.
Dan turned off his phone at the end of the episode. Fumiko, in the head-cockpit of Z-Orange, used to be on Dan’s favorite T-shirt. He’d always liked Fumiko, and not just because orange was his favorite color. He definitely had a crush on her when he was young enough for a crush on an eighteen-year-old anime-girl to be okay. It must’ve been her bangs, a little like Beatrice’s.
Also, something about Charlie pushing Dakshi’s wheelchair reminded Dan of his friend Jay. Dan flipped through the notepad Jay had left him, full of his notes and sketches from around the world. When Jay took trips abroad to conduct interviews and shoot photos for articles, he dialed Dan for the rundown on local religions. Those calls were always the highlight of Dan’s day, sometimes his week or month. Jay leaving him the notepad inspired Dan to go to Sheridan in the first place. Which of them had pushed the other’s wheelchair? It was such a shame Jay died not long after Faith and Beatrice.
Dan blew out a candle and settled in for the night. In the morning he would visit Virgil Green on Sheridan’s second island. He hoped Blue wouldn’t expect him to make that fourteen-hour swim there and back.
Before sunrise, Dan woke up and left the monastery. He pried two sand-dollars off the white outer walls and stashed them in his orange sleeves.
He descended the main island alone. Over his four years in Sheridan, he’d pilgrimaged with other monks up and down this spiral-path a hundred times; it was exactly the right combination of ‘interesting’ and ‘repetitive’ to please him. The path bridged over one river ten times, and each time was a reminder for Dan to steady himself.
There were twenty villages on the main island of Sheridan, one on either side of each bridge, and as the sun rose, so did the Sheridanians. “Oran dora,” Dan said to a woman farming crickets. “Oran dora,” he said to a man crafting porcelain eggs. The Sheridanians all said it back.
On the opposite side of the island, farthest from the river, the agriculture was wild and unspoiled. Flowers of every possible color, as various as the island-chain’s own native inhabitants, made an aperiodic crystalline landscape which could only be described as indescribable.
Along the main island’s only stretch of coast without steep cape, Sheridanian big-birds played in the estuary where the fresh-water river met the salt-water ocean. Ferries arrived or departed every morning, most passengers being Sheridanian merchants selling near the airport. There was also a daily group of tourists here to look at birds—just look. The birds must never be photographed: that was one of Sheridan’s three easy rules.
Any ferry would do. Dan gave the nearest ferryman a sand-dollar, the cost of fare to disembark on the second island with a monk’s discount. Another ferryman would get the second sand-dollar for the return voyage.
On the second island, as Dan hiked up to Virgil Green’s clearing, he compared his emotional state to revisiting the college-quad. He enjoyed neither sitting nor walking with Virgil Green, just like he hadn’t enjoyed circling the quad reading books, but nostalgia colored it differently now.
Three mostly-nude dancers popped out from behind the pines, and Dan pretended to be shocked. After his eight months spent here, he was hardly embarrassed by the topless women anymore. He did the Charleston a few times as the dancers led him up to the clearing.
Like Virgil Blue’s monastery, Virgil Green’s clearing had fewer students now than when Dan first arrived. Only five were sitting in a circle facing the bird, and only five were walking in a circle around the bird. The matriarchal bird was yellow now; the pink one had retired last year, and swam to Sheridan’s main island to play with the others in the estuary.
“Danny? Oran dora!” Virgil Green popped out from behind the big yellow bird. He was the only other person in the courtyard wearing a robe; his fledglings wore feather-skirts. He addressed his students in Sheridanian basic enough for Dan to understand. “[Keep sitting, keep walking. Swap when you want. I’m speaking with one of my former students, now a monk.]” The students clapped politely. Virgil Green pat Dan on the shoulder to lead him from the clearing. “Virgil Blue warned me he would send you for a lesson,” he said, in English.
“I asked him about the afterlife: the next eternity on the original sun,” said Dan. “I’m afraid I’ve never totally understood the whole ‘worms sifting through the sands of the desert into their next vessels’ thing.”
“Danny, for eight months, you sat and walked contemplating all this. I helped you do it.”
“Yes, and thanks to your help, I feel it, and I believe it in what I might call a pretentious cosmic sense. But did it take you just eight months to truly understand it?”
Virgil Green sighed and leaned against a pine. “No, you’re right. We worm-vessels are all on our way to understanding the Biggest Bird.” He pulled his peppery beard and brushed his martini-olive robes. “Ask me anything.”
“The Biggest Bird created Earth before starting the eternities,” said Dan. “To begin the eternities, she swapped the original sun with the sun we know today. Am I right so far?”
“Yes. That’s exactly how Virgil Blue describes it. He was the Biggest Bird’s first man, you know; he saw the original sun himself. He looked it in the eyes.”
“So now there are two eternities running at the same time. One here, which we worm-vessels live in, and one on the original sun, where our worms land when we die to be reincarnated in new vessels.”
Virgil Green inhaled through his teeth. His cold, dark skin made his teeth look absolutely bright white. “To say the eternities are running at the same time would be like saying the Biggest Bird is watching two movies at once,” he said. “To the Heart of the Mountain, the beginnings and ends of both eternities exist simultaneously. It’s like the eternities are two books, and she’s memorized every word of each. The text of one book can cite any page of the other book, and vice-versa, so the two eternities are entangled chronologically in a way worm-vessels like you and I can’t hope to grasp.”
Dan perked up. If he could grasp anything, it was books. “So in this context, what does it mean to be a worm-vessel?”
“It’s literal. We’ve gathered worms from everyone we’ve ever met, and they’ve gathered worms from us; their worms have impacted our worms, and our worms have impacted their worms. As a result, you and I share many identical worms, and many similar worms. That’s why we can have a conversation like this one: our overlapping worms let us exchange the rare worms we must encounter to truly contain the Mountain.”
“And what does it mean to die, and land in the next eternity as actual worms?”
“You’ve smoked centipede, haven’t you Danny?”
Dan covered his face. “Does everyone know?”
“Your worms landed in the desert, didn’t they?”
“Kind of. I was an orange blob at first.”
“Oh ho. Did you see the Mountain?”
“I think I might have been on the Mountain. Maybe even in it.”
Virgil Green tutted. “Every fledgling thinks the first dune they climb is actually the Mountain. Believe me, Danny, you’ll know when you see it.”
“Then… I saw it,” said Dan. “That was no dune.”
The Virgil chuckled and pushed off the pine. “Okay. Okay.” He began walking around the clearing’s border. “Maybe your worms are closer to the Mountain than I’m giving you credit for. If you were really an orange blob, that means your worms are stuck together: you’re a vessel the Mountain’s Heart expects to meet in person, probably when you’re better than just a blob.”
“So what happens when a worm makes it into the Mountain?” Dan asked. “If the Biggest Bird had eaten my worms when I smoked centipede, would I have died because my soul had been delivered to the Zephyrs? Is that why she refuses to collect worms herself?”
“Danny.” Virgil Green pat him on the back again. “From the Biggest Bird’s perspective, where the beginnings and ends exist at once, our worms have already found the Mountain, and from our own perspective, as vessels, the journey is well underway. Everyone shares worms, remember? Whitman’s Song of Myself reminds us, ‘every worm belonging to me as good belongs to you.’ Any worm saved is saved from every vessel at once. Salvaged worms are like ghosts, the memories of worms, embalmed, projected into us from within the Mountain’s Heart itself. To totally liberate one’s own worms is to liberate all worms, because truly, the whole Mountain will be found in every little one.”
“Hm. Hm.” Dan puzzled. “That helps LuLu’s make sense,” he decided. “There’s a late issue where the Biggest Bird collects a whole person’s-worth of worms for the Zephyrs at once. So many worms stuck together took the form of a giant seraphic ball of wings.”
“The first person’s-worth of worms to be stuck together most certainly look so impressive, because it carries all the worms we all share.” Virgil Green smiled at the yellow bird. “With those shared worms accounted for, the next person’s-worth of worms to be stuck together will probably appear merely human-sized.”
“It’s a white fox. In the manga, I mean. But then Tatsu went on hiatus, so there’s no telling about what’s after that.” Dan blushed. “Sorry, you probably don’t care how Sheridanian lore is portrayed in my stupid giant space-robot anime, do you?”
“I do. I really do. I studied in the same library as you, Danny.” Virgil Green stopped walking after one full circle around the clearing. He leaned on the same pine he leaned on before. “Our worms know each other personally as you know yourself. When you cut a worm in half, both halves squirm away worms, don’t they?”
Literally, biologically, no, but Dan knew better than to question such a metaphor. “Virgil Blue said eternity is ending any year now,” said Dan. “Does that mean we’re near the end of the book?” Virgil Green nodded. “Virgil Blue said he wants me to be ready for the end. What does that mean?”
“He was the first man born, and he will be the last man to die,” said Virgil Green. “When he dies, this eternity ends; no one else will die, per se, but rather instantly cease to be. For you to be ready means Virgil Blue wants your worms sent to the next eternity before this. You being an orange blob, your stuck-together worms must be on a mission.”
“Whoa. The universe dies with him, and he thinks I should die first. And soon?”
“Any year now… according to a man alive since the beginning of time.” Virgil Green shrugged. “Maybe decades, or centuries, or millennia. It just means you’re his favorite living student, Danny. Virgil Blue sees many of his former students’ worms in your vessel. You’re carrying generations, matured and ready to finally meet their maker. Your eventual death will lead to the culmination of an eternity of effort: worms climbing the Mountain together.” Dan recalled he would finish annotating every published volume of LuLu’s in 2025. He gulped. Virgil Green noticed Dan’s gaunt expression. “Everyone dies, Danny, and I don’t think the first man ever born is planning to die tomorrow. I expect you to die of old age, like most Sheridanians.”
“I—” Dan gripped his other sand-dollar under his sleeve. “I think I gotta keep annotating LuLu’s.”