(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
The tour-group shared a dinner of fish with herbs and berries Michael brought from his family-restaurant and cooked on a fire he started himself. Then only stars and waxing moon lit the tour’s descent to the opposite shore of Sheridan’s second island. Another ferry waited at the pier, but the fifty-year-old ferryman blocked the dock with a sizable suitcase as he smoked the last of a cricket. He wore torn jeans and a white tank-top. He dropped the cricket’s smoldering butt and smashed it with his bare heel. Michael gathered the group out of earshot. “The second ferryman won’t let us aboard until we buy souvenirs. I hope the inconvenience isn’t too much trouble.”
The rest nodded, but Henry scoffed. Michael led them to the ferryman, who called out in Sheridanian. “Oran dora, Michael. [You told them my fare?]” Michael nodded and the ferryman opened his suitcase. It was packed with seashells of all sizes, colors, and kinds. “Cost is buying two shells. Foreign currency preferred. Children ride free.”
Jay admired the shells. Suzy took two cowries. Craig chose coiling worm-snails. The ferryman charged them a handful of yuan while Eva considered some clams. “I knew this place was a tourist-trap.” Henry didn’t even look at the suitcase. “I paid good money for this tour, and I got enough shells at the bazaar. How come we gotta buy shit?”
“You don’t gotta,” Michael said through a smile with gritted teeth. “I welcome you to hike back over the island and take the next tour’s ferry on its return to the airport.”
Jay understood Henry’s frustration, even if he didn’t share it; the tour wasn’t warned about this fee. Still, knowing the tour-process was a series of strict foreigner-filters, he realized accepting and embracing surprises was a classic challenge. He chose the two largest shells: a conch speckled brown outside but rare pink within, and a spiral horn-shell seven inches long. “How much for these?”
The ferryman grinned and gave two thumbs-up. “Good taste! Five US dollars for the conch, ten for the horn-shell.”
Jay gave him a twenty. “Can you deliver overseas?”
“Don’t worry, Jadie.” Michael spoke Sheridanian. The ferryman wrapped the shells in butcher-paper and marked them with sharpie. “I’ll ship them to you first-class.”
“Thanks,” said Jay. The ferryman must’ve deducted shipping from the twenty, because Jay received no change. “So, why sell shells here? Isn’t business better in the bazaar, or on the runway?”
Michael translated the questions into Sheridanian and returned the ferryman’s response in English. “He usually makes money ferrying from the main island to the bazaar. When he ferries for our tour-groups, we pay him with nights in the apartment, so he sells seashells for some pocket-change. He also says his sister is a monk, and he used to be a monk as well, so he spends most of the proceeds on food for the dancers and Virgil Green’s congregation.”
“Huh. I’m glad to support local culture, I guess.” Jay joined Suzy and Craig on the dock behind the ferryman.
Eva paid three dollars for the pearly halves of a clam-shell. Henry shook his head in disbelief. “I give you all that money for a souvenir, and you waste it on a stupid-tax?” Eva ignored him. She gave the larger half of the clam to Lilly, and they both followed Jay onto the dock. Henry tried to walk with them, but the ferryman blocked him with his leg.
“Hey! Buy two shells or swim to the next island!”
“What? No one could do that! You’re holding me hostage for ransom!”
“I did it!” said the ferryman. “My sister did it! Every monk makes the swim, just like the birds do!”
“So now you’re trying to shove your religion down my throat?”
Jay groaned. “Henry, dude, I’ll buy you some shells.”
Henry didn’t take the offer. Instead he reached into the pockets of his cargo-shorts and revealed two pitiful-looking sand-dollars. “Two little currency-shells won’t buy you two grains of sand,” said the ferryman.
“These aren’t currency-shells! You sold them to my wife. You forgot already?”
Jay was flabbergasted by Henry’s combination of arrogance and incompetence. Did he really expect anyone to fall for such a lie? But the ferryman tssk‘d and waved Henry onto the dock. “[Children ride free.]”
Michael laughed and held his hands together. “Oran dora!“
The ferry was built to bring a hundred Sheridanians at once to the bazaar and back, so below-deck, instead of individual quarters, the tour-group shared one large cabin of cots. There was more than enough room, so the tour-group naturally split into the corners. However much space he had to himself, Jay still wore his shirt and boxers.
While the others slept, Jay sketched birds in his notepad. He started with a fist-sized fledgling, then a chicken-sized adolescent, then a mature adult. He wished he had cell-service to call Faith and Dan; the full-grown Sheridanian big-bird looked just like a certain animated professor. Tatsu had surely visited these islands.
“Jadie Jackson!” Michael sat beside him in his cot. “Did you enjoy the second island?”
“Absolutely! I hope that little birdie is okay.”
Michael shook his head. “I’m afraid the matriarch usually puts blind fledglings like that out of their misery. But don’t worry—most birds don’t survive adolescence anyway.”
“Oh. Well… C’est la vie.” Jay gave him his camera. “You wanted to check my photos?” Michael smiled at Jay’s shots of the masked dancers. He deleted one capturing a gray bird’s curious head in-frame. “You said Virgil Green asked his congregation a riddle. What was it? Like a Zen koan?”
“It might be too complicated to explain to a foreigner.” Jay wrote that down, so Michael sighed and tried explaining anyway. “In Sheridan we say a person’s soul is made of worms, and when we die, our worms go to the sun. Not the sun you know: the original sun, a desert with a mountain bigger than anything on Earth. Virgil Green asked, if a worm wanted to climb that mountain, how long would it take? How much longer would it take if the worm didn’t want to climb it? Such a worm might get stuck in a tooth-ball, like our friend in red.” He returned Jay’s camera. “Jadie, do you still want to visit the white-walled monastery of Virgil Blue?”
“If I can get there.”
“Well… If you can get there, please deliver this letter.” Michael gave him an envelope addressed in Sheridanian. “Monks live there whom I’ve missed for years.”
“Really? Who? Why not visit them in person?”
Michael’s long-strained smile finally wilted. “My family is fourteen brothers married to fourteen sisters. We once had fourteen children we taught to stitch plush birds to sell at runway gift-shops. The children decided this was blasphemous and dedicated their lives to monastic study. They want no part of packaging our religion for tourists.”
Jay nodded as he took notes. Like the airport, the bazaar was kept on the smallest island to isolate Sheridanians from business-practices they considered unbecoming. “Well, I’m sure they’ll be glad to hear from you anyway.” He put Michael’s envelope in his backpack—but as he did, he felt something amiss. He checked every pocket. “Um. Michael, I don’t seem to have my passport.”
“I’ll tell the ferryman to look for it when he cleans.” Michael stood from the cot. “We’ll get you back to America. You’re not the first tourist to lose their passport.”
Jay woke in the night to a person standing over him. They tossed something into his cot. “No!” Jay bolted upright and smacked the object away.
“Whoa, Jay, chill!” Henry picked the object off the floor and tossed it back into his cot. He wore his sunglasses even at night, below-deck. “Don’t wanna lose your passport again, do you?”
“Oh.” Jay tucked his passport into his backpack. “Where’d you find it?”
“You wanna smoke?”
“Not really, no.”
“Sure you do. I got extras. I bought armloads back at the bazaar.” Henry spread a handful of bug-sticks. That explains why Eva and Lilly shopped alone, thought Jay. “Half the stalls hock these things. That’s why we can mark up the price state-side, huh?”
Jay furrowed his brow. “I’m sorry?”
“Bug-sticks are a dime a dozen here, but back home I charge ten bucks a pop, or more. Can you believe the assholes running the stalls make change in fucking seashells? It’s theme-park funny-money!” Henry rattled sand-dollars in his cargo-shorts. “But I can’t complain, ’cause they got me past the ferryman for free. Betcha wish you’d thought of that, huh?”
“Huh,” agreed Jay. He drew up his covers and turned away to sleep.
“You know, guys like us gotta stick together. I used to be a cop, but those backstabbers threw me out for selling bugs I took from the evidence lockers—and some other stuff,” he shrugged, “but that was the big one. Hey, wanna see my tattoo?”
Jay sighed. He turned back around and fished his notepad from his backpack. “Can you repeat that?”
“My tattoo? Wanna see it?” Henry lowered his sunglasses to glimpse at the notepad. “You wanna draw it?”
“No, the being-a-cop thing.” Jay flipped to a fresh page and dated it in pen. “Selling bugs was the big one which got those backstabbers to throw you out, right? What was the other stuff?”
“Put that away,” said Henry. Jay didn’t. He looked straight at Henry’s sunglasses while taking notes. “I said put it away!”
“We’re in international waters,” Jay said, repeating Henry’s lines from the second island. “You can’t take my rights from me.” Henry cocked a fist. Satisfied with this answer, Jay put his notepad away, and Henry crossed his arms.
“How do you get your bugs past the dogs?” he asked. “Last time they sniffed my bug-sticks through air-tight jars, and airport-security grilled me for hours. I’d bribe them, but I spent all my cash on crickets, and I don’t think they’ll take sand-dollars.” Jay said nothing, so Henry continued. “I’m gonna put crab-meat in my bag. If a dog rats me out, I’ll show the crab and pretend that’s what the dog wants.”
“I’m not smuggling bugs, man,” said Jay.
“We both know you are.” Henry put his hands on his hips. “Oh, wait—I get it! You’ll stash your supply in the seashells you’re shipping home. That’s smart, Jay. No wonder you blew twenty bucks on that junk.”
“I’m buying souvenirs for friends and family.”
“I bet,” Henry smirked. “I bought bug-sticks to make some friends, if you know what I mean. Presidential friends, like Ben Franklin. Am I right?”
Henry shifted his weight from one foot to the other and scratched his bald head. “You know, Jay…” He pointed at Jay’s backpack. “You said your name was Jadie, but your passport says Jay. How come?”
“No reason,” said Jay.
“Skimped on the fake passport, huh? I’m impressed with the holographic stuff. It looks legit. What’s your real name?” Jay said nothing. “I got my ‘Henry’ passport last year after security banned me from the islands. My real name’s Lio.” Lio stuck out a hand for Jay to shake. When Jay didn’t shake it, Lio not-so-suavely transitioned the hand-motion into adjusting his sunglasses and the collar of his Hawaiian shirt as if he’d never meant to shake hands at all. “You’ve only got one cricket, so you’re obviously after the big stuff, right? Centipedes? C’mon, spill it. I found your passport, you owe me a favor.”
“How’d you know I’ve got a cricket?” asked Jay. “It was in an envelope in my backpack.” Lio didn’t answer. “Did you look through my stuff? Is that why you had my passport?”
“Don’t accuse me of stuff like that. I know you don’t have proof.”
“Get the hell away from me,” said Jay.
“I said fuck off!” said Jay. “I don’t know what you think is going on between you and me, but we’re not friends, I don’t like you, and if you don’t shuffle away right now, I’m gonna wake Michael and together we’ll chuck you off the boat.”
Lio looked Jay up and down. “I bet I could take you. You’re what, 160 pounds? How much do you bench? Think you could bench me?” He reached out to pull up Jay’s shirt.
“Hey—hey!” Jay pushed Lio’s hand away. When Lio reached more forcefully with both hands, Jay socked him in the nose.
“Ah!” Lio jerked back. He wiped blood from his upper lip. “Fucking assault! You might’ve broken my glasses, you turd! I just want to see what I’m up against, bro, why you gotta be so violent?” Jay just glared and shook his head. Lio sneered as he retreated to his cot. “Jadie’s a girl’s name, gaylord.”
Jay pulled up his blanket to sleep as if he’d heard nothing. Lio skulked away.