(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
After the sermon, Jay and the monks ate a dinner of barley and beans in a meager dining-hall where cushions flanked squat tables. Then Virgil Jango Skyy let Jay take photos in the library, where the bookshelves reached the top of the bell-tower. Each shelf was packed with books with every spine-color and titles in every language.
Jay recognized the books shelved low enough for him to see—Plato, Lao Tzu, the Vedas and Avesta—but Jango assured him that the books shelved out of sight, near the big brass bell, hadn’t actually been written yet, and wouldn’t be written for decades or centuries to come. Some were in languages which hadn’t yet been born. Only Virgils were allowed to climb the shelves all the way to those books, but Jay was allowed to climb high enough to see Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo. There were copies of the series in Japanese, English, Spanish, Russian, and Swahili. Virgil Blue had annotated them sparsely, allowing Virgil Skyy to finish the job.
Jay clung to the shelves and flipped through a few manga pages. He’d come to believe a lot of strange things in the last few days, but couldn’t accept that the Biggest Bird preemptively donated her favorite giant space-robot comics to the monks at the dawn of time. The paper looked as ancient as the rest of the books, but that could be faked in any number of ways. Maybe Jango had supplied the volumes himself? For kindness, Jay swallowed his doubt. He shelved the manga and climbed down. “Virgil Skyy, you’re the only Sheridanian I’ve met who’s not a native—um, egg-born, so-to-speak. Have any other people come to live on the islands from across the globe?”
“Once a generation or so. Virgil Blue collects non-Sheridanians destined to be Virgils for their help annotating books. No wonder Blue came to Kansas! There are no coincidences, after all.” Jango led Jay back across the courtyard to the monastery’s entryway. “Jay, we would love to let you spend the night.”
“I appreciate the offer, but my tour leaves in the morning.” Besides, if he stayed too long, Jay thought he might be tempted to become a monk himself. He’d look good in a purple robe. Jay sloshed the oil in his lantern. “Could you help me light this?”
“Of course, of course.” Jango pulled brown thread from his cane. He lit the thread on a candle and dipped the flame in Jay’s lantern. “Would you open this door? It’s a bit heavy for me.”
Jay opened the heavy wooden gate. He and Jango stepped onto flagstones flanked by fireflies. “I can’t thank you enough, Virgil Skyy. You have such a beautiful monastery. Everyone will love the photos you’ve let me take.”
“One more for the road.” Jango posed with his cane and smiled.
Jay crouched to capture the best view of him next to the open gate. “I like the sand-dollar walls. The flickering candles make them look like eyes.”
“That’s intentional,” said Jango. “The Biggest Bird will collect the last worms in a house of eyes. Although, the white-walled monastery is ultimately supposed to look like an egg.”
Jay liked the idea. The monks were incubating their worms in there. “Does Virgil Blue need help? They haven’t moved from the courtyard.”
“Virgil Blue’s constitution isn’t what it used to be, but they’re okay.”
“They’ll retire to the cloudy peak someday.” Jay checked his photos. “Right?”
“After appointing another Virgil as their successor,” said Jango.
“How many other Virgils are there? I’ve only met you, Blue, and Green.” Jay regretted asking when Jango’s wrinkles mushed up in worry. Maybe the politics of the upper echelons weren’t proper for discussion.
“Eternity is almost over,” Jango answered anyway. “Virgil Blue isn’t appointing a successor at all! When they cross above the clouds, that’s the end.”
Jay didn’t trust that answer enough to write it down. He decided to just change the subject. “Jun hit it big with publication, under the pen-name Tatsu. LuLu’s was first published online, then got popular enough to appear in a weekly anthology like Shonen Jump. It’s had almost thirty episodes of anime which I’ve personally enjoyed. I’m surprised such an anime found production: Japan has some of the strictest bug-laws on the planet.”
Now Jango’s wrinkles allowed a smile. “Oh? Is Jun’s work sharing the Biggest Bird with all the worms around the world?”
“Well, it’s a cult classic, at least. It’s been on hiatus for a while. Um. Years, actually.” Jay scrolled through his camera’s photos. “I hope he finishes it. I’m aching for closure. When I smoked centipede, I had hallucinations which could’ve been taken right outta that anime.”
“Hallucinations come from the same place as everything else: the Biggest Bird and her holy Mountain. Anime or no anime, you’ve seen her influence before.”
“I see. I guess it only makes sense I’d hallucinate some parallels. Like…” Jay pointed to Jango’s cane. “I swear I’ve seen that in a dream. Virgil Blue’s silver mask, too. Can you tell me what they mean?”
“Only Virgil Blue can tell you the meaning of the mask. As for the cane!” Jango rapped the cane three times against the grass. “If you like the design, you can buy one yourself in a gift-shop by the runway!” He giggled until he saw the honest disappointment on Jay’s face. “It’s really just a cane. It’s for my bad hip. Ask one last question. Make it a good one.”
Jay scratched his head in thought. “There’s a Wheel of life and death. Do Sheridanians believe in… reincarnation?”
“Hm… When we die, our worms drop into the next eternity, the desert on the original sun. If a worm makes it to the Mountain, it joins the Zephyrs. If it misses the Mountain, the sand eats it—so it cycles back to try again, mixed-and-matched with a new group of fellow worms from across time and space.”
Worms were starting to sound like spiritual DNA. “I don’t quite understand,” said Jay. “Worms are reborn when the sand eats them?”
“Of course,” said Jango. “Otherwise we’d remember the past lives constituting us.”
“I guess that makes sense.” Jay quoted Jango in his notepad. “Could worms be reborn, um… alongside their previous life?”
Jango shrugged. “From the Mountain’s point-of-view, the beginning and the end are the same. So, maybe. It’s not for me to know.”
“Is it for you to know—” Jay opened his Sheridanian phrasebook. “Do you know why a person’s left shoulder is called a ‘ZAG?’ “
“I told you to ask one last question,” said Jango. “This is your fourth since then.” He prepared to bop Jay with his cane.
“You answered the last three!” said Jay. Jango lowered his cane. Jay sighed, unsure of whether or not the man would’ve actually bopped him. “In LuLu’s, something like ZAG stands for Zephyr-Alpha-Green. The Galaxy Zephyr has different-colored body-parts.”
“Jay, Jay, Jay.” Jango bopped him with his cane quite gently. “I’m a Zephyr, you’re a Zephyr, your worms are Zephyrs, my worms are Zephyrs—everything’s a Zephyr, made of Zephyrs! Only the Biggest Bird can track them all. Any color-coding is just a rule-of-thumb.”
“I see. Thank you, Virgil Skyy.” They both bowed. “Um. Maybe I should’ve mentioned this earlier, but someone on my tour wanted to harvest centipedes to sell back home.”
Jango laughed. “Jay, between airport-security and the cloudy peak, smugglers tend to sort themselves out.”
“Really? You don’t toss them in the river? I half-expected you monks to be secret martial-arts masters.”
Jango cheekily shook his cane as if to bop him again. “The martial-arts masters are better off in the airport anyway.”
“Hm.” Jay scribbled his last notes for the night. Sheridan presented bug-smugglers hoops to jump through, and while those unwilling to play the game were put on a black-list, the compliant got centipedes to sell back home. There was wiggle-room between Sheridan’s three rules as written and their enforcement in practice. “Well, if you say so.” Jay helped Jango close the wooden gate behind him.
Before he left, Jay used the empty pastry-box to collect the shattered glass of Lio’s firefly-jar. Then he walked behind the monastery to show Lio his lantern’s light and photograph the nearby centipede-bushes. The bushes had more thorns than leaves, protecting their centipedes from harvest. Jay satisfied himself with just photos. When he’d taken all he wanted, Jay sighed and scanned the dark, cloudy summit. He didn’t see Hurricane Lio’s red Hawaiian shirt. Maybe Lio nabbed his centipedes and returned to the inn alone. Jay walked back the way he came, hoping he had enough oil.
Overnight at the inn, Jay had a rejuvenating dream: the main island’s spiral-trail was packed with giant birds waddling in a single-file line from coast to peak. He counted his fingers and stopped when he got to twelve. Then he had the power to fly, and he saw the islands from above. The main island wasn’t quite a perfect cone; it was longer along one axis, like an egg. That’s when he woke up.
For breakfast he ate coconut-meat and legumes in the common-room while waiting for the rest of his tour-group. He thanked the innkeepers for loaning him the lantern and showed them photos of the monastery. Eva sat beside him. “Jadie, did you see my husband last night? Henry didn’t come back to our room.”
“Um. Yeah. He followed me to the monastery.” He wondered how much he should tell her. Eva’s thin pink lips were pursed in concern, but it seemed like concern for Jay rather than Lio. “He said I had to harvest centipedes for him. When I wouldn’t do it, he whipped out a knife and cracked open his own hand punching a monastery wall.” Jay shook his own wrist limply, imitating Lio’s broken bones. “Then he said I was obviously forcing him to collect centipedes for me. I told him I’d lead him back to the inn, but that wasn’t the help he wanted.”
“That certainly sounds like Henry,” said Eva. Lilly ate an enormous scrambled egg without comment. “I’m sorry he caused you so much trouble.”
“Michael told me anyone who walks above the clouds never comes back.” Jay looked out a window to the shrouded peak. “Should we try stopping him before he goes full-Icarus?”
“We should be so lucky.” Eva leaned in to whisper by Jay’s ear. “I married him for citizenship to escape an Eastern European backwater which recently collapsed. Now I don’t like the way he touches my daughter. He left his passport and paperwork with me. Let Icarus fly!”
Jay resisted the urge to reach for his notepad and write any of that down. “Michael told me if someone walks above the clouds, everything valuable to them is mysteriously destroyed. Their spouses die and their houses collapse on their children.”
“I was never his. Lilly even less so.”
Relieved by Eva’s confidence, Jay turned to Lilly. “I broke your jar of fireflies. Sorry about that.”
“It’s okay.” Lilly licked yolk off her plate. “Daddy promised he’d let them go anyway.”
After breakfast, Michael led the tour to the river. He’d inflated inner-tubes and tied them to the bridge so they bobbed in the water. “The stream will carry us to shore. Kids ride with a parent. Then we ferry to the airport. Hey, hey—we have an extra inner-tube!” Michael counted heads. “Where’s Henry?”
“I think he’s visiting the monastery,” said Eva. “He’s not answering his cellphone.”
Michael shook his head and climbed into an inner-tube. His fed-up expression told Jay he didn’t mind if Lio never happened to return. “When he decides to come back to the inn, he can join whichever tour-group gets there next.”
“Will your brothers be okay with that?” Eva and Lilly shared an inner-tube. “Henry’s sort of a burden to offload onto someone.”
“Sheridanians are always eager to help,” said Michael, “especially when the person in need is as kind and understanding as your husband.”
Jay chose an inner-tube beside Craig and Suzy. “[Zhang, Li Ying,]” he said in Mandarin, “[I’m glad to have shared this journey with you.]”
“[We appreciated your company,]” said Craig.
“Oran dora,” said Suzy. “[We’re off to Easter Island next!]”
“Whee!” Lilly laughed and kicked when Michael cut her inner-tube’s cord. Eva and Lilly floated down the river together. Then Michael cut Craig’s cord, and Suzy’s, and Jay’s, and his own, leaving Lio’s inner-tube tied to the bridge. Jay’s tube spun clockwise until it brushed the left bank and spun counterclockwise.
“Your husband shouldn’t touch you like that,” Suzy said to Eva. She spoke like she’d practiced English for this all night. “How long have you been married?”
Eva held her daughter’s hand. “Since I was pregnant with Lilly.”
“You should try vacationing without him,” said Craig. “My name is Zhang.”
“I’m Li Ying,” said Suzy. “Name any place you’re interested in. We’d love to give you a tour.”
The river bumped Jay’s inner-tube against Michael’s. Michael grabbed Jay’s tube to keep them together. “Oran dora, Jadie.”
“Oran dora, Michael. Thanks for the tour.”
“Did you deliver my letter?”
“I gave it to Virgil Jango Skyy,” said Jay, “but I wanted to ask about the bird-statue. Jango said it’s not a shrine at all, it’s the monastery’s donation-bin-mailbox, and that’s not a bird saving a child, it’s the Biggest Bird, the Heart of the Mountain, with the first man, Nemo. Did you know?”
Michael laughed. “Of course I did! But my brothers and I find the bird-saving-a-child shrine sells more tours. We’ve told the story so many times, even Sheridanians started burning incense and lighting candles inside. So the mailbox is always full, and contacting the monastery takes a trek. Thank you for delivering my letter!”
“Huh. No problem.” Michael released Jay’s tube and the river carried them apart. How disappointing, thought Jay. The Islands of Sheridan went to so much trouble isolating and compartmentalizing their traditions, admitting tourists only step-by-step, but that didn’t protect its culture against native Sheridanians themselves. Was LuLu’s the best way to preserve and present this religion for newer generations? Or was it just another artifact repackaged for foreigners?
Jay felt the water, clean and cool on a hot day. Fish swam under him as he floated beneath bridges. Eventually the river became a timeless one, emptying into the infinite ocean.