Jay on the First Island

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)


The year is 2019.

Sheridan’s smallest island was barely big enough to hold the shortest runway Jay had ever encountered. Landing was so stressful he curled his toes. Why wasn’t the airport on the mountainous main island on the horizon, or the middle island between this one and that one? He penned the question in his notepad.

Disembarking, Jay realized the plane’s flight-attendants and the runway’s workers were just as Faith had described in his first interview: every skin-color imaginable was among them, and most of them were bald or almost bald. Maybe the Islands of Sheridan stayed off Wikipedia because Sheridanians themselves staffed every aspect of entry and exit, like bouncers at a secret club. He tried to call his parents, and Dan, and Faith, but his cellphone had no signal.

Swapping from a foggy winter night in the northern hemisphere to a sunny summer day in the southern hemisphere made Jay sweat like a wet sponge. The whole island was hot white sand. Shore-side palm-trees spread feathery fronds like frozen fireworks to welcome waves to the beach. Just a handful of people followed Jay off the plane, and half of them just wandered a row of gift-shops along the runway as the plane refueled. Only five others joined him in entering an airport, plain brickwork, wide and tall as a warehouse. Jay gasped when an automatic door loosed a cold-front of air-conditioning over him.

Parallel to arrivals was a security-checkpoint for departures, where armed personnel led dogs on taut leashes around luggage leaving the islands. Jay knew the dogs were sniffing for crickets and centipedes because a sign said so in ten languages. Jay could read most of those languages, but one he’d never even seen before, so he assumed it was Sheridanian; it looked like every other language mixed together. For the illiterate, a cricket-and-centipede icon was crossed out in a red circle.

In comparison to departures, customs would be a breeze. Jay bookmarked the photo-page in his passport with his completed declaration-card. “Eva! Get our stuff ready!” Mr. Hurricane, in dark sunglasses and red Hawaiian shirt, sat on Jay’s right with his wife and her six-year-old daughter. “I don’t touch paperwork—that’s your job!”

On Jay’s left, an elderly Chinese couple had prepared their documentation and now huddled over a well-worn and densely-annotated Atlas, speaking in a dialect Jay didn’t recognize. He decided to introduce himself in broken Mandarin. “[Hello. My name is Jay. I come from the United States.]”

The couple was struck mute, then laughed at each other. “[I’m Zhang.]” He shook Jay’s hand. “[This is my wife, Li Ying. We’re from southern China—but we travel so much, we haven’t been there in years!]”

Jay appreciated Zhang dumbing down his dialect. “[I like your map. You’ve got so many pen-marks in places I’ve never visited.]”

“[This is nothing,]” said Li Ying. “[Look here.]” She opened the Atlas to a Winnie-the-Pooh bookmark and unfolded a map of China. Jay fawned over decades of notes written along rivers and railways. There was scarcely an area of a hundred acres the couple hadn’t documented visiting. “[We had enough of China, so we toured every country and Antarctica. Now we’re exploring every island.]”

Jay took out his notepad and pen. “[Can you explain Winnie-the-Pooh, here? My dad warned me to leave my Piglet lunchbox at home when we first visited China.]”

Li Ying chortled. Zhang grinned and punched her on the shoulder. “[I think Pooh-bear is a cutie, don’t you?]” she said. Jay nodded. “[I think if someone is so insecure about such a thing, I don’t want to play in their picture-book.]”

Jay tried taking notes, but found his wires crossed keeping up with her. He wanted to write in English, but accidentally drew pictographs. “[When did you first leave China?]”

“[Our nephew studied in Chicago in the eighties,]” said Zhang. “[We liked the pictures he mailed us and wanted to visit him!]”

“[We liked most of the pictures,]” said Li Ying. “[Art Museums.] Millennium Park.”

Jay was impressed with her pronunciation of ‘Millennium.’ He shook his pen to focus. “[Which pictures didn’t you like?]”

Zhang just looked at Li Ying. Li Ying pursed her lips at Winnie-the-Pooh. “[You ask a lot of questions.]”

“[I write articles about traveling abroad. I guess interviewing is a habit of mine.]” Jay didn’t know nearly enough vocabulary to say what he wanted to say, but he tried anyway. “[I like… hearing… about…] Trauma reactions. [How countries face their own histories.]”

“[Then you know the pictures we didn’t like,]” said Zhang. Li Ying nodded.

Jay nodded, too. “[Sometimes keeping our eyes open is all we can do.]”

He was about to ask another question, but he was interrupted by Mr. Hurricane. “Ching chong, bing bong!”

“Um.” Jay shook his head at him. “Seriously, dude?”

“What’s the problem? Can’t you take a joke?” asked Mr. Hurricane. “I’m just joining your conversation. What’re you talking about?”

Zhang showed him the Atlas. “We have—uh, a map,” he said, reaching for English words. “It shows where we go for many years.”

Mr. Hurricane blankly evaluated the Chinese script. Jay could barely read the handwriting, so he doubted Mr. Hurricane understood a single character. He pointed his hairy forearm at the Atlas. “What’s that?” Jay sucked air through his teeth. If Mr. Hurricane recognized any character, it’d be the swastika.

“It’s, uh…” Li Ying read nearby notes. “A temple called Jokhang.”

“No, the spinny thing.” Mr. Hurricane tapped the swastika. Jay thought his sunglasses and poker-face did little to hide the disingenuousness of his ignorance. “What is it?”

Zhang sensed a cultural divide and muttered in his wife’s ear. “This shape,” he said, “is used for temples on maps. It means…” He looked at his wife.

“Well-being?” she suggested.

“Luck?”

“Auspiciousness?” she guessed, struggling with the central syllables.

“To cross your arms?” tried Zhang, folding his arms over his chest. “There are lots of meanings. It’s popular in many areas around the world.”

The more swastikas Mr. Hurricane found on the map, the wider his grin became. He turned to his wife. “You hear that, Eva? It’s popular in many areas around the world.” She continued reading her daughter a picture-book, so he shook both their shoulders. “Hey, Eva, Lilly, you hear that? They said it’s popular—“

Jay excused himself from the conversation as soon as a customs-official appeared. Jay relinquished his passport. “Thanks.” The customs-official compared Jay’s passport-photo to the real deal. Jay had gained twenty muscular pounds since last renewing his passport, and he had forty hours of five o’ clock shadow. The customs-official didn’t seem to mind. In fact, Jay realized, being in international waters, a passport-check seemed out of place. He peeked over the desk to see the customs-official was just consulting a list of names to turn away. While waiting for his passport back, Jay reviewed the airport’s workers. They had all varieties of skin-colors: the customs-official pale yellow, the security-guards reddish, umber, dark violet, and vanilla beige. Most were bald or mostly bald.

Oran dora. Welcome to Sheridan.” The customs-official stamped Jay’s passport and returned it. “Enjoy your stay.” While Jay walked to the lobby, departing tourists complied with stringent security. They removed their shoes and sent their bags through X-ray machines. When a dog took interest in their luggage, security-guards searched it for crickets and centipedes.

One dog was distracted by Jay. Its leader tugged its leash but the dog wouldn’t look away, so he called another security-guard and pointed at Jay. Jay meekly smiled at them. The two security-guards brought the dog to sniff at Jay’s ankles. “Would you remove your backpack?” He did. The dog sniffed the zippers and put a paw on the outermost pocket. “Would you open it, sir?” He did. Before the security-guards could inspect the contents, the dog bit the corner of a white envelope and dragged it out.

“Woof,” it said proudly.

One security-guard took the envelope. “What’s in here?”

“A friend’s holiday-card,” said Jay.

“Is that all?”

“I’ll open it for you.” The security-guard returned the envelope and Jay tore it open. Inside was a holiday-card featuring a snow-white fox traipsing through a whimsical winter wood, and a bug-stick. It was an exquisite specimen hand-grown by Faith with wings hand-wrapped by Dan. Jay was sorry to give it up. “I apologize. I had no idea.”

The security-guards hee-hawed and slapped their knees. “Keep it!” said one. “You’re the first person to ever smuggle a cricket into Sheridan! It confused our dog.”

The other scratched the dog behind the ears. “Good girl!” he said. “You caught him!”

Jay stashed the bug-stick in the envelope and put it back in his backpack. “Do you get lots of smugglers?”

While one security-guard led the dog away, the other considered the question. “Crickets are only legal in Sheridan and Amsterdam, but they grow in most conditions. There’s no reason to smuggle—people plant their own. But some visitors forget bug-sticks in their luggage, so we confiscate them to avoid international incident. Centipedes are illegal everywhere, and they only grow near the peak of our main island. Anyone with a centipede in their luggage is a smuggler, and a devoted one. We catch at least one a month, but we’re sure some slip through.”

The lobby hosted a kiosk displaying a map of Sheridan’s three islands. The man at the kiosk’s desk was about thirty years old and rail-thin, but his face was littered with laugh-lines. His skin was copper-colored and, uncommonly in Sheridan, his oily black hair was shoulder-length.  Although everyone else in the airport wore formal western-style uniforms, this man wore an old yellow V-neck and torn jeans. His eager grin invited Jay’s approach. “Hi. I paid for a spot on the bird-watching tour taking off today, under Diaz-Jackson?”

“Jadie Jackson! Oran dora! The Biggest Bird shakes hands with you!” The man leaned over the desk to hold both Jay’s hands together as if consoling him on the loss of a loved one. “My name is Michael. I’ll be your guide.”

“Jadie?” Jay let Michael shake his hands. “Maybe you just heard my initials, like J. D. Jackson?”

“Take this, Jadie.” Michael gave him a phrasebook. “Most islanders outside the airport speak little English. Impress them by speaking Sheridanian.”

Jay opened the phrasebook right away. It seemed like a fairly simple language.

From customs, Zhang, Li Ying, and Mr. Hurricane’s family joined Jay at the kiosk. Michael grinned and greeted each of them with an oran dora and a phrasebook. “Bird-watching tour? Bird-watching tour? Ah, you’re all here!” Michael vaulted the desk. “Let’s lunch in my family’s restaurant. Then we’ll browse the bazaar, and then we’ll ferry to the second island of Sheridan!” The tour followed Michael’s flip-flops through another automatic door into his family’s restaurant, which accounted for over half the square-footage of the brickwork airport. Natives eating there wore tropical fare like sarongs in every color tied in every way. Michael escorted the tour past chatting airport-workers to a long dining-table. At the bar, two men with Michael’s same shoulder-length haircut lounged over liquor. One was darker-skinned than Michael, the other lighter and blonde. Michael hailed a dancing waitress in Sheridanian. “Anaita! Oran dora! [Tour of six today.]” Jay wasn’t sure he understood the Sheridanian, but he had plenty of experience listening to new languages.

Oran dora, Michael,” said the dancing waitress, Anaita. “[Don’t lose any this time.]” Jay hoped that was a joke or idiom.

“[One platter won’t be enough. Bring two, three if my brothers aren’t too busy with the other tables.]”

“[On it.]” The waitress whipped her long braid spinning a sarong-flaring curtsy for the tour-group. “Welcome! If your tour leaves you hungry for more Sheridan, stay a night upstairs in my sisters’ apartment! Breakfast is complimentary.”

Jay sat across from Zhang, Li Ying, and Mr. Hurricane. Eva helped her daughter Lilly read a children’s menu on Jay’s left. Michael sat on Jay’s right and clapped his hands for attention. “Let’s introduce ourselves! My name is Michael.” He gestured to the Chinese couple and flipped flawlessly between regional dialects. “[Any of those sound familiar?]” he asked, in Mandarin. “[I learn a little of everything to help tourists from anywhere.]”

Zhang raised his eyebrows. “[I’m impressed, but maybe English would be more accommodating?]”

Mr. Hurricane glared over his sunglasses. “What’re you two on about?”

Zhang pursed his lips. “My real name is hard for some to pronounce, so please, call me Craig,” said Craig.

Li Ying closed the Atlas. “Call me Suzy,” said Suzy. “My English is not as good as my husband’s, so let’s practice together.”

Mr. Hurricane began. “My name’s Henry. This—“

The waitress brought two platters of pastries and placed one on Jay’s side of the table. “This is my lovely wife, Anaita,” said Michael. “Enjoy this authentic Sheridanian cuisine cooked by seven of my brothers! Please, Henry, continue.”

Even while Anaita danced around the table to place the other platter before him, Hurricane Henry reached across the table and dragged the first platter to his side. Anaita scornfully danced in a circle around the table to place the second platter on Jay’s side, too. Henry ate a pastry in each hand to show his indignation at being interrupted. “Some waitress. Served that side twice.

While Henry chewed, Jay photographed his platter. Each pastry was a crescent of crispy dough. He bit one in half: it was filled with crunchy green lettuce, red crab-meat with black char, orange and purple boiled carrots, and a brown lump of grains. Shredded coconut added nutty white sweetness. It was delicious, he wrote in his notepad. Craig and Suzy couldn’t find Sheridan in their Atlas, so they were annotating on the blank pages at the end.

Henry continued his introduction with his mouth full. “I’m Henry. This is my wife, Eva, and my step-daughter, Lilly.” He paused as if finished. When Jay opened his mouth, Henry cut him off. “My wife drags us here every few months to look at birds, but we’ve never gone all the way to the main island. I wanna climb to the top, but that thing you made me sign says we have to stop like halfway up. How come?”

Michael smiled and nodded. Without turning from Henry, he spoke to Anaita in Sheridanian. “[The red one seeks to sneak to Sheridan’s shrouded peak.]”

“[Tell him we’d give his widow a job waiting tables.]”

“What’d she say?” asked Henry.

Michael’s practiced customer-service smile stretched until his eyes closed. “She says the summit of the main island is sacred and we mustn’t trespass, but the view where we stop along the trail is truly terrific!”

Jay waited to make sure Henry had finished. Then he pointedly waited longer, just to make sure. “My name’s Jadie Jackson. I’m a travel-writer and photographer, but I promise not to take pictures of birds.”

Michael’s crocodile-smile melted into a slightly genuine one. “Thank you for reminding me: birds cannot be photographed. You can take pictures of anything else, but if we notice a bird in a shot, you’ll be asked to delete it. It’s a religious matter of great importance to island-natives like myself.” At the mention of religion, Henry rolled his eyes so vigorously his head bobbed. The motion wasn’t hidden behind his sunglasses as he probably intended. Jay rolled his own eyes at Henry unabashedly. “I’m going to speak with my brothers, Gabe and Raphy.” Michael bowed to excuse himself from the table. “Please, call Anaita to order an entrée. Our restaurant will accept any currency, but expect change in sand-dollars!”

Craig and Suzy chatted over their Atlas in Chinese, but Henry’s family barely spoke as they ate. Jay tried again at calling his parents, and Dan, and Faith, but his phone still had no service at all. Instead he used his Sheridanian phrasebook to eavesdrop on nearby conversations. Local airport-workers recommended the upstairs accommodations to pilots of passing flights. The apartment above the restaurant was run by seven of Michael’s sisters-in-law. Anaita and her other six sisters worked as waitresses serving food prepared by seven of Michael’s brothers. Michael and six more brothers, including Gabe and Raphy, herded tourists across the islands. Four of the seven touring brothers would be away at any time; each day, one returned and another departed. Jay wondered if this family of twenty-eight owned the airport, too. This tiny island held Sheridan’s whole foreign-market in shady palms.

In a corner of the restaurant was a bucket of crabs, red, pink, and orange. There were so many crabs Jay worried the bucket might overflow, but whenever a crab was about to escape, other crabs would pinch it to keep it from leaving. Occasionally a waitress would collect a few crabs from the bucket and show them off to customers, then bring them to the kitchen to be cooked. When it was Anaita’s turn to collect crabs, Jay raised his hand to get her attention. “You want crab?” she asked.

“I’ll take a small one, but I really just wanted to ask, who catches all those?”

She laughed. “Crabs catch each other! Put one in a box, put the box in the ocean, pull it out the next day packed full. A crab can’t stand to suffer alone!”

Jay took note. “Misery loves company,” he said.

After a long, lazy lunch, Michael led the tour out another automatic door onto warm white sand cooling with the evening. The airport filled half the island, but the other half before them was a crowded bazaar of colorful tents where merchants openly smoked odorous bug-sticks. Michael instructed the tour-group to meet him on the west side of the island at sunset. “There we’ll board our overnight-ferry. You can use any kind of currency in the bazaar, but expect sand-dollars in change. They’re the only tender accepted on Sheridan’s main island.”

Jay browsed the goods of two hundred islanders. As before, he noticed huge variety in the skin-colors and body-shapes of native Sheridanians. The tallest wrapped crickets in their wings for the shortest to sell. The lightest and the darkest offered full-body massages, one rubbing the left side, the other rubbing the right, trading every so often. The slimmest sold necklaces of shells next to the fattest threading beaded bracelets. One tent sold candy eggs to young boys and girls. The next tent sold plush birds to elderly islanders as gifts for grandchildren.

“Huh.” Jay squeezed a plush bird. The craftsmanship was impeccable. He flipped through his phrasebook. “Um… Oran dora.” The phrasebook didn’t explain what that meant, but he heard all the islanders saying it. “[Why do you… sell them?]” The girl running the tent shook her head and leaned in to listen to Jay’s second attempt. He pointed to a Sheridanian phrase repeated often in the book. “[Don’t take pictures of birds?]”

“Oh!” She laughed. “Not real bird! Okay to make!” She offered him another plush. “Want to buy? American cash okay!”

“[Two please.]” Jay paid ten dollars and chose an orange fledgling and a white fledgling from the wide palette available. The merchant gave him sand-dollars as change. “[May I take a picture?]” The merchant nodded and Jay photographed the stall.

Eva and Lilly wandered by the plush birds. Lilly pointed to the back of the tent. “Mommy, look at that one!” The merchant pulled down the red ostrich-sized plush. It had tail-feathers like a peacock’s downy dress. The merchant stuck her arm up its neck like a puppeteer. Lilly laughed at the dance she made it perform. “It’s funny!”

Eva seemed wary of the giant puppet. “Let’s buy a small one after the tour.”

“Good thinking,” said Jay. “It’d be tough to carry that big red guy on the hike.”

For the first time, Jay and Eva made eye contact. Jay thought her thin pink lipstick was pretty. She gave him a sorry smile as if apologizing for her husband, conspicuously absent. “The smaller ones are cuter anyway.”

“Henry said you go bird-watching here pretty often.” Jay shaded his eyes from the setting sun. He, Eva, and Lilly started west for the ferry. “What’s your favorite bird?”

Henry’s the one who insists on our trips to Sheridan,” she said. “I think he brings us just as an excuse. He usually makes us turn back after visiting this market, where the only birds are those plush ones.”

“Daddy says I’m old enough to go to the big island!” said Lilly. “He says I’m old enough for a lot of things, now.”

Jay wanted to ask more about Hurricane Henry, but Michael ushered them aboard the ferry and into separate sleeping-quarters. Across the hall from him, Craig and Suzy wrote in their Atlas. They both wore swimsuits, having spent their time on the first island diving for sand-dollars, tanning, and being massaged. Jay might’ve joined them, but he always preferred being fully clothed among strangers, especially abroad.

Jay studied the Sheridanian phrasebook. The words for body-parts were all too familiar: a head was a “ZAB,” torso a “ZAP,” left shoulder a “ZAG,” right shoulder a “ZAY,” left thigh a “ZAO,” right thigh a “ZAR,” and so on. He should’ve tried interviewing the masseuses about LuLu’s.

He saw the waxing moon through a porthole. Jet-lag caught up with him and he collapsed into his cot.

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