(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
Sheridan’s main island wore a skirt of steep capes. Its only stretch of open coast welcomed the ferry to a lonely dock. Giant birds lounged by the sandy beach on either bank of a river running straight from near the top of the island. When the birds floated in the ocean’s shallows, the river’s current swirled them clockwise if they were right of the mouth, counterclockwise to the left. “This beach is another sacred spot in the birds’ life-cycle,” said Michael. “When a fledgling on the second island grows to human-height, they swim to this shore. When they tire of play, they waddle the trail winding up the island until old age takes them. The bodies are burned and their ash is buried, but monks mark the height of each bird’s death with a porcelain egg. The porcelain eggs for former matriarchs of Virgil Green’s congregation get consecrated decoration. They’re known to climb higher than most other birds.”
Jay noticed half the birds were almost ten feet tall while the other half were half the height. The shorter birds dragged flowing tail-feathers behind them. Jay knew the larger birds were the egg-layering hens, so he guessed the smaller birds with tail-feathers were their cocks. A cock spread their tail like a flaming curtain. A hen looked coyly over their shoulder. Eva covered Lilly’s eyes. Lio snickered as the squawking birds mounted each other on the sand. On cue, more birds paired off, some cock-to-cock, some hen-to-hen. Lio stopped snickering, but made disgusted effort to watch the matched pairs proceed. Craig and Suzy wrote a note in their Atlas. Jay sketched the orgy in pen. “Michael, if birds are only born on the second island, why are they mating here?”
“They mate for pleasure, of course.”
Michael led the tour onto the capes, where wild flowers of every possible color filled the grass. Ocean spray blew them to a town of thatch-roofed, stone-walled cottages, where they ate breakfast in a cape-side cafe hosted by an elderly couple with long, braided hair. Native farmers and craftsmen came one-by-one to see the day’s tourists. Most were bald or had short hair, but no two had quite the same skin-color or color of their sarong. Jay used his phrasebook to ask if he could take their photos, and they all eagerly obliged. Some dragged their extended families back to the camera. Some brought wares for Jay to photograph: metal-smithing, bouquets of crickets, hand-sewn plush birds, porcelain eggs and tea-sets, and more items like Jay had seen in the bazaar. One woman brought her goats to be photographed and offered hand-skimmed goat-cream for their tea.
As they ate, Michael pointed up at landmarks along the trail as the retreating morning fog uncovered them. “That fence surrounds our largest cricket-farm, where the bug-sticks grow like grass. That statue commemorates a bird which paused waddling up the island to protect a lost human kid. That inn is where we stop hiking tonight, and some miles higher is the white-walled monastery of Virgil Blue. Above that, you can barely see centipede-bushes—a local entheogen, a door to the next eternity. Then a permanent cloudy cap obscures the sacred peak.”
Jay thanked the cottage-hostess as she topped off his tea. It was hot sweet-tea, thick and opaque as butter. “Michael, I heard this island is the tallest mountain on Earth if you include the height beneath sea-level. Is that true?”
“Who told you that?”
“I read it in a red card-stock pamphlet.”
Michael chuckled. “Those monks probably consider the whole planet the bottom of this island. Children climb it every day just to ride the river down.” Lilly liked hearing that, and clapped her hands.
The hostess’ husband brought the main course: enormous hard-boiled eggs. Jay hesitated to partake. “We can eat eggs?” Michael nodded as he sliced his egg and drank the yolk like orange soup. “May I photograph mine?”
“Sure, sure.” Michael wiped yolk from his lips. “These are unfertilized eggs gathered from the coast. There’s no sacred seed inside.”
Jay bit white egg-meats. Yellow yolk spilled out. He sucked yolk from the egg like mango-pulp, but his yolk seemed smaller than Michael’s. He contented himself with egg-whites until another, larger yolk burst in his mouth. “Ah, very lucky!” said the cottage-hostess. “A double-yolked egg!” Jay drank the second yolk and photographed the double-chambered whites. He wondered if such an egg, being fertilized, would bear two fledglings, one, or ultimately none.
“Michael,” asked Craig, “how do you know the hosts of this cottage?”
“Cousins,” said Michael, “three or four times removed. We’ll find my relatives all over Sheridan, we’re all from the same egg, so to speak.” He saw Jay prepare his notepad and pen to ask about the idiom, but Michael knew they’d dallied too long over breakfast. He thanked the hosts and ushered his tour onto the trail before explaining. “Local legend says these islands were built by the biggest of the birds. She gave the first man, Nemo, an egg which hatched a hundred young. Our ancestors!”
“Oh,” said Lio, “that’s why you all look the same.” Michael scowled, as did Suzy, Craig, and Eva. Jay sighed audibly and thinned his lips. He would phrase it differently, but he knew what Lio meant: the natives had all skin-colors and body-types as if the Biggest Bird was desperate for diversity, but many were bald, emphasizing uniformly round jaws and pointed skullcaps. “Your heads are like eggs, or something.”
The path spiraled up and around the island into the piney forest girdling its midsection. Occasionally Michael pointed at trees behind which birds hid waiting for the tour to pass before continuing their epic waddle after them. Jay caught sight of one hiding bird which wasn’t a bird at all: a nude Sheridanian man, about fifty years old, was waddling up, too. Jay asked Michael about him. “He wants to be a monk,” said Michael. “After swimming here from Virgil Green’s island, he has to climb to the monastery just like the birds do.”
The first loop up the island took four hours. The second loop up took half that, and the third loop up took half that. The half of the island opposite the river was a phantasmagoria of wild flowers inhabited sparsely by goats, dogs, and frogs, but hamlets on either side of the river grew larger and more bustling with each revolution. From each bridge between hamlets, the river cut a clear view through the forest to the ocean. Jay took each chance to photograph the other islands from a higher vantage point every crossing. Groups of young Sheridanians would occasionally pass under the bridges shouting and splashing, riding the river to the coast. Lilly was excited to try it too, giving the six-year-old stamina more impressive than her panting step-father’s.
Hamlets used the fresh river-water to grow carrots, berries, nuts, and grains, which the tour enjoyed for lunch, and crickets, which the natives smoked left and right. The bug-sticks grew thicker here than in Faith’s cardboard-box. Their beady black eyes surrounded antennae pregnant with pollen. Sunset came early, because the sun fell behind the island’s cloudy peak, so the hamlets lit lanterns. Michael tapped his foot while Lio traded his sand-dollars for more bug-sticks. “Be sure to smoke all those before returning to the airport, Henry!”
Lio tssk‘d as the group started back on the trail, crossing another bridge over the river between hamlets. He sucked the end of a bouquet, ten crickets with wings wrapped together. “Eva, gimme my lighter.”
Eva clutched her purse. “Henry, you promised you wouldn’t smoke in front of Lilly.”
“Everyone else is smoking! Give it here.” Lio tried to reach into Eva’s purse. When she pulled it away, he grabbed her arm and snatched his lighter from one of the pockets.
Jay made eye-contact with Michael and Craig. He felt like they all wore a little Uzumaki Armor for the amount of information their eye-contact conveyed: there was a wordless agreement between the three men that Hurricane Lio had to be chucked in the river. But when Jay’s eyes met Eva’s, she glanced at Lilly. ‘Not in front of the kid,’ she signaled.
“Lilly, come here. Come here!” Lio lit the bouquet’s hundred eyes and puffed it, then handed the bouquet to his step-daughter. “Just like that. Gift from daddy.”
“But I don’t wanna.”
“Do it, baby-girl. Daddy told you to.”
Now Eva’s eyes gave Jay the green light. Jay nodded at Michael and Craig. The three advanced on Lio, but Suzy advanced faster. “No! Kids don’t smoke!” She knelt to Lilly and the little girl gave her the bouquet of crickets. “Don’t touch your wife like that! Don’t touch anyone like that! You’re a bad man, Mr. Henry!”
“Gimme my bug-sticks back! We’re in international waters! There are no rules, so my kid smokes if I tell her to!” Lio reached for the bouquet, but Suzy threw it into the river. “You! You—” Lio noticed the advancement of Jay, Michael, and Craig, and not one unclenched fist among them. Only Suzy separated them from him. Lio swallowed his pride. “You owe me for that!” Suzy opened her purse and tossed thirty yuan in small bills on the dirt. Lio grumbled picking them up.
A lantern-bearing group in robes met them walking the other way. Eager to diffuse the tension, Michael bowed his head to them, so Jay did as well. “Oran dora! Each night, these monks bring news from the white-walled monastery of Sheridan.”
“Oran dora,” replied the monks. “We bear the latest from Virgil Blue.”
“What does the Blue Virgil have to say this fine evening?”
“Nothing at all! Forty years of silence from our esteemed master. How wise not to waste a single word!” The monks carried the vital wordless message down the winding trail. Lio finished collecting his thirty yuan to find Eva and Lilly were already walking away with Suzy, while Jay, Craig, and Michael had lingered to stay between him and them. Jay felt like the second island, separating people by ferry.
The tour continued up the island until the pines grew scarce. The few birds who survived to walk beyond the treeline didn’t hide from the tour, instead marching with proud, arthritic plod. Thankfully the aspiring monks walking with them still hid their nudity behind the birds. The birds nervously eyed woven nests trail-side which held one porcelain egg for each bird succumbing to old-age at that elevation. Jay wondered if any bird had ever surpassed the island’s cloudy cap. Were they allowed to?
When the tour finally entered the last hamlet and stopped at their inn for the night, Michael pointed to the second island far below. “Look at the clearing where Virgil Green’s congregation sits and walks. When those students acclimatize to the sacred truth, they swim to this island and walk with the birds to the white-walled monastery above. I hope the sunset inspires within you the tranquility of understanding the Biggest Bird’s cosmic plan.”
Suzy and Craig cuddled on the nearby bridge and wrote in their Atlas by the dying light. On the other side of the bridge, Eva pointed to distant birds and Lilly practiced naming their colors until it was too dark to distinguish them. Then Lilly played with fireflies. Lio and Jay both took photos of the scenery, Jay with his camera and Lio with his phone. Michael watched Lio’s phone over his shoulder. “Henry, I hope there are no birds in your photos.”
“Better check Jay, too,” Lio grunted, “he’s taking more than me.”
Jay showed Michael his camera. He’d never taken such clear photos of the stars. “I’d like to start hiking to the monastery before it gets any darker. You can keep my camera if you’d like, but I’ll take the flashlight-attachment to see my way.”
“Jadie Jackson, I know the owners of this inn. They’ll loan you a lantern. Keep your camera.”
While Lio made his way to the bridge, Jay reconsidered his photos of a bird-statue. The stone bird stood on a stone box filled with lit candles, like a shrine. Its wings shaded the statue of a toddler like it was its own fledgling. Jay loved the exquisite masonry of its feathers, but worried it was so lifelike he shouldn’t have taken pictures. Also, Michael told him bird-art was forbidden until the introduction of photography, but the statue looked far older than that. The bird seemed to be wearing robes, too. Jay sensed an underlying context he wasn’t picking up on.
“Eva. C’mon.” Lio tried crossing the bridge to his wife and daughter, but Craig and Suzy were sitting in his way. “Let’s go to the monastery before it gets dark.”
“It’s already dark,” said Eva, “and Lilly has a blister from hiking. Maybe you can show us pictures in the morning?”
Michael gave Jay a lantern and a box of sugar-powdered pastries. Held at arm’s length, each pastry was barely bigger than the full moon. “The innkeepers suggest this offering might get you entry into the monastery.” Jay asked if his photos of the statue were acceptable. Michael just laughed. “Show the Virgils. They’ll love them.”