(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
Jay woke before sunrise and counted his fingers: ten. He considered supplementing a candy-bar breakfast with Faith’s bug-stick, but he knew the others would smell the smoke, so he just admired the cover of her holiday-card. Under a pithy phrase printed inside, Faith had sketched a white fox with a speech-bubble. ‘Love you JayJay! Share that cricket with Virgil Jango Skyy if you meet him. I owe Jangster a bug-stick!’ The longer he spent in Sheridan, the more Jay was convinced Faith had actually met these mysterious monks.
Jay stepped above-deck to photograph Sheridan’s smallest island from the stern. The ferry’s wake framed the sandy bump, back-lit by sunrise. Across the boat, at the bow, Michael leaned on the rail watching the second island approach. The second island’s shore waved scrawny palms, but its pregnant hillock wore healthy pines. Sheridan’s mountainous main island waited on the horizon, a perfect cone. It was a Kodak moment, but Jay hesitated to get a candid from behind. “Can I take your photo in just that pose? Your longing gaze would make a great blog-header.”
Michael nodded and Jay snapped a few photos. When he heard Jay’s camera-shutter stop, Michael turned and saluted like a ship’s captain. “Oran dora, Jadie! Good morning.”
Jay took more photos in appreciation of Michael’s cheesy expression. Michael cleared his throat and extended a flat palm. Jay greased the proffered palm with sand-dollars. “I hope you can show me the best photo-spots.”
“You’ve pulled my Chain, I’ll spin your Wheel.” Michael counted the sand-dollars. “Jadie, shoot the second island while you have the chance. When we arrive, it’ll be hard to take pictures without birds in them.”
“I meant to ask about that.” Jay reviewed photographs on his camera’s digital screen. “I read a pamphlet which said Sheridan’s religion has just three commandments, and your tour’s sign-up form listed the same three: no bird-photos, no centipedes, and no climbing above the clouds on the main island. Why not, like, ‘thou shalt not kill?’ “
Michael laughed. “Virgil Blue wouldn’t waste words explaining not to kill. Bird-photography isn’t obviously immoral, so Virgil Blue must remind us. It used to be any kind of bird-forgery was forbidden, including drawings and plush dolls. When introduced to the camera, Virgil Blue relaxed restrictions to just photography.”
Jay wrote that in his notepad. Michael confirming the existence of Virgil Blue gave more credence to Faith’s Wyoming encounter. Jay thought she’d ripped the name straight from LuLu’s. “Have you ever heard of a manga, or an anime, called LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration, or RuRu no Jikuu no Kasoku?“
“What’s a manga? What’s an anime?”
“Comics and cartoons from Japan. Virgil Blue was a minor character in one of my favorites.”
“Ah. We don’t watch much TV here in Sheridan.”
“Hmm.” Jay spun his pen. “What do merchants do with all the foreign currency they earn in the bazaar?”
“Trade it to my family for sand-dollars. We spend most of it maintaining the airport. It’s the only place in Sheridan with plumbing and power.”
“So why isn’t the airport on the main island? Wouldn’t it be easier if merchants didn’t have to ferry to the market?”
“You ask a lot of questions, Jadie.” Michael pat Jay’s cheek like he was a child. Jay wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be offended or not. “Sheridanians don’t like airplanes. They’re noisy, they impersonate the Biggest Bird, and they might bring disrespectful bug-smugglers. Anything Sheridanians don’t like starts with us on the sandy little island so the bigger islands can maintain a sense of purity.” When Jay finished penning quotes in his notepad, Michael pointed to the top of the main island. “It’s a clear day, right, Jadie? But look at Sheridan’s peak.” Indeed the sky was empty blue, but the peak of the main island wore wispy clouds like censoring fig-leafs. Jay zoomed-in his camera for a photo. “The Biggest Bird combusted to return to the original sun. Even on the clearest days, her lingering smoke leaves the peak mysterious. No gaze can reach the summit.”
“I’m afraid to ask,” Jay asked anyway, “but what if someone breaks that commandment and hikes above those clouds? What happens?”
Michael’s eyes wound up the trail which threaded the main island like a drill. “After a Blue Virgil selects their successor, they retire above the constant cloud-cover never to return. No Sheridanian native would follow them into that sanctified territory, but historically—not in my lifetime—a few foreigners have trespassed searching for whatever secrets they thought was hidden up there. We tell rumors of the consequences, and the rumors make me shiver. They’re almost too bone-chilling to recount.” Jay gave Michael the rest of his sand-dollars. “When someone trespasses on the sacred peak, they never return, of course. Moreover, anything of value to the trespasser is instantly ruined, even thousands of miles away. Their fields are razed, their pets turn feral, their spouses die, and their houses collapse on their children.”
“That’s one way to handle colonialism.” Jay was glad to collect religious beliefs not reflected in LuLu’s. “Has that sudden destruction ever been recorded? I think it’d be in history books all around the world.”
“Every history book around the world records the sudden downfall of old civilizations,” said Michael. “Civilizations will be crumbling until eternity ends.”
“Oh, shit.” Jay sketched a quick map of the Islands of Sheridan, now glad for the strict filters foreigners were fed through. Visitors began on the smallest island browsing unobjectionable goods in runway gift-shops. If they passed customs they could buy bug-sticks in the bazaar. For access to centipedes they had to cross the second island, proving themselves worthy of the main one. Anyone demanding more would disappear above the clouds and their country might disappear with them. Jay remembered Faith’s cricket in his backpack. “How high can we climb? I have a gift for Virgil Jango Skyy, and I’m sure he lives in Virgil Blue’s monastery.”
Michael pointed at a brown dot halfway up the main island. “We stop at that inn tomorrow night. The Virgils live a few miles higher.” He circled a white spot at the trail’s top, near the cloudy peak. “When we stop hiking, you could continue to the white-walled monastery of Sheridan—but I can’t guarantee your entrance, or your audience.”
Jay, Craig, Suzy, Henry, Eva, and Lilly ate brunch below-deck. Jay almost spilled tea when their ferry bumped a dock, where Michael led them ashore. The sand was coarse gravel which surrendered to wild grass, and the palms were short and scraggly before relenting to pines.
“Peep!” Jay reached for his camera out of habit, but caught himself and instead produced his notepad and pen to sketch the bright yellow bird. It cocked its head at Craig and Suzy. Lilly jumped giddily at its tiny hops across the beach. “Peep!” It did a dance which tempted a worm out of the dirt, and it ate the worm whole. “Peep, peep!”
“I remind you not to take pictures,” said Michael to the whole group, but mostly Henry. Henry pretended not to notice the bird as he fiddled with his smartphone. “This bird is a year old. You can tell because it’s the size of a chicken. Sheridanian big-birds live to be fifty and grow bigger than emus and ostriches. When hatched, they’re barely fist-sized.” When the tour finished fawning over the bird, Michael led them into the forest. Instantly a crowd appeared from behind the pines to flank them on the trail. They wore tail-feather skirts, wooden bird-masks, and nothing else. Craig and Suzy pulled each other close in fear, but Michael didn’t mind this crowd or their peculiar dress. “These dancers are training to join Virgil Green at the top of the trail. Enjoy their frolicking as we hike uphill.”
The men and women flanking them danced like birds as if they could tempt worms from the dirt. They cycled to the front then retreated back to the forest, impossible to count. Bouncing bare-breasted women captivated Henry’s interest. “We shoulda done the whole tour ages ago. This is great!” He pulled the slack in his wife’s blouse. “Hey, Eva, join the party!”
Eva scowled and reached for the collar of Henry’s Hawaiian shirt. “You first!” Henry smacked her hands away and folded his arms over his chest. He settled for watching Lilly dance instead.
“May I take photos,” Jay asked Michael, “if I let you check them for birds?”
Michael sighed. “Turn off your flash, it disturbs the birds’ eyes. I’ll check your photos tonight.”
Jay snapped photos of the masked dancers. He was careless until he noticed birds of every color running between the dancers’ legs, enjoying worms tempted up. He deleted those photos and angled his camera upward to catch only dancers in the frame.
As the tour-group climbed the hill, the pines became smaller and sparser. The dancers flanking them eventually broke formation to stay in the thick forest before entering a clearing atop the island. At least thirty or forty bald men and women, each between twenty and fifty years old, there walked in a circle, clockwise. They wore only tail-feather skirts without even bird-masks, and their footsteps in the grass were a sheet of sound like a waterfall. “These are the students of Virgil Green, he who chased snakes from Sheridan. In preparation for Virgil Blue’s monastery on the main island, students practice on this smaller summit. Please hold your questions until we exit the circle.” Michael led his group through the wall of walkers.
Enclosed by the walkers, another thirty or forty bald and barely-clothed students sat with eyes closed, facing the circle’s center. There sat a pink bird like a tropical penguin taller than Jay. To illustrate he wouldn’t take its photo, Jay capped his camera; instead, he started sketching the pink bird in pen. He wished he’d brought a microphone, because each seated student had a different chant rumbling in their stomach. Jay thought they sounded like a million motors.
“Oran doran doran doran dora.”
“Oran dora. Oran dora.“
“Oran, doran! Doran, dora! Oran, doran! Doran, dora!“
“Oran-dan-dan-doran. Oran dan-dan, dan-dorandan-dan.“
Sometimes a seated chanter would stand and join the walking circle. Sometimes a tired walker would choose a seat and chant. Jay felt static in the air, like the congregation was an engine generating religious or spiritual potency. These feelings swelled when the pink bird in the center stood up on stocky orange legs, at least eight feet tall. Michael pointed to its nest of about thirty eggs and whispered to his tour-group. “Every day, the matriarch lays an egg. Every day, an egg hatches. Without the congregation’s worship, the eggs would be infertile!”
A sixty-or-seventy year-old man with robes of martini-olive green, skin blue-black like midnight, and a beard long and peppery stood and spread his hands. “Oran dora!” The chanters fell silent. The walkers halted and turned to the center. Then the robed, bearded man lectured in Sheridanian.
“What’s he saying?” asked Henry. Michael shushed him. The big pink bird spread its stubby flightless wings to block its nest from the sun. An egg rattled. The bearded mentor continued lecturing. “No, seriously, what’s he on about?”
“I’ll explain after,” whispered Michael. The egg cracked. The big pink bird nudged it with its squat beak. One of the seated students questioned their bearded mentor, and he replied emphatically.
“If they’re doing this for tourists, they could at least learn English,” said Henry. “What’d the kid say?”
“The esteemed Virgil Green asked a riddle,” Michael quietly spat, “and the student asked for clarification. The students will contemplate the riddle until the next egg hatches tomorrow. This helps them visualize the Biggest Bird.” The egg split open and a blue fledgling blinked in the light. The big pink bird shaded the fledgling with its wings. Virgil Green sat. The standing students resumed walking and the seated students resumed chanting.
“Well what was the riddle?” asked Henry.
A seated student tugged Michael’s jeans. “[Would you take questions later? We’re trying to focus.]”
“What’d she say?” asked Henry. “What’d you say back?”
Virgil Green swiveled his head. The contrast between his dark skin and peppery beard made his slight smile seem scathing. “Oran dora, Michael. [Perhaps you should continue the tour?]”
“[Yes, we should.] Thank you, Virgil Green.” Michael bowed and led the tour-group through the other side of the walking circle. Henry lingered.
Henry lifted his sunglasses to appreciate the pictures he took. He hadn’t even turned off the flash. The walking students who witnessed him stopped walking. The students behind them had to stop, and the students behind them had to stop, until the whole circle stopped and even the students seated inside ceased their chants and turned to look. “No!” Michael grabbed Henry’s wrist and pulled him from the circle. Henry shook him off. “Delete them! Now!”
“We’re leaving anyway! You can’t touch me!”
“You were told not to photograph birds! Delete them!”
“It’s my phone! I’ll do what I want! We’re in international waters, you can’t take my rights from me!”
“When you applied for the tour, you signed an agreement!”
“You made me sign it, and I signed with an H! Good luck getting that to hold up in court.”
Eva groaned. “Henry…” She used both hands to cover Lilly’s eyes and ears, as if this had happened a hundred times before. Jay was reminded of the big pink bird blocking its fledgling from the sun.
“Delete them!” said Michael.
“Or what?” Henry flexed. Jay wasn’t impressed.
“Or those bird-worshipers are gonna beat the worms out of you!” Michael shouted, “and if they’re kind enough not to beat the worms out of me, too, I’m gonna join them in beating the worms out of you, and your wife can carry you home in a body-cast or a coffin, I don’t care which!”
“You can’t threaten me like that!”
“Like you said, we’re in international waters! Welcome to Sheridan, tooth-ball!”
Henry prepared to retort, but the bird-worshipers nodded in agreement with Michael. Virgil Green put a sympathetic hand on the big pink bird’s feathery forehead as she bent to comfort her fledgling. The fledgling’s left eye blinked uselessly, blinded by the flash. “Peep, peep!” Jay wiped a tear from his eyes as he sketched the scene in pen. “Peep, peep!”
Henry showed them his phone and deleted the photos. “Okay, they’re gone! Alright? Fucking fascists!”