My latest talking-squid video-essay is about another deep machine learning algorithm!
My channel has almost 120 subscribers! I never thought I’d get that far, haha.
(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
Jay bought Dan a fourth, final pint of stout. Dan had started slurring, but still drank most of his glass at once. “As I brought the bong back to my apartment, I debated whether or not I actually wanted to smoke from it. What I really wanted was to undo chasing Lio and finish my bug-stick with Beatrice… but wasn’t I supposed to be learning to live without her approval? I had to try smoking on my own.”
Jay opened his notepad to another fresh page. “Did you really have to, though?”
“Well, maybe I felt a little Lio in me. But Lio’s bong was disgusting. You remember what it looked like, right?”
“Yeah.” Jay sketched a glass cylinder a foot tall with an erect stem poking from its bottom chamber to hold a bowl of powdered bug-bits. The top chamber had a percolator like a tiny tree with five hanging branches. “Like that?”
“Exactly, but…” Dan took the pen and scribbled all over the sketch. “It was opaque with crust. Cleaning it meant cleaning inside that glass tree’s five little fingers. No wonder Lio never bothered—it was Sisyphean. A punishment!”
“And feeling responsible for correcting Lio’s behavior, you cleaned it for him.”
“Of course. Wearing rubber gloves and a surgical-mask. I didn’t want to touch or smell anything in there.”
“How do you clean a water-pipe like that?”
“I had to look it up: rock-salt and isopropyl alcohol. You pour ’em both in and shake. The salt spins like flakes in a snow-globe and scrapes the gunk off.” Dan mimicked shaking the bong up and down. The action looked a tad masturbatory to Jay. “I did that for twenty minutes, and when I emptied the bong, most of the crust sloughed out. I refilled it again, shook it again, and emptied it again, and again, and again, until the glass was clear as a window. Then I filled the bong with water so smoke would have to bubble through the tree’s five fingers from the bottom chamber to the top chamber.”
“Like a multilayered sieve?”
“Sure. Then I smoked the bug-bits Lio had left in the bowl.”
“Was it as good as smoking with Beatrice?”
“It wasn’t cricket in that bowl, Jay. I had a nightmare of an experience.” Dan wiped tears from his cheeks. His black gloves were soaked by now. “Lio had tried tricking Beatrice to smoking centipede. What would he do to her if she’d been so incapacitated?”
Jay wrote some final notes about Lio and flipped to another fresh page. “Can you tell me about that nightmare-experience? What did that centipede do to you?”
“Oh, it was just awful. I was… some kind of… orange… amoeba? The size of a man? All I could do was blorp and wriggle, wishing I didn’t exist. My fear turned into little white flecks floating in my translucent body. The flecks combined into teeth which ripped my insides apart.”
“In Sheridan, they mentioned tooth-balls.” Jay supposed Dan’s father’s worms didn’t mesh with the worms he got from Lio. “Did you have eyes? How’d you know you were orange?”
“I felt orange. And, I felt a shadow pass overhead. A giant bird landed next to me like thunder. It was blue, like sapphire or lapis lazuli.”
“How’d you know it was blue?”
“I was hallucinating, Jay, I just don’t know. The bird had eyes like emeralds, too, and aquamarine robes. ‘You’ve dropped upon the Mountain,’ it said—I was an amoeba on a mountain, apparently?—‘but I won’t make you a Zephyr with screeching teeth. My assistant will bring you to…’ ” Dan shuddered. ” ‘Anihilato, the longest worm, the King of Dust.’ “
“Anihilato.” Jay’s eyes widened and he took more notes. He swore he’d heard that name once, in a dream, and he worried he would hear it again. “Doesn’t sound like a nice guy.”
“I was fucking horrified,” said Dan. “I didn’t know what Anihilato was all about, and I didn’t want to know. The bird sort of oozed into the red mountain, leaving me behind, and I freaked the hell out wondering what would happen next. The more I panicked, the more teeth spawned inside me. The teeth ripped me open and cracked each other with this awful screechy sparkly noise, like loud TV-snow. For a while I was a cramping gonad the size of a beach-ball, completely covered in canines sadistically crunching on sensitive gums suffering silently inside.” Dan slurred every S. “Then a spinning narwhal tusk drilled out of me, twenty screeching feet.”
“The tusk helped, actually. It let some air reach my gums, so I was almost able to breath again. When I was a kid, my mom always told me to focus on my breathing when I panicked.”
Thank goodness, thought Jay. “Did you panic a lot as a kid?”
“I’m constantly panicking, Jay. I never stop. Mom blamed my dad for telling me all about different Hells. But anyway, when I focused on my breath, I sort of inhaled the teeth back inside me, leaving pores which gasped for air. Each wheeze pulled the tusk back in until I was just a ball of gums. My gums relaxed, and I dissolved into a puddle of mud.”
“You fixed your own teeth. Maybe the bird wouldn’t take you to Anihilato?”
“No, no—I still felt the teeth inside me, struggling to manifest. The teeth danced out of my mud as worms, like goop on a subwoofer. Each time a worm left the mud, the mud became a little clearer, and when it was just a puddle of water, thousands of worms were tangled in pandemonium like one worm the size of a dog.”
“Were you the water, or were you the worms? Or… both?”
“The water, I hope. The worms didn’t seem to enjoy being on the red mountain, because they kept squirming on the hot, dry dust. They crawled to the mountain’s edge and jumped off—but suddenly this white fox dropped out of the sky and grabbed the worms like a snake, by the neck.”
“Huh.” Jay rubbed his chin while he wrote. “When I smoked centipede, Faith was a fox made of snow. We were on a red mountain, with a bird, and I puked teeth. Our trips have lots of overlaps.”
Dan rolled his eyes. “You mean people smoking the same entheogenic bug might have similar hallucinations? Color me surprised. Foxes are dirt-common iconography—Inari ookami‘s got white fox messengers—but in hallucinations? Impossible.”
“Point taken. Go on.”
“The fox beat the worms senseless against the mountainside by whipping its neck back and forth. Worms tried escaping individually, but they’d tangled too thoroughly to separate. When the worms went limp, the fox let them go and breathed on them to freeze them whitish-blue. Then the fox turned into a cloud, picked up the worms like a tornado, and lifted them away!”
“I dunno. Just… away.”
“Was your red mountain in a desert, Dan? Were there sandy dunes?”
“I was a puddle of water, Jay. I had no clue. But I wasn’t water for too long: the fox’s icy breath left a fern of frost across me, and each time a frost-leaf melted, it left a little bubble. The bubbles drifted into a fetal shape, then soaked the water up. I was me again.”
“It wasn’t perfect. I had to spin my head 180 degrees and swap my legs. Somehow it didn’t seem weird to do. At this point, I didn’t even remember why I was here. I just sat on the mountainside. And now I had eyes, so, yes, Jay, I was in a desert of sandy dunes.”
“Oh ho. Did you see worms raining from the mustard-yellow sky?”
“Yeah, a few. I watched them while I waited to bake to death, but then that white cloud reappeared on the horizon, and I thought the fox might be coming back to pick me up, too. I ran and hid behind some rocks. The fox clawed at the mountain and a cave opened, and the big blue bird climbed out. The fox and the bird had a conversation, but I couldn’t hear it. The fox tried diving into the cave, but the bird blocked it and reached into the cave with ten blue human arms, endlessly long. It pulled out a golden wing. The wing lined the cave like a thick rug and heavy curtains, so the fox and the bird could climb into the cave without touching the rocky walls. The cave stayed open, so I crept up to it to peek inside. It breathed like a beast, and the golden wing adjusted itself like an uncomfortable tongue. When the cave started closing, I realized if I didn’t jump in now, I might be trapped on the red mountain forever. At least if I was inside, I’d have a bird to talk to! I threw myself onto the golden wing and the red mountain swallowed me like a pill.”
“Then what?” asked Jay. “What was inside the red mountain?”
“It buzzed like hornets and locusts. Everything was green haze.” Having finished his fourth pint, Dan struggled to hold his head off the bar. “The golden wing became a path to the green distance. I tried to walk that golden path, but the green sky flickered and nauseated me. The buzzing was so loud I covered my ears—my elbows felt wind, pushing back on my left and forward on my right. The wind was spinning me. I walked against the wind and the green sky separated into yellow and blue, like videotape of a propeller syncing with the frame-rate. The desert’s yellow sky was above me and Earth’s blue sky was below.”
Jay sketched the scenario in consideration. “So maybe the golden wing was spinning, and you counteracted the spin by walking at an angle?”
“Or maybe the skies were spinning. I don’t want to think about it,” Dan murmured. “On the green horizon between yellow and blue, I saw a white light like the sun. As I approached it, the buzzing died down, but the path veered away! I left the sun behind and the buzzing came back. Luckily I came across another golden path, stuck out of mine like this.” Dan shook a hand diagonally. “Next thing I knew, I was walking up that new path directly toward the light. The buzzing died down again.
“When I got close enough, I saw objects orbiting the sun-thing. Their periodic shadows made it look like the light had a heartbeat. I couldn’t tell how big the objects were, or how far away, so I was surprised when one smashed on my forehead. It was an egg. There was a blue fledgling inside, with a beady eye on one side of its head and a hundred human teeth on the other. I couldn’t bring myself to look away, or even wipe yolk from my face, but then the yolk slid off on its own. The white shell, scattered in three dimensions, scattered back around the bird. The egg kept orbiting like nothing happened.
“I kept walking to the sun-thing. The golden path went so close I could’ve reached out and touched the fire, and I really, really wanted to, for some reason. Just before I jumped in, the big blue bird swooped behind me and restrained me in its wings. The bird told me that inside the red mountain you see all of reality at once. The sun in the center is her throne, where reality originates—an ‘indefatigable meristem,’ they called it—and if I’d touched it, my worms would’ve scattered across the cosmos.”
“An indefatigable what?“
“Meristem. It’s the part of a plant where all the new cells come from. The bird also explained that our reality’s shape is an infinite-dimensional torus, circles swept in circles swept in circles and so on. Then the bird said it was going to put me in a box and bury me in the desert. When I turned to beg the bird for forgiveness, I woke drooling on my couch. My throat felt painful and raw, so I drank six glasses of orange-juice and puked. I cleaned the bong for an hour. It wasn’t dirty. I just felt dirty inside.” Dan slumped over the bar, conclusively and concussively.
Jay capped his pen and closed his notepad. “This is fascinating. In Sheridan, Virgil Jango Skyy told me the afterlife was a desert where our worms had to find a mountain, just like Uzumaki’s mountain in LuLu’s. And the bird’s description of reality as a torus is just like how Akayama describes the Wheel.”
“Duh. You told me yourself Tatsu ripped LuLu’s from Sheridan. Centipedes probably make everyone see just about the same stuff, because the mechanics of cognition are basically indistinguishable from person to person.” The sentence was almost incomprehensible through Dan’s drunken slur. “We have different personalities based on our different backgrounds, but underneath, everyone is alone in a desert. Maybe Tatsu got bug-eyed, too. I don’t care. I haven’t smoked centipede since, and I never will again.”
Jay pat him on the back. “You don’t have to. I won’t even ask you to visit Sheridan if you don’t want to.”
“Take me to Sheridan, Jay. Please. I have to do something with my life.”
“But… tell me… honestly… When you and Faith came to my apartment to smoke centipede, was Beatrice actually on-call at the hospital? Or did you three conspire to give her that excuse in case I made her uncomfortable?” Jay didn’t answer. “That’s what I thought.” Dan clenched his eyes shut. “I’m hopeless. Hopeless!”
“You’re not hopeless, Dan.”
“I keep wondering if Lio’s better off than me, making figs, strategically ignorant, busting into women’s bedrooms trying to score some tail.” Dan turned his head to face the other way. “Did you know I’m a virgin?”
“I wouldn’t wish Lio’s state-of-being on anybody,” said Jay, “and I’m a virgin, too, but I don’t mind.”
“That’s different,” said Dan. “You’re trans.” Jay pursed his lips. He’d respond, but Dan was now snoring. Uncle Featherway entered from the wake. Jay waved him to a bar-stool.
(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
When Dan staggered back to the bar, he buried his face in his gloved hands. Jay bought him his third pint of stout to keep the story moving. “Lio never got to beat the smug out of me, but he came pretty close.” Dan drank most of the pint at once. “I attended college where my dad killed himself, since the University was financially supportive and let me live in his old apartment—no one else wanted to live there, I guess. I didn’t see you or Beatrice or Lio for years, but Faith took art-classes on campus, and we always ate lunch together. One day she invited me to a party.”
“Aw, that’s nice.” Jay was glad to hear new stories about their late friends. “Where did they live? After high-school I was always abroad, so I only talked to you guys on the phone.”
“Faith and Beatrice lived on the top floor of an apartment by the beach. The first floor belonged to a frat-house, and apparently they were all invited to the party, too, because they were streaming up the exterior steps in a vertical zigzag of bed-sheet togas. I kinda wish I’d gotten the memo, I would’ve joined the dress-code.”
“At the top steps, Faith leapt onto me and hung around my neck. She kissed me, and I could taste what she’d been drinking. She offered me a beer, but after my dad died, I was afraid to touch alcohol.” He finished his third pint. “So we just looked over the balcony together. The ocean so close, a drunken toga-brother puked into it over the railing. ‘Isn’t it beautiful, Dainty? I wish I could fly over the waves like a bird!’ “
“I figured she’d wanna be a fox.”
“That’s what I said. ‘I’ll be a flying fox!’ Then she kissed me some more. It was like she wanted to lick all my teeth, but she was almost two feet shorter than me, so she had to really reach for my molars. ‘Are you into this, Dainty? Am I bothering you?’ I guess I’m not a very active kisser. I liked Faith, I enjoyed her affection, but—“
“But you were thinking of Beatrice,” said Jay.
Dan whimpered. “She detected it easily as you did. Ever since meeting Lio in the library, I felt like I had to protect Beatrice from people like that, and I hadn’t seen her since high-school graduation! ‘Oh, Dainty,’ Faith said. ‘You could have everything anyone ever wanted right in front of you, and you’d still chase BeatBax to Hell and back just to make awkward small-talk.’ I was like, well, you’re her girlfriend, and you’re kissing me. ‘Ah, but BeatBax and I have an understanding.’ She smiled sorta mischievously, like she might kiss me again, but instead she pulled a bug-stick from her pocket. ‘If I’ve kissed you, it’s only fair you kiss her, too, right? She’s had enough party for tonight, so she’s in our bed-room right now. You two could spend some time alone together.’ She kissed the bug-stick’s stem and told me to share it with her, because ‘it’d be just like smooching.’ “
“Had you ever smoked a cricket before?”
“No, and honestly, the idea of tricking Beatrice into kissing like that made me feel sick. I told Faith, but she insisted it was okay, because we were only smooching symbolically. She pushed me into the apartment, where frat-bros in bed-sheets were flirting with girls from nursing-school in scrubs. The hallway was clogged with drunks waiting for the bathroom, but I squeezed past them to Beatrice’s door. As soon as I knocked, she said ‘come in!’ I’d never heard her sound so inviting, so I held back. She was probably expecting Faith, right? Wouldn’t she be disappointed to see it was just me? But when I opened the door, I saw why she greeted me so eagerly.”
“There she was, in bed, tucked under warm blankets, reading her Bible, and right there, sitting on her bedside, was Lio.” Dan shuddered. Jay grimaced; with the timeline as he knew it, Lio had been married to Eva for about five years at this point. “He was fatter than he was in high-school, but he was still bald, and he’d kept the dark sunglasses. He was wearing a red bed-sheet like a toga, but he’d drawn it up his chest higher than any other frat-brother. And he had a glass water-pipe, all crusted-up with bug-gunk. Beatrice wasn’t even looking in his direction. She just smiled at me, like, see what I have to put up with? ‘Hey, Dan, have you met this guy, Henry? He came in here, like, forever ago, looking for the bathroom, supposedly. Maybe you can help him find it?’
“I walked up to Lio and played along with his little game. ‘Hi, Henry,‘ I said, ‘My name’s Lio. The bathroom’s in the hallway. You must be pretty bug-eyed to have missed it.’ “
“He put a hand out to shake, and when I shook it, he yanked me. ‘I’m teaching B here how to smoke powdered bug-sticks from one of these bad boys.’ He offered her the bong, but she buried herself in the Bible. ‘Go enjoy the party, bro.’ He finished his stupid machismo handshake, but I didn’t let go. I braced my foot on the wall and yanked him off Beatrice’s bed. ‘Whoa! Hey!’ He was too bug-eyed to keep me from pulling him to the door, or maybe he was playing limp to pretend my aggression was undue. ‘Why are you being so violent?’
“I shut Beatrice’s door behind us. Lio raised his fists like he’d plug me, but I just talked to him. He couldn’t throw the first punch in front of everyone in the hallway; he wouldn’t look like enough of a victim yet. ‘Look, Henry, when you do this shit, you look like a psycho, and you’ll be treated like one. I’m not gonna enable you by pretending we can be friends.’ Obviously he was like, what’re you talking about, I didn’t do anything wrong! Show me the evidence, I know the law! And I said, ‘Henry, there’s no difference between a nimrod manipulated by scumbags and scum playing dumb very convincingly. No one will waste time trying to figure you out. You’re talking to a rare person who pities you enough to warn you making figs like this means you’re on a dark path. You call yourself an alpha, but it’s only a matter of time before you meet someone who knocks off your fucking Alpha-unit.’ “
“Ooh, a LuLu’s reference.” Jay sucked his pen. ” ‘No difference between a nimrod manipulated by scumbags and scum playing dumb very convincingly,’ huh? Is that a quote from something?”
Dan shook his head. “A nimrod can be redeemed, but a scumbag can pretend to be redeemed. If you can tell the difference, they weren’t playing dumb very convincingly, were they?”
“That’s not to say nimrods should be treated like scumbags,” Dan clarified, “or scumbags should be treated like nimrods. I just mean ethical-systems must deal with both cases exactly the same way, because in practice, they’re identical.” Jay wrote that down, but didn’t say anything. Dan knew it was time to continue the story. “Lio finally cut the act a little and tried to serve me his figgy kool-aid. ‘We could share her, Danny-boy.’ I told him Beatrice would never be interested in him or me, in part because she was a lesbian already in a relationship. ‘I know, isn’t it awful? Those bitches eat babies! I kissed her once, though, in middle school. She didn’t make it easy. I bet I can straighten her out for both of us.’ “
Jay gripped his pen. “Faith told me a boy kissed Beatrice once.”
“Yeah? Beatrice told me that too.”
“Faith said she didn’t like it.”
“I didn’t like it either. I dated Beatrice once, remember?”
“I wanted her to know consent mattered to me,” said Dan, “but when I asked if she was comfortable with an arm around her shoulders, she looked at me like deer in headlights, and I hated myself for it. What a first kiss, Lio must’ve been!” He drank the last dribbles of beer. “I tried explaining this with cultural references he could interpret, but even if he did understand, he was pretending not to.”
“Cultural references like what?”
Dan sighed into his third empty pint. “First I played easy. ‘I’m not gonna pretend you’re an emperor wearing new clothes. Even if it hurts to hear, my kindness of admitting your nudity is for your benefit.’ Ah, ah, ah, but couldn’t I see he wasn’t nude at all? He was clearly wearing a bed-sheet toga, was I blind? So I leaned all-in for my second joust. Do you remember in LuLu’s, Eisu and Fumiko tell Commander Lucille about the dystopian hellscape before the World-Unification? How it functioned on a genocidal game called Victim Card?“
“Tatsu‘s commentary online described how that game was played. Dictators considered modern and historical events to be playing-cards, either in Victim position or Virtue position.” Dan put two fingers on the bar and slid them like he was turning a trading-card to horizontal-landscape or vertical-portrait. “Treated badly? That’s a Victim Card. Been nice lately? That’s a Virtue Card.”
“Victim Cards were used to justify atrocities, in retribution for prior atrocities. Virtue Cards were also used to justify atrocities, in self-defense.”
“Fig-making all around.”
“Right. But Lio, here—” Dan palmed his forehead. “Lio was virtue-signalling with Victim Cards and vice-versa without swapping their position first. He was virtuous for kissing Beatrice straight, but he was still a victim of Beatrice being a baby-eating lesbian. He was a victim for having taxes ‘stolen,’ but also virtuous for ‘paying’ taxes. He was a victim because society wouldn’t let him do stuff, but he was virtuous for doing that stuff anyway. To other dictators who know how to play the hand they’re dealt, that double-thought reveals vulnerability. You’re not a victim. You’re not virtuous. There’s nothing in there, or if there is, it’s buried pretty deep.”
” ‘Blink twice,’ ” said Jay.
“When I mentioned LuLu’s, Lio said he’d watched an episode, once, but the girls weren’t young enough or undressed enough for his tastes.” Dan shuddered. “I tried one last time. In 1984, Orwell described humanity’s future as a boot stomping on a man’s face forever. Lio liked that image, even though I doubted he’d ever read the book: ‘see how bad you communists are? You better stop stomping on me!‘ But virtue-signaling with Victim Cards reveals the boot is on humanity’s own forearm and it’s stomping on its own face until it realizes it’s only fooling itself. Lio didn’t get it: ‘You’re treading on me!’ he said again. ‘You’re forcing me to bite, don’t you see? I don’t have a choice!’ Well, I tread back into Beatrice’s room and locked the door behind me.”
Jay wasn’t sure why he was taking notes on Lio, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Faith once told me you tried starting a fight at a party. Was that it?”
“No, no. I’m getting to that. When I walked back in, Beatrice was indifferently appreciative. ‘That guy was trying to force-feed me his bong for, like, five minutes. Kept saying he used to be a cop, like I’d be impressed. If you hadn’t knocked when you did, I might’ve stopped figuring out if he was legitimately stupid and just screamed.’ ” Jay wondered if Lio had ever actually been a police-officer, or if it was just another lie he liked to tell. He could imagine Lio as a mall-cop inflating himself. “I told her Faith wanted us to share a cricket. ‘Oh yeah? Is that her lipstick on your chin?’ I wiped it off and apologized. ‘It’s alright. Faith and I have an understanding.’ She came out from under the covers. I worried she was nude, but she was wearing brown footie-pajamas with little yellow cartoon bunnies. She pat the bed and I sat next to her. She lit the cricket and puffed it. Apparently she and Faith had smoked since after high-school.”
“Yeah, I knew that, actually.”
“She showed me how to smoke the bug-stick, and after one puff, I was astounded. It was like…” Dan revolved his left hand in a circle, searching for words. Jay flipped to another fresh page of his notepad. He’d struggled to describe the sensation himself and hoped Dan would have the vocabulary for it. “Samadhi. Nothing had changed, but I was suddenly aware of my own thoughts. I mean, we’re all aware of our own thoughts, but I suddenly realized my thoughts were the only thing I was aware of, or possibly could be aware of. You know?”
“That’s just it,” said Jay. “You realize the worms in your vessel interact with other worm-vessels through stories.“
“The brain is a fiction-machine,” said Dan. “We bounce fictions off each other because fiction is all there is. Every one of us is a slice-of-life protagonist.”
“A great and complicated tool,” said Jay. “What happened next with Beatrice?”
“I had to ask, where could I get these? She told me…” Dan swallowed. “She told me ‘Faith buys them from Lio, but she’ll have to find a new supplier, because I don’t feel safe with him anywhere around.’ I told her, yeah, that guy once told me the existence of gays was genocide, and therefore he should be allowed to buy and impregnate children. He barely acts decent sometimes because Faith buys his bugs and he wants to prove he’s a man by getting in your pants. ‘Sorta like you, huh?’ she said. ‘You’re always staring at me a little gormlessly.’ I was petrified.”
“Petrified, uh, staring at her gormlessly?” asked Jay.
“Well, yeah. ‘We’ve known each other for years and you still don’t know anything about me,’ she said. I told her I knew she was in nursing-school, and I knew she liked birds—and bunnies, too, apparently, given her PJs. ‘But why are you so obsessed with being on my good side? I’d probably like you more if you were just yourself around me.’ So I said being her friend made me feel special. That made her smile! But next I told her I admired how she knew a fig-maker when she saw one, and she didn’t take their shit. Her approval meant I was… Well, I wasn’t bad as Lio. ‘Ugh. Thanks, I hate it,’ she said. ‘You’re not trying to get into my pants, but you’re still using me as a source of self-worth.’ “
“Hmm.” Jay wasn’t taking notes of this, but he sketched a fox, a bird, and a bunny in his notepad to keep his hands busy. “She has a point. You shouldn’t need Beatrice to verify you’re not like Lio.”
“Well, I wasn’t quite convinced, yet,” said Dan. “I told her, ‘Faith joked sharing a cricket would be like kissing you. I should’ve told you before we started smoking. Now I feel like him, scoring without consent—but even worse, because I’m scoring secretly, symbolically, without you even knowing. That’s why I need your approval, because deep down, I know I’m a bad person, and you’re the only way I can be any better.’
“She just wordlessly passed me the bug-stick. I wondered, was she showing approval by symbolic smooch? But when I puffed in, she grabbed my shoulders, kissed me, and sucked the smoke straight from my lungs. She blew it out her open window, toward the moon. ‘There. Now you’ve got no excuses! Get over yourself.’ “
“Did it work?” asked Jay. “Did you feel any better?”
“Kinda?” Dan waved a hand. “Beatrice showed me so long as I thought I needed her approval, her approval would never be enough. If I wanted to prove I wasn’t like Lio, I couldn’t do it through her. I had to do it myself.”
Jay bit his pen. “Kissing Beatrice just brought you right back to Lio, huh?”
“I wanted to be Lio’s Beatrice, sucking out his soul and puffing it out a window for him. I wanted to show Lio the victim-hood he invented to demand more from life was actually a trap he should dismantle, because making figs condemned him to a personal Hell. And I knew just how to do it.”
“My best attempt, at least. I’d use his surrender-instinct to reveal his true color to the party, and that’d zap him awake like a fork in an electrical socket. Beatrice passed me the bug-stick, but I told her to save it. I ran out of her room and back down the hallway. Faith waved me to a ring of couches, where a crowd was watching Lio show off his bong and a bag of bug-sticks. I got myself a cup of beer and put some liquor in it.”
“You said you didn’t drink.”
“I hadn’t before then. Now I needed some confidence.” Dan checked for more drops in his third empty pint. “Lio didn’t notice me sit next to Faith. He was distracted showing off a jar of centipedes to the frat-brothers in togas. It was the first time I saw centipedes outside of LuLu’s; I didn’t even know they were real. He unscrewed the top and made some nursing-school girls smell them, saying he confiscated them from a smuggler. ‘Wanna buy one? Primo stuff!’ he said. ‘I sampled some before I came over. You know, the secret to driving bug-eyed is to go faster than you think is safe.’ The crowd’s uneasiness told me if I got Lio to show his heart on his sleeve, the party would be on my side. I finished my beer and asked Faith to get me another. I wasn’t planning to drink it—I just didn’t want her to see what I did next. I was drunk enough already.”
“Yeah, bug-sticks and alcohol work together like that.”
“As Faith left, I said to Lio, ‘It looks like the smuggler got the best of you. You’re selling centipedes with no antennae. Everyone knows the pollen is the best part.’ I’d heard that’s the case with crickets: the antennae and the eyes. ‘It’s basic biology!’
“He finally noticed me. ‘You again? You wanna take this outside?’
” ‘Why bother?’ I whipped off my shirt. ‘Fight me right here!’ The whole party was immediately against me; everyone gave me this awful look. Lio laughed. He boasted I was half his weight and scrawny like a monk, and he’d beat the smug out of me. ‘All I’m worried about is cutting my knuckles on your stupid sunglasses. Take ’em off.’ The frat was ready to tackle me to the floor, but since he was enjoying the spotlight, Lio took off his sunglasses for the first time in years. His eyes were bloodshot. ‘Your toga, too. I don’t want you blaming your bed-sheets for tripping you up.’ “
“He’d pinned himself. He had to take off his bed-sheets, because he was riding a fig-maker victim-complex power-high. I’d given him the chance to be a macho-man defending himself by beating some sense into a cruel yet puny God—but to make the most of it, didn’t he have to be a shirtless action-hero?”
“It was perfect. He saw the other guys were on his side, so he took the bet and lost big. He shrugged off that toga, in his boxers underneath, and every eye in the room was on his swastika-tattoo. He must’ve spent my twenty bucks doubling down, because it was bigger, bolder, and the spokes were correct, so he’d hired someone with one or two more brain-cells to rub together. The toga-brothers cringed in shame. ‘He is not with us!’ God, I could feel their indignity. Imagine flirting with cute nurses all night and then needing to explain your frat didn’t bring the skinhead. ‘I’ve never seen him in my life!’ I put my shirt back on. My work was done. The frat picked up Lio and—well, I didn’t plan this part—they chucked him off the balcony into the ocean.”
“And he washed up in Sheridan,” Jay whispered.
“I was drunk and bug-eyed, so I collapsed on the couch. Faith walked up to me with her arms crossed. ‘I saw that, Dainty.’ She knew I’d started the fight. ‘We don’t appreciate that sort of atmosphere in our apartment.’ I asked if she’d noticed the swastika-tattoo. ‘Yeah, I saw it. Now I don’t want him around, either.’ I told her how Lio had barged into Beatrice’s room. ‘Dainty, I’m gonna tell ya one time: I think that guy’s a colossal douche, and I think you responded poorly.’ I guess my means weren’t as skillful as I thought they were. I’m no Avalokiteshvara.“
Jay sighed and capped his pen. He suspected Faith’s reaction wasn’t just about Dan: having allowed Lio into her circle to buy his bugs, she probably blamed herself for his move on Beatrice, but without the chance to retaliate against Lio personally, Dan bore the brunt of Faith’s scorn. “In Sheridan, I wanted to chuck Lio in the river. I can’t blame you for feeling the same way. I’m frankly impressed you can express that sentiment with at least the intention of teaching him a lesson. I just wanted him gone.”
“I guess Faith expected better from me than you do,” said Dan. “She let me pass out on the couch, but in the morning, she shook me awake to leave when Beatrice wanted to come out for breakfast. ‘Maybe we’ll talk again when we’ve decided you’ve cooled off.’ I was gutted. I wanted to finish smoking the cricket with Beatrice. ‘You want cricket?’ She shoved Lio’s water-pipe into my hands. ‘Scram!’ “
“Ah.” Jay found reason to pop open his pen again and continue writing. “I wondered where you got that bong. You named it after him?”
“A source of painful lessons,” said Dan.
“A great and complicated tool?”
“A tool? Definitely. Complicated? I guess. Great? I could take it or leave it. At the time, I took it.” Dan wiped his eyes with his gloves. “I gotta pee again. I’ll be right back.”
(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
Dan waddled back from the bathroom like a Sheridanian big-bird and drank most of his second stout. “You remember in high-school, you and me used to eat lunch with Faith and Beatrice?”
“Yeah. Lots of fun.” Jay could listen for long as Dan could talk.
“A lot of guys wanted to date Beatrice, but she always turned them down. She never told them she was already dating Faith.” Dan finished the rest of his second stout all at once. “I guess the two of them were hiding it.”
“I didn’t know until the end of the school-year.” Jay wondered if Dan would mention dating Beatrice himself. “There’re reasons to be protective of that sort of information.”
“I know! That’s why I felt blessed around Beatrice.” Dan smiled into his second empty pint. “Being her friend felt like approval from a secret sacred source. She even told me once, no matter how annoyed she was when I glorified her, she liked having me around, because guys didn’t hit on her as much when I was there.”
“It’s true,” said Jay. “We’d get some catcalls in the cafeteria when you ate lunch alone in the library.”
The bottom of his second empty pint wasn’t making Dan smile anymore. “This one time, eating lunch alone in the library, someone slapped me on the back. You remember the bald guy in our homeroom who always wore sunglasses?”
“His name was Lio.”
Jay put two and two together. “Oh. Actually, yeah, I do remember him. I didn’t see him much in high-school; I guess he was as repelled by me as he was by you.” He finished his stout and uncapped his pen. “Why’d he slap you in the library?”
“He wasn’t always so repelled by me,” said Dan. “We were friends for a while. Ish.”
Jay couldn’t imagine being friends with Lio. “Friends, ish?”
“Yeah, ish. Back in elementary. My mom was always desperate for me to make friends, and Lio was always eager to sucker someone into—” Dan put both elbows on the bar. “Putting up with his fig-making, I guess.”
Jay was intrigued by Dan’s exclusive insight. “What sort of figs?”
“We swam in his pool once. I thought it’d be fun having a friend with a pool, but we had to swim his way.”
“Oof.” Jay felt Lio’s belly holding him against the monastery wall. “How was that?”
“My mom used our first play-date to meet his mom,” said Dan, “so when Lio held me underwater, she was there to call him out on it.”
“Call him out how?”
“Honestly, I was embarrassed Mom raised an objection at all.” Dan shrugged. “Boys might hold boys underwater. You know how it is.”
” ‘Let him drown me, Ma.’ “
“She said we could hold each other underwater… so long as we held our own breath while we did it.” Dan puffed out his cheeks. “If we held our own breath we’d know how the other felt, and we’d know how much was too much.”
“I was the first of us to do that,” said Dan. “After all, Lio held me underwater. I could do it to him, too, right?”
“I held Lio underwater and held my breath. It was only a few seconds, but he started squirming, so I let him go even though I felt fine.”
“And then he held me under again.”
“And while I’m suffocating, I was sure any moment now, he’d know it’d been too long, and he’d let me up.”
“But he breathed through his nose while puffing out his cheeks.” Dan pretended to hold his breath, but pointed to his available nostrils. “So our moms let him hold me down for long as he wanted.”
“How’d you get up?”
“I considered kicking, but I didn’t want to give Lio another excuse to do all this again. I only got up when he decided I’d had enough. Then he put me underwater again, just to be sure. And again. And again.” Dan fumed into his empty pint. “I asked why he did that, and he said it was for my own good. I had to learn to take care of myself, or I’d be a coward—and I’d failed! So I took care of myself by not being friends with Lio for a while.”
“I saw him one time between Halloween and Christmas. He told me how his stepdad…” Dan waited for Jay to provide a word or two edgewise, but Jay just waited, so Dan went on. “His stepdad took his Halloween candy to teach him about how evil taxation was.”
” ‘You worked so hard for this candy, and now the government is stealing it!’ ” Dan mimed eating treats. “I asked Lio, your stepdad held you underwater, metaphorically, so how did you get up?”
“He didn’t try complaining, because his stepdad said that never worked. He tried complimenting his stepdad, but that only got him one candy at a time. When his stepdad ate enough and thought Lio had learned how the government sucked, he gave the candy back.” Dan shuddered. “I asked Lio, why didn’t he fight? Well, his stepdad was bigger than him, usually drunk, and fighting would give him an excuse to do something worse.” Jay nodded. “That seriously bothered me.”
“It bothers me, too.”
“I mean, it obviously bothers me there’s this whole drunk-stepdad situation. It’s quite a kampf. But…” Dan raised his empty pint to the bartender. Jay shook his head, so the bartender kept pouring a drink for someone else. “This was after Lio held me underwater for my own good, for me to learn to take care of myself, or I’d be a coward. Hadn’t Lio’s stepdad presented the same lesson? And hadn’t Lio failed like me, symbolically accepting his position as victim of an oppressive government, complimenting the fuhrer to preserve their feelings and beg for more? He was raised to believe political conservatism and sovereign citizenship were both just perpetual submission to the state—and he expected me to give into him the same way, putting on training-wheels and drinking pink-slime.”
“I tried to explain this concept, but Lio wouldn’t have it. I, uh…” Dan waved a gloved hand. “I got a little too biblical at first.”
“As you do.”
“The children of Israel, enslaved to Egypt, brought on ten plagues and parted the Red Sea. Sure, it’s God doing all that stuff, but we’ve already established even a literal God is a metaphor for overcoming overwhelming obstacles through the liberation of one’s own hands. To make figs is sending your soul to Hell before you’re even dead, inventing demons to pilot your living body. Lio didn’t quite make that connection, and told me not to shove religion down his throat.”
“Leave that to his stepdad, I guess.”
“So I tried lore he’d heard of. Was Lio his stepdad’s puppet, or was Lio a real boy?” Dan waved his gloved hands over his head, showing he had no strings attached.
“Lio said he wasn’t scared of his stepdad, but I said wasn’t sure. Maybe he was so scared—“
“—he had to say he wasn’t scared.”
“He insisted, no, no, no, but I looked him in the eyes—this was before he wore sunglasses all the time—and I said, ‘is someone trapped in there? Blink twice if you need help.’ “
“He blinked twice.” Dan laughed, just one ‘ha.’ No wonder Lio wears sunglasses all the time, thought Jay. “I think it was just his reaction to hearing the phrase ‘blink twice,’ but I’m sure he got my point, because he covered his face with both hands and screamed. He screamed…” Dan scowled. “He screamed, ‘let’s go swimming.’ But I didn’t take orders from Lio anymore! He’d accidentally helped me clip my strings and become the real boy he wished he was. From my point-of-view, we were equals—brothers in anxiety, at least—but he accepted his status of servitude and wanted me to be a sleeper-tankie just like him. That put me in position of messiah, obligated to save him from himself, and I turned it down because I was free to do so.”
Jay flipped to another fresh page. “Dan, I’m glad to hear all this, but you started talking about high-school. What did Lio want in the library? Why’d he slap you on the back?”
“I was hoping he’d grown a little since I’d last seen him. He had grown, but not the way I’d hoped. I told him not to slap me like that, and he said it was okay, because it didn’t hurt. ‘I’m just being your buddy, Danny-boy!’ ” He and Jay both rolled their eyes. “I’d always regretted being mean to him, even if he was mean to me first. I’d probably enabled his victim-complex. I tried giving him the benefit of the doubt, assuming, like my dad taught me, he just got taught different simple rules, and our important rules were probably the same. But the more we talked there in the library, the more I realized he’d gotten seriously fucked in the head. I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you what came out of his mouth.”
“Try me, Dan.” Jay flipped to another fresh page.
“Well, he asked if I was an ‘alpha male,’ keeping Beatrice for myself, or just a ‘beta’ trying to get into her pants. I told him we were just friends, and he scoffed and said, ‘beta, then.’ “
“He asked me for Beatrice’s phone-number, and when I wouldn’t give it to him, he said he was disappointed in me. He thought we were friends, he said, and if I wanted to stay friends, I should leave Beatrice alone and get out of his way, because I was ‘cucking’ him. Am—am I right that ‘cuck’ has sort of a racial connotation?”
Jay frowned and underlined the word in his notepad. “It can.” He decided Lio wasn’t worth the benefit of the doubt. “A cuck is a guy whose wife cheats on them with a black man. Another lynching excuse.”
“That’s what I thought, so I asked him what it meant, and he couldn’t bring himself to say it aloud. He just croaked the word like a toad a couple more times. When I kept playing dumb, he said cucking was when someone keeps you from getting what you deserve. I was like, ‘really? Is that what it means?’ ” Jay considered reminding Dan he’d said feigned ignorance was still ignorance. Was Dan reinterpreting rules just to be offended, or trying to slap a fig-maker awake with realization of embarrassment? “He told me to stop messing around. He knew I knew what it meant because of the book I was reading.”
“What book were you reading?”
“I had lots of books! We were the only two in the library, Jay! But I knew which one he meant. It had a temple from Thailand on the cover with swastikas on both sides of the door, one clockwise, one counterclockwise. He must’ve thought the swastikas meant I was on his fucked-up wavelength, so I told him swastikas meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. He was like, ‘Yes! Exactly!’ and he unbuttoned his shirt. This asshole had tattooed a swastika on his own chest. It was the size of his palm, but the lines were thinner than pencil-lead, just a fragile little snowflake. He must’ve had a hard time inking himself in the mirror, because he fucked up two of the spokes, so it looked like a crude firearm with a hair-trigger. I remembered what my dad taught me: following simple rules, like not tattooing a fucking swastika on yourself, are indicators of following important rules, like being a decent human being. And then my dad taught me to confront terribleness by being terrifying.”
Jay soured, remembering how Lio tried sharing his tattoo on the ferry. “So what did you do?”
“My dad had just committed suicide, okay? I felt like I was exactly the person to tell Lio, ‘anyone who looks up to Hitler should bite a bullet in a bunker. If your feelings can’t handle reality, you’re allowed to leave.’ But that just seemed to build him up! He said he tattooed himself to detect small-minded people, and he was glad to see that it worked. Disapproving of his swastika-tattoo meant I was the real Nazi. He’d invented a simple rule just to watch people break it: apparently I had to respect him no matter what awful decisions he made. He was allowed to ‘pretend to be a Nazi,’ but I wasn’t allowed to ‘pretend he was a Nazi’ back. He said I was oppressing him, proving he was right all along.”
“Right about what?”
“He said society limited his true power for the sake of political correctness. The world would be better off if he, and other alphas like his rich dad, were really unchained. I—I don’t know why he brought up his dad, he just did. I certainly didn’t ask. I didn’t even think he knew his real dad.”
“He mentioned his dad in Sheridan, too,” said Jay. “I hadn’t asked, either.” Was Lio telling the truth, or just a lie he liked enough to repeat? “Unchained to do what, exactly?”
“He said ‘sweatshops sound bad, but—‘ “
Jay chuckled. “Not a great way to start, huh?”
” ‘Sweatshops sound bad, but there are so many useless people out there! Think of how much money we’re wasting teaching garbage-kids to read and write instead of putting them to work.’ Work under what conditions? Are there safety-regulations involved? ‘Safety-regulations? You’re spitting on my rights!‘ I asked about the ethics of dangerous child-labor, but he told me ethics were made up by religious people—he pronounced the word with this shit-eating grin—to make alphas like him a slave to the weak. That made real slavery okay, he said! ‘We gotta do it! Some races wouldn’t survive on their own. If we take them from their huts and teach them to be useful, they should thank us! If they refuse to take responsibility for themselves even after we beat some sense into them, then at least they’ve got some organs to sell!’ That was war, slavery, torture, and genocide all justified at once, and he’d said ‘we’ and ‘us’ as if I’d be on his side for any of it. ‘Slavery is a choice,’ he said. ‘It’s their fault, not ours.’ “
Jay groaned as he took notes. “I guess if you can reference the Old Testament and Pinocchio, he gets to quote Kanye West.”
“It’s precisely the defeatist attitude I wanted to save him from!” said Dan. Jay recalled Dan’s regret just commenting on black magic, and wondered if the second stout would give him more to regret. “Literally enslaved people make tough decisions, like ‘do I obey that screeching guy or do I get tortured to death?’ Horrifying decisions, like ‘do I see where this boat’s going or do I jump off the back?’ They don’t ask for permission before escaping on a quote-unquote ‘underground railroad.’ In that sense the enslaved handle so much more responsibility than their masters—masters who writhe like impotent soccer-players trying to convince the referee, ‘I’m burdened with these slaves, these slaves make me feed them, these slaves make me house them, these slaves make me teach them to live right, these slaves don’t know how good they have it compared to me.’ Fig-makers invert the slavery-dynamic to justify the slavery-dynamic, effectively enslaving themselves, to themselves, so they can command people outside their mental-illness. I asked where Lio drew the line. Was child sex-trafficking okay? I was trying to plumb the bottom of this well, here, for some low-hanging fruit.”
“I kept pitching underhand and he kept clubbing baby seals. He says, ‘you convinced me, child sex-trafficking is okay too, and preventing it should be against the law, because it’s a violation of our freedom.’ I was fucking floored. Not only was he going this far, but he was acting like it was my idea! I asked him what possible excuse he could have for justifying child sex-trafficking, and he said—oh, boy—he said the existence of gay people like Faith and Beatrice was an ongoing genocide against ‘proper straights’ like us, and to make up for it, we deserved the right to buy someone underage and impregnate them. Besides, child sex-trafficking was gonna happen somewhere no matter what, so it shouldn’t be opposed anywhere. In fact, being against child sex-trafficking meant I was at fault for all the starving kids around the world, and he was the only one with their best interests in mind.”
“Lordy.” Lilly dodged a bullet, thought Jay.
“I was seriously shaking.” Dan was shaking now just thinking about it. His gloved hands made panicked little mudra. “Here was a guy who made government, sexuality, law, religion, the economy, and morality into a cruel God to make atrocious little figs at, a guy slave to the entire universe at once. I’d never expected to see someone like my dad had described, deliberately misinterpreting reality’s emptiness to construct a personal hellscape justifying terrible impulses. My dad had told me, ‘steal their God! Make it your own!’ I’d let him bury himself in victim-hood until he realized he was responsible for his own decisions no matter who he blamed. I asked him if taxation was theft. He obviously said yes.”
“Hm. Okay,” said Jay, “but an authoritarian state could levy oppressive taxes.”
“Of course, for propaganda, concentration-camps, war-funds, and their own pockets—natural consequences of electing such fig-makers!—so first I pressed a little harder to make sure I knew what I was dealing with. Did he think quadriplegic veterans in state-provided wheelchairs were stealing from his daddy? ‘Obviously! Those losers knew what they were signing up for. If having no arms or legs means they can’t work hard enough to earn a wheelchair, they should just rot in a cave where we don’t have to see them.’ Even if funds for such wheelchairs were allotted through due democratic process? ‘Yes! Voting is gang-rape! Those quadriplegics are gang-raping us!’ Now I felt justified in tripping him up by agreeing with him.”
“The Bugs Bunny approach,” said Jay.
” ‘How come your daddy doesn’t take responsibility for protecting his property from theft?’ I asked Lio. ‘You once told me slutty drunken bimbos passed out at parties deserve to be gang-raped. Isn’t your daddy the financial-equivalent of a slutty drunken bimbo passed out at a party, or a quadriplegic too lazy to earn a wheelchair?’
” ‘But you owe everything to my dad!’ Lio pointed to all the books in the school’s empty library. ‘He paid for all this!’
” ‘Don’t flip-flop! A moment ago taxation was theft, now you pay taxes? Do you pay burglars to steal from you, too? Does Ronald McDonald steal from you when you pay for a hamburger?’
” ‘No, don’t you get it? Protecting our property is the only thing the government should be doing!’
” ‘But if the government is responsible for protecting your property, the government ultimately decides what your property is, which means it can’t steal from you. The shirt on your back, the sweat on your brow—you’re pretending to own them! Why not protect your property instead of hoping the nanny-state does it for you?’
“He smiled at first. ‘Yeah! The second amendment!’ Then he realized this confirmed my position, not his. His government told him to protect his property from theft, but he chose not to. He chose victim-hood because it’s all he’s comfortable with. No matter how a fig-maker is armed, their only weaponry is ignorance and cowardice.
” ‘My dad’s not taxed at all,’ I said.
” ‘Your dad’s chump-change,’ he said. ‘If a real alpha protects their property from Uncle Sam, he’ll get the whole army thrown at him!’ “
“Hm.” Jay wondered if Lio’s dad did commit tax-fraud, but he wasn’t at liberty to say so.
” ‘What’d be so bad about dying on your feet as a free man like the founding fathers intended? Why will your daddy die as he’s lived, on his knees?’ ” asked Dan. ” ‘Anything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it, and you traded your freedom for safety because the cost of freedom is eternal vigilance. Shit or get off the pot. Better to light a single candle than curse the darkness. Besides, a penny saved is a penny earned. If you don’t protect your property from theft, you’re renting it at the mercy of thieves, and your thieves are the government, so you rent at the mercy of the state. A coward’s a communist no matter what they’re allowed or required to pretend to be instead.’
” ‘You’re the communist,’ he said, ‘because you think society can control me like it controls you!‘
” ‘Projection like the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria!’ ” Dan became louder and louder as he recited the conversation, standing and pointing both gloved hands at the ceiling. The rest of the bar-patrons were too invested in the football-game to notice; some of them were standing and shouting just like him. ” ‘I choose how much I’m taxed because I take responsibility for my financial decisions instead of constantly surrendering my freedom for pity-points!‘
” ‘Bullshit! What would you do if I stole from you right now?‘ He curled his arms as if he had intimidating biceps.”
” ‘The same thing I do in every situation: make my own decisions because I’m a free man! Any zoo is a petting zoo unless you’re a coward. A free man can be free anywhere. A coward like you is a communist everywhere. Man’s free the instant he chooses to be, and I hope you’ve got the guts someday, Comrade, but I’m not gonna hold my breath waiting for a pinko in denial to grow a spine!‘ “
” ‘You can’t call me a pinko! That’s racist, like calling a n—‘ ” Dan face-palmed. “You know what he said.”
“I can guess.” Jay was frankly impressed Lio had the nerve; he seemed like the type to complain about society restricting their vocabulary unless they had a special bureaucratic pass.
“So I explained what a pinko was, and how he—not making decisions, just having decisions made by the government, and, when lucky, ordered to feign freedom; not owning property, just having stuff the state hasn’t yet stolen, a communist’s illusion of ownership—he wasn’t just a classic textbook pinko, but a particularly whiny one, too. ‘What, you want me to go full Waco?’ he asked.
” ‘I want you to escape the mental gulag you’ve cucked yourself into, for your own sake and for the sake of anyone who ever has the misfortune of meeting you, but if you mean kill your family in a fire, yes, please, do the world a favor!’ So he socked me in the jaw. My head hit two bookshelves when I fell.”
“It’s okay.” Dan sat back on his bar-stool. “I… I deserved it.”
“Yeah. The difference between him and me is that I own the consequences of my actions. I threw my dad out a window, I hit Beatrice with a bus, I zapped Faith with a lightning-bolt, and I socked myself with Lio’s fist. I’m not gonna make figs at a fig-maker.” Jay wrote this down, unsure. By taking blame for acts of God and Lio’s shittiness, wasn’t Dan just making figs at himself? Who assigned Dan the burden of being messiah? “But while I was on the library floor, Lio shouted something at me I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”
“What did he shout?”
” ‘Stop looking at me like that!’ A silly thing to shout: one moment pretending to care about freedom, the next moment violently restricting facial-expressions. I wish I knew my own look, because it must’ve been a powerful one.” Jay could guess: like a disappointed mother watching her kid stick a fork in an electrical socket for the umpteenth time. “So I gave him a twenty dollar bill and told him to get another swastika-tattoo on his forehead. Then everyone would know to look at him the same way I did.”
“Did he take it?”
“Of course. And when he did, he said he was gonna beat the smug out of me that summer.” Dan sipped the last dregs from his empty pint-glass.
“Did he beat the smug out of you that summer?”
“Hold on.” Dan stumbled off his stool and waddled away like a Sheridanian big-bird. “I’ve been pouring out my heart for like an hour. Now I gotta pour out my bladder again. I’ll be back.”
(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.
(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.”
(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 calmed down.
“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? 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.”
(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!”
(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.
“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.
(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
After his ordeal with centipede, Jay felt compelled to visit home. He sat at his parents’ dinner-table while his mother stirred two mugs of tea. “How is Faith feeling nowadays?”
“Remember when our cat Django died? Faith bawled like a baby,” said Jay. “She cried like that when Beatrice died, but since then, she’s just been quiet. I don’t think she’s even left her house for days.”
“Oh, poor thing.” She pat Jay’s hand. “Is someone looking after her?”
“Dan brings her groceries. I’m glad they’re sticking together. Beatrice’s death hit them both pretty hard.” Jay had been affected too, of course, but his mother looked sad enough already. Jay just sipped his tea. “Have I told you I want to visit the Islands of Sheridan?”
“I’ve never heard of them.”
“I can’t blame you. They don’t even have a Wikipedia-article. Apparently they’re where crickets and centipedes come from.”
“Oh? Did I raise a smuggler?”
“Not quite,” said Jay. “My favorite anime might be referencing the local religion, so I want to take photos of monks. Do you think Dad’s ever been to Sheridan?”
“No clue, but not if he could help it,” said his mother. “Your father had a bad experience with centipede when he was about your age.”
“Really?” Jay pulled his notepad and pen from his pockets and flipped to the first fresh page. “Do you know what happened, exactly?”
“No, but maybe he’ll tell you when he calls tonight.”
Her cellphone rang. Jay laughed. “That sounds like him.”
“Gosh, he’s calling earlier than he said he would. I hope all’s well.” She flipped her phone open. “Dear, how’s New Delhi?” Jay heard his father’s boisterous voice. His mother smiled and coiled her hair around her fingers. “Your son is home, would you like to speak to him?” She passed her phone to Jay.
“Dad! Mom says you’re calling early. Did you forget India has half-hour time-zones?”
His father chuckled. “I guess I did. Jay, how are you?”
“I’m considering a trip to the Islands of Sheridan. Have you ever heard of them?”
The phone was silent for a moment. “I have been there, once. It was a refueling-stop on a discount flight from Chile to New Zealand. I didn’t get off the plane.”
“Could you help me find a flight like that? I want to photo-catalog Sheridanian religious-practices.”
“Oh.” His father licked his teeth. “You know, a flight-attendant told me those are the islands where crickets and centipedes come from.”
“I know, Dad.”
“I don’t mind that you smoke bug-sticks now and then. I got bug-eyed at your age, too. But don’t mess with centipedes, okay?”
Jay prepared his pen. “Mom said you’d had a bad experience with centipede. Could you tell me about it?”
“Hmmm.” His father moved the phone to his other ear. “Well, in my late twenties I attended a conference in Thailand. At a night-market some colleagues bought centipede-powder, which was even rarer then than it is now. I’d never heard of the stuff, but my colleagues said it was like cricket, so I tried it. It felt like… Well…” His father moved the phone back to his first ear. Jay took note of this anxiety. “I wasn’t myself. I felt like I was in hundreds of pieces. All my pieces were falling, falling, falling, and it was yellow everywhere. Then my pieces landed on something red. It felt like searing knives slicing every inch of my skin, or crawling through hot barbed wire.”
“Wow.” Jay penned the quote as quickly as his father spoke. This sounded like worms dropping from the mustard sky onto rusty sand.
“All my pieces had to bury themselves deeper and deeper to stop hurting all over,” he said. “The deeper I dug, the less I remembered. Just before I slipped away, I woke up alone in a Bangkok alleyway with no wallet, watch, or passport.”
Jay realized his centipede-trip had been a lucky one, even if the bird had spooked him. “Gotcha. I’ll stick to bug-sticks.”
Reviewing his plane-tickets, Jay knew he’d be sitting for most of the next two days. He’d fly in a classic jumbo-jet from LA to a layover in Chile, then disembark a smaller plane bound for New Zealand as it refueled on the Islands of Sheridan. He’d take a bird-watching tour of the islands then catch a plane refueling in Sheridan for its return to Chile. After another layover, he’d fly back to LA.
Signing up for the bird-watching tour was surprisingly simple considering he doubted the islands’ existence until days ago. Sheridan’s official website was nothing but a link to a PDF-file which Jay printed, filled out, signed, scanned, and returned with credit-card payment of about two hundred American dollars, pretty cheap for a three-day tour with room and board provided. By signing the file, he agreed to the three requirements also listed in the red card-stock pamphlet: no pictures of birds, no centipedes, no climbing the main island above the clouds. Were signatures even enforceable in international waters?
The morning was so cold he blew fog to warm his hands. Then he counted his fingers: ten. He’d woken at 4 AM to wait by the curb for Dan. Dan’s sleep schedule had inverted since Beatrice’s death, and he seemed eager for excuses to leave his apartment, so Jay thought asking for a 4:30 ride to the airport was a kindness.
Jay mentally reviewed the contents of his backpack and pockets. Clothes, traveling toiletries, and medications. His passport, ID, and a book for the plane. Camera, notepad, and pens. Portable chargers, fully charged. A healthy supply of American currency, half in his wallet, half hidden in his shoes. He nodded and sighed fog.
His phone vibrated. Dan had texted him. ‘I’m not coming. Faith should be there soon.’
Jay typed with his thumb. ‘Everything alright?’
‘Faith wanted to say bye before you left,’ texted Dan. ‘I sent her in my car.’
Sure enough, Dan’s orange VW-bug rolled around the corner. Faith parked next to Jay and gave him a tired smile under dark eyes. Jay texted Dan ‘Thank you’ as he sat shotgun.
“JayJay! How’ve you been?”
“It’s always good to see you, Faith.” Jay buckled up and Faith pulled away from the curb. “The islands are apparently real, but I’m still not sure I believe you met those monks. I guess I’ll find out soon.”
“Are you excited for Sheridan?”
“Absolutely,” said Jay. “I’ll show you my photos when I’m back. The islands were drawn beautifully in that pamphlet of yours.”
“Gonna get more centipede?”
“Eeeugh. No thanks.” Jay laughed. “Zephyrs, Wheels, Chains, and a bird-monster with no sense of personal-space. That whole experience was like watching an episode of LuLu’s with a fever of a hundred and ten.”
“That’s just because you’re a dweeb, JayJay! If you’d watched more Blue’s Clues growing up, that bird-thing might’ve been a dog.” She ramped onto the highway. Come rush-hour, the traffic would weave into a thick jam, but for now, the streets were empty. “How long is the flight?”
“Forty hours both ways. A direct flight would barely be twelve.”
Jay opened his backpack to check if anything had escaped. “So… how’s Dan holding up, do you think?”
“He’s… Well, he’s inconsolable, but so was I, for a while.” Faith rubbed her eyes. “Let’s talk about something else.”
Jay appraised Faith’s expression with great concern. He would never forget how she cried against his chest. If she couldn’t discuss it, he’d change the subject. “We’re making great time. Thanks for the ride.”
“No prob, JayJay.” Faith gently curved along the highway. “Hey, do you need… um… hygiene products? I’ve got extras in my purse.”
“Ha.” Jay smiled. “Not since I started taking testosterone.”
“Oh, okay.” She smiled with him. “Just trying to help.” The morning sun beamed through an airport parking-structure. Faith took the next exit. “You know, stuck inside all day, I’ve had lots of time to practice painting.”
“A company wants to print holiday-cards with my foxes on them.”
“Faith! That’s great!” Jay zipped up his backpack and unbuckled his seat-belt as she parked. “I’d better get one for Christmas.”
“Why wait?” Faith popped the glove-box and fished for a white envelope. “I sketched on the inside. Now you’ve got a Featherway original!”
“Thank you, Faith! This means a lot to me.” He put the envelope in his backpack. “I’ll open it on the plane, okay?”
Faith bit her lip. “Wait until after customs.”
Jay just sat. His mind was like the empty yellow sky. Then he stood and looked down either side of his rust-red dune. Clouds brushed the daunting slopes beneath him. He was miles high.
Rather than descend either side of his dune, Jay ran along its crest. Each step cracked a vertebrae in the dune’s back. Sand collapsed in hot, coarse rivers. His feet sank until the current swept him away and he fell through a cottony cloud. The sand sloped to roll him along the desert floor. He shot up an opposing dune and sailed like a skeeball.
While he spun, he counted his fingers. “One, two, three, four, five,” he counted on his left hand. “Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen—” He was asleep. He was dreaming. He could fly like the Heart of the Mountain, that steam-powered bird.
The dunes grew into great sand-walls, but he blasted above them. Below, the yellow sky melted into golden honey and poured around the red mountain like heavenly syrup. Jay smeared the sunset thin like a masseuse oiling a back. Soon the dunes were dark with night.
Jay opened his eyes. His head rested on the window of a discount flight bound for New Zealand. Outside, the sky was black and starry; most of the passengers slept. Jay shook his limbs awake as best he could in his cramped seat. It would be mid-morning when he arrived in Sheridan.
“Couldn’t sleep, huh?” asked the man on Jay’s right. “Me neither.” Jay tried to smile at him, but something about the man made smiling quite difficult. He was about Jay’s age, bald, and heavy enough to be almost spherical, occupying two chairs and still leaking into Jay’s. He wore a loud red Hawaiian shirt frumpishly buttoned all the way to his neck, which was equally red. He wore dark sunglasses, even at night, on an airplane. “Yeah, it’s hard to sleep on a plane, am I right?” the man went on. “Obnoxious folks, no self-awareness, noisier than all the crying babies.”
“I was actually asleep for a while.” Jay counted his fingers: ten. “Now I’m awake.” He unzipped his backpack and opened a bag of chips from Chile.
The man grabbed a whole fistful and ate them all at once. “Going to New Zealand?”
Jay hadn’t meant to offer him chips, but supposed the way he opened the bag might have looked like an invitation to share. “I’m hopping off when we refuel.” Jay ate the few remaining chips one at a time. “Sheridan.”
“Ah. Me too. The ol’ ball-and-chain Eva drags me and her kid back every few months to look at birds.” He jerked his thumb at his wife and her six-year-old daughter across the aisle. “Chicks, am I right?” He sighed. “How about you? What’re you here for?”
“I’m not a bird-watcher,” said Jay. “I’m a people-watcher. I want to photograph religious activities on the islands.”
“Religious, huh?” He pronounced the word with a smug smile. “I see how it is.”
“I’m not religious per se,” said Jay. “I’m mostly curious how Sheridanian religion interacts with psychoactive bugs.”
“Oh? Yeah?” The man leaned close. “Now you sound like my kinda guy.” Jay turned to the window and crossed his arms. “Hey, it’s okay! Don’t tell me anything I shouldn’t know!” The man laughed. “Guys like us gotta stick together, am I right?”
Jay cringed at the haunting image of ‘sticking together’ with the man, trapped with his orb-like belly inside his red Hawaiian shirt. He reminded Jay of an itty-bitty Hurricane Planet. “Do you like anime, Mr. Hurricane?”
Each seat’s headrest held a screen for canned TV. “I’m impressed. They’ve got LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration.” Before Mr. Hurricane could interject, Jay donned headphones and hummed the opening theme.