(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
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 wrote the question in his notepad.
Disembarking, Jay realized the plane’s flight-attendants and the runway’s crew-members were like Faith had described in her 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 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 phone 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 him 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.
In the same room for 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 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, a middle-aged 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 his 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. “[After covering China, we toured every country and Antarctica. Now we’re exploring every island.]”
Jay took out his notepad and pen to ask some questions, but he was interrupted by Mr. Hurricane. “Ching chong, bing bong!”
“Um. Wow,” said Jay. “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.”
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.” 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 searching for his name on a list of people 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 know 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.” From customs, Zhang, Li Ying, and Mr. Hurricane’s family joined Jay at the kiosk. Michael grinned and greeted each of them with 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.]”
“Oran dora, Michael. [Don’t lose any this time.]”
“[I think some are American, so 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? I learn lots of languages.]”
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 walked 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 circled around the entire 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.
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 annotated their Atlas.
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. Of the seven touring brothers, four 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 they might overflow, but whenever a crab was about to fall from the bucket, 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 be alone!”
After a long, lazy lunch, Michael led the tour out another automatic door onto warm white sand cooling with the evening. The airport filled the half of the island behind them, and the half before them was a crowded bazaar of colorful tents where merchants openly smoked odorous bug-sticks. Michael instructed the 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. 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, who was 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 plush.”
“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.
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 in 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-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. “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. “Even on the clearest days, the peak stays 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 we were hiding 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.”
“Oh, shit. That’s one way to handle colonialism.” Jay sketched a quick map of the Islands of Sheridan, realizing the strict filters foreigners were fed through. Visitors began on the smallest island browsing unobjectionable goods in runway gift-shops. When they passed customs they could buy bug-sticks in the bazaar. For access to centipedes they had to pass through the second island, proving themselves worthy of the main one. Anyone demanding more would disappear above the clouds. 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 train to join Virgil Green at the top of the trail. Enjoy their frolicking as we hike uphill.”
The men and women flanking them began to dance like birds tempting 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 the worms the dancing tempted up. He deleted those photos and angled his camera upward to catch only dancers in the frame.
As they climbed the hill, the pines became smaller and sparser. The dancers flanking them eventually broke formation to stay in the thick forest. The tour finally entered a clearing where at least thirty or forty bald men and women, each between thirty and forty years old, walked in a circle, clockwise. They wore only loincloths made of rags, 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 and 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. “Every day, the matriarch lays an egg. Every day, an egg hatches. Without the congregation’s constant worship, the eggs would be infertile!”
A sixty-or-seventy year-old man with robes of sea-foam 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.
He 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! Don’t touch me!”
“You were told not to photograph birds! Delete them!”
“It’s my phone! I’ll do what I want! You can’t take my rights from me!”
“When you applied for the tour, you signed a waiver!”
“With an H, good luck getting that to hold up in court!”
Eva groaned. “Henry…” As if she’d done it a hundred times before, she used both hands to cover Lilly’s eyes and ears.
“Delete them!” said Michael.
Henry flexed. Jay wasn’t impressed. “Or what?“
“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!”
“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 before he sketched the scene in pen.
Henry showed them his phone and deleted the photos. “Okay, they’re gone! Alright? Fucking fascists!”
The tour-group shared a dinner of fish flavored with herbs and berries Michael brought from his family-restaurant, 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 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 half 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?” She 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. “I don’t sell those shells,” said the ferryman. “Those are 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 of the cabin, but however much space he had to himself, Jay kept on 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. LuLu’s anonymous author, 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 bird is okay.”
Michael shook his head. “I’m afraid the matriarch usually puts blind little birds like that out of their misery. But don’t worry—most fledglings don’t survive adolescence anyway.”
“Aw. 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 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. That why worms which know better tend to stick together.” 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 twenty-eight children we taught to stitch plush birds to sell in runway gift-shops. They 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 figure 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.”
“It’s fine, I got extras. I bought armloads back at the bazaar.” Henry spread a handful of bug-sticks. That explained 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 dealing 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 said nothing, but Henry kept going. “How do you get your bugs past the dogs? 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.
“What, really?” Henry put his hands on his hips. “Oh, I get it. You’ll stash your supply in the seashells you’re shipping home. That’s smart, Jay. No wonder you blew fifty 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. Are you smuggling the hard stuff? Centipedes? You gotta show me how. I found your passport, after all. 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?”
“We should team up back in America. Like a gang, you know what I mean?”
“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! Back off!” 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. “You might’ve broken my glasses, you turd! I just wanted to see what I’m up against, bro, why you gotta be so violent like that?” Jay just glared and shook his head. Lio sneered as he retreated to his cot. “Jadie’s a girl’s name, gaylord.”
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 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 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 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. “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. 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: metalsmithing, 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 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, 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 underside of this island. Children climb it every day, just to ride the river down.” Lilly liked hearing that.
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 just sighed audibly and thinned his lips. He’d have phrased 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 circle around the island took four hours. The second circle took half that, and the third circle took half that. The half of the island opposite the river was inhabited quite 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 underneath the bridges shouting and splashing, riding the river to the coast. Lilly was excited to try it too, giving the six-year-old impressive stamina.
Hamlets used the fresh river-water to grow carrots, berries, nuts, and grains, which the tour had 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 eyes surrounded antennae pregnant with pollen. As sunset neared and the forest darkened, 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 whose wings were wrapped together. “Eva, gimme my lighter.”
Eva clutched her purse. “Henry, you told me 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: all three men wordlessly agreed 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, 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, but instead marched with proud, arthritic plod. Thankfully the aspiring monks still hid their nudity behind the birds they walked between. The birds nervously eyed woven nests left 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 stopped at the last hamlet and 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 taken pictures of the stars, unfiltered by light or pollution. “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 had said bird-art was only allowed after the introduction of photography, but the statue looked far older than that, and the bird seemed to be wearing robes. 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.”
The fourth circle around the island took half an hour. The fifth circle took half that, and the sixth circle took half that. By the light of the lantern and the full moon, Jay hiked safely even as the trail hugged a steep drop on one side and a sheer cliff-face on the other. Uneven steps were carved into slick rocks lodged in the mountainside. Jay panted up such a flight to find it was the last, and now he had to hoist himself over the boulders unaided. He encountered the river for a final time as it flowed from its source-spring. There was no bridge, so he removed his shoes and socks to ford the current. He met no birds as he hiked. He still saw woven nests, but each nest held at most two porcelain eggs. Each egg wore painted lacework marking former matriarchs of Virgil Green’s congregation. Jay took photos of each nest and bowed his head out of respect.
When a stone ledge blocked him, Jay hoisted up the lantern and the box of pastries and climbed to them on his hands and knees. Finally he found a wide, paved path to the white-walled monastery. Jay lay on cool flagstones and snuffed his lantern to conserve oil. Fireflies would light his way.
“Hey. Hey!” Jay sat up. Lio stood below the ledge and raised his backpack. Jay wondered how many scrapes he’d endured refusing to remove his sunglasses, as if the moon was too bright. Lio shook his backpack at him. “Take it!”
“I’m not gonna carry your backpack for you.”
“C’mon, I know you’re taller than I am. Don’t lord it over me. Just take it!”
Jay sighed and hefted Lio’s backpack onto the ledge. “Did you have trouble hiking in the dark?”
Lio tossed a glowing jar. Jay, already holding Lio’s backpack, barely caught the jar before it hit the ground. “Hey, careful with that!” Lio kicked the ledge as he struggled climbing to Jay. “Lilly caught ’em for me.”
The jar was filled with fireflies. They flapped madly against the glass, struggling for air and signaling for help with their taillights. Half had already died. “Need a hand?” asked Jay. “Or two?”
“I got it,” Lio wheezed. Sweat dripped down his face. “I got it. I got it.” He finally pulled himself onto the ledge. “See? I don’t need your charity.”
“Hmm.” Jay gave Lio the backpack he’d lifted on his behalf. When Lio took it, Jay had a hand free to retrieve his lantern.
Lio smirked. “You needed a lantern, huh? I guess not all of us can be self-made men.” He smacked Jay on the back.
Jay pretended the smack made him stumble and he smashed Lio’s jar of fireflies on rocks beside the path. The survivors escaped, flashing thank-yous. “Whoops.”
“Ah, fuck! C’mon! Typical monkeying around.” Lio slung his backpack over his shoulders and started toward the monastery. “You can pay me back later.”
“I’ll have to apologize to Lilly.” Jay picked up his sugar-powdered pastries and walked the path. The white-walled monastery was close enough to count candles in its windows. “I can’t imagine you followed me here to visit the monastery, did you?”
Lio scanned the island all the way to the cloudy peak. “Did you seriously pay two hundred bucks for a tour just to come all this way and meet some bums in a nursing home?”
“Did you seriously come all this way to smuggle some bugs?”
“Hell yeah! Check it out.” Lio pulled his backpack to one shoulder and unzipped it. He carried nothing but glass jars. Half were packed with bug-sticks. The rest were empty. “I brought extra jars just for this! I know you’re collecting centipedes, man! You gotta teach me! Don’t pretend you’re really here to fuck with monks!”
“I’m really here to fuck with monks,” said Jay. Lio scoffed. “If you want centipede, maybe you should join me. Only Virgil Blue can properly prepare them.” Lio sniggered and smiled just to show his teeth. “I’ve heard, improperly prepared, the high is like being sliced by searing knives, or crawling through hot barbed wire.”
“You said you weren’t religious. You’re trying to trick me into your beta mindset, but that won’t work on an alpha like me.”
Jay shrugged. “I’ve smoked centipede properly prepared, and it’s not an experience I’d really recommend.”
“Yeah, I’ve smoked ’em too, and you’re right, they’re not worth the hype. But because of the hype, the thick ones sell for a thousand bucks a pop! Skip the monks and get centipedes with me! You still owe me a favor for finding your passport.”
The pair approached the monastery door. The white walls were tiled with thousands of sand-dollars. “I can’t believe you dragged your family along, just to pretend they dragged you.”
“That’s not the only reason! My dad’s rich,” said Lio. “Gotta show Lilly the ropes of running a business. I’m tryin’ to show you the ropes, too, but you don’t wanna learn. Guys like me gotta teach you a little thing called responsibility.”
Jay’s father was fairly wealthy, too, but brought him on business-trips abroad to teach him a completely different kind of responsibility than whatever Lio was offering. “Bleh. I’ve learned enough about your ropes seeing how you treat your wife and kid.” Jay photographed the monastery sans flash—the candlelight was perfect. “If I were you, I’d visit Virgil Blue. Maybe the Virgils could teach you to grow your own crickets so you can quit wasting time and money smuggling. You’d save on family-therapy, too, but I suspect not much.”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job!” Lio’s face was reddening like a Hurricane Planet. “I’m a free man, no one tells me what to do!”
“Sure, sure. Whatever you say.” Jay felt no obligation to help Lio, but would’ve felt wrong leaving him up here alone in the night. “When I’m done with the monastery, I’ll relight my lantern. You’ll see it if you don’t go too far. Then I’ll lead you through the dark back to the inn.”
“I didn’t ask for your help!”
“I didn’t ask for your company, but here you are. We’re both doing favors tonight.”
Lio raised a shaking fist and uncurled a finger to point at Jay. “You should be begging to collect centipedes with me. I’d teach you how to be a free man.”
Jay blinked in disbelief. “What? To be a free man, I gotta follow your orders?”
“No! Don’t you get it? Everyone else is telling us both what to do, so I’m the only one you should listen to!”
“I don’t think you know what freedom even is, let alone manliness. You make yourself the victim of everything you see because you can only justify your behavior by pretending to be oppressed. It’s puny, and I feel sorry for you.”
“I’m puny? I’m not my wife’s doormat, and that makes me puny?” He shoved Jay, but Jay didn’t even lean away. “I wanna teach you to be a real man, and that makes me puny? You’re not a man at all!”
Jay just laughed. “Okay, okay, you caught me. I’m more than just a man! I’m a goddamn giant anime space-robot bigger than the fucking universe, and I don’t fit in your crab bucket!”
“Oh no. You’re one of those, huh?” Jay didn’t ask what Lio meant, because Lio himself didn’t seem to know either. “What’s in your pants?”
“Another, bigger space-robot, waiting to surprise you!”
“Ugh! You ‘people’ are all the same.”
Jay narrowed his eyes. He heard Lio’s quote-unquote. “What do you mean, ‘you people?’ “
“See? Playing the race-card, like I knew you would.”
Jay looked left and right, dumbfounded. “We’re the only ones out here, Lio, and I never mentioned race.”
“Now you’re trying to make me look like a racist, so it’s totally obvious you’re the real racist!” The more Lio spoke, the redder and redder his face became.
Jay couldn’t resist throwing fuel on the fire. “You’re digging yourself deeper and deeper into that victim-complex you call a skull. I wish I could help you, but the help you need, you’d call an insult.”
Lio shoved Jay against the monastery wall. Jay wasn’t restrained by Lio’s arms so much as his belly. He guessed Lio weighed at least 350 pounds. It was frankly impressive his hubris alone had carried him all the way up here. “Last chance, dipshit! Collect centipedes for me or else!“
“Or else what?“
Lio reached into his Hawaiian shirt’s breast pocket and pulled out a fucking knife. Jay’s heart beat like a drum. “Betcha wonder how I got this, huh?” Jay didn’t really care. The knife’s hilt was a cool-looking dragon which Jay might’ve appreciated under less dire circumstances. “It’s made of glass, so it’s a cinch to sneak onto airplanes. Betcha wish you’d thought of that, huh?” Jay squirmed. “What’s the matter? Why are you acting so scared? I’m just showing you the cool knife I’ll let you use!”
Lio’s poorly veiled threat snapped something in Jay. He wasn’t sure where this confidence came from, but he felt like he’d seen death before and would gladly face it again before he played by Lio’s rules. “Martyr me, motherfucker!” Jay spat on Lio’s face. “I’ll show you how a free man dies!”
“You—You’re threatening me! You just threatened me! You’re making me do this to protect myself!” Lio jabbed the knife at Jay, pivoting to avoid stabbing his own stomach. The pivot gave Jay room to wriggle, so Lio snapped his knife against the monastery wall. It was even more fragile than Jay expected from glass mall-knife. “Hey! You broke my knife! Apologize!”
Jay could hardly breathe under Lio’s flab. “Fuck off!”
“Apologize or I’ll beat the worms out of you like an egg-headed bird-worshipper, and chuck your corpse in the river!“
“I’d never waste fear on a scrawny punk like you!”
Lio threw a punch. He telegraphed the strike early enough for Jay to lean just a little left. Lio’s fist cracked open on the monastery wall. “Aaugh!” He backed up, releasing Jay, shaking his bloody broken fist. His fingers were busted and misaligned. Shards of sand-dollar were lodged between his knuckles like shattered teeth. “You broke my hand! You did this to me on purpose!“
“Leave, Lio! Go back to the inn!” Jay’s heart beat faster than it ever had before. “No one on our tour will care to help you, because they’ve met you before, but maybe the innkeepers will bandage you up to keep your blood off their carpets!”
Lio swore and wiped Jay’s spit from his face. “Useless faggot.” He walked off the path, toward the centipede-bushes, cradling his broken fist. He stumbled on a rock and finally deigned to remove his sunglasses, which he hooked on the neck of his Hawaiian shirt. Still he struggled in the night. “You broke my jar! How can I find centipede-bushes in the dark like this?”
“Your daughter caught fireflies all on her own. Ask her to teach you, unless you’d feel emasculated. And for her sake, and Eva’s, don’t climb above the clouds. Michael told me—“
“Michael told me, Michael told me!” mimicked Lio. “Go ahead. Blow some monks! You’ll be distracting them for me.” He swiped an open jar over fireflies. When he caught none, he swore with language too colorful to print.
“Call me what you want,” muttered Jay. Lio continued to do so until his voice faded in the distance. Finally alone, Jay wiped Lio’s blood off the front wall with a sock from his backpack. Then he knocked on the wooden monastery door. While his heart-rate settled, Jay realized he’d been right to introduce himself as Jadie. The fake name kept ephemeral armor around him, like he wore saran wrap. Lio didn’t even believe Jay was his real name. He knocked again and capped his camera. He wondered if he’d have the chance to photograph the monastery in daylight. Up close, the candles made the walls of sand-dollars look like scrutinizing eyes. Jay knocked a third time, vowing if no answer came he would leave the monks alone.
Footsteps approached and the wooden door popped ajar. A bald woman, about sixty years old with rosy skin and olive robes, peeked through the crack. “Oran dora. [Can I help you?]”
“Oran dora.” Jay hoped he’d studied his phrasebook well enough. “[I’m Jay,]” he attempted. “[I have gifts.]”
“[We’ve already got enough sand-dollars.]” The woman’s skepticism melted when Jay showed her the box of pastries. “[Thank you! Please?]”
“[Please.]” Jay allowed her a pastry. She kept the doorway narrow. “[I also have a cricket for Virgil Jango Skyy.]”
“[Did you buy it locally?]”
“I’m sorry? [I don’t speak much.]”
The woman fought for English words. “Who gave you cricket?”
“[An American friend,]” said Jay. “Faith Featherway.”
“Faith Featherway? [You have good connections.]” The woman opened the door. “[Come in! We’ve been expecting you.]” Left and right, hallways of monks’ quarters were cordoned with tapestries of every solid color. The hallways curved around a grassy open-air courtyard, so the monastery was shaped like a donut. The woman led Jay onto the grass, where a hundred bald and silent monks sat cross-legged under the stars. No two monks shared both the color of their skin and the color of their robes. All of them faced the back of the courtyard, where the monastery’s wings met and a bell-tower rose. “[You brought enough for everyone.]” The woman opened Jay’s box of pastries. “[Right?]”
Jay felt compelled to count his fingers: ten. This was real as it was surreal. He handed a pastry to each monk. Their posture remained perfect and their eyes remained closed as they reached wordlessly for their pastry and put it in their lap. The closer Jay came to the bell-tower in the back, the older the monks he met. The last two monks wore sky-blue and navy, and while the sky-clad monk was doubtlessly the oldest Jay could see, with aged leathery hide, the monk in navy had a heavy hood and a silver mask, so Jay had no clue of their age, gender, or even skin-color. That navy monk sat in a woven nest like those commemorating birds along the trail, warming porcelain eggs nestled around them.
When Jay held a sugar-powdered pastry for the sky-clad monk, he bopped Jay’s hand from below to toss the pastry in the air. The monk caught it in his mouth without even looking, giggled like a schoolboy, and opened his eyes. He had one black pupil and one moon-like cataract, large and white as the pastry had been. “Oran dora,” he whispered.
“Oran dora,” whispered Jay. He held the last pastry to the monk in navy, but they didn’t respond. Their silver mask had a beak, bulbous eyes criss-crossed like a bug’s compound lenses, and two long, silver feathers on top.
“Virgil Blue cannot sense you,” said the sky-clad monk with the cataract. “Keep your pastry. You’ve hiked hard to get here.”
“I did,” said Jay, “because I have gifts for Virgil Jango Skyy.”
“Then sit beside him.” Virgil Jango Skyy pat the grass with age-veined fingers. “You must be weary from the elevation. The air’s thicker down here where I am.”
Jay sat and unzipped his backpack. “A tour-guide named Michael gave me this letter.”
“It’s not addressed to me,” said Jango.
“I know, but I hoped you could deliver it to Michael’s children, nieces, and nephews.” Jay pulled Faith’s envelope from his backpack. “I’m afraid this one’s not addressed to you either. My friend Faith Featherway once told me she met you, and I never completely believed her until this very instant.”
Jango admired the front of Faith’s holiday-card. He opened the card and inspected her hand-drawn fox. He turned her cricket. “Excellent wing-work.”
“Faith grew it, and our friend Dan wrapped it. Faith said she owed you a bug-stick. Is that why you expected me?”
“I expected Faith, but an ambassador with her banner will suffice. There are no coincidences! Welcome to Virgil Blue’s courtyard. Did you climb here just to give gifts?”
“I’m a photographer.” Jay showed Jango his camera. “Faith said you gave her centipede-powder in Wyoming. She shared it with me, and I had to meet the monks behind the bugs. Before I left, Faith gave me that card and cricket. I know she’d want to be here if not for personal circumstances.”
Jango took the camera and scrolled through photos. He had unbecoming digital-savvy for someone so old. “Wise of you to skip pictures of Virgil Green’s congregation. They’re quite protective of their matriarch.” At the next photo, Jango flinched. The reaction made Jay flinch as well, but as Jango examined more photos, he laughed and punched Jay in the shoulder. “You had me worried with the mailbox!”
Jango returned Jay’s camera, displaying the stone statue of a bird sheltering a toddler on a box of candles. “The mailbox. My vision isn’t what it used to be, and that’s a small screen. I thought it was a real bird.”
“Oh, no! I wouldn’t have taken photos if it were.”
“Why’s it filled with candles? I’m expecting a package.”
“Michael said it was a shrine to a bird who saved a child.”
“Eeeccht.” Jango hocked with disapproval. “Back when any-and-all bird-forgery was forbidden, Nemo, the first Virgil Blue, carved that statue to depict the Biggest Bird. Only his holy hands could craft it. That’s no child, it’s Nemo, full-grown, for scale. It’s a donation-box, but I use it as my address for incoming mail. I guess nowadays it’s a shrine to a bird who saved a child.” Jango stood, bracing himself against the bell-tower, and took a cane taller than himself leaning on the wall. The cane was like a giant wing-wrapped cricket, ten black spots around its gnarled tip. “This reminds me of a story. What’s your name, fledgling?”
“Jay.” Jay hesitated to help the old monk, because he seemed able enough on his own.
“Jay, bring me that brass incense-burner.” Jango unwrapped Faith’s cricket. Dan’s wing-work had preserved the odorous exoskeleton. Jay opened the brass burner and Jango stuck the cricket in it, butt-down. He shook one sleeve and a purple lighter fell out. He used it to light the cricket’s ten black eyes, and Jay closed the burner. “Oran doran, doran dora. Virgils and students, tonight’s closing remarks will be in English to accommodate our visitor. Enjoy your pastries! Jay brought tonight’s dessert and tonight’s bug-stick.”
The crowd looked at Jay just as he started to chew his pastry. He panicked and swallowed. “The bug-stick was wrapped by Virgil Orange,” he said, not really knowing why. The woman who opened the door smiled and waved at him.
“Jay is a photographer. Everyone say cheese!” The monks all smiled until Jay took a photo. “Jay is friends with Faith Featherway, whom I’ve met twice before: once about five or six years ago in Wyoming, once ten years prior to that quite locally.” Jay couldn’t believe this—surely Faith would’ve remembered to mention it?—but he wouldn’t interrupt. He prepared his notepad and pen as Jango lectured to the congregation. “Once, Virgil Jango Skyy was sitting beside Virgil Blue on a misty morning,” said the old monk, in the third person. “Jango stood and pat dew from his robes. ‘Virgil Blue, have you considered retirement?’ Virgil Blue said nothing. ‘You’ve said nothing for years. You’re stationary like a thorny centipede-bush. It might be time to choose a successor.’ Still, Virgil Blue said nothing. So Jango decided to take a walk. He left the monastery and stepped down steep cliffs—there were no carved steps so long ago, but Jango was spry enough to make do—and greeted birds hiking up. ‘Oran dora!‘ “
The students concurred. “Oran dora!“
“At each bridge, Jango drank from the river and bowed to Virgil Green’s island. He thanked Virgil Green for chasing snakes from Sheridan. ‘Oran dora!‘ “
“Jango came to a stone statue of a bird shading a man with its wings. The bird and man stood on a stone box with a hinged panel. Jango bowed to it. ‘Oran dora!‘ “
Even Jay joined. “Oran dora!” The cricket in the brass burner and the repetition of foreign phrases made Jay feel a trance coming on. He stopped taking notes to count his fingers again: still ten.
“Jango sat before the statue. He saw smoke seeping from the box’s hinged panel. He said, ‘Someone lit incense in this shrine. I should sit and contemplate the Biggest Bird until the incense burns down and the smoke stops seeping.’ So Jango sat and watched smoke seep from the box. Six silent minutes passed. ‘I’d like to see the incense directly, but I’m too old and achy to open the shrine’s hinged panel. I can only hope someone comes to help me, but if no one appears, I suppose it’s not the Mountain’s whim.’ No one appeared. After some time, Jango said, ‘If one of my students would miraculously open the shrine, I would be nothing but grateful.’
“Now the box opened and a monk-boy crawled out groveling for forgiveness. He wore red robes and held a lit cricket. ‘I’m sorry, Virgil Skyy! I know monks shouldn’t smoke outside ceremonies, so I found this hidden place to indulge. I didn’t know it was a shrine! I’ve spoilt holy ground!’
” ‘Don’t worry. This is just our mailbox. You’ve delivered my first package in ages. Pass me your bug-stick.’ Jango traded the cricket for a pine-needle. ‘When I was young, but not young as you, I sought to smoke a bug-stick within the white-walled monastery. Before sunrise, I sat in the furnace so my smoke wafted up the flue. Then Virgil Blue woke to bring logs. They opened the furnace and I blew smoke right in their face, before they wore the mask. They could’ve disowned me, but instead they taught me this: when you want to smoke a bug-stick, eat a pine-needle first. This promotes moderation. Now, away!’ The monk-boy ran, chewing the pine-needle.
“When the monk-boy left, Jango put the cricket to his lips. It was almost burned to the stem, so the smoke was harsh and made Jango cough. The cough hung in the air like a cloud. The cloud snowed into a heap and the heap addressed him. ‘Jangster! It’s you!’ ” Jay couldn’t take notes quickly enough to keep up with this bizarre development. The congregation just smiled and nodded like they’d heard this story before, which only intrigued Jay further. The woman who let him into the monastery didn’t speak much English; was the congregation only pretending to understand, or had they heard the story enough times in Sheridanian to follow along?
“Jango examined the smoldering cricket-butt. ‘I’ve lost my tolerance. I’m already having visions.’
” ‘Haha, I’m real, silly!’ The heap of snow vibrated and morphed into a fox. Its tail was icy fog. ‘I’m Faith Featherway! Don’t you remember me?’
” ‘I can’t say I do, and I really think I would.’
” ‘We met in Wyoming! I told you my friend had a cat named Django? You said you owed me a bug-stick, and you taught me to smoke them? You gave me centipede-powder!’ ” Jay was impressed with Jango’s impression of Faith. The old monk sounded just like her, a third or fourth his age, and the stiffness in his joints evaporated when he played her part.
” ‘I haven’t left the islands in decades. Why would I visit Wyoming? Why would I give you centipede-powder?’
” ‘You know, I meant to ask you the same questions,’ said Faith. ‘It was pretty puzzling! Here, take this.’ From behind her ear, she withdrew a cricket larger and more exquisitely wrapped than any Earthly specimen. Jango knew its origin waited in the next eternity on the orginal sun. ‘The Heart of the Mountain told me to exchange it for a lesson from the Virgils.’
” ‘On this island there’s just me and Blue, and the Blue Virgil isn’t in a speaking mood.’ Jango shook a white lighter from his sleeve. ‘Allow me the honor of administering your lesson.’ Jango and Faith walked to the river and he lit the cricket for her. Without opposable thumbs, she adopted a peculiar manner of smoking, lying down to rest the cricket on her forearm. ‘As an emissary from the Mountain’s Heart, the Biggest Bird, you must be a Zephyr. Correct?’
” ‘Nah, I’m just a Will-o-Wisp,’ said Faith. ‘I’m not even sure what a Zephyr is.’
” ‘Let me tell you about the Zephyrs, then. My knowledge of Zephyrs dates back to 1967, when I met Virgil Blue in Sheridan County, Kansas. I was almost thirty years old, and my younger brother, Jun Sakai, was fourteen.’ Jango took the cricket and puffed it.” Jay turned to a fresh page in his notepad. He needed more space to make a timeline for this story-within-a-story.
” ‘Wait,’ said Faith, ‘Sakai? I thought your name was Skyy.’
” ‘It is! I was born Itou Sakai. When World War II began, I was only four. My parents avoided the Japanese internment by moving to the middle of nowhere and changing their identities to an ambiguous nationality: Sakai became Skyy. They let me choose my own first name, and I picked Jango.’ Jango puffed again and returned the cricket to the fox.
” ‘Wow.’ Faith puffed. The white smoke she exhaled merged seamlessly with her cloudy tail. ‘That must’ve been rough!’
” ‘I knew nothing about the heritage we abandoned, and was too young to know the gravity of it all, but my parents were torn apart by guilt for their decisions. My brother was born after the war, so they gave him the traditional family name and tried submerging him in the culture I’d been denied. At the time, that meant Japanese animation, which I watched only over his shoulder. But one day, walking my brother home from high-school, we encountered Virgil Blue lecturing on a soap-box. To everyone who would listen, they said ‘Oran dora!‘ ‘ “
“Oran dora!” Jay scribbled his drying pen to coax more writing out of it. Jango’s dialogue-within-dialogue demanded additional ink.
” ‘Virgil Blue explained how the Zephyrs exist outside the Wheel of life and death. The Zephyrs came into being before the Wheel started spinning, and will continue being even after the Wheel stops—but while the Wheel spins, we mortals must become Zephyrs ourselves, to join the ongoing fight against the Hurricane, man’s primordial egregiousness. Jun wanted to leave Virgil Blue’s soapbox-lecture behind because his favorite cartoon was almost on, so I hurried him home and returned to hear everything Virgil Blue had to say. When they dismounted their soapbox, they told me they came to Kansas because its Sheridan County is the Sheridan with the lowest elevation on Earth, and they knew some poor worms needed to hear about the Biggest Bird. I was those poor worms! The very same week, I joined Virgil Blue’s flight back to the Islands of Sheridan.’
” ‘You know,’ said Faith, ‘my friends and I have watched an anime which sounds an awful lot like you’re describing, with the Zephyrs and a Wheel and all.’
” ‘I’m getting to that,’ said Jango. ‘On the Islands of Sheridan, Virgil Blue send me to study under Virgil Green. For many moons I danced with fledglings wearing only a wooden bird-mask and tail-feather skirt. I walked circles until my feet blistered and sat chanting until my pelvis ached. Virgil Green’s paradoxical questions pried my brain apart to show me the Biggest Bird. Winning Green’s approval, I swam to this main island. It took twelve hours. For six hours I swore I would drown, and for the other six I was drowning. When I crawled onto shore, a bird laid an egg in front of me and pierced the shell with its mate’s tail-feather. I drank the raw egg and it rejuvenated me. I hiked to the white-walled monastery in the manner of the birds, nude and sleeping in the road at night. At Virgil Blue’s monastery I earned this sky-blue robe, and I finally had the opportunity to send letters back home to Kansas. I sent my brother a letter every week for twenty years describing all I’d learned. He never responded.’
” ‘Aw. I’m sorry, Jangster!’
” ‘I didn’t mind. My attention was occupied by Virgil Blue’s library under the bell-tower there.’ Jango pointed to the bell-tower.” Jango pointed to the bell-tower. Jay felt buried in the story’s layers. ” ‘The bell-tower holds books from around the world and from the past, present, and future. Books from the future are reserved for Virgils to annotate as their relation to the Biggest Bird becomes clear. As a monk, it was my duty to read the already-annotated books in chronological order to cultivate my understanding. After twenty years of studying texts with philosophical and religious merit, I was floored when Virgil Blue gave me the most modern texts I was allowed to read, only partly-annotated: a whole series of comic-books which looked just like a Japanese cartoon my brother watched so long ago. I told Virgil Blue I recognized the art, and they shook a sleeve to reveal a plastic figurine. Virgil Blue explained they’d traveled to Tokyo to meet the author while they wrote and illustrated the comic in order to gain insight for annotations. The author, seeing how Virgil Blue owned the full series before the final issues were even conceived, knew the Virgil was divine and gifted them the figurine. Virgil Blue gave it to me and insisted I pass it on to my brother.
” ‘I flew to Kansas and found our childhood home, but strangers lived there now. I visited the local post-office to learn Jun’s new address: the basement of a nearby hotel. The hotel’s owner explained Jun lived in the basement in return for janitorial duties. I knocked on his door, received no answer, and so opened it. The smell told me he wasn’t a very good janitor, but his cramped little room was filled with art! Art hanging on the walls, art taped to the ceiling, art stuffed under his dirty mattress! All of it depicted giant humanoid robots and their crews, shooting across space or leaping upon the surface of the moon. The art was sequential, divided into panels to tell a story.
” ‘Jun himself was hunched over his desk, aiming a spotlight at a pencil-sketch. He was thirty-six years old, pudgier than I had left him, and had a long, unwashed mane. He wasn’t happy to see me: when I told him I was a monk, not a Virgil, he remarked, ‘Mom and Dad told you not to leave Kansas. Now you’re back after they’re dead, and you’re not even enlightened yet!’ I felt so ashamed: I’d left my family behind! Trying to make up for it, I asked him how his comic was coming along. ‘It’s not a comic, it’s a manga. Not that you’d care! You always mocked me for watching cartoons and reading comics.’ I apologized, knowing it would never be enough. Then I asked him about a cartoon—an anime, rather—which I remembered watching with him, about combining dragon-robots fighting an alien menace.’
” ‘ ‘Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo. The Great Dragon’s Eternal Guardianship.’ At last Jun looked me in the eye. ‘You know, that title’s mistranslated. They probably thought the first word was dairyuu—‘ He wrote two symbols on scratch-paper: a star and a moon in a hat beside a serpent.’ ” Jay knew which characters Jango meant. He wrote them in his notepad: 大龍. ” ‘ ‘The great dragon. But actually, it was daitatsu—‘ More symbols: the same star and a foot stomping on a snake.’ ” Jay drew those, too: 大起. ” ‘ ‘Initiating political action. Literally, to stand up. It’s a pun, because the word ‘dragon’ is sometimes pronounced tatsu. All of humanity fights as one, represented by the fully-combined dragon-robot.’ ‘ “
” ‘ ‘This one?’ I gave him Virgil Blue’s plastic figurine and explained how I’d come to receive it. Jun turned the figurine over and over: each of the robot’s limbs was a different color, combined with mechanical seams. In the show, each limb could separate into an independent fighting-machine. He put it on his desk and tested the articulation. He was impressed by the figurine’s quality, and thanked me for bringing it, but didn’t believe my story for an instant. Why would this manga be so important as to appear in such a fantastical library before it was even written? I chewed my tongue. ‘When Virgil Green described the Biggest Bird with paradoxes, I wondered how one vessel could contain such contradictory aspects. Virgil Blue taught me that the Biggest Bird is the Mountain’s messiah, hence its rarer name, the Heart of the Mountain. To me, this was worse! The Mountain contains all things, so I didn’t care that it contained contradictions. Shouldn’t the Biggest Bird, the Mountain’s messenger, be lesser, not equally complex? But when I saw Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo in the library, I understood. The fully-combined dragon-robot couldn’t be piloted by all of humanity at once because disparate parts will always be at opposition with one another. Instead, groups of nations each nominated a pilot who could put their differences aside to fight the alien menace, so the fully-combined dragon-robot represents all the Earth trimmed of fat and ready for battle. In the same way, we cannot comprehend the Mountain, but we can comprehend its Heart. So the Mountain paints its contrast in the Biggest Bird.’ ‘ “
There were plenty of unbelievable elements to this story, but to Jay, the least believable part was Faith letting Jango speak for so long without interruption. Maybe Jango was telling a longer version of the story for Jay than he told for Faith.
” ‘Jun doubtfully sucked his lips, but eventually shook his head in reluctant acceptance. ‘You asked about my manga, didn’t you, Jango? It’s inspired by Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo, but that’s not my only inspiration.’ He opened a desk-drawer. My heart burst when I saw he’d saved every letter I’d ever sent him! ‘Don’t hold this against me, brother, but I’m making this manga out of spite. While you sent me letters about your magical experiences in Sheridan, our parents demanded I become fluent in Japanese. They made me read them a newspaper front-to-back before they gave up the ghost. I came up with this manga as a way to make fun of your stupid stories about islands and Wheels and Zephyrs.’ He showed me more pages of art, scenes of the Biggest Bird on the Islands of Sheridan exactly as I had described to him. ‘I stole your God and secularised them into a bumbling scientist with poor bedside manner. I stole your Zephyrs and reduced them to giant space-robots with laser-hearts. My goal was demoting and destroying what you loved and hoped to share.’
” ‘ ‘Brother!’ I hugged him. ‘I love this, and I love you! It’s common-knowledge on the Islands of Sheridan that the Biggest Bird’s act of creation is reflected in art across the world. Tearing down her image and rebuilding it is, itself, an act of worship. I can’t read the cover; what’s the name of your manga?’
” ‘ ‘LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration. The LuLu comes from the names of two main characters: Lucille and Lucia. Transliterating to Japanese, LuLu is pronounced RuRu, so I use this kanji with the same pronunciation. To me it looks a bit like a winged woman holding a chainsaw, the image of their largest robot, the Galaxy Zephyr, wielding the Wheel.’ ‘ ” Jay knew the kanji. He wrote it down: 縷々. The second kanji, like the pointed spike of a blooming flower, was shorthand for repeating the previous kanji once more. ” ‘ ‘RuRu means continuous and unbroken to a meticulous extent. To defeat the Hurricane, the Zephyrs must fight on behalf of life’s every aspect—even the ignorant greed which the Hurricane represents. Its worms must be collected in the Wheel.’ ‘ “
” ‘I don’t get it,’ said Faith. ‘Why do the Zephyrs have to save anything about the Hurricane? Wouldn’t Earth be better off without them?’
” ‘The Hurricane is in all of us, and if we think we can get rid of it, we prove it’s all we ever were,’ said Jango. ‘But collecting the Hurricane’s worms is not approving of its flaws! Collecting the Hurricane’s worms is inoculation against those flaws. In fact, collecting the Hurricane’s worms gives us permission to condemn them. I’m sure it’s as true in LuLu’s as it is in Sheridanian culture. Anyway, my brother told me he never planned to publish his manga or even share it with anyone, but I encouraged him to do so. Bring it to Japan! Animate it for everyone to enjoy! There are so many worms who should hear about the Biggest Bird! I told him I would soon request promotion to Virgil. I’d take the place of Virgil Green for a few years, helping laymen become monks, but then I’d be allowed to read library books from the future. If I found LuLu’s among them, I would demand to annotate it, and if I didn’t find LuLu’s, then when he finished the series, he’d have to send me a copy, because it belongs in the library. Then I returned to Sheridan. I still write to my brother, and he sometimes writes back. His insights helped me finish annotating Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo for Virgil Blue.’ “
Jango sniffed smoke from the brass burner before concluding. “Faith and Jango finished the cricket while walking to the monastery. ‘I really like your brother’s anime,’ said Faith, ‘but I’m kinda hung up on the timeline here. Where do I fit in?’
” ‘The Heart of the Mountain sent you from the next eternity back to the mortal plane. Causality collapsed when you crossed.’ Jango climbed a rocky ledge. Faith leapt it like she was weightless. ‘Clearly our meeting in Wyoming hasn’t yet occurred. Where do we find each other?’
” ‘Sheridan Cliff-Side College.’
” ‘I suppose my pilgrimage is predestined by the Mountain,’ said Jango. ‘I’ll bring you a bug-stick. I owe you.’
” ‘Don’t forget the centipede!’ said Faith. ‘My friend and I had lots of fun. But powdered! I’d be creeped out by all the legs.’ Steam rose from her tail. ‘Uh oh. I’m evaporating. How embarrassing!’
” ‘You’re returning to the Mountain,’ said Jango. The fox’s snow-torso bubbled and popped. ‘Oran dora, Faith Featherway.’
” ‘I was only here for, like, twenty minutes,’ said Faith. ‘This sucks.’
“As quickly as she’d appeared, Faith disintegrated into mist.” Virgil Jango Skyy smiled at Jay, penning the last of the story in his notepad. “Consider this story, my students. I hope you all sleep soundly.”