Three junior monks lifted Virgil Blue from his wheelchair onto the podium, where he sat cross-legged. His silver mask’s bird-beak barely moved with the ancient man’s slow breath. Under the mask and navy robes Faith couldn’t see a single inch of skin. The suggestion of folded hands in his sleeves was her only clue someone sat beneath the cloth.
True to the introduction, Virgil Blue’s lecture was silent. SC-SC students leaned in to listen for the faintest sounds but heard nothing. A murmur crept through the crowd. In the front rows the congregation of monks crossed their legs and focused on the Blue Virgil.
Faith shrugged. “That’s a cool mask. I should make a bird mask for BeatBax.”
“Quiet,” her uncle said. He squinted into the bird’s buggy eyes. “Are you getting this, Faith?”
“Huh?” Faith saw his glassy stare. He was lost, now, in the bird’s eyes. A hush blanketed the lecture hall as each student floated in the silver mask. Faith sighed and clasped her hands on one knee. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”
Her uncle raised one finger to shush her but didn’t even bother to lift it halfway. He just stared at the Virgil.
Faith rocked in her chair. “I’ll wait for you outside. I wanna look at the trees.”
Outside the lecture hall Faith kicked off her shoes and bounded to a fence by the cliff. From the fence she enjoyed the alpine meadows and sparse woods spread below her. Clouds cast drifting shadows on the treetops. Trees and clouds alike bent to the breeze.
Behind her the lecture hall doors opened again. The elderly sky-clad monk pointed the spotted end of his cane to the peaks of the Bighorn Mountains. “Not bad,” he said. “Not bad at all.” Faith wasn’t sure how to react, so she watched him amble to the fence. He saw through the mountains to a horizon only he could detect.
“I’m sorry I left your teacher’s lecture,” she said.
“That’s okay. Few can hear Virgil Blue’s silent speech, and some never need know its wisdom.” The monk brushed his robin’s-egg robes. “My name is Virgil Skyy. You may call me Jango.”
“Jango?” Faith smiled and curled white-blonde hair around one finger. “My friend Jilli has a cat named Django.”
“There are no coincidences. Such simultaneity is a message from the Mountain,” said Virgil Jango Skyy. “A similar message brought us here today. We live on the Islands of Sheridan. A trip to Sheridan, Wyoming was inevitable. It was destined by the Mountain.”
Faith nodded but turned away. She watched a deer bounce over rivers and rocks. “I don’t want to burst your bubble but there are a lot of Sheridans in America. It’s a common city name, like Springfield.”
“Wyoming’s Sheridan has the highest elevation. Indeed, these mountains represent an admirable effort.” He stuck his cane in the grass. “But Virgil Blue’s monastery is on the main island of Sheridan and I swear, it’s twice the height. You can’t see its peak.”
“Is that where the birds live?” Faith leaned on the fence and fished the brochure from her purse. She showed him the picture of the little flightless birds. “They’re adorable!”
Jango shivered and stuck one finger in his mouth.
Faith hid the brochure. “Is something wrong?”
“Those fledglings are supremely sacred,” he said. “Their photography is absolutely forbidden. It’s not your fault; you did not take the picture, and it is a superstition in any case. But when tourists visit our islands we take great pains reminding them to photograph anything but the birds.”
“Gosh, sorry. I just have this friend who loves birds. I’d love to know more about them.”
Jango’s lips found a sideways smile. “On the islands we tell a story about the birds. The Biggest Bird birthed the islands and the clouds and taught her people to use the island herbs.”
“I like stories.” Faith smiled. “Tell me a story!”
“Do you think I came here to tell you the secrets of reality through metaphor?” He bent his cane at her. “That’s an Orientalist perspective, if you ask me. It’s not the South Pacific’s duty to educate you. Your Colonialism will not spread to Sheridan. You want the monk treatment, be a monk.”
“Sheesh, alright,” said Faith. “I’m sorry, Jangster.”
Jango shook his head and turned back to the forest bowl. “Young woman, is your name, by chance, Faith Featherway?”
“Um. Yes.” Faith checked her green blouse. “I’m not wearing a name tag. How did you do that?”
“Look.” He pointed his cane over the fence at a white fox skulking a mountainside.
Faith almost hurled herself off the cliff. “Oh my gosh! It has cute little whiskers!”
“You’ve got better eyes than I do, Ms. Featherway.” Jango laughed. He had two black irises but one held a gray plaque island in its pupil. “You won’t believe me, but we’ve met once before. You wouldn’t remember.”
“Hm?” Faith tilted her head at him without taking her eyes off the fox. “No, I don’t remember.”
“I owe you a favor.” Jango shook an arm and something fell from his sleeve into his hand. “This should make us even. You won’t believe how I got it through customs.”
“Oh! I always wanted to try one of these.” Faith took the cricket he offered and spun it in her fingers. The wings were tightly twisted around the body. The stem on its abdomen acted as a natural filter. “There’s a guy at my school who always wears dark sunglasses, and he sells these things. His don’t look nearly as neat.”
Virgil Skyy pursed his lips. “In our monastic life crickets are revered as a link to the Mountain, meant only for the Islands of Sheridan. I hesitated even to bring one for you. But if this sunglasses-wearing man brings people closer to the Mountain, then so be it.” He shook his other arm. A green lighter fell from his sleeve. “Please, allow me the first puff. The essence of cricket-eye can overwhelm the uninitiated.”
Faith watched him put the cricket stem in his mouth and light the ten beady eyes on fire. He breathed a cloud over the forest and passed the insect back to her. She hesitated to put the stem to her lips. “You know, you speak really good English for a native to a secluded South Pacific island.”
“Inhale like you’re sucking a straw. Hold the smoke in your mouth until it cools, then inhale deeply. Hold it, then exhale.” Virgil Jango Skyy guided her breath with his hands like he was helping her parallel park. “I live on the Islands of Sheridan but I was born in Kansas City. I didn’t begin my study with Virgil Blue until my thirties. Back then you couldn’t get crickets in America. Virgil Blue taught me to smoke them himself.”
“Whoa!” Faith coughed a cloud over the fence. After hacking and spitting she passed the cricket back to him. “You’re telling me Virgil Blue smokes, too? I figured the guy was like a thousand years old.”
“Older. Virgil Blue is a title stretching back to the Biggest Bird. Today’s Virgil Blue is almost two hundred years old but he still smokes in months with two full moons. Only he is holy enough to prepare centipede, inducting monks into his order of Virgils.”
She watched him finish off the cricket and tap the ash over the fence. “I wouldn’t want to smoke centipede. Too many legs, it would be creepy! Maybe someday.”
“I don’t suppose your friend with the sunglasses sells centipedes, too?”
“He says he wants to try it, but I wouldn’t call him a friend.”
Jango nodded. “It’s always a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Featherway. I hear Virgil Blue concluding his silent lecture, so I must retrieve him from the podium.” He passed her a red card-stock pamphlet. “I’m sure you and your friends will find this pamphlet enlightening.”
She took the pamphlet. On the front a hand-drawn flightless bird bigger than an ostrich sheltered fist-sized fledglings with its wings. Inside was taped a plastic baggie of brown powder like coffee grounds. “What’s this?”
Virgil Jango Skyy was gone.
Written in pen next to the baggie: ‘Centipede with legs removed. For when you are ready, Ms. Featherway—Virgils Skyy and Blue.’