The third island of Sheridan was barely long enough across to hold an airstrip. Only a handful of people stepped off the plane, and half of them just wandered through gift-shops and stopped at the Starbucks to stretch their legs as the plane refueled. Jay joined only five others waiting to pass through customs.
In the same corridor, Jay saw a security checkpoint for departing tourists. Security personnel led dogs on taut leashes around all luggage leaving the islands. Jay knew the hounds were sniffing for a whiff of smuggled cricket or centipede, because a sign on the wall said so in ten languages. For the illiterate, a cricket-and-centipede icon was crossed out in a red circle.
In comparison, customs would be a breeze. Jay bookmarked the photo-page in his passport with his completed declaration card. The man from the plane, in his dark sunglasses and red Hawaiian shirt, allowed his wife to organize his family’s passports and declarations as he sat on Jay’s right.
On Jay’s left, a middle-aged Chinese couple had already prepared their documentation and now huddled over a well-worn and written-in Atlas. They discussed worldly locations in a dialect Jay did not recognize. He decided to introduce himself in Mandarin. “[Hello. My name is Jay. I come from California.]”
The couple was first struck mute, then laughed at each other. “[I am Zhang,]” said the man, shaking Jay’s hand. “[This is my wife Li Ying. We come from Southern China.]”
Jay appreciated Zhang’s dumbing down his dialect for his own limited knowledge of the language. “[I admire your world map. You have many pen marks in places I have none. I hope I can explore Africa so thoroughly one day.]”
Li Ying showed Jay the proud path she’d recorded in pen across the Sahara. “[These are just our general notes. Look at this.]” She unfolded the Atlas’ largest map of China. Jay fawned over decades of travel-logs, written alongside routes and rivers. There was scarcely an acre the couple had not explored and commented on in their map. “[We’ve been to every country and Antarctica. Now we’re visiting every island.]”
Jay’s response was cut short by the sunglasses-wearing man. “What’re you talking about?”
Zhang turned the Atlas to show him. “We have a—uh, a map,” he said, reaching for English words. “It shows where we go for more than twenty years.”
The man blankly evaluated the Chinese writing. Even Jay recognized only a few basic logograms, so he doubted the Hawaiian-shirted man understood a single character. He pointed his hairy forearm at the Atlas. “What’s that thing?”
Jay sucked air through his teeth. If the man recognized any character, it’d be the swastika. “It’s, uh…” Li Ying read her nearby notes. “It’s a temple called Jokhang.”
“No, no, this thing,” said the man, tapping the swastika with his finger. Jay thought his feigned ignorance wasn’t well hidden by his sunglasses and bad poker face. He pointed again, unconvincingly. “This spinny thing. What is it?”
Her husband, sensing a cultural divide, pointed to the swastika and muttered in her ear using their unfamiliar dialect. “This shape,” he said to the man, “is used for temples on maps in some countries. It means…” He looked at his wife.
“Well-being?” she suggested.
“The four aspects?”
“Auspiciousness?” she guessed, struggling with the central syllables.
“To cross your arms?” tried Zhang, folding his arms over his chest. “There are many meanings. It is a popular symbol in many areas.”
The more swastikas the man found on the map, the wider his grin became. The flowers on his red Hawaiian shirt twisted clockwise and counterclockwise just the same as the map-symbols. He turned to his wife: “You hear that, Eva? It’s a popular symbol in many areas.” She ignored him and continued reading a book to their daughter. “Hey, Eva, did you hear that? They said it’s a really popular—”
Jay excused himself from the waiting area as soon as a customs official sat behind the desk. Jay gave him his passport. “Thanks.”
The customs official compared Jay’s passport photo to the real deal. Since renewing his passport years ago Jay had gained twenty muscular pounds, and he hadn’t had a chance to shave his five o’clock shadow on the plane. The customs official didn’t seem to mind. Another official sat nearby to serve the Chinese couple and the family of three.
As Jay waited to be waved through, he noticed the airport workers had all kinds of skin tones. Some were darker, some lighter, some cool, others warm. Some were bald.
“Oran dora. Welcome to Sheridan.” The customs official stamped Jay’s passport and returned it. “Enjoy your stay.”
As Jay walked to the front of the airport he watched departing tourists comply with stringent security. They removed their shoes and sent their bags through X-Ray machines. When a dog took interest in their luggage, they opened it for security personnel to rummage for crickets and centipedes.
One dog was distracted by Jay. Its leader tugged its leash, but the dog wouldn’t look away. The leader tapped another security guard on the shoulder and pointed at Jay. Jay stopped and meekly smiled at them. The two security guards led the dog nearer. “Would you please put your backpack on the floor?”
Jay did. The dog sniffed the zipper and put a paw on an outer pocket.
“Would you open it, sir?”
Jay 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, with some measure of pride.
One guard took the envelope. “What do you have in here?”
“It’s a holiday card from a friend.”
“Is that all?”
“Here, let me open it for you.” The guard passed the envelope to Jay and he tore one end. Inside was a holiday card featuring a snow-white fox traipsing through a winter wood. A cricket was taped to the back. Jay sighed and pulled off the tape so he could give the security guards the bug-stick. This was an exquisite specimen, hand-grown by Faith with wings hand-wrapped by Dan. Jay was sad to see it go. “Sorry about that. I had no idea it was in there.”
The security guard refused the cricket with a defensive hand motion. The other guard hee-hawed and slapped one knee. “Keep it. You’re the first person to smuggle a cricket into Sheridan. It confused our dog.”
The other guard scratched the dog behinds its ears. “Good girl,” he said. “You found another one.”
Jay stashed the cricket in the envelope for safekeeping. “Do you get a lot of smugglers?”
While one guard led the dog away, the other thought about the question. “Crickets are illegal everywhere except Sheridan and Amsterdam, but they grow in most conditions. There’s no need to smuggle; people buy them locally and grow their own. But sometimes people forget they may not take crickets off the islands, so we confiscate them here to avoid international incident. Centipedes are illegal everywhere, and they only grow at elevation on the main island of Sheridan. Anyone with a centipede in their luggage is a drug-smuggler, and a devoted one. We catch at least one a month, but we worry some slip through.”
The airport lobby contained a kiosk with a map of Sheridan’s three islands. Every morning another bird-watching tour took off. The man at the kiosk was in his thirties and rail thin, but his face was littered with laugh-lines. His skin was copper-bronze and his oily black hair was shoulder-length. His eager grin invited Jay’s approach. “Hi. I reserved a spot on the 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 Jay’s hands as if consoling him on the loss of a loved one. “My name is Michael. I will be your guide across the islands.”
“Jadie?” Jay let the man shake his hands. “Maybe you just got my initials, like J. D. Jackson?”
“Take this.” Michael gave him a phrasebook. “English is a second language for most islanders outside the airport. Impress them by speaking Sheridanian.” From customs, the Chinese couple and the family of three 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 and led the six tourists to the airport exit.
“Let us lunch in my family restaurant. Then we take our first ferry to the central island of Sheridan!”