Michael led the six onto pure white sand. Shore-side palm trees spread their feathery fronds like frozen fireworks. Green fingers flapped to welcome waves leaping onto the beach. The Southern hemisphere thrust Jay into Summer; the last time he’d been outdoors was a winter Los Angeles morning, but now muggy island heat threatened to soak him in sweat as he followed Michael’s flip-flops to his family restaurant.
The restaurant was adjoined to the airport terminal, with the same awesome air-conditioning. Jay gasped when the automatic doors loosed a cold front upon him. Michael escorted the tour group to a long table, beside chatting airport workers on break in disheveled uniform. They laughed and joked over platters of hors d’oeuvres. At a private table far from the others, two men with Michael’s same shoulder-length haircut lounged over liquor. One was darker-skinned than Michael, the other lighter and blonde.
Michael called one of the dancing waitress in Sheridanian: “Anaita! Oran dora! [Tour of six taking off today.]”
“Oran dora, Michael. [Don’t lose any this time.]”
“[I think four are American, one platter won’t be enough. Bring two or three, if my brothers can make them quick.]”
“[Gabe and Raphy want to have words,]” said the waitress. “[The second ferryman made their tourists buy souvenirs.]” She span a dress-flaring curtsy for the tour group, whipping her long braid. “Welcome! If your tour leaves you hungry for more Sheridan, stay a night upstairs in my sisters’ apartments! Breakfast is complimentary.”
Jay sat across from the Chinese couple and the man in sunglasses. On his left, Eva helped her daughter read a children’s menu. Michael sat on Jay’s right and clapped his hands to call attention. “Now, let us all introduce ourselves! You know my name is Michael. I will be your tour guide across Sheridan.” He gestured to the Chinese couple and flawlessly flipped between a few regional dialects, some of which Jay did not recognize. “[One of these, I’m sure? I learn lots of languages.]”
Zhang raised his eyebrows, impressed. “[Thank you, but English might be more accommodating.]”
The Hawaiian-shirted man glared over his sunglasses. “What’re you two on about?”
Zhang pursed his lips. “You may call me Craig,” he said. “I come from China, but I studied several years in Chicago. I know my real name is difficult for Westerners to pronounce, so please, just call me Craig.”
Li Ying closed the Atlas. “Call me Suzy,” she said. “My English is not as good as my husband’s, but I hope we may practice together.”
The man in sunglasses started: “My name’s Henry. This—”
The waitress brought two platters and Michael helped her set the first in front of Jay. “This is my lovely wife, Anaita. Enjoy this authentic Sheridanian cuisine, cooked by seven of my brothers! Please, Henry, continue.”
Henry wasn’t happy with his interrupted introduction. While he pouted, Jay photographed the platter of pastries. Each pastry was a crescent of thin, crispy dough. He bit one in half. It was lined with crunchy green lettuce leaves, red goat-bacon with black char, some boiled carrots orange and purple, and a lump of lentil-like grain. Shredded coconut added nutty sweetness. It was delicious, he wrote in his notebook. Craig and Suzy meanwhile annotated their Atlas.
Only after Anaita placed the other platter before him did Henry deign to speak again: “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 me here every year to look at birds and shop, but we’ve never taken the tour all the way to the main island. I wanna climb to the top, but in the phrasebook it says we stop like halfway up. How come?”
Michael smiled and nodded. Without turning from Henry, he spoke to his wife in Sheridanian: “[The big one seeks to sneak under Sheridan’s shrouded peak.]”
“[Tell him we’d give his orphan step-daughter a job waiting tables.]”
“What’d she say,” asked Henry.
Michael’s practiced customer-service smile stretched until his eyes closed. “She says the top of the main island is sacred ground we may not trespass upon. But our lookout point near the top of the trail is truly terrific.”
Jay waited to make sure Henry had finished. Then he pointedly waited another extra second to rub his patience in Henry’s nose. “My name’s Jadie Jackson. I’m a freelance 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: it is of utmost importance that birds are not photographed. You may photograph anything else, but if we notice a bird in the background of a shot, you will be asked to delete it. It is a religious matter of great importance to island natives, like myself.”
At the mention of religion Henry rolled his eyes with such vigor his head bobbed; the motion was not hidden behind his sunglasses as he probably intended. Jay rolled his own eyes at him unabashedly in response.
“I must speak with my brothers, Gabriel and Raphael.” The tour guide stood and bowed to excuse himself from the table. “Please, call Anaita when you’re ready to order an entrée. Our restaurant accepts all currencies, but expect change only in sand-dollars!”
‘Craig’ and ‘Suzy’ chatted privately over their Atlas, but Henry’s family barely spoke as they ate. Jay used Michael’s Sheridanian phrasebook to eavesdrop on nearby conversations. Local airport workers and merchants recommended the upstairs accommodations to pilots of passing flights; the upper floors of the restaurant were an apartment run by seven of Michael’s sisters-in-law. Anaita and her other six sisters worked as waitresses wheeling out food prepared by seven of Michael’s brothers. Michael and six more brothers including Gabriel and Raphael herded each day’s load of tourists on tours of the islands.
Of the seven touring brothers, four would be away at any time. Each day one would return and another would depart. Jay wondered if this family of twenty-eight owned the airport as well. This island of a few acres no doubt held most of Sheridan’s economy in shady palms.
After a long, lazy lunch, Michael gathered the group in the mid-afternoon sun. He led them around the airport to the island’s main attraction, a bazaar of colorful tents which smelled like bug-sticks. He instructed the group to meet him on the West side of the island before sunset. “There we meet our overnight ferry to the next island. You may use any currency in the bazaar, but expect only sand-dollars in change. They are the only currency on Sheridan’s main island.”
Jay browsed the goods of two hundred islanders. Here as always in Sheridan he noticed huge variety in the skin colors, body types, and general appearances of the native people. The tallest wrapped crickets in their wings for the shortest to sell. The slimmest sold shell necklaces next to the fattest threading bead bracelets. One booth sold candy eggs to boys and girls. Another sold plush fledglings to elderly islanders as gifts for their grandchildren on the main island.
“Huh.” Jay squeezed one of the plush birds. It was impeccably made. He flipped through Michael’s phrasebook. “Um… Oran dora. [Why do you… sell them?]” The girl running the stall shook her head and leaned in to listen to his second attempt. He pointed to a Sheridanian phrase repeated often in the book: “[Do not take pictures of birds?]”
“Oh!” She laughed. “Not real bird! It’s okay to make!” She offered him anothet plush bird. “You want to buy? American cash okay!”
“[One, please.]” Jay paid ten dollars and chose an orange fledgling from the wide palette available. The merchant gave him twine threaded through ten sand-dollars in change. “[May I take a picture?]” The merchant nodded and Jay photographed the stall.
Eva and Lilly wandered by and scanned the rows of crafted fledglings. Lilly pointed to the back of the booth. “Mommy, look at that one!” The merchant pulled the red, ostrich-sized bird from the back. It had tail feathers like the downy dress trailing a peacock. The merchant stuck her arm up its neck and made the bird’s beak speak with her hand in its head. Lilly laughed at the dance she made it perform. “It’s funny!”
Eva seemed wary of the life-sized bird puppet. “Didn’t your father buy you one last time? I’ll buy you a smaller bird, after the tour.”
“Good thinking,” said Jay. “It’d be tough to carry that big guy on the hike.”
For the first time, Jay and Eva made eye contact. She was pretty, thought Jay, with thin pink lipstick. She gave him a sorry smile as if apologizing for her husband, who was conspicuously absent. “The puppet’s off-putting, to be honest. I like these little birds better.”
“Henry said you go bird-watching every year,” said Jay. He shaded his eyes from the setting sun. He, Eva, and Lilly started West for the first ferry. “Where else have you gone? What’s your favorite bird?”
“I’m not as interested in birds as Henry makes me out to be,” she said. “In fact, he’s the one who insists on our annual family trip to Sheridan.”
“Daddy says I’m old enough to go to the big island,” said Lilly. “Usually he makes us go back after the second island, as soon as we see some birds!”
Jay wanted to ask about Henry, but Michael ushered them aboard the ferry and into separate sleeping quarters. While the Chinese couple wrote in their Atlas across the hall, Jay penned some final thoughts into his notebook. Then he studied the Sheridanian phrasebook until he saw the waxing moon through a porthole, and the jet-lag suddenly caught up to him. The tiredness of his journey made him collapse into his cot.