Jay woke before sunrise and considered supplementing breakfast with Faith’s cricket. He knew the others would smell the smoke, so he just ate a candy bar and admired Faith’s painting reproduced on the cover of her holiday card. Under a pithy phrase printed inside, she’d 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!”
Jay stepped above deck to photograph Sheridan’s smallest island from the stern. He liked how the ferry’s wake framed the bump of sand, back-lit by sunrise.
As he walked to the bow Jay saw Michael leaning on the railing, watching the second island approach. Jay hesitated to take 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. The second island’s shore waved scrawny palms, but its pregnant hillock wore healthy pines like green fire. Sheridan’s mountainous main island waited on the horizon.
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 will be difficult 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: only Virgil Blue can prepare centipedes, don’t photograph birds, and don’t climb the main island. Why not thou shalt not kill?”
Michael laughed. “Virgil Blue wouldn’t waste words explaining not to kill. Bird photography is less self-evidently immoral, so Virgil Blue must remind us. It used to be any kind of bird-forgery was forbidden, including drawings and plush dolls; on introduction to the camera decades ago, the Blue Virgil relaxed restrictions to just photography.” When Jay finished penning the quote in his notepad, Michael pointed to the top of the main island. “It’s a clear day, right, Jadie? But look at the peak.”
Indeed the sky was empty blue, but the peak of Sheridan wore cloud wisps like censoring fig leafs. Jay zoomed in his camera for a photo.
“Clouds come and go. Some days the main island wears a full white fog robe. But even on the clearest days, the peak maintains its mystery. No gaze may summit it.”
“I’m afraid to ask,” asked Jay anyway, “but what if someone breaks that commandment and hikes past those clouds?”
Michael’s eyes wound down the hiking trail which threaded the mountain like a drill. “After Blue Virgils select their successor, they retire to the constant cloud-cover. They are never heard from again. No one has followed them to the peak in my lifetime, but we tell rumors, and the rumors make me shiver. They are 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 mysteriously ruined. Their fields are razed, their pets turn feral, their spouses die, their houses collapse on their children.”
“Oh, shit.” Jay remembered Faith’s cricket. “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 mountainside. “We stop there. The Virgils live a few miles higher.” He circled a white spot at the trail’s top, near the cloudy peak. “Perhaps when we stop hiking, you could continue to the White Walls of Sheridan. But I cannot guarantee your entrance, or your audience.”
Jay, Craig, Suzy, Henry, Eva, and Lilly ate brunch below deck. Jay almost spilled tea when the ferry bumped a dock.
Michael led them ashore. This was not a tropical paradise like the previous island: the sand was coarse gravel which surrendered to wild grass, and the palms were short and scraggly before relenting to pines.
Jay reached for his camera out of habit, but caught himself mid-motion and instead produced his notepad and pen to draw the bright yellow bird. It cocked its head at Craig and Suzy, and Lilly jumped giddily at its tiny hops across the beach.
“I remind you not to take pictures” said Michael to the whole group but mostly Henry. Henry hadn’t even noticed the bird, or he pretended not to notice, as he fiddled with his cellphone. “This bird is a year old; you can tell because it is the size of a chicken. Sheridanian Big Birds live to be fifty and grow bigger than emus and ostriches. When hatched, they are barely fist-sized.”
When they finished fawning over the bird, Michael led them into the forest. Instantly a crowd appeared from behind the pines to flank the trail. They wore tail-feather skirts and wooden beak-masks and nothing else. Craig and Suzy pulled each other close, but Michael did not mind this crowd or their peculiar dress. “These dancers train to join Virgil Green at the top of the trail. Enjoy their traditional frolicking as we hike uphill.”
The men and women flanking them began to dance. Uncountably many cycled to the front then fell back to the forest. Bouncing, bare-breasted women captivated Henry’s interest. “We shoulda done the whole tour years 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 his Hawaiian shirt. “You first.” Henry winced and folded his arms protectively.
“May I take photos,” Jay asked Michael, “if I let you check them for birds?”
The tour guide sighed. “Turn off your flash, it disturbs the birds’ eyes. I’ll check your photos tonight.”
Jay snapped photos of the dancers. At first he was careless, but noticed birds of every color running through the dancers’ legs. He deleted the photos and took more, angled upward to catch just dancers in the frame. After half an hour hiking uphill, the pines became smaller and sparser until the tour entered a clearing. The dancers broke formation to return to the forest.
In the clearing, a wall of bald men and women walked from right to left in a huge circle. They wore loincloths made of rags. Their footsteps in the grass were a sheet of sound like a waterfall. “These are the students of Virgil Green, who chased invading snakes from the islands. In preparation for Virgil Blue’s training on the main island, the students practice on this smaller summit. Please hold your questions until we exit the circle.” Michael led his group through the wall of walkers into the wide circle they made in the clearing.
Enclosed by the walkers, hundreds more bald and barely-clothed students sat facing the circle’s center. In the center stood a pink bird like a tropical penguin taller than Jay. Jay capped his camera.
Just as each seated student had a different skin-tone and body-shape, each had a different chant rumbling in their stomach:
“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 dorandandan.”
Jay thought they sounded like a million motors. 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, as if the congregation were an engine generating religious potency.
This feeling swelled when the pink bird in the center stood on stocky orange legs, at least eight feet tall. Michael pointed to its nest of eggs and whispered to his tour: “Each day it lays an egg. Each day an egg hatches.”
A man with skin blue-black like midnight, a white navel-length beard, and sea-foam robes stood and spread his hands. “Oran dora!” The walkers stopped and turned to the center. The chanters fell silent. Then the robed, bearded man lectured in Sheridanian.
“What’s he saying,” asked Henry. Michael shushed him.
An egg rattled. The pink bird spread its stubby flightless wings. The bearded mentor spoke Sheridanian.
“What’s he talking about,” asked Henry.
“I’ll explain after,” whispered Michael.
The egg cracked. The 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 speak English,” said Henry. “What’d the kid say?”
“The esteemed Virgil Green asked a rhetorical question,” Michael quietly spat, “and the student asked for clarification. The students will contemplate the question until the next egg hatches tomorrow. This helps them visualize the Biggest Bird.”
The egg split open. A blue fledgling blinked in the sunlight. The pink bird shaded it with its wings. Virgil Green sat. The standing students resumed walking.
“Well, what was the question,” asked Henry.
A seated student tugged Michael’s jeans. “[Would you please take questions later? We must focus.]”
“What’d she say,” asked Henry, “and what’d you say back?”
Virgil Green turned without standing. The contrast between his white beard and dark skin 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.
“No!” Michael grabbed his wrist and marched him from the circle. Henry shook him off. “Delete them! Now!”
“We’re leaving anyway!”
Some walking students stopped to watch the shouting tourists. 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 turned to look.
“You were told not to photograph birds! Delete them!”
“It’s my phone! I’ll do what I want!”
“You signed a waiver!”
“With an H, good luck getting that to hold up in court!”
Eva groaned. “Henry…”
“Or those bird-worshipers are gonna beat the shit out of you!” Michael shouted, “and if they’re kind enough not to beat the shit out of me, too, I’m gonna join them in beating the shit out of you, and your wife can carry you home in a cast!”
Henry prepared to retort, but the bird-worshipers nodded in agreement with Michael. Virgil Green put a sympathetic hand on the giant bird’s feathery forehead as she bent to comfort her fledgling. The fledgling’s left eye blinked uselessly, blinded by the flash. “Peep, peep!” it vainly cried.
Henry showed them his phone and deleted the photos. “Okay, they’re gone! Alright? Fucking fascists.”