Jay woke before sunrise and considered supplementing a candy-bar breakfast with Faith’s cricket. He knew the others would smell the smoke in their nearby quarters, and the boat’s constant sway would make it difficult to light up, so he just snacked and admired the reproduction of Faith’s painting on the front of her holiday card. Under a pithy phrase printed inside, she’d sharpied 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 take pictures of Sheridan’s smallest island from the stern. He liked the way the ferry’s wake framed the sandy bump of land, back-lit by sunrise.
As he circled to the bow Jay noticed his tour-guide Michael leaning against 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 hillock’s pregnant belly wore healthy pines like a green fire. Sheridan’s mountainous main island yet waited on the horizon.
When he heard Jay’s camera shutter stop, Michael turned and posed like a ship’s captain. “Oran dora, Jadie! Good morning.”
Jay took a few more shots 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. Oran dora.” Michael counted the sand-dollars. “Jadie, shoot the second island while you have the chance. When we arrive it may be difficult to take photos 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 Sheridanian religions have 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,’ or something like that?”
Michael laughed. “Not killing is such an obvious moral obligation Virgil Blue wouldn’t waste words explaining it. Not photographing birds is much less self-evident, so he knows he must remind us. It used to be any kind of bird-forgery was verboten, including plush dolls and drawings; on introduction to the camera decades ago, the Blue Virgil relaxed restrictions to just photography.” When Jay finished penning the quote in his notebook, 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’s mountain 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, “but what happens if someone breaks that commandment and hikes past those highest 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 and 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 dumped the rest of his sand-dollars into Michael’s extended palm.
“When someone trespasses the sacred peak, they never return, of course. What’s more, anything of value to the trespasser is ruined instantaneously. Their fields are razed, their pets turn feral, their spouses die, their houses collapse on their children.”
“Oh, shit.” Jay remembered Faith’s cricket in an envelope in his backpack. “How high can we climb? I have a gift from a friend for Virgil Jango Skyy, and I’m sure he lives in Virgil Blue’s monastery on the main island.”
Michael pointed at a brown dot halfway up the mountainside. “We stop there our last night. The Virgils live a few miles higher.” His finger circled a white spot at the trail’s top, near the cloudy peak. “Perhaps when we stop hiking for the night, you could continue the trail to the White Walls of Sheridan. But I cannot guarantee your entrance, or your audience with any Virgil except Green, who leads a group of initiates on the second island.”
Jay, the Chinese couple, and the family of three ate brunch below deck. Jay almost spilled some tea when the ferry bumped against the dock.
Michael led them onto shore. This was not a tropical paradise like the first island: the sand was coarse gravel before giving way to tall grass, and the palms were short and scraggly before relenting to pines.
Jay reached for his camera out of habit. He caught his hands mid-motion and instead pulled his notebook and pen from his pockets to draw a picture of the bright yellow bird. It cocked its head at Craig and Suzy, and Lilly jumped giddily at its tiny hops across the beach.
“I would like to remind you not to take pictures.” Michael smiled at the whole group but mostly Henry. Henry hadn’t even noticed the bird, or he pretended not to notice, as he fiddled with his phone. “This bird is about a year old; you can tell because it is the size of an adult chicken. The Big Birds of Sheridan can live to be fifty years old and bigger than emus and ostriches. When hatched, they are barely big as fists.”
When they finished fawning over the bird, Michael led them into the shady forest. Almost instantly a crowd appeared from behind the pines to flank them along the trail. Craig and Suzy pulled each other close, but Michael did not mind these people, or their peculiar dress. They wore tail-feather skirts and beaked masks and nothing else.
“My brothers and I used to visit these dancers on tours,” said Michael. “Now the dancers join us for the journey.”
On the walk up the hill, the men and women flanking them began to dance. They seemed faster dancing than walking, as uncountably many of them cycled to the front then fell back to the forest. Henry’s interest was captivated by the bouncing, bare-breasted women. “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.”
She scowled and reached for the top button of his Hawaiian shirt. “You first.” Henry pouted and folded his arms protectively.
“Would it be okay to take pictures,” Jay asked Michael, “if I showed them to you to check for birds?”
The tour guide sighed. “Turn off the camera flash, it disturbs the birds’ eyes. I’ll check your photos tonight.” Jay obliged and snapped photos of the dancers. At first he was careless, but then he noticed birds of various solid colors running through the dancers’ legs. He deleted the photos and took more, angled upward to capture just the dancers in the frame. After half an hour hiking up the hill, the pines became smaller and sparser. The dancers broke formation to fall back into the forest as the tour came to a clearing.
A wall of bald men and women walked across their path from left to right. They wore rags and loincloths. Their footsteps in the grass were a sheet of sound like a waterfall. “These are the students of he who chased invading snakes from the islands, Virgil Green. In preparation for monastic lives on the main island, the students practice on this smaller summit. Please hold your questions until we exit the circle.” Michael navigated his group through the wall of walkers into the wide circle they made in the clearing.
Enclosed by the walkers, hundreds of bald and barely-clothed people sat in the grass facing the circle’s center. In the center stood a pink bird like a tropical penguin taller than Jay. Jay capped his camera. The bird nodded at Michael with tilted, wizened eyes.
Only as Michael led them away from the wall of walkers could Jay hear the seated students chanting. Just as each had a different skin tone and body shape, each had a different chant rumbling in their stomach. The chants shared sounds, but each was unique:
“Oran doran doran doran dora.”
“Oran dora. Oran dora.”
“Oran, doran! Doran, dora! Oran, doran! Doran, dora!”
“Oran, dan, dan, daran. Oran dan dan, dan darandan.”
Jay thought they sounded like a million motors rumbling. Sometimes a seated chanter would stand and stretch their legs by joining the cycle of walkers. Sometimes a tired walker would choose a seat and a chant. Jay felt static in the air, now, as if he were in an engine generating religious potency.
This feeling swelled when the pink bird in the center revealed itself not to be standing at all. Only now did it stand erect, at least eight feet tall on stocky orange legs. Michael pointed to the nest of eggs its rear had warmed and whispered to his tour: “Each day it lays an egg. Each day another hatches.”
A seated man with a white, navel-length beard, skin blue-black like midnight, and a sea-foam robe stood and spread his hands in the air. “Oran dora!” The walkers stopped and turned to the center. The chanters fell silent. Then the robed, bearded man spoke Sheridanian to everyone around.
“What’d he say,” asked Henry. Michael shushed him.
An egg rattled. The pink bird spread its stubby flightless wings. The robed and bearded man spoke Sheridanian.
“What’s he talking about,” asked Henry.
“I’ll explain,” whispered Michael.
An egg cracked. The pink bird nudged it with its squat beak. One of the seated students questioned their bearded mentor, and he implied emphatically in complicated Sheridanian.
“If they’re doing this for tourists, they could at least learn English,” said Henry. “What’d the kid say?”
“The esteemed Virgil asked a rhetorical question,” Michael quietly spat, “and the student asked for clarification. The students will contemplate the question from the time of this hatchling until the next hatchling tomorrow. This helps them visualize the pure form of the Biggest Bird.”
The egg split open. A blue fledgling blinked in the sunlight. The pink bird shaded it with its wings. Virgil Green picked up the knees of his sea-foam robe to sit. The standing students resumed their walk.
“Well, what was the question,” asked Henry.
A seated student tugged Michael’s jeans. “[Would you please take questions later? We need our focus.]”
“What’d she say,” asked Henry. “What’d you say back?”
In the front, Virgil Green folded his hands before himself. The contrast between his white beard and dark skin made his 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 circle of walkers. Henry lingered.
He lowered his phone and 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 and begrudgingly followed through the walking wall. “Delete them! Now!”
“We were leaving anyway.”
Some walking students stopped to watch the shouting group. The students behind them had to stop, and the students behind them had to stop, until the whole circle stopped and even the students sitting inside turned their heads to watch.
“You were told not to take pictures of 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 that group of bird-worshipers is gonna beat the shit out of you!” Michael shouted, “and if they don’t beat the shit out of me, too, I’m gonna join them in beating the shit out of you, and your wife and step-daughter can carry you home in a cast!”
Henry opened his mouth to retort, but most of 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 camera flash. “Peep, peep!” it vainly cried.
Henry showed them his phone and deleted the pictures. “Okay, they’re gone. Alright? Fucking fascists.”