Sheridan’s main island wore a skirt of steep capes. Its only stretch of coast welcomed the ferry to a lone pier. Sheridanian Big Birds floated in the shallows and lounged on the sandy beach. “This beach is a sacred spot in the birds’ life-cycle,” said Michael. “All fledglings are born to the nest-mother guarded by Virgil Green’s congregation. When they grow to human-height they swim to this beach. When they tire of play they waddle the trail which winds up the mountain, until old age takes them.”
Jay noticed half the birds were almost ten feet tall, while the rest were barely six. The shorter birds dragged flowing tail-feathers behind them. Jay guessed the larger birds were egg-layers, and the smaller birds with tail-feathers their mates.
A mate spread their tail like a flaming curtain. An egg-layer looked coyly over their shoulder. Eva covered Lilly’s eyes. Leo snickered as the squawking birds mounted each other on the sand. At the cue more birds paired off, some mate-to-mate, some egg-layer to egg-layer. Leo stopped laughing but made disgusted effort to watch the matched pairs proceed.
Jay sketched the orgy in pen. “If birds are born on the second island, why do they mate here?”
“They mate for pleasure.” Michael led the tour onto the capes. Ocean spray blew them to a town of thatch-roofed, stone-walled cottages. “Only the dedicated matriarch can lay fertilized eggs, and even then, they require the religious adoration of Virgil Green’s congregation. When that matriarch retires to this main island, the largest bird on the second island takes their nest.”
They ate breakfast in a cape-side cottage hosted by an elderly couple with long, braided hair. Native farmers and craftsmen came one by one to see the tourists, and Jay noticed most were bald or had short hair. He asked them if he might take their photo and they all eagerly obliged. Some dragged their families back to the camera. Some brought wares for Jay to photograph: decorative metalwork, bouquets of crickets, hand-sewn plush birds, porcelain eggs and tea sets, and more items like Jay had seen in the bazaar. One woman brought her goats to be photographed, and offered hand-churned goat-cream for their tea.
As they ate, Michael pointed to landmarks along the mountain trail. “That fence is for our largest cricket farm, where bug-sticks grow like grass. There’s the statue of a bird who abandoned waddling up the mountain to protect a lost human child. That inn is where we stop hiking today, and some miles higher is the white-walled monastery of Virgil Blue. Above you can barely see centipede bushes. Then a permanent cloudy cap obscures the sacred peak”
Jay thanked the cottage hostess as she topped off his tea. It was hot, sweet tea thick and opaque as butter. The hostess’ husband brought the main course: enormous hard-boiled eggs. Jay hesitated to partake. “We can eat eggs?” Michael nodded as he sliced his egg and drank the yolk like soup. “May I photograph mine?”
“Sure, sure.” Michael wiped yolk from his lip. “These are unfertilized, gathered by the coast. There’s no holy bird inside.”
Jay bit the white egg-meat and yellow yolk spilled out. He sucked yolk from the egg like mango pulp, but his yolk seemed smaller than Michael’s. He contented himself with more egg-white until another yolk burst in his mouth.
“Ah, very lucky!” said the cottage hostess. “A double-yolked egg.”
Jay drank the second yolk and photographed the double-chambered whites. He wondered if such an egg, being fertilized, would bear two fledglings or one. “Michael, how do you know the hosts of this cottage?”
“Cousins,” said Michael, “three or four times removed. We’ll find my relatives all over Sheridan. Most of us are from the same egg, so to speak.” He saw Jay prepare his notepad to ask about the idiom, but Michael knew they’d dallied too long over breakfast. He thanked the hosts and ushered his tour onto the hiking trail before explaining. “Local legend says these islands were built by the biggest of the birds. She gave the first man, Nemo, an egg which hatched into a thousand young.”
“Oh,” said Leo, “that’s why you all look the same.” Michael scowled, as did Suzy, Craig, and Eva. Jay just sighed audibly and thinned his lips. He’d have phrased it differently, but he knew what Leo meant. The natives had all skin-colors and body-types but many were bald, emphasizing round jaws and subtly pointed skullcaps. “Like eggs, or something.”
The path wound around the island into a piney forest girdling the mountain’s midsection. Occasionally Michael pointed at pines behind which birds hid waiting for the tour to pass before continuing their epic waddle behind them.
As the tour circled the mountain they bridged the same river again and again. From each bridge the river cut a clear view through the forest to the ocean. Jay took the chance to photograph the other islands from a higher vantage point each revolution. Near each bridge, cozy hamlets grew carrots, berries, nuts, grains, and crickets. The bug-sticks grew thicker than in Faith’s cardboard box. Their beady eyes surrounded antennae pregnant with pollen.
As sunset neared and the forest darkened, the hamlets lit lanterns. Michael tapped his foot as Leo traded his sand-dollars for more crickets. “Be sure to smoke those before returning to the airport, Henry!”
Leo tssk’d and tried to light a bouquet, ten crickets bound by masterful wing-work. “Not in front of Lilly.” Eva took her husband’s lighter. “When we stop for the night you can smoke outside.” Leo grumbled at the sunset and they set off again.
A lantern-bearing group met them walking the other way. Michael bowed his head to them, so Jay did as well. “Oran dora. Each night these monks bring news from the white-walled monastery.”
“Oran dora,” replied the monks. “We bear the latest from Virgil Blue.”
“What does the Blue Virgil have to say this fine evening?”
“Nothing at all. Forty years of silence from our esteemed master. How wise, to not waste a single word!” The monks carried the vital, wordless message down the winding road.
The tour continued up the mountain until the pines grew scarce. Few birds survived to walk beyond the treeline; they did not hide but marched with proud, arthritic plod. They nervously eyed woven nests left trail-side, holding one porcelain egg for each bird succumbing to age at that elevation. Jay wondered if any bird had surpassed the cloudy cap. Were they allowed to?
When the tour finally stopped at the inn, Michael pointed to the second island far below. “Look at the clearing where Virgil Green’s congregation sits and walks. When the students acclimate to the sacred truth they swim to this island and walk with the birds to the white-walled monastery above. I hope the sunset inspires within you the tranquility of understanding the Biggest Bird’s cosmic plan.”
Suzy and Craig cuddled and wrote in their Atlas by the dying sunlight. Eva pointed to distant birds and Lilly practiced naming their colors until it was too dark to distinguish them; then Lilly played with fireflies. Leo and Jay both took photos, Jay with his camera and Leo with his phone. Michael watched Leo’s phone over his shoulder. “Henry, I hope there are no birds in your photos.”
“Better check Jay,” Leo grunted, “he’s taking more than me.”
Jay showed Michael his camera. “I’d like to start hiking to the monastery before it gets too dark. You can keep my camera, if you want, but I’ll take the flashlight attachment to see my way.”
“Jadie Jackson, I know the owners of this inn. They will loan you a lantern. Keep your camera.”
While Leo stalked Eva and Lilly, Jay considered his photos of a bird statue. The bird stood on a stone box filled with lit candles, like a shrine. Its wings shaded the statue of a toddler like its own fledgling. Jay loved the exquisite masonry of its feathers, but worried it was so lifelike he should not have taken pictures.
“Eva. C’mon.” Leo grabbed his wife and daughter by their shoulders. “Let’s go to the monastery before it gets dark.”
“It’s already dark, and Lilly has a blister from hiking,” said Eva. “Maybe you can show us pictures in the morning?”
Michael gave Jay a lantern and a box of sugar-powdered pastries. Held at arm’s length, each pastry was barely bigger than the full moon. “The innkeepers suggest an offering will grant you audience.” Jay asked if his photos of the statue were acceptable, and Michael just laughed. “Show the Virgils. They’ll love them.”