The main island wore a skirt of steep capes and wave-beaten cliffs. Its only stretch of landable shore 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 tended by Virgil Green’s congregation on the previous island. If the fledglings live to human-height they swim to this main island’s bank, where they play their whole adulthood. 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 larger than the rest, up to ten feet tall compared with barely six. The shorter birds wore flowing robes of tail-feathers, but were otherwise identical in their pear-shape and in their varying solid colors. Jay guessed the larger birds were egg-layers, and the smaller birds with coat-tails their mates.
A mate spread their tail like a flaming curtain. An egg-layer turned a coy look over one 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 see how the matched pairs proceeded.
Jay sketched the festivities in pen. “If all the birds are born on the previous island, why are they mating here?”
“They mate for pleasure.” Michael led the tour along the cliff-side, where ocean spray blew them to a town of thatch-roofed, stone-walled cottages. “Moreover, the birds are hardly fertile. Only the dedicated matriarch can lay seeded eggs, and even then, only with the religious adoration and idolization of Virgil Green’s congregation. When that matriarch retires to this main island, the largest bird on the central island takes their nest.”
The tour ate breakfast in a seaside cottage, served tea by the elderly hosts. The hosts had longer hair than most of the other townsfolk: native farmers and craftsmen meandered by to see the tourists, and Jay noticed most of them were bald or had short hair. He asked each of them if he might take a photograph and they all obliged, smiling. 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 like Jay had seen in the bazaar. One woman brought her goats to be photographed, and offered the group hand-churned goat-cream for their tea.
Michael pointed to landmarks along the mountain trail as thinning fog revealed them one by one. “That rectangle is the world’s largest cricket farm, where bug-sticks grow like grass. There’s the statue of a bird who abandoned waddling up the mountain to care for a lost human child. That building over there is where we stop hiking today, and some miles higher is the white-walled monastery of Virgil Blue. Above you can barely see the black spots of centipede bushes, tended by the Virgils. 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 as thick and opaque as butter. The hostess’ husband brought the main course of enormous hard-boiled eggs. Jay hesitated to dig in. “We can eat eggs?” Michael nodded as he sliced his egg in half and drank melted yolk like soup. “May I photograph mine?”
“Go ahead.” Michael wiped yolk from his lip. “These eggs are gathered beach-side, unfertilized. There’s no trace of holy bird inside.”
Jay bit the white egg-meat and yellow 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 into his mouth.
“Ah, very lucky!” said the cottage host. “You got a double-yolked egg.”
Jay drank the larger second yolk and took a photogenic shot of the double-chambered whites. He wondered if such an egg, being fertilized, would bear two chicks or one. “Michael, how do you know the hosts of this cottage?”
“Cousins,” said Michael, “twice or thrice removed. We’ll find my relatives all over Sheridan. Most of us were from the same egg, so to speak.” He saw Jay prepare his notebook 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 folklore says these islands were built by the biggest of the birds, twenty feet tall and taller angry. She gave the first man, Nemo, an egg which hatched into a thousand offspring.”
“Oh,” said Leo, “that’s why you all look alike.” Michael scowled, as did the Chinese couple and Eva. Jay just sighed audibly and thinned his lips. He’d have phrased it differently, but Jay knew what Leo meant. The natives had all skin colors and body types but many were bald, emphasizing a head-shape featuring round jaws but subtly pointed skullcaps. “Like eggs, or something.”
The path wound around the island into a wooded, piney forest girdling the mountain’s midsection. Occasionally Michael pointed at a pine behind which a big bird hid and waited for the tour to pass before continuing their epic waddle behind them.
As the tour circled the mountain they bridged the same straight river again and again. From each bridge the river cut a clear view through the forest to the ocean. As they crossed, Jay photographed the other two islands from a higher and higher vantage point each revolution. Near each intersection of river and trail, cozy hamlets grew carrots, grains, nuts, berries, and crickets. The bugs grew thicker here than in Faith’s tiny cardboard box, from cane-like grass a foot high. Their black beady eyes surrounded antennae pregnant with pollen.
After sunset the lanterns these hamlets hung would be the trail’s only light. Michael tapped his foot impatiently as Leo traded all his sand-dollars for more crickets. “Be sure to smoke those bugs before returning to the airport, Henry!”
Leo tssk’d and prepared to light one hundred eyes at once. He’d bought a bouquet, ten crickets bound together with masterful wing-work. Jay couldn’t imagine smoking ten bug-sticks at once. “Not in front of Lilly.” Eva took her husband’s lighter. “Wait until we stop for the night. You can smoke outside the inn.”
Leo grumbled at the sunset as they set off again. A lantern-bearing group met them walking the other way, down the mountain. Jay assumed they were returning tourists, but Michael bowed his head to them, so Jay did as well. “Oran dora. These monks bring news each week from the white-walled monastery of Sheridan.”
“Oran dora,” replied the young monks. “We come bearing the latest from Virgil Blue.”
“What does the Blue Virgil have to say this fine evening?”
“Nothing at all,” said one monk. “Forty years of silence from our esteemed master. How wise he is, to not waste a single word!”
The monks passed to carry the vital, wordless message to the towns flanking the winding road. The tour continued up the mountain until the pines grew small and scarce.
Only a few birds survived to walk beyond the treeline, marching with ancient and arthritic plod. They knowingly eyed woven nests the islanders left trail-side, with one porcelain egg for each bird succumbing to old age at that elevation. Jay wondered if any bird had ever surpassed the cloudy cap.
When they finally stopped at the inn, Michael pointed to the second island far below. “Look at the bald spot, free of trees, where Virgil Green’s congregation sits and walks. Those students are acclimating to the sacred truth, preparing them for a holy life on the main island. When they graduate from Green, they swim to this island and walk with the birds to the white-walled monastery above. Now, on this main island, we have surpassed the treeline. I hope the setting sun inspires within you the same tranquility and satisfaction associated with the ultimate attainment, the understanding of the Biggest Bird’s cosmic plan.”
Suzy and Craig held each other and wrote in their Atlas by the orange wash of dying light. Eva and Lilly spotted distant birds, and Lilly practiced naming their solid colors until it was too dim to distinguish them; then she played with fireflies darting through the dark. Leo and Jay both took photos, Jay with his camera and Leo with his phone. Michael observed Leo’s phone over his shoulder. “Henry, I hope you’re making sure there are no birds in the frame of your photos.”
Leo grunted. “Better tell Jay the same thing, he’s taking more than I am.”
Jay showed Michael his camera. “I’d like to start hiking towards the monastery before it gets too dark. You can take my camera, if you’d like, but I’d like to keep this flashlight attachment to see my way.”
“Jadie Jackson, I am good friends with the owners of this inn. Let me talk to them and they will loan you a lantern. Keep your camera.”
While Leo stalked towards his family, Jay considered pictures he’d taken of the bird statue. The bird stood on a stone box filled with lit candles of varying colors, like a shrine. It cradled a human toddler with the same benevolent wings it would its own eggs. Jay loved the detailed masonry in its feathers, but worried it was so lifelike he should not have taken photographs.
“Hey. Eva. C’mon.” Leo grabbed his wife and daughter by their shoulders. “Let’s hike up to the monastery, before it gets dark.”
“It’s already pretty dark, and Lilly has a blister from hiking,” said Eva. “Maybe you can take pictures and show us in the morning?”
Michael gave Jay a lantern and a box full of small 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.” When Jay showed him pictures of the statue, he laughed them off. “Show the Virgils. They’ll love them.”