By the full moon and the lantern’s omni-directional flickering, Jay followed the hiking trail safely even as it grew more rough. It narrowed, hugging a steep drop on one side and a cliff-face on the other. Huge stones split the road. Carved, uneven steps compensated for the incline of slick boulders lodged in the mountainside. Jay panted up a flight of such steps to find it was the last, and now he had to hoist himself over rocky outcroppings unaided.
He knew birds walked this trail because he had seen them from the inn, but somehow he met none as he hiked. Maybe they slept at night, camouflaged. He still saw woven nests, but each held only one or two porcelain eggs. All these eggs bore the painted lacework Michael said represented a former matriarch of Virgil Green’s congregation. Jay took photos of each egg basket and found himself bowing his head out of respect.
When a stone ledge prevented ascent by foot, he rest the lantern and the box of pastries above himself and climbed to them on his hands and knees. At last he saw a wide, paved path to Virgil Blue’s monastery. Its white walls wore white candles, and ten thousand fireflies guarded the path. Jay lied on the cool flagstones and snuffed his lantern to conserve oil. The fireflies would light the rest of his way, just as they lit the sky like dancing stars.
“Jay. Jay.” Jay sat up. Leo stood below the final ledge and held up his backpack. Jay wondered how many scrapes and bruises he’d endured in the dark because he refused to remove his sunglasses, as if the moonlight were too bright for him. His Hawaiian shirt was still buttoned to the neck. Leo shook his backpack expectantly, and it jangled. “C’mon, take it.”
Jay hefted Leo’s backpack. “Did you have trouble hiking here in the dark?”
Leo tossed Jay a glowing jar. Jay, already holding Leo’s backpack, barely caught the jar before it smashed on the ground. “Hey, be careful with that!” Leo kicked the ledge with both feet as he tried to climb to Jay. “My stepdaughter caught ’em for me.”
The jar was filled with fireflies. They struggled for space and air, flapping madly against the glass and signaling for help with their taillights. Half of them were dead. “Need a hand,” asked Jay.
“I got it,” Leo wheezed. Sweat dripped down his face. “I got it. I got it.” He finally pulled himself onto the ledge. “See?”
Leo took his backpack, freeing Jay to retrieve his dark lantern. Leo smirked. “You needed a lantern, huh? I got up here on my own. But I guess not all of us can be self-made men.” He smacked Jay on the back.
Jay pretended the smack made him stumble, and he dropped Leo’s jar on the flagstones. It shattered and the surviving fireflies escaped. “Whoops.”
“Ah, fuck! C’mon, man! Typical.” Leo slung his backpack over his shoulders and started towards the monastery. “You can pay me back later.”
“I’ll have to apologize to Lilly.” Jay picked up the sugar-powdered pastries and navigated the path by the light of the flanking fireflies. The monastery he’d seen for days from a distance was now close enough to count windows leaking candlelight. A tall tower held a brass bell reflecting every candle it could see. “I can’t wait to see the monastery. I hope we’re let inside.”
Leo peered beyond the monastery, scanning the mountainside all the way to the cloudy peak. “Are you seriously telling me you came all this way to meet some bums in a nursing home?”
“What are you here for,” Jay asked, thinking he knew the answer.
“Check it out.” Leo pulled his backpack to one shoulder and unzipped it. He carried nothing but glass jars. Half were packed with crickets. The rest were empty. “I brought extra jars just for this. Tell me you’re collecting centipedes, man, c’mon! You gotta teach me! Don’t tell me you’re really here to fuck with monks!”
“I’m really here to fuck with monks,” said Jay. Leo scoffed and looked away. “You should, too, if you want centipede. Virgil Blue is the only person who can properly prepare it.” Leo sniggered and smiled with only his lips, showing teeth. “I’ve heard improperly prepared, the high feels like being stabbed by a thousand knives.”
“That’s just superstition. You said you weren’t religious.”
“I’ve smoked centipede properly prepared,” said Jay, “and it’s not an experience I’d really recommend. Stick to crickets.”
“I’m not smokin’ ‘em, I’m sellin’ ‘em! Skip the monks, come get centipedes with me. I’ll teach you to sell ‘em on the streets. The thick ones go for a thousand bucks a pop!”
The pair approached the monastery door. The white walls were tiled with thousands and thousands of sand-dollars. “Did you seriously drag your family all this way to source centipedes to hock back home?”
“Of course! My dad’s rich,” said Leo, as if that explained everything. “He’s a businessman. I’m following in his footsteps. I gotta bring my step-kid to show ’em the ropes.”
“Do what you want.” Jay snapped photos of the monastery (sans flash, the candlelight was perfect). “But I’d visit Virgil Blue, if I were you. Maybe the Virgils can teach you to grow crickets yourself, so you can stop wasting money on smuggling expeditions. You’d probably save on family therapy, as well.”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job!”
“Sure, sure. Do what you want. When I’m done here I’ll relight my lantern. You’ll see it if you don’t go too far. Then I’ll lead you back to the inn through the dark.”
“I didn’t ask for your help!”
“I didn’t ask for your company, but here you are. We’re both doing favors tonight.”
Leo swore and walked off the path. He stumbled on a rock, and at last deigned to remove his sunglasses and hook them on the neck of his Hawaiian shirt. Still he struggled in the poor illumination; freed fireflies weren’t sufficient outside the monastery’s candlelight. “You broke my jar! How am I supposed to find centipede bushes in the dark?”
“Open another jar and catch fireflies as you walk.”
He opened another jar on his way up the rugged slope and swiped it over some fireflies. When he caught none, Leo swore loud enough for Jay to hear language which shan’t be printed here in square brackets or otherwise.
“Call me what you want,” muttered Jay. Leo continued to do so until his voice faded into the dark. Finally alone, Jay knocked on the monastery door. While he waited in silence, Jay realized he’d been right to introduce himself as Jadie. The fake name kept an ephemeral barrier between them, as if they were separated by saran wrap. Leo didn’t even believe Jay was his real name.
Jay knocked again and capped his camera. He wondered if he’d have a chance to photograph the monastery up close in the daylight. The candles made the sand-dollars look like a thousand scrutinizing eyes. Jay knocked a third time, vowing that if no answer came he would leave the monks alone.
Footsteps approached from behind the door and it popped ajar. A young woman’s face peeked through the crack. “Oran dora. [Can I help you?]”
“Oran dora.” Jay hoped he’d studied Michael’s Sheridanian phrasebook well enough. “[I am Jay,]” he attempted. “[I have gifts for the Virgils.]”
“[We have enough sand-dollars.]” The woman’s expression changed when Jay showed her the box of powdered pastries. “[Thank you! Please?]”
“[Please.]” Jay allowed her one of the small pastries. She kept the doorway narrow so he could not enter. “[Also, I have a cricket for Virgil Jango Skyy.]”
“[Did you buy it locally? Who sold it to you?]”
“I’m sorry? [I do not speak much.]”
The woman struggled for English words. “Who gave you cricket?”
“[An American friend,]” said Jay. “Faith Featherway.”
“Faith Featherway? [You have good connections.]” The woman opened the door. “[Come in. We’ve been expecting you.]”