By the full moon and the lantern’s flickering, Jay hiked safely even as the trail grew rough. It narrowed, hugging a steep drop on one side and a cliff-face on the other. Carved, uneven steps compensated for the incline of slick boulders lodged in the mountainside. Jay panted up a flight to find it was the last, and now he had to hoist himself over rocks unaided.
He met no birds as he hiked. He still saw woven nests, but each held at most two porcelain eggs. Each egg bore the painted lacework Michael said represented matriarchs of Virgil Green’s congregation. Jay took photos of each nest and bowed his head out of respect.
When a stone ledge prevented ascent by foot, he rest the lantern and box of pastries on the ledge and climbed to them on his hands and knees. Finally he saw a wide, paved path to the monastery. Jay lie on cool flagstones and snuffed his lantern to conserve oil. The fireflies would light the rest of his way.
“Hey. Hey!” Jay sat up. Leo stood below the ledge and held up his backpack. Jay wondered how many scrapes he’d endured refusing to remove his sunglasses, as if the moon were too bright. His Hawaiian shirt was still buttoned to the neck. Leo shook his backpack. “C’mon, take it.”
Jay hefted Leo’s backpack. “Did you have trouble hiking in the dark?”
Leo tossed a glowing jar. Jay, already holding Leo’s backpack, barely caught the jar before it hit the ground. “Hey, be careful with that!” Leo kicked the ledge as he struggled climbing 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 had already died. “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 over the ledge. “See?”
Leo took his backpack, freeing Jay to retrieve his lantern. Leo smirked. “You needed a lantern, huh? I got up here on my own. 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 smashed Leo’s jar on the flagstones. The surviving fireflies escaped. “Whoops.”
“Ah, fuck! C’mon! Typical.” Leo slung his backpack over his shoulders and started toward the monastery. “You can pay me back later.”
“I’ll have to apologize to Lilly.” Jay picked up his sugar-powdered pastries and walked the path. The monastery was close enough to count candles in windows. A tall tower held a brass bell reflecting every candle it could see. “I hope we’re let into the monastery.”
Leo scanned the mountain all the way to the cloudy peak. “Are you seriously saying you came all this way to meet some bums in a nursing home?”
“What are you here for,” Jay asked, knowing 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! 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. “You should, too, if you want centipede. Only Virgil Blue can properly prepare it.” Leo sniggered and smiled just to show teeth. “I’ve heard improperly prepared, the high is like being stabbed by hot knives.”
“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 smoking, I’m selling! Skip the monks, get centipedes with me. I’ll teach you to sell ‘em on the streets. The thick ones are a thousand bucks a pop!”
The pair approached the monastery door. The white walls were tiled with thousands of sand-dollars. “Did you really drag your family here to source centipedes to hock back home?”
“Of course! My dad’s rich,” said Leo, as if that explained anything. “I’m following in his footsteps. I gotta show my step-kid the ropes of running a business.”
“Do what you want.” Jay photographed the monastery sans flash; the candlelight was perfect. “But if I were you I’d visit Virgil Blue. Maybe the Virgils can teach you to grow crickets yourself, so you can stop wasting money on smuggling expeditions. You’d 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 we 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 dark. “You broke my jar! How can I find centipede bushes like this?”
“Open another jar and catch fireflies along the way”
He opened a jar and swiped it over 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 in the distance. Finally alone, Jay knocked on the monastery door. While he waited, Jay realized he’d been right to introduce himself as Jadie. The fake name kept an ephemeral barrier between them, like 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 the chance to photograph the monastery in daylight. The candles made the sand-dollars look like scrutinizing eyes. Jay knocked a third time, vowing if no answer came he would leave the monks alone.
Footsteps approached and popped the door ajar. A young woman peeked through the crack. “Oran dora. [Can I help you?]”
“Oran dora.” Jay hoped he’d studied his 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 the box of pastries. “[Thank you! Please?]”
“[Please.]” Jay allowed her a pastry. She kept the doorway narrow. “[Also, I have a cricket for Virgil Jango Skyy.]”
“[Did you buy it locally?]”
“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.]”