To either side were hallways of monks’ quarters cordoned with tapestries of solid color. Ahead opened a grassy courtyard. The young woman led Jay to the courtyard where a hundred silent monks sat cross-legged under the stars. Each wore a uniquely colored robe. All faced the back of the courtyard where the monastery’s wings met, from which the bell-tower rose.
“[You brought enough for everyone.]” The woman opened Jay’s box of pastries. “[Right?]”
Jay handed a pastry to each monk. Their posture remained perfect and their eyes remained closed as they reached wordlessly for their pastry and put it in their lap. The monks increased in age as he walked toward the bell-tower. Many monks were bald, but the eldest had shaggy gray hair; Jay decided they must be Virgils.
The two monks closest to the bell-tower wore sky-blue and navy. The monk in navy had a heavy hood and sat in a woven nest like those commemorating birds along the trail. Their body warmed porcelain eggs nestled around them.
When Jay gave a sugar-powdered pastry to the sky-clad monk, he tossed it in his mouth with his eyes closed. He giggled like a school-child and opened his eyes. He had one black pupil and one moon-like cataract, white as the pastry had been and about the same size. “Oran dora,” he whispered.
“Oran dora,” whispered Jay. Jay held the last pastry to the monk in navy. They did not respond. They wore a silver mask depicting a bird’s face embossed with buggy eyes.
“Virgil Blue cannot sense you,” said the monk with the cataract. “Enjoy your pastry. You’ve hiked hard to get here.”
“I did,” said Jay, “because I have gifts for Virgil Jango Skyy.”
“Then sit beside him.” Jango Skyy pat the grass with fingers veined with age. “You must be weary from elevation. The air is thicker down here.”
Jay sat and unzipped his backpack. “A tour-guide named Michael gave me this letter.”
“It’s not addressed to me,” said Jango.
“I know, but I hoped you could give it to his nieces and nephews.” Jay pulled Faith’s envelope from his backpack. “This isn’t addressed to you either, I’m afraid.”
Jango admired the front of Faith’s card. He opened the card and inspected her hand-drawn fox. He turned her cricket. “Excellent wing-work.”
“My friend Faith Featherway said she owed you a bug-stick. Is that why you expected me?”
“I expected Faith, but an ambassador with her banner will suffice. The Mountain metes what means it may. Welcome to Virgil Blue’s courtyard. Did you climb here just to give gifts?”
“I’m a photographer.” Jay showed Jango his camera screen. “You gave my friend Faith centipede dust in Wyoming. She shared it with me, and I was intrigued. I had to meet the man behind the bugs. Before I left, Faith gave me that card and cricket. I know she’d be here if not for personal reasons. I hope you approve of my photos, I’ve been careful about birds.”
Jango took the camera and scrolled through photos. He displayed unbecoming digital savvy for someone almost a hundred. “Wise to take no photos of Virgil Green’s congregation. They’re quite protective.” At one photo he flinched; the reaction made Jay flinch as well, but as Jango examined more photos, he laughed and punched Jay in the arm. “You had me worried with the mailbox.”
The old monk gave Jay his camera displaying the bird statue sheltering a toddler with its wings on a box of candles. “The mailbox. My vision isn’t as good as it used to be, and that’s a small screen. I thought it was a real bird.”
“Oh, no! I wouldn’t take pictures if it were.”
“Why’s it filled with candles? I’m expecting a package.”
“Michael said it was a shrine to a bird who saved a child.”
“Eeeccht.” He hocked with disapproval. “When any bird-forgery was forbidden, a previous Virgil Blue carved the statue to represent the Biggest Bird. Only his holy hands could depict its brilliance. That’s no child, it’s a full-grown man, Nemo, for scale. It’s a donation box, but I use it as my address for incoming mail. I guess nowadays it’s a shrine to a bird who saved a child.” Jango braced himself against the bell-tower and leaned on a cane like a giant wing-wrapped cricket. “This reminds me of a story. What’s your name, fledgling?”
“Jay.” Jay hesitated to help the old monk stand, as he seemed to hold his own. “Jay Diaz-Jackson.”
“Jay, bring that brass incense burner.” Jango sniffed Faith’s cricket. Dan’s wing-work had preserved the odorous exoskeleton. Jay opened the brass burner and Jango stuck the cricket in it upright. He shook one sleeve and a purple lighter fell into his hand. He lit the cricket’s eyes and Jay closed the burner. “Oran doran, doran dora. Virgils and students, tonight’s closure will be in English to accommodate our visitor. Enjoy your pastries! Jay brought tonight’s dessert, and tonight’s cricket.”
The crowd looked at Jay just as he chewed his pastry. He panicked and swallowed. “The cricket was wrapped by Virgil Orange,” he said, not really knowing why. The woman who opened the door waved at him.
“Jay is a photographer. Everyone, say cheese!” Everyone smiled until Jay took a photo. “Jay is friends with Faith Featherway, whom I’ve met twice before: once ten years ago in Wyoming, once ten years prior to that quite locally.”
Jay didn’t understand but he wouldn’t interrupt. He prepared his pen over his notepad as Virgil Jango Skyy lectured to the congregation.
“Once, Virgil Skyy was sitting in the grass next to Virgil Blue on a misty morning,” said the old monk, in the third person. “Jango stood and pat dew from his robes. ‘Virgil Blue, have you thought about your retirement?’
“Virgil Blue said nothing.
“’You’ve said nothing for years,’ said Jango, ‘and you’re stationary like a thorny centipede bush. It may be time to choose a successor.’
“Virgil Blue said nothing.
“So Jango decided to walk. He left the monastery and stepped down steep cliffs—remember, there were no carved steps so long ago, but I was spry enough to compensate—and greeted birds hiking up. Oran dora!”
The students concurred: “Oran dora!”
“Jango walked a while without meeting anyone. He drank from the river and bowed to Virgil Green at each bridge. He thanked Virgil Green for chasing snakes from the islands. Oran dora!“
“Jango came to a large stone bird shading a man with its wings. The bird and man stood on a stone box with a closed hinged panel. He bowed to it. Oran dora!”
Even Jay joined: “Oran dora!”
“Jango sat before the bird. He saw smoke seeping from the box’s hinged panel, and he said: ‘Someone lit incense in this shrine. I should honor them by sitting and contemplating the Biggest Bird until the incense burns down and the smoke stops seeping.’
“So he sat and watched smoke seep from the box. Six silent minutes passed.
“‘I’d like to see the incense directly,’ said Jango, ‘but I’m too old and achy to open the shrine’s hinged panel. I can only hope someone comes to help me. But if no one appears, I suppose it is not the Mountain’s whim.’
“No one appeared.
“After some time, he said: ‘If one of my students would miraculously open the shrine, I would be utterly grateful.’
“Now the hinged panel opened and a monk-boy crawled out groveling for forgiveness. He wore red robes and held a smoking cricket. ‘I’m sorry, Virgil Skyy! I know monks should not smoke outside ceremonies, so I found this hidden place to indulge. I did not know it was a shrine! I’ve spoilt holy ground!’
“’Don’t worry. This is just our mailbox. You’re the only postage I’ve had in ages. Pass me your bug-stick.’ Jango traded the bug-stick for a pine-needle. ‘When I was young, but not as young as you, I sought to smoke a bug-stick within the monastery. Before sunrise I sat in the furnace so my smoke wafted through the flue. Then Virgil Blue woke to bring logs. They opened the furnace just as I blew smoke in their face, before they wore a mask. They could have disowned me, but instead they taught me this: when you want to smoke a bug-stick, eat a pine-needle first. This promotes moderation. Now, away!’ The monk-boy ran, chewing the pine-needle.
“Jango put the cricket to his lips. The student had smoked it to the abdomen, so the smoke was harsh and made Jango cough. The cough hung in the air like a cloud. The cloud snowed into a heap, and the heap addressed him: ‘Jangster, it’s you!’
“Jango examined the smoldering cricket-butt. ‘I’ve lost my tolerance. I’m already having visions.’
“‘Haha, I’m real, silly!’ The heap of snow shuddered and became a fox. Its tail was icy fog. ‘Faith Featherway! Don’t you remember me?’
“’I can’t say I do, and I really think I would.’
“’We met in Wyoming! I told you my friend had a cat named Django? You said you owed me a cricket, and you taught me to smoke. You gave me centipede powder!’
“’I haven’t left the islands in decades. Why would I visit Wyoming? Why would I give you centipede powder?’
“’You know, I meant to ask you the same,’ said Faith. ‘It was pretty puzzling. Here, take this!’ From behind her ear she withdrew a cricket, larger and more exquisitely wrapped than any earthly specimen. Jango knew its origin waited in the next eternity, the Mountain of the Dead. ‘The Heart of the Mountain told me to exchange it for a lesson from the Virgils.’
‘”On this island, today, there’s just me and Blue.’ Jango shook a white lighter from his sleeve. ‘Allow me the honor of administering your lesson. The Blue Virgil isn’t in a speaking mood.’ Jango and Faith walked to the river and he lit the cricket. Without opposable thumbs she had a peculiar manner of smoking, lying with the cricket rest on her arm. ‘As an emissary from the Mountain’s Heart, the Biggest Bird, you must be a Zephyr. Correct?’
“’Nah, you’ve gotta be properly inside the Mountain to be a Zephyr,’ said Faith. ‘I’m just a will-o’-wisp.’
“’Let me tell you about the Zephyrs, then. I first met the Zephyrs when I visited my hometown in Kansas.’