The monastery was shaped like a donut. To Jay’s left and right were hallways of monks’ quarters, each cordoned with tapestries of solid colors. Ahead opened a central courtyard of grass. The young woman at the door led Jay into the courtyard where a hundred monks sat in stoic silence cross-legged under the stars, each wearing a uniquely colored robe. All faced the back of the courtyard where the monastery’s left and right wings met to form a main chamber, from which the bell-tower rose.
“[You brought enough for everyone.]” The woman opened Jay’s box of pastries. “[Right?]”
Jay estimated the number of sugar-powdered pastry-balls in his box. Having enough, he handed one to each monk. Their postures remained perfect and their eyes remained closed even as they reached wordlessly for their pastry. Many monks were about Jay’s age, while those nearer the bell-tower were over eighty. Many monks were bald, but the eldest had shags of gray like the clouds around the peak; Jay decided they must be Virgils. All the monks put the pastries in their robed laps and continued their blind silence.
The two monks closest to the bell-tower wore sky-blue and navy. The monk in navy wore a heavy hood and sat in a woven basket like those commemorating birds along the trail. His body warmed porcelain eggs in a ring around him, each bearing lacework.
When Jay gave a powdered pastry to the sky-clad monk, the old man tossed it and caught 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 said, mutely.
“Oran dora,” said Jay, equally muted. Jay held the last pastry to the monk in navy. They did not respond. They wore a thick silver mask with a bird’s face embossed with buggy eyes.
“Virgil Blue cannot sense you,” said the monk with the cataract. “Enjoy the moon-ball. You’ve hiked hard to get here.”
“I did,” said Jay, “because I have more gifts. For Virgil Jango Skyy.”
“Then sit beside him.” Jango Skyy pat the grass. His fingers were veined with age. “You must be weary from the 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 as he read the envelope.
“I know, but I can’t read Sheridanian. I hoped you could give it to his nieces and nephews for me.” Jay pulled Faith’s envelope from his backpack. “I also have this. It’s not addressed to you either, I’m afraid.”
Jango inspected the fox on the front of Faith’s card. He admired her hand-drawn fox inside as he turned her cricket in his hands. “Excellent wing-work.”
“My friend Faith Featherway said she owed you that bug-stick. Is that why you were expecting me?”
“I expected Faith, but I suppose an ambassador with her banner will suffice. The Mountain metes what means it may. Welcome to Virgil Blue’s courtyard. Did you climb all this way to give us gifts?”
“I’m a photographer.” Jay showed Jango some photos in his camera screen. “My friend Faith met you in Wyoming years ago and you gave her centipede dust. She shared it with me, and it was an intriguing experience. 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 the photos I’ve taken, I’ve been trying not to get birds in them.”
Jango took the camera from Jay and scrolled through photos himself. For someone who looked almost a hundred, he displayed unbecoming digital savvy. “Very wise to take no photos of Virgil Green’s congregation. They can be quite protective.” At one photo he flinched and reared back; the reaction made Jay flinch as well, but as Jango scrolled through more photos, he laughed and punched Jay in the arm. “You had me worried with the mailbox.”
The old man gave Jay his camera. There was the bird statue on a stone box, sheltering a toddler with its wings. “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 the 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.” It was a hock of mild disapproval. “Back when any form of bird-forgery was forbidden, a previous Virgil Blue carved the statue to represent the Biggest Bird. Only his holy hands could properly represent the Biggest Bird’s 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 since donations are supposed to be delivered to me anyway. I guess nowadays it’s a shrine to a bird who saved a child.” Jango braced himself against the sand-dollar wall and grabbed a cane. The cane looked like a giant wing-wrapped cricket. “You know, that reminds me of a story. What’s your name, fledgling?”
“Jay.” Jay hesitated to help the old man to his feet, as he seemed to hold his own. “Jay Diaz-Jackson.”
“Jay, bring me that brass incense burner.” Jango sniffed Faith’s cricket. Dan’s wing-work had preserved the damp, odorous exoskeleton. Jay opened the brass burner, and Jango stuck the cricket upright inside it. He shook one sleeve of his robe and a purple lighter fell out. He lit the cricket’s eyes on fire and Jay closed the burner. “Oran doran, doran dora. Virgils and students, we have a visitor, so tonight’s closing remarks will be in English. Enjoy your pastries! Jay brought tonight’s dessert, and tonight’s cricket.”
Jay found the group’s attention upon him 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 had 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, and quite locally.”
Jay didn’t understand but he wasn’t about to interrupt. He took his notebook and prepared his pen as Virgil Jango Skyy lectured to the congregation.
“One time Virgil Skyy was sitting next to Virgil Blue on the dewy grass of a misty morning,” said the old man, referring to himself in the third person. “The sunrise ceremonies had concluded and now the students studied in the library under the bell-tower, leaving Virgils Skyy and Blue seated alone in the courtyard. Eventually Jango stood and pat dew from his robes. ‘Virgil Blue, have you given any thought to your retirement?’
“Virgil Blue said nothing.
“’You’ve said nothing for years,’ said Jango, ‘and you’re as stationary as a thorny centipede bush. It may be time to choose a successor.’
“Virgil Blue said nothing.
“So, Jango decided to perform his daily 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 the birds hiking up the other way. Oran dora!”
The students concurred: “Oran dora!”
“Now, decades ago not so many towns accompanied the hiking trail. So Jango walked for some time without meeting anyone. He drank from the river each time he crossed it and bowed to Virgil Green’s island at each bridge. As he bowed, he thanked Virgil Green for chasing all the snakes into the sea. Oran dora!“
“Eventually Jango came to a large stone bird protecting a man with its wings. He bowed to it. Oran dora!”
Even Jay joined: “Oran dora!”
“Jango sat in front of the stone bird. The bird and man stood on a large stone box. Jango saw smoke seeping from the hinged panel on the box, 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,’ Jango said. ‘But, ah, I am too old and achy to open the shrine’s hinged panel. I can only hope someone comes along to help me. But, if no one appears, I suppose it was not meant to be by the Mountain.’
“No one appeared.
“After some time, he said: ‘Oh, if only one of my students would miraculously appear to 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 he held a smoking cricket. ‘I’m sorry, Virgil Skyy! I know monks should not smoke outside of ceremonies, so I found this hidden place to indulge. I did not know it was a shrine! I’ve spoilt holy ground!’
“’Do not chastise yourself. This is just our mailbox. You’re the only postage I’ve had in some time. Pass me your bug-stick.’ Jango took the cricket and gave the monk-boy a pine-needle in return. ‘When I was young, but not as young as you, I sought to smoke a bug-stick within the walls of the monastery. Before the sun rose I sat cross-legged in the furnace so my smoke wafted through the flue. Then Virgil Blue woke to bring logs. He opened the furnace door just as I blew smoke, right into his face, before he wore a mask. He had caught me, and he could have disowned me, but instead he taught me this: When you want to smoke a bug-stick outside our supervision, eat a pine-needle first. This tempers the appetite and promotes moderation. Now, away with you!’ The monk-boy walked back to the monastery chewing the pine-needle.
“Jango lifted the cricket to his lips and inhaled. The student had smoked it to the abdomen so the smoke was harsh enough to make Jango cough. The cough hung in the air like a cloud. Snowflakes fell from the cloud like ash. They made a heap, and the heap addressed the Virgil thusly: ‘Hey, 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 all the features of a fox appeared upon it. Its tail was an icy fog cloud. ‘Faith Featherway. Don’t you remember me?’
“’I can’t say I do, and I really think I would.’
“’You met me 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 dust!’
“’I haven’t left this island in decades. Why would I go to Wyoming? Why would I give you centipede dust?’
“’You know, I meant to ask you the same questions,’ said Faith. ‘It was pretty puzzling. Here, take this!’ From behind one ear she withdrew a cricket, larger and more exquisitely wrapped than any earthly specimen. By its smell, Jango knew its origin lie 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 only me and Blue.’ Jango shook a white lighter from his sleeve. ‘Let me do the honor of administering your lesson. The Blue Virgil isn’t in a speaking mood.’ So Jango and Faith walked to the riverside and he lit the cricket. Without opposable thumbs she had to adopt a peculiar manner of smoking, lying on one side with the cricket rest on her arm. ‘As an emissary from the Heart of the Mountain, 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 was first introduced to the Zephyrs the last time I left Sheridan, to visit my hometown in Kansas.’