Jay wrote everything Jango said in his notebook. He considered recording the lecture with his phone, but didn’t want to interrupt Jango’s story to ask permission. Jango sniffed cricket smoke from the brass burner before he concluded:
“Faith and Jango finished smoking the cricket and began the walk to the monastery. Faith considered the story about Jango’s brother Jun. ‘I think I’ve watched your brother’s anime,’ she said, ‘but I’m still hung up on the timeline here.’
“‘The whim of the Mountain is unknowable,’ said Jango. ‘It sent you from the next eternity back to the mortal plane. The concept of linear causality fell apart when you crossed the veil.’ Jango climbed up a rocky ledge. Faith leapt it like she was weightless. Jango could not tell if the white fox was still made of snow; she seemed flesh and blood and fur. ‘Maybe our meeting in Wyoming has not yet come to pass. Where do we find each other?’
“Jango paused. ‘Sheridan?’
“‘I suppose my pilgrimage there is predestined by the Mountain,’ said Jango. ‘I’ll be sure to bring you a cricket. I owe you one.’
“‘Centipede dust, too, please,’ said Faith. ‘My friend and I had a lot of fun!’ So saying, steam rose from her back and her tail floated upwards. ‘Uh oh. I’m evaporating. How embarrassing.’
“‘You must be returning to the Mountain,’ said Jango. The fox sighed and let her snow-torso bubble and pop. ‘Oran dora, Faith Featherway.’
“‘I was only here like twenty minutes,’ said Faith. ‘This sucks.’
“As quickly as she had appeared, Faith disintegrated into mist.” Virgil Jango Skyy smiled at Jay. “Consider this story tonight, my students. Now, return to your rooms and sleep soundly.”
After the sermon, Jango led Jay to the front door. “Jay, we would be honored to have you for the night.”
“Thank you for the offer, but I’m afraid I shouldn’t. My tour leaves tomorrow morning.” Jay raised his lantern sloshing with oil. “Could you help me light this?”
“Of course, of course.” Jango pulled a brown thread from his walking stick. He held the thread to a candle flame, then dipped it in the lantern to light Jay’s oily wick. “Please, open this door. It’s a little heavy for me.”
Jay opened the front door. He and Jango stepped onto the flagstones flanked by fireflies. By the lantern’s light, Jay admired the walls lined with sand-dollars. “I can’t thank you enough, Virgil Skyy. You have a beautiful monastery. I’m sure everyone will love the photos you’ve let me take.”
“Let’s do one more,” said Jango, “for the road.” He posed and smiled. Jay crouched to frame the photo as he pleased. Through the open door, Virgil Blue had not moved from his cross-legged position in the courtyard.
“Does the Blue Virgil need any help?”
“The night air is good for him,” said Jango. “Virgil Blue’s constitution is not what it used to be.”
“Eventually he’ll have to hike to the cloudy peak.” Jay checked the photo. “Right?”
“When he’s ready,” said Jango. “After he’s appointed a successor.”
“I like the sand-dollar walls. The flickering light makes them look like eyes, watching us.”
“That’s intentional,” said Jango. “The final judgement will occur in the House of Eyes. There the Biggest Bird’s gaze scrutinizes the sinful, and reaffirms the pure.”
“I watch an anime which sounds like your little brother’s manga. My friends Faith and Dan enjoy it.” Jay flipped through his camera’s photos. “I don’t remember much spirituality in it, though. Maybe if I knew more about your religion.”
“There’s still time for questions.”
Jay thought. “Do you believe in… reincarnation?”
“Mm… When someone dies they wake in the next eternity. Anyone who makes their way to the Mountain becomes a Zephyr. But if you don’t go to the Mountain, or if you are incapable of going to the Mountain, you’ll remain in the dunes of limbo. The sand eats your soul until nothing is left—so you may be reborn pure and new. The next time you die, you’ll have another chance to find the Mountain.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” said Jay. “You’re reborn by destroying your soul?”
“Of course,” said Jango. “Souls are acquired, cultivated. To be reborn the slate must be wiped clean. Otherwise everyone would remember their past lives.”
“I guess that makes sense.” Jay wrote the quote. “If linear causality falls apart when we cross the veil, would it be possible for someone to be reborn, uh… alongside their previous life?”
Jango shrugged. “That’s not for me to know.”
“Do you know anything about pulled chains, or spinning wheels?”
“Hey now.” The old man bent his cane at him. “I’m not just going to drop the ultimate meaning of life in your lap. If you want the monk treatment, be a monk.”
“I see. Thank you, Virgil Skyy.” They bowed to each other, and Jay helped Jango close the door behind him.
Before he left for the inn, Jay walked around the monastery for Leo to see his lantern light. He occupied his time by photographing nearby centipede bushes. The bushes were squat and woody with more thorns than leaves. The centipedes were wrapped in big balls of black chitin held together by their orange legs. They were deep in the bush, so the thorns protected them from harvest. Jay settled for photos.
After an hour, Jay sighed and scanned the dark mountain. He had no sight of Leo’s loud red Hawaiian shirt. Maybe he’d already nabbed enough centipedes and walked back to the inn. Jay returned the way he came, hoping he had enough oil.
A night’s rest in the inn rejuvenated Jay. He ate a continental breakfast of coconut meat and legumes while waiting for the others to wake. He made sure to thank the innkeepers for loaning him the lantern, and showed them photos he took of the monastery.
Eva sat beside Jay. “Jadie, did you see my husband out there? Henry didn’t come back to our room last night.”
“Oh gosh. Yes, I did see him. He hiked up with me. I told him I’d lead him back down in the dark with my lantern, but he didn’t seem like he wanted the help.”
“That sounds like Henry.”
“I waited for him, but I assumed he came back without me. I’m really sorry. I hope he’s okay.”
“This is so like him,” said Eva. Her daughter Lilly carried a plate of scrambled eggs to the table and ate without comment. “I’m sorry if he bothered you at all.”
“He seemed to want centipedes,” said Jay. “Maybe he’s still up there harvesting.”
“I hope so.”
After breakfast Michael led the group to the river. He’d inflated some floating rubber inner-tubes and tied them to the bridge so they bobbed in the gentle rapids. “The river will carry us to the shore within the hour. Kids, ride with a parent. Then we ferry to the airport. Hey, hey—we have an extra inner-tube.” Michael counted heads. “Where’s Henry?”
“I think he’s visiting the white monastery,” said Eva. “I’m really sorry that he’s separated from the group. He’s not answering his cellphone.”
Michael shook his head and demonstrated how to climb into the inner-tubes. “Well, I wouldn’t want to bother him. When he decides to come back to the inn, he can join whichever of my brothers is running a tour that day.”
“Really? Could he?” Eva and Lilly shared an inner-tube. Lilly sat in her mother’s lap. “Will Henry be imposing on them?”
“Eva, Sheridanians are always eager to help,” said Michael, “especially when the person in need is as kind, calm, and understanding as your husband.”
Jay chose an inner-tube next to Craig and Suzy. “[Zheng, Li Ying,]” he said in Mandarin, “[I’m glad to have taken this journey with you.]”
“[We appreciated your company,]” said Craig.
“Oran dora,” said Suzy. “[We’re off to Easter Island next.]”
“Whee!” Lilly laughed and kicked when Michael cut her cord. Eva and Lilly floated on their inner-tube down the river at a respectable pace. Then Michael cut Craig’s cord, and Suzy’s, and Jay’s, and his own, leaving Leo’s inner-tube tied to the bridge. Jay’s tube spun clockwise, until it brushed against the left-hand shore and spun counterclockwise.
“I hope your husband is okay,” Jay overheard from Suzy. “How long have you been married?”
Eva held her daughter’s hand. “Since I was pregnant with Lilly.”
“It’s good that you travel together, as a family,” said Craig. “Learning about new places brings people closer. Have you ever been to China?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“There are beautiful birds near a lake where we live,” said Suzy. “Maybe on your next bird-watching trip, you could save money by visiting us.”
“My name is Zheng,” said Craig.
“I’m Li Ying,” said Suzy. “We’d love to host you for a weekend.”
The currents of the river brought Jay out of hearing distance, and his inner-tube bumped against Michael’s. Michael grabbed his tube so he did not drift away. “Oran dora, Jadie.”
“Hi, Michael. Thanks for the tour.”
“Did you deliver the letter to my nieces and nephews?”
“I gave it to Virgil Jango Skyy,” said Jay. “He’ll make sure they get it. But I wanted to ask you about the bird statue. Jango said it’s not a shrine at all, it’s the monastery’s mailbox where they take donations. Did you know that?”
Michael laughed. “I did, but tourists aren’t impressed by mailboxes. My brothers and I call it a shrine to get people interested. Over the years, the locals started burning incense and lighting candles inside. So, the mailbox is always full and contacting the monastery takes a trek. Thank you for delivering my letter.”
“Huh. No problem.”
Michael released Jay’s tube and the river carried him away. Jay felt the water, clean and cool. Fish swam under him as he floated beneath bridges. Eventually he lost count of the bridges, and he knew not how far he’d drifted. The river became a timeless one, emptying into the infinite ocean.