Jay wrote Jango’s story in his notepad. He considered recording the lecture with his phone, but wouldn’t interrupt Jango to ask permission. Jango sniffed smoke from the brass burner before concluding:
“Faith and Jango smoked the cricket and began walking to the monastery. ‘I think I’ve watched your brother’s anime,’ said Faith, ‘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 to the mortal plane. The concept of causality collapsed when you crossed the veil.’ Jango climbed a rocky ledge. Faith leapt it like she was weightless. Jango wondered if the white fox was still made of snow; she seemed flesh and blood and fur. ‘Maybe our meeting in Wyoming has not yet occured Where do we find each other?’
“‘I suppose my pilgrimage is predestined by the Mountain,’ said Jango. ‘I’ll bring you a cricket. I owe you one.’
“‘Centipede powder, too, please,’ said Faith. ‘My friend and I had lots of fun!’ So saying, steam rose from her tail. ‘Uh oh. I’m evaporating. How embarrassing.’
“‘You’re returning to the Mountain,’ said Jango. The fox watched 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 appeared, Faith disintegrated into mist.” Virgil Jango Skyy smiled at Jay. “Consider this story, my students. I hope you sleep soundly.”
After the sermon, Jango led Jay to the front door. “Jay, we would love to have you for the night.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I really shouldn’t. My tour leaves tomorrow morning.” Jay sloshed the oil in his lantern. “Could you help me light this?”
“Of course, of course.” Jango pulled brown thread from his walking stick. He lit the thread on a candle, and dipped the flame 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. “I can’t thank you enough, Virgil Skyy. You have a beautiful monastery. 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 through the open door. Virgil Blue had not moved from the courtyard.
“Does Virgil Blue need any help?”
“Virgil Blue’s constitution is not what it used to be,” said Jango, “but they’re okay.”
“They’ll have to hike to the cloudy peak someday.” Jay checked the photo. “Right?”
“After they’ve appointed a successor,” said Jango.
“I like the sand-dollar walls. The flickering candles makes it look like eyes watching us.”
“That’s intentional,” said Jango. “The final judgement will occur in the House of Eyes. There the Biggest Bird scrutinizes the sinful and reaffirms the pure.”
“My friends Faith and Dan enjoy an anime like your little brother’s manga.” Jay scrolled through his camera’s photos. “I don’t remember much spirituality in it, though.”
“There’s still time for questions.”
Jay thought. “Do you believe in… reincarnation?”
“Mm… When we die we wake in the next eternity. If we meet the Mountain we become a Zephyr. But if you miss the Mountain, the sand eats your soul until nothing is left—so you’re reborn. You’ll have another chance to meet the Mountain.”
“I don’t understand,” said Jay. “You’re reborn by destroying your soul?”
“Of course,” said Jango. “Otherwise everyone would remember their past lives.”
“I guess that makes sense.” Jay wrote the quote. “Could someone 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.” The old man bent his cane at him. “I’m not gonna drop the meaning of life in your lap. If you want the monk treatment, be a monk.”
“I see. Thank you, Virgil Skyy.” They bowed, and Jay helped Jango close the door behind them.
Jay circled the monastery to show Leo his lantern’s light. He occupied his time photographing nearby centipede bushes. The bushes had more thorns than leaves. The thorns protected their centipedes from harvest. Jay settled for photos.
After an hour, Jay sighed and scanned the dark mountain. He did not see Leo’s loud red Hawaiian shirt. Maybe Leo had nabbed his centipedes already and walked to the inn alone. Jay returned the way he came, hoping he had enough oil.
A night at the inn rejuvenated Jay. He ate a continental breakfast of coconut meat and legumes while waiting for the others to wake. He thanked the innkeepers for loaning him the lantern, and showed them photos of the monastery.
Eva sat beside Jay. “Jadie, did you see my husband last night? Henry didn’t come back to our room.”
“Oh gosh. He hiked up with me. I told him I’d lead him back with my lantern, but he didn’t want the help.”
“That sounds like Henry.”
“I assumed he left without me. I’m really sorry. I hope he’s okay.”
“This is so typical,” said Eva. Her daughter Lilly ate scrambled eggs 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 tour to the river. He’d inflated inner-tubes and tied them to the bridge so they bobbed in the stream. “The river will carry us to shore. 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. “He’s not answering his cellphone.”
Michael shook his head and climbed into an inner-tube. “When he decides to come back to the inn, he can join the tour of whichever of my brothers is there 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 the inner-tube beside Craig and Suzy. “[Zheng, Li Ying,]” he said in Mandarin, “[I’m glad to have journeyed 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 down the river. 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 the left bank and spun counterclockwise.
“I hope your husband is okay,” Jay overheard Suzy saying. “How long have you been married?”
Eva held her daughter’s hand. “Since I was pregnant with Lilly.”
“It’s good that you travel as a family,” said Craig. “Have you ever been to China?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“There are beautiful birds near a lake where we live,” said Suzy. “Maybe on you could visit us on your next bird-watching trip.”
“My name is Zheng,” said Craig.
“I’m Li Ying,” said Suzy. “We’d love to host you for a weekend.”
The river bumped Jay’s inner-tube against Michael’s. Michael grabbed his tube to keep them together. “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 accept donations. Did you know?”
Michael laughed. “I did, but tourists aren’t impressed by mailboxes. My brothers and I call it a shrine to get people interested. Eventually 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. The river became a timeless one, emptying into the infinite ocean.