Faith remembered dodging a bus, and she remembered blinding light, and then she remembered a red desert with an empty yellow sky.
She walked up a dune on four paws. Before she climbed to the crest she noticed tiny holes in the sand. She could not resist clawing at the holes and spilling sand down the dune.
When her claws uncovered a wriggling earthworm, she slurped the worm from its hole like spaghetti. As she chewed she realized it was totally gross. Was it more disgusting to spit it out or finish the job? Why did she do this?
She glimpsed her flitting tail. She noticed the black nose on her white snout. “I’m a fox!” she said, “I must be hallucinating.” Foxes can eat worms, so she swallowed.
At the top of the dune she surveyed the desert. It wrinkled from horizon to horizon. A Mountain sloped like the Pyramids at Giza pointed to two moons like lumpy potatoes.
A warm breeze blew from behind. Faith leapt and let the wind carry her to the bottom of the valley in three giddy glides.
At the bottom of the valley Faith sniffed a scent she had never smelled before. She sleuthed for the source and found dry grass. The grass snapped at the slightest touch, and the roots reacted by wriggling. Faith bit the wriggling roots and pulled them to the surface.
“Huh.” She had unearthed two cockroaches whose spindly legs were roots and whose antennae were stalks of grass. “Do people actually smoke these things? Ew.” She rolled them with one paw. They were thicker than crickets, but stubby. They came pre-wrapped in their wings right out of the dirt. But they smelled terrible, like burnt spices. “And I don’t even have a lighter. Sheesh.” She tucked one roach behind each ear for later.
She found a hole in the sand as big as her forepaw. Was it left by a worm just as wide? She salivated and dug.
Eventually she found a pink nub in the red sand. She flopped and bit at the nub sideways, and pried with her teeth. She felt the worm’s girth squirming in the earth. The pink nub slipped into the sand.
“Shucks.” Faith resumed digging.
A clap of thunder made her pause. The Heart of the Mountain, the Biggest Bird, appeared over the valley on an eighty-foot wingspan and a sonic boom. It landed without legs, without claws, just robes-to-sand. Faith froze with fear, but the bird stashed its wings in its sleeves.
“Let me show you,” said the bird. It bent over the hole and examined the worm-nub.
“You’re scaring it,” Faith said. “It’s digging away!”
A blue tentacle slithered out one sleeve to probe the sand-hole. The tentacle was too thick to enter, but it pulsated to narrow its tip. It extracted the worm with surgical precision.
“Wow!” Faith tried to clap her paws. “You’re really something, aren’t you!”
“Indeed.” The Heart of the Mountain ate the worm with its stout yellow beak. Then it examined Faith with its compound emerald eyes. Thousands of crystalline lenses focused on the white fox. “We’ve met before. Your name is Faith.”
“Uh-huh. And you’re the Heart of the Mountain!” Faith sat. “I remember you from my first centipede-trip!”
“Do you know why you’re here?”
“Under whose supervision?”
“Um.” Faith tried to remember. “Probably my friend Dan.”
“I see.” The Heart of the Mountain revealed its wings and splayed blue feathers on the sand. “Climb me.”
“Sure!” Faith walked up one wing. “Where are we going?”
“To the Mountain.”
“Gee.” Faith sat on the Heart’s head. “Is the Wheel spinning?”
Facets of the compound emerald eyes slid to the back to peer at Faith. “Why do you ask?”
“Aaugh! Ew!” Faith reared from the sliding eyes. “Last time you wanted to stuff me in a Mountain because a Wheel was spinning. Is it spinning now? Am I a Zephyr?”
“We’re all Zephyrs, at the end.” The Heart of the Mountain recollected its eyeballs and steam poured from the hem of its robe. Faith clung to the Heart’s head as they zoomed above the dunes. “The Wheel is hardly spinning. In fact, it is in danger. But my duty is to collect worms to make Zephyrs.”
Faith was flattened on the bird’s back as they blasted through the sky. “Why does the Wheel need worm-Zephyrs?”
“One worm may not mean much, but every ounce counts.”
“Okay, this is confusing,” said Faith. “Did you know there’s a cartoon with giant space-robots called Zephyrs, too? What do you mean by Zephyr?”
“I use the term broadly,” said the Heart. “I know of your cartoon Zephyrs, and when I say Zephyr, I mean them as well. Every concept conceivable will be in my Mountain at the end of the Eternities.”
Faith marveled at the approaching Mountain. “So how many Zephyrs are there?”
“Uncountably many,” said the Heart.
“Okay, but how many is that?”
“Quintillions of quintillions.”
Faith smiled. “That’s not uncountable, that sounds plenty countable. How many Zephyrs are there?”
“It depends on how you count them. Most Zephyrs are contained in arch-Zephyrs.” The Heart tilted feathers like airplane flaps. “So one might say there are just a few thousand.”
“But how many Zephyrs are there, really?”
The Heart sighed. “The grandest arch-Zephyrs overlap with many of their companions, so with the right outlook—”
“C’mon, how many?”
“But how many Zephyrs are there?”
“Just two, myself and the rest.”
“But how many are there, really?”
Faith giggled. “But really though, how many Zephyrs are there?”
“I’m done playing this game.” The Heart blasted fog to slow its descent onto the Mountainside. “Please get off.”
Faith leapt onto the Mountain. “Are you gonna shove me in a hole? Am I gonna be a Zephyr?”
“Not yet.” The Heart stomped an unseen appendage. A dark hole opened in the Mountainside. “I need an assistant. And compared to the worms I typically find, you have a good deal of physical capability.”
Faith looked into the hole. She could not see how deep it ran. “Is this a job-offer?”
“You would attend to the Wheel while I collect worms. You would not be added to the Zephyrs—you would be the wisp of my will.”
“I’m interested.” Faith lolled her head back and forth. “But I don’t think I know enough about what’s involved to take you up on it.”
“Let me give you a tour,” said the Heart. “I’ll get the place ready for you.”