Jay found Virgil Skyy and Blue at the first motel he checked that night, as he knew he would. There were no coincidences and tonight Jay felt the Mountain’s magic guiding him to room 102, where he knocked the door and waited.
Virgil Skyy brushed the blinds aside to peek his visitor with his one good eye. Seeing Jay, he unlocked and opened the door. “Come in! Take off your shoes.” He locked it behind Jay as he entered. “Will your friends be joining us?”
“I don’t think so.” Jay removed his shoes and loosened his tie as eyes adjusted to the unlit room. Virgil Blue sat cross-legged on a king-sized bed. Their wheelchair sat in a corner. Virgil Skyy motioned Jay into the room and bid him to sit beside Blue on the bed. “Shall we begin?”
Virgil Skyy limped to a rolled-up rug leaned against the far wall. Jay wanted to help the old man handle the heavy rug, but the old monk knocked it over with his cane and unrolled it with his feet. “Ordinarily a promising student would undergo this ritual only after years of training. A student should learn with Virgil Green on Sheridan’s second island, then swim to the main island and climb it nude like the birds do. This teaches the mental fortitude necessary to join Blue’s monastery.”
Jay nodded. The rug bore an intricately woven pattern divided diagonally into two halves. Along the bottom, from left to right, the three islands of Sheridan grew from smallest to largest. On each island a single man, repeated many times, climbed to the top and claimed the peak. The man was nude and black like coal. Above the islands, in the top left half of the rug, a giant blue bird in sky-blue robes watched over the man’s journey.
“The first man, Nemo,” said Virgil Skyy. “The tapestry shows his journey from divine birth to ascendance above the rank of Blue.” Virgil Skyy rest both hands on his cane and sighed. “When you came to Sheridan, you said you met Virgil Green?”
“I did.” Jay swallowed. “My tour guide said he chased the snakes from Sheridan.”
Virgil Skyy shrugged. “Close enough for a tour guide. The truth is, Nemo chased the snakes away. When he ascended above the clouds, the new Virgil Blue established the role of Virgil Green as a subsidiary representation of Nemo’s being. Nemo proved to be so much larger than life that in order to keep his flame alive, it had to be divided and diluted.”
Jay let his eyes wander across the rug. Unconsciously his gaze drifted to Virgil Blue’s silver mask. From this angle Jay had two reflections in the mask, one in each of Blue’s eyes. “Virgil Skyy… Jango… When we met on the islands, you told me the dead are reborn.”
“We cycle until our souls find the Mountain.”
“You said no one remembers their past lives.” Jay pried his gaze from the mask. “Are you sure?”
“The sand in the desert of death wears souls smooth.” Jango pulled Jay to his feet. “We are effaced.”
“What if…” Jango guided Jay’s posture in sitting cross-legged on the rug. “What if someone was reborn without being sandblasted? What if they slipped through the cracks?”
Jango laughed as he sat above Jay on the bed beside Blue. “Some Virgils come to recall past lives. Virgil Blue once told me of a dream in which they were a bird who dug grubs from tree trunks. Who is to say which thoughts are false and which are alternate lives which were or never were?” Jango noticed Jay’s concerned expression. “But none of that matters. Sentient minds are whorls where the river meets the pond. When we stop spinning, what we were will spin again. Maybe we will spin the same direction as before, maybe against it. Maybe parts of us will spin in opposite directions at once. If you remember a past life, perhaps you spin clockwise on the surface while deep in the depths you represent an opposing current. All currents are temporary and personal. The awesome stillness promised at the end of the eternities belongs to everyone forever.”
Jay relaxed. Peace quelled the qualms in his guts. He put his hands in his lap, but kept them clutched together. “Do you know Anihilato? The Master of Nihilism, the King of Dust?” Jango shook his head. Jay darkened. “What if the dead refuse rebirth? What if they recluse themselves under the desert of death and demand the Mountain come to them?”
“I don’t know.”
“What if the dead eat each other? What if they gain mass so quickly the sand cannot wear them down?” Jay did not look at either Virgil. “What if the Mountain’s task remains unfinished because of that stuck cog?”
“I can’t speak for the Mountain’s plan,” said Jango. “I’m only a Virgil. My goal is to guide.”
Jay released the tension in his hands. “Guide me.”
Jango licked his lips. He considered Anihilato for a while. “There once was a monster,” he said, “who could not be killed in the day or at night, who could not be killed inside or outside, and who could not be killed by a man or by a woman. This monster’s apparent invulnerability made it immortal and it terrorized humanity unopposed. Of course, the monster was eventually slain by a hermaphroditic hero as it passed through a doorway during a solar eclipse.
“The monster wore armor made of willful ignorance. Mortal blows glanced off because such ignorance is impenetrable. The hero slew the monster with the sword of unpronounceable truth. The monster protected itself with words like ‘day’ and ‘night’ and ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and ‘man’ and ‘woman’ but to those who know better, words are only words. Do you understand?”
Jay did not make the mistake of saying “yes” or “no.” He did not even nod.
“You are ready.” Jango turned to Virgil Blue. He reached out and put his thumb and pinky on opposite sides of Virgil Blue’s silver mask. Jay gasped. Jango took the mask away.
Under the mask was a tangle of black centipedes.
“Remember, I warned you about this.” Jango pulled the thick navy robes away from the centipede bush’s dark vines and leaves. The robe’s sleeves were empty. What Jay had thought were knees were loose folds of fabric. “Centipede is most potent freshly harvested. It’s not easy to get centipede through customs, but no one wants to bother the ancient monk in a wheelchair.”
Jay managed to speak. “How long?”
“Hm? Oh, Virgil Blue retired above the clouds decades ago.” Jango wrapped his hand with a length of the navy fabric. “I’m just watching in their stead until the end of time. It should be any year now.” Jango reached into the centipede bush, protected from thorns by the robes wrapped around his hand. He pried orange legs until he could pull a whole black centipede from the mass. The centipede naturally curled into a spiral which Jango gave to Jay. “You’ve tried centipede-powder, correct?”
“This is not be the same,” said Jango. “This will tear away the veil you call ego. The experience will last several hours.”
“Eat it,” said Jango.
Without hesitation Jay crunched the black exoskeleton in his teeth. He swallowed each chunk of centipede as soon as he tore it away. Orange legs crawled down his throat. Dark juices poured from his lips, and Jay wiped his chin and licked the juices from his palm. It took three minutes to eat to the last inches, which he ate whole, retching and gasping for air until the whole centipede was gone.
Jango said something, but Jay couldn’t hear it. He had left the magic circle.