Jay found the Virgils at the first motel he checked that night, as he knew he would. There were no coincidences.
When Jay knocked, Virgil Skyy brushed the blinds aside to peek through the window with his good eye. Seeing Jay, he unlocked and opened the door. “Take off your shoes.” He locked the door behind them. “Are your friends joining us?”
“I don’t think so.” Jay removed his shoes and loosened his tie as he adjusted to the dim room. Virgil Blue sat cross-legged on a king-sized bed. Their wheelchair sat in a corner. Skyy bid Jay to sit beside Blue on the bed. “Shall we begin?”
Virgil Skyy limped to a rug rolled-up against a wall. Jay wanted to help handle the heavy rug, but Jango knocked it over with his cane and unrolled it with his feet. “Ordinarily students undertake this ritual only after years of training. A student should learn with Virgil Green, then swim to the main island and climb it nude like the birds do.”
Jay nodded. The woven rug depicted the Islands of Sheridan 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, a bird in sky-blue robes observed 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 his hands on his cane. “You said you met Virgil Green?”
“I did.” Jay swallowed. “My tour guide said he chased snakes from Sheridan.”
Virgil Skyy shrugged. “Close enough for a tour guide. The truth is Nemo chased the snakes away. When he climbed above the clouds, the new Virgil Blue established Virgil Green as a subsidiary representation of Nemo’s being. Nemo was so much larger than life that to keep his flame alive, he was divided and diluted.”
Jay let his gaze wander the rug. Unconsciously his focus drifted to Virgil Blue’s silver mask. At this angle Jay had two reflections, one in each of Blue’s eyes. “Virgil Skyy… Jango… On the islands, you said 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 I slipped through the cracks?”
Jango sat on the bed beside Blue. “Virgil Blue once dreamt they were a bird who ate grubs from trees. Who’s to say which thoughts are false and which are alternate lives?” Jango noticed Jay’s concerned expression. “But it doesn’t matter. Sentience is the whorl where the river meets the pond. When we stop spinning, what we were will spin again. Maybe we’ll spin the same direction as before, maybe against it. Maybe we’ll spin in opposite directions at once. If you recall past lives, perhaps you spin clockwise on the surface while your depths present an opposing current. All currents are personal and temporary. The awesome stillness at the end of the eternities belongs to everyone forever.”
Jay put his hands in his lap, but kept them clenched. “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 hide under the desert and demand the Mountain come to them?”
“The sand would wear them away.”
“What if they gain mass so quickly the sand cannot keep up?” Jay did not look at either Virgil. “What if the Mountain’s task is impossible 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. “There once was a monster,” he said, “who could not be killed in day or night, who could not be killed inside or outside, and who could not be killed by a man or a woman. Of course, the monster was slain by a hermaphrodite as while passing through a door during a solar eclipse.
“The monster wore willful ignorance like armor. It protected itself with words like ‘day’ and ‘night’ and ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and ‘man’ and ‘woman’ but to those who know better, words are just words. The hero slew the monster with unpronounceable truth. Do you understand?”
Jay did not say “yes” or “no.” He did not even nod.
“You are ready.” Jango turned to Virgil Blue. He put his thumb and pinky on Virgil Blue’s silver mask. Jay gasped. Jango took the mask away.
Under the mask was a black tangle of centipedes.
“Remember, I warned you.” Jango pulled the navy robes from the centipede bush’s dark thorns. The robe’s sleeves were empty. What Jay mistook for knees were loose folds of fabric. “Centipede is most potent freshly harvested. It’s not easy to smuggle centipede through customs, but no one checks 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 in navy fabric. “I’m just watching in their stead til the end of time. It should be any year now.” With his hand guarded from thorns, Jango reached into the centipede bush. He pried orange legs until he pulled a whole centipede from the mass. The centipede curled in a spiral which Jango gave to Jay. “You’ve tried centipede powder, correct?”
“This is not the same,” said Jango. “This will tear away the veil you call ego. The experience will last hours.”
“Eat it,” said Jango.
Without hesitation Jay crunched the exoskeleton in his teeth. He tore and swallowed chunks of centipede. Orange legs crawled down his throat. Dark liquid poured from his lips, and Jay wiped his chin and licked the liquid from his palm. He ate the last inches whole, retching and gasping until the centipede was gone.
Jango said something, but Jay couldn’t hear it. He had left the magic circle.