The old monk moved like a mist through the monastery halls. Tapestries of bright, solid colors dripped with morning dew. He stepped around the puddles to save his slippers and waited beside a paper door leaking tendrils of incense.
“Did you have trouble sleeping, Dan?”
Behind the door, a younger monk exhaled with a lilt of finality. “I woke early, Virgil Blue.” He sat forward, sliding the paper door open from inside. “Are we ready?”
“Take another breath, Dan. To the count of ten.”
Dan inhaled. Beside his folded legs, an incense burner released the smell of cooking spices. The more he inhaled, the more his face relaxed. His eyelids opened, and his jaw slackened.
“Come, Dan, let us forgo breakfast. This morning you eat in the halls of a new eternity.”
“Thanks for all your help, Virgil Blue,” said Dan. He looked about thirty, maybe thirty five years old, and had short brown hair. His skin was pale from years of study in the mountains.
Virgil Blue closed the paper door behind them with his walking stick, a curious object smooth at the bottom, but gnarled near the top, with ten black spots. It was taller than the old man, compensating for a limp he carried in his left hip on winter mornings. His skin was tanned and leathery with age, contrasting his robes colored like a clear sky. One eye was black, but the other held a cataract like the moon.“This way, Dan. You should finish before the other students awaken.”
Danny joined Blue in the hallway, brushing wrinkles from his soft orange robes. “I’ve still got a few doubts, Virgil Blue. Can we talk?”
“Of course, of course.” The old monk pointed down a hallway with his walking stick, leading Dan through the monks’ quarters. “When you meet the Mountain, you will have no doubt in your heart. Whisper to me softly, so that the slumbering may sleep.”
The two silently ambled through the monastery. Dan spoke in hushed tones, trying to maintain his smile. “I only have two doubts, but they’re pretty tricky.”
“What are their names?”
“The first is Anihilato. The keeper of Nihilism.”
“I have dealt with Anihilato. He should pose no problem to you. You are strong enough, I know. I have seen the Mountain in you, Dan.”
“You know I have had my moments of weakness, in the past.”
“Here.” Virgil Blue sped slightly, gesturing with his bald head. “If you fear Anihilato, you need your washcloth.”
“I hold absolute confidence that using your washcloth, you will find your way on the path.” Beyond the meager dining hall, where cushions flanked long, squat tables, the two entered the kitchen. Virgil Blue knocked a washcloth from the countertop into Dan’s hands. “Keep it until its purpose is clear.”
Dan folded the gray washcloth as they walked away. “Did you read a lot when you lived in America, Virgil Blue?”
“I did, but you must remember, that was long ago.”
“There were books called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They were really good.”
“Why do you mention them, Dan?” Virgil Blue kept his gaze fixed to the end of the hallway.
“It’s a joke in the books that you’ll be okay no matter what, as long as you have a towel.” Dan held up the washcloth. “That’s a really weird thought to come up twice.”
“Take wisdom where you can find it, Dan. You came across that book on your path to a new eternity, where you will serve as one of the Mountain’s highest servants–the Zephyrs. There are no coincidences here.”
When they came to the heart of the monastery, Virgil Blue rapped the stone wall with his walking stick. A smooth door was set into the cobblestones, smeared with ash and grime. “Would you open this for me? I’m not so limber in the mornings anymore.”
“Should I remove my robes, to keep them clean?”
“First clean the furnace. Then remove your robes; there is no need for such paltry items in the next eternity.”
“Yes, Virgil Blue.” Dan pressed his shoulder into the door (wiping grime on his orange robes) and pried it open with a grunt of effort. As soon as it was ajar, the door vomited black soot and a cloud of ash. He began to pull soot and spent firewood from the enormous furnace with his bare hands.
“I will go to my sanctum, I have a parting gift for you.”
The teacher turned, meeting his young student eye-to-eye. Dan’s smile contained an iota of concern.
“The other doubt?” He pat his blackened hands on his robes. “The Teeth that Shriek.”
The Virgil froze. “Do not concern yourself with the Teeth that Shriek.” The old Virgil opened his mouth again as if to speak, but produced no words. Pity bent his wrinkled brow over his eye. “Do not concern yourself with the Teeth that Shriek.”
“I have a parting gift for you.”
For two minutes, the young monk dutifully scraped ash and soot from the furnace. Completely covered in black marks, he brought ten pieces of new firewood and a bushel of kindling from the storeroom, enough to warm the whole monastery on a cold winter morning.
Having loaded the furnace, he removed his robes. He was nude underneath, with a slim build.
“This is for you, Dan.” Virgil Blue hobbled to the younger monk, holding out an outstretched hand. “I grew this cricket myself. I dried it, cured it, plucked it, and wrapped it in its own wings.”
Dan held the insect to his nose. It was three inches long, light tan in color, and had ten black spots around its head. “You flatter me with your honor, Virgil Blue.” He climbed into the furnace with his left foot, cracking twigs and branches. “Do you have the incense?”
“Of course, Danny.” The old man helped the nude monk into the furnace. Dan settled in a cross-legged position atop the pile of logs while Blue tended to the smoldering flame of an incense stick. He placed the incense in the pile of wood.
Dan watched lit embers fall upon the kindling. “I’ll put in a good word for you.”
“I have never been good at saying goodbye.” Blue pressed his shoulder into the door.
“Goodbye, Virgil Blue.” As Dan spoke, small flames built under his body.
“Goodbye, Danny.” Virgil Blue shut the furnace door.
The room grew warm.
Virgil Blue warmed his hands by the furnace.
Then he walked away.