The Secret Life of Penguins
As if it was any other night.
“Tell me about the penguins.”
I lifted my heavy eyelids and looked over at Lew, but I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see the face
or the ground or even my own feet. But I could feel the wet cold of my pants pasted to my leftleg, my shirt to my arms, my ribs.
“What about them?” I asked.
…whatever you think El will…
…like the most.”
I tried to remember what I’d said about penguins in the last two hours.
“Deep under the glacier they hold underwater dances.”
Lew sighed. I could tell it was a good sigh. It was long and drawn out, not punctuated with a sharp wince.
“They dance for days while dolphins toot on ice flutes, and—and jellyfish pluck their tentacles like cello strings.”
Jellyfish… I like that.”
The way he said ‘that,’ with a slight lilt at the end. I knew he was smiling.
“The Russian Olympic figure skating team is actually coached by a kidnapped penguin.”
“An emperor penguin. Australian environmentalists found out and sent a phalanx of kangaroos to rescue him.”
“Good. Tell her…
…tell her the the Croc Hunter…
…was there too. She…
…she liked him.”
Ellynn was a smart kid. When she heard that people were killing stingrays in retribution for the flamboyant Steve Irwin’s death, she cried. She didn’t stop until Lew helped her make a video plea for people to end the killing. They put it on the internet together. Lew had El on his lap, the screen’s glow highlighting their hair like supermodels as they watched for their video's viewcount to grow. That image, more than anything else, made me wish I was a father.
“She, would like like him to help…
El was way too smart to believe this shit.
“Tell me about their flying.”
“Well, of course they can fly. Everyone’s suspected that, but there’s more.”
Lew didn’t say anything.
Crickets chirped louder.
I could hear my own breathing. I made extra sure that it was even. I counted to three, then inhaled. I counted to three and exhaled.
My harness suddenly felt too tight. I reached my right arm up to unfasten it, but the hand just clasped at it dully.
“Tell tell me…”
“Well, not only can they fly, but… but they can travel through space.”
“No, elephants can only fly.”
“Right, ri… t.”
“They actually made the hole in the ozone over Antarctica, so they can fly to their home planet, Pluto.”
“Pluto. That’s… they found…”
“No, it really is a planet. The government’s just trying to stop people from going there to watch the penguin migration.”
Three seconds, inhale.
A twig snapped off to my right. Then another. Something was out there. At least gravity.
No, it wasn’t Ryan. He wasn’t moving. It’d been hours since he’d moved.
Since his heart moved.
Since the north face moved, loosing our cams. Ryan was climbing point. He fell the
He flew straight down like a flesh anchor and we followed him.
Lew hit the ground like the time he jumped out of my upstairs window at our swimming pool. He was at least three feet too short. Mom was gone. His shin bent at a right angle. He didn’t cry. He never cried.
But he drove down from Victorville when I graduated. He reached out and grabbed my hand as hard as he could and he smiled at me with all his teeth.
The next day he drove back and I didn’t see him for months.
“What about the…
…about the waterskiing.”
Lew’s voice was quieter than ever. Practically a whisper. He never whispered. Except once—
“Remember that mountain lion?” I asked.
One, two, three, inhale.
On spring break my freshman year at SC, Lew invited me to go camping with him and his first wife, Laura. She got sick and we went alone, just the two of us. On the second day, we were hiking early, it’d snowed the night before and there were still patches of it just off trail. I was breathing in deeply, tasting the metallic cold on the back of my throat, when Lew froze just in front of me.
Then the growl. The hiss-growl. Hiss-roar. Roar. I froze. I didn’t know what else to do. Just in front of us rose a huge mountain lion on a boulder, his eyes level with ours. He jumped down onto the trail and squared away. He roared again, that higher pitched roar that claws at your ear and leaves traces of tinnitus.
I wanted to run. I took one step back. Lew reached back and grabbed my shoulder. Hard.
“Stop,” he whispered. Then he growled. He roared. Lew lifted his arms above his head, lifted his chin, and roared with all his might.
I took another step back.
“Don’t run!” he yelled in his lion voice. “Be big! Be menacing! They’re scared of us if we’re big. If we’re BIG!” He jumped into the air and landed as heavily as he could. He bared his teeth and hissed like the rattlesnake we found in the backyard. “Roar!” He yelled. So I roared.
I roared until I couldn’t breathe. And the mountain lion left, looking over its shoulder in case we gave chase.
In case we kept up our human minstrel show.
“Lew? Remember the mountain lion?”
“No. Penguins. El needs to know…
…she needs you to tell her…
…she needs Uncle Jack. And penguins.
Make her smile… Tell her the waterski.”
“Lew, we can both…”
“Bullshit. If we can both…
…bears don’t shit…
…tell me Jack. Waterski.”
“Penguins can waterski.” I reached my right arm up to unfasten my harness again, but my fingers couldn’t get a good grip on the biner. I tried to use my left, but it wouldn’t move at all from its spot on a pile of dead spruce leaves. Luckily it was too dark to see. Lew couldn’t see me trying, and failing.
“No.” His voice rasped fiercely. His lungs weren’t going to last him much longer.
“They tie frozen seaweed into knots, and wrangle wild dolphins from the Falkland’s, then use their flipper-feet… …to ski.” My breath was starting to give out on me.
“Good… tell El that…
…when I stop you limp back to…
…when you get home…
…you tell El…
…that they ski.”
“Yeah Lew. I’ll tell El.”
Overhead, the sky slipped its black cloak and donned a navy one. Icarus-high, little wisps of Cirrus clouds were turning cotton candy pink. To the east I could see the illumined rim of the Rockies. In an hour the sun would spill over those mountains onto us.
Lew would be gone by then.
I couldn’t get to three before gasping. As inaudible as possible.
“I’ll tell El, Lew.”
“No… tell… tell El…
…tell her I…
“She knows Lew.”
“I know Lew.”
“Let… let me…
“Why’d it move, Jack?” The phrase must have hardened in his mind like a diamond.
“The… the face.”
“An earthquake. Or aftershock… something.”
He’d barely whispered it.
“I love you too, Lew.”
His throat hissed. It wasn’t quite words, but I knew.
“I’ll tell El.”
“I’ll tell her.”
“She knows Lew. But I’ll… I’ll tell her.”
In the east the sky turned in an instant. The darkness fled abruptly, and the sky burst its oranges and pinks and reds. I looked over at Lew, leaning against the Lazyboy shaped rock, pale, his eyes closed. His flannel shirt lying flat against his chest, dark brown. Caked brown. Dry. Still.
I looked down at my leg, my jeans still dark red. My right hand paper white. I tried to sit up, to lean off of the spruce tree, but I couldn’t. I knew I couldn’t.
El would know.
She didn’t need to hear about the penguins. But she knew. She knew.
I lifted my eyes, and the pink cirrus had been darned into diorama cottonballs. And the sky burned with its warmth, and I could feel it. The pinks and oranges. Behind Lew the sky was blue. But he was facing the sunrise.
Behind Lew the mountain was red with alpenglow.
But in front of him the sun was shining, and I only had a broken leg, and El would hear about the penguins, and she’d always have one of us to hold her as tight as a handshake on graduation day.