MUSED Literary Magazine.
Fiction

Penguin

Liza Potvin

“Do you suppose our dreams are there to warn us?” Gunther asked Josef, who was just taking off his coat and hanging it up in preparation for the night shift. The lights at the penguin zoo were dimmed at six o’clock exactly, a signal that it was time for Josef to begin his rounds.

They usually shared a cup of coffee just before Gunther went home, so that he could inform Josef of any changes in the birds, or repairs that needed to be made around the zoo grounds. Often Josef reported his dreams to Gunther, who was envious of their great variety and spectacular colours. He was even more envious of Josef’s ability to interpret their importance. Josef had spectacular visions that might have belonged to a film about the Apocalypse, full of demons and enormous snakes that would not die even after you chopped off their hissing heads.

Gunther could see that Josef’s mood was frequently determined by his dreams, so he was careful to ask about them first, before any zoo business was discussed. Josef’s dreams were not only interesting, they were always in full colour. He was worried what his own mundane dreams, in only black and white, said about him as a person.

“When I wake up from some dreams I think I should take extra safety precautions,” he told Josef. “I leave my car at home and take the bus to work. I don’t want to eat any food I haven’t prepared myself.”

“You can shape your dreams, you know,” Josef claimed. “You tell yourself what you want to dream about just before you fall asleep, really focus, and that helps to guide your unconscious mind. Or you can have lucid dreams, where you’re asleep but know you’re dreaming, and directly control the outcome.” For the next week Gunther tried doing this, but to no avail. Once asleep, he was never aware that he was dreaming, so how could he control anything? He always saw the same melting black and white x-rays. Perhaps it meant that he was going to die soon, follow his wife into the great dissolve he always pictured.

All of this changed when he met Sandy. His dreams were still black and white, but they seemed to mimic the swirling patterns of the penguin’s slick body as she frolicked in the water. As time went by, these patterns changed frequently, both on her body and in his dreams. It was challenging enough to look at the shifting jigsaw puzzle printed on her feathered skin and make much sense of it in real life, but in dreams this was made even more difficult because the images did not remain constant. When she was molting and could not swim or eat for a week, Gunther was able to study the feathers drying on her skin and count the number of black spots on her chest: thirty-one. One night as he was going to sleep, he realized that he would have been married for thirty-one years, almost to the day. A coincidence? Where did the black and white road map lead? He was delighted that he no longer thought of death and x-rays upon waking, but puzzled that the cavorting penguin of his daily life had hold of his dream life. “I’ll concentrate hard on the dream every night until it makes sense,” he told himself . “This time my love will be safe.” Penguins did not usually get pancreatic cancer.

The black stripe and black spots on her chest, like human fingerprints, were unique. Her pointed beak was smaller than the beaks of the males in the colony, and it seemed to him that her braying, characteristic of her species, was less vociferous than that of her mates. Her charm was in both her flamboyance and her shy placidity. He assumed that their natures were similar, although he was never flamboyant. Sandy’s elegant black feet and black spots were what reminded him of a jigsaw puzzle, as if she were offering someone the chance to complete her by supplying a missing piece. Across her chest was a thick band of black in the shape of an upside-down horseshoe. That made her his lucky charm, his friend. She had the pink glands above her eyes which penguins used to regulate their body heat. The hotter a penguin gets, the more blood is sent to these glands, the increased blood flow making the glands pinker and the overall body cooler. She always turned a bright rosy colour when she sighted him. Blushing like a schoolgirl.

Gunther’s wife had died a slow and tortured death. Grief-stricken, he’d told all his friends that he would never love another woman. “I did not fall for a woman,” he reminded Josef on several occasions. “Sandy fell for me.”

An African penguin, Sandy had been transferred from a zoo in Nuremberg to the Allwetterzoo in Münster. She was one year old. Instead of integrating into the penguin population, she fell in love with him, with Gunther, her zookeeper.

* * *

For eight years, he followed the same routine. Every morning, he peered into Sandy’s black seed eyes. She was unwavering in her show of affection for him, and he developed a fondness for her that made waking up and going to work a joy. Caring for Sandy was his only thought and she had eyes only for him. He’d eventually given up trying to make her socialize with her own kind.

“Liebchen,” he would coo, and Sandy’s whiskers would quiver in happiness as she sniffed the air. He threw dried anchovies to her and she darted after them, leaping in shallow arcs above the surface of the water, coating her plumage with tiny bubbles that reduced friction and allowed her to swim as fast as thirty kilometers an hour - he’d clocked her. “Take it easy,” he told her, “there are no predators here!”

Knowing that Sandy did something just for sheer pleasure, and not because there was someone after her, made him absurdly happy. He couldn’t remember a time in his life when he’d leapt for joy, or shouted out loud, or done anything that might attract attention. But here was this magical creature who proved that happiness was a real possibility, even for a taciturn old man watching from the sidelines.

He gave up wearing the cologne that his wife had given him for his birthday all those years ago, the same bottle every year, because he read that penguins are very sensitive to smells. Eventually he also gave up wearing deodorant, afraid to offend her and convinced that she identified him by his natural scent. His affection for her had grown very gradually, as if he were not quite convinced that it was really him she was singling out. The penguin liked to sit on his boot and ask to be petted; she’d jump to the front of the line of the daily penguin march, completely ignoring the crowd of eighty-four other penguins. These antics were endearing to all the visitors to the zoo, and she and Gunther became the main attraction after a local news station broadcasted a video of a penguin kissing a zookeeper.

* * *

The publicity was good for the zoo. Zoo revenues had been dropping since animal rights protesters had picketed the front gates with banners suggesting that the zoo be closed and that all the penned animals be returned to their native homes. On his lunch hour that day, Gunther approached the gate where young people with dreadlocks and tie-dyed sweatshirts were shouting angrily at the “fascist capitalists” who “imprisoned wild animals.”

“Hello,” he said to a young woman who held a large placard against her shoulder. She had purple streaks in her braided hair and he wanted to ask her why she wasn’t in school in the middle of a weekday. A stupid question, but it stayed in his mind.
“How can you even work at such a place and sleep at night?” she sneered. He didn’t sleep at night, of course; he watched the penguins. A waste of breath to reply to her.

He decided to ignore her hostility, convinced that being reasonable would win her over. He looked her in the eye. “Do you believe that refugees from the developing world should be returned to their homelands, if they would face persecution there?”

The girl was red-faced and agitated. “I’m not a racist, if that’s what you’re asking. But that has nothing to do--”

“But it’s the same thing. Don’t you see? Besides, most of our birds were born in captivity and are unaccustomed to the wild. These penguins can no longer survive in an environment where they haven’t been raised. In either case – human or penguin – you’re issuing a death sentence. And I’ve seen enough death in my lifetime not to wish suffering on anyone.”

For Gunther, this was a long speech. He felt surprised by its vehemence. If Josef had heard him, he’d have whistled his disbelief in that long, slow way he had. The girl stood straight and stared at him, as if wondering if he were one of those war relics who demanded more respect. Or so he imagined. Let her keep some distance, he thought. She would know nothing about dreaming.

“I know these penguins. In captivity they’ll live longer than penguins in the wild, maybe 15 or 20 years. We give them balanced meals and they don’t have to contend with predators. It’s safer here for them,” he insisted.

A tall man with piercing eyes came to stand beside the girl. “So who wants life to be always safe, old man? Who are you to decide that? Let nature take its course.”

Gunther backed away from them. He’d wasted his breath, and missed his lunch. Why didn’t they protest the oil spills that killed millions of penguins and other aquatic life each year? But the protesters shouted at him, talking over the top of one another. It wouldn’t be possible to field their arguments one at a time. Their behaviour was uncivilized.

He was certain he’d chosen the right profession, especially when he’d come to realize that animals generally behaved in a more predictable and rational fashion than human beings. He gave up trying to convince protesters that captive animals had earned the right to live in the zoo, and began retreating to the small monastic room beside the food storage bins to consume his sandwich and coffee in peace. See what happens when you try to be the kind of person you are not, he thought to himself.

He delighted in reciting the facts about his beloved birds to kindergarten classes that came to visit the zoo every autumn, even though their shouting always gave him a migraine. Penguins are highly social birds that form breeding colonies numbering in the tens of thousands. Penguins may use the same nesting grounds for thousands of years and the largest colonies can number in the millions, but parents and chicks use their superb hearing to easily keep track of one another even in a crowd. The young children listened at least. Listening was important.

He truly believed that he and Sandy could keep track of each other at a distance, even though he didn’t like crowds. He learned to deliberately tune out the overwhelming sounds and practised tracking with her for the last fifteen minutes of his lunch hour. She’d swim toward the edge of her pool, flippers flapping together as if in applause, whenever she sensed his toes arriving at the rim.

Today he took dried anchovies and fed them to her, one by one, and her dark eyes looked lovingly at him in response. It was a relationship that had no need for words. As he held the little fish out to his friend, he wished people would be more like penguins. They could take a lesson or two. Children should be better raised than those protesters. Humans should share parenting responsibilities the way penguin mothers and fathers worked together to build a comfortable nest, to protect and raise their chicks. The years with penguins had taught him to argue fairly and not hold grudges. Penguins squawk and engage in lively discussions, maybe even arguments; they get in each other´s faces, but they resolve their differences cheerfully. Penguins grow up to be responsible and productive adults. They build support networks. In the wild, penguins take trips together with their extended family. What if those overgrown brats, those spoiled protesters beyond the fence, had had that kind of upbringing?

How fortunate I am, he thought. Penguins don´t usually let humans pet them, but Sandy lets me.

* * *

The zoo permitted Gunther and Sandy to visit schools, facilities for handicapped kids, and retirement homes. He always felt a pang when he travelled with her. He could tell that she was uneasy being away from her home. In her cage on the floor of the van, right beside him, she whimpered softly, and he responded by keeping his feet within plain view of the window of her cage. His boots were probably as much a marker of his presence to Sandy as her spots were for him.
He didn’t talk about such things with Josef. Josef tolerated the quirkiness of Gunther’s relationship with Sandy, without understanding it at all.

He’d become calmer in Sandy’s presence. His dreams, which had been of x-rays that melted like old movie celluloid film overexposed to the heat of the camera – he’d thought they might be his wife’s pancreas – had always left him feeling vaguely apprehensive and frustrated upon waking, as if he could never quite grasp what it was he was supposed to be seeing. These new dreams, he tried explaining to Josef, were different. Josef merely stared into his coffee cup and swirled his spoon around.

When Gunther had to stay home with the flu, he worried about what Sandy would think when he did not arrive to greet her in the morning. After his second week of illness, Josef came to visit him at his home one evening. “She’s refusing her food, and barely swims. She just lies on the rocks. If I thought penguins had emotions, I’d say she was depressed.”
Gunther was not surprised to hear Josef did not believe in the emotional life of penguins, but he said nothing. Distressed, he could not rouse himself from bed and was too weak to return to work. He drank broth. He took vitamin C. He consoled himself that penguins were monogamous for most of the ten years that they lived; but he also knew that they might hunt for new mates if their partners were gone for a few weeks. Would she wait for him?

Finally the day came that he was able to return to the zoo. When he walked to the edge of Sandy’s pond, he couldn’t see her. No one swam to greet him. No one splashed flippers on the surface of the water. It took him almost an hour to pick her out, swimming alongside one of the younger penguins. He walked away slowly, his head bowed, cursing himself. It was his own fault that she had deserted him. Not even a penguin, a creature biologically programmed for monogamy, could commit to him. For him love would never last.

Josef told Gunther he was getting old. He should retire. Two months later, he did just that. Without Sandy as his companion there was little joy in his work. He’d thought he’d be bored in retirement, but he took up golf and hiking, and on the occasional Sunday Josef joined him on the hiking trail. “Are you still afraid of your dreams?” asked Josef.

“I’ve begun to have dreams in full colour, Josef,” he said.

He did not admit he preferred the old black and white dreams, the swirling patterns that reminded him of Sandy. He found it hard to understand how there could be colour in the world after all that had happened to him. He did not share any of this with Josef. After all, only a fool would lose a wife then fall for a penguin.