Emperor of One by J.T. Townley
Then I met the penguin.
I’d just awakened from a long, mid-afternoon nap. A sliver of blinding sunlight sliced into my cocoon; groggy, I stumbled to the window. At least in winter, a pall of blackness covered the continent, or so I’d heard. This time of year, though, visibility was so good I could see for miles across the ice shelf. With nothing to help gauge distance, perspective collapsed. I could reach out and touch it all. Only there was nothing to touch—just the emptiness of white spaces. Snow and ice and frosty mountain peaks, vacant sea and sky. It was all so much nothing. I rubbed my face, then reached to draw the curtains.
And that’s when I saw him. An emperor penguin, probably three-and-a-half or four feet tall. I squinted against the light. He stared in at me, unmoving.
He was there the next day and the next day after that.
I told no one.
I took sick leave.
I thought I might be losing my mind.
But then one afternoon, as I was dreaming of Marie, who was part of the reason I was down here in the first place, I was awakened by a tapping at the window. I shielded my eyes as I pulled back the curtains. And there stood the penguin.
With his wing, he motioned I should open the window.
You gonna sleep all day?
What are you doing here? I asked. It was a stupid thing to say.
Come on, he said. Let’s go.
Where to? My mouth was cotton. I was already pulling on my boots.
You’ll see, he said. Let’s get away from all these dumb-ass bastards.
That’s what he called the scientists. And, oddly, the other penguins.
He was faster than me over the snow and ice, much faster. It was no surprise. Skis, or at least snow shoes, would have made the whole thing easier, but there hadn’t been time for that. I had trouble keeping up, tripping over the sastrugi. While I staggered and stumbled, flailing to maintain my balance, he waddled and trotted, belly-sliding the downhills. Several times I lost sight of him completely, but he always waited for me. Hurry up already, he said, tapping a webbed foot, black claws clicking against the ice.
When he finally stopped, I doubled over, hands on my knees, to catch my breath. The cold air burned in my chest.
Gonna live, buddy? His wing tapping my waist tempered his sarcasm.
I was disappointed to see McMurdo in the near distance.
I thought we were leaving all that behind, I said, pointing towards the ugly cluster of pre-fab buildings across the ice. By now, I’d almost stopped wheezing.
You ain’t gonna get far like that, he said.
I wasn’t even wearing my parka.
Then what’s this all about? I asked.
He winked at me and said, Just follow my lead.
He waddled up a snow bank, then came sliding down and across the flat slab of ice where I stood. Now he was up on his feet, skating gracefully around this outdoor rink, spinning and whirling. I watched, dumbfounded. He was smiling. Soon I realized he wasn’t just skating, he was ice-dancing. He’d worked out the choreography, wing motions and everything, and as he sailed past, I could hear him humming under his fishy breath.
He skated for a while longer, then said, Don’t just stand there.
Though I tried, I couldn’t follow him. The ice was too slick, too hard and unforgiving.
I came back the next day with skates.
We rehearsed all afternoon. The penguin had vision. He also had a portable stereo, and when I returned the following day, he blasted a reggae medley, to which we ice-danced. We were getting good.
At night (though it was never dark), we made plans. By now, he’d moved into my bunkroom; he slept in his own bed, until he said he was cold and could he sleep with me. Now we whispered in the bright nighttime silence about lifts and spins and twizzles, about where we’d go with all the money from our ice show. Those dumb-ass bastards are gonna love it, he’d say. We both had fantasies of thick heat and lush vegetation, cool Caribbean waters lapping at our feet.
Anything to leave this frozen desert wasteland.
He seemed confident we’d make it. For a long while, though, I wasn’t convinced, especially when my boss pounded on the door for an hour, and then his boss shouted threats through the window. Soon the station shrink began cooing at me through the door jamb. But leave it to the penguin: He wrapped me in his wings and sang me to sleep. I dreamt of palm trees and piña coladas, white sand beaches and the sweet strains of “Could You Be Loved?” Yes, the penguin was certain we’d make it. But I knew we already had.
© J.T. Townley, 2012
J. T. Townley writes fiction, essays, and translations, and he has new work in Collier’s, LITnIMAGE, and Experienced: Rock Music Tales of Fact & Fiction. His story “A Christmas Letter” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He holds an MPhil in English from Oxford University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and he teaches at the University of Virginia. http://jttownley.com
Emperor of One was read by Jeff Wills, with musical accompaniment by Travis Tench, for the Brooklyn Book Festival on September 14th, 2016.