The Hesitating Penguin

by Elizabeth K. Gordon for Allison Gordon March 2007

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Part I Inside an egg, tucked under the belly-pouch of her father, Zlee the Emperor penguin heard two things: the wind, and a song. The song came from her mother, who was singing it to her father, who was singing it back. Zlee didn’t know she was an emperor penguin. She just knew she was warm and safe in a round dark world that moved sometimes and sometimes sang. She didn’t ever want to come out.

More wind, no singing, and then one day – light. Light through the shell of her egg. And then she did want to come out. She pushed with her nose and kicked with her feet until the light was brighter, so bright she squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them again, she saw the soft white chest of her father. Down came his curved black beak with the beautiful rose-colored stripe. The beak opened, and out came Zlee’s first meal. Her father had been saving it for her. Later her mother came back from the ocean singing their song, with food to share. Then her father started off on the long march to the ocean for food, but before he left he taught Zlee a new song, a song just for her. Wherever she sang it, no matter how many other baby emperor penguins were singing their song, her parents
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would know it and come for her. That spring Zlee stood in a huddle with the other young penguins. Scientists who had seen the penguins do this called it a turtle, but to Zlee it felt a little like the egg – safe and warm and sometimes moving. This way and that the turtle would move to get on a fresh patch of ice. But now, with the sun up above the horizon for hours at a time, everyone was talking about a much bigger move – the march to the ocean. “But what is the ocean?” Zlee asked. “Where the food is,” said her friend Neki. “As deep as the ski is high,” said Brell. “And you don’t walk there,” said another young penguin she couldn’t see. “You swim!” “Swim?” said Zlee. “Yes, like flying,” said an adult penguin walking by. “In the ocean we’re free and fast as birds. Just wait, you’ll see.” But Zlee felt afraid of this ocean and that swimming thing. She’d seen birds fly: they had long strong wings! What did she have? Short weak flappers. And if the ocean was as deep as the sky, wouldn’t you fall forever? And with the food, someone told her, came predators. Predators who ate little penguins!

Finally the day for the return came. Like the big penguins, the little penguins walked in a row. And when they came
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to cracks in the ice they jumped in and swam across. All except Zlee. She went around. The big penguins laughed. She’ll swim, they said, when she gets to the ocean. It’s easy; it’s instinct; she’ll be fine. Zlee didn’t think she’d be fine, but she loved seeing the blue and white mountains of ice. Inside them lay bright bubbles of air, like cozy eggs. She loved Antarctica and she thought there was nothing better than to be an emperor penguin.

They smelled it first – the salt, the plankton. Then they saw it, far in the distance – the solid blue of open ocean. The big penguins waddled faster. The little penguins rushed too, hungry and eager. Only Zlee held back. She watched her friends line up at the edge of a high glacier and slide or jump one by one over the edge. She heard the splashes. She heard the song of her parents, who had already gone in. They were calling her to come and swim. It’s easy, they called; it’s instinct; you’ll be fine. Zlee didn’t feel fine. But when every last penguin small or big had jumped in, she closed her eyes and walked toward the edge. How far below was the ocean? She didn’t know. As deep as the sky, her friends had said. With predators. Wondering what predators sounded and looked like, and how fast they swam, she stayed awhile longer on the edge and then finally, still without opening her eyes, she jumped.
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The cruise ship had sailed south from Australia packed with tourists eager to see Antarctica’s glaciers and, if they were lucky, the return to the sea of the emperor penguins. But they had not been lucky. They had not seen one blessed penguin. “Not one, mind you,” said Ella Barrella to her pet monkey Lou, “not one blessed penguin.” “Here comes one now,” thought the monkey, pointing. Ella turned. Sure enough there it was, a small penguin flying through the air like a kicked soccer ball and landing smack in the middle of the cruise ship’s Olympic-size solar-heated swimming pool. “My my,” said Ella Barrella. “Not yours,” thought the monkey, “but whose penguin it is exactly is hard to say.”

Zlee kept her eyes closed. “Not that cold,” she thought, “in fact, way too warm.” She opened her eyes then to see a circle of funny looking pinkish, reddish, brown and black faces looking down at her. The predators! she thought. Had they eaten the rest of her flock? Without even realizing she could, she dove and swam, down, wanting to go as deep as she could to get away from those faces. But before she had even gone twenty feet she hit something
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harder than ice. She hit it so hard it knocked her out.

On that cruise ship was a girl who loved penguins. In fact, except perhaps for monkeys, they were her favorite animal. She had read all the books about them in her library and seen all the movies. But one thing she had never seen was a real live penguin living free in nature. The cruise had been a great disappointment. Yes the glaciers were amazing, and the Northern Lights streaming across the sky something she would remember forever. But they had missed the return of the penguins, and she might never get another chance to see them. So when she heard there was a penguin on board – a real live free one that had somehow fallen into the swimming pool, she left her on-board Judo class and came running to see. By the time she made it onto the deck two crew members were lifting the unconscious penguin into a wooden crate. She overheard them saying the zoo in Sydney needed a female emperor penguin. The captain had already sent word ahead; a truck from the zoo would be waiting at the dock. A truck from the zoo! the girl thought. As she watched the crew members carry the crate off she spotted the pet monkey. He had a collar around his neck with a leash attached to it. When she’d seen him before she’d thought he looked so cute, and happy.
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He didn’t look cute and happy now. He seemed to feel her looking at him, and looked back. His little hands, so like a person’s, went up to his collar and tugged at it. Then he looked at the crate as it disappeared down into the hold of the ship.

When Zlee woke up she thought she was inside the egg again, dark and warm. Then she remembered the ring of faces, and hitting the floor of that hot hot water. She must have been eaten. She must be in the belly of a predator, one that had also swallowed this thing she was in. Just then she saw, through the cracks in the boards, a light, coming closer, a light much smaller than the sun and bouncing up and down a little. Then it made a sound! “Little penguin? Little penguin? Are you all right?” The sound gave Zlee a good feeling. She edged up to a crack and looked out. There, a little bigger than herself, was one of the strange beakless creatures. “I’m here to help you, don’t be scared.” The little girl had brought a crowbar. With this she pried a board off the box and the little penguin walked out.

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Part II Some escapes can happen without the help of a monkey. This isn’t one of them. Once Ella Barrella was asleep Lou slipped quietly out of his collar and just as quietly out the cabin door. Having memorized the maze of corridors and stairways, he soon found his way out onto the deck of the ship. It was very late. The dancers had gone from the dance hall, and only a few crew members stood watch in the cabin room at the top of the ship. In the sky to the south the Northern Lights put on a fabulous show of streaming and shimmering reds and greens. Like many monkeys, Lou could read the minds of children, and some adults. So he knew the little girl wanted to help the penguin escape, but he didn’t know if she had a plan.

“Okay,” the girl was saying as they slowly climbed the stairs, “here’s my plan. We borrow one of the lifeboats, and I row you back to that cliff – it’s probably not too far back – and you can find your flock, okay?” She turned to look at Zlee, who was looking down at her black clawed feet. Feet not made for stairs. “Well, that’s my plan anyway.” Finally they made it to the deck. No one was out there. The reason no one was out there was the extreme cold. The girl pulled her hat down and her
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collar up, but it didn’t help much. Zlee, on the other hand, finally felt comfortable. And when she saw the streaming lights in the sky they made her so homesick she began to sing the special song her parents had taught her. “Quiet!” said the girl. “You’ll wake someone up.” But Zlee kept on until the end of the song, though as far as she knew her parents were dead, eaten by the predator whose belly this little girl had saved her from. But saved her for what?

A crew member heard the song. He came down the stairs from the upper decks to see a girl and a penguin in one of the lifeboats. And if that wasn’t amazing enough, a monkey stood turning the winch that lowered lifeboat over the side of the ship. “Hey!” he called, running down the steps. “You can’t do that!” But they were doing it. “Faster,” the girl called to the monkey. But when she looked down at the cold choppy water she really wanted to say “Stop!” and “Wind us back up!” “It’s okay,” she said to the penguin. “I’ll just row you toward the lights.” Zlee looked where she pointed. The streams of light seemed like the arms of home reaching out for her. Was she the last emperor penguin left alive? Would she never huddle in the turtle again with all her friends and cousins? The sadness made her start her song again, louder than before.
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The crewman shoved the monkey aside and began to wind the lifeboat back in. “I’m gonna regret this,” the monkey thought, “but I’m doing it anyway.” What Lou did was stick his tail into the turning winch. “You jammed it!” yelled the crewman. “So I did,” Lou thought. “Feels just like that time an elephant stepped on it.”

In the swaying lifeboat half way down the side of the cruise ship, Zlee and the little girl heard something. It was like the little penguin’s song, but stronger, with two voices, two voices coming closer. Zlee looked down and saw her parents! Her parents, and her friends, Neki and Brell. Dozens of penguins swimming in circles, darting and jumping as if they were dolphins, and all calling to her. “You heard me!” “We heard you! Now jump, quick.” The girl saw them too. “Jump,” she said, pushing Zlee to the side of the lifeboat. Above them were two crewman now winding the lifeboat up the side. “Jump!” thought Lou, wishing he could talk, thinking it as loud as he could. Why didn’t Zlee jump? She was still afraid. Why, the last
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time she jumped she had landed in hot water, smashed her head into a wall, and woke up in the belly of a predator! But actually, she realized, all those bad things happened to her not because she jumped, but because she hesitated to jump. Hesitating, she realized, is bad. Waiting too long is bad. Fear is bad. So! She jumped. She jumped over the side of the lifeboat and flew down like a kicked soccer ball into water that was exactly the right temperature. Her eyes wide open the whole time.

The next morning, when the angry captain let her go with a warning, the girl went back out on deck and looked at the northern lights. One very long flame of green seemed to reach across the sky to her, and she thought she heard the song of the little penguin who had finally jumped in.

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Part III “Sorry you didn’t get to see your flock of emperor penguins,” her older brother said the next day when he met her at the ship. “I got your e-mail.” “Oh but I did,” she said back. “I saw them last night.” “Yeah, in your dreams,” he said. “Oh no,” she said, “for real.” Then she told him the whole story. Of course he didn’t believe her. But at that moment the crewman who had tried to stop the escape passed by. She asked him to say the part of the story he had seen, and he did, even the part about the monkey jamming the winch with his tail. “See?” said the girl, when the crewman went. “I still don’t believe it,” said her brother. “You two just got together and made that up.” But then Ella Barrella came by with her pet monkey on her shoulder. “Thanks,” the girl said to him, and he tipped his little red pet-monkey hat. “That’s the monkey,” said the girl. “I still don’t – ” her brother started to say. Then he saw the monkey’s tail. It had two bends in it, so that it was shaped like a “Z.” “That’s the tail that saved the penguin,” the girl said. “And if you don’t believe me now – ” “I guess I do believe you now,” her brother admitted. “I just don’t believe you would really have tried to row that penguin back to Antarctica. Would you have?” “I’m not sure,” said the girl.
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“Maybe being a hundred percent willing to do something hard to help someone is as good as doing it.” “Maybe it is,” he said, starting the van to take them home. “Maybe it is.”

The days grow shorter. It’s time for the mother penguins to begin the march back to the sea and eat, leaving their eggs in the warm pouches of the fathers. Before they go they sing a special song so they can find each other again. Singing to her mate, watching his beautiful rose-colored neck curve as he sings back to her, Zlee remembers the girl and the monkey and the time when she was so afraid to jump. So long ago. She wishes there was a way to thank that girl now, a way for a special song to reach her, wherever she is.

When the females come back, the eggs are hatched. Everywhere brand new penguins poke out from their father’s pouches. So hungry! After they have fed their chicks and greeted their mates, the penguins just back from the ocean notice something else that’s new. Men! Two men in orange suits carrying strange three-legged machines that they point at the penguins. Zlee and her friend Brell walk over to investigate. They aren’t afraid. All the predators live in the ocean, and besides, these big orange things seem just to be looking. “What do you suppose they’re
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doing?” Brell says. “I don’t know,” says Zlee, poking at the machine thing with her beak. Something made her want to sing her special song, so she did. “Hey,” said one of the camera men to the other, “listen! Let’s try to record that.”

In Sydney Australia, the girl who loved penguins went to a movie with her brother. She was bigger now, and he’d been away at college. Whenever he came back to visit they liked to do something together. The movie was March of the Penguins. As they were waiting for it to start her brother asked if the story she’d told him about the penguin on the cruise ship was really truly true. “Every word of it,” she said. “Why that little penguin might even be one of the ones in this movie, grown up.” “I doubt that,” said her brother. “Anyway, how would you recognize him? They all look the same.” “First of all, he’s a her, I’m sure. And second of all, I just know I’ll recognize her, somehow. Wait and see.” The lights went down and the movie began.

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