By Hannah Christensen
Gilgal saw the first penguin on a Thursday in October. He had just looked up to give his eyes a break from the black and white numbers marching down his math page. He shoved his round glasses up to rub at his eyes. The crisp sunlight drew his gaze to the window.
Fire orange and mottled red leaves hung quietly on branches and scattered in comfortable untidiness over the ground. A squirrel scampered halfway down the maple in the side yard, and froze. He flicked his tail, then raced around to the other side of the trunk.
Gilgal leaned over, watching as the squirrel undulated his tail some more and then darted up the tree. Gilgal tried to follow it with his eyes, but too many leaves retained their cling on the branches. He started to leaned back and take one last soaking look at autumn, but then he froze. From the ground near the bottom of the hedge hopped up a penguin.
Its black and white only slightly smudged, the bird’s colors shouted against the browns and reds around it. Only its small yellow crests seemed to fit at all with the blazing fall colors.
Gilgal leapt to his feet, sending his chair clattering to the floor. He shoved the window up and pressed his dark nose against the screen.
The penguin shook itself, then peered around. Gilgal stared in amazement at the bent outstretched neck and sharp orange beak.
“Mom, Mom, come quick!” he yelled, eyes nailed to the bird.
Mrs. Turner did not take long to enter the laundry room.
“Look! A penguin!” Gilgal pointed.
“Are you all right?” his mother asked, stepping over to where the chair lay. “What have you been doing?”
“Where do you think it came from?” Gilgal asked.
Mrs. Turner picked up the chair. As she straightened, she looked out the window.
“A penguin!” she cried. The chair landed on its feet with a thump. She leaned over Gilgal’s shoulder. The penguin leaned to the side and tilted its head to look up at the squirrel, who continued to scold.
“Layla! Saida! Come in here this instant!”
Footsteps quickly pattered in through the kitchen, both girls and Zeb tagging along, of course.
“Look out the window,” Mrs. Turner said, taking a half step back. The girls crowded in around Gilgal. Saida’s blue hair beads clanked as she stood on her tiptoes to get a better view. Gilgal picked Zeb up to let him see.
“It’s a penguin!” Saida said. “But we don’t have any snow yet.”
“Penguins live in the South Pole,” Layla announced, tossing her bushy black ponytail.
“This is a different kind,” Siada said. “It doesn’t have any yellow.”
“All penguins live at the South Pole,” her older sister contradicted. “And it does have yellow, sticking out of its head. It must have escaped from the zoo.”
“South America has penguins, too, honey,” Mrs. Turner corrected. “And maybe Australia. We should look it up.”
“Maybe it’s a new species,” Gilgal said. He slid Zeb to the floor and dashed toward the back door.
“If a hippopotamus escaped, too, Mama, can we keep it?” Gilgal heard Saida ask as he dashed outside. He pulled up abruptly as he rounded the corner of the house. He stared at the black and white bird, which returned his look suspiciously. Gilgal took a slow step forward.
The penguin cocked its head.
Gilgal could hear his sisters through the window, arguing about keeping a hippo.
“Be quiet,” he said in a loud whisper. “Go get some food so I can get it to come closer.”
“I think penguins eat squid,” Layla said. “We don’t have any squid.”
“Get the caviar.”
“Nuh-uh,” Mrs. Turner objected. “That is for geography tomorrow, and I’m not spending money on caviar for a bird. You can try some tuna.”
Feet stampeded away and back again. The back door banged twice. Gilgal glanced back over his shoulder. Layla approached very slowly, cupping a blue-wrapped tin of tuna, Saida tiptoeing behind. Gilgal reached out for the tin. Layla scooped out a clump of fish and handed it to him. Gilgal crouched down and extended the pungent fish. The penguin peered at his hand and then began sidling away.
“Quick! Some more!” he hissed.
“You haven’t used that yet,” Layal protested, but shoved a smaller pinch into his other hand.
Gilgal gently tossed the fish toward the foreign bird. The penguin jumped backwards.
“You’re scaring it,” Saida whispered.
“Back up,” said Gilgal, placing his first piece of fish on the ground and scuttling backwards. His sisters did not retreat fast enough.
“Squawk,” said the penguin, watching as Gilgal tripped over his sisters and they all fell into a tangle of bodies.
“Back up! Make a trail,” Gilgal said, trying to back up out from his sisters.
“The tuna juice is spilling!”
“You’re stepping on my foot.”
Barking interrupted all attempts of subtlety. A beagle ran down the sidewalk.
“No! Stop, Blue!” Gilgal jumped up and bolted forward.
Layla stood and held the rest of the tuna above her head.
The penguin dove for the bushes.
Gilgal sized the beagle’s collar. “Mom,” Gilgal said, straining back with both hands, “Can I take him home? I could tell Professor Robey about the penguin.”
Blue found the first clump of tuna on the ground and snarfed it down.
“Go on,” Mrs. Turner said. “The girls and I will grab our library cards and go see what we can find on penguins. J.J. just woke up.”
Gilgal dragged the dog out to the sidewalk.
“Come on, Blue. Let’s go. Come on.”
Blue agreeably changed direction, and Gilgal let go. The dog started to bound along, first in front, and then around Gilgal as he trotted down the street.
At the corner, they crossed the road and went down a few houses to a stern brick edifice. The grass in front stood in thick, orderly ranks, immaculately green and trim. On one side of the entrance sidewalk stood a tall, square hedge; the hedge on the other side rose and shrank in a now clouded shape. It had once been a lobster. Professor Robey, having come home from an Alaskan field research trip, had spoken of ‘Tupperware we lost to bears’. His maintenance man, Carl Zundel, had heard ‘topiary lobster’.
Blue dashed toward the irregular hedge. Gilgal ducked around the edge, under a no longer so rounded claw. Farther along the burly figure of Carl hunched over a bundle he seemed to be struggling with. He jerked his grizzled head up at the sound of the barking dog.
“Not now, Blue,” he said, gruffly. “Stay. Get back.”
Blue veered off to the side. Carl frowned, but just then the object he was working with gave a lurch and an angry squall. Gilgal ran in to intercept Blue for a second time that day. He snagged the collar, then wrapped his brown arms around the dog’s tan neck and sat down to anchor the wriggling animal.
Carl Zundel seemed to be doing battle with a ferocious burlap sack. It leaped and squirmed and seemed to manage to inflict some damage on the stocky worker. At one point it almost got away, but Carl pressed it to the ground, and holding the screeching bundle down with one knee, threw some rope around the neck and doggedly tucked it into its own coil. He held the writhing sack up in one tight, hammy fist, inspecting his work critically. Something furry stuck through the top.
“What did you catch, Mr. Zundel?” Gilgal asked, raising his voice as politely as he knew how.
Carl turned around.
“It’s one of the Turner kids,” he acknowledged with a friendly nod. “This,” he indicated the bag, “Is for the Professor. When I saw him prowling around, I knew he was just what the Professor needed. It put up quite the struggle—practically made me feel like I was back in combat training. It’s the largest specimen I’ve seen in a double handful of years. But a little one just wouldn’t do it; he says he’s been needing a big one for a while.”
“Is Professor Robey in?”
“Speak up, boy, I know your mother has taught you better than to mumble.”
Carl strode toward the pillar guarded front door in large, rolling strides. He paused to tell the beagle to stay. Blue sat, cocking his head as though to say he wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. Gilgal tagged along.
“The professor had his classes in house today, but they should be just about done by now,” Carl said, holding the door open for Gilgal to slip in. “If he wants a dead specimen, he’ll have to do it himself. I don’t specialize in dead cats.”
Gilgal stared at the protruding paw. It was as large as a vanilla oreo, an oreo with slender curved claws.
Carl strode to the back of the wooden entryway and started up the stairway. Upstairs feet started to creak and bump the floor. Gilgal hurried, following right in Carl’s footsteps.
Almost a dozen college students headed down the stairs, jostling some as they passed. Most of them teased Carl about his parcel on the way by.
“I don’t think you used enough formaldehyde.”
“Hey! Don’t let it near me.”
“Aren’t dangerous animals like those against city regulations?”
“What does Blue think of it?”
Carl nodded in friendly acknowledgement, but stayed bent on his mission.
Upstairs, they entered a large open door to a laboratory. One side of the room was filled with neat lines of test tubes and phials. Shelves and various tanks stood against the other wall. Narrow tables with various experiments ranged throughout the room. At the front of the room a window let in a crack of light through heavy drapes, and set at right angles to it was a bulky wooden desk, the top clear of everything but a brass sculpture which doubled as a pen holder. The brass held an apple tree with Newton resting beneath, holding up an apple right as he discovered gravity.
A tall, slender man stood, snapping shut a folding chair to add to a quiet row of already flattened chairs.
“Warrick, I found you a specimen,” Carl said.
Professor Warrick Robey spun about on his heel.
“Introduction to Entomology isn’t until next semester, thanks to the board. And if we’re studying insects in the middle of winter, they’ll have to do with pre-mounted specimens. If the board doesn’t like it, they can sponsor a trip to the tropics to collect insects. I am not caring for a household of insects.”
“No, the specimen,” Carl said, stretching out the bag to the professor.
Warricks’ dark eyebrows slanted toward his long, narrow nose. He reached out with his left hand for the sack.
“Careful,” Carl said. “It’s a might crabby.”
His warning came too late. The cat exploded into action, causing the professor to stagger back a step. Surprise did not loosen his hand’s firm grip, but the loose paw, with uncanny blind accuracy, twisted and hit flesh. The bag dropped, and the rope gave way. Before it hit the floor, a tawny furball exploded out, overshadowing the explosion from the professor’s mouth.
Glass crashed. Tables wobbled. Blues and yellows and reds began to spread over the floor.
“Out! Out! Out!” yelled Professor Robey, hopping around to get at the snarling feline through the growing mess.
“I told you to be careful,” Carl said, shaking his head.
“Get it out! Why did you inflict this monstrosity on my laboratory?”
“Why did you let your cat specimen go? Do you know the work I put into catching it?
“Cat specimen?” Professor Warrick stared, then pressed his fingertips to his forehead. “I said a little one would not be sufficient. Not! The only thing Felidae Pantherinae like about that animal is the lion-sized mess it made, thanks to the fact that your brains are so slimed over by that science fiction nonsense you read that any sense you have seems to slip out as slick as butter!”
He lifted his hands in a gesture of frustration, then paused.
“Gilgal?” he said. “When did you come in?”
“I came in with Mr. Zundel, sir.” Gilgal took a step toward the door. “But I—”
“Ah, you just caught me at a bad moment. Just a temporary setback—everything will be quite fine as soon as Mr. Zundel cleans up this mess.”
“I am not your housecleaner,” growled Carl, crossing his arms.
Warrick glared at Carl.
“No need to be going so soon,” he continued to Gilgal. “I’m sure it’s nothing your mother wouldn’t understand. Not anything she would even be interested in hearing about.”
Gilgal looked hard at Professor Warrick and turned toward the door.
The professor wrapped his fingers in his hair like he was getting ready to haul up some weeds. “I will keep…this is what comes of homeschooling instead of having sensible hours…all, right I’m sorry, Carl.”
Professor Warrick closed his eyes and took a deep breath as Carl stood, almost stonily watching. Over his shoulder Gilgal caught the smallest crinkle of his eyes, the only sign that bewrayed Carl’s mirth.
“I should have known better,” the professor reluctantly conceded. He cracked an eye to see Carl waiting still.
“For my hasty words,” he specified.
Carl relaxed and gave a nod.
“Trying to pull the sly on Jasmine Turner,” Carl said. “She has her children better trained than that.”
The professor opened his mouth, but snapped it shut again before any words came out.
“Pray, do remove that beast from the premises,” he said through gritted teeth.
“What was that?” Carl asked, cupping his ear.
“Get. The. Cat. Out.”
Carl swept his eyes over the laboratory.
Professor Warrick Robey raised his voice and stretched his enunciations out to full clarity.
“Out. Out of the room. Out of the house. Out of the property. Out of town. For all I care—”
Proffessor Warrick checked, took a deep breath, and turned to Gilgal with a noticeably quieter voice.
“What brings you here today, Gilgal? Having trouble with an experiment? Did a math problem stump your mother?”
Gilgal turned back around.
“I came to ask about penguins, Sir.”
“Penguins!” cried the professor, lofting a finger in to the air. “Penguins are a flightless bird, native to ocean habitats, who feed upon fish. There are 17 different species, all of which live in the southern hemisphere. Not all live in Antarctica; not even all live in polar regions. They range up through New Zealand, Africa, and the American tropics, but all in the southern hemisphere.”
Professor Warrick jabbed at the Southern Atlantic region of the world map hanging above where his shelves of supplies had been arranged.
“Of course, this is all elementary. I would expect a first grader to be able to tell me that. Though I have met some scientists who do not seem to have grasped the concept.”
He strode briskly to his desk, where he jerked a drawer open and began to pluck out envelopes and fling them onto the desktop.
“Penguins sighted in California…’Professor, what is your hypothesis for penguins migrating to Columbia?’, penguins in Guinea, rumors of sightings in the Philippines…I’ve been receiving this foolishness for months now. Rothwell Even had the gall to send me these.”
Professor Warrick waved a set of photographs in the air. “He said if I was unable to identify these as penguins, I was unworthy of the title of biologist.”
He threw the photos down.
“I know my geography better than that, and I let him know his time would be better spent bringing his mysteries to the local zookeepers rather than cluttering up my mailbox with such rubbish.”
The professor took a slow breath, brushed the offending papers in a pile, shut the drawer, and turned back to Gilgal.
“But as I’ve said, that is all elementary. Was there anything in particular you wish to know about penguins?”
“We saw one today,” Gilgal grinned in eagerness. His eyes sparkled in his dark face at the thought of so many penguins on the move.
The professor seemed to freeze for a heartbeat.
“Ah,” he said, relaxing visibly. “A field trip to the zoo. How commendable for—”
“No! They were outside my window!”
Gilgal dashed over to the professor’s window.
“Michigan,” the professor began in a pained voice, “Is north of the -“
“I just looked out,” Gilgal continued, brushing aside the drapes, “And—”
His eyes widened.
Gilgal pointed, crouching in excitement. In the grass in front moseyed two of the black and white birds, these with a double ring of black around their necks. The hedge quivered, and another penguin popped out. The professor seized the edge of the drape to snap it back shut, but then his eyes fell on the scene below. The room became so quiet the continued drip of solutions almost echoed. Gilgal tried not to jounce too much. Carl put a hand on his shoulder and pulled him back, away from the stunned professor.
In fever dreaming that dreams
It’s by Basho,” he added to Gilgal, quietly.
Gilgal glance up and started to open his mouth, then bit down on his tongue to keep it still. He jiggled up and down in impatience. The professor continued unmoving, his hand with the edge of the navy drape suspended.
“Non possimus,” he breathed.
“Nine possums?” objected Carl. “After the grief you gave about the cat? I am not catching you nine possums. Get your own.”
Professor Warrick made an impatient gesture with his right hand behind his back, but without much conviction.
Carl snorted and stumped out to get equipment to help clean up, while Gilgal started to pick up broken glass.
As the days passed, penguins continued to make their appearance. They cluttered the park, hindered traffic, and dominated the newspapers. Saida had set aside an entire notebook to record the different types of penguins she saw.
“They’re just big ovals,” scoffed Layla. “No one can tell they’re penguins.”
“Ovals are a very good shape for penguins,” said Mrs. Turner. “And Saida does a superb job of showing which is which. Why, just look at those spots. And that orange beak. I know just which kind it is.”
Layla made a face at her five-year-old sister.
“Uh-uh,” Mrs. Turner said, shaking a long, slender finger. “You go sweep the bathroom right now. And I had better find the broom put away when you’re done.”
Saida watched her flounce away, and a stubborn look settled on her mouth. The next morning, Layla’s glasses were gone. They eventually reappeared under a bathroom towel.
One evening, just as Mr. Turner finished the blessing for the evening meal, the doorbell rang.
Mrs. Turner started to push her seat back.
“I’ll get it, honey,” said Mr. Turner, standing. “You just stay right where you landed.”
Mrs. Turner smiled up at her husband, then began to dish up potatoes. All the children squirmed around in their seats to get a better view of the door. Zeb pounded the linen tablecloth with his spoon.
“Well, this is a pleasant surprise, Professor,” came Mr. Turner’s deep, calm voice from the living room. “Do come in.”
“Good evening, Samuel.”
Professor Warrick entered the living room and shook Mr. Turner’s hand.
“I hope I—ah, it seems I am interrupting supper.”
Mr. Turner chuckled. “Don’t give it another thought,” he said. “We started late. I just got back home from work.”
Professor Warrick glanced at Mr. Turner’s collared Ponderosa shirt. He nodded briskly.
“I will try to not take much of your time, then,” he said.
Gilgal stood, leaning over the table, listening. Layla and Saida had turned completely around in their seats to stare at the visitor. Mrs. Turner frowned at her children.
“Your seats,” she reproved, shoving a full plate at Gilgal. He absently reached for it with one hand.
He reluctantly turned away from the men and stretched out both hands to accept the plate.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of the penguin phenomenon,” the professor said. “A full fifteen species seem to be migrating north, leaving behind only emperor, king, and a scattering of macaronni penguins in the south. This represents major ecosystem alterations. All the scientific community is intrigued, and mystified as to why. Could this be a result of depleted food sources? Increased predators? Global warming?”
“Of course, the warming of the South Pole would naturally cause all the penguins to migrate toward the equator,” Mrs. Turner replied wryly, standing. J.J.’s crying had begun over the baby monitor.
“One must consider all the options,” Professor Warrick said, waving a hand. “Though my focus is on penguin preservation. This odyssey has been hard on their health and livelihood, and left no time for nesting. Without proper prevention, we will likely lose at least 12 species in only a year or two.”
Mr. Turner glanced over at the table, and gestured permission with a small smile. Gilgal gladly dropped the green bean loaded fork he had been suspending in midair. Layla helped Zeb out of his seat, and all four crowded into the living room.
“I have obtained permission to—er…”
All the little faces seemed to derail Professor Warrick a bit. He blinked slowly, then continued.
“I am leading an expedition to transport penguins up to Cape Ingolfshofoi off of Iceland. As a part of the nature reserve, it should be a safe place for a penguin breeding ground. Many of the same seabirds and other wildlife live in the area as do in Patagonia, where several species come from. If we act now, there may be time to save the penguins from extinction.”
“The last penguins we saw looked all patchy,” Layla said. “Mom said it might be because they’re too hot, but they might just be molting.”
“Winter’s coming,” Saida said. “That will make the penguins happy. Will they get better?”
Meanwhile, Zeb had sat on the Professor’s shoe and grabbed his pant leg.
“Clam!” he shouted.
“Er,” said the professor, holding his hands as though he weren’t sure what to do with them or the clipboard he had.
“Zebedee!” scolded Mrs. Turner, who had just walked in holding baby J.J. “You let go of Professor Robey right now.”
Zeb squeezed tighter, glanced at his father, and flopped off backwards.
“Professor Robey is going to take the penguins to the North Pole, Mom,” Saida said.
“Here, Layla, take J.J.” Mrs. Turner said, reaching with one arm for Zeb, who was now rolling around on the floor. “Unless you would like to hold him, Professor? He’s happy right now.”
“…Iceland, not the North—What?” The professor pulled to a stop mid explanation. “Oh, no. Umm, but thank you.”
“Children, back off, ” Mr. Turner said. “Take a seat, professor, and make yourself comfortable.”
“No thank you. I just came for a short visit, to make a proposition.”
Professor Warrick pulled up his clipboard and flipped over a couple of pages.
“Since you—ah—have decided to school Gilgal at home—and the others—he has not had the same opportunities as he would have in a public or private school. I’m sure he is getting the basics, but there is so much more, especially in the realm of science.”
“Which is why he holds his own when you draw him into Evolution vs. Creation debates,” said Mrs. Turner, almost suppressing a smile.
Professor Warrick flapped away the comment to continue.
“What I have in mind is offering Gilgal a place in the expedition as Junior Assistant.”
He hurried to fill the silence that fell on the room.
“Of course, he would need to provide his own clothing, but all equipment will be provided, and I should be able to help some with the heavy outdoor clothing, but it’s a lifetime opportunity.”
“You do us honor,” said Mr. Turner. “But I don’t understand why you want Gilgal. He’s only 11. Surely one of your college students would make a better assistant.”
“I do plan on taking along a student or two, and they will be involved with notes and heavier labor, but I know Gilgal can make himself handy. Mind, I wouldn’t have time for in depth lectures or teaching along that line, but he would learn a great deal.”
Professor Warrick pulled out a silver pen and clicked it open on his clipboard.
“Now, I know you may want to think about it, but let me know as soon as possible so I know what supplies I’ll be needing.”
Mrs. Turner shared a quick glance with her husband.
“Thank you, Professor Robey, You certainly are generous,” Mrs. Turner said, folding Zeb up in front of her with her arms. “That would certainly be a wonderful science experience for Gilgal.”
Gilgal leaned forward, watching his mother.
“There are a whole lot of other considerations…”
“The best I have to
Offer you is the small size
Of the mosquitoes.
That one’s by Basso.” Carl removed a red and black checkered hat, and scuffed his boots on the entrance mat.
“Why, good evening, Mr. Zundel,” beamed Mrs. Turner. “We surely did enjoy the sushi you helped us with the other week.”
“Mr. Zundel, Mr. Zundel, do you want to hear my haiku?” Layla asked
Carl winked an acknowledgment at her.
“Evening, ma’am. Samuel. I hear the professor is trying to persuade you to part with your boy for a few weeks.”
“Yes, he has offered,” Mrs. Turner said.
“I know you’ll want to put some thought into it before deciding anything that important,” said Carl. “But if you do decide to send him, I assure you I’ll keep an eye out for him.”
Professor Warrick cranked his head around to stare, eyebrows up, for a moment. Then he turned back to his clipboard, flipped a page, and hastily made a notation.
“Are you going along on the adventure?” Mr. Turner said. “No vacation?”
“You still need to eat,” Carl replied. “Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve done any traveling. I never was stationed in Iceland, though, so this should be a good trip.”
Professor Warrick flipped the other way through pages, where he scratched some lines, then made some more notations.
“Thank you, Mr. Zundel, that’s downright kind of you,” said Mrs. Turner. “Speaking of food, would the two of you like to stay for supper? We have plenty.”
“I have already eaten. Thank you,” said Professor Warrick.
“That sounds fine. I’d be glad to join you,” said Carl.
“Let me know as soon as you decide.” said Professor Warrick clicking the pen closed and slipping it into place on the clipboard.
“Jasmine and I will have to talk about it, but we will send you an answer tomorrow morning.” Mr. Turner’s eyes crinkled as he thanked the professor and bid him good night.
Gilgal returned to the table in bounds. His father had all but said yes; a trip to Iceland lay just around the corner.
The next week scuttered away on happy feet. Gilgal stood at the front door with the last of his luggage.
“Now, which two of your reading books did you bring with you?” quizzed Mrs. Turner.
Gilgal opened his backpack to show her.
“Bridge to Terabetha? Isn’t that one of your shorter ones?”
“I drew a picture for you,” Saida said, presenting a folded piece of paper.
“Thanks, sis,” he grinned, slipping it into his mathbook.
“Now you don’t forget to keep up on that math,” Mrs. Turner said. “Just remember, when you get back I’m going to give you one doozy of a test, so don’t you be sluffing off. And how much paper did you bring for your journal?”
“Let him say goodbye to his brothers and sisters, Jasmine. It’s time to leave.”
Mr. Turner stood just outside the door, waiting. He was already dressed in his work clothes, ready to head off to his manager’s job after dropping his son off. On days he worked breakfast shift, he was usually already at work by now, but he had taken off a little time that day for Gilgal’s departure.
Mrs. Turner scooped Gilgal into a hug. “Now, you make us proud of your actions, honey, you hear?”
“And you didn’t forget your – ‘
“No, I brought my Bible and my coat and my map and almost half a suitcase of underwear.”
Mrs. Turner laughed, dropped a quick kiss on his head, and ran her fingers over his short hair.
“You have a fine time, then. I love you and I’ll miss you lots.”
Gilgal make a quick finish of saying goodbye to his family, then ran over to the waiting van. Charlie, the neighbor boy, stood by the curb, waiting for the bus.
“Gilgal,” he called, “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to Iceland, to study penguins,” Gilgal yelled back as he jumped into the vehicle and slammed the door shut.
Charles watched as Mr. Turner climbed in and backed the van out of the driveway.
“Boy,” he said, “I wish I was homeschooled.”
From the professor’s, Gilgal joined the other three members of the expedition, where they loaded into Carl’s patchy red pickup. Gilgal watched wistfully as the college student, Alarac, hopped up into the back. He wormed his long legs in among the baggage until he found a solid perch. His orange-red hair rose slightly from a wandering wind. Carl chuckled as Alarac flattened it down again.
“It won’t do you much good once we get going,” he warned.
Alarac grinned, his freckles squeezing up his cheeks.
“Bad habit, I guess,” he said.
“Just don’t let my bag go flying off because you’re busy holding you hair down.”
Gilgal climbed up into the middle seat. The professor ran his finger down his lists one last time, glanced in the rearview mirror as he reached for his seatbelt, and froze.
“Zundel,” he said, his lips barely twitching.
Carl brought his hand down from the ignition and cupped his ear.
“Zundel!” The seat belt skidded back away. “What are bar stools doing in the truck?!”
Gilgal dodged the out flung arms and squirmed around to pick out the white legs of the stools poking into the air.
“They were the only high stools I could find. Why, what were you thinking of?”
“High stools? I didn’t say anything about stools!”
“Oh, yes you did. That was one of those indecipherable scribbles I went to you with.”
Carl leaned against the steering wheel, watching the professor flutter through pages.
“You missed it,” he said.
The professor turned in mid-flip and started going the other way.
“You missed it again.”
The professor exhaled hard through his nose.
“If you slowed down, it might help,” Carl remarked.
Professor Warrick lifted a page between thumb and forefinger, flipped the page over and looked over at Carl with eyebrows raised high.
“Keep going,” said Carl.
The professor flipped another page and looked over.
He flipped another page.
The professor flipped one more page, and Carl nodded. Professor Warrick began reading furiously down the list, growling in the back of his throat when he finished and starting again. Carl leaned over Gilgal to study the list.
“Right here,” he said, tapping.
“Ice tools? Ice tools!” exclaimed the professor, slapping his forehead. “You packed those pieces of furniture instead of my ice tools?”
“What do you expect when you mumble on paper as well as with you mouth?”
Carl unbuckled and stepped out of the cab. He gave a broad wave as he started explaining what he needed to Alarac. The two started unloading stools and bringing them inside while the professor dashed inside to search for his tools. Gilgal got out, too, and Carl put him to use holding the door.
Everyone finally got settled and on the way. Professor Warrick spent the first part of the trip going over the packing list slowly and loudly to make sure there were no more mistakes.
When they arrived an Lake Eerie, a boat was sitting out at the dock. Gilgal leaned forward, changing his direction as the truck turned to go park. The cutter looked huge in his eyes, a full 64 feet long. Two masts rose from the deck, promising more than a single motor ride. It was painted white with the name Baba Yaga on the side.
“Don’t obstruct the driver,” Carl warned.
Gilgal leaned back some, but kept his eyes fixed on the window.
Another truck met them at the dock, loaded with ordered supplies. It brought several penguins along in wide-barred cages. Trailing along were a few other protesting penguins.
“I was hoping more would follow,” Professor Warrick said, going over the little group of mixed birds with his eyes. “They usually live in bigger colonies than this.”
One of the men from the other truck shrugged. “They don’t seem to be following their normal behavior right now, so what do you expect? Do you plan on keeping the birds caged, or run the risk of having them slip away?”
“I’ll open the cages after a time; I wouldn’t want to frighten their following comrades with the threat of captivity. But we must get going as soon as possible.”
Gilgal jumped into the flurry of activity that followed, running up and down the pier, ducking into the cutter’s quickly filling interior, bringing things down from the dock, trying to make friends with the penguins.
Carl rubbed his hands down his pants legs. “I want to know how you plan on keeping the penguins along. If I had been stuck in a cage, then found the door open, I would want to put as many miles between myself and the bars as possible.”
“Ah, we must romance them,” Professor Warrick said, pressing his hands together as though he was repressing rubbing them together.
“What, candlelight dinners?” grunted Carl.
Professor Warrick impatiently shook the suggestion off. “We’ll feed them once in their cages, and then again as we loose them. With any luck, their companions will join them on board for that.”
Carl eyed the cages skeptically.
“I also brought one more aid,” Professor Warrick said cheerfully. Striding over to the cab of the other truck, he pulled out a cream colored animal carrier. He gave the docking area one last visual check. “And now we are ready to go,” he nodded.
Gilgal ducked down to peer into the cage. A miserable looking, chubby cat hunched in the back, its black ears squashed against mottled brown fur. Carl reached over and tipped the carrier up. The cat gave a gurgling growl as he slid backward into a pile.
“A cat,” he said. “You’re taking a cat with you. On purpose.”
“Some of the earliest Antarctic explorers had a ship’s cat which got along with the penguins very well, indeed.”
The professor righted the cage and the cat slid out on his belly. He quickly scrabbled back into a corner.
Carl tugged at his chin.
“We could have brought Blue,” he said. “Penguins and dogs have been known to make friends, too. I hadn’t brought it up, since I figured you wouldn’t want any more animals around than there were already, but it would have kept him from pining his little heart out at home. Besides,” he added, looking closely at the professor from under his eyebrows, “I was under the impression you didn’t think housecats and science projects mixed.”
Gilgal poked a finger through the gate, trying to reach the cat’s nose and stroke it.
“A ship’s cat,” Professor Warrick said, pulling the cage away and heading for the boat, “Will not get under foot the way that dog of yours does.”
The ships’ cat is seasick. Alarac calls him Scurvy.
Gilgal paused to chew on his eraser as he wondered if he should put down Alarac’s joke about naming vitamins. His mother had said to write about everything that happened, and besides, he didn’t want to forget it. But it would be a lot of writing. She probably didn’t mean that kind of thing, anyway. It hadn’t actually happened.
Today I caught 17 fish.
One of Gilgal’s tasks was to catch fish to feed penguins. Carl grumbled about it being a waste of time.
“I’m sure they aren’t having any trouble catching their own fish,” he said.
But he used the opportunity to teach Gilgal how to prepare fish.
“Might as well give them something special to eat,” he explained.
Professor Warrick had thrown a fit when he had caught them cooking fish to feed the penguins, so now the lessons focused more on marinating and other preparatory work.
Gilgal rubbed the eraser against his upper lip and it fell off into his open notebook. He rolled it off and over to a narrow gap between the bulkhead and the deck, next to the bunk he shared with Carl. He shoved it in the crack to join nine other eraser lumps and an assortment of broken off pencil lead. Then he tapped the empty eraser holder against his teeth before continuing.
The professor counted 54 penguins today and 11 came on board. They were humboldt, magellanic, adelie, and rock hopper.
Gilgal looked over at Saida’s picture he had tacked to the wall. She had drawn a ringed penguin and a boy standing on a block of blue which must be ice. The boy seemed to be giving the penguin something, but Gilgal couldn’t tell what. Some days he thought the brown, lumpy thing was a rock; other days it looked like a leather boot. Today he fancied it was a fish.
“Is your math ready to check?”
Carl ducked into the cramped room. Gilgal could still smell the fresh sea air on him from above decks. He shut his notebook and rummaged in his foot locker for the math book. Pieces of notebook paper wedged into it from all directions.
“Is Professor Robey off the radio yet? Alarac started checking my math.”
Carl grunted. He took the book and papers from Gilgal and sat on the lower bed.
“Should have brought a folder,” he grumbled as the sheets of paper shifted at his search for the day’s lesson. Gilgal sat next to Carl as he slowly ran his big finger down the problems. Gilgal scuffed his feet against the floor, his eyes resting on the other bunk across the room, almost close enough to touch from where he sat. He hooked his feet under the bed frame and stretched out to try.
“Temperatures?” Carl asked, referring to the journal.
Gilgal nodded and continued to stretch forward. His spread fingers fell short still.
“No, he’s still talking,” Carl eventually said. “Still arguing over whether Emperor penguins bred far enough from their normal place to be counted as affected by the migration trend.”
Gilgal lunged out of balance and scrambled up out of his topple.
“I’m going to check on Scurvy,” he said, and headed above deck.
He found the cat huddled next to the tiller.
“Hi, Scurvy,” he said, reaching slowly for the cat. Scurvy just glared back. Gilgal held his hand out for a few seconds, but Scurvy wouldn’t sniff. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a bit of fish he had saved from the penguins.
“Would you like a bit to eat, too? It’s from the sea, so maybe it won’t make you feel seasick.”
Scurvy stared hard at the boy for a little longer, then slowly rose in the front enough to reach the offered fish. He sniffed it a little, then started to nibble. Just then, an orange bill flashed in and whipped the fish away.
Scurvy sprang backwards with a furious hiss, all his fur on end.
The fish was down the penguin’s throat in a flash. Then the black and white bird turned his attention to the cat.
“Gwaw?” he said, tipping his head.
Scurvy growled and spat, backing off to the side, looking for escape.
The penguin leaned closer to get a better look; Scurvy struck out with his claws. The penguin squawked and whacked back. Scurvy tumbled back and scrambled to his feet, hissing. Suddenly he yowled and half jumped, half scrabbled up the curve of the gunwale. The penguin that had snuck up behind him gave another experimental peck.
Gilgal sat back on his heels. The professor had certainly been right about a cat interesting the penguins. They never seemed to tire of tormenting it.
“The plague of scurvy.”
Gilgal turned his head to see the speaker. Alarac’s fair skin nearly glowed in the darkening air. He grinned.
“Proof positive that it’s the plague is when the red sores break out,” Alarac added, crouching by Gilgal’s dark form.
“What’s the cure?” Gilgal asked, watching the cat as though his gaze alone could part its fur and reveal the peck marks.
“The plague is without a cure,” said Alarac. “the only hope is to keep the victim from infecting everyone around him.”
“Throw him into the sea,” whispered Gilgal.
Alarac shook his head soberly. By now Scurvy balanced on the edge of the vessel, hissing and spitting and jumping like a fire of green wood.
“The sea would only carry the plague, washing it up onto the shores.” Alastar’s curved hands slowly stretched in front of him. “Soon the seed of death would seep over every corner of the earth, sparing none.”
“The Sahara desert would be safe.”
“Not for long. There are oceans on both sides, and it would slowly creep in. Everyone needs water. The only hope is solitary confinement.”
Alarac pulled on imaginary gloves and pretended to duck into a breathing mask. Gilgal copied him. Then they both chose a direction to come at Scurvy and started sneaking in.
“Careful,” whispered Alarac. “Don’t knock him overboard.”
The squawking of bickering penguins almost drowned him out. Gilgal found sneaking rather hard with the penguins about. They seemed to be chasing each other, and kept pushing past his legs. Scurvy naturally kept his face toward them, so Gilgal kept stopping to wait for the birds to head the other direction. Scurvy jumped every time they ran past.
Alarac was just getting close enough to reach toward the cat when a penguin dove between his legs. He lurched forward, managing to grab a steadying handhold. Scurvy whirled about, spitting at this new threat. Gilgal held his breath, but the cat had a good hold on the gunwale. He probably would have kept his balance had the second penguin not crashed into Alarac just then. Alarac lurched off his feet, shoving into the cat. He did manage to sweep Scurvy deckward with his hand before crashing into the steering equipment.
Gilgal made a start for the flying cat, but checked as the professor stepped out onto deck.
The cat landed with a thud.
The professor stumbled back a step, but did not have much time to think about balance. The flurry of fur did not stop.
“What—get this thing off of me!”
He clutched at the yowling mass on his head. Gilgal hurried over, but the professor wouldn’t stay still enough for him to try and reach Scurvy.
“Watch out,” warned Alarac, smearing blood away from his eyes. “You don’t want to fall.”
“How am I supposed to watch out for anything with this shrieking fur devil in the way?” he yelled back.
The penguins stopped their chase to join in the frantic little dance, flapping and following the professor in little frantic circles. The professors’ long, open coat flapped about his knees. Alarac dodged over and snatched at the cat.
“Try standing still and bending over,” he said, “So I can get a better handhold on him.”
“Bend over? I doubt a giraffe would have a more difficult time bending over!”
Alarac sidestepped a penguin and slipped so he was half leaning against the professor. Instead of backing off to try again, he threw his arms up, scrabbling around for a good hold on the cat.
“Enough! Enough!” yelled the professor, shoving back against Alarac’s shoulders. Penguins scattered in front of the two men’s stumbling footsteps. Gilgal tried counting. He thought there were nine, mostly Adelie, but there was too much movement to tell for certain.
Professor Warrick finally planted his feet apart and leaned forward, giving Alaric a better line of seizure. Alarac reached out.
A penguin eyed this new situation. Sizing up the coat now gaping in front, it spread its flippers and broke into a swinging run. The penguin sprang up and beak first into the top of the professor’s coat. Professor Warrick gave a strangled yell as the bird slid by his belly and down by his leg. He hopped violently, as though afraid the penguin would continue by way of his pants leg if he didn’t move. He only managed one hop, then came crashing down.
Alarac tried to break his fall, arms still outstretched, but they went down together, sliding along the deck as though they were penguins themselves.
The fall threw Scurvy free, and Gilgal pounced on him, pinning him to the ground before he could register he was down again. Scurvy yowled and squirmed and pushed with his claws, but only managed to get his head out from under Gilgal’s restraining body.
Gilgal raised his head at a suppressed chuckle.
“What seems to the problem here?”
Carl stood comfortably to the side, arms crossed and angled slightly back, almost as if he were leaning on something.
“That,” said the professor, shaking himself free and rising to his feet, “Is exactly what I wish to know. What do you think you’re doing out here!?”
Carl gave a stern look at the yell to remind the professor he was supposed to be behaving. Professor Warrick glared about him, finally letting his gaze rest on Alarac.
“We were just catching Scurvy—”
“Dobrynya,” the Professor corrected grouchily.
“—to put him up for the night—”
“Ships cats can sleep on the deck.”
“—to give him a break from the penguins.”
“And he had better not end up anywhere near the bunks. His whole job is the penguins!”
Professor Warrick turned and stomped off. Alarac picked himself up and shook his head in exaggeration. He flicked his hand from fist to flat in a type of salute to Gilgal, who remained sprawled on top of the cat.
Gilgal grinned in acknowledgement as Alarac followed the Professor to go help with notes.
Carl looked over to where a grumpy cat head poked out from under the boy.
“Where are you planning on putting it?” he asked. “It had better not get sick on the professor’s bed tonight. That would really be trouble.”
“Last time—last time,” Gilgal began again, a bit louder, “We hadn’t even locked him up.” He tried to squeeze his arms beneath him without getting up enough for Scurvy to escape. “But he made so much noise at the door we went to see if anything was the matter, and then we couldn’t get him out again.”
Carl came over and settled into a crouch. He reached a big hand over and firmly gripped the cat’s scruff. When Gilgal rolled off, Scurvy burst into bodily protest. Carl lifted him a little higher, keeping his paws from grabbing the deck properly. Scurvy clawed the air with his front paws, protesting and snarling in a slightly garbled voice. The dark tail lashed wildly.
“You’re not supposed to hold the grown-ups like that,” said Gilgal, settling back.
“Then find something to wrap those weapons in. I don’t need any more cat scratches.”
Gilgal slipped his jacket off and started to use it to grab for a flailing paw. Carl took it from him, and deftly flung it over the cat’s whole body, snapped it down to the deck, and in a twinkling the only part left unrolled was the cat’s head.
“He sure looks mad,” said Gilgal, leaning over. Scurvy spat and hissed like a hot pan of bacon.
“He was mad before,” said Carl, “But I doubt you can catch him again. Trying isn’t even a good idea.”
Gilgal gently touched the tip of one ear. The whole jacket noodle convulsed.
“If we left him in the jacket overnight, do you think he would calm down?”
“I would be surprised if the jacket held that long. Don’t even think of just hiding him under the bed now that he’s contained.
Gilgal absently shook his head as he tried to reach out and touch Scurvy on the nose.
“Mr. Zundel, do you have an idea of where to put him? The penguins can get into almost everywhere.”
Carl rubbed his lips thoughtfully.
“Why don’t we try the galley?” he said.
“Won’t he get into the food?
“No, it should all be shut up tight. Besides,” he added as Scurvy began to hack and choke, “I don’t think he feels up to eating.”
Gilgal stood on deck, carefully coiling rope. Above the surge of the waves came the distant sound of penguins. Gilgal looked up. It sounded like a big group of them, but too far away to be on board. He piled the rope into the middle of the coil: not properly put up yet, but out of the way for now. Gilgal ran over to the side of the ship and leaned forward, looking for a break on the horizon. Scootching along from one hand’s grip on the railing to another, Gilgal kept his eyes on the distant water until he spotted a break.
“Land! Land! We’re almost there!” he cried.
A stumbling, tumbling sound broke his attention. Gilgal turned around to see Professor Warrick fallen. He glanced quickly over at the abandoned rope, but it appeared untouched.
“Professor Robey, are you all right? Did you stumble?”
“No,” said the professor, quickly pulling himself up and briskly brushing himself off. “I was tripped.”
Gilgal looked around to find the villain. Neither man nor penguin lurked in the vicinity. Professor Warrick pointed up. Scurvy clung to the mast half-way up.
“You’re only going to feel worse up there, you know,” Gilgal informed the cat. Then he turned back to Professor Warrick.
“Did Scurvy hurt you?” he asked.
“Dobrynya,” the Professor corrected automatically. “No, I sustained no injuries. Though I begin to wonder if he is trying for an accident. But where is the land? There shouldn’t be any nearby.”
The professor peered, then started to check co-ordinates.
“Iceberg,” said Alarac, who had just appeared with a spyglass.
“That fits,” said the professor, “Though it seems a bit odd that the one who spotted it isn’t the one on watch and responsible for keeping us on course, hm?”
Alarac shrugged. “Even a steersman needs to fill the bottle from time to time,” he said.
The professor looked pained.
“It wasn’t a long break, and I did check to make sure we weren’t on a collision course any time soon. The iceberg is still a ways off, you know. Unless we’re going too slowly? Engines full throttle?” Alarac asked cheerily.
The professor glared at Alarac and snatched the spyglass away. Gilgal watched as he shifted it minutely.
“Are we headed for the iceberg?” he asked.
It took a few moments for the Professor to reply.
“Our course will bring us to a close pass,” he finally said. His voice was quiet and vaguely muffled; Gilgal recognized it as meaning the professor was preoccupied, but persisted in questions.
“When will we get to Iceland?”
“In a few days.”
Gilgal watched the distant lump. “What will it look like?” he asked.
“Jagged rather like a cliff face, with snow on the top and frozen foam crusted around the base. There’s what appears to be a valley or inlet formed from fallen ice, which gives the penguins a convenient entry point. I’ve seen bigger.”
“Like Greenland,” nodded Gilgal.
The professor took the eyeglass down and looked blankly at Gilgal. “It may have broken off from Greenland,” he ventured.
Gilgal considered the professor with steadfast brown eyes before asking, “Iceland or the iceberg?”
Alarac gave a shout of laughter. “No, Iceland will look like Canada did when we went onto open sea, only in reverse. And it would be smaller, though not as small as the iceburg.”
He looked to the professor for confirmation. The professor thoughtfully tapped his fingers on the barrel of the eyeglass.
“Cape Ingolfshofoi is a little offshore from Mt. Hvannadalshukur, Iceland’s highest peak. We should see Mt. Hvannaddalshukur first. A single high rise such as that would look similar in the distance to an island. Or iceberg, which after all is simply a floating ice island. But before sighting land, we would sight—and hear—seabirds.”
Professor Warrick opened his mouth. Then he took in the exaggerated blank look, and closed it again. He turned back to the iceberg.
“Tell me, why don’t you, why that is faulty logic.”
“Because penguins don’t fly. And we brought them out here. Do you think they well all stay behind on the iceberg?”
“Ah, now, that is Dobrynya’s job. And your fish should help, too?” He turned to raise an eyebrow at Gilgal.
Gilgal ran, bounding along with only minor swerves and skids as the waves shifted the deck. It was time to get out his fishing line.
The iceberg swelled and settled in majestic undulations. The dark interior rose up into jewel toned blue, then wafted away into shimmering white at the peaks. Waves threw themselves at the base, their roar disintegrating against the stern ice into a frost encasing.
“A hundred mountains
Echoed in the jeweled eyes
Of a dragonfly,” Carl murmured.
All four stood on the deck, watching the iceberg. Professor Warrick had proposed taking water samples. Gilgal still held the tubes he needed to fill the conduct a salinity test, but Alarac had set his down.
“A quote?” Alarac asked diffidently.
“Issa,” said Carl.
“They may be molting,” fretted the professor. Penguin squawking filled the air. A chill breeze spun his hair into tangles. “This migration seems to have thrown off their internal schedule in more than one way, but I had hoped they would wait until we arrived.”
“What if they just stayed on the iceberg?” Gilgal asked.
“It would prove to be fatal. If their feathers do not permit them to swim, we shall have to bring them onboard.”
Carl muttered something inaudible.
“That’s a lot of penguins,” Alarac remarked, skeptically. “And if we try to sail that close, the Titanic may gain a fellow ghost ship.”
“Can I get on the iceberg and help catch penguins?” Gilgal asked.
“No one is getting on the iceberg unless absolutely necessary,” said Professor Warrick. “And even then, I think it may be best if you would stay on board the Baba Yaga. Your mother would likely frown on such an expedition.”
Gilgal leaned forward, trying to get a better view of the mingled flock of penguins. The rockhopper penguins tended to be higher up, but the rest seemed mingled regardless of species for the occasion. Maybe it was an occasion. Most of the penguins’ attention seemed to be focused in one area. Gilgal looked harder.
“Professor Robey,” he said, “Look. I think that Rockhopper already grew its new feathers. See? Its crest is brighter than the rest.”
Professor Warrick brought Alarac’s eyeglass out from under his coat and turned it toward the penguin in question. He rose to his tiptoes and leaned forward, clutching the eyeglass with both hands now. Carl took hold of the back of his coat to keep him from wobbling overboard.
“Macaroni!” gasped Professor Warric. “It’s a Macaroni! Do you know what this means?”
“But they just got here,” objected Alarac. “All the reports say the penguins continue on north shortly after the macaroni penguins get to the location. They’re the last wave of the penguin tide.
“To the radio!”
The professor threw himself back. Carl grunted and let go.
“We need to find out if our wake is empty of penguins, or if there’s still a trail of macaroni penguins, or…”
The professor’s rapid stride swept him and a trotting Alarac out of hearing. Gilgal held his glass test tube up to his eye and pretended to twist it into focus.
“Come on, boy,” said Carl, clapping him on the shoulder. “Someone needs to get some work done. Fill ‘er up and let’s start that testing.”
Gilgal lowered the glass tube and looked over at Carl.
“You do know how to run the tests,” Carl said.
“Professor Robey let me test the salinity without any help.”
“Good. I won’t help any either. Don’t worry, I’ll stay and watch. That way if anything goes wrong, I’ll take the blame.”
“What about the other tests?” Gilgal asked, getting ready to dip up some water.
“We’ll have to see,” said Carl. “Hopefully those two don’t take too long on the radio. We don’t want to make too much of a mess with their data.”
News came back that the penguins had indeed continued their land trek north, especially those closer to shore. The farther inland, the slower the migration. Macaroni penguins hugged the coastal regions and seemed spread out along all longitudes, leaving some behind every time a group moved northwards. In the next few days, the number of penguins alongside the Baba Yaga multiplied.
“They must really be booking it,” Alarace confided in Gilgal, “Even though we have slowed to a sea slug’s crawl.”
Gilgal spent most of his time fishing. Under Carl’s eye he squoze in the necessary schoolwork every day, but his reading lay buried. After all, there was always the return trip.
“Were these free swimmers or did you snatch them from unsuspecting hungry beaks?” Carl asked as Gilgal met him at the fish barrel with another catch.
“The Adelie was too quick,” Gilgal admitted, “So I had to get free swimmers this time. I hope they aren’t the ones the penguins let go because they don’t like the taste.”
Gilgal slipped the fish into the barrel’s liquid.
“They won’t recognize the taste by the time they get them,” said Carl. He carried a jar of vinegar in one hand, some crushed coriander in the other. “Go get the other ingredients.”
With the escalating demand for fish, Carl had pared down the preparation to storing them in what he called ‘brine marinade’. Sea water was the base ingredient, but he and Gilgal continued to add some flavor to the mix. Gilgal had tried to sample a fingerful twice, but Carl smacked his hand aside.
“Go get some of your assignments done while you wait for feeding time,” Carl told him, fastening down the barrel top.
Gilgal reluctantly fetched his mathbook. He brought it up and sat down on the deck to do his work. Even the numbers reminded him of penguins: sixes round in the middle like Adelaides, twos bent over to peer at their feet, zeroes stuffed full of fish. As long as he was thinking about penguins anyway, he might as well be where the action was.
A group of the birds had congregated around the barrel, trying to find a way in before it was opened up. The barrel stolidly kept its place under pecks and prods from various beaks. One penguin jumped on top and started flapping its flippers.
“Penguin flippers beat
Their fellows down. No winter
Wind will lift them up.”
“Issa?” guessed Gilgal.
“No. That one’s Zundel. Not that it’s anything to brag about.” Carl’s voice still carried a certain tone of satisfaction.
A macaroni penguin strutted into the crowd. The other penguins squawked and flapped at it, but made way. Even when the macaroni penguins hogged all the fish, the other penguins wouldn’t touch them. They bickered and fought with each other, but the macaroni penguins could swagger right up to them and bully them out of any fish they had grabbed. Gilgal wondered why. They weren’t that much bigger than the other penguins; only a couple inches and not always that.
The Macaroni penguin stationed itself next to the fish barrel. Gilgal knew what it was expecting. Soon would be time for him to hand out fish, and this newcomer expected the lion’s share. Sometimes Gilgal thought about adding yellow crests to Saida’s picture because that was the only type of penguin he seemed to be giving anything to anymore.
Carl beckoned him. “Might as well,” he said. “It’s almost time anyhow.”
Gilgal pushed his unfinished math off his lap and came over. Sure enough, the Macaroni penguin would not let any of the others touch a fish. He tried giving several fish away at the same time, or throwing them to the edge of the mottled flock, but the Macaroni forcefully chased down each one, adding it to his personal pile when he didn’t have time to swallow it immediately.
Gilgal looked around. Scurvy lay quietly on top of a pile of crates, his eyes closed peacefully. The new dynamics among the penguins had distracted them from him somewhat. In fact, Gilgal realized, none of the Macaroni penguins had ever seemed to notice the cat. Maybe, he thought, it wasn’t fish he was pictured giving to the penguin.
Gilgal closed the barrel carefully, then slowly made his way toward Scurvy. He slipped off his jacket and held it, spread wide, in front of him. Tiptoeing until he was only a couple of feet away, Gilgal sprang at the cat, jacket first.
He almost missed. Scurvy had plenty of practice dodging, and all Gilgal got hold of was his hindquarters. Half scrambling, half falling, Gilgal tried to pull the cat to himself even as he followed the enlivened beast in its dash about deck. Penguins scattered in front, then regathered to join in the chase.
“Be careful of your school books,” warned Carl as the jabbering mob streamed by him.
Gilgal managed to get enough of a better grip to sit back and thrust the cat at the Macaroni penguin. The two creatures stared at each other, the cat furious, the penguin nonplussed. The penguin rapped the cat with its bill.
Scurvy erupted out of Gilgal’s hands, almost bowling down both the penguin and the professor, whose legs he sprinted through. Professor Warrick took an extra, stumbling step to steady himself, but his foot hit the coil of rope Gilgal had never returned to finish. With a mess of rope tangled around his ankle, Professor Warrick stumbled and fell.
“That scurvy—cat!” he roared.
Gilgal buried his mouth in his knees to cover a smile.
“What?” the professor challenged of Carl. “If I’m stuck on a ship like a sailor with a half-wit ship’s cat like a sailor and ropes strewn all over the place like a sailor, then I am certainly free to curse like a sailor!”
“Curse like a sailor, is it? I don’t think Jasmine would approve of that at all.”
“If she doesn’t approve of it, she can take her pretty little hands over here and fix this mess herself!”
The professor stripped the ropes from his legs and stormed off.
Carl looked at Gilgal.
Gilgal looked away.
A Rockhopper penguin caught his eye as it stealthily poked its head between two penguin bodies and snitched a little fish from the Macaroni’s pile. The Macaroni penguin whirled about. Instead of squawking and pecking and beating its flippers, it slowly spread its flippers wide, lowered its head, and gave a sort of hiss. Then it charged at the offender, beak wide open. The Rockhopper turned tail and fled. The Macaroni penguin chased it back and forth and about, its wide open beak stretched forward. Finally the Rockhopper penguin dove overboard, the fish still clutched in its beak. The Macaroni penguin followed. All the other penguins crowded around to peer into the water.
Gilgal grabbed a fish from the abandoned pile and dangled it near the penguin group. A few on the back eyed it nervously. One finally stepped up and snapped it down. Before long, the penguins had mobbed around the fish and were cheerfully bickering over each biteful.
“That Macaroni looked like it was trying to eat the Rockhopper,” Gilgal said. “Do you think it could?”
“I’ve heard that they can swallow things almost their own weight,” replied Carl, “But I think the Rockhopper’s safe. As soon as you’re done feeding the birds, you have some rope that needs to be stowed. Correctly.”
Gilgal paused in his ramblings to delight in the novelty of watching the pounding waves from a stationary site. The wind tossed his hood off and snuck its icy fingers into his hair. Gilgal grinned down at the sandy skirt around the cliff’s base. The sand was icy now, and the cliff top’s grass skin had shrunken into brown clumps, but overall the penguins had seemed pleased with this new land. The different species had separated and found places to settle in. The professor couldn’t decide whether to be pleased or worried.
“Of course they need a place of their own on land to molt properly. But with winter coming on…and now may not be the best time for nesting… but it should be no harm for them to find good nesting sites for later—all the more reason to stay!” he reasoned.
Carl claimed if someone came along with a feather-growing elixir, the professor would pawn his last test tube for some.
Gilgal had been instructed to keep out an eye for any more suitable nesting places or similar penguin attractions, but to make sure not to disturb the penguins in any way. As far as he could tell, the biggest threat to the penguins’ disturbance was the scattering of Macaroni penguins. Those troublesome birds kept on the prowl, looking for things to take from the other penguins, and in general making themselves a bullying nuisance. Still, Gilgal enjoyed the excuse to romp around and explore through the dark, twilight days.
Not far from Gilgal, near the edge of the cliff, lay another penguin commotion. Not surprisingly, a Macaroni penguin stood in the middle of it all. The black and white bird strutted back and forth along the edge of the cliff. His twin yellow crests splayed back along the sides of his head like plumes on an officer’s helmet. Every so often he would stop and scream down at something at the base of the cliff, sometimes also tipping his open beak up to the sky and flapping wildly.
The surrounding Magellanic penguins seemed to scoff, but kept their distance.
Gilgal peered over the broken rock face to see what had their attention. A single sea lion lay on the ground, still and broken looking. Gilgal turned and hurried down the smoother incline of grass.
When he had circled the base of the cliff, Gilgal stopped a few yards from the sea lion to take a closer look. It did not look like a very large sea lion; it was probably a pup from earlier in the year. A gash lay along one side, from the neck down across the base of one flipper. Blood saturated the nearby fur, but did not continue to flow perceptibly. The sea lion lay very still, giving no sign it noticed Gilgal at all. Gilgal crept up little by little across the cold, crunchy sand until at last he stood over the injured animal. Gilgal studied it, wondering if it was dead. He reached into his pocked for the fish he carried around to try and entice Scurvy back on board if he ever found him—the cat had bolted the moment the cutter had reached shore.
Gilgal dangled the fish above the sea lion’s nose and watched. After a bit, a whisker twitched. He put it lower. Nothing happened. He lowered it again.
The sea lion slowly cracked its eyes and gave a feeble, “Ork.”
Gilgal crouched down and lay the fish against the sea lion’s mouth. After some time and effort, the sea lion managed to finish the fish.
Gilgal sat back on his heels. He looked at the helpless animal. Penguin chatter continued to fall from above. Gilgal chewed on the finger of his glove. The sea lion was brown and what you could call lumpy. He couldn’t actually pick it up like the picture Layla drew showed the boy doing with whatever his gift to the penguin was. Still, maybe…He looked up to where the Macaroni penguin called its challenge, then slipped off his coat.
After a while and a few feeble protests, Gilgal wrestled the sea lion onto his coat, seized the coat arms, and began to pull. The trip up took a long time. Gilgal had to be careful not to let the sea lion slip off on the uphill slope. He stopped to rest several times and rub the ice off of his glasses. Halfway up, he opened the store of emergency food they all carried on their belts on shore. He chomped into the energy bar; he would never make the trip without a boost. That practically counted as an emergency, since he needed it. The last bite of the bar he fed to the sea lion. It was almost too crunchy, but the sea lion managed to finish it off.
As Gilgal reached the top of the bluff, he was glad to find the penguins had drifted closer in his absence. They were more scattered, but the Macaroni penguin was not as far away as he had feared. Gilgal readjusted his grip as the coat he dragged shifted with the weight of its burden, but continued on his way. His slow approach generated considerable interest among the penguins. Word even seemed to spread, for now several types of penguins congregated.
As Gilgal approached, the Macaroni penguin tried to act as if it did not even notice. When it tried to nonchalantly wander away, however, it found its way blocked by a wall of penguin bodies. In fact, penguins were closing in from all directions. When he was only a few yards away, Gilgal gave one more tug, then backed away. The gift had been given. He watched to see what would happen.
Penguins flowed past his legs to form a living black and white wall. Slowly the circle constricted, forcing the Macaroni penguin closer to the prone sea lion. The penguin looked back and forth until finally he let his head tip down, acknowledging the injured predator. He started his taunting strut again. The other penguins made a hissing, clacking type of sound and shifted forward again. The Macaroni penguin paused, looking closely at the sea lion.
It did not move.
The Macaroni penguin flapped its flippers, then bent down, beak open wide, and advanced. Gilgal stared as the penguin marched up to the sea lion. It shoved its beak around one of the tail flippers, thrusting more and more in. Gilgal squeezed his eyes in a blink; there was no way the penguin could swallow so much as the tail, even if he could snap it off.
The penguin staggered forward until it could not fit any more through its beak. Then it tried to clamp down and shake off the bite.
The sea lion twitched. It was no major twitch, but was big enough to send the penguin flying. Tail and flipper slid out. The surrounding penguins jeered, one of the nearer ones prodding with its beak. The macaroni penguin wriggled back up, screaming at its opponent. It rushed at the sea lion and drove a peck at its head.
Gilgal peered forward, trying to see if the peck had landed deep enough to draw blood. Before he had a chance to see, the sea lion lunged up. With a slash of his head, he flung the penguin, now bleeding, across the open ring of ground and crashing into the border penguins.
At that , the whole group of penguins surged toward the downed Macaroni penguin, hailing down pecks and slaps and insults. Mostly they gave the sea lion wide berth, but it had sunk down and lay quietly again, ignoring the drama.
The macaroni penguin squirmed and struggled to get free. It got to its feet and managed to move. The whole combined flock followed, jostling it forward toward the cliff. Finally, the Macaroni penguin perched on the edge, struggling futilely against the hostile birds. It tottered, then leaned out and jumped.
The penguins leaned forward to watch.
Gilgal sucked in his breath.
From below came a splash, not a thud.
All the other penguins started squawking loudly, and then ran along the edge of the cliff, heading toward the beach. None of the others jumped after in their molting feathers.
“We should be headed down, too.”
Gilgal turned around to see Carl.
“You’ve been gone for a while,” the grizzled man explained.
Gilgal looked over at the sea lion.
“That energy bar works really well,” he said.
In the days that followed, the penguin colonies drove off all the macaroni penguins on the island, then settled down in their separate groups. Professor Warrick could barely manage to catch a few hours of sleep here and there in his excitement. He kept constantly on the move between the penguin colony starts and the two-way radio.
When other scientists heard of the happenings, they experimented with forced confrontations between the Macaroni penguins and sea lions. In every instance where other penguins witnessed the sound defeat of a macaroni penguin, they responded by driving the cocky birds away. Gradually, the penguin population began migrating back south where possible, with a few small groups settling farther north than originally.
“But why do they seem so sure they can defeat a sea lion?” the professor murmured to himself. “Or swallow one whole, by their behavior.” He impatiently pushed back the sandwich Alarac offered, but accepted the tea.
When Gilgal suggested an incident between a baby sea lion and a large Macaroni penguin, the professor shook the idea off with almost as much impatience as he had the sandwich.
“Even should we be speaking of a runt, such a thing would be astonishing. No, Alarac, it is not time for bed—you can’t trust the sun this far north.”
Now, finally, it was time to leave. As the Baba Yaga peacefully slipped away in the moonlight, Professor Warrick watched, peaceful at last. The penguins in their new resting place were swallowed from sight.
“Veni, Vidi, Visci,” he murmured.
“Any what pieces?” Carl asked, inclining his head to hear better.
To Gilgal’s surprise, the professor laughed. “My peace we will begin, and Caius Lucias,
Although the victor, we submit to Caesar.”
Carl eyed him with suspicion.
“This is the point I cast aside the crowning wreath, isn’t it, to prevent myself from being stabbed to death by jealous statesmen.”
Gilgal watched as the two men retreated from the cold air, the professor’s arm laying as lightly on Carl’s shoulder as his steps dusted the deck. He smiled and followed.
2 thoughts on “Penguins, Penguins Everywhere”
Are really 17 different species penguins in just the southern hemisphere?
Which story is your newest?
Yes, I did look up how many penguin species before putting it in the story.
My newest posted story right now is Termites, Teacher and Taco Sauce, but hopefully I’ll be posting The Other Side of the Jungle before too long.