The Life and Times of Penguin

—Eugie Foster—

[first published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #18]

"Kewpies" (detail)—Rick Bowes
          Penguin felt the breath of life enter his body. The gush of warm, slightly humid air filled him, inflating him nearly to the brim. But the Creator did not overfill him; he left some slack for his beak and tied him off in a neat knot. Penguin shivered at the pain of birth as the Creator twisted and bent him to his will, giving him shape as well as substance. But Penguin cherished it too, knowing he had been plucked from the void to be given this gift of holy suffering.
          Gradually, the Creator added limbs and color to Penguin's inky-black body: bright orange feet and a shiny white breast. Penguin squealed and squeaked in anguish as he felt these parts plaited on, all the while revering the Creator in his divine wisdom. Then the Creator was done and Penguin was finished.
          Penguin heard the holy words of the Creator and knew they were good.
          "Here you go, sweetie, there's a nice penguin for you."
          And he heard an angel sing in reply.
          "Thank you, Mr. Clown. I like peng'ns. My daddy and I saw them at the zoo."
"An unidentifiable shape listed in the corner; its body was a shapeless mound of brown. A crooked paw jerked in a parody of a friendly wave. "
          Penguin listened raptly to the new voice. He knew this was his guardian angel, she who would guard and protect him forever. Sure enough, the Creator set him gently into his angel's hand. Her hands, much smaller than the Creator's—which was fitting since who among the angels had such power as the Creator?—were a bit sticky. He squealed as she held him aloft to receive the glorious light.
          "Look, Daddy! It's a peng'n!"
          "Yes it is, Angie. It's a very nice penguin. Did you thank the nice man for the balloon?"
          Penguin wondered if the new voice belonged to another angel, but was content to bask in the warmth of his new station rather than question further the nature of the universe.
          "Uh huh, I did so, didn't I, Mr. Clown?"
          Penguin heard the Creator laugh. It was a wondrous sound.
          "She sure did. You're very welcome, sweetie."
          Penguin was waved dizzyingly around as his angel brandished him in the air.
          "I got a peng'n!" his angel declared.
          Penguin almost swooned from rapture.
          "Come along, Angie, you're holding up the line."
          "Okay, Daddy."
          A rush of air pushed against Penguin's head, threatening to tear him out of his angel's hands. He felt her grip him, clutching him with her sticky fingers.
          Penguin did not understand what came next. Winds blinded him and sounds assailed him, but he did not fear. He peered up into the face of his angel, dazzled by the flash and glitter of the sun as it played over her hair. His golden-haired angel beamed back at him, and he knew he was safe.

          When he became aware again of his surroundings, all was quiet. He rested in a beam of warmth in the center of a shadowed plain. His angel was nowhere to be seen.
          Penguin started in surprise. Who had addressed him?
          "Hello?" he said.
          "Over here, dude. I'm Ducky."
          Penguin peered around until he spied a dirty lump of yellow. A jagged black rift split one side of it open, while dirt and mud coated it in a dusting of filth. He could barely make out the blunt bill and black eyes of the misshapen creature.
          "Oh. Hello there," he said. "I'm Penguin."
          "Yeah, hi," Ducky said. "Salutations and all that. But hey, I don't got a lot of time, so listen up. Seeing as you're new here, I just wanted to give you a heads-up and welcome you to the pit. Quick bit of advice: keep your beak down, and just run with it, no matter how bad it gets. Eventually the little demon gets distracted."
          "Demon?" Penguin asked. "What do you mean?"
          "Y'know. The kid. The one that brought you in."
          "You mean my angel?"
          Ducky laughed; it was a coarse, rasping sound. "She ain't no angel. Who do you think did all this?"
          Penguin looked past Ducky into the shadows.
          Around him spread a panorama of suffering. Penguin stood amongst a litter of wretched creatures in various attitudes of ruin. On its side, a periwinkle rabbit sprawled, blind and tattered. Two long, pink ears twisted in a stranglehold around a face worn smooth of features. Beside it, a bright green froggy hung out of a lemon-yellow box. Bits of white plastic spine glinted from its torn back. An unidentifiable shape listed in the corner; its body was a shapeless mound of brown. A crooked paw jerked in a parody of a friendly wave.
          Penguin gasped and averted his eyes.
          "She took out my pal, the Bunster, last week," Ducky continued. "And just this morning she tore up butterfly-wings over there." He nodded in the direction of the window. Gleaming in a frilly violet dress, a delicate fairy hung in front of the pane of glass, depending from a length of purple yarn. Her eyes were closed and she seemed to be asleep.
          "Hey, babe, turn around so the new guy can take a gander at what happened to you."
          The fairy's eyes snapped wide and she glowered at Ducky. She reached behind her body. A soft ticking began in her chest. Her tiny feet beat against the air and she twirled around on her bit of yarn. Like burned cloth unfolding, Penguin saw the tattered remnants of the fairy's wings. A gash traveled halfway across the gossamer lavender and cream membranes draped across her back. The ragged edges looked ugly and uneven. A shiny silver key protruded from between them. Its smooth shape stood out against the wreckage.
          Penguin gulped. "What happened?"
          "The kid thought she was 'pretty,'" Ducky said.
          Penguin shook his head; squeaks of dismay issued from him. "No! My angel is a creature of mercy."
          "Believe what you like, dude. I—" Ducky's voice stopped mid-sentence as though the words had been turned off in his throat.
          "Bath time!"
          It was a new voice, one Penguin hadn't heard before.
          "I don't wanna bath, Mommy."
          "You never do, but you have to have one. You're all dirty from the zoo."
          "I don't wanna!"
          The other voice sighed. "Angie, do we have to do this every night? Here, take your rubber ducky."
          Ducky was hoisted into the ether. Penguin heard him whisper "Oh, crud" before he disappeared from sight.
          "Yuck, how did this thing get so dirty?" the other voice asked.
          "I want my ducky!"
          "Hang on, let me clean him off."
          "Nooo!" Ducky's wail was long and dismayed.
          His angel and the other voice drifted away, taking Ducky with them. Penguin felt very confused.
          If what Ducky said was right, the Creator had doomed him to an existence fraught with peril and suffering at the hands of a fiend. But that made no sense. Why would the Creator—the all-knowing, breath-of-life-giving creator of the universe—do such a thing? Penguin shook his head. No, Ducky must be wrong.
          He sneaked a glance at the fairy. She hung in the window, shifting lightly in the breeze. Her ruined wings hung from her shoulders and her face was blank.
          The only way that Penguin could reconcile what he knew was right—that the Creator was kind and good—with what he saw before him, was that the world had to be as good as it was possible for it to be. The Creator made goodness, so therefore, this world, even with the suffering and pain in it, must be the best world there could possibly be.
          Penguin nodded to himself. Yes, that was the answer.
          It wasn't until much later that Ducky returned. He was cleaner now, but the lack of grime coating his body highlighted the scarring on his yellow body. One of his little black eyes was half worn away.
          "Hello," Penguin said.
          Ducky just stared at him without speaking.
          "I've figured it out," Penguin continued. He was quite excited to be able to share his realization with his new friend. "This is the best possible world!"
          Ducky continued not to speak.
          "It's the only answer. The Creator is a kindly being, and his angels are creatures of mercy and compassion. Therefore, what my angel does, she does for the sake of mercy."
          "You. Are. Insane." Ducky's voice sounded strangled. He gave a great cough and gray, cloudy liquid poured from his beak. He vomited up the murky fluid and it poured from his bill and from the tear in his side.
          "What happened?" Penguin asked, alarmed.
          "They bleached me," Ducky said, sputtering up a few more drops of dirty water. "And I still had to do bath time."
          "I'm sorry," Penguin said. "But it was the best of all things." He wanted his friend to see the truth of it.
          Ducky rolled his one good eye. "I can tell you for sure, it wasn't no best of nothing."
          "It has to be. You just don't understand."
          Ducky shook his head. "Is what happened to butterfly-wings over there for the best?"
          "Yes! It has to be."
          "Dude. The Creator, if there is such a guy, ain't no good ole boy. He's a cruel s.o.b. that gets his jollies from watching us simple folks squirm. Or else there's no 'Creator,' which is what I'm figuring."
          "Of course there's a Creator," Penguin said. "He made me. He made you. If there wasn't a Creator, we wouldn't be here to discuss it."
          "Whatever, dude. I just know this life's rough and we gotta stick together if we want to get by. At the end of it all, there's a long drive to the dump."
          "Don't you believe in anything?"
          "Nope. Just in me, the Duckster."
          Penguin thought that was very sad. But before he could argue his case, he was interrupted by the voice of his angel.
          "Where's my peng'n?"
          She was calling for him.
          "Honey, you can't go to bed with a balloon." It was the voice Penguin had first heard with his angel, the one called "Daddy."
          "I want my peng'n, Daddy."
          The voice sighed. "Fine. But if you pop it, don't come crying to me."
          Daddy lifted Penguin from his perch.
          "Hang in there, buddy! Just go with it," Ducky called after him.
          Penguin was set into his angel's hands. They were no longer sticky.
          "My peng'n!"
          He felt a great pressure in his head as his angel squeezed his feet. His beak expanded to twice its normal size, and then three times as the breath of the Creator was forced from his base up into his head. The pain was unlike anything he had experienced before, like his very skin would rupture from the strain of too much breath-of-the-Creator. He squeaked in distress, squealing in his angel's hands.
          "Angie, I told you, if you squeeze your penguin, he'll pop."
          "My peng'n!" his angel shouted.
          The pressure let up from his beak and he grew light-headed. The world spun around as his angel swung him in wild arcs, back and forth. He struck something and the concussion pushed the white plaiting of his belly out of alignment. A scream shrilled out of him.
          He heard a wet honk.
          His angel released him and he shot out of her hands and drifted to the carpet.
          "It's my ducky!" his angel said. Dazed and still in pain, Penguin looked down. His angel now had Ducky in her hands and was banging him against the wall. Each time he contacted the hard, pink surface, Ducky gave a whooshing squawk of pain.
          "If you don't settle down, I won't read you a bedtime story. Don't you want a bedtime story?"
          Ducky fell to the floor, dropped precipitously. He tumbled and came to a stop beside Penguin.
          "You . . . okay . . . dude?" Ducky gasped.
          "You saved me," Penguin said.
          "Yep. Told ya, I believe in me, the Duckster. And the Duckster don't let newbies get the stuffing beat out of them their first night here." Ducky coughed. "Tomorrow night, you're on your own."
          Penguin didn't know what to say; he was so grateful. Before he could find the right words, Ducky shrieked. A great foot had come and planted itself squarely on Ducky's belly, pushing it almost to the ground. The gash in Ducky's side tore wider until it nearly split him in two. Ducky's eyes widened as he screamed out his life.
          Penguin watched large hands lift Ducky. They turned Ducky around and upside down.
          "Ducky?" Penguin called. "Are you hurt?"
          Ducky gave no reply.
          "I think this thing is broken for good."
          "You broke my ducky?" Penguin's angel said.
          "I'm sorry, honey. He was broken already, but I think he's done for good now. We'll buy you a better ducky tomorrow, okay?"
          His angel pondered this for a moment and then smiled widely. "I get a new ducky tomorrow?"
          Penguin watched, stunned, as Daddy took Ducky away. He had no choice but to listen when Daddy came back and told a tale about three pigs and a destructive wolf.
          Later that night, after his angel had fallen asleep and Daddy had put Penguin back in his place, Penguin thought about what had happened this day—how he had been born into glory at the Creator's hands, of his angel meting out pain, and of Ducky's sacrifice and death. It just didn't make sense.
          Was the Creator cruel and capricious like Ducky had said? Or was he kindly and benevolent, making the best of all possible worlds and gifting his creations thereby with it? Penguin wasn't sure. He sat there thinking about it all night long until dawn's amber-tinged rays washed over him through the nursery window.
          Penguin looked up in surprise, still no closer to understanding the nature of the universe, but shaken out of his reverie by the light. He saw the fairy. She flinched and made a small sound when the wind blowing through the open window spun her around in a twisting corkscrew. Her eyes were shut but Penguin didn't think she was asleep.
          "Fairy?" Penguin called.
          She twitched and her eyes blinked open. "What?"
          "Are you all right?"
          The fairy glared at Penguin but after a moment her expression softened.
          "Yeah. I guess so." She shrugged and her ruined wings crackled behind her. "I was trying to go back to sleep. I want to lose myself again."
          "Lose yourself?"
          "Yeah." A wisp of smile curved the Fairy's mouth. It withered away a moment later. "The Daddy read a story to that creature once about a land where magical people fly on the wind and see the world as a great tapestry beneath them. They watch over it but don't ever land because then they'd have to stay. It was a dumb story." She flicked a hand dismissively. "But I liked it. I close my eyes and think about what it'd be like to fly high over everything—higher than the treetops, higher than anything. That way I can dream about it and forget." She frowned at Penguin. "Until someone calls me back."
          "Oh," Penguin said. "I'm sorry."
          The fairy relented. "Ah, don't worry about it." She tilted her head and squinted down. "Hey, you look different today."
          "I do?"
          "Yeah, sorta skinnier. And your beak is longer."
          Penguin looked himself over. She was right. His flesh wasn't as taut as when the Creator had first tied him. And he realized that his center knot, the connection that was the core of his body, was looser. Even as he thought this, he realized that the Creator's breath-of-life was escaping from him, slowly and steadily.
          "I'm leaking!" he said, shocked. How could this be? He was defective. But why would the Creator make him flawed?
          The Fairy looked down at him, a blend of pity and sorrow on her face. "Apparently, penguins are frailer even than fairies."
          Penguin tried to hold his breath, but the Creator's air continued to seep out of him.
          "Fairy! What am I going to do?"
          The fairy shook her head. "You're going to die, Penguin. Like the rest of us."
          "But I don't want to die!"
          "No one does. But we all do."
          "Help me," Penguin begged. "Please."
          She looked away from him, her eyes drifting to the window. Penguin followed her gaze. In a whirlwind of gold and crimson, fallen leaves whipped past the glass. Beyond the violent gale of moving color, the sun was a gleaming china plate on a bright blue tablecloth.
          "Sometimes," she whispered, "sometimes it's not easy to live." She strained her arms behind her back and tugged on the silver key. It cranked around once, twice. Twisting and spinning, she convulsed on the end of the strand of purple yarn in a frenzied dance. Her movements grew more frantic until the yarn split, and Penguin watched as the fairy plummeted down. She fell hard, sprawling before him, but she pirouetted sharply back to her feet. An arrhythmic clicking noise emerged from deep in her chest.
          "What are you doing?" Penguin said.
          She gyrated beside him and wrapped her slender arms around his body. "I'm helping you." Her wings unfolded in a web of torn translucence. "I'm helping both of us." With a great jeté, she flung herself into the air, carrying Penguin with her toward the open window.
          At first Penguin was exhilarated at their flight and the sensation of weightlessness. The fairy held him so tightly he squeaked, but he didn't mind. The window grew large before them, the expanse of open air close enough to touch. "We're almost through!" he squealed.
          A cold wind gusted through the window, pushing them down and backwards. Penguin felt the fairy falter. He cried out as they tipped and the floor loomed close. The fairy's wings thrashed in a discordant sweep behind her. The noise in her chest spluttered and stopped altogether. Penguin thought they would be dashed back down for sure, but he felt a great push as she thrust him ahead. The fairy fell, but Penguin crested the open window. And the breeze, instead of pitching him into the nursery, lifted him away. He turned to look back at the fairy and saw her, crumpled and broken on the floor.
          "Fairy!" he cried.
          She lifted her head and Penguin saw her raise an arm and wave once at him through the glass. A trick of the air brought her words to him.
          "Live, Penguin," she called. "Live!"
          The wind tore Penguin away from the window and carried him into the sky so that he could no longer see her. Beneath him, the home of his angel wheeled away in a blur of whiteness. He spun around, helpless to control his flight. The breeze drove him higher, tumbling him beak over feet. He wished, sadly, that the fairy had made it out too.
          Around him, the crackle of brilliantly hued leaves swirled in a wild dance of color. He marveled at their incredible beauty—somber green bleeding into vibrant yellows and brilliant oranges. The colors were so rich, they made him gasp with pleasure. And gasping, he realized the air was leaking faster out of him. The cold air and the buffeting were making it worse.
          But, surprising himself, Penguin found he didn't care anymore. The panic, the fear, they were gone. There was too much to see to be afraid, too much to experience to worry about dying. He whispered a quiet "thank you" to the fairy for the gift she had given him.
          The leaves whisked away as through they teased him, bobbing in and out of his line of view. In a sweeping breath, they tumbled aside to reveal the land beneath. An expanse of green and gold and brown spread before him in a riotous display of color. Penguin stared. He had never seen anything so magnificent.
          The wind cartwheeled him around and he found himself staring into the brilliance of the early morning sun. Azure sky spread endlessly before him, embracing him in a bubble of infinity. He found himself spun around and around in a chaotic spiral so he wasn't sure which way was up or down anymore. He laughed aloud, happy to let the fierce and capricious breeze take him where it would.
          Maybe the world wasn't as good as it should be. There was cruelty in it, and suffering. And life was short—far shorter than was fair. The wind steadied him and he found himself peering down once again at the colorscape spreading beneath him. But here and now, it was perfect. And really, there was nothing more important than that.
          Penguin felt the wind racing over his rapidly shrinking body and he tasted the bright savor of the air as it shrieked by him. Not much time left. He would have liked to have flown on the wind forever and forever, just like this, but there was barely enough air left in him to hold his shape.
          "I'm alive," he whispered. And as the last breath-of-the-Creator emptied out of him, he cried it out to the listening leaves and the roaring wind with all his strength. "I'm Penguin!" he shouted.
          And the wind swept away the wisp of shriveled, knotted-together speck of black, orange, and white.

Eugie Foster calls home a mildly haunted, fey-infested house in Metro Atlanta that she shares with her husband, Matthew, and her pet skunk, Hobkin. Her fiction has been translated into Greek, Hungarian, Polish, and French, received the Phobos award, and been nominated for the British Fantasy, Bram Stoker, and Pushcart awards. Her publication credits include stories in Realms of Fantasy, The Third Alternative, Paradox, Cricket, Fantasy Magazine, Cicada, and anthologies Best New Fantasy (Wildside Press), Heroes in Training (DAW Books), Magic in the Mirrorstone (Mirrorstone Books), and Best New Romantic Fantasy 2 (Juno Books). She also pens a monthly column, Writing for Young Readers, and is the managing editor of Tangent. Visit her online at www.eugiefoster.com.

[ photo, Paulette Bowes ]

Richard Bowes's most recent novel is the nebula-nominated From the Files of the Time Rangers. His most recent short fiction collection is Streetcar Dreams and Other Midnight Fancies. He won the World Fantasy, Lambda, International Horror Guild and Million Writers Awards. Recent stories are in F&SF, Subterranean Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Sybil's Garage, Salon Fantastique, The Coyote Road, So Fey, and Datlow Del Rey anthologies.

content Copyright © 2005–2007, Eugie Foster—All Rights Reserved
image, "kewpies" Copyright © 2007, Richard Bowes—All Rights Reserved