Short Story: Penguins can fly by Avishek Parui10 min read
Avishek Parui shares a story of dreams. determination, and hope, through the eyes of a child who learns to dream and decides to never give up on that dream till they come true.
This is a story about a boy who loved to learn, discover, and imagine things. Later he would go on to become a famous scientist who found new knowledge about solitary waves in space. When he was four and a half, someone gave him a book of penguins, one with pretty pictures too. Then his parents told him that penguins mostly live in the southern parts of this planet, usually in places full of snow, very white, and very cold. He had never seen snow, but he loved the idea and image of something soft and white falling from the skies and fading out of fields, musically making everything very cold, with a gradual glow. He could almost feel it happen around him, the slow fade, listening to the lights crackle through the cold stones covered with snow. Soon after this, his mother bought him a tiny toy penguin made of wool. He sometimes took out ice from their fridge to keep it cold, to feel like he had a real pet penguin. He named it Pogo and sometimes slept with it too, cuddling it by his pillow. He loved everything small, everything soft, everything slow. He was born and grew up in a warm town by a gentle sea, where the coldest it ever got was when they had to turn off the fan for an hour or so during the day, usually during the twilight when the breezes from the sea mixed with the magenta in the sky beyond their balcony.
He loved penguins because he could imagine them playing in vast, cold fields caressed by white light. He loved the fact that penguins could flap their wings and make strange sounds, walking and wobbling together on their soles and sliding on their bellies in big groups across massive stretches of snow. In the book, in his mind, they looked like fairies from a faraway land, becoming his favourite bird, his favourite sign, his favourite design.
And then he learned that penguins cannot fly.
That news made him surprised at first, then angry, then sad. Why couldn’t his favourite bird fly? He felt cheated and denied of something he just assumed to be there, like leaves on a tree and potato in his food. He cried and complained whenever he thought about this, becoming petulant for the first time in his life. His parents and other big people consoled him by saying that penguins can swim very well, at a speed of 20 miles an hour, stay underwater too, and can hold their breath for 20 minutes. But it wasn’t the same. His favourite bird, one he let himself love so much, could not fly. It was unfair, almost cruel. He tried to find the logic and then, learned that the wings of penguins aren’t light and supple enough to support flights. Also, they were too heavy with feathers. It still seemed wrong, for his fairies in snow-white fields to have wings they couldn’t really use. For the next few months, every time he saw planes from the beach where his parents took him to run and build sandcastles, he wished some of the strength from the aircraft got transferred to the wings of his favourite bird. When his parents asked him to sit on the stone bench by the beach and look at stars, he sometimes imagined the evening sky as a vast, white field, where lights of different colours would move and mix, like waves of the sea he saw. Later in the evening, back the home when his mother taught him to write and practise long sentences on ruled sheets, he always tried to put in snow and flying birds in sentences, slowly and sadly leaving out penguins as they could not fly.
He held on to Pogo for a while, his toy pet penguin, imagining it flying across the skies above the beach, which would become a huge white field of snow in his mind. Pogo was his only consolation in this stretch of sadness, the only penguin which could fly.
His mother, who ran a graphic design company, looked happiest when she sang and painted, mixing colours and making short strokes on her canvas, while he helped her fix the easel with his little hands. His father, who ran a business distributing water pumps, looked most alive when he drove their car, talking about cabin silence and engine smoothness in bigger, better cars, which he did not understand but loved listening to. They took him to many mountains and many walks by the sea where he would pick pebbles that looked like flakes of snow. There were also three small ships in their home, which his parents bought together from three different places they went to. Placed at various points at various angles. Three miniature ships of various sizes, with tiny sails and intricate woodwork and carvings. And three different names engraved on their wooden frames: Thor, Vishnu, Tathasthu. He loved saying the last name, thrice, whenever he wished for something strange and magical: Tathasthu, Tathasthu, Tathasthu.
Then he grew up in school, college, cafes, and classes. Gradually he forgot about his love for penguins and his sadness about the fact that they could not fly. Gradually his parents grew old as he left for a different city, and then for a different country. His mother could not stand for long periods to paint anymore. Instead, she bought books of art and looked at paintings she could have done, had she the time and energy left in her. His father had a nervous problem and stopped driving, having shut down his water pump business and instead taking to gardening, struggling there too, due to his slow heart and heavy body. Together they began to become full of slow stories of the life they made, shared, and lived. Together they stayed at their old home and sat on their old balcony seeing evenings fall across the magenta sky, sharing memories of how he grew, and waiting for his phone calls which came once a night. The three ships were also there, just the way they had always been, slightly worn with time but still standing with their sails spread high, still with their names engraved on them: Thor, Vishnu, Tathasthu.
One day his laboratory team decided to travel to Antarctica. He was a space scientist then, living and working in a big, cold city full of tall glass buildings where snow fell almost every winter. It was a city his mother always wanted to visit ever since she was in college. He had taken his parents on a trip there, and loved how his mother was so excited looking at the yellow cabs, the cafes, and the art galleries. She still ran her graphic design company although she relied more on her younger employees now. His father, slowed down by cigarettes, too old and heavy to work or even walk for long stretches anymore, had mostly sat in restaurants and bookstores, but seemed to have admired the city too. When the Antarctica trip was mentioned and then planned by some of his senior colleagues, he wasn’t too keen at first. There were many deadlines, and many reports to be analyzed and published. He was working on something he thought could create a major breakthrough in the theory of solitary waves in space. Calibrating wavelengths and frequencies over time. With signs and equations which looked like an art sometimes, spreading across screens of many sizes and colours, much like the solitons themselves. But it was also tiring him down slowly, making him eat more and sleep less. He decided to go in the end.
The night before their flight, he called home at his usual time. His mother was happy he was taking a break, she always worried he worked too hard. Towards the end of the conversation, right when she was about to hang up, she told him he would finally be able to see penguins, his favourite bird when he was a child. His father seemed to say something from behind her as well, with his hoarse, heavy voice broken by deep, quick coughs, something about snow and crackling lights. And how he used to be upset that penguins cannot fly.
After he hung up, he stood still, looking out of his balcony at the cold, strange city where he now lived, where he was simultaneously accepted and alienated, suddenly remembering their smaller, warmer balcony in their home, in the city by the sea where he grew up, remembering the many moments when he stood on the beach holding his parents’ hands, waiting for the small streams from the sea to swim in, wet his toes, and swim back again, with a fluid frequency and rhythm. He realized that his love for waves in space may have been born out of those moments on the beach, where waves from the endless sea swam in and wet his feet, went back to their still centre, and then came back again; the beautiful play of slow swish and silence which his parents watched with a lot of love. He was traveling in time now, across the liquid streams in space, the solitons, waves that do not change their shape with time, retaining their energy, velocity, and form, much like the fondest memories in the mind. Soon, he could see his old home in that warm coastal town, which moved and slowly merged with the massive city with big glass buildings where cold people walked in with hot coffee. Then the spaces mixed and became full of glaciers where rookeries of penguins played and huddled happily, sometimes swimming, sometimes tobogganing together. He could see the three ships too, the small ships of various sizes and shapes which stayed in their home, slowly growing now, becoming massive, sailing across the icy seas between their warm balcony and the tall glass buildings, with their names engraved on their wooden planes. Thor, Vishnu, Tathasthu. He said the last name thrice, just like he did when he was a child, whenever he wished for something strange and sublime: Tathasthu, Tathasthu, Tathasthu.
Then there was a soft crackle, the sound of light slowly spreading across the skies, then crossing the rocks and stones, till everything became a silent stretch of snow, in the middle of which he could also see his old parents waving at him from their warm balcony. He could look inside too and see the perfect painting of the perfect landscape his mother had always wanted to finish, the colours still drying from the fresh strokes. Down in the garage was that beautiful car his father had always wanted to drive, to escape the numbing velocity of his noisy water pumps which he had always despised, to experience the silent cabin and the slow sound of an elegant engine. And then there was another sound, a flap, a whizz. There was Pogo, a real penguin now, born from the woolen toy, flying high, across the sky, flapping hard, sometimes blue, sometimes white. This was a special slice of space and time, a warm house in an icy sea marked by the three ships he grew up surrounded by. Where he was now and then, here and there, at once. Where solitary waves slowly swarmed and where snow could breathe and sigh. Where three small ships suddenly grew big. And where penguins can fly.
Inside, his mother was humming her favourite tune, asking him to help with her easel, mixing paint, readying her brush, his hands little again. He was just back from school, his head brimming with stories and sums he had learned, with the smell of freshly baked cupcakes from their oven: red, green, yellow. His father meanwhile started the car, driving away from the noise and numbness of his many water pumps, smiling and savoring the smoothness of the elegant engine, its ambient sounds, its slow glow.
The tall warm trees and icy hedges swung under the same sky, in a slow murmur that spread with the three ships which sailed together, Thor, Vishnu, Tathasthu. He could now see how solitons really moved and merged, as he stood by a door opening onto fame which would fall on him soon after. Softly, like snow.
Avishek Parui (PhD, Durham, UK) is Associate Professor in English at IIT Madras and Associate Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy. He researches on memory studies and is the founding chairperson of the Indian Network for Memory Studies (INMS). He is the author of Postmodern Literatures (Orient Blackswan, 2018) and Culture and the Literary: Matter, Metaphor, Memory (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022). His short fiction has appeared in The Bangalore Review, The Bombay Review, Kitaab, Antonym Magazine, and Borderless, among other places.
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