Halibut, Herring and You.
This one is an old story, and not about zombies (for once). And the very talented Phenteus made this soundtrack:
It’s the penguin love-song. Perfect for this story. I’m in awe of how someone can take words and turn them into music that captures the essence of a character. A lovely, lovely collaboration – Lefti, I can’t thank you enough!
Check out his other work on Soundcloud, inspired by the short stories of Philip K Dick. And me!
Halibut, Herring and You
Milton has been thrown out of the Sushi Bar again.
Mostly it’s the costume. And his fanatical commitment to his new lifestyle. As he puts it:
“Humans come to live among penguin-kind and we do not reject or attack them. We accept their behavior as natural for them, if slightly odd. Including their callous refusal to intervene to save us from Walri.”
Milton is not knowledgeable about his passion. He has been thrown out of the library as well. Turning pages is beyond the capacity of either his flipper-mittened hands or his sharp metal beak. The police, on that occasion, spoke to him sternly about his beak and their desire that he should not realize its potential as a weapon. But then they humored him and took flipper prints.
Milton can no longer wash himself. He makes us take him to the swimming pool. As long as he showers first, the attendants let him spend hours cavorting in an excited flurry of yellow plastic flippers and black and white furry penguin suit. We have to take him to the pool because the beak and flippers prevent him from working the shower controls or manipulating change. Rizzle offers to sew a pocket in his penguin suit. Milton glares at her, all offended King Emperor, and continues dictating his latest letter to his MP:
“That I, a stranger in this land and yet no stranger to your species (seeing as you know me and my habits intimately from documentaries), that I should be denied my simple swimming and fishing rights unless I submit to continuous chaperonage and the dictates of capitalist, consumerist, materialist institutions is undemocratic. I demand rights for myself and for future penguin visitors…”
There is more, so much more, but you get the drift.
Milton lives by sculpting ice with his beak and has permanent black eyes under the penguin hood. We buy him a season ticket to Antarctic-World. For a while he is allowed to work in their snow-room but his membership is revoked after he changes the sign on the disabled toilet to “Other Species”.
Apart from the ice-sculpting he has no income. Rizzle and I buy him all the tinned sardines we can afford until social services finally give in and grant him a disability pension. Milton is incensed. He is not disabled; he is Penguin-kind. Rizzle and I persuade him to accept. Not for himself, of course, but for the sake of those who come after, because Milton is beginning to record penguin culture. Freed from the daily demands of survival he records the great sagas passed down from penguin to penguin. Rizzle types them into Wikipedia and posts them on the Facebook wall at Penguin-Kind. Epic poems about Hipchip, that great hero of penguin antiquity renowned for outwitting killer whales, sea lions and walri. I tell Milton I cannot find any mention in the scientific literature of walruses killing penguins.
“They just don’t know the true depth of Walrus malevolence and cunning.”
Milton stands over me, beak snapping, while I edit the Wikipedia entry. Now it claims a World-Wide Walrus conspiracy. Rizzle finds me later.
“Did you see this? Maybe Walri do eat penguins? Maybe it’s true?”
Milton presses his forehead against the curved glass of the seafood counter in the deli. Penguin porn. Fleshy pink shrimp. Salmon steaks like raw thighs. A little fishy drool leaks from the end of his beak. The fishmonger waves a filleting knife.
“Come on now, Mr Milton. You no buy, you go. You go!”
Milton tears himself away with a sigh. We share a packet of Korean dried fish flakes. Or at least, he allows me to feed them to him.
As the great ice-packs recede, so does Milton’s grasp on reality. Walri pursue him through the city. He sings to whales at night and claims the CIA are intercepting whale-song for evil purposes.
Summer is here. Milton and his room are increasingly fetid. Judging by the smell, he has sores developing under his suit. By day, he has taken to standing under a tree outside the shopping centre, selling crude Antarctic landscapes he paints with a brush held in his beak.
“Aid mi fello pinginz,” says the sign by his flippers.
Before he became a penguin, Milton was a good speller. I remember his serious bespectacled face and pudding bowl haircut behind the microphone at the school spelling bee. “Rhythm”, “Precocious” and even “Epiphyte” held no terrors for him. That was when he was thinking like a creature with hands. He understands now that a beaked creature would develop a very different extelligence to our finger-centric systems: Slots for making selections by beak; keyboards set into the pavements in front of ATM machines; cars designed for creatures that stand up to drive. With the proceeds from his artworks he sends us out to buy fresh fish which he eventually learns to gut and fillet with his beak. The smell around him intensifies.
Towards the end of the summer, Milton’s attempt to address an all-party panel on climate change is frustrated. He stands outside parliament house squawking until someone in the crowd throws him a fish.
This is it. The turning point. Caesar had his Rubicon, Hitler his Rhineland and Milton has his First Public Fish.
It is a Halibut. His favorite. To everyone’s surprise, he catches it. The lower portion of his beak is fastened, we suspect with super-glue, to his chin. And so he manipulates his catch. He makes no attempt to swallow it whole but bites off the tail and head, throwing it in the air and catching it just right each time. Once, twice. He tosses it again, with a quick flick of that sharp beak. Each time he catches the fish he scrapes meat off the sides. Then he throws away the guts and spine and we watch him chew and swallow the raw flesh.
It is an extraordinary performance. Someone is filming and talking excitedly about You Tube ratings. The parliament house security guards are delighted. Milton is unmoved.
He stands, dignified, with a dribble of fish guts on his white front. Behind his glasses, beneath the black and white hood, his eyes sparkle. Then Fifi emerges from the crowd.
“Oh God.” Rizzle buries her head in her hands. I raise my phone, Milton will want a record of this.
She is shorter than him but in many respects identical. The female of the species. Black and white furry penguin suit from head to ankles. Red beak. Yellow flippers. They dip and bow and circle. They bend their beaks to the pavement and then fling fish guts ecstatically in the air. They bill and burble and finally point their beaks at the sky for a burst of Penguin Adoration Song. Then they waddle off to be alone. Some confused tourists throw money. It is really, really beautiful and I am so grateful they did not mate in public.
Fifi introduces Milton to the local Norwegian restaurant where they are allowed to eat roll-mop herring at a secluded table. Rizzle and I join them for coffee one evening. The conversation is difficult. Milton and Fifi discuss penguin concepts in a language all their own and then try to explain them to us in ours. Walking home, I put my arm around Rizzle. She leans her head on my shoulder. We watch a possum on a phone line for a while. It’s a moment of fur and wonder.
Milton emails me in the Autumn. A copy of his mating proposal to Fifi. Penguins, he explains, mate for life. “Once committed, like the moment of launching, belly down, on to an ice slide to the ocean, there is no going back. Indeed, the romantically inclined penguin will stay faithful up to and including tidal waves, injury and walrus attack.” They have matching rings in their beaks. The wedding is held at the local ice-rink.
In the winter I find Milton standing in the park. He has a rugby ball balanced on his feet. He is shivering and his blubber is reduced. I wonder aloud if the all-fish diet is beginning to take its toll. He agrees. Fifi has been making him eat seaweed as well. They are allowed in the sushi bar to order take-away now.
“She’s fledging. We’re going to have a chick.” Fear grips at my stomach. Milton and Fifi. And a baby. A human baby. “Without the support of a flock, though, I don’t know if it will survive.” He looks around nervously, “There are Walri everywhere.”
“Have you called your mum and dad?”
“That’s where Fifi’s gone – to her mum and dad – I’m staying here with the other penguin fathers to keep the egg warm.” He bends and taps the ball with his beak. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
After that we bring him hot-water bottles every evening and dial Fifi’s number on my phone. They have long, dippy, penguin conversations that leave my arm aching. Holding the phone to Milton’s ear is the only acceptable solution. He refuses to accept a phone-holder glove, insisting that his flippers can’t reach his ears. Rizzle holds my other hand and we murmur to each other, trying not to eavesdrop.
Fifi gives birth in water. In her penguin suit. With Milton splashing and gurgling next to her. We watch the whole thing on Skype on Rizzle’s laptop in the park. We watch the baby emerge and swim gently to the surface. And we watch as Fifi’s flipper-tips magically stretch out into five black fingers so that she can nurse the baby at her white-furred breast.
“The mid-wife explained it to me,” whispers Fifi, “I’m a marsupial penguin. Look, I even have a pouch to keep him in.” Milton is shaking with excitement.
“Look! It’s happening to me too! Fingers!”
And they are off in a beaks-raised paean of penguin joy. Marsupial penguin joy.
Three weeks later I meet Milton in the pub. He’s got a job at Snappy Print doing simple graphic design work. He cradles his beer in his black fingers and admits that life as a penguin with responsibilities is hard. The manager at Snappy Print is not sympathetic and has laid down some harsh rules about hygiene.
Rizzle tells me they have had a deep pool dug behind their house. Every weekend the three of them swim and fish.
“The baby will be bilingual in English and Penguin,” says Fifi happily. “We’re going on holiday soon, to the coast, to spend some time with the flock.” The flock is 500-strong and gaining new members every day on Facebook.
A few weeks later I pass Snappy Print and see Milton behind the counter in full Emperor suit but with bandages around his head where the hood should be. I enter cautiously, looking around for the manager.
Milton’s eyes glisten behind thick lenses deep in the white fur. He is triumphant, stuttering out his tale of victory.
“There was a wuh…a wuh…a walrus! But I was alone, all I could do was call my penguin distress call: ark ark ark!”
It was a dark night. Picture it: Milton waddling home from a day of photo-shopping human baby pictures; the lurking walrus emerging from dark shadows.
“Ullo pengy-wengy. You’re lookin’ chubby, all that loverly blubber. Yum yum!” The walrus tore at Milton’s clothes and taunted him until Milton managed to twist away and run. He flapped half-naked into the Sunnybank Mall shrieking a penguin distress call and all among the crowd shoppers turned their round eyes and sharp faces.
“Oo-er,” said the Walrus.
“He was fast,” said Milton, “But they were all around him and they were many.” He clacks his beak in satisfaction. The Community of Penguins has rallied. Even the magistrate allowed they had cause and upbraided the police for not doing more to prevent such crimes.
There is no going back now. Fifi is breeding again. Milton is a hero. The manager at Snappy Print wears a penguin badge and refuses to sack him even when his beak perforates the colour prints.
It’s not magic but now I know what to do. I call, harsh and sad to Rizzle, my possum girl, curled warm in the fork of a gumtree. She calls back, then grins. It can’t be that hard to raise a baby in a tree.