"Imagination is the highest act of faith," Mother Terese explained. "If you can see it, you can be it," Sister Diaspora whispered into Sister Claire's ear as she sheared her hair, cropping it close at the ears and forehead. After she'd whisked the cut hair from Sister Claire's shoulder, Sister Diaspora helped Sister Claire into her habit, lifting the heavy woolen folds over Sister Claire's head and shoulders. The habit was like a inhabitable overcoat, thick like weariness and heavy with the weight of a lifetime. As Sister Diaspora adjusted the white wimple, Sister Claire pushed her glasses higher on the bridge of her nose and smiled. Though she knew she was going to have to be careful with her feet, she felt good wearing the habit, and, though it weighted on her, she could breathe easier.
In addition to regular duties and obligations, it was the practice of the Benedictines to perform charitable acts of service in their neighboring community. From the large panoply of worthy causes to which Sister Claire could have donated her time and talents, she chose to volunteer at the city zoo.
As she passed through the oversize wrought iron gates of the Metro Zoo, Sister Claire heard the sharp, shattering noise of what sounded like women screaming. She craned her neck, searching for the source of this incredible trumpeting. That's when she saw Mr. Van Zant, the Chief Zookeeper, waving toward a sea-bird exhibit. A sign, mounted above the exhibit entrance, read: Family: Spheniscidae; Species: Aplenodytes Forsteri. Sister Claire squinted behind her glasses. In parochial school, she'd flunked Latin. Twice.
"Oh, am I glad to see you!" Mr. Van Zant reached for Sister Claire's hand. "You have no idea what a staffing problem these birds have caused." As if on cue, the shrieking took on a fevered pitch.
"Peacocks?" Sister Claire asked.
"Emperor Penguins," Mr. Van Zant said, guiding her into her into the viewing room.
The exhibit consisted of three concentric circles. The outermost circles contained a small viewing theater with a monitor that played an info-video every four minutes. Through the glass, visitors could see the uncovered outer playpen where the penguins sat on blocks of icecube shaped plastic, waddled over concrete lily pads that spanned a cold water pond, or slid down a small slide stationed at the pond's edge. An ash tree and a stand of Gingko, planted just outside the perimeter of the exhibit, cast partial shade on the uncovered pen. Tall evergreens and blue icebergs loomed across the concave walls of the pen. In a corner, a small dog-sized hole covered by a thick plastic flap connected the uncovered outer pen to the refrigerated inner enclosure.
Mr. Van Zant pointed to the dog door. "We keep an inch-layer of ice over the concrete back there. That's where they sleep." Mr. Van Zant withdrew a small gold key and opened a security door to the outer pen.
The penguins, all four of them, waddled toward Sister Claire, flapping their arms and squawking. One of the birds, the biggest, bobbed forward and nipped Mr. Van Zant's finger.
"These birds," Mr. Van Zant said, stuffing his hands in his pockets and motioning with his elbow, "Such kidders!"
Sister Claire blinked and nudged her glasses back into the tiny groove on the bridge of her nose. She watched the smallest of the birds inch toward Mr. Van Zant and expel a long greenish turd next to his shoe. The other penguins flapped wildly at this and trumpeted. Sister Claire smiled. She liked their sense of humor, liked, too, how, when they tired of wobbling, they toppled into the water where they moved with slick muscular ease. And yet, Sister Claire thought, for all their antics, the penguins seemed a little sad. As Sister Claire watched them, she couldn't help feeling as if the whole arctic Wonderland theme wasn't a zookeeper's terrible joke: there were painted icebergs, a grinning polar bear, and over there by the service door, Santa was swooping over an Inuit village. Sister Claire took in the pseudo ice pad with the plastic igloo on roller pontoons, the evergreens and snow banks painted on the walls.
"Don't penguins live at the South Pole?" Sister Claire turned to Mr. Van Zant, but he had already gone.
Then the birds wobbled past Sister Claire, one by one, toward the little door. When the last penguin had ducked through the door and into the inner enclosure, Sister Claire got down on her hands and knees, pushed back the plastic flap and stuck her head through the hole. Inside, on the ice, the penguins were in a huddle, standing shoulder to shoulder. They clacked their beaks and made soft cooing sounds.
Sister Claire's breath fogged up her glasses and she tipped her chin down to look over the tops of the wire frame. The penguins noticed her watching them and fell silent. Then tucking their heads back into the huddle, they conversed quietly and Sister Claire knew they were discussing her.
That afternoon, on the bus ride back to the Abby, Sister Claire found herself praying for the penguins. At Matins, during Lauds, and Vespers when she counted the beads of her rosary, fingering the cool stones, it was their little black eyes that she saw.
Sister Claire liked to arrive early at the zoo. Every morning just after Matins, morning chores and obligations ("Opportunities," Sister Diaspora insisted) Sister Claire took the bus and two transfers later, arrived at the zoo gates about a half hour before the zoo opened to the public. As the trainers and grounds crew got to know her, they would let her in early and she would roll up her sleeves, pull on rubber work boots, and sit inside the outer pen, waiting for the penguins to wake up and wander out. At first, the penguins didn't seem to notice her, and sat on their ice cubes or waddled back and forth inside their pen, scuffing the walls with their thick feet or tapping the glass with their beaks as if they couldn't believe they were really there. Sister Claire would approach them cautiously, setting out a trail of krill and salmon-flavored pellets. Sometimes she'd arrange the pellets into a smiley face. Other times she hid little piles under the plastic cubes or inside the plastic igloo. She had read somewhere in zoo literature that the wolf crew would occasionally stash little caches of cinnamon, salt, and paprika in the remote crevices of the wolf exhibit to give the wolves something to do with their noses.
After draining the pond and hosing down the cement in the outer pen, moving the dirt, molted feathers, and little mounds of waste into a long sump with small blasts of water, Sister Claire would leave the hose running cold water into the pond. By the time she finished sweeping clean the sheet ice in their sleep area, her arms would feel tired, and she thought then, that she knew what they felt like, flapping their heavy wings. Sister Claire would roll up the hem of her habit, tucking it into the tops of her rubber boots, and crawl back through the plastic door on her hands and knees and watch the penguins play in the pond. She liked their bird-without-birdness quality, how nothing about them seemed like a bird, but then there they were in front of her, beaks at her hands, flapping their wings. And after awhile, she noticed that their trumpet calls took on a higher pitch and climbing fervor when she was in the pen with them, and she realized that they were showing off. The smallest bird, Bela, liked to roll backwards down the slide or try barrel rolling as Sister Claire tossed krill pellets at her. Bumber and Bolo would bray for her attention and slap the water, splashing her if she paid too much attention to Tippi who liked to settle in and sit on Sister Claire's feet. For her, they would bat around the squeaky toys or dive for the plastic rings and she noticed that in the water, they seemed the most comfortable, even happy, assuming a kind of grace she wouldn't have thought possible.
Watching them gave her a funny feeling. Sometimes she could feel a dull throb beneath her stomach. Once a month, her body reminded her that she wouldn't be having children. But watching the penguins, she imagined they were her children or could be her children and sometimes she wished she could unhook her wimple, slip out of her heavy robe and rubber boots and throw herself into the water and swim with them. Instead, she'd just run her hands through their icy water. Looking into the pond, watching the way her hand moved, her fingers splayed, it was not such a leap, no, not a leap at all, to see how flipper-like her own hand was, how much alike she and the penguins were.
With a heart half the size of a human's, the desires of a penguin's heart must double, pressed tight within the compact space of that three-chambered heart. At least, that was how Sister Claire explained to herself the intensity and insistence with which the penguins pursued her. Why they approached her, she didn't know. Sister Claire recalled reading somewhere that many birds could not see in color. She wondered if the penguins liked her because she wore black and white, not unlike them, although she had only touches of color on her face and lips. She wondered, if when they looked at her, she didn't blend into backdrop without challenging them to distinguish her in varying shades of gray. Or maybe they recognized that, hiding within the folds of her habit, was a kindred spirit. Maybe they knew she talked to God. But for whatever inscrutable reason, the penguins asked Sister Claire to negotiate for them. Their demands came out as a series of quacks and clicks, like a real zippy chirp or a clattering. The sort of thing you'd expect to hear in a monkey cage but not in a bird exhibit. And Sister Claire could see how easy it was to miss what they were saying behind that clattering.
"We want to know the strength of the ice fields, to know that it is not in its silence, but in us, the birds who know where the ice begins and ends," said Bumber.
"We want to winter on sea ice," said Bela looking up at the Ash tree. "We want to see the endless gray seam of sky and water and watch the smaller birds float from the sky like sifted salt."
"The ice here is all imaginary," Tipi complained. "We dream of ice floes and glacial fields."
"And this refrigerated freeze," Bolo wheezed, "It's not a true freeze. The ice here smells like stale snow."
Sister Claire closed here eyes and swallowed. When they pleaded with her like this, implored her to hear them out, she would travel, in her mind, thousands of miles to the Antarctic, to the ice shelves and fields and see them happy in their monochrome landscape and interior silence.
Twice a day, during peak hours, the aquatic crew moved the penguins to the outer pen so that the children could get a better look at them. But the warm, dirty rain bothered the penguins. Falling through the Gingko and Ash, the rain carried sweet and sour smells that itched and burned the back of their throats and the birds buried their beaks under their wings to stifle the smell and wipe the tears out of their eyes. That's what got Sister Claire: seeing the penguins cry.
Finally, she agreed to lobby for them and took dictation, writing down everything the penguins told her, everything they wanted and dreamed of. For a little extra punch, they ended with a thinly cloaked threat:
We think you should take us seriously. Please pass it along that we can bite like the dickens. --Cordially, Bolo, Bumber, Bela and Tippi
The day after Sister Claire delivered the penguins' list of complaints, she received an invitation to visit Mr. Van Zant's office. When the secretary showed her in, she saw what an alarming furrow Mr. Van Zant's eyebrows made when he frowned and for a moment, she considered that perhaps it was Mr. Van Zant whom she should have been praying for all these weeks.
Mr. Van Zant read back to Sister Claire the demands she had penned for the penguins.
"What are they talking about?" Mr. Van Zant asked Sister Claire.
"The penguins are very unhappy, Mr. Van Zant. With the dead of summer approaching, they want things to change," Sister Claire said.
"What's she talking about?" Mr. Van Zant asked Mr. Keen, the aquatic bird specialist who'd driven out that morning from a local university to study the penguins' strange activity.
"Beats the heck out of me," Mr. Keen said with a shrug.
Mr. Van Zant turned to Sister Claire and squeezed his face into a tight smile. She couldn't help noticing the way his hands shook as he folded her note up end over end until it was a thick triangle. He leaned forward and handed her the paper wad.
"Well." Mr. Van Zant said tapping his desk. "Well, well," he said, running his fingers along the corners of the desks' edge and Sister Claire understood they were waiting for her to leave.
The problem with the penguins, Mr. Keen decided a few days later, was that they were bored. With no ice fields to traverse, they wandered aimlessly within their frigid pen or simply sat on the ice cubes. Occasionally, he noted, they pushed the igloo into the pond and watched as the plastic shell floated on the water. Mr. Keen suggested modifying the outer pen to make it more closely resemble their natural habitat. Mr. Keen also recommended removing the squeaky toys and bringing in piles of pea gravel. Penguins like to pile little mounds of pebbles and sit on them, Mr. Keen informed Mr. Van Zant. This, in turn, reinforced a pre-limbic cue to mate. With enough pebbles, who knows, maybe there would be penguin chicks at the zoo, Mr. Keen said, all the while shrugging his shoulders up and down as if he himself were trying to fly.
The next day a small truck delivered five hundred pounds of pea gravel for Sister Claire to spread in the outer pen. When the pea gravel arrived, Tippi kicked at it with a dull look in her eyes and Sister Claire felt the penguin's disappointment. All morning long, they slept on the ice slab in the back and refused to play for the noisy children and their parents who knocked on the viewing plastic and jangled their keys to provoke the penguins to movement.
By mid-afternoon, Mr. Van Zant had received numerous complaints from zoo visitors, resulting in the Board of Trustees's decision to visit the pen the following morning. Sister Claire knew this was her big chance to help Mr. Van Zant and the penguins at the same time. Though she thought the pea gravel was silly, she resolved to get it all spread before she left, and prayed that Mr. Keen was right: that a pile of gravel would make her birds happy.
That next day when Sister Claire arrived to clean the pens, she found that the refrigeration units had broken down. The ice slab in the back pen had melted and the run-off filled the pond to overflowing. The penguins were too hot to play and, instead, clustered around fans strategically placed to keep the air moving. Can penguins sweat, Sister Claire wondered and realized that they were crying again. And once again, their tears moved Sister Claire into action.
"You've got to do something." Sister Claire said, grabbing the sleeve of one of the aquatic staff members, a college kid, like herself, a volunteer.
"New coolant units are on the way. Don't worry--they'll be all right," he assured her, but she was not convinced. The penguins, she knew, had reached a new level of desperation. She had overheard Tippi and Bela making sketchy escape plans involving trampolines.
"Bring us Rubber Bands," Bela implored that morning when Sister Claire showed up to clean their cage.
"Big ones," Tippi added and Sister Claire obliged. What could it hurt? she asked herself. But she knew as well as they did that, even if they managed to get over the walls of the outer pen, there was nowhere to go.
Nobody could blame the Zookeeper for what happened next. Even the penguins agreed: nobody could have anticipated their actions: they were very clear on that point, Sister Claire assured Mr. Van Zant.
The civic-minded women of the Friends of the Zoo Committee called it a joke in poor taste.
Sister Claire called it a case of divinely inspired creativity.
Mr. Keen called it the most extraordinary show of intelligence, social cooperation, and coordination he'd ever seen in a group of penguins and scheduled his graduate classes to meet in front of the penguin pen.
Mr. Van Zant called it a case of devastatingly bad timing.
But after the pea gravel delivery, and after Sister Claire had spread it the regulation two inches thick, the penguins worked all night, crawling on their bellies, their bills to the cement, prodding each tiny rock into position so they could leave a message for Mr. Van Zant when he was showing the Board of Trustees around.
For the rest of the afternoon, the birds were kept in the back pen and locked in cages. Sister Claire spent her time with the birds and tried to cheer them up with stories of sacrifice and loss. Bumber interrupted to tell about seeing old women pushing baby carriages full of bread. Maybe it was in a dream, he says, yes, it must have been a dream. But wasn't that somewhere near Lake Baikhal, he wondered aloud. Do penguins even like bread? Sister Claire asked, but Bumber shrugged his head. It doesn't matter.
The next afternoon, as Sister Claire was scrubbing cages, Mr. Van Zant appeared outside the service door. When she looked at him, he motioned her over. Mr. Van Zant pointed to the message in the gravel which the ornithologists and behaviorists insisted he leave intact for further study. "I don't know what kind of prank you thought you were pulling, but you went too far," Mr. Van Zant handed her an official-looking envelope and then closed the service door. Sister Claire slit open the envelope and carefully unfolded the slip of paper.
Due to some untimely circumstances, your volunteer services will no longer be needed. We hope you will remain a friend of the zoo. Sincerely, Gerald Van Zant, Chief Zookeeper
Sister Claire's hands shook as she tucked the note into the folds of her habit. She had never been fired before, let alone being kicked out of a place. What would she tell the other Sisters, and, worse, Sister Diaspora? Sister Claire went to each of the birds. She withdrew a tube of hand lotion and worked the moisturizer into the cracks of their webbed feet.
"I have to go now," she said at last, her voice a strangled whisper. "Don't worry. It'll be all right," she said, slipping Tippi the last of her stash of giant Rubber Bands.
After evening prayers, Sister Claire had a bonafide vision. She feels a buzz in the limbic portion of her brain. Through her open window, she sees the penguins floating like balloons bolstered by the magical buoyancy of the night air. They flap their wings and glide towards her. She can feel their breath warm on her wrists and her neck. She feels jolted into awareness. She never imagined they'd have such warm breath. She hears them whistling through their air ducts on their bills. Bolo gets hung up on the crucifix hanging above Sister Claire's bed and pulls the cross off the wall with his beak.
Tippi lays her wing heavily on Sister Claire's forearm and looks at her. Then the penguins open their beaks and begin to sing words in a new language, set to the landscape and territories of unpinned joy. If only she could set her pulse beating to the rhythm of that music and hear it everywhere. But something always gets in the way, she thinks, thwarting her plans. Not true, not true, Tippi counters and she falls back onto her pillow, closes her eyes, and listens to the birds.
Sister Claire remains calm. She feels tiny changes taking place--her blood is moving differently through her veins. She feels her body telescoping away from her. She has a sense of movement, of buoyancy, and then she is up and out, up with the penguins and floating with them through the open window, while below, she sees the chapel, the belfry, and the courtyard slowly spinning away from her. The penguins are still singing, only now Sister Claire sees they are out on the ice, spinning, executing triple axles, yes, even lutzes and loops. The ice needs us as much as we need it, she hears Bolo calling to her, while her body, ordinarily so uncooperative, floats toward them.