Juan Pablo Noroña
(Translation: Daniel W. Koon)
Axxón 136 - March 2004
The penguin asked me for another lemonade.
"Aren't you going to pay for the last one?"
He searched in the only pocket of his shorts and pulled out a brand spanking new fiver, with a single fold.
"Well la-di-da! Welcome to our little town," I said to the bill. "You are the first new arrival in a long time. in this town we see the same old faces again and again. Eventually you come to recognize every one of them, sometimes even make friends with them."
The penguin loudly slurped the last drop from his glass and deposited it on the bar. I understood his message and I filled the glass to the brim with my good cold lemonade, which rightly deserves to be sold in the swankiest joints in the big city. "But you know, as delicious as my lemonade is, it only costs a dime," I explained as I refilled the glass. "You have enough here for 50. Yessir, 50. That's a lot of lemonade."
"I shall have one every ten minutes," the penguin replied.
I worked up the bill. I do my own accounting and I'm good with numbers. It was eight hours of lemonade. Yes, a hot day.
"Hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk, huh?" And, after finishing that sentence I wanted to break my mouth with a glass to keep myself from spouting any more such nonsense. Eggs and penguins. He's a bird and I am a charlatan. And he was one of those short ones but with a wide beak. Still, he didn't say a word. He watched the road.
"You don't have a telephone?" he suddenly asked me, without looking my way.
"Yes, to the right, about ten meters from the gas pumps. It's a booth. I don't have my own. Not that I have much use for one."
He got down from his stool and went to make his call. He waddled, very comically, but my grandmother's wisdom trumped my desire to laugh. God knows what kind of penguin shows up alone in a garage in a place like this. It would be better not to mess with him, really. And lucky the cafeteria was empty, with no trucker wiseguys who would choose to make fun of an animal here, on my floor and close to my furniture and cutlery. A bird that he could probably find on his own if he looked. God knows that everything I own is cheap, but I don't like to cough up a fortune every time the bourbon rushes to someone's brain.
Oh Moses, my sweet shepherd!
you'll take me away from here
this wasted land of Sinai
to milk and honey streams
Oh Moses, my sweet shepherd!
The voices were shrill, very sharp, high and clear. At the edge of the road came an advancing funeral cortege of field mice, with the pastor of the community and an old thick missus at the head of it. Just as they reached the entrance to my garage, they grew quiet and stopped, and after a brief deliberation they moseyed over to seek refuge in the shade of the pumps. A few of them left the group and entered my establishment.
"Blessed morning in the Lord," the pastor said, barely after crossing the entranceway; the lady interrupted her sobs with a hiccup and the four pallbearers nodded their heads at me over and over again.
"Good morning; or rather I mean, my most heart-felt condolences," I replied.
"I shall accept your sentiments on behalf of the grieving family," the pastor nodded. "But right now a libation of your cold lemonade would be a great comfort to Mizz Ruth. To the rest of us it would also come as a touch of divine grace."
"Would that be a single glass for you all?" I asked. "I think that would be sufficient."
"Of course. The Lord in His infinite mercy, has given us only modest thirst."
I served a glass and rounded the bar to place it on the floor in front of them. "No charge. I wouldn't dare to charge a widow."
The lady remained quiet for several seconds, only to continue her wailing once more, only more loudly. The pastor lovingly patted her shoulder with his palm. "Calm down, Mizz Ruth. Right now he is at the right hand of the Lord, with the just and the humble."
"I am so sorry, this mouth of mine," I apologized. "I shouldn't have been talking like that."
"Your gesture was very Christian, my son, but it was poorly directed," the pastor explained to me. "It was a mother, not a widow, to whom you were directing your compassion."
"Oh, my little son," the lady cried out. "My sweet little son, snatched by that devilish vulture!"
"Mizz Ruth, don't blaspheme," the pastor counseled. "You cannot go finding the hand of the Evil One in all places. Such would be to doubt the omnipotence of the Lord."
"But, Reverend Tobias," the lady demanded. "They found just his jacket and his shoes, and they were near the vulture's nest! And what were they like, Reverend? Burned, almost charred! And that infernal smell, like a storm!" She took the tiny hat off her head and held it out in front of herself, as though recalling the qualities of the boy. "It must have carried him to the infernal depths to torment him. Or perhaps, being a demon, it didn't have very far to go." She trembled, looking at her broad-brimmed hat, which now seemed to symbolize the mortal flesh of the deceased. "But I am sure that the goodness of his soul ascended, flew, to the Lord." And the little hat mimicked the voyage of little one's soul to the heights.
"We all know that her son was a pillar of the community and a good Christian example," the pastor concluded. "The Lord guards His own and would not permit such a destiny for our good brother Simon. No, Mizz Ruth. In this I see the criminal hand of those who incite hate among the species."
"Oh! My good son!" Mizz Ruth cried. "My little Simon! He was so sweet, every since he was small! He should never have grown up and left home! He is barely gone and already the world has come crashing down on me."
And the four pallbearers nodded, one after the other, the first one always after the last. They seemed like four engine pistons.
Meanwhile, the pastor had rolled up one sleeve and dipped a glass into the lemonade. He had already pulled some paper cups out of a pocket. Soon he finished offering one to each of those present, including the grieving mother. Then he ordered the young ones: "Good, sons! Our other colleagues on this pilgrimage need ambrosia as well. The glass. Let us go!"
The pallbearers stumbled around the sides of the glass of lemonade. They puffed and staggered like cornhuskers at the end of the day. "Caramba!" the pastor exclaimed. "In truth, the Evil One makes each generation weaker than the last. Open ranks!" The pastor carried twice what any of the young ones did and took care of half of the glass. It didn't amount to too much force, and the other four, although pinned to the other side, seemed much relieved.
The penguin had been in the doorway for I don't know for how long when they crossed the threshold. He calmly watched them pass, keeping his eye on them all the way back to the cortege. Then he came to the bar and in one leap planted himself on his stool and leaned on the bar, to drink his new lemonade, giving the impression that his presence at this place was not to his liking.
The mice, now satisfied, because my lemonade leaves no one thirsty, began to lug the glass back. I waved them off, that they should leave it and not worry about it. To tell the truth, I wanted them to leave quickly, because I did not want to have a coffin hanging around by the door, especially a full one. Furthermore, I don't like mice. I'm not speciesist, but of all the speaking animals they are the ones that make me most uneasy.
That morning Moses held the keys
of Jesus born in heaven
he gave the good and beaten mice
more than enough to please
Oh yes, the keys to the barn!
"They whine so much, and not so long ago they got a law passed that requires cats to wear muzzles and gloves in residential zones," I said as soon as the mice were lost to view. "I don't know where it's all going to end."
"I knew a cat."
The voice of the penguin surprised me, because in truth I hadn't expected him to answer. I turned toward him, with my mouth open to say something, and I caught him concentrating on the ice cubes and it didn't seem like he wanted to say two words more. I shut my tongue and set about wiping clean glasses.
The penguin drank down another buck twenty of his money without anything else happening. This village is dead all year, but in August it is dead and buried. There are days like this, in which the sun doesn't appear to move in the sky, and people don't even walk as far as their gate, because the wind is like an oven and dusty. Families put up partitions in their basements and sleep naked on the cement or dirt of the floor, men on one side and women on the other. Some buy blocks of ice and they sleep with their arms wrapped around them, I swear. Having the only refrigerator in the village and a backyard of lemon trees, I am more or less immune to the heat, and if anyone bothers to drag himself down here, I can even make some money. But nothing protects me from boredom. How slowly the days pass here.
"What a dark day, eh, Mr.....?" and I left the question to float in the air. The penguin grabbed a straw from the dispenser and tried some trick using his tongue. But it was a total fiasco; you can't suck with a beak. He was preoccupied, mysterious. But still, when you are in my bar, you aren't going to escape from me.
I decided to play my ace.
"Been a deadly week in this town," I notted. "Two deaths already. The census is going to feel it."
All that was missing to conjure up a good chat was to pull a juicy theme out of my sleeve, and I had one, by gum. This penguin was going to be pecking out of my hand.
"Yes, this week we had to mourn the loss of Silas the orchard farmer, poor old man."
I kept my eye on the penguin. He didn't stand a chance. He was curious. I can see that in someone's eyes, even if those eyes are feathered.
"Died three days ago," I began softly, as if I didn't care, just like feeding a line to a fish. "Heart attack, according to the doctor. The shopkeeper's widow found him dead at the wheel of his van. She was on the road in her car when she saw him, crashed into a tree at the edge of the road on the old man's property. At about six in the evening.
The penguin moved away from the bar a bit and dried his forehead with a flipper. He didn't appear impressed, even yet. "A heart attack. He was an old man. I suppose."
"Old but active," I said. "Why was the shopkeeper's widow headed to Silas' house at six in the evening, wearing her Sunday hat? She said that she was bringing him some blueberry marmalade. I'll bet that that wasn't the sweetest and juiciest thing she was bringing the old man."
That damned ice-box buzzard turned and leaned over his lemonade. This time, as if showing off to me, he aced the straw. I was losing my fish.
I brought out the big guns.
"The doctor said that the heart attack was between twelve and two, but he was not certain about whether it was before or after the steering wheel impaled him through the chest. There are indications that it might have happened first. Still, old man Silas was as strong as an ox. He was fit when the doctor examined him weeks before.
More lemonade went down his beak. But I was off and running, and it certainly was something worth talking about. "Old but strong, Silas the orchard farmer. He wasn't rusty and fat like the old folks around here. Until a few years ago he continued to travel a lot, he was in a lot of places, doing all sorts of work. He hunted mummies and treasures, he smuggled. That kind of life keeps some people young. Look for yourself," and I pointed to the large picture which I have just behind my spot at the register. In it one sees a much younger Silas, standing in the middle of a lot of snow. Or maybe ice, it was not clear. In the background one sees some white mountains. Damn, the only dark thing in the picture was Silas and his shotgun.
Then I saw the flash. When I turned around to look at the photo I saw the sparkle in the black beady eyes of the penguin. He was interested. He even spoke.
"And that photograph?"
"And that photograph?"
"Old Silas gave it to me," I said quickly. That wasn't the important thing. "Well, that seems to be the week's mystery in these parts."
He looked me in the eyes. Once again his brows had that aspect of curiosity. "They got carried away and the old man died... in delicto flagrante. And then she faked the accident."
"That occurred to me, too. But the widow didn't know how to drive anything other than her own jalopy. "
"Then the old man died of anticipation."
"What do you mean?"
"The old man wanted to go to his rendezvous with the widow and enjoy her marmalade al fresco. He was so excited that he died of bliss."
"Not the widow and not her marmalade... Look, Silas was in Paris. Get it? He told me about those women. The excitement of giving the widow a test drive wasn't enough to kill an active man of the world. And besides, that story falls apart here. Look, she had to go find him."
The penguin nearly joined his two brows of feathers together. But there was more than interest in his expression, something caught in his beak... and for a moment I was afraid that he would jump over the bar and poke a hole in my forehead. Luckily it was a false alarm, because he winked an eye at me to calm me down and leaned forward. "What's your theory, smart guy?"
"Oh, it's not that simple," I replied, with much more poise than before. "I don't have one, as they say. What is bouncing around in my head is a pile of questions that the sheriff will have to answer before closing this case."
"I suppose that they would have to be pretty interesting, to keep him from saving himself a lot of work and just declaring the case an accident."
"He's going to have to work. Just yesterday I sent a letter to Silas' relatives in the city, telling them an endless list of curious things."
"Hmmm... a letter. You certainly take your civic responsibilities very much to heart."
"We'll have a thorough investigation in this village. With a little luck, maybe even with some outside authorities." As I said this I tried not to smile too much.
"There will be a mob of police and reporters here to drink your gasoline and pour your lemonade in their cars."
This was an insult from the damned buzzard.
"Listen, mister," I chimed in. "I don't have to put up with your mistaking my concern for the peace of this village for something that would not cross my mind in a thousand years. Or at least, not as my principal reason."
"So, tell me about that letter," he volleyed back. "At least whether or not it's a secret."
"It's no secret. In fact, I sent letters to the principal newspapers, The 'Evening Farmer', the 'Beekeeper's Alert' and the 'Swayback Tribune' ".
"Don't tell me that I have to wait for the evening edition to find out."
He was pecking right out of my hand.
"I saw the site where it happened. Silas' property, that is." And I began my story. I went with the sheriff and the doctor, to take photos. The county would pay me 50 cents above cost for each one I took. That would have paid for my own reporting, because I took doubles of everything that the sheriff ordered, plus I took a few more.
The penguin regarded me with interest.
"You are a resourceful one," he said. "Let's see those photos. I mean, if I may, of course..."
I went to the office in search of the packet, which I was saving in a temporary folder marked 'important', and I savored the pleasure of showing them to the buzzard. The first ones were of the wrecked vehicle.
"Ay Caramba, someone forgot to teach the old man to drive," was his assessment. The tree was four feet off the road, but the van had met it head-on. A solid crash; the van was crumpled as far back as the motor block. The tree was a hefty oak and had only lost some bark.
"Well, see for yourself. Silas had a trophy in his living room from Le Mans. The road race in France, you know. It has his name. It's the same in French. Strange."
"Okay, something made him lose control of his car. A cow, or a heart attack. Either of them a natural cause."
"And the speed? The damage proves that he was going as fast as that heap could move. It's a miracle that he got that far without breaking into pieces on such a lousy road. Something had gotten Silas' dander up and he didn't care about ruining his only vehicle."
The second one showed the van from inside after Silas had been removed, and it was of no interest. The third one was of the farm.
"That's the house," I pointed it out to the penguin. "A nice house. Those are the stables. There are the crops. Silas' farm was well watered. Look at those pumpkins. That is the dog." The animal looked agitated, because he was jumping and barking just then. "That dog was crazy. They had already called the city dogcatcher to take him away. He's still there. Look, here's another thing. When they found the dog, he had no water or food. Silas was in a big hurry if he left his dear pet without food or water. He is a bull terrier with a pedigree. A dangerous animal that only Silas knew how to handle."
The penguin looked very seriously at the teeth of the dog. "Well, he was frightened by the dog when he went to give him water, that gave him a heart attack and he ran to his van to run to the doctor," he said, poking at the photo with the point of his wing, right on the big head of the animal. "He had a major heart attack on the road and lost control."
"Scared of his own dog? It would take a lot more than that to kill a man of the world. Something scared Silas and then drove his dog mad. Sort of as a consequence. Many dogs go wild with frustration if they see their owner in danger and can't help him."
Next we came to Silas' house. I had photos of the porch, the living room, the basement and other parts of the house.
"And this puddle in the basement?" the penguin asked.
"That's no mystery. People buy blocks of ice, they put them in the basement with a cover above it and they throw their arms around it."
"I don't see the cover for all that. And a complete block of ice only produces this little puddle? When did they deliver the ice? How big was it?"
"Aha, you're with me!" I rejoiced. "Yes, good question. Look, around here there's only one ice company, and it sells pieces of two by two by three feet. I recall that they discovered that the distribution truck came between 12:30 and 1:00. The driver says that he left the block on the porch and rang the bell a lot and knocked the doorknocker, but Silas never came out."
"He would have been in the kitchen."
"Around here we put the door bell in the kitchen because that's where we can't hear the doorknocker. Silas was not in the house, that's for certain. The driver then became nervous, because of the dog, who was mad, he says, and he left."
"He didn't see Silas, then," the penguin concluded. "And I see that the porch where he left the ice is made of wood. What's underneath the entrance door? Don't tell me. The part of the basement where we saw the puddle."
"Listen... I mean you can see that it is."
"Silas never carried the ice downstairs. It melted on the porch and drained out between the floorboards. Give me the photos of the porch and the door."
The penguin studied the photos carefully. He showed more interest than I thought I'd ever get out of him. I began to worry. Who knows whether the events had not already gotten too far out of my hands.
"Look at this," he pointed at the picture for me. "Here we have a round doorbell of light-colored wood mounted in a square holder of dark wood. That has to be a temporary solution. If he fixed it, I am sure that it's new and recently installed. Silas must have put it on as a replacement for the old one, which didn't work when the iceman rang the bell."
"You think so? That's a little crazy to accept."
"Oh yeah?" The penguin gave a little jump on the stool and flapped his wings forcefully. "You don't trust the reasoning of an animal? Are you some kind of anthropocentric fundamentalist?"
"What they used to call speciesist."
"Me? Come on!" I laughed. "Many of my best friends walk on four feet even when they are sober!" I crossed my fingers behind the bar while I watched the beast with a pure heart and I put on the most good-natured and calm face that I could manage. The penguin's beak was in a perfect line with the spot between my eyebrows. "Good, did you say something about the bell?"
I held my breath for ten seconds wondering what a penguin's aim must be like. Finally, the sipper with the feathers lowered his gaze to his lemonade and captured the straw. With that the glass emptied and I came to.
I hurried to refill it.
"Let us proceed," the penguin then said. "Silas was in the back part of the basement and did not hear the knocker and the bell was broken. The iceman didn't notice that the bell was out because even if it is not functioning you hear it outside. I can now see Silas' face opening the door a half hour later and seeing that Mississippi on his porch. At that moment he discovered the break."
"Then he would try to change an electric bell on a porch with a soaked floor. That's the sort of thing that most rapidly leads to a heart attack by electrocution."
"But he could avoid this easily by switching off the breakers in the house. He must have done it."
The penguin drank four consecutive lemonades in one gulp. I almost make a joke about whether his eyes were going to change color. But his eyes seemed to show more of a wish to run away than to make jokes. He was crazy. I nearly fainted when with a single bound he jumped up onto the bar and looked at me eye to eye. "The mouse!" he cried, "The scorched mouse!" Smelling like a storm! Just when Silas tried the bell, the mouse closed the circuit with his body. He fried like a potato, and a vulture happened to see him, crunchy and warm and took him away."
"What mouse?" I asked, playing the fool.
The beady little black eyes traded fire with me from either side of his beak.
"Oh! That mouse!" I understood. "But that mouse was young and innocent, but I was not stupid. You would need less brain than a field mouse to climb up the circuit breakers."
"Of course not. He was launched against the contacts and probably wetted them earlier."
"By whom, for goodness' sake, by whom?"
"You need to follow me very closely on this," he answered me. "You follow me?"
Without saying a word I filled up the glass one and half times; the half time directly onto the bar.
"The dog sacrificed his food to ambush the rat, who ate his fill and became sluggish." The penguin said this and flapped his wings so wildly that I had to step back. "The dog drowned the mouse in his water to hide his tracks, since he was both dead and drenched. Notice in these photos the position of the circuitbreakers and the doghouse. The dog saw the opportunity with that ice melting and Silas changing the bell."
"It's a motion picture fantasy. And why, tell me, why?"
The penguin began to pace quickly from side to side over the bar, without minding the lemonade soaking his canvas socks. "Some humans say that animal intelligence was not in God's original design. They say that the world in which we live is an illusion fostered by the Devil and that rational animals are merely sinful men, marked in this fashion. They also say that talking animals are creatures of Satan, second-class souls that he is permitted to create as long as they don't bother man." Here he stopped in place and made a scornful gesture with his left wing. Maybe the orchard farmer was one of those men, and he didn't respect or regard his dog. Why is the dog mad, then? Maybe the orchard farmer was that kind of man who didn't respect someone he considered inferior. Capable of profaning, humiliating, robbing, degrading the most sacred of... of... of those different than he."
While he told me this last, the penguin looked at the picture of Silas from over my shoulder. It was reflected in his round black little eyes. Suddenly I swear by my father's lands, the farmer disappeared from the image and the immense white mountains began to move closer and to separate, as if we were flying toward them, and I caught a glimpse of something shiny behind them. When it was just about to appear, and I knew that it was going to be something incredible and marvelous, the cursed animal jumped backward and turned, and everything vanished. He fell forward and ran out the door. I stood paralyzed.
Finally I could move and think. Then I noticed where he had gone, and I quickly entered my office, in which I keep a hidden extension of the phone booth line. How else do you me to keep myself entertained in a town like this, if not with other people's business?
"He's dead," I heard the penguin say. "Into the other world, for the ancestors to dispose of. There is no danger that they'll finger us; I made sure of that."
"Nobody answered on the other end. I only felt something like a strong wind, which howled. And call me crazy if you like, but suddenly I felt a chill entering my bones like I had never before felt in my life.
I hung up.
I quickly returned to the bar, convinced that I should tell the sheriff the penguin's theory but as my own idea. Even if he thought that I was some sort of village Sam Spade, who is bored and makes up his own cases out of normal accidents, and even if nobody paid any attention to my letters. I don't care. It's better that way. I'll be damned if I'm going to let this matter stay unresolved one day longer. I was too frightened to not leave it behind somehow. And as I prepared my best smile and my stupidest comments for when he returned, I vowed never again to strike up a conversation with a solitary penguin in a garage.
JUAN PABLO NOROÑA LAMAS
Juan Pablo Noroño Lamas was born in the City of Havana in 1973. Editor-corrector for the broadcaster Radio Reloj. Studies completed: Degree in Philology. Published works: Story in the anthology Reino Eterno (Letras Cubanas, 2000); several collaborations in the fanzine of fantastic literature MiNatura. "Cosmic brother in La Guayaba Mecánica. Prizes and honorable mentions received: First prize in the Media-Vuelta contest for short story. Finalist in the Dragón contest at Cubaficción, 2001. Active participant in the discussions of the Ucronia Book Club.
Return to Cuban SF site
Return to Koon's webpage