I was eleven years old when I learned that penguins, in fact, are incapable of flight. It may seem like a mundane — even embarrassing — revelation, but to me, it changed the course of my life. Five years prior to this disclosure, I had found a book buried under artifacts of time at the very back of my grandmother’s closet. She and my mother had a habit of engaging in conversations that were most uninspiring to a six-year-old, so I would tend to wander off into the nooks and crannies of my grandmother’s great Victorian townhouse. The house was a marvel in itself, tucked away on the back streets of Charleston, yearning for the times when men had neat mustaches and women sang smooth songs on each bend of the road. But, I must return to the book. It must have been nearly a century older than I, its leather cover weary and its bindings almost broken. I had just discovered the skill of reading, and even the back of a cereal box was a newly unlocked chest of wonders that were previously under close guard. So, it was no wonder that I greedily devoured the pages. The book told tales of penguins leaping from their icy domes and taking to the skies. A young protagonist, about my age, was lifted up into the clouds by these penguins, and soared through the magic of camaraderie.
When my mother and I left our half-full teacups on the table and left my grandmother’s house to return to baked and bland New Mexico sidewalks, I brought my newfound knowledge with me. I sat on my front stoop and wove stories — each grander than the last — of spectral penguins dancing through the night skies. As years passed, I even fashioned myself as the protagonist of the story, stitching together memories so vivid that I could almost recall the thick smell of the deep twilight alongside my avian allies. I acquired a temporary popularity on the schoolhouse playground, and the other children huddled in close to speculate about a fantastical journey to the South Pole to watch the glorious penguins soar. On a class trip to the zoo, we hoped and prayed to be privy to a flight, and our only reassurance on the bus ride home was that perhaps the penguins were too tired to fly on this hot, nearly-summer day. Even the cold itself was a mystical adventure, as most of my classmates had only seen snow in fairytales and morning cartoons.
Then, one soft October, my grandmother died, and my mother took me once more to the winding streets of Charleston to plan her funeral. My mother didn’t dare to shed a tear in front of me, but I was old enough to recognize her quiet sobs behind closed doors and masked by autumn rain for what they were. I was a spry and lanky girl now, bordering my teenage years and much too old for storybooks. Yet, the night before my grandmother’s funeral, I still imagined myself flying amongst the penguins in a faraway snowy land, and I still dreamt of their flight for hours after my eyes closed. After the black-clad ceremonies had finished, a distant cousin took a car-full of relatives to my grandmother’s home. The townhouse no longer seemed as grand and fanciful, and I could now see stains of age caressing the hallway carpets as I searched for my old room. I mentioned the book to an older cousin, who simply laughed and said it would be long gone in an estate sale by now.
“It’s alright, one day I will see a real penguin fly,” I said to him.
“You know penguins can’t fly, right?” He chuckled, ready to gather around his friends to marvel at the freak who didn’t even know a simple fact about the world. In an instant, as with the stooped-over plants by the edges of the sidewalks, so died my dreams of flying with penguins.
“Of course,” I replied, and forced a simple laugh, because eleven was old enough for me to know when a lie was appropriate. “Of course.”
Ashley Malkin is a Connecticut native who loves cognitive science and curling up with a good book on the beach.