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Written by Dan Wolff
Illustrated by Christopher Baldwin
Now that we have concluded the tradition period of mourning for those of our number who entered the next trophic level of the world in the previous year, and welcomed those here to celebrate the Ritual of the Continuance of Life for the first time, and before we commence the series of debates agreed upon at the closing of last year's reunion, I would like to open this year's Debates with an anecdote concerning the female I mated with last year who has stayed strongly in my mind. I confess at the outset that I am disappointed that she did not mate with me this year, owing to her absence, which I believe I can explain later. I understand the topic of one of the leading debates this year is the nature of attachment, and I eagerly anticipate the discussion, having a strong desire for insight, as well as a few humble thoughts of my own to contribute. My disappointment, I feel, is a result of my attachment to the concept of attachment itself, in this case to a particular mate, and I am afraid it may have caused me to celebrate the Ritual of the Continuance of Life with less than the appropriate zeal with my new pair bonding but enough of that for now.
Last year, as all present will remember, the pack ice was unusually heavy. It continued to form well into April, and resulted in the rookery becoming too far from open water by the time the ice broke up in summer. A great many chicks did not see their first fledging, and we should nod with respect to those yearlings present whose fortitude ensured that they did.
I was late to the rookery last year, and by the time I left the water and made the seventy-five mile overland journey many of our number were already present, and were well on the way with the Ritual of Continuance. I was unable to locate my previous year's pair bonding, and I have heard nothing of her since, so I assume that if she has not passed to the next trophic level then she has emmigrated to another colony. Because I was late to arrive, I was having some trouble finding a new pair bonding, and I spent several days singing and composing harmonies for two frequency bands before my voice found a duet. She was a yearling, and not from our rookery.
I sang her over to where I was and we exchanged the Ritual of Greeting. Her technique was impeccable, with that flavour of the exotic that makes meeting immigrants from other rookeries so intriguing. We spent quite some time with the Greeting, obviously equally absorbed by the performance of the other, before we were content to begin conversation. I should add that, due to her high degree of scrutiny of me, I was reluctant to leap directly into the Ritual of Continuance. Something told me that she was unusually contemplative, even for an emperor penguin.
"Your performance was very good," I said, "especially for a yearling. You must be a talented penguin."
"Even more talented than you think," she replied. "I'm actually an antarctic skua doing a penguin impersonation."
I hear your subsonic laughter. At the time, though, I was a little taken aback by her impertinence to the Bird of Destruction, especially after such a graceful Greeting. I laughed politely.
"You weren't bad yourself," she went on, "though it looks like you've been around long enough to get plenty of practice in. Where's your usual pair bonding? Did she leave you for a leopard seal?"
"I beg your pardon?" I said. "No, I hope not." (I made the nod of Acceptance of Fate). "I expect she's moved on to another colony."
"You can't be that bad at the Ritual of Continuance," she said. "But if you are, tell me now, and I'll mate with someone else."
I was, by this time, completely discombobulated. Despite her cheek, though, I was still impressed by what I think of as her trenchant stance, which indicated she was a deeply philosophical member of our race, and resolved myself to equanimity. I also recalled, from many years ago (she was right on that item), that a penguin's first journey across the ice can be particularly trying and is bound to be stressful. A saga about the fears of a yearling in the first real winter he has known came to mind, and I quoted her a verse.
I make an appeasement posture to the katabatic wind,
and pray that my resolve thickens like the great dome of ice,
that my first reunion not be my last, bereft of sun, fearful.
"Very nice," she said. "In my short time I haven't learned that one, though of course males have much more time to swap epic poetry."
"It's to be expected," I said.
"Don't get huffy. All I meant was that female verse tends to be a little more pithy. It comes from always being on the move, you see." And she quoted a quatrain from her own colony, that goes:
I interrupt the krill
In their own dance
"Interesting," I said. "In the year before you fledged I recall we had a debate on the spiritual nature of krill. Several of our number postulated that could we only percieve it, the prey of the krill would have their own dances, and so on into infinity."
"Who cares?" she said. "I'll leave the Debates to the males. I want practical philosophy."
This surprised me. "Then how will you participate when the time comes to return to the chick and arbitrate the discussion in summer?"
"Who says I plan to return?"
I was now completely confused, and starting to wonder if I had made a mistake with my harmony for two frequencies. What she was saying was, you all realise, as close to heresy as penguin philosophy allows. The males must incubate the egg for two months by themselves, motionless on the ice, inside the great state we call Unswimming (though I have heard other colonies refer to it as Uneating - either way, the meaning is the same), until the female returns to bring food to the chick. Without her return, the chick always perishes.
"Wouldn't that be a violation of the Ritual of Continuance?" I said tentatively.
"Nonsense," she said. "What if I were eaten by a leopard seal before I could return?"
"But that would not be your fault."
"But where's the practical difference? If I abandoned you and our chick, or if I were eaten by a seal, it's all the same to the chick. Therefore, the violation you speak of is imaginary. It's ice that has melted."
I confess I was immediately intrigued by her concept of 'practical philosophy.' To draw her out, I said:
"So you believe the Debates are useless, and penguins would be better off without them?"
"Not at all," she said. "It's merely that you have a misconception as to the meaning behind the Debates."
"Which is, if I may ask?"
"Tell me the topics of the Debates last year."
"Why? Oh, very well. The first was on the causes of the unequal sex ratio that leads to the intense competition between females. Naturally it was first so that the females could participate before they left the males with the egg to go hunting all winter."
"And your conclusions?"
"They were complex, naturally... do you really want me to elaborate them? This year's debates will be starting soon and you have plenty more ahead of you without needing to hear those that are past. The past is melted ice too."
"Now that's what I mean by practical philosophy. All right, what else?"
"There was a discussion on the difference of experience between the penguins on the inside and the penguins on the outside of the Huddle when the katabatic wind blows, and whether the chilled penguins on the periphery are gaining a spiritual advantage by sacrificing body heat to shelter their comrades."
"There were some penetrating thoughts on the motivations of whales... the subject of the group poems that year was tabular icebergs. So tell me the meaning of the Debates."
"You gather together, all you males, to stand in 100 mile-per-hour winds, in hundred-degree-below temperatures, for two months every year of your lives, uneating, in order to attain understanding of the penguin condition, right? As well as to perform the Ritual of Continuance."
"All right, if you say so."
"And if it occurred to you one day that for all your discussions, all your incisive conclusions on the nature of the Great Cycle, it didn't change for one instant that you still must gather together, all you males, to stand in 100 mile-per-hour winds, in hundred-degree-below temperatures, for two months every year of your lives?"
"That's a rather cynical attitude," I said.
"Not at all," she said. "Shall I tell you why you must gather together, all you males, to stand in 100 mile-per-hour winds, in hundred-degree-below temperatures, for two months every year of your lives?"
"Why?" I asked this yearling.
"Because you're penguins," she said.
I recognise your silence. It was my silence too, for when she said that, I felt a hole open in the ice of my chest, and for a moment I saw clear water within. Perhaps you can then understand the fascination that I developed for this arrogant female yearling. For she certainly was arrogant. But I believe, in her, I encountered a thinking of a new and different nature, which offered me a path to understanding, not through debate, but through silence.
We became pair mates, and she shared more of her unusual, teasing philosophy with me. She told me she had decided not to return to her brood colony because she was on a spiritual quest to become a flying bird instead of a swimming one, and none of the penguins where she was from could fly. She did not much care for poetry, but liked to make up stories. One of hers I remember went like this:
"When I fledged I began the walk across the ice to where the open water began. When I got to the water's edge, I could see a leopard seal waiting just offshore to eat any penguins who dove in. Above me, two antarctic skuas were circling, searching for fledglings to eat. As I stood there, the corner of the ice shelf I was standing on began to break off, threatening to spill me in. Do you know what I thought?"
"What did you think?"
"I thought, 'look, there are krill in there! How delicious!'"
Another time she said:
"When I reach full maturity I'm going to be a leopard seal. Then I'll never have to worry about being eaten again."
"I understand your fear," I said, "but as you grow older you'll understand that by being consumed, you attain ascension to the next trophic level, which is one of life's great priviliges as well as the greatest mystery."
"Do all things that die enter another trophic level?" she asked.
"They certainly do," I said.
"Not at all: when I hatched, my egg died, and it didn't."
In the day before she was due to lay, she went missing. I sang for her, but her harmony did not answer mine. I took to walking around the colony, expending precious energy, because for an expecting female to leave is most unusual.
When I found her, she was right on the other side of the colony, at the edge, where the katabatic wind coming off the polar dome strikes hardest. She was facing into the wind away from the colony and shivering. I kept some distance from her, trying to decide what she was doing. Was she testing her reserves against the wind chill, as penguins are known to do, or was she missing her old colony? Perhaps I had offended her in some way and she was making an elaborate gesture of parting. I watched her for a long time, and in the end my curiousity was so overpowering I went up to her. She did not seem surprised to see me.
"Do you mind me asking what you are doing?" I said.
"Sure, I'm standing right here on this ice," she replied.
The day came when she passed the egg over to me and I covered it with my brood pouch, preparing for my two months of incubation. I confess I was nervous and did not fully trust my pair bonding to return.
"I'll see you at the end of winter," I said.
"You're seeing me now," she said. "I hope you won't be too hungry."
Like all males, I eagerly anticipate the spiritual transformation brought on by the annual Fasting, and I tried to tell her so, but she cut me short.
"You're a penguin. You eat krill. Stop trying to forget that."
"Then happy hunting."
"I'm different. Once I learn to fly, I'll eat penguins."
With that, and a quick posture of farewell, she turned her back and began the long walk over the ice to the open water. Two months later, at the end of winter, she did not return to feed the chick and it died.
I was sad, but as we all know now, the pack ice was unusually thick last year and many females did not return in time, with the result that very few of the chicks hatched survived to the open water. I ask myself, why am I sad that she might voluntarily have neglected her chick, when there is an equal chance she was eaten by a leopard seal? As she said, so far as the chick is concerned, there is no difference. When I believe she was eaten, I feel no reproach. There was no violation of the Ritual. Perhaps this year will be more kindly to the chicks.
So what did she teach me? Just that the mystery of life is not a problem to be resolved, but a reality to be experienced. But if I believe this, why do I wish the Debates to continue? The answer is simple. Because I am a penguin.
Thank you for your attention. Let the Debates begin.