The Emperor Penguin

29 Nov

Father comes to get me from school in the afternoon. He does that whenever he has morning rehearsals, or a show at night. Father is an actor at the Central Theatre. When I was younger I’d put my ear to the door and listen to him rehearse his lines in our Red Room. He would say the same thing over and over, but a little different each time. I found it funny how he would enunciate each word perfectly, and I would mouth the lines along with him, making my own hand movements. Once Mother caught me but she didn’t tell me to shoo; she just waited there and let me do my own version and when I saw her standing with her arms crossed, we both laughed. Father yelled at us to be quiet.

He brings in his pocket a handful of red grapes to hand to me as we make the long, boring walk from school to our small flat in the center of the city. He doesn’t like the seeds of the grapes. He says they are bad for his stomach, and he spits them out on the street one by one. I am embarrassed when he does that. We are civilized people. And how can he enjoy eating grapes while spitting so much, so often? It’s like eating fish. I hate fish. Every mouthful is ruined by the search for little bones, and the constant dread of getting one stuck sideways down your throat.

We stop in on Eberwein’s studio. Eberwein is a sculptor. Scattered about the great, high room are dozens of busts—some unfinished. The works in progress look strange. Some don’t have heads, others no faces, some just have the upper torso and half-heads. It kind of looks like a morgue, although I’ve never been to one. I’ve just read about them. The statues are made of clay, or bronze, or gypsum. Some are made of newspaper and a kind of white, hard paste. I don’t care much for the finished pieces. I don’t know who these people are; probably government people or Communist Party generals or higher-ups. Artists in Romania are commissioned to sculpt either the President or his cronies from the Central Committee. That’s why Eberwein’s busts are all men.

I like the works in progress. They are rough and mutilated, weird and savage. They are finished. They should be finished.

I like climbing on the ladders scattered around, and looking down at the tools and machines and whatever else is lying about the gigantic room. I like holding on to the water pipes that traverse the ceiling. Some of them are warm to the touch.

Father and Eberwein drink coffee from small cups with small saucers. They talk mostly in whispers and gesticulate with their hands. Then Father hands him some papers from his breast pocket and Eberwein gets up quickly, walks over to a bureau, tilts back the whole thing, and slips the documents underneath. He lets go, and the heavy desk drops hard on the floor, making a big booming sound trailing echoes inside the atelier.

It’s surreal from up here where I’m perched, hanging on to the water pipes like King Louie from the Jungle Book. The two men look funny drinking from miniature coffee sets and gesturing wildly while talking in whispers. They are like two giants being civil to one another, arguing quietly and careful not to be heard.

After a little while they both get up, suddenly. They shake hands, and Father leans in and whispers something into Eberwein’s ear. Secrets. Everyone has secrets in my country. Or at least they think so. The Secu listens in on everyone. It knows everything.
“Ready, Old Man,” Father yells up.
“Ready, Tati.”
“Come down carefully.”
I lower myself slowly, probing cautiously before I put my entire weight on each step. The men watch.
“He looks like Neil Armstrong taking that first step,” Father says to Eberwein. “That’s what his mother once said. Have I told you that story?”
Eberwein smiles.


We meet Nicolae in the Herastrau Park on the outskirts of the city, close to where the gypsies live. It is cool and the giant oaks are bowing under the push of the wind, making noise like waves breaking on the shore.

Nicolae is an old friend of Father’s from University. He disappeared a few years back. After he was gone no one talked about him. Not even Father. That’s how it was. People vanished all the time. Usually they never resurfaced and the Central Committee, using the Secu, made sure everything left behind, the person’s fingerprint in life, was erased. They bumped their own people all the time. Erasing and re-writing history was the specialty of an entire department. Nothing was permanent. That was how things were. We lived with that. We were born into that. It was just as normal as anything.

Before he disappeared, we would sometimes see Nicolae in the park after our walk from school, and he and Father would talk quietly on a bench just off the side of the little clearing with the swings. When I asked about him after he was gone, Father said he had left on a trip to the country to help his mother and wouldn’t be back for a while. Then he told me not to ask anymore.

Nicolae is bald now. At first I don’t recognize him. He looks like someone’s whisper. He smiles and rubs the top of my head and tries to pick me up by the neck like he used to when I was very small.
“You’ve shot up like a weed,” he says. “You still go to the sea in the summer?”
His voice is quiet and raspy, like he has laryngitis. His face looks like it’s made of old leather. It’s dry and rough and it sinks down below his cheeks. In some places the skin looks purple. In others it’s green and jaundiced. He has silver teeth in the front. He shows them when he smiles and they’re horrifying. He is very thin and fragile, and instead of thinking about what really happened to him, I pretend he’s been away in the country, working hard on the land, helping his mother.
“No sea this year,” I say and look at Father for direction.
“Go over there and play on the swings,” Father says and pushes me on my way. “I’ll come get you in a bit and we’ll go eat.”

I am embarrassed at being patronized in front of his friend, but I go to the swing and sit in it, facing them. Nicolae takes Father by the arm and steers him towards a bench. I push off, up into the air, come down backwards, then up again. I am watching the two of them rise and fall on the horizon, and I imagine I’m on a ship.
“Where’re we sailing, Tati,” I’d ask.
“To the Great City, Old Man,” Father would say, “where they have chickens and candy for sale…and octopus too.”
“Ewww, octopus and candy?”
“And squid and toffee and cow’s brain, all together at the same stand. In big baskets made of thick rope.”
“Ewww, I’ll take the candy, you keep the rest.”
“Candy it is,” Father would say and we’d be on our way.

This was my favorite game with Father. I’d pretend he was the ship—me riding on his back as he stretched out on our sofa in the Red Room—and he making engine noises until he fell asleep as I steered towards the Great City with all its diverse booty.

Up and down, rising and falling. Nicolae is talking but Father is looking at me and I raise my hand at the top but he doesn’t do anything to acknowledge me. I watch Nicolae as he takes a piece of paper out of his pocket and hands it to Father. Father looks at it. He gives it back. Nicolae makes like he doesn’t want to take it but Father pushes it to him.

Up and down, down and up, to the Great City. What would happen if I let go of the chains? Will we eat well tonight? Will Father disappear like Nicolae now that we’re all alone, the family of a traitor? What did they do to Nicolae? Did they break him? Will they break Father?

I watch Father as he rips the paper and drops the pieces to the ground. At the upswing I see that the paper is actually a photograph. I recognize the glossy side of the shreds. It’s a colorless print. Nicolae takes him by the arm and speaks close to his face. Father stares straight into nothing. Nicolae looks more like a mother hen than a menacing Secu agent. That’s what he is now, an agent. I know that. So does Father. No one comes back after an arrest without being broken and turned over. That’s an easy one.
I signal again at the high point of the arc and this time Father sees me. He waves me over.
Nicolae strains to smile. Only half of his face manages it. He stands and ruffles my hair. I look down and catch a look at the torn photograph. I see a torso with bare breasts, a part of a head with long, dark hair. It’s a woman. It looks a little like Mother when she was very young. I’m not sure though…but Nicolae interrupts and steps close to me.
“I have something for you in my pocket,” he says.
Father stands and says we need to go.
“I have something for you. Would you like to have it,” Nicolae says.
I look at Father.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s a toy. Would you like to have a toy?”
“We need to go,” Father says to Nicolae. He nods to me.
“All right,” I say.
“Hold out your hand and close your eyes.”
I do what he says, but I don’t trust him. Father is nervous and I am scared because of that. In a moment I feel a warm, clammy, rubbery mass of something resting in my palm.
“All right, open.” Nicolae says.
I look at it. It is a small, rubber penguin, black with a white tummy, large eyes, the paint of one pupil half chipped away. It is a little something you’d put on a key chain, except it doesn’t have the ring.
“What do you say, Old Man?”
“Thank you,” I still have my hand open.
“You know what this is?” Nicolae says.
“Uh-huh, a penguin.”
“Look at that,” Father says.
“It’s not just a penguin, young Comrade,” Parus says. “This is an Emperor. You ever see an Emperor Penguin?”
I shake my head. Where would I ever see a thing like that here? They don’t have them at the zoo. I look at Father. He forces a smile but he is tense and I feel that we might be in trouble and we need to go.
“An Emperor Penguin is this tall,” Nicolae says and puts his hand up to his waist. “This tall, can you imagine?”
I snicker a little at the idea. I don’t believe him, but I make like I’m amused by his story. His story is nothing like Jules Verne. Jules Verne is much better at telling stories about creatures.
“I’m serious,” he says. “Swear on my mother’s grave.”
The mother to which he went away in the country to help.
“We’re going,” Father says and takes my wrist.
I close my palm around the toy. I look down again at the scattered pieces of the photograph.
“All right,” Nicolae says and tries to lift me by the neck. “Have fun with it. Enjoy. Play with it.”
This man’s hands around my neck terrify me. I know he’s kidding and I don’t know he’s kidding. Father does nothing about it so I’m not sure how to take this. Is it safe? Finally he gives up trying to hoist me and runs his hand through my hair. Then he looks at Father and says, “call me.”
We walk away, down the path towards the street, out of the park. When we get to the gates, I look back and see Nicolae still standing, watching us out. In his hands he has the pieces of the torn picture.
“Is he still there?” Father says without turning.
“Don’t look anymore.”
I turn and we walk towards the boulevard. When we get to the crosswalk I turn back again and Father pulls me by the arm hard.
“I said don’t look at him anymore.”

I don’t ask about the picture. I know if I ask, Father will get mad; maybe even bring out the belt. I know when to keep my mouth shut. Father can explode at anything, especially now. It never comes up again. If it was Mother in that picture, then I know it was doctored. If it was someone else, then they were trying to make Father forget about Mother. They did that all the time to people who were left behind by defectors. That’s probably how Pavel got a new father when his dad crossed the border into West Germany. The Secu probably just found some man to take over the family. We lived like that. We were born into that.


2 Responses to “The Emperor Penguin”

  1. Alex Luken 05/04/2008 at 9:28 PM #

    Interesting that Eberwein is a sculptor. My family name is Eberwein, the family is from Altsanktanna, Romania, and there are sculptors in the family.

  2. (S)wine 07/04/2008 at 4:42 AM #

    My father may have known one of your relatives. The world…it’s small isn’t it? Thanks for reading this in your search.

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