Home > Fiction > Letting the Penguins Out
Published: Thu Apr 15 2021
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
AGNI 93 Home Mysteries Relationships
Letting the Penguins Out

It was spring the time the roof rained and I called Robert and said Robert the water’s coming down. Lucky it wasn’t colder. The water cooled my house so much I needed a sweater and Robert had to fasten me into it. He is my company. He never complains. Not to me at least.

It was the upstairs neighbor who fell asleep in the bathtub and let it run over. It came through the floor and into my rooms and it smelled like lavender and eucalyptus which smell to me like sickness. I never even saw her just heard her slam the door too often. She left soon after and it never rained inside again.

Though now I hear things. Footsteps like a chorus of elephants above me at all times of day and night. I wake to it. I sleep to it too.

The walls are stained on account of her. The television told me about caves and bats and I learned the word stalactite and that’s what I’ve decided wreathes the room. Like a mountain range turned upside down. Now I know about caves and now that I’m inside one I feel safe again and like I can stay.

First time I see my visitor she is kneeling at the refrigerator and scrubbing something. Her shirt is hiked up on her back and I can see the top of her panties. They are red and so I know they are itty and meant for someone else to see. I cluck and say Hello because it’s the right thing to do when someone comes into your home. Never mind I haven’t invited her.

Then she is boiling water in my kettle which screams and screams. She is pouring the water into the vegetable drawer. She has long blond hair twisted up and held with a chopstick on top of her head. A chopstick. I swear it.

When she turns her face toward me I start a little at the sight of her eyes. Big enough she needs a wheelbarrow to cart them around in and here she is such a little person on her knees in my kitchen. No gloves on and she thrusts her hands in the boiling water. It reeks of bleach even from where I stand in the doorway sussing her out.

She says Hello back and stands up and and looks me in the eye. I figure her manners are good enough so I leave her alone to help me. I sit back down in the orange chair.

I’m always in the orange chair before the television. That’s where I was sleeping before the scrubbing woke me and that’s where I go once I’ve seen her and know her lovely face and feel safe with her hands inside my vegetable drawer. I’ve never cleaned the vegetable drawer even once of its brown slime. Over her shoulder I see the old sludge has come loose and floats like fish food.

It isn’t until later that I feel sad about what she’s done. How invisible the drawer is now. How real the celery appears through the wiped plastic. I hate celery and there it is.

But by the time I get there she’s gone on and the sink gleams too. The metal was as cloudy as milk before. I hold my hand above it. Closer. Further. Closer. Further. It makes a hazy shadow at first and then close up the sink floor shows my hand as a hand. I run the water to erase my reflection.

Robert comes by what must be a few hours later. Ruth he says. Ruth. He’s always saying my name and I’m always guessing what he means. It takes him so long to just say a thing.

Aren’t I old enough to be his mother anyway and him coming by every day to see that I am all right. To boil some pasta and pour the prune juice into a jelly jar. A sticky one. Up to now there’s been nowhere to rest it that isn’t sticky. He waits until I drink it.

Robert has a son of his own. A boy not right who says the word sarcophagus too much and sometimes comes and tries to fuss with my cat who is calico and won’t have it. My cat is Betancou which was also my father’s name but my father never knew him. The cat. My father knew Robert. My father put it on Robert to come here and dole out the prune juice.

Betancou-my-father was the one who named me Ruth. Was the one who first changed my diapers and the last before Robert took over because my-father-Betancou died. They say I’m too young and too old and so I have need of company beyond Betancou. Which means Betancou-the-cat. So Robert and his son come and are company.

Robert says Did you clean your own kitchen and I shrug from the orange chair and sit on my gnarled and knobby hands which he knows could never do a thing. What a stupid question I think to myself but I don’t say it. I am a kind person and I choose kind words and stupid isn’t kind. Even if it’s true. He doesn’t ask me anything else and I am grateful for it.

I hear him shuffling around in the kitchen. I hear him open the refrigerator. The vacuum seal slurps a little because it’s broken. I call out to him I say Robert you’re letting the penguins out and he shuts the door obediently like I am his mother and I am pleased.

My visitor is on her knees again. This time in the bathroom. Today her underwear is orange like my father used to wear to hunt. I see she has freckles across her arms which either means too much sun or not enough and either way I feel concern for her and wonder if she doesn’t need company also.

The litter box is in the bathroom and that’s what she’s doing. Cleaning up Betancou-my-cat’s business which isn’t done enough. After Robert drives me to appointments and I come back inside I can smell how true this is and my nostrils burn and my sinuses too but when I am home I smell only home which is me only stronger.

My-cat-Betancou darts along the walls and from surface to surface. Betancou-my-cat does not like the ground. He lands to use his litter box and then sometimes moves beyond it to piss because it is full and he is civilized.

When I see her I say Oh good and then to be polite I say Hello and then to be gracious I say Thank you. Her eyes are the size of plums. She keeps them hidden from me as she shovels scoop after scoop into the toilet then toggles the handle for the flush. It sounds like the commode has swallowed the wrong way.

I hear my-cat-Betancou knock something off a shelf in the living room. Sometimes I bet with myself about what it was and whether I will care. Most times I am wrong about what and right to think no.

She looks at me finally and says Your nails. I dig them into my palms to hide them. It hurts and I bleed from it. Thank you again I say and she turns back to the litter box. Next thing I’m back in my chair and she’s gone—just gone. No sound of the door opening or closing. Not on her way in and not on her way out.

Robert does not like that the house is cleaning itself up. He thinks the rooms are alive. He says The baseboards are dusted and I shrug again and turn to the television which tells me about roux and I never understand these shows because I cannot smell them. I say so. I say Robert the cooking shows. They don’t smell like a thing.

He says Your comb is clean. He looks at my hair and sees that I have been groomed. I think of her hands fine and young and toothed in a way. Falling freely through my hair and heavy on this bone here which is my clavicle.

Her name is Marlena. Or her name is Morena. I don’t know her name only imagine it. She doesn’t reserve it. I just haven’t asked. She comes and goes and I tell her My father once put an ostrich egg in my hand. It was so heavy I could feel the yolk inside as big as my brain. Or at least as big as Betancou’s. By which I mean Betancou-my-cat not Betancou-my-father though this is all guesswork.

She says Tell me about your mother. I say My mother was a monkfish and her eyes wobbled and could focus on more than one thing at a time. Morena Marlena scoffs and says Your mother was no monkfish. I say She was a cuttlefish and she could make herself look like anything around her. Until she met a chessboard. Morena Marlena scoffs.

Okay okay I say she was slender. And I mean that. I have heard slender from the television about leaf stems and the legs of insects. It is the word I use for my mother because it’s the right one. My mother was slender and in being slender she snapped and broke.

Robert’s son is chasing Betancou-my-cat though my-cat- Betancou is too smart for this. Of us all he’s the smartest. I never hear unless he wants me to. He makes himself known or he doesn’t. He is never tired. He will sometimes let me pet him and I can feel a coil inside me unspooling when he does. I run his tail like a silk handkerchief through the cup of my palm and if he will have me at all he lets me do it twice or three times.

I watch Robert’s son while Robert paces about confused and maybe useless and I hope my-cat-Betancou doesn’t swipe at the child with claws. There would be blood and Robert is so nervous. He is always taking care. His wife is Nordic and ice-eyed. I have met her more than once and I cannot stop looking but she tries not to see me. It’s hard to remember the last time she came.

Robert’s son tires of my-cat-Betancou and Betancou sits atop the curtain rod looking at us all and I cluck as the child calls and calls for the cat not knowing I guess that cats will not come when called.

Morena Marlena asks Have you ever loved a man and I think first of my-father-Betancou who I sat beside in the cab of a truck while he shot a deer point-blank between the eyes.

We walked to it in the woods. Its nose was wet and that was how I knew there’d been life inside it. Its eyes were milky and that’s how I knew the life inside it had left. My father took the heft of its chest and I took its hind legs and we struggled along back to the truck. He was disappointed there were no antlers. I was too because I wanted to touch them. To cup the velvet knives in my hands.

The carcass hung outside the house later. Facedown. Hooves pointed like a dancer’s feet toward the Earth. Its guts went into the trash can like a sloughed blouse. Then came the gloppy yellow barbeque my mother slapped on my plate. My father smiled at me without teeth and said Ruthie eat and I did because I was brave.

Then I think of Betancou-my-cat who spilled from his mother like a blood clot making noise and we kept just him from the porch litter and the rest went to houses we never visited. The next day his mother died and I held her stiffly in my arms before dropping her in a hole and then I held him to make up for it and I’ve tried to hold him ever since.

And then Robert who I love. Who I need and who needs me.

Yes I say to Morena Marlena I have loved a man. Have you.

Her eyes are unflinching like the deer’s. She does not answer but I know the answer must be yes because the answer is always yes. Everyone has loved a man. At least one man some time or another. Some way or another.

She takes my feet in her hands and trims the corns and I do not kick. She cuts the nails but before that I watch ribbons of dirt unfurl because she runs the metal file beneath them to empty what they’ve caught like nets. To leave me clean. The clippers’ snap is too much and still I do not kick. My hairs stand up instead. Even on my two big toes.

Robert fills the glass with water and passes it to me. My quaking hands accept and are ashamed of themselves but I am not ashamed of them. I tell them to be sure. The glass is heavy yes but the glass will also grow lighter and lighter.

Robert says Who has trimmed your nails Ruth.

I blink at him like the deer and though my lashes are short I think he sees me though my sclera too are milk-blurred. I curl my toes like a reflex and he drops to his knees. He lifts my feet onto his thigh and says Toes too.

He takes me to the doctor to have these things done. Typically does. He has never touched my feet until now that he is worried someone else has. I am a leech and must be tended to even if rarely even if I am sleeping in my orange chair and do not want the interruption. I can choose to eat or not eat but I must be disturbed to be offered the choice.

I have loved men but have I loved women. She did not ask me. I am learning I would tell her if she asked and I am groomed for it now. I would say my mother. I would say Robert’s wife. I would say you. My toenails shine like pebbles worn smooth by the sea which I visited once with my father and my slender mother who wore a white dress and panicked as the surf took the frilly edge of it and pulled. For a moment she disappeared into the dress which disappeared into the ocean and then she was there on the sand again and it was a resurrection no one noticed but me. That night she did it again on purpose and did not come back up.

Morena Marlena stuffs a swab of cotton in my left ear and swirls it around like scrambling eggs. I can hear the squeak of it straight to my thighs because my brain is everywhere. I hold still because I always do.

I say I danced once and I can’t hear myself so I yell it at her. She never complains. Not about the diaper or even about the time I vomited on her sleeve as she spoon-fed me a syrup that tasted like raisins and fish both.

I danced outside I tell her because I was asked to by a boy who shared my blood but not too closely. It was daylight and he spun me around in circles until I dizzied and no longer recognized my yard or my own hand. I’d never been asked before and despite his tombstone teeth set so far apart that I could have jammed a finger between each I was grateful for his attention.

There was no music. His hands wandered to my hips and clamped there like vices. Bruises bloomed too like those on old apples. Brown and mealy and not fit not fit not at all. I cried and told no one though now I tell Morena Marlena because she asks. So stone I wonder if she’s heard but Morena Marlena is all heart and ears. Is the only one I’ll tell. The only one who asks.

Robert and his simple son stop by without the wife again. Robert notices that the air filter’s been replaced. The humidifier is filled. Pasta is cooling in a strainer. Morena Marlena has green eyes have I said. Her brows are blond and wild. I stare and want to touch them. She would let me but am I brave enough to ask. Robert leaves wringing his hands. His boy bares teeth at me like a feral dog and Robert doesn’t notice.

In the morning she is at the foot of my bed with dry toast and a mug of chamomile. I say to her This tea tastes like a wet sock and she pretends not to hear. She holds the mug to my chapped lips and bids me to drink. And if I were thirsty wouldn’t I suck on any wet thing so I drink it down and then I ask for more. There are flowers on the windowsill. Daffodils like duck bills and it must be spring again. A whole year of Morena Marlena.

She asks again about my mother and I say I have said enough. Ruth she begs and she’s never said my name before. It sounds filthy. No I put my foot upon the floor for emphasis and she looks down at it. Unflinching.

But Ruth again and I say She was slender.

Her name Morena Marlena asks and her perfect brows furrow and darken and glimmer a little like metal.

I say Leave it as though she were a dog with a pile of chicken bones that could kill her going down. I say it for her own good and for mine too because she is company and I have need of company. They tell me so and now I know it’s true.

My-father-Betancou I begin but she is gone. Her chair is empty and the light coming past the daffodils is cold. My feet curl beneath the heavy blankets. I’ve depended on her to free me from the weight of them. Now I am alone with the sickly death-smell of these flowers.

I close my eyes. I’ll wait because I can. My needs are met. I’m full of toast and my tongue is rough from eating it.

Robert comes by later with his wife whose face hasn’t changed at all and I’m happy at least to see that. She sits morosely at the kitchen counter on a stool I’ve never used and casts her steely gaze upon us. They are going somewhere after they deal with me and she is impatient. She dumps the contents of her purse on the counter. I watch the lotion move into a pocket. The lipstick the pastilles the wallet snapping closed. I have tried so many times but she has never touched me. I whisper to Robert that he should be loved. I say more loudly Where is the boy.

Ruth he says like a statement or a plea. He’s at school.

The wife clears her throat crossing her legs like a pair of scissors. My-cat-Betancou leaps to her lap needing something. She holds the tail as if it isn’t part of a cat. She dismisses him and gets up.

I say Robert and he flinches because he cannot help it or does not know to try. I say You knew Betancou-my-father. Which is not a question.

My father knew your father Robert answers which is a correction.

The wife stalks about like a panther. I hear the closet squeak open. I hear the refrigerator thwack wide like the sound of a hatchet on wood. Her hands are on everything. What is she looking for.

Robert says The flowers Ruth and while his wife prowls outside my room I say Robert she’s gone.

I woke with that word on my lips and I say it so someone else will know.

He sits at the edge of the bed just where I last saw her and says nothing.

Marlena I say and then like another correction Morena. I say Look for her will you.

Tell me about her he says and with my hand like a gnarly root I point to the daffodils. There are three. They face in different directions.

I fan my fingers so he can see the nails are pearlescent as soap. My skin looks green beside them. I show him because they shine.

He is calm but blinks again and again and says But who.

The wife comes in and says It’s time. We have to go.

Neither of us would argue with her. Even if we knew how. My fingers furl into fists.

She is blond too but not blond like Morena Marlena. The wife is too pretty to be trusted and is unkind. I want her endless gaze. She doesn’t like me and Betancou-my-father taught me never to love someone who would not love me back in some slight way. I do though and can’t help it and it is in no slight way.

Help me up I tell Robert. He helps me up. My gown clings in places I wish no one would look and still I hobble about. Robert flings open closet doors like trying to catch someone. Like he’ll say Aha at any moment but he never does because we never catch a thing. Dust dances in sunlight. That’s all.

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Katherine Fallon is the author of two chapbooks: The Toothmaker’s Daughters (Finishing Line Press, 2018) and Demoted Planet (Headmistress Press, forthcoming). Her work has appeared in Colorado Review, AGNI, Juked, Meridian, Foundry, The Best New Poets, and elsewhere. She teaches at Georgia Southern University. (updated 4/2021)


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