by John Yunker
I held up my arm in front of a woman coming toward me like an early morning mall walker, in Nikes, purple leggings, a pink Las Vegas T-shirt. She hobbled over potholes and crags, holding an iPad out in front of her with two hands as if it were a dowsing stick.
“I don’t see any penguins,” she said as she came closer, as if I were to blame. She sounded Australian.
“The nests are up above those rocks,” I said, pointing across the green-and-brown-crusted shoreline, pools left over from last night’s high tide.
“I’m not going up there.” She stepped forward again, and I stepped backward, keeping my body between her and the beach beyond.
“They need a clear path from their nests to the water,” I explained as calmly as possible. “They’re very shy around people. That’s why we ask everyone to stop here. You’ll be able to see them perfectly well.” I pointed out a number of knee-high boulders that formed the back end of the narrow stretch of volcanic beach.
I glanced over her shoulder at the overlook, a quarter-mile away, looking for you. But I saw only tourists descending the three-story, winding wooden staircase to this ancient tidal platform. Soon there would be more tourists with more cameras and more questions. And you had apparently abandoned me.
“What about those two?” the woman asked.
I turned to see a couple, a woman in a calf-length puffy blue jacket and a man in khaki cargo shorts and a matching tank top, high-stepping their way toward a penguin on the path. Glistening with seawater in the morning sun, the penguin must have just returned from the Southern Ocean—and I’d missed him, along with these people who had materialized out of the ocean mist and were now cutting off his path to his nest.
The woman handed her phone to the man and circled behind the penguin, who began panning his head back and forth, a clear sign of distress.
“Shit,” I said, angling a few angry steps forward, knowing that if I ran over there, I’d only make things worse. I waved my arms above my head. The man saw me, and I could tell by his mouth that he was warning the woman; she knelt behind the penguin as the man fumbled with the phone. I heard the woman snap at him over the distant sounds of waves against stone. The penguin shuffled a few inches closer to the man, wisely trying to escape the more annoying of these two predators. I took a few more steps and shouted, “Hey!” and the woman looked back at me, then returned to her pose. The man backed up, just enough for the penguin to scuffle past him and hop up onto the first rock, beginning his hurried, awkward climb back to his nest.
“Bet she got a bloody good selfie,” the mall walker said, giving me a look.
“If that penguin had retreated to the water, their chicks could have starved to death.”
She snorted and turned around, but my relief was dampened by the sight of a dozen or more tourists, some alone, some in pairs, rushing ant-like over the many ruts and petrified stumps, their cameras at the ready. “People will trample their toddlers to get a penguin photograph,” you told me last week.
Was it only a week ago that we met, Michel?
I’d been one of them still, a tourist eager for a photograph and a hasty exit to my next destination. I rushed past the informational signs up on the overlook, past the sign halfway down the stairs instructing visitors to keep a distance of ten meters. I had seen the crowd gathered in the distance with their cameras and binoculars raised, and was also eager not to miss the perfect shot.
I’d sidestepped stone stumps that you had explained were the fossilized remains of a Jurassic forest. “They were taller once,” you said. “But tourists chipped off bits and pieces over the years.”
I carried my Sony with its zoom lens, and I fumbled with settings as I speed-walked to the cluster. Yet when I arrived, the scene was oddly muted. Some scanned the coastline with binoculars while others kept their eyes on the olive-skinned man standing at the front of the group, wearing a neon-yellow vest with CURIO BAY printed on the back and a blue-and-yellow-striped scarf. You looked a few years older than me, and that scarf, neatly folded below your neck, made you look European. You didn’t make eye contact with the rest of us. Your eyes remained focused on the horizon of the Jurassic stone tidal flat, where waves splashed over mounds of slicked stone and brown seaweed.
* * *
And now, as the days shorten, I try to remember everything you told me.
For when people ask:
The yellow-eyed penguin is one of the rarest species of penguin on the planet, endemic to the South Island of New Zealand and a handful of islands farther south. There are only two nests remaining at Curio Bay; some say there used to be hundreds.
The penguins return to this rocky shoreline as early as July, preparing their nests under the dense vegetation of flax bushes. The males and females build nests together, with fresh twigs and leaves and the occasional rabbit bone. If everything goes according to plan, the female will lay two eggs in September or October. The parents will spend the next forty days commuting back and forth to sea, filling their bellies with squid and cod. The chicks will not be left unattended for even a moment. But should one of the penguins fail to return, the other will be forced to return to sea, too, leaving the chicks to die.
An oil spill. A fishing net. A longline. Any of these will destroy a family within seconds.
You told me so many things. If only I had taken notes.
* * *
The woman in the blue coat approached, a scowl on her face. “Were you waving at me?” Her voice sounded American, and I despised her even more. And, yes, I was well aware of the irony; not long ago I had been that American woman.
“You were too close to the penguin,” I said.
“Who are you to tell me I should move?”
“I work here.”
“Do you know more about penguins than I do?”
“Are you a naturalist?”
“Yes,” I said, lying. “And I know a lot more about penguins than you.”
What authority did a yellow vest convey upon its wearer, Michel? Enough to keep most people away from the penguins, out of their precarious path. But clearly not enough to keep everyone away.
The woman slapped at a sand fly on her arm and noticed my camera on the rock next to my backpack. “If I had a camera like yours, I wouldn’t need to get close.”
“That’s not the point.”
But she was already walking back to the overlook, where the man was photographing a tide pool.
And then I saw you approaching, unhurried, on a winding path around the petrified remnants that you knew by heart. And I had to remind myself that I hardly knew you; I’d become so at ease standing next to you in the biting wind, herding tourists, waving at sand flies, waiting.
“You performed admirably,” you said, a sly grin on your face.
“I sucked. This woman practically put her arm around a penguin just a few minutes ago.”
“I know. I was watching.”
I took off my vest and tossed it at you. “You could have helped, you know.”
“I doubt I could have done any better.”
“Where the hell did those two people come from?”
“There’s a trail on the other side of this beach. Not as well traveled.”
“So why isn’t there someone stationed there too?”
“There is no money for two people. There is hardly enough for one.”
A sand fly landed on my cheek, and I waved it away.
“I wish I’d known that before you left.”
“Would you have stayed? I absolutely did need the loo.” You put the vest back on and looked through your binoculars. “That was Emily who returned,” you said. “She looked very good, don’t you think?”
“How so?” The penguins all looked alike to me, though I didn’t admit it.
“Her belly was full. Her chicks will be eating well right now. Imagine going shopping for your children and having to eat everything first and then regurgitate it.”
“There are plenty of American teens who overeat and regurgitate all on their own.”
You looked at me curiously. “You are a dark woman.”
“I’ve been traveling alone a bit too long,” I said. “I talk to myself now.”
“I do as well. A side effect of sitting out here alone. Speaking of, did you hear the penguins when they reunited?”
I thought back, but everything was a blur, my ears throbbing with too much rage to hear anything else.
“The penguins are quite vocal. The Māori call them hoiho, which means ‘noisy shouter.’” You raised your binoculars. “Queenie is bound to be departing soon.”
“Queenie?” I asked. “And Emily? They really are a special couple.”
“Queenie is the male. Apparently, the person who did the naming, who predates my tenure, made a slight mistake.” You pointed toward the rocks just below a crop of flax bushes. “There he is.”
I stared at sun-bleached boulders and saw nothing until Queenie hopped from one rock down to the next, his body lean and tall, slate-gray back, pale white belly. I picked up my camera and zoomed in. The feathers on Queenie’s head looked as if they were dyed yellow. And his eyes, sunburned yellow, framed a tiny, black spot.
“How can you be so sure it’s him?”
“When you’ve been watching them as long as I have, you recognize the little things, the way they walk, their voices—kind of like people.”
I shared a glance with you and felt a surge of something I had not felt in a long time. “They’re so much larger than the penguins I saw outside Melbourne.”
“The fairy penguins are among the smallest, though they are far greater in number.”
“How many yellow-eyed penguins are there?”
“We don’t know. Maybe a few thousand or so.”
“Living along this coast?”
“No,” you said. “Living on this planet.”
The surf roared. But then I realized the sound came from behind—it was the revving and raging of motorcycle engines. I looked back at the overlook, half expecting motorcycles to plunge down upon us. When I turned back to you, you were oblivious, smiling underneath the binoculars that covered your eyes.
* * *
On the eighty-seventh day of my trip around the world, my limbs tanned and backpack lean, my passport wallpapered, Instagram feed the envy of friends and family, and yet depressed and lonely beyond tears, I ended up in a hostel in Queenstown. But the town that I had dreamt of visiting was overcrowded and ordinary, like so many others along the way: Phuket without the neon lights.
I caught a bus south the next morning for Curio Bay. And when I arrived that evening, I sighed with relief when I saw few hostels, few bright-green Jucy vans signaling another tourist purgatory. I walked straight to the overlook as the sun was setting, and when I saw the people gathered below, I rushed toward them, eager to add another photograph to my portfolio too.
But we didn’t see any penguins that evening. I hung around until the others had left and it was just me and you.
You were quiet. You were shorter than I was, which before now would have been a deal breaker. But along this antediluvian coast that I couldn’t find on a map, so far away from anything familiar and predictable, I felt, I don’t know, I felt comfortable around you.
I had just left Troy behind in Fremantle. He was a part-time surfer and model, and full-time arrogant jerk. His body was long and perennially dark, with a tattoo of a raven following his taut abdomen across his hairless chest, its beak perched on the muscular shoulders. I had kissed that beak too many times to count. He was the man I always imagined I would spend my life with, a traveler, unconcerned about money (his parents were wealthy and generous). With him I didn’t think about student loans or whatever job I was supposed to have at this point in my life. I was twenty-three years old, and I had latched myself onto this aimless Australian, the closest thing to a career.
He didn’t dump me. I didn’t dump him. One late night at a bar I saw him kissing the girl who worked at the surf shop. I went back to my hostel and updated my round-the-world ticket to depart the next day for Christchurch.
What did you and I talk about at first? You told me about this ancient conifer forest covered in lava, converted to silica, and uncovered again after millions of years of waiting. “These trees are a hundred eighty million years old, a number that means little to most people. So I tell people it is the equivalent of twenty million lifetimes.”
“Twenty million lifetimes, and I’m worried about what I’m going to do with mine,” I said.
You told me about the job. “There is a land trust that pays me to be here. When I started, there were three of us. Then two. Then they cut pay in half, so that leaves me. They cover my campsite, and there’s a small stipend for food. Oh, and the phone for calling police.”
“Have you used it yet?”
“The first time, it was a heart attack. The second time, an elderly man fell and hit his head on the rock. They both survived. I tell people to be careful on these rocks. The trees were much softer a hundred million years ago.”
“You’re from France?”
“What brings you all the way down here?”
“Oh, where does one begin?”
“Are you a naturalist?”
“No. I’m a geologist. An engineer. I spent five years making a very good salary helping an energy company find oil.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yes, well, I told myself that somebody has to do it. One can rationalize anything if the money is good enough. Until I traveled to the tar sands. What’s happening there—what we’re doing—I had to quit. I wanted to see nature before it is all gone. I traveled, but I began to resent myself all over again: taking pictures of rare marsupials, the Tasmanian devil, and then moving on to another park, another animal. I ended up here. There was a woman wearing this vest.” You hit the front of the vest with the palms of your hands. “I spent days assisting, giving her breaks. Eventually, she gave me her job and I got a working holiday visa. They’re going to help me get something more permanent soon.”
“Why the yellow-eyed penguin, out of all the animals you’ve seen?”
“Last season I met a scientist who was traveling through. I asked why they don’t band these penguins, why so little seems to be done at all. He told me there are too few of them to take that risk. And then he told me most scientists believe it is simply too late to save them. They are already extinct.” You paused to look through your binoculars again. “‘But they’re not extinct yet,’ I told him. And then I determined that if I could delay their extinction, even for one more day, I would.”
* * *
I got up early and made my way down the dew-slicked steps. The sky was mottled gray, and the winds cut through my worn Patagonia jacket. But there you were, Michel, alone at your usual spot. I approached, teeth chattering, wishing the sun would show itself.
“Have you seen anyone?” I asked.
You shook your head.
I began to hop up and down in place, and you noticed.
“I have an extra jacket if you’d like.”
I slid into it and saw movement in the distance, near the waves.
“That’s a white-faced heron,” you said. “They feed in the tide pools.”
Over the next hour, as the sun peeked over the hill, you pointed out a shag, a white-capped albatross, and a passing whale of unknown species, its spout the only sign of what was passing below the waterline.
“Is that seaweed out on the rocks?”
“Bull kelp. Unique to the southern waters. Just beyond the rocks, underwater forests of kelp stretch ten meters deep—a living forest just meters away from this dead forest.”
Two couples and an older man with a large zoom lens gathered quietly behind us. I glanced back to see a group of college or high school boys and girls loudly announcing themselves. The boy in front used a stick to whack every partial tree he passed. Other boys threw rocks. The girls gathered together, laughing at their phones.
You looked at me. “Want to give me a hand with these people?”
When you stood, I joined you. You opened your arms and smiled at the kids. “Have you come to see the penguins?”
“Where are they?” the lead boy asked.
“They could arrive at any moment, but we need to stay right here.”
The boy sidestepped you and continued forward.
“Stop,” I said.
“Are you police?”
You walked over to him and held up something that looked like a badge. The boy eyed you suspiciously. He threw his stick like an axe toward the water, and it splashed into a pool. Two birds were startled into flight. The boys began walking back to the stairs.
“What about my selfie?” asked a girl.
“I’ll give you a selfie,” said the lead boy.
A childish game of chase broke out around the stumps until the group moved out of earshot.
You held up a chrome-plated badge that, upon closer inspection, read US Marshall. “I bought it at a costume shop in Invercargill a month ago.”
“And it works?”
“Sometimes,” you said. “Sometimes you have to be creative.”
* * *
Queenie made his slow-motion hike to the water, stopping every so often to tip his long beak over and preen his belly. Through the binoculars I saw bits of dirt or guano on his feathers.
You answered questions from a group of four Americans—birders, by the looks of their equipment: large binoculars and a spotting scope on a tripod. I’d come to admire birders because they knew where to stop. They appreciated what we were witnessing, the rarity of these creatures, the gravity of extinction.
I heard shouting and turned to see two hulking men in dark leather motorcycle jackets and jeans, tattoos curling up their necks, trailing a flabby woman in jeans and a leather crop top. She had a cigarette in one hand and a phone in the other and walked past us as if we were a mirage.
You caught up with her. “Please, miss, please.”
“What?” she barked, thankfully coming to a stop.
The two men joined her, eyeing you suspiciously. A French accent was not going to help this situation, nor, for that matter, would an American accent. I approached cautiously.
The woman saw Queenie. “I want a picture with that one.”
“We need to stand back there,” you said.
“Who the hell made you the Prince of Wales?” she said.
“I work here.”
“Yeah. Dressed like a school crossing guard?”
“In a sense, I am,” you said, smiling when you caught my eye. “We ask people to keep a reasonable distance.”
“What’s reasonable?” she said.
“Australia,” I said.
She looked over at me. “Is that some fucking joke?” She took two steps toward me, and I backed up until the man on my right put his large hand on her shoulder.
“Fuck you,” she said to me. “Yankee bitch.”
She bumped into you as she pushed past. “This ain’t over,” she said. You held your emergency phone at the ready.
They walked ahead, twenty, thirty feet toward the penguin path, the men trailing behind, their leather boots leaving deep impressions on the pockets of sand. The three of them looked as out of place as humans on the moon.
Queenie began walking again, quickly, until he reached a large pool and fell into the water, paddling twenty or so feet to the other side. Then he stood again and waved his head around. Beyond him were chest-high waves of seaweed shaped like frozen waves. He leaned over to scratch his belly with his beak.
The bikers picked up the pace but were stopped by the tide pool. The woman held up her phone, and the three of them blocked out the view entirely until Queenie appeared again near the precipice of the ocean.
Queenie arched his back and raised his head to the sky and let loose a piercing, kookaburra-like call that echoed off the cliffs that surrounded us.
“He’s telling them to piss off,” I said, just loudly enough for you to hear.
And then a large wave crashed against the rocks; when the water settled, Queenie was gone.
You stepped over and leaned in. “They call these people bikies,” you said.
“That wouldn’t fly in the US,” I said. “Not macho-sounding enough. We call them gangs.”
“Do your bikie gangs murder people?”
We watched the three of them come back toward us, and I felt my stomach clench. Then they turned and took a meandering, wide path back to the stairs.
You sat next to me, shaking your head. “I don’t understand. People have become so much more aggressive, hostile even, about photographs. And they need to be in the photographs, with the penguin.”
“There’s a hashtag,” I told you, “called #yelloweyeselfie.” I showed you on my phone.
“I remember this fellow,” you said, pointing at a photo of a potbellied man with a gray beard kneeling behind a very obviously terrified penguin. “How do I delete this?”
“You can’t,” I said.
You stood, and I saw the anger in your face, and in your hand, clenched around my phone.
“Why does this mean so much?” You held up my phone, and I took it. “What is it about the need to use animals as props? Is it because we are still children, clutching our dolls, chasing pigeons in the park?” You sat and picked up a pebble and rubbed it between your fingers.
You looked at me. “Was this part of your travel plans? Keeping me company? Watching penguins?”
“To be honest, I’m tired of traveling, tired of finding myself surrounded by people just like me.” I told you my theory of the world. How it’s all becoming one similar thing—the cities, the stores, even the people all seem alike.
“Except for the animals,” you said. “The nonhuman animals. You will never find a yellow-eyed penguin on a beach of Los Angeles or Nice.”
“It’s a shame, considering.”
“I suspect you’re procrastinating.”
“How do you procrastinate when your entire life is procrastination? I should have a job. A boyfriend. A retirement account.”
“It’s best not to think so far ahead when the world is ending.”
We sat in silence.
“I knew about that hashtag because I was here for the same thing.”
“A penguin selfie?”
I nodded. “I didn’t know any better.”
“Why do people do this?”
“I don’t know. We’re lemmings.”
“That does a disservice to lemmings.”
“Some of us are more human than others.” You handed me the pebble and stood to receive more visitors. Over the next hour you stopped another half dozen people. Most were well behaved and stayed behind our imaginary line, proving you right.
* * *
Without you here, people wonder who I’m talking to.
I’m not crazy, though I’ve had moments to welcome it. It’s funny how nobody likes to be around a crazy person. We cross to the other side of the street. We lower our eyes. Anything to avoid a self-talker, a frantic arm waver.
Yesterday morning, another bikie and his girlfriend approached, all swagger and spit, and I stood there and asked them to stop. His breath stunk of cigarettes.
He mumbled something and pushed past, and I knew I couldn’t stop them, so I started screaming, shouting myself hoarse while walking behind them step for step until they retreated back to their motorcycles. I wonder what Queenie must have thought of me, that noisy shouter.
Sometimes you have to be creative, right, Michel?
* * *
On your one day off, we followed a gravel road for half a mile, then squeezed through barbed wire fencing onto a pasture. A handful of sheep watched us pass.
The hike took us along the coast, over farmland, and through the occasional windbreak of acacia trees. You stopped at a cliff overlooking the water and sat on a large, flat rock that appeared placed there by some prehistoric architect. I devoured an energy bar and you unwrapped a sandwich. We passed your bottled water back and forth.
“Did you hear that?” you asked.
I listened. All I heard were waves and wind. I turned my head to one side. Then I heard it, in the vegetation below us, the cricket-like chirping of birds.
“A nest,” you said. “Nobody knows about this one. They call the nest at Curio Bay a sacrificial nest because nobody believes it will last. Not with all the attention from tourists. But this nest—I suspect it is home to a pair that used to nest in Curio Bay. But I don’t dare tell anyone or…” Your voice drifted out. “Promise me you won’t say anything.” Your eyes were suddenly vulnerable, as if you’d only just realized you weren’t alone.
“Who would I tell? You’re the only person here I know.”
You kissed me, and I pulled back. You began to apologize, and I shut your mouth with mine. I heard a penguin calling out from under the flax, and later that night, I shared your sleeping bag as heavy metal music from the neighboring campsite passed over us like fog.
“What do you call this?” you asked me later when we were sitting in a field.
“Procrastinating,” I said.
I pushed you onto your back and made love to you without a care of who heard, without a worry about tomorrow, or about anything ahead of us or behind us—all that mattered was this moment in a cramped tent on the southern edge of the southern world.
When I opened my eyes, I heard the sirens.
I dressed in a blur and rolled out of the tent. When I crested a hill outside the campground, I saw the ambulance accelerating along the bay road, headed inland. I told myself some bloated tourist tripped over a tree stump and sprained an ankle and made such a scene you had no choice but to phone it in. In the campground parking lot, now crowded with rental cars and vans, a police car idled next to the entrance, the lights blinking.
From the overlook, I saw the people, the yellow tape. But not your yellow vest.
Two female police officers questioned a large, handcuffed man seated on a rock.
When I reached them, out of breath, the man, in his leather biker jacket, was cursing; he kept pointing at the space between the tape. “I barely fucking touched him!”
That flabby woman yelled in the cop’s ear, “I just wanted a bloody picture.”
Next to a stump, surrounded by yellow tape, the tiniest of tide pools, this one dark red.
* * *
I caught a lift to Invercargill in a Jucy van with two German parents and a teenager staring at her phone.
At the hospital, I found you in a room. He’s sleeping, I thought, then wondered where everyone was. I couldn’t make my legs move any closer. A nurse brushed past.
“Are you family?”
“Yes,” I said.
Her expression turned sour so quickly I felt the floor swell beneath me like a wave, making me dizzy.
A young man pushing a laptop on wheels said I needed to answer questions. I said I needed the loo, and I kept walking until I was standing on the main street.
The penguins. Nobody was guarding the penguins now—I could almost hear you thinking this. I began to walk, then stopped and looked up. I was in front of a costume shop.
Sometimes you have to be creative.
* * *
I sit across from the tree stump. I place stones upon it every morning, but every high tide washes them away.
Witnesses told police you yelled at the bikie when he walked past you. Then he turned and challenged you to a fight. Some said you lunged at him and tripped on a rock. Others said he caught your chin with his left fist, and you fell hard. A hundred million years ago, you would have fallen on pine needles and soft wood. But time had turned soft wood to stone, hard enough to crack a skull.
I read every witness report. Nobody mentioned a penguin. Was it Queenie?
The sun is fast approaching the southern hills, turning the dirt-brown rocks orange. I hear voices behind me. The evening bird watchers are arriving right on schedule.
* * *
With the money the land trust raised after your death, all the publicity, I began working the next day. And here I am, twelve weeks later.
People think I’m crazed. Dressed in this penguin costume. But they stop when I tell them, and with me, they get their prized selfies. Nobody wants to be shouted at by an adult-sized penguin.
It’s hot in here, but I can shed a tear now and then, and nobody will be any wiser. And when I’m tired, when people refuse to stop when told, I arch my back and lean my head toward the sky and cry out so very loudly, the world comes to a halt.
They want their selfies, Michel, and I am giving them their selfies. They are taking pictures of me now, and I flap my wings, and my belly grows.
In the early mornings, when the parking lot is empty, the sky clinging to darkness, I have this beach to myself. Bundled under two jackets and a hat, I sit on our rock and take out that pebble and press it between my fingers. My worry stone. My Jurassic salve. If I am lucky, I will see Queenie after a long night at sea; a large, white belly glowing like the moon like a ghost.
Michel, I’m telling you everything because it helps me to talk.
Or should I call you Michelle?
I talk to keep myself sane. I talk to remind myself that we must be strong. You and I, out here among the fossils, as we delay extinction for another day.
John Yunker is author of the novels The Tourist Trail and Where Oceans Hide Their Dead. His short stories have been published by literary journals such as Phoebe, Qu, and Flyway. He is co-founder of Ashland Creek Press and editor of the anthologies Writing for Animals and Among Animals: The Lives of Animals and Humans in Contemporary Short Fiction. Learn more at www.johnyunker.com.