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Tradition
by Peter McMillan

Penguins behind the glass.

Are they all alive? Some aren't even moving.

I think they’re all alive. Some may be sleeping. I hear they can sleep standing up.

What do they do all day, when they aren’t sleeping, I mean?

Just wobble around, jump in the water—they’re good swimmers—squawk and flap and swallow fish whole. Not a bad life. Everything they need is here.

What do you think they think about?

Probably nothing much—food, play, maybe sex, if it’s mating season.

Do they mind being watched?

No, they’re simple. They don’t have our sense of individual space and privacy.

I’d get so bored. Don't they get bored?

Wouldn’t think so. They aren’t as complex as we are. Their needs are very basic. If they were like us, this might seem like a prison, but they’re not capable of feeling and thinking the kinds of things you worry about.

Have they ever been anywhere else? Is this the only world they know?

Yeah. This is it I imagine.

What's it like . . . to look out . . . every day . . .

**************

on a sea of faces, wide-eyed and beakless, rounded flippers waving about, shrill, high-pitched shrieking and layers of unintelligible chatter punctuated with loud, boisterous squawking?

We have a famous ancestor who told a story about how we—not all penguins, just those of us who are now kept by humans—ended up in zoos, museums, and aquariums. None of us believed the story was completely true. There were many things that were beyond our imagination. It did, however, give us something in common. And our generation could only dream . . . and occasionally hope, because we only knew this place.

My close friends Zwakh-ah-ah-akh, Xipshch-Xipshch, Yeedoor-Ahh shared my hope of one day finding freedom, something that we'd never understood until Eck escaped. She was caught within minutes but not before she got a good look on the other side. Most of the flock was too terrified to ask what she saw, but we were curious. But Eck behaved strangely. She would stand for days at the glass wall, and she never spoke, even to us. And she never ate or slept either. One morning we woke up and she was gone.

After that we behaved differently during daylight hours. Well, not so differently that the humans would recognize any difference. We watched them carefully but not so they noticed. Humans get nervous and agitated when you stare at them for too long, like Eck used to do. So from reflections and sidelong looks we scanned the human herd for signs of understanding.

We wondered what they were thinking.