We sat together at the stern of a ship ferrying us into the Magellan Strait. Clouds swept across the sky by the broom of God. We were going to see the penguins. I was here to write an article about Magellan for an explorers blog. Magellan, also known as the Paranoid Portuguese, feared that the indigenous people who lived in this rugged landscape would overrun his crew. He preferred the docile, God fearing indigenes. But these mysterious people had no religion or concept of God. According to a regional museum pamphlet, they mostly foraged for food because they considered fish untouchable, vile creatures. They were godless and all alone in this strangely quiet, windy place, at the end of the world. Until the other hemisphere arrived.
I had been in India just weeks before. In my parka I carried a Swiss canteen filled with whiskey. The whiskey warmed our stomachs. We sipped back and forth, and you lectured to the wind on quantum mechanics. I told you about my new religious beliefs, which I never fully understood. I was losing the urge to tell people about India. We watched the birds instead. You identified a Wandering Albatross gliding in beautiful figure-eight patterns across the stern of the ship, swooping down and dipping the tips of its long wings into the water.
The penguins lived on a tiny, barren, bird-shitty island, which we circumnavigated in an hour. After the albatross, the penguins seemed short and stubby. You disagreed. The penguins weren’t afraid of humans and walked right up to us and pecked at our boots, which unnerved me. I generally preferred animals with a primal fear of humans. The penguins sized us up in our yellow parkas as you clucked and kissed at them. I tried to pet one, and it scuttled away all pissed off. You loved the penguins so much we almost missed the ferry back to town.
On the way back, I said if I were a bird I would be an albatross. The albatross is a masterful flyer—a great artist.
You said you identified with the penguins, but albatrosses were great too.
His whole life is a long journey, I said. He will circumnavigate the world ten times, riding the trade winds, soaring over the open ocean.
You said that sounded lonely.
I agreed it would be pretty lonely. But if I flew for a living, I would be an albatross.
You said you would be a penguin. Penguins mate for life.
That night I dreamt about mating with you for the rest of my life on a shitty little island. Next morning, I called home and covered my mouth as I whispered into the receiver that I was never coming back.