As a servant of this parish for decades, I had normally found nourishment from the climax of Father John’s sermon by closing my eyes and savoring his fervent spirit. But on this morning, his rhetoric gave such breath, such charge, that despite sitting in the rear of our antiquated church, the compulsion to commune with another overwhelmed me. I searched the congregation, except all of my brothers and sisters were engaged in supplementing Father’s sustenance through praying their rosaries or mouthing highlighted texts, so I turned to my neighbor, hoping to experience an enlightened exchange, when my sight caromed off her and connected to beyond pew’s end. A large penguin stood against the wall.
It was probably an individual in a costume. After all, penguins don't grow to the size of Adam unless very special conditions exist, and besides, there was a crude seam where the head attached. When the bird arrived or if it’d been participating with the other parishioners in the rear standing area I couldn’t determine, but it faced the service with its giant flippers on its hips like it wanted to join our celebration but couldn’t find a spot wide enough to accommodate its ample seat. Curious as to who else noticed, I counted nine others who sighted this enormous aquatic creature, and initially they observed on the sly, but one by one they lost interest and re-affixed their attentions to their rosaries or texts. Their indifference concerned me, but before I could compile a list of names, the bird, possibly sighting a spot I couldn’t, began walking down the aisle. More of a waddle actually, cute almost, as if carrying heavy dumbbells with legs too stumpy to maintain a balanced gait. It paused outside a pew maybe six rows up—one that appeared to have a modest opening towards its center.
A young man in his early twenties knelt at the pew’s entrance, rocking with conviction to Father’s cadence. The penguin took a half step forward and maybe recognizing the young man’s devotion, tapped his shoulder in such a considerate manner it appeared a caress. After taking a moment to steady himself, the young man looked to the bird and without thought to the situation or his safety placed his palm on its fuzzy, white belly and gave a slow rub. The animal, probably as confused as I was by the gesture’s meaning, stepped behind the man in a quiet yet awkward attempt to squeak by, but the young man quickly raised his hand and gave a firm finger wag. Stepping back, the bird placed its left flipper across its chest and bowed in an apparent effort to apologize for this faux pas. For me, this was a notable thing, a striking confirmation the creature was of solid moral stock.
The bird then returned to waddling down the aisle, nearer the wall than pews though, allowing the stained-glass shafts of light from the Stations of the Cross to pass over its tuxedoed body. From “Jesus is Stripped of His Garments” to “Jesus is Nailed to the Cross,” it studied packed pew after packed pew, until it passed the church’s mid-point, where its lopsided movements dwindled and its webbed feet merely slid along the floor as if it quit its resolve. This struck me as melodramatic, but I reserved judgment. The bird then stopped and peeked over its chubby shoulder, obviously unsure about its decision to explore the front, and I was considering signaling encouragement, believing it needed support, when it rose onto the tips of its toes. Triangulating its line-of-sight, I glimpsed a slight opening near the middle of the first pew.
At the pew’s entrance, a dark-haired boy holding one side of a hymnal sat next to a curly-haired woman, presumably his mother, who held the hymnal’s other side. The bird waddled towards them and, without pause, attempted to barge past the boy. Only the reflexive stiff-arm of the mother stopped the enlivened animal. The bulbous bird had advanced far enough, however, that its massive rear smothered the boy, and the thing seemed unawares initially, but as the mother pushed against its soft belly, the animal evidently recognized its intrusiveness and returned to the aisle. The mother, possibly understanding the desperation of this indigent creature, then peered down the congested row and back to the bird. She shrugged with an empathy I could feel, but also with a firmness declaring this was the conversation’s end. The animal, despite its established decorum, stared at her and my stomach tightened, now unsure of its true capabilities. It then suddenly shifted its focus to the boy and for a moment, I don’t believe any vessel of God could have divined the creature’s will. Thankfully, as Father signaled the sermon’s end by re-shuffling his note cards, the bird broke its focus and positioned itself back against the wall. It folded its flippers over its round belly and commenced to observe Father as he began the preparation of the Body of Christ.
What struck me as that sturdy creature stood there was how respectful it was being despite its obvious frustrations, how it was able to moderate its desires so efficiently. After about two minutes, near the beginning of the Consecration, it then made the sign of the cross with its bulky flipper and left through the choir room exit, and I again scanned the congregation, keen on discerning who else had witnessed this flightless bird. The entire congregation, however, was either whispering prayers into folded hands or making the sign of the cross recurrently. And I contemplated interrupting my neighbor in light of this rare spectacle, but no longer sensed the need to engage in an exchange. I instead closed my eyes and allowed myself—my whole body and my whole mind—to re-wet my palate on Father’s spirit and find the nourishment I had savored since I was a boy.
AMatthew Krajniak is a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston and is a professor atthe University of Memphis. He is currently at work on a novel.