“Did you hear that?”
The sound of the train whistle was now slowly fading away.
“Yes,” she said.
“They’re coming more often now.” Randle was standing at the window, staring out into the cold, rainy night.
“It won’t be long before it stops here.”
He turned around to face her. “Is that all you can say?!” She put down her knitting needles and gazed up at him wearily.
“I don’t know how you can sit there so calmly when any day now that train is going to stop and those… those things are going to come here and take our boy away.” He seemed to be on the verge of tears and quickly turned away from her.
Martha was very familiar with this outburst; it happened almost every time he heard that damn train whistle.
He went back to the window. She went back to her knitting.
Of course she knew all about the prophecy, who didn’t in their small town? That a boy would be born with a birthmark in the shape of an Emperor penguin and that one day a trainload of penguins would come to take him away to become their leader.
Martha had been so happy when Chester was born. She and Randle had been waiting a long time to have a child and the Lord finally blessed them with a son. The delivery hadn’t been easy, but everything turned out well. He was healthy, that was the important thing.
It wasn’t until later on that day she started to become a little worried. After the delivery, Chester was immediately wrapped in the small blue blanket she had recently knitted. Only Martha had seen the black mark on his tiny upper back and she wanted to keep it that way.
A practical woman, Martha never completely believed the penguin story. Although the tale was part of the town’s folklore and had even been written into the charter, there were rumors it stemmed from one of the founder’s drunken stupors.
However, she knew Randle believed it. Because of an incident at a zoo when he was a child that he refused to talk about, he was terrified of penguins and the prophesy only heightened his fear.
Every time a boy was born he would make comments, sometimes cruel comments, about whether or not he would have the mark. So Martha thought it was in everyone’s best interest if she hid Chester’s mark. And, for a little while, she did.
On a balmy summer night when Chester was two, Martha was bathing him in the old wooden tub in the backyard. When she was toweling him off he saw one of their chickens and squirmed away from her. She laughed as he chased the bird, finally giving up when it had gotten too far away. As he wobbled back towards her, Randle entered the yard. He smiled when he saw them. As he made his way over, he glanced down at Chester and suddenly his smile disappeared.
Martha, quickly realizing her mistake, rushed to Chester and wrapped him up in the towel. She peered up at Randle and the expression on his face scared her. He looked angry and frightened at the same time. Without a word he went into the house.
Later that night, with Chester sleeping, they argued. It was the first time Martha had actually been a little frightened of Randle. He never hit her, not even close, but there was just something about his demeanor that really made her nervous.
“How could you keep something like this from me?” he asked again.
“I don’t know,” she replied softly. “It’s just that I didn’t want you to worry and everyone to know and-“
He grunted and walked back to the window.
“Besides,” she said. “It doesn’t even look that much like a penguin. Agnes thought it looked more like an otter-” She caught herself a little too late.
He turned around. “Agnes? You showed Agnes? How could you tell her and not me?”
Martha didn’t know what to say.
“Martha, I don’t know how- Wait a second. She thought it looked like an otter?” He stopped pacing. “Did she take a good look at it?”
A look of relief came over him. “Then maybe it’s not that cursed mark after all. Perhaps we should bring some more people in on this. Did you tell Agnes not to tell anyone?”
“Good. Tomorrow we’ll bring some people over, one by one, and ask them what they think the mark is. And we’ll make them promise not to tell anyone.”
Martha nodded, suddenly feeling very relieved.
The next morning, exactly at daybreak, Randle left the house. He went over to his sister’s and delicately explained the situation. She promised not to tell anyone and to come over as soon as she could.
Meanwhile, after leaving Chester with Agnes, Martha went over to her brother’s farm and told him and his wife Sarah everything.
As she made her way back up the road, she noticed several people quickly moving in the same direction. When she came over the hill she could see a line of people extending from her house. My God, she thought, Randle must have told everyone in town. Silently, the crowd watched her as she went inside.
Randle was there holding Chester.
“Randle, what’s going on?”
“I’m sorry, Martha. I should have known my sister couldn’t keep a secret. It looks as if everyone in town is out there. Except for maybe fat Frederick.”
Martha glanced out the window. Two men pushing a wheelbarrow with a very large man inside of it were making their way to the back of the line.
“No, he’s here too. I guess there’s no point thinking it’s a secret anymore. We might as well let them in.”
Over the course of the afternoon and well into dark, every townsperson was let into the small cottage to look at Chester’s mark. Naturally the older folks without so much as a glance, declared it the mark and warned Randle and Martha that any day now they’d be getting a knock on their door from some foul-mouthed penguins.
“And why would they be foul-mouthed?” a confused-looking Martha asked a particularly craggy old man.
The man frowned and stared at her with his one good eye. “You don’t know too much about penguins, do you lassie?”
Several people shared Agnes’ belief that the mark looked more like an otter. Many others thought it looked like Rhode Island. And still others believed it resembled a rutabaga. One man insisted it was the exact size and shape of a keychain of the Eiffel Tower he had once seen in a store window.
By the end of the day a weary Martha and Randle didn’t know what to think. At ten o’clock there was a knock on their door.
“I thought we had seen everyone,” Randle said as he opened the door. Standing there was Jonas, the man widely considered to be the wisest in town.
“Randle, how are you? I just got back into town and heard the news.”
“Please come in, Jonas.”
As Jonas entered, Martha came out of the bedroom.
“Jonas, how nice to see you.”
“Jonas perhaps you can help us.” Randle said. “We’ve had nothing helpful from anyone else today.”
“Well, I’ll see what I can do. Is the boy sleeping?”
“Yes, but I can wake him.” Martha said.
“No, please don’t. I’m sure he’s had a hard day. Perhaps I could just peek in on him.”
Martha and Randle led Jonas into their bedroom. In a small wooden crib at the end of their bed, Chester was sleeping on his stomach. Martha slowly lifted his blanket to reveal his bare back. Jonas stared intently at the mark for a few moments as Martha and Randle stared intently at him. Jonas smiled and nodded to Martha who replaced the blanket. They all stepped back outside.
“Well, Jonas?” asked Randle anxiously. “What do you think?”
Jonas looked at them. “From my acute deductions I believe that mark is either an Emperor Penguin or an Eiffel Tower keychain. No, wait, it’s the penguin, I’m sure of it. I’m terribly sorry. Good night.” He hurriedly went to the door and left.
Martha began to cry. Randle looked devastated.
The train whistle blew again.
“Another one. They’re coming more frequently now.” Slowly Randle got out of his chair and ambled over to the window. “It won’t be long before-“
“Enough, Randle!” Martha shouted.
Randle turned around. The moonlight fell across his gray hair and wrinkled face.
Martha, equally gray if not as wrinkled, stared up at him.
“You’ve been talking about that train and those damn penguins for forty years now! Chester is gone. He has a wife and eight children. Why can’t you accept that?”
Randle stared out the window and then back at Martha. “But what about the prophecy? What about Jonas? He said he was sure it was the mark.”
Martha tossed her knitting needles onto the small wooden table next to her. “Jonas was an old fool! He was run out of town twenty years ago for telling all those schoolchildren they could fly. Don’t you remember? Thank God the schoolhouse is only one story high.”
Randle frowned and went back to staring out the window. Suddenly in the distance something appeared. He watched the figure come over the little hill and walk towards the house. As it came closer Randle noticed how small the creature was. In the foggy moonlight he could also see it had an unusual black and white coloring. It also seemed to be walking a little funny, almost waddling. Randle stepped closer to the window until his head touched the glass.
Whether man or beast, he couldn’t tell. He squinted to try to get a better look. All of a sudden he heard a faint noise, kind of a high-pitched muttering. The sound became louder as the figure approached the house.
Randle rubbed his eyes and peeked back outside. The figure was gone. Looking relieved, he started walking back to his chair. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. He froze.
“Would you get that?” Martha asked.
Randle didn’t move. The knock came again.
“Randle? Will you please get the door?”
He turned and stared at the door. He took a step towards it. All of a sudden he could hear what sounded like shrill cursing coming from the other side.
“Randle! Open the do-“
“No! They’re here! They’re finally here! Don’t you hear them?!”
Martha sighed and slowly got up and walked over to the door.
“No, Martha! Don’t do it! Can’t you hear them?”
Ignoring him, Martha opened the door. Standing there was a short old man wearing a tuxedo.
“Hello, Uncle Paul. How are you?”
The man peered up at her. “It’s about time you opened your damn door! I’m freezin’ myself!”
“Randle, you remember my Uncle Paul. I told you he’d be stopping by tonight. Don’t you remember?”
Randle, still looking a little shaken, glanced at Paul and then back at Martha.
“Come sit, Uncle, and tell me how you’ve been.”
While Martha and Paul sat down, Randle went back to the window. A loud train whistle blew. Randle’s eyes widened.
“That’s wonderful, Uncle. Look, Randle, look at the whistle he’s brought.”
Randle turned to see Paul holding a long, wooden whistle.
“Doesn’t that make a great sound, Randle?” Martha asked.
“Yes,” Randle said turning back to the window. “That train will sure to be stopping here any day now.”
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED