The Man was loading boxes when he felt the first rush of wind send a soft slither of snow across ice. He cursed, trying to get one more box filled and closed. But before he could finish, the low moan began — then rose to an unnerving howl. As the season progressed, the sound had grown more insistent. Now it grated constantly on everyone’s nerves.
Behind the lab tent where they did most of their tests and kept most of the samples, and across from the home tent where they slept and ate, the kennel looked like nothing more than a jumble of wires and barrels. At one end, a sturdy box fitted with metal sheeting served as a windbreak for the dogs and kept their harnesses and food dry and safe. Sleds and gear jumbled around the box, secured by wires to prevent them from blowing or getting lost in the deep snow. Wires also held the row of metal barrel doghouses in place and tethered the dogs.
The Man advanced down the line of dogs, most in their barrels away from the wind. Horizontal, the barrels looked like little caves; snow mounded around the dark open end revealing the curious faces of his dogs. The barrels created small dens, filled with a mixture of straw, scraps of blankets and shed fur. He calmed two of the younger dogs that were upset by the noise and tempted to join in the howling coming from the far end of the kennel.
The fierce blowing snow made him stagger so he used the rope that connected the barrels for support and as a guide. At the end stood Max, 120 pounds of what had once been the star of his team; bred out of Alaska, hardened by the trail and sled. Max stood rigid, facing into the wind, howling in fear and madness. He had become wild, attacking the other dogs and occasionally one of the men. The Man spoke to him and gingerly approached. The pitch didn’t change, but when Max’s wide, white and blue eyes turned to The Man, the wildness pierced his heart. When he tried getting closer, the howl changed to snarl, a ragged growl of warning. The Man stopped, then took a step back and the howling resumed.
Inside the lab tent, the noise was less, but still discernable. Two faces looked up at him questioningly, but he just shrugged and joined in the packing. P-Base had been set up early last spring, before the snow had melted. The dogs had been invaluable in moving the men and equipment between the base and the study area. The scientists had been very particular about disturbing the penguins as little as possible because the area was unique for some reason they had not yet determined. Several previous expeditions had studied the area and the birds without success. P-Base was the first attempt to study the penguins, the bay, and the climate over several seasons. But they couldn’t stay the winter, as the logistics were enormous and the scientists were concerned that overwintering would somehow disrupt whatever it was that made Penguin Bay so special. It was the only place in Antarctica, and therefore the world, where so many different species of penguins lived together.
Packing continued, and several outbound flights were loaded and carried away the remains of the camp — except for the wooden tent floors and the kennel, which would be left for use next year. Finally, the last two choppers came for the last two loads. The head scientist helped The Man unload the dog crates from the chopper.
“Can you get him into it?” he asked. The Man’s only reply was a hard stare.
The Scientist looked away, but said, “You know if he won’t come he’ll have to be put down. The Antarctic knows no land predator, and he would decimate the entire ecosystem before we return.”
The Man pulled back his coat revealing the camp’s only weapon, a thirty-eight caliber pistol.
The Scientist nodded, “You want me to come?”
The Man shook his head and drug the last crate to the remains of the kennel, where only Max waited, pale eyes staring crazily at the sun low on the horizon.
As The Man approached, Max’s focus shifted back to him, and the low growl began again deep in his chest. The Man spoke to him, edging closer along the guide rope. Max backed to the far end of the tether, growling ominously. Cautiously, The Man unclipped the tether then, still speaking in his low voice, began to draw Max toward the crate. A sudden gust of wind blasted the loose snow into violent swirling shapes around Max and The Man, obscuring the helicopters sixty yards away. Max jerked back, then at The Man’s violent tug, leapt straight ahead, catching The Man off balance. For one second he held the tether, slowly slipping across the snow and feeling his shoulder twist in the dog’s powerful pull. Using his left hand he reached under his jacket and found the pistol. With his last bit of strength, he pulled himself to a half-sitting position, aimed through the obscuring snow, and fired.
At the chopper, The Scientist and pilot waited, worried. They heard the faint report of the pistol, then silence. Finally, out of the curtain of white The Man appeared, dragging the empty crate. They exchanged a look and he climbed aboard, saying nothing.
Bob followed Fred up to the slight rise covered in snow. He was smaller than his larger friend, and found walking uphill more difficult. Nonetheless, he hurried to be the first to the top, but only caused his friend to hurry more. With a shrill whistle, Fred heaved himself over the hill and began the long slide to the open water of the bay a hundred feet below. Clicking furiously, Bob followed, his smaller body proving more agile on the icy groove left by hundreds of sliding penguin bodies. They both hit the water at the same time, Fred skipping once with a huge splash, and Bob smoothly skimming the surface, then using his momentum to dive down into the green depths.
More than ungainly on land, Fred and Bob were in their element below the surface. The sea is where penguins fly. Zooming and soaring, the two friends plunged and cavorted among the hundreds of other penguins (and a few seals) in the near-frozen bay. Their wings, useless for air flight, became graceful foils and paddles under water. Imagine a swarm of swallows riding an uplift of air at dusk, and that is the flight of the penguins beneath the sea.
Swimming around the bay, they passed friends from their own colony and the other colonies. The big Puff penguins dwarfed even Fred. Their mild disposition seemed exaggerated in proportion to their size. The biggest, Puffer, was so mellow as to be worrisome, thought Bob. Puff was more to his liking, and he and Fred often played with the smallest Puff, Puffee. The Opus penguins were mid-sized, but clumsy, and frankly, not too bright. The Pings were Bob-sized, maniacally playful and worry-free. Too worry-free, if you asked Bob. In fact, sometimes he worried a little on their behalf, because he knew they wouldn’t do it.
Bob saw Fred begin his swooping run toward the surface, and followed. First Fred, then Bob, popped up out of the water, landing with their stomachs on the ice in a graceful slide. They wandered up to their colony, cooing greetings, and stepping carefully around penguins cuddling half-grown youngsters.
Suddenly, Bob was struck across the back. “Tag,” shrieked one of the Pings gleefully as he waddled away. Momentarily stunned, Bob turned to Fred only to see his friend scampering away laughing. He followed in hot pursuit, failing on his short legs to gain on his quarry fleeing uphill. At the top of the hill, Bob saw the small group of Pings trying vainly to hide behind several Puffs — including Puffer — all naturally oblivious to the game in progress. He struggled up the steep hill, precisely as the entire group turned away from him to look down the other side. He dashed the last few feet to see for himself, hearing a noise not unlike the low moan the summer whales echoed through the bay.
He reached the top of the hill just as everybody jumped in different directions, shrilly hooting a warning cry. Bob peered over the other side at a huge beast, opened mouth full of teeth and noise, come straight at him. He stood frozen, then tried to turn as the beast reached him. They crashed together at the crest of the hill, and Bob was barely able to fall backwards and roll over, as the beast fell towards him.
Quickly, the little penguin paddled the snow with his arms to start the slide down to the water. He heard the thump of the beast right behind him and the felt warm breath on his back. A foot came down on his back, stopping his slide. He looked over his shoulder, and saw teeth approaching his face, but his greatest impression was of wide white and blue eyes, full of madness.
The teeth brushed him, then abruptly pulled up as the beast flew over his head and down the hill. Puffer rolled up against Bob with a dazed look in his eyes. Bob jumped to his feet in time to see the beast slide out of control to the bottom of the hill past all the penguins; stopping just short of the water, it rose and shook violently, then resumed its mad dash around the bay. All the penguins watched in awe and fear of this incredible monster.
Fred stroked Bob’s neck with his beak. “You okay buddy?”
Bob looked down at himself in surprise and said, “Sure,” he looked at Puffer questioningly, “what happened?”
Puffer looked back with the same dazed look he had before. “I smell funny,” he said, “I smell like strangers.”
Several of the Pings sniffed him and nodded agreement. Puffer preened a minute, then flopped on his belly and slid down the hill into the sea.
Bob turned to Fred, “You want to explain? Somehow I get the feeling the Puffer is a little clueless about what just happened.”
Fred laughed, “You mean like always,” he chuckled, “Well, the Howler came over the ridge and knocked you down the hill.”
“I dove down the hill,” Bob protested.
“Right,” Fred grinned, “But he caught you halfway down. He stopped and all we could see was a big Howler butt sticking up in the air.”
“Howler. You mean that beast was the Howler?” Bob asked.
“Yeah,” Fred mused out loud, “It was. Didn’t you hear him?” They both looked across the bay where the Howler had run. The faint howling seemed to be receding. Bob nodded.
“I just couldn’t let the Howler eat my best buddy, so I looked around for something to push at him.” They both looked around at the smooth snow clear in all directions.
Bob looked at his friend questioningly.
Fred continued, “Well, I needed something big, and handy.” He grinned, “Puffer’s big…”
“And handy,” Bob finished, laughing.
“Well,” Fred went on, “It worked. He slid down the hill like a walrus, and caught the Howler right in the smelly end, and sent him flying.”
They both laughed, “No wonder he smelled bad,” laughed Bob, and gave his friend a big hug.
That night, the elders called a council. Normally Old Nob, the head of Bob and Fred’s colony, would sing songs telling the tales of the penguin colonies, calming and bringing the colony together. There they addressed any issues that arose among them. This night, Bob, Fred and Puffer were called to tell the story of their encounter with the Howler. Everyone now knew that the weird howling sound they had heard off and on all summer came from the beast. And everyone was afraid for the penguin colonies. They could escape sharks and killer whales by getting out of the water, but where was the safety on land now? How could they raise their half-grown penguins under the threat of the Howler?
Fred described the incident, and did most of the talking. He explained how Puffer had bravely thrown himself down the hill to save Bob, and lauded his friend for his bravery in the face of certain death. The elders listened quietly, low clicks and whistles accenting the exciting parts. Bob thought that several who knew Fred well looked a little skeptical that Puffer would think so quickly in a crisis, but for the most part penguins are too polite to question another penguin and too trusting to believe that others would fib.
After their examination, Puffer wandered home, but Bob and Fred were asked to stay behind. They waited outside the circle, unable to hear the deliberations of the Council. Finally, the circle parted near them and they were called forward. Old Nob, the head of Bob and Fred’s colony, waved them to the center of the Council Circle. She spoke to them, but loud enough that all the Council could hear.
“You two have been noticed by the Council,” Bob thought he saw a hint of a smile, “you have shown your energy, your spirit, your creativity.” Bob winced inwardly thinking of the tricks they had played on some of the elders in the circle, but Nob went on, “You have shown traits rare among the penguins, including today, bravery.” Nob beamed at them and the Council broke into whistles of applause. Bob and Fred squirmed nervously under the attention.
Nob waved for quiet, and spoke to the Council, “The penguins have a challenge to face and we need penguins who are brave, energetic, creative and full of the penguin spirit to be our champions.” Bob and Fred exchanged a glance, then looked back at Nob. “A land shark prowls our colony at will, and we have no defense. This killer whale of the surface can come among us day or night and wreak whatever havoc he desires, and we have no escape.” There were clicks and low whistles from the Council.
Nob turned to the two young penguins in the center of the circle, “Our colonies need you to take up this quest: find the Howler, and find a way to keep him from coming back.” Nob looked grave, “This is an unparalleled threat to the existence of the Colonies; you are empowered to use the Rule of Claw.”
Inside the silent circle, Bob and Fred shuddered in unison. The Rule of Claw allowed a penguin to take any means to protect himself, including taking a life. That was something so foreign to the penguin culture that it was taboo to even talk about it. They looked up at Nob; she expected an answer.
Bob took a deep breath and looked over at his friend. Fred looked shocked, and proud, and terrified, all emotions Bob could relate to. Fred winked, and Bob relaxed. They faced Nob and bowed their acceptance, then turned and bowed to the Council circled around them. They had accepted the quest to find, and maybe destroy, the Howler. It was a long silent walk home.
The next morning, Fred met Bob at the water’s edge, then they swam and caught their breakfast. Back on shore, Bob asked, “So, any ideas how we find the Howler? I don’t hear him now.” He cocked his head to listen.
Fred cocked his head, too, then shook it. “I do have one idea,” he looked down at his feet and was silent.
Bob waited, then became impatient, “Okay already, what’s your idea?”
Fred grinned his mischievous grin, and pointed with his beak to the ground.
Bob looked and saw Fred’s feet; nothing illuminating there. All around Fred’s feet were the tracks of the penguins, the slide marks from penguins slipping down the hill into the water, and, “Oh,” Bob said, “Howler tracks.” There just in front of Fred’s feet were the unmistakable tracks left yesterday by the Howler in his mad dash away from the colony. Bob followed the tracks with his eyes and they seemed to follow the shoreline around the bay.
“Okay, maybe we can find him,” he said, “But then what?”
“Hey,” Fred looked accusing, “Do I have to do all the work around here? Come on, first we’ll find him, then we’ll figure out what to do with him.”
Fred took the lead and Bob followed, thinking it was more likely that the Howler would figure out what to do with them. He remembered the wildness in the wide white and blue eyes. He thought of the Rule of Claw, and shuddered.
On the hill behind them, Nob stood watching with several of the elders. They watched until the two were out of sight, then gradually dispersed. At dusk, Pip came to get her grandmother, Nob, where she still stood at the top of the rise, her silhouette etched against the brilliant sunset. Nob took one last look across the empty snow, “Be safe,” she whispered.
Penguins are not naturally task-oriented or particularly focused, so their long journey around the bay was interrupted by several swims and feedings, and some occasional wandering when distracted by feathers or a particularly brilliant stone. It was, in fact, Bob who most often made Fred focus on their solemn quest.
Bob worried that they would find the Howler; then he worried that they wouldn’t, but would return to the colony to find it decimated by the vicious beast. But central in his thoughts was the fact that he (well, he and Fred) were on a quest, something only rumored in the penguin culture. The elders sometimes told old stories about penguins who went on quests, but Bob couldn’t remember them. There seemed to be much about hardship and danger and incredible feats of daring, and … death. But also, honor and romance (why did Pip’s face appear to him?) and reward.
It all confused him and scared him, but when he talked to Fred about it, Fred just shrugged. Bob couldn’t know that Fred had the same worries and fears, but didn’t know how to express them to his friend without making himself more afraid.
So, they walked and followed the tracks all day. The farther around the bay they went, the less open water there was, so treks to the water took more time and took them farther from the tracks. Just before sunset, they returned to the tracks from their last swim.
“Tomorrow, we may not be able to swim,” Fred pointed out, “There isn’t much open water left over here. How long do you think we can follow them?” He looked off into the gloom of dusk where the tracks led.
Bob replied, “I doubt we can follow the tracks tomorrow.”
Fred looked at him, confused, then brightened up, “You mean we can stop?”
“No,” Bob laughed at his friend, then pointed back over his shoulder, “Tomorrow there won’t be any tracks.”
Fred looked, and sure enough, here came the wind, blowing snow across the ice; snow that would cover the tracks in minutes. “Well,” he said, “might as well sleep here as anywhere,” and plopped down in a soft spot, pushing out a small hollow to be out of the wind.
Bob took one last look around, feeling exposed, then curled up next to his friend.
He sensed a presence before he opened his eyes. Bob could smell the fetid breath and hear the soft howling. He tried to keep his eyes closed in hopes that the Howler would go away, but he couldn’t. He opened them just a peek — to see those wild, wide blue and white eyes piercing his and a great mouthful of teeth reaching for him.
He flailed to get away, but couldn’t move. Suddenly he was shaken roughly, “Hey, hey!” Fred spoke sharply, “It’s okay. It was a dream. It was a dream.”
Bob looked up into his friend’s face and realized they were both covered in fresh snow. It had frozen cocoon-like around them, but his flailing about had broken the crust. Moonlight appeared through the breaks in the crust. They sat up. “Don’t ever do that again,” Fred lectured. “You scared the sardines out of me. I thought I was a goner.”
“Sorry,” Bob apologized, “But I saw the teeth and the wild eyes and I could hear the howling.”
Fred grinned back at his friend and they shared a hug. But in the silence, they could hear the deep howl. “The Howler,” Fred looked about fearfully.
Bob stood, shaking snow off himself and onto his friend. Fred shook and they both turned in the direction of the noise.
“It’s up there,” said Bob indicating the top of the nearby hill that formed the eastern end of the bay. Fred nodded, and they started up the long slope.
It was daylight before they reached the top, but luckily (thought Bob), the howling had stopped at
sunrise. From the summit, they could see all of Penguin Bay, but the distance was too great, or their eyesight too bad, to see the colonies. Bob thought it would have been hard to see the colony now, knowing that they had to face the Howler. But, when he looked to where the colony would be, he kept seeing Pip’s face. He shook his head, and they went over the hill-top.
In front of them was a jumble of shapes they didn’t know. Round, hollow-looking things half-covered in the blowing snow. To one side were large flat areas, like a sheet of ice, but not ice. They approached timidly, but Bob knew they’d never be able to outrun the beast. He signaled to Fred to stop.
“Maybe we should make an escape route,” he whispered, pointing down the hill.
Fred looked over the terrain, “Not steep enough, he’d still outrun us.” They looked around.
“Maybe we could hide in one of those,” Bob squeaked as he pointed to round hollow-looking things.
“Maybe he’s hiding in there now,” Fred replied. They both looked around nervously, then began to circle to the right to come up on the things from the back. They approached the nearest one, “Whew,” sniffed Fred, “smelly end.”
Bob smiled, then slowly peeked around and into the first one, almost too scared to move. “It’s a hole,” he said quietly, “just a hole.”
Fred snuck up on the second, and peeked quickly in, “Same thing,” he mouthed.
They checked each in turn, the tension building as they approached the last one. Nonetheless, it became a bit of a race to see who got there first. It was a tie and they both peeked in at the same time. “Empty!” they shouted in unison, jumping up with excitement.
They stopped, dead still.
Louder they heard again, “Whuff.” It was coming from over by the flat place. There was a scratching and scrabbling of something digging at the snow.
“Get in,” Bob pushed at his friend, “Get in the hole.”
Another “whuff” sent Fred sailing headfirst into the hole, followed quickly by Bob. “Close it up,” Bob instructed, pushing the snow and debris towards the opening.
Fred followed suit, “Stinky,” he complained.
“Shh,” Bob warned. He could just see out the hole and watched, as thirty feet away the Howler emerged from the snow beneath the flat place. Bob stayed very still as the Howler looked around, shook and began to sniff the air. He growled several times and turned to look directly at the little penguin. Bob’s heart jumped up into his throat.
The same wild eyes, white and blue and full of madness; The same opened mouth full of teeth. Bob also noticed a brownish slash across the beast’s head, just beneath his left ear. It looked nasty and swollen, and was probably a cut of some kind. “Nothing a little swim wouldn’t clean up,” thought Bob.
It was clear that the beast wanted to approach, but something stopped him. He paced back and forth in front of the place, trying several times to come closer, but stopping. A gust of wind blew up from behind the beast and he took several steps in their direction, but it shifted again into his face and he jumped back in fear. “What’s he afraid of?” thought Bob, and watched as the beast walked to one side, then out of sight behind their hole.
It was silent except for the wind and the rattle of snow blowing across the crusty surface. Bob heard footsteps approaching from behind them and signaled Fred to stay still. They held their breath as they heard the steps approach, then the wind shifted again directly into their faces. The footsteps broke into a run, as the beast yelped in surprise and fear. The yelp turned into a howl, and they heard him retreat before the wind, farther and farther away.
“What’s happening now?” Fred asked.
I think he ran away,” Bob replied, “He seems to be afraid of these holes for some reason. It certainly isn’t us.”
Fred sniffed, “It’s probably the smell; no wonder Puff had to go for a swim, we stink.”
Bob turned and patted his friend on the back, “You know, I think you’re right.” He described how the wind shifts had caused the beast to back away. That had to be the explanation.
“Maybe that’s why he’s dug a hole under the flat place,” Fred offered, “These holes are already made and seem warm and safe enough.”
Bob examined the stuff in the bottom of the hole. There was some snow and dried grass, but mixed into everything was stuff that looked like fur. The seals shed their fur in the summer leaving chunks like this lying around, and the shore birds used it for their nests.
“Maybe he’s afraid of the smell of the fur,” he offered.
Fred gave him a look, “Are you crazy, nobody’s afraid of their own fur. It has to be some other creature’s fur.”
Bob stared at his friend, “You mean there’s something else out here that’s so mean the Howler is afraid of it?” He looked out the hole and around, then pulled back in, “You mean there’s more?”
Fred shook his head, “I don’t know what I mean. But he’s sure afraid of something.” They sat in silence a while, each with their own thoughts and fears. Fred said, “I think we should stay here until the Howler returns to his hole. We don’t know when he’ll come back, and don’t want to get caught outside.”
Bob wasn’t sure, “But we can’t just sit around. We’re on a quest for whale’s sake. We may not be safe in here; what if the thing that the Howler is afraid of comes home?”
That startled Fred, “Yeah, I see your point.” He thought a minute, “Okay, the other day when the Howler almost ate you,” Bob shuddered, “we heard him before he got to us. Just then he ran off howling. So, maybe we would hear him when he comes back, and could hide before he gets here.”
Bob thought that was a good idea. He didn’t mention that it wouldn’t help them at all if the unknown beast returned first, but then maybe nothing would.
Slowly he stuck his head out the hole and looked around, then slid out onto the snow, dragging some of the grass and fur with him, and stood up. Nothing moved except for the wind and snow. He began to walk around looking at all the strange things. Fred slid out of the hole with another chunk of the grass and fur, and joined him.
“Look at this,” Fred said, “is it seaweed?” He pushed against the wire cable where it disappeared in the snow, but it didn’t budge.
Bob came over and looked. “It reminds me of that stuff Nip got stuck in, you remember, the hard kelp that the floating whales use to catch fish.” Bob thought a moment, “I wonder if we could use it to catch the beast?”
Fred looked askance, “Think we could get him to come over here and hit his head on it?” He twanged the kelp with his wing, “Pretty hard.” He began to look at the tracks to see if there were some that weren’t theirs — or the Howler’s.
Bob walked down the line of holes looking at other stuff, “Here’s some hard kelp that’s not tight,” he called to his friend, “It’s all loose.” He began to drag rope up out of the snow, bunching it around his feet. Fred came over as he pulled the end up. Bob turned, the rope still around his feet, and promptly fell over.
Fred laughed, “Well, it worked on you.” He helped untangle his friend.
Bob struggled to his feet, clicking madly, then he too began to laugh.
They both eyed the rope cautiously. Bob looked at it from several different angles, trying to
remember how Nip had gotten tangled. He was swimming, catching fish … and suddenly was wrapped in the hard kelp. Luckily he had could make it to the surface, where others had helped him to shore. The hard kelp had been bunched up around Nip, and the penguins had to bite each piece until it was cut.
Somehow they had to drop the kelp on the beast and make him tangle himself. Maybe while he was in his hole, they could push the kelp into the tunnel, then he would get tangled as he came out. Would it work?
Bob and Fred talked about it for quite a while, neither able to come up with a better strategy. Finally, they agreed to try it, and they pushed the kelp to a spot near the beast’s hole, but not too close. They were hungry and tired, so agreed to go back to their hole and rest and wait for the beast to come back. They climbed in and Bob thought to ask about the other beast, the one the Howler was afraid of, but he got distracted, and soon both penguins were asleep.
The howling got louder, and Bob awoke remembering his dream from the night before. The howling stopped then resumed as a low moan, someplace nearby. He nudged Fred awake, “He’s outside.”
Quietly Fred slid over to the opening, then quickly ducked. “He’s out there,” he whispered.
Bob shifted so he could see out the hole. The wind had stopped, and the Howler was clearly interested in their hole, but as before, was afraid to approach it. They lay still and waited.
Finally, the beast tired of the tension and moved over to his hole. He sniffed at the pile of hard kelp, but seemed disinterested. He circled three times and lay down at the opening. The penguins exchanged questioning glances. What could they do but wait?
The light changed as the sun approached the horizon. The beast stood and shook himself, stretching several times. Bob and Fred waited tensely, then relaxed as the Howler disappeared down his hole. They both sighed in relief.
“Whew,” said Fred quietly, “I thought he’d never go down.”
Bob quelled the hunger, or was it the fear, in his stomach, “Lets get this over with. I need a swim, and some food, or I’ll go crazy like the Howler.”
Fred grinned at him, and they stealthily slid out of the hole, and towards the beast’s lair.
As quietly as possible, they gathered the rope into a ball, then half-carried, half-pushed it over to the hole. Using signals, they placed it on the side above the opening, and Fred sent Bob back to their hole, since Fred was the faster of the two. When Bob was almost there, Fred pushed the tangle of rope over the edge and into the hole; then turned and ran for all he was worth! (While penguins are worth lots, particularly Fred, it should be noted that they don’t run worth a darn.)
The rope made a sliding sound as it fell into the hole, followed by loud growls from beneath the snow. Fred was still only halfway back, when the mouth of the beast’s hole erupted with rope and beast and loose snow. Bob watched hopefully from in front of their hole, as the beast jumped and snapped, then shook mightily. The rope cascaded to the beast’s feet, then the mad white and blue eyes stared right at the bulky little penguin waddling frantically across the snow.
“Hurry,” Bob yelped.
Fred looked over his shoulder at the growl he heard, and zoomed across the snow. With a growl and a leap, the Howler was after the little bird. Fred zoomed, but not fast enough; in another leap the Howler would have him!
Frantically, Bob tried to save his friend. He started forward, but caught his feet in the loose fur and grass they had drug out of the hole. Looking down he had an idea … if only he had time!
With beak and both wings he swooped up an armful of the materials and ran as fast as he could right into the face of the beast bearing down on his friend. The Howler, distracted by the new prey, paused momentarily.
Fred kept on zooming, and Bob never slowed down but went directly into the beast’s path as his friend passed him going the other way. The Howler slowed down, confused. Bob tried to get under control as he approached the beast, but between being nearly paralyzed with fright, and not being able to see very well for all the grass and fur, his momentum carried him right into the beast’s face.
The Howler reared back in surprise and then the scent registered and he nearly fell over trying to turn around, to get away from the strange beast with the frightening smell. He ran for safety, and dove into his lair to get away. Without thinking, Bob followed and dropped the materials at the top of the hole.
Quickly, he turned around to find Fred, and was nearly knocked down as Fred slid into him carrying another armful of the stuff from the holes. “Go get more,” he cried, “Maybe it will keep him from coming out.”
Bob hurried back and gathered more. Fred lapped him on the return trip, and by the next load, Bob began to anchor the loose material in the snow by walking on it and making little piles of snow around the edges. Low moans were coming from the lair. The friends stopped and took a deep breath.
“I thought the kelp worked particularly well,” Fred noted with a smile, “at least for the first few seconds.”
Bob laughed, “Buddy, I never knew you could fly. You zoomed!” He made a flying sign with his wings.
Fred came over and gave him a hug. “You saved my life. You went right into his face. You could have been killed.” They both looked serious for a moment. “But, boy! You really scared the sardines out of him!” They laughed again.
After they had sat quietly for a while, catching their breath, Fred asked, “What now? Think that’ll hold him for the winter?”
They looked at the small ring of fur and grass around the opening. Finally, Bob said, “No, that won’t do. I think we need to close him in so he can’t get out. We need to pack the opening in with snow.”
Fred thought a moment, then got up and began to scrape snow off the ground, and push it towards the hole. Bob joined him and they worked into the night until all that was left of the opening was a small hole. Periodically, one of them would gather more grass and fur from one of the holes and pack it into the snow covering the opening. They didn’t know if it would keep the beast from digging out, but it was worth a try. Finally, exhausted and hungry, they returned to their hole and slept.
The howling was muted, but Bob woke to find a steady wind and falling snow. He couldn’t see very far, but the howling seemed to be coming from the beast’s lair. He pulled back into the hole and went back to sleep.
Fred shook him awake. It was dark and close inside the hole. “What?” he said, grumpily.
“Snow, lots of snow,” said Fred, “Come on.”
His friend pushed up against the white layer covering the opening to their hole, and shivered as a wad of snow fell in on them, revealing a blue sky and sunlight above. Fred slithered up through the snow, then Bob followed.
“No tracks,” Fred noted, “No Howler, no other beast.”
Bob had forgotten the other beast. He should have been afraid, but he had forgotten. “Oh, well,” he shrugged to himself.
They walked to where the beast’s lair had been. Faintly, they heard a low moan from beneath the snow. “We should pack it down more,” Fred observed, “Then he’ll never get out.” He started walking over the snow compressing it into ice.
“But won’t he drown?” Bob asked.
Fred stopped and thought, “You know we have the power,” he looked away from his friend and kept walking.
Bob remembered the Rule of Claw. “But we don’t have to use it. We can find another way.”
Fred looked skeptical and kept walking. “How about just a little air hole?” suggested Bob.
Fred stopped and Bob came over and began digging down through the snow with his beak. After about a foot, his beak broke through and the moans from inside became more audible. The two friends walked around and around the opening packing the snow into hard, crusty layers. More snow was brought over and worked into the layers. Occasionally they added more fur or grass, until the area was mounded several feet higher than the surrounding areas.
They rested and looked at their handiwork. Bob kept looking towards home, and finally Fred said, “Okay. Lets go.”
They jumped to their feet and first Fred then Bob ran to the edge of the hill, flopped on their bellies, and paddled their way down the hill. Fred made it to the open water first, but Bob was not far behind. They fed and played and swam their way back to the part of the bay nearest the colony.
When he popped out of the water and slid to a stop, Bob stood up and found himself face to face with Pip. She seemed as stunned as he was. Neither spoke, they just stared at each other. Fred popped out of the water and ruined the moment by sliding into his buddy from behind, creating a pile of penguins. It took a while to untangle, and when they did, they discovered they were surrounded by many penguins, all looking at them in awe.
The crowd parted to let Nob approach them. Bob thought she looked older, somehow frail. “Did you find the Howler?” she asked.
They both nodded in unison, “We did.” Bob added redundantly.
“Did you defeat him?”
Again, they both nodded, then grinned. Nob grinned back and suddenly everyone was asking questions and they were telling their story and it seemed to go on forever. Bob stopped to catch his breath, and realized that he had been leaning against someone, or someone was leaning against him. He glanced down at Pip, and smiled.
That night the Telling took place at the Council, and all the colonies were there. Even though most had heard the story several times, all sat spellbound as first Fred, then Bob told of the quest. Throughout, Pip sat behind Bob, making it hard for him to concentrate, but he stayed focused and told the story with many fewer diversions than Fred’s version. Finally, Nob came to the center of the Circle. “You have done well,” she nodded, and the crowd whistled their agreement. “You are the bravest penguins ever known, for no other has ever faced a beast, no other has faced such danger and survived. We ask that you join our Council, and become elders.” The whistles were deafening and everyone crowded around to congratulate them, but the greatest thrill for Bob was when Pip nuzzled the back of his neck and cooed.
The next day, Nob asked Bob and Fred to take her to the Howler’s lair. Others joined the expedition, but many lost interest on the way. Only about a dozen made it to the top of the hill. Bob and Fred secretly worried that the beast would have dug his way out, but the hole was still secure. Low moans came from inside. Nob sat near the opening and crooned a lullaby, and the moaning stopped. The penguins explored the strange stuff and Fred recreated their exploits, until everyone got bored and hungry, and they started down the hill.
Pip stopped Bob as he was about to join them, and gestured to her grandmother who still sat be the opening, crooning the old songs and stories. They went back to her. “I must stay here, to keep him company,” she explained. “He is in pain, and I must try to heal him.” After much discussion, Bob and Pip agreed to leave her, but to come back every other day to bring food for Nob and the beast. And with the help of the other penguins, so they did.
It was finally spring, though you couldn’t tell it from the weather. The Man cursed the delays, and waited anxiously to be on the first chopper back to P-Base. The Scientist tolerated him, since someone had to go in first, and The Man was a dedicated, hard worker. Finally, the weather broke, and two choppers dropped in with the first of the equipment, tents and supplies needed to recreate the base.
The Man swung down from the helicopter and helped unload the gear and boxes, then stepped back as the chopper lifted off to pick up another load before the weather changed again. He looked around, and noticed the scientist staring off down the hill. “What is it?” he asked.
“Strange,” The Scientist said, “But I think there was a penguin up here when we landed. It just scampered off down that trail.”
Sure enough, the Man could see the track that penguin bodies had worn in the snow’s crust. Beside it was a beaten path where they had come up the hill. “Strange,” he agreed.
He saw that the trail led on to the top of the hill and he followed it to an elevated mound near where the tent floors should still be. At the top of the mound was an opening, smeared with something strange. He touched it and rubbed the oily feel between his fingers. It smelled of fish. “Fish,” he said to The Scientist.
From the opening came a bark, friendly, expectant. “Max,” he replied without thinking. The barking became more insistent, louder. He and The Scientist exchanged a look, he shook his head.
A few minutes digging expanded the opening, and suddenly Max leaped out of the hole and onto The Man. Quickly The Scientist grabbed the shovel, ready to defend The Man. He hesitated when he heard the laughter from the Man, and watched as man and beast rolled together in happy reunion.
He bent and fingered the material lining the opening, dried grass and fur. He shook his head, tossed the shovel aside, then grinned as Max leaped up to give him a lick of greeting across the face.
Gentoo Penguin (pygoscelis Papua) Photograph by Elliott Neep