“This is never going to work, you know.”
The voice came from behind him, but he didn’t turn around. He ignored the sigh that followed too. Instead, he shuffled slightly closer to the edge, until he could feel a cool breeze on the bottom of his feet. He took a deep breath.
“I’m not going to patch you up again Carl”, his friend said. “You’re on your own this time.” Carl counted down in his head. Three… two… ONE. He spread his flippers and jumped, enthusiastically flapping them up and down, trying to get some traction. For a brief second he thought it’d worked this time; he could feel the wind soar underneath him, but he wasn’t falling at all. Then the pull of gravity once again became too strong for him, and he was falling, faster and faster, seeing the rocks come ever closer. Frantically flapping his flippers didn’t do him any good at all, so he closed his eyes in resignation. This one was going to hurt.
He didn’t recall actually hitting the ground; then again, he didn’t recall much at all. Groggily, he opened one eye. He groaned. Then the other. Bad mistake. He closed them again, waiting for the world to turn off the flashing lights. He could hear some disapproving mutterings around him, vaguely penetrating through the fog that permeated all of his thoughts at the moment. He felt, rather than heard, some shuffling nearby him; his body trembled with every little tremor, hurting from each and every tiny pebble that happened to roll into him.
“I hate to say I told you so”, a familiar voice said. “But why can’t you just stick to swimming, like the rest of us?” Carl kept his eyes closed and groaned a little, in lieu of an answer.
“Right”, Sam sighed deeply. “This is the last time I’ll help you man. You’re on your own after this, I mean it.” Carl could feel his friend’s flipper on his face, stroking his brow, and he felt a tiny twinge of guilt.
It wasn’t that he hadn’t tried to enjoy swimming, he really had. He’d put a lot of effort into being a normal penguin, but he’d just never taken to the water like everybody else had. His peers were floating past him, graceful, fast and effortless, while he always felt like he was swimming upstream. Through the mud. On his way to nowhere. He was sure the fish were taunting him, and the seals outright laughed at him. It was a miracle he’d made it out alive every time.
Not that flying was going that much better, he reflected. This was hardly the first painful crash he’d made. Or the tenth. Still, he knew, deep down, that flying was what he was meant to do. He’d always been baffled by the seagulls that were walking around on land. Why walk if you could fly?
They’d tried to tell him, his mother, his father, this friends – of which only Sam was still talking to him these days – that swimming could be just like flying. It could feel just as free, just as weightless, and he guessed he could see what they meant, looking at them soaring through the water. But it was not something he’d ever experienced for himself, no matter how hard he’d tried. Sure, swimming had never caused him to pass out, to taste his own blood in his mouth, but it also never made him feel like he was truly alive. Flying, on the other hand – well, his attempts at flying – paradoxically made him feel like he could do anything. That was probably why all his friends thought he was insane. A sharp pain in his back interrupted his reflections. Maybe they had a point.
Except that he knew he could do it. He was sure of it. He felt it with every fibre of his being; even the ones that hurt so much right now that he kinda wished they weren’t part of his being at all.
Sam stayed with him until he managed to get up again and waddle around a little bit. He even brought him some fish, which Carl gratefully scarfed down, wistfully staring up at the sky. Sam shook his head and wandered off.
Carl decided to wait with his next attempt, until most of the others were out at sea. He figured he might do better without an audience, and he wanted to spare Sam the headaches. And, to be honest, he wanted to spare himself Sam’s lectures and disapproving sighs.
The first time, he failed again, but he didn’t hurt himself quite as badly as he had before, and since he managed to hide his slight limp, Sam remained blissfully unaware of this most recent failure. Probably. He had looked at him rather suspiciously, and a little sad, when he’d dropped of a fish, but he hadn’t said anything, so Carl counted it as a win.
When he found himself alone once more, several days later, he waddled up the side of the cliff again. He closed his eyes. Deep breaths. Focus on the birds. On the sky. On the wind. He spread his flippers and let himself drop off cliff, as calm as he’d ever been. He was falling a little, but not as fast as he’d come to expect. He slowly opened his eyes, and realised that he was now moving forwards, instead of down. He was floating on the wind. Elated – but also a little confused, because he had to admit that there was definitely a part of him that had been filled with doubt – he flapped his flippers experimentally, and immediately felt himself take a sharp turn to the left. He burst into laughter. He was doing it! He was actually flying!
He couldn’t wait for everyone to see him, to prove them all wrong. With some more flipper movements, he steered himself towards the sea, zigzagging a little, but successfully managing to avoid hitting anything; all the while feeling better than he’d ever had. This was it. This was what he was meant to be doing. The sea was magnificent from above; far better than it had ever been when he’d been in it. Foamy and dark, but bright at the same time. He searched the green blue vastness for his friends, for Sam, but he kept getting distracted by the wind on his flippers, by the seagulls that whisked past him, seemingly oblivious to his momentous feat. The occasional penguin head would bop up between the waves, but never long enough for them to hear Carl’s shouts. He flew a little lower, drops of salt water hitting his belly, but he couldn’t see Sam, or anyone else he knew. Oh well. There’d be time to show them later, now that he knew how to do it. Right now, he just decided to enjoy how amazing the salty sea air felt on his face.
He flew higher and higher, and even managed to make a little summersault. He whooped with glee. He flew above the sea, and above the rocks that had hurt his little body so often, until his flippers grew tired. Slowly, leisurely, he returned home, gliding on the wind. A single seal looked up at him, staring, squinting, before shaking her head and turning back to her family. Carl laughed, before landing gracefully at the bottom of the cliff that had been his starting point. He stretched his flippers, and smiled at the sky, already looking forward to get up there again.