“Penguin Picks Things Up” by Lizzie Gaisford

They call her Penguin because she walks in a rhythm at odds with the world. She has a hollow face and wonky eyes and a mouth half-full of ramshackle teeth. She walks funny because you only ever see her in a pair of too-big men’s pants. When tied around her coat-hanger hips, the crotch hangs between her knees. Although her steps are very quick, they are tiny and it takes her forever to get across the tracks.

But many small steps mean she sees specific things; small, hidden things, which she picks up. Things like stompies, chewing gum, bottle tops. She uses them to fill up holes. She dreams of one day being able to lean the door shut and be in complete darkness; no ray of moon, nor purplish-orange security light to expose her pale skin. It will be so dark that she won’t be able to tell if her eyes are open or closed. Maybe there, in the dark, imagination and reality will paw at each other’s faces and acquaint. She might actually hear his whistle and his footsteps rattling the khakibos. The whistle would be bold, the rattle subtle. He didn’t hassle the weeds like she did, for he was tall and graceful. In his gypsy skirt he could take one step for four of hers.

Yes, she knows his sparse footfalls like his heartbeat. Every night she imagines his approach; him lifting the door and crawling in to curve around her curled-up body and tell her about his adventures. He was brave, only ever crossing intersections diagonally. He took her on a train trip once, but the speed made her teeth bleed and when they got there, the sun had swapped sides.

If it weren’t for his shadow, loyal to him for his kind nature, they would never have got back. He got them home that day and she realised that, as long as she had an arm around his waist she would never be lost.

The rust started the day they took him away. It was one of those sepia-skied days. A day of sirens and church bells. You smell smoke, without knowing where the fire is. Their corrugated iron roof creaked from the heat, as it lay fallen in the dripping milkweed. He was wearing the nicest two of his five takkies. One fell off as they dragged him crashing through the khakibos, but they barked at her when she tried to retrieve it. They were cruel, cruel people, with shadows absent for shame of their nature. They demolished the house with their boots and bare hands in the time it took the biggest one to light a cigarette. They said they would be back for the pieces and her. They were cleaning the city, they said.

Considering the drought, you might think it was tears that started the rust, but she hardly cried. The gaping loneliness took up all the space in her and she wished he’d given her a baby in time. She tried to rebuild the house. But it came out all upside down and inside out and the wind ripped a box away to churn with the hadedas in the sky. She lay bent into herself like a crushed stompie and listened to the rattling khakibos and whistling rusted roof holes. There were other holes too. The election poster was short of the lilo, which didn’t entirely cover the tear in the Jean Goldsmith – Estate Agent banner, which flapped against the three planks, which didn’t line up properly.

The holes were big enough for thick shafts of purplish-orange security light to illuminate her skin and remind her why they didn’t come back to take her away too. So many holes to fill.

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A dog licks up steaming faeces, scorching her tongue on the railway track. Depending on whom you ask, she is ngodoyi, Canis africanus or fokken brakhond. She would be sleek and sickle-shaped if it weren’t for her teats swinging heavily from her ribs. She eats quickly. It is her first litter and she fears leaving them alone, but she knows that she must eat to feed them. A desperate boy sees the teats and stalks her as she slinks back to her secret. He lures her away with a chicken bone and snatches all three milky-eyed puppies. He avoids her bewildered eyes as she searches for them and he runs. One is in each oversized pocket and the third is against his chest. Through the boy’s ribs and raspy skin the puppy hears his heartbeat, as quick as his guilty footsteps.  The puppies in the pockets only hear his empty stomach churning its acid.

When he arrives at the restaurants to sell them, one pocket is empty. The puppy that dropped is so small that he didn’t feel the absence of its weight. It landed plonk on its backside with its feet sticking out. The tar is hot on the swollen belly and tufted penis and he whimpers.

Tyres yelp as a police van takes the corner too fast and the puppy escapes with all paws but one. He’s tumbled into the gutter on the other side where he licks the crushed stump and cries into the stompies and chewing gum and bottle tops.  Shoes drop into, and lift from his line of vague vision. Every shoe has a twin to follow or be followed by, and their shadows flicker or drag their feet.

But one pair steps into sight with its shadow firmly attached. It is an odd pair – one huge lolling-tongued takkie and one dainty glittered pump. The shadow grows and a small hand slips in beneath his belly to lift him into the sunshine. The light is acid to his baby eyes and he blinks several times before seeing the human face. Roaming wild eyes shine from a palette of city filth. When they connect with his, they settle like a hen to nest. Penguin holds him to her chest and begins to walk home. The three-legged puppy is rocked to sleep by her rhythm at odds with the world.


Lizzie Gaisford is a botanist by day, a musician by night and a writer of songs and fiction in the space between. You can read more of her work if you deep-sea trawl the Internet or invite yourself for tea and steal the notebooks off her bookshelf. She comes from eShowe, South Africa.

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