In darkness, Angela ascended the winding gravel road. She carried a flashlight, but she kept it off. She knew the path well.
The Clouds of Magellan illuminated the white bellies of penguins crossing up ahead. Most stood at the side of the road and watched her pass, their heads waving from side to side. When one brayed, the high-pitched hee-hawing of a donkey, the others responded in kind, forming a gantlet of noise. It was mating season at Punta Verde, and the males were rowdy.
At the crest of the hill, the road veered right and continued for half a mile to the vast empty parking lot where tourist buses and taxicabs disbursed their cargo during the day. Angela continued straight, onto soft dirt and dry patches of grass, sidestepping the prickly quilambay bushes and the cavelike penguin burrows. She stopped at the top of the hill and scanned the wide, arching horizon of the South Atlantic Ocean. A gust of wind nudged her from behind and she leaned back into it, her eyes tracking slowly from left to right. The moon, about to rise, gave the sky an expectant glow. She looked for the telltale lights of passing ships but saw nothing but the stars.
He should be back by now.
The last she heard from him was a week ago. He was off the coast of Brazil and headed south, only eighty miles north of here. She had reviewed the weather charts, but there were no Atlantic surges, no last-second squalls that may have pushed him off course, delaying his return. Perhaps he wanted to stay close to the others. Perhaps he was simply taking his time. Each day, she invented another scenario for why he was not on her shore, carefully ignoring the more rational, more depressing scenarios.
She was only supposed to trek up here once a week, a routine she’d once welcomed, a break from the camp. But since she’d lost contact, she began visiting nightly. Not that she would see him. But perhaps she would see something to explain his absence.
A star crested the horizon. She watched patiently as the light strengthened and inched from right to left, south to north. It was probably a fishing trawler headed for Puerto Madryn, returning from the Southern Ocean, its cavities stuffed with writhing fish and krill and the inevitable, under-reported bycatch. She felt her stomach tighten.
The moon began to bleed out over the water, erasing the ship from view. Angela sat down in the cold dirt and waited. A penguin brushed past her sleeve on his way to an empty nest, where he stood sentry. He too was waiting, demonstrating his fealty for a female not yet returned, as well as guarding his home. Every year, the males were the first to arrive at Punta Verde to claim their old nests, under bushes or on the pockmarked hills, in burrows carved into earth. A hundred thousand of them, in a slow-motion land rush, scrambling over this nine-mile stretch of scrubland that hugged the ocean.
The females took their time at sea, gorging themselves on sardines and squid, gathering their strength for the six-month breeding season that awaited them, emerging from the water two weeks, give or take, after the males. Fashionably late. And if they were fortunate, if everything aligned, their mates were waiting at their burrows, their homes clean and dry, new twigs laid out to form a nest.
The males sang when their females returned, and the females sang in response. They flapped their wings and dueled their beaks and circled one another, orbiting, an ancient bonding ritual, an anniversary.
But the penguin standing silently next to Angela would have no reason to sing this year. Of this she was certain. It was simply too late. The females that would arrive had long ago arrived. Chicks were already entering the world, some taking their first unsteady steps. In a few short months, it would be time for everyone to disappear back into the sea.
Perhaps this penguin was in denial, unwilling to accept his loss, or perhaps he was merely stubborn. Angela preferred to imagine the latter. He would stand by that empty nest until the end of the breeding season, and next year he would return and seek out a new mate. An empty nest rarely stayed empty for long. Angela often wondered if penguins mourn the missing, but universities don’t award grants to answer those types of questions.
He should be back by now.
Angela waited another hour, until there were no more lights on the water. She looked one more time at the penguin at his nest, then stood and made her way, flashlight off, back down the hill.