Angela watched her assistant extend the goncho, a long piece of rebar that was hooked at the end, into the burrow. Doug was on his knees, face to the ground, squinting into the tiny entrance, nudging the male so he could get a better view of the five-digit number on the stainless steel band wrapped around the penguin’s left flipper.
“Three four six two seven,” Doug shouted over the wind.
Doug was in his mid-twenties and, like most naturalists his age, looked more the part than old-timers like Angela, his senior by a decade. While she stomped around in worn tennis shoes and faded, thrift-shop khakis, he was a walking REI catalog: waterproof boots, camouflage pants with more pockets than objects to fill them, an Indiana Jones hat shoving his messy blond hair down over his ears, a blue bandana around his neck. He was the type of assistant—You say assistant, I say wingman, Doug liked to say—that kept Angela’s program running year after year, fresh from the classroom and eager for an unpaid adventure. Too young still to find the trip down here tedious—the ten-hour flight to Buenos Aires, two-hour flight to Trelew, the four-hour bus ride on a gravel road to the research station. And it wasn’t much of a research station at that: two cinder-block huts, one shower, and a public restroom they shared with the tourists who stopped to pay their admission fees and to shop for postcards and key chains.
Angela studied Magellanic penguins, named by Ferdinand Magellan in the sixteenth century when the Europeans were busy naming the planet after themselves. At last count, Punta Verde was populated by 200,000 breeding pairs—a count Angela was in the process of updating. The Magellanic species was the largest of the warm-weather penguins, its beak aligned with an adult’s knee, its dominant feature the black upside-down horseshoe mark on its white belly and a circular white stripe that curved up either side of its neck to its eyes. Each penguin had a different pattern of black spots on its belly that tourists often mistook for dirt. This was not the penguin to inspire movies or stuffed animals—it was not as majestic as an emperor, nor as colorful as a macaroni. It lived in the dirt and the muck of wet spring days, snapped at hands that got too close, and often honked incessantly, emitting the sounds of a donkey, earning it the nickname jackass penguin. But even jackasses needed people to look after them.
“You get that?” Doug asked.
“Three four six two seven,” Angela repeated back without looking up. She leafed through her notebook, her little black-and-white book, as she called it, looking for the five-digit number. She’d tagged thousands of birds over her fifteen years at Punta Verde; every penguin fitted with a tag was listed here, with a number, place, and date. Yet despite such a wealth of data, most numbers were entered once and never again revisited. Tagging a penguin was akin to putting a note in a bottle, tossing it out to sea, and waiting for it to return. At night. It wasn’t enough for the penguins to come home; Angela also had to find each one, among thousands and thousands of nests.
“Did you hear that?” Doug asked.
“Sounded like an engine. A boat engine.”
Angela looked up and tilted her head back and forth.
“Must be the wind,” she said. She returned to her book.
“Red dot?” Doug asked, hopefully.
Angela didn’t answer right away. While finding a tagged bird was not as statistically significant as winning the lottery, it certainly felt that way at times — and the greatest jackpot of all was when they discovered a red-dot bird.
A red-dot bird was a known-age bird, one that had been tagged the year it was born and hadn’t been seen since. Young penguins typically spent four to seven years at sea before they reached breeding age and returned to their colonies. Yet not all penguins returned, and the reasons had been haunting researchers for years. Because red-dot birds had been tracked since birth, Angela and the other naturalists knew more about them than about any other tagged bird—and they still wished they knew more. But they took what they could get, recorded what they could measure. Whether five years or twenty had passed, finding a red dot bird always felt like a family reunion.
But she was beginning to hope that this bird was not a red dot. She was reluctant to let Doug handle the bird, even though she knew he was due. It was the natural order of things, for researchers to pass on their knowledge and skills. Once they found a red dot, they had to weigh it, then measure its feet and the density of feathers around its eyes.
Doug hadn’t yet weighed a penguin, and once he did, it would be one less thing he needed to learn from her. One less reason to join her on these trips. One day closer to not needing her at all. Not that he’d ever needed her to begin with. The life of a naturalist was a lonely one, spent more with animals than with people. This was what Angela had wanted, and at thirty-six, she did not harbor any illusions about having children—the birds were children enough—but she did have her illusions about Doug.
Over the past few weeks, Angela had adopted him as she had the birds. Every morning, she was first out of the dining hall to select her assistant and set out for the day’s assignment. Doug was always out there waiting for her, a smile on his tanned face, while the other assistants were still cocooned in their sleeping bags or brushing their teeth in the public restroom. She knew by now not to anthropomorphize the penguins, but she could not help projecting her attraction onto Doug. That he was simply an early riser did not dampen her belief that he had developed a crush on her. That perhaps when he no longer needed her, he would still accompany her. A comforting thought, particularly since they had indeed discovered a red-dot bird.
She looked at Doug and nodded.
“Kick ass!” Doug leapt to his feet and unloaded his brown backpack of a caliper, hand-held scale, and nylon strap.
This one had been tagged five years ago. Finally ready to breed, this penguin was probably in his second season at Verde—returning to his natal colony to make a nest, find a mate, and begin a ritual that would last another two decades, if he was fortunate.
During Doug’s first week at Verde, against her better judgment, Angela had let him extract a penguin from its burrow. He had only just figured out how to handle the goncho correctly, and she had been giving him free reign with the birds. He was so passionate that she could not have refused him the opportunity. The scrubby hills were like a playground to him, and she enjoyed looking at the world through his sharp blue eyes, eyes that would wink at her on occasion across the dining room, a wink that took a few years off her life. Sometimes she imagined herself his age again, not yet jaded by the drudgery of Ph.D. politics.
She’d always kept her hair short, but its deep red color invited attention. She never doubted her ability to attract men, only her ability to keep them around. Her life was a migratory one—six months here, six months in Boston, the cycle repeating over and over again. While most women her age were now cuddling their newborns, she was crouched over burrows in the relentless southern sun. Her face had begun showing signs of the mileage, wrinkles to the sides of her eyes, ridges that caught the dust like snowdrifts.
She remembered the first time she held a penguin in her hands, a fierce little lapdog, all muscle and motion, felt the tightly woven feathers, gripped that firm, fibrous neck as its beak thrashed dangerously about. She remembered the joy of holding this creature that spent most of its life in the water, that only for the sake of raising its young bothered to set food on land, that this gorgeous awkward creation was now between her two straining hands. She never forgot it. Her teacher was Shelly, who later recruited her for the job Angela had now: teaching Doug.
Shelly had waited four weeks before letting Angela handle a bird, but Angela was not as patient, not as thick skinned, and when she first began working with Doug, she was quietly thrilled to have a handsome young man spending the day with her. She wanted to be the person that Doug would remember for the rest of his life. The woman who taught him everything. The woman who said yes.
Hold the bird, she’d told him that first time. Firmly. Mind the beak. Grab the neck.
Doug had been bitten so badly he had to be driven to Trelew for stitches. His natural instinct had been to pull away, but the penguin’s serrated beak had hooked his flesh tightly and held fast as Doug tore what was left of his hand away. It was like a Chinese finger prison, he joked as the doctor sewed together the sinew of his left hand.
But Angela got what she wanted. He never forgot that day.
(To be continued...)