Sharp Relief

by Lauryn Allison Lewis

Murphy once slept for 37 consecutive hours because Heda forgot to wake him for his meals. When at last she realized, she took her husband by the shoulders and shook him with a panic she'd been saving for such a moment. Long lapses of silence had been allowed to accrue in the unused corners of their home, where they absorbed time like a dry sponge. Heda began forgetting to change her clothes. A cashier at the market loudly pointed this out. It was soon after that Heda decided she would no longer care for the penguins.

She started setting an alarm in the hall, so as never to forget to wake and feed Murphy again. Afraid she would forget to set the alarm, Heda left a note beside it that read, DO NOT FORGET TO SET THIS ALARM! The clock and the note provided some reassurance, but for safe measure, a tiny calendar joined them. On this she marked out the quadrants of Murphy�s waking: morning, noon, evening, night. Still, both grew thinner. The penguins had to go.

When Heda could bear it no longer, their peckpeckpecking on her sliding kitchen door, she would hide from their sight in the front hall bathroom. She would sit on the edge of the tub with the lights off until the last confused taps sputtered out, and the penguins shuffled away hurt and hungry. She let the water run in the sink and observed how the sound of running water became the noise of nothing at all, the closer she listened.

Heda was already in her late thirties when she and Murphy and their two boys moved to Western Cape, a hilly city pressed into Africa's southern edge. It was a place the couple had visited on their honeymoon. Murphy was granted three weeks leave from his squadron, and together they crossed Africa by bush plane and imagined their future home in every cozy valley. Before returning to the damp suburbs of London where both had been raised and where they in turn would bring up their boys, they had made love in tents and in fancy hotels; so many promises in the dark. 

Separated from the experience of her honeymoon by almost two decades, living in Western Cape was lonelier than Heda had anticipated. It was a loneliness exclusive to those who have known the fecundity and ruckus of young family love. Too soon, the boys fell away from her immediate care, and into the highly privatized routine of very young men. Murphy slowed and fattened, retiring from the service after nearly 40 years to accept a professorial appointment from a university in the next town over. He taught History from memory to preoccupied freshmen. During those years Heda was alone a great deal.

It was at the city�s tourist center�not long after their move�where Heda learned from a tri-fold brochure that the population of Western Cape�s penguin species was dwindling. Due to their braying call which echoed down from the crumbly shale cliffs surrounding the deep green bay, the birds were knows as jackasses�or jacks�by most villagers. Heda found the moniker insulting. To her, their noise was a jumble of unique voices, each relaying its own imperative message.

She bought up bumper stickers and neon t-shirts with African penguins on them, and then, feeling she could do more, motivated by loneliness and engendered by motherhood with a knack for looking after living things, Heda crudely sketched an avian feeding station and sent Murphy off to his workshop to construct it. Once completed, she proudly set the little altar along the home's beach path and fed the birds twice daily.

Following Murphy's brief blueprint and a terse tutorial of how to operate his tools, Heda eventually learned to make the little platforms on her own. They needed to be replaced almost every summer, what with the salty beach air, and the equatorial sun, and the copious amounts of penguin scat that crept up the platform�s sides. So many years of making these tiny tables, and still the feeling of being an intruder in Murphy�s workshop never left her. Sometimes, standing over the table-saw, Heda would call out over the din, �When I�m finished here, would you like a cup of coffee, Murph?� before remembering she was alone.

When she knew the penguins had to go, when she no longer trusted her aging eyes, Heda stopped making the feeding stations. The one from two summers ago was rotting out on the path. The penguins vied for close proximity to the rubble, staking their claim by balancing themselves atop the sun-bleached boards and chirping loudly.

On those rare days when he managed to make it past the breakfast table, Murphy still puttered out in the workshop. Maybe he polished all his wrenches with a soft cloth. Maybe he swept the floor. Afraid that any prying might send him back to bed, Heda hung back and let her husband�s sporadic bouts of activity in the workshop remain a mystery.

She contented herself with the few words they shared over toast and juice. Twice it happened that Heda had tried to sneak in a bit of gardening before breakfast, and returned to find the remnants of Murphy�s short time at the table. She observed the crumbs and scattered newspaper and admonished herself for missing the chance to say hello, to say good morning. She finished the juice in his glass and forever after saved her gardening for dusk.

Some days were so unoccupied, Heda could think of nothing better to do than strip down to her slip and join her husband in a nap. She would batten the curtains against the high morning sun and pull the sheet in tight around them. Shrouded this way, Heda could focus on their steady inhalation, their autonomous response.

She used these moments to tell Murphy about the birds. She kept her rambling to a whisper, her nose and mouth tucked behind his ear. There are seven new hatchlings so far this year, Murphy. That's good for so early in the season. Betsy, the old mama bird I've told you about? Well, she chased off photographers this morning! It was so funny, Murphy, the way she snapped at their toes! In his sleep he might grumble or shift, and Heda would say, I knew you'd like that. Sleep well darling.

As a way of coercing her body and mind to sleep in the middle of the day, Heda would make mental lists. A list of all the places she had vacationed. Ingredients for Hawaiian wedding cake. Every boy she had ever kissed. The small list of the things left to do that day. The number of meals left to make. Who to make them for.  She would rise in the early afternoon, often without knowing if she had been asleep at all. She usually made tuna fish for lunch because it saved her from having to prepare separate meals for Murphy and the birds.

Over the years, many ornithologists studying the wildlife on Heda's beach had made desperate appeals that she not feed the birds. They trekked in from their camps along the fringes of town to stand in her yard and insist that the dietary supplements she provided skewed their data, making it nearly impossible to tell whether the buoyed number of penguins in the area had everything or nothing to do with her.

They needed to see if the penguins would starve on their own, was that it?

Well, yes, they would answer.

For so many years it had been out of the question, and she always found a way to quiet them before closing the door with a secret tucked into her smile. The feedings would continue as usual. Heda would not let animals starve for science. But now that she was no longer up to the task, she considered finding an apprentice. Maybe put an ad in the local paper:

ATTENTION: Old woman in Western Cape seeks one young and caring
individual to feed beach penguins twice daily. Candidate must have big heart and
strong stomach.

It wouldn't do. No one in the area sympathized with the bird�s plight. At least, not the way she did. Besides, if the scientists caught wind of her search, they would scare any well-meaning participants, with all of their warnings and empty threats of citation.

Heda had no choice but to wean the animals. She'd been scaling back their meals very slowly, but they noticed immediately. With all of her forgetting, how was it she remembered when to make the rounds? She devised a log: a calendar taped to the sliding glass door in the kitchen. A notebook for recording any details of the feeding. A pencil tied with string, dangling from a pushpin. 

The poor things just couldn't adjust. They would pull together in a tight circle and stomp around her patio shouting what sounded like, more!more!more! For hours they would beg. In the bathroom, trying to steel her heart against the noise, Heda heard the creak of the bedroom door opening. She came out of the bathroom in time to see Murphy rush through the kitchen and out the sliding door, where he began to kick blindly at the creatures. He caught Betsy under her beak and sent the bird flying.

Murphy! How could you!

Heda picked up the violet packed flowerpot from the windowsill and launched it at her husband, who stopped kicking almost as suddenly as he started. He stood still as a specter with his back to the door. Heda aimed high for his soft, bald, pate and missed. Her flower bomb descended on the lawn behind him, scattering clay shards yards. Little by little he turned to face her.

Murphy? How could you?

Murphy made no reply.    

She stared out of the kitchen window and saw nothing. Her thoughts were bright white.

I'm going back to bed.

Without turning to meet his eyes, because she knew she couldn�t, she said simply, yes, Murphy. Go to bed. Just go to bed then. Go. Go on. Goodbye.

It was their final exchange, unmarked and unmeasured. Said for no one to remember.

Heda was out in the workshop with the table-saw turned on even before Murphy had the bedroom door closed behind him. The saw was rusty from disuse, but Heda didn't notice. She kept the light turned off as she lay down both wrists on the blade.

The penguins pushed open the workshop door and made many meals of her before anyone came by to investigate the couple�s absence from the community. Her death looked like a terrible accident, caused by her lack of skill and knowledge of power tools. Murphy�s looked peaceful, unfortunately timed. His autopsy revealed that he went much longer than 37 consecutive hours without food or drink before finally expiring in his sleep.

How sad, the cashier said loudly, that he wasn�t awake and well enough to help her. How sad to think of her lying there dead while he wasted away.

BIO: Lauryn Allison Lewis lives and works in Evanston, Illinois with her family. She is pursuing her BFA in fiction writing at Columbia College Chicago. Lauren moonlights as a chocolatier and is also one heck of a dancer.