by Gary Fincke
For weeks, the large, stuffed penguin Ellie’s husband had given her for Christmas has lain face-up on their living room couch. Although well-made, the material that covers its body lush and nearly feathery to the touch, Ellie thinks the penguin looks sick lying there, head-to-toe against the arm rests at either end.
Her husband had wrapped it in a sheet and set it out by the tree a week before Christmas. He’d drawn a circle and two black dots on the sheet so it looked like a ghost. “Isn’t it perfect?” her husband said as she lifted the sheet, but by January, the penguin was injured, torn in four places along its seams, as if it has barely escaped the claws of a predator or the beak of a jealous rival.
Her husband, since then, has promised that his mother will sew it. He says she has the skill and experience and, above all, the patience to stitch the penguin until it was “good as new.” He says he’s sorry for tearing it, that having his mother repair it proves he’s sincere. “It’s another way to make sure it can’t happen again,” he explains, “because then she would know.”
Between promises, he says he’s working on control. He says beating only the penguin shows how far he’s come. That it’s been three months since he’s touched her. Even then, he says, it was just one push before he pulled himself together, nothing like what happened six months ago and worse, way back, a year ago when he crossed way over the line and began a miscellany of pledges.
“Never again,” he’d said after the push, and when the third month of never began, she’d started to hope. But there is the penguin torn where he’d punched and kicked it, and by now, nearly three weeks later, it hasn’t yet been sewn. It lies wounded where the low, early February sun strikes it in the afternoon. Depending on her mood, it looks asleep or dead. His mother lives eighty miles away. The weather is so sketchy, he keeps saying. As soon as it’s nice out, he promises. They had driven through snow to visit her for Christmas, leaving the bulky, beautiful penguin behind.
Today, his mother has shown up for a visit on one of those weekend days he declared too threatening to travel. “The weatherman says, ‘not to worry’ about those clouds,” she says. When she examines the penguin, she agrees how attractively realistic it is, but she’s surprised that the sewing on such a generous gift is so shoddy. After a few hours, the flurries amounting to nothing and the sky brightening as promised, he carries the penguin to his mother’s car as if it’s a sleeping child. He lays it on the spotless, seldom-used back seat and vows that they will visit soon, that she doesn’t have to make another trip to bring it back.
“It will keep me company,” his mother says. “There’s no hurry.”
“There,” he says, coming back into the house after his mother pulls away. “That’s taken care of.”
Ellie is lying on the couch, her knees drawn up a few inches to fit. Instead of answering, she pretends to be asleep. “You look beautiful when you’re sleeping,” he says. “Or even when you’re faking,” he adds, whispering, but she doesn’t open her eyes.
After he walks away and she hears their bedroom door close, Ellie relaxes, returning to her daydream. She tries to make out who it might be she’s imagined carrying her away to be repaired. Whether it is a man or a woman. Whether that someone is capable of doing the sewing so well that what has been torn will not only be fixed but will not show a sign of ever having been broken. Whoever it is looks as hazy as a ghost standing in snow, large, steady flakes still falling around it.
Gary Fincke’s new collection of flash fiction The Corridors of Longing was published in October 2022 by Pelekinesis. He is co-editor of the annual anthology series Best Microfiction.