Mammal by M.K. Joseph

Normally, I’d take nourishment from the climax of Father John’s sermon by closing my eyes and savoring his fervent spirit. On this morning though, despite sitting in the rear of our antiquated church, his rhetoric gave such breath, such charge that the compulsion to commune with another overwhelmed me.

But after witnessing hundreds of my brothers and sisters supplementing Father’s sustenance through praying their rosaries or mouthing highlighted texts, or even kneeling unaccompanied with a stillness that suggested transcendence, I remained unfilled. I turned to my neighbor, hoping to drink directly from Father’s effect, when my sight caromed off her and connected to beyond pew’s end. There was a large penguin standing against the wall.

Probably, it was someone in a costume. I mean, penguins don't grow to the size of Adam unless very special conditions exist and besides, I spied a crude seam where the head attached. When the bird arrivedor if it’d been participating with the other parishioners in the standing area I couldn’t determinebut it faced the service with its giant flippers on its hips like it wanted to join our celebration but couldn’t find a spot wide enough to accommodate its ample frame. Curious as to who else noticed, I counted eight others who seemed to have sighted this enormous, flightless creature. Initially, they observed it on the sly, but one by one their attentions returned to Father. Their apathy concerned me, but before I could complete a mental list of names, the bird, maybe seeing a spot I couldn’t, began walking down the aisle—more of a waddle actually, cute almost, as if carrying heavy dumbbells with legs too stumpy to maintain a balanced gait. It paused outside a pew, maybe eight or ten rows up, one that appeared to have a modest opening towards the center.

A young man aged either to his early twenties or late teens knelt at the entrance, rocking with conviction to Father’s rhythm. The penguin took a half step forward and maybe recognizing the devotion, tapped the young man’s shoulder in such a considerate manner that it appeared a caress. The young man, needing a moment to steady himself, then looked up and, without thought to the situation or his safety, placed his right palm on the bird’s fuzzy, white belly and gave a slow rub. The aquatic animal, probably as confused as I by the gesture’s meaning, stepped behind the young man in a quiet, yet awkward attempt to squeak by. The young man, however, quickly raised his hand and gave the animal a firm finger wag. Stepping back, the bird placed its left flipper across its chest and bowed in an apparent effort to apologize for this faux pas. For me, this was notable thing, a striking confirmation that the creature was raised right.

It then returned to waddling back down the aisle, nearer the wall than the pews, enabling the stained-glass shafts of light from the stations of the cross to pass over its tuxedoed body. From "Jesus is stripped of His garments" to "Jesus is nailed to the cross," it studied packed pew after packed pew until it passed the church’s mid-point, just before "Jesus dies on the cross," when I noticed its lopsided movement gone, as if it quit its resolve and refused to lift its feet. This struck me as melodramatic, but I reserved judgement. The bird then came to a standstill and looked back, obviously unsure about its odds for success and I considered signaling encouragement when its head perked. Triangulating his presumed line-of-sight, I glimpsed a tiny opening near the middle-end of the very first pew.

At this pew’s entrance a dark-haired boy holding one side of a hymnal sat next to a curly-haired woman, presumably his mother, who held the hymnal’s other side. The bird waddled faster and faster toward when, without pause, it attempted barging by the boy. Only the reflexive stiff arm of the mother stopped the enlivened bird. The animal, however, wedged itself far enough in that its massive rear pinched the boy. Initially, the thing seemed unawares, but as the mother pushed back it evidently became aware of its intrusiveness and stepped back into the aisle. The mother, probably understanding the desperation of this indigent creature, looked down the congested row and then back to the bird. She shrugged with an empathy I could feel, but also with a firmness that declared this was the conversation’s end. However, the penguin continued staring at her and my stomach tightened, unsure of the animal’s true capabilities. It then looked to the boy and for a moment I don’t believe any vessel of God could divine the bird’s will. Thankfully though, it ultimately stepped farther back and stood against the wall.

Folding its flippers over its belly, it partook of the Father’s preparation of the Body of Christ. What struck me then was how respectfully the created spectated despite its frustration. How it was able to moderate its desires so efficiently? After about two minutes, near the beginning of the Consecration, it made the sign of the cross with its giant flipper and left through the choir room exit. I again looked around the room intrigued as to who else might have witnessed this spectacle unfold, but only a girl in pig tails several pews up turned from where the Antarctic bird exited looked at me as a pink bubble ballooned from her lips, and as I nodded to acknowledge this costumed beast she merely popped her bubble and returned her attention to the service. Eager to rewet my palate with Father’s spirit, I did likewise. What still nags at me, though, like a Eucharist that won’t unstick from the roof of your mouth, is why the bird didn’t just walk back and finish the service with the rest of the standing crowd?

M. K. recently started his latest day job and is already tired of parceling out his writing time. The thought of applying to an MFA program sounds sexier to him by the day. After numerous years of working on collaborations that might be characterized as indulgent, he has returned to sending out his own stuff. He can be reached at