A short story by Nicola Rathbone.
This is a short story about a lost penguin who ended up growing up in a Gull colony. Any similarities to autistics being expected to grow up as NTs is entirely intentional.
Once upon a time, there was a penguin egg that accidentally rolled off the feet of Daddy Penguin and rolled down a hill into a seagulls nest. Now, the Mummy Seagull had no idea this had happened and when the chicks hatched, she took the penguin as one of her own. At the start, this perfect baby penguin looked much like the other chicks, a ball of grey fluff with a wide-open mouth. But as they grew, it was clear there was something different about him. He made strange sounds, different from the other seagulls. And his physical appearance was different too, his legs and wings were too short and stubby compared to the others. Other seagulls whispered and shook their heads at the tragedy of poor Mummy Seagull being stuck with a defective chick and offered advice on how to fix him. They did not see the perfect penguin, they only saw a faulty seagull.
‘Teach him to speak properly. If he doesn’t, he will never find a mate. He will die alone. Try not feeding him until he learns to talk like us, he’ll soon learn.’ And Penguin did learn, the sounds were uncomfortable and hurt him, but he needed to eat and pain was better than starving.
‘Teach him to walk properly. He’ll never get around on those stumps. Strap stilts on him and force him to use them. He will never be able to get around if he doesn’t.’ And Penguin spent hours practicing to use them. Even though he struggled to use them, he said nothing to his Mummy about the pain or his damaged feet or the terrifying feeling of being unbalanced because he wanted her to be proud of him and he knew his stumpy legs made her sad. He even smiled and pretended he like the stilts because he so badly wanted to make her happy.
‘He’ll never fly with those wings. Strap bigger wings on him and stop him standing so upright. He’ll never learn to fly until he learns to lean forward like the rest of us.’ And Penguin did as he was told, and he wobbled and fell and was laughed at. His muscles ached all the time from being forced into positions he was never meant to be in. They laughed at his clumsiness, at his failed attempts to get off the ground, the way he tripped over his wings. And Penguin cried inside as he knew he had made his Mummy sad, just by being him.
Eventually, they gave up on him, and he gave up on himself. He hobbled around the colony dragging his useless wings and listened to the sniggers, accepted the bullying, learned to hate everything about himself. He was useless, pathetic, not even able to fend for himself. He knew he had to leave to save his Mummy from being stuck with such a burden as himself.
Slowly and painfully, he dragged himself up the hill, away from the colony. He had no idea where he was going, just that it had to be away. But what should he see when he got up the hill? A flock of birds who looked just like him, only no-one had legs or wings strapped to them, no-one had tried to fix them, they were happy just as they were.
The waddle of penguins looked at this strange, damaged creature entering their colony. It took a while to realise that in the cage of artificial limbs and behind the distorted gait was a penguin. They came over and took off the legs and the wings. At first, he protested and fought them off.
‘No, I need them to be normal, just like the other gulls.’
‘But you aren’t a gull, you are a penguin like us.’
‘No, I need them, without them I won’t be able to fly and I won’t be able to feed myself.’
‘Penguins don’t fly, we were never meant to fly. We swim to catch our food and with all this wrapped around you, you will never be able to swim properly.’
Eventually, he agreed and allowed them to remove the wings and legs. The other penguins were saddened by the horrible scarring these had caused, scars that were likely to never heal, scars caused because the gulls had seen the Penguin as a wrong thing and had tried to make him just like them.
It took him a long time to unlearn how to be a gull and how to be a penguin, but each step was a joyous one. Learning how to slide down mountains on your tummy, learning how to fly through the sea and take delight in the very fine control his wings gave him. He even learnt not to mourn not being able to fly in the sky, realising that while the sky is big and empty, the sea is full of life and wonder.
He was never going to have the same mobility he would have had, had the gulls not tried to fix him, waddling was always going to be painful and his damaged vocal chords were never going to allow him to speak penguin easily. But he was not defective, or wrong, and now he knew he never was. He now knew he was designed exactly the way he was meant to be and he had a place where he belonged and was welcomed. He had joy and wonder and contentment in his life and that was enough.