Penguin Song by Alison Theresa Gibson

She sings, her eyes closed, pouring life into that long perfect note. Her fingers twist the silk of her skirt into cascades of colour, tightening, tightening as the note lifts. And then she stops, the world stops, I stop. She opens her eyes and smiles at me.

‘Almost,’ I say, because I can’t tell her she’s perfect. Her fingers smooth the sweated silk against her thighs. ‘Try that last line again, and really put everything you have into it.’

She nods, like I knew she would, because she thinks I see something more in her, something she is determined to find. She breathes deeply and the silk flutters, ready to try again.


She is at my door, her music in bundles in her arms, all cracked plastic and faded pencil markings. Her eyes are alight with something I don’t recognise.

‘He’s got a job,’ she says. ‘Studying penguins in Antarctica. The changes in their behaviour are one of the most significant signals for climate change. He could help save the world!’

The light above her fades, grows, fades. It has been flickering all week but today it is for her. Today, it says, you are quitting. For him! She doesn’t notice.

‘What will you do there?’

Her face falls a fraction, a mask of mud that slips with a sudden rain shower.

‘I’m not sure yet, but he’s asked and I am definitely allowed to go with him.’

Oh, how good of him to ask! I want to say, but I just nod.

I won’t tell her that there are many ways to save the world. I won’t tell her that humanity needs song as well as penguins.

I won’t mention creeping shadows on funeral pyres.

‘Good luck.’


Her song is on the car radio, sung by a weaker voice. The singer’s eyes are open, I can tell, open and watching for a reaction. She sings for an audience, not for humanity.

My hands grip the steering wheel. The sunlight flashes through the clouds like it has been doing all day, but now it is telling me, you quit! You should have fought for her. You should have given her the choice to stay.

I imagine her, fingers grasping the silky feathers of a penguin, feet slipping on ice, the sun pretending to set while instead it skates across the horizon. I imagine her watching the dipping light on the crystallised world she has chosen, and I imagine her singing with no one to hear.


Alison Theresa Gibson has been published or has work upcoming in Meanjin, Mechanics’ Institute Review, the Nottingham Review, Crack the Spine, Litro and others. She won the Furious Gazelle Spring Writing Contest in June 2019. She is writing her fourth-time-lucky novel while working at University College London. Find her @AlisonTheresa87 and