Avast and ahoy!
If you have visited the children’s section of Bookmarks (aka the Kraken Cove) in recent months, you may have noticed that there is a new animal keeping me and Daisy company. Though not a mythological creature, this animal is a rare sight so far north. I am sure that not a few of you have wondered why a penguin should have deigned to visit Winston-Salem, much less install itself in a bookstore.
Daisy and I were likewise befuddled when Mr. Pablo the Penguin (for that is how he introduced himself) appeared without warning on the bleachers of the Kraken Cove. As good and conscientious booksellers, we asked him if he was looking for anything in particular and whether he had read any Jules Verne or heard of the exciting upcoming epic fantasy The Queens of Dragoria. But he waved our inquiries away with a flightless wing. “I am here only to observe,” he said.
We let him alone for a while, at least until closing time. Then we conferred briefly and decided that I ought to inform him gently that it was time to leave. I cleared my throat. (Well, technically krakens do not have throats. But human language has no other easy expression for a sharp yet polite exhalation accompanied by a constriction of the pharyngeal muscles.)
“Mr. Penguin – Pablo – I am afraid our store will be closing shortly for the evening, and I must request that you purchase whatever has caught your eye and depart forthwith.”
“I intend to stay here for the night,” the antipodean avian replied.
Much taken aback by the bird’s direct manner, I conferred once again with Daisy and again returned to reiterate my previous statement. “I’m afraid that is quite impossible, dear sir. Though I can appreciate the sentiment, for I too dreamed of living in a bookstore for much of my life and can scarcely believe my luck now that the dream has become reality; but the privilege of slumbering amid the shelves is reserved only for the store’s mascots and the several poltergeists that haunt the building and make midnight meals of the books, periodically causing certain titles to disappear from the shelves and sending the staff on aimless treasure hunts that can go unsolved for days at a time.”
“You misunderstand,” the penguin said. From beneath one wing he produced an official-looking card. Underneath his picture, the identification read: “Pedro the Penguin – Official Bookstore Inspection Agent.” And underneath that: “License issued by the Ministry for Culture and Propaganda, 550 Glacier Drive, Antarctica. Eis tēn doxan diaplissometha.”
With the bird’s kind permission I took this card over to Daisy. The first thing she said was, “I thought his name was Pablo, not Pedro.”
“Indeed,” said I. “It is most strange. See, too, the creature’s profession. Do mainland bookstores frequently receive visits for inspection?” Daisy told me that she had not heard of any other independent bookstore receiving such a visitation. “And what of this Ministry?” I continued. “I am sure I have never heard of it.”
Daisy surveyed the organization’s motto. “We waddle towards glory,” she translated, frowning. “Something about this seems fishy. And I don’t just mean the odor of our new arrival’s breath.”
We allowed our visitor to stay the night. Daisy slept with her eyes open, which I discovered is another special talent of her species, so that Pedro or Pablo or whatever his name was would not try any funny business. But he merely stood there soundlessly, observing the bookstore all through the midnight hours.
As the penguin’s visit stretched out to a week and then a month, we became more comfortable with his presence. We no longer feared he would do some damage to the store when our backs were turned. Indeed, the only indication we had that Pedro/Pablo was doing anything other than sitting watching customers browse books was the great volume of correspondence that he seemed to send and to receive each week. Letters poured into the store, even though the bird had no official mailbox here. Eventually Daisy and I resolved to intercept one of these messages to find out what he was saying, and to whom.
(I should assure you, dear readers, that although reading other people’s mail is frowned upon in human society, it is a standard and time-honored literary plot device.)
TO: Prosperina the Penguin (Licensed Imperial Agent)
CONCERNING: Re:Report on Bookmarks Bookstore and Nonprofit
We were gratified to hear of your success in gaining the trust of the mythological mascots at your assigned station. The Ministry is interested to know how our provincial subjects are reacting to the benevolent governance of their new penguin rulers. Your immediate response appreciated.
Please continue to represent His Supreme Rulership’s interests with force and judgment.
SIGNED: Panoptico the Penguin (Minister for Life by Appointment of His Eminence)
I confronted this Pedro/Pablo/Prosperina at once. “Is it true,” I demanded, “that you are some agent of a plot to subject us to the rule of a penguin empire?”
“No,” he/she said. And for a moment I was relieved. But the penguin continued, “Because you are already subjects to the Universal Rule of His Supreme Rulership the Emperor Penguin. You have been for many months now, ever since His legitimacy was established by the Rite of Inauguration held on an ice floe in the far southern Pacific, during which He performed the feat of diving to the bottom of the sea and returning unscathed.”
“That’s ridiculous!” I burst out. “Supreme executive power can only be attained by the approval of the Tentacular Congress, a group of kraken diviners who convene every eight years at high tide to read the sand omens and the entrails of dead jellyfish – not by some farcical aquatic ritual!”
“It is a crime of high treason to question the authority of the Emperor,” the penguin clacked back. ” I could report you to my superiors at the Ministry.”
“The Ministry of Propaganda?” Daisy asked, a scaly eyebrow raised.
“Among other things,” the bird admitted.
“Who are you really?” I demanded. “For we have known you to go by three names. It seems you are trying to hide your true identity and your true mission here.”
“Among the privileges of the agents of the Emperor is that of changing our identity in order to avoid the surveillance that other subjects of the Empire are liable to.”
“Including us? Including Bookmarks?” Daisy asked. “Are they surveilling this store?”
The penguin nodded.
“Are you spying on us? Is that your mission?”
The penguin was silent.
“So you are submitting reports on us to this…ministry,” she went on. “What have you been telling them?”
The penguin sighed. “The content of governmental memos is supposed to be classified. But rest assured, I have been very positive regarding your submission to penguin rule, your peaceable nature, and your admirable mission of disseminating officially sanctioned literature to the masses.”
“Officially sanctioned literature?”
“You may have noticed the official insignia of the Empire on the spines of many of your books. it signifies that a text has been inspected for subversive ideas and its contents supplemented with the correct subliminal messaging.”
“Our books are not censored or implanted with subliminal messages!” I protested. “We are committed to freedom of expression in all art forms and in fostering a diversity of viewpoints in the books we carry.”
The penguin snorted with laughter, then seemingly came back to her/his senses. “Ahem. Yes, the Ministry of Culture and Propaganda has determined that it is in the Empire’s best interests that its citizens should not perceive any limitation on their self-expression or ideological intent in the media they consume. We are therefore supportive of your cause and tolerant of your so-called ‘free speech,’ as long as it is not actively subversive towards the righteous principles of your new government.”
“And if it did become actively subversive, what would happen to us?” Daisy inquired.
“The Ministry has a zero-tolerance policy towards overt dissent.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that I would be forced to send a report to my superiors indicating that Bookmarks has forfeited its protected status as a cultural institution and must therefore be transferred from the oversight of the Ministry of Culture and Propaganda to that of the Ministry of Threatening Notices and Harsh Discipline.”
“And what do they do?”
“That is not my department. But I believe they work closely with the Ministry of Remote Activation, Incendiary Division.”
Daisy and I glanced at each other. Then I turned back to the penguin.
“Well, my good sir or madam – ”
“Call me Perdita, please. We have been instructed to communicate with our subjects in familiar terms in order to foster community and the illusion of equal participation in the work of government.”
“My good Perdita the Penguin,” I corrected, “I hope that our work at Bookmarks will continue to merit your approval.”
The penguin gave a beaky antarctic smile. “We have been very pleased with it so far. Keep up the good work, Mr. Kraken. You are a great asset to the penguin administration. In fact, Bookmarks has been so successful at connecting with the local community and promoting the consumption of official materials that the Ministry has extended my residence here indefinitely. I am very happy to stay, as you have shown such friendship to me and my work.”
“Yes,” Daisy said somewhat tensely. “I’m so glad we are all good friends here.”
All Praise Our Penguin Overlords.
Yours in Complicity,
Karl the Kraken