Short Story

I Am Otter

I met an otter near the public boat launch. She was eating the discarded remnants of a Wendy’s hamburger. As I approached, she shuffled around, giving me her back. I knew she wanted privacy but couldn’t help staring.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Do you mind?”

“I’m sorry. It’s just…”

“It’s just that you’ve never seen an otter eating a cheeseburger. Is that right?”

“Yes,” I replied. I probably blushed—or the ungulate equivalent, at least.

“Everybody appears to have an opinion on my diet. It’s comical. I’m an omnivore and I happen to like the square patties. What’s the big deal?”

I felt like I should drop it. It was one thing to have a conversation with an otter. I did not want to have an argument with one.

She resumed her lunch and I studied the boreal view, hoping the mood would relax.

“The opinionated asshat across the lake objects to what I eat, you know,” she said, still ruffled. “He—his name is Cornelius—insists that because I do not eat shellfish, I cannot be a true otter. He has expelled me from the Otterites. Shunned me.”

It was quiet. The water lapped on the shore and red-winged blackbirds flew among the green reeds. I ruminated on what I should say next. I was curious but did not want to pry.

“Does that seem reasonable to you?” she asked, pinning me against the fish-cleaning station with a Lutrinaeic stare. I felt like it was my turn to say, Do you mind? But she was upset and I knew it was clearly a serious issue with her. I cut her some slack.

She resumed her meal. Without warning, she flung the burger towards the dock with a cricketer’s stiff-armed flail.

“Stupid Cornelius!” she shouted to the sky. Then she scampered to the half-eaten meat patty and threw it like a Frisbee.

Mayonnaise spun off in a circular spray as it whizzed through the air. “You and I both know it ain’t the shellfish, mate. That’s just the cover story. Corny has some other motive, like maybe the half-eaten ten-pound pike that disappeared from where I stashed it. Like maybe the profusion of pike bones outside of his bloody burrow entrance? Eh? Eh? Talk about a smoking gun…”

I knew just what she meant, but I took another approach. “I’m sorry about your troubles. It can’t be any fun to be kicked out like that.”

“That’s only half of it, buddy. My friends and family are not allowed to speak to me, fish with me, or anything. I can’t slide down the same rocks with them or they’ll get the boot too.”

“Oh, my. What will you do?”

“Hell if I know! What would you do?

What am I supposed to do? Grow big, ugly wood-gnawing teeth and call myself a BEAVER?”

She hissed at a mallard and it flew off, leaving two parallel rows of progressively widening concentric circles on the water where its wingtips had touched.

“Why don’t you talk to Cornelius? I don’t know him, but surely he will listen to what you have to say? Maybe you could gather some fish bone evidence to put some bite in your claim?”

“Ha! Bones are circumstantial, at best. I mean, I didn’t have my name on that pike. Besides, Cornelius runs the Otterites on this lake and the surrounding rivers and swamps. What he says goes. Either you play along like a good little otter or, splash! You are excommunicated. If I put up a fight, I am subject to further discipline and since I am already banished, what do you suppose that means?”

Another forceful glare. These little critters are intense!

I considered her question a bit and then understood.

“Cornelius will go after your family.”

“Go to the head of the class, Moose.” She uprooted a cluster of succulent cattail roots and offered them to me. I lowered my head and sniffed. Prime stuff—loaded with starch and protein. I slurped them out of the tiny paw at the end of her pinball flipper foreleg.

I stood chewing while the otter cleaned her paws. Obsessive, even with the claws spotless she licked and licked. Then she preened her facial fur.

“You know,” she said, gazing absently into the forest. “It’s not that I feel compelled to be recognized as an otter. And I’m certainly not claiming my otteracy on a whim. I did not, in fact, choose to be an otter. But the ottersphere is all I know. I was raised in an otter family, my hubs is an otter and thirty-two of my thirty-two otter progeny eat shellfish. I have thick fur, Moose. The thickest, they say. I can swim like a Soviet Papa class sub, bro! Plus, I am cute as shit! I am cuter than kitties and puppies—plus I can kick a fisher’s ass, man! I am frickin’ otter—through and through. I cannot just disavow my whole life experience. I will never abandon my true identity.”

Just then, a car rounded a corner on the nearby road and we both looked up.

“Look, Otter, I gotta go,” I said.

“I understand. Say, Moose—thanks for listening, eh?”

“No problem, friend. Also, I was thinking… maybe I should speak to this Cornelius character? Some antler justice, if you know what I mean?”

“No, thanks, Moose. I’m a pacifist, like all otters. No need to employ that nasty rack of yours. Ironic, right? The Otterites say I’m no longer an otter and that makes me react like… like what? Like an otter, that’s what!” She shook her bullet head.

“Besides, Cornelius says I can still identify as a ‘cultural otter’—that’s something, I guess.”

But the car was getting closer and because rut season was coming up, I was afraid that I would have an uncontrollable urge to charge as it roared by with its provocative unblinking stare. So I just waded out further among the gently waving cattails and thought about how hard it would be if someone decided I wasn’t a moose anymore.

I Am Otter” is published on TOEWS.IR by special permission of the author, Mitchell Toews, who holds the copyright.