I met an otter near the public boat launch. He was eating the remnants of a Wendy’s hamburger. As I approached, he shuffled around, giving me his back. I knew he wanted privacy but couldn’t help staring.
“Excuse me,” he said. “May I help you?”
“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,” he said. “It’s comical. 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.
He resumed his lunch and I studied the boreal view.
“The opinionated son-of-a-bitch across the lake objects to what I eat, you know,” he added.
“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.”
It was quiet. The water lapped on the shore and birds 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?” he asked, pinning me against the fish-cleaning station with an unblinking stare. I felt like it was my turn to say, Do you mind? But he was upset and I knew it was a serious issue with him. I cut him some slack.
He resumed his meal. Without warning, the otter flung the burger towards the dock with a cricketer’s stiff-armed flail.
“Stupid Cornelius!” he shouted to the sky. Then he 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.
“I’m sorry about your troubles,” I said. “It can’t be any fun to be kicked out like that.”
“That’s only half of it, buddy,” he replied. “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 will get the boot too.”
“What will you do?” I asked him, after thinking about it for a few minutes.
“Hell if I know! What would you do? What am I supposed to do — grow wood-gnawing teeth and become a freaking BEAVER?”
He hissed at a mallard and it flew off, leaving two parallel rows of progressively widening concentric circles on the water where its wing tips 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,” I said.
“Ha! That’s not likely. 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 dismissed. If I put up a fight, I am subject to further discipline and since I am already banished, what do you suppose that means?”
He hit me with another forceful glare. These little guys are intense!
I considered his question a bit and then understood.
“Cornelius will go after your family.”
“Go to the head of the class, Moose,” he replied. He pulled out a bunch of succulent cattail roots and offered them to me. I lowered my head and sniffed. Prime stuff — loaded with starch and protein; a wet, woody aroma. I slurped them out of the tiny paw at the end of his pinball flipper foreleg.
I stood chewing while the otter cleaned his paws. He was obsessive — the claws were perfectly clean and still, he licked. Then he preened his facial fur.
“You know,” he said, his gaze focused on an eagle in a nearby pine tree. “It’s not that I feel compelled to be recognized as an otter. I am 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 mate is an otter and thirty-two of my thirty-two otter progeny eat shellfish. I have thick fur. I can swim like a Soviet Papa class sub, bro! I am cute as shit—I am cuter than kitties and puppies—plus I can kick a fisher’s ass, man! I am otter, through and through. What am I supposed to do, disavow my whole life experience?”
Just then, a car rounded the distant corner of the road and we both looked up.
“I gotta go,” I said.
“I know, I know,” he agreed. “Say, Moose, thanks for listening, eh?”
“No problem, Brother Otter. Also, I was thinking — maybe I should speak to this Cornelius character? Some antler justice, if you know what I mean?”
“No, thanks. I am a pacifist, like all otters. No need to employ that nasty rack of yours. Ironic, right? They say I am no longer an otter and that makes me react like… like what? Like an otter, that’s what! He shook his little bullet head.
“Besides,” he continued. “Cornelius says I can still identify myself 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 shining headlights. 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 was first published by The Machinery in August 2017 and it is written by Mitchell Toews. Mitchell lives and writes lakeside in Manitoba. He enjoys those splendid opportunities to fire in a one-hopper from deep in fiction’s left field, where ideas go to get green-stained and bedevilled. Visit Mitchellaneous.com to learn more about this awesome writer.