by Oren Otter
It was a cold and foggy morning. Brim never liked fog. Back in the old country, fog was always bad. It meant the possibility of being separated from the pack, or even from the shoreline. It also meant that any number of predators could be lurking, unseen. Here on Otter Island, he knew that there was very little real danger, but the fog still unsettled him, nonetheless. Brim lifted his head to take stock of his surroundings. Beside him floated Helene, his mate and mother of his unborn child. She was snuggled beneath a blanket of woven kelp. They were in their house, which consisted of a pool dug into the shoreline, opening onto the channel on the west side. Overhead was the roof, firmly attached to the oak tree whose roots helped to define the “walls” of the house. The roof still had a hole in it from when that branch had blown through last week. He’d have to fix that. At the north end of the house were some rocks for sitting on, including a slide. At the south end was the kitchen, which included a shallow pen where fish and other edible creatures would become stuck when the tide changed. There was also a higher pen in which they stored their food, and a shelf on which they kept their tummy rocks and a couple of shell bowls. Everything seemed to be in order inside the house.
Turning over, Brim swam over to the door and gazed into the channel beyond. He couldn’t see much because of the fog, but when he looked over toward the village, he could see the soft glow of cooking fires. That meant that all was normal, and that comforted him. Brim returned to his bed. There, he kissed his mate softly on the cheek. She did not wake. He then placed his paw on her abdomen and sang softly to the pup within.
Helene did not wake until long after Brim had already gone to work. That was all right, she supposed. She would have been heading off to work herself were she not so very pregnant and close to delivery. Brim had insisted that she take time off from her job of constructing walls at the bottom of the channel, saying that he was concerned about how her hard work and deep dives would affect the baby. She made herself a breakfast of clams and ate slowly. Then, when she was sure nobody was watching, she began digging out a new room on the side of the house. She knew that it wasn’t sea-otter-ly, but she wanted a nice, safe place to leave her child when she went down on a dive.
Brim was being kept plenty busy. Dant had plenty of orders for the plants which grew along the south shore. The lagoon village needed dandeskunks, the Kushtaka village needed chives, and the ice house had put in a massive order for various shade-berries. This meant that
Brim would be spending most of the day towing a delivery raft. Dant had him delivering all of the orders on the east side, today. Fortunately, he would have some help. Cray was going with him.
The two otters quietly towed their over-laden raft until they came to the south end of the channel. “Hey,” said Cray. “I think I can see your house from here.” He waved his paw on the off chance that Helene might see. Brim did the same. “How’s Helene doing?” Cray inquired.
“She’s fine.” Brim replied, quietly.
“And the baby? I bet it’s going to be born any time, now.”
Brim did not respond.
“The baby’s fine.”
“Did I say something wrong, buddy?”
Cray decided to change the subject, slightly. “I remember when you two first came to the island.” he said.
Brim nodded. “We wanted to get away from Alaska.” he said. “Ever since the orca started preying on sea otters, it’s just not a safe place to be.”
“Remember when you and I met?” Cray reminisced.
“You bit me.” said Brim.
“Well... yeah... I did do that. But I brought you a chicken the next day to say I was sorry.”
“Why DID you bite me, Cray?”
The lobita shrugged. “Territorial instincts, I guess. You were in my back yard with your nose in my shrimp pond.”
“I was starving.”
“Well, I know that, now. At the moment, I pretty much just acted on instinct. We river otters are like that.”
Brim just became more sullen.
Going down into the icehouse eatery always brought mixed emotions. The fastest way down was an ice slide which, in the middle, went straight down for over twenty feet. As a sea otter, Brim was not fond of closed spaces, falling or dark caves. Yet the trip on the slide was always thrilling. It made him feel like a pup again, to go zooming down the high-speed chute, squealing and laughing all the way. Reaching the bottom, Brim slid out onto the icehouse floor. Followed by Cray, and lastly by a large box of berries.
“Delivery!” he called as he dizzily staggered to his hind feet.
“Dad!” called a boy who was eating a fish sandwich. “The berries are here!”
A tall groot, almost as tall as Brim, waddled out of the kitchen. “Hi, there, gentlemen.” he said.
Brim was surprised.
“Is something wrong?” asked the groot.
“No.” Brim replied. “I was just expecting to see Tark. Is he sick today?”
The groot shook his head and cheerily replied. “No, Tark is just out visiting his parents today, so I said I would cover for him. My name is Iceberg Dawson. I’m a kushtaka. Over there is my son, Berg Jr.”
The pup ran up beside his father and announced “I can turn into a human! Wanna see?”
“Really?” asked Cray with feigned fascination. Of course, he knew that all kushtaka could turn into humans, but the boy seemed so proud of his ability, it seemed a shame to quash his enthusiasm.
Quickly the young one transformed, then even more quickly transformed back. “It’s too cold to stay like that for long.” he explained.
As Brim and Cray made the long trip back to the surface, the lobita turned to his companion. “Something is definitely wrong with you.” he said. “Why don’t you tell me what it is? You’ll feel better, I’m sure.”
Brim would say nothing except “I’m just a little jealous.”
“Jealous of what?” Cray pried, but Brim said nothing.
When Brim returned home, Helene was out. He busied himself as he waited for her return by patching the hole in the roof. After that, there was nothing left to do, so he sat on a rock and waited.
When Helene returned home, she found Brim sitting on his rock and crying.
“Brim?” she called to him, urgently. “Brim, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” said Brim, unconvincingly.
“If it was nothing, you wouldn’t be crying. What’s the matter?”
Brim just lowered his head. “It’s stupid.” he said.
Helene climbed up onto the rock next to her mate. “Please tell me.” she begged.
The male took a deep breath and uttered “I don’t want to leave.”
“The baby will be born very soon. Then it will be time for me to leave. That’s the way it works for our kind.”
“And this upsets you?”
Brim paused for a moment. “Back in Alaska, I never would have given it a second thought.” he said. “But since getting to know other kinds of otters... I’ve watched fathers raising their children, staying with one mate all of their lives, and they’re happy! I want that, Helene, and yet...”
“I want it too.” said his mate.
Brim was stunned for a moment. “What?” he chirped.
“I was just over visiting Nem and telling her how sad I was that I wouldn’t be able to keep my husband like she did.
“You mean... you WANT me to stay?”
Helene thought for a moment. “The kushtaka have this thing they do...” she said. “It’s a celebration where a husband and wife promise to stay with each other forever. Would you like to do that?”
Brim held his mate and wept for joy.
The wedding had been a simple affair, held on the banks of the south river near the markets. Brim wanted everyone to know how much he loved his wife and unborn cub, so the occasion was as public as possible. It was followed by a cookout, field games, music and dancing, all of which lasted well into the night. Otters will take advantage of any excuse to party.
While the dancing wore on past midnight, Helene took her husband by the paw and whispered in his ear “You’re going to be a father.”
Brim just smiled.
“I mean right now.”
“Oh? OH! Midwife! Midwife!”
There was much commotion. At least a dozen otters volunteered to help with the birth. In the end, it was Brim himself whose paws eased the passage of his son into the world. He took the pup to its mother’s waiting arms.
“He needs a name.” Said Helene. “Would you chose one?”
“Moor.” said Brim. “Because he is more of a blessing than I ever thought I would have.”
“Moor, son of Brim.” said Helene.
It was another foggy morning. Brim woke in the still, dark hours and looked around. Nothing seemed out of place. Beside him lay his wife. Moor was not with her. Just to ease his mind, Brim looked toward the nursery. There was moor, sleeping soundly on a bed of wet seagrass. Yet something was not right. Brim turned over and swam toward the nursery to check on his son. He was breathing, and did not seem to be in any trouble, yet the sense of foreboding only intensified. Then he smelled it.
In a panic, Brim grabbed his son and pulled him away from the nursery. In that same instant, a bronze-colored spear crashed through the roof into the place where Moor had just been.
Helene woke with a start. “Brim?” she called. “What’s happening?” Immediately, she knew. She could smell the sickening fusion of human and fish. They were under attack by a nageel!
The spear crashed down again, and then again. It was questing for them. “Get out of here!” ordered Brim in a loud whisper. “Take Moor and go to the village. You’ll be safe there.” He thrust the baby into her arms. Moor did not cry, but watched his father scramble out after the monster.
It happened in a flash. As Helene swam out the door, a wicked blue-green hand snatched her precious cargo away.
“MOOR!” she screamed. “MY BABY!”
A ray of sunlight peaked over the hills, illuminating the horrible toothy face of the nageel as it held Moor up like a prize.
“Put him down!” growled Brim. “I’ll kill you!”
Moor was wailing loudly, now.
“I didn’t come here to fight with you.” said the nageel. “I just want the baby.”
“That’s my son!”
“Well,” said the nageel. “Now he’s proof that I’ve come of age.”
“What are you talking about?”
The nageel seemed to feel contempt for the otters, yet at the same time, he saw a wonderful opportunity to brag about himself. “I am Zrachik, and today, I have become a warrior! My fellow initiates brought back trinkets to prove their worth. Stones, blankets, weapons... but I shall prove myself the best by bringing back a child of the enemy!”
“Take me instead.” offered the otter.
“Brim!” Helene cried.
“You? I’ve no wish to carry your tubby carcass back to the city.”
“Then take my paws.”
Helene was sobbing. “Brim, no!”
The nageel pondered this for a moment. “You would give up your paws for this squealing scrap of fur?”
“Well, you otters always were stupid, but if that’s what you want, I’m not about to turn down a good deal.” He held out his spear, examining it’s razor-sharp blade with a claw. “Put your paws on the ground.” he said.
Zratchik placed the pup between two oak branches. Of course, he intended to break his promise and return home with two otter paws AND a drowned baby. He placed the blade against Brim’s paw, savoring the helpless cries of the female. He then raised the spear, held it for a minute... so intent he was that when the sharp pain hit his torso, it took a minute to register, even after he looked down to see the crude wooden javelin jutting from his chest. “But... It wasn’t supposed to...” Zratchik fell facedown in the water, his dying body reverting to the form of an eel. Where he had been, Cray now stood.
“I came running when I heard the commotion.” he said. “Are you three all right?”
Moor was screaming, Helene was wailing, and now Brim could not stop himself from crying. Yet he managed to think his friend and neighbor.
A year had passed. Moor had learned to swim and fish, and was well on his way to learning to read. He sought to impress his mother by reading the banner his father had just erected. “Happy....” he read. “Birth... day... Moorey... Twopaws! That’s me, Mommy!”
“Yes it is!” Helene beamed.
“How come I have a last name and you don’t?” asked the child.
“That’s a good question.” replied his mother. “And it’s got a long answer.”
“A story!” exclaimed Moor, clapping his paws excitedly.
“That’s right. It’s the story of just how much your father loves you.”