by Ricker Winsor – “Honey, I am going fishing.” No answer.
“OK see you later.” No answer.
And it will be much later since she works late. No reason to come home early and the fishing is good at dusk. In the north country, summers are hot, sticky. A rumble way off, maybe a thunder storm later. Summer storms are always just a few hills away. They show up fast, dramatic and strong. Once he saw a lightning bolt hit a cherry tree fifty yards from the house; split it in two.
He loved to fish; to be out on quiet water watching whatever there was to watch, enjoying the peace, the comfort of it. His wife was busy with other things and they didn’t do much together any more. It was the habit of love without the warmth of love.
Standing on the little front porch of the old house, he felt the air, checked the sky. No wind, quiet, waiting. Falling pressure, good for fishing. He lifted the canoe onto the wooden supports he had made for that purpose above the bed of his pickup truck and tied down the canoe as he had done so many times before. Putting his gear on the truck bed, closing the gate, he opened the door and slid in behind the wheel.
Soon the nights would get cold, the geese would fly, the frost would kill what remained in the garden, and a long winter would set in and take control.
In half an hour he reached the pond and pulled the canoe down and over to the shore line. One push of a long leg got the canoe moving forward. The canoe went out straight, smooth, like it knew what it was supposed to do. Coasting forward, he picked up the paddle and turned the canoe toward the inlet flowing out from an alder thicket, a deep strong current feeding the lake. He moved the canoe into a good place away from the strongest current but where the water was still moving, and threw out the small bell-shaped anchor. As he got ready to bait the hooks on two rods and wait for the white perch to start finning, moving in schools as they often did in the evening, he noticed a swirl fifty feet away, and then a head appeared, an otter.
Nothing looks quite like an otter. Beavers swim and so do mink, but otters are in a different class altogether, smarter, faster, and better looking. Their long whiskers and round muzzle give them a lot of personality. A strong tail and webbed feet move them effortlessly through the water.
He had tracked them many times on snow, seeing where they went, seeing how they made slides down hills into the water to play like kids, cavorting, enjoying their life. He had seen too where they tracked the smell of fish in streams coming out of stocked ponds, following the scent up to the mother lode where they ate every single fish.
He stopped what he was doing and just sat still. Soon, the otter was appearing closer and closer to the boat. Maybe it was because there were fish right near him, he thought. Looking down through the clear water, he could see the otter swimming. And then it came up right next to the canoe. He jumped back at first. “Jesus” he thought, “Rabies?” Animals with rabies act strangely. But he had never heard of an otter with rabies.
The otter swam around the canoe fearlessly and, for some reason as it swam by, he put his hand out and touched it, and the otter let him do that, turned around and came back to him, treading water in the way they do, looking at him closely from just a few of feet away.
“Are you lonely?” the otter asked, just as clear as a bell, in a gentle feminine voice.
But was the voice in his head or through the air? Who knows? He heard it. That is all he had to know. When you hear it, you hear it.
He said, “I try not to think about it. Maybe.”
The otter said, “How do you like the way we swim? Do you like the water?”
“I love to swim” he said, “been swimming my whole life but not like you.”
“Come on, let’s go,” she said.
He stripped down to his underwear and slid over the side of the canoe into the water with the otter. The canoe was not going anywhere, anchored happily with the current keeping it straight.
“Don’t panic,” the otter said. “You can hold your breath longer than you think.” An otter is like a cheetah under water. She took it easy so he could follow, and she waited for him when he had to come up for air, which she did too, of course, but not so often.
They explored the shoreline and the drop-offs where the bass and pickerel lay in wait. They rode the current of the inlet into deeper water letting it push them, support them. As the light faded and he couldn’t see any more, he headed for the canoe, the otter by his side. They treaded water together there for a minute or two. She got closer and rubbed her whiskered muzzle against his cheek.
“What happens now?” he said. “Go home.” she said. The otter disappeared.
He took off the wet underwear and put on his pants, shirt and shoes, pulled the canoe over to the truck and up across the uprights, tied it down as before, got in behind the wheel, and started for home.
“What happened,” he asked himself. “Did that really happen? A person’s mind can play tricks.” He remembered years ago, lonely in London, that he followed a girl he thought he recognized. Maybe it was Jackie, someone he knew from years before, someone who had ties to England. He didn’t have the nerve to confront her because if it wasn’t Jackie, it would be, well, sort of crazy.
“But crazy things happen. Maybe I am lonelier than I thought.”
And yet what happened with the otter seemed more real than other things. The ordinary life he knew seemed like a dream compared to that. More than anything, he felt that the otter had seen him in a deep way, and that they had given complete attention to each other.
His mind worked over every detail, remembering every detail perfectly as he bounced along home on the familiar winding road through the northern forest, darkness falling. Now he could see distant lightning and still, the rumble of thunder out on the horizon.
His wife was home from work when he got there. He went in the house, leaving the canoe on the truck and his fishing gear on the truck bed for now.
“Hi John, did you catch some fish?”
“Not today. I didn’t fish much. I went swimming with an otter.”
“That sounds interesting. I guess we’ll have to figure out something else for supper. We have plenty of vegetables from the garden and I can buy some chicken from the market. I’ll take a walk over there while you clean up.”
“Thanks Marty,” he said. “I need to soak in the tub for a while.”
Two other short stories by Ricker Winsor, “Pelham Manor, New York” and “Mr. Mischievous at Five” are published in our 2022 anthology, Mud Flat Shorts (mostly fiction).